My dad was an autoworker. He worked in the same department of the same plant for 43 years. He trusted the company that he worked for. He and his family also trusted his union – which, along with the company, made our improving life possible. We trusted our neighbors, almost all of whom attended the same Catholic church. We trusted the priests and nuns. We had a family doctor. We trusted him.
(We also had a dentist. This was a different story. His low speed drill and aversion to Novocain convinced my brothers and me that he was an escaped war criminal, a dental Dr. Mengele. We didn’t trust him. But he was an exception to the rule.)
We had a small savings account at the bank. We trusted the bank. We shopped at the neighborhood grocery store. We trusted the owner and knew that he would not try to screw us. When we were short of cash, he trusted us to pay him later. We trusted the telephone company and the electric company.
We had mayors, governors, congressman, senators and a president. On a basic level, we trusted that all of them were doing their best. We believed the chief of police and trusted the cops. When we listened to the news on the radio or watched it on television, we trusted that the reporters were telling us the truth.
My dad read two newspapers a day. We trusted that the newspapers were doing their best to give us the news. This was true even though one of them, The Milwaukee Sentinel, was a Hearst paper that slanted the news in so many directions that it made your brain ping if you tried to keep their biases straight.
We lived in an age of trust. It all seems like ancient history. We now live in an age of mistrust. The idea of a worker trusting his or her corporate employer is a joke in today’s world. My dad was extremely loyal to his company, believing that our quality-challenged Rambler was the equivalent of any luxury car on the road. That kind of loyalty is rare nowadays.
And the idea of trusting the clergy, banks, corporations, labor unions, major retail chains, news outlets, the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry – all down the tubes. The trust that was the glue that held healthy communities together has also badly eroded. The more the word “community” is used, the less community there is to apply it to.
Most dramatic, there has been a precipitous decline in trust of government and of public officials. This decline began when our reactionary age was born with “white backlash” in the 1960s and has rapidly accelerated since Ronald Reagan convinced many Americans that their government was their biggest enemy. Is President Obama less trustworthy than Presidents Truman, Eisenhower or Kennedy? I doubt it.
The same may not be true for most other elected offices. The corrosive and corrupting effects of money and attack politics have largely reduced the candidate pool to a cluster of narcissistic mediocrities. The exceptions that pop up are largely a matter of luck these days. For the Virgin Islands, Gov. deJongh has been one of those strokes of good luck. But overall, these people, through their self-absorbed behaviors, have produced more mistrust.
The idea for this column came from a recent trip to Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Pessimism is self-fulfilling. But false optimism can be equally destructive. It was difficult to come away from this trip without a deep sense of pessimism about the futures of these societies. And the driver of this pessimism was the profound mistrust on all sides.
To move anything involving groups and competing interests forward requires some minimal level of trust. To achieve that base level involves a willingness to show some degree of vulnerability to the other side, to take at least a small risk. That doesn’t exist in the region, and mistrust continues to feed on itself, hardening lines and making it easier to dismiss or dehumanize “the other.”
We can see similar patterns in our own increasingly polarized society. There are fewer and fewer honest mistakes. Everything that goes wrong must be attributable to someone’s bad intentions or hidden agenda.
To an outsider, mistrust in the Virgin Islands is simultaneously the same as and different from that in other places. There seems to be less racial hostility than on the mainland, but there is more mistrust borne of social distance. It often feels like ships passing in the night. And because of this social distance, there is mistrust.
The inter-island mistrust that infects many aspects of public life has a toxic effect. It blocks or impedes cooperation on a variety of big issues. In some ways, it reminds me of the hostile relationship between some cities and their suburbs, with each party defining itself as a victim of the other.
“Born here” and “we’re here now” are vehicles for the forms of mistrust that result from the beliefs that “we” are being squeezed out or “they” don’t want us here. On the mainland, you see this in a different – but recognizable – form in gentrifying neighborhoods.
As the political scientist Robert Putnam has said, diversity makes trust more difficult in the short run. Although his views have been deemed “controversial,” it is hard to argue with them. We have spent so much time figuring out how to “celebrate” diversity that we haven’t spent enough time figuring out how to manage it. And, in particular, how to build trust and confidence across groups.
The good news is that it is doable and that we know some of the ways to build trust. One of the lessons of the construction of the security wall in Israel is that as human interactions are reduced, lines harden and it becomes easier to “otherize.” We build lots of walls, many of them not even physical. On a basic level, we simply need more places for people to interact. And to interact around shared goals, whether it is reducing violence or building healthy communities.
Building social networks does work, but it also takes work. Lots of work. It may seem like soft stuff, but it isn’t. Building trust is the platform for creating healthy communities. That is harder when people don’t all look the same, go to the same church (or any church at all), and come from different places. It was a lot easier in those old days of homogenous neighborhoods. But it is worth the hard work, especially when we look at the alternatives.