When news broke that Sweden wouldn't lock down in response to the coronavirus, we heard a lot about that country as a "high trust" society that didn't need restrictive government mandates. Sometimes the conversation went on to suggest that the U.S. is a lower trust society.
Certainly parts of the U.S. are low trust. In the Bench Area of San Bernardino, Calif., where I grew up, bicycles would be stolen even if they were locked with chains. After 17 years in Siloam Springs, I'm still amazed at the sight of well-functioning, unlocked bikes sitting in the open, untouched, for days.
Then there was the time I forgot a credit card at a local restaurant and it remained there safely until I came for it a week later. There was the time when I left my sunglasses on a bench near JBU and they were still there the next day. And there is the general peace of the streets. Such things suggest that Siloam Springs is a relatively high trust community.
But there are competing signs. Over several weekends in the early summer, my kids and I spent hours picking up what eventually amounted to about 20 large bags of trash that had collected in different parts of town. After doing that, it's hard not to see the trash that re-collects, and one especially notices the beer cans, water bottles, fast food cups and candy wrappers that are obviously chucked or purposely left.
At the least, intentional littering suggests indifference to the community, and there's a lot of it going on, particularly in those in-between places no one seems to be responsible for. You don't really notice how much trash there is in the fields and along the roads until you clean it up. And then you see how quickly those areas get trashed again. Anyone who has traveled much knows that litter is a mark of lower trust.
Another low-trust marker comes in the form of reactions to articles I've written about the government's response to the coronavirus. On the one hand, there have been notes from people offering thanks for the expression of what they think but are reluctant to say. Some are reluctant just because they have always tended to avoid talking about controversial things. But others stay quiet from a fear of pressure or retaliation. It's distressing that some in Siloam Springs feel that their freedom of expression has been, basically, nullified.
On the other side have been the words of people who don't just disagree but are out to slander and personally destroy. I began public writing 30 years ago, and one expects unhappy responses, but casual online defamation is something new and sinister.
The division that roils the country in general has also settled in Siloam Springs. This is unfortunate because people of different political dispositions need each other. Liberals promote social reform. Conservatives promote social order. Both are necessary. And all who share a commitment to personal freedom have a common interest in uniting against a spirit of hatred and intolerance that's animated by ideological certainty, nourished by political self-righteousness, and that deploys words like "love" and "justice" not as noble ideals but as political weapons.
It really does seem that the First Amendment is endangered, even here. People of all political persuasions have a common interest in preserving and promoting freedom of thought and expression.
So, is Siloam Springs a high-trust place? Relative to many other places, yes. But there are frowning signs.
And so we come to the last item, relevant to the upcoming local election. Candidates for city positions tell us that they care about Siloam Springs. I hope they can see that rapid, Springdale-like growth and a cohesive sense of community are probably incompatible.
Communities with no coherent sense of self tend toward lower levels of trust. And when levels of trust decline, quality of life goes with it.
-- Preston Jones is a Siloam Springs resident and history professor. The opinions expressed are those of the author.