The question came up this past week at the gym with my friend, Scott--a sports fan and a fellow Tour de France enthusiast. He and I have often talked, over the years, about the prevalence of drugs in sports, and he told me the other day that the tennis player Andre Agassi had admitted, in a recent memoir, to the routine use of methamphetamines to get the aggressive juices flowing. In the past, my conversations with Scott have generally centered on the use of performance enhancers. The continuing scandals in the world of professional cycling were among the first to draw attention to the problem. Since then there has been a seemingly endless stream of accusations, denials, admissions, confessions, penalties and expulsions, and even some criminal trials affecting virtually every realm of sport.
Things have reached a point now, in sports, where it's hard to believe that any win is earned without cheating. It would be convenient to believe that there were just a few "bad apples", as our former president might say. But we are now in a place where we know that the barrel is spoiled. The kind of trust we need to believe in an equal contest between two athletes or two teams of athletes has evaporated, and once that is gone, the whole foundation collapses. If it's no longer about skill, talent, stamina and sportsmanship, it reverts, inexorably, to that familiar, remorseless competition for money and power.
Unhappily, the playing field persists as a metaphor for life. The erosion of trust extends to every aspect of our lives, from the food we buy and consume to the activities of the corporate and financial world to the realm of national and international affairs. The bank was once the solid symbol of trustworthiness. Who trusts the banking system these days, after the scandals of the past twelve months? The mattress seems like an increasingly sane alternative. Wall Street? The good faith of companies whose stocks are bought and sold? The very thought is risible. We once thought we could rely on our government to insure that the markets did not run amok. An article in today's New York Times tracks the lamentable failures of the SEC to detect the largest Ponzi scheme in history (Bernard Madoff's) when the evidence stared them in the face.
Do we trust our lawyers? Our doctors? Our police? Our politicians? Our neighbors? No more than our athletes. Where's the integrity? When so many show themselves to be untrustworthy, ruthless in the pursuit of their own interests and heedless of those of others, the whole system is undermined. The glue that holds us together as a society is gone. Our loss of trust in government--and, too often rightfully, in the politicians who represent us--has made our country virtually ungovernable. Without a pact of mutual trust between the governed and the governing, the hands of policy-makers are tied. We look to Washington and see paralysis, in good part because no one is prepared to trust anyone else. In California, where I live, we are now victim to our own mistrust. We are confronted with the spectacle of the results: highways crumble, hospitals close, what was once the greatest educational system in the country--perhaps in the world--is in a shambles. Were the effects not so dire in the lives of so many of our citizens, it would be simply laughable. I imagine myself arriving from another planet and trying to make sense of the absurdity.
We impugn the good along with the bad, refusing to recognize a distinction between healthy skepticism and the rush to mistrust. We elected what I persist in believing to be a man with a good heart and a good head to be president, handing him a mess more monumental than the Augean stables to clean up. How many years did it take to create this mess? But before six months are up--well, nine, now--he is under daily attack not only from those who oppose him but from those who worked for his election. How quick many of us have been to label him "just another politician."
Oh, and lest it be thought that I'm speaking exclusively about America... No, I'm speaking of a global pandemic. Look to the Middle East, to Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan for the effects of mutual mistrust. Look to Iran and Israel. Look to our relations with China, with Russia... I don't usually have much to say for Ronald Reagan, but his principle in this regard seemed a like good one: Trust, but verify. In today's New York Times, again, two articles--one about the theft or damage inflicted on 80 percent (eighty!) of those sturdy bicycles included in a wonderful program to make the two-wheelers readily available and returnable to convenient locations throughout urban areas, in an effort to reduce congestion and pollution; and another about the charges of corruption now being leveled against former President Jacques Chirac.
It seems that these days cheating is the norm. We can no longer expect integrity from our leaders; we no longer expect it of our neighbors; and we no longer expect it of ourselves. And yet... without it, what do we have left to count on in our relationship with others and the world? And where do we start to mend this broken web we so much need for our mutual security and welfare? There's only one place I know of: each of us in ourselves. If it ever happens, it will be a very long, slow process. If it doesn't, woe betide us all.