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In Search of Empathy (and Where Not to Find It)

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I offer the following tidbits, each story with a common thread: Where is the empathy?

• Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged tops books borrowed at the Virginia Tech Newman Library for a recent year.

• Hopes for extension of unemployment benefits died last week.

• Concern for needy declines as the poor and working poor are “nickeled and dimed.”

• President Obama wanted his US Supreme Court nominee to possess empathy, though to date we do not know if or how Elena Kagan has demonstrated such, or whether she would be another corporatist on the high Court. Republicans criticized and mocked the empathy criterion.

And then, there is this: A recent University of Michigan study on empathy among young people found a sharp reduction in it.  College students today score much (40%) lower in empathy than college students did just 10 or 20 years ago. The biggest drop came after 2000, which is not surprising given the arrogant, resource-grabbing culture promoted by Bushism.  Every man (and woman) for himself and God help us all. It’s the GOP/Club for Growth/(Milton Friedmanomics/”Tea Partiers”/Freedom Works/Americans for Prosperity,” mantra.  

Ruthless opportunism marks everything George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich and the newer reinvention of the far right seek.  There is nothing more sacred than their very own tax shelters, preferences or cuts, except, perhaps, their tendency to hijack patriotism and contort it into something it is not.  They use up resources way out of proportion to what they contribute and without regard for what they destroy in the process.  Think BP.  Think Halliburton.  Think Wall Street.  Think those who believe any American should be a second class citizen.

To quote cognitive scientist, George Lakoff, the radical-wrong’s ideology is:

“empathy-free, self-interest maximizing, with disdain or even hatred for those seen as lesser beings.”

Lakoff notes that this wrong-wing (my term) ideology is self-reinforcing: a system that essentially promotes that values-free system itself.  It mocks altruists, “do-gooders,” and “bleeding hearts,” as if those were actually bad things. If the trend with college students continues, eventually a majority could take such a jaded view of others.  For sixty years the fringe has orchestrated a movement to change the way we view our responsibility to one another.  From Nixon to today’s GOP, they’ve nixed the common good.  Now the fringe has grown from less than 10% to roughly 25%.  And the 25% is holding our nation hostage to their Party of No “leadership.”  Now we see the result of values-free, self-adulating, self-aggrandizing  destructiveness.  The radical wrong is destroying everything in its sight. We are either part of the problem or part of the solution.  Democrats cannot have it both ways.  

Importantly, Lakoff says that you wont’ find empathy in bipartisanship with a party that values nothing but its own advancement. There is no compromise with scorched-earth policies and tactics, nor with hatred of minorities or anyone who, for whatever reason, does not seem to fit in.  The national and most statewide GOP entities and the pols they elect are finally beyond reach or compromise. Indeed the GOP leadership is Lost with a big L, as surely as the hapless characters on the newly retired television series.  They are the living dead, so devoid of any heart or soul it is laughable they preach to the rest of us about soul.  

You cannot compromise with those who would seek to target and abuse others because of their sexual orientation or identity.  You can’t compromise with those seeking to destroy the middle class and further destroy the nation’s poor.  You cannot compromise with those who would seek to install their religion on everyone else despite our Constitutional right to believe what we wish.  You cannot compromise with those who would use the profession of one particular faith as a “get out of jail free card” justification for any misbehavior, lawbreaking or hypocrisy whatsoever.  They don’t even practice that which they wish us to obey.  You cannot compromise with those who would argue that finality is more important than halting the execution of the wrong person.  (And you cannot compromise with those who believe the state should execute anyone at all.)  You cannot compromise on keeping the state out of citizens’ bedrooms.  You cannot compromise on the increasing treatment of corporate person-hood.  You cannot compromise with those who outright lie to get elected.  You cannot compromise with or on those who misrepresent or lie about every single thing you do. And you cannot compromise with those who will always say no.

I know that our president believes in the “value” of bipartisanship. But, President Obama (and others in the Democratic Party) fail to note that compromising with the values-free radical party calling itself the Republican party is a path toward not just folly, but catastrophe. Deny their bad intentions if you wish. But if you do, you will soon stand for nothing at all, or worse, you will stand with them.  

President Obama once had, as George Lakoff called it, “the moral narrative.”  His own values were clearly articulated in his writings in speeches:

• That our Constitution must be restored to pre-911 historic and robust protections.

• That we must restore our financial systems to credibility for the security of us all.

• That we must protect our resources against wanton destruction.

• That our privacy deserves protection.

• That we must conduct oversight as our citizens deserve and protect them against corporate abuse as he must.

• That we must be a fair nation, a just nation, not just when it’s safe under the “law of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh,” but always.

• That we must protect people against abuse by corporations, and even by government itself.

*That he would protect Social Security and Medicare.

• That he would honor and respect the nation’s teachers and its school children.

• That, most of all, we must seek peace, not war, especially, not more wars as we already are enmeshed in two.  We cannot sustain that either in an economic sense, or more importantly, a moral sense.

In less than 18 months, this administration and too many of its Democratic contingent in Congress, especially Blue Dogs, show little sign of understanding the needs of the people of this nation.  As they focus on electability, they fail to lead on the issues of our time.  I cannot believe we are in this place once more. What have we learned?

Leadership often means means showing the way.  Here it means showing those who don’t get it what it means to really be a citizen of these United States.  That means honoring our legal underpinnings, but also trying to change them for the better, as needed.  That means making this as, ironically, one little-caring and aloof president once said “a kinder, gentler nation,” but for real this time.  Number 41 didn’t really get what those words meant when he said them, or perhaps they were subterfuge.  

This sacred weekend could be put to no better use than to ponder the following admonition from George Lakoff: “Empathy, now!” … empathy now for those fighting wars in our name; for those who tragically see fighting in war as the only way to get a college education; for those who’ve lost loved ones in battle; for those who do not fight; for the peacemakers; for minorities and those in a protected “class” (and those who should be); for those nonconformists who march to their own drummer; for those who whose economic health and physical health are collapsing before their eyes; for people over institutions; for those who’ve been swindled by Wall street or any other cutthroat entity which commits fraud against our people; and for those individuals who may disagree with us, but reject scorched-earth, destructive policies and tactics. No, there can be no nobler calling than to remember and act with empathy now (and always) in our common humanity!  There can be no nobler calling than to stand up for us, the people (real people) of these United States.  I hope the President and our representatives are listening.  

  • teacherken

    both the current ones I can see around the school, and former ones with whom, thanks 2 Facebook, I am now back in touch.

    Social networking seems to play a major role in it –  if someone is ill a Facebook group is immediately set up.  Friends of the people who set it up will join even if they do not know the person on whose behalf it was set up.

  • mydailydrunk

    “I got mine, FU”

    It is trap people fall into when they view their success in zero-sum terms, an attitude that is abhorrent to me personally, but seems to be growing at an alarming rate.

    The “I can’t win unless you lose” attitude is normal on the commodities trading floor, but is counterproductive outside.

    I would ask those older than my 44 years if they can think of an analogous time in US history, attitude wise?