Friday Philosophy: Greed, Cynicism and Hope

On Tuesday I attended our annual Cyrus H. Holley Lecture on applied ethics.  The speaker was a retired colleague, Professor Emeritus of History Steve Golin, a well-known labor historian (see The Fragile Bridge:  Paterson Silk Strike, 1913 and The Newark Teacher Strikes:  Hopes on the Line), who lectured on History, Cynicism and Hope.

Therein lie the roots of this riff.

And hereafter will lie a little history (or something simulating history), a little cynicism, and…with any luck…some hope.  And maybe I need something to tie them loosely together.


As I was listening to Steve’s extremely enjoyable talk and musing about our current economic condition, I couldn’t help being reminded of an episode of Cheers, entitled The Art of the Steal.

Hoping to teach Woody (Woody Harrelson) how to manage his finances, the Cheers gang gets wrapped up in a hot-and-heavy game of Monopoly.

In the game, Woody was the banker.  We see the very end of the game, where it becomes apparent that Woody is winning.  But Frasier catches him buying a piece of property with the bank’s money.  It turns out that he had been using the bank’s money all along.

I don’t recall the exact dialogue, but my memory is that when called out as being a lying, cheating thief, Woody responded that he thought he was supposed to be learning how to be a capitalist.

Frasier thinks for a moment, then says, “Well, then.  Well done!”

An historian arrives at the same place rather differently, perhaps.  Steve is no exception.  He talked about early 20th century muckraker Lincoln Steffens, his series of articles, The The Shame of the Cities, and the special place Philadelphia had amongst the corrupt cities of the day.  Steffens asked machine boss Israel Durham how Philadelphia could become so corrupt.  Since this was a deathbed interview, Durham had no reason to  embellish the truth and reported that they had simply unleashed an endless string of scandals until the public became so jaded…so cynical…that they came to expect corruption.

Steffens was not a moralist.  He reported matter-of-factly when government has the power to affect the profits of corporations, corporations can be expected to do no less than seek to subvert those governments to increase profits.  It’s what capitalists do.  Expecting them to behave differently is to not understand capitalists.

A bribe influenced only one decision, admitted the old fixer [Durham], but campaign contributions influenced the entire political process.

–Lincoln Steffens, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens

The greedheads rely on your cynicism.  If you expect no better of your government, the greedsters win.

I have a desire to back up here.  By cynicism, I do not mean original cynicism.  I have deep respect for the Greek Cynics.  Diogenes is one of my role models.

the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a life free from all possessions

They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone, and that suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable and by the worthless customs and conventions which surrounded society


I’m there.  I’m all over that belief system.

Unfortunately, the Cynics were roundly derided by the citizenry of their day. See “socialist” or “hippie, dirty fucking”.  Words become corrupted as easily as governments and take on new meanings.

There is so much to be said in favor of modern journalism.  By giving us the opinions of the uneducated it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.

— Oscar Wilde

By the 19th century cynicism was an a jaded, negative attitude, distrust of the motives of others and a general disbelief that other people have integrity.

The trouble ain’t that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain’t distributed right.

— Mark Twain

Nowadays the common definition is the belief that people do things only because of self-interest rather than virtue.

I don’t care what anybody says about me as long as it isn’t true.

–Dorothy Parker

Wilde, Twain, Parker.  Well-known cynics all.  But I daresay none of them identified with Diogenes.

Words change.  So do concepts…and people…and societies.  Before the twentieth century and the birth of the advertising industry, we were a nation of citizens.  Production struggled to supply the needs of the people.  There was no need to do much more than declare the availability of the goods.

That changed in the late 1800s.  Standardized products became available in relative abundance.  Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Company started advertising the availability of items normally only available in the big cities at places like Wanamakers in Philadelphia, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Gimbels in New York,  Marshall Fields in Chicago or The May Company in Denver.

When production began to exceed consumption, advertising took off.  There was a need to create Need…or replace it with Want.

And Americans became Consumers rather than citizens, at least in the eyes of the capitalists.  A nation of cynical consumers fit all their needs.

Every once in a while in this country we have been able take a difficult, gut-wrenching step forward.  Hope wins out.  Change happens.

But it never comes easy.

Abraham Lincoln didn’t want to free the slaves.  He didn’t want to allow African Americans to serve as soldiers or sailors during the Civil War.  Abolitionists forced his hand.

Franklin Roosevelt’s early reforms failed.  He could have given up.  But labor leaders kept up the pressure.  And there were born Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act.

Lyndon Johnson knew what would happen to the Democratic Party in the South with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  He also knew that he was not the president the people had elected to push their dreams forward.  But activists held his feet to the fire and the society started to change.

Change doesn’t happen by simply electing someone who we think shares our hopes and dreams.  If we remain a nation of cynical consumers, stand back and say, “Show me,” the change we get will not be the change we desire.

The change we desire comes from people stepping forward and forcing the person we have chosen to lead us out of the darkness to actually take the difficult road.  We must force him to do so.

And we force him through changing ourselves.  Hope does not come from that leader.  Hope does not come from any external source.  True Hope, with a capital H, can only come from within.  If we are to kindle that hope, we must start the effort ourselves.  

And don’t let anyone tell you what you need to do or not do to ignite your hope.  Only you will know what is important for you to do to fan the flames within you.

And to the people who think it is their job to cynically tell others what is important to work on and what is not, I say the following.

You have no right to try to douse the embers of some other person’s hopes and dreams.  What needs to get done will get done because of its importance to people, not because some outside person has declared that it is important.

Hope is kept alive by people advancing towards the goals they believe in, not someone else’s goals.

/end ramble

Twisting Pathways

The Long Road

‘Tis a long road

for there to here

from despair to hope

from despondency

to expectation

‘Tis much longer

an endless


if we never

take the first step

–Robyn Elaine Serven

–March 20, 2009


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    • Robyn on March 20, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    …but hopefully better late than never.

    I also hope it isn’t too incomprehensible.

  1. You Can’t Fight City Hall.


    The HELL we can’t, we own the muthafucker!



    ( I do like ….We may not be able to lick the system……

    But we can give it a damn good fondling!!!

    But that is just acause it’s naughty!)

    Great essay!

    • Edger on March 20, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    And don’t let anyone tell you what you need to do or not do to ignite your hope.  Only you will know what is important for you to do to fan the flames within you.

    • Robyn on March 21, 2009 at 12:41 am

    …in Orange.

  2. And we force him through changing ourselves.  Hope does not come from that leader.  Hope does not come from any external source.  True Hope, with a capital H, can only come from within.  If we are to kindle that hope, we must start the effort ourselves.  


    Mmm.  This essay is tasty, as the jazzfolks would say.

  3. your heart, your passion and solid dedication to the issues which most affect you.  Do me the favor of reciprocal ideas.  You may dismiss it but may it expand your horizons and prioritize the enemy of humanity lists.

  4. …excellent essay, top notch.

    A complete non-sequiter I suppose, but Lincoln Steffen’s son Pete taught where I went to school.  I never had him for anything but he started a conversation with me in the little cafeteria of the building where I had my office torturing rats in the basement (his, rather higher up, in was the journalism department) which I remember, with some clarity, to this day.  I was having an extradorinarly bad run in my life, and he was a bright, thoughtful and kind person to talk with.  A real teacher and more importantly, a real person with a heart.

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