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The Necessity Of Trust

David Brooks writes today that the country is buried under an “avalanche of distrust.”  [1] Both presidential candidates are remarkably untrustworthy people, but they didn’t come from nowhere. Public and private trust is plummeting. Excerpt:

The true thing about distrust, in politics and in life generally, is that it is self-destructive. Distrustful people end up isolating themselves, alienating others and corroding their inner natures.

Over the past few decades, the decline in social trust has correlated to an epidemic of loneliness [2]. In 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no close friend with whom they could discuss important matters. By 2004, 25 percent had no such friend.

When you refuse to lay yourself before others, others won’t lay themselves before you. An AARP study [3] of Americans aged 45 and up found that 35 percent suffer from chronic loneliness, compared with 20 percent in a similar survey a decade ago. Suicide rates [4], which closely correlate with loneliness, have been spiking since 1999. The culture of distrust isn’t the only isolating factor, but it plays a role.

The rise of distrust correlates with a decline in community bonds and a surge of unmerited cynicism. Only 31 percent of millennials [5] say there is a great deal of difference between the two political parties. Only 52 percent of [6]adults [6] say they are extremely proud to be Americans, down from 70 percent in 2003.

Reading this put me in mind of the fragmented world that produced Dante Alighieri. His exile in mid-life was the result of betrayal (specifically, by the pope). In the great poem he wrote from that exilic experience, the Divine Comedy, the Dante meditates at length of the importance of vows. Dante (both the poet and his fictional self) comes from a world where almost nobody can trust anybody else. Constant warfare has torn society apart. Urban dwellers lived in constant fear that during the night, a traitor in their midst might open the city gates and let in soldiers of the enemy city. Without trust, life became hell, and the Tuscans made it hell for themselves.

This is why the lowest circles in the Inferno — that is, the part of the pit of Hell closest to the bottom, where Satan dwells — is reserved for Traitors. There are four classes of traitor, the worst being Judecca, named for Judas Iscariot. All the damned punished there are frozen in ice, immovable for all eternity. In Dante’s imaginative scheme, the infernal punishments fit the earthly crime. A traitor lives and moves without loyalty to anything but himself. He is unconstrained by vows or obligations to God, his family, his lord, or anyone. In Hell, he cannot move at all, and has to endure the coldness that was in his heart, forever.

The collapse of social trust in medieval Tuscany had an enormous effect on social and political life. If you go to Florence today, you will notice that many of the oldest buildings look like fortresses. That’s because the wealthiest families of Dante’s day and afterward had to build their homes as towering refuges from attack by other Florentine families.

I wrote the other day in this space about sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity.” [7]It’s his description of the condition we in the West live under, in which cultural change happens so fast that no customs or institutions have time to solidify. Bauman writes that liquid modernity produces people who do not make vows or any kind of lasting connections, because that would impede their movement, and thus their ability to succeed. What makes for a successful person in liquid modernity?

To refuse to be ‘fixed’ one way or the other. Not to get tied to the place. Not to wed one’s life to one vocation only. Not to swear consistency and loyalty to anything and anybody. Not to control the future, but to refuse to mortgage it: to take care that the consequences of the game do not outlive the game itself, and to renounce responsibility for such as do. To forbid the past to bear on the present. In short, to cut the present off at both ends, to sever the present from history, to abolish time in any other form but a flat collection or an arbitrary sequence of present moments; a continuous present. 

Once disassembled and no more a vector, time no longer structures the space. On the ground, there is no more ‘forward’ and ‘backward’; it is just the ability not to stand still that counts. Fitness — the capacity to move swiftly where the action is and be ready to take in experiences as they come — takes precedence over health, that idea of the standard of normalcy and of keeping that standard stable and unscathed. All delay, including ‘delay of gratification,’ loses its meaning: there is no arrow-like time left to measure it.

And so the snag is no longer how to discover, invent, construct, assemble (even buy) an identity, but how to prevent it from sticking. Well constructed and durable identity turns from an asset into a liability. The hub of postmodern life strategy is not identity-building, but avoidance of fixation. [Emphasis mine — RD]

How do you rebuild social trust when the values and structures (economic and cultural) condition people today to behave in ways that make that trust impossible to accumulate? In a culture that sees vows not as pillars of strength but obstacles to self-fulfillment, isn’t chronic suspicion a rational response?

62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "The Necessity Of Trust"

#1 Comment By JonF On September 14, 2016 @ 3:13 pm

Re: The giver is robbed of the incredible feeling you get when you get involved in other peoples’ lives and make positive change. People feel better about life and themselves when they get involved.
– Society is robbed of the benefit of having people who’re right there on hand to help their neighbors, seeing what will really help and what really needs to be done. Also, people begin to assume that helping is ‘the government’s job’, and don’t help themselves (someone who lived in Sweden for years says this is the way they act there – that grandparent don’t even help with grandkids – sad)

– The giver is robbed of the ability to direct their charity to where it can do the most good. Government decides who and how to help based on limited information, and too often which of their cronies will be help. Example – Michelle Obama’s school lunch programs featured food product from companies that donated heavily to democrat causes ( [8])

Nothing whatsoever in our current situation prevents people from being personally involved with charitable efforts, or from directing their contributions where they feel they will do the most good. There are numerous organizations out there that would happily accept volunteers. And for sure nothing keeps grandparents from helping their grandkids.
Please do note: the point of charitable activity is never to feel good about oneself (how narcissistic is that?). It is to help people.

#2 Comment By Joan On September 14, 2016 @ 3:16 pm


Did you happen to see the article about the researchers who discovered how scientists basically rigged nutritional testing in the 1960s to blames fats rather than sugar for cardiovascular disease? Yeah, we can always trust scientists!

Gary Taubes broke this story in his 2007 book Good Calories, Bad Calories. The mainstream media ignored it. I can only assume that some big shot who was keeping the story from being picked up by the MSM has died or gone into Alzeimer’s care or something.

#3 Comment By Court Merrigan On September 14, 2016 @ 3:39 pm

Yes, I agree with EngineerScotty and think your point of view quite naive, Rod – our system works *because* we don’t much trust one another, as a general rule. If you’ve ever lived in a crony-based society (I have, a couple), you’d soon see why our system is vastly superior, that is, if you want to get things done.

#4 Comment By Gerbby On September 14, 2016 @ 3:39 pm

This is what Karl Marx meant by “all that is solid melts into air.” He offered some solutions too.

#5 Comment By Court Merrigan On September 14, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

My comment got cut off before I was done, sorry …

I mean, that’s why we have contracts, rule of law, etc. In fact, couldn’t one argue that in fact such a system has Judeo-Christian roots, in some respects – didn’t God make a “covenant” (what is that, if not a contract?) with the Chosen People? It had to be binding, not with love, but legally.

#6 Comment By Howard On September 14, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

Not long ago, I wrote on my own blog that what brought about the Civil War was not simply slavery (as has now become secular dogma), but a mutual and mostly justified refusal of both sides to trust the other. A democracy cannot survive without trust, and we’ve already seen what the consequences can include.

#7 Comment By Joan On September 14, 2016 @ 6:03 pm

In Dante’s Florence, the breakdown of social trust led to constant war and crime. Here and now, the crime rate is either level or declining, depending on whose statistics you use, and war is a distant noise, fought by a tiny percentage of the population with hugely expensive weaponry on the other side of the world. Whatever our breakdown of social trust is, I think it’s a different phenomenon entirely than Dante’s, bearing only a superficial similarity, the way the traitors in the Divine Comedy bear only a superficial resemblance to the liquid moderns of Western Civilization.

That Rod would even think to compare them is indicative of the “He who is not with me is against me” attitude that’s all too common in traditional religious circles, not just Christianity; an attitude that conflates refusal to commit with betrayal of commitment, neutrality with covert enmity. I’ve been in places that, for all their stylistic leftism, were rather like this. One couldn’t just say “No, thanks.” One had to justify one’s disinclination to join in, as if participation were obligatory and non-participation required an excuse. I felt like I was back in elementary school.

I am a child of parents who stayed together too long, who didn’t separate until they had filled the house with bitterness. I don’t have a high opinion of commitment. Loneliness may be on the rise, the liquid modern life may dissolve all certainties, but it could be worse. Lots worse.

#8 Comment By Lily On September 14, 2016 @ 8:33 pm

JonF says:Please do note: the point of charitable activity is never to feel good about oneself (how narcissistic is that?). It is to help people.

Oh get off your high horse. Getting involved with people who need your help makes the helper feel connected and engaged, part of a larger community, and part of a larger purpose. Its a human nature thing. It IS more blessed to give than to receive.

But government muscles the individual and charitable groups out of the process.

#9 Comment By JonF On September 14, 2016 @ 8:48 pm

Re: You’re from Ypsi/Ann, too? Wow. I remember the Co-Ed Killer (as the press called Collins before his arrest).

Yep, Ypsilanti. I was a very young child in the killer’s heyday, but I heard about it growing up, and read about it. Someone just published a book about the crimes, which is being touted on Ypsi’s Facebook nostalgia page, though I have not read that. A friend of mine’s oldest brother lived in the same house as Collins for a term.

#10 Comment By JonF On September 15, 2016 @ 6:16 am

Re: Getting involved with people who need your help makes the helper feel connected and engaged

Utterly irrelevant. The point of helping people is help people, not make the helper feel good!!!

Re: But government muscles the individual and charitable groups out of the process.

High octane BS! There are plenty of charitable activities in which people can engage if that’s what they feel called to do. Government has not eliminated these efforts at all. Why do you think that? Try getting out occasionally, The world is not at all what it appears to be in your dark imaginings.

#11 Comment By Elijah On September 15, 2016 @ 8:06 am

@ Joan – here’s the one that caught my eye. I’ll look for that book. I had no idea until quite recently just how much influence various food lobbies (whole grain, anyone?) have on our government’s nutritional guidance.


#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 15, 2016 @ 9:49 am

“When an entire wing of the American political system relentlessly campaigns on the notion that ‘government is bad, give us power over it’”

So what was being resisted (I wish) was, ‘government is good, give it more power over us’?