A Vietnam War veteran had a pretty interesting essay in the New York Times over the weekend.
Essentially, Karl Marlantes argues that the Vietnam War is what caused us to lose trust in our institutions and that lacking this trust has prevented us from being great.
Vietnam changed the way we looked at politics. We became inured to our leaders lying in the war: the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, the number of “pacified provinces” (and what did “pacified” mean, anyway?), the inflated body counts.
People talked about Johnson’s “credibility gap.” This was a genteel way of saying that the president was lying. Then, however, a credibility gap was considered unusual and bad. By the end of the war, it was still considered bad, but it was no longer unusual. When politicians lie today, fact checkers might point out what is true, but then everyone moves on.
We have switched from naïveté to cynicism. One could argue that they are opposites, but I think not. With naïveté you risk disillusionment, which is what happened to me and many of my generation. Cynicism, however, stops you before you start. It alienates us from “the government,” a phrase that today connotes bureaucratic quagmire. It threatens democracy, because it destroys the power of the people to even want to make change.
Perhaps we should be cynical. If most politicians lie, and fact checkers prove it repeatedly, why would it ever make sense to trust the government? We’re not going to turn off our cynicism and simply pretend these lies don’t exist. Instead, we’re going to have to hold our politicians accountable, and then when we elect the right ones, trust them, but with a healthy bit of skepticism. This means demanding character as a requirement for candidates in order for them to receive your vote, which is something that was lost in this election cycle. Many argued that it didn’t matter what Trump’s character was as long as he did right-wing things in the Oval Office. Of course it matters. How can we trust him to do the right thing if we cannot trust he is a good person? Same on the left. Many argued that Hillary’s character didn’t matter as long she did left-wing things in the Oval Office. For this reason, scandals on both sides were overlooked and defended.
We’re never going to be able to trust our government if we accept and make excuses for our lying elected officials. At least in Vietnam, many held the leaders who were lying accountable instead of defending them for partisan reasons. We could still trust our institutions because we could expect them to be held accountable. While Vietnam caused may have caused us to distrust our government, Bill Clinton’s sex scandal cemented our cynicism by revealing the blatant partisanship of our institutions and removing accountability. Bill lied to Congress, he lied to the American people, and he committed an act that just decades before most Americans would have found scandalous. But instead of both sides of the political aisle condemning his actions, Democrats defended him – in Congress and in the media – because apparently his personal life held no importance to the American people. Yet, the left has since gone on and on about sexual harassment in the workplace, forgetting that they made excuses for the most prominent example of it in American history. Clinton wasn’t held accountable, and now partisan defenses of outright lies have become the norm.
Now, party and media members on both sides feel compelled to lie for their favored elected officials because they believe there will be no consequences. They also believe that if they don’t, they will be at a disadvantage against the character-lacking liars on the other side. This has to stop. Everyone has to see truth for truth and demand it because truth is the only thing we can all, eventually, agree on.