Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Everybody Knows

Everybody Knows: Cynicism in America

Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 264
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Everybody Knows
    Book Description:

    In this biting and controversial analysis-now available in paperback-William Chaloupka scrutinizes the cynicism that is our common condition, examining both its uses in the politics of backlash and resentment and its surprisingly positive aspects. “A provocative study of political cynicism and pessimism.” New York Review of Books

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-5277-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    Americans use names to mark events. The name “Monica Lewinsky” will forever refer to more than one young woman and more than a sequence of revelations about President Bill Clinton. As sure as “Watergate” now calls forth a cultural memory of abused power, “Monica Lewinsky” seems sure to mark a high-water moment for American cynicism.

    To be sure, the diagnosis of cynicism had been well established before we ever met Monica. Since the end of the Cold War, Americans have become acutely aware of a cynical thread running through their country’s social fabric. Americans are cynics. That diagnosis of America’s...

  5. Part I: Cynicism

    • Chapter 1 Socrates—Gone Mad: Diogenes and the Cynical Tradition
      (pp. 3-14)

      Most of us remember the tale of Diogenes, the original cynic, holding a lit lantern aloft as he walked the sunlit streets of Athens, telling curious onlookers that he was searching for an honest man. Diogenes complained that the philosophers did not—and could not—live the life they preached. He complained that their nostrums were a cover for political privilege and comfortable circumstance. He was a classic gadfly.

      The historical Diogenes, a contemporary of Plato, is hard to establish. He quickly became a favorite literary character from antiquity, a colorful provocateur put to uses beyond those he himself imagined....

    • Chapter 2 The Values Remedy: Community, Civility, and Belief
      (pp. 15-26)

      Every diagnosis of cynicism renews a call to believe, and Americans at least talk believer talk. One moralist after another, whether politician, televangelist, professor, or commentator, announces that we must reestablish belief and reconstruct community values that have fallen into disrepair. These moral complaints are always coupled with recommendations on how authority should present itself, how the media or other institutions should be reformed. Ethical rules must be revived. Victims must rehabilitate themselves. The “values remedy” is always presented as cynicism’s antidote. If the problem is cynicism, the solution must be belief—in leadership, education, obedience, and the responsible application...

    • Chapter 3 Cynics-in-Power: Manipulations, Lies, and Empty Gestures
      (pp. 27-40)

      Most of the time we cannot know in any direct way whether a leader is cynical or sincere, and hence are left to the kind of interpretive exercise chapter 1 conducted on George Will, who in turn had been interpreting Newt Gingrich. Was the divorced Gingrich truly horrifled at President Clinton’s alleged philandering? Did Will sincerely change his mind over the course of three months, from condemning former president Bush in the strongest of terms to endorsing his election? As audience to the political spectacle, we have little direct access to leaders and little trust in the mediated access we...

    • Chapter 4 Wig Cynics: American Antipolitics and Its Uses
      (pp. 41-54)

      The salient figure of the intense election season of 1992 was Ross Perot. The fervor of his followers’ cynicism influenced every element of the crucial campaigns that year. Their discontent was palpably new and universal, if still somehow diffuse and opaque. The potential Perot vote was massive, at least in June, before the Clinton campaign found its track and while the Bush campaign was honing the disharmony and lack of purpose it would later perfect. Cynicism was universal, but it was also diffuse. Surely, the deficit—Perot’s horse to ride—was not the occasion for the discontent as much as...

  6. Part II: Cultural Crisis

    • Chapter 5 A Brief History of American Cynicism
      (pp. 57-70)

      There may have been a time when Americans believed. But the cultural memory plays tricks. We convert history into the Good Old Days, selecting only the best tomatoes from a motley harvest. The believer wants to reassure us that we all once believed and that this condition could be recovered. The cynic might agree that someone once believed but resolutely assumes that this can no longer be the case.

      H.L. Mencken, a prominent Baltimore journalist in the early days of national media, was a harbinger of cynical America. Mencken is a vivid symbol of the sophisticated, urbane culture that he...

    • Chapter 6 Federalists and Liberals: Setting the Stage for Cynicism
      (pp. 71-84)

      Like other unwanted social phenomena, cynicism is often described with viral metaphors. Cynicism infects, spreads, and contaminates. Some wisdom is reflected in this figure of speech. Like a virus, cynicism can be surprisingly durable. It has carriers. But there are limits to the metaphor, too. Despite ever-improving scientific tools, the origins of a virus are often shrouded in mystery. But the origins of contemporary cynicism are accessible for examination and debate. The believer chorus misdirects our attention away from the roots of cynicism. Cynicism’s vitality has precursors set deep in American political arrangements.

      It is not surprising that Americans use...

    • Chapter 7 Why Americans Hate Politics: The Cynicism Trap
      (pp. 85-100)

      A long-standing dictum of American social manners advises that on first acquaintance, two topics of conversation should be avoided at all cost: religion and politics. What a pair. It’s easy to make a case for avoiding religion; spiritual beliefs are one’s own business and contention about them historically has been none too useful, pleasant, or polite. But in a democracy, politics is by definition everybody’s business. The cut and thrust of politics is discussion. Democracy presumes that citizens inquire, learn, and explain. The very standard of democratic process is that citizens reshape each other’s positions by effective argument. A nation...

    • Chapter 8 Medium, Media, Mediate: Television and Cynicism
      (pp. 101-114)

      Journalists are our archetypal cynics, having been given the professional responsibility of going to work every day knowing they will doubt the word of nearly everyone they contact. But there is more to cynical journalism than the old movie archetype of the ink-stained, doubting, and wretched reporter. News media have become so crucial to the public world that the two share and reinforce each other’s stains.

      There is no better place to mark the beginning of contemporary journalism’s cynical slide than with Mencken, the high-school graduate turned prominent Nietzsche interpreter turned colorful and angry critic. Before his fall from popularity,...

    • Chapter 9 Bush, Burned: The Patterns of Televised Politics
      (pp. 115-128)

      The day after the 1988 presidential vote, ABC’sNightlineaired a special review of that extraordinary election. Campaign professionals, top journalists, and a few commentators from outside the usual circles gathered on an elaborate set. Instead of the two or three guests usually featured onNightline,this show had dozens of guests. By all accounts, it had been an exceptional election. George Bush, Ronald Reagan’s loyal vice president for eight years, had appeared unelectable early in the year, due to the Iran-Contra scandal and Bush’s own public image, somehow poorly developed after a lifetime in the public spotlight. The Democrats...

    • Chapter 10 The Uses of Backlash: Applied Cynicism 101
      (pp. 129-142)

      In the months following Vice President Dan Quayle’s 1992 attack on the television character Murphy Brown, Quayle tried to distance himself from the controversy, suggesting that overeager media had fastened on a trivial aside from a single campaign speech. But his distancing was evidently strategic. For Quayle’s staff, the conservative “family values” issue had been moved up, and their hope was that the VP’s visibility would quiet rumors that Bush was considering dumping him from the ticket.

      The day after Quayle’s speech, theNew York Timesgave his remarks serious coverage, complete with a photo and excerpts from the speech....

    • Chapter 11 The Age of Resentment: Advanced Applied Cynicism
      (pp. 143-154)

      The one area where the social psychology of cynicism turns out to be central to this analysis is, in turn, the one area that many of the more public laments over cynicism tend to avoid. Political life in a democratic state is plenty complicated, even if we stay with the arid conceptual vision of that political condition that has long been popular in the mainstream. Groups, ideals, programs, and opportunism are enough factors to make for a very open system, as well as a system that can be dominated by cultural norms, making it seem remarkably closed. Mix in the...

  7. Part III: Alternatives

    • Chapter 12 Marge the Stoic: The Coens’ Fargo and Civic Solutions
      (pp. 157-170)

      Cynicism causes trouble. In its more sinister forms, cynicism can be corrosive and even disruptive. It interrupts patterns that most citizens would rather not have to think too much about. Cynicism sows doubt among believers and undermines solutions that would otherwise make perfect sense. Our culture has honed its ability, in ways sometimes sophisticated, sometimes crude, to articulate values or virtues and to imply that these stated virtues then solve problems of conflict and governance. Perhaps the most devious interruption cynicism promotes is to undermine the claim that ideals can simply and directly inform political possibilities. The cynic knows better...

    • Chapter 13 “So What?”: Another Side of Cynicism
      (pp. 171-184)

      Having met the cynic, do not make the mistake of assuming that the inverse of a cynic is necessarily a believer. This is one of Peter Sloterdijk’s boldest insights. It could be that the phenomenon of cynicism is diverse. And even though the cynic is defined largely by an antagonism to belief, it could still be that the question of power plays just as important a role in understanding how cynicism works. I have already noted how slippery our everyday use of the word “cynical” can be. We call things cynical that have many different, more useful names. But now,...

    • Chapter 14 Teachings of the Demonstration: Representation in the Streets
      (pp. 185-200)

      The events of 1989 and 1990 in China, Eastern Europe, and South Africa reached us as a sequence of images, mostly televised glimpses—the mise-en-scène of postmodern revolution. Mandela walked from prison and later the same day addressed a crowd of supporters. The Berlin Wall went under the wrecking ball of what can only be described as a band of reveling partygoers. A simulated lady liberty rose in China.

      For me, one image stands out, in some way enclosing each of those events. It is familiar, available to each of us as a text we could reinterpret. A lone Chinese...

    • Chapter 15 Politics after Cynicism
      (pp. 201-212)

      The demonstration is useful as a way of isolating the kynical impulse so it can be more clearly seen. But kynicism is by no means only a protest role. It becomes important in understanding the broader phenomenon of cynicism precisely because the cheeky, disbelieving form extends throughout political culture, often vying for a place where we might not expect to find it. It is in these more ambivalent locales that kynics mix with cynics of various stripes, setting off a struggle over the political system.

      Democracy has long contained tensions that are not entirely reflected in its seemingly obvious and...

    • Chapter 16 Solutions and Conclusions
      (pp. 213-226)

      Oliver Hardy’s retort was always a good joke, because Stan Laurel was never solely responsible. But the mess was predictably extraordinary, if not exactly “fine” in any of that word’s several meanings. And, of course, Oliver’s bluster hid his share of the responsibility for the mess. In our case, it is truly a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. And getting out will not be as simple as we might hope. The solution to cynicism does not much resemble the usual run of political solutions. Any number of policies and reforms would respond to America’s cynicism. But programmatic suggestions are...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 227-236)
  9. Index
    (pp. 237-240)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 241-241)