By Donella Meadows
–July 17, 1986–
Will Rogers said it’s not what we DON’T KNOW that will hurt us; it’s what we KNOW that ain’t so. Politics these days is more than usually full of things we know that ain’t so. My nominee for the person who has contributed most to the rising level of national delusion is Ronald Reagan.
The President is astoundingly effective not only at winning points for his side, but in shaping the very nature of the debate. He sets the questions, defines the terms, draws the boundaries. He takes complicated issues, about which there is honest difference of opinion, and simplifies away both uncertainty and opposition.
There used to be a hard choice among three ways to reduce government deficits: raise taxes, reduce military spending, cut domestic programs. Now it’s easy; we KNOW we can rule out the first two options.
Once we saw both problems and opportunities in the United Nations. Now we KNOW it’s a worthless and subversive outfit.
We used to wonder how to protect the environment and how to help people lift themselves out of poverty. Now we don’t even ask those questions.
The transformation in political discussion over the past six years has been amazing. Those of us who have seen our deepest concerns disappear from the national agenda are still wondering, “How does he do it?”
I think part of the answer is that he is an actor.
An actor can repeat a line over and over, take after take, and make it sound ever more convincing, whether there is any sense to it or not. “There’s not room enough in this town for the two of us.” “America is standing tall.” “We won a tremendous victory in Grenada.”
Our President never loses his sincerity, as he repeats lines like that, never reveals the slightest doubt or even boredom. I get pretty bored hearing about the nobility of the contra “freedom fighters”, but he doesn’t. His enthusiasm is fresh and boundless.
He is not discouraged when Congress votes down contra funding. He ignores evidence that contra leaders are using U.S. tax dollars for personal enrichment. With shining eyes and patient voice, he reminds us yet again that Managua is closer to Houston than Houston is to Washington, and that a refusal to fund the contras is a refusal to fund freedom. If he keeps it up long enough, facts cease to matter, thought stops, and Congress knuckles under.
Constant repetition eats into the human brain. It carves mind-channels deeper and deeper until emotions can run free without being snagged by reason or doubt. The advertising industry operates on this principle of unrelenting repetition. “You deserve a break today.” “Coke is it.” When that kind of sloganizing is applied to substantive issues, it drowns out opposing views and stifles discussion.
Acting is an even more formidable political tool when it is combined with ideology.
Ideology makes sense of the world by affirming that there are only two sides to any issue, one of them is purely wrong, and you know which one. It allows you to KNOW things like this:
If you do not support right-wing dictators, that must mean you support left-wing dictators.
If you see faults in the free-market system, then you must be a socialist. If you’re for the environment, you’re against the economy.
Black/white. Right/wrong. No middle ground. Government messes up everything it puts its hand to. Private enterprise is always right. The Russians cheat on treaties but we never do. I suppose any actor could put across points like this, but only an ideologue would want to.
In fairness to the President, he is not the only actor around, and certainly not the only ideologue. But he is the best. He is so masterful that he legitimizes the whole style of argument. Others then leap in to overwhelm discussion with repetition, to wield symbols instead of reason, to ridicule and label the opposition. We even elect them to office.
Why do we? Is it because we sense the true, deep uncertainty of these times, and rather than face that uncertainty, we would rather believe that someone, somewhere KNOWS?
Of course there are plenty of people who still think that the environment needs protecting, that poor people need compassion, that negotiation is preferable to weaponry, that raising taxes some now is better than raising taxes more later. But so many of these people have become discouraged. They are tired of having their patriotism or morality impugned. They are unwilling to enter the fray at its new low level and fling back mindless counter-slogans. They would rather lie low until thinking in public is once again permissible.
Even in normal times it’s not easy to seek the whole truth or voice your conscience. It’s even harder to keep bringing up contrary ideas in an atmosphere of acting and ideology, slogans and ridicule. But by some perverse law of politics, the harder it gets to speak out, the more important it is to do so.
If you and I and everyone else who has doubts and questions keep quiet, the only ones talking will be those who KNOW. And that will create big trouble, if what they know ain’t so.
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011