Oh, Adam. How you wound me so.
Irony and cynicism are red herrings. As long as everyone’s in on the kayfabe, it’s a great big joshing joke. The trouble comes when we allow ourselves the duplicitous pleasure of believing our own (and others’) bullshit and start treating political kayfabe as if it were sincere talk.
Okay, so I admit that I may not have gotten straight to the point. Let me try to remedy that.
Consider three people. Art, Betty, and Carl (to pick three names at not-random). Art is the naif, Betty is the unreflective cynic, and Carl is the pomo age-of-irony post-introspection petit sage. In Postrel’s terms I categorize each as follows:
- Art is gormless. He believes what politicians say (or if not all politicians, at least the ones on his team). He is ensorcelled, perhaps unwillingly. He has yet to acquire the talent of second-guessing the elites, be they political, religious, commercial, what-have-you.
- Betty is Holden Caulfield, less naive than Art, but more naive than Carl. She’s recently recognized the insincerity that pervades and in Humean fashion has begun to catalog her observations and register her disgust. “The whole world is a lie” she cries.
- Carl rejoins: “no shit, Sherlock.” You see, Carl knows what Betty knows, and he’s reconciled it. He’s come not merely to passively, placidly accept the mere existence of mundane human hypocrisy, but to recognize that as in all human endeavors, it is strewn with trade-offs. A culture suffused with glimmering lies, ponderous kayfabe, and tightly-bound hypocrisy comes with costs, but it’s almost certainly better than an alternative world with nothing but pure brutal sincerity. Likewise, he recognizes the dire need for temperance, that a world full of rib-prodding insincerity is probably just as intolerable. He knows that navigating the world of half-truths we inhabit is challenging and that he’ll occasionally be wrong from time to time, but that his life and his society are enriched by the sweet little lies we whisper each other.
I implore you to believe me when I write that I wasn’t landing on Betty as the paradigm for maturity. I was pointing you at the dull-as-dishwater observation that one player won’t have any more than an infinitesimal influence over the general equilibrium, and that between the three rough options of a) naively believing everything everyone tells you b) sullenly rejecting any utterance as worthless insincerity and c) coming to grips with the duplicity of humans and using this secret knowledge to help you flourish (though not, of course, at the expense of others); the third option is quite clearly the best. Joyce’s Mulligan wasn’t a heretic—he was a placid apostate.
I invite you, my dear friends, to untelescope your morality. You’ve no more hope of eliminating insincerity than an ant does of redirecting the Nile. The low-cost, high-margin project lies in learning how to best navigate a world where irony and insincerity are treated as exogenous.
To be sure, it’s difficult to precisely place where any of this fits into a serious project of eudaimonia. I think (though I admit that it’s only via introspection) that it’s eminently possible to be a good, useful, productive, moral member of society and to have also relinquished any pretext of sincere belief (I will say that I’m still occasionally taken aback by the sheer quantity of clergy I personally know who’ve confided in me their atheism). I have a suspicion, hard to test empirically, that the tripartite sincerity spectrum is orthogonal to good livin’, even if it correlates strongly with #phronesis. But I don’t think I want to go too far down this road, as yonder lies the realm of navel-fluff picking.