Distrust, Cynicism and the Questioning of the American Dream

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Trust has been declining ever since the 1950s. Trust in God, in government, in other citizens, in religion, in the schools, in brands, in media, in advertising, in the world, in the future, in ourselves, and in everything else you can think of, has been on the decline for at least 65 years.

The New York Times reported on April 30, 1989, that Yale psychology professor Dr. Jerome Singer and his wife, also a psychologist, found in an objective study that "the more television children watch, the more likely they are to be restless and aggressive." Having read the Singers’ academic papers myself, I also recall that the study indicated that the more TV news people watch, the more likely they are to distrust the next stranger.

As distrust grows, a culture becomes cynical and pessimistic. It has now become hip to snidely pour cold water on any positive statement.

It was not just the media’s fault. The bad behavior by people in high places was always much easier to cover up than it is today. Bad behavior by politicians makes it understandable that trust in government is going down.

Some of the distrust has to do with unfulfilled expectations. In April 2022 I wrote, "The most powerful cultural change driving world and personal events today is the underlying sense of loss of belief in the American Dream …"

I’m paraphrasing the words of Walker Smith, former President of Yankelovich, today at the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) annual AUDIENCExSCIENCE conference: The American Dream has always meant the hope, aspiration and expectation that each generation would be better off than the preceding one.

Walker showed compelling survey results to back up his point. In countries where most progress has been made toward economic success, social justice and the dignity of the individual, he showed that after decades in which most people believed their kids would have it better than themselves, today the majority believe that the kids will have it worse.

A later speaker at the conference showed a verbatim comment made by a Gen Z person indicating "I no longer trust government, other people, or the world."

"Those who think interpersonal trust has declined in the past generation offer a laundry list of societal and political problems, including a sense that Americans on the whole have become more lazy, greedy and dishonest. 49% of adults think interpersonal trust has been tailing off because people are less reliable than they used to be." -- Pew Institute 2019

A 2015 4A's study found that 96% of consumers distrust advertising.

Both optimism and pessimism are biases, less desirable than objectivity, but between them, one helps and the other hurts, because any mindset becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the way our minds work. Pessimism forces us down into the pit we feared. Optimism gives us back the natural zest for life and enables us to overcome anything.

The late great American writer Joan Didion wrote that she experienced the snapping point in the dissolution of the American Dream. The date was June 5, 1968. Joan and her husband were in Hawaii in a night club when the singer Don Ho told the audience that Robert Kennedy had died at 10:40pm Hawaii time. Earlier that day the shooting had been reported. Joan was struck by the indifference of the affluent Americans who wanted Don Ho to entertain them and became bellicose when instead he sang The Lord’s Prayer. To quote The New York Times article at the prior link:

"One of the conventioneers jumped to his feet. 'What are they singing a church song for?' he shouted. At his table and those surrounding, the other dry-cleaning salesmen and their wives chimed in: 'What's this church song for? Why a church song?' Clearly, they were drunk. For Ms. Didion the scene was surreal: the women with their big bouffant hairdos and flower leis, the men growing increasingly belligerent. Then she noticed a young sailor nearby. He was sobbing."

Two months earlier, Kennedy gave an impromptu speech to supporters after learning of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder. "What we need in the United States is not division," he said, "but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another." Now he had been murdered, too. But the convention crowd at Duke Kahanamoku’s refused to acknowledge the tragedy that had just been relayed. "The whole thing," Ms. Didion told Ms. Stein, "was very charged. It was a great conflict of everything and everybody.

"No matter what your political feelings are, if you’re attached to the idea of the nation as a community -- if you feel yourself to be part of that community -- then obviously something has happened to that community," Ms. Didion told Ms. Stein. "It seemed as if these people did not count themselves as part of the community. That they came from another America." They could heckle a praying singer. They could watch The Lawrence Welk Show but ignore a political assassination. The same economic system that put these specific Americans in the position to take this vacation -- the white-collar stability, the inequality sustaining it -- was what allowed them, now, to turn their backs. They didn’t really care about any of it; the broader narrative of patriotism and pride was just an excuse for doing what they wanted -- for their self-interest -- a narrative they could apply and discard from one situation to the next as they saw fit.”

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” -- Joan Didion

“What happens when those shared narratives start to unravel?” -- Timothy Denevi

Forgetting the ethical obligations to the nation which creates these opportunities for personal success and hedonism. Forgetting the social compact. Turning away from sympathy with the USA leadership. Joan’s intuition was that some people could take America for granted and not accept the responsibilities that come along with loyalty to the USA. Her experience was that the up and coming well-to-do didn’t care about the USA or were even aware of its significance.

Whenever the turning point came, most Americans today appear to have given up on being inspired by the American Noble Experiment, or are afraid to publicly espouse it. A recent study shows that expressing idealism and ethics in media garners more hate mail than support. Being patriotic is no longer hip, the way it was in WWII. Loyalty to the American Dream, to me, is not just kneejerk nationalism. The USA has pledged itself to raising the bar for human life on Earth. Loyalty to that American Dream -– the one that Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln all had, not to mention the many others who lived and died to further the true American Dream -– not just of prosperity, but of justice for all.

We have obviously not been communicating the American brand very well.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, the Code as regards insurrection reads as follows:

Ҥ2383. Rebellion or Insurrection

Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”

(June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 808;
Pub. L. 103–322, title XXXIII, §330016(1)(L), Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2147.)

I respectfully propose that anyone who undermines the existing USA governmental system by lying about the 2020 election having been fraudulent, and/or incites violence and/or advocates the overthrow of the legitimately elected present government and/or against the system of laws in this country, must be first be prevented by a gag order against further speech or communications of that kind, and if that does not stop the person, prosecution under the law for insurrection. Regardless of their party affiliation if any.

This denies no one free speech according to the original intent of the Founders. I very much doubt that George Washington would, if in Biden’s shoes today, tolerate hearing lies and further incenting to riot without taking effective action. The U.S. Constitution defines “insurrection” thusly:

In a constitutional democracy, sedition and insurrection refer to inciting or participating in rebellion against the constitutionally established government, its processes and institutions, or the rule of law.

Both Constitutional and codified law confirm my stance that “inciting” is a sufficient condition to jail an insurrectionist. And permanently remove their right to public office.

Bending over backwards to be fair to everyone is the American way. But that must be balanced with protecting the American system. That is the responsibility of every American citizen. It comes with the freedom and all the other good stuff.

We better make taking responsibility hip again.

Posted at MediaVillage through the Thought Leadership self-publishing platform.

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