The fall my father turned 20, he crisscrossed southern Ohio in his Volkswagen trying to save the world. It was 1972, and he was campaigning for George McGovern in the year when McGovern’s presidential bid notoriously carried only Massachusetts.
“Even if McGovern got waxed,” my father says, remembering, “and Watergate was a reminder that he would get waxed, no matter what it took, well, time was on our side. There was a real sense of being on the edge of change.”
This September—almost 30 years after my father cast his futile vote for McGovern—I cast my first vote in the Massachusetts Democratic primary. Like my father’s before him, my candidate was an academic who got waxed by a ruthless politician. But as I closed the striped curtain on the voting booth, and again as I read election results online that night, resignation—and not my father’s optimism—dulled my disappointment. Robert Reich had lost and this, I knew, was a symptom of the grinding Massachusetts political machine and of America’s inexorable slide to the right. I knew I would asphyxiate if I held my breath waiting for these things to change.
And yet something Reich said when he spoke in the Science Center days before his defeat kept flinging itself against my thoughts like a June bug against a window screen.
Don’t succumb to cynicism, Reich had told the college students jammed into Science Center A. But cynicism, especially where politics is concerned, is the bulwark of our generation. What else could protect us from the political scandals of our youth—from the dimly-recalled Iran-Contra affair, from Bill Clinton’s indiscretions, from the muddle of the 2000 presidential election? I have been a cynic since the onset of adolescence—have been proud of my cynicism, have recognized it for the sturdy rampart it is, have smiled wryly as it, undented, has deflected disappointment. Expect little, and you cannot be disappointed. With our generation, a hard cynicism has replaced the gee-whiz ingenuousness that characterized American generations past as surely as carbon is pressed from peat into coal. What danger could there be in protective cynicism?
Perhaps earlier generations—their ingenuousness intact—were blinder to cynicism’s protective powers. In 1969, the editor-in-chief of my mother’s high school yearbook wrote: “We have chosen as the theme of this yearbook, The Adventures of Don Quixote, a novel built around a man whose life was not unlike ours. Much dissatisfied, he too dedicated himself to finding a better world of higher ideals and purer men, although he was believed a senile lunatic.”
Today, no high school senior could write of his classmates’ dedication “to finding a better world of higher ideals and purer men” without dissolving into giggles. We may be—and in many instances are—as “much dissatisfied” with our world as the starry-eyed class of ’69 was with theirs. We face war, a faltering economy and shrinking civil liberties. But our defense is not to dedicate ourselves to finding a better world—because our defense is cynicism, which precludes our finding a better world. We cannot believe there is any better world to find. At best, we believe we can improve our personal lot in this world. And so we neglect to vote and we become investment bankers, and if we enter politics it is with visions of a teenaged Bill Clinton and his Rolodex of potentially useful contacts dancing in our heads. Our crusades are personal and concrete; we know the dangers of idealism, and how little Don Quixote’s pasteboard visor offers. Our early modern literary avatar is not Cervantes’ daydreaming knight but Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, who, demon-beguiled, weighs profit against loss and trades his soul for fame and money.
This, I think, is what Robert Reich must have seen in us: the cynicism that hardens into apathy. He must have seen that what protects us from disappointment is something more poisonous than our parents’ idealism. He must have known that by refusing to have our hopes in politics dashed we have refused to hope at all. He must have known that, crouched behind the bulwark of our cynicism, we were powerless to improve the world. He must have known that we can only feel the optimism that propelled our parents if we stand up, lower our pasteboard visors and stride forth.
Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.