THE BLOG

Sleeping With the Fishes: A World Without Trust

07/22/2010 12:37 pm 12:37:11 | Updated May 25, 2011

Trust has always been central to the American enterprise. 

The fourth and final stanza of the National Anthem ends with:

"Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
 And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
 And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave / 
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!"

We are a diverse, multicultural society with no particular reason to trust one another. Yet we do. The Somalian refugee, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a heretical Muslim, writes in her extraordinary book, Nomad, that on coming to America she marveled that the:

"infidel insists on honesty and trust. Everywhere you turn here, you must trust someone: to fly the airplane you travel in, to teach your child, to take care of you when you are sick and feed you food that is edible. And everywhere your trust is borne out."

The strangers we trust may not be of our tribe, but somehow it works. Our strength is in our people, even more than our institutions.

Yet, trust is rapidly eroding. It should not be too surprising. Economic growth is slow. Our entitlements are being financed by Chinese debt. Our financial institutions have brought us to the brink of collapse. Our real unemployed percentages are in the double digits and rising, and Congress has yet to enlarge the period of unemployment benefits. The overprescribing guardians of our health have elevated profit making over quality of care. A book entitled The End of Lawyers is a bestseller. Congress seems to elevate partisan bickering over the national interest. We want to reach out to virtual "friends" on Facebook, but are worried that such casual encounters will make us victims of the voyeurism of predatory strangers. Judging from the volume of litigation seeking to remove "In God We Trust" from public buildings, we can infer that many citizens have lost trust in the Person upstairs.

Lack of trust is not our only problem. We are also traumatized by the horrific nature of external threats. The weapons of terrorism are not confined to bombs and guns. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a 1996 New Yorker essay, "We have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life." We are also a deeply divided society, as reflected in the closeness of our elections, not to mention countless five-to-four decisions of the Supreme Court whenever an ideological question is presented.

Trust and confidence will not be achieved by joining hands and singing "Kumbayah." It can only be restored with solid accomplishment. We need leadership that can, among other things, strategize a military campaign without undermining it by hard and fast artificial deadlines, rein in bank excess without undermining free enterprise, find the right people to plug a rogue oil well, trim the deficit, cut Medicare spending, thwart a terrorist plot because the system really worked, promote a free and open Internet that is immune from cyber attack, and end dependence on foreign oil.

What we need to do is chart some common understanding of what is our shared purpose and what are our common beliefs. What we need to restore confidence is some definition of what we can reasonably expect of our government and what our government can reasonably expect from us. More importantly, what can we legitimately expect of non-governmental institutions, our universities, our professions, our churches, the media -- and, indeed, ourselves?

So where is the answer? Leadership must come from the top. Should the President establish by executive order a "Bureau of Trust, Confidence and Eccentricity" under the Department of Homeland Security to look into the matter with a viewpoint outside the box? Should he address the Nation, as Roosevelt did in 1941, offering a clear-cut vision of his goals for the remainder of his term -- and beyond? Should he deliver a Kennedyesque "ask not what your country can do for you" speech calling on the Nation for cooperation and involvement? Is it enough to express his confidence in the American economy and tell why? Can he possibly re-assure the American people, as Roosevelt did in an even darker time, of their security -- not only security from external threats, but also security in human terms that would expand the scope of protection to include a broader range of threats, including environmental pollution, infectious diseases and economic deprivation? Trust can be restored, but it will take more than a shot in the arm or a stroke of the pen. In the last analysis, it must be earned. Only then will we have a chance to muddle through.

The King in The King and I was more analytical. He saw trust as a "puzzlement."

Shall I join with other nations in alliance? 
If allies are weak, am I not best alone? 
If allies are strong with power to protect me, 
Might they not protect me out of all I own? 
Is a danger to be trusting one another, 
One will seldom want to do what other wishes;
 But unless someday somebody trust somebody 
There'll be nothing left on earth excepting fishes!

Let's not sleep with the fishes -- it's too Sicilian.

First run on Forbes.com

James D. Zirin is host of the cable television talkshow "Digital Age."