Are We Just Cynics at Heart?

So I was recently referred to this fascinating column by David Brooks of The New York Times, where he tries to figure what exactly are the defining characteristics of the highest achievers of our generation.

I may be a little late to the party, but I’m certainly in the camp that has always believed the best columns are the ones that prompt conversation, and I think Brook’s column does this extraordinarily well, prompting questions that I’ve never even paused to consider previously but that inform very poignant observations.

Questions like: “With what mindset does my generation think about general issues and how have major events (90s post-Cold War prosperity, 9/11 and the War of Terror, the financial collapse of 2008, etc) impacted the way we think?” or “Are we more resume conscious as we prepare to compete in a global world?”

Ultimately I think, with a little nudging from his student, what he comes up with a surprising accurate picture of how many people I know, including myself, think about major issues and even whether they can be solved at all.

In what I think is an especially trenchant observation, Buhler suggests that these disillusioning events have led to a different epistemological framework. “We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

Maybe this empirical mind-set is a sign of maturity, but Buhler acknowledges that the “yearning for definitive ‘evidence’ … can retard action. … The multiplicity of options invites relativism as a response to the insurmountable complexity. Ever the policy buffs, we know we are unable to scientifically appraise different options, and so, given the information constraints, we stick with the evil we know.”

Perhaps ironically, to me, I’m not sure if empiricism is necessarily a bad thing, or that rushing into situations with value-laden decisions is smart in the long term, especially in the realm of foreign policy.

If I have to add anything to Brook’s assessment, I’d argue technology has performed the invaluable service of opening the world’s store of information to the public, making knowledge available real time.

With the advent of social networks like Twitter, I don’t have to rely purely on the observations of a few foreign journalists to see what’s actually going in in Egypt, for example. Rather, with a bit of searching, I can see for myself events on the ground as they play out through the eyes and ears of actual Egyptians, which I think has a real benefit toward informing the way I view policy.

What do you think? Let me know.

I’m very interested in continuing this conversation.



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