Saturday, June 8, 2013

On politics and trust

I've been thinking that I should write about the role of trust in politics for a couple of years. But I've always struggled with how to do that. Trust is a squishy word for such a hard ball arena. But when push comes to shove, the reality is that where we stand on political issues is based an awful lot on trust.

In order to avoid trust, we'd have to know everything about every issue - first hand. This country and this world are just too big and complex for that. And so, whether we like to admit it or not, we choose who we trust and believe what they have to say.

I'd suggest that for most white Americans, it used to be different. Whether it was a wise thing to do, most of us trusted our media and politicians to tell us the truth (black and brown people always knew their truth wasn't considered). And then along came things like Vietnam and Watergate. All that conflated with the Civil Rights Movement and suddenly our ability to trust was shattered.

Into that vacuum, talk radio and Fox News were born to exploit the situation - so much so that now, instead of everyone listening to Walter Cronkite, our political leanings dictate what news we watch/read. I'm not saying that's a bad thing...necessarily. My point is that we chose who to listen to based on who we trust (mostly that involves someone telling us what it is we want to hear).

One way to solve the quandary that is posed by this dilemma is - as Greenwald said he does - simply assume that everyone is lying and look for proof. Given that that is a distortion of human nature, as I said yesterday, it leads to a distortion of reality.

Another way many Americans handle this is to assume they're all lying and say "a pox on both their houses." That not only feeds directly into the Republican agenda, it means that we abdicate our role as citizens in a democratic republic (the reason the Republicans like that is that it gives them and their corporate masters all the power).

And so whether we like it or not - trust is an element we have to grapple with in politics. But we can never mistake that reality for a call to "blindly" trust. Self-induced blindness is the opposite of what our founders had in mind when they created a democratic republic and chose to give the press special standing in our constitution as the main champions of creating an informed electorate.

But in the age of everything from the NYT soaking up lies about WMD's in Iraq, Fox News and Jonathan Karl, we also know that its not only politicians who sometimes lie - the media is perfectly capable of doing so as well.

As liberals we like to refer to ourselves as the "reality-based community" and assume that these questions are always answered by facts and science. When it comes to things like evolution and whether climate change is real - that's an easy call. But in the messy business of human relations, those facts can depend on how much context is provided as well as the lens through which the facts are viewed. One of the other realities of the human condition is that our vision of the world is limited - we will never be omniscient. That's why the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant has always resonated with our experience. We see the part of the world we can take in - and often draw inaccurate conclusions.
And so the act of studying the ear is critical. But when we think that gives us the big picture and mistake if for a fan, we've lost our way. All of this requires that we continually approach things with a good dose of humility. Of all the things that bother me about ideologues - be they on the left or right - that's the one thing that pisses me off the most. As I see it, they are damn sure that we all need to recognize we're dealing with a fan and are threatened by anyone who might try to put it in the context of something larger at work.

Where trust comes into play in that process is that we need to figure out what information helps us get beyond our limited view and closer to seeing the whole picture. Given that some people are lying to us, we have to do the hard work of sorting that out. As I said yesterday:
We have to look at people, listen to what they have to say, watch what they do and then form our beliefs/opinions based on what the individual does in any given situation.
I've been a political junkie for most of my life and though I've mostly voted Democratic, there have been Republicans I've trusted (Senator Mark Hatfield to name one) and Democrats I haven't.  That trust develops as I put what they do/say into the context of everything else that I hear and find it holds true to the picture I see. A lot of that is also informed by how much humility they demonstrate in their own ability to see the whole picture. If all of that lines up, I tend to believe what they say. But its an ongoing process and there are degrees of trust that form along the way. For example, my trust in Bill Clinton faded over time while it grew for Paul Wellstone.

I've been watching Barack Obama closely for almost six years now. And other than Wellstone, I can't think of a national politician I trust more. That trust doesn't mean I agree with him on everything - that's a whole different issue. It means that I believe he is truly reflecting the picture he sees (a lot of which I can't see from my vantage point). And when things emerge that look like they might shatter that trust, I wait until I get more information to fill in the bigger picture. Every time that has happened, my trust has been vindicated - and that means its grown over time.

That's one of the reasons I'm proud to embrace the label Obamabot. Just like most of us, I've had a natural inclination over time to distrust politicians. My experience tells me that this is a truly unique situation we're in right now. And so I'm committed to making the most we can out of it. We are not likely to have another president like this in my lifetime.

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