Cynicism & the Death of a Celebrity

“The talk of the ignorant is like the rumblings which issue from the belly.” ~ Demetrius the Cynic

This weekend, as we all know by now, Amy Winehouse died.  Likely an overdose, though from what I’ve read, cause of death hasn’t been confirmed.  As a very public drug addict, death by addiction has the feeling of inevitability; even  more so now that she joins the 27 club.

In response to the news, I posted this comment on my Facebook:

Amy Winehouse is dead. Now it's time for the usual FB cycle: 
24 hours of "So sad" posts followed by a week of cynical jokes mocking her.

Probably inevitably, the responses to this comment mostly missed my point.  The misinterpretation was that I found grief ridiculous and that cynicism was the rational response to this famously trainwrecked celebrity’s death.  In fact, what I meant was that 24 hours of grief followed by immediate derision is a horrific response to the passing of someone, famous or not.  We, as a culture, seem incapable of sustaining a genuine emotion and we mock and deride any outpouring of it.

My problem isn’t with those who feel sad for the passing of Amy Winehouse (or any celebrity), my criticism is for the kneejerk cynicism that must immediately turn every public death into an attempt to one-up each other’s blasé attitude.


I think my atheism and penchant for dark, at times even morbid humor has given people the impression that I am a cynic.  The assumption being, since I have rejected the ‘feel good’ story of Christianity and enjoy a healthy dose of perversity I must think everything is stupid and worth mocking.

Well, that assumption is stupid and worth mocking.

Let’s set something straight:  I’m a realist, and I balance my innate personal pessimism with my general societal optimism.  I am always planning for the worst case scenario in my own life, expecting misfortune just around the corner.  It’s the rational approach to life’s uncertainties.  It is better to be prepared for a downturn that may never come than to depend on a lucky turn that will likely never materialize.

But when it comes to the overall evolution and progress of our society and species, I’m an eternal optimist.  I don’t buy into anybody’s apocalyptic predictions, whether they be religious or political, conservative or liberal.  Dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels and movies always ring hollow to me. 

In the wake of a Great Depression, Adolf Hitler, the Cold War and other great scares of the 20th century, writers predicted a variety of nightmarish futures.  Futures that never came to pass.

We live in hard times now, so naturally there is an abundance of doomsayers proclaiming the end of our society, but all I can do is look at the historical context of the hysteria and remain unmoved.  We will overcome.

But you’d be hard pressed to hear that kind of optimism coming from your television personalities.  Cynicism is the de rigueur attitude of talking heads and tastemakers (maybe it always has been?), and I have no use for it.

You Non-Contributing Zero

Cynicism is a useless stance.  It creates nothing, adds nothing, offers no solutions.

A cynic looks at problems (or potential problems) and merely points them out, almost gleefully.  It’s like a guy sticking his finger into your bullet wound just to poke and prod. The cynic would rather tear down than build up, and relishes the failures of others.  The cynic looks at Amy Winehouse and says, “Eh, saw that coming.”  Well, congratulations Miss Cleo, that astute observation (after the fact) was worth the price of admission.

Cynicism Masquerading as Critique

The cynic appears in many forms these days.  Perhaps most annoying to me is the cynicism that tries to pass itself off as the aged and wizened critic of artistry.  Maybe you’ll recognize this particular form of cynicism:

“Music today is terrible!”  Or, “Kids television is crap compared to what we had!” 

This ignores the fact that most of us are only a decade or so out from being ‘kids’ and that people said the same thing about our music and television.  You know why you don’t like kids television?  Because you’re not a kid.  You shouldn’t like it.  Stop trying to remain  a child and grow up.  And stop fetishizing your youth as if it was the best time of your life and nothing will ever be better.  If that’s really your outlook, I feel sad for you.  Try living with the belief that the best years of your life are still ahead of you.

The creation of art is going to keep happening, whether you appreciate it or not.

Cynicism is only interested in criticizing, never appreciating.  There is certainly a place for intelligent criticism in this world.  Reading articulate art criticism, for instance, is how one becomes an informed and well-rounded consumer of art.

An unfortunate drawback of the internet, though, is that in its democracy it has given voice to a million ignorant critics and very few educated or informed art lovers.

Personally, while I could talk about bands or movies I hate, I’d much rather and more enthusiastically talk to you about gorgeous songs and awe-inspiring films.  When you can intelligently discuss the merits of art, then you can legitimately discern when they are lacking.  But our age of cynics would rather shit on everything indiscriminately, as if the sole mark of being a critic is the ability to hate on things.  (My favorite film critic is the New York Times A.O. Scott, partially because we have similar film tastes, but mostly because his enthusiasm and love for the medium shines out of everything he writes.)

Ironically, no one is more cynical than early 20-somethings who have just had their first taste of freedom from high school and their parents.  They think because they’ve done a few drugs and had a few fucks, maybe even backpacked Europe (on their parent’s dime), that they’ve seen it all, and it all sucks compared to some Platonic ideal that never existed.  Their voice of disdain pervades the internet, and thus our culture.

Good riddance.

Another odd strain of cynicism that I’ve seen rising lately is the Christian Cynic.  This is probably a reaction against the Naive Christian, the easily ridiculed punching bag for rationalists and cynics alike.  The Christian Cynic is indistinguishable from most of the negativity of the world (usually with a Right Wing bent), a kind of chameleon of faith who wants to hold onto the keys to the kingdom while getting to join in with the fearmongering.

Maybe they’ve forgotten what it says in 1 Peter:  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” 

We Atheists get blamed for the decline of Christianity (and it is declining), but I think the true answer lies in that verse.  Christians don’t seem to be all that hopeful (certainly not the sect that holds up Glenn Beck as a voice of reason), and those that are hopeful tend to beat that ‘hope’ over our heads by claiming that we non-believers can’t possibly be as happy and content as them.

(Yes, there are exceptions, hopeful Christians who are kind and considerate of other beliefs or non-beliefs.  Sheesh, I have to say this every time.)

The Danger

Cynicism is the destructive force that will undermine our culture.  But your cynicism can’t destroy hope.  Certainly not mine.  I will succeed on my own merits.

The only danger your cynicism poses is to yourself.  You risk living a life devoid of beauty.  You put yourself in a position to miss out on just how amazing the world we live in truly is.  And it also makes you look like a prick, because while you cynically dismiss everything around you, there are people in this world with legitimately dire situations who don’t have access to all the perks that your cushy American life provides.

If you want to waste your life hating on things you know nothing about and whining about a society that is as close to utopia as our species has ever known, than go for it.  Be proud of the absolute nothing that you bring to the table.

I think Louie says it best:

And in memory of Amy Winehouse whose death is a tragedy, even if you’re too cynical to see it, a friend’s genuine tribute: