19 September 2016

A dialectic of distrust

David Brooks is just one of many opinionators bemoaning a surge in mutual distrust among Americans this election year. He holds Clinton and Trump partly to blame for their suspicious secrecy about many aspects of their lives, but for Brooks their toxicity only exacerbates trends he's long bemoaned that seem to leave Americans increasingly isolated and alienated from each other. He worries about the possibility of a "death spiral" in which "the loss of intimacy makes society more isolated. Isolation leads to more fear. More fear leads to fear-mongering leaders." He finds that young people, the great hope of progressives, are often "the most distrustful of all." This in turn he blames partly on the replacement of society with social media and its "illusion of intimacy." Mutual trust has deteriorated rapidly over the last generation, Brooks claims. The polarization of politics since the 1980s may have something to do with that, while American individualism probably has deepened distrust at both poles. Brooks often bemoans the disappearance of a common culture without offering really credible suggestions on how it might be restored or renewed. It will be especially difficult for anyone to appeal to loyalty to something in common when people from all directions are likely to ask, "Who are you to say...?" Each party does it when its particular sense of individuality seems threatened. When we've reached a point when we can't see past individuality, and take anyone's appeal to patriotism or humanity as a self-serving ploy, then individualism as perhaps not just an ideology but a principle of perception has gone too far past the limit of healthy moderation.

There are signs, however, of a reaction against different facets of dogmatic individualism. You see it in the divide between ideological Republicans, who cling to a utopian ideal of "may the best man win" economic competition, and the Donald Trump movement, whose "America first" sentiment rejects the idea that who wins such competition should be a matter of indifference to the individual consumer. There was a weaker expression of a similar sentiment in Sen. Sanders' campaign against Clinton. At the same time, a heightened awareness of inescapable global competition -- both the existential competition to which Islamism has challenged the world and the sort of oldschool eternal jostling for advantage practiced by Russia -- may reawaken a sense of common interest and purpose among Americans, should it be acknowledged that neither form of competition can be wished away and that we as a nation are in it together whether we as individuals like it or not. By this point in history any transition back toward solidarity and common culture will be a rough one, since Brooks wishes for a restoration of mutual trust at a time when many Americans see very specific limits to such trust. As well, the nature of any new common culture -- and it must be new to an irreducible extent no matter how it hearkens to the past -- will be contested so long as one person says "America First" and another hears it as "White People (or White Men) First." Neither Clinton nor Trump has what it takes, at first glance, to ease any such transition, unless Trump proves so profoundly different a President than he has been a campaigner that his own base may feel betrayed. Nor is there any guarantee that change can come without at least the perception of coercion. Brooks's admittedly "paradoxical" remedy -- that "somebody’s got to greet distrust with vulnerability, skepticism with innocence, cynicism with faith and hostility with affection" -- might well be wrong in every particular. But distrust, skepticism, cynicism and hostility as a package must be answered, and there will be many answers offered. Whose is the correct answer remains to be seen.

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