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Political Essays

Cynicism is dangerously naive

The Admiral says we will win the war with more ships and a coastal bombardment. The General says that boots on the ground are the answer. The Air Marshal swears by tonnage of bombs dropped.

The cynic sneers at each in turn: he would say that wouldn't he.

Let us raise the cynic's sub-narrative. Men are bumped and jostled through life. Unable to steer they end up where fate takes them, one in the navy, another in the army, a third in the air force. They make the best of their lot and may rise to eminence. There they bat for their own side. The Admiral advocates ships, the general tanks, and the airman planes because each is loyal to his team and his own best hopes for status and advancement.

I believe a different story.

One young man loves the sea. Nelson is his idol. The crash of the waves, the salt spray, the howl of wind in the rigging; one day he will be an admiral. That day he will be the same man he has always been and will love ships as much as before.

Another man loves the army. Wellington is his idol. The charge of the Light Brigade. The thin red line. He joins up and rises through the ranks, living his dream.

A third man loves flight. In his dreams fighter pilots duel like knights-wizard, their winged steeds carry them to chivalrous combat. H. G. Wells' vision of the airmen bringing civilization to the whole world drives our man's ambition and powers him to the top.

The man who always thought that ships were the answer became an admiral, while the man who always thought that soldiers were the answer became a general and the one who believed in air power became the air marshal.

The cynic thinks that men will save their skins. As long as men assume victory they will try to get the better of their rivals on their own side. Each service will favour itself. Put victory in doubt and men will get real for a while, preferring the correct decision over the self-serving decisions, at least until the crisis is past.

Notice the optimism and complacency of the cynic. He thinks that men know the darkness of their own hearts and are the masters there-in. Each man knows that he exaggerates his case from selfish motivations; when the crisis comes he can temper his feigned enthusiasm, clear his head, and join in taking the right decision.

Many men are true believers. The crisis is a test of faith. It is not enough that the cynical man temper his feigned enthusiasm and join in a hard headed debate. He must refocus his cunning to outwit the true believers for the common good.

Society cannot depend on self-interest being self-limiting due to self-awareness. Some people are not cynics. They truly believe their folly and must be stopped. Stopping them is a difficult job; who will do it? The danger of cynicism is that, not grasping the mind set underneath the danger, the cynic leaves the job to others and leaves it too late.


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