Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Cynical and the Sentimental-No Shows at the Polls


[gary daily col. 39 November 3, 2002]


Why won’t more Americans be voting in two days? As usual, we will keep up our pitiful record of refusing to reaffirm the democratic process by staying away from the polls in great numbers. With a 200 plus year history of representative democracy, the turnout may barely exceed that of the election held in Bahrain a few weeks ago-52% of the electorate cast ballots in that election.

The two-headed coin of cynicism and sentimentalism is my explanation for why many will shirk citizenship’s prime responsibility. You probably have your own ideas on the subject.

I’ve read surveys and think pieces that extol Americans as being as far from cynicism as one can get. We’re purported to be an optimistic, hopeful, open and trusting people. Some of this may have slipped away in the last half of the 20th century, but most commentators remain convinced that the bedrock of our character as a people contains only thin veins of cynicism.

Perhaps we are a nation of big hearts and sincere smiley faces. It’s nice to think so. But the title of Paul Loeb’s highly touted work, Soul of the Citizen: Living With Conviction in Cynical Times, implies a less sanguine view of how Americans approach the realities of life today. He is saying “Cynical Times” engulf us.

Early reports following 9/11 noting the death of irony, cynicism’s advanced scout, were clearly premature. And think about it, how many times a week does someone lay that limp bromide, “Be positive!” on you? If even half of this unasked for advice is warranted, there must be a whole lot of nasty negativism, latent cynicism out there.

Jacques Barzun is the 95-year-old historian and author of thirty-eight books and the translator of ten others. His most recent work, published two years ago, is the deep and brilliant, From Dawn to Decadence: Five Hundred Years of Western Cultural Life. A short Barzun essay titled “On Sentimentality” provided me with a new slant on this split-level reading of the American character. In Barzun's terms, it’s not a tug of war between optimism and cynicism that defines so many people. It’s the notion that the coin of their character is two-sided. Flip over the cynicism side and you’ll find the face of sentimentality, the mawkish stepchild of mindless optimism.

Barzun's insight sets one to thinking. Sentimentality, and here I quote Barzun, revels in “imitation feeling.” This hits home because while we often shun the cynical we embrace the sentimental. And that quality, sentimentality, friends and neighbors of the Crossroads of America, is not in short supply in this country. The link and the clincher for me is his view that both cynicism and sentimentality “is feeling that shuts out action, real or potential. It is self-centered and a species of make-believe.”

We watch some insider report on corporate malfeasance, poverty, nursing home atrocities, environmental degradation, or some other social crime of the week on 20/20 and then turn off the tube, feeling disturbed but somehow cleansed and superior to it all. Few feel the need to act on the emotions they’ve been manipulated into feeling. Barzun’s example is from William James who comments on the woman weeping from her private box in the theater over the plight of the heroine on stage while her coachman stands in the cold rain awaiting the last curtain.

Sentimentality fills books, movies, popular music and television. Imitation and surface feelings rule--from required happy endings of TV programming (including the “news” shows) to the vague promises of economic and political programs. We buy it all; we embrace it all. We sit back and question nothing, do nothing.

When the insipid and shallow dreams of TV’s “The Bachelor” or the 10 to110 steps to wealth, wellness and well-being formulated in book after book fail to materialize, some of us flip over the sentimental side of the coin and turn cynical. Tough-guy realist men point to the fairy tale flaws in the weepies some women love to read and watch again and again and again; insightful women, with let’s-see-this-for-what-it-really-is clarity, puncture the commercially deadened, grossly inflated, drama and significance of the sports world fairy tales so many men OD on each and every week.

Sentimental or cynical, it’s about us, it’s about make-believe, and most of all it’s about permission to not act, to not even think about acting.

We run away from the complexities of our public responsibilities. Much of the world and our country’s place in that world appears out of the reach of the quick and easy understandings we crave and receive from the surfaces of sentimentalism, the armor of cyncism.

Afghanistan? Is that still around? Iraq? What’s to know? Hitler equals Sadaam, so let’s go. Bali? Bali! I’ll ask my travel agent about this one.

Vote on Tuesday? A near majority will stay away from the polls. Many will take the cynical “they’re all crooks” line. Many more will stick their heads in the sand and weep salty, sentimental, and inconsequential tears for the pain in our world.

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