Mistrust: The Real New Normal

We make them pledge allegiance to the flag. We make them stand for the national anthem. But the days of “better dead than red” are well behind us.  Our children aren’t buying, even if we still shed a tear when we hear “and our flag was still there.”

In a New York Times op-ed. Northwestern philosophy prof Peter Ludlow writes about the “banality of systemic evil,”

In recent months there has been a visible struggle in the media to come to grips with the leaking, whistle-blowing and hacktivism that has vexed the United States military and the private and government intelligence communities. This response has run the gamut. It has involved attempts to condemn, support, demonize, psychoanalyze and in some cases canonize figures like Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

So has the younger generation lost its moral compass?

No. In my view, just the opposite.

When I was young, I protested against the Vietnam War. We took to the streets to make our voices heard.  Our parents responded with gems like “America, love it or leave it,” which they thought to be pretty darned persuasive. We didn’t see eye to eye.

When my kids were in high school, we would attend an “awards night” where they handed out trophies, plaques and small amounts of money they called scholarships. What struck me was how many of the awards were given for things like citizenship. I remember thinking that some kid would be forever tainted by winning “best lemming.” He must have been so proud.

Most of today’s youth don’t spend their time marching. They focus instead on their shiny toys, their future riches and how they can achieve a fulfilling life without ever leaving the comfort of their mommy’s basement.  But that doesn’t mean they’re on board with the program.  We may not see it on the telly, but the trust that our government, our police, our nation is there to do right is broken.

Clearly, there is a moral principle at work in the actions of the leakers, whistle-blowers and hacktivists and those who support them. I would also argue that that moral principle has been clearly articulated, and it may just save us from a dystopian future.

While their parents make excuses for the government, having chosen to suffer what they perceive to be petty indignities in the loss of freedom and privacy in order to obtain the greater need, the perception of safety, the view from below isn’t the same.  It’s not so much that they are sticklers for such things as freedom or privacy as concepts, as they willingly give it away cheap via iPad to enjoy an enhanced user experience.  It’s that they just don’t trust the official world, the paternalistic “don’t worry, everything will be alright.” They may not worry, but they also don’t believe it will be alright.

So the leakers, whistle-blowers and hacktivists are today’s cool outlaws, Robin Hoods of the information age.  While elders question what “arrogance or hubris” makes them think that they are so special that they “see clearer than [the] other 299,999,999 of us” do not, the number is way off. They see what many of the youth see, a government that can’t be trusted and allowed to do so by their parents with eyes tightly shut.  That they fling open the barn door is because they have the guts and access that allows them to be modern day heroes.

For the leaker and whistleblower the answer to Bolton is that there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord. Systems are optimized for their own survival and preventing the system from doing evil may well require breaking with organizational niceties, protocols or laws. It requires stepping outside of one’s assigned organizational role. The chief executive is not in a better position to recognize systemic evil than is a middle level manager or, for that matter, an IT contractor. Recognizing systemic evil does not require rank or intelligence, just honesty of vision.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that people of conscience are necessarily right in their choices. I hesitate to throw stones, recalling how many ideas we embraced from the 60′s that were just ridiculous, and how many others changed as we aged and our perspective changed.

But that they embrace the leakers, whistle-blowers and hactivists doesn’t require that they be right in every instance. It just requires that they care, and it’s far better that they care about something that matters than about the color options for the iPhone 5C.

The media’s desire to psychoanalyze members of generation W is natural enough. They want to know why these people are acting in a way that they, members of the corporate media, would not. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; if there are psychological motivations for whistleblowing, leaking and hacktivism, there are likewise psychological motivations for closing ranks with the power structure within a system — in this case a system in which corporate media plays an important role. Similarly it is possible that the system itself is sick, even though the actors within the organization are behaving in accord with organizational etiquette and respecting the internal bonds of trust.

As the revelations of what the government has been doing for our own good come to light, the old hippie in me reels with outrage.  The Neidermeyers won.  While I may have chosen my lot to defend the Constitution by representing the accused, others put on the hat of a government official and decided they knew better and would save America from itself.

I know too many people from the old days who served as elected officials, judges, who have become the “middle managers” that Ludlow writes about, going along to get along, protecting the status quo, elevating some bizarre idea that we can create this perfectly safe world by trusting them and the government to do what’s in our best interest.

So the kids, for all their otherwise self-entitled affectations, have lost faith in our institutions. And they applaud the handful of leakers, whistle-blowers and hacktivists who have the gall to take it upon themselves to act out of conscience.  You don’t have to agree with them. You don’t have to think they’re right in each instance. I don’t. But to know that they care enough to question and doubt, to embrace the outlaws rather than the institutions, means there is hope.

Years from now, they may look back and see why some of their choices weren’t nearly as good as they think now, just as I do.  Time will tell whether the leakers, whistle-blowers and hacktivists were heroes or arrogant narcissists. But without them, there would be no challenge to the banality of systemic evil, and that would be worse than making mistakes of conscience.

2 comments on “Mistrust: The Real New Normal

  1. Chris Ryan

    When these style conversations come up (and I try to have them regularly) I am always left with two basic thought problems.

    The first is similar to what your parents always told you”do two wrongs make a right?” And in time the answer can be yes. Without knowing the intent, which is next to impossible to know, all we are left to judge by is the long term consequences. If they turn out for the better, then the people were “heroes”, if not they were just criminals.

    The second is the that if you look back, each generation has had it’s moment where they go out and do a lot of things (some really dumb others not) over a topic that at the time is mocked/challenged as against conventional wisdom. Hindsight has shown the topics to be on target if the methods aren’t always as such. As a parent of young kids, I can only hope when my kids come banging on my door with their cause, I am bright enough to realize my error. This is also coupled with the hope that how I screw them up will not be viewed as socially unacceptable when they reach my age.

    Kids are our conscience. They are the only ones innocent and/or naive enough to look at issues in the most primal form and ask hard questions without the luxury of years of built up preconceptions tainting their opinion.

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