Meghan Daum: Can panic survive a few deep breaths?


By Meghan Daum, Los Angeles Times



It’s been slightly more than two weeks since slightly less than half of those who voted in the presidential election set Western civilization on a possible course toward destruction.

As with any traumatic event, there’s no “right” way to process the aftermath, though when it comes to the Trumpocalypse a curious dichotomy has emerged. Those who are unhappy about the results (and “unhappy” here ranges from “concerned” to “suicidal”) seem to be operating in either panic mode or “everyone take a deep breath” mode.

Panic mode is easy to spot. If your Facebook feed resembles mine, which is to say if it’s no longer a social network as much as a rapidly scrolling emergency alert system, chances are you and 500 of your closest friends are pasting and posting phone numbers of legislators to call about the latest Trump-related development.

Or maybe you’re spitting out frenzied jeremiads about the end of the Republic, or passing around mostly useless petitions, or arguing about which retailers to boycott because they sell Trump products: Zappos? Macy’s? Amazon? Oh, wait, Amazon’s OK because its CEO, Jeff Bezos, said he wanted to send Trump into space. Oh, wait, it’s not OK because it’s … Amazon.

“Everyone take a deep breath” mode is, by its very nature, a subtler thing. It’s less conducive to social media than, say, face-to-face conversation. It’s what Jon Stewart exemplified when he was interviewed by Charlie Rose on CBS last week. “I don’t believe,” he said, “we are a fundamentally different country today than we were two weeks ago.” It’s the approach serious newspapers are trying to take, reporting the facts rather than splashing out doomsday headlines.

It’s the attitude President Barack Obama is maintaining with a level of grace and self-discipline that is as impressive as anything I’ve seen in the public sphere in recent memory. In fact, watching him negotiate this transition keeps bringing me back to the Rudyard Kipling poem “If,” especially this line: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken/Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.”

And yet panic mode seems to have the moral authority. If you’re not panicking, you’re wrong. More precisely, if you’re not panicking, you’re “normalizing” a situation that is aberrant in every possible way.

“Normalize” has become the word of the hour, and not without good reason. Human beings are naturally resilient. We get used to things, we adapt. This is an evolutionary advantage when it comes to propagating the species, but it can prove catastrophic when citizens confuse watchful waiting with being lulled into complacency. That’s why we shouldn’t get so used to the smell of smoke that we stop noticing the fire. Case in point: All the liberals now praying that Mitt Romney becomes secretary of state.

“Normalize” is already being used as a weapon, mostly by Team Panic against Team Take a Deep Breath. For all the people who took solace in Stewart’s words, plenty of others criticized him for showing insufficient outrage. And even though most Americans understand the importance of a peaceful transition of power, there are plenty who think President Obama, with his message of “give Trump a chance,” is being too magnanimous, the normalizer in chief.

If Obama were a regular person and told his liberal Facebook friends to tone down the hysterics and take things one step at a time, he’d be scolded and schooled, attacked for his privilege, labeled “part of the problem.” Obviously, that’s a false equivalency if there ever was one, but it underscores just how counterproductive the infighting can be. The truth is, Team Panic and Team Take a Deep Breath need each other. They are not enemies but symbiotic partners. Panickers could stand to chill out now and then, and the deep-breath-takers might do well to pick up the phone and register their concerns with a legislator.

That kind of give and take is not normalizing. It’s just normal human respect for normal human feelings in this most abnormal time.

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By Meghan Daum, Los Angeles Times

Contact Meghan Daum at [email protected] or on Twitter: @meghan_daum.

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