Thoughts on Cultural Cynicism, the Fin-de-siecle, and the Ozone Hole

This Fall, universities across this country matriculated the Class of 2008, the seventh class of a new century and of a new millennium. Hopefully its members are ready to appreciate the slice of history that will intersect their college years. It will be like taking an astronomy course during an eclipse of the sun, or an economics course in October of 1987 when the Stock Market lost 23 percent of its value, or a course on the Presidency during an election year. But this coincidence will be even bigger. It's MILLENNIUM TIME and a peculiar angst is settling over the West. Have you noticed over the past few decades the increasing cultural obsession with dark prophecies and omens? From what I hear, life as we know it is about to end. My ears pick up, along with those of countless millions of other Americans. Exploiting public appetites, the media saturates us with stories of signs of the end: If you noticed, most of the above predilections of doom come from religious (whose poor track record is detailed in "113 failed end-of-world predictions"),  parapsychological, and natural science sources. And, in 2003, just as the West was getting over its millennial heebie-jeebies came the Iraq war and a resurgence of endism.  According to columnist Elise Eckerman ("War spurs Doomsday talk," Knight Ridder, May 4, 2003), books on Armageddon and Jesus Christ's Second Coming have returned to best-seller status from Egypt to the U.S. 

The social sciences, of course, were not about to be left out this eschatological frenzy (check out the Center for Millennium Studies and Millennium News). Their own seismographs were detecting deep cultural quakes: declines in Americans' civic involvements and charitable contributions, general losses of personal integrity, along with profound cynicism and disaffection with those at the throttles of power.

Perhaps the one paper from the so-called "soft sciences" producing the most discourse in the past year is Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." The fact that bowling league membership is down 40 percent, even though increasing numbers of Americans bowl, is taken as a symbol of Americans' loss of community: PTA membership down from 12 million in 1964 to 7 million; Red Cross membership down 61 percent since 1970; and churchgoing has supposedly declined as well.

In my own work, I found that the percent of Americans agreeing that "most people can be trusted" had declined one-quarter between 1976 and 1994, from 46% to 34%. Americans' belief in the existence of the Devil has nearly doubled since 1964, from 37% to over 65% last year. Virtue, it seems, no longer is seen to reside within the 19th-centuries "Noble Savages" but rather in the Forrest Gumps of the world.

The intellectual zeitgeist spawning Putnam's thesis features cynicism as the leit motif of its social criticism. Cynicism is to the social body what cancer is to an organism: a force of progressive deterioration and eventual death. It undermines belief in the non-selfish motivations of others, respect and trust due social authority, motivations to fullfill social obligations, social connections, and faith in the future.

In The Cynical Society, Jeffrey Goldfarb argues that in both politics and the social sciences, cynicism is now equated with good judgment and political wisdom. In journalism, according to media critics, respect is no longer accorded to those exercising healthy skepticism but rather to the profession's negative cynics. And in the world of work, Kanter and Mirvis (The Cynical Americans) found a plethora of "command cynics" at the top and "hard-bitten cynics" at the bottom of America's organizational hierarchies, yielding widespread (and counter-productive) mistrust and mutual hostility throughout the economic order. So what's the cause? We can round up the usual suspects: the lying and intentional deceit in the highest places during the Vietnam war, Watergate, and Irangate; the myriad of scandals and frauds that rocked the nation's corporate, governmental and religious institutions in the 1980s; and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, with CEOs making millions in bonuses as their corporations down-size. And let's not forget our favorite whipping-boy: the mass media, whose ratings-driven messages haven't exactly fueled hope and faith.

Here let me pose to you another thesis. Perhaps a significant component of the "crises" of our times is the fact that we are victims of our own time pieces: when civilizations' annual chronometers end up with a few zeros things get a little crazy.


I went back to the major source of Putnam's evidence, the General Social Surveys, which have been conducted almost annually since 1972 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). These quality surveys are random-samples of English-speaking, non-institutionalized Americans 18 years-of-age and older, who are interviewed face-to-face.

Yes, trust was down but other measures of perceptions of others' good intentions were not. Specifically, I considered responses to the following questions over the past two decades:

Notice that there has been virtually no change in Americans' beliefs that people generally try to be helpful as opposed to only looking out for themselves. Whereas in 1973 some 58% of Americans believe that people generally try to be fair (as opposed to taking advantage of you), in 1994 some 54% so believed.

And what about that reputed decline in religiousness? I find almost none. Whereas, for instance, the percent of American adults who attend church at least once a week was 30% in 1974, it was 27% in 1994. In 1974, 40% of Americans claimed to be strongly religious; twenty-two years later it was 38%.

In his longitudinal study of volunteerism cross-nationally ("The Strange Reappearance of Civic America: Religion and Volunteering"), Andrew Greeley finds the American rate to be the highest. Forty-seven percent of Americans reported having participated in some voluntary organization, compared with 20-30% of most Europeans. Here in the United States there was also the greatest increase in volunteer service between 1981 and 1991, owing largely to the increasing volunteer rate of cohorts born after 1940.

When looking at changes in public confidence in the leadership of our basic institutions over the past 21 years, I find confidence in big business has rarely been higher. Faith in the leaders of religion has rebounded since the late 1980s. The President's approval rating is just about the highest it's been.

Further evidence of this gap between fact and the gloomy perceptions of decline comes from this year's Gallup survey for the New York Times, CBS News, U.S. News & World Report, Kaiser Family Foundation and others. The study reported the following percentages of Americans agreeing with such false statements as:

So what do these results mean? To me, it's some indication of a doomsday wish, perhaps a desire for some kind of socio- cultural rebirth. This endism syndrome, according to Mircea Eliade in Cosmos and History, afflicts all cultural orders. Societies, like people, must shed the old in order to become the new. Endings are preludes to regeneration and new beginnings. And, as Jean Baudrillard observes in the Reversion of History, for both time and space "things go faster and faster as they approach their culmination, just like the flow of water speeds up mysteriously as it approaches the waterfall." Members the Class of 2000 found themselves in the twin currents before the twin waterfalls of the fin-de-siecle and the millennium.  Then again apocalyptic chic is not all that new.  In fact, according to A Brief History of the Apocalypse, it is a frequently reoccurring theme. 


There are a number of commonalities among all endings, whether they be the conclusion of a meal, an evening of socializing with friends, or of a human life. Endings are times of reflection, comparison, summation, and revelation (the Greek word for which is "apocalypse"). Endings occasion special insight, which undoubtedly derives from the supposed veracities revealed from death-beds and from the wisdom of the old.

We see this power of endings in the arts, as in the resolutions of musical scores and the denouements of literature and drama. The endings of years, decades and centuries now bring all kinds of "Best Of" and "Worst Of" listings (see, for instance, the New York Times `best of the millennium' essays), box scores of crime rates, rainfall totals, and host of economic measures. And we see this power of endings in the academic calendar: the end-of-semester rituals of final exams and course evaluations.

Not surprisingly given their power, endings are increasingly manmade and harnessed as mechanisms of social control. Thus the proliferation of deadlines in our everyday lives. We these thoughts in mind, let us turn to the two forthcoming calendrical endings.

The Fin-de-siecle

It was the end of the century. The world was in chaos. Nations worked furiously to subvert other nations. Men and women were confused about their place and purpose. The country was amidst the ravages of a deadly, sexually-transmitted epidemic. Myriad were the double agents, impostors, and traitors who reveled in the tumult. Even the faithful were corrupt, producing a moral backlash. Populism was making a return as the gap between the haves and have-nots was reaching an extreme.
Sound familiar? This is a description of the ending of the nineteenth century at the conclusion of the Gilded Age, a time in the West of great urban homelessness, of sexual revolutions and epidemics, and of upheaval in gender roles. It is also a Muslim description of the ending of their own last century, exactly 1,400 years after Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina. The year: 1973. The outcome: the great Arab oil embargo, setting the stage for new relationships between develop and developing (and between Judeo-Christian and Muslim) countries and for an Iranian holy man to overthrow a tyrant.

In Century's End, Hillel Schwartz points out that a century's conclusion typically is an "oxymoronic" time. "Everything we love is falling apart around us, and we can only hope for good death," and at the same time "everything we deplore is falling away and the pangs of a great rebirth are upon us." In such "periods of cultural insecurity," observes Elaine Showalter in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle, "when there are fears of regression and degeneration, the longing for strict border controls around the definition of gender, as well as race, class and nationality, becomes especially intense." (Regarding the resurgence of tribalism, have you noticed how the greatest violence among seems to occur among those most resembling each other? Freud called this "the narcissism of little differences.") Thus to sharpen the fuzzy boundaries of everyday life, fundamentalists now challenge moral relativists, individualism heightens as all human fates become increasingly interwoven, and why tribalism and nationalism resurge with growing globalism. In some ways, to live at the end of a cultural epoch is like living in one's home immediately prior to major remodeling. Normal future-oriented standards of order and cleanliness decline. And soon the disorder and grunge get to you and you are ready for the pains of transition. Such is the nature of historically recent centuries' endings: The 19th century closing with the pending demise of European monarchies, the 18th with the French Revolution, the 16th with the destruction of the Spanish Armada and the influence of Shakespeare, the 15th with the opening of the New World.


When dictating some of my thoughts for this paper during one eternal morning commute to work, I found myself behind a vehicle bearing the following bumper sticker (everyman's free editorial space) message: WARNING: IF THE RAPTURE OCCURS, THIS CAR WILL BE DRIVERLESS. Yes, cresting on top of the fin-de-siecle are the breakers of our millennium. The millennium, originally referring to Christ's 1000-year reign on earth, denotes the start of a future period of general happiness and righteousness. Some view it as the end of history itself. Either way, the result is the same: the demise of the old social order. According to a 1994 U.S. News & World Report poll, nearly six in 10 Americans believe the world will come to an end or be destroyed, and a third of those think it will happen within a few years or decades. And just how big will this wave be? Recall the end-of- decade observances in late 1969, 1979, and 1989? These ritual decennial summaries are to the fin-de-siecle as the fin- de-siecle will be to the millennium's conclusion.


The timing of news stories often produces curious juxtapositions, perhaps becoming the grist of a Jay Leno headlines routine. Sometimes a particular pairing of topics is repeated. One such pairing that I have followed for five years now curiously matches scientific updates on the state of the ozone hole and social science updates on the state of the moral order.

I first noted this coincidence immediately after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, when scientists reported an ozone depletion rate far greater than had previously been estimated. Thomas claimed to have never thought about Roe vs. Wade--an O.K. lie because it's "spin control." Concurrently, there was the news of Olie North's (a Time cover story in late October of 1991) revelations that President Reagan had lied about his knowledge of Contragate, and stories of how advertisers routinely lie to increase their sales (with even their "Health Foods" being unhealthy).

In February of 1996, the ozone hole stories coincided with Washington's Birthday. With the collapsing of George's and Abe's birthdays into a three-day Presidents Days shopping bonanza, we rarely read any more those moral parables reflected in the biographies of these two great Presidents. But I did happen across one cherry tree story that led into the highlights of the most recent Josephson Institute of Ethics report. The study found 30 percent of high school students admitting they had shoplifted in the last 12 months, two-thirds confessing to cheating, and 45 percent saying that they had used physical force or assaulted someone during that same time frame. Warned Michael Josephson, the institute's executive director, the numbers represent "a hole in the moral ozone layer, and it's getting bigger."

Could it be that the hole in the ozone layer will continue to grow until society repairs the rent in its moral fabric? Admittedly this does not sound like the most scientific of insights (and not to sanction stupidity; it is, however, the Gump Era), but consider the possibility that the ozone layer is the new metaphor by which we now symbolize the moral order. Throughout time, cultures have given special symbolization and ritual to individuals' sense of interconnectedness with others: their trust in and respect for each other; their feelings of responsibility and caring; the respect they feel is due to authority; their sense of justice and fairness; and their faith in the future. This is the moral order, the "invisible shield" that protects us against such social cancers as social anarchy, anomie, wanton violence, dishonesty, selfishness and greed. It may be that that the ultimate object of religious worship and sense of the sacred is the moral order. And nowadays, like Pinocchio's nose, the ozone hole continues to grow each time that we lie during these cynical times.

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