Sunday, November 2, 2008

The End of Cynicism?

There's a great article this morning by Joe Klein (he of Primary Colors infamy) on Time's Swampland blog. First he discusses how Obama's early days might parallel the rookie mess of the Kennedy Administration (probably wrongly*), but he then goes into how, as it did with JFK, such calamities might not change the national mood, which will brighten and become less cynical about its institutions:
Why? Because Kennedy changed the American zeitgeist. He was a rebirth of American youth and vigor--or, as he pronounced, vigah--after a very hard midcentury slog. His arrival announced the coming of age of a new America: where most people owned their own homes, where a much larger number of people went to college, where the prejudices of the past regarding race and sex--and eventually sexual orientation--had no future. He embodied the return of prosperity, optimism and idealism (a bit too idealistic and optimistic, in fact--in Vietnam). He changed the way the world looked at America, and changed the way we looked at ourselves. He inspired my generation to join the Peace Corps, march for civil rights, get involved in politics. The nation became more adventurous, bolder, sexier, more prosperous and more powerful.
Klein expects Obama will engender much the same cultural changes as JFK, and I agree. My generation has been defined by a cynicism that has been toxic, both culturally and politically. We expect our politicians to be frauds, and thereby wallow in an apathy that self-confirms our worst fears. As for our postmodern culture, irony has replaced insight, leaving us satisfyingly hollow but with little human feeling. When was the last time you saw a film or read a book that presented a vision of the world that was neither depressingly cynical nor some by-the-numbers manufactured pablum? When was the last time we had a political campaign that was any different?

I realize that hope and change might be too ephemeral to truly put a stake in the cynicism that has marked my generation. We have been indoctrinated that all politicians are used-car salesmen, that nothing really changes except to get worse, that everything exists in shades of gray and that "good" and "evil" only exist for the blind fanatics of intolerance and ignorance. Now we accept these cynical tenets as facts, as "common sense", without realizing that they are as much based on faith as hope and change are.

Obama might not live up to the faith people like me are putting in him, but that's not entirely the point: that I have hope for the future gives me peace in the present. On Friday, for the first time in the six presidential elections I've been allowed to vote, I (early) voted for a candidate that wasn't the lesser of two evils, wasn't the one I felt the least cynical about, but for someone that I truly believe in, both out Faith and Reason. Win or lose, succeed or fail, Obama and the rest of us who have created this movement gave me that moment, and that is the kind of change that I believe in.

* History is not cyclical - historians are, because comparative analysis is always the easiest available tool. It's a common but lazy effort to equate our current leaders with those of the past, one that I am definitely guilty of, but the truth is that Obama will be, like those before him, something completely different. I don't expect him to be as radical as FDR, though I expect he will supercede JFK in many substantive ways (LBJ was responsible for much more policy action - both good and bad). We are heading into dark times full of peril but thereby offering much opportunity, and no one can really say how Obama will react, except, IMHO, with significantly greater competence and ethics than anything we've seen in the past 16 years. He is his own man, and will be his own President.

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