“It is easier to love mankind as a whole than to love one’s neighbor.”—Eric Hoffer
Two years ago I was at Shasta Lake, waiting on a dock with some time to kill when I met a woman from Klamath Falls. Since we were both away from home, our conversation soon turned to Oregon and the old growth timber debate between the environmentalists and the industrialists.
“I don’t know what to think.” she admitted, “I have friends who work in the woods and I’d hate to see them lose their jobs but I’m worried that the forests really are being cut too fast too. It’s terrible. I keep thinking that there must be something wrong with me.”
“Well, that’s normal really.” I told her, “It’s a tough situation with no easy answers. You should be confused and worried because it’s a real gut-wrencher. That’s healthy. It’s the people who don’t feel that way who have something wrong with them. Complex problems don’t have simple causes or simple solutions. Life just ain’t that easy.”
Sometimes the ability to see both sides of an issue can be a curse, turning our own hearts into disputed territory, just as the community itself becomes divided. We sometimes yearn for an end to conflicting notions, something comforting that we can hang on to which settles the matter. But this uneasiness, as hard as it is to live with, is unavoidable in a democracy such as ours.
One easy way out of the dilemma is to accept wholly one version or the other of the conflicting views. This simplifies things by reducing matters to two sides instead of many different views. It also brings the comfort of belonging to a group of people who all feel the same way. When an issue, any issue, stirs us up, we can join with others who have a ready-made theory (usually a conspiracy theory aimed at anyone opposed to the group) and escape the discomfort of open mindedness.
Of course, accepting an “us against them” view doesn’t really end our frustration at all. It just gives us a convenient target for it. Reality is a tough and bitter pill to swallow, but sugar coated lies go down easy. The problem is that reality lingers on after the sugar high fades.
Having accepted “arrogant radical preservationists” or “greedy timber barons” as the source of the conflict we must spend a great deal of energy defending our group’s theory against the incursions of reality. The all-too-human desire for an answer we can believe in leads to frustration when the answer we choose is too simple to fit what is actually happening.
Conspiracy theories ignore some basic human traits, such as ignorance, incompetence and stupidity, to name a few. While these notions are doomed to fail at actually solving anything, they make up for it by providing a target for the frustration they create—”them”.
Most of us would rather accept the idea of an enemy among us than to examine ourselves for signs of the enemy within each of us. In his remarkable study of fanaticism, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer identifies the desire to join a mass movement as the individual’s desire to escape from himself. “Blind faith is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves…” he says and later he goes on to warn of the consequences of this flight from ourselves: “When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom—freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder, and betray without shame or remorse. Herein undoubtedly lies part of the attractiveness of a mass movement.”
Douglas County has changed in the last ten years. People are much more fear-filled now than they were. Tolerance used to be a hallmark of life here in the Hundred Valleys of the Umpqua, but now we have become the land of the anonymous death threat, the window broken in the night, the job lost because of political beliefs and the whispered accusation that turns neighbor against neighbor—a cowardly land of “us and them”.
It is a shameful way of life and one we all bear responsibility for. We have killed our hearts because we found pain there, the pain of hard choices. What we have left now is something inhuman and heartless. We have learned to hate one another. Because we could not trust ourselves to love we have given in to fear.
The price of fearfulness is either the hard struggle to accept uncertainty as the cost of living in an open society or the death of openness in our society, either Thomas Jefferson or Adolph Hitler, The Bill of Rights or Kristallnacht. Those are the choices we have to make for ourselves, the choices that will determine our future long after the issues of today have faded away.
History: The News-Review of Douglas County, Roseburg OR, 1990; Overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country, Sasquatch Books, Seattle WA, 1995.