History’s Antidote to Cynicism

I’m an inveterate hopemonger. Not the ignorance is bliss kind, but the knowledge is power sort. Whenever the world feels as if it’s sliding into the abyss—ya know, like now—I read history to cheer me up. Because if there is to be found an antidote to a political moment encapsulated in the fact that the man running for governor of New York (New York!) is a batshit crazy racist homophobe it can be found in the examples of when people rose to the occasion and acted boldly to avert catastrophe.

Like many of you on the left, I’ve been reading the various analyses and opinion pieces on the growing right and Tea Party phenom. One striking theme among many of the best writers such as Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone and Chris Hedges in Truthdig—both of whom I respect a great deal—is a kind of cynicism that, however unintentional, can be a bit infectious and even paralyzing.

Hedges rightly takes on the One Nation march organizers for reducing their message to the 150,000 or so workers and students who amassed in D.C. October 2 to just get out and vote for the Dems. But his eloquent insight into the problem in his “March to Nowhere,” piece, which includes a call to “disown Barack Obama and the Democrats,” lacks any means of doing so.

His writings, especially since his firing from the New York Times for his “premature” outspoken opposition to the Iraq War, have become trenchant critiques of capitalism and the Dems. But to break from the Dems, there must a force to do so. Where can it come from when you believe, as he does, that the working class is “decimated”?

Taibbi, in The Tea Party’s Useful Idiots piece, hilariously takes apart the dominant “wisdom” on the supposed independence of the Tea gang:

A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can’t imagine it.

But again, we are left to chuckle or maybe hang our heads in our hands because Taibbi is magnificent in his iconoclasm, but bereft of solutions.

Even Jon Stewart’s call for a Rally to Restore Sanity at the end of this month strikes me as the essence of cynicism. Don’t get me wrong, I often adore Stewart and think his pisstake explanations of the banking crisis are more astute than anything an economist has written. But his “million moderate march” throws antiwar activists in with bigots as equally deserving of contempt. That’s just a recipe for smug indifference—the enemy of political progress, in my opinion.

What’s the point of having instantaneous access to oodles of info from every nook and cranny of the planet if not to actually try and do something about it all? Here’s where history, with a healthy dose of uncluttered theory, can be a great antidote to cynicism.

I dare anyone to read Sharon Smith’s history of working-class radicalism in the U.S., Subterranean Fire, without wanting to get active in struggles alongside socialists. Smith doesn’t drag you through a compendium of facts piled on top of each other, but offers up a snappy read about how and why Blacks and whites came together to fight for the weekend and Social Security and what are the forces (and politics) needed to stanch the inevitable attacks.

Mark Naison’s classic Communists in Harlem blows away the stupidities most history texts criminally repeat about the left. Not because he’s uncritical of the reds, but because he’s able to discern between the different left forces and sort through which strategies worked and why political opportunism isn’t the same thing as taking advantage of an opportunity.

Anyway, these are just a couple of the books open on my desk right now because they’re invaluable tools for figuring out how people got out of the last, worse mess and how we might move forward today.

Just absorbing all the shitty news and talking heads won’t get you closer to sorting out a way to do something positive. It’s got to be supplemented with a bit of depth and politics to fill out history’s lessons.

Turn off your computer and cell phone for a couple of hours and pick up a dose of hope. One of the things you’ll discover is that Marx’s great insight still stands: Capitalism doesn’t just create misery, it creates its own gravediggers.

My next public talk is on Fighting the Right, Friday, Oct. 15th , Rochester Inst. of Technology, Library’s “Idea Factory,” 7PM

If you’re looking for a campus speaker on LGBT and gender issues or fighting the right, check out some snazzy things that folks who’ve invited me to their campuses have to say:

Sherry Wolf knows her stuff, and delivers smart political analysis with astonishing dynamism and wit that will have you out of your seat and laughing until you cry. Her rip-roaring presentations—about the failure of liberal politics today to deliver real change for minorities, gays and lesbians, immigrants, and the poor—are great for many audiences, including students and activists. Bring her in to speak. You’ll learn more than you bargained for and leave the auditorium wanting to change the world. —Dana Cloud, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Director of Graduate Studies, University of Texas at Austin

4 responses to “History’s Antidote to Cynicism

  1. It’s hard to be cheerful when we are rapidly heading towards a planet crash with the end of oil and too many people.

    But I also think we are in a dystopian phase of end stage Capitalism. We seem hell bent on returning to a feudal society of rich oligarchs and a lumpen peasant class. Automation has reduced the masses from labor to consumer units trapped in debt bondage.

    The oligarchs have private armies and own the government while the masses live in a virtual panopticon with data collection and spying tracking our every movement.

    How hard can the people be squeezed? The propagandists are pushing hard for fascism because class traitors make the best prison guards and pigs.

    “What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore–
    And then run?
    Does it stink like rotten meat?
    Or crust and sugar over–
    like a syrupy sweet?
    Maybe it just sags
    like a heavy load.

    Or does it explode?”
    Langston Hughes

  2. History is a great antidote, and I’m immediately going to research the books you named. At the same time, what’ s lacking is organizing (which historical amnesia doesn’t play too little a role in), and on this the left, and feminism, seems to be in paralysis. Thus, I’m thankful for incisive critique. I don’t find it cynical at all. i find it hope-ful in an authentic sense, because there is no moving forward without a radical, radical tearing apart of the illusions presently doping up the Left and feminism (as witnessed in Obama “movement”). And the structural causes of these illusions need to be diagnosed–I don’t see this diagnosis coming from anyone who is now critical of Obama, for example.

    • Kathy,

      I highly recommend “Subterranean Fire”. It is a great history of working class radicalism. Instead of enjoying the beautiful beach waters I sat by over 2 years ago, I was immersed in the book. When I flipped that last page and closed the book, part of me was anxious to return to the US and get organized. Its what I did. I became an organized socialist.

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