This experiment in government we like to call democracy depends upon a certain level of trust, not only of government and elected officials, but maybe more importantly among the people themselves. After many years under attack, we can now declare trust dead.
Trust was more common and easier to uphold when this nation was founded. With far fewer people, it was possible to actually know those with whom you would have contact and in turn be aware of their history. A liar or scoundrel was known for his works as was the person who lived by their word. Each was trusted to behave as they were and accommodation was made for the behavior of each.
Today it is rare for many to even know who lives on their block or even in the same building. Our culture is segmented, isolated and IPod-ed so that we are but strangers passing in the mist of self-awareness. After WW II Americans became more mobile and less likely to live in extended families. In recent years the permanent job has all but disappeared and workers have increasingly been forced to move far from their roots to find employment.
We are isolated as we drive to work, pushed to produce so hard while at work that co-workers become objects rather than compatriots, and spoken to and dealt with by the public sphere on the basis of what divides us, not what we share in common.
Merchants cannot be trusted to deliver what they promise, employers cannot be trusted to pay on promised retirement plans, even spouses cannot be trusted to keep their vows. We live in a buyer beware culture where every person is on their own to make it through a jungle of real and perceived threats and attacks.
One cannot shop in a mall without fear of some idiot seeking fame with a rifle, cannot book a flight on an airplane without fearing being bumped because the flight was oversold. You cannot drive on the freeway without concern that the idiot racing to take your space will not pull a gun to prove his point, cannot give a toy to a child without fear of lead poisoning, cannot trust a politician on anything.
Trust is dead.
To compensate, we have tried regulating the behavior of commerce, finance and nearly every aspect of life. Some on the religious right want to force married people to keep their vows and some on the secular left want to write enough laws that trust isn’t necessary because it is replaced by government control.
The followers of Milton Friedman would have us believe we can trust in the “market” to right all wrongs, despite the complete failure in each and every instance where this philosophy has been tried. Karl Marx would have had us trust in the communal conscience to deliver the ultimate good, but again, each and every instance in which it has been tried has failed.
Trust cannot be imposed, it cannot be brought into existence by faith, it is by its very nature a product of free and open communication and human interaction. Trust is not a lofty goal of perfection and honesty. Trust is the acceptance of what is with the backing of experience that what was foretells what will be. But it does require facing what is without blinders, being responsible to look beyond the bright and shiny promises and putting in the effort to know other people for who they are.
Trust requires that we stop calling each other names as a substitute for discourse and problem solving.
There is so much of our culture that shoves us away from those requirements toward a world of fast paced isolation and fantasy. There is no institution or force on the horizon to pull us in the other direction, for all have become part of the vortex of insincerity and pretense.
If trust is to be restored it is up to you and I to step away from the distractions to see who is around us, to take the time to smile and say hello, to learn to honor our word as the definition of who we are and what we do. Trust is dead, but isn’t this the season that reminds us that miracles are possible?