Bankrupt Liberalism & Disappointed Idealism

I’ve heard a number of interviews with Chris Hedges (and am now in the middle of reading his book, Death of the Liberal Class). In the above video, he said (from transcript):

And when you, within a society, have a bankrupt liberalism—it’s something Dostoevsky wrote about in Demons and Notes from the Underground at the end of the 19th century—you descend inevitably into a period of moral nihilism, you remove that capacity for change, that mechanism by which change is possible, and so that this legitimate rage, which is being expressed by huge numbers of the dispossessed within the United States, has no outlet through traditional political mechanisms and finds its expression in these proto-fascist movements like the militias or tea parties. And that’s essentially what’s happened. So the tragedy of the liberal class is that it was destroyed and it destroyed itself. And you can’t maintain a civil society in those kinds of circumstances.

There are two issues that this reminded me of.

First, it makes sense to me what George Carlin once said: “Scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” I don’t know if this is always true. Some cynics may have been born as psychopaths and simply lack empathy. Nonetheless, I definitely think this insight applies to liberals.

Second, I think idealism is inherently a liberal trait. Many conservatives consider liberals naive for their idealism. They often may be right, but I think that misses the point. Even though idealism can and does fail, it’s those striving for the impossible that help make the world a better place. I don’t think democracy would be possible without unrealistic idealists challenging the status quo. (As always, it must be kept in mind that my use of liberalism and conservatism are on a spectrum rather than absolute categories.)

There is a different kind of cynicism that is a failure of conservatism, but it’s just the failure of liberal idealism cuts to the heart of democratic society. Anyway, as a liberal, the failure of liberal idealism hits more of a nerve with me. I agree with Chris Hedges that the liberal movement has become disempowered and many liberals have given up on striving for worthy ideals. I’m one of those cynical liberals and that saddens me. There are few liberal politicians who represent my ideals and there is no populist liberal movement that is capable of forcing politicians to represent liberal ideals. It’s hard not to be cynical in a world controlled by people who, at best, see ideals as nothing more than useful rhetoric.

A Disappointed Idealist is Still an Idealist

For anyone who reads my blog, please take my criticisms with a grain of salt.

I’m a cynic, but my cynicism is rooted in idealism.  As George Carlin said (I presume in reference to his own cynicism), “Scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”  If it weren’t for my depression, I suppose I might be a contented idealist.  But years of struggling with depression has a way of beating one down.  I don’t have much confidence in myself and I don’t have much faith in the goodness of others.  I sometimes sense that such a thing as goodness might exist, but this sense is far from my everyday experience.

My ideal of truth keeps me going, but barely because at the same time my desire for truth makes me constantly discontented.  And in general my dour moods make me easily irritated.  To be honest, I don’t like life.  If I had been given a choice in the matter, I would rather not have been born.  I try my best to accept my fate of having been born, but life is tough… endlessly tough and it just gets worse and worse as I age.

My criticisms don’t come from a moral high ground.  I simply feel critical and so that is what I express.  But at least I’m somewhat fair in that I’m as critical of myself as I am of others (actually, I’m probably more critical of myself).  I would share on this blog more of my self-criticisms, but they’re in some cases too personal and in other cases they would just be boring to most people.  It’s not that I’m necessarily afraid of writing about my own failings, although there are definite fears of being judged.  Moreso, it’s just that I journalled for years about my personal issues and for the most part I don’t want to use my blog in that way.

My critical tendencies are tied up with my identity as an intellectual.  I always try to give good arguments for my criticisms, but these arguments are secondary to that which motivates my criticalness in the first place.  My reasons may be logical and I may have relevant facts to back them up.  Still, my cynicism/idealism is what is most central to me.  Even as a disappointed idealist, I’m still an idealist.  I want to believe in something.  I want to believe that life matters.  And often I think about this in terms of my ideal of truth.  But I don’t just want to believe.  I want to know, to feel that there is something worthy in this world.  But I’m tormented by doubts.

I’ve at times tried to be a good person, but I feel like a failure in that regards.  If you were to meet me as a stranger, I probably wouldn’t come off as one of the more friendly people you’ve ever met.  I try to be at least civil, but that civility is often a facade hiding my unhappiness.  I want to be understanding and compassionate towards others.  I have tried and I do try, but all of that trying has tired me out.  I feel frustrated and angry.  I’ve been struggling for years.  Even during periods of my life when I was doing relatively well, I still struggled.  Struggle is the one thing in my life that has remained unchanging.  When I was young, I struggled with learning.  As I grew up, I struggled with fitting in.  As I started living on my own, all of my early struggles transformed into full-blown depression.

I don’t see much to hope for in my life.  I’m pretty much stuck in survival mode.  Just getting by is good enough, has to be good enough because I don’t have much else to show for myself.  I hold down a job and pay the bills on a semi-regular basis.  That is all I can expect of myself.  But this isn’t a good place to be stuck in.  I constantly fear that my life will fall apart, that depression will really hit me hard, or just some unexpected event wil shatter my precarious existence.  I try not to think about it.  I have plenty to worry about without worrying about endless future possibilities.

Instead, I try to focus on what interests me.  This blog is my way of expressing myself, a way of maintaining a sense of purpose instead of giving into just drifting along.  Plus, it just gives me something to do, something to occupy my mind during my free time (which is often spent alone in my apartment).  And the fact that some people read what I write makes it seem worthy in some basic sense.

In certain ways, I often feel like I’ve been dealt a bad hand in life.  There are certain things I’m very appreciative of, but other things have made my life very hard.  I don’t wish to describe the details of the difficulty of being me.  The details don’t really matter.  Some have had harder lives and others have had easier lives, and I couldn’t really say where I fit in the spectrum.  All that I know is life sucks.  All that know is that I’ve struggled immensely at times putting my heart and soul in my endeavors… and yet nothing ever seems to work out, I somehow always fail or give up.  There is just something lacking in me or somehow things never quite click.  I feel jaded.  I hold onto my hopes despite their having been dashed again and again.  Some people do seem to manage to attain what they desire, but maybe it’s just that their desires happened to coincide with their fates.  Whatever it is, I admit to being slightly envious.

I want to understand and be understood.  But I’m just a confused lost soul and who could possibly understand me other than other confused lost souls.  It makes me feel rather pathetic.

To wrap this all up, I don’t know why my opinion matters… but opinions I have a’plenty.  My only hope for this blog is that my opinions, even when overly critical, are at least moderately intelligent and insightful.  Or, failing that, I hope they’re mildly amusing and not too mean-spirited.

* As a note, I’ve been having a discussion about nihilism as it relates to personal experience in a blog post by Quentin S. Crisp entitled No Future.