Thursday, January 26, 2006


Too Cynical

I may regret this bit of honesty, but here goes.


I was very uncomfortable in college during the PC years because I had great difficulty wholeheartedly embracing the concept of relativism. One the one hand, I think a certain degree of relative thinking is healthy. I’m the product of two cultures, and I naturally appreciate it when someone makes the effort to understand that not all cultural practices are the same. As someone once said to me: “Japan is completely different from the West. But it’s not the opposite of the West.” Different but not opposite. That’s a certain kind of relativism.

But I also have a conservative streak in me. I think that there are good things and that there are bad things – that there is such a thing as morality. I think that all people are human and are essentially motivated by similar desires. I don’t believe, for example, the nonsense that Westerners marry for love, and that Asians don’t care about love. I don’t believe that men don’t get depressed. I don’t believe that men are out to wage war against women. I don’t believe that women cannot learn to read maps. I don’t believe that the Japanese don’t feel guilt, or that Americans are all horrible ego-driven people. I don’t believe that spirituality and creativity should be reserved for the “talented tenth.” I think all humanity matters.

Despite all that, there are times when I think that living in New York with people who do admittedly think of themselves as the “talented tenth” has made me too cynical. Maybe that’s another way of saying that I have the potential to be cynical, and I’ve created an environment for myself where the cynicism can come out.

When the James Frey/Smoking Gun/Oprah story first broke, I responded like a lot of my friends. At a party with a number of writerly types, James Frey was very much the topic of conversation. Insiders gossiped about numerous “memoirs” which were known to have been half-fabricated. I won’t repeat the titles, but it was interesting to see how blasé everyone was. And I was blasé too. Publishing is so hard, everyone said. No surprise that Frey and others have stretched the truth to break in.

I even went so far as to say that Frey’s book was a perfect product for Oprah’s audience, which tends to like stories of personal perseverance and triumph.

Now I remember a time when I first came to New York as a college student. A New York Times reporter came to our dorm room floor to interview us about our TV watching habits. She wanted to learn how our habits differed from “Middle America.” It was the first time I’d heard the term “Middle America” and it offended me. My beloved grandmother lived in “Middle America.” Her world encouraged me to bake pie crusts from scratch and send thank you notes. Fast forward to the present and there I was, talking about James Frey taking a “superior to Middle America” attitude.

What I’m trying to say, is that there is often this sense that because we live in New York, we are sophisticated, and normal rules of what is “polite” or “correct” don’t matter. We can grasp subtleties that other people can’t. We are smart, and therefore it is okay to fabricate. To act in a relative world. And at the end of the day, I don’t think it is.

I have this awful feeling that the whole notion of truth is considered old-fashioned, and it shouldn’t be. I think about the incredible bending of truth that has gone on to continue to justify the war in Iraq, for example. Or the scripting of reality shows. Or the bizarre relationship people think they have with the private lives of celebrities.

Entering into a space that purely exists in the imagination is normal for people. It’s also healing. The Greeks knew this. I always loved Aristotle’s definition of catharsis. The shadow side of the imagination, of course, is that we can imagine things that are not real at all, and which are harmful, and attempt to justify our behavior.

And that, for me, is the trouble with all things in life being relative.

Great post.
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