There’s a lot of cynicism creeping around currently. And a good deal of it is earned. Politicians, especially, seem to lie with faces so bald an eel could slide across them. I mean, hypocrisy used to be something to be ashamed of, now it is simply coin of the realm. Yes, there has always been lying, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t especially galling now. After all, they used to pretend they were telling the truth, while now, they don’t care how obvious it is. They will lie about the the sentence they have just spoken, denying they ever said it — even while it is there on the videotape. Truth used to be paid lip service, now, among a Trump-infested lot, there is a pretense that truth is whatever has just been said.
So, I get it. Ever since Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam and Robert McNamara cooked the numbers for him, and even since Richard Nixon proved that “I am not a crook” was “no longer an operable statement,” national faith in institutions has dwindled. So, as I say, the cynicism has its share of being earned. No wonder faith in government and institutions has never been lower.
And yet. And yet, all that runs counter to my actual experience. After all, when I have come in contact with government, I deal with the day-to-day bureaucrat, the ordinary working Joe or Joan. I’ve never actually dealt with a cabinet secretary or a senator. And when I’ve gone to my local Social Security office, the person on the other side of the desk has invariably been solicitous and helpful, if harried (even if I’ve had to wait half a day to get to the desk — I don’t blame the SS worker for that).
Critics complain about “faceless bureaucrats,” but that’s only because they’ve never faced them.
My experience with government — the part I actually deal with, rather than the part I yell at the TV screen over on the nightly news — is that the poor schlub is earnest, hard working and serious about the job. The government I actually have to face is the postal worker behind the desk selling me Forever stamps and talking about the weather, or the Social Security clerk, or the cashier I joked with when paying a traffic fine. Regular people doing their jobs.
I first came to realize how seriously people took their civic duty when on jury duty. I’ve served on six juries in my life so far and in every single one of them each juror approached the responsibility with utter sincerity and a sense of the importance of getting it right. And that was true for all the cases, from a simple traffic case to a multiple murder case. Each time I came away with a pride in my fellow citizens, who didn’t complain or blow off the task.
And, of course, I used to be a journalist. Boy, how people love to hate on journalists. Now, I wasn’t a regular reporter, I was an art critic and I had my own, minor, forms of abuse to suffer, from artists and their mothers. But occasionally I was pulled in to the bigger newsroom.
I remember the day Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson, Ariz., and our newsroom in Phoenix went into high gear. The entire staff was pulled in and I was assigned to rewrite — taking phone calls from our reporters in Tucson and turning their notes into coherent stories. The place was frenetic with reporters and editors, tracking down information, interviewing witnesses, checking out leads.
For those who don’t remember: On January 8, 2011, U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords and 18 others were shot during a constituent meeting held in a supermarket parking lot in Casas Adobes, Ariz., in the Tucson metropolitan area. Six people were killed, including federal District Court Chief Judge John Roll; Gabe Zimmerman, one of Giffords’s staffers; and a 9-year-old girl, Christina-Taylor Green. The scene of the shooting at the time, as you might guess, was chaos.
Those who know nothing and cheerlead the complaining can not fathom just how seriously all the journalists took their jobs and the need to get everything right. Even the spelling of a “Smith” had to be checked and double checked. When the shift was over, I felt a genuine sense of pride in my profession. Not in my tiny role, which, rightly, could have been filled by a well-trained chimpanzee, but in the rigor, honesty, earnestness and work that the entire newsroom put in. Get it right. We didn’t know if she were dead or alive, how many shooters there were, how many in the crowd, if anyone else had been shot, or if the police were on the scene or if the shooter were caught, alive or dead. All that had to be determined, and had to be gotten right. No speculation; just facts.
I burn with anger at those who believe journalists are dishonest. I don’t speak here for TV pundits, or for the editorial boards, who are hired for their opinions, but for reporters. It may be true that journalists, personally, tend to be liberal (And, as it is often said, reality has a liberal bias). But they also go out of their way to avoid letting their personal beliefs color their reporting. Facts first, then think about them. The first draft of history has to be as accurate as humans can make it.
It is easy, maybe required, to complain about Washington, but the fact is that little that happens there actually affects our daily lives. Most of our lives happen in our communities and even more, in our homes. Those decisions, by mayors, councils, police, neighbors, spouses and children, make up 98 percent of what we deal with. It may be that in the long run, tax credits or tariffs make a dent in our lives, and that we should worry about refugee camp devastation and cops killing unarmed black men, and we should do what we can to ameliorate these outrages. But when it comes to cynicism, all the screaming at the TV is energy wasted on what accounts for little. Cynicism will fix nothing.
There are terrible things in the world, and terrible people. I’ve met a small share of them. And I don’t mean to downplay the immensity of the horrors that so many face in the world. But for most Americans, they have little effect on daily life.
And in the little things that matter, I am again and again reminded that most people, most of the time, are decent.