Friday, June 25, 2010

Cynical But Necessary

     Crediting the United States with "a great liberating tradition" distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy.  It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis.  To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. foreign policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.--Andrew J. Bacevich (The Limits of Power, pp.19-20)

Winston Churchill, the iconic face of the European allies in the Second World War, once quipped that "history is written by the victors."  He expressed his personal self-awareness of this truism even more specifically: "history will be kind to me for I intend to write it."  It sometimes takes a cynic to see through such hubris, and this is why cynical observation can be a key component in the necessary correctives to the facile proclamations of our politicians in Washington DC.

It is true that cynicism often goes too far and spoils honest observations about noble human action in history.  However, since it is the victors who write that history--including political victors--we must be grateful to the cynics for calling people back to reality.  Set in the context of modern presidential hubris--where appeals to liberty are assumed to be the unquestioned and self-evident trait of high moral character and purpose--the cynic, for all her/his skeptical and nasty assumptions about human nature, helps humans to step back and embrace Porgy's maxim: "it ain't necessarily so..."

Andrew Bacevich demurs from this positive view of cynicism in The Limits of Power, and then proceeds to play the role of the cynic in reviewing the history of American expansionist foreign policy all the way back to Jefferson.  Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase bestowed upon the young republic a vast treasure trove of land and natural resources.  Too bad about the genocidal relocation--or even elimination--of the indigenous native populations.  James Polk's acquisition of California from Mexico gave new life to the republic's economic engine.  Unfortunately, the US acquisition of California was the result of an aggressive war of conquest against our southern neighbor.  Teddy Roosevelt's Panama Canal assured the country's economic preeminence in our hemisphere.  Too bad this was achieved through the orchestration of an "outrageous swindle" (Bacevich, p. 20).  Woodrow Wilson's "making the world safe for democracy" helped end the bloodbath in Europe and shored up our relations with England.  Though he could not have foreseen it--and didn't support it after the fact--Wilson's military hubris helped make the draconian economic oppression of Germany by the provisions of the Versailles Treaty possible. FDR partnered with Stalin to destroy Nazism, and assured the US a pivotal economic role in global affairs.  Unfortunately, that devil's pact also resulted in the oppressive domination of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, and created an unmitigated global mess for the US to manage with blood and treasure.  Nixon astutely clasped hands with Mao Zedung to open up economic opportunity for the US in China and vice versa and hem in the Soviets at the same time (which factored into the latter's ultimate demise).  Too bad it also strengthened Mao's murderous decimation of human rights for millions of Chinese subjects. We could enumerate much the same for St. Ronald, Bush 41, Clinton,  and W.  For those still predisposed to think the current president motivated by goodwill, high ideals, and making a positive difference for others, history will probably pass much the same judgment upon president Obama as upon his predecessors.

The cynic reminds us that all of the events and leaders above were important factors in the promotion of unprecedented American economic prosperity from very early on in the nation's history.  They then turn around and remind us that often that prosperity came about at the expense of others.  While we enjoy notions of providential uniqueness, the shining city upon the hill, the manifest destiny of hemispheric dominance, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the cynic stubbornly jabs us with the reality of death, bondage, and despair for those who were (and are) sometimes on the receiving end of our imperial benevolence and ambitions.

While I do not wish to overstate the value of cynical political commentary, especially because it is often fatal to the goodwill necessary for citizens to be tolerant of each other, Without the cynic, the rose-colored glasses of patriotic nationalism and utopian fervor would quickly envelop the populace, embolden politicians, and loosen the restraints that reality places upon both.  Cynicism, for all its sacred-cow skewering, at least reflects a realistic understanding of human nature as it is, not as our politicians and therapy gurus tell us it is.   My religious tradition tells me that humans suffer from original sin, and that condition motivates and energizes the human tendency to place self before others.  Cynicism tacitly assumes such a notion in its skeptical derision of the self-proclaimed benevolent actions and policies trumpeted by our politicians and legions of political action committees.  No politician--or political group--should be above the cynic's skeptical scrutiny, even though he were honest Abe himself.  And there is this caveat as well: the cynic is not above partisanship, and so healthy political discourse requires the participation of cynics to scrutinize the cynics.  The healthiest criticism often emerges from within.

Finally, our nation is in desperate need of serious moral analysis (see the Bacevich header).  This cannot be accomplished without an honest examination of the darker side of human motive, even the motives of those who take it upon themselves to "stand up for God, country, and family."  It is this understanding and acknowledgment of human darkness that makes those moments when the "better angels" of human behavior emerge seem so remarkable and desirable.  When the likes of Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, King, Teresa of Calcutta, and Romero come along, jaws drop, heads shake, and we wonder why there aren't more of them around. Most of us would think the world a better place if only everyone would share and prefer the needs of others over and above themselves.  Sign me up.  Until that time, the cynic will play a necessary, if unwelcome role, in reminding humans of their collective tendency to engage in actions that promote their own self-interests, usually at the expense of others.   God help us when such self-enhancement is enshrined in law.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Jay. I may post some of mine on my blog (but maybe not). You may enjoy this piece by Russell Moore, even if you disagree with a few points. I thought it was pretty good:

  2. Thanks for the tip, Joseph. I actually had read the piece by Moore this morning, through a tip from my cousin, who is an ordained missionary pastor with the PCA in Bulgaria. Glad to know that reasonable heads are prevailing among some clergy.