There are few traits more detrimental to society than cynicism. It eats away at the foundations of civility and governance by automatically questioning actions and motives. And in one of the more disturbing trends of the past 20 years, much of our journalism seems to be infected by cynicism, in reality a cheap way to sound worldly and wise.
This trend is most worrisome when it comes to our institutions of democratic governance. Now, many of our elected leaders have either encouraged or accelerated our cynical attitudes toward government. It is hard not to be cynical when we’re served up lies on the evening news. But if we lose sight of the distinction between liars and institutions, as is easy to do, we undermine the very structure of our way of life.
I was reminded of that distinction recently when I spent a few days in Washington, D.C. I worked there a dozen years ago on the staff of then U.S. Rep. Patricia Saiki, who represented Hawaii’s First Congressional District (Urban Honolulu). Many of the players have changed, but the essence of the city remains: the ultimate company town where life revolves around policy, politics and personalities.
I was there this time for programs sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Association. I was joined by Les and Laura Sherrill, the owners of Kapolei-based South Pacific Steel Co., and Ricky Price, who owns Hawaii’s Fast Lube outlets. We were in Washington to accept awards as part of the SBA’s Small Business Week.
This was the first trip to Washington for most of the Sherrill family. You don’t travel that far to spend all of your time in seminars. So with the Sherrill’s two young daughters in tow, we headed out to be tourists for an afternoon.
The chance to walk the Mall between the Capitol and Washington monument with the Sherrill family was also a reminder that, even in these cynical times, we remain a nation of optimists. We even took the subway and went to the White House (actually, the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk in front of the White House) where we had our pictures taken in front of the building. We were there with what seemed to be every school child in America.
Whether it was the crowds outside of the White House, or the huge lines of visitors waiting to tour the Capitol, there was a sense of excitement in the air. The visitors, including ourselves, were moved by actually seeing places of governance that they’d only seen on television. Cynicism was no where to be heard or seen.
When I worked for Mrs. Saiki, all staffers used to pitch in and show visitors from Hawaii around the Capitol. It was a bit easier in those days; security was tight, but nothing like it is today. On occasion, when the House was not in session, I was able to take visitors onto the floor of the House chamber, just below where the president addresses the Congress. Being in that historic chamber was always a moving experience, for visitors and for myself.
Perhaps that is what was so refreshing about mingling with tourist throngs on the Mall. They were in awe of the physical reminders of our institutions of political governance. They craned their necks when a familiar senator or representative walked by on the Capitol grounds. It wasn’t quite Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but it was pretty darn close.
The adage that’s often used about congressional members is that the public gripes about "The Congress," but when it comes to a particular senator or representative, it’s another matter. Your member meets with you to talk about how your business will be impacted by a new regulation or tax. Your member arranges to have tickets for Capitol and White House tours waiting when your family arrives in Washington. Your member helps arrange to get a daughter reassigned from an Army post in Germany to Schofield Barracks to be closer to an ailing parent. Your member arranges to place the accomplishments of your child’s Boy Scout Troop into the Congressional Record.
Let’s remember that day-to-day reality of governance as we navigate our way through the cynicism of the age.
In a story titled "Garden Party" in the May 2000 issue, the owner of The Plant Place was incorrectly identified. Ellen Yee is her correct name. In "Voices of Authority" in the June 2000 issue, Hawaii Tourism Authority board member Roy Tokujo was incorrectly identified in a photo caption as Gilbert Kimura. Hawaii Business regrets these errors.
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