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The Gullibility of Cynicism

Under these conditions, you could make people believe the most fantastic lies one day, and if the next day they were presented with irrefutable proof that their leaders had lied, they would take refuge in cynicism: they would protest that they had always known they were lies, and admire their leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.     (‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, Hannah Arendt)

Arendt states that ideology and terror are two sides of the same coin, preparing people for their two-sided role as persecutor or victim in a totalitarian state. She never quite says – but it is close to the surface in several remarks – that cynicism and gullibility are likewise two sides of the same coin, not opposites at all, preparing people for their two-sided role as liar or dupe in enforcing political correctness.

Jeremy Corbyn does not trust the UK’s forensics and wants the nerve gas sent to Russia for their analysis. Mr Ed may be right that Corbyn’s reported statement – that “the nerve agent be sent back to Russia” – reveals his true opinion, but the boy who came from a posh-enough background and attended a grammar school, yet still managed to leave it with two Es, is quite thick enough both to reveal an unconscious assumption and to believe his conscious words. Jeremy is too cynical to credit UK forensics – so he wants Putin’s people to examine the evidence and announce whether Putin did it or not. (One might guess he likewise thinks reports of Russian athletic doping are western lies – after all, Putin’s experts say so – and be even more sure he thought that in the days when the ‘peoples republics’ won many an olympic medal. But perhaps even Jeremy is not rash enough to say so – there are voters who ignore politics but understand sport well enough. 🙂 )

Scepticism can be very healthy (this blog has always had a very healthy number of eurosceptics 🙂 ). But when you want to believe the forensic analysis of the Russian state because you are too cynical to believe the forensic analysis of the British state then you have indeed demonstrated Arendt’s point: cynicism and gullibility are not opposites. The precise evidential value of the UK’s ongoing forensic tests can be debated. The evidential value of anything announced by Russia, were Corbyn’s idiot demand acted on, cannot be.

25 comments to The Gullibility of Cynicism

  • cynicism and gullibility are likewise two sides of the same coin

    Specifically, they’re both methods of reaching conclusions based on insufficient evidence and incomplete reasoning. Though I guess calling them “two sides of the same coin” underestimates the number of other methods in existence.
    To my unending irritation, though, such methods are inevitable in creatures with only a finite amount of time & resources to reach decisions.

  • Thailover

    To paraphrase, Corbin is saying, ‘You are being accused of committing crimes against humanity.’ ‘We trust you to tell us if this evidence pertains to you…or not’.

    In other words, Corbin is unbelievably stupid.

  • Tedd

    It has long struck me that cynicism is one of the tactics we employ — consciously or unconsciously — because it discourages refutation. Cynics carefully cultivate the idea that cynicism is somehow more sophisticated than non-cynicism, so that the non-cynic’s argument can be discounted without refutation. It’s very similar to the victimization tactic in that it applies ad hominem in a way that looks like rational argument while neutralizing reverse ad hominem. If I’m the victim then you must be the oppressor, if only by virtue of your not recognizing my victimhood. If my position is supported by cynicism then your position must be supported by naiveté, if only by virtue of it not being cynical.

  • pete

    Mr Corbyn’s behaviour goes beyond gullibility and credulity.

    He has a need to believe certain things and facts will not be allowed to get in the way.

    This behaviour is religious in nature and is common in socialists and also the bigots who demand we obey their rules of political correctness.

  • Mr Ed

    May I just say that I am as guilty of cynicism as the next man, but when I hear that in 2014, a Russian Finance Minister’s wife paid the Conservative Party £160,000 for a tennis match involving Mr Johnson and Mr Cameron, I struggle to suppress my cynicism.

    I haven’t heard the interview, but the transcript/summary part I have seen sounds like something out of Bird and Fortune.

    Boris Johnson has defended a £160,000 donation made to the Conservatives by a former Russian minister’s wife in return for a tennis match with him.
    Confirming the 2014 match, which was also set to include David Cameron, took place, he warned against creating a “miasma of suspicion” against Russians.
    “To the best of my knowledge, all possible checks have been made and… will continue to be made” on donations.
    Lubov Chernukhin had bid at a fundraising auction at a Tory event.
    Mr Johnson was mayor of London in 2014. The match was reported at the time – Mrs Chernukhin is a longstanding Conservative Party donor whose husband served under Vladimir Putin.

    The tennis match against Mr Johnson and the then prime minister Mr Cameron was among items auctioned off at the Conservative Party summer ball in the summer of 2014.
    Law firm Carter Ruck confirmed at the time that the successful bidder was Mrs Chernukhin, whose husband Vladimir was deputy finance minister under Mr Putin between 2000 and 2002.
    Asked about it on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show, Mr Johnson said: “If there is evidence of gross corruption in the way that gentleman in question obtained his wealth… then it’s possible for our law enforcement agencies to deprive him of his wealth with an unexplained wealth order – that is a matter for the authorities, it’s not a matter for me.”
    ‘Quite extraordinary’
    He stressed that “we have no quarrel with the Russian people” and warned against suspecting “the entire nation” where no evidence was produced against individuals.
    Asked if the tennis match had taken place, he replied: “It did.”
    But he added: “It’s very important that we do not allow a miasma of suspicion about all Russians in London – and indeed all rich Russians in London – to be created.”
    And he said it was “quite extraordinary” while those who had been attacked were critically ill, for the “fire to be somehow turned on Conservative Party funding”.
    “To the best of my knowledge, all possible checks have been made and they will continue to be made.”

    Note that he poses the question about how the Russian obtained the wealth, not why anyone would pay that sort of money to a political party. Yes, it’s perfectly fine to give away your money as you wish, but why give it to David Cameron’s Conservative Party?

  • Laird

    an unexplained wealth order” ???

    He has to prove the source of his wealth, to your government’s satisfaction, or it is forfeit?

    You already have a totalitarian state.

  • Laird

    Was there ever any question that Corbyn is stupid? But this is bad even for him. If you’re going to question your government’s analysis (not necessarily a bad thing), at least have the sense to suggest that it be duplicated by some relatively neutral country. To suggest using Russia is moronic even by Corbyn standards.

  • Mr Ed


    Yes, the UWO is an idea propelled forward by a mysterious ‘anti-corruption’ NGO called ‘Transparency International’, the mystery to me being why anyone would think it was their business to come up with these ideas.

    The good news is that our form of asset forfeiture has some safeguards. Here is a good explanation from a while back from a top London Law Firm.

    The Government is taking a tough stance against corruption both internationally and at home. Speaking after the FIFA scandal, David Cameron described corruption as “the cancer at the heart of so many of the problems we face around the world” and named Sir Eric Pickles as his “Anti-corruption Champion”.

    Coinciding with the Prime Minister’s declaration, Transparency International UK issued a report in June proposing the introduction of “Unexplained Wealth Orders” (UWOs). These would enable UK officials to question individuals in relation to “unexplained wealth” and to support civil recovery proceedings against such assets where necessary. The proposed orders could be made even where there is no substantial proof that the property in question is connected to crime.

    Since the report’s publication, UWOs have been discussed favourably in the House of Lords and Sir Eric Pickles recently came out in support of the introduction of such orders, which are currently used in Ireland and Australia.

    Current Position

    Under Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA), an order can be made for civil recovery of property said to be derived from crime. In order to obtain such an order, there needs to be evidence that the property was obtained through criminal activity or in return for a specific criminal offence. The existence of unexplained wealth on its own is not sufficient for the purposes of civil recovery under POCA.

    What would an Unexplained Wealth Order do?

    The report from Transparency International UK suggested that UWO’s would do the following:

    Require suspects relating to suspicious UK assets or transactions to have to explain legitimate and legal sources of wealth.
    Give law enforcement more time to investigate suspicious transactions related to corruption. The current time restriction of 31 days under the money laundering reporting regime is thought to be limiting effective investigations, and suspicious transactions most often pass without any action being taken by law enforcement
    If a UWO is not responded to by a recipient, or their response is inadequate, then asset recovery proceedings could begin.
    This new power “would allow law enforcement agencies in the UK to start questioning and acting on corrupt assets, without having to wait for a prosecution in the home country.”
    The seizure of assets would be a civil penalty with a test applied of whether on ‘the balance of probabilities’ the asset in question represents the proceeds of corruption.

    Cause for concern?

    With the UK currently 14th in Transparency International’s corruption perception index, the introduction of such orders may encourage a higher ranking and could support David Cameron’s mission to stamp-out corruption in the UK.

    Whilst the desire to tackle corruption is admirable, concern has been expressed that these orders are an example of undue interference by the state in the private property rights of individuals. Moreover, the seizure of assets by the state is a coercive measure which should not be used lightly. Critics are concerned by the order’s practical impact of reversing the burden of proof on individuals. In Australia, where they were first introduced in 2000, they have been unpopular and reportedly faced some “push-back” from the courts. As a safeguard, Transparency International has suggested that the orders be limited to “politically exposed persons” or PEPs as defined by the Financial Action Task Force with consideration given to extending the orders to include “oligarchs”.

  • Paul Marks

    I just wrote a comment – but it vanished.

    One of the many things I hate about the internet – press the wrong key and everything goes.

  • Mr Ed (March 18, 2018 at 8:36 pm), I’m not able to feel specific cynicism based on the facts stated. (A very general but very mild cynicism is possible; I’ll mention that at the end.)

    An auction could be used, by corrupt pre-arrangement, to launder money but it can also be just what it says: Boris (when mayor of London) comes up with the comic-cum-style idea of auctioning himself off as a one-off tennis partner – his way of raising party funds. Sounds like Boris to me. Anyone can bid.

    For specific suspicion, you need a quid pro quo. People think the Uranium One deal stinks because of the concurrence of Hillary’s political decision with the huge sums given to the foundation and her husband from its beneficiaries, money that passes under Clinton control. By contrast, you have (much less) money paid to Tory party funds when Boris auctions a single tennis match, which someone (with money) was going to buy. Boris has plenty of opponents in the media, and the London mayoralty is now controlled by vehement enemies. If we’ve heard nothing about some mayoral decision, strangely coincident with that tennis match and strangely beneficial to an associate of his tennis opponent, then a very reasonable explanation is that none exists to be found.

    Stepping back from all specifics, one sees that wealthy Russians expats in London have a motive to keep their hosts happy, and the mayor of London has a motive to make London look welcoming to wealthy expats. (Putin has a motive to want it less so and/or to ensure the expats know Putin is as dangerous in London as at home.) So Boris has a motive not to look askance when he sees who’d bid highest.

  • Mr Ed


    For specific suspicion, you need a quid pro quo.

    Well, I don’t think that specifics come into it. ‘You took £160,000 from some Russian lady who had that money to burn, for nothing in return? Really?‘ would be most people’s reaction, I venture. And the next time someone wants something, who will come forward. And why has she paid £30,000 to have a dinner with (amongst others) the UK’s Defence Secretary? If you are trying to make yourself look corrupt without explicitly soliciting bribes, it’s hard to see a more blatant way of going about it.

    If you are taking and are going to be understood to be giving nothing back, you should be like Queen Mary, the Queen’s grandmother.

  • Julie near Chicago

    A most astute comment by Tedd, March 18, 2018 at 8:07 pm.

    Why I am distinctly not a fan of the late Mr. Mencken’s constant supercilious, cynical remarks.

  • He has to prove the source of his wealth, to your government’s satisfaction, or it is forfeit? You already have a totalitarian state.

    You think it’s so different in the USA with asset forfeiture? 😆

  • Bruce

    Paul Marks:

    “One of the many things I hate about the internet – press the wrong key and everything goes.”

    Is that “…everything goes” or “…everything goes (away)?

    The former can sometimes be “interesting”, for instance:

    Hitting “Send” or the “Enter” key and an “Oh-no-second” (VERY short time interval) later, remembering that iron-clad dictum: “The internet is forever”. Send in haste, repent at leisure.

    Think: The photos from the later stages of the workplace Christmas party, being “accidentally” sent to everyone in your entire email address book; that sort of thing.

  • ‘You took £160,000 from some Russian lady who had that money to burn, for nothing in return? Really?‘ (Mr Ed, March 18, 2018 at 9:39 pm)

    What do you think Putin does in return for the sums wealthy Russians in Russia contrive to ‘give’ him? For enough over the norm, he does favours no doubt, but in the main he merely allows them to exist while being wealthy. Putin is a variant of the old Greek tyrant who wandered round the field striking the top off every stalk that projected noticeably above the common level. Putin walks by a tall stalk and the stalk quickly gives him some ears of grain. Putin values the gift but even more he values the proof that the prominent individual knows who is number one.

    Coming to the west, I would not expect Russian expats to understand instantly all cultural differences. To the wife of an oligarch accustomed to Russian ways, £160,000 to propitiate the local mayor and the ruling party probably looks like peanuts.

    To a degree, such behaviour is quite normal for expats in general. History shows that expats who arrive rich or who prosper here can became generous sponsors of the local guy fawkes night celebrations, the local cricket club – and/or the local conservative fundraiser, another way to show how very conventional, how very British, how very much part of the local scene they are. There may be some gratitude here but one may assume a prudential element, especially when they come from countries where it would be incredibly imprudent not to do so.

  • Tedd


    Thank you very much! I have to admit that I have some Mencken quotes in my collection. But, in my defense, I also have Hitler quotes. (Strange defense, that!) What I mean is that my collection of quotes is based very heavily on me either enjoying how the quote is phrased (Mencken, Wilde) or on how well it expresses an idea even if I disagree with that idea (Hitler).

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, Tedd, as long as you don’t over-overindulge, I imagine the worst that might happen would be that you’d suffer a mild hangover. 😉

    It is true that HLM knew how to turn a phrase. As to Mr. Hitler’s actual words, I plead complete ignorance, so I’ll take your word for it.

  • Paul Marks

    I will have another go – although I hate typing, sitting trapped in this damn chair.

    There has not been just one attack – there have been many. Mr Putin has had murdered many opponents in Russia – but he has done the same thing here in Britain, his opponents have been poisoned (sometimes with exotic poisons – basically Mr Putin showing off, shouting “it was me” even has he denies his attacks), or they have “just” been strangled or killed in other conventional ways. People who try and claim that Mr Putin is not behind this wave of killings in Britain may think themselves “cynical” – but actually they indeed gullible.

    As for cynicism more broadly – in the sense of the idea that there is no hope. Well it depends what one means. For example I believe that there is no hope for me or my time – indeed I would welcome a visit by Lady Death, indeed I would have welcomed a visit from the good Lady for many years now. But that is NOT the same has having no hope generally.

    Earlier today I watched a television programme (which I have seen before) about Greek theatre. Athens fell – but the great plays remained, and they continue to inspire people to this day.

    Rome also fell – and its transport canals and water supply and drainage systems fell into decay and then into nothing. But the “Meditations” of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius remain……

    ….. the same law for all, equal rights and freedom of speech, a princely government that respects most of all the liberty of the governed…..

    “But Paul – Marcus Aurelius said he favoured peace and spent his life at war, his philosophy rejected slavery – but he did nothing to end the institution, and he said he despised the gladiatorial games – but he did nothing to end them”

    Yes – but all that rather than misses the point. Circumstances may prevent us living up to our ideals – but just expressing the ideals is of vital importance. It is not just “cynical” to try and dismiss the importance of the “Meditations” in inspiring people over so many centuries – it is also plain stupid to try and deny its importance.

    And if our own civilisation collapses? If it falls into mass starvation and cannibalism – as may well happen.

    Well we have not lived in vain if the ethical works of such writers as Ralph Cudworth, Thomas Reid and Harold Prichard (alas it is enemies of the Western tradition – such as Hobbes, Hume and Bentham, who are more often to be found in libraries). And if the economics works of Ludwig Von Mises survives then future civilisations have a chance not to repeat our mistakes.

    And literature?

    If the works of Ayn Rand survive they will show how collectivism (wearing the lying mask of compassion) destroyed our culture and society from within. These works are the Greek tragedies of our age.

  • (Julie near Chicago March 19, 2018 at 1:08 am): It is true that HLM knew how to turn a phrase.

    but Mencken could be caught out by his own cynicism. “No-one ever lost money through underestimating the taste of the American public” is not literally true, as I briefly allude to in this old post.

    As to Mr. Hitler’s actual words, I plead complete ignorance

    The title of that old post is a German saying known to me because Hitler once used it to undermine a Czech official’s hopes for western aid (IIRC – and, alas, he was not so wrong in that case).

    Tedd is spot-on that a key aim of cynicism is to evade refutation. The “irrefutable proof” of the Arendt quote is evaded by saying “well, they all lie”. This is part of the gullibility of course: the cynic believes nothing, so can be got to believe anything, and can never learn because they can never be corrected.

  • Jimmyg

    They are both ways of using confirmation bias to overcome cognitive dissonance.

    Another two sides of the same coin thing is demand and supply. Per Say’s law, they are the same thing in essence. You can’t demand unless you have something to demand with.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Very good, Niall (at 9:51 am). Thanks for the quote and also the illustration. And for an interesting (and well-written 😀 ) piece on Alistair Cooke, also. His presentations of the episodes of Masterpiece Theatre that I saw were always interesting.

    One epigram I do like and tend to agree with, by Mr. Twain IIRC (never a safe bet): More or less,

    A lie travels round the world while the truth is getting its boots on.

    Not sure that this really qualifies as cynicism, however.


    O.T.: You wrote of ‘the act of a people constituting a government’ (your quotation marks). This reminds me yet again of Mr. BHO’s tendency to become verbally disorganized when trying to speak sans teleprompter (“57 States”). Namely, addressing some crowd or other:

    “You belong to the government.”

    Of course the Pubs and the “Right” or “Conservative” pundits made hay over this. “We do not belong to the government! How dare he! How statist, how anti-American can you get!”

    In other words, we are not possessions of the government; we are not its property. True enough, guys, but I think this was yet another of his badly put utterances — and by now, I think it’s pretty clear that he’s no intellectual. (Following Richard E. here *g*). I think he meant to refer to the idea that we are members of the government. We “belong to” the government the way we belong to 4-H, the Republicans, Sodality, Hadassah, the country club, the Moose.

    I don’t say he didn’t have the idea of “possession” or “master of” the people in the depths of his heart, if he has one, or his mind such as it is. But I don’t like the quickness of people to jump to negative conclusions and then state them as Gotcha’s and as indicative of ill intent.

    (This is not to say I don’t do the same thing myself. A pity, because the fault causes one to have to back up and apologize for one’s ill-considered leaps. “How embarrassing. How embarrassing!”)

  • Julie near Chicago

    I forgot to say — Thanks also for your informative and interesting posting, Niall.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Corbyn is just pushing on the misdirection narrative, irrespective of what was used or where it came from, who would actually benefit from Skripal’s death and who is daring enough to use such a unabashed means of assassination, not to mention the other known (and successful) attempts on his family? Once you have that shortlist _then_ you find out who had access to the nerve agent.

  • Thailover

    “I just wrote a comment – but it vanished. One of the many things I hate about the internet – press the wrong key and everything goes.”

    One thing I learned from dealing with the attrocious internet service on Kwajalein Island (a lifetime ago) is that if one’s text is more than a quick blurb, then copy everything to your clipboard before hitting post or have a copy of it somewhere else, like in another tab’s online spellchecker.