“At Bay” – In Defense of Cynicism

Submerged amongst the waves again
Endless downpour drowns my breath within
Delusion deepens my dread
Hope looming in a light ahead

Sun dries solid ground
My breath unbound
Soothing welcome breeze
Not what it seems

Lost amongst the sand
Nothing but waves on land
Trust and faith in man
Slipping through my hands

Drifting awry
On the open sea
Deception justifies
Disordered being

Asylum
Forces submission
Salvation
Is oblivion

Sunlight all around
My refuge found
Living life at ease
Nothing’s what it seems

Lost upon the land
Back to where I began
Trust and faith in man
Shifting as the sands

Lyrics © Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.


“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.” — Mark Twain

In terms of trust and faith, “At Bay” contains some of the most cynical lyrics on Depths of Distrust. The lyrics themselves, I think, are self-explanatory. But some reflections on cynicism do seem to be in order.

The last post on “Windowless I” noted the stigma against individuals disconnected from society and religion — skeptics, misanthropes, atheists, etc.– all of which exhibit their own sort of cynicism in varying degrees. Keep in mind, I am not equating atheists with cynics. In fact, these days, a good number of atheists tend to be humanists and thus maintain positive feelings about society. It’s just that I don’t think in absolutes. So I don’t really believe there is such thing as a ‘cynic’. But there are varying degrees of cynical attitudes and perspectives. So on this view, atheists by definition are cynical about religion.

Trust No OneAnyway, as part of this stigma, society tends to see cynicism as some sort of disease, whether physical, psychological, social or spiritual. “Distrust is a mental illness,” as the shrink explains to the misanthrope in the dialogue portion of “Servitude.”

Consider the following examples:

  1. Distrust and an anti-social personality are key symptoms associated with what psychologists call ‘PPD’, or ‘Paranoid Personality Disorder’;
  2. Distrust of authority and anti-social behavior are key traits among conspiracy theorists, whom mainstream society has been trained to look down upon as a bunch of lunatics;
  3. Cynicism and pessimism are linked to higher rates of depression, dementia, heart disease, cancer-related deaths and mortality.

Wow! Optimism — the true panacea, discovered at last! Of course, none of these articles considers, if there really is such a link, whether cynical personalities can in fact be changed and ‘cured’, any more than any other sort of personality. I certainly don’t recall ever selecting my particular personality. It’s just kind of what makes me… me, you know? But the point isn’t to understand cynicism. It’s just to make oneself look good by making cynicism look bad and blaming it for the supposedly bad things that happen. Hmmm… sounds exactly like what some in the optimistic crowd say about cynicism.

M'Kay

Cynicism is bad, m’kay?

Just Google ‘cynicism’ and you will find yourself inundated with — what!? — intensely cynical reactions to cynicism. Ironically, however, it is not the cynics who have these reactions, but those bragging about, or at least implying, their own optimism or healthy idealism. What about ‘glass half full’? Geez!! Here’s a list of the usual clichés:

Cynicism is: ‘for losers’, ‘lazy’, ‘selfish’, ‘a waste of intellect’, ‘a missed opportunity to improve the world’, ‘blind’, ‘unattractive’, ‘intellectual cowardice’, ‘a cop out’, ‘rooted in fear’, ‘unrealistic’, ‘toxic’, ‘pitiful’, ‘naïve’, ‘intellectual treason’, ‘cheap’, ‘impotent’, ‘contagious’.

So cynicism is for ‘losers’, is it? Aww, shucks. The last thing I want is to be called a ‘loser’. Stupid half empty glass… gonna make me unpopular. Remember name-calling as a child? The fact that so many adults cannot avoid perpetuating the label- and clique-mentality of high school kids is one thing that makes me especially cynical.

This sort of cliché, stereotyping, slogan-based criticism of cynicism also seems to be fashionable among late-night comedians:

  • “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us” — Stephen Colbert
  • “All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” — Conan O’Brien
  • “It’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” — Craig Ferguson

This is strange stuff coming from sarcastic men whose job consists of deconstructing and ridiculing everything that comes their way. Maybe they feel guilty for creating hordes of mindless drones who believe they are gaining genuine political awareness simply by watching the late show. Or perhaps they see themselves as similar to smokers who warn their children not to smoke. Whatever the reason, George Carlin would be rolling over in his grave – if he gave a damn.

CarlinThe problem with such reactions to cynicism is that they are hypocritical, trite and grounded in unrealistic stereotypes. A particularly cynical attack on cynicism can be found here.

The author repeats the usual claims — that cynics are ‘cowards’, ‘lazy’, ‘afraid’, and somehow cultivate a false appearance of sophistication and depth. Oh no! Please don’t call me a coward!! Anything but that!! Of course, the author simply states all this and fails to back any of it up with specific examples or argumentation. Regurgitate those clichés!

Interestingly, this person also insists that if all the cynics and skeptics in America “made noise,” and worked actively “for the restoration of a democratic republic, justice, and the rule of law,” then things “would instantly change for the better.” You know, that sort of thing is very easy for a blogger, comedian, politician or some other such talking head to say since they get paid to spend their time and effort ‘actively changing the world for the better’.

I laugh at this sort of advice. It presumes that people ‘adopt’ cynicism by choice and can just choose not to be cynical. Simply push the happy button in your soul and ‘bam!’ — you no longer notice or care about the insurmountable obstacle of lies, hypocrisy and corruption in politics.

But seriously, such critics, if they really want to change attitudes, need to take a step back and re-evaluate what they think is the real cause of cynicism. I assure you it is not the cynic him or herself. If you want to fight cynicism, at least on the political level, then point that scathing finger at this sort of thing: here and here. Let’s not get distracted from the real problem.

“Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.” — Mike Royko

RoykoI mean, I get it. A representational form of government is largely incompatible with widespread cynicism and apathy. But more importantly, so are all the power, wealth, security and status that accrue to our political representatives. So the politicians need the talking heads to be cheerleaders, encouraging their mostly young, brainless TV-watching audience to believe in the system, to hope for change, and to adopt other such useless states of mind. Go team!

Professional politicians and the mainstream media loathe the cynic because the cynic reveals their game for what it is. Such honesty threatens the illusions they must create to maintain power. And so, instead of facing the cynic’s criticisms head on, they attack an abstraction. They set up a token cynic, a straw man just to knock down so that they can appear caring and productive. Yet no one really exists exactly like the people they describe. Reality is far more complicated and interesting. But polarization sure is a nifty means of thought control.

A common cliché is that cynics are apathetic or lazy. Most cynics, however, I have ever known or have known about are hard-working, productive individuals who care quite deeply about what is happening in the world — at least more so than the many who wear optimism as a mask. They are just honest with themselves in admitting that they don’t have the faith that things can or will improve. You can’t force faith.

Another little platitude that passes as wisdom is that cynics live miserable lives, so we ought to refrain from being cynical. But this is like telling a gay guy that he shouldn’t choose to find other men attractive. In the end, the stigma against cynics and those like them stems from the usual ignorance and prejudice of people who do not understand what they fear. Cynics need not be miserable. Some are. Some are not. Some are sometimes. Some are severely unsatisfied with society or politics or religion, but perfectly happy in their personal lives.

The misanthrophile, for example, finds satisfaction in knowing that he or she is conscious of the lies and hypocrisy that define society. Such individuals find true contentment, at least, in trying not to perpetuate the tribal game of make-believe. There can be pride in refusing to stick one’s head in the sand or to whitewash what can be very ugly facts about our social existence.

Speaking of make-believe, here’s a Christian take on cynicism, which pretty much sums up the sort of hypocritically discriminatory perspective from which society tends to represent the cynic:

“A cynic is self-centered. Jesus is self-giving. A cynic has a low view of humanity. Jesus died for humanity. A cynic builds himself up by mocking others. Jesus lays down his own life so others can be filled with life. A cynic assumes people in the end get what they deserve. Jesus does all He can to ensure as many as possible get what they do not deserve.”

This is great material — fuel for the fire. You just can’t make up stuff like this. It is as real as it is fake. The author concludes: “Don’t get me wrong, Jesus loves cynics. He died for cynics. But not just to save them; He died also to change them.” Why in the world god would require the brutal death of his ‘son’ to ‘save’ a cynic the author does not say. But perhaps that’s just me being cynical — you know, using my mind to think through the implications of astonishing claims.

Face it: Faith, not cynicism, is a mental disorder. The tendency to place unwarranted trust in religion, society, politicians and others is no different than childish fantasy.

I have always found the phrase ‘beating a dead horse’ to be delightfully cynical. Coincidentally, that’s precisely how I feel at the moment writing this. So I’ll just wrap up with another comedian’s quite sane assessment of faith:

“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do.” — Bill Maher

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

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“Windowless I”

Lies
They all lie

Freak show media
Consciousness machine
Tribal game hurls out
Reflexive conditioning

“Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow man”
“Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from altering his own consciousness”

Freed from my filter
Panoramic sea
World of white light whirls
Into backwards memories

Mind betrayed by space and time
The three collide
Raw sensations amplified
Conscious state clarified

Gauge explain
Weigh narrate
Analyze
Fabricate

Eyes portray a frame unseen
No boundaries
Sympathetic unity
Synchronous harmonies

Insignificance is my significance
My significance is insignificant

Arrogance a place inside
Some grand design
My separation justified
Windowless I

Lyrics © Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.


“Which is better – to be born stupid into an intelligent society or intelligent into an insane one?” (Aldous Huxley, Island).

Philosophers are full of shit and always have been. For centuries, they have drooled and tripped all over themselves trying to identify (solely in their minds) the basic building-blocks of reality. These ‘substances’, as they called them, are supposed to be whatever remains once you have ‘stripped away’ (in your mind) all the properties from a thing. A person is still a person, for example, whether black or blonde hair, dark or light skin, 4’6” or 6’10”, twelve or seventy-eight years old, male or female, sick or healthy. Such properties are temporary and incidental to the ‘being’ or ‘substance’ of a person, whatever that happens to be.

In the late 17th century, German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz postulated that the world consists of an indefinite number of such substances. He called these ‘monads’. Each of these monads, he thought, can only affect itself. On this view, each thing in the world is truly distinct from all others and cannot, therefore, interact with anything else. Instead, things only appear to interact with each other. Their actions have been programmed in advance by god to harmonize with the actions of other things.

Leibniz's hair is entirely its own entity, distinct from all else.

Leibniz’s hair is entirely its own entity, distinct from all else.

A result of this view is that cause and effect are not real. Let’s say I throw this philosophy book. The book hits the wall. A dent appears in the wall. The book’s pages tear. Leibniz would deny that I caused the book to fly through the air. He would argue that the book did not in fact cause the dent in the wall any more than the wall caused the pages to rip. Rather, the book was preprogrammed by god to take off through the air at the precise moment I opened my moving hand. A certain portion of the wall, in turn, was preprogrammed to crumble at the precise moment the book came into contact with it, just as god had put it into the nature of the book’s pages to rip, entirely by themselves, immediately after the book had hit the wall.

The point to all this is that there is no direct causal or perceptual relationship between one substance and any of the others. You can’t, as it were, ‘see’ into substances and you cannot ‘see’ out of them. They are ‘windowless’. They exist and do what they do entirely on their own, without being caused to act and without acting upon anything else. It may seem that things interact with each other in the world, or at least have the power to do so, but they do not. This, you see, is simply god’s ‘pre-established harmony’.

Now this is mostly bullshit, of course. But it does offer a great model for viewing the self (minus the divinely pre-established harmony junk). The lyrics of “Windowless I,” the second track from Depths of Distrust, take on this perspective. They are also inspired by the writings of various other authors, such as Aldous Huxley, Herman Hesse, Timothy Leary and Carl Jung.

“Lies. They all lie.” In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, after the protagonist withdraws from society, he begins to realize that “everything lied, stank of lies,” as he walked through town, scornfully glancing at pretty women, well-dressed people, business men and traders, princes and prostitutes, priests, lovers and mourners.

“Everybody lies” – House M.D.

“Windowless I” begins in the realization that society is comprised of lies – incessant efforts to conceal, embellish, spin, ignore, mislead, and appropriate words to twist their meanings. People have grown so accustomed to it that they neither notice nor care. They expect lies and would feel empty and awkward without them in social contexts. Lying is the business of politicians, advertisers and corporations, as well as the mainstream media, priests, professors and scientists. All of it to maintain status, to save face and deflect from hypocrisy, to subtly impose one’s will on the masses, to mark oneself off as a member of some tribe.

The media bias is especially obvious. Yet people only pretend to care. They like it that way. The use of catchwords, slogans and symbols rather than critical thought is especially prevalent here — all to instill conditioned reflexes in voters, to keep them distracted and prevent the sort of rational thought that would topple their empire of false imagery.

The tools used to perpetuate lies are symbols. Symbols are public. But what happens inside each person is private. Think of the so-called ‘cross’. Only one person can understand the sense of spiritual ecstasy, awe, personal helplessness, guilt, and/or feelings of cosmic significance that ground his or her own choice to identify with the cross as some sort of personal symbol. These experiences are as private as an individual’s particular sensation of pleasure or pain. There is no way of passing such experiences on to another person. The only possibility of communication is indirectly through symbols. So one symbol, in this case, the cross, stands for millions of private experiences.

The problem is that symbols seriously over-simplify reality. They replace thought with mere reaction, which is only surface-deep. Trusting a pair of blue jeans because it has the right sort of label, believing a person with a cop uniform and badge, and embracing someone who wears cross-jewelry is like accepting or rejecting a Christmas present based solely on the wrapping paper.

Symbols are meant to limit experience and constrain thought. Stimulus in, preprogrammed response out. The previous post on “Servitude” compared them to “the crack of the whip a master uses to rouse a slave into action without question.” Symbols are the bonds whereby the powers-that-be control the masses. Media and advertisers, politicians and priests: They speak your language but have no idea what you want or need. Nor do they care. In reality, there is no such thing as ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ — only two supposedly opposing tribes consisting of individuals who identify with each other solely on the superficial basis of slogans and clichés.

Hairstyles, clothing, catchphrases, gestures, body art, piercings, cranial accessories, shoes and the like: None of this is truly significant as expressions of the self. They are as lifeless as a photo of a beautiful woman when compared to her presence in motion. Such symbolic behaviors serve merely to indicate membership in a tribe. Think of those supposedly ‘badass’ motorcycle packs, which tend to employ deafening sonic symbols to mark their territory. If Harleys made no noise at all, but were just as powerful and ‘cool’ looking, would anyone want to ride them? Far fewer, for sure. That is because society values the container over the content.

“The F Word,” South Park, 2009

I am reminded of a scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” Brian, the mistaken messiah, abandons his sandal in flight. Meanwhile his followers stop pursuing him and passionately debate whether “the shoe is the sign.” They then go on to contemplate whether the shoe is a shoe or a sandal, and if it is a sign, what it means and how they should react, and if it is not a sign, what other things that happen to be around them might be signs of the messiah. Following this obsessive display of symbol-worship, the crowd runs off to continue their search for the messiah himself.

This scene nicely depicts the eagerness of people to follow and prioritize empty symbols to the exclusion of what they are supposed to symbolize. It shows the human tendency to see symbols everywhere, even where they are not or cannot be; and if they are present, to misinterpret them, giving them far more favorable significance than they are worth. I mean, the crowd got so caught up in symbolism that they forgot about the guy they thought was their savior!

Living a life predominately dictated by symbols reveals a mind that has been conditioned to respond, follow, and obey rather than to think. It is a mind stuffed with arbitrary categories that filter and censor the vastly more complicated flow of reality.

One might choose to escape this tribalistic freak show by seeking alternative forms of enlightenment, e.g., through drug use (as in the 1960s LSD phenomenon), spiritual quests, meditation, holistic lifestyles, etc. — all of which supposedly lead to feelings of intensity, epiphany, and of touching something universal and eternal. These experiences have been said to involve sensing boundaries between oneself and the world vanish. They supposedly allow feelings of hope and the sense that the universe has deeper meaning. They provide, it is said, a harmonious connection with others, the whole earth, with life in general — a feeling of being united in mind and body and of relating to everything as a part of a greater whole.

But this is tribalism come full circle. What is the satisfaction of feeling that you are a mere pawn and part of some grand design? Why the need for such connection? The universe is absurd and ultimately unknowable. Can’t one just find satisfaction and meaning in accepting that? The search for, trust in, and mass appeal to symbols comes from the need to feel significant. But so does seeking a transcendental connection to the universe. Ultimately, admitting insignificance and lack of connection is the only true significance. Labels just don’t stick.

In the end, if there really is some grand design of which I am part, then isn’t my sense of separation just part of that? Who is society to judge my separation or to eschew values that are centered on the individual and emphasize disconnection? What of the atheist, the skeptic, the misanthrope, the cynic, the egoist, the nihilist, and the solipsist? Why the stigmas against such individuals when such lives are truer to the flow of reality than that of the superficial, tribalistic symbol-worshiper? If everything really happens according to a plan, then wouldn’t their abandonment of religion and/or society just be part of that plan?

In the end it doesn’t matter. True belonging and participation are as impossible as experiencing another person’s feelings or understanding their thoughts. Any claim to be part of god’s plan or some cosmic scheme is simply human arrogance and on a par with finding patterns that resemble human beings in the chaos of billions of stars in the night sky.

Who am I? I might apply endless labels: ‘American’, ‘man’, ‘middle class’, ‘white’, ‘musician’, ‘teacher’, ‘writer’, ‘editor’, ‘citizen’, ’40 year-old’, ‘progressive rock fan’, ‘libertarian’, ‘drummer’, ‘philosopher’, ‘atheist’, ‘skeptic’ — all ultimately as meaningless as a mask, badge or uniform. Several of these, in fact, can be used by social forces to categorize and control a person. Impermanent marks of tribalistic identity are helpful in a superficial society. But are they truthful? In the end, the only true identity is ‘I am I’.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

“Servitude”

Lord is my shepherd
My holy father
Ancient metaphors
Fitting masochistic whores
Kingdom of my master

Slavish brood
Programmed to praise selfless servitude

Serve your God
Serve your country
Serve community
Platitudes
Downplay your salvation
Commendation
Coercive use

Bless our dear leaders
Government keepers
Fascist overlords
Lavish lifestyles tax the poor
Render unto Caesar

My blood flows for you

Slavish brood
Programmed to praise selfless servitude

(Serve) the public
(Bow) the company
(Kneel) the patron
Downplay your promotion
Compensation
The taboo truth

Celebrity idols
Reverend role models
Empty impostors
Worthless lives to be ignored
Bind my mind to symbols

Lyrics © Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.


This song is mainly about the tendency of society to idealize self-sacrifice and its hypocritical inability to follow that ideal. Just think of how often you hear people draw attention to the supposed ‘service’ they have performed simply in order to get what they want:

  1. Want to fool the voters into thinking you give a damn about them? Brand yourself a humble ‘public servant’ at a fundraiser (then fly back home to your publicly-funded mansion on your publicly-funded jumbo jet under the protection of your publicly-funded bodyguards).
  2. Want to graduate? Well, ‘community service’ is required. Just ignore the fact that you’re being coerced into it. It’s a ‘do this or else’ sort of thing. Nevertheless, others will praise you for it. This is the point, right? Or not.
  3. Want to sell lots of pills or pizzas or health plans? Then constantly remind the public that yours is a ‘service-oriented’ company. Just say it, regardless of what it means or if it’s true, and that should be sufficient to make people like you and trust your product.
  4. Want to get on God’s good side? Two words: ‘Church service’. I have to admit, however, that it is beyond my ability to comprehend how sitting in a building with others singing songs to a divinity constitutes ‘service’ — unless, of course, we view that divinity as some sort of Medieval Lord who demands song and dance from his serfs for… uh… his own entertainment? Then it almost makes sense, I suppose.
  5. Finally, what about ‘serving the company’ or ‘service to the profession’? When my father died, the funeral director recommended addressing his ‘service’ to his job in the obituary. I guarantee my dad didn’t see it that way. He had busted his ass for countless years for a paycheck, plain and simple. Nothing wrong with that.

Anyway, the problem with all this is that it’s brazenly hypocritical. People pretend to be sacrificing something important to them as if they’re all noble and admirable, but in reality they are just using the labels ‘servant’ and ‘service’ to benefit themselves. And when they do so, society gives them in return a good pat on the belly. This is, however, exactly the opposite of the self-sacrifice that service really entails. It’s as if people use the words ‘service’ and ‘serve’ simply as passwords to prove that they’re members of the ‘good people’ club. Beyond that, the terms are empty and meaningless.

This brings me to the second theme of the song: symbol worship. It makes sense that society would care only to flash their ‘service’ to others as an empty token of their supposed virtue because society as a whole is obsessed with symbols over substance, the container over content, the image over reality.

Think again of all those dutiful Sunday morning worshipers kneeling before… not Jesus or God, but the so called ‘cross’. Bumper stickers, flags, logos, badges, uniforms, trademarks – none of these really says anything substantial about the thing or person that bears them. But they pretend to do so. If you are a Christian, do you automatically respect those with crosses around their necks? Probably. Should you? Uh, no. No more than a Yankees fan should think he has anything significant in common with some random guy on the street sporting a cap that the Yankees corporation has branded with the appropriate logo. And yet, such senseless solidarity thrives, all at the end of strings pulled by advertisers, corporations, politicians and priests.

Basically, symbol-minded = simple-minded. Symbols replace thought. They are like the crack of the whip a master uses to rouse a slave into action without question. The upshot? Society’s symbol-worship and service-praise sadly reveal most people’s secret desire to be dominated. They obsessively long for a lord and master to command them. They want to be controlled and released from the burden of thought. They desperately desire to ‘turn the other cheek’ like their idol, but can they?

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

slow church - Copy