Sunday, 14 March 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

When I'm not contributing to my local community's wellbeing via my nine to five job as an education coordinator, I can be found joining the virtual one, through my blog, or submitting a review to an online mag (or trying to get them published in the national press, sometimes to no avail). Alternatively people can also spot me on the board of the Association of Modern Cynics, a somewhat loose and informal (dis)organisation with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of followers. From people who strive towards moral excellence to those for whom nihilism is the ultimate goal in life, the AMC has it all.

How and why did I become a cynic? The answer is rather easy: the economic and social class division to which I woke up in my teens in Cuba. If you're born in a society where from the outset you're told that everybody is equal, only to find out later on that the government was telling porkies the whole time, the result will surely be disillusion. But rather than adopting a combative position towards this newfound reality, I opted to stay on the margins. Don't rock the boat. Look at what happened to Orlando Zapata Tamayo. And if you think that maybe cowardice got the better of me, consider for a second that a cynic sometimes does more damage to a dictatorship in the long term than a dissident who's more vocal in his or her opposition to the government. The latter is scapegoated by the regime and shown to future human rights campaigners as an example of the fate awaiting them if they persist in their efforts; the former is harder to engage politically and can corrode the status quo from within.

But what happens when cynicism becomes your default more to deal with the world? When it loses its original meaning, that of the pursuit of virtue?

Accusations of bullying, expenses claims (including that channel), non-dom status, alleged tax-evading and inchoate policies. When it comes to the political scene in the UK nowadays there's no shortage of reasons that could go some way towards explaining why young people are frustrated and their elders feel shafted. At least, though, we have moved from Carole Caplin, Cherie Blair and Bristol flats (and no, the latter is not rhyming slang for anything).

But, I think there's a difference between an MP using the system to his/her advantage to claim for a duck island/moat and a company like BAE being let off the hook after alleged bribery charges. And no, I'm not excusing those who abused the expenses structure but selling jet fighters to dictatorships around the world is far worse in my book than dodgy accounting. Plus it gives more ammunition to us in the Doubters Brigade. At this point it's worth recalling Oscar Wilde's famous words in 'Lady Windermere's Fan': 'a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing'.

And it is the second part of that quote that interests me more. What the current political situation translates as is lack of faith (broadly speaking) in everything, from country to party. Cynicism, when allowed to grow disproportionately, goes beyond rational and constructive criticism and it ultimately becomes a self-destructive weapon. And yes, I am aware that I mentioned at the beginning that I was a cynic. Overall, though, there are certain topics that bring the cynic out in me more than others. And one of those is charity, both the concept and ethos.

I'm not opposed to generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill or helpless of this world. But I would stop at embedding those actions into a written constitution or similar document. Right now one of the debates doing the rounds on these shores is how much the arts will suffer with the impending cuts; regardless of whether Labour stays in power, or we get a Tory government. One of the ideas bandied around by the Conservative party is to have a more US-style philanthropy-based system, to which my reply is thanks, but, no, thanks. Like it or loathe it, the Arts Council functions as an independent entity whose commissioning process is not jeopardised - usually - by party politics. Scrap it, or downsize it and you'll be staring at a lifeless puppet, ready to move to where its owner tells it to.

Moreover, the concept of charity and the word as such carry with it (and this is my personal opinion) a stigma that is hard to shake off. If it's alms on which you depend, regardless of whether you are an individual or a nation, the way people see you will be coloured by that fact. My position, again very personal, is thanks for the crumbs, but I can make my own bread, thank you very much.

Thirdly, the innate power people have - and this has long been a topic of discussion with acquaintances à propos de the word 'empower' - is undermined by other individuals or organisations acting on your behalf. I call this the 'Bob Geldoff phenomenon'. When the former musician organised the Live 8 concert in 2005 in London, he 'forgot' to include African musicians both in the planning of the event and in the final line-up (Youssou N'Dour was only brought in after a public outcry), despite the fact that he said repeteadly that the aim of the event was to raise awareness of issues in Africa. How do you say 'Give us yer f*****g money' in Swahili, again, Bob? Or maybe, as a failed musician, you didn't fancy being upstaged by the likes of Baaba Maal and Souad Massi and went for bland pop instead, along the lines of Keane and Snow Patrol. Just a thought, a cynical thought.

The reasons I've stated so far as to why charity makes me feel cynical sometimes are not indicative of my position towards the act of giving. To me giving, when well meant enhances one's place in the world. But the problem for me is when we confuse who's supposed to benefit more from the act. And sadly, the evidence I come across more often than not is that it is the donor's comfort that takes precedence in this (sometimes unfair) exchange.

On a less cynical note I'm glad to be the emissary of good news for those who enjoy the rich cultural life London has to offer. Next Saturday, 20th March, I will be joining the sell-out crowd at Sadlers Wells to enjoy the spellbinding and majestic Compañía Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (Cuba's Contemporary Dance Company). At a personal level, it will be a most romantic occasion - thus, this second part of my Sunday post is the opposite of the first one - for it was thirteen years ago when I last saw this dance troupe. If you are visiting the British capital and fancy watching innovative and original works, then contact Sadlers Wells on 0844 412 4300 or pop by its website, If you reside in London, then this is an opportunity not to be missed. Many thanks to Krista Booker and Havana Club for the complimentary tickets.

Copyright 2010

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Next Post: 'Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts', to be published on Tuesday 16th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I'll be jealous thinking of you in Sadlers Wells, taking in all that lovely music and dance.

    How can they be thinking of making more cuts to the arts? The arts barely survive as it is! If there's not even that little bit of money going into it then London won't be London anymore.

    Everything the tories suggest scares me. I know they're not sincere in anything they say. It's going to be the 80s all over again if they come into power. You're absolutely right that too much cynicism becomes self-destructive. Look at what Londoners did when they voted in Boris Johnson for mayor. I can't imagine what the people are thinking by even entertaining the idea of letting the tories back into power. It can't be anything but self-destructiveness.


  2. What a fantastic post, Cuban. I sense your ambivalence about the position of the cynic. To me your generosity belies the possibility that you are a genuine one. But what's this ioth semantics?

    We are all complex creatures. I'm with you on the dubious nature of charity and how it can be more about the giver than the recipient. thanks for all these thoughts, Cuban. As ever you dig deep.

  3. A sparky post and food for thought on a Sunday. I can't wait to see the Contemporary Dance Co next week. Helena

  4. Many thanks for your kind feedback. Welcome aboard, Helena. So, you finally went for it and created your blog. I will be paying yuo a visit soon. When are you going to CDC, Friday or Saturday?

    Yes, Jai, I, too, am afraid of the cuts to the arts. And more importantly what is usually labelled 'community arts'. A term which at best is derided and at worst condemned by the cultural elite.

    Elisabeth, thanks for your comment. I did not want to include it in my post because it would have made far too long but when I lived in Cuba I worked as a free-lance interpreter and translator, so my view on charity is coloured by that experience. It was not a pretty show most of the time. There were some people - i.e., foreigners coing to Cuba with donations - doing a sterling job, but they were in the minority, sadly.

    I will be offline for most of the day as it is my daughter's birthday today and she's having a group of friends around.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Looks like a t-shirt in my closet! .....

  6. Your post is full of really interesting points and I agree that donor culture is problematic. Also very amusing on the Live Aid thing - "there won't be snow in Aaafrica this Christmas time" is one of the silliest lines ever, and revealing of a narrow perspective on the world. But personally I think the expenses issue is the thin end of a large wedge, and the pilfering of public money, on a petty scale or otherwise, is not on.

    I haven't actually started blogging yet, oops, but recipes and photos to come towards the end of April. I'm going to the dance on Fri.

    Bye for now!

  7. Great post. I can empathise with the AMC - I become very tired of people telling me to not be so cynical when all I'm trying to do is puncture other's self importance. Maybe I should join?

  8. Excellent post, Cuban. And it's so hard not to be a cynic in today's world. I feel just as strongly about charity as you do. It's unfortunate that we should be cynics about giving, whether it's time or money or even thought, but sometimes the motives of others can soil our most perfect intentions. But you're being a cynic about being cynical, no? Interesting dynamic, Cuban, and you discuss it as only you know how.


  9. I'm more of a worrier than a cynic. I worry that charity disempowers, that those with a lot of money can do anything they want and what most of them seem to want is even more money, and that if the arts have to rely on the charity of such people...

  10. Oh, and Happy Birthday to your daughter!


  11. You don't sound like a cynic. You sound like a big-hearted humanist who can get self-righteous and bitter about certain things, things that sorely tempt many of us to self-rightous bitterness.

    In my mind, a true cynic is one who is bitterly disappointed with him- or her-self, and, dismayed that "such a darling object should turn out to be so flawed" (paraphrase from, I think, C.S. Lewis), becomes a complete misanthrope. Doesn't describe you.

    Regarding charity, I agree. I've seen it from the other side. All my life I've been told that "we must" urgently "do something" about this or that ... only to find out years later that our "help" actually hurt - or, in the best cases, didn't solve anything. I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that many very tragic problems just can't be solved at all ... certainly not quickly, and certainly not from the outside by people who know little about the situation. There are a number of books out recently that document this. I can only remember the title of one ... "When Helping Hurts."

    And you're absolutely right, at some point trying to "solve" others' problems ourselves just becomes a way to make the giver less uncomfortable as he or she contemplates suffering.

    And finally ... Happy birthday, famous Daughter!

  12. I loved this post -- found myself a comrade-in-arms to you.

    And then there was the Bruce clip -- upon listening, I became a very poor cynic indeed!

  13. Ooh, scorpio cynicism can be so deadly Cubano! Powerful post, never heard Sir Bob cut down quite so precisely. I agree on most of your points, charity is a tricky slope for self-worth and dignity. Poor Orlando, I still can't believe that the Cuban government allowed him to starve himself. I'm glad that you didn't allow the hypocrisy of Cuban politics to harden you, it's not easy, I know. I'm a Springsteen fan but for the definitive version of "This Land is Your Land," check out Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings from the "Up In The Air" sountrack. Felice Cumpleanos a su hija!

  14. Cynic/skeptic..I feel that's the level I reached as a teenager, because NOTHING they told me added up. That lasted till I stopped being sophisticated.
    You are so involved, such a seeker, such an artist!!!"cynic", not you!!
    My helping never hurts, because I cook for the on one is a good way to go! If I'm disappointed, it's my fault.

  15. I am confused. You support a tax payer funded Arts Council but see the folly in alms by any other name? Perhaps I read it wrong.

    I am so not a cynic...but live with one and it can maddening in the extreme. They use their cynicism as a way to avoid an argument where their cynicism might be questioned. My father and I disagree A LOT when it comes to politics and when we are having a discussion, if he feels he is about to lose, he pulls out the tired argument, "All politicians are bad, you can't trust anybody." Well, now, that's cheating but he tells me I'm a Pollyanna and need to face reality. I will have to re-read this post tonight because when I think of a cynic, I think of the people who lived under communism during the days of the USSR. Yes, I am certain I would be a cynic, too, and live inside a vodka bottle. (Are despair and cynicism bosom buddies?)

    It just seems ultimately, as you say, self destructive.

  16. Did I offend? It truly was not my intention. Because of my perennial inability to get things, I have learned to try to clarify rather than assuming I understand something.

    A blog full of ideas is one reason I love yours and it is what keeps me coming back. I guess I was trying to say I don't think of you as a cynic at all. I have discovered all kinds of new music, books, etc., on your blog which is a delight.

  17. you got a very interesting blog!!!thanx very much!!!!!hugs and kisses and everything good to you:):):)

  18. Thank you very much for your kind comments. No, Happy, you did not cause offend at all. I know that for some people it's hard to believe that I can be this cynical, but as Mme deFarge pointed, sometimes I can't take BS very easily. I am also a pragmatist and realist, which you need to be when you work in the public sector as I do. There's a post I'm drafting up at the moment for my 'Living in a Bilingual World' section on public sector speak.

    Many thanks to you all for your kind feedback.

    Greetings from London.



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