Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- January 10, 2006

The Erosion of Trust

Ernest Partridge



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 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, or failing that, the ballot box.. 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.

Within the past five years, all these foundations of our civic and political trust – the franchise, representative government, the press, the Supreme Court -- have been severely compromised.

The Franchise: In the 2000 presidential election, throughout the country, but most significantly in the deciding state of Florida, eligible voters in heavily Democratic districts were refused access to the ballot box, or if they managed to vote their ballots were invalidated, all this through an array of tactics too numerous to mention but familiar to those who watched or read the transcripts of the hearings of the U. S. Civil Rights Commission. It is virtually certain now that in 2000 a sizeable majority of Florida voters intended to vote for Al Gore which, of course, would have won him the White House.

Despite all this, soon after the 9/11 attacks, George Bush had the unmitigated gall to proclaim to the Congress, to the American public, and to the world that the terrorists "hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government." Alas, at that moment his administration was not "democratically elected." We the People knew this, and thus our implicit trust in the "sanctity of the ballot" has been taken from us.

That betrayal of trust was compounded in 2004 in an election that was “won” by vote totals largely collected and compiled on machines built by, and secret software written by, admitted contributors to the Bush campaign and the Republican party. These devices produce no printed or otherwise independent record by which the vote totals can be verified.

Accordingly, if the vote totals in 2004 were accurate and Bush’s victory fairly won, there is simply no way to prove this. And there is compelling statistical, anecdotal and circumstantial evidence that it was not fairly won. Moreover, the Republican Congress is suspiciously uninterested in passing legislation that would validate computer generated votes.

So it comes to this: whether fair or fraudulent, computer voting provides no independent data with which to validate the vote totals. Hence, the public is given no reason to trust the official results of elections, and thus to acknowledge the legitimacy the legitimacy of the government.

The Courts: In the election of 2000, the "consent of the governed" was overturned by that very institution that we had come to regard as the final protector of our liberty and of the rule of law: the Supreme Court of the United States. The text of that treasonous decision, Bush v. Gore – a compendium of incoherence, inconsistency and special pleading in defense of a foregone partisan conclusion – stands in permanent condemnation of the "felonious five" who crafted it. The immediate cost of Bush v. Gore is the realization, throughout the realm, that the Supreme Court can no longer be trusted to act in behalf of the citizens at large or to serve as a protector of the rule of law. Instead, it has become just another instrument in the service of "The Establishment" of wealth and privilege.

The restoration of the stature and integrity of the Supreme Court after the massive betrayal of public trust in Bush v. Gore will have to be hard-won over a long time. And that restoration is by no means assured.

The Media: the American press, once the wonder and envy of the civilized world, has been transformed from a watchdog to a lapdog of the "conservative" political establishment. The mighty "pen," which facilitated the end of a dreadful foreign war in Viet Nam and which forced a felonious President from office, became, in the past two Presidential elections, little more than a public relations arm of one of the contestants.  When Bush entered office in 2000, a myriad of questions about his personal qualifications and political positions were left unexamined. In the meantime, Al Gore, generally regarded at the outset of the campaign as a skillful, well-informed, highly intelligent, and honorable public servant, was transformed in the public mind into a self-absorbed, pathological liar. This was accomplished by the unrebutted media promulgation of what can only be called a baseless slander. The particulars – that Gore claimed to have "invented the internet," to have "discovered the Love Canal site," and so on – all were invented whole-cloth and broadcast promiscuously by the media.

Even so, Gore gathered more votes than Bush. But it was close enough that a combination of conniving Florida pols, GOP thugs at the county election offices, selective disenfranchisement of legal voters by a private and partisan "research organization," and so on, topped off by Bush v. Gore, sufficed to steal the election and violate the "consent of the governed."

The delinquency of the media in the 2004 election was, if anything, even worse. A majority of the public was persuaded to believe, to the advantage of the Bush-Cheney ticket, the demonstrably false claims that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, had developed weapons of mass destruction, and was a supporter of al Qaeda. This could only be accomplished through a failure of the media to report the facts to the American voters. Furthermore, thanks to the cooperation of the media, in the minds of many voters John Kerry, an authentic war hero, was transformed into a coward and a fake, and George Bush, a deserter, was transformed into a war hero. Bush’s truncated “service” in Air National Guard was either ignored or, when attempts were made to the report it, the maverick journalists paid a heavy price. The attempt by Dan Rather ended his career.

As corrosive as outright lies to a democratic order, is media distraction and irrelevance.  Thus the public is served an endless diet of journalistic junk food: Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Scott Peterson, the missing teenager in Aruba, the love lives of Brad, Angela, Madonna, Jennifer and other show-biz celebs, etc. ad nauseam. While a persistent problem throughout the history of the commercial American media, under the regime of Bush-II this constipation of substantive news and diarrhea of vacuous blather has, for the first time, been deliberately designed to serve a political purpose.

In the meantime, the theft of the Presidency, the transfer of the public treasury to the wealthiest fraction of our citizens, and the lies spewed forth to justify the invasion of Iraq, have all been judged by the media moguls as unworthy of public attention. Nor has there been much media attention to the cost in lives and treasure of the Iraq war, or the failure of the administration, despite repeated reports and warnings, to deal with the genuine threats of terrorism, with global warming, with federal insolvency.

And so, through the accumulation and concentration of media control and ownership, the regressive right has closed down the vigorous and diverse public debate which is the lifeblood of a democratic society, all the while promulgating the manifestly absurd public complaint that "the media has a liberal bias."

Over the past two decades, "conservative" pundits and politicians have told us endlessly that "government can't be trusted" – and that virtually all government functions can best be handled by "private enterprise." As if to prove their point, while in power the "regressives” have violated the sanctity of the franchise and the integrity of the rule of law, and have spewed out "misinformation" from the their ill-gotten public offices, all of which has provided just cause to further distrust government. And when nature delivers a devastating blow, as with the Katrina catastrophe, the regressive regime further “proves” the inadequacy of “big government” by putting an incompetent hack in charge of emergency response, and then handing out emergency funds, through no-bid contracts, to “the usual suspect” mega-corporations.

Meanwhile, the Presidency, and particularly Bush's Press office, have become fountainheads of lies. Virtually from the moment that Dubya took office, we were served the slander that the departing Clinton administration had "trashed" the executive offices. The General Accounting Office set that record straight. We were told that Saddam “kicked out the arms inspectors.” A lie. That “we know where the WMDs are.” A lie. That all wire taps take place with a warrant. A lie. That “we don’t torture.” A lie. But why go on? There are hundreds more, (as documented here, here, and here).

Like their most steadfast media apologist, Rush "I'm not making this up folks" Limbaugh, the Bush spinmeisters "make things up" to suit the perceived needs of the moment. But why should we expect otherwise? These folks come from the world of marketing and corporate public relations – the same folks that have told us that "cigarettes are not addictive," that DDT is "perfectly safe," and that concern about global warming is based on "junk science."

The upshot: Trust and credibility are the mother’s milk of effective democratic leadership. FDR and Churchill had it in World War II, and so did George Bush when he stood at “ground zero,” bullhorn in hand. Bush was trusted then because the public needed desperately to trust him. But now Bush’s fund of trust, like that of LBJ and Nixon before him, has been exhausted, and with it, his capacity to lead. For truth and reality are remorseless adversaries, and eventually as the lies are exposed, trust evaporates, whereupon leadership fails. Then follows a time of great political danger. For if the discredited regime is to remain in power, civil order, once accomplished through trust, mutual respect, and obedience to law, must instead be achieved through force and threat, which is to say, oppression.

So now, when our country has been dealt a grievous injury by the terrorists, when the regime in power has proven itself incapable of dealing with natural disasters or extricating itself from an ill-conceived and immoral war, when the dreadful consequences of fiscal insanity are soon to come due, we are called upon to place our trust and loyalty in an administration which has gained office through an unprincipled manipulation and subversion of our foundational political institutions: the vote, the rule of law, and the free press. Today, when we desperately need to trust our government, trust, that essential moral resource has, like the federal surplus, been squandered to serve private greed and ambition.

The essential first step in restoring trust in our political institutions is to separate from the government those who are most responsible for discrediting those institutions.

Copyright by Ernest Partridge, 2006


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .