Tag Archives: political discourse

Community Chest:  Escaping our Custodial Limitations, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Jun

Community II

Heroes were ordinary people who knew that even if their own lives were impossibly knotted, they could untangle someone else’s.  Jodi Picoult

The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people. Wendell Berry

I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort where we overlap. Ani DiFranco

As long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. Michael Pollan

The UN was a place of diverse and competing interests this week.   A contentious Security Council meeting with the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on Darfur and the withdraw of the United States from the Human Rights Council was balanced in part by positive news on efforts to develop a Global Compact on Refugees and regulate the ammunition indispensable to weapons-related violence. There was also the welcome sight of Yoga mats filling the UN’s North Lawn, persons sharing a collective moment of harmony within an often fragmented UN policy space now surrounded by a seemingly more politically polarized host country.

Much of our own time this week was taken up in discussions with NGOs and diplomats about our collectively shrinking space for access and dialogue, about the mean spirited-ness of so much of our political discourse, about the limited vision guiding our pursuits of international justice and communities safe from the threat of armed violence, and of course about the devastating rights and trauma implications of children separated from parents at the southern US border.

The weekend provided little relief from a week of difficult issues. Early this morning, while waiting for the start of the World Cup, I endured a series of commercials for cars, movies and more that, collectively at least, glorified materialism and crass violence, and reinforced the idea that the world is a fundamentally dangerous place full of evil villains who want to take what we have, interrupting our safe lives and traditional values with multiple iterations of threat.  Our only hope, it seems, is to buy our way out of trouble and, failing that, to support leaders or super heroes that will somehow keep these “dangers” out of our personal and family business.

These images can be relentless.  It takes considerable effort to avoid them and even greater effort to counteract their influences.   We have collectively accepted the “logic” of a world full of people trying to take what we have, trying to hurt and abuse us, trying to undermine the economic and social benefits to which we are “surely” entitled.   Some manage to scheme their way around this pervasive perception of trouble.  Others gather up “their own” in the psychological equivalent of the “circle of wagons.”  In either case, the reaction feeds the narrative rather than seeks to transform it.

The world can certainly be a dangerous place, but not mostly because of migrants crossing our borders but because of leadership that promises unity while preaching division, that promises peace while “arming to the teeth,” and that promises prosperity in the short term by choking off sustainable options for the children who will survive us.  This is not a problem that can be laid solely at the feet of any particular administration but rather at the feet of each of us, our deepening preference for abstraction and distraction over community and communion.  We prefer, as Wendell Berry used to say, to own a neighbors farm than have a neighbor, and we have all the tools and language we need to see such ownership as a savvy investment opportunity while failing to also see it as another nail in the coffin of communities who haven’t yet forgotten how to look neighbors in the eye and work out strategies together for their common prosperity.

The problems that we address through the UN will never be solved unless we change the terms of engagement.  We don’t apologize for our errors of speech or policy.  We don’t acknowledge the valid points of others.  We don’t take direct responsibility for the messes incurred on our watch.  There tends to be too much acrimony “on camera” and not enough vision off it.  One of the loveliest moments of this week at the UN, for instance, was when the Dutch Ambassador and ICC prosecutor walked through the Security Council after a difficult session on Darfur to a group sitting next to us – victims of Darfur violence that been brought into the UN from the Hague in part to assess and encourage prospects for justice.  The ambassador and prosecutor proceded to greet all the victims, thanking them for their presence and pledging that their quest for justice would not in any way be deterred by the Council rhetoric they just witnessed.

But such gestures are too few and far between.  In the US and some other states, we are now, according to some commentators at least, engaged in something akin to a “soft civil war,” a “war” where our relentless levels of criticism of people we barely know and policies we incompletely understand accomplish little other than harden positions and up the ante on hostility.  We know that when we are treated unfairly — criticism that crosses the ad hominem line — we tend to retreat rather than engage, to double-down on even our worst impulses rather than give in to our critics.  Indeed, a recent NY Times article that says support for the US president remains surprisingly stable, in part because people feel the need to defend themselves from what they see as a relentless assault on their social values and political choices. This is an entirely predictable result.  Acrimony against those who don’t “support” us only breeds more of the same.   And retreat can easily become the precursor to retribution, as we have seen over and over in this world.

There was a feed on my twitter earlier today from an otherwise “policy savvy” source claiming that anyone who supports president Trump on migration is “no longer human.”   I would urge this person to “hold that thought” when her adversaries make their own, similar, equally-abstract, human-denying accusations — which they will, which they are.  This goes beyond the often-empowering humor and fair-minded critiques directed at leadership to an ascription of “evil” that we are now much too quick to share, based on illusions we are too slow to own for ourselves.

The solution to the vast anger and mistrust building up in our “kingdoms of abstraction” will not likely be found in our consensus policy resolutions, nor in our public institutions, but in our communities.   When I asked a diverse group of young teens who gathered in the city hall of Arlington MA to meet with me early last week what things they were most concerned about, they mentioned a range of issues from climate change to gun violence.  They lamented all of the acrimony that they witness in the adult world (acrimony adults would not tolerate in children), all of the threats levied with and without weapons.  But mostly they wanted to find a voice, a chance to make the world they will soon inherit a bit healthier, more peaceful, even more predictable.

We talked together about the importance of “belonging somewhere,” of knowing a place and caring for a place, of allowing our senses and not our Instagram accounts to determine how we utilize our time, what we care about, how we protect and enhance the places we have come to love; but also how we share, resolve conflict, invest in others, promote mutual well-being.

When one of the teens asked me in return, “what keeps you up at night?” I responded that global challenges they did not create but will simply not be able to ignore keep me up at night: the plastics that fill our oceans, the mistrust that undermines our political discourse, the “remote” weapons that destroy from ever-greater distances, the “launch pads” for youth that so many of our communities have become, albeit with all the focus on the launch and virtually none on the “pads.”

This toxic brew of abstraction and suspicion that we have been so busy crafting is filled with potential peril for youth.  We are simply losing touch with each other, perhaps for a time, hopefully not for good.   Little positive can come of this distance. Future governments will inherit gridlock of our own making, and the next generation of adults will face the daunting task of opening the ears of people already pushed far into a corner in what might well, for them at least, have become a “diminished world.”

Thankfully, there are still moments of grace in our policy centers, still communities filled with young people determined to practice at local levels the skills and character we will desperately need at global ones.  We must not waste this opportunity to help them along.