subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Republicans have a new thing to declare war on



Three days in the life of the developing necrosis of this incoming administration hardly leave one knowing where to start in writing about the Almanack de Gotha of horrors daily emanating from Trump Tower, or should I say, from the man himself, who to be precise occasionally ventures beyond the escalator of his gleaming tower in midtown Manhattan to friendlier climes in the Rust Belt, to whose sad, angry white people he made promises he will never keep, nor intended to, since he knew they didn’t really expect him to anyway.

However, three days it has been since I last posted about politics: the weekend has come and gone, and yesterday’s brief interlude into wine reviewing extended the sabbatical. So where to pick up the narrative? One might begin with Trump’s Taiwan-China fiasco, or the bizarre soap opera over who will be Secretary of State (imagine Mitt Romney’s embarrassment over the use of his posterior for Trump’s public pleasure), or perhaps the recent nomination of Dr. Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development—the same good doctor who said “I do believe in the six-day creation” and noted that Darwin’s theory of evolution was “encouraged” by Satan. Nothing like evangelical fundamentalism at the helm of the Free World’s rudder!  Or perhaps I could start with the President-elect’s failure—deliberate?–to offer condolences to the City of Oakland—my city–for the recent fire, the deadliest in the history of California. Then again, knowing that he is about as popular in Oakland as psoriasis, possibly Drumpf’s attitude is, To hell with those crispy hippies, they didn’t vote for me anyway.

So, as I say, three days offers lots of choices of stuff to write about. But I choose to devote this post to a column in yesterday’s—where else?—Wall Street Journal, called “The Empathy Trap,” by a Yale professor of psychology by the name of Paul Bloom, who was therein flacking his new book, called, appropriately, Against Empathy.

Did you ever begin to read something that, by the second paragraph, made you feel so dirty that you wanted to take a hot shower? “The Empathy Trap” did that for me. Normally, I would move on, but something—curiosity? masochism? rubbernecking a particularly grisly roadside accident?—made me continue to read. Dr. Bloom takes aim at empathy, and particularly “what [we] psychologists call emotional empathy,” of the sort—this is me, Steve, offering this example—I and my fellow Oaklanders are feeling now for the victims of the Oakland Fire and their friends and families. Now, you might think that feeling empathy for our fellow humans devastated by catastrophe is a good, natural, even religious thing, but you’d be wrong. At least, from the point of view of Dr. Bloom, who calls feeling empathy “a shame…a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse.” Prescriptively, for those seeking a solution to their better angels, he offers this: “When we have the good sense to set [empathy] aside, we are better people and make better policy.”

See what I mean about feeling dirty? What are we to make of this—I don’t even know what to call it—casting away of everything we were taught constitutes decency and human-kindness? Probably it’s only to be expected in the Age of Trump, a narcissist and sociopath who does not appear to be able to feel empathy, or much of anything at all except resentment, for anyone else. One is reminded, of course, of that Saint Joan of the neocons, Ayn Rand, and her books, whose heroes, John Galt and Howard Roark, rejected feelings of empathy or compassion as the products of weak, non-productive and inferior beings (think Elsworth Toohey). After all, Rand approvingly said of Howard Roark (with whom she was, bizarrely, in love, despite his fictitious existence), “He was born without the ability to consider others.”

Bloom cannot completely flush empathy down the toilet. To do so would make him appear to be a monster. He allows it some relevance—“distant compassion” is his phrase, something one may see from far off but shouldn’t get too close to, lest one become infected. But Bloom’s real love, the idée fixe for which he saves his highest admiration, is “careful reasoning,” a sort of emotionless analysis of facts (one thinks of Mentats in Frank Herbert’s book, Dune, and perhaps of Dr. Spock, although Spock, despite his cool analytical powers, certainly had the stirrings of a warm heart). There is, in other words, in the red-clawed world according to Bloom, a competition between empathy and “careful reasoning” that makes for a zero-sum game: you can have one, but not the other. “Careful reasoning…makes the world a better place.” Empathy—well, as I quoted, “makes the world worse.”

Most people, I think, would reject this Manichaean dualism. Most of us understand that you can feel empathy for the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, the displaced, the victims of fires, the suffering, and at the same time make wise policy decisions. In fact I would guess that most of us feel you can’t make good policy decisions without feeling empathy—the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. One way in which the Trump phenomenon is so aberrant, from the point of view of America’s historical legacy, is that it really does assault feelings of empathy for the many groups it perceives as its enemies: people of color, the GLBT community, immigrants, Muslims, intellectuals, coastal dwellers, liberals, environmentalists, scientists, women, indigenous peoples, non-Christians—have I forgotten anyone? Surely if you add up the total of all these in the general population you would arrive at a number greater than the number of people who voted for Donald Trump. But, wait a minute, that reminds me, Hillary at the last count had more than 2.5 million votes more than the man with the orange hair.

But I digress. Bloom is not alone among his tea party brethren (and cistern?) in his disdain of empathy. Gary Bauer—yes, that one—noted that “It is not government’s role to be the primary dispenser of empathy.” (Hatred and discrimination, yes. Compassion, verboten!) And no less than “The Architect” himself, Karl Rove, calls empathy “the latest code word for liberal activism, for treating the Constitution as malleable clay to be kneaded…”. In addition to their so very many wars on so very many fronts, Republicans also have launched a war on empathy, and Dr. Paul Bloom, of Yale University, is their latest Reichsmarschall.

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts