Isn't it true that the overwhelming majority of our young, fresh, and precious elements have gone in some queer direction — into scoffing and threatening segregation — and precisely in order to take all at once the tenth step, forgetting that the tenth step without the preceding nine, in any event, must be reduced to a fancy, even if it meant something by itself? The point most to be regretted is that perhaps only one out a thousand of these apostates has some comprehension of the meaning of this tenth step, while the rest have merely heard the sound of the bells without knowing whence it comes. The result is that the hen has hatched a chatterbox. Have you seen a forest fire during hot summer? How pitiful it is to observe it! What a sad sight! What a mass of precious material perishes in vain! How much energy, fire, and warmth is absorbed to no purpose, uselessly, without leaving any trace. — F. Dostoyevsky, The Diary of a Writer
A kind of recklessness, or a tendency to skip ahead to the tenth step while neglecting the first nine, has become a way of life in Fakenation, that society that pioneered SparkNotes, passes legislation without reading it, and views the laptop as obsolete technology. Needless to say, certain fundamentals have been quite neglected in the rush toward progress — basic human trust, for instance. AP reports:
You can take our word for it. Americans don't trust each other anymore.
We're not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy - trust in the other fellow - has been quietly draining away.
These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.
Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say "you can't be too careful" in dealing with people.
Quite a cynical reality underlying the gloss of an advanced civilization. Think about it — if such sentiments prevailed in a primitive band of hunter-gatherers, we wouldn't forecast their existence as a social organization to last very long. Trust is clearly the first step of any social development, perhaps even essential to the definition of a society, in which a member can be said to be one embedded in a mutual network of trust. Or at the very least, as the AP so crudely puts it, it's essential to 'economic growth':
An AP-GfK poll conducted last month found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road, or people they meet when traveling.
"I'm leery of everybody," said Bart Murawski, 27, of Albany, N.Y. "Caution is always a factor."
Does it matter that Americans are suspicious of one another? Yes, say worried political and social scientists.
What's known as "social trust" brings good things.
A society where it's easier to compromise or make a deal. Where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good. Where trust appears to promote economic growth.
A quite ironic twist in the writing of this article, since it might be said that one facet of trust is the belief that other members of society are dedicated to some basic harmony in human relations beyond its immediate fiscal impact, that the man at the bank or behind the news desk is speaking to you not as a salesman or spin artist, but as a fellow human being with some higher degree of investment in bringing you the authentic truth. We immediately turn and become distrustful when we imagine such calculation is behind another's words, yet we immediately justify worrying about trust as a merely technocratic problem — thus ensuring it will never come about:
Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption. At the least, it diverts energy to counting change, drawing up 100-page legal contracts and building gated communities.
Even the rancor and gridlock in politics might stem from the effects of an increasingly distrustful citizenry, said April K. Clark, a Purdue University political scientist and public opinion researcher.
"It's like the rules of the game," Clark said. "When trust is low, the way we react and behave with each other becomes less civil."
There's no easy fix.
But of course, there's also the spiritual drain, something you will never hear approached in an AP article. Millions of people, many of them Millennials, have retreated into taking stock in paranoid patterns of thought, which should neither be written off as madness nor accepted as legitimate, but rather contextualized as the necessary product of a trustless society. We must stand in some relation to the distant institutions that monitor, control, and define our lives, and they are incredibly unresponsive and untrustworthy, so a radical mistrust emerges. Or, as an even less meaningful alternative, a cool and distant sociability, carefully mediated by the distance of the digital age.
And who is responsible for this incredible decline in the very fabric of society? Ah, cue that oh so groovy generation we at FN just love to hate...
In fact, some studies suggest it's too late for most Americans alive today to become more trusting. That research says the basis for a person's lifetime trust levels is set by his or her mid-twenties and unlikely to change, other than in some unifying crucible such as a world war.
People do get a little more trusting as they age. But beginning with the baby boomers, each generation has started off adulthood less trusting than those who came before them.
The best hope for creating a more trusting nation may be figuring out how to inspire today's youth, perhaps united by their high-tech gadgets, to trust the way previous generations did in simpler times.
So pending world war, we're left waiting for something like Facebook to revive basic human community. A pretty bleak outlook, but maybe there is hope if we understand how the Boomers set this decay into motion. You see, insulated from economic reality with a near infinite amount of their parents' capital to squander, liberated from traditional notions of family and responsibility, and totally uninterested in having anything beyond the image of a community, the Boomers are the first generation that views society as optional. Their first instinct upon 'cashing out' on their abuse of the naive trust the wider world placed in them is to move out to an autistic, masturbatory fantasy world, which is indeed the character their media corporations have assumed.
But if we can see and understand this, and look directly into the abyss of their inflationary nothingness, maybe our future can be different. In any case, society will not be optional for us, as much as some might wish to recreate the Boomer paradigm behind a computer screen, and we best come to terms with it.
In matters of trust, it might be said that Boomer society has validated the famous observation about love of humanity in The Brothers Karamozov:
"It's just the same story as a doctor once told me," observed the elder. "He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. 'I love humanity,' he said, 'but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,' he said, 'I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he's too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.'
We hear daily proclamations of social service and sacrifice, we populate social networks full of incomprehensible numbers of 'friends', we vote to alleviate the suffering of poor people we can't bear to look in the face. We love humanity, and find people disgusting. Operating for the good of all, we trust none.
The road back is slow, painful, and agonizingly personal. It may mean being vulnerable to a form of 'rip off', putting out authentic value to little to no social acclaim. But it is the first step on the only road to travel.