By Donella Meadows
–September 1, 1988–
A Supreme Court Justice should not be a former pot smoker. That’s what some outraged people said last fall, as they demanded that nominee Douglas Ginsburg withdraw his candidacy. We can’t have a high national official who has smoked marijuana. What kind of lesson would that be for our children?
There are indeed powerful lessons for our children in the standards we apply to candidates seeking high public office. The kids must have learned by now that they can’t just innocently dream of growing up to be President. They have to have the right stuff on their resumes — and none of the wrong stuff. If they are paying attention in this election year, our children are learning much about what is right and what is wrong.
It is wrong, for instance, to be caught fooling around with attractive models to whom one is not married (the brighter children will have noticed that the operational word is CAUGHT).
It is wrong to quote others without attribution. It’s OK, though, to read without attribution rousing speeches, every word of which has been written by someone else. (The fine ethical line there may be difficult for kids to understand.)
Every alert child has gathered that you cannot be the leader of this land if you are black. You can be a candidate, if you insist, and you will be heard very, very politely, but you will not be taken seriously. People will keep wondering what you really want.
It is not all right to consult a mental health professional. It is permissible, however, to have forgotten large parts of your past, even those parts in which you participated in crucial national policy decisions.
It’s wrong to be “too liberal”, which means, as every child watching Jesse Jackson must have concluded, that it’s wrong to speak up for the poor or to tax the rich.
It is totally wrong to be “soft on defense”. It’s OK to spend the national wealth on weapons systems that have no clear purpose and that do not function properly. It’s not great to have cozy relationships with defense contractors who are systematically bilking the government, but it’s not so wrong that it threatens your chances for election.
It’s wrong to use your influence as a rich kid to escape the draft during time of war by joining the National Guard — especially if you are a hawk. Many children must be confused about whether it’s OK to join the National Guard if you are not rich, or not a hawk, or if the war is a senseless and immoral one — but the grownups are confused about that too.
There’s nothing wrong with planning or profiting from nuclear weapons that can wipe out the world. To initiate peace-making conversations about removing a small percentage of those weapons is, the young folks will have noted, newly and tentatively OK.
You will not disqualify yourself from high office, great acclaim, and outpourings of affection, if you have:
– grossly unbalanced the public budget and tripled the national debt, – done business with drug traffickers, – worked to undermine elected governments of other nations, – sold weapons to national enemies or paid off terrorists in exchange for hostages, – appointed to office and publicly defended personal friends who have cheated the public of millions of dollars, – dismantled or failed to enforce much of the environmental legislation of the United States, – set up secret branches of government accountable to neither the Congress or the people, – shifted the income and wealth of the nation away from the poor and toward the rich.
The most important lesson the children must be learning this year is not to make much distinction among trangressions — all are discussed by politicians and press in the same tone of breathless indignation. The pledge of allegiance has the same moral import as institutionalized racism. Raising taxes is as repugnant as smuggling drugs. Supporting governments that torture and kill their people is on a par with banning prayer in school.
I’m glad the opponents of Douglas Ginsburg raised this point for us to consider. We should be careful about what we are teaching, through our politics, to our children.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988