Many of our institutions are failing us, and unless our faith in their competence and fairness is restored, I think we’re doomed. Institutions from Congress, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to the upper echelons of the Justice Department and FBI, from officials in Albany, the postal service, district attorney offices, and in some public-school systems and colleges, institutions created by the people to serve the people seem obsessed with serving themselves and not with doing a competent, not to mention great job.
Policies that are clearly destructive of good community order and safety — like the laissez-faire repeated release of violent criminals back to the streets — are imposed on citizens whose objections are ignored. Not only do such anti-civilization, get-out-of-jail-free policies further victimize us, they also erode our confidence in the institutions we thought existed for our benefit.
Abhor or admire him, Donald Trump was elected in 2016 in major part because most voters craved a return to competence after years of pedantic lectures but no achievement. Many of us think we’ve returned to wondering if anyone knows what they’re doing.
Politicians aren’t the only ones undermining our confidence in institutions. Since Covid-19 attacked us from Wuhan, China, we’ve looked to our public health organizations for reliable information. We understood that such a novel virus would make immutable guidance impossible. Faced with something so complicated and so new, we all accepted that scientists would need time to gather and analyze data before they could define the pandemic, predict its progress and develop vaccines and treatments.
What bothered so many of us is the supreme arrogance of the government’s public health community in the face of its amazing incompetence. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge,” said historian Daniel Boorstin. (It may have been Stephen Hawking.)
The Communicable Disease Center, the predecessor of the CDC, was formed in 1946. The CDC’s mission, according to its website, is to work “24/7 to protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S. Whether diseases start at home or abroad, are chronic or acute, curable or preventable, human error or deliberate attack, CDC fights disease and supports communities and citizens to do the same. CDC increases the health security of our nation. As the nation’s health protection agency, CDC saves lives and protects people from health threats.” It had 76 years of experience to prepare for what to do if a highly contagious virus started killing Americans.
In the 1880s, Congress commissioned the Marine Hospital Service with examining passengers on arriving ships for signs of infectious diseases in order to prevent epidemics. To specialize in that work, the MHS set up a small lab (on Staten Island), which would grow to be known as the National Institutes of Health. So the NIH has had about 130 years learning how to use medical science and best public health practices to prevent viral illnesses from becoming pandemics that might kill millions.
And yet in the winter of 2020 Americans had the impression that the CDC and the NIH didn’t know what the hell they were doing, even though they condescendingly acted like know-it-alls. That was a disastrous blow to our respect for those institutions. Worse than that was a suspicion that their leaders, Drs. Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins, knew more about China’s infectious disease research than they were letting on. It’s hard to tell what’s worse: Thinking our institutions are incompetent, or suspecting they’re hiding the whole truth from us.
Less critical than a bungling government and inept disease-control regime, there are other examples of once reliable and now ineffective institutions. Are you getting your mail as regularly and accurately delivered as you once did? How do you assess the common sense and general intelligence of most college grads you deal with on a daily basis? Do they inspire you with confidence in the future? When you deal with a business in person or by phone, do you feel like they know what they’re doing? When you read supposedly fact-based articles in newspapers, do you quickly see the bias or advocacy going on? Do you think new fellow employees are less able than the ones they replaced? What other examples of incompetence do you frequently encounter?
Institutions have only ever been as competent as the people in them and who lead them. It’s up to us to demand that our federal, state, county, local and school district institutions act competently. It’s up to people who call themselves journalists to discover and report the unbiased whole truth, without trading that truth for access to those institutions. It’s up to us to vote.
John O’Connell is a former executive editor of the Herald Community Newspapers. Comments? firstname.lastname@example.org.