Meanings: Cynicism

“Everybody is cynical and few people are changing their minds. That’s the takeaway from the House’s impeachment hearings.”  That’s the opening sentence in a piece by Maggie Koerth on Five Thirty-Eight this morning. But what is a “cynic,” and what does it mean to be “cynical?”
Here’s a definition from The American Heritage Dictionary.  Note the emphases on selfishness and negativity.  (I don’t think of myself as a cynic, even when I’m at my most skeptical.)
cyn·ic  (sĭnĭk), n.
1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.
2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and habitually negative.
3. Cynic A member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed virtue to be the only good and self-control to be the only means of achieving virtue.


1. Cynical.
2. Cynic Of or relating to the Cynics or their beliefs.
The history of the word is what especially caught my attention, how it’s original meaning was grounded in virtue and self control, but no has come to mean “one who believes selfishness determines human behavior” — a nearly total reversal.  (Also note the derivation from dog-like at a time when dogs were not so warmly regarded as today.)
No one would accuse Trump (or McConnell or Nunes or Lindsey Graham of living lives grounded in virtue and rigorous self-control.
Again, from The American Heritage Dictionary:
Word HistoryThe Greek word kunikos, from which cynic comes, was originally an adjective meaning “doglike,” from kuōn, “dog.” The use of the word kunikos to designate the Cynic philosophers may make reference to the Kunosarges, an athletic training area where Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, is said to have taught the foundations of Cynic philosophy: that virtue, rather than pleasure, is the only good, and that virtue can be attained only through rigorous self-control. Alternatively, the designation kunikos may make reference to Antisthenes’ most famous student, Diogenes of Sinope, whom the people of Athens nicknamed ho kuōn, “the dog.” Diogenes himself seems to have accepted this nickname as an apt description of the life he tried to lead, stripped of all elements of civilization and social convention that he considered superfluous and detrimental to virtue. Diogenes lived without shame out of an old wine jar in the public spaces of Athens and went barefoot in the snow to inure himself to cold, all the while reproaching the citizens of Athens for their addiction to worthless pleasures and luxuries. Even Alexander the Great admired Diogenes’ determination and powers of self-denial in the pursuit of virtue. Once, when Diogenes was sunning himself outside, Alexander came up and stood over him. “Ask me any favor you wish,” Alexander said. “Stand out of the sun,” Diogenes replied. According to another anecdote, diners made fun of Diogenes at a banquet by throwing bones at him like a dog, and he responded by urinating on them. Tales like these have undoubtedly influenced the development of the meaning of the word cynic in English. When Cynic first appeared in English in the 1500s, it referred to the Cynic philosophers, but cynic and cynical were soon applied to anyone who finds fault in others in a contemptuous or sneering way. Eventually, cynic came to mean “one who believes selfishness determines human behavior”very far from an accurate description of the ancient Cynic philosophers practicing asceticism and poverty and occasionally trying to shock their fellow citizens into virtue.
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Honesty, Decency, Fairness and Democracy: a Platform

July 9, 2019

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination for the 2020 elections has begun to heat up.  We have two dozen (!) declared candidates and already a first round of debates.  The coverage of these candidates, including the coverage of that first debate, has focused on differences among them regarding their posture on issues of immigration, health care, college costs and debts and the like.

With others, I’m struck at the partitioned quality of media/public attention to the Democratic and Republican campaigns.  On the Democratic side, the focus is on fairly small policy differences among the candidates, and on (again) fairly small personal foibles and bobbles in their past.  On the Republican side, there is Trump with his exposed huge faults of character and honesty as well as the huge policy tilt towards the already entitled and wealthy.

I simply want to urge the Democrats to lift up four broad commitments that all of the declared candidates share and that set them/us apart from Trump and his enablers.  I urge them to do everything they can to lift up these four commitments and to regularly applaud their rivals for sharing the same four:  honesty, decency, fairness, democracy.

Honesty: to tell the truth, to be accountable to the facts, to be transparent and accessible.

Decency: to treat everyone with respect, to demean no one, to be observant of rights — human, civil and political, to insist that everyone’s life matters

Fairness: to work on behalf of seeing that every American has a genuine chance to make something of himself or herself, to work against unearned advantages or shortcuts.

Democracy: to see that every vote counts and as equally as possible, and that no voice gets extra, undeserved weight.

Honesty, decency, fairness, democracy: this is the platform.  Try to keep the focus on these commitments.  Yes, there are policy differences among the Democratic candidates, but they are tiny in the face of their common adherence to these four commitments and the Trumpists’ failure to honor these.

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Trump’s End Game

I haven’t written anything for quite a long stretch about our national crisis. To my mind, there hasn’t been much to say. Trump continues to show daily why he is completely unfit to be President. He does terrible things, and the Republican party shows no inclination to do anything to rein him in. (See for example, my March 21, 2018 piece on Susan Collins.) Daily I read many interesting, illuminating things, but consistently I find I have little to add to the regular commentaries of (for example) E. J. Dionne and Andrew Sullivan.

Every day brings fresh dangers, but deep down they are the same ones over and over. Denigration of national purpose, corruption, risk of war, abuse of power: never rinse and yet repeat endlessly.

On the impeachment question, of course I see the case for impeachment now, and nearly as clearly I see the prudential reasons not to rush into impeachment with the McConnell wall holding so firmly. Moreover a fresh problem could lie in removing Trump to put Pence in a place to run as the incumbent in 2020.

Now I find myself thinking a new thought. The situation is changing. Trump is seeing the same thing that I am: that nothing is changing. He lost the 2018 midterms. His own approval ratings are stuck. (He’s currently at 41.7% approval; 53.0 disapproval.) He has a year and a quarter to secure not just his re-election but his legacy, and that matters to him. He craves ‘greatness’.

Realizing this stuck situation, he is realizing he needs to do dramatic things to unstick the situation. What sorts of dramatic things? Two kinds.

(1) Create crises, blame them on the Democrats (calling them traitors), then conjure a solution of only his own devising. He has used the declared national emergency on the southern border to justify funding for the Wall without Congressional approval and to justify tariffs by fiat.

That cycle of crisis/resolution has the added effect of binding the Republican party leadership (especially those in Congress) more tightly to him. Each crisis embodies an abuse of power. When the Republicans do nothing, they ratify that abuse.

(2) Stonewall completely every investigation or inquiry into his conduct. He’s realized if these investigations/inquiries are going to continue (and they will and they should) then his best defense is a completely forward position. Yield nothing. Allow no testimony. Hand over no documents. Moreover, whatever accusation is made against him, use the Executive branch and the Congressional Republicans to accuse the Democrats (traitors!) of exactly the same behavior. Better to bluster about Executive privilege than to yield an inch. It’s hard to imagine there aren’t things he’s wanting to keep out of the light of day, but it doesn’t matter; the stonewalling is itself abuse of power.

This stonewalling will also have the effect of further binding the Republican party leadership to him. As they do nothing in the face of each episode stonewalling, they ratify these abuses of power as well. What’s more, this binding reaches into the courts, too, even more than the manufactured crises.

He will also continue to slander and lie and divert attention, but he has been on that path from the beginning.

These new dynamics will encounter no meaningful countervailing force so long as only Democrats are opposing him. Trump will stay completely on the offensive. That will be his strategy. The pressure can only continue to build. He needs to up the ante. Otherwise: stuck. He cannot and will not cede initiative to the House leadership. Nothing will change unless he wins it all by crashing the Constitutional order or unless some in the Republican Party decide something else is important to them than having Trump remain in office.

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Meanings “Cob”

There is perhaps no monosyllable in any language that has so many distinct meanings as cob. It may be thought curious to enumerate them. As a VERB, it signifies, 1, to strike; 2, to pull the ear or hair; 3, to throw; and 4, to outdo. As a noun, it stands for-5, a seed-basket; 6, the material of mud walls; 7, a hay-stack of small dimensions; 8, clover seed; 9, an Hiberno-Spanish coin; 10, a lump or piece; 11, a sea-gull; 12, the fish called the miller’s thumb; 13, a harbour, as the Cobb of Lyme-Regis; 14, a young herring; 15, a leader or chief; 16, a wealthy or influential person; 17, a small horse; 18, a spider (whence cob-web); 19, the bird called a shoveller.

That’s from Forebears, a website devoted to tracking down the origins of family and place names.

H/T Language Log

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Meanings: Glamour

February 16, 2019

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 1.36.35 PM.pngThe word “glamour” passed before me this morning, someone mentioned the word, and I found myself wondering about its origin.  I could scarcely think of another English language word with the same spelling pattern.  Here’s the etymology:

glamour (n.)

1720, Scottish, “magic, enchantment” (especially in phrase to cast the glamor), a variant of Scottish gramarye “magic, enchantment, spell,” said to be an alteration of English grammar (q.v.) in a specialized use of that word’s medieval sense of “any sort of scholarship, especially occult learning,” the latter sense attested from c. 1500 in English but said to have been more common in Medieval Latin. Popularized in English by the writings of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Sense of “magical beauty, alluring charm” first recorded 1840. As that quality of attractiveness especially associated with Hollywood, high-fashion, celebrity, etc., by 1939.

Jamieson’s 1825 supplement to his “Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language” has glamour-gift “the power of enchantment; metaph. applied to female fascination.” Jamieson’s original edition (1808) looked to Old Norse for the source of the word. Zoëga’s Old Icelandic dictionary has glám-sýni“illusion,” probably from the same root as gleam.

So a Scottish root.  And with suggestions of magic and enchantment — but also of occult learning.

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Why Brett Kavanaugh Should Not Be Confirmed

I am inclined to believe Christine Blasey Ford’s account and I have serious doubts about Brett Kavanaugh’s denial of what took place between them in 1982. The two accounts are in stark opposition to one another, but, for me, there is enough additional context in the two other accusations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, in the testimony of friends of his about his behavior as a young man, and in his Yearbook page to make his flat denials simply not credible.

Would I vote to convict him in a criminal case? No, but this matter has not been adjudicated in a way that remotely resembles a criminal case. This is not a criminal case, where the burden of proof rests with the prosecution and the accused has a presumption of innocence. In this matter, a nomination to the Supreme Court, there is no presumption to believe an accused person.  In this kind of consideration, serious doubts about character should count against a nominee.

Nevertheless, these accusations of sexual misconduct are not the reasons I believe any United States Senator should vote AGAINST confirming this nomination. These are the reasons.

First, this President should not be appointing anyone to the Supreme Court. He has shown such unremitting contempt for the rule of law and for the institutions of justice in the United States that no one he appoints should be considered.

This is the most important reason, and it only gains greater weight in the wake of the refusal of the Senate to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. Here was a duly elected President, one who won a majority of votes and had no stain on the legitimacy of his election making the nomination. Trump not only lost the popular vote and has shown contempt for the rule of law but a Special Prosecutor is working through the question of whether he conspired with a foreign power to steal the election.

Second, Kavanaugh has shown a legal propensity to undermine the accountability of the President and the Executive Branch. These views are in conflict with a proper reading of the Constitution.

Third, we should not appoint to the Supreme Court people who have been deeply involved in partisan politics. Such nominees should be rejected out of hand. Kavanaugh had reasons I do not fault for being involved in the Bush-Gore election matter and in the Starr impeachment investigation, but I believe these should rule him out of consideration for a Supreme Court nomination.

Finally, even if we credit Kavanaugh with reasons to be angry about the accusations of sexual impropriety against him, his opening statement yesterday showed a disqualifying degree of partisanship. Even in the face of provocation, a judge needs to be impartial and measured.

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A Government of Laws, Not of Men

June 7, 2018

I had an opinion piece in yesterday’s Brunswick Times Record.  It concerns Trump’s claim that he could pardon himself — or rather with unsatisfactory reactions to that claim.

“As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?” So said Donald Trump in a jaw-dropping tweet at 5:35 a.m. on June 4. That’s an astonishing claim.

My practice is to pay as little attention as possible to what Donald J. Trump says because what he says is consistently untrue and cruel, often both. But I do make it a practice to notice what others say when Trump lies or crudely demeans. I look to members of Congress, and to business and civic leaders to set a tone for the nation. I look to them to uphold norms of truthfulness, decency and civic virtue. Too often these days I’m disappointed and dismayed.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a constitutional lawyer, was asked by a reporter if he agreed with the president that the president could pardon himself. Eighteen seconds of silence followed before Cruz said “That is not a constitutional issue I’ve studied.”

This claim by Trump is not, fundamentally, a matter for lawyers to settle. It is not a question that requires a law degree or careful study of precedents and the text of the Constitution. This question goes right to the heart of what we, the American people, committed ourselves to in declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776. This is a matter around which all citizens of this nation should today unite simply and clearly.

We are establishing “a government of laws, not of men,” John Adams said. It is a phrase that has been repeated thousands of times: in 4th of July speeches and in moments of political crisis. No one is above the law. No man is a law unto himself. In the pledge of allegiance we all promise over and over again “liberty and justice for all.” That doesn’t permit exceptions for tyrants or presidents – or anyone.

Maine Independent Senator Angus King called the claim “troubling because the implication is that a president can never be held to account.” “Troubling? I hoped I would hear a stronger denunciation, something like “False” or “Unacceptable.”

Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, waffled even worse, saying that ‘self pardoning’ would be a “tremendous abuse” of Trump’s authority, as well as “remarkably unwise.” That statement from our senior senator seems to accept that a president could pardon himself. Say it ain’t so.

I look to our two Senators, our two Representatives, our Governor and everyone who is running for election or re-election next week to firmly and proudly declare that no man or woman is above the law, that no man or woman can distort the law for his or her own purposes, that we are a government of laws not of men.

This is the fundamental proposition of which Abraham Lincoln reminded a torn and weary nation when he called us “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — equally subject to the law.

Doug Bennett is a Topsham resident

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