The Nature of Modern Cynicism

Having used the moniker StCynic for nearly a decade now in various places, I have often been asked what a cynic is. More often, I am simply presumed to be whatever the person asking the question presumes cynicism to be - unduly negative, hateful, unhappy, angry, etc. For myself, the best definition I have seen is from the arch-cynic himself, Ambrose Bierce:

Cynic, n: a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be

This preference for truth over lie, fact over fiction, is at the heart of my approach to the world. In political terms, this primarily means seeing the reality behind the rhetoric - a tall task in a political culture increasingly dominated by the soundbite and the tools of public relations and propaganda. We live, after all, in the age of the "post-convention bounce", the quadrennial phenomenon whereby each major party holds a 4 or 5 day infomercial and a sizable portion of the public immediately changes their voting loyalty, until the other party holds their own informercial and the winds shift yet again. And though the task of separating truth from falsehood may have gotten taller, it is surely nothing new.

HL Mencken, the American uber-cynic of the early 20th century, was pointing out long before most of us were born that most of what comes out of a politician's mouth is utter nonsense. He referred to political campaigns as a "carnival of buncombe", and took special delight in puncturing the rhetorical nonsense of the party conventions. Of the 1924 Republican National Convention, Mencken wrote

"Some dreadful mountebank in a long-tailed coat will open them with a windy speech; then another mountebank will repeat the same rubbish in other words. Then a half dozen windjammers will hymn good Cal (Coolidge) as a combination of Pericles, Frederick the Great, Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and John the Baptist; then there will be an hour or two of idiotic whooping, and then the boys will go home."

Can you imagine what Mencken, the man who wrote that an honest politician is as unthinkable as an honest burglar, would do with Clinton's 1992 pledge to have "the most ethical administration in history"? Or with George W. Bush's promise to "restore honor and dignity to the White House"? How he would have roared with laughter at the site of George W. Bush and Al Gore, both 3rd generation scions from the nation's most powerful political families, attempting to position themselves as "outsiders" as they engaged in what Lewis Lapham has called "the ritual denunciation of Washington"? Imagine the bombast aimed at the gaudy display of campaign promises to fund every solution to fix every problem from the man who wrote of Harry Truman,

"If there had been any formidable body of cannibals in the country, he would have promised to provide them with free missionaries fattened at the taxpayers' expense."

What Mencken wrote about Warren Harding's inaugural address in 1921 could as accurately have been said of the false pretenses and vague imbecilities of what comprises political speeches today:

It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

One need only watch a single stump speech during a presidential campaign to see how thoroughly our prospective political leaders have mastered the art of using 10,000 words to say absolutely nothing. After watching a debate between the Democratic presidential candidates recently, I could only laugh at how overwhelmed the average voter must be, trying to decide between the candidate that wants to "get America moving again" or the one who wants to "invest in America's future." Once in office, things only get worse. In place of empty promises, we are offered a dishonest rationale to convince us that the bill which was intended only to pay back campaign contributors by handing them a slice of our tax dollars in one form or another was really done for you and me - the "American people" so popular among demographers and demagogues.

Buried beneath the public relations catchphrases - "hard work of freedom"; "new American century"; "thousand points of light"; "what America is all about"; - is the reality of a government that has become imperial in reach and staggering in scope. An army of sycophants, from CEOs to university presidents to corporate lawyers to industry lobbyists, gather in the King's bedchambers to bow and scrape like courtiers in the palace of Louis XIV. As Lapham put it in The Wish For Kings,

The federal treasury at the moment supplies 45 percent of the nation's income. The politicians dress up the deals in the language of law or policy, but they're in the business of brokering the tax revenue, and what keeps them in office is not their talent for oratory but their skill at redistributing the national income in a way that rewards their clients, patrons, friends and campaign contributors. They trade in every known commodity - school lunches, tax exemptions, water and mineral rights, aluminum siding, dairy subsidies, pension benefits, highway contracts, prison uniforms - and they work the levers of government like gamblers pulling at slot machines. As with the subsidizing of the farms and the defense industry, so also with paying off the bad debt acquired by the savings and loan associations.

As with the rhetoric from government, the rhetoric of the free market is often equally devoid of reality. Lapham, again:

In the late twentieth century, as in the early nineteenth, a clear majority of American businessmen has shown a profound aversion for anything that remotely resembles a free market or a genuine risk. At their annual conventions they sometimes make brave speeches about the joys of "risk taking" and the wonders of "entrepeneurship", but what they know and trust is the rigged price, the safe monopoly, the sure percentage. By and large, and certainly in its primary and steadier movements, the national economy depends not only on systematic price-fixing and noncompetitive bidding but also on the guarantee of government intervention. The theory of the free market works at the margins of the economy - among cabdrivers and the owners of pizza parlors who made the mistake of borrowing $20,000 instead of $20 million - but the central pillars of the American enterprise rest...firmly on the foundation stones of federal subsidy..."

Corporate America is not stupid. Tens of millions of dollars are spent in each election cycle by the corporate courtiers to secure the favors of King Government, and they are dutifully rewarded for their patronage. In 1997 and 1998 alone, the banking, brokerage, and insurance industries gave $57 million to major party candidates directly, $87 million to the parties (so-called "soft money" donations), and spent an additional $163 million on lobbying campaigns to gain passage of the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 - the most sweeping deregulation of the financial industry in history. This act was the final piece of the deregulation puzzle that began in 1995 with the Securities Reform Litigation Act, which protected accounting firms from lawsuits from stockholders and investors. The predictable results was a wave of corporate accounting scandals, from Enron to Worldcom to Merrill Lynch, that has bankrupted numerous corporations and cost Americans tens of billions of dollars in retirement savings.

Another textbook example is the comprehensive energy bill now working its way through Congress, which comes on the heels of $130 million in campaign contributions from the energy industry to those who are writing the bill, as well as over $100 million worth of lobbying campaigns. This bill, of course, came out of a series of meetings, the records of which Vice President Dick Cheney is now attempting to keep secret (the Supreme Court has agreed to hear that case). What don't they want the public to know? Well, the enormous windfall to the energy industry is a good place to start. The bill contains around $22 billion worth of tax breaks - that's $22 billion that goes direct from our tax revenues to the bottom line of companies like Enron. Add to that another $18 billion worth of loan guarantees. In addition, it delays until 2007 a plan by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that would have balanced out the power loads on our nationwide grid and, according to analysts, could have fixed some of the problems that led to the blackout we experienced a few months ago. But since that would have forced Southeastern utility companies to share more of their energy, a little pressure and money spread around to key southern senators got that plan pushed back in the new bill.

And as if all of that wasn't enough, it even insulates the producers of MTBE, a gasoline additive that has polluted public water supplies all around the country, from litigation. Almost all of the MTBE produced in the US is made in Texas and Louisiana, and lo and behold, this provision was submitted and pushed through by Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, chairman of the House Commerce Energy Subcommittee, and aided by Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who chaired the energy bill negotations in the joint hearings to reconcile the house and senate versions of the bill. It doesn't even need to be asked how much money those two have received from the makers of MTBE. And while they saw fit to delay the beneficial FERC plan until 2007, the Congressional brain trust decided to make that portion of the bill retroactive to September 5th. Why would they do that? Well, because on September 30th the state of New Hampshire and numerous other entities filed suits to force the producers to pay for the cleanup of the polluted water supplies. And to add insult to injury, they also decided to hand over $2 billion of taxpayers' money to those same producers to cover any inconvenience they might experience as a result of phasing out the use of MTBE in gasoline.

The bottom line is that for an investment of around $200 million in campaign contributions and lobbying, this single bill hands out something in the range of $50 billion worth of our tax dollars, and that's not including the billions, perhaps tens of billions, that it will cost taxpayers to clean up the MTBE mess since the companies now won't have to. Not a bad return on the dollar. To quote Molly Ivins, quoting Lily Tomlin - no matter how cynical I get, I can't seem to keep up.


More like this

I came across this item on Clayton Cramer's blog and, while I typically disagree with him on political matters, I fully agree with some of what he says here. In discussing the Jack Abramoff scandal, he says: Almost all bribery is related to government regulation of the economy or manipulation of…
Jack Balkin has an interesting post picking up on David Bernstein's comments on Samuel Alito and originalism. There are many different issues jumbled together in the post, some of which I don't agree with, but I want to point out one statement that I think will come as a surprise to many people,…
Perusing the Congressional Budge Office website, I came across some fascinating numbers from the Federal budget. For instance, where does Federal revenue primarily come from? Let's look at the historical budget numbers. In 2003, personal income taxes provided 44.5% of all revenues; in 2000 it was…
While we're on the subject of the Cato Institute, it's worth checking out their new report, written by Gene Healy and Tim Lynch, about Bush's abysmal track record on constitutional matters. It's funny, just a few months ago I had a hardcore liberal accuse me of being a "primitive reactionary" for…