During World War I, nine million people died. No event before that, except for possibly the Black Death in the middle ages, was as catastrophic. Nothing after that would have that effect until World War II. Alan Brinkley of Columbia University has written about the disillusionment of that period between the wars, particularly among educated people. For many people, the reasons for the war were fraudulent, nothing had been achieved, and no world problems were solved. In short, people felt duped by patriotism. Their false impressions about what was needed and what would work were taken away. No longer so deceived, they became critical and even cynical.
If the cynicism of the 1950’s and early 1960’s indeed followed this trajectory – this movement from deception to futile action to realization to criticism to cynicism – then are we able to trace the cynicism about community today to more recent deceptions? Iran-contra? Iraq? So-called right to work? Or do we sometimes feel deceived by our own collective hopes that we could lick racism, poverty, disenfranchisement in voting, inadequate housing, sexism, limited access to education, able-ism, classism, and gay oppression.
Have we moved from the 1960’s and the 1980’s when we felt we could make things happen to a period when we now wait for things to happen? When they don’t happen, do we lament the situation on Facebook?
At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.
― Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
As I have been thinking about community development and my encore work, I have used the opportunity to reflect on local and national politics. It seems many of my friends and associates are pretty cynical about them. We view the situation as corrupt, the messages insincere, and messengers deceptive. They develop platforms that are window dressing for an election, whichever one is up next. Competition for power in office looks to be more important than social change. On the other hand, a smaller and smaller group of people not running for office appear to be in charge. Their platform seems to be greed.
And we wait. Like Emma Bovary we wonder why our ship does not come in laden with opportunity and answers. We are disillusioned, even cynical at times, shifting from one complaint to another, reacting to threat but not risking to dream for fear of loss.