There comes a time in every citizen’s existence that we each become susceptible to the creeping (but warm) fog of political nihilism. The transition starts from the sort of “lesser of two evils” thinking that so often characterizes elections to phrases like “Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”; “The system is just too big and too powerful”; and my personal favorite: “Everybody’s a fool” when describing, well, everyone who doesn’t see things with equivalent nihilism. One becomes so cynical of the process as to take for granted that our progress as a species is something we’ve stumbled into, rather than intentionally created. Frankly — and I mean this with all of the apathy I can muster — our existence should have imploded by now.
Nihilism (and its close cousin, cynicism) is a special sentiment that travels well across political, ideological, and even cultural divides. We (regardless of planetary location or ideation) will gleefully rag on “politicians” as though they’re the pinnacle of the self-interested, bumbling homo sapiens. Which they very well may be, but says something about us handing them the reins year in and year out. This, ironically, comes even as we all take great pains to delineate between our particular brand of self-interested, bumbling representative from the other, less qualified, ones (who we’re only mildly less jaded towards). Nevertheless, you could strike up an amicable conversation with just about anyone in the world with the words “idiot politician” tucked into an opening phrase and rest assured that your fellow nihilist/cynic has a least a few people in mind.
Nihilism possesses a strange level of ubiquity not found amongst most other human expressions. It has the appeal of love with the applicability of hate. It can be layered over just about anything — politics, social issues, or the dinner menu — a boring gravy that reduces everything to mush. But at least it tastes the same. It’s much more than a “negative” outlook on human affairs. It assumes that the only people whose flaws aren’t contributing to our collective demise are fellow nihilists and cynics, who at least know that it’s all useless, and can be endlessly critical (minus actual participation). Being above the fray sure does feel a lot better. Not that it matters.
Despite its now-tired eye-rolling, nihilism does provide some value to the individual and society. I’m rarely surprised anymore by the on-going horror show that is U.S. politics (since circa 1776). Cynicism erects a boring but effective barrier against absurdity. If you expect the ridiculous, you will almost certainly find it in fellow humans. The nihilist and cynic alike carry with an unbridled skepticism, casting a wary eye on the lastest claim of exceptionality, “progress”, or “hope and change.” Nihilism provides the White Tower from which to view the many petty arguments of mere mortals, jousting over the chairs on the doomed ship, a jumbled mob of impossibly absolutist slogans printed on cheap hats, t-shirts, and the occasional fanny pack. The fools.
But lately, I’ve begun to doubt the veracity of a nihilistic approach.
Nihilism destroys all measure of proportionality, as though there truly is no difference between a fledgling upstart in a given party, and say, Hitler (who, like most fledgling upstarts, was bad at art). Cynics would see these as both useless equivalents, propping up the broken socio-political system, some just do it with a touch more manic gusto. And in Hitler’s case, bad facial hair. But, of course, this cannot be true. Despite my high degree of skepticism of say, Beto O’Rourke’s, true authenticity and potential for robust change, he is nevertheless quite separate and distinct from the much-maligned subject of Zodiac Killer memes, Ted Cruz. As loathe as I am to admit it, the difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was more than a matter of degrees in shifting chairs, as the many thousands of DACA recipients would likely find themselves in a much different position had she won. We would not be having the ongoing, obtuse debate over (and for all practical purposes, unlikely) construction of a border wall. Frankly, a smaller number (note: smaller, not nonexistent) of immigrant children would be in cages and asylum law would have remained very wanting albeit less inhumane. Sure we would still be bombing the hell out of a number of near-eastern countries and Wall Street would continue to its hitherto uninterrupted day in the sun, but the fact that there is misery doesn’t mean more is better. Nihilism would leave the deck chairs where they are, even if moving them would clear a path for a few more people to get off the ship.
Also, and this cannot be overstated — wood floats.
This virulent form of nihilism grants us a license for apathy, the sort that, as culture critic Gilbert Seldes lamented in his later years, allows one to completely disconnect from the socio-political involvement required to create change. We instead retreat into our comforts, e.g., blowing out the candles on any populist political movement or dousing the small fire built up around a given progressive issue. Don’t waste your time, we say, save the cake and champagne for when the Anarchists and/or Socialists and/or Democratic Socialists and/or Miscellaneous Proletariat Uprisings take things over. In the meantime, have a cigarette while listening to the free concert on this doomed ship.
This approach and sentiment, while comfortable, ignores the ark of history — change happens in both small incremental steps and all at once. Despite the popularity of Nassim Taleb’s concept of the “black swan” events, the truth is, while they are inherently unpredictable, they do not emerge from nowhere. They are a product of slowly coalescing forces. Forces that we can be a part of, if we can get nihilism off our chests long enough.
We can remain highly skeptical of true change, as this is, in part, required to actually propel constant change forward. Knowing that things can be better is not a reason to poo-poo the present, but a license to move things forward. We, the nihilists/cynics, can claim our rightful “I told you so” spot at the top of the Titanic, so long as we’ve taken the time to make sure as many people as possible got off the damn ship first. I’ve done my part in the revolution by being cynical of the nihilists; someone help me move chairs.