Living in a Post-Cynical Age


Illustration by Meg Cuca

Nikolaus Kennelly, Columnist

To the outcasts of the earth, blue-collar intellectuals, protégés of Salinger and Kerouac (if any of you are still around), know this: cynicism is dead. No longer is it fashionable to lament the decline of the sacred, the rise of consumer culture and the innumerable social ills engendered by urban sprawl. Whereas past ages have been defined by works like “The Catcher in the Rye,” our age is defined by the MacBook Air and the Harry Potter franchise. The first a symbol of our estrangement from reality—a hog of a device whose low profile feigns eco-friendliness—and the second a symbol of our collective desire to enter the Etonian elite.

If you responded to that last sentence with a shudder, you’re out of date. The hip among us have moved way beyond that sort of cynicism to a radical form of unapologetic consumerism—the sort in which driving a Subaru makes you an environmentalist and opting for a kombucha makes you a progressive. The obvious shallowness isn’t so much accepted as secretly treasured—loved even.

Why, you might ask, be so cynical? My response can only be that you misunderstand me. I am as post-cynical as they come. It’s true that I’m the sort of person who will discuss labor violations on Ethopian coffee farms over a cup of Yirgacheffe and ponder the horrors of factory farming over bacon and eggs (my breakfasts are a bit heated), but that’s where it ends—I never take the leap to full-on cynicism. That is, much of what I say straddles the line between appearance and actual belief.

Does this sort of insincerity remind you of someone? The president elect, maybe? If so, we are ready for my central claim: although it might at first seem totally contradictory, Trump is the result of post-cynicism. He’s what happens when most people accepted long ago that humans are self-centered and have moved on to treating selfishness and denial as virtues. What’s really sad (or would be, if I was a cynic) about this is that unlike post-truth rhetoric (where our side has science), we on the left are not immune from post-cynical rhetoric and so are partly to blame.

Let’s return to the MacBook Air to get at the real point underlying all this. To a cynic of old, this sort of device merely represents the disconnect between ideology and reality, but to the post-cynic it represents freedom from reality. The user gets to perceive the Mac in any way she chooses, even if her perception directly conflicts with the grubby truth. This freedom is extremely alluring and, as I’ve argued above, has permeated the lives of people all across the political spectrum. Further, it is precisely this permeation that made a Trump presidency—one in which reality is unimportant—a possibility.

If I believed truth mattered, I’d use this space to argue for more cynicism, but as I am a victim of my post-cynical age doing so would be out of place.