The Cynic Express(ed) 1.07: The Cynic's Manifesto
My girlfriend asked me, "Are you a cynic?" I could not answer it without qualifications, footnotes, and explications. I am, but cynicism is not antithetical to idealism, at least not in my universe. But, of course, the qualifiers are necessary because a brand--no, a generic knock off-- of cynicism is in vogue. It is cool. Cynicism has been, ever since movie sophisticates have been able to slit their eyes over willowy cigarette smoke and utter pointed remarks that separate "them" from the crowd, the mob, the mass culture proles who rut about in ignorance and, well, unsophistication.
Cynicism does not weight the other end of the spectrum from idealism with reality acting as the fulcrum. Idealism can be construed as the belief, as Candide held, that this is the best of all possible worlds in all possible times, and that all things are for the best that are within the world. Too broad a brushstroke, though, as its syntax implies.
Idealism tends to seek out the good in things, working toward a goal that may or may not be reachable. World peace, perhaps, or True Love.
Cynics, on the other hand (but not the opposite side of the coin), hold a standard of good, a perception of what is good, and what is right, and what is better, but they recognize that this is not always the case in the world at large. Whereas idealists have their eyes on their prize and want to make the world into that image of peace and/or love, the cynics look around and see what is around them, often to find that lesser things often puff their chests out and declare themselves Ideals, capital I. Many marketing ploys and conceptions handed from one person to another to sell, persuade, or manipulate deserve a little pinprick (sometimes a big pinprick), the target for the pointed comments and disdain. This being uttered, the cynic will make the world a better place in his own way, which is making himself better.
Faux cynics, or people who would call themselves cynics when asked to describe themselves, generally fall into certain types. The sophisticated cynic seeks to place himself above the proles and prove his intellectual virility by not falling for the illusions that everyone else does. What is right and better than the illusions of the masses tend to be the particular illusions that the particular sophisticated cynic holds and alludes to--but never expresses explicitly-- in coffeehouses and cocktail parties across the cosmopolitan landscape. The second, and no less dangerous, is the nihilistic cynic who believes, as good nihilists do, that what is good will survive the flurry of his blows, so stab madly (it is so hard to mistake a nihilistic attack for a pinprick). Of course, to receive a barb or an attempt at dispelling is to crumble beneath an attack; nothing survives, or is good, or the ideal to the nihilistic cynic.
The best way to peel a cynic to his core: ask him to define good and right. A sophisticate will reveal entirely subjective thoughts on most matters, if he has thoughts on the matters at all. A nihilist will revel in the glory that nothing right exists (or has been proven to his Occam's Machete eyes). A thoughtful cynic will hoard (and sometimes be reluctant to express) ideals. These ideals make the thoughtful cynic's pointed assertions much more potent and more honest to reality than the nihilist's or sophisticate's tugs at the edges of existence, attempts to wrap reality closer around his shivering worldview.
This, then, is the true cynic: an idealist of a sort, believing that he can withstand the flurried blows that the world, fate, chance, and the hell that is just other people can deliver. He can survive, prosper, and perhaps even inspire a few others along his way.
Next Column: 1.08: Caveat Emptor, Baby