[This article appeared in the December 1990 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 25-27.] 

 

Where, Today, Are Our Men Who Stand Tall?

Reflections on the Loss of Mutual Confidence 

Dwight D. Murphey

 

            It isn’t just politicians who are held in low esteem.  Everywhere about us we see the signs of a loss of mutual confidence.  There are few who are not suspected of venality: political candidates, officeholders, business and industry, the professions, our institutions, government, the military—all are suspected of serving themselves without high regard for what they give in return.  And although this loss of trust is caused in no small measure by ideology and exaggeration, far too much of it is justified.  Where, today, are our men who stand tall?  Our civilization and indeed our individual lives cannot be at their best so long as we do not have faith in each other—and realistic grounds for it.

            The cultural crisis that besets America today has many facets.  One of these is not often discussed.  It is the loss of confidence that Americans have in one another.

            To explore this erosion of the bonds that hold people and a society together, we will need, first, to come to grips with the extent of the distrust; then to ponder how such distrust is justified; and finally to reflect upon the role that trust plays in a civilization and the lives of individuals. 

Loss of Mutual Confidence: A Major Fact in our National Life Today

            An angry “anti-incumbent” mood hung over the atmosphere during the weeks prior to the last election.  In Kansas where I live, the mood went even further: several candidates—challengers as well as incumbents—took on the aura of stumblebums, mere pretenders to leadership.  If voters had had an option to vote “none of the above,” that non-choice might well have won a majority.

            But it isn’t just politicians who feel the brunt of this pervasive doubt.  The American people have much the same perception of countless other people and institutions among us.  What do we think generally, say, of lawyers?  That they are high-minded professionals making a deservedly good living by quality service to their clients and society?  It seems ludicrous even to ask the question, since the answer is so obvious.

            And of college professors?  We pack our children off to multiversities by the millions more in search of career credentials than out of a conviction that the average professor is the sort who will really enhance their lives.  We suspect—and know from several recent books such as Charles Sykes’ Profscam—that much of the faculty is paid not to teach, but to publish jargonized trivia that is hardly read even within the incestuous circles of the faculty member’s own esoteric “discipline.”

            Doctors hardly fare any better.  Most of us think well of our own doctor, but the suspicion runs deep that the system as a whole is far too expensive and simultaneously uncaring.  The closer we get to socialized medicine, which health maintenance organizations (HMOs) come close to mimicking, the more we feel that way.

            It’s hardly necessary to comment on what we think of Congress today; of governments at all levels; of the financial industry of securities dealers, banks and savings-and-loans; of the military; and of the media.  Sure, there is something to be said in defense of each; but on the whole our confidence is low.

            A few years ago, at the height of the New Left’s alienation against everything in our society, the movie “Network” gave voice to this ubiquitous loss of mutual trust.  The television personality in the movie called upon people to throw open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and won’t take it any more.”  And, as portrayed in the film, everybody did it.  It was as though everyone in the society were a victim, while everyone else was an abuser.  Simultaneously, everyone had reason to be morally outraged, while all others were the cause of the outrage.  Obviously it was a confused moral position.

            The New Left propounded this with great success.  Everything was under attack; nothing was worthy of defense.  And years after the New Left suffered its demise, we continue to feel much the same way. 

What Are We to Make of It?

            A lot of our mutual disenchantment results from ideology and exaggeration.  The alienated intellectual subculture has been telling us how rotten we are for the past 175 years, all as part of its anti-bourgeois drumbeating.  This has given rise to innumerable exaggerations.  Hyperbole is the common coinage for Muckrakers.

            Additional disenchantment originates in the naďve utopianism that modern sentimentality imposes on society.  We lack historical and philosophical depth, and so tend to judge things by ideal images that utterly fail to appreciate how bad things once were and how much they’ve improved.  In the 1830s the English historian Macaulay analyzed the perceptions of such a thinker as Robert Southey, who asserted that English conditions were awful.  Macaulay’s calm review of the facts of people’s existence—such things as life expectancy and the type of foods they ate—showed that they were vastly better off than they had been at the end of the 16th century.

            Still further, the sense of mutual outrage is fueled by the “spoiled child mentality” that the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset considered so much a part of the modern mentality.  Millions among us are very much like a spoiled child who hears an ice cream truck coming.  The child sees all the possibilities, demands them “of right,” throws tantrums if they aren’t instantly forthcoming, and feels no appreciation after receiving them.

            Ronald Reagan sought to overcome the chronic negativism that these factors produce by alluding repeatedly to the heroes among us.  He pointed to the balcony during his speeches to Congress and introduced one or another heroic individual he had invited to be present.  George [H.W.] Bush has made the same point, in effect, by his references to “a thousand points of light.”

            And Reagan and Bush are right.  America never ceases to astonish me with the solid, generous people it produces.  One small example: the electrician who came to the house this week to correct an assortment of small electrical problems we had let accumulate.  Moving quickly from one to another, he whipped the place into shape in a few minutes, all very cheerily and competently, without any of the cussing and frustration that I would have shown if I had undertaken the work myself.

            But I would be less than honest if I were to say that ideology, exaggeration, and the like fully explain the lack of confidence.  I spent three years in Mexico as a small boy, and idealized the United States while I was there, yearning to be back.  That was many years ago, but I continue to feel the disappointment that I came to experience upon my return.  For the most part, I’ve found, our contemporaries do not use their lives within the world’s freest society to live with nobility and elevation, do not make great demands on themselves, do not stand tall as individuals.  In one setting after another, I have seen Americans adhere closely to whatever they have intuitively understood would feather their nests the best.  One of our premier alienated intellectuals, Henry David Thoreau, thought many of his fellows a century and a half ago “herdlike and derivative.”  Unfortunately, the description remains all too fitting.  I recall just when it was in my Business and Society graduate class in the mid-1970s that all the students, male and female alike, began to drop the male pronoun from their speech.  Overnight, “when a person does a certain thing, they…” became a common construction.  It mattered not one whit that this mixture of singular noun and plural pronoun murdered the English language.  The MBA students, all bright and full of luster, either accepted the feminist insistence on dropping male pronouns because, having thought about it, they facilely agreed with its simplistic ideology, or they just fell in unreflectingly with the common herd.

            True, each was articulate in our group discussions; but each (with a very few exceptions) conformed instantly to what he sensed everybody expected.  The same has been apparent in virtually every group I’ve been involved with.

            With all this spineless conformity and consensus, why don’t they trust each other?  The answer is to be found in reversing the question: Why should they?  How many are pillars upon whom the others may safely rely?  Would you trust our contemporaries to stand guard over a principle, a value, a norm, no matter how vital to civilization?  I don’t mean to suggest they’re bad people.  I merely point to the fact that so many are made out of cardboard. 

The Impact on Civilization—and on Our Individual Lives   

            It is obvious, in the abstract, that both the quality of individual lives and the maintenance of civilization are best served by a human milieu of deserved mutual confidence.  But are we aware of just how concretely this affects us?

            1.  Mutual confidence, and a credible basis for defending each other from attacks upon that confidence, are essential social cements.  Perhaps the most frightening thing about the New Left years was their demonstration of just how it is that a society can come apart at the seams.  In ordinary times, we anticipate that, if ever we are attacked by forces hostile to our way of life, we will come together to repel them.  But that “coming together” just doesn’t happen when everything is dissolving in an acid of cynicism.  Not only is everything under attack, but few feel anything other than diffidence about coming to the defense of existing people and institutions.  Thus, the “revolution” strikes not at the strength and sinew, but at the soft moral underbelly, of a society.

            This is related to another closely associated phenomenon: how it is that the dominant forces in a society come to “lose the will to govern.”  We see this with regard to totalitarian states, such as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, when a party and ideology that have governed with an iron fist come to lose the internal bond that made their domination possible.  (Stalin murdered millions; Gorbachev is both disinclined and, most probably, unable to.  Why the difference?  Certainly it must be, at least in part, that the Communists in those countries have been losing their will to govern.)

            It is apparent in the world today that this has happened in large measure, too, in the freest and most advanced societies.  Torn by massive wars and the sickness that led to them, Europe has long been in withdrawal.  In the United States, those who sustained the old culture and value-system have similarly been, in recent years, in retreat.  True, the alienated intellectual culture has been on the attack, “mudding America” as I said in my first Conservative Review column; but the other side of it is that Americans have accepted the attack and fall all over themselves apologizing for what they have been.  The belief-system, including also the myths, that ties us together has been under attack, and the average American is more anxious to be identified with the attacker than to be known as a defender.

            2.  Mutual confidence and a realistic basis for it are essential to a democratically free society.  When I hear the cynicism that is voiced toward our governments at all levels, and know how justified much of that cynicism is, I think back with trepidation to the passages in Hitler’s Mein Kampf in which he sneered at what he saw as the obscene imbecilities of the Austrian parliament.  It is vital that the processes of freedom be neither imbecilic nor perceived as such.

            3.  If we wonder at the faithlessness of so many prominent people today in politics, in the savings-and-loan industry, in government procurement, and elsewhere, we should reflect on how important the factors I have been pointing to are for the existence of a working ethical system.  The lower the common denominator of shared conviction and of behavior becomes, the less are people inspired, first, to embrace and, second, to adhere to behavioral norms.  “What’s in it for me?” and “Everybody’s doing it” become, successively, the guide and the justification.

            4.  If we look on the matter from the individual rather than the societal level, we see that the effects are devastating.  What essentially is it that makes our individual existences worthwhile?  Even with all the comforts that affluence can give, life is of problematic value without ideals, without a sense of personal esteem and integrity, and without basic satisfaction with the human milieu in which we find ourselves.  (As ancient civilization fell into despair, its philosophers sought refuge in the integrity that withdrawal made possible.  But is that the way life should be?)  Integrity, ideals, justice, quality, elevation—these are spiritual imperatives without which the life of the individual becomes a hollow shell.  In their relative absence, no wonder so many of our fellows are cardboard men.

             5.  A phrase that has come into vogue in recent years is “quality of life.”  Environmentalists speak, with varying degrees of soundness, of the ecological requisites of human existence.  But we need an equal stress on our internal ecology.  Pollutants can affect our air and water; pollutants of another type, largely unrecognized as such, strike at our human intercourse, and at our art and music and literature.

            Reflections such as these show just how deep our cultural crisis runs.  All told, we are lucky.  We do remarkably well on the surface, considering the systemic intellectual and spiritual weaknesses from which we suffer.