are lots of rational answers to these questions that you don't have to
be a psychoanalyst to provide. But I think that there is an answer that
goes deeper into our psyches, and it has to do with the psychodynamics
of cynicism. In my view, we have to work through the psychological meanings
of our collective cynicism in order to build a social movement. In fact,
I think that cynicism is the biggest single psychological obstacle to
the politics of meaning.
What is cynicism, exactly?
We talk about it a lot in these pages, but what is its essence? Cynicism,
it seems to me, is our attempt to avoid a painful feeling of vulnerability
to rejection and to shame. So, in regard to my first question about babies
and children, I'd say this: From open-eyed contact to the averted gaze,
the course of normal development in our culture involves the gradual acquisition
of a shame-based cynicism.
Children learn that the
eyes are openings to the self, as well as means of connecting to other
selves. And they learn that openness and connection mean vulnerability.
They come to experience the possibility that they can reveal themselves,
their longings and needs, to the other and be rejected or, worse at times,
ignored. And when a child is expressing something authentic and the environment
fails to mirror that child, at best, or rejects him or her at worst, the
result is a private sense of humiliation and self-blame. The child thinks:
something is wrong with me, something that makes me repulsive or insignificant.
Children always assume responsibility for their own disappointment and
rejection. So, they close their eyes, narrow their gaze, avert their desire
for authentic connection, and develop the subtle but hard shell of "cynical
realism" as they grow up.
I qualified my opening
question with the preemptive comment abut sounding New Agey and flaky because
I didn't want to appear naively idealistic. After all, the kind of innocence
that we accept in babies is surely rather foolish in adults, and appearing
foolish would be quite shameful. I wanted to establish an alliance with
the reader - in which we have a mutual understanding that I'm a "savvy
psychoanalyst," fully aware of how ridiculous childlike vulnerability
would be in the real, adult world.
Some of my reasons for
this embarrassment about sounding too naïve or idealistic stem from
my personal experience. For instance, nothing took my father by surprise
and, as far as I could see as his son, nothing seemed to shake hi up or
disrupt his "knowing" view of the world, even if that view tended
to be pessimistic and rather cynical. But my father was also not unique.
To many of us in this culture, there is nothing more foolish than naïve
idealism, nothing more shameful than to believe in something and to be
disappointed, nothing more humiliating than to need something and to be
This kind of personal
story gets played out so often in our society that it has resonance wherever
we look. I guess this is why I have problems with Wolf Blitzer and bill
Schneider, commentators on CNN. These "in-the-know, savvy men, take
moments of potential meaning - like a State of the Union address, reports
of Serbian atrocities, the O.J. trial, the 1994 elections, and tell us
what it all "really" means. And what it always "really" means
is that nothing is as it seems: that our visceral and intuitive sensibilities
are naïve and unreliable, and everything that we see and experience
is the product of cynical manipulation.
Idealism and ethics
can seem embarrassing in public life. As Marianne Williamson put it,
'It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.'
I can't stand this attitude.
I saw it in my family, I see it in myself. I can almost sympathize with
the fact that there is nothing Bill Schneider or Sam Donaldson or David
Brinkley would dread more than to be moved y the beauty or tragedy of something
that they're covering. Their identities are organized around an unconscious
pre-occupation with never appearing naively emotional or foolishly "taken
in" by the positive or negative emotional meanings of anything that
they cover. They are moved by the same psychodynamics of cynicism as I
am when I make a self-depreciating joke about sounding flaky, or when a
child learns to narrow his or her gaze.
So it's not my father
or yours. And it's not just TV's talking heads or a candidate's spin-doctors.
It's in all of us. It's personal and social. It's highly private and very
I have a friend who dreads
the end of his Shabbat service because the rabbi always says to turn to
the person next to you and say, "Shabbat Shalom." My friend
has the terrible anxiety that the person next to him won't want to reciprocate,
that he or she will not respond when he puts his hand out. It's never happened,
of course, and my friend knows it's irrational. But we can all imagine
the embarrassment of putting a hand out in friendship and having it ignored.
These small and intimate
moments of shame are real or potential dangers in much of everyday life,
private as well as public. For example, a patient of mine was talking about
her anxiety about climaxing; she fantasized that she was too visible when
she was excited, that she would lose control of her excitement, and that
unless her partner was at least as excited, she would feel ashamed, as
if she were "on display."
I would argue that this
dynamic is related to George Will's cynical determination never to be carried
away with a passion for anything, or excitement about any "cause." His
version of climaxing in public is for any social or political event to
arouse his emotions too much. And weren't the "hit" pieces about
Hillary Clinton - mocking her as "Saint Hillary," an adolescent
moralist, under the sway of her "guru" Michael Lerner - really
expressions of embarrassment about this woman talking about such feelings
and ideals in public?
The personal and the
political. The one draws from the other. From the family to the culture
and back again. I learned to feel ashamed of naïve expressions of
love or dependence in my family. I developed a tendency to be sarcastic,
self-effacing, and cynical as a defense. Similarly, as a citizen, I have
had my hopes repeatedly stimulated and dashed and so have developed a cynical
defense in the civic realm as well. The Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Jr.,
the anti-war movement, the Left, Clinton - all elicited hope in me that
was in some way unfulfilled. As a citizen, I'm lied to, manipulated, exposed
to constant double-talk and cynical demagoguery. Cynicism comes naturally
to me as a citizen as well as a child in the Bader family.
But whether it's personal
or political, cynicism is the best solution that one can come up with to
protect oneself from humiliation. Cynicism reflects a natural adaptation
to conditions of danger. Whether the danger is to be encouraged by Bill
Clinton, only to have to listen to him compromise on welfare and health
care, or to be personally rejected by a loved one, cynicism is an attempt
to make sense of the world in order to make the best of it and protect
yourself from the ever-present dangers of relaxing your guard.
It's important to understand
cynicism and to appreciate how it functions as the best personal solution
to a social reality experienced as dangerous. It's rational within the
constraints that we perceive around us. I mean constraints such as the
reality that we are, in fact, being manipulated and exploited
and betrayed all of the time by corporations and politicians. Similarly,
it's rational to respond to repeated rejections or neglect within a family
by lowering one's expectations and by complying with one's mistreatment.
I come unconsciously to agree with the way I'm treated by my parents
because they have an awesome authority to define reality and morality for
me. Love and caring, awe and admiration, idealism and dependence - all
can come to feel potentially embarrassing if displayed too directly or
publicly, in a family or in our lives as citizens.
So we can see that idealism
and ethics can seem embarrassing in public life. And there is nothing more
embarrassing than the politics of meaning. Nothing. You can hear the sneers
of the cynical and hard-bitten insiders when Michael Lerner talks about
spiritual sensitivity or Peter Gabel talks about connection. Their contempt
- I should say, our contempt, because I believe that this is an
incipient reaction in most of us - is a powerful reflex, a reflex triggered,
I believe, by an unconscious process.
Here's how I think it
works: Words like caring, kindness, meaning, community, sensitivity, connection,
love, and even God - when introduced into a political discourse - threaten
to remind us of what we long for but have had to give up or suppress. They
stir up an appetite, you might say, for these kinds of relationships and
experiences. But along with the appetites goes the danger of being foolish
and humiliated if we acknowledge and insist on our right to have them.
This danger has roots in our childhoods and in our everyday social experience.
So we do what psychoanalysis has described so well - we identify with the
aggressor and treat our own appetites as if they were once treated by others,
and still are treated by others 0 namely, we reject and devalue them. We
attack our own longings as forbidden and dangerous. First we do it to ourselves
and then to others. We adopt the voice of the cynical Other: the parent,
the media image, the corporation, the politician. Then we're safe; we don't
have to be vulnerable to humiliation. We're on the inside, now, adult insiders
and not pathetic and naïve children. Then we do it to others. We treat
the idealist as a fool, dismiss the language of love as naïve, and
mock the politics of meaning as a kind of touchy-feely navel-gazing. We
feel safer, restored. Everything is really pretty corrupt. Goodness is
a pipe dream. What a relief! What a lonely and depressing relief.
For the politics of meaning
to get across and be heard, we have to talk about and challenge cynicism
all of the time. We have to appreciate how shameful it is to let oneself
express hope and compassion and to expect it from others. We have to defend
our right to insist on these values in the face of the inevitable resistance
and embarrassment that this evokes in ourselves and others. For, as Marianne
Williamson put it, "It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens