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February 22, 2017

Don’t Panic!

No question these are scary times. The new President, to be charitable, has made a lot of rooky mistakes. His grasp on reality slips in the face of any criticism, and he is faster to go on an ad hominem attack than a pit bull. Things are pretty scary on the other side as well. Most of the press thinks that the most important issue facing the nation is how the President treats them; they confuse criticism with censorship. Most importantly, the country is badly and deeply divided. That’s real. People on both sides of the divide, but particularly on the now-out-of-power left, are reacting with panic.

The best description of panic I ever read is in the novel Norwegian By Night by Derek B. Miller.

“Panic is the enemy,” said Staff Sergeant O’Callahan in 1950. “Panic is not the same as being scared. Everyone gets scared. It is a survival mechanism. It tells you that something is wrong and requires your attention. Panic is when scared takes over your brain, rendering you utterly fucking useless. If you panic in the water, you will drown. If you panic on the battlefield, you will get shot. If you panic as a sniper, you will reveal your position, miss your mark, and fail your mission. Your father will hate you, your mother will ignore you, and women across this planet will be able to smell the stench of failure oozing from your very pores.”

Panic isn’t pretty. It isn’t helpful, either. Dangerous times call for calm and judgment. If we want to stop really bad things, you’ve got to distinguish them from the things we just disagree with. We can’t automatically assume that everything Trump does is wrong – or right, for that matter. We can’t assume every news story we disagree with is false – or assume that it is true just because we agree with it. We can’t imagine ourselves as heroic members of the resistance when we go to a police-protected demonstration; that’s an insult to the people in the Syrian resistance being gassed and barrel-bombed by their government. Equally we are not the “Indians” of the Boston Tea Party because we demonstrate against the bailout of banks (that is the first thing the modern day Tea Party was against).

It’s a scary time; we can’t panic.

There’s another great paragraph in Norwegian By Night. This time Miller is writing about Oslo, where he lives as an American ex-pat. The book was published in 2012 so he wrote this before the last great migration, but he's writing about part of what divides us today.

"Recent immigration from Africa and Eastern Europe— and Muslim countries farther east— created a new social tension in the city that still lacked the political maturity to address it. The liberals expounded limitless tolerance, the conservatives were racist or xenophobic, and everyone debated from philosophical positions but never from ones grounded in evidence, and so no sober consideration was being given to the very real question now haunting all of Western civilization— namely, How tolerant should we be of intolerance?"

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