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What everybody knows isn't worth knowing

One might expect a book about cynicism in America to provide a powerful critique of this insidious attitude and maybe even offer some suggestions as to what can be done to counter its more corrosive effects. Quite possibly the most, if not the only, genuinely striking thing about William Chaloupka's "Everybody Knows: Cynicism in America" is that it does neither.

A professor of political science and environmental studies at the University of Montana, Chaloupka argues that cynicism is not simply some temporary aberration or phase, but an outlook deeply rooted in America's democratic culture. He detects it at least as far back as the Founding Fathers, with their distrust of majority rule. He locates its high-water mark in the grousings of H.L. Mencken.

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On the one hand, Chaloupka recognizes the disadvantages of cynicism. He is certainly aware of the paradox that pervasive cynicism can coexist with - or even help bring about - a dangerous credulity that allows people who distrust government and the media to believe wild conspiracy theories. But on the other hand, he thinks cynicism is "lively" and, for the most part, a good thing, capable of undermining pomposity and exposing hypocrisy.

Thus, he suggests, cynicism can be a healthy trait for citizens, even though a different kind of cynicism is dangerous and manipulative when practiced by politicians. He does not, however, explain exactly how we are to achieve a situation where politicians are less sophisticated and cynical than voters.

Chaloupka is quick to criticize people who appeal to the notion of civil society or who propose "communitarian" solutions, and he is probably justified in pointing out that such appeals are often ineffectual. Champions of civil society do tend to forget that the way is through, not around, politics. But in attempting to make his case, he relies more on name-calling than on cogent argument. (Calling people with whom he disagrees "moralizers" is just one of his pet tactics.)

One might also have expected a book entitled "Everybody Knows" to focus on the peculiarly facile nature of what passes for skepticism nowadays. What "everybody knows" is not the real story behind the story. No one is interested enough, or genuinely skeptical enough, to pursue that. What "everybody knows" is merely the conventional wisdom, no more than a collection of cynical adages and assumptions ("Politicians are corrupt," "Government can't fix anything," "Men are all the same"). These clichs close off the process of thinking even before it can get started. But one will need to look elsewhere for that story.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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