The Case Against Cynicism

Posted: Apr 25, 2008 12:01 AM
The Case Against Cynicism

When I was very young, I felt that anyone who wasn’t a cynic was a naïve bumpkin. The young, after all, tend to be impatient with their elders, and I was certainly no exception. To the young, it’s a terrible failing to be gullible, and what they inevitably strive to be, or at least appear to be, is sophisticated.

Perhaps because I lived in L.A. and became involved in journalism and show business at an early age, a couple of things I seemed to be aware of long before millions of my fellow countrymen caught on was that America’s number one leading man, Rock Hudson, was homosexual, and that Jack Kennedy, Camelot’s shining knight, was cheating on his Guinevere with just about every female in Hollywood.

Being of an age to be drafted, I was also aware that the basis of much of the anti-war sentiment on college campuses had less to do with pacifism or a moral code than with a reasonable fear of being killed or maimed in Vietnam.

Even the mere threat of being bossed around by top sergeants who hailed from Texas and Georgia, of having to pull K.P. duty and make their own beds, was enough to give most of the guys I knew at UCLA a case of the vapors. Heck, just the idea that one could never light up a joint whenever you felt like it was reason enough to make any number of them take to the streets or take off for Toronto.

The biggest drawback to cynicism is that once it gets a toehold it’s as tough to shake off as a pit bull with a grudge. As a result, we have millions of Americans who are convinced that whenever anything bad takes place, be it a hurricane or 9/11, it’s George Bush’s fault. And haven’t we all been told time and again that everything from the invasion of Iraq to the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto occurred because the CIA, at the behest of one multinational company or another, brought it about? If, by some miracle, you missed the bulletin, just wait a month or two and you’ll see it confirmed in a movie.

Oddly enough, a side effect of this condition is that those suffering from an overdose of cynicism are only willing to assume the worst of their fellow countrymen. They are quick to label suicide-bombing Islamists as freedom fighters. They take offense at those who argue for national sovereignty and secure borders while anointing the scofflaws who swarm in as “decent, hard-working people.” They see nothing wrong with tax dollars going to provide foot baths for Muslim taxi drivers, but start chanting “separation of church and state” at the first sighting of a Christmas tree in a town square.

I still remember the very first time I had second thoughts about cynicism. Many years ago, big money quiz shows such as “21” and “The $64,000 Question” were riding high in the ratings. One day, my Uncle Morrie, a dese-dose-and-dem kind of guy, informed me that the shows were all fixed. When I asked him why he was so convinced of this, he said, “Because nobody knows that much about opera or boxing or anything else.”

Well, of course, some months later the scandal broke, and we all discovered that the shows were fixed, and overnight a popular contestant named Charles Van Doren went from being as beloved as Charles Lindbergh to being as reviled as Bruno Hauptman.

Naturally, the next time I saw Uncle Morrie, he was popping the buttons off his vest. He was very proud that he’d seen through the sham. The problem was that he was right, but for the wrong reason. What he couldn’t grasp was that the cheating hadn’t taken place because nobody could possibly know that much about boxing or opera, but because the producers, in search of bigger and bigger ratings, understood that the audience at home didn’t want to see an obnoxious blowhard named Herbert Stempel defeat the handsome, charming Van Doren. And who could blame them? After all, who roots for the troll when he’s battling Prince Charming?

The worst thing about the quiz show scandal wasn’t that the shows went off the air, but that years later Uncle Morrie was still gloating.

Is it any wonder that I became cynical about cynicism?