Cool Spa:  Endorsing Emotions Appropriate for Urgent Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Jan

panic

It was like when you make a move in chess and just as you take your finger off the piece, you see the mistake you’ve made, and there’s this panic because you don’t know yet the scale of disaster you’ve left yourself open to.  Kazuo Ishiguro

But there’s another sort of terror: the terror of failure, of being blamed for some disaster, or of assuming responsibility.  David Weber

The two of them, the smart ones, the clever ones, the great defenders of truth and fairness and justice, had done nothing while others had worked themselves to exhaustion.  Michael Grant

It’s a cruel fact of war that it takes little more than applying pressure to one finger to end another person’s life. More than that, it’s a cruel fact of life that we are hardwired to follow the crowd in a moment of panic.  Trevor Richardson

This was potentially a tide-turning week for the world and the UN found itself at the epicenter of much of it.

Yesterday the Security Council held a rare Saturday session to focus on the situation in Venezuela.  The conversation attracted numerous ministers and other senior diplomats, both Council members and many interested regional states, and featured the presence of US Secretary of State Pompeo who stuck around long enough to bash Cuba and issue a warning to countries still on the fence regarding the legitimacy of the Maduro presidency that it is “time to choose.”  He was replaced around the oval by Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra infamy who was making his debut as chief adviser on Venezuela to the current US president.

The optics of this were not ideal for the US, for whom the presence of Abrams and the bullying tactics of Pompeo underscored fears of some states that the US is now resurrecting a modernist version of the Monroe Doctrine and its “backyard” justifications for aggressive intervention.   There is still vast, lingering pain throughout the region regarding prior “arrangements” between the US and its client states, governments at times willing to throw their own people under the bus to enable the policy objectives of its larger neighbor over which they essentially have no say.

And yet, many states were clear that the current situation in Venezuela, one which has resulted in mass displacement, rights violations and widespread economic ruin, has conspired to delegitimize the Maduro government.  European states at this meeting went so far as to propose an “eight day” window within which Maduro must arrange for new elections, a proposal subsequently mocked by the Russians.  Others preferred the “path of negotiations” approach with facilitation offered by Mexico and Uruguay.  Regardless, emotions were raw during much of this five hour session. Tensions among states seeking to transition the situation in Caracas and do justice to the many thousands of currently displaced (and the neighboring countries hosting them) as well as among states fearing the return of a more hostile US “backyard” remained consistently high.

Surprisingly a bit less “raw” was Friday’s Council debate on the climate-conflict nexus organized by January’s Council president the Dominican Republic.  In a discussion that spanned eight uninterrupted hours and involved 82 state speakers, both the urgency and the politics of climate response were on display. While there were no “climate denying” statements made (the US spoke effectively on disaster response but failed to utter the “C” word), many states (including Germany and some Council colleagues) noted that while climate change might not be the cause of conflict, its impacts have a “multiplier” effect on political and security tensions, adding flooding, drought, storms and other “disasters” to a worrisome global mix characterized by still-too-high levels of poverty and mass displacement, too much plastic in our oceans, and too many hands grabbing at the “cookie jar” of dwindling natural resources.  While some states shared concern about Council energy being “diluted” by excess attention to this particular “thematic obligation,” the Fiji representative rightly noted that we have reached the “tipping point” on climate, echoing Japan’s call for climate considerations integrated “throughout the conflict cycle” and Ireland’s call to explore the climate-conflict nexus across the spectrum of UN policymaking.

Beyond the UN this week was the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, bringing together the elites of the planet –complete with their copious entourages and private jets — to deliberate on the fate of a world they (in the aggregate) have done much to destroy on behalf of global citizens about whom too many of these “leaders” seem to actually care little.  This toxic (in my view) event which draws media attention as though this were the policy equivalent of a Super Bowl or Academy Awards, provides yet another reminder of the residual “vertical” dimensions of global governance, placing on display guardians of the planet who, so far as we can tell, are principally skilled at guarding their own privilege.  Media coverage this year focused on the “gloom” of Davos as elites contemplated the uncertainty of these times – as though much of the rest of this largely “exhausted” planet doesn’t cope with higher levels of uncertainty all the time!

But something did come out of Davos this year that grabbed considerable media interest and not without reason.  Perhaps my favorite quotation of the entire week came from a Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, whose warning to the Davos elites seemed to prompt at least a bit of soul-searching:

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

Preaching panic and culpability to generations (including diplomats and elites) that so often go out of their way to “keep cool,” that too-often misconstrue the difference between “keeping your head” and willful indifference to anything that might cause someone to actually and practically care, surely seems like risky business.  But in these times it is also essential business.

Let’s put this “panic” in some perspective.  The “playing it cool” game, like most other games we now indulge, has positive and negative repercussions.  To the extent that it implies keeping your head while others around you are losing theirs, this is surely a skill worth cultivating.  But the degree to which “cool” and its attendant platitudes become the mask behind which we hide from seeing, from feeling, from responding, then such “cool” becomes merely the latest iteration of a narcissistic pattern that too-easily hardens into inattention and dismissiveness; indeed into a potential “disorder” in its own right.

A similar distinction can be attributed to “panic.”  If panic is, as it so often is these days, a sub-set of our now-chronic anxiety, then it is related primarily to our perceived incapacity to control outcomes and/or to recover our brand from ill- advised movements “on the chess board.”  Panic in this sense is more likely to drive an irrational herd than to drive productive outcomes, concerned more with finding “spas” and other niches of personal relief and escape than urgently using those skills and capacities available to help resolve whatever crises make their appearance before us.

As much as we might like to think otherwise within our bastions of “cool,” there are many times when “panic” represents the more accurate reading of circumstance: the parent hovering over a desperately sick child; the homeless person on the cusp of a deadly hypothermia; a family evading traffickers as they seek fresh water and arable farmland, or escape from political instability; an entire nation watching helplessly as melting ice caps raise ocean levels, breeching fresh water supplies with salt and shifting fish stocks away from the access on which local populations depend.  These circumstances are not diminishing in frequency; indeed they threaten to carry us to our collective demise unless we grasp both the urgency they represent and our still-potent (for now) capacity for contructive response.

If some of the “small island” and other states who participated in Friday’s Council debate on climate change and conflict are correct; if their growing and still-unheeded concerns are indeed justified by circumstance; if the warnings uttered in Davos by Greta Thunberg have the merit that many seem to think they do; then “panic” in its most urgent and productive sense is fully warranted.  Not the panic of the herd, but neither the “cool” detachment of persons who don’t (or refuse to) understand that the metaphorical house fire whose potential and implications they fear has long been burning.

 

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