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The Erosion of Trust

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Message Ernest Partridge
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As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.

William O. Douglas

Trust is the moral cement that binds a just political order.

Like a person in good physical health, a society of trusting citizens takes its good fortune for granted as each citizen goes about his personal business. When we dwell in such a fortunate society, awareness and appreciation of the bond of civic trust fades below the collective consciousness, even as we continue to enjoy the benefits thereof.

We pay our bills and send personal messages through the mail, trusting the Postal Service to deliver the mail on time and not to open and read it en route. We purchase our food and drugs confident that the food will not be contaminated and that our drugs will be both safe and effective. When we go shopping, we often do not bother to check the change returned to us at the register, and we routinely write checks against bank deposits without scrupulously checking our balance. In short, we generally trust each other.

Despite two decades of relentless assault upon "big government" by the (so -called) "conservatives," we have continued to trust our government.

Until very recently, we have expressed our personal and political opinions in our homes and over the telephone and e-mail, without fear that the government has planted a device to eavesdrop on our conversations. The supreme law of our political order contains a Bill of Rights which, we have confidently believed, guarantees our freedom of speech, of worship, of assembly and the privacy of our persons and our homes. And when our personal lives have been disrupted by an "insolence of office," we have generally been assured that the courts would provide a remedy. For as long as this benign regime of law and order has been secure, it has seemed so ordinary, so "natural." that we have taken little notice of it.

But today, many citizens are expressing fear that this benevolent political order is in grave jeopardy. These individuals are called “alarmists” by “conservative” pundits, and even “traitors” by a few right-wing commentators.

I have experienced an alternative political order, albeit briefly. Of my eight visits to Russia, the first three were during the final days of the Soviet Union. During the summers of 1990 and 1991, I stayed with a friend in his Moscow apartment. On one occasion, as we were having a free-wheeling political conversation, he abruptly stopped me, put a finger to his mouth and then pointed toward the ceiling, in the general direction of an undetected yet plausible microphone. Thereafter, we carried on our conversations outdoors. The brief stroll between the Metro station and his apartment ran alongside the local post office, the upper floors of which were lit "24/7." Why? I was told that the postal workers, under the direction of the KGB, were reading personal mail en route to delivery. (To this day, my Russian friends advise me not to expect my postal and e-mail to be delivered to them unread). And on my trip to the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport to board my flight back to the States, my driver was pulled over by The Militziya (traffic cop). He did not write out a citation. Instead, at the driver's instruction, I handed the officer a $20 bill, whereupon he waved us on. My feeling of liberation upon returning home to California was palpable.

I returned with a renewed pride in my country, its Constitution and Bill of Rights, its traditions of tolerance, fair-play and mutual trust, and with a renewed gratitude for my good fortune in being a citizen of these free and prosperous United States.

But in the past five years, that pride and gratitude have been clouded by fear and foreboding.

Yes, we Americans have thrived in an atmosphere of mutual trust. But some of the foundation of that civic trust has been seriously eroded, and unless we repair and restore it, that trust may be lost forever.

Within the memory of all of us, we trusted the ballot box and were thus assured that our political leaders enjoyed the legitimacy of "the consent of the governed."

We enjoyed some expectation that those whom we elected to our Congress and our legislatures represented those who voted for them, and not those who financed their elections.

Our trust in our elected representatives had, in the past, been honorably reinforced by our independent "fourth estate" – the press. When government or the elected and appointed denizens thereof got out of line, the press stepped in and exposed the waste, fraud and abuse. The New York Times publication of the Pentagon Papers, and the Washington Post investigation of Watergate were among the finest hours of American journalism.

And when representative government failed, aggrieved citizens could turn to the rule of law, and ultimately the Supreme Court, as it desegregated public education, enforced voting rights, protected the citizen's right to privacy, and maintained the wall of separation between church and state.

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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. Partridge has taught philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The (more...)

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