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Weary, shut out and mistrustful

“Mommy,” says the sweet child on a refrigerator magnet, “I’m scared of the government.”

It’s not just a joke any more. Faith in our elected officials is fading faster than the days of summer. Increasingly high numbers of Americans might be joining the little girl.

Scorning government, of course, is an American pastime, almost as much a part of our country as apple pie and motherhood. But fear of government?

The teabag demonstrators, town hall meeting hecklers – and studious distrusters – seem to be increasing. Will the wave of unhappiness swamp government’s ability to win backing for solutions to problems like health care reform, to cite the most current case in point?

Sometimes the causes are easy to identify: the sometimes contradictory unhappiness of those who fear government will change or dismantle a government program they depend on.

Sometimes the erosion is less direct but damaging nonetheless.

Governmental gridlock

Thomas Perez, until this week Maryland’s secretary of labor, licensing and regulation, was appointed head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights. Perez was immediately swept into the waiting-for-confirmation purgatory, pinioned there by Republicans eager to get back at Democrats for doing similar things to their appointees. The result: important civil rights matters essentially set aside until the new chief was confirmed – which happened this week.

Usually, of course, distrust springs from issues with more personal significance. The evidence of unhappiness is hard to overlook.

In a recent radio commentary, I suggested that President Barack Obama had flown to Copenhagen in search of Olympic gold because he was thoroughly stymied in Washington. He wanted to “get away,” as the airline ad says.

I got this reply from a listener. Obama, he said, brought it on himself by biting off more than he could chew.

I got this e-mail.

“… why the spin on your part to make it seem like EVERYONE else surrounding the President is causing him heartburn? … the uncooperative Congress “shredding” his healthcare bill….the pesky Generals for asking for more troops. … the public for his sagging polls. It seems as if it’s everyone else’s fault that the President needs to “get away”, as you put it.

“I think the expression you should have used is …… “Mr. President, you’ve made your bed, now you’ve got to sleep in it”. However, your liberal bias surely prohibits you from stating something so obvious.”

I wrote back: I was trying to have a little fun, I said. I didn’t think there was any spin. My correspondent responded:

“I suppose I’m just not as “happy-go-lucky” as some others at this point.  I’m upset at a lot of things…..upset at the Democrats AND Republicans in Congress, as their sense of entitlement and self-righteousness is highly frustrating…..upset that our troops in Afghanistan are being left out to dry while the President “analyzes the situation”…..upset at the President himself for most of the policies he’s trying to implement.”

Adrift in a sea of viewpoints

He went on:

“I’m not a fan of Big Government, and just because he “inherited” a large deficit doesn’t give justification for quadrupling it (or whatever it’s going to balloon towards by the time he’s through)….Two wrongs don’t make a right…..and I’m just as upset with the prior administration as I am with the current.

“So, you’ll have to excuse me for immediately assuming there was a slant to your editorial.  It’s just that I’ve heard it before…not just from you, but from anyone that has a chance to voice their opinion to the masses. That’s precisely why one really can’t have humans reporting “facts”.  For as soon as you introduce the human element into the equation, you automatically get bias….either through body language, expression or just plain old wording. As soon as you have humans involved, the “fix is in”, so to speak.  I’m sure you understand my point.”

Another letter addressed my use of the word “crazies” to characterize some of the summer’s protesters. I was not as precise as I should have been. I was referring to those who liken Obama to Hitler, who won’t let senators and representatives speak.

A bumper sticker I saw on a huge pickup the other day said, “How’s that hope and change working out for you so far?”

We want instant change or we lose hope. We’re living in a bumper sticker world. If you can’t get it said in a one-liner, you’re lost.

Newspapers were honest brokers in society once, offering considered viewpoints on the big issues. Technology and the economy have kicked the props away. We’re adrift in a sea of viewpoints on more and more difficult issues.

Said one of my correspondents:

“It becomes very wearying and it makes us out here — those not in the press — feel shut out. We tune out and do not trust.”

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.