July 25, 2008

Is Regressivism Our National Character?

While roaming in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn last week I walked into an “event.” Police blocked traffic on the main shopping blocks in the neighborhood. They were awaiting the arrival of a group of bicyclists who were traveling from lower Manhattan to Bensonhurst, to end the event with (of course) Italian food and cannoli. This event was to support a group called Wounded Warrier Project. About 50 people milled around, and about 25% were active duty soldiers, clustered together in tight groups. I was curious to learn more, especially to speak with the soldiers, but found backs turning as I approached. Not wanting to push myself onto the group, I retreated to observe. What I observed from the sidewalk was probably more informative than a conversation.
A young (under 25) veteran sat in a wheelchair, actually was being supported by a wheelchair because he really didn’t have much of his lower body left. One 40-something fellow hovered over him, obviously offering more to drink, food, etc., until the conversation reached the anticipated lull, and he sidestepped to the left to join a famous face who had just arrived.
The celebrity was just a few feet
away: "Paulie Walnuts," a/k/a Tony Siroco, from the HBO series, The Sopranos. As a semi-circle formed around him, he was completely gracious and cooperative, providing the gestures the crowd was looking for. Paulie Walnuts was in his element, and the Italian Americans were, too. The young soldier sat alone, looking at something inside the cup in his hands. Everyone was excited! Someone famous had arrived! The soldier now was invisible, or tried to be, I think. It was a poignant moment that I wanted to capture on my cell phone camera, but the moment vanished almost as quickly as I registered it.
Here’s the link to the Wounded Warrier Project, although
as yet there is no report on the Bensonhurst event: https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/content/view/749/1011/
So this little parable seems an appropriate intro for an essay on empathy and American identity.
Evil as the Absence of Empathy
by Ernest Partridge | July 23, 2008

n 1946, Dr. Gustav M. Gilbert, a psychologist fluent in German, was assigned by the U.S. Army to study the minds and motivations of the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg tribunals. The following year, his Nuremberg Diary was published, containing transcripts of his conversations with the prisoners. (Excerpts here). [The link doesn't work in the original either. Sorry.]
In words consistent with what I have read of, and about, Gustav Gilbert, he is portrayed in the 2000 TV film “Nuremberg,” as telling the Head Prosecutor Robert Jackson (Alex Baldwin), “I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants: a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”
“Absence of empathy” is likewise, I submit, “the one characteristic that connects” most of the immoral and misbegotten tenets of Bushism: that dogmatic mix of market absolutism, libertarianism, corporatism and simple greed that falsely describes itself as “conservatism,” and which I choose to call “regressivism.” “Absence of empathy” is the essence of evil which, if unchecked and unreversed, is certain to bring about the demise of the American republic as we know it, just as it led to the fall of the Third Reich.
In contrast, empathy, the capacity to recognize and cherish in other persons, the experience, emotions and aspirations that one is aware of in oneself, is the moral cornerstone of progressive politics. It is a principle recognized and taught in all the great world religions reiterated by numerous moral philosophers, and validated by the scientific study of human personality.
[...] And yet, how much empathy is to be found among self-proclaimed “Christian” end-times preachers, such as James Hagee and Tim LeHaye, who eagerly anticipate “the rapture” and the eternal torment and damnation that awaits virtually all of humanity, as punishment for the sin of failing to agree with the preachers’ theology? How much empathy is evident in the late Jerry Falwell’s on-air remark to Wolf Blitzer, about Islamic militants, “If it takes 10 years, blow them all away in the name of the Lord,” and Ann Coulter’s infamous outburst, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” Because they explicitly renounce Jesus’ injunction to “love thy enemies” these hate-mongers are, in a literal and moral sense, “anti-Christs.”
Regressivism and the Absence of Empathy.
Empathy is conspicuously absent in the off-hand remarks of George Bush, his family, and his political allies. For example,
** Bush himself, to an ordinary citizen after a campaign event: “Who cares what you think?” And to Bob Woodward: “History, we don’t know. We’ll all be dead.”
** The President’s mother, Barbara Bush, on Good Morning America: "Why should we hear about body bags and deaths. Oh, I mean, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?" (March 18, 2003).
[...] ** John McCain: “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” And in response to the news that cigarettes are a major US export to Iran, McCain remarked that it might be “a way of killing ‘em.”
** Former Senator Phil Gramm, economic advisor to John McCain, in an interview with The Washington Times, remarked that the American economy is in “a mental recession: “We’ve sort of become a nation of whiners,” he added.
The foundational doctrines of regressivism are equally devoid of empathy. For example, Ayn Rand: "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy.. the process of setting man free from men." (The Fountainhead) And “Man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” (The Virtue of Selfishness.)
Furthermore, “economic Man” (Homo economicus), a central concept of neo-classical economic theory favored by regressives, is an uncompromising egoist, whose sole motivation is to “maximize personal utility” or “preference satisfaction.” A “perfect market” of fully informed, non-colluding, uncoerced “economic men,” free of government interference, the theory tells us, will invariably produce better results for all than any governmental system yet devised. Never mind that “economic man” and “the perfect market” are fictions, that never have been and never can be realized in any human society. (For a defense of this claim, see my “Beautiful Theory vs. Baffling Reality”).
The unfounded yet undiminished right-wing faith in the “wisdom” of the free-market and in the superiority of the pursuit of individual “utility maximization” as the engine of social progress, was starkly summed up by “Gordon Gekko” (Michael Douglas) in the 1987 movie, “Wall Street:” “Greed ... is good.[...]
In fact, history teaches us that greed is not good, and greed does not work. “Homo economicus” is, in fact, a moral monster, for he is a being devoid of empathy and even of conscience. A mere bundle of “consumer preferences” can not add up to personhood, much less moral agency. When greed (call it “the profit motive”) reigns supreme, “others,” be they employees or fellow citizens, are reduced to impersonal objects. If these “others” are employees, they are regarded as units of “human capital” to be replaced by less costly “units” (e.g. “outsourced”) whenever possible. And if they are fellow citizens, they are prospective customers, to be relieved through “creative marketing” of their disposable wealth. Human, social, environmental “external costs” be damned. Witness the tobacco industry.
A “society” of private, egoistic, “utility maximizers,” devoid of empathy and unregulated by law and popular government, without shared values, loyalties and aspirations, is no society at all. It is a Hobbesian state of nature – a “war of all against all,” wherein life becomes "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." [my bold] (Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan).
As we are now discovering, to our great regret and sorrow.
Progressivism and Empathy.
In stark contrast, empathy – awareness of the needs, sufferings, aspirations, rights, and dignity of others – is the unifying theme of the progressive agenda, and of the history of political/economic liberalism (in the traditional sense of the word). The elite and wealthy delegates to the Continental Congress, when they demanded recognition of their rights, did not fail at that time to acknowledge the rights of all persons:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
True, at the outset the full “rights” of citizenship were restricted to white, male, landowners. But through time and constant struggle, those rights were extended to include all adult citizens, regardless of gender, race or creed. These struggles, which continue today, were led by “liberals,” and resisted by self-described “conservatives.”
Joe Conason [my bold] eloquently describes these struggles and achievements:
If your workplace is safe; if your children go to school rather than being forced into labor; if you are paid a living wage, including overtime; if you enjoy a forty-hour week and you are allowed to join a union to protect your rights -- you can thank liberals. If your food is not poisoned and your water is drinkable -- you can thank liberals. If your parents are eligible for Medicare and Social Security, so they can grow old in dignity without bankrupting your family - you can thank liberals. If our rivers are getting cleaner and our air isn't black with pollution; if our wilderness is protected and our countryside is still green -- you can thank liberals. If people of all races can share the same pubic facilities; if everyone has the right to vote; if couples fall in love and marry regardless of race; if we have finally begun to transcend a segregated society -- you can thank liberals. Progressive innovations like those and so many others were achieved by long, difficult struggles against entrenched power. What defined conservatism, and conservatives, was their opposition to every one of those advances. The country we know and love today was built by those victories for liberalism -- with the support of the American people. (Big Lies, p. 3)
Regressivism as Psychopathology.

Empathy is never totally absent in any functioning human being. A recognition that other persons with whom one deals have functioning minds with ideas, emotions, and aspirations is implicit in game playing, in negotiations, and even ordinary conversation. Self awareness, even that of a thoroughly egoistic, narcissistic and sociopathic self, can only arise out of childhood interaction with others. The self is a social construct.
Thus even such sociopaths as George Bush and Dick Cheney will acknowledge that the bombs dropped on Iraq cause “collateral damage” and thus profound suffering to innocent civilians. They likewise are aware of the suffering in New Orleans caused by the mismanagement of the Katrina disaster. They are, after all, at least minimally sane. Such an awareness of others that is also devoid of feeling we might call “abstract empathy.” The misery to innocent others that they cause simply does not matter to the Busheviks. They do not care, unless these moral atrocities exact political costs to themselves.
This “abstract empathy” is not the sort of “empathy” that Dr. Gustav Gilbert found absent among the Nuremberg defendants. The empathy that he had in mind combines awareness with feelings of concern and with respect for the rights and integrity of the other. [my bold]
In contrast, the regressivism of the Bush/Cheney administration would have us ignore the economic, social and environmental consequences of unregulated commerce, and also have us dismantle Social Security, impoverish public education, tolerate inadequate health care for millions of our fellow citizens, abolish fundamental constitutional rights, and engage in aggressive wars against unthreatening countries, all of this with minimal regard for the human misery caused by these policies. To do all this, requires a deliberate stifling of feelings of empathy, and what David Hume called the “natural moral sentiment” of benevolence: a genuine concern for the well-being of others.
[...] In part, the rise and dominance of regressivism is the result of a deliberate and opulently funded public relations campaign, supported for the past forty years by wealthy individuals and corporations. This campaign included the establishment of ideological “think tanks” such as The American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the abolition of The Fairness Doctrine and the consolidation of most of the mass media into six “conservative” mega-conglomerates, enormous expansion of corporate lobbying of Congress, and a vastly increased corporate involvement in campaign financing, of both major parties. With conservative Republicans in control of the White House for all but eight of the past twenty-eight years, the federal courts have become dominated by right-wing judges.
With these formidable propaganda resources, the resurgent Right has exploited “natural sentiments” equally fundamental to human nature as empathy; namely, ethnocentrism (identification with and loyalty to “our group”) and its negative complement, xenophobia (fear, distrust, and hatred of “outsiders”). The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 intensified these prejudices, objectifying and depersonalizing the new enemy (so-called “Islamo-Fascists”) while, at the same time, neutralizing empathetic sentiments toward the residents of these “alien” nations.
With the captive media exploiting and intensifying public fear of “terrorism,” the Bush regime formulated, and the intimidated Congress readily assented to, assaults upon our traditional civil liberties such as the PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, and now the revised FISA Act.
[...] A political economy based upon unregulated greed has been tried numerous times in the past, and has failed in each and every occasion: the French and Russian Revolutions, the era of the robber barons in the late Nineteenth Century, the Great Depression of the Thirties. They failed because when greed rules, the nation’s wealth inevitably flows from those who produce the wealth to those who own and control the wealth until, eventually, the toleration of the increasingly miserable masses for this economic injustice collapses, and the oligarchic regime is overthrown.
Once again, regressivism is on the brink of collapse.[...]
Copyright 2008 by Ernest Partridge
Since you've read this far, I'm pretty confident you will want to read the rest, including the parts I edited above. Please go here to read this excellent exploration on the role of empathy in civiliazation:

No comments: