Swamp Things:  The UN Family Considers New Challenges to a Multilateral World, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Nov

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.  Henry David Thoreau

As has certainly been the case this week, US elections often send shock waves through the international community as political decisions made in Washington impact so many around the world – those whom we in the US care about and those others whom we apparently don’t care about so much.

The potential “collateral damage” from US elections is not limited to the deployment of ever more deadly weapons systems but also to economic and social policies, external debt and other factors.  The US can be a helpful and generous society, but also a bit of a “bull in a China shop,” knocking over and even carelessly trampling the items that other communities depend upon in order that their families have a fair and fighting chance at a better life.

That bull is apparently about to get noticeably more ornery!

Now in Washington DC, a group of (mostly) white men has assumed an electoral (modestly legitimate) and even divine (illegitimate) mandate in an attempt to remake the political culture from which so many have grown increasingly alienated.  The term now in vogue around Washington is “draining the swamp.”

This is an interesting though not particularly apt metaphor, repeated by erstwhile leaders who, I am quite sure, don’t know so much about swamps.   The “swamps” that need draining are hardly swamps at all, but rather unhealthy, stagnant pools of standing water, breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other life forms dangerous to human health.

Healthy swamps, on the other hand, are regularly refreshed and have multiple ecological benefits, including security for threatened wildlife, rain retention and flood control during severe storms, breeding areas for fish, barriers to soil erosion, filters for otherwise polluted water.  Moreover, the mangrove swamps that exist in the south of the US and in other global regions represent some of the most mesmerizing and bio-rich ecological features on earth.

Clearly we in the US have already drained more healthy swamps than is in our best interests, creating more standing water through deforestation and pavement than we have eliminated.  Ironically, one of the most influential political settlements sitting atop a drained swamp is Washington, DC itself.  And in this settlement, it isn’t such a wild leap to apply the prevailing (if highly imperfect) swamp metaphor to existing standards and circumstances to much of our governance –the stagnation from which breeds a bitter, divided, self-important political culture that indulges itself while too often failing to feed those who authorize its representatives.

Whatever happens next in the “swamp” that is now the city of Washington — and some of it could well be grim for the family of nations — there will hopefully be fewer stagnant pools in the end, fewer political entitlements, fewer back room deals and duplicity that we must rely on hackers to expose.

But how do we get there?   How do societies that have misplaced the capacity to distinguish between healthy swamps and stagnant pools (in metaphor as in reality) recover their proper perspective?

This is an especially important question this week in the US as some in an electorate that too often neglects  basic civic duties has indulged for various reasons in bitter tears and even street anger to protest someone who will not even take office for two months.  The mournful and angry reactions are reminiscent of the aftermath of Brexit – seemingly more robust and organized expressions of concern after the vote than before – a miscalculation perhaps that what “we” want to see in the world and the values driving those perceptions are somehow ordained, inevitable, guaranteed.

There is a strain of self-importance that seems to have leaked into these electoral reactions – characteristic of a people who have forgotten much of their own history and its manifold limitations and illusions, who have put out of mind how many have had to suffer and die, how many healthy swamps have been recklessly drained, in pursuit of values and practices that we now assume are “inevitable.“  Inevitability, we apparently need to be reminded, is an obstacle to a healthy political culture, not its lifeline.

What people needed to hear instead in this just-concluded US election cycle – and didn’t – is not so much about how our institutions need to change (of course they do) but the “curve” along which we ourselves – those of us who presume to make policy decisions on behalf of broader constituencies — have also grown and changed.   What have our candidates and their surrogates learned about themselves and about our collective place in the world?  What have they come to realize that leads anyone to believe that they can turn away from past mistakes; that they can be more discerning about differences between healthy swamps and standing pools; that their decisions going forward will be guided by the humble recognition that most of their “adoring” constituents would have preferred to see others making policy promises at the political buffet bar?

Ironically it was Glenn Beck, habitually one of my least favorite US social commentators, who has recently been seen reflecting on US television about the ways in which he has been chastened by life, how the certainties that drove his politics (and his often nasty, media-stoking demeanor) have given way to a kinder, humbler, more discerning disposition.  These changes do not come as easily as he makes it sound;  but we are what we practice, and the more we practice kindness, the more we apply standards to ourselves that we so easily apply to others, the more likely any new “Beck behaviors” are to stick.

Humility, we must surely admit, was in very short supply in this election cycle as it is wanting in virtually every aspect of our modern political culture.  One of the reminders for us in this post-election period is that not all the stagnant pools are in Washington.   Not by a long shot.  There is plenty of self-indulgent stagnation within a mile or two radius of where I began this writing. There is plenty to drain in all our centers of political and economic governance, much stagnation in all the places that people have long since stopped depending on for services promised, the promises that represent what is left of our fraying social contract.  Candidates advocate for ties of trust in every election cycle, and then conspire to loosen those laces as soon as the votes are recorded.

The UN, it must be said, could face major challenges from this next US president.   The new government will be sorely tempted to walk away from agreements like Paris climate accords and the Convention against Torture.  The US might well decide to burn more coal, tear down more forests, indulge more inciting rhetoric, put up more walls.  We’ll likely continue to “drain” in a reckless manner, endangering our own health and, as is so often the case with this sometimes clumsy superpower, that of citizens in many other UN member states.  The world will nervously be about its diplomatic business while the US becomes even more insistent that the UN and other multilateral forums exist primarily to serve its own national interests.

For some of us, hopefully not for too much longer, we’ll shed more tears and shout more anger, actions that are understandable at one level but are also likely only to widen misunderstandings with the very same cultural counter-weights that helped give rise to this current, acrimonious political moment, the moment that we surely had the power to prevent if only so many of our “pools” of politics and governance hadn’t been allowed to become so stagnant.

Hopefully we in the US can create space for a truly discerning moment, an opportunity to assess what we’ve learned, what we’ve failed to learn, and why that matters for ourselves and much of the rest of the world.   Hopefully we can internalize, at least for a season, one of the life lessons from healthy swamps:  when you’ve lost your way in the dense undergrowth the only path to safety is to back out the way you came.


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