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Is Cynicism Un-American?

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Reviewing Professor Harvey J. Kaye’s book THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA in THE NEW YORK TIMES, historian Joseph Ellis wrote:

“'The promise of America' that Paine glimpsed so lyrically at the start cannot be easily translated into our 21st-century idiom without distorting the intellectual integrity of its 18th-century origins... In the wake of Darwin's depiction of nature, Freud's depiction of human nature, the senseless slaughter of World War I and the genocidal tragedies of the 20th century, Paine's optimistic assumptions appear naïve in the extreme. What a reincarnated Paine would say about our altered political and intellectual landscape is impossible to know. Kaye hears his voice more clearly and unambiguously than I do, a clarity of conviction that I envy. My more muddled position is that bringing Paine's words and ideas into our world is like trying to plant cut flowers.”

Responding to this review in his JOURNAL interview, Kaye said:

“I got to the end and I thought, 'How sad. The loss of hope, the loss of aspiration - how un-American,’ I almost said... Americans should always be trying to plant flowers. There are ways of sprouting things anew, and that’s what America’s about. We have no reason to fear. We have no reason to be cynical, no reason to be desperate...

We need to have this kind of confidence in our fellow citizens that they somehow are able to take advantage of that confidence. It's our job to join with our fellow citizens and join them in the courage that we have.”

What do you think?

  • Is cynicism about the direction of the United States “un-American?”
  • How much can “confidence in our fellow citizens” cure the ills of our body politic?
  • If such confidence can be effective, how can ordinary citizens “plant flowers” for a better nation and world?


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    Comments

    To those persons in the,United States of America, public and lawyer people, you must to kill, them word, because those saying, for many public, that the laws are not able any more, because god is not going to die never.

    Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.........a GREAT team. Prof.Kaye has written a very convincing book. Yes, the public has tended to forget or gloss over Mr. Paine's efforts and contributions when our very young country was struggling.

    Thomas Jefferson, his great friend, has been under constant fire from biased and misguided research at Monticello and those authors that visit there and continue to write the information furnished them as though it were a proven truth. Far from it, I assisted Dr E.A. Foster with the DNA Study and I have all inside facts of misuse of this study for political correctness and historical revisionism.

    Mr Moyers, as a well prepaired producer of serious productions I implore you to investigate and report on this injustice. A debate would great for the Amwerican public to get BOTH sides of this controversy. Nothing proves that Thomas Jefferson fathered ANY slave child and I draw the reader's attention to a new book, "In Defense of Thomas Jefferson, The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal" by lawyer, William G.
    Hyland, Jr. I am sure Mr. Hyland would agree to an interview and review of his hard hitting book that all Americans should read.
    For further reference may I suggest: www.tjheritage.org and www.jeffersondna.com.

    Herb Barger
    Asst. to Dr Foster, Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study

    To be a member of a select Congressional panel and be briefed that the USA is violating a law & not speak out is UN-American.

    For the CIA to brief a special Congressional panel with lies & deceit is
    UN-American.

    To remove a usuary law & allow low teaser interest rates to be revised upward to 25% or 30% is UN-American.

    To RE-elect Comgressmen that support a systemically flawed seniority system is UN-American.

    Where Do YOU Stand?

    I think we need a little truth and the truth is sometimes hard to hear. I want to have faith in my fellow americans, that we can stop the madness in Washington D.C., it is numbers and solidarity that we can send a clear message, that Fraud is systemic in our society and we must come to terms with this.

    As a soldier ,coming home from war I had no idea how ill I was,mostly numb. Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind with a slight mix of cynicism and a jack in the box humor in his writings. I understood Kurt Vonnegut and his way of articulating life. All the separate countries tending their different forms of loyalties,trying to invent the best mousetraps. Perhaps we are all People without a country. I think its a good place to start. America, after all was invented in another time. Now is a time that people will reinvent something new
    Gary Alan Brumley

    The term "un-American" is un-American, if being an American means rejecting totalitarianism, embracing diversity, and honoring disagreement. The term is literally totalitarian: what is "American"? Something rooted in blood and soil? What would it mean to be, say, "un-Italian"? Or "un-Ecuadorean"? Silly stuff that should never be used by anyone, especially someone like Mr. Moyers.

    As for cynicism, it's a boo-term. If it means not gushing in a Spielberg-like manner about how wonderful everything is in our City on a Hill, well, I'm a cynic. If it means sitting back and tending one's own garden because you've given up on the human race, well, that's defeatist, even if potentially correct.

    So, what's the point of this question, again?

    Cynics were Greek philosophers who held virtue to be the only good and stressed independence from worldly needs and pleasures. They became critical of society and its material interests.

    Another definition: A cynic is a person who believes that people are motivated in all their actions entirely by selfishness.

    In light of these definitions, I find the above discussion quite confusing.

    I listened to Professor Kayne's commentary and was struck by the observation that while Thomas Payne believed in the working man, today's Democratic party doesn't.

    Payne was correct, but could not visualize the media machine that would come to be, and how that machine could so affectively bias our view of the world. The common man is smart, but he is remarkably misinformed. This is why education is so important; education is the vaccine against misinformation. Only when we are fully able and willing to question our leaders, will we be able to prevent the shenanigans that we are currently saddled with.

    Should we not wonder why there is such a focus on "testing" as opposed to learning?

    # Is cynicism about the direction of the United States “un-American?”

    Not at all. I'm a first generation American and I've been cynical for a while now. Ever candidate who espouses liberal views that challenge the status-quo are never given the opportunity to lead this country. Kucinich is just one example. I don't understand how any American could be not be BUT cynical when you live in a two-party dictatorship. We just don't live in a democracy. It's become a fraud perpetrated on those Americans who are frankly both narrow minded and just plain stupid. As we know people can vote against their better interests and Americans are no exception. Just ask those voters in Kansas who routinely vote against their better interest. Cynicism has become the new optimism for America.


    # How much can “confidence in our fellow citizens” cure the ills of our body politic?

    Who says we have confidence in our fellow citizens? For a country to have voted for George W. Bush TWICE (regardless of the supreme court decision) how can there be ANY confidence in Americans?? This is a country mired in a self-righteous, arrogant and twisted Ayan Ran philosphy and it's caused some of the worst harm to not just our own country but the world as well. The ills of the body politic run so deep that I highly doubt they will ever be cured. The problems facing America are deeply systemic and too much of the electorate is simply scared of their government and won't challenge it for fear of incarceration.

    # If such confidence can be effective, how can ordinary citizens “plant flowers” for a better nation and world?

    What confidence?? Ordinary citizens are plain F-cked! Honestly, Bill, do you still lay claim to some sort of idealism about this country's so-called "democracy?"

    It's country run by corporations and special interests. The average American has no representation PERIOD!

    We desperately are in need of a constitutional convention. I don't think 435 people in the House and 50 in the Senate at all do an an adequate job of representing the needs of more than 300 million people. The United States of Amnesia...yes...thank you Gore Vidal..what an apt title...

    Retirement investors, don't despair, for tomorrow we will find that our Masters have profited from our loss. They have hedged their investments before taking a pin to the bubble. A new discipline can now be enforced as they dole our a pittance (stimulus) and later make us pay back a king's ransom with compounded interest.
    Bow then to the Masters, so much more sagacious in their majesty than we commoners can ever be. They possess the ultimate and unconditional gift: the talent for making money. Resistance is futils! Yes, my Lord, I can work twice as hard for the same pay. Yes, my Lord, I'll wait forever on retirement if you'll spare my lowly existence, give me Wonder Bread and a low car payment. Yes, my Lord, take even the pittance of my Social Security to sacrifice in the market for your glory. Oh omnipotent Lords, let us live like confined fowl until we are needed for your sustenance.
    NOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    How do we little ones become so cynical? Everytime I get panicky I recall what my environmental teachers taught me,"Go with the flow and live off nature's largess, but leave no footprints." But now my environmental experience is akin to living inside a WALMART. (the enclosure movement continues) Reality has become an insane police state where we can't access resources for our human needs without undermining our continued existence, where property trumps rationality, where the solutions offered are defective products that temporarily benefit our oppressors, and where no truck will arrive to resupply Nature in the morning. Do cynics remember to say their prayers at bedtime, or stay up plotting some unlikely escape? The shelves are nearly empty, "Layoff equals Death!"

    Bill, how can you ignore Dennis Kucinich
    who is being repressed by mainstream
    media because he speaks truth to the
    corporate powers, unlike the three other
    candidates? Kucinich is more in the vein
    of a Thomas Paine type.

    Response to Robert Stevens Post:
    "Pelosi's "off the table" pronouncement must be rewarded by seeing that she is soundly defeated for re-election!"

    This statement brings up an issue that has plagued this country for a large portion of the past 232 years, States Rights versus the Federal Government. We fought a Civil War over this issue that affirmed the belief of those who support a central government, this only served to widen the chasm between the two sides.

    Even though we are all subject to the affects of Congresswoman Pelosi's legislative efforts, she is only answerable to the people of her San Francisco voting district. You can be sure that she, like most politicians, has salted her constituents liberally with many taxpayer funded earmarks and government subsidies to insure loyalty from her constituents when they enter the voting booth.

    Over the past 7 years, many of us have discovered that our system fails to provide any intermediate remedies when elected leadership ignores the wishes of the majority. To some degree this is a good thing that forces our elected leaders to thoroughly discuss proposed changes before taking definitive action against an individual member of our government. On the other hand, it does little to stop a dedicated group of political idealists from doing irreparable harm to our system of government for personal gain. The leader of the Administrative Branch of government is restricted to two terms in office, the one individual that voters from all 50 states get to elect. None of the members of Congress has any restrictions on their term of office and each member is installed by a single voting district in one of fifty states.

    Imposing a term limit on members of Congress requires a Constitutional Amendment which must be originated by, guess who, Congress. They just received their annual automatic $4000 pay raise that they voted into existence some years ago, they didn’t have to think twice before picking up that check. However, it took them almost ten years to approve an increase in the Minimum Wage for the lowest paid workers in this society? It’s what you get when you create a system where millionaires are the only ones with enough money to get elected into public office!

    "... How can ordinary citizens ...?"

    At the basis of 'all this' is the seemingly unlimited power that has been assumed by this imperial presidency and been surrendered to it by the Congress AND ordinary citizens.

    As a result, neither Congress nor the public is in a position to challenge the likes of Bush -- and possibly a more charismatic and more dangerous SuperBush that MUST be in the offing!

    Concerning this, see Abraham Lincoln's letter to William H. Herndon, Feb. 15, 1848:

    http://moleprogressive.blogspot.com/2007/10/abraham-lincoln-powers-of-president-to.html

    Something that can be done NOW is to support, as strongly as we can, Congressional hearings on the impeachment of these two imposters, Cheney and Bush. Pelosi's "off the table" pronouncement must be rewarded by seeing that she is soundly defeated for re-election!

    bill,

    you break my heart. I watch your show week after week and you bring these voices of beauty and hope to me. Then I deal with the petty selfish hatreds, greediness and contempts people display for each other in daily life and my heart breaks.
    I facilitate a prison program that trys to bring a light into the lives of men and women in a very dark place.
    during a weekend workshop a man came back from his cell in tears. He told us he had gone back to his cell last night wanting to practice some of the transforming behaviors we had talked about during the day in the workshop. At his cell were two guards who had dumped all his belongings on the floor outside that cell. they laughed at him and told him to clean his shit up or he would be punished.
    he said that in that moment all the peace and non-violence he had learned during our 8 hour session had been wiped away and hate had filled his heart. He was mourning that loss.
    well, in a way, when I watch guests such as Harvey Kaye and feel the glow inside me of his passion for truth and justice he has gained through thomas paine, I want to change myself. Yet, not long after I leave the house I am confronted by so many forms of disempowerment that it seems to undo any sense of hope I might have found through your guests.

    This is my struggle and though it breaks my heart, I will find a way to keep a desire for peace, justice and fairness alive through all the petty sources of pain and disempowerment that distract and frustrate my way.
    thank you for that broken heart.

    "... How can ordinary citizens ...?"

    At the basis of 'all this' is the seemingly unlimited power that has been assumed by this imperial presidency AND been surrendered to it by the Congress AND ordinary citizens.

    As a result, neither Congress nor the public is in a position to challenge the likes of Bush -- and possibly a more charismatic and more dangerous SuperBush that MUST be in our future if we do not do something about this!

    Concerning this, see Abraham Lincoln's letter to William H. Herndon, Feb. 15, 1848:

    http://moleprogressive.blogspot.com/2007/10/abraham-lincoln-powers-of-president-to.html

    "Scratch a cynic, find an idealist."

    Professor Kaye's enthusiasm refreshed my weary brain this evening. It is the perfect time to revisit Thomas Paine, during this critical time for our country and our species. We must start the walk down the road that will end in taking back our government from Corporate interests and Wall Street, and keeping our planet viable for human life.

    Every obstacle we meet on the road can be traced to the influence that lobbyists and PACs exercise over our elected officials. Every program the American poor and the middle class need from Congress in order to prosper or survive, every abuse visited upon us (such as those discussed from "Free Lunch") are a result of the quid pro quo paid to the lobbyists, PACs and the wealthy by the candidates they bankroll. I don't consider this view cynical. It is rather a statement of the way things are.

    They only way to change our politics and reclaim our American democracy is to rid Washington, and indeed the states and local governing bodies, of the influence of money. The only way to do that is to elect a candidate, at all of these levels, who does not accept money from the lobbyists, etc. This is very difficult because the Corporate owned media do not report the debate, but rather frame it to suit the interests of their owners. I do not believe this view is cynical, but rather a statement of the way things are. Some of us have found alternative sources of reporting, on the internet and with programs such as Bill Moyers' Journal, but we are not enough in the majority to carry the primaries, yet.

    I believe we have the power to wrest the election, even at this late date, from the clutches of the influence peddlers and abusers if we immediately unite behind this idea: we will back no candidate who is beholden to special interests. We must enlist family members and friends and acquaintances and perfect strangers in this effort. We must continue to agitate for a verifiable vote. We must sift through the flak and get to the truth. We must encourage election reform and publicly funded campaigns. We must donate whatever we can afford to the candidate of our choice.

    I believe that the most important question of any debate was asked by John Edwards of Barack Obama in Las Vegas. Not verbatim, it was "Do you think the people who give you these large donations expect something in return." The answer seems evident, but no answer was given. It is the most salient issue if one desires honest government that really reflects the will of the people.

    Electing a President who can govern free from the influence of big money is a start. Congress members, of course, carry their own burden of debt to the lobbies, etc, But we must start somewhere. The President will have the job of inspiring Congress members to return to the values that America has tried to honor since the founding of our country, by winning their hearts and minds and shaming their greed.

    We have a little more time to get it right. We have no more time to get it wrong. A concentrated, sustained effort, a movement of the people is necessary now if we are to make a whole new world. To my mind, uniting behind John Edwards candidacy would be the best thing we could do now for our country and ourselves.

    The irony of this conversation is that Mr. Johnson noted, not in exactly these words, that when people begin to feel helpless and powerless because the wealthy elites have rigged the game and made us (the not-wealthy) pay for it, then cynicism becomes a lethal state. The two authors were so complementary that it is unfortunate that you did not have them on together. The condition of our nation now is terribly akin to the conditions of colonialism against which Thomas Paine wrote. I think the progressives and populists need to reclaim Mr. Paine...

    Cynicism is a natural, human response. To be cynical about the direction of our country is not "un-American." Confidence in each other - in our ability to effect change, to make things better - is critical to our country's well-being. Thankfully, while some see "cut flowers", others see the seeds, sow the seeds and wait expectantly for the next bloom. However, if the soil is polluted and there is no water, how will our flowers grow? Perhaps that is a cynical question. Perhaps it is a question many of us are raising in the hopes of protecting our future - to make us a better nation and world.

    I will like to thank you for your interview with Professor Kaye. The interview was enlightening, enriching, and most importantly, revitalizing. It has made me think more of this revolutionary figure and what he has done for America.

    I always admired him. I always will continue do so.

    Just for the record Paine was not a socialist or a communist in any way, but rather if you bother to read him, you will find he was a classical economic liberal and free-trader. This was radical then, but it has been conservative since Churchill.

    If Ronald Reagen understood the power of Thomas Paine, surely we can reclaim that power and put it to popular use again.

    What is un-American is refusing to exercise our hard earned right to vote and vote responsibly.

    Somehow most of America feels intimidated. They think their vote doesn't make a difference. It's un-American not to vote. That is "common sense."

    Cynicism that makes you give up and accept the status quo is unAmerican. Cynicism that causes you to distrust our leaders and demand reforms to the system that will allow more principled individuals to reach high office is very American indeed.

    Is cynicism about the direction of the United States “un-American?”

    I attended a free speech rally in front of the Cashman Center in Las Vegas protesting the exclusion of Dennis Kucinich from the debate on January 15th. I was interviewed by Henry Brean from the Las Vegas Review Journal and to quote myself "Cynicism will be the death of the American experiment. It will be the death of it. That's why we're here."
    Is Cynicism unAmerican? No, it is unpatriotic but not unAmerican.

    The American media has been the propaganda arm of the government for a long time. We see that we were misled into an illegal war, for example, and only a brave few elected officials respond to our outrage. There is a lack of accountability for our "elected" officials with congressional hearings that don't get to the heart of matters.

    The media has played a large part in the seemly natural reaction of cynicism, more so by excluding the one presidential candidate that calls for impeaching the vice president for lying to the public and congress.

    When there is evidence of problems with the electronic voting in New Hampshire he is also the only candidate who calls and pays for just accountability measures to be taken that admittedly will not personally benefit his vote count.

    The mainstream media is guilty of election tampering.

    I believe the level of cynicism has increased due to the failure of the democratic majority failing on their promise to end the war, wasting time with non-binding resolutions and continuing to fund an illegal occupation. The funding that goes missing, too without accountability.

    We, the American public, need to realize our inherent power and act.

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