James Mattis makes these rapid points about cynicism in his Atlantic article:
- Cynicism is cowardice. It is an outlook for people who have given up.
- Cowardice makes you find reasons not to act. It makes you willing to let your country go without a fight.
- Cynicism cuts you off from reality, as it makes you look for and find surreptitious, insidious forces that do us harm. Cynicism, coupled with false beliefs, harms our unity and our democracy.
- Russia, a culture saturated with cynicism for a long time, illustrates its corrosive effects.
This negative assessment of cynicism caught my attention, in the middle of a well reasoned article. It stood out partly because anyone who has read what I publish online would say I am a cynic. A clear response begins with the observation that cynicism and idealism do not preclude each other. Cynics and idealists mix in the protests that have moved so many across the country during the last few weeks. You cannot tell them apart. They have the same desires and goals. They all care for their families, and want the best for their communities. Cynicism is not, as Mattis would say, prelude to surrender. On the contrary, recognition of corruption highly motivates dissent and desire for change, as we have seen here in the United States, and in China over and over.
The claim about cynicism’s unhealthy relationship to truth bothers me. Mattis suggests that cowards take refuge in false beliefs about people in power. Yet why should we believe that people who operate in secret are all innocent of bad motives and bad designs? I know Mattis advanced in rank to the topmost post in the Marine Corps, then to Secretary of Defense. These hierarchies, military and civilian, do not question the system of classified information that covers almost every activity that occurs within these chains of command.
Those circumstances may affect Mattis’s regard for those who observe government activity from outside closed organizational systems. Citizens who expect transparency, because they pay for it, do not regard secrecy as innocent. They regard it as cover for misbehavior, such as torture and illegal surveillance. This perception, that secrecy favors the corrupt because it gives them liberty to do great harm, proves correct again and again. I am not sure why cynics who see that connection are criticized as cowards, who foster suspicion and erode support for legitimate authority.
If you read letters, speeches, and other documents authored by people who founded our country, especially from the mid-1760s to mid-1780s, you would say these patriots were cynics. They had little respect for their British rulers, they expected the worst from them, and certainly considered themselves victims of British misrule. They were subject to the crown by tradition and by law. Many wanted to remain in the British Empire, but the crown and other empire builders regarded them with contempt. Cynics among the founders proved correct. Some came around to the cause of revolution early, others later. All of them had a realistic view of their relationship with the crown and parliament, and they fought to end it. Had they not been cynics, idealistic cynics, they would likely have buckled, then acquiesced to British force.
Truth in politics is probably an oxymoron. People who argue political matters do well to stay away from words like truth, and reality. Yes, politicians lie. Some politicians, like Mattis, are more honest and therefore less corrupt than others. James Mattis was a military man until he accepted Trump’s appointment as Secretary of Defense. Then he became minister to a corrupt president. He argues correctly that without unity, our country cannot last. Lincoln was right about a house divided. Mattis is mistaken, though, to suggest that cynicism corrodes democracy because it promotes falsehood, surrender, and victimhood. Corruption corrodes democracy, and produces cynicism. Cynicism does not cause our difficulties. It results from them.
Quotation from Mattis’s article
Cynicism is cowardice. We all know cynics. From time to time, we all fall prey to cynicism. But cynicism is corrosive when it saturates a society—as it has long saturated Russia’s, and as it has saturated too much of ours. Cynicism fosters a distrust of reality. It is nothing less than a form of surrender. It provokes a suspicion that hidden malign forces are at play. It instills a sense of victimhood. It may be psychically gratifying in the moment, but it solves nothing.