Cynicism in America

By William Chaloupka

University of Minnesota Press. 240 pp.


By Carolyn See, whose reviews appear on Fridays in Style.

As you read the lively "Everybody Knows: Cynicism in America," you come a little late to the notion that there's something inaccurate about the subtitle. It should read "Cynicism in American Politics," which is entirely different. It seems plausible--in the larger scheme--that many Americans are cynical about many things while believing strongly in other material. You can believe in vitamins, for instance, and be cynical about the claims of chemotherapy, or vice versa. You can cast a cold eye at every organized religion except your own. You can shrug at animal activists (they like animals only because animals can't talk!) but defend your own pit bull ("Killer wouldn't hurt a fly!").

Cynicism and belief balance each other: Joe McGinniss, that famous journalistic cynic, recently invested all his credulity in an obscure Series B Italian soccer team--and had his heart broken for his pains. Every time any of us goes out on a date, we balance two extremes of thought in one tense amalgam. Does she really mean it when she says she's never felt like this? And/or: Is this really her first time? Does he really mean it when he says his wife wants an open marriage? And/or: Does he really mean it when he says his wife doesn't understand him? The answers, of course, are: Yes, no and sort of. Sometimes all at once.

But the author here limits his discussion, sort of, only to politics and public life. "We feel burned," he writes. "But we are not entirely sure who burned us. This gives American cynicism its bitter edge." And earlier, "Defined concisely, cynicism is the condition of lost belief. Many American institutions and public practices have simply forfeited their constituents' faith." He concludes glumly that because of continuous breaches of faith between the American citizenry and its rulers, citizens just don't believe in their leaders very much anymore.

This book--or, more accurately, this series of essays--begins in fairly recent history. Dwight Eisenhower is cited as perhaps the "last" believer in American politics. Much space is given to Richard Nixon as one of the "first" who played fast and loose with the American heart, as well as Lyndon Johnson and even Franklin Roosevelt (with the nasty gambling connotations of his "New Deal"), and then certainly Bill Clinton, and certainly Newt Gingrich. How, William Chaloupka asks, can we recover from the collective insult that their patently cynical behavior has forced upon us?

To my mind, Chaloupka handcuffs himself by not acknowledging the strong connection of American politics to war, religion and literature. Surely, the first big breach of faith--in this century, at least--between citizen and ruling class came when the American government exhorted an entire generation of credulous young men to go off and fight in World War I. Didn't that lead to the great shift in our century to a literature of American disaffection and disbelief--not just the curmudgeonly H.L. Mencken, whom Chaloupka discusses at some length, but Hemingway's resentful castration fiction in "The Sun Also Rises" and his diatribe against the pernicious speechifying of politicians in "A Farewell to Arms"? Or Raymond Chandler's insistence that everyone and everything on all sides of every discourse is rotten and only his alienated detective, Philip Marlowe, has any redeeming social values?

I guess I'm saying that Chaloupka has put a hard limitation on himself by keeping his scope so narrow. Because, in the larger sense, in this century Clinton, the elder Bush, Gingrich and all the men whom some of us perceive, fairly or not, to be unregenerate liars are just little pimples on a great big rash.

The author divides cynics into three categories: The first two are cynics in power (see the above-mentioned lists), who manipulate an increasingly resentful and sullen populace, and "wig cynics," those wiggy nut cases like Rush Limbaugh who "act out" by seeing conspiracy theories everywhere, and who, of course, believe nothing--except what they believe. The author is particularly frisky here, talking about how communists have morphed conveniently into extraterrestrial aliens in the popular wig-cynic mind.

Finally, Chaloupka defines those "kynics," our political class clowns who tell us the truth as they (possibly) see it: our Richard Pryors, our thinkers and comics who hang out at the margins of things, in the back of our collective classrooms, so to say. They can't change anything, but they at least have words as their weapons. Again, if Chaloupka's study had gone a little further back, he might have linked his knowing "kynics" to David Reisman's "Inside Dopester" in "The Lonely Crowd," the man who knows that he can change nothing in contemporary society but who derives a melancholy satisfaction from at least knowing as much as he can about what it is he can't fix.

The lack of a large lens serves the author least when he deals with contemporary crowd demonstrations as "cheeky" and "nimble" protests against the serious powers that be. But what about "demonstrations" in Baghdad, Tehran, even Rome? Counter to the cynicism the author sees everywhere, surely these are manifestations of "sometimes disconcerting," fervent and pious belief.

Who said we had to "believe" politicians, anyway? Can't we take their protestations as a form of secular, pro forma etiquette? "I've never felt this way before!" "My wife doesn't understand me!" Yeah, sure, whatever. Whatever you say. Can't we just order some drinks with paper umbrellas in them? Can't you just shut up--for a while, at least--and let's dance?