Trust no one!

Paranormal conspiracy theorists and science fictions fans from Area 54 to Roswell will recognize my title as the motto of FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, whose whimsical escapades have returned to television.


On a less amusing note, it’s the American attitude toward virtually all institutions, according to journalist, Jeff Greenfield, whose essay,”In Nothing We Trust,” aired on the PBS Newshour on Friday, February 5.

Greenfield cites a recent Pew Research poll showing that Americans mistrust most institutions; only 19% of us trust the government to do “what is right most or all of the time.”

In 1964, with a strong economy, the passage of the Civil Rights bill, and an easing of the cold war, the number was 77%. Ten years later, after a decade of war in Viet Nam and a scandal that drove a president from office, the number was 36%, and it has never topped 50% again.

It isn’t just our government, according to Greenfield. We don’t trust churches. Labor Unions. Banks. Large corporations.  Medicine. Greenfield notes, in his TV news segment, that only 21% of us have “a lot of faith” in TV news.

In great measure, says Greenfield, there are good reasons to mistrust these institutions. Think of the movie, Spotlight. The government of Michigan and the City of Flint.  Yesterday’s congressional hearings on 5000% price hikes in the pharmaceutical industry.

In a similar editorial, I once heard a journalist say that the first act of colonial governments was an attempt to discredit all the institutions of the colonized people; “obviously your god, your army, your government are not as good as ours or we wouldn’t be here.” We may be, said the journalist, the first nation in the history of the world to have colonized itself!

Our pervasive mistrust, according to Jeff Greenfield, makes things especially difficult, in a political year, for those seeking to gain the public trust. It may, in fact, reward those who fan the flames of discontent.

But how, he asks, can a republic long survive when it’s motto is, “In nothing we trust?”

4 thoughts on “Trust no one!

  1. Morgan, you’ve touched on what I believe is the biggest problem of our time. Mistrust, coupled with a sense of helplessness/not being in control, is what drives the anger of both the right and the left. It is undermining the very institutions we need to sustain our complex society. I wish there were an easy, or even difficult but obvious, fix.

    What I find interesting is that I doubt our institutions are any less trustworthy now than in the past. Has transparency, and the effort to make people accountable, had the perverse effect of making them less effective, less trustworthy? Is the information age to blame–now we hear about every little fault and failing? In my writing for INSIDE SACRAMENTO, I’ve done some articles about hidden functions of government: running traffic signal networks; maintaining levees; and such. These are complicated, vital jobs that government provides and people do a pretty good job at. We should trust them, and recognize that failures of the system do not always mean the people weren’t doing the best possible in the situation. You don’t hear about the good stuff on Facebook and the news.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is truly a complex subject. Regarding the hidden functions of government, I had a friend who wrote software for the state’s water control system – talk about complex and critical! How much rain is falling in the north east and what is the forecast, and what is the height of the river at various spots downstream that factor into how much to open the spillways on the Shasta dam? At the same time, after several recent bridge failures, engineering reports of a high percentage of at-risk bridges made the news. I’ve heard that per-capita, inflation adjusted income in this country peaked around 1973, the time at which we switched from being an net exporting nation to a consumer nation. I have no doubt that this these are key statistics.

      I guess I carry a lot of anecdotal evidence around in my head. My understanding is that at the time of 1929 stock market crash, a lot of fraud, deception, ponzi scenes and so on were going on, but many of the perpetrators wound up in prison within a matter of months. Now only Martha Stewart and Bernie Madoff come to mind as financial wrongdoers who have been punished. It would seem that some of the perps of the 2008 fiasco have been rewarded through government bailouts.

      It seems that trust between friends is fragile – once broken, it is hard regain. That kind of effort and more will be needed in our public institutions, and it will likely have to begin with leaders whose rhetoric no longer pins our bullshit meters…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a great subject because some economist would argue that it is only the level of trust that differentiates the richest countries from the poorest ones. I once read that car-pooling was a good proxy for the level of trust in a society. If you are willing to pool with strangers without fear of being robbed or worse then things can’t be all that bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trust and a sense of common purpose, a perception that we’re all in this together. I think my parent’s generation shared that esprit de corps after the end of WWII. The good old days, at least for white males, when the private lives of presidents didn’t pass for the evening news…


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