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Commentary: Let's Celebrate American Skepticism

May 26, 2015

Andrew Fiala

Should we trust the government and the other institutions of social and political life?  Most of us don’t.  And distrust seems to be growing, especially among young people.  In this commentary, Andrew Fiala—a philosopher at Fresno State—argues that trust has to be earned.  Fiala argues that skepticism is a central feature of democracy and that recent events make give us good reason to be skeptical.

According to a recent Pew Center poll, only 23% of Americans trust the government to do the right thing most of the time.  Young people are especially disaffected. A recent poll from Harvard University concludes that almost half of Americans aged 18- to 29 don’t believe that the justice system is fair.  The numbers are higher for black and Hispanic youth.  Youthful cynicism extends to Wall Street and the media. 

Some may worry that a nation cannot survive with a skeptical majority.  But cynicism is a virtue in a democracy.  There is nothing more American than questioning authority. 

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.

Mistrust is found across the political spectrum.  In the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, underprivileged communities express their lack of faith in authority.  Meanwhile in the capital of Texas, the Governor publicly worried that military exercises could foreshadow a Federal take-over of the state. 

There is enough corruption and deception in the world to support a variety of conspiracy theories. 

Consider Seymour Hersh’s recent account of the death of Osama Bin Ladin.  According to Hersh, Bin Ladin was assassinated in cold blood with the approval of Pakistan.  There was no firefight and Bin Ladin’s body was never buried at sea.  According to Hersh, the Obama administration’s Bin Ladin story was confused and confabulated.

Now Hersh is a respected journalist.  But can we believe him?  Other prominent journalists—Brian Williams, for example—have been discredited.  Who can you trust in the news media? 

And how can we ever know the truth about classified information and covert operations?  Which brings us to General David Petraeus, the discredited CIA Director who recently plead guilty to mishandling classified material.  If you can’t trust a four-star general and the nation’s top spy, who can you trust?

In the 1960’s young people used to say, “don’t trust anyone over 30.”  The youth of today have witnessed terrorist attacks, unjust wars, racist administration of justice, economic meltdowns and income inequality, as well as looming environmental disaster.  Our youth work hard; but they can’t pay off their student loans.  They value democracy; but political dynasties and big money rule.  The youth have good reason to be incredulous.

So let’s celebrate American skepticism.  Our cynicism is based upon hopeful idealism: we want a system that we can believe in.  In a democracy, the authorities have to prove that we can trust them to be fair, honest, and humane.  Prove to us, the doubting youth demands, that you are worthy of our allegiance.  Prove to us, the democratic public demands, that this really is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. 

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.