By Donella Meadows
–June 9, 1989–
In Iran the Ayatollah died. In Poland the people, voting semi-freely for the first time in 40 years, rejected their party leaders. In the United States the Speaker of the House, two heartbeats away from the Presidency, stepped down, covered with mud. In China the People’s Army fired into a crowd of unarmed people.
It was a week to humble anyone who believes that human affairs are under the permanent control of any identifiable group of humans. A religious potentate, a Communist party, a Congressional leader, an organized, self-empowered, idealistic mass fell to guns, to elections, to ethical standards, to old age. It was a week to raise ancient, deeply disturbing questions about power and leadership.
The media played their assigned role of communicating events quickly and dramatically. They also played their unassigned role of deflecting profound questions with answers too quick and too simple.
While leadership was crumbling around the world, our media were calling for leadership. They pressed those still in authority to act strongly and tell us what to think. President Bush has not said anything yet, the nightly news reminded us, impatiently. He hasn’t done anything. His response to China is late and feeble.
It’s not clear what the President could have done this week, but the press created an unbearable thirst for Firm Leadership. A leader must Do Something decisive and photogenic. He must flourish the instruments of power — redirect a few billion dollars, place warships strategically, withdraw ambassadors. At the very least, he must give forth ringing, comforting words.
Say something tough about China, the editorialists insisted. Celebrate Solidarity. Stick it to Iran. Pretend that you, our President, are on top of these momentous events, though they are in fact beyond your control.
George Bush didn’t pretend. He is no swashbuckler. He is a careful, often inarticulate man, who in this week of grave happenings, when he finally did speak, came up with words like these: “It looks to me like there’s quite a move moving towards this freedom and democracy.”
“When you see these kids struggling for democracy and freedom, this would be a bad time for the United States to withdraw and pull back and leave them to the devices of a leadership that might decide to crack down further.”
“Now is the time to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States…. It’s important … to act in a way that will encourage the further development and deepening of the positive elements of that relationship and the process of democratization.”
I didn’t want my President to Do Something this week, but I did want more stirring words than those from him. I wanted him to speak powerfully for us all — to express our exasperation with the sleaziness not only of Jim Wright, but of those who brought him down, our hope for the Polish people, our aversion to the medieval barbarity in Tehran, our horror at the massacre in Tiananmen Square.
I wanted him to anchor us in great principles. I wished for him the pen of Thomas Jefferson: “In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories.”
I wanted some leader, somewhere, to remind us that we have a right to expect governments to be good, and that they can be good. Jefferson again: “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail. No longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another; but deal out to all equal and impartial right.”
George Bush honorably refused to fall in with a macho idea of leadership that was incompatible with the week’s events. He said, modestly and rightly, “We aren’t going to remake the world, but we should stand for something.” He didn’t say for what. So, either by default or design, he left the thinking, defining, principle-setting, and power in our hands, just where it belongs.
In the vacuum he left, I began to see that people don’t really need leaders to cut through the confusing tangle of daily events and pull out enduring truths. It was apparent to everyone this week that military strength has only the power to mow down people, but that the idea of democracy has the power to empower millions. And that idea of democracy means that governments will not hold themselves to high standards of human behavior unless we demand that they do.
George Bush didn’t say those things, at least not clearly. Our newscasters were implying the opposite — they were waiting around mindlessly for demonstrations of authority, like the keening, veiled crowds in Tehran. But the message came through the camera lens — decent government comes only from the patience, suffering, integrity, strength, and insistence of the people. It’s our own founding message, more than two hundred years old, reverberating back to us from a Polish shipbuilder and thousands of courageous Chinese students.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989