Accusations of cynicism

Yesterday someone accuses me of being cynical. I don’t think of myself as a cynic, I think of myself as someone who has a very clear understanding of the world I live in, and a willingness to share that insight.

Does my inability to wear rose tinted spectacles make me a cynic?

The Cynics as I understand it were an ancient school of Greek philosophers. They believed that the purpose of life is to live a life of virtue in agreement with nature. They rejected all conventional desire for wealth, power and fame by living a simple life free from all possessions. They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone. That suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable. And by the worthless customs which surrounded society.

None of that really explains the negative connotation the word cynical currently has. Half a second on the internet and will tell you”cynical” is…

  • Believing or showing the belief that people are motivated chiefly by base or selfish concerns; sceptical of the motives of others: a cynical dismissal of the politician’s promise to reform the campaign finance system.
  • Selfishly or callously calculating: showed a cynical disregard for the safety of his troops in his efforts to advance his reputation.
  • Negative or pessimistic, as from world-weariness: a cynical view of the average voter’s intelligence.
  • Expressing jaded or scornful scepticism or negativity: cynical laughter.

Could the negative emphasis the word cynic now has be a response the Cynics themselves? The ideal Cynic would evangelize. They saw themselves as the watchdog of humanity? It was their job to hound people about the error of their ways. They would dig-up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions. Those who were unable to answer the Cynics criticisms simply shot the messenger? But that explanation presupposes the criticism is delivered by a true Cynic; someone who lives a life of virtue in agreement with nature. The negative connotation that hangs with the word hints that the criticisms were in fact delivered by the less virtuous. It could be the negative connotation is actually an accusation of hypocrisy.

I’m no hairshirt wearing evangelist. But neither do I think of myself as a hypocrite. I do think the world we have created is too materialistic. Then again I have no real desire to shed the material comforts. I like electricity as much as the next person. I think relatively cheap, readily available food is a good thing. I like being able to get in the car and drive wherever I want. But I can also see untold amounts of suffering caused by the worthless customs and conventions which surround society. I see marriage as a mechanism designed to enslave women. I look at our obsession with celebrity as an anesthetic. And I have a real problem with the way in which the progeny of rich are routinely given the opportunity to do their ten thousand hours before anyone else.

As I say in my profile “I am by nature a deconstructor.” So I naturally find myself trying to dig-up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions. I don’t see such endeavors as hypocritical. But the irony of living in a materialist world and being a deconstructor is not lost on me. I must therefore accept that an inability to wear rose tinted spectacles does in fact make me a cynic.


State and Main (2000)

STATE AND MAIN is David Mamet’s satirical swipe at the movie business. If you’ve read his book Bambi vs. Godzilla you’ll know he doesn’t pull his punches.

Overall it plays like a speeded up Preston Sturges comedy. Troubled Hollywood production descends on the sleepy “small town American” hamlet of Waterford, Vermont. The production has everything you’d expect from a Hollywood movie, the egocentric actor, the infantilised actress, a duplicitous director, the soulless producer, and last but not least, the neurotic writer, all of them striving to get their movie made.

Now throw in a corrupt politician, some sycophantic residents, mix it with some underage sex, a pinch of vandalism, a swirl of Bourbon and milk, and you get the idea. It’s funny, and has the acerbic dialogue that is Mamet’s trademark.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough.

Director: David Mamet
Writer: David Mamet
Rating: 15 Running
Time: 100 minutes

Class on my shoulder

I bumped into someone yesterday who damaged me both personally and professionally. I hadn’t seen him in almost ten years, and met him quite by chance in a confined situation. My gut reaction was to vent, punch him in the face, make him pay for the things he’d done, but I didn’t. I put my hands in my pockets, bit my tongue, and let him walk.

My father, in his youth, would’ve punched his lights out. At least one of my cousins would’ve taken a baseball bat to his shins. I put my hands in my pockets, bit my tongue, and let him walk away. My lack of visceral action no doubt leaves me on the moral high ground, but there is still a part of me that thinks, I should have taken him outside, and damaged him, physically. That’s what you’re supposed to do where I come from, stand up for yourself, physically.

This kind of behaviour is portrayed in the media as a symptom of social decline, a disease with no cure. The subtext to all that hyperbole is fear, fear of the countless people who fall out of the pub on a Friday night, and respond to an insult with physical action.

Put simply, it’s fear of the working class.

It’s the working class who respond to insults with physical action, often it’s all they have. The thing is, the thing I have come to realise, the person I am talking about. His behaviour was no less violent, no less damaging than the fist thrown in a street brawl, but he did it in the name of a profit, with a smile, and a sense of entitlement you only ever come across in the middle class. The thing I’m struggling to articulate is this. The middle class façade of polite behaviour, is just that, a façade.

I have had something of an education, not as much as I would like, but enough to move in middle class circles, and survive, almost. I say almost because no amount of education will ever make me one of them. I will always be on the outside looking in. I lack the ruthless sensibility that is innate in these people. The cold selfishness that is their birth right. I come from, dare I say it, more honest stock. They might punch you in the face when you cross them, but they would never betray you for thirty pieces of silver.

Fortunately there will always be a part of me that remains working class, a part of me that still lives on a council estate in the North East of England, a part of me that wants to take duplicitous scum outside, and damage them, physically. It’s the part that keeps me honest. I suppose that’s why they say, you can take the boy out of the council estate, but you can’t take the council estate out of the boy.

Less Beauty More Brains

First entry. Where to start? A good place is probably the name, “Less Beauty More Brains”. It came to me January nineteen eighty nine. I was sat on a National Express coach, pulling out of the station in Newcastle city centre. Some enterprising feminist had daubed “Less Beauty More Brains” over one of the sixteen sheet hoardings that lined the slip road.

I don’t remember what was being sold. I do remember the model, semi clad, staring at the camera. Images of a woman in a fur coat come to mind, but I might be mixing it up with one of those PETA adverts from the eighties.

You can pick almost any advert featuring a woman, apply the slogan, and it works. It is great bit of copy. The agitprop graffiti artist was no doubt offended by the blatant exploitation of women, but I was struck by its succinctness. How she was able to sum up so much with so little.

I was still at art school at the time, and her corruption of modernist mantra “Less Is More” struck a chord. Since then I have used it repeatedly. Its repetition has given it greater significance. Now it seems more like a statement of intent. A way of approaching my artistic endeavours.

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