DON'T SHOOT THE MESSENGER! RETHINKING CYNICISM AND THE VALUE OF POLITICAL CRITIQUE
Irvine, Suvi Maaria
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That Americans have become cynical about politics is often taken for granted in both popular and scholarly discourse. But what does it mean to be cynical? The answer to this question is far from simple and requires an investigation into the concept’s origins, which reside in the ancient Greek philosophy known as classical Cynicism. Diogenes of Sinope, who remains the paradigmatic Cynic, was an abrasive figure in ancient Athens whose sneers and sarcasm where essential to his commitment to ‘living according to nature.’ And for Diogenes, this meant living in accordance with the truth. He distrusted the social and political motivations of his fellow Athenians, and he called them out on their hypocrisy in ways that both amused and aggravated them. But what Diogenes did, above all, was demand room for honesty and the truth in the public sphere. I propose that his example is valuable in the context of contemporary American political culture, where honesty is rare and the truth is regularly disregarded. This dissertation presents an analysis of what cynicism can do for American political culture. I first address the question of what it means to be cynical and assess how much cynicism has changed since the days of Diogenes. While it may not mirror the original in all of its aspects, I argue that at root what it means to be cynical has not changed significantly, and that we can still identify cynics in our midst through their commitment to seeking and sarcastically speaking the truth. The early 20th century journalist H.L. Mencken is a case in point. Like Diogenes, Mencken aimed to be provocative and to initiate a response from his readers. And while he is not a cynic, Stanley Cavell’s work on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s non-conformism compliments the cynics’ commitment to truth seeking and speaking. Contrary to contemporary popular and scholarly assumptions, cynicism has not morphed into a pervasive political ideology or mood in America. Rather, it constitutes a valuable critical practice that provokes us to investigate our assumptions and to develop the capacity to care for our selves, others and the world.