09/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cockeyed Optimism is Better Than Cynicism

Reading about the town meetings currently taking place across America, it's difficult to know what the high turnouts and active participation say about the state of democracy in America. The right wing of the Republican Party has embraced community organizing, the activity mocked by their candidates in the last elections. And they are good at it. Good ole fashioned talk-radio, supplemented by up-to-date social networking tactics have put many in Congress on the defensive. Union members are trying to respond, but apparently they aren't getting to the meeting halls early enough. With her characteristically nasty ridicule, Maureen Dowd in today's New York Times chides the Obama networks for failing to turn out folks to support the president. "The young grass-roots army that swept Obama into office," she writes, "has yet to mobilize now that the fight is about something complicated rather than a charismatic hope-monger. No, they can't?" Reliable Maureen -- always ready with cynical mockery.

The fact that people are mobilizing on behalf of issues of significant public import is a very good thing. When politics becomes just a spectator sport, the citizenship of each of us is diminished. But the cynicism with which this mobilization is taking place -- stoking fears of euthanasia panels and losing one's opportunity for basic health care -- will have even more profound corrosive effects on our public life. Creating fear among senior citizens about "big government, when they are already on a huge Federal program, is particularly noxious. Anger and fear are dangerous fuel with which to build a political firestorm. They burn away trust. These passions feed on themselves and undermine future possibilities of working together to overcome differences.

But am I just labeling this mobilizing "cynical" because I don't share the political views of those who worry that because of big government we will soon be "standing on line to buy toilet paper" (NYT, 8/11)? What makes Limbaugh's or Palin's call to right-wing shock troops, for example, any more cynical than the messages I get almost every morning via email from team Obama? Is cynicism merely in the eye of the beholder?

There are two tests we might use to make the distinction between cynical manipulation and organizing based on shared belief. The first is simple: does the person asking you to join the fray have her facts straight? Are there really euthanasia panels planned? Since the answer is clearly "no," the person using the lie to promote action is being cynical. Sometimes it's hard to tell, and there is plenty of room for debate in something as complicated as health care reform. But often it's not hard to tell. We must expose how lies are used to generate fear.

This leads to the second test. Is the person promoting action trying to make you angry and afraid, as opposed to hopeful and pragmatic? If the organizer is basing his inspiration on fear and anger, you can bet that the possibilities for cynical manipulation have jumped sky high. I know these are far from airtight tests. Cynicism, of course, exists on the left as well as the right; hope or courage can also be manipulated. But fear and anger are far more combustible.

I started thinking about an escape from cynicism this week when I saw an exuberant summer stock presentation of that great Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. There is a wonderful moment when Nurse Nellie realizes that she can't just "wash that man right out of her hair," and says that she is indeed "in love with a wonderful guy." Nellie isn't afraid of being in "a conventional dither" or of being "a cliché comin true" because she's over the moon about her guy. But South Pacific isn't just as corny as Kansas in August. The show reminds us that "you have to be carefully taught" to hate. But it rejects hate and prejudice as the music soars. Unafraid of being a "cockeyed optimist," South Pacific dreams that prejudice can be overcome.

I know we can't sing our way through raucous town meetings in which fears have been stoked that we are becoming "another Soviet Union." But we can use some of the cockeyed optimism that still inspired hope for change in the wake of WW II. In Hammerstein's words, you don't have to be "stuck like a dope/With a thing called hope." If we can expose the lies of manipulation without stooping to cynical mockery, we might have a chance to build something in common in which we can really believe.