Empathy

The Womp Womp Mindset

We live in a country where politicians have always pandered to voters by talking about their hard-working, poor, immigrant ancestors who came here with nothing but a dream and the determination to make a better life for their families.

By sharing these histories, politicians write themselves into the Great American Story.  We are a nation of people who are proud of our humble origins, our struggles to get here, and “the Great American Melting Pot.”

It occurred to me lately that something changed in the last election. Candidate Trump did not tell a heartwarming story about his hardworking immigrant ancestors. He said, “I’m rich, and that makes me smart, and it means the old rules don’t apply to me.” This appealed to a segment of the voters.

Was this the unraveling of the Great American Story? Do we no longer hold as an ideal the story of the poor but hard-working person who works for a better life?

Maybe this is a tacit admission that America’s great age of social mobility has ended and is not coming back. According to research I did for a previous book, if you wanted to be a self-made man in America, the best year to be born was 1850.

Instead of idealizing the land of opportunity, we’ve changed gears and are now just trying to be sure that in this unequal terrain, we’re on the favored side.

Doing away with the story of the poor immigrant ancestor is a good first step if you want to be sure people do not identify with more recent immigrants coming to our shores with nothing but the clothes on their backs, fleeing religious persecution or famine or violence.

It reduces some of the cognitive dissonance people might feel as they idealize their refugee ancestor while applauding a Muslim ban or describing people who cross the Southern border as dangerous, unclean, frightening vermin.

I’ve been thinking a lot about something I wrote in March 2017 when Trump was still a candidate.  I was shocked when a friend of mine, who supported Trump, started to refer to Mexicans as coming to the United States and “popping out babies” so they would be U.S. citizens.

Now we have Donald Trump, a candidate who elicits cheers and sighs of relief for saying “we’re too politically correct,” implying, of course, that those of us who do not agree that Muslims should all be treated as suspected terrorists or that illegal immigrants should be thought of as rapists do not actually believe what we are saying and are simply being polite.

There is room for polite disagreement on immigration policy. This is not about that. I am concerned that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to other and dehumanize groups of people…

To pillory “political correctness” is to overlook the fact that language does matter. There is a difference when you say that an immigrant “pops out a baby” or that she “has a child.” In the first case, you are speaking of her as something less than fully human.

“Is that why they pop out babies? To make them U.S. citizens? Is that why you popped out yours?”…

The strange thing is that illegal immigration has become such a hot button issue now as the number of Mexican immigrants leaving America is now actually greater than the number coming in.

But clearly the scope of the problem is much less important than the political value of having someone from the outside to blame for our ills.

Recently I questioned a Facebook friend who supported Trump and wrote about Mexicans “popping out babies” and getting free stuff in America.  In defending her views, she pointed to her own family history and contrasted it with the baby poppers of Mexico. Her grandfather fled Russia when the communists took over, and was forced to leave all of his possessions behind.

What fascinated me about this response is that being the descendant of a refugee did not produce empathy for other refugees… When her grandfather came to the U.S. he was fortunate that we distinguished between him and the people he was fleeing and did not keep him out because he and the communists were both Russian.

We can debate immigration policy. We can disagree. We can do it with respect.  But we cannot, as a moral nation, accept the notion that empathy is weakness. There is a way to take a hard line on immigration, and do it without dehumanizing people in the process. It is important.

I see a straight line from the anchor baby rhetoric to the moment we’re in today.  “The others” don’t have children for all the complex reasons we do. It is a trick, a ploy, to get citizenship. They are crafty, and it begins with popping those babies out. “Popping out” babies sounds easy. There is no labor. The women do not feel pain, because “the others” do not feel pain like we do. You needn’t worry about that. The children, who were not born the way our children are born, aren’t really our concern.

Yesterday I responded to a friend’s Facebook post. The friend writes Christian novels, and his post expressed a certain ambivalence about the family separation policy. “It’s terrible, but…” One of the people who commented remarked that there is no way to tell which of these immigrants are drug mules and that they put drugs in the babies diapers. Those children, popped out, not born, are now dangers in themselves. They try to trick us into compassion, but we give into it at our own peril. Once the concern was that these babies would grow up to become citizens and take what is rightfully ours (they’re all imagined as being on welfare and taking benefits, not building communities or contributing to the economy).  We’ve now moved beyond that. They are part of a wave that is going to overtake us. They’re going to turn our cities into ” “Blood-stained killing fields. Savagely burning, raping, and mutilating,” as the President put it.

I feel a sense of weariness and sadness having seen a number of my friends describing people by categories and using subhuman language.

Fast Company had a story today on what it called the “empathy gap” in politics. It contrasted MSNBC’s host Rachel Maddow getting choked up on air reading a breaking news story about “tender age” facilities for young children separated from their parents with a Fox News guest, a Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski whose reaction to the news that a child with Down’s Syndrome had been separated from her family by making “the sad trombone noise, which phonetically looks like ‘womp womp.’”

Lewandowski’s reaction to the news that a child with Down syndrome was separated from her parents at the border is literally a parody of sadness. There’s no other possible interpretation, it’s all right there. Whatever he is supposed to feel, as a member of the human race, about a child with Down syndrome separated from her parents, he doesn’t feel it.

Not only does he not feel it, he seems to have contempt for the idea that he should feel something. Tugging at the heartstrings is nothing but an attempt at manipulation, and he is not going to fall into the whole compassion trap.

You can see this same mindset in Trump’s decision to separate families. The idea of tearing crying children from their parents is distasteful to people with normal human empathy. If you have none, or barring that, if you can find ways to tamp down that natural reaction by dehumanizing a category of people, then you are in a position of power. Trump assumed that the people who couldn’t bear to see children harmed would be soft-hearted liberals, not “his” people. (Trump does not aspire to be President of the United States, but President of the Right, in opposition to the Left. “I’m representing the best people on earth, the deplorables,” he said at a campaign rally yesterday.) They would say “We’ll give you whatever you want, just stop hurting the children!” He expected that he would be able to coerce them into agreeing to his wall that way. He underestimated how many Americans there are who have empathy and a sense of history. Or maybe he did not.

Ann Applebaum in an opinion piece in the Washington Post argues that politicians of his stripe use shock and awe tactics to show their strength. They are signalling to their followers that they are willing to be cruel in order to meet their ends.

“Virtue-signaling” is a snide little phrase that people vaguely of the “right” invented to tease people vaguely of the “left.”… it implies insincerity and self-righteousness. Those who brag about doing something good — say, riding their bicycle to work every day — are said to be “virtue-signaling” their desire to fight climate change…

More recently the British journalist Nick Cohen has identified another way of sending social messages. This is something he called “vice-signaling,” and it is precisely the opposite tactic. It applies to politicians who do something evil — deliberately — with the aim of proving they really are very sincere indeed. Cohen invented it in the context of an immigration scandal in Britain which had led not to the deportation of illegal immigrants, but to the deportation of actual British citizens, albeit with poor documentation. When uncovered, the policy led to a scandal and the resignation of the home secretary, Amber Rudd. Cohen argued, nevertheless, that the policy had never been a mistake or an accident: The Conservative Party had decided to pursue cruel and unfair tactics on immigration, precisely in order to “signal” to their base their seriousness about fighting immigration.

This is a useful context in which to understand the reasoning behind the Trump administration’s horrific policy on family separation at the border — a policy that, if it were enacted in another country, would be described by American officials as state-sponsored child abuse. It’s incomprehensibly cruel, separating small children from their parents and sending them to institutions that resemble jails.

…Because it signals to their base that they are really serious about stopping immigration — so serious that they will abuse children, damage families, and shock anybody who cares about civil rights or human rights in the United States or elsewhere.

..Morality is for losers, apparently. Cruelty is for winners. And this will be the long-term effect of vice-signaling: it makes its proponents, and its audiences, vicious themselves.

What has been equally shocking to me is to learn that in a poll 75 percent of white Evangelicals reacted positively to Trump’s family separation policy.

Looking back, it seems as though this moment  is just the culmination of something I’ve been lamenting for a while. A culture that not only fails to make a virtue of compassion, it views compassion as a weakness and as manipulation.

I was writing about a “womp womp” point of view in 2013 when I saw how easy it was for people to come up with reasons not to care about the poor. I wrote about it again in 2017 when Mick Mulvaney tried to cast the people who receive Meals on Wheels as lacking compassion for the taxpayers. With the family separations womp womp-ism has reached a new low.

I don’t know how to conclude this piece except to say that I’ve been feeling an existential sadness over this, and I think I am not the only one.


 

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How the Story Ends: Thoughts on the Move Christine (2016)

The 2016 film Christine is based on the true story of a Sarasota local news personality Christine Chubbuck. I did not know her story when I selected the film under the category “critically acclaimed dramas” on my streaming service. The blurb described the movie this way: “In a film based on true events, an awkward but ambitious TV reporter struggles to adapt when she’s ordered to focus on violent and salacious stories.” Journalism movies are a genre I often like, so I selected it. It was not at all what I had been expecting based on the description.

In retrospect, I believe I had read about Chubbuck when I was studying broadcasting in college, but I didn’t connect it to the film I was watching. The filmmakers undoubtedly assumed that the people who bought tickets would know how the story ends. It is not a spoiler to say that what is best known about Chubbuck is how her life ended. One morning on live TV before her regular segment she read the following “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.” And then she shot herself on live television.

 

Had I watched the trailer before selecting the film, I would have had more of a sense of its tone. This is one case where I feel knowing the ending in advance would have made the experience of watching the film better. It would have added a tension and urgency to what was unfolding on screen. Instead, I spent most of the film wondering why I was watching this woman struggle with mental illness. What was the purpose, the point of view, of this story?

It is, however, a film that has stayed with me and in retrospect, what seemed to be its weaknesses while I was watching, are its strengths. It is a film in which easy answers and clear villains are absent. She has co-workers and family who are patient with her mood swings and who want to help. Chubbuck’s frustration with the shift towards sensationalism for ratings is present, but it is not a bogey man, just one of many problems that Chubbuck is ill-equipped to deal with. She is not seen as worthy of promotion by the powers that be, and the sexism of the time is present, but even if there had been a level playing field, it is not clear that Chubbuck had what it took to succeed in her field. Her erratic behavior, and outspoken insubordination would have gotten her fired in most places of work. She was stiff on camera. The obstacles she faced were real, but her internal struggle was bigger than anything external.

It is rare to have a film in which a woman who is difficult to understand and to like is the viewpoint character. That alone makes the film interesting. Rebecca Hall who played Chubbuck in the film said she was drawn to the film for just this reason. “There are a lot of films about the coolness of being a misfit,” she said, “I don’t know how many films there are, certainly about women, where it shows how painful it is to feel that you don’t fit in and that you are different…”

In this era, where we are sensitive to the idea of appropriation, something that comes up quite a bit in articles about the film is the fact that the writer and director are both men. Should a man have been the one to tell this woman’s story? Is this just exploiting Chubbuck again?

Each of us has many facets to our identity. Yet we consider some identity categories to be more fundamental than others. I am firmly of the opinion that the best person to tell as story is the one who is taken with a story and can’t let it go. Craig Shilowich, the writer of Christine, was drawn to the story because he had experienced depression himself. In the lead up to her dramatic last act, he saw a vehicle to explore mental illness. I would argue that the most important aspect of Chubbuck in this story is not her femininity but her mental illness.

Shilowich refuses to turn Chubbuck into a symbol of a greater cultural message. It might have served the drama better if he had, but he was right to resist the easy sensationalism that Chubbuck’s final statement seems to critique. In the end, I was left with a visceral sense of the frustrations of trying to reach someone who is depressed and who makes herself unreachable. Most of us have experienced–if not clinical depression–at least periods of feeling like an outcast, feeling misunderstood or unable to connect to others.

I was not left with an answer to the perhaps more compelling question of why Chubbuck chose to act in such a public manner.  Why did she chose to make her final act a violent rebuke? It was a death that was engineered not only to end her own pain, but to inflict trauma on others who were forced to witness it.  We can understand and empathize with the person who finds it too difficult to go on living, but the person who wants to force other people– strangers, society at large– to suffer with her?

I find a line from the Boomtown Rats song repeating in my head: “They could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons.” It is fortunate that most of us find this incomprehensible and can’t truly empathize.

The film succeeds, then, in what it attempts to do. It is a think piece. A story about a sensational, tabloid-esque story that is consciously anti-sensational and humanizing. It is at the same time disturbing and, for a film that is framed around an ending, strangely unresolved.

There was a line in a Rolling Stone review of the film that struck me. It was, wrote Sam Adams, “a time when things could happen without being recorded.” This led me to a whole series of reflections on how the dictates of what constitutes a good story, and a proper ending, effects our day to day lives and how we see ourselves. This article is already too long, so I will leave those thoughts for another day.

Empathy is Not a Zero Sum Game: Further Reflections on Kevin Spacey and Oscar Wilde

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After Oscar Wilde’s downfall, William Powell Frith wrote to the owner of his famous painting The Private View of the Royal Academy, which featured the playwright, and offered to paint Wilde out of it at no cost to the owner.

“I will do whatever you wish as regards Wilde — it is unfortunate for the picture but what could be so inconceivably unexpected.”

I spent the last few years immersed in the story of Oscar Wilde’s downfall and the effect that it had on the people who loved him.  My book Oscar’s Ghost finally came out just last month in the U.S. (in August in the U.K.). It is still very fresh in my consciousness.

When the public first learned that Wilde had engaged in illegal sex with male prostitutes they were appalled. It was an act that was considered as immoral and disgusting as anything they could imagine in his day, and there was a rush to disassociate from him. The mere thought of Wilde, who had been at the height of his fame as a beloved wit just days before, made people uneasy. They heard “Oscar Wilde” and thought of perversion. They didn’t want to be confronted with his name or to have to see his face. They wondered if having enjoyed his work made them somehow complicit or suspect.

George Alexander, the manager of the St. James Theater, was overseeing and starring in the production of Wilde’s new comedy The Importance of Being Earnest.

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This was the original program for the production, but after Wilde’s arrest for gross indecency new programs were printed without the playwright’s name. The play, it seems, had written itself. These days, with Wilde now redeemed, we tend to interpret this as a act of disloyalty and cowardice.  The Victoria and Albert Museum’s blog, for example describes Alexander as “ashamed of the connection, but not too ashamed to keep making money out of it for himself and Wilde’s family.”

Alexander explained his decision differently. Wilde was not the only one involved in the production. The theater had a whole cast and crew that were counting on Earnest for their livelihoods. Alexander wanted to try to keep the production going for their sake, but he knew he couldn’t do it with Wilde’s name attached. It was inevitable, however, audiences stayed away and the play closed. It was replaced on May 11, 1895 with a play called–I am not making this up– “The Triumph of the Philistines.”

Oscar Wilde joined the convict ranks, placed in a solitary cell, identified by a number not a name.

A prison wall was round us both,
Two outcast men were we:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
Had caught us in its snare.

The worst day of Oscar Wilde’s life was November 20, 1895, the day he was transferred from Wandsworth Prison to Reading Gaol. He wrote:

From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform at Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. I had been taken out of the hospital ward without a moment’s notice being given to me. Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came in swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half-an-hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob…. For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.

Researching Oscar’s Ghost was a long journey of reading personal letters, diving into archives, and putting myself in the place of a man who lost his profession, his sense of identity, his good name. I wrote about his time in exile in France, where he vacillated between hopefulness and despair, sometimes defiant of public opinion, sometimes afraid to show his face in public because he feared being shunned.

One of the things that drew me to Wilde’s story was the spectacle of this process of ostracism in motion. To see someone go from the greatest heights, being lauded, to the deepest depths, reviled and ostracized was riveting.

I contemplated the ripple effects of Wilde’s ostracism. I read about how it became the central fact of two of his closest friends’ lives. I read about how these once intimate friends spent years locked in combat in the courts trying to come to terms with their own roles in Wilde’s downfall.

Wilde’s lover, and the subject of his bitter prison letter De Profundis, Lord Alfred Douglas, was an aristocrat, raised with the expectation that he would receive deference. He became an object of gossip, exclusion and ridicule himself. How did those experiences shape him and steer his actions? I know now, very well.

There is something you should keep in mind about Oscar Wilde. He was guilty. He broke the law and his crime was considered to be disgusting and damaging to society.

These are topics I have contemplated, in depth, for the past six years of my life.

So when I read a story about the producers of the series House of Cards, first instinctively canceling the series, then deciding to go on without Kevin Spacey in order to preserve the jobs of the rest of the cast and crew, I think of George Alexander and Earnest.

When I read about the paparazzi snapping images of the disgraced actor jogging on the grounds of a sex rehab clinic, I think about the gawkers trying to catch a glimpse of prisoner Wilde on the train platform.

When I see a story about a Spacey mural being painted over because it disturbs the owner of the building it is painted on, I think of William Powell Frith offering to paint Wilde out of his own work. I feel those resonances keenly.

When I hear people dismissing the ramifications of ostracism, saying “it’s only a job” or giving a sarcastic “boo hoo,” I know that they are wrong. Whether the target of the ostracism deserves it is a separate question from whether or not it is painful. Kipling D. Williams, a scholar of ostracism, found that the objects of exclusion often say they would rather be physically beaten or put in prison than shunned.

All societies have used ostracism to define acceptable behavior in their communities because it works. It is a serious punishment. We should not engage in it casually or blithely. We should feel at least a bit uneasy about the whole thing.

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I think I had a personal attraction to Oscar Wilde’s story as someone who felt excluded and bullied in school. I have a bitter memory of two bullies throwing rocks at my back, joking about my butt being a big target, and how many points they would get for a bullseye. I never forgot what it was like to be dehumanized like that, and it produced in me an instinctive empathy for anyone who is being dehumanized, shunned or excluded.

Yesterday, I posted a link to the Kevin Spacey mural story in a twitter discussion that someone else had initiated about the actor’s “erasure.” In a reply to the thread, I was accused of not caring about the victims, “do they not matter?”

I ache for the victim of the harasser’s casual debasement. I also feel empathy for the man who has been toppled from his perch and sentenced to cultural exile.  I recoil at the story of a famous man grabbing someone’s genitals with impunity and treating that person as an object or plaything not a person, just as I recoil at human beings being given dehumanizing labels like “predator.” Dehumanizing is distasteful. Empathy is not a zero sum game.

Over the years I’ve learned that befriending a social pariah can be hard because there are often good reasons people don’t like them. They often have abrasive personalities, do questionable things and do not play well with others.  To feel empathy for the pain they must feel is not to excuse their eccentricities or bad behavior. It is not to make them innocent.

“It’s easy to forgive the innocent,” wrote Sister Helen Prejean, “It’s the guilty who test our morality. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

I understand that it is too early, and too fresh, to talk about forgiving some of the perpetrators who have come to our attention. To welcome the transgressor back too quickly would be a sanction of his behavior. There are some we may never fully be able to forgive.  We’ll only know with time.  Oscar Wilde did not start to receive a measure of social forgiveness until five years after his death.

It is good to remember that Oscar Wilde’s most famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, was not about a man who had been unjustly accused. It was about the common humanity of the guilty.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourner will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

 

Anti-Polarization Hacks

sandwichI was watching a news feature the other day that was talking about Russian activities on social media designed to increase polarization among the American electorate.

I got to wondering if it would be possible to use the same technique in reverse, to have social media bots amplifying non-polarizing messages and stories, while armies of anti-trolls swamped the comments on news sites with messages designed to steer people towards finding common ground.

What do you suppose the memes would look like?

Thoughts on The Normal Heart

MV5BMTcyODYyOTk3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDkwNjc3MTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I have the song “The Only Living Boy in New York” stuck in my head.

It has been there for a few days since I watched the 2014 film The Normal Heart. The song was used to great effect in the film’s last scene and I can’t shake it.

The Normal Heart won a host of awards including a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for its lead actor Mark Ruffalo, who played Ned, and a Golden Globe for supporting actor Matt Bomer, who layed his lover Felix. It was based on a 1985 play of the same name by Larry Kramer, which chronicles the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community.

It will come as no surprise then, given its subject matter, that it is a difficult film to watch. It has the intensity of a symphony made up of all crescendos. About 3/4 of the way in, I was longing for a bit of psychic relief, a scene with flowers, puppies and unicorns. But my immediate reaction is only part of the story. The film has lingered in my consciousness, like “The Only Living Boy in New York.” It is haunting.

I am old enough to remember the 1980s. I was a teenager in 1985 when the original play came out. Society has changed a great deal and it is almost hard to bring back the cultural assumptions of the era. I do, however, remember the fear of AIDS. It had the elements of more recent health scares, like the ebola panic. AIDS was seen in many quarters as an epidemic of the other, a sickness that was moral as well as physical, which might escape from the dark corners and infect innocent, moral, bystanders. It was “their problem.” Indeed, it was only when the media started to find sympathetic victims, people like Ryan White who were clearly “innocent,” that society started to mobilize in a big way. I am old enough to remember the fear, but I need the occasional nudge to bring it back.

What happens with any prejudice is that people define what they are in opposition to the group they call the other. To imagine the gay community as morally suspect and physically diseased was to imagine the straight world as its opposite– morally upstanding and healthy.

People are resistant to changing their prejudices because if one group stops being an “other” then the category of “normal” needs to be reconsidered. If you are not sick, maybe I am not well. Put another way, if we are not different, if your heart is as normal as mine, then we are equally prone to moral slips and to the misfortune of disease and unexpected death. If we are the same, our fates are intertwined. That is a responsibility, and it is scary.

And so we allowed fear to override our compassion. It was easier to look the other way and to pretend the health crisis could not touch your kind than to admit how vulnerable we all are. We feared association. If you were too focused on AIDS maybe it meant you were gay yourself or at least some kind of firebrand.

When I got my first job working at McDonald’s, I used some of my earnings to support some AIDS related charities. I think I might have supported the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and PFLAG and probably one or two other organizations if memory serves. This got me onto a mailing list of people who supported liberal causes. I was bombarded with invitations to save the whales and fight for women’s rights. One letter, I swear this is true, came addressed to “Dear Radical.”

I wasn’t a radical, and I don’t think I was exceptional. Spin Magazine, by the late 80s, when I was in my last high school years, was running a regular series on advances fighting AIDS. But how you felt about these things varied a great deal depending on your social circles.

My first year of college, I went to a university that drew largely from more rural parts of the state. There was, in any case, a Gay Lesbian Student Alliance. (They hadn’t added the BT and Q yet.) They announced a Gay Pride day and encouraged students to show their support, but the method was one designed to have plausible deniability. You were supposed to stand in solidarity by wearing jeans.

I was shocked by the reaction of some of the neighbors on my floor of the dorm. Someone had cut out the photograph of the picture of the young woman who led the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance and tacked it to the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and in red the words “NO Lezzies.”  On jeans day one of my neighbors went door to door reminding students to remember to wear a skirt or slacks.

I was appalled. I was horrified. I was straight.    I said nothing.

How many people on my hall might have agreed with me if I’d had the courage to say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” How many of us were waiting for someone else to speak up? Could there have been a lesbian on my floor whose life would have been made a little bit easier if I had said something?

One of the most memorable lines in The Normal Heart is uttered by Felix, who tells his lover, “Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to.”

The title “The Normal Heart” points to a subplot involving Ned’s brother, who cannot accept his sexuality. The brother believes he is the one with the normal heart. Ned pleads with him that his heart is also normal. But the normal heart is more than that.

The normal heart is full of compassion. We do not naturally not love. We learn not to. If we can learn, then we can, we must, unlearn.

What is the Basic Unit of Society?

There is an age old debate over what the basic unit of society should be. Is it more important to protect the interests of the community or of the individual? Should we, for example, require all of our citizens to be of the same religion, to have the same sexual orientation, to participate in the same rituals, to speak the same language? Can we require people to conform in the name of social cohesion or should individual rights take precedence? This is the old liberal/conservative split.

It occurred to me, while watching news about the confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, that there is a small, but powerful faction (because they are aligned with those who have money) that now views another entity as the basic unit of society which needs protection–the corporation.

Social science author F.S. Michaels has argued that we live in a Monoculture, with an economic framework for understanding what it means to be human in the world. “In our time, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the monoculture isn’t about science, machines and mathematics, or about religion and superstition. In our time, the monoculture is economic.”

In the economic monoculture we live and participate in markets and see ourselves as consumers rather than citizens. Citizens have duties to one another. Consumers go shopping and have choices. In a society based on religion, gods are the main forces driving everything. In a society based on economics, the corporation is the driver.

Corporations transcend communities and even national borders. This puts them outside the old community/individual split. In the economic monoculture, both individuals and communities, even nations, must put aside their own needs for the greater good of economic growth. The market is expected, as the gods and monarchs were in days of old, to provide well-being for the general population.

In this clip Senator Al Franken questions Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch about the case of Alphonse Maddin a truck driver employed by TransAm Trucking of Olathe, Kansas. On a day when the temperature fell to -27 F, the brakes on Maddin’s trailer failed. He waited for TransAm to send a repair unit. After three hours, they had not arrived. The heater in the cabin was not working. The temperature fell to -7 and Maddin found, in his words, “I could not feel my feet, my skin was burning and cracking, my speech was slurred, and I was having trouble breathing.” Still his employer urged him to wait. Believing he might die, Maddin ventured out into the cold to lock the trailer, then unhook it from his cabin so he could drive to safety. He later returned and finished his job, but he was fired anyway for leaving the trailer.

Maddin sued for wrongful termination. He won his case, but TransAm Trucking appealed, and the case was argued before the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Among the three judges hearing the case was Neil Gorsuch. Of the seven justices who heard the case over its years winding through the courts, only Gorsuch sided with TransAm. Gorsuch’s dissent did not cost Maddin his case, but it was popular with the business community.

There is one tangential point that I wanted to make, as we have been talking about the meaning of compassion.  In this exchange with Franken, Gorsuch insists he has empathy for Maddin. Empathy means to understand the feelings of another person, to put yourself in his place.  Even as he pleads “empathy,” he continually dodges the question of what he would do in Maddin’s position. (Maddin is African-American and it is possible that Gorsuch subconsciously believes that he was not actually in any real danger, wrongly assuming as even many medical students apparently do, that Black people actually feel less pain.)

Putting that aside, what Gorsuch appears to fundamentally believe is that employees have the duty to be obedient to their employers, even to the point of giving their lives in the service of the “job creator”. This is what a nation asks of citizens who are drafted into wars. In that case, the citizen sacrifices to preserve the nation. In the Gorsuch case the employee sacrifices to preserve the corporation.

This makes a certain sense, perhaps, if the market, not the nation or community, is viewed as the primary organizing principle of society.

“Compassion”

Compassion..gives the person who feels it pleasure even in the very act of ministering to and succouring pain.”-J..B. Mozley, Sermon at Oxford University, 1876

3330819045_6234b27d08_oSince writing yesterday’s post, I have been unable to shake a sort of existential sadness at the condition of, for want of a more secular word, the American soul. There is just something about Mick Mulvaney’s attempt to redefine “compassion” as not supporting Meals on Wheels that has played on my mind.

The word “compassion” comes from Latin roots com meaning together and pati to suffer. Compassion is to “suffer with” someone. It has been part of our lexicon since English looked like this: “Huanne on leme is zik oþer y-wonded. hou moche zorȝe heþ þe herte and grat compassion y-uelþ.” It has always conveyed a sense of fellow-feeling for someone who suffered and a desire to do something to alleviate that suffering. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.”

Compassion is recognizing that a home-bound senior suffers and finding a way to alleviate some of that suffering, by delivering meals. What does it mean then when the perspective is shifted so that the home-bound senior is essentially accused of not being compassionate to the person who is asked to help?

Mulvaney likes to use the rhetorical device of casting the tax payer as a West Virginia Coal miner or “a single mother from Detroit” when the real beneficiaries of the budget he is promoting would seem to be the wealthy, military contractors and border wall builders. (Salon has a good analysis of who the budget is designed to benefit. It sure ain’t single mothers in Detroit.) And by the way, as someone who grew up and lived most of her life in suburban Detroit, I’m getting tired of my region being caricatured in the popular press as an island of urban poverty surrounded by a sea of “rust belt” working class Trump voters.

One of the most enduring images for me of the financial crisis of 2008 was an attractive, young woman with a satisfied smile on her face, holding a large sign that read “Your mortgage is not my problem.” The sign makes a virtue of non-compassion. It states a flat refusal to suffer with. “Your pain does not touch me,” it says, “I will not be moved by it.”

There is some element of our culture, an element that is now ascendant, that fears that in trying to relieve suffering, someone undeserving might get some of the aid. Some of us would rather let everyone starve than risk feeding someone who could get food for himself.

The question at the heart of all of this is what do we owe one another as fellow citizens, as neighbors, as fellow human beings?

It especially confuses me when the virtue of non-compassion is preached by someone calling himself a “Christian.” (Mulvaney is Roman Catholic.) The earliest Christian writings we have are Paul’s epistles. Scholars generally think that Thessalonians and Galatians were the first two books of the New Testament when arranged in chronological order. In Galatians, Paul recounts the details of a theological dispute he had with James who was the central figure in the early Jesus movement. The Galatians did not know whether they were to listen to James’ representatives or to Paul. They differed on the question of whether a gentile Christ-follower had to be circumcised in order to be a full member. James thought they did, Paul did not. In the end, they came to something of an agreement. Paul could preach to gentiles. “They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I was also eager to do,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 2:10)

So helping the poor was central to Christian practice from the beginning. When they seemed to disagree on everything else, the various factions could agree on this.

"Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)

In Biblical times people had a different understanding of poverty than we have today. Survival was hard. It was assumed that everyone understood hardship and deprivation and had an intimate acquaintance with hunger. Before the age of the self-made man in the mid-1800s, social status was viewed as essentially unchangeable. If you were born a peasant it was unfortunate but not a moral failing. In the mid-1800s, however, society was being transformed. In the UK the aristocracy was beginning to lose its power. In the still largely undeveloped United States, conditions were ideal for poor boys to make good. As P.T. Barnum put it, “In a new country, where we have more land than people, it is not at all difficult for persons in good health to make money.”

Irvin G. Wyllie, in The Self Made Man dates the golden era of the self-made man from 1835. If you wanted to go from rags to riches, this was the year to be born. (It was the year of Andrew Carnegie’s birth.) This generation came up with a new narrative. Horatio Alger wrote about boys who were born to poverty and who improved their lots in life through hard work and moral correctness. It seemed that anyone who was willing to work could become rich, men were in charge of their own destinies and the role of fate in our fortunes began to recede.

In what author Michael B. Katz author of The Undeserving Poor calls the “irony of optimism,”it followed that if a man made his own way, the poor must be to blame for their economic failings.

“The age of the self-made man was also the age of the broken man,” wrote Scott A. Sandage in Born Losers, “This ‘American sense’ looked upon failure as a ‘moral sieve’ that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through. Such ideologies fixed blame squarely on individual faults, not extenuating circumstances.”

The belief that people are entirely in control of their own destinies became so strong that Americans are now blind to the fact that there is a famine in the tale of the Prodigal Son and we tend to interpret it as a cautionary tale about being irresponsible and foolish with money.

In spite of our American industriousness, poverty has persisted. As we increasingly viewed it as a problem of persons (as Katz puts it), we looked for ways to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor in our policies. The identity of the undeserving has shifted over time. In the early days of our nation it was usually an able-bodied man, viewed as drunk and lazy, who was targeted out as undeserving. Increasingly, in our day, it is the unmarried mother.  Katz observes:

Empirical evidence almost always challenges the assumptions underlying the classifications of poor people. Even in the late nineteenth century, countervailing data, not to mention decades of administrative frustration, showed their inadequacy… Still, as even a casual reading of the popular press, occasional attention to political rhetoric, or informal conversations about poverty reveal, empirical evidence has remarkably little effect on what people think. Part of the reason is that conventional classifications of poor people serve such useful purposes. They offer a familiar and easy target for displacing rage, frustration, and fear. They demonstrate the link between virtue and success that legitimates capitalist political economy. And by dividing poor people, they prevent their coalescing into a unified political force. Stigmatized conditions and punitive treatment, moreover, provide powerful incentives to work, whatever the wages and conditions.

This has led to an ironic situation in which we now define those who are more well-off as the deserving poor and those who are the poorest, by virtue of being poor, as the least deserving. The results of a recent study on government spending on social programs to alleviate poverty found that there has been a marked shift away from supporting those earning the least money, as little as 50 percent of the federal poverty line, to those with incomes as much as 200 percent above the poverty line.

We do not suffer with the extremely poor, we blame them. In Mulvaney’s view of compassion, it is we who suffer because the poor need our help.

With finite resources, compassionate people can disagree on how best to help the poor, who needs a helping hand and who does not. The question will always exist. In the past, however, there were certain things we could pretty much all agree upon. We have not had, as Katz wrote, “much sympathy for poor persons throughout American history other than children, widows, and a few others whose lack of responsibility for their condition could not be denied. These were the deserving poor.”

Today it seems even those boundaries have been transcended. People in political power are now arguing that poor children should not be given free lunch because they need to learn responsibility, and that giving meals to elderly widows does nothing to improve the GDP.

So you will forgive me if I look beyond politics and wonder if America is losing its soul.