By Donella Meadows
–July 16, 1987–
Last week while I was watching Oliver North testify before Congress, I was also reading a biography of the great American writer E.B. White. I lived alternately in the worlds of North the True Believer and White the Eternal Skeptic.
North said, “I am going to walk out of here with my head up and my shoulders straight because I am proud of our accomplishments.” White wrote about “the needless chaos and the cruelty of a world that is composed of a hundred nations, each spying on the others, each plotting against the others, each concerned almost solely with its own bailiwick and its own stunt.”
I was surprised at how much I sympathized with Ollie North. I don’t agree with any of his beliefs. I don’t think that the Free World is in a struggle for survival, or that covert operations are consistent with democracy, or that arming guerillas can win the hearts, minds, or governments of Third World peoples. But I understand what it is to be a Believer. I like to think of myself as devoted to noble causes. I too can overcome obstacles through courage, persistence, and Shining Purity. I define who I am, magnify my identity, and recognize my enemies through my crusades, just like Ollie.
My friends of the E.B. White type respond to my zeal with alarm. Watch out, there she goes again, off to end hunger or eliminate nuclear weapons or save the tropical forests. Many of these friends are Europeans, and I used to attribute their skepticism to their worn-out continent, their empires in decline.
Now, watching North and reading White, I understand those friends better. Ollie’s obedience to his “superiors”, his burning energy, his glowing righteousness, must bring painful memories to European audiences. Every time Europe has been reduced to rubble, it has been in the name of some glorious cause — Jesus, Mohammed, the King, the Pope, the Fatherland, the Proletariat. Europeans must, like White, find it “sobering to encounter the idealists at work, for they seem to live in a realm of their own, making their plans for the world in much the same way that any common tyrant does.”
Skeptics never forget the complexity of the world or the smallness and ignorance of any one person. They aren’t sure enough of anything to lay it on everyone else. They trust not in high principles, but in small experiences. White talked about the smell of wet city streets, the look of a barn, the feelings of a simple citizen with great events swirling around him. He didn’t talk about Saving the World for Democracy, unless he was making a joke.
White saw more of the world than just what fit his beliefs. He operated not from a rulebook but from common sense. If he were still around, he would point out that Ollie North’s schemes to defend democracy attracted as partners thugs, international gun-runners, and some of the world’s most undemocratic rulers. He would suspect that the policies being kept so secret — trading arms for hostages and funding contra rebels — were being hidden not from our enemies (who, by Ollie’s own testimony, already knew about them), but from the American people (who, by a large majority, opposed them). He would ask discomforting practical questions: Are we really reducing the number of hostages? Are we at all shaking the Nicaraguans’ faith in their government? Why is it that the harder we push these policies, the less they seem to work?
Above all, White would not interpret opposing opinions as lack of patriotism. Only people out at the dangerous extremes of True Believerdom fail to respect the holders of other beliefs. E.B. White was a patriot himself, as fervent as Ollie North, but his patriotism was prompted by New England snowstorms and tempered by doubts. He wrote:
“To hold America in one’s thoughts is like holding a love letter in one’s hand — it has so special a meaning. Since I started writing this column snow has begun falling again: I sit in my room watching the re-enactment of this stagy old phenomenon outside the window. For this cameo of New England with snow falling, I would give everything. Yet I know that this very loyalty, this respect for one’s native scene — I know that such emotions have had a big part in the world’s wars. Who is there big enough to love the whole planet?”
Love for the Whole Planet. Now that’s my kind of Belief. I could go out and preach it (I do sometimes) and attack or discount or despise anyone who doesn’t properly exhibit it. I hope I won’t, but I’m capable of it.
The trick is to balance the Believer and the Skeptic in me and in all of us. My love for the planet is fine if it’s kept solidly based on the topsoil of my farm. Love for democracy is not dangerous if it’s based on a respect for the opinions of real people, close to me, who, as E.B. White said, “are all full of tiny faults and virtues and whose name is Schmalz and Henderson”. Some small-b beliefs arise naturally out of skepticism — such as the belief that the people ought not to be manipulated, lied to, or subverted by me or Ollie North or any other True Believer, no matter how great the cause.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987