Sometime this year, I found myself at a conference centered around the theme of “regaining trust.” For obvious reasons, I won’t name names, but it was a professional gathering of the old regime: the industrial elites. In their hundreds if not thousands, I was swarmed by people of good will who were also smart, articulate, and hyper-educated. They craved, sincerely, to help the disadvantaged and save the earth. The words “science” and “reason” were perpetually on their lips, as if they held the copyright for these terms – which, in a sense, they did. And if they were a bit defensive, a tad obtuse, their intentions were the purest I could imagine.
So why, by their own admission, do they no longer inspire trust?
I have met their kindred before, in other glittering places. They run the institutions that hold center stage in our society, but look on the world as if from a walled mountain fortress, where every loud noise from beyond is interpreted as risk and threat. They disagree about minutia, but mostly move in lockstep, like synchronized swimmers, with word and thought. They are earnest but extraordinarily narrow. In a typical complaint, one speaker blamed the public for hiding in an “information bubble” – yet it occurred to me, as I sat through the conference, that the bubble-dwellers controlled the microphones there.
The same unmodulated whine about present conditions circled around and around, without even the ambition to achieve wit, depth, or originality:
The internet is the enemy: of rationality, of democracy, of truth. It must be regulated by enlightened minds.
The public resembles an eight-year-old who is always fooled by tricks and lies. For its own protection, it must be constrained by a Guardian class.
Populism is the spawn of lies. Even if it wins elections, it is never legitimate, and must be swept away by a higher authority.
Climate change is a scientific mandate for torturous economic and political experiments, implemented by experts. To deny this is worse than error – it’s a crime against humanity.
Hate speech, offensive words, fake news, deep fakes, privacy violations, information bubbles, bitcoin, Facebook, Silicon Valley, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Brexit: all must be controlled, criminalized, exploded, broken up, exposed, deposed, or repeated until the right answer is obtained.
None of this was up for discussion. None of it was uttered with the least semblance of self-awareness. In the same breath, a speaker called for the regulation of the web and the education of children in “tolerance.” If I had pointed out the contradiction, the speaker, I’m certain, would have denied it. Tolerance, for her, meant the obliteration of opinions she disliked.
In fact, each narrative loop I listed above ends with the elites happily in charge, and the obliteration of the wretched present. If we wish to understand why trust evaporated in the first place, consider the moral and political assumptions behind this rhetorical posture
The industrial elites have lost their way. In every major profession and institution, they once commanded vast, widely-admired projects that filled their lives with meaning and endowed the entire class with an unconquerable confidence. But the twentieth century couldn’t be preserved forever, like a bug in amber. The elites now face a radically transformed environment – and they are maladapted and demoralized. An inability to listen, an impulse to spew jargon in broadcast mode, a demand for social distance as the reward for professional success: such habits, which in the past placed them above and beyond the mob’s reach, now drag them down to contempt and mockery in the information sphere. Among the public, trust has curdled into loathing. The elites are horribly aware of their fall from grace – hence the conference – but being deaf to the public’s voice, they are clueless about how to respond.
To some extent, this is a family drama: the last gasp of the Baby Boomers before their children snatch the world away from their palsied hands. It would be good to believe that a rising generation, at ease with new models and habits, simply by taking over could broker a fair peace between the public and the industrial elites. But this places too great a weight of expectation on the young. They, too, no less than their elders, can be seduced by behavioral tics and rhetorical reflexes shaped by the imperatives of a vanished age. Always there have been those young in years but old at heart.
Both cohorts were represented at the conference. On the matter of the mysterious death of trust, each held a distinct theory of the case.
The senior people, largely white and male, seemed to believe that, in punishment for the sins of their fathers, trust had fractured along identity lines. Women today were thought to trust only women, for example. Muslims trusted Muslims, and no one else. Some archetypical essence of “woman” or “Muslim” made internal communications possible, and separated each group from the rest of the human race. It was, to be sure, a disaster of biblical proportions – the story of Babel told in the times of the tweet – and it left the men in charge desperate to put forward individuals of a different sex and skin coloration, to say the things they wanted to hear.
For younger elites, trust involves a sort of cosplay of historical conflicts. They put on elaborate rhetorical superhero costumes, and fight mock-epic battles with Nazis, fascists, “patriarchs,” slave-owners, George III, and the like. Because it’s only a game, no one gets seriously hurt – but nothing ever gets settled, either. Eventually, the young cosplayers must put away their costumes, take one last sip of Kombucha, and set off, seething with repressed virtue, to make money in the world as it really is.
I was intrigued by the pathology of mutual dependence between these generational postures. It’s the way abusive relationships are supposed to work – although, in all honesty, I was at a loss to say who was the abuser and who the abused.
We are living through the early stages of a colossal transformation: from the industrial age to something that doesn’t yet have a name. Many periods of history have been constrained by structural necessity. This isn’t one of them. Rather than a forking path, we face possibilities that radiate in every direction, like spokes from a hub. Even the immediate future seems up for grabs. We could see the formation of a hyper-connected liberal democracy, or plunge into nihilism and chaos – or we could contemplate arrangements and relations that are, at present, unimaginable.
The future will be determined not by vast, impersonal forces but by an accumulation of individual choices. Ultimately, the elites must lead the way. Whether selected by the public or self-anointed and self-perpetuating, they hold in hand the institutional levers of change: that’s just how the world works in a complex civilization. We will not transcend our petty and immobile present with protests or referendums.
The dilemma is that this present is defined by a radical distrust of the institutions of industrial society, and of the elites that control them, and of their statements and descriptions of reality. The conference organizers got our predicament right. At every level of contemporary social and political life, we are stuck in the muck of a profound crisis of authority. The mass audience of the twentieth century has fractured like a fallen mirror. An angry and alienated public inhabits the broken shards – and nobody speaks for the whole. The elites who should take the first step into the unknown are paralyzed by doubt and fear. They utter the words science and reason like incantations, claim ownership to Platonic truth, and believe, with astonishing unanimity, that they have been overthrown by a tsunami of lies. One need only restore truth to its former throne of glory, with themselves as mediating lords, they imagine, and the masses, as in the golden past, will bend the knee of trust.
But the solid masses are now a fractured public. Truth, for mediated information, is a question of perspective. Today the political and media elites must deal with a huge number of competing perspectives: theirs is but one reedy voice in the uproar. It never occurs to them, as it never did to my conference-goers, that they would profit from understanding the splintered perspectives of the public: why, for example, a devout Christian with eyes wide open might vote for a man like Donald Trump. A canonical explanation for Trump already existed, involving the usual tropes – fake news, Facebook, Putin. Racism took care of the remainder.
The decisive endeavor of our moment – far surmounting, I believe, any specific policy call – is the re-establishment of trust in the institutions of representative democracy. Only after the system has been reformed and the public has been reconciled to it can we again talk about truth as a self-evident proposition. Until then, all we will have is perspectives – fragments of truth circling, randomly, the gravitational power of some opinion. Appealing to tribal identity only compounds the fragmentation. Fighting imaginary fascists and Nazis can be no more rewarding than hugging an imaginary friend. What we need is a rhetoric aimed at the whole and persuasive to the whole – and for that to be possible, the public must be heard, and its perspectives, in their multiple and contradictory reality, must be taken seriously.
I left the conference uncertain about the prospects of the good people I had encountered there. They belonged to the class that should take all the forward places in the great migration away from this frozen hour, toward the new. Instead, they were transfixed with longing for a dead past. And the clock, for them, is ticking. The flood of events is sweeping forward ever faster. The public lost patience long ago. I had the sense of what it must have been like on the upper deck of the Titanic, minutes after the iceberg struck: the band was still playing, the proprieties were mostly maintained, but the pervasive mood was of hopelessness and doom.