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Empty Shell:  The UN Seeks to Renew the Life of its Charter, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Jan


Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.  Rollo May

The master of the garden is the one who waters it, trims the branches, plants the seeds, and pulls the weeds. Vera Nazarian

One person with commitment accomplishes more than a thousand with an opinion.  Orrin Woodward

In dreams begin responsibilities.  William Butler Yeats

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.  Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

Late Friday afternoon at the UN, past the time when delegates, security officers and interpreters are expected to be at their posts, the Security Council barely averted a disaster to its own reputation as well as to the welfare of millions of Syrians who continue to face grave need in a long conflict that the Council has failed to end.

The disaster was averted through the positive energies of Belgium and Germany, co-penholders of the Council’s humanitarian resolutions who eventually accepted the compromise terms (dictated primarily by Russia) to restrict cross-border humanitarian access (by reducing the number of authorized crossing points) in exchange for the promise not to veto the extension of the cross-border mandate for Syria which would have otherwise expired at midnight Friday.

Sitting in the Council chamber, it was difficult to know how to react as the Council once again pushed the welfare of millions to the political brink.   That some cross-border access will continue to function beyond the bureaucratic impediments imposed by Damascus is a good thing; but that access was cut back when displacement and food insecurity threaten millions and when progress on ending the conflict is modest at best raises more questions than it answers about the long-term viability of a Council where partisan politics so often trumps responsible authority.

This is, of course, a time characterized by other unsettling events within and beyond the UN, including an assassination of an Iranian military leader, the unintentional downing of a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran and, perhaps most ironically, the decision by the US (as host country) to deny a visa to the Iranian Foreign Minister seeking to attend a Vietnam-sponsored discussion in the Council on “Upholding the UN Charter.”

In a time when most states and civil society organizations agree that multilateralism is under considerable strain, this Charter discussion generated unprecedented attention from the UN membership; indeed to such a degree that additional sessions had to be scheduled to handle the demand for speaking slots. Some states (such as Cuba and Georgia) used the occasion to highlight the hypocrisy of permanent Council members that seek to regulate the conduct of other states in accordance with the Charter while largely exempting themselves from such scrutiny. Others urged these permanent members (as did Singapore and Cyprus) to “set a better example” for the rest of the UN membership.   Uruguay and other states called attention to what it called “weak compliance” regarding the Charter obligation of states to uphold Council resolutions, in part due to the obvious (as on Friday) political compromises that lead to watered-down resolutions with limited will to see them implemented.  It was in this context that Ecuador referred to the “empty shell” that the Council is in danger of becoming, a chamber where resolutions inspire less and less confidence by global constituents and less and less compulsion to compliance by their governments.

While not all the statements uttered during these multiple sessions had to do directly with peace and security, the discourse rarely strayed far.   Peru noted that given “uneven progress” on issues such as climate change, nuclear disarmament and transnational organized crime, “the rumblings of war must be rejected.”  The Elders Chair HE Mary Robinson was a most welcome briefer at the opening session, making clear that our disregard of our disarmament obligations and our manifest unwillingness to amend our ways (including our multilateral ways) in the time remaining for us to address climate change are gravely endangering the world for our children in ways that the Charter could surely not countenance.

Indeed, it seems clear to me at least, that there are already several ways in which multilateral processes have evolved and devolved in ways not directly countenanced by the designers of the Charter.  The framers were apparently less concerned about universal membership than universal valuation, seeking states that were committed to the “pacific resolution of disputes” and including measures for suspending or even expelling states that gravely violated this pacific premise.  Moreover, while the word “peacekeeping” does not appear in the Charter, there is a clear recognition that maintaining security must be a task common to all member states. While the Council exercises its primary responsibility, other states have the duty to contribute in their own ways and to limits of their own capacities, at the very least to pledge not to undermine or impede the maintenance and/or restoration of international peace and security once the Council is seized of a conflict threat.  This pledge is one that is disregarded on a more regular basis than many publicly acknowledge.

The Charter also demands more attention to security at the “least possible levels of armament” than is now the case; more regular communication between the Council and the General Assembly (and other UN bodies) than is now the case; more attentiveness to the values that bind the international community than is currently the case. And while clarifying duties to development and self-governance, its primary concern is to “harmonize the actions of states” without recognition of the roles – positive and otherwise – played increasingly by non-state actors in creating and resolving global threats.  Indeed, the growth of the non-government sector, even small initiatives like ours, provides us with an opportunity that the Charter framers could scarcely have envisioned – to help “pull the weeds” that impede healthy global growth; to insist that UN working methods are fair and transparent; to hold up for review instances where states offer support with their lips but degrade Charter values and duties in their practice; to remind members of the urgency of the moment, an urgency not always apparent inside our UN bubble; to promote a system (as the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and Grenadines noted this week) in which the responsibility to uphold the Charter is not allowed to dissolve into mere “political expediency.”

We and others in our orbit take the opportunity offered to us very seriously.   We know well some of the many ways in which the UN needs to become more relevant to circumstance, its need to dive more deeply into the ways in which sustainable peace is dependent on health oceans and food security as much as international courts and weapons treaties.  And we know that many of the efforts to “reform” the UN run the risk of replacing what some this week referred to as its “delegitimized structures” with revised versions which, given the rapid pace of global change, are likely to also find themselves going quickly out of date.   When Germany wondered aloud this week about the shape of the world 75 years into the future it was more than idle chatter, but a reminder that the legitimacy of our current actions and preferred structures will be tested and assessed in some future realm, at a time when others now much younger than ourselves will have no choice but to answer for our wisdom – or our folly.

We will have suggestions for reforms in this 75th year of the UN, suggestions that will seek to embrace what is necessary and universal about the Charter but in ways that help us address the current “avalanche” of threats as well as serve to predict and avert future crises. In this, we will be guided by a statement from Poland, recently “retired” as an elected Council member, whose Ambassador reminded the chamber that the upholding and fulfilling of international humanitarian and human rights law is not an option but rather a “sacred commitment” that is fully consistent with UN membership and its Charter-based obligations.

As we grapple together with ways to make the UN more agile and transparent, more thoughtful and less political, more accountable and less aloof, we should all pledge not to lose sight of the sacred commitments and responsibilities that the Charter continues to represent – norms and tools for enacting the dream of a world where nations and peoples can live in harmony with each other and with the entire created order on which our sustainable prosperity is based.

In an age characterized by deep divisions, armed to the teeth and melting before our eyes, such harmony remains the goal of greatest treasure.  Despite the inadequacies of so much of our current policy and practice, despite the doubts that so many now have about our relevance and fidelity to promises, the Charter stands resolute as an essential guidepost towards a more peaceful future.

Curiosity Call: Stretching Policy and Personal Assumptions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jan

Kid Questions

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.  Bertrand Russell

Curiosity takes ignorance seriously, and is confident enough to admit when it does not know. It is aware of not knowing, and it sets out to do something about it.  Alain de Botton

Ask yourself three questions and you will know who you are.  What do you believe in? What do you hope for? But most important – What do you love?  Paulina Simons

Don’t question if the world is real; question if your thoughts are. Marty Rubin

As the UN prepares for its 75th anniversary and its decade of action on sustainable development, many are likely in this time of massive fires and human displacement to question both the pace of UN reform and the robustness of the UN’s commitment to implement all of the promises embedded in the 2030 Development Agenda.  And, as we creep ever-closer to a reckless Middle East military confrontation (check out the crowds at Suleimani’s funeral earlier today), many are also questioning the ability of the international community (especially the UN Security Council) to serve as an effective mechanism of conflict prevention rather than as a mere channel for acknowledging newly-escalating tensions.

Such questioning in our view is well within bounds.   It is important that the UN Is held to account for its promises as with other institutions including small NGOs such as our own.   We have all taken on important commitments to enhancing food security, mitigating the devastation from climate change, ensuring peace and security, and much more.  Such commitments were willingly embraced and it is right and sensible to question the resolve of our erstwhile leadership at times when goals get bogged down or otherwise fall woefully behind schedule. A case could surely be made that we are now living through such a time.

That said, the quality of our questions also leaves much to be desired, to our leadership for sure, but also to persons closer to home.

We tend to know just enough about the people whose lives and work we encounter to label them and stick them in boxes of our own making.  We know what they “do” for a living.  We know something about their relationship status and political biases along with a few characteristic habits – often the ones that mostly annoy us.   In such a social environment, we increasingly tend to interpret questions as intrusions on what remains of our privacy, or as judgments on our lack of physical or professional perfection, in part because the questions we are asked, when others even bother to ask them, seem intended to expose rather than explore, to satisfy some prurient interest rather than enhance connection, to promote and amplify an-often limited knowledge base rather than offer invitation to build a base together broader than we could ever build alone.

When was the last time that any of us were asked the kinds of questions that made it more possible for us to explore rather than define, to connect rather than defend?   When was the last time we were asked questions that created safe-enough spaces for curiosity and vulnerability, that allowed us to seek together what we don’t know rather than recite what we already know (or rush to consult our phones as some ultimate authority, thereby abandoning the questions altogether that phones alone can’t process)?  And when was the last time we asked questions ourselves that didn’t house a distinct (and unspoken) agenda and that embodied a commitment to listen to the answers no matter how difficult or challenging those answers might be?

I thought so.  Of the attributes of a rich and connected life that we refuse to practice, asking good questions has become, for too many of us, the top rung in an increasingly lengthy chain.   Our collective curiosity increasingly extends little beyond the fact-checking that can be spewed out by Siri.  Our collective questioning increasingly extends little beyond information that we can “use,” including use against each other.

And yes there is a UN angle on all of this.   Our statement-rich policy environment is shockingly void of questions, certainly of the open-ended variety and mostly (where they exist at all) deeply embedded in our policy accusations.  We read statements and then consult our cell phones to see if we get any tweaks on our twitter feed.  We’re not interested much in what others have to say, in part because we’re heard it all before, and in part because nothing we hear is likely to change what we have to say going forward– or more precisely what our governments or organizations allow us to say.

In the absence of authorization to the contrary,  our questioning in this policy space is infrequent and confined to filling gaps in policy briefings.  It is much less about enabling the curiosity to explore and examine the consequences of our policy choices, to look more closely at our mandates and mission statements and ask ourselves, “if we get what we say we want, how will people be affected?”  Who will be helped or hurt?  And what adjustments need to be made in how we do our business (including a reality-based examination of current and future threats) such that the helping is maximized and the hurting minimized?

A reader might be tempted to assume that such curiosity-based questioning is deeply affirmed and encouraged within the policy community.   But this assumption also needs to be interrogated.  It is easy enough to believe that those pulling the policy levers have your best interests at heart.  It is harder to believe that there are problems and challenges, sometimes most easily perceivable at local level, that are mostly (and sometimes intentionally) invisible to decision-makers.  Those of us who are blessed to sit in these discussions on a daily basis know how impenetrable policy bubbles can be, how dismissive they can be of the evidence and testimony that can complicate the job of policy but can also enrich and extend its products.

Clearly we need to ask better questions of our leadership but also of others in our more immediate orbit, questioning not only the “what” but the ‘why.”  We need to know more about how people do their work in the world, how they overcome challenges and limitations, how they arrive at the opinions that drive their decisions; but even more how they believe, hope and love and what all of that means for the “reality” of their practical decision-making.  And others need to know these things about us.

This past week, a medical practitioner I frequent (and like a lot) said something to me along the lines that “I have known you for years and I don’t really know what you do.”  He assumed that the problem was all about my failure to disclose. That’s surely part of it.  But the other part was about his unwillingness to raise his own level of curiosity, to embed that curiosity in the form of questions, and then allow me the space to respond.

This allowance is something we simply don’t do enough for each other.  We need to make more time to move beyond what people “do” to the larger questions of why they do it and what it takes for them to do what they do.  We need to take our own “ignorance” more seriously,  even our ignorance about the people in our more immediate environments whom we claim to “know well.” In that light, we would do well to “hang more question marks” on all the things we take for granted or that we imagine we already know, the things that we accept because we are too busy or distracted, or because we convince ourselves that we can’t do anything about them anyway. We need to make more space that would allow others in and around our lives to reflect on and share more of their nuances and multiple dimensions.

Here’s to a more curiosity-filled 2020.  In this difficult time for the world, we need every heart and brain engaged beyond the immediate and apparent.


Fire Wall: A 2020 Resolution, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Dec


The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.  Elie Wiesel

It is never too late to be what you might have been.  George Eliot

What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.  Maya Angelou

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hell is empty and all the devils are here.  William Shakespeare

We are coming upon another new year, another season of abundant resolutions largely unmatched by commitments to amending our collective ways in the face of the numerous fires that are now consuming much of what once –or so we in the global north allowed ourselves to believe — made us more prosperous and secure.

Many of us are justifiably horrified by many of the demons that are being released on the world, most recently the hate-crime stabbings yesterday north of New York, the shootings near Houston, and the murder of students and other civilians earlier this week in Mogadishu.   And we also know that this is the tip of a robust iceberg, that threats not immediately apparent are creeping closer to our enclaves, the places we have constructed and thankfully nurtured but which are now “feeling the heat” as rarely before.

It does at times feel as though the “devils are all here” now, that what we continue to unleash — willfully at times and through a modern version of collective indifference at others — is simply perpetuating our current fire storm, compromising both the opportunities that exist for reconciliation and the skills that we know we possess to cool down our current, over-stimulated patterns of consumption, sexism and ethno-centrism.

But as essential as local initiative is to bringing the fires under control, we know that our task would be more in reach if our leadership were more focused and reliable, if they were truly committed to ensuring the well-being of all of us, and not simply to the consolidation of national interests or the maintenance of their positions of authority.   It is ultimately foolish for leaders to ask the rest of us to shed our indifference — which the current fires surely require —  when they are so often unwilling themselves to set that bar, to make that hopeful example, to confess the ways in which political or economic privilege has been maintained at all costs even as others (mostly those marginal to the centers of power) are themselves being stripped of what little access to privilege and opportunity they enjoyed previously.

In real time, fire fighters need competent leadership and dependable backup if they are to create and maintain a successful fire wall.  But in this time, such competent and dependable leadership is all-too-rare.   For many of us, it seems, there is now this endless struggle to find points of access, to plan and then engage in activities and assessments which ultimately promise no more than  lawn hoses when fire hoses are required.

Our own engagement with policy leadership, of course, is with the UN and more specifically its Security Council.  The broader UN is set to embark on two potentially significant events for 2020 that have the potential to alter its public perception as well as its policy course:  the reform initiatives surrounding the UN’s 75th anniversary year as well as the early segments of what the UN is calling the Decade of Action and Delivery for sustainable development.  Regarding the latter, we have largely squandered the first five years of a 15 year plan to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.   “Action and Delivery” is, at least in theory, the antidote to a massive institutional promise that has run a bit off the rails in some key instances, but it can also help focus attention on the state of our oceans and climate, the importance of addressing threats to food security and massive human displacement, and the need to rescue resources from bloated military budgets and rampant government corruption so as to successfully deliver on our development promises.

As for the 75th anniversary reforms, there are fires to discuss here as well:  the decline of respect for human rights and the safety of rights advocates;  the too-slow pace of inclusion (including of women and cultural minorities) in policy and security sector functions;  the uncertain footing of international criminal justice in a time of increasing disregard for international humanitarian law; the misreading of consensus that creates de-facto vetoes for states and leads to watered-down resolutions that are barely taken seriously by states in their aftermath, even at normative levels.

But for many diplomats and NGOs, the primary focus of reform is the Security Council, a body whose decisions (and non-decisions) impact virtually every other aspect of the UN’s work. Sadly, the Council remains largely unaccountable to the general UN membership and its oft-politicized decision-making and the disregard so-engendered for its ostensibly “binding” resolutions – disregarded at times even by Council members themselves – has somehow managed to demean itself and its full, potential influence on how conflict should be prevented and resolved.

As our readers already know the Council’s two-tiered membership – its permanent and elected members – has become an occasion more for policy entitlement than for inspiration towards a more peaceful and sustainable world.   Given the often-suspect levels of global statesmanship in evidence around the oval, Council members too-often continue the practice of placing national interest over the interests of the whole, offering statements designed to convince the few who still bother to listen that their causes are more just and less relevant to their own narrow preferences than is often the case.

Moreover, the structure of the Council and its so-called “provisional rules of procedure” often serve to marginalize the bulk of its elected membership, placing them in charge of sanctions committees and other specialized functions while restricting their public contributions largely to pleading for unrestricted humanitarian access for victims of conflicts which the Council has failed to prevent or promptly resolve in the first instance. It is sometimes hard to watch (and we watch daily) as high-profile, current elected members (such as Germany, South Africa and Indonesia) have their initiatives (and at times even their voices) suppressed by the policy stubbornness and political gamesmanship of the permanent members.

This suppression is of course more apparent in the case of the smaller states which have also found their way on to the Council.   In a few days, a “class” consisting of Kuwait, Poland, Equatorial Guinea, Peru and Côte d’Ivoire will make way for Estonia, Niger, Tunisia, Vietnam (Council president for January) and Saint Vincent and Grenadines.   While we wish them well, and will join them daily in an attempt to encourage their policy independence, there is little reason to believe that they will have more impact on global peace and security than the states they are replacing.  And while we are particularly interested to see how the highly-respected, former president of ECOSOC Rhonda King handles herself around the Council oval, it is likely that Saint Vincent and Grenadines will have policy impact only to the degree that she is able to credibly represent the issues of her Caribbean Community (CARICOM) colleagues.

There is much more to say about the contributions of non-permanent members to Council reform and the more general need for greater transparency and power-sharing within the UN’s peace and security architecture.  The point here is the degree to which the resolutions we make within our own families and neighborhoods, the inspiration required to sustain personal and  community change, require more of our leadership, much more in fact.  If those of power and privilege cannot find the words that can genuinely inspire us, if they cannot also commit to actions and policies that give tangibility and credibility to those utterances, the heat we all now feel from steadily rising temperatures and rapidly rising anger will only intensify.

We still believe that the fires that rage now can be contained and that (as in nature) life can recover from the current devastation and find a fresh level of abundance.  But we need to hear more from those in positions of authority entrusted with the lives and well-being of the global pubic, hear that they fully understand the urgency associated with too many “devils” released into too many global settings.

Our commitment to you in 2020 is that we will do whatever is needed – with whomever is available — to help keep those in authority focused on their responsibilities and contributions; urging them to become more of “what they might have been” and do more to inspire and elevate a common commitment to lower both the actual and metaphorical heat that threatens us all.

We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

Visiting Hours: Sojourning with the Sacred, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Dec


There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.  Madeleine L’Engle

Action is always superior to speech in the Gospels, which is why the Word became flesh and not newsprint. Colin Morris

Holy work in the world has always been like this: messy, earthy, physical, touchable. Catherine McNiel

We are the creators, and our mission is to detach from all the chains we imposed upon ourselves and create a bridge to the infinite self. Journey back to where we started. Ana O’Malley

Do not have so much fear of this world that it will ruin the next incarnation. Dada Bhagwan

This is the first day of Hanukkah, the first full day of winter, and just three days from Christmas.  Like many of our places of employment and engagement, the UN has wound down the bulk of its activities for the year. Unlike some of these other places, however, the UN is now licking its wounds from recent failures to reach a climate agreement sufficient to the magnitude of the current threat and, in the Security Council, the shameful inability to reauthorize the “cross-border mechanism” which most everyone believes is essential to keeping Syrian civilians alive as Special Envoy Pedersen pursues a long-awaited political settlement.

Due in part to the fact that I am not always well in my head, these discouraging policy failures actually led me to think more this week about “incarnation,” a seminal attribute of this season for Christians but one which tends to vanish from interest once the bills of the season have been paid and the images of the baby sleeping in the cold have given way to how we (at least in the northern climes) are going to cope with our unrelenting and mostly colorless winter.

I believe it would be better for all of us if we could hold on to incarnation a while longer.

According to the dictionary, what is “incarnate” is that which has been made manifest or comprehensible; something that has been made clearer to us; a veil that has been lifted; blinders that have been removed from our eyes, allowing us to see a fuller reality beyond our preconceptions and prejudices. This notion of incarnation has ramifications for Christians at Christmas of course – the baby in the hay that somehow represents the “goodness and light” that had been promised and which has seemingly remained more elusive than we might otherwise have wished.

But there are many other veils that surely need to be lifted, other blind spots to which we have become a bit too comfortable, logs in our own eyes that prevent us from seeing the “specks” that are in the eyes of others.  To be able and, even more, to be willing to see all that is constantly being made “manifest and comprehensible” to us is a great gift to ourselves, to those around us, and especially to all we seek to serve.

And there are other meanings to this incarnation season that we would also do well to consider further.

One of these is fully present in the manger scene but also at the core of some of our most cherished rituals – the mystery associated with turning items from a common to a sacred use:  the common barn that housed an infant savior; the common candles of Hanukkah mysteriously burning in a temple for days instead of hours, the common waters that somehow become the conduit for sacred baptisms. This “re-purposing” is also part of incarnation, also part of how we recognize and appreciate the mystery within the commonplace, the divine within the profane.

And it is not only in the religious realm where this re-purposing takes place.   Many of our Global Action colleagues (Green Map and others) are doing their part of the “messy, holy work” that we need so much of in these times, investing what might otherwise be considered common and easily-disposed resources with fresh value and meaning.  For several years, Lin Evola’s Peace Angels Project has been our own re-purposing guidestar, an effort across cities and cultures, collecting weapons, melting them down, and then turning these instruments of death and criminality into sculptures of beauty and inspiration. Especially in this season of incarnation, we honor all of this work, all these reminders that “there is nothing so secular” that it cannot also be re-purposed for the greater benefit of people and planet.

Finally, there is the dimension of incarnation that we are perhaps most prone to forget, or at least to overlook – the depth of commitment which such incarnation implies.  The child in the manger represents no mere visitation, no temporary port of call, no visceral drive-by, no stop on a longer tour.  The manger is, instead, a symbol of enduring presence, of a commitment to help us through our most difficult times, to accompany us as we attempt to detach from our self-imposed chains and get back in touch with our truer natures, to overcome the fears that inhibit the freedom of our movements that is indispensable to rebuilding those bridges to our “infinite selves.”

Incarnation has little relation to the material things and personal relationships that we have been “trained” to use for a short season and then discard; nor does it represent a short, seasonal distraction from the habits embedded in our personal calendars.  Indeed it is the key to calendars with a genuine human future.

The three dimensions of incarnation noted here all have important implications for both our personal lives and our policy choices. They represent a call to lift the veils that prevent our clarity of vision; to accept the duty to re-purpose, thereby creating sacred space where there is now only (sometimes quite vulgar) material interest; to seize on the value of accompaniment, making ourselves reliable advocates for people who are themselves reliable in their pursuit of a truth worth keeping; people who can help us re-purpose the material plane which is now burying us in plastic and cynicism; people for whom “visiting hours” has no closing time.

The sacred texts that define this season of incarnation make clear that action takes precedence over speech, that how we act in response to the clarity and permanence promised during this season means more to the world than what we say (or write).  The world that we seek to inspire and heal needs this incarnation moment; it needs us to witness more reliably to the sacred in our midst, to do our part to create new sacred spaces and deeper relationships, and to renew the commitment to see our own re-purposing projects to their very end.

Do you hear what I hear?  Do you see what I see?  The season of incarnation is upon us.  May it never leave.

Logic Choppers: Ancient and Contemporary Threats to Civic Virtue, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Dec


You become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.  Aristotle

You can fake virtue for an audience. You can’t fake it in your own eyes.  Ayn Rand

There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as ‘moral indignation,’ which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.  Erich Fromm

When the rare chance comes, seize it, to do the rare deed.  Tiruvalluvar

Discourse on virtue and they pass by in droves. Whistle and dance and shimmy, and you’ve got an audience!  Diogenes

Few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so. Cicero

May I never, I say, become that abnormal, merciless animal; that deformed monstrosity — a virtuous woman.  Mary MacLane

To be in Athens is evocative at so many levels, getting in touch with the ways in which we have far transcended the culture of Socrates, the Sophists and later Aristotle, but also the ways in which we have culturally digressed – failing both to learn some of their hard human lessons and to commit to walking a more virtuous path ourselves.

Such lessons (literally and figuratively) washed over me this week in places like the Ancient Agora, where persons of high intellect once debated profound matters but also (in the case of numerous Sophists) put their “wisdom” up for sale to the highest bidder, apparently after having become quite comfortable with the notion that one could make a handsome living by teaching matters of the heart and mind without having to commit much of oneself to such matters. 

For some of these thinkers (both Socrates and Euripides comes to mind) there was something seriously wrong with making money off ideas that the teachers themselves had largely kept at arm’s length. Thus the pursuit of wisdom, and the pursuit of civic virtue through which wisdom is made incarnate, made way to what James Jarrett referred to as “logic choppers,” people who seemed to love the sound of their own voices more than they actually sought to impact a world that had in some sense ossified into “accepted ways” that served only a sub-section of the public for which they were ostensibly intended.

One can argue (and these rhetoricians did endlessly) about matters that we modern sophisticates have largely abandoned – notions of “universal” truth untainted by culture and power (they surely are) as well as the ways in which our senses can deceive us on a regular basis  (they surely do).  But what some of the more sophisticated Sophists also understood is that, our need for permanence notwithstanding, the world is spinning in and out of acceptability.  And thus we have a duty to question what some would prefer to hold aloof from dialogue or critique – “certainties” revolving around their own needs and aspirations in so many instances. 

I was also able to revisit the responsibility, firmly understood by Aristotle and others, to invest part of ourselves in civic space as an indispensable element of civilized living.  Ours is hardly the first age which has largely abandoned civic virtue for ubiquitous distractions or mercenary applications of inherited wisdom.  But the pace of distraction has certainly intensified in our time as has the “value” that nothing matters except what can be bought and sold, what can be counted and commoditized.

What has clearly suffered in too many instances is the time and/or inclination to influence the civic culture that, in our collective absence, has become less thoughtful and more vulgar, and less “user-friendly” than some might have thought possible.  This is not mostly about people like me who have been granted the privileges of time to reflect with virtually-assured policy access on a regular basis. Indeed, this time in Athens has only strengthened my appreciation for other actors; especially for archeologists and art historians, for curators and translators, without whom none of the takeaways from this trip – even my half-baked ones – would have been even remotely possible.  That people such as these have not been properly honored or enabled in civic space is, indeed, a symptom of a greater alienation, a genuine civic malfunction. 

No, the enabling of access to public space, the striving for public effectiveness, isn’t about (or shouldn’t be about) competition for attention or status or “followers.”  It should be more about the willingness to engage and share beyond our zones of comfort, to force ourselves to “weigh in” on the most important social and political matters of our time with all of our cognitive and emotional skill, not just the matters that weigh more privately on our minds and hearts, on our careers and pay stubs.

And those matters are surely related to virtue, a term once deemed so high-minded that it caused some logicians around the Agora to wonder aloud if it could even be taught, a term now largely discredited due to the ways it has been “worn” by the unscrupulous and the mercenary, the vain and the self-righteous.  We all know of too many people who can “whistle and dance” for an audience but can’t reach them in some deeper place than the one that merely desires to be entertained. We also know people for whom virtue is merely a convenient gateway to envy or hate, an excuse to belittle or humiliate, a rationale for some version of “might makes right,” even (certainly in the case of still-too-many women) a means of holding people in place with no commitment to releasing their power.

The lessons to be learned for me from this Athens sojourn are that virtue, to the extent that it is still relevant in modern terms, must be practiced and made visible in public spaces.  It is not, it cannot be reduced to some private possession.  It is neither a jewel to protect nor a club with which to beat others over the head. In this context we must recognize that there are times in every life where we are called upon to repurpose at least part of our precious virtue for the sake of a greater good, to embrace the murkiness of leadership, to be willing to make the difficult decisions knowing that all the relevant facts are not in, while understanding that the decision might cause harm to some in the hope of possibly freeing many others from a worse fate. Such times as these are perhaps rare for most; but they are also emblematic of our still-potent ability to blend successfully the virtue we have cultivated with real-time solutions to real-world crises as they are made known to us. 

The other lesson is one which we have spoken of often in this space: that we are not who we proclaim ourselves to be as much as what we choose to practice in the world.  As Aristotle and others recognized, the path to bravery lies in brave acts; likewise the path to justice lies in just acts.   If there is a path back from the brink of lofty rhetoric that so-often in our time (and in times past) masks paper-thin commitments, it is through a thoughtful and resolute engagement with civic space. This invitation must be directed less at the professional class of do-gooders such as me, but at all who seek it, all who can contribute to making our civic life more civil, all who can still be tempted to join this party that might turn out to be key to keeping our very civilization civil.  

What the great thinkers and logic dissemblers around the Agora apparently could not recognize clearly enough is that the circle of civic concern essential to grow and sustain their vibrant culture was simply too small, certainly too male, and likely too addicted to the “rush” of rhetorical flourish.  We do indeed have the responsibility to teach as some of the ancients made crystal clear; teaching not only the things that will lead to “secure employment,” but the things that will lead to attentive and thoughtful lives, lives of purpose and intentionality, lives that can puncture the veil of civic space and demand a place for themselves.

And perhaps most of all, lives that resonate with those of their teachers who, in every sense of the word, seek to practice what they preach.


Apple Pay: Inspiring our Policy Perseverance, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Dec

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.  Martin Luther

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.  Kurt Vonnegut

There are years that ask questions and years that answer. Zora Neale Hurston

The soul is healed by being with children. Fyodor Dostoevsky

Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. Madeleine L’Engle

At the end of another long week at the UN, diplomats and leadership struggled once again to cross the annual finish line. The Security Council held a session on Central Africa, including the conflict in Cameroon, which was more formula than foresight – conventional calls for dialogue and political will with only Belgium clearly grasping that efforts by the government to promote reconciliation in the primarily English speaking areas of the country have not impacted conditions on the ground; indeed seem to be intended more to placate an international audience than to quell the violence and open the door for accountability and justice.   Those few of us in the chamber who have followed the Cameroon conflict for some time and were hoping for a bit more defiance – or at least to witness the inspiration to defy – were largely disappointed.

Just down the hall, a two-day review of the Vienna Programme of Action for Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) was also concluding.  This review, essential to the fulfillment of our sustainable development responsibilities, endorsed an excellent Political Declaration under the leadership of Austria and Bhutan which focused on the unique economic, security and trade-related challenges faced by states lacking sea access and, in some instances, even commercial interaction across land borders.

And yet this important event also ended with the whimper as both the President of the General Assembly and High Representative Utoikamanu struggled through prepared remarks in ways that sapped what little energy remained in the Trusteeship Council chamber.  Having lamented a day earlier the degree to which progress on sustainable development in many LLDCs remains stagnant, one would have hoped for a more determined set of final presentations, an infusion of energy which could communicate to delegations and a wider audience that there is sustainable passion behind the adopted Declaration, that we understand the full relevance of the plight of the LLDCs to the fulfillment of our 2030 Development Agenda promises.

Thankfully, there were other UN engagements this week with more abundant energy, including a Thailand-sponsored event on the importance of soil protection to sustainable agriculture, an excellent joint meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission and the Economic and Social Council on peace and security in the Lake Chad/Sahel region of Africa, and a multi-stakeholder Open-ended Working Group on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security. The latter event brought dozens of academics and representatives of governments and civil society together to discuss cyber threats to elections, to weapons systems, and especially to what was often referred to as the “public core” of the internet that is now (as you surely know) awash in viruses, phishing scams, and other threats to privacy and protection.  What made this event work as well as it did was the willingness of the Chairs – Singapore and Switzerland – to privilege the expertise of the non-government representatives more than their government counterparts.  Most all Working Group participants seemed comfortable speaking with each other, rather than “over” each other as is so often the case here.

Despite these hopeful policy settings, the overall mood of the building seems now less of a roar and more of a whimper.  People are tired; in some instances, also clearly a bit discouraged.  Diplomats soldier on, read their statements, pay attention (more or less) to what others are sharing, and shuffle themselves between relevant conference rooms where all-too-familiar issues reappear on their agendas without resolution –and often without progress.  Funding is also unusually tight as key contributors (including Brazil and the US) withhold resources needed to keep the UN in full function, symbolized in part by a heavily-used escalator that now only runs to the 2nd floor instead of the 4th, as well as doors that are locked and meetings which are raced through more quickly than usual as there is currently no prospect of overtime pay for any UN employee.

From our vantage point, we are not as preoccupied with funding aspects per se as with their implications for inspiration, for visible energy and commitment, for expressions of enthusiasm that we actually have what it takes to meet our ambitious obligations to constituents; that we as a community remain undeterred by obstacles of logistics and budget which (if we are honest) appear largely irrelevant when placed alongside the impediments to persons ravaged by war and poverty, by drought and corrupt governance, by massive storms and equally massive indifference.

As we sit in diverse conference rooms each day trying to sew the pieces of relevant UN policy together and ensure in our own small way that efforts to obfuscate or even deceive are called out, what we look for – indeed long for – is inspiration: that sense of urgency to solve the problems that have wrecked havoc for far too long; that determination to use all of the abundant expertise available within the UN and to supplement it where needed with the best (and most diverse) of what is available outside; that regular acknowledgement that we can visualize who needs us and who we are working for; that we can feel at least some of the pain that comes from the impact of violence we have not averted, under-development we have not yet tackled, natural disasters we failed to predict, disease outbreaks we failed to prevent.

Diplomats have their own compensation mechanisms for functioning in what has become, too-often, a high-octane, low-inspiration environment.   For us on the non-government side, we are too often left to invent our own inspiration, to write our own sonnets and plant our own trees, to secure essential heart energy from places largely invisible to the eye.  In some conference rooms, such as was the case this week, positive energy is still accessible. In others, energy levels are far more lethargic than electric.

This is, indeed, a “first-world problem” but one with far broader implications.   What must it look like for global constituents to watch this community of policy muddle through issues that, for them, are literally matters of life and death?  How must it feel to read resolutions that purport to address constituent concerns with barely a shred of constituent intervention?  What must be the trust implications of promises made and then ignored, of binding declarations without schemes for implementation, of grave crimes that go perpetually unpunished or “cashed in” for the sake of “peace agreements?” For us here in the center of global governance, policy lethargy is an indulgence understandable at one level but almost unforgivable at another.

Back in the Security Council yesterday, it was indeed an inspiring site as we put away our computers and diplomats filed out of the chamber, to see a baby belonging to one of the UN diplomats crawling along our row, happy as he could possibly be, exploring a space that should have more to do than it does now with preserving and protecting his future and the many millions of girls and boys in his generational cohort.

We don’t see babies often enough in this seasonally-fatigued and too–often discouraged space packed with events and responsibilities but short on genuine enthusiasm and inspiration.  Lacking the presence of children, it seems too easy now to forget who we’re working for, the specific circumstances of who and what we’re perhaps only pretending to care about, the duties to promote and protect, to warn and respond, to assist and inspire, to question and discern, duties that come with our largely undeserved places at the center of policy. This peculiar iteration of policy amnesia is bad for constituents, but can’t be good for any of us here at the UN either, from senior officials to cafe servers.

I know that there is plenty of inspiration swirling around my own life, including some remarkable women, interns and other colleagues who are constantly exploring and finding new ways to place their skills and energies in the service of the world.   I need to tap into more of this energy going forward, in part so I can continue to plant the “apple trees” that are mine to plant,to invite others to create new sonnets, to better share my portion of inspiration directed primarily to the heart, and all this regardless of the current political circumstances or mood of the room.

I’m going to take a few days this week in an attempt to relocate that very tap.  I’ll let you know if I’m successful.

Starry Night:  An Advent Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Dec


From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernible as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.  Alfred Delp

Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world; it means passing over our own hidden qualities and those of others and the world. It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Anticipation lifts the heart.  Luci Shaw

To be human is nothing less than to be caught in the great congested pilgrimage of existence and to join ourselves freely to it in the face of the evidence of its never-ending troubles. Eugene Kennedy

So stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon.  Jan L. Richardson

For those of you who have enjoyed or at least endured over a decade of these Advent messages, you recognize my own fixation with the scene of the man (or woman) sitting on top of a large rock beholding a universe that envelops from all directions, casting a light whose origins sometimes well predate human civilization, beseeching Emmanuel to come, to offer us a pathway out of our patterns of violence and pettiness, the “never-ending” troubles of the lives of still-so-many in this world.

To witness the universe in all its wonder and glory, not burdened by artificial illumination or equally artificial optimism, is an experience that we all should have more often.  It is, in its own way, a counterpoint for so much of what our lives have become, especially in this global capital of self-importance in which I continue to reside – the rushing and running, the pushing and fretting, the reduction of life to six inch screens and brown smiley boxes, the almost inconceivable blend of aggressiveness and inattentiveness that makes life here more of a distracted obstacle course than a place where wonder and mystery can inform our multiple movements.

In urban centers like this one there is little sky to behold, few places beyond our ubiquitous electrification to contemplate an inconceivably vast universe both wonderful and seemingly unforgiving, a starry night that promises little aside perhaps for the reminder that we have been – and remain — this remarkable and frequently unimplemented combination of skills and capacities that can probe the mysteries of both the cosmos and our own souls, all while remaining attentive to the increasingly complex logistics and often-daunting caregiving responsibilities of our daily lives.

Much like parents who feed and clothe, toilet train and character-build their children in anticipation of lives that have shed childhood dependencies, we have work to do to ensure that the tasks that consume us now manifest a larger purpose, that they are simultaneously about serving the copious demands and appetites of living and caregiving with the larger purpose of preparing the world for a future that is mysteriously healing, a future with peacefulness at its material core.  But we need reminders to direct our energies in acknowledgment of that belief, that feeling of anticipation which can “lift our hearts,” that sense of liberation from our self-imposed follies which is actually on its way, indeed which is banging on the doors of our hearts this very moment.

I often wonder what the man/woman on the rock did once this encounter with the cosmos was concluded.  Perhaps caring for children or for animals, or tending to the harvest, or repairing a roof that was otherwise unlikely to survive the winter?  Was there a take-away from this sojourn with the stars, perhaps a fear that the cosmos was indifferent to our suffering? Or perhaps a glimmer of hope that something out there was communicating with something “in here,” permitting an anticipation that could “lift the heart,” to return to the more mundane portions of our lives with some sense that all is not lost, that “Emmanuel” will come in some way, in some form, that the moment of healing from our self-inflicted chaos is closer at hand than the stars that signal its coming could ever be.

The gap between the mystery embedded in the cosmos and the relentlessness of our daily responsibilities is often far too vast. But so too is the gap between the immanent promise of a hopeful and abundant horizon and our equally relentless refusal to prepare for its coming.

This anticipation – essential for some, perhaps fantasy for others – is what still energizes the people of Advent to attend to the myriad of tasks and responsibilities that punctuate our existence and sometimes even threaten to drown it.  Our “conveniences” have, if we are truly honest, mostly “upped the ante,” raised our expectations, ossified material habits over which we have mostly lost control.  As we have often noted (following Wendell Berry) that we have become a people who would rather own a neighbor’s farm than have a neighbor; so we would also rather have an I Phone 10 than a close encounter with the mysteries beyond the immediate – including in our own lives — that still, if we dared to believe it, can put our self-referential errands and consumer lusts in their place.

Especially in this season of relentless “giving,” we have so many “bills” that are coming due and that we must attend to in the material world, but also “bills” in our inner lives, the costs accruing from the full-bore substitution of wonder for competition, of mystery for consumption.   Our politics continue to become even more mean-spirited and petty at national and global levels. Our economics, moreover, continue to widen income gaps and seduce purchase-beyond-means.  And at a personal level, we continue on a collective path that almost ensures that our isolated blue ball at the edge of one galaxy will continue to melt away, will continue to groan under the burdens of our willful ignorance and under-modified self-indulgence, affecting the survival of many life forms but mostly of the one that created the melting in the first instance.

But the groaning masks another epiphany, another melody. Something is coming.  It’s just beyond the starry horizon, just about to break through our stubborn self-interest and invite us yet again to a richer and more abundant life.   We have just enough time – but not a minute more – to get ready for the change.  In these times – precarious for some, stressful for many – we can work harder at resisting the urge to pull in the reigns, to disengage, to assuage our discouragement by doubling-down on comfort and self-protection.  We have just enough time to create a better blend of the complex mixture demanded of the times and of this season; a mixture that holds space for the mystery of the qualities we overlook in ourselves and others; a mixture that holds our complex and consuming logistics in a more cosmic and anticipatory frame; a mixture that knows to answer the door when the “peace which passes understanding” deigns to knock.

I who should know better already overlook far too much. It’s time to reacquaint myself with the stars.