Open Letter to the Presidential Candidates
(Written during Presidential Campaign - 1988)
All the tumult surrounding the impending Presidential election is directed at 51% of the 50% of eligible voters who bother to show up at the polls. I marvel at the fanfare and self-congratulation that concerns perhaps 25% of the population and ignores what amounts to a boycott of the democratic process on the part of the vast majority.
This wholesale defection of voters is not different than the defection of American consumers to foreign goods: evidence that slick packaging and marketing cannot disguise inferior or inappropriate merchandise. The candidates are obviously not addressing issues that concern the majority of the public. One reason for this is their inability to recognize the invisible influence on public dialogue of prevalent, but unexamined assumptions about wealth.
Current policy dialogues have been co-opted by a vocabulary that is so predominantly economic that it obscures issues which cannot be expressed in economic terms. Headlines and news broadcasts are dominated by a blizzard of statistics about the deficit, balance-of-trade payments, Dow Jones, and the consumer-price index as if every member of the audience was a breathless investor. Human values and social systems cannot be quantified in this way and, as a result, are omitted from the debates. What forces us to focus in such an exclusively economic manner is the inexorable pressure of two unspoken assumptions: a) that wealth is money; and b) that the accumulation of it is a paramount social goal. These assumptions, simplistic when said aloud, are so ingrained that they manipulate our political processes in invisible but profound ways.
The wealth-as-money equation is everywhere: in all decisions about infra-structure repairs; education; disarmament; drugs; national health and day care. Almost all discussions about cost, if traced to their roots, support the hidden premise that society and individuals exist to make, spend, hoard, or save money and that that is a good thing.
If we were to challenge current assumptions about wealth and test other assumptions, political dialogues would be immeasurably different. Wealth could be assumed to be a skilled, loyal labor force; the resurrection of stable, more personal communities; national reliance on renewable resources; universally potable water and healthy air, or some or all of these.
Any culture is a seamless, interdependent web based on certain premises and beliefs. Presently, candidates are responding to symptoms which are surface eruptions of dis-ease which are buried deeply in our belief systems. It is necessary to dig much deeper and examine the very premises. Reducing the subject of wealth to money has impoverished analysis for too long. The United States ranks 18th in a survey of infant mortality rates among 25 countries. We care for our children less effectively than East Germany and Trinidad. Considering this, perhaps it is time for us to reevaluate smug assumptions about cultural superiority.
A vocabulary which frames monetary cost as the ultimate measure of national policy is the province of corporations, not people. It is the difference between a Louisiana Pacific exploiting huge tracts of lumber and moving on, leaving local inhabitants to pay the costs of ruined watersheds; and a rural community that sustains numerous, locally-owned, environmentally-sound logging operations.
One can agree with the commonly held assertion that the creation of wealth is a desirable social goal. One must quarrel, however, with the assumption that wealth must be calculated in dollars and cents. Rather, aggressive, multi-species reforestation is wealth production. Clearing and preparing creeks to enhance wild salmon spawn is wealth production. Restoring rangeland, topsoil reclamation, purifying underground aquifers, are all wealth production. Policies that protect the small family farmer protect the wisdom about living in places they embody. This too is wealth production.
Discussing such critical issues as public education solely in terms of monetary cost ignores the larger social costs of living in a culture where trains with human cargoes are piloted by dispirited, drugged engineers; nuclear power plants looked after by personnel narcotized by boredom; airplanes are serviced by high school dropouts bitter with wage roll-backs and arrogant management. It ignores the fundamental question about drugs, which, to date, has not even been asked: Why do so many Americans want to be stoned?
Who asserts that it is a public good to tear down urban neighborhoods and replace them with anonymous, high-rise jungles? Who deems that 5% unemployment with the resulting loss of dignity, productivity, loyalty and commitment of millions of people is "acceptable"?
Who dictates that America police world Communism? How many Americans have ever met, or been attacked by a Communist, evicted by a Communist, been sold drugs, taken food or water polluted by a Communist?
Short-term concentration on cost, and the refusal to address the deepest level of cultural assumptions prevents us from effectively addressing the degradation of our cultural and intellectual values. Without these, what is worth protecting?
These are precisely the discussions which should be led by candidates for the Presidency. It is not shameful not to know all the answers. It is shameful to delude the public with a process that cannot succeed; with expectations that cannot be met. 25% of the people cannot solve the problems which confront us as a nation. If 75% of my body were inoperative, I would perceive that I was in deep trouble.
It is time for you, Mr. Bush, and you, Mr. Dukakis and Rev. Jackson, to take the lead and admit that the problems before us will not be solved by one leader any more than they were created by one leader. We, the People, as the saying goes, are the problem and the solution.
The least that our candidates owe us is the responsibility to lead us in discussion of these issues. The nation's attention is currently focused on the candidates. They are the ones who can best begin to use appropriate vocabulary and frame dialogues to elicit public involvement with the real issues. In this coming decade, the person with the right questions may be more valuable than the person with all the answers.
The Official Peter Coyote Web Site