The Culture of Cynicism Eats Its Own

Americans, so we have been told endlessly by the media, hate politicians. . . and their natural henchmen, lawyers. The press fearlessly confronts official misdeeds, subtly educating the populace about the rottenness of its elected leaders. And once wasteful lawsuits are finally cleared out of the courts, captains of industry will be free to exercise the innovative genius that can make the country great again.

Yet this acid cynicism about politicians and lawyers, like a sorcerer’s apprentice, is tough to control. And it now appears to be blowing back onto the very journalists and business leaders that have deployed it so successfully over the past few decades.

Consider first the backlash to the backlash about “bittergate.” Having “exposed” Barack Obama’s unforgivable hauteur, the media exhibited its own in the process. For example, here’s Frank Rich on tribune of the people Lou Dobbs:

However out of touch Mr. Obama is with “ordinary Americans,” many Americans, ordinary and not, have concluded that the talking heads blathering about blue-collar men, religion, guns and those incomprehensible “YouTube young people” are even more condescending and out of touch. When a Washington doyenne like Mary Matalin, freighted with jewelry, starts railing about elitists on “Meet the Press,” as she did last Sunday, it’s pure farce. It’s typical of the syndrome that the man who plays a raging populist on CNN, Lou Dobbs, dismissed Mr. Obama last week by saying “we don’t need another Ivy League-educated knucklehead.” Mr. Dobbs must know whereof he speaks, since he’s Harvard ’67.

And Hendrik Hertzberg:

If Gibson and his partner, George Stephanopoulos, had halted their descent at the level of the fatuous, that would have been bad enough. But there was worse to come. In the seven weeks since the previous Clinton-Obama debate, the death toll of American troops in Iraq had reached four thousand; the President had admitted that his “national-security team,” including the Vice-President, had met regularly in the White House to approve the torture of prisoners; house repossessions topped fifty thousand per month and unemployment topped five per cent; and the poll-measured proportion of Americans who believe that “things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track” hit eighty-one per cent, a record. Yet for most of the next hour Gibson and Stephanopoulos limited their questioning to the following topics . . . .

You’ve heard them all before; no need to reprint them here. But there’s always room for Thomas Frank’s skewering of the populist pretensions of the media elite:

[Consider] Sam Walton, [an] . . . enemy of workers’ organizations . . .Didn’t he have a funky Southern accent of some kind? Surely such a mellifluous drawl cancels any possibility of elitism.

It is by this familiar maneuver that the people who have designed and supported the policies that have brought the class divide back to America – the people who have actually, really transformed our society from an egalitarian into an elitist one – perfume themselves with the essence of honest toil, like a cologne distilled from the sweat of laid-off workers. Likewise do their retainers in the wider world – the . . . pundits who lovingly curate all this phony authenticity – become jes’ folks, the most populist fellows of them all.

Where’s it all leading to? Here’s one clue from Floyd Norris, discussing Steven Fraser’s book on the story of Wall Street:

“By the time of the American Revolution there was already a robust plebeian resentment of the aristocrat as parasite, a privileged nonproducer living off the hard labor of those he lorded over,” Fraser writes. It has not helped that the financial lords have not always been subtle about their superiority, as when Jay Gould, the robber baron who ran railroads in the late 19th century, boasted he could hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.

It is one thing to be seen as venal but brilliant, and another to be seen as both greedy and stupid. That is the risk Wall Street now faces.

As Fraser says in writing about the aftermath of the 1929 crash, “Wall Street had proved itself not only ethically challenged and dangerously omnipotent but, more damning than that, omni-incompetent.” And he continues: “During the boom years of the 1920s, the white-shoe world of J. P. Morgan had accepted credit for the nation’s good fortune and been portrayed as a conclave of wise men. Now, under the new circumstances of economic ruination, that same world was treated as criminally irresponsible, pathetic even, an object not only of censure but of mockery. And there is perhaps nothing more fatal for the life expectancy of an elite than to be viewed as ridiculous.”

Both Wall Street and the press appear to be at risk of suffering the same fate as the politicians they’ve undermined.

UPDATE: Scott H. Greenfield of Simple Justice asks (apropos of Dobbs): “Since when did being smart turn into a deficit, a failing to be ridiculed?”

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