Monday, February 18, 2013

On Cynicism (Or, Beware The Ides of March)

Keyser Soze returns
“What’s so good about being sad?”
“It’s happy for deep people.”

by Ben Howard

In 2011 a movie came out that you probably didn’t see. It’s kind of strange that you didn’t see this movie because it stars George Clooney and Ryan Gosling, and they don’t typically appear in movies that you probably didn’t see. The movie was called The Ides of March and it was a political drama based off the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon.

It’s an excellent film. It’s also the most cynical movie I’ve ever seen.
I mention Willimon’s work on The Ides of March because he is also the creative force behind the new Netflix original series, House of Cards. Well, technically House of Cards is adapted from a British series of the same name from 1990, but from the opening scene to the closing credits it feels a perfect partner for Willimon’s work in The Ides of March.

The new version centers on House Majority Whip and political puppeteer Frank Underwoord (Kevin Spacey). After being passed over for the position of Secretary of State by the newly elected President, Frank embarks on a conspiratorial mission of revenge and devastation. At his side are his cold-hearted wife Claire (Robin Wright) and the fiery young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara).

Initially, the show, much like The Ides of March, feels like a darker version of The West Wing. It focuses on process and political gamesmanship, but as the series progresses the plot darkens and things turn sideways. The perspective slowly shifts from a world you think might exist in reality to a world you pray does not.

To be completely honest, it’s quite riveting.

Could a man with that awesome beard
be a cynic?
I joke with people sometimes that I’m only able to be optimistic because my true perspective on life is deeply cynical. I’m convinced that most people are messed up, and so whenever something beautiful or good happens it feels almost like a flower pushing its way through concrete. It’s something that should be treasured and never taken for granted.

It makes me feel a sense of optimism to know that, even in this messed up world, people are still trying to be better. Chuck Klosterman says in one of his books that anyone who calls themselves a cynic isn’t really cynical. They already have a predetermined baseline for what a normal view of the world is and theirs is knowingly darker. A real cynic calls himself a pragmatist.

For as much as I enjoyed The Ides of March and for as entertaining as House of Cards is, I can’t bring myself around to the viewpoint that this is reality. I just can’t believe that this is how the world really is. I can’t understand a world where people are that calculating and cruel on purpose; where the pain we inflict on others is a coldly conscious choice, and not the incidental shrapnel of our exploding subconscious fears.

When people are hurt by the church, or by their families, or by their friends, I always wonder how they take those hurtful acts. I think it’s only natural to ascribe intention and motive to acts that cause us pain. It’s only natural to think that people are more methodical and calculating than they really are.

This belief allows us to impose an element of order on the world, and if there’s order then someone is in control. It means that no matter how bad things get, we can vanquish the enemy and everything will be alright.

I think this is why the modern concept of Satan is so attractive. It allows to say, yes, there is evil in the world, but someone is responsible and all we need to do is win in a battle against this entity. We position atonement theory as a means of achieving victory against Satan. Jesus didn’t come to teach us, or lead us, or be human with us, he came to win. It makes things make sense.

I don't think this is what they meant.
But what if that isn’t the way the world works.

What if the world is messier and more chaotic than we would like it to be? What if pain and heartbreak and brokenness are not the result of Satan, or calculated and manipulative evil? What if everyone is trying to do the right thing, but they’re either failing or can’t figure out what the right thing is?

Clearly, I’m in the camp that thinks the world is messier. It can be frustrating sometimes because it means we can’t rationally hate the people who hurt us. We can’t hate them because they’re just as broken as we are, just as confused. But it also allows for a deeper hope. We are no longer placing our hope in a God who will liberate us from the oppressive evil of an outside force, but a God who will redeem us from the evil within us.

A God who will mercifully pardon us from the grief and pain we have caused others, while also healing the wounds which we have received.

Until then, treasure the flowers that make their way through the concrete. And beware The Ides of March.


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