It’s been a big week for cynicism in the news. Involved as I was with the book party for Reinventing Political Culture and teaching preparation, I didn’t realize that this would be the case until an A.P. reporter called on Tuesday morning. I get such calls every two years or so about some cynical development in the news as a part of the election cycle, as the author of The Cynical Society, This time the journalist focused upon two headlines: the “etch a sketch” remark by a Romney campaign aide and President Obama’s open mic remark in his conversation with President Medvedev.
I perversely enjoy these periodic interviews. Because I wrote a book with cynicism in the title, I am asked to provide rapid responses to questions about latest cynical manifestations. This provides some kind of public confirmation that my academic writing has some continuing relevance beyond academic circles. Yet, I must admit, there is cynicism in the asking and the answering.
Sometimes the journalist and I have a robust interesting conversation. At other times, I am at a loss for words, because I am busy with other things, hadn’t really given much thought to the issue, or know that what I have to say will not serve the journalist’s needs. But even when I am not sure what to say, the journalist presses and I usually comply. She needs a quote to build up her piece, to get “expert opinion” because journalistic convention stipulates that she should not express her own judgment explicitly, and I recognize the convention and willingly comply, concerned primarily that my name is spelled correctly and my institutional affiliation is properly identified, hoping that the sentence or two that the journalist draws from our conversation resembles what I actually think. Cynically speaking, I do this because I know that to appear in public is good for my and The New School’s reputations, and there is always a chance that what I say may matter a little.
I have talked with Nancy Benac, the reporter who called Tuesday, previously and have generally been satisfied with what she writes about our conversations, as was the case this week, even though what she reported could have been said by any minimally articulate person. Romney’s aide’s remarks confirmed what people already think about Romney, for better and for worse.
But other things cynical were happening last week that I believe are more important with longer lasting consequences than what Benac and I discussed. I even think that there is a new form to the cynicism now as opposed to the cynicism I studied in the late 80s and early 90s. Primary pieces of evidence of this were the speeches and actions at and around the Supreme Court and surrounding the outrage of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Both are deadly serious cases and in need of deliberate response, but both have been cynically debated in ways that seriously challenge our democratic politics and culture, American political culture. A bizarre opinion piece in the Washington Times summarizes the problem.
In the judgment of Charles Hurt, President Obama had the worst week of his Presidency, “one of the worst weeks in history for a sitting president.”
[I]n one week, Mr. Obama got caught whispering promises to our enemy, incited a race war, raised serious questions about his understanding of the Constitution, and then got smacked down over his proposed budget that was so wildly reckless that even Democrats in Congress could not support it.
This is cynicism from beginning to end. Obama didn’t whisper promises to our enemy. There were no promises, and the idea of Russia as an enemy is a deeply problematic notion, more than twenty years out of date. The Obama budget failed because of a combination of political and legislative maneuvering, not because it was wildly reckless. There are real political disagreements about pressing national and international issues and they can’t be reduced to simple formula as Hurt does (Obama — bad, which explains our politics from beginning to end).
And we have serious problems in our political culture, none of which is more persistent or troubling than those surrounding the issue of race.
The President comments on the Trayvon Martin were measured. As a self-identified African American, he had to answer a question about the case carefully. He couldn’t deny the obvious, but he couldn’t interfere with the ongoing investigation of the case. George Zimmerman suspicions were apparently based on no other reason other than that Martin was black, walking while wearing a hoody. That Zimmerman has not yet been charged is outrageous. Probable cause is there. Yet Obama’s response to the question posed was understated. If he had a son, he would have looked like Martin, suggesting that he would have raised the same suspicions. Race still matters in America. Subtly pointing this out is the least the President could do. Indeed, given the charged polarized nature of our political community, what the President said was exactly what he had to say, no more, no less.
There is sincere pain in this incidence, facing a mocking cynical response. As we listen to the discussions coming out of the African American community arising from the controversy, those of us from outside the community were reminded of, or learned about, the talk all young African American men must hear to warn them about the dangers they face. The President fulfilled his responsibility by not denying the obvious, not pretending that racism still doesn’t affect the daily lives of blacks in America. Those who pretend that it doesn’t are part of the very problem that they all too often cynically deny. In 1991, I worried about an enervating cynicism. Now there is a cynicism of open aggression.
This was most clearly revealed by Newt Gingrich:
What the president said, in a sense, is disgraceful. It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background.
Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him.
That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. It is a tragedy this young man was shot.
It would have been a tragedy if he had been Puerto Rican or Cuban or if he had been white or if he had been Asian American or if he’d been a Native American.
At some point, we ought to talk about being Americans. When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.
And also equal rights for whites, and religious freedom for Christians are, no doubt, pressing issues for the former not so honorable speaker and the talking heads on Fox News.
In my next post, I will critically appraise the new cynicism more fully, starting with race and focusing on the discussions surrounding the recent spectacles in and around the Supreme Court.