08/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Birth of Distrust

As a student of religion, I am a believer in stories. So, let me tell you a story of how conspiracy theories became believable (not how they began to be concocted, for that is an old practice, but how they came for many of us to be credible).

It begins on October 4, 1955. The real insiders know where this story is going. For the others, let me say only that it was a simpler time, a more generous time, a time when we still reposed trust in our institutions: in our government, in the church, in school systems. Dreams still abounded.

My best friend and I were the only Dodger fans in our neighborhood. The other kids in our neighborhood -- who might have been the inspiration for the musical "Grease" -- were all Yankee fans. Each year, as the World Series began, they would surround us menacingly to demand that we concede the superiority of the Yankees, of Mantle, of Rizzuto; each year we would reject their threats and cleave to our faith, and each year they would beat us (not quite) to a pulp and we would bear it as Christian martyrs, in their times, had endured pain for their cause.

And so we came to the World Series of 1955, another subway series: the Brooklyn Dodgers vs. the New York Yankees. The Dodgers -- the greatest baseball team ever assembled -- had never won a World Series; they struggled in a Sisyphean drama worthy of a Greek myth. Thus, our constant cry: "Wait 'til next year."

October 4, 1955, the day of the seventh game of the series, was a school day. The nuns, who usually would permit a radio in class during the World Series, had decided on that day (no doubt as retribution for some collective transgression) that discipline and forbearance should prevail. No radio. So, we went anxiously through our entire school day, agonizing, darkly imagining the worst.

3:00 pm. We burst out of school to find that the game was in the seventh inning -- and the Dodgers were ahead! We nearly flew to my house, ran to my basement room, and turned on the radio; it was the eighth, and the Dodgers were still winning.

So, we did what two Catholic schoolboys in the Fifties knew to do: we grabbed the crucifix -- metal, heavy, a foot long -- from the wall where it hung above my bed and we held it between us (in dynamic tension) as we prayed, even as we listened to the radio.

Then, at last: a ground ball to Pee Wee Reese, a toss to Gil Hodges for the final out of the game, and the Bums had won the 1955 World Series. As reality sunk in, my friend suddenly raised his arms heavenward, releasing his hold on the crucifix, prompting the head of Christ to knock out one of my lower incisors.

But the real damage wasn't done that day. My tooth was a small price to pay for our victory; indeed, I bore the "mark of heaven" for years. The real pain came in 1958. For in that year that dreadful man, Walter O'Malley (imagine here the sound of my spit hitting the ground), moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn. The unraveling of our civilization can be traced to that point -- all of our country's sorrow and defeats and all of our self-doubt and mistrust, became inevitable then. Political assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, the collapse of confidence in our leaders (first public, then ecclesiastical, and finally everywhere) -- it all became possible. If the blessed and beloved Dodgers could leave Brooklyn three years after the great miracle occurred, what theory, what tale, what conjecture was too outrageous to be believed?

Today I am the President of NYU (and a Yankees fan, but that is a tale for a different day), so clearly, somehow, somewhere along the way, I (perhaps as a lone Quixote) have maintained a faith in institutions (at least this kind of institution) to create good in the world. In my life as President I am simultaneously a public figure (what NYU does is important and noticed) and an anonymous figure (most New Yorkers do not know my name, and very few know my face). So it is that I sometimes find myself in conversations about NYU (or me!) where only I know I am the subject of the discussion.

Thus, not long ago I took my small dog to the dog run in Washington Square Park, near my office and my home. The park -- a New York City public park that sits at the heart of our University -- recently underwent the first phase of a major renovation. When it was proposed, the renovation design encountered much criticism and -- given its location in Greenwich Village -- lawsuits (now that Phase 1 of the construction is complete, it has received widespread praise). NYU, a major presence on the park, contributed $1 million to the renovation, but we studiously avoided involving ourselves in any aspect of the project.

And yet, as I sat in the dog run during the construction, I often heard the dark mutterings of my neighbors about the "plot" behind the park renovation. Trees removed? Must be NYU making more room for the graduates each May. Moving the fountain to center of the Arch? NYU wanted it, maybe to make it easier to hold Commencement there, maybe so that John Sexton could have a better view out his window. Purple flowers? The University must have wanted its colors to be pervasive. And NYU's part in the dog run controversies? Let's not even get started on that.

But, as wrong as they are, I can hardly blame them. This is where we have come: the world is simply an aggregation of conspiracies; there are no good institutions, there's nary a soul without an angle. Diogenes would search in vain today, trust is dead.

I blame Walter O'Malley.