Small World: The fragile tie that binds, trust

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Back in the mid-1960s, I went home to visit my mother whose world rarely extended beyond her backyard. After discussing grandchildren and other family stuff, I shifted the conversation to what was going on in the nation’s capital. Bear in mind that my mother had always been apolitical, dutifully voting Republican with other members of our family, and quietly patriotic.

But, the coming of television news and the nightly stories of the Vietnam War opened up her perspective.

“Our government is lying to us,” she said with uncharacteristic disgust. “They say we’re winning in Vietnam. We’re not; we’re losing.”

From that moment, I date the beginning of the unraveling of the ligament that binds us all together as a nation: Trust. Sure, there had been plenty of dissent in the past against national policies and politics. In time, however, a change of faces or policies would weaken disapproval and our polity would return to normal.

Vietnam, our first deeply unpopular, draft-supported war, hit the national psyche hard. Millions of people joined my mother in rejection (although she never ventured out in a protest). Their distrust deepened with the criminality of Richard Nixon. The mood lightened a bit with President Ford. And so the trust/distrust swings began, responding to the economic fluctuations, personalities or foreign wars. Up, down, up, down, registered the nation’s trust meter.

We’re at a low moment now and it is likely to get worse before an uptick, if it takes place. Obama brought hope to the nation after the dismally deceptive days of his predecessor. Hope to some of us, that is. For others, distrust strengthened through a conservative and rigidly rejectionist grass roots movement (soon taken over by cynical big money.)

The widespread and dangerous distrust, which I lament, let me explain, goes beyond distaste for individuals; it is focused on the institutions, which govern or influence our lives. These are important strands with which our confidence is moored. If they are impaired, we are set adrift. In recent weeks there have been almost daily revelations of undercover behavior, which surprise and anger most of us. In no particular order, let us list them.

First, the Internal Revenue Service is seen to be targeting right-wing groups for special scrutiny. Then, the agency is reported to have spent $50 million on employee “training” or conferences. Meanwhile some giant corporations have found tax loopholes which save them many billions. A reliably honest, neutral and fair IRS is fundamental to how our essentially voluntary tax system works. Without trust in the collectors the temptation to cheat can become irresistible for some. We could become like Italy or Greece with tax cheating the norm.

Next we learn a government committed to transparency has set new records for prosecuting whistle blowers and leakers. An obvious purpose is to inhibit the free exercise of conscience.

Worse, the feds are found gathering data and listening in on the communications of millions of Americans. Under the label of fighting terrorism, we all become targets of top-secret agencies (of which there are a multitude). Even worse treatment has been meted out to at least four Americans; they were executed by drones without a semblance of due process. All of these covert, borderline legal operations have happened on the watch of a former professor of constitutional law.

One of the most respected of our institutions is the military. Alas, our patriotic regard was badly shaken by news that large numbers of women and some men have been subject to sexual assault without commanders rendering effective justice against assailants. When pushed to change the outdated system, service chiefs were firmly protective of the old ways. Plainly, they just didn’t get it.

Meanwhile [some] members of Congress and state government officials (e.g. Virginia, New York, Washington, D.C.) appear culpable for collecting big money and selling votes and deals to wealthy patrons. Or how else did those tax loopholes and weakened regulations come into being? The role of money in our elections make the Iranian vote look positively democratic.

Don’t any of our masters put principle above privilege, honesty and light over dark secrets?

My mother would be appalled.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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