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Thin Ice: Coping with the Planet’s Many Demons, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Oct

Societies in decline have no use for visionaries.  Anais Nin

Civilized people don’t put on airs; they behave in the street as they would at home. Anton Chekov

When humor goes, there goes civilization.  Erma Bombeck

One person’s ‘barbarian’ is another person’s ‘just doing what everybody else is doing.’  Susan Sontag

We are made to be crazy by other people who are also crazy and who draw for us a map of the world which is ugly, negative, fearful, and crazy. Jack Forbes

This piece is dedicated to the memory of the former Ambassador of Palau to the United Nations, Dr. Caleb Otto.  Dr. Otto was a man of integrity and faith, a gentle soul who understood the frailties and limitations of the human condition but who continued to nudge us in the directions of sanity, integrity and health.  He was one of the best diplomatic friends that Global Action has ever had.

I have been sitting and listening to a press conference by some of the officers who had the unfortunate assignment of responding to the carnage from yesterday’s shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.  The shooting, predictably, captured a news cycle that had been dominated earlier this week by the mailing of suspicious packages to political opponents of the US president.

It has been a week when what seems as the last, thin layer of wrap which we foolishly believed would keep our demons “in their place” has finally been peeled away.   And now we are experiencing the normative version of a jailbreak – angry, isolated, weaponized people seizing the recently-granted permission to take their long-shunned and often-ridiculed values and ideas into the streets, into our synagogues and mailboxes, into our schools and statehouses.

Despite protests from senior government officials seeking to brush off any implications of responsibility, we have clearly failed the collective culpability test.  Our leaders have taken refuge in a strategy that is sadly all too familiar to the rest of us – cope with anxiety and remorse by pushing blame as far away from ourselves as possible.  It’s never my fault.  I have nothing to apologize for.  It’s them, over there.

As evil genies circle around us like vultures feeding on souls instead of carrion, we have blithely forgotten that a “civilized” response takes into account what our words and actions permit, and not only what we ourselves do.   And what we now permit has crossed the line from appalling to numbing: the shooting that stole the home page from the suspicious packages, that in turn stole the front page from the “caravan” of Latin American people we allegedly “don’t want,” that had stolen the radio news headlines from the butchery of the journalist Khashoggi or the children already forcibly separated from desperately anxious parents.

There is a lot of anger in my country — and not my country alone — but also an epidemic of deep restlessness at our apparent decline alongside what a dear friend has called “preventable sadness.”   We claim over and over to be “better than this,” but it is no longer clear what the “better” entails, what the benchmarks are for civilized living in these times.  We have lost both our focus and our sense of humor.  We justify patterns of concern that are deliberately circumscribed and often self-interested.  We shout out the part of the “truth” that serves our own agendas rather than speak the truth that might better serve the general interest. More and more of us have retreated into private conversations and deepening skepticism guaranteeing that we remain out of the fray, beyond the prospect of direct accountability, ducking the demons as it were rather than daring them to a proper wrestling match.

For those of you who regularly read this post, this is surely beginning to sound like an Advent message rather than a UN reflection.  But it is a UN reflection as well.   As the suspicious packages were being delivered and the Pittsburgh gunman was readying himself to “go in,” the Security Council was struggling with its current “big three” responsibilities – Syria, Myanmar and Yemen.   Each deserves a lengthier dissection than I could test your patience with here, but each also demonstrated some of the limitations and self-deceptions of the times, the way in which issues are maneuvered to conform to national interest and allegedly help to keep everyone “blameless.”

And despite the fact so much of the credibility (and even fiscal viability) of the UN is tied up with the success of the Security Council in these three and other areas of security concern, it remains challenging at times for observers such as ourselves to find kernels of hopefulness amidst the avalanche of tepid policy commitments or half-hearted acknowledgments of responsibility.   The three contexts are different of course:  In Syria the government is now (predictably) balking at a formal UN role in forming a Constitutional Committee.  In Myanmar, the Council struggles with if/how to ensure accountability for state abuses while guaranteeing safe and voluntary return for the staggering number of refugees that have too-long been under Bangladesh’s care.  In Yemen, in many ways the most frustrating of the three crises, governments continue to wring their hands over the staggering humanitarian crisis while refusing to publicly acknowledge the massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia that have thus brought Yemen to the brink of a desperate famine that simply cannot be justified by geo-political references to curbing the regional influence of Iran.

It is not all negative and disingenuous of course.   The UK and France made passionate statements this week on why the UN must play a major role in a sustainable peace for Syria. Bolivia and others continue to remind Council members of mistakes previously made as well as new factors (such as shrinking water access) that influence current security crises.  And the Netherlands raised its voice after a deeply disturbing Yemen briefing to remind Council colleagues that, as essential as humanitarian relief is, their primary task is to end the conflict, to stop the bombing and its violent retaliations.

Nevertheless, it is interesting and often unsettling to watch the ways in which the deep anxiety of these times is affecting Council members and other UN entities in much the same way that it is affecting the rest of us. We’ve collectively become downright prickly and hyper-sensitive, dismissing any and all criticism of our values or directions, but in a larger policy sense reacting to the shrinking spaces for free expression and the application of human rights law by pointing to and attacking only the demons outside ourselves, the ones who allegedly threaten and annoy us, but also the ones who blockade and occupy, who carve up adversaries and rob children of their futures.

But there are plenty of candidates for fits of barbarism now, plenty of leaders and citizens willing to get in lockstep with the worst of our impulses, justifying our own bad behavior by the bad behavior of others.  Our racism, their greed.  Our violence, their indifference. Our interference, their aggression.  And so it goes.  And goes again.

As the late Ambassador Otto would clearly have recognized, we have let so many evil genies out of their bottles in recent times and given them such permission to swirl and confuse that we must no longer delude ourselves – in our living rooms or our policy centers – that we are exempt from the evils we say we contend against.  If we really are “better than this,” then our task now is to define anew that “better,” make sure it’s benefits are available to all, and commit to the struggle to keep our baser instincts at bay.

But the ice we skate on now is still too thin. The “map” towards our human future that we have currently been drawing is, indeed, too ugly, fearful and crazy.  It is past time for all to revoke the permission we have recently lavished on our lesser selves and envision another map that can help us define a higher and more honest calling as prelude to a kinder and more sustainable global path.