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Hullabaloo


Friday, October 14, 2011

 
No empathy for lack of empathy
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler has been a sometime critic of mine since I started writing here. The general thrust of his critiques has been that my rhetoric is too forceful, and that I lack an adequate respect for the feelings of my fellow Americans in the Republican Party and the Tea Party. His latest lengthy post is best distilled here:

We thought that made good sense, although we’d advise this fiery young man to clean up his fiery language! But just like that, Atkins began to savage a very bad person—someone who almost surely hails from the 99 percent! Unfortunately, this person also comes from the other political tribe; rather plainly, she tends to vote Republican. In a post devoted to empathy, note the way Atkins started his discussion of this beast:

ATKINS (continuing directly): I can't even imagine what it must be like to live in the moral vacuum inhabited by people like this…

You’ll have to admit that’s a little bit funny. His headline announced the need for empathy. But halfway through the post, Atkins announced that he “can’t even imagine what it must be like” to see the world in a way which differs from his point of view!

With all due respect, the assertion that those with empathy must be able to empathize with those who lack empathy lest they be considered hypocrites is a ludicrous one. It's in the same line of "reasoning" that allows homophobes to declare that gays and lesbians who ask for marriage equality are bigots against their free exercise of religion. It's the same line of fallacious argument that leads conservatives to claim that failure to teach bogus creation "science" is proof of liberal hypocrisy out of failure to respect academic freedom.

Bill Maher may have said it best when he quipped that one should never become so tolerant as to tolerate intolerance. Similarly, I should hope that decent human beings never aspire to such a pinnacle of moral relativism that they can empathize with those who turn a blind eye to mass human suffering, even as the villains who directly caused that suffering walk away laughing with all the loot.

Future generations will look back on this era one day with the same moral revulsion that we have today for Dickensian England, for the Confederacy during the time of slavery, and for Salem during the witch trials. The culture that has produced the renaissance of Ayn Rand and the celebration of human misery that cheers on executions and the death of the uninsured will one day be viewed with no more fair regard than the Gilded Age culture of the late 19th century that produced J.P. Morgan and the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Equanimity in the face of such an abdication of basic human compassion and moral anomie is not a sign of emotional maturity, but rather a retreat into the safe, sanctimonious sepulchers of the church of the savvy.

Somerby has more than once compared me with Diomedes of Homeric fame, the warrior who became so enraged in battle that he fought mortal and immortal alike indiscriminately. As a student of the Classics who has read much of the Iliad in the original Greek, I find the comparison most amusing. First, the aristeia of Diomedes in fighting even the Gods if necessary helped save the Greek ships from the Trojan flame. But more importantly, the appeal to Homeric archetypes is itself deeply flawed. In modern times Greeks and Trojans no longer square off against one another, needing the counsel of wise advisers like Nestor to calm fervid warrior spirits. In modern times, the elite rulers Agamemnon and Priam have joined forces to steal all the wealth of the Greeks and Trojans together, then sail away to offshore havens in contempt of divine or terrestrial justice. And they have raised a deluded army of soldiers who have swapped out their boar's tusk helmets for tri-cornered hats, willing to wish them Zeus-speed so long as they can remain, in their squalor, superior to their helot slaves. In this situation, it is well past time to reclaim from our modern-day Agamemnons what is not rightfully theirs, without much regard for the minority who stand in the way.

Or perhaps, to use another Homeric analogy, the better metaphor for what Wall Street is doing to America lies not in Iliad at all, but in the Odyssey, in which hordes of wealthy suitors eat Odysseus' family and the people of Ithaca out of house, home and land. Homer understood exactly what sort of justice awaited such men.

Fortunately, as a liberal I don't believe in that vision of retributive justice. But I might be able to empathize with those who do.


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