‘Reject cynicism’ pleads Obama the idealist

Pointed words: ‘Seek out people who don’t agree with you. That will teach you to compromise.’ © PA

The world’s most powerful leader opened up to 500 young Britons this weekend about his deepest political convictions. His main message: you really can help make the world a better place.

‘Your generation has grown up at a breathtaking time… I know it can sometimes seem that the order that we created is fragile, maybe even crumbling. And we see the calls for isolationism, xenophobia.... I’m here to ask you to take a longer and more optimistic view of history.’

Obama packed a lot into his farewell tour of Britain: lunch with the queen, a brief performance of Hamlet, a press conference warning that voting to leave the EU would put Britain at the ‘back of the queue’ for a new trade deal. But when he stood in front of an audience of young people, his words were more ideological.

‘My primary message is going to be to reject pessimism and cynicism,’ he said. ‘Know that progress is possible and that problems can be solved.’

So what exactly is cynicism? The word comes from Ancient Greece, a time when the philosopher Plato believed that our souls longed to return to a world of ‘pure ideas’. This was a load of rubbish, said a group called the Cynics. Reality was found in our experiences on Earth; we should be allowed to enjoy them.

Cynicism has changed over the centuries. Although it still challenges authority, Oxford Dictionaries now defines it as ‘an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest’. And the UK has it bad: in 2013 over half of Britons thought MPs put their own interests first, an idea not discouraged by the MPs’ expenses scandal. This can cause voters to lose trust in politics, stop listening to the arguments, and eventually stop taking part all together. After all, says the cynic, nothing will change anyway.

For David Hare, one of Britain’s top playwrights, the blame lies with the belief that everything comes down to money and the markets, and that mere human beings can do nothing to stop them. This is deeply wrong, he wrote in an essay last month. ‘I refused to contemplate writing plays that might imply that public idealism was dead. From observing the daily lives of those in public service,’ he said, ‘I know this not to be true.’

It is a sentiment that Obama appears to share.

Yes we can

The US president says he is an idealist because ‘we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights ... not only do they serve our interests the more people adopt values that we share ...but because it makes the world a better place.’

What baloney! Or so his enemies write. ‘The president often seems captivated by the nobility of his intentions, offering himself up as a kind of saviour of the eroding American empire.’ He may sell pristine idealism to the masses but he is at heart a calculating pragmatist, especially when it comes to advancing his own ambitions. Obama doesn’t want to be stained with defeat.

You Decide

  1. If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
  2. An idealist believes the short run doesn’t count. A cynic believes the long run doesn’t matter. Do you think this is fair?


  1. Are you an idealist, a realist or both? Write 500 words explaining your reply.
  2. When he was elected, Obama promised an era of change. Use The Day’s archives to make a timeline of some of the big changes in the world since he became president on November 4th 2008.

Some People Say...

“An ideal doesn’t have to be achieved to make a difference.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How can I avoid cynicism when politics is so shady?
Get involved: if there is something you don’t like, write to your MP and let them know. If there is something you want to make happen, try volunteering with a local campaign — there are lots to choose from right now. And most importantly, make sure you are registered to vote when you turn 18.
Tell me more about the Ancient Greeks.
Gladly! The most famous Cynic was Diogenes, who was known for mocking authority figures in order to prove his point. When Plato’s Academy defined humans as ‘featherless bipeds’ (creatures that walk on two feet), he rushed in with a plucked chicken crying, ‘Here is Plato’s man!’ And when Alexander the Great asked if there was anything he could do, Diogenes replied, ‘Get out of my light, you’re blocking my tan.’

Word Watch

Keeping out of the affairs of other countries.
Fear of outsiders and foreigners.
Trade deal
Britain is a part of the EU’s trade deals, which allow for easier business with non-EU countries. Those who want Britain to leave the EU argue that it could negotiate new deals; Obama warned this could take up to 10 years.
A Greek philosopher who lived from the 420s to the 340s BCE and wrote more than 20 dialogues which survive, including most famously The Republic. He was the student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle, two other Ancient Greeks who helped shape Western philosophy.
Half of Britons
From a poll by Ipsos Mori — 52% believed this to be the case. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only 1% said that MPs should put their own interests first.
MPs’ expenses
In 2009, The Telegraph began publishing details of MPs who were abusing their taxpayer-funded expenses: for example, by claiming back money for ‘second homes’ they didn’t live in, or extravagances like a ‘floating duck island’.

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