A Plea for More Cynicism, Not Less: Election Day in Canada

“…. for where there are disorders, grief, terror, unsatisfied desire, the realization of everything that should be avoided, envies, and jealousies; in short, wherever there reigns all those things that characterize the king’s actual existence; how could happiness make its way?”

– Epictetus

Election Day in Canada has arrived and yet many observers, such as Matt Galloway host of Toronto’s most popular morning show, are complaining that there is no clear issue to be decided.

Is it “climate change” reflected in the rise of the Green Party? Or, is it “race” because pictures of a young Trudeau wearing blackface have surfaced? Perhaps deep-rooted Canadian fears of the USA will block a Conservative Party victory because it has come to light that their leader, Andrew Scheer, is actually an American (well, a “dual-citizen”)? This is Canada’s version of the Obama “birther” issue.

Or perhaps it is the terrible fear amongst the political class of a “rising cynicism.” Social Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh claimed in a televised debate that Trudeau has left “a trail of broken hopes and rising cynicism.” Trudeau has also expressed concern about “a rise in cynicism all around the world right now.” He attributes this to regressive “populist and nationalist” movements (He is the true heir of his father’s crusade against Quebec separatism).

What is it about “cynicism” that is so feared by those in power? The word conjures a sense of hopeless, even cruel, negativity; the very antithesis of hegemonic norms of “positive thinking,” “optimism” and “following your dreams” to which we are all expected to pay lip service. As the Conservative Party campaign ads say, it is our right “to get ahead.”

Though in the Middle Ages such promises of a richly rewarding future were safely postponed till after death (so the fact that they are not realized would never be known); modern advertising has fooled us into believing that the life of a “star;” that is of fame, fortune and eternal youth; is possible in this world.

Since ancient times, however, the Cynic has represented an “other life,” as Foucault put it in his last lectures entitled Courage of Truth. The Cynic sets the example of a rustic life, stripped of all pretense, in which we accept our natural existence as animals, no different than dogs, content to live in a barrel, to eat scraps off the street, to beg like the poor on welfare.

This Foucault referred to as the “militant philosophical life;” humble, natural, accepting of poverty and death. Diogenes is said to have committed suicide by holding his breath. While he was alive, however, he was the perfect image of health through the constant training of his body eg., to endure hunger by fasting and cold by sleeping outside or walking in the snow in bare feet. He exercised control over his body by natural means, not relying on pharmaceutical agents to remain robust or to transition to death.

What could be a better way to address the problem of climate change than for us all to turn away from the unbridled accumulation pressed on us by capitalists? “Crave More,” says the owner of Loblaw’s, Galen Weston, the 3rd richest man in Canada on TV. Meanwhile, he has profited from a price-fixing scheme on bread (the ultimate rip-off of the working classes a la Les Miserables) for which he was not prosecuted; and from Trudeau’s handouts for a new more climate-friendly refrigeration system – a reward it would seem for his crimes and for his significant donations to the Liberal Party, as the NDP has revealed during the campaign.

In fact, Diogenes was concerned to discard all useless “things”, even chastising himself for carrying a cup when he saw a boy drink from a pool of water easily enough by “cupping” his hands. Ah, but isn’t this the great fear of the “political class”- Presidents, Prime Minister’s and CEO’s alike – that we will just walk away from the cities like the ancient Maya; that we will stop buying their poisonous trucks, drugs, and foods? Perhaps we should even stop participating in fake elections that only legitimate their power and privileges?

In addition to a strict regimen of physical exercise, Diogenes also trained his mind through constant argument with passers-by at whom he barked like a guard dog if he felt they were suffering some dangerous illusion. For example, once teased by Plato for washing cabbages gathered from the garbage to eat, “If you had come to the Emperor’s feast, you would not be cleaning cabbages;” Diogenes pointedly replied, “If I was not cleaning cabbages, I would have had to attend the Emperor’s feast.”

While Diogenes did not abstain from sex, even masturbating in public, he avoided the temptations of politics to keep his mind clear, and un-cloud his loyalties. Foucault spoke admiringly of Diogenes’ famous encounter with Alexander, “the Great,” during which Alexander offered to give Diogenes anything he wanted, like Satan tempting Christ (who was also a Cynic according to some); but Diogenes merely asked that Alexander move aside because he was blocking the sun:

Alexander is a king, a king of the world, of men, a political king. To exercise his monarchy he needs an army, guards, allies, he needs armor (he appears with his sword). Diogenes needs absolutely nothing to exercise his sovereignty. He stands before Alexander naked in his barrel with no army, court, allies, or anything else. Alexander’s monarchy is therefore quite fragile and precarious, since it depends on something else. That of Diogenes, on the other hand, is unshakeable and cannot be overturned, since he needs nothing to exercise it.

Surely then Diogenes, himself already the “true king” according to Foucault, would not vote in Monday’s elections in Canada. Epictetus explained the Cynic’s anti-politics in the following passage:

If you please, ask me also if a Cynic shall engage in the administration of the state? Do you ask if he shall appear among the Athenians and say something about the revenues and the supplies, he who must talk with all men, alike with Athenians, alike with Corinthians, alike with Romans, not about supplies, nor yet about revenues, nor about peace or war, but about happiness and unhappiness, about good fortune and bad fortune, about slavery and freedom? Fool, what greater government shall he exercise than that which he exercises now?

There might then be two reasons for this refusal; first, for reasons of intellectual discipline, to avoid engagement in pointless argument, or wasted energy, about “administrivia;” for the state has no business when it comes to the good things in life – love, art, knowledge, sport. What should the Cynic have to do with war, a most un-natural mass slaughter? Isn’t a vote for a new national government also a vote for the continued existence of nuclear weapons, armies, espionage, bomber pilots etc?

Moreover, the cynic might question why we should participate in an administrative process of low importance when to do so would be to further legitimize its corruption? In the last election, the elected Liberal Party promised a new system of proportional representation and then promptly broke that promise. A logical reprisal from the public for this lie would be to refuse to vote until the change is made.

The second reason Diogenes would likely not vote in a “national” election, is that he refused to identify with any “polis” (todays version of which is the nation-state), but insisted instead that he was a “citizen of the world.” Does not the act of voting serve to legitimate the continued existence of nationalism, populism, racism, ethno-centrism and all those things Trudeau says he is running against? A cynical with-drawl from participation in “national” elections may clear the way for the emergence of a new world federalist system rooted in local communities as described by Marx in The Civil War in France, or by Chomsky in Essays on Anarchy? Indeed, the achievement of such a new cosmopolitan consciousness and organization may be the only hope we have to save ourselves from nuclear annihilation and climate catastrophe.

So go ahead, be “cynical,” it’s good for you!

Paul Bentley holds an MSc. (Econ) in International Relations from the London School of Economics, and an Ed. D. in the History and Philosophy of Education from the University of Toronto. He has worked as a History Teacher and Head of Department in Ontario High Schools for over 25 years. He is the author of Strange Journey: John R. Friedeberg Seeley and the Quest for Mental Health — Academic Studies Press.