By Donella Meadows
–March 2, 1995–
Governor Howard Dean of Vermont is not your normal bombastic politician. He’s a medical doctor, a measured, rational man. So I couldn’t believe his reaction on the radio last week to the Congressional move to cut the school lunch program.
“This Congress is out of control,” said the governor. “They’re literally attacking children. This is the worst thing they’ve done so far. It’s a bad group of people running the Congress. It’s an embarrassment to America to have people of this caliber … that are willing to go this far to satisfy their politics. It’s the most disappointing thing I’ve seen since I’ve been in public life.” Dean went on to use words like “genuinely vindictive,” and “mean-spirited.” The cancellation of school lunch funding, he concluded, would make Ronald Reagan’s defense of ketchup as a vegetable look like an act of statesmanship.
By the time he was done, I was cheering the radio.
I’ve been waiting to hear someone, anyone, in public life denounce with sufficiently strong language the craven ransacking of America that now passes for national politics. Every day, in front of microphones and cameras, rich people sneer at poor people, white people slur black people, old people spend the heritage of young people. Cynics erode our civil rights. Public money is transferred from public purposes to private profits. The media transmit all this as if it were somehow normal. And decent people remain silent.
Admittedly, the atrocities are coming so thick and fast that it’s hard to know which ones to speak about. At the same time Congress was talking of cutting school lunches, it was increasing spending on unnecessary, expensive weapons. It was gutting environmental protections and writing a new crime bill that would permit police to enter our homes without a search warrant. One brave Congressman, Mel Watt, tried to amend that bill with the following text: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”
That’s the Fourth Amendment, part of our precious Bill of Rights. The House voted it down 303 to 121.
What are the right words to describe this? Ruinous? Treacherous? Stupid?
The Balanced Budget Amendment was an exercise in cowardice. Politicians of both parties voted for it, hoping enough others would vote against it to defeat it — and then planned to savage those who voted against it. They know it’s a reckless assault on the Constitution that throws the power of the budget to unaccountable courts. They know it removes a critical tool of government to counter recessions. They haven’t sorted out the operating budget from the capital budget from the trust funds, and they haven’t any idea how future Congresses can actually come up with a balance. Except for a few Senators like Sam Nunn and the great contingent from North Dakota (thank you, North Dakotans!), they don’t care. They only care about fooling their constituents into believing they voted for a balanced budget.
And about making political hay, as in Newt Gingrich accusing Dianne Feinstein of lying, because she campaigned for a balanced budget but voted against the amendment. He knows the difference between a real balanced budget and an irresponsible Balanced Budget Amendment. He cares nothing for truth, he cares only for political ammunition.
Sickening! Disgusting! Foul! Why is no one using words like these?
What should we say, when our government does nothing about China’s child labor or political imprisonment, but gets tough with China’s pirating of tapes and CDs? Greedy? Hypocritical? What words apply to a nation that seeks to staunch its balance of payments deficit by becoming the world’s greatest arms dealer? Malicious? Evil? Fascist?
Don’t USE words like that, some of my best and most decent friends cautioned me the last time I used words like that. Don’t escalate the rhetoric, it’s already nasty enough. Come from love, not anger, not fear, not hate.
They’re right. I try. But love is hard to summon, when the powerful systematically shift the resources of the nation from the poor to the rich. What is the appropriate response to talk about auctioning off not only the public broadcasting system but the national parks? How polite should we be when our elected representatives — of both parties — allow the erosion of our roads and bridges, our environment, our education system, and our basic freedoms?
Distinguish, Gandhi said, between the evilness of the deed and the evilness of the person. But do stand up against the evil deed. The words that come to my mind as I watch the deeds of my government are: vicious, short-sighted, wrong-headed, immoral. Words that decent people have a hard time saying. Except for Howard Dean, who can’t stand to watch attacks on children. “Bad, mean-spirited, uncompassionate, vindictive,” he said. I say, right on! Hit ‘em again, Howard, hit ‘em again, harder, harder!
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995