We're living in the age of naive cynicism

We're living in the age of naive cynicism
President Donald Trump offers pens to reporters after signing the tax bill and continuing resolution to fund the government, in the Oval Office in Washington on Dec. 22. (Evan Vucci / AP)

All politicians are venal and corrupt, so supporting one over the other is pointless.

The media always lies; never believe anything you hear on the news.


Putin has infiltrated social media so thoroughly that if someone disagrees with you online, it's probably a Russian bot.

Trump and congressional Republicans are willing to pass unpopular legislation because they are planning a coup. (There will be no elections in 2020.)

The game is rigged, the plots are laid, and there's nothing that people like you and me can do except lean back and nod sagely as the black helicopters land.

If you spend any time online — or offline, for that matter — you've heard arguments like this. They are the result of a force more insidious than pessimism. It's naive cynicism: a wide-eyed, credulous, often gleeful embrace of despair, an eagerness to believe the worst.

At its most extreme, naive cynicism leads to conspiracy theories. Lyndon Johnson had to be involved in the plot to kill JFK; the American government arranged for 9/11; the Jews control world finance. In short, the truth is much worse than you could ever imagine.

Naive cynics...accept defeat so that they can pat themselves on the back for being right when they are defeated.

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But naive cynicism can also be more subtle. The discussion around President Trump's tweets is a good example. Serious commentators argue that Trump uses twitter as a clever distraction. When he slut-shames a sitting senator or attacks a grieving war widow, the argument goes, he's really just trying to distract the public from his agenda of repealing healthcare or raising taxes. Where most people conclude that Trump is a cruel, belligerent, self-pitying bully who lashes out with little reason and less self-control, naive cynics believe he is playing a devious game.

In C.S. Lewis' 1943 novel "That Hideous Strength," the main character, a young ambitious academic named Mark, joins the forces of darkness because he wants to know the score, and because he doesn't want to feel left out. Evil catches Mark not through promises of power or sadistic excess. Instead, it tempts him with a "warm and almost drugged atmosphere of vague, yet heavily important confidence."

It feels good to know more than everyone else. It's a rush to see behind the curtain, even if — or especially if — the truth is unpleasant.

Naive cynicism paves the road to Hell with apathy. If you believe the game is rigged and that nothing will ever change, you're unlikely to vote, much less canvass or donate or engage in activism.

Worse, a conviction that moral action doesn't matter, coupled with a grim determination not to appear the fool, can cause people to embrace outright amorality.

For instance, some Democratic partisans defended Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) on the grounds that Republicans didn't care enough about sexual harassment. Others did so on the grounds that the allegations were fake. Still others defended Franken because jettisoning him would appear weak. All these excuses were rooted in a fear of being bamboozled.

Naive cynicism can serve as a talisman against looking foolish. Put your faith in faithlessness, and you will never be laughed at again.

Of course, the philosophy is so appealing at the moment in part because the world really is in terrible shape. Powerful people really are trying to hurt you. Vast, evil conspiracies do exist. The Republican Party really did push through a tax cut for the wealthy at the expense of the middle class on behalf of a few donors. A system of sanctioned harassment and abuse really has been exposed from Hollywood to Congress. There are plenty of concrete reasons to despair for our country.

But we shouldn't confuse despair with wisdom. Sustained, coordinated organizing prevented the Republicans from doing their worst to Obamacare. Roy Moore, a bigot and accused child abuser, was defeated in deeply red Alabama — a virtual political miracle. Brave women and sustained media investigations have together managed to put a dent in the impunity enjoyed by some powerful men.


Naive cynicism would tell you that Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore would never be held accountable in any way, but they both were.

People can change the world for the better — not always, but sometimes. Naive cynics close their eyes to this possibility. They accept defeat so that they can pat themselves on the back for being right when they are defeated. That doesn't make them wise. It makes them rubes.

Noah Berlatsky is the author, most recently, of "The Consequences of Feminism: Women Film Directors."

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