It's a pleasure, of the schadenfreude variety, to sit back and watch the credibility peel off our principal institutions with no help from their usual critics.
Our corporate CEOs, for example, have gone from rocking to reeking in a mere two years. At the height of the dot-com bubble, when they had won the highest status American culture awards--that of "role model" and even "icon"--we hastened to offer them our adoration and, via the stock market, our life savings, as well. No traditional patriarchs, these--the '90s-era CEO combined the silver-templed authority figure of old with an appropriately up-to-date "out-of-the-box" image derived from Silicon Valley: reliable old dad and "edgy" young rebel wrapped into one. What was to rebel against when the leaders of our economy were already in full-throttle rebellion themselves--against irritatingly slow communications technologies, stultifying regulations, and obsolete national boundaries? If they earned 500 times more than their average employees, wasn't this a fit reward for the risks they took and the stress they endured?
But now--after Enron, Global Crossing, Adelphia, ImClone, Tyco, Merrill Lynch, WorldCom--it turns out the only thing they were rebelling against was common decency, and the only risk that of getting caught.
Or consider the federal agencies charged with saving us from gruesome deaths by terrorism. The FBI and the CIA, omnipotent bogeymen of my radical youth, turn out to possess archaic software and a system of information flow designed by Franz Kafka. And who would have guessed last fall, when the President promised us a long war, that these two agencies would be the warring parties? The only hope at the moment is that the new Department of Homeland Security will somehow be able to mediate.
The President himself--or as he was widely known before September 11, the "President"--has seen wild fluctuations in his credibility quotient. The nonelection of 2000, combined with the chosen winner's incurable callowness, left him scrambling for a bit of gravitas. After 9/11 though, and his subsequent bold pulverization of Afghanistan, Bush briefly had even liberals eating out of his hand. Maybe he was a dimwit about domestic governance and a sworn foe of birds and trees, but, the pundits insisted, he had crushed the "evildoers" with remarkable speed and aplomb.
A few months later, however, we discover that he was so complacent about the urgent warnings of oncoming terrorist attacks he received in the spring and summer of 2001 that he went ahead with his four-week vacation--the longest in Presidential history--while Atta and Co. were buying up box-cutters. He even followed up the particularly sharp warning of August 6 with a soothing afternoon spent fishing. To paraphrase the popular T-shirt slogan: Fish may fear him, but the terrorists of 9/11 had nothing to worry about.
Then there's the Catholic Church. A year ago, this ancient band of patriarchs stood fast against sexual pleasure in all but its married, reproductive forms, and endeavored--by prohibiting condoms, birth control, and abortion--to condemn sinners to pregnancy or AIDS. Now we know that the priests have been leveraging their alleged intimacy with the deity to get their hands into little kids' underpants, while John Paul II--God's infallible delegate to Earth--gazes on in perplexity, apparently unable to lift his chin from his chest.
It's not only the occasional radical crank who understands that our major institutions are rapidly approaching the reliability of Amtrak. In mid-June, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found 60 percent of Americans expressing "just some" or "very little" confidence in the government's intelligence agencies. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they didn't trust CEOs or brokerage firms not to lie, with particular hostility directed toward the captains of the pharmaceutical and oil industries. Sixty-eight percent thought the Catholic Church was trying to "cover up things" rather than root out its pederastic subculture. "After a surge of public optimism after September 11," the Journal concludes, "Americans now are expressing a loss of faith in a broad range of institutions."
Yet, strangely, things go on more or less as they have. People keep genuflecting at mass, entrusting their savings to the brokers and CEOs, and believing that the President is a fine fellow and fit match for Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or whoever it is. While his approval rating has dropped from the god-like 82 percent he enjoyed in January, it has dropped only to 69 percent--a level Bill Clinton would surely have envied. So far, the only spirited response to the general collapse of institutional credibility has come from those in the Catholic laity who are demanding a greater role for lay boards in the governance of the Church. No one has suggested that equivalent bodies--composed of, say, consumers, investors, and workers--play a similar role in the corporations, or that the President should be impeached for nodding off on the job.
Maybe we've lost the habit of citizenship, along with the idea that we--the "ordinary people"--are capable of leading. Announce a crisis in our institutionalized forms of leadership, and most of our neighbors would hasten to stock up on canned goods and hunker down in their basement dens. If no one's in charge--or at least no one you can count on--then it's everyone for him- or herself, right?
Or it could be that the problem lies deeper, in our collective subconscious. For at least two decades now, the right has endeavored to implant there a shivering fear of, and sneering contempt for, the fatherless condition. The only real families, the rightwing ideologues insist, are those with an adult male at the helm. Households headed by women are "broken"; the children of unwed women are, in right-talk, "illegitimate" rather than "born out of wedlock," as courtesy requires. In his influential 1995 book, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, David Blankenhorn traced almost everything--from teen violence to academic mediocrity--to the absence of strong fathers in the home. If we were to acknowledge that "Dad"--in the figurative sense shared by priests, Presidents, and CEOs--is a deadbeat, if not a criminal pervert, would that make the rest of us social misfits and possibly bastards?
But even the most reluctant child must eventually wake up to the fact that the grown-ups in charge can't always be trusted. What we have learned in the last few months is that no one is looking out for us, guiding our souls, or ensuring our future prosperity. And when the powerful begin to act irresponsibly, it's the responsibility of the rest of us to take their power away from them.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive and the author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" (Metropolitan Books, 2001).
Copyright 2002 The Progressive, Madison, WI