Reflexive Cynicism

There are all sorts of hyphenated Americans who really are just Americans – like the Irish-Americans who get their own parades in all our cities each March. Everyone’s Irish that day, but it wasn’t always that way for them. These things take time. Mexican-Americans may have to wait a few more generations for their parades, where everyone’s a Mexican for that one day. Passions run too high – there’s Donald Trump – and of course there will never be a day when everyone’s Czech for a day. Even those of us who are third-generation Czech-Americans know that we don’t exactly fit in. It’s that Middle European fatalism you might expect, but mixed with playful cynicism, with a dash of comic irreverence. We’re not all doom and gloom like the Scandinavians, or all Strum und Drang like the Germans, or mean drunks like the Russians, or scholarly fatalists like Spinoza and those guys. We’re the pranksters. Long before Joseph Heller gave the world Catch-22 and Yossarian the Czechs gave us Good Soldier Švejk – the unfinished satirical novel by Jaroslav Hašek.

That novel is slyly cynical. Its hero, so to speak, is a smart guy, or sly guy – you never quite know which – who just follows orders, to the letter, and lets everyone else show themselves to be idiots. Those with firm, fixed ideas, and precise rules for just how things should be, rules that simply must be followed, are the butt of the joke. Nothing is as effective in showing what idiots those in charge of things really are more than being the Good Solider. Do exactly what they say, and let it play out. The absurdity will be evident to all. And those in charge can hardly blame you when everything turns out ridiculously and comically wrong. You did what they told you to do. You walk away with your medal. And maybe, just maybe, you meant them no harm at all. Maybe you weren’t sly and all hyper-intelligent and clever. Maybe you were just an innocent idiot. But they’ll never know. That’s part of the joke too.

The tale is one for our times of course. Everyone these days, mostly on the right, and particularly on the religious right, is telling us what to do – there are those precise rules that simply must be followed – and what to think. There are absolutes – about the murder of unborn potential hypothetical children, or tissue samples related to them, and about being tolerant of gays and minorities and folks with disgustingly weird religions or no religion at all (don’t even think about tolerating any of them) and rules forbidding you to think that people getting together to solve problems – what they call government – is ever a good idea. All that sort of thing is hammered home every day, and now it’s the new absolute rules on who gets to use which bathroom.

It’s easy to get angry about all this, but perhaps the best revenge is to take these folks seriously and let it all play out. Let them have their bathroom police. They’ll look like fools, and who knows? Maybe folks will start reading Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera again. Playful cynicism and comic irreverence – in the service of ironic and sly intelligent resistance to smug righteous nagging – bubbles up at such times. And it works – you can have a revolution to create a new humane and effective nation led by a man who wrote absurdist plays and was a personal friend of Frank Zappa. It’s a Czech thing.

That probably won’t happen here. We won’t have an ironic revolution. There are those with precise rules and absolute positions, which they take far too seriously, and you can tell them to loosen up and relax – not that that ever works. It enrages them further and produces more righteousness. They feel they are being attacked, and their values are being attacked, as is, finally, their whole belief system. One must be careful there – urging people to loosen up and have some fun can get you killed. Of course you can say, hey, we’re all in this together so let’s drop the demands, on all sides, and see if we can work things out. But there you run up against the real problem. We are basically being told we are not in this together, not at all.

That’s frustrating but the left has its rigid rules too. Intolerance will not be tolerated – there are forbidden symbols that cause too much pain, like the Confederate flag, and there are sexist and racist jokes that cannot be told, and so on and so forth. They too say it’s time to choose sides, and this year, it’s time to choose a subset of their side – the side of Bernie Sanders and what’s right, or Hillary Clinton and what’s close enough to right but at least doable in this mess of a world.

That’s it. You know what to do. Feel the Bern or get the hell out of the way. There’s no room for Czech ironic distance. Playful cynicism is not allowed.

It is lonely being Czech – Czech-American that is – but some of us are just not joiners. No Czechs are. Czechs step back. Ironic distance is valuable, and maybe Mother Jones’ principle blogger, Kevin Drum, is secretly Czech, because he now admits that he never warmed up to Bernie Sanders:

It’s not so much that he’s all that far to my left or that he’s been pretty skimpy on details about all the programs he proposes. That’s hardly uncommon in presidential campaigns. Rather, it’s the fact that I think he’s basically running a con, and one with the potential to cause distinct damage to the progressive cause.

I mean this as a provocation – but I also mean it. So if you’re provoked, mission accomplished! Here’s my argument.

Bernie’s explanation for everything he wants to do – his theory of change, or theory of governing, take your pick – is that we need a revolution in this country. The rich own everything. Income inequality is skyrocketing. The middle class is stagnating. The finance industry is out of control. Washington, DC, is paralyzed.

But the problem is that the revolution that Bernie called for was nothing much, and Drum cites Bill Scher on that:

By any measure, the Bernie Sanders campaign has vastly outperformed expectations of what a self-described democratic socialist could accomplish at the presidential level in 2016. After 35 states, he has won 16. He forced Hillary Clinton to adopt several of his positions. A fundraising juggernaut, he has outspent his opponent since January. National polling shows him roughly tied with Clinton among Democrats and besting all three Republican candidates in November.

And yet, the “revolution” that Sanders called for didn’t show up. Clinton’s 16-point New York win is simply the exclamation point. First, electorally, Sanders hasn’t been able to win any states on Clinton’s natural turf, while she picked off states like blue-collar Ohio and quintessentially liberal Massachusetts. Eleven of his 16 state wins were in low-turnout caucus states, while she has dominated well-populated primary states. He struggled to win the votes of older voters and whiffed with Southern African-Americans.

But on a more important level, Sanders has also failed to substantially change the Democratic Party at its core: its acceptance of big-dollar fundraising and incremental policy advancement.

And this is most important:

Sanders didn’t help matters by coming up short time and again with genuine specifics on how he would change things.

Drum runs with that:

We were never going to get a revolution, and Bernie knew it all along. Think about it: has there ever been an economic revolution in the United States? Stretching things a bit, I can think of two: the destruction of the Southern slave economy following the Civil War and the New Deal.

The first of these was 50+ years in the making and, in the end, required a bloody, four-year war to bring to a conclusion. The second happened only after an utter collapse of the economy, with banks closing, businesses failing, wages plummeting, and unemployment at 25 percent. That’s what it takes to bring about a revolution, or even something close to it.

We’re simply not there:

We’re light years away from that right now. Unemployment? Yes, 2 or 3 percent of the working-age population has dropped out of the labor force, but the headline unemployment rate is 5 percent. Wages? They’ve been stagnant since the turn of the century, but the average family still makes close to $70,000, more than nearly any other country in the world. Health care? Our system is a mess, but 90 percent of the country has insurance coverage. Dissatisfaction with the system? According to Gallup, even among those with incomes under $30,000, only 27 percent are dissatisfied with their personal lives.

Like it or not, you don’t build a revolution on top of an economy like this. Period. If you want to get anything done, you’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way: through the slow boring of hard wood.

Drum wants all of us to step back:

Why do I care about this? Because if you want to make a difference in this country, you need to be prepared for a very long, very frustrating slog. You have to buy off interest groups, compromise your ideals, and settle for half loaves – all the things that Bernie disdains as part of the corrupt mainstream establishment. In place of this he promises his followers we can get everything we want via a revolution that’s never going to happen. And when that revolution inevitably fails, where do all his impressionable young followers go? Do they join up with the corrupt establishment and commit themselves to the slow boring of hard wood? Or do they give up?

I don’t know, but my fear is that some of them will do the latter. And that’s a damn shame. They’ve been conned by a guy who should know better, the same way dieters get conned by late-night miracle diets. When it doesn’t work, they throw in the towel.

Most likely Bernie will have no lasting effect, and his followers will scatter in the usual way, with some doubling down on practical politics and others leaving for different callings. But there’s a decent chance that Bernie’s failure will result in a net increase of cynicism about politics, and that’s the last thing we need. I hate the idea that we might lose even a few talented future leaders because they fell for Bernie’s spiel and then got discouraged when it didn’t pan out.

I’ll grant that my pitch – and Hillary’s and Barack Obama’s – isn’t very inspiring. Work your fingers to the bone for 30 years and you might get one or two significant pieces of legislation passed. Obviously you need inspiration too. But if you don’t want your followers to give up in disgust, your inspiration needs to be in the service of goals that are at least attainable. By offering a chimera instead, Bernie has done the progressive movement no favors.

That’s a bit brutal – when the dust settles, as it will, all we get is a net increase of cynicism about politics – but Salon’s Sean Illing is even more brutal:

Lost in the discussions about Bernie Sanders’s “socialism” is an obvious and important fact: What he’s actually proposing is not only not radical it’s mainstream. Sanders decided not to dodge the “socialist” label and instead own it by contextualizing it in the broader American tradition. He even gave a sweeping speech in which he grounded his philosophy in the tradition of FDR:

“Almost everything he [FDR] proposed was called ‘socialist.’ Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country, was ‘socialist.’ The concept of ‘minimum wage’ was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as ‘socialist.’ Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, in one way or another, as ‘socialist.’ Yet these programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.”

All Sanders has done is challenge the gospel of neoliberalism, which has systematically gutted our country’s public institutions.

America’s economy has been steadily deregulated since the 1980s, when President Reagan first surrendered to the privatization scheme of neoliberalism. What we’re left with now, as Sanders pointed out in that speech, is a system “which during the 1990s allowed Wall Street to spend $5 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions to get deregulated. Then, ten years later, after the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior of Wall Street led to their collapse, it is a system which provided trillions in government aid to bail them out.”

In other words, we now have socialism for the rich and free market capitalism for everyone else. This is a perverse inversion of the historical norm, and Sanders is right to attack it.

Sure, but it’s no revolution. Illing notes that Noam Chomsky said so when he said this about Sanders:

He’s considered radical and extremist, which is a pretty interesting characterization, because he’s basically a mainstream New Deal Democrat. His positions would not have surprised President Eisenhower, who said, in fact, that anyone who does not accept New Deal programs doesn’t belong in the American political system. That’s now considered very radical.


This point can’t be made enough. For all his talk of a “revolution,” Sanders’s proposals are far too modest to be called revolutionary. He’s merely demanding a return to the midcentury norm, to the nation of FDR and Eisenhower and Johnson.

Another critical point is how aligned with public opinion Sanders’s policies are. If you cut through the rhetoric and the white noise, you find that most Americans support what are undeniably socialist programs, like Social Security and Medicaid and Medicare. These programs aren’t understood popularly as “socialist,” but that’s what they are.

Illing notes that Chomsky says that too:

The other interesting aspect of Sanders’s positions is that they’re quite strongly supported by the general public, and have been for a long time. That’s true on taxes. It’s true on healthcare… His proposal for a national healthcare system, meaning the kind of system that just about every other developed country has, at half the per capita cost of the United States and comparable or better outcomes, that’s considered very radical. But it’s been the position of the majority of the American population for a long time. So, you go back, say, to Reagan – right now, for example, latest polls, about 60 percent of the population favor it… You go back earlier to the Reagan years, about 70 percent of the population thought that national healthcare should be in the Constitution, because it’s such an obvious right.

That causes Illing to call for a little ironic distance here:

And yet we’re told, repeatedly, that Sanders is the outlier, the extremist. This is patently false, and the result of media-driven confusion about our history and the term “socialism.” The only radical movement in this country the last several decades has been led by the Republican Party, which has shifted our discourse so far to the right that what was once a bipartisan mainstream position is now radical by comparison.

Illing may be Czech too – our world is full of absurd posturing that does need to be laid bare, and laughed at, even if in a cynical way.

On the other hand, with Bernie Sanders, perhaps cynical laughter isn’t entirely appropriate. That’s what Joanna Slater reports in the Globe and Mail (warning, a Canadian newspaper and thus polite and sensible) with this:

Absent a political miracle or catastrophe, Mr. Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee for president. After a string of defeats in recent primaries, including in four of the five states that voted this week, Mr. Sanders finds himself well behind former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination.

However, his impact on the Democratic Party – and the country’s broader political alignment – is only just beginning. It may not be much consolation for his most fervent fans, but Mr. Sanders could turn out to be one of the most consequential losers ever in American politics.

A self-described socialist, Mr. Sanders has turned out to be a far more vigorous opponent than Ms. Clinton expected. He has built a tremendous following among millennial voters and a fundraising machine powered by small donors that is broader than anything assembled by any previous candidate, including President Barack Obama. Along the way, Mr. Sanders has exposed fault lines within the Democratic Party. While such rifts are not as explosive as those dividing Republicans, they reveal a strong desire for change among some Democrats.

And that’s what is happening:

Earlier this week, the Institute of Politics at Harvard University released its biannual survey of voters under the age of 30. Its results were remarkable: Over the past year, their overall preference for a Democrat in the White House doubled. Their support for government action to curb poverty and climate change jumped, as did the popularity of the idea that health care is a basic human right.

Mr. Sanders has helped “crystallize their thoughts in terms of the role of government and their priorities,” said John Della Volpe, the polling director at the institute. “He has had more of an impact than any other losing candidate that I can recall in a generation or two in terms of shaping the dialogue and ideology not just of the party, but of a generation.”

For Mr. Sanders’s army of young workers and volunteers, his campaign is a formative experience, which could, in some cases, shape their careers. “There is a future president and there are a ton of future members of Congress where the first thing they ever did in politics was feel the Bern,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic political consultant.

That may count as a revolution, and it may be self-sustaining:

Some of Mr. Sanders’s supporters are organizing a “People’s Summit” in Chicago in June after the last primary votes are cast, an initiative independent of the campaign. “This is that moment where groups come together and say, ‘What do we want to do?'” said Charles Lenchner, co-founder of People for Bernie, a grassroots outfit participating in the summit. “It’s different from the mold of waiting for Bernie to decide what he wants to do.”…

For Mr. Sanders’s supporters, it’s clear that the road does not end at the Democratic convention in July or even with the presidential election in November. Carla Bellamy, a 44-year-old professor at a public university in New York, has been a registered Democrat her entire life but had never volunteered for a campaign until Mr. Sanders came along.

Prof. Bellamy said that the campaign has led her to question whether broader change is best achieved within the Democratic Party or via some kind of alternative, like a multiparty system. But in the short run, she’s proud of what Mr. Sanders has accomplished.

“I don’t think we can have an election any more where people don’t ask hard questions about super PACs and money and who you’re really working for,” she said. “That’s really important progress.”

Well, that’s something, and so Greg Sargent argues that Kevin Drum and others should stop sneering at Bernie Sanders:

In one narrow sense, I agree with Drum. Sanders has offered an oversimplified indictment of the Obama years, by arguing that Obama-era reform fell woefully short of the scale of our challenges precisely because Democrats remained in thrall to plutocratic money and failed to rally the grassroots to break GOP Congressional opposition. This gives short shrift to what was achieved and risks misleading people about the structural constraints built into our system – and about the obstacles the GOP’s structural and ideological entrenchment pose to progressive change.

But has Sanders crossed over into running an outright con that risks leaving his “impressionable” supporters disillusioned and ultimately hurting the progressive movement, by articulating unflinchingly ambitious social democratic reform goals for the future?

Sargent doesn’t think so:

I don’t see why Sanders’s candidacy represents a “con,” or why all of this is destined to play out the way Drum suggests it might. In fact, it may be more likely that the opposite proves true.

For one thing, it’s not really clear whether Sanders is the one indoctrinating his young supporters, or whether he’s speaking effectively to a set of ideals that were already taking shape among them (it could obviously be a combination of the two). …

Sanders has been far more forceful in giving voice to the idea that society has an overarching moral imperative to do more, a lot more, to boost minimum standards of living and break open channels of economic mobility and opportunity – not just incrementally, but in profound and far reaching ways. Sanders’s basic case is that the rules of our economic and political systems have been hijacked and perverted over the decades to bake in deep inequities at every level of society. This, and the colossal scale of the future challenges we face, require a fundamental re-imagining of the American social contract. Sanders’s candidacy is part of a broader rethinking underway on the left about how our political economy really works, and how badly it’s screwing over working people and the country’s future.

Does Sanders overstate the case? Is Sanders basically peddling a bill of goods, in that the scale of his goals, and his proposed means for accomplishing them, are far-fetched? I’d argue his candidacy is better seen as a very ambitious effort to deliver a dramatic upward jolt to our accepted baseline on what constitutes a just society. …

Perhaps the movement will dissipate; perhaps his supporters will scatter in disillusionment and despair. But it’s also easy to envision it having a largely positive influence, perhaps for years to come.

Perhaps that Czech playful cynicism, with a dash of comic irreverence, isn’t appropriate after all, but for some of us that’s a reflex. Let’s see how this plays out. Some of us prefer to remain spectators. We never did fit in here. We’ll keep our ironic distance. It’s a Czech thing.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Reflexive Cynicism

  1. Bill Nichols says:

    I like the way this essay moves from cynicism to something else that’s more hopeful. I really like hope. And I’ve been thinking that many people, especially perhaps African Americans, are more worried by talk of revolution than by talk of democratic socialism.

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