“In the Spirit of Our People”

We’ve come to a new point in life, maybe approaching something vaguely resembling maturity if not yet wisdom. A change in attitude was recently expressed in changes made to this blog’s comment policy, specifically about what is off-limits. There are certain issues that have gone beyond the realm of meaningful, worthy, and useful debate (race realism, genetic determinism, etc); sometimes entirely beyond the pale (white supremacy, eugenics, etc). That is to say there is nothing left to debate, as far as we’re concerned, not in the broad sense, if there might remain points of honest disagreement. One of those fruitless and dissatisfying areas of conflict involves false equivalencey. So, on the pages of this blog, there is now a total ban on false equivalency arguments and rhetoric, although that partly comes down to interpretation and hence discernment. The point is that, no, the two sides of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are not the same, not even close. In making comparisons along these lines, tread lightly and think carefully before speaking. We’ve grown tired and bored with a certan kind of bullshit. We’ve had a thousand debates along thse lines and we’ve reached our limit. We are moving on to newer and greener pastures.

The hour is later than some realize. Anyone who still doesn’t grok it by now is probably beyond being reached by fair-minded argument and open dialogue; or, anyway, it’s not our duty to enlighten their ignorance, remedy their inadequacies, or to save their lost souls. Nor will space be given to their words and time wasted in responding — life is too short. Been there, done that; and now we retire from the fray, like an old soldier joining a monastery. But for the purpose here, we will briefly explain. Part of the problem is the language itself. Though an ancient and powerful metaphor, the egocentric (i.e., non-cardinal point) view of ideology as bipolar directionality along a linear spectrum is, well, simplistic. And the metaphorical frame was simplistic for a reason as a simple distinction was being made. Originally, all that it meant was literally on which side of the French king one sat, in indicating whether one was a supporter or a critic. Once the king was deposed, this seating arrangement continued in the National Assembly during the French Revolution. Then later on the distinction was applied to political factions, parties, movements, and ideologies.

To put it in basic terms, the original dualistic categorization of ‘right’ vs ‘left’ was about whether one favored or opposed naked authoritarianism as unquestioned power held with and enforced by a monopoly of violence (though articulated precursors of this distinction went back to the Axial Age, then later with the English Peasants’ Revolt and English Civil War). But, to be fair, the metaphor got muddy quite early on when the most reactionary, anti-democratic, and authoritarian of the Jacobins seized power and so the radically progressive, democratic, and anti-authoritarian Thomas Paine ended up sitting on the ‘right’ side with the Girondins who were initially part of the Jacobins (the ‘left’/’right’ divide took a while to be more clearly formulated following the revolution). As a side note, there is even more confusion in trying to apply the Western political spectrum to non-Western societies, such as Lebanon, that don’t share Western history, culture, and politics. Such things get quite messy and confused, even in the original context of meaning. Let’s not try to pretend to categorize the whole world in one of two categories, ‘right’ and ‘left’. On the other hand, at least within the Western world, let’s not dismiss these labels and what they’ve historically represented across centuries, as important meanings have been established.

Anyway, the latter position of opposition to unjust authoritarianism and/or rigid hierarchy came to be associated primarily with the core concept of egalitarianism, along with freedom, fairness, and fraternity (further related to democracy, solidarity, the commons, the public, public good, public trust, culture of trust, and a more relational individualism). Egalitarianism was never opposed to authority in its entirety for there are other dynamic, responsive, accountable, and even anarchistic forms of authority besides the rigidly-structured and violently-enforced hierarchy of authoritarianism as monarchy, patriarchy, theocracy, feudalism, imperialism, or even right-libertarianism. Along with that authoritarianism, we might as well throw in the the ‘liberty’-minded and ‘republican’-oriented Jacobinism that led to basically a new monarchical-like empire with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte having replaced King Louis XVI. This is not unlike how Stalin’s personality cult replaced Emperor Nicholas II and re-created the Russian Empire with an industrialized neo-feudalism involving peasant-like ‘communist’ laborers that were put back into place after revolting. Both radical revolutions for egalitarianism were co-opted by anti-egalitarian reactionaries and authoritarans who used the demagoguery of fake egalitarian rhetoric. Are we to call that the ‘left’? Similarly, just because the business-friendly, corporatist-promoting, and individualism-fetishizing Nazis called themselves national socialists, are we also to include them as part of the ‘left’? If so, all meaningful distinctions are moot and we should give up; but we don’t accept that.

As another side note, originally republicanism was the ‘leftist’ challenge to the ‘rightist’ defense of monarchy. But, with monarchy eliminated in the founding of the United States and republicanism having become normalized, many post-revolutioanry ‘rightists’ embraced republicanism which sort of became a near meaningless word in how it describes nothing in particular (like the United States, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were republics). Thomas Jefferson observed, “In truth, the abuses of monarchy had so much filled all the space of political contemplation, that we imagined everything republican which was not monarchy. We had not yet penetrated to the mother principle, that ‘governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it.’ Hence, our first constitutions had really no leading principles in them” (letter written to Samuel Kercheval; Monticello, July 12, 1816). This relates to how republican Federalism was originally the radical position in the American Revolution as it was the insurrectionist opposition to the monarchy of the British Empire. Then reactionary authoritarians co-opted the republican Federalist label for themselves. This created the odd situation where the so-called Anti-Federalists were more pro-federalist than those who identified themselves as Federalists, while some of those pseudo-Federalists became nostalgic about imperialism and even monarchy. Going back centuries, there has been a continuous pattern of reactionaries co-opting the language of the ‘left’ which endlessly complicates matters (one might call them ‘Faceless Men‘). The first ‘libertarians’, for example, were French anarchist/anti-statist socialists who were part of the ‘left-wing’ workers movement that included Marxists and communists. Yet today the right-‘libertarian’ Kochs are the leadng power behind a libertarian movement to replace democracy with neo-fascism.

The rightist position, no matter the language and labels co-opted within reactionary rhetoric, has emphasized a metaphorical view of the political head (or capitalist head; or religious head) as ruling over and held above or otherwise controlling and being superior to the body politic (or body economic; or Body of Christ), whereas the leftist view has tended to consider it as merely a single part not to be prejudicially prioritized. So, the leftist emphasis has been on the collective, systemic, and holistic; that the parts are inseparable and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; as expressed in more modern theories of historical materialism, sociology, anthropology, ecology, integralism, intersectionality, etc (in Spiral Dynamics, presently somewhere between green, yellow, and turquoise vmemes, although earlier incorporating more from orange vmeme). As such, the detached head or any other part cannot stand in for the whole body. In democracy, like many tribal societies where the leader follows, authority represents the public will through consent of the governed but cannot enforce upon it or else it no longer is democracy (smilar to the reason the Soviet Union was not ‘leftist’ precisely to the degree that it became a neo-feudal Russian Empire built on a Stalinist personality cult, not to dismiss that many Soviets genuinely sought to promote egaltiarian ‘leftism’ as communism; similarly not to dismiss that many in the American founding generation actually did support and seek democracy).

To get back to the metaphor of the ‘head’ and ‘body’, we can also consider it non-metaphorically. The idea of the ‘head’ ruling the ‘body’ was an old scientific theory of human biology that lingers in folk scientific understandings of folk psychology about the egoic individuality — the brain as the seat of the self. Yet modern science has, instead, found that neurons exist in other parts of the body (gut, heart, etc), that multiple links operate between brain and other areas (e.g., gut-brain axis), and that neurocognition is more embodied and diffuse than previously recognized. The rightist conviction in the atomistic individual self, atomistic body, atomistc material world, atomistic private property, atomistic nuclear family, atomistic worker-cog, atomistic consumer-citizen, atomistic relationship to God, and atomistic authority figures (an often regressive blue-orange vmeme alliance of the New Right and MAGA, but sometimes shifting toward an orange-green alliance such as Russel Kirk’s unconscious postmodernism, Karl Rove’s social constructivism, Donald Trump’s post-truth, and Jordan Peterson’s self-loathing pluralism) is far less scientifcally plausible and morally compelling than it was when early scientific thought (e.g., Newtonian physics) had yet to be challenged by later scientfic research, knowledge, and theory.

There is an understandable attraction to visually simplistic metaphors that capture the imagination. And there is inspiration to be taken from the wing metaphor, since two wings are part of a single bird, often used as a symbol of nobility and natural freedom, such as the bald eagle being the primary symbol of the United States. As elegant and inspiring as it might be to think of society like a great feathered creature requring a linked pair of wings moving in balanced unison to gain lift and soar through the sky, it becomes readily apparent where the metaphor of a ‘left’ wing of egalitarianism and a ‘right’ wing of authoritarianism (i.e., rigidly hierarchical authority) fails us. In the world we actually live in, a small ‘right’ wing ruling elite has come to dominate all of society through plutocratic and kleptocratic, corporatocratic and oligarchic capitalist realism (fungible wealth of ‘capital’ etymologically as head; related to ‘cattle’ and ‘chattel’; hence, chattel slavery was part of early capitalism and still is). The metaphor in question would only describe reality if a stunted ‘right’ wing had somehow become bloated and cancerous, grown a monstrous demonic mouth-hole with razor-like teeth, began beating to death the massive but paralyzed ‘left’ wing, futilely struggled to detach itself from the body, and then sado-masochistcally attempted to devour the rest of the bird. The metaphor breaks down a bit at that point. Hence, the problem with false equivalency between ‘left’ and ‘right’. I hope that clears things up.

We are well into a new century and the older generations that ruled since the Cold War, too many with minds locked into backlash, are finally retiring and dying off. As a society, it is time for the rest of us to move on. Although silenced and suppressed, disenfranchised and demoralized, the vast majority of Americans already agree on basic values, aspirations, and demands (a 60-90% supermajority of the population, depending on the particular issue; in some cases, 90+%). That a hyped-up and over-promoted minority in the elite and on the far right fringe disagrees is irrelevant. Even most Americans supposedly on the political ‘right’ to varying degrees agree with ‘leftist’ and liberal positions on many key policies. So, the many average Americans on the so-called ‘right’ are not enemies and one might argue they’re not even really on the ‘right’, despite false polarization pushed by corporate media and corporatist parties to manipulate and control us, divide and disempower us. Though many have been indoctrinated to believe the ‘left’ is their enemy, we invite them to consciously join the moral (super-)majority they might already belong to without knowing it.

To put some numbers to it, John Sides has a decent 2014 article, Why most conservatives are secretly liberals. He reports that, “almost 30 percent of Americans are “consistent liberals” — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics.  Only 15 percent are “consistent conservatives” — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics.  Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views.  The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only.” In referencing Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson, Sides points out how this disjuncture has been longstanding: “When identifying themselves in a word, Americans choose “conservative” far more than “liberal.” In fact they have done so for 70 years, and increasingly so since the early 1960s. […] On average, liberal responses were more common than conservative responses. This has been true in nearly every year since 1956, even as the relative liberalism of the public has trended up and down.  For decades now there has been a consistent discrepancy between what Ellis and Stimson call symbolic ideology (how we label ourselves) and operational ideology (what we really think about the size of government).”

Here in this blog, our mission is to defend the broad and majoritarian ‘leftism’ (i.e., pro-egalitarianism) of this inclusionary big tent movement. Whatever one wants to call it and by whichever metaphor one wants to frame it, this is the same difference that makes a difference. We the free People are the demos of democracy. After asserting the founders and framers had failed to create and protect a free society, an aging Thomas Jefferson asked where was to be found republicanism (as he defined it: democratic, popular, direct, and majoritarian self-governance) and he answered: “Not in our constitution certainly, but merely in the spirit of our people.” The American public, the American majority is the rampart upon which democracy must be defended, the line that we cannot back down from, the ground that can never be ceded for it would be a mortal wound, collective soul death. There is no compromise on this point. We face an existential crisis, a moment of do or die. Here we stand or separately we will hang. We are quickly running out of opportunities to avoid the worst and, in knowing history, we realize the worst can get quite bad — not to mention that each iteration of the worst is likely to be worse than the last.

This is why, in this blog, we are not going to portray or allow the portrayal of both sides as equal or equivalent. We are not going to treat fascism, theocracy, and bigotry as equally valid as anti-fascism, secularism, and tolerance. We are not going to pretend that those opposed to some authoritarianism in favor of other, often worse, authoritarianism are the same as those who oppose all authoritarianism on principle. Social domination and social democracy aren’t merely two reasonable options of how to govern society. Either there is freedom or not. And any liberty that denies democracy is just another name for slavery. Also, to get at a specific point, no, the comparably rare violence, typcally property damage, of leftists defending egalitarianism, countering injustice, standing up to oppression, protesting wrongdoing, and fighting authoritarianism is no where near the same as the widespread commonality of right-wing terrorism, hate crimes, violent oppression, police statism, and war-mongering. And fuck off about spiritual violence while people in the real world are physically suffering and dying. If you don’t understand what is at stake, we won’t be bothered to give you the time of day.

Nonetheless, distinctions will be made, rather than overly simplistic black/white judgements. Yes, the transparitisan stranglehold of both main parties unfortunately pushes a forced and false choice of two greater evil varieties of right-wing authoritarianism of corporatocratic capitalist realism, if one side prefers milder paternalism and the other outright oligarchy (“Stragedy? Is ‘stragedy’ the right word to describe how the DNC corporate Democrats strategically connive to set it up that they always ‘have to’ concede to Republican demands?” queries National Notice). But, even in that, there are differences that do make a difference and so we won’t tolerate false equivalency with that either. Some politicians are undeniably and irrefutably more dangerous than others. Still, the fact remains that most Americans are to the left of the DNC elite. Heck, a surprisingly large swath of Republican voters are to the left of the DNC elite, on issues from economics to environmentalism. The Biden administration is morally questionable and anything to the right of that is morally unacceptable, beyond the bounds — that far right and no further and even that is too far right. As a society, we have to have norms and standards. Most Americans have come to an agreement on this and now it’s time we Americans recognize our status as citizenry, take collective responsibility, demand consent of the governed, and enforce our moral majority, albeit a pluralistic majority.

In conclusion, let us be clear in stating our purpose, in declaring where we stand. Most importantly, we in this blog will always side with the underdog. Absolutely fucking always! If you are not on the side of the underdog, you are our mortal enemy and we will treat you as such (but when right-wingers are oppressed or their rights infringed, we will defend them just the same; and we will always defend everyone’s right to free speech, if not always giving them a platform to freely promote that speech in this personal and private blog). We are devoted to a fierce compassion, emphasis on both ‘fierce’ and ‘compassion’. The greatest condemnation will be reserved for moral cowards. As the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi declared with no equivocation, moral cowardice is worse than violence and death. “There is hope for a violent man to be some day non-violent,” Gandhi argued, “but there is none for a coward.” Yet, obviously, non-violence and non-aggression is always preferable and will be sought as a first option (even second and third option). And self-chosen self-sacrifice can be noble, as Gandhi held up as the highest ideal, if victimhood identity politics of romanticized martyrdom can be dysfunctonal. Still, the point remains that Gandhi brooked no false equivalency between the violence of aggression and the violence of self-defense, and neither will we.

We must hold to moral courage in all ways, particularly in defense of what is morally right, to not back down from a fight, to not avoid uncomfortable conflict. Yet within this protected space, there will be no tolerance of intolerance — that will not be an issue of debate. Any and all reactionary rhetoric and authoritarian views are simply forbidden, even when used by those who identify as ‘leftist’, liberal, Democratic, independent, or whatever else. We will no longer play that game. This is the end of the age of bullshit. Yet, in relationship to those who have been pulled into the dark side of reactionary fear and fantasies, we will always be willing to welcome them back into the fold of moral society and respectable politics, if and when they are ready. We understand that the Fox News effect, the Mercer media machine, and the corporate propaganda model of the news has virulently afflicted millions of Americans with a reactionary mind virus that causes psychotic disconnecton from reality and generally maladaptive behavior, false identities and confused thought processes, even pulling more than a few ‘leftists’ into misleading and harmful rhetoric.

That saddens us, but there appears to be little we can do to save those others from that horrible fate, if they do not recognize the trap they are in and if they refuse all help. They will have to take the first step out of their own darkness. Until then, we will strive too hold this space of light and truth with the door always open to those of shared moral concern for freedom and fairness. We will do so to the best of our ability, however imperfect and inadequate that may seem under the oppressive circumstances of the greater problems we are all immersed in. That is the necessity for holding a basic standard for allowable participation here in these pages. This blog is a small refuge from a world gone mad. We can’t pretend to be ideological physicians offering claims of an antidote to the mind plague, but we can offer a brief respite, a sanitarium of fresh air and sunlight. Please respect these intentons. But also join your voice with ours. At times like these, we need to support each other in speaking out and in giving voice. Whatever might be ‘left’ and ‘right’, egalitarianism is the center, the beating heart. Anyone who denies this is a dangerous extremist not to be trusted or tolerated, an enemy of the people. Egalitarianism is not merely a word, not an abstract ideal, not yet another ideology. As an ancient moral impulse, this moral vision does matter. We are all egalitarians now, if many of us don’t yet realize it. We always were egalitarians, at the core of our shared human nature.

Self-Care of Summer Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

There is the issue of self-care. It’s something never far from my mind, as I deal with severe depression. Self-care is the only way I’ve lasted this long in life. But I also know that high rates of such things as depression are only found in high inequality societies. The ultimate self-care would mean undoing the cause of the problem, not just treating the symptoms, case by case. As social creatures, self-care is never about mere individual concern. As Thomas Paine explains above, that cheapens what should most matter.

The importance of self-care came up in an article that argued that hatred is self-harming, even if the other side deserves your hatred. That is fair and I’d agree to an extent. Still, the emphasis seems wrong. What matters is that we come from a place of honesty, integrity, and authenticity. Only from that position of strength can we envision something radically better and move toward it. We should always give voice to the truth, especially when uncomfortable, even to ourselves. Speaking from a place of truth is always a compassionate act, whether or not it makes us feel warm and fuzzy with idealized notions of how we should feel. First we should be honest with ourselves about what we actually feel, not what we are told we are supposed to feel. Political correctness certainly shouldn’t be applied to our feelings, for that would be the opposite of self-care.

Besides, no large-scale positive change ever happened in the world without a whole lot of angry people. Societies (or rather the ruling elite and comfortable classes) tend to resist change and the more they resist the more frustrated so many people become. Sadly, that is how it tends to go, until a breaking point is reached.

Those who are already being harmed by the status quo are usually less concerned about mere self-harm, as the greater harm is what others are doing to them. Whereas those talking about self-care tend to be individuals in a privileged position to not be victimized by the even greater harms. The comfortable tend to only become overly motivated toward change when comfort is no longer an option. But for the most victimized, comfort was never an option. Yet many others find themselves somewhere in between these two extremes. That is a tough place to find oneself. Slowly, over time, more and more people will fall further and further out of what little comfort (and security) they might have. As the harm grows, the number of harmed will also grow. Admonitions about self-care will sound ever more empty, pointless, and irrelevant.

Self-care in a narrow individualistic sense becomes increasingly difficult and, at some point, moot. This is even more true when personal problems are inseparable from societal and political problems. What if the only possibility of self-care is to fight those doing harm to you, to your loved ones, and to the majority of others in your society? When the American colonists started a revolution, they did so out of self-care. It was difficult and many paid the ultimate sacrifice. But what other option was there, besides accepting increasing harm from authoritarian oppression, growing corporatism, an impoverishing economic system, and demoralizing loss of power over their own lives?

Consider Thomas Paine. When still in England, he joined other excise officers in bringing a petition for better pay and working conditions to Parliament and consequently lost his job, sending him into poverty and barely avoiding debtors’ prison. Later in America, after the revolution started, he gave all of the proceeds from his publications to the war effort. He also risked his life numerous times, giving everything for making a better world. And after all of that, he died in humble obscurity with few caring enough to attend his funeral. But that was irrelevant, since what he had sought was freedom and justice, not fame and wealth. As he explained it, “I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, so that my children can live in peace.” These words were spoken by someone who had seen his own child die, along with the child’s mother. So, he was really speaking of other people’s children.

Was Paine and those like him committing self-harm? Or were they seeking a greater good beyond themselves, the greater good for all of society, the greater good for their neighbors and fellow citizens, the greater good for their children and grandchildren? In response to those soldiers who abandoned the revolutionary cause for self-care, Paine called them summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. They were those who only fought when it was easy, when no great sacrifice was required of them. Paine’s point is that we can never separate care for ourselves from care for others. The point he was making wasn’t philosophical but practical. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Or even more powerfully articulated in a different context, there are the oft-quoted words of Martin Niemöller… the danger of narrow self-care until there is no one left to care about you:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

“Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

“Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

We Are Empathy

Recall how Ptolemy used epicycles to accurately predict the movements of objects in the sky, yet he had no clue about the actual nature of those movements. We’re still in the Ptolemaic phase of social science.

Paul Bloom had an article come out in the WSJ today, The Perils of Empathy. It’s on the limitations and problems of empathy, a topic he has been writing about for years (it’s not even his first WSJ article about it).

The above quote is from the comments section, a response posted by Anthony Cusano, and it captures my own basic thought. As others noted, Bloom’s understanding of empathy is limited and so it’s unsurprising he comes to the conclusion that is limited. So, the problem is Bloom’s own confusion, based on narrow research and simplistic analysis.

There isn’t much point in analyzing the article itself. But I realize that such articles have immense influence given the platform. I’m always surprised that someone like Bloom, a respected ivy league academic and professor, would have such a superficial grasp. I’d like to think that Bloom realizes it’s more complex and that he is using rhetoric to make a point, not that this generous interpretation makes it any better.

Even though I love social science, this demonstrates a constant danger of trying to make sense of the research produced. Evidence is only as good as the frame used to interpet it.

Bloom is mixing up the rhetoric, perception, and experience of empathy. He treats empathy as something rather simple, maybe confusing it with mere sympathy. And he does this by ignoring most of what empathy consists of, such as cognitive empathy. Along with many of his allies and critics, he never puts it into its largest context. Human civilization would never exist without human empathy. This is because humanity is inseparable from empathy, as we are inherently a social species and there is no sociality without empathy.

There isn’t any grand significance in my writing specifically about Bloom’s article. The main thing wasn’t what was in it but what was left out of it.

The last thing I wrote earlier in the week was about the hive mind in terms of entrainment. There would be no human families, groups, social identities, communities, nations, etc without empathy. None of this is solely or even primarily dependent on empathy as direct emotionality and personal sympathy. An army marching has a shared identity that doesn’t require any given soldier to empathize with any other individual soldier, much less every single soldier. The empathy is with a sense of group identity that transcends all individuality. The soldiers in marching form grok this collective identity as a muscular bonding that, in the moment, is as real as their own bodies.

Empathy is the foundation and essence of everything that is human. It precedes and encompasses every other aspect of our humanity, including rational compassion. Posing empathy as a choice is irrelevant. There is no choice. Empathy just is, whether or not we use it well. We can’t objectively study empathy because we can’t separate ourselves from it. There is no outside perspective.

Let me conclude with some words of wisdom, “We are Groot.”

* * *

I Could Say that Paul Bloom is a Callous Idiot, But I Empathize With Him…
by Nathan J. Robinson, The Navel Observatory

Thinkfluence Man Pretends To Think Empathy Is Bad
by Albert Burneko, The Concourse

Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy and Morality
by Denise Cummins, Psychology Today

The one thing that could save the world: Why we need empathy now more than ever
by Roman Krznaric, Salon

Welcome to the empathy wars
by Roman Krznaric, Transformation

Can You Run Out of Empathy?
by C. Daryl Cameron, Berkeley

Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy
by Jeremiah Stanghini, blog

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and (Empathic) Understanding
by John Payne, EPIC

Compassionate Conservativism, Where Art Thou?

In talking to those on the political right, I wonder why compassion is such a difficult thing for so many of them. Just basic human decency, it’s not complicated.

They give me endless reasons why not to be compassionate. Imagine if they spent all that effort thinking up reasons to be compassionate.

Anyway, why do they need reasons to act morally, to respond with basic human sympathy and care? If they allowed themselves to treat other people as humans as worthy as themselves, what horrible thing do they fear would happen?

Racism Without Racists: Victimization & Silence

Violence, what does it mean? Whose violence against whom? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t violence? The victor? The imprisoner? The ruling powers, whomever they may be?

Who is the real victim and who is the real victimizer in this contest for power, this fight for freedom and justice? In what sense does might make right? Why do we so willingly accept the history written by the victors?

The world is full of violence, the United States most of all. This country, my country, our country (for my fellow Americans) has a long history of ethnic cleansing, slavery, oppression, war, conquest, punishment, exploitation, and imperialism. Violence in all of its forms. The U.S. is the most violent country among affluent nations. We spend more money on our military and we imprison more of our citizens than any country in history. There has never been a more powerful empire.

Living in a society of violence, how do we talk about violence? It isn’t just data like homicide rates. Such data is a small percentage of total violence.

I’m reminded of a quote often attributed to Joseph Stalin:

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

An earlier version is even more apt, from the Watertown Daily Times citing a “crazy statesman” (1939):

“If you shoot one person you are a murderer. If you kill a couple persons you are a gangster. If you are a crazy statesman and send millions to their deaths you are a hero.”

Violence, at its most basic, is about suffering. It is a matter of who does and doesn’t feel suffering, who inflicts the suffering and who is inflicted. This brings us to the issue of compassion and lack thereof. These are more complex issues than the simplistic data collected by bureaucrats and academics, data-collecting that can at times verge closer to sociopathy than to compassion. The demands of objectivity, as a recent study has shown, often have a deadening effect on our ability to empathize. People are living beings with hopes and fears, not numbers, not statistics. When looking at data as we are wont to do, we must never forget what that data represents, the human reality.

I’ve struggled with understanding the suffering and violence that I see all around me, understanding it on the human level. It can feel overwhelming and senseless. How does one find humanity within inhumanity? How does one find meaning in it all?

I’m not sure about meaning, but I have come across one particular articulation and portrayal that offers a larger context to begin considering it more deeply. I speak of the work of Derrick Jensen, specifically two of his earliest books: A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe. For many years, I searched and searched for even a glimpse of understanding. Jensen’s work was the first voice to give voice to my own sense of suffering. It felt like an acknowledgement, a validation of what I knew in my own experience, a breaking through the isolation of silence like a glimmer of light in the dark.

“If the first rule of a dysfunctional system is ‘Don’t talk about it,’ then our primary goal should be to tell the truth, to be as honest as we can manage to be. When I read something truthful, something real, I breathe a deep sigh and say, ‘Fantastic — I wasn’t mad or alone in thinking that, after all!’ So often we are left to our own devices, struggling in the dark with this eternal and internal propaganda system. At that point, for someone to tell us the truth is a gift. In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.”
~ Derrick Jensen quoting David Edwards, The Culture of Make Believe, pp 141-142

Jensen offers two main explanations: the victimization cycle and dissociation.

The victimization cycle is a framework to make sense of how violence perpetuates itself. The line between victim and victimizer is very thin. This is demonstrated by how victimizers often have histories of victimization, typically in childhood. Jensen makes a good case for putting this into the terms of our collective history, violence endlessly leading to more violence.

Dissociation, however, is the key that unlocks the mechanism of victimization. This is how we are silenced, blinded, numbed.

Jensen uses many examples, but one stands out. In Nazi Germany, there were many doctors who did horrific experiments on children in the concentration camps. Each night, these doctors would go home and many of them had children of their own. They were good fathers, good husbands, good citizens. The two sides of their lives never crossed. It was as if these doctors had two separate selves with an absolute cognitive disconnection between them.

Nazi doctors is an extreme example, but the behavior is completely normal human psychology. Less extreme examples are commonplace. We all do it to varying degrees for our lives are divided in so many ways. It is easy to not feel and understand the connection between our personal lives and our work lives, between the Sunday sermon and the rest of the week, between what we see on the news and the world immediately around us, between what we buy at the store and what is happening in another country, between what we learn in school and in books and how we think about our everyday experience. We know many things in many aspects of our lives, but we don’t quite make the connections. In this way, we know and we don’t know many things.

We know and don’t know about about mass incarceration and racial injustice:

“The claim that we really know where all the black men have gone may inspire considerable doubt. If we know, why do we feign ignorance ? Could it be that most people really don’t know? Is it possible that the roundup, lockdown, and exclusion of black men en masse from the body politic has occurred largely unnoticed? The answer is yes and no.

“Much has been written about the ways in which people manage to deny, even to themselves, that extraordinary atrocities, racial oppression, and other forms of human suffering have occurred or are occurring. Criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, States of Denial. The book examines how individuals and institutions—victims, perpetrators, and bystanders—know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide , torture, and every form of systemic oppression.

“Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about human suffering at the same time. In his words, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”

“Today, most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration. For more than three decades, images of black men in handcuffs have been a regular staple of the evening news. We know that large numbers of black men have been locked in cages. In fact, it is precisely because we know that black and brown people are far more likely to be imprisoned that we, as a nation, have not cared too much about it. We tell ourselves they “deserve” their fate, even though we know— and don’t know— that whites are just as likely to commit many crimes, especially drug crimes. We know that people released from prison face a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion, and yet we claim not to know that an undercaste exists . We know and we don’t know at the same time.”
 ~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 181-182

We know and don’t know about sundown towns:

“White Americans encounter sundown towns every day but rarely think about them or even realize that they’re in one. They look like other towns, especially to most non-black people, who often don’t notice the difference between 95% white and 100% white. Motorists driving through Anna, Illinois, might stop to see its famous library, designed in 1913 by Walter Burley Griffith, the Prairie School architect who went on to design Canberra, Australia. Or they might be visiting a mentally ill relative in the Illinois State Hospital. They don’t notice that Anna is a sundown town unless they know to ask. Most sundown towns and suburbs are like that: invisible, until a black wayfarer appears and the townspeople do something about it.

“At the same time, whites have nicknames for many overwhelmingly white towns: “Colonial Whites” for Colonial Heights, near Richmond, Virginia; “the White Shore” across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, instead of the West Shore; “Caucasian Falls” for Cuyahoga Falls near Akron, Ohio; “Whiteface Bay” for Whitefish Bay, north of Milwaukee; and so forth across the country to “Lily White Lynwood” outside Los Angeles. Whites make up jokes about the consequences of an African American being found after dark in many sundown towns and suburbs. “Even the squirrels are white in Olney” is a quip about a sundown town in southeastern Illinois known also for its albino squirrels. Such nicknames and jokes show that the whiteness of these towns has registered; whites do understand that the absence of blacks is no accident. Residents of a metropolitan area also know which suburbs are said to be the whitest and which police departments have a reputation for racial profiling. The practice of stopping and questioning African Americans in Darien, Connecticut, for example, was “an open secret in town,” according to Gregory Dorr, who grew up there. Nevertheless, when told that many American towns and suburbs kept out African Americans for decades and some still do, often these same individuals claim to be shocked.

“Perhaps it is more accurate to say that white Americans know and don’t know about sundown towns. This curious combination of knowing and not knowing seems eerily reminiscent of Europe, 1938–45: surely Germans (and Poles, French, Dutch, etc.) knew that Jewish and Romany people were being done away with—their houses and apartments were becoming vacant and available before their very eyes, after all. Yet many professed shock when told about it afterward. I do not claim that America’s rash of sundown towns is a Holocaust. The murdered probably total fewer than 2,000 and the refugees fewer than 100,000, nothing like the fury the Nazis unleashed upon Jewish and Rom people. Yet there is a parallel question: why have so few white Americans ever heard of sundown towns, even when they live in one?

‘“Yvonne Dorset,” for example, grew up in Buffalo, Illinois, near Springfield. In 2002 she replied to a discussion at Classmates.com: “I graduated from Tri-City [the high school in Buffalo] in 1963. There weren’t any African Americans in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence. We were brought up to respect all races.” As best I can tell, Dorset has lived in Buffalo from 1945 to now. What would we make of a long-term resident of, say, Heidelberg, Germany, who wrote in 2002, “There weren’t any Jews in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence”? Buffalo drove out its African Americans on August 17, 1908. The absence of African Americans from Buffalo today is no more a “coincidence” than the near-absence of Jewish Germans from Heidelberg.”
~ James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns, Kindle Locations 3829-3856

There seemingly is no end to the things we know and don’t know.

Dissociation protects against suffering that is simply too great to comprehend, protects us against uncomfortable truths. This is a psychological form of plausible deniability that usually goes hand in hand with collective forms of plausible deniability. Like structural racism, there is structural dissociation that can be found in government, in the media, in schools, in churches; it can be found everywhere.

Dissociation is how reality tunnels form, and while in them we see nothing else, know nothing else. It is simply our reality. It is our attempt to make sense of the senseless, our dysfunctional response to a dysfunctional world. It is adaptive behavior to a bad situation and no one can doubt that we humans excel at being adaptable.

Dissociation is how victims become victimizers, how good people do bad things. We judge others as immoral or even evil: Nazis, rapists, child abusers, etc. They are different than the rest of us, we assure ourselves. We are good people. We aren’t racists, we aren’t murderers. It isn’t our fault that racism and violence exists in our society. Yes, there are bad people. But that has nothing to do with us. We are innocent. We aren’t perfect, but we have good intentions.

Ah yes, good intentions. *sigh* The road to hell is well paved.

We are all culpable, all responsible for we are all part of this same society, this same history. The past is never past. We can’t pretend that the world we live in has nothing to do with what came before. The past, as it has been said, is prologue.

Indentured servitude led to slavery. After Reconstruction came the Redeemers with the worst forms of sharecropping, debt peonage, chain gangs and forced labor camps. Then came Jim Crow and now mass incarceration. It never ends. It morphs and each time it becomes more resilient to scrutiny. But at a basic level it remains the same. It is just more injustice and oppression, just more violence and suffering. It is the same old story of justice delayed.

The horror of this has become clear to me as I’ve read more and more about American history. I keep being shocked by the arguments people made in the past. I recognize them as arguments I hear today. It is eery how little changes. Most people who made rationalizations and excuses in the past were good people, whether slaveholders or Nazis. Most people today who make rationalizations and excuses are also good people. The world is full of good people and yet not-so-good things continue on.

There is no evil master plan. It isn’t necessary.

“The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society. Academics have developed complicated theories and obscure jargon in an effort to describe what is now referred to as Structural racism, yet the concept is fairly straightforward. One theorist, Iris Marion Young, relying on a famous “birdcage” metaphor, explains it this way: If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage , it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape.”
~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 184

This makes it all the more frustrating. It is racism without any need for racists, a cognitive prison of our own making.

How does one discuss racial bias with those who don’t see it? When something is unconscious, it simply and seamlessly is part of a person’s sense of reality and a part of the reality shared by nearly everyone around them. There is no conscious intention to be racially prejudiced, but there is an instinctive fear or resistance toward the status quo being challenged. Or else it is simply indifference, a lack of understanding and so a lack of knowing why they should care. It isn’t real at a gut-level in the way it is real to someone who has been the victim of it.

In trying to discuss this, my frustration in part comes from how it too often gets misdirected to side issues, slipping away from the core truth that needs to be spoken and heard. The apparent explanation is that some people literally can’t see the main issue or can’t see it on its own terms, can’t see it for what it is. This is a cultural blindspot. It is as if it doesn’t exist for, in their reality tunnel, it doesn’t exist to them. So, they latch onto side issues that are the only things they can see as relevant. Discussion, such as it is, just goes around and around never getting to the heart of the matter.

This frustration eventually gets to me and gets the better of me, thus bringing out the worse in me. There is this immense injustice in our society, injustice that is cruel beyond belief. It is hard to resist responding with mean-spiritedness, resist falling into bitterness and anger. The excuses and rationalizations for this collective ‘evil’ are soul-crushing, and there is no other word besides ‘evil’ that can capture the depth of moral failure and in some cases outright moral depravity. It is ‘evil’ because it is so much greater than any individual, greater than any generation of individuals, greater even than a single nation. The roots of this shared human sin go back into the distant past. Our entire society is built on it. Simply by being born into this society, we all bear some responsibility, first and foremost the responsibility to become aware and then responsibility to give voice.

It has been with us so long that it is immense. Most people don’t have the time and energy, much less the interest, to study the long and detailed history of oppression and injustice that has continued up to the present. Most people simply don’t comprehend it and, because of the collective shame about it (along with fear and anger), there is little to compel understanding. When confronted with this knowledge, many people complain that you’re trying to make them feel guilty. This seems to be an unconscious acknowledgment that there is something to be guilty about, an acknowledgment that can only be stated through projection for that is always how the unconscious first emerges. The budding awareness of mass suffering isn’t a comfortable experience, to feel it like a raw wound.

The systemic oppression and prejudice truly is immense, beyond any individual. It is actively enforced on the societal level of politics and law. It is pervasive throughout our culture. It is the air we breathe, the ground we walk upon, the world we know. It is just there. As such, on the individual level, it is largely passive and mindless. Most people just go along to get along (I know that I usually do exactly this). Most people don’t ever give much thought to other people’s problems and sufferings, even when or especially when their own continued benefit and comfort is dependent upon it. It is motivated reasoning which is why it must operate to some degree subconsciously.

“Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans— of all colors— oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet […] racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”
 ~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 14

It is obvious for anyone who has fully looked at and seriously considered the data that racism is rampant in all aspects and at all levels of American society. But the typical stumbling block is that few have much, if any, familiarity with such data. There is always a reason to deny it and dismiss it, to rationalize it away before even considering it. There is always a reason for those who want a reason to not face what is in front of them. Humans are extremely talented at rationaization.

“There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious” —Albert Memmi, Racism

“Nowadays, except for members of white supremacist organizations, few whites in the United States claim to be “racist.” Most whites assert they “don’t see any color, just people”; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chances; and, finally, that, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they aspire to live in a society where “people are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.” More poignantly, most whites insist that minorities (especially blacks) are the ones responsible for whatever “race problem” we have in this country . They publicly denounce blacks for “playing the race card,” for demanding the maintenance of unnecessary and divisive race -based programs, such as affirmative action, and for crying “racism” whenever they are criticized by whites. Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could “all get along.”

“But regardless of whites’ “sincere fictions,” racial considerations shade almost everything in America. Blacks and dark-skinned racial minorities lag well behind whites in virtually every area of social life; they are about three times more likely to be poor than whites, earn about 40 percent less than whites, and have about an eighth of the net worth that whites have. They also receive an inferior education compared to whites, even when they attend integrated institutions. In terms of housing, black-owned units comparable to white-owned ones are valued at 35 percent less. Blacks and Latinos also have less access to the entire housing market because whites, through a variety of exclusionary practices by white realtors and homeowners, have been successful in effectively limiting their entrance into many neighborhoods. Blacks receive impolite treatment in stores, in restaurants, and in a host of other commercial transactions. Researchers have also documented that blacks pay more for goods such as cars and houses than do whites. Finally, blacks and dark-skinned Latinos are the targets of racial profiling by the police, which, combined with the highly racialized criminal court system, guarantees their overrepresentation among those arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated , and if charged for a capital crime, executed. Racial profiling on the highways has become such a prevalent phenomenon that a term has emerged to describe it: driving while black. In short, blacks and most minorities are “at the bottom of the well.”

“How is it possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most whites claim that race is no longer relevant? More important, how do whites explain the apparent contradiction between their professed color blindness and the United States’ color-coded inequality?”
 ~ Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, Kindle Locations 168-195

I don’t want to get into the details right now, the statistics and research results, the endless examples and anecdotes. There are a lot of details. I’m not exaggerating. The research demonstrating racial prejudice has been discussed in hundreds of books and it really does take a book to do it justice, although it is the type of book that the most racially biased are unlikely to read (yes, that was meant as a challenge; I can offer a list of books for anyone wanting to be challenged). I hope that maybe there are some fence-sitters who can be convinced that sitting on fences is a less-than-comfortable position.

I recognize this is a difficult issue. It isn’t about blame for there is plenty of responsibility to go around. Who here is without sin? I’m certainly not in a position to cast the first stone. My personal life is a mess. I’m no hero or saint. I’m nobody important. I’m just trying to understand. I still don’t know what to make of it all, much less what should be done about it. My only purpose is to be yet another voice. My only hope is that if enough voices are joined maybe we will be heard. And in being heard that the silence will be broken.

Ideology and Empathy

My relationship with my parents has been stressed. It’s not just this past campaign season and the elections, but it does have to do with politics in general. I’ve seen this coming for years (by which I mean the larger social trends beyond just my parents), even if I couldn’t predict the personal impact it would have on my parents.

Back in the Bush presidency, I began to more fully understand the trends that were shaping the future. Conservatives thought they were on top of the world. Their narrative had dominated national politics since Reagan, even finding ways to capitalize during Clinton’s presidency. They had been angry and righteous for a long time, and it made them feel powerful, almost untouchable. They knew that they were the Real Americans. They knew they were the moral majority. The problem was that their knowledge was incomplete and not perfectly correlated to certain social realities.

George W. Bush was the culmination of the entire Southern Strategy: white Texan good ol’ boy (at least in persona), born-again Evangelical who spoke in grand religious terms (of America as a Christian nation and of good vs evil), social conservative who gave up alcohol and funded abstinence-only sex education, fiscal conservative who pushed tax breaks (especially for the “job-creators”) and trickle-down economics, and on and on. But it all ended in failure. It turned out to not be all that they dreamed of. They were lost and confused, and then they were defeated.

Along came Obama. He had vision and narrative, just like they once had. He pointed out the failures of conservative rule. The anger and righteousness of conservatives was magnified a thousandfold, verging on bitterness and cynicism. Out of this, the Tea Party formed and swayed the entire Republican Party along with the entire right-wing media.

Now, conservatives like my parents claim that Bush never was a real conservative and that they never cared about him, but they sure didn’t feel that way at the time. Anyone who questioned the Great, Wise Leader (particularly in his first term) was considered un-American and possibly a terrorist or at least a terrorist sympathizer, definitely someone of questionable morality and allegiances. I find it odd that my dad in the past often reacted with sensitivity to any criticism of Bush as if it had been a personal insult, yet now doesn’t even consider Bush a conservative. If it’s fine for “real conservatives” to criticize Bush, why isn’t it fine for everyone else to do so?

I’m not blaming my parents for changing their minds. I wouldn’t like a conservative call it flip-flopping for as a liberal I highly value the ability to change one’s mind. It would just be nice for them to acknowledge how much they once praised Bush and how they didn’t at the time argue that Bush wasn’t a real conservative.

I spend a lot of time with my parents. I care about them. Even as I judge conservatives, I all too well understand there is a personal side that goes beyond mere politics. My parents feel hurt and attacked, as if people like them no longer matter. From their perspective, they’re just trying to be good people, just trying to be responsible citizens. They’ve always played by the rules. They’ve worked hard. They don’t understand how everything went so wrong. They just don’t understand and they don’t feel understood.

What I wish they understood is that everyone wants to be understood. It seems to me that they want something that they haven’t always been willing to offer to others.

Yes, my parents have worked hard. But so have many others. There are hundreds of millions of people in America and billions of people in the world who have lived more difficult lives than my parents. Most of these people have suffered and struggled for no fault of their own, just circumstances of their birth. They get less understanding than my parents have received. They get less benefit of the doubt. They get fewer opportunities and fewer second chances. My parents have never known the lowest depths of poverty, extended unemployment and welfare (or, worse, depending on welfare despite being employed, never being able to make ends meet with minimum wage), having to choose between paying the bills or feeding one’s children, a life of homelessness with few if any prospects of escaping the streets, being treated with negative prejudice by the police and courts because of their skin color, etc. Relatively speaking, my parents have lived a life of privilege (and so have I, although my generation fared worse than did theirs).

Conservatives like my parents often feel very little empathy and compassion towards those deemed different or other. It’s not that conservatives are intentionally trying to be mean-spirited. They just don’t feel it on a gut-level. It’s not a part of who they are, not part of their life experience. The undocumented immigrant seeking to escape the violence and poverty of Mexico (that Americans have helped to cause), well too bad for them, they are foreigners, not ‘us’. The poor who have known generations of poverty along with oppression and prejudice, well too bad for them, it’s their own fault, they should quit complaining and work harder. Obviously, this isn’t the response Jesus would give, but that doesn’t seem to bother many conservatives, if they ever think about it. That said, my parents are more likely to think about it than some conservatives, but I’m not sure it often causes them to deeply question their own privilege.

In the end, I want to understand conservatives, even if many conservatives are unwilling or unable to return the favor to others. The reason I want to understand is that I have that basic liberal/leftist sense of all of us being products of our circumstances. My parents didn’t choose to be the way they are and I didn’t choose to be the way I am. There is no credit to be taken or blame to be given. People are just people, doing the best they can for the situation they find themselves in. Sometimes understanding is the best thing we can offer to others.

What frustrates me the most is knowing that my parents genuinely are good people. I’m sure most conservatives, like most people, are good people. It’s not that my parents lack the ability to empathize, but it’s just not their first response when dealing with people they don’t personally know or identify with, especially when it comes to groups that have been made into political scapegoats.

Let me return to the example of undocumented migrants from Mexico.

Mexican immigrants aren’t coming here for the fun of it or even for the free goodies (e.g., welfare). They are coming out of desperation. They risk their very lives to cross the border. They could die of heat, be murdered, kidnapped, sold into slavery, or any number of horrible ends… yet they come anyways, risking everything, many of them putting their entire faith in God to protect them and their families. They are that desperate, but most conservatives still wouldn’t naturally think to first compassionately empathize or to consider how American policies contribute to their misery. The US War on Drugs has created a thriving black market. American money funds Mexican drug cartels, criminals and corrupt politicians. American guns go across the border to help fuel the endless violence (and then Americans complain when a tiny fraction of that violence spills back over). All of us Americans are part of the problem for our government is part of the problem, but it never occurs to most conservatives to accept responsibility for being a part of the problem; instead, they blame the victims who are just trying to escape the misery.

I could present all of this to my parents. If I pushed the case hard enough, I might be able to get them to give a more empathetic response. However, they wouldn’t likely come to such a response on their own, at least not about such issues as undocumented immigrants. I don’t want to twist someone’s arm just to try to get some empathy. I’d like to live in a world where most people respond with empathy as their default position, idealist that I am.

I was just now reminded of the quote conservatives like to repeat: “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before.” There is some truth to it. Fear will make even liberals more conservative-minded, even if only temporarily. But the underlying worldview is questionable, that fear represents the norm of reality and mugging represents the norm of human behavior. I wouldn’t claim that the conservative response is always wrong, but it is problematic if one is stuck within a worldview of fear. When fear closes down the normal human response of empathy, that is when people act without compassion such as mugging others. A lack of empathy sadly too often leads to a lack of empathy, fear to fear, violence to violence to even more violence; a vicious cycle of crime leading to desperation and desperation leading to crime, ever escalating (as seen with the War on Drugs which has led to an increase of drug use, drug sales and drug-related incarcerations; and similar to what is seen with abstinence-only education and abortion bans which lead to an increase of teen pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies, abortions and STDs).

In considering the conservative response, I see something even more fundamental going on. It’s not just an issue of ideologically moralizing about empathy and compassion. It goes to a deeper level of how we view the world and experience reality, a level of the psyche that isn’t easily accessed by the conscious mind for our fundamental worldview is formed prior to even our sense of self being fully formed. This has to do with how one is raised or rather the environment in which one is raised. I keep coming back to the research that showed kids who grew up in multicultural environments tended to become socially liberal as adults (and vice versa for kids who grew up with monocultural environments).

That is essentially what differentiates my parents and I. A simple, yet crucial difference. More importantly, a difference that neither my parents nor I chose for ourselves, like everyone else simply a given of the social world we were born into.

This is why it’s so frustrating. After reaching adulthood, people rarely change. My parents experienced plenty of multiculturalism as adults, but they didn’t experience it during the key formative periods of youth. They can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a multicultural world, just as I can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a monocultural world. Morality and ideology fails us in this conundrum.

I can’t say my parents are objectively wrong for putting their principles before empathy. All I can do is argue that principles not based on and instead contrary to empathy aren’t worthy principles… but that is an opinion that is only persuasive to those who already agree with me.

Is there a way to frame the discussion so that conservatives would understand the central value of compassionate empathy? I know my parents would like to be empathetically understood by others. Such a desire is a potential beginning point for developing an ability and willingness to offer this to others. But why does the plea for mutual understanding almost always end up being characterized as a liberal agenda? Doesn’t mutual understanding benefit all, conservatives included? Is there a reason conservatives don’t want mutual understanding? Do they think some people don’t deserve it because they didn’t morally earn it? Do they see understanding offered freely as a moral danger, both to the person receiving and the person giving?

As always, I wish I understood.

The War on Democracy: a personal response

I wrote in my previous post about democracy, specifically the war on democracy. Both that post and this post are a continuation of my thoughts in my other recent posts: Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?, Political Labels – Meaningless? Divisive?, and Bashing My Head Against a Brick Wall: Love of Truth or Masochism?. The war on democracy is, in the final conclusion, a war on liberalism. Conservatives are often unwilling to acknowledge that America is a democracy at all. They think by denying the word they can make the reality go away.

I’ve been trying to grapple with the issue of ideologies and labels which can irritate me immensely at times. As a liberal, I often feel misunderstood living in a country where conservatism is portrayed as the norm, although the polling data seems to show that Americans are way more liberal than most mainstream pundits and politicians would prefer. To be a radically idealistic, freedom-loving, bleeding-heart liberal is to be forever discontented with the status quo of established power and authority, forever discontented with the forgetting of history’s horrors which leads to its repeating.

– – –

In my above mentioned previous post, I offered a simple answer to a problem often made complex by ideological debates and rhetoric. By offering that simple conclusion, I was questioning whether the problem actually was complex at all. Those with complex answers will seek to make the problem appear more complex than it is. As such, I was hoping to find the heart of the issue.

My basic point, in that previous post, was that democracy is more about people than politics, more about how humans can relate well to each other on the largescale of society. My suggestion was that, if we actually care about seeking solutions, we should begin with caring about people. Either you care about others or not. It’s that simple.

I’d also add that to the degree that you care about ideology (personal beliefs, political systems, religious dogmas, ethnocentric groupthink, etc) is the degree to which you don’t care about people. When we see people in terms of their place within society, as labels and categories, social roles and demographic data, as voters and citizens… when we see people as mere ‘other’, as strangers and foreigners, as objects and resources… when we see people as as ‘us’ vs ‘them’, as workers or unemployed, as rich or poor, as their religion or skin color, as part of or excluded from some group… when we do this, people become less in our eyes (and in our hearts). We lose our own humanity when we embrace labels and categories. And that is a very sad way to live one’s life.

This isn’t to say all labels and categories are always negative. They serve a function. In and of themselves, they are value neutral. However, labels and categories (when used without awareness and understanding) can easily lead to seeing the world through the filter of biases and preconceptions. This is how prejudice functions. Labels and categories are only dangerous when they are used in defense of an ideological worldview, a dogmatic reality tunnel.

– – –

In the rest of this post, I will continue some of those thoughts but in the context of more personal experience and feelings, along with some complaints, questions and ponderings of a less personal nature.

I acknowledge that everything I have written applies to myself as well. I’m all too aware of that fact. I know that I don’t live up to my own hopes and ideals. I often feel the attraction of what is offered by ideological righteousness, by ideological labels and categories. I feel weak in my sense of self and in my experience of the world. I feel weak because I feel isolated, because I feel disempowered and disenfranchised. I don’t feel part of a community, that my life is integrally significant to the life of those I interact with on a daily basis. Even so, it may be true that I’m more rooted to the place I live in than many people (which, if true, is a sad statement about the lives of many people). I love this town where friends and family live, where I’ve spent much of my life (although with many intermittent years spent living elsewhere). But I always feel a bit disconnected, a blurring of the edges between myself and the world around me.

Modern life makes it more difficult to deeply connect (which causes many people to cling even more to artificial group identities). We have busy lives, each person isolated in their respective activities and goals. So many people spend their entire lives moving around from place to place… chasing careers, chasing dreams… seeking to escape the sense of dissatisfaction and unease that haunts the modern soul. I’m as much a product of the modern world as anyone else. I grew up in a family that moved on a fairly regular basis… and following that I moved around for a number of years.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to find a community to be a part of. I choose to live in this town where I’m surrounded by memories, a place that feels like home. During a period of my life, I sought to find my niche in this community. I went to many churches and found one I liked to an extent. I socialized and volunteered. I found people I connected with and made some new friends. But in the end the effort was too taxing for an introvert like me. It takes a lot of effort to try to create, almost ex nihil, a sense of community in the modern world. This town, for example, is a college town. It’s probably a majority of the population that either attends or works for the university and the university hospital. It’s a very transient population with very few people who were born here and lived their entire lives here. In a place like this, people come and go.

My life isn’t unusual and the town I live in isn’t atypical. Most cities in urban and suburban areas are to varying degrees like this town. Most people live in larger cities with transient populations and most people have moved a number of times in their lives. It’s just the social norm of modern life and of American society.

– – –

This is the challenge we face.

Most of the evolution of the human species happened prior to modern society and so human nature isn’t designed to work optimally in large societies with concentrated populations. Well, to be more accurate, the problem didn’t just begin with modernism for the world we live in is merely the outgrowth of the first civilizations. The Axial Age religions were a response to the early urbanization of human society… which was when the human species first had to deal with the conflicts of cultural diversity, with the disintegration of traditional lifestyles, with challenges to ancient religious authority.

The reason Buddha and Jesus preached universal love and forgiveness,  unreserved acceptance and compassion for all (even strangers, even criminals, even prostitutes… heck, even the rich) is because the rise of civilization was stretching the limits of human nature. Humans are mostly just capable of identifying with and sympathizing with a very small group of people who they know intimately. In many ways, this is as true today as it was millennia ago.

However, humans didn’t stop evolving after civilization began. If anything, evolution quickened because civilization allowed the simultaneous mixing of diverse genetics and the concentrating of certain genetics. We can see the results of this today with the fact that liberals tend to gravitate toward cities and conservatives tend to gravitate toward rural areas. There is a theory that liberalism is a newer trait in human evolution which intuitively makes sense to me and which seems to accord with some data I’m familiar with.

A major difference between conservatives and liberals, as shown in psychological research, is that: (1) the former tends to respond with fear and disgust when faced with the new and different, the unusual and foreign (one particular study showed conservatives feeling disgust toward rotten fruit which, from a liberal perspective, seems like an oddly strong response toward such a harmless object); and (2) the latter is more open to new experiences, new ideas, new possibilities and, as such, more sympathetic to the plights of those perceived as being outside of the norms and standards of any given society (strangers, foreigners, criminals, drug addicts, the poor, and the homeless; those who challenge authority figures, those who don’t submit to traditional rules of behavior, those who are ostracized, and those who are considered to be at fault for their own problems).

There is nothing wrong with the conservative attitude in and of itself. In a traditional society, such an attitude was beneficial and even necessary. But such an attitude, by itself or in aggressive opposition, doesn’t serve us well in a global society and we presently have no choice but to live in a global society, unless someone wishes to either seek the destruction of civilization or else colonize space. Even the few remaining isolated indigenous people can’t avoid the effects of modern society in that they are forced to drink water and breathe air that has become polluted, forced to depend on food sources that become increasingly scarce, forced to deal with new and deadly diseases introduced by foreigners, and are forced to constantly retreat from encroaching poachers, loggers, farmers, miners, missionaries, soldiers, bureaucrats, and others.

All humans (of all persuasions, in all places) are forced to adapt to a changing world. There is no conservative paradise where everything is frozen in some idyllic moment in time.

The Axial Age prophets like Jesus preached an essentially liberal vision, and radically liberal at that. Jesus was a leftwing loon of his era. The Axial Age prophets taught that we should treat all others as we would want to be treated; that we shouldn’t judge others according to ethnocentrism, class divisions, and other social norms; that one’s spiritual family was more important than one’s traditional nuclear family (that the water of baptismal rebirth was stronger than blood). The liberal ideals of egalitarianism and compassion (i.e., bleeding heart liberalism) are at the core of all civilization because only such ideals can counteract the negative side effects of building a civilization. Unless civilization collapses and we return to small traditional communities, we will have to come to terms with these liberal ideals.

– – –

This isn’t about liberal ideology defeating conservative ideology. I’m not saying conservatism doesn’t have it’s place, but I am saying that liberalism is increasingly necessary.

Even conservatives today are more ‘liberal’ than conservatives a few centuries ago. It’s all relative. Conservativism and liberalism exist on a spectrum which is always shifting. Conflict is only perceived when the middle of the spectrum is ignored and when history is ignored. The liberalism of one era becomes the conservatism of the next era. This is particularly confusing for American society. As Gunnar Myrdal explained, “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.”

American conservatives may be an extreme example, but they may not be highly unusual. Jesus challenged the conservatives of his day (the social norms, the political status quo, the traditional religiosity of Judaism, etc) and yet has been embraced by the conservatives of later generations. Once Jesus was dead, he was safe for being turned into an idol, sterilized of radicalism. Similarly, classical liberalism is safe for conservatives today because it’s an ideology from the past, i.e., a dead ideology. A liberal ideal or vision, if successful, eventually becomes a set of dogmatic beliefs or other ideological system. Once that happens, liberals leave it behind and conservatives will then defend it (as a defense against the next new thing that liberals seek out). As such, every conservative principle began as a liberal ideal because every tradition began as a challenge to a former tradition.

Liberalism ultimately isn’t ideological because ideology closes down the mind which is the opposite of the liberal impulse. Liberalism is the impulse toward ever greater inclusion, acceptance, and openness. This liberal vision is idealistic but it isn’t ideology. Jesus wasn’t preaching politics. In fact, Jesus put no faith in politics whatsoever.

Maybe this is why liberal ideals can be placed in the context of any ideology, including conservative ideologies. The liberal impulse, by nature, will seek to expand any ideology to be ever more inclusive. Even the most righteously dogmatic Christian fundamentalism can’t entirely obscure the radical vision contained in Jesus’ own words and actions. Christians, no matter their ideology, can be inspired by these ideals. Liberals don’t own these ideals. This liberal vision isn’t liberal ideology. Liberalism, as a general concept, is defined ‘liberally’ because liberalism is expansive, ever reaching beyond divisions, reaching even beyond the status quo of liberal ideology. There is no and can be no definitive explanation of what liberalism is in specific terms for liberalism challenges limiting definitions, all definitions being limiting to some degree. The moment a liberal vision becomes an ideology it becomes less liberal, i.e., more conservative (to defend an ideology is to seek to ‘conserve’ that ideology).

That is the power of the liberal vision which is an inclusive vision, aspiring toward inclusion of all people even conservatives. It’s the same as Jesus preaching a universal message that applied to all people, even those who weren’t his followers, even those who actively opposed him (i.e., forgiving one’s enemies). There is no greater, no more radical vision of liberalism than this. And the most radical liberal vision of all is anarchism, both political and epistemological anarchism, because this is the extreme endpoint of the liberal desire for liberation, for liberty. Jesus’ refusal to acknowledge any earthly authority was a form of anarchism.

In the larger sphere of society, this liberal vision is basically the same as what is called ‘social democracy’. You can make it complicated with theory and with specialized terminology, but the ideals of freedom and egalitarianism are very simple. Even a child can understand these ideals. Even a child wants to be treated fairly. Children tend to be natural liberals because everyone is born with an openness to experience, a desire to explore, an endless curiosity. A child is just being a good liberal when he endlessly asks, ‘Why?’ And, when given an answer, asks ‘Why?’ again.

– – –

It might seem like I’m getting a bit abstract or speculative here, but this relates to the personal for me.

I’m someone with a liberal predisposition. I feel strongly and I empathize easily. I care about others, even random strangers on the street or in the news. I’m a bleeding heart liberal. I don’t want to live in a society of blame, of ‘us’ vs ‘them’. I intellectually can understand that those with conservative predispositions are less likely to see the world this way, but in my heart I can’t understand.

From my (biased) perspective, liberal values seem to be the only way we will avoid collective self-destruction. Sure, if civilization collapses, the human species can return to it’s conservative roots. But I would hope that even conservatives aren’t seeking the destruction of civilization merely because it would benefit the predominance of the conservative worldview. It’s true that, during times of societal conflict and violence, the conservative worldview becomes persuasive and hence popular. However, any conservative who promotes a vision of conflict or incites violence in order to achieve this end has become cynical to the point of utter moral depravity. I hope most conservatives are above such realpolitik games of hatred and fear.

Also, I’d like to believe that empathy and compassion aren’t merely liberal values. Everyone has some capacity for empathy and compassion… well, everyone except psycopaths. It’s not that conservatives are heartless, but research has shown that conservatism as a trait predisposes one to have less capacity for empathy and compassion (relative to liberalism as a trait)… or rather they have a more limited, narrow focus of their empathy and compassion, less empathy and compassion for those not perceived as part of their group. But are these attitudes inevitable and predetermined? Are people just born one way or another?

The question is whether people, all people, have the potential to develop more empathy and compassion. If we are fatalistically determined by our genetics and our early upbringing, then maybe our only or best hope is that there will be an evolutionary leap. The problem is we can’t exactly plan for and depend on an evolutionary leap happening. But how else will change happen in society unless some fundamental transformation happens within human nature? Isn’t such a radical transformation what was being envisioned, even prophesied by some, during the Axial Age? Is there a way that we as a human species can manifest on a global level our potential for empathy and compassion? Is Jesus’ inspiring message of love a real potential or merely an empty dream? Isn’t there a way conservatives can maintain their conservative values while also stretching the comfort zone of their ability to empathize and be compassionate toward others, especially those different than them?

The conservative impulse is to identify with their group, their religion, their tradition, their culture, their ethnicitiy, their nation, etc. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but I’d like to believe that this group identity can be expanded to include all humans. But do we have to wait for an alien invasion before we have an enemy ‘other’ that will force all humans to identify as a collective humanity with a collective fate?

– – –

This is the problem I face.

I can, like Jesus, preach about love and compassion. But, as a liberal, I’ll mostly be preaching to the choir.

Is there a way to translate liberal values into conservative terms? Is there a way to translate conservative values into a larger and more inclusive global context? I don’t want to blame conservatives any more than I want to blame the rich. I don’t want to blame anyone, to exclude certain people or groups (because they are different, because they don’t conform to my values, because they don’t agree with my ideology). However, what am I to do if, as a liberal, conservatives want to blame and exclude me? And what am I to do if, as a working class person, the rich want to blame and exclude me? How does one persuade others toward an inclusive vision if their own vision opposes it? If someone doesn’t care about the poor living in slums or oppressed people living in developing countries, I can’t force them to care. I have a hard enough time convincing myself to care and not give into cynicism.

I hate this situation. It’s the eternal conundrum of being a liberal, the desire for universal values that transcend mere ideology… while, no matter what liberals desire, conservatives will still just see it as liberal ideology for the lense through which conservatives see everything is ideology. Liberals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The desire to include those who desire to exclude you. The desire to treat others fairly and equally who don’t desire to return the favor. The desire to compromise with those who see compromise as moral weakness and failure. The desire for compassion even of those who choose prejudice and blame. Between openness and conformity, between idealism and ideology, why is it so often the latter that wins? I realize Jesus said my reward would be in heaven, but it would be nice to see a bit of heaven on earth.

I just don’t understand. Why are empathy and compassion often perceived by many as almost entirely exclusive traits of bleeding heart liberals? Why is unreservedly caring about others deemed to be a mere liberal agenda? And why do conservatives believe unreservedly caring about others will destroy society? Aren’t empathy and compassion traits found in all normal (i.e., psychologically healthy) people?

How can any ideology (whether religious, political or economic) be seen as trumping the basic human value of caring about others? How can conservative Christians continue to ignore Jesus’ message of love which, according to Jesus himself, trumps the oppressive Old Testament laws of hatred and divisiveness, of fear and vindictiveness, of blame and guilt, of retribution and scapegoating? Jesus never asked if the blind or sick person had the money to pay for being healed, never asked if people were deserving before he fed them, never asked if someone was to blame before dispelling the demons that were possessing them. Jesus simply acted compassionately in response to suffering. Jesus wasn’t acting according to ideology. Jesus wasn’t preaching about meritocracy or a free market, wasn’t preaching about constitutional republics or political revolutions, wasn’t preaching about traditional values and norms.

Why aren’t there bleeding heart conservatives? Why do compassionate conservatives seem lacking in compassion toward anyone who doesn’t conform to their own ideological agenda? And, when conservatives do help those in need, why is their attitude typically that of condescension and superiority as if the needy person should feel lucky that the well off conservative didn’t leave them to starve to death or to freeze alone under a bridge? Yes, I’m speaking of the extreme variety of conservatives, but I speak of them because this is also the extremely vocal variety of conservatives who vocally defend conservatism.

If we as a society are going to ignore Jesus’ radical message of love, then we should stop calling ourselves a Christian nation (not that Jesus would approve of nationalism in any form, especially not in his name). If being a Christian nation wasn’t mere ethnocentric nationalism and instead meant being a nation of love and forgiveness, a nation of acceptance and inclusion, a nation of helping the poor and needy, then maybe I (along with many liberals, atheists, and non-Christians) wouldn’t take such issue with this prideful labeling of America.

– – –

It’s become increasingly clear, with events over the past decade, how interconnected is the global society. What one person, one group, one corporation, or one government does, effects people all over the world. We can’t continue to live pretending we are independent and isolated. We benefit and suffer because of the choices made by others. No one succeeds or fails simply based on their personal merits.

Poverty exists despite there being plenty of wealth in the world to allow everyone to live a decent life. Homelessness exists despite the resources being available to provide everyone basic shelter. Starvation exists despite there being enough food to feed everyone in the world. Many diseases continue to exist and proliferate despite there being known cures. The amount of money that the US government alone spends on international meddling (wars, military bases, CIA, propaganda programs, etc) probably would be enough to build schools, hospitals, health care clinics, and food banks in every city in the world. Most of the oppression and suffering in the world exists because of decisions made by other people, usually not by those who are oppressed and suffer. People born into poverty, homelessness, and hunger don’t deserve those conditions because of some personal failure. People living in war zones aren’t responsible for nations fighting over the resources that happen to exist in the ground beneath their homes. People born black in America aren’t to be blamed for the history of prejudice which is still being imposed upon them.

What we choose to do (what we buy, how we vote, who we donate to) or what we choose not to do (injustices we ignore, prejudices we accept, suffering we don’t seek to end) isn’t just a personal choice. Every action is public because the results of our actions are collective. We are forced to be responsible for each other, whether or not we accept that responsibility. If we walk past someone who is homeless or hungry, they remain homeless or hungry because we choose to allow such conditions to continue. We may not consciously realize we’ve made a decision, but that doesn’t change the fact that a decision was made.

– – –

I’m complicit in all of these failings and problems. That is what pisses me off.

I want to live in a society of people who care. I want to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. It’s been said that we need to be the change we want to see. But I can’t get rid of the feeling that all actions seem futile, that nothing is ever going to change for the good. Despite all the superficial progress, the world just keeps getting worse in so many ways.

I’ve nearly lost all hope for the future, all faith in humanity. Part of me still wants to care and yet another part of me wants to give up. I just don’t know. What is the point? Change seems potentially so easy in that there is nothing stopping change besides ourselves (“We have met the enemy and he is us”). We are individually of no significance, but collectively almost anything is possible. The problem is that collective action too often is fueled by ignorance and fear-mongering, propaganda and herd mentality.

It may be true that, “United we stand, divided we fall.” But, even if united, are we united in anything worthy?

As someone raised as a Christian, how do I live up to Jesus’ radical vision?

As an American, how do I live up to Thomas Paine’s radical vision?

What can any of us do about such radical visions? What is the practical value of such inspiring idealism?

Like Father, Not Like Son

Like Father, Not Like Son

Posted on Nov 30th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade

I got annoyed at my dad during a phone conversation the other day.  I hung up on him which is the first time I’ve ever done that in my life.  And now I don’t even feel like talking to him at all.  My mom’s family is known for their ability to hold long-lasting grudges and I can almost feel that desire in me.  I’m willing to bet that I’m capable of it.

I don’t know if he was in a bad mood or what.  He was determined to be crtical about everything which in and of itself is something I can sympathize with, but what bothered me was that he was doing it in a self-righteous way (with an implication that my opinion was worth less than his).  He was arguing that there was only one truth and he so happened to be in possession of it. 

At first, I tried to point out the positives for sake of balance and then I tried to be conciliatory, but he just wouldn’t have it.  He wouldn’t leave it as simply a differences of perspectives… because, as a moral conservative, that smacks of moral relativism.  Someone has to be right and therefore everyone else must be wrong (Extraverted Thinking types I tell ya).

He was complaining about the lazy selfish kids these days (not like the good ol’ days when kids were obediant and submissive to authority… sure).  Basically, he was coming off as a bitter old man who has forgotten what it was like to be young.  He is a moral conservative and seems to think that Obama (who mobilized all those lazy selfish youngsters) is one of the first signs of the end of the world.  I’m the last to argue against the imperfections of this existence and the failings of human nature, but I’m not usually one of those that will try to pin it all on a specific group of people.

The thing is that he can be one of the nicest people.  He seems to genuinely like people and he is always helping others.  At the same time, he can be one of the most arrogantly judgmental people that I know.  He sees himself as a self-made man and arrogance is often the flaw of this type of person. 

He has had his struggles in life like everyone, but he has never known really hard times… such as involving racial prejudice, poverty, major illness, or long-term depression.  I don’t get the sense that he has a deep understanding of or compassion for the suffering of others which are the very things I value above all else.  This isn’t to say he isn’t compassionate.  He is a caring person in a patriarchal fatherly kind of way.  He cares about the poor as one who has never been poor, but he does care.  He goes to great effort to make a positive difference in the world.

His morality seems to be primarily based upon intellectual principles and a sense of social obligation.  He does have a more accepting side that is very much genuine, but his righteous side is never very far away.  It can actually bother me even more sometimes when I sense him trying to hide his righteous side.  If someone is going to feel judgmental towards me, they might as well just get it out in the open.

What I was thinking about is how people can have such contradictory sides of their personality.  I’m the same way.  I can be extremely compassionate and understanding, but there is another part of me that is severely misanthropic.  Despite or because of my understanding of suffering, I can simply get stuck in my suffering… even selfishly stuck.  My dad, because he isn’t overwhelmed by such an intimate knowledge of suffering, is much more able to actively help others. 

Theoretically, balance is always possible and to that extent desirable.  However, experience has shown me that this ideal of balance is rarely a reality.

I’m not in a morally superior position to judge my father.  I guess what my annoyance comes down to is that he wants to put himself above others as an example of superiority.  He wants to be admired and looked up to.  He has a side of him that feels quite the opposite of superior, but this is the side that he rarely shows.  I know that it bothers him that he feels his sons don’t respect him, but I’d respect him more if he’d let that more vulnerable side show more.  However, maybe that is the same as saying that I’d like him better if he was more like me.

From the perspective of the societal standard of morality, he is a much better man than I am.  He is a respectable professor and church leader.  He has high expectations that he strives hard to live up to.  He gives of himself constantly in that his life revolves around others.  He is one of those people who needs people to need him.  That is what our society values.  He is an admirable representative of our society’s aspirations.  He is the American ideal of ambiton (with its concomitant shadow of the advantages and privilege of being a middle class white male… which my dad would deny).

He is an Extraverted Thinking type which has been the ideal male personality type of our society.  He is a very well developed person in terms of his personality inclinations.  He even has come to sense the more Feeling side of life in his older age, but of course this gets subjugated to his dominant function of Extraverted Thinking.  His moral righteousness may even be an expression of his being in the grip of his inferior function of Introverted Feeling.  Our inferior function becomes stronger as we age which can both be good and bad.

I’m the opposite of him as my dominant function is Introverted Feeling.  My being raised by two Extraverted Thinking types has left a lasting impression on me.  I sense that a significant element of my depression is how much I’m drawn into the grip of my inferior Extraverted Thinking. 

Our weaknesses are simply the other side of our strengths.

The practical purpose of my thinking about this is the consideration of my relationship with my dad… what it could be and what I don’t want it to be.  If he was always as righteous as he was the other day, I very well might gladly refuse to speak to him for the rest of my life.  Fortunately, he rarely behaves in such an overtly righteous manner.  Most often he tries to be kind and friendly.  When he is in a good mood, which is more often than not, he enjoys being humorous and entertaining.

In the past, it seemed I was closer to him than my brothers.  I’ve tended to be forthright in speaking about my life to my parents whereas my brothers tend to keep the personal out of their relationships to them.  Nonetheless, my brothers get along with my dad better maybe because of that formality.  My brothers interact with him through more neutral subjects such as computers and finances.  I’m the only one who will debate with my dad about what he deeply values (we both love to debate), and I seem to be the one he feels the most comfortable with being honest about his opinions (which was what did happen during the recent phone conversation).  Even so, we’re usually both good at coming to a middle ground (which is what didn’t happen during the recent phone conversation).

My famly isn’t all seriousness.  My brothers and I learned our humor from our dad, and so humor is a major aspect of how we all relate.  However, its my oldest brother who has the most similar personality to my dad and also the most simlar of a sense of humor.  They’re both more congenially entertaining in their humor.  My humor, on the other hand, goes between the extremes of inanely silly and cynically dark.  My dad often uses his congenial nature to try to manipulate people… manipulate in a good-intentioned kind of way.  But, good intentions or not, I’m stubbornly resistant (a trait from my mom) to being anyone who tries to change me or my mood.  I’m what I am and that is just the way it is.

Because of all this, my dad is an extemely more likable person than I’d ever hope to be.  I’m not much of a people pleaser whereas my dad is the gregarious type who is the life of the party.  In his adult age, he has gained the confidence and popularity that he feels he lacked as a chld.  He is proud of his accomplishments and the person he has become.  He is very capable in what he does and he is very knowledgable.

I’ve learned a lot from him.  I too have become a knoledgable person in my own way.  And one aspect I’m superior to him is in my obsessive compulsion to see all sides to every situation… which he sees as moral relativism.  His knowledge is highly specialized and focused, but my knowledge is randomly wide-ranging and motivated by undirected curiosity.  I learned my rationality from him, but as an Extraverted Thinking type rationality comes more natural to him as being a well developed attribute of his everyday behavior.  His rationality is usually focused on practical matters of living a responsible life (even his humor has a tinge of social responsibility to it).  My rationality, because its more of a learned attribute and because its ruled by my Introversion, is more detached and neutral.  I don’t try to conform my rationality to any particular moral belief system as he does.

My dad and I live in very different worlds, and yet there is quite a bit that we share.  My base personality might be more of my mom’s contribution, but my dad has had an immense impression on me. 

He is the standard by which I feel judged in my failure to live up to his example, and he is the standard of our society that just doesn’t make sense to me personally.  He has all the proof on his side, the respectability, the “hard-earned” money.  He lives his moral ideals.  When he dies, there will be a long line of people wanting to make grand statements about what an admirable fellow he was. 

I have nothing tangible to show for my life besides who I am as an individual, but to him what matters is what you do and what you accomplish.  Its obvious from his perspective that his opinions are superior because the life he has lived is superior.  The proof is in the pudding. 

I’m sure he’ll want to reconcile, but I’ll always know his true opinions even when he hides them.  He wouldn’t judge me directly, but I represent what he sees as problematic in the world.  He wouldn’t say it that way to my face.  Still, those are the facts.  And that is what erupted the other day in that phone conversation.

I really don’t know how to relate to him.  If we weren’t father and son, there wouldn’t be much to base our relationship upon.  That seems to be the way family is.  The close friendships I seek are with people who aren’t like anyone in my family.  I get along with my family actually quite well, but family is what they are.  At one time, I almost had a friendship-like relationship with one of my brothers, but even that has mostly dissipated with his own family responsibilities and stresses.

My family is there for me in a distant kind of way.  If worst came to worst, they’d help me out.  But my life would have to be horribly bad before my family would intervene.  I’d have to be homeless or suicidal or something.  I mean what could they do?

For all my dad’s accomplishments, any good advice he could give me would most likely be worthless to me.  He cares about me as a father… in the way that being a father is a social obligation… but he doesn’t know me.  And I’m sure that I don’t really know him either.

As I get older, I start questioning who it is that I would turn to in times of need.  I’m starting to feel that I’d more likely turn to a friend than to family.  I have sincere doubts about the support my family can offer.  Then again, I have sincere doubts about the support anyone can offer anyone else.

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about 12 hours later

AB517 said

LMAO … I have no insight … let us be clear on that.
To doubt humans is human. 
Hey Marm.  Good to see ya.  I have been reading your stuff and I am sorry I have no responses. This one caught my eye.
I can not believe this would/could cause the rift Marm.  This sounds exactly like my relationship with my father.  He did not “know” me nor I he.  It is the way for most of us.  I loved my dad and he was the smartest bravest man I knew. 
I know as a father that I talk to my children at times as if they were property and I work on that.  They also do the same to me.  The statements of “kids today are ….” Is as old as humans themselves.   My niece and nephew are in their mid 30’s and have children.  I still have to stop myself from running up to them, picking them up, and kissing them like they are five.  They are people now … just regular ol’ people … with the same flaws I have … but boy I love them.
Some days we are not in the “mood” for them on exactly the same day they are not in the “mood” for us.  You have stated many nice things about him so focus on them and be vigilant of yourself.  I say these things on the bases of a “normal relationship” (what ever that means) between parents and children.
My sister gets hung up on “yeah, but how do you know”.  Nobody knows … ease up on the gas … to stop spinning the tires … pick a direction … and move.  Data collection is a tricky business, not enough leads to horrendous mistakes and taking to long ends up in nothing getting accomplished or so scattered it is meaningless.
Just because you ask advice does not mean you have to use it.  Do not feel bad that you can not turn to your family … that is ok … it is you that wishes you could.

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

about 20 hours later

Marmalade said

I don’t normally think about who might be following blog.  I sorta remember telling you about this site.  I’m glad my blog was interesting enough for you to read even if you had nothing to add.

I can understand why this one caught your eye.  Its more personal than most of my blogs  I considered not posting it as its mostly just me venting.

Yeah, this by itself wasn’t the cause of the rift or the sense of rift.  It was just symbollic of our relationship.  I know its not anything unusual.  Its common among family, and its common in all kinds of relationships.  Its hard to remember people are just people.  I’m almost incapable of thinking of my father as anything other than as my father.  That is just who is to me.  Our roles in life become very clear in our close relationships.

I generally focus on the the ways we get along.  For the most part, we get along just fine.  I am grateful for all that I’ve learned from him.  He is a pretty good father.  I have no major complaints of how I was raised.

The difficulty I have is our roles get in the way.  I don’t really care about him as the role he plays  My interest in him is in the person who he is.  I usually enjoy relating to him even if it isn’t at the same level of a friendship.  I’m not sure if I act like a son, but I feel that he acts like a father.  He is a person who seems to like roles.  I don’t.  To him, its his duty to act as a father and so any discussion between us always has an inequality of power.  We can’t just talk. Often talks with him can feel like negotiations of our relationship.

Whatever… that is just the way it is.

By the way, I just tried to visit the Agnostic forum.  It seems no longer to exist or something.  Was it closed down?  If so, that is too bad.  It was a fairly nice group where discussions were mostly civil.

2 days later

AB517 said

Yeah it is down.  POOF … it was gone.
Do not negotiate, let him be him and you be you.  If he is locked into a role, so be it.  You can understand he is talking as if he is still your caregiver.  This puts you in a position where you understand him.  You do not have to agree with everything thing he says nor do you have to address every point.  To him you’re still his “young” son and, how I know you, I would think he loves you an awful lot.
Maybe he is not a touchy feely guy.  My dad was a WW2 paratrooper, he never changed a diaper.  He missed out, and so did I, but that does not diminish the respect and love for him.  He did the best he knew how.  I tell my kids now ‘Hey this is our first time being parents … we are learning and will make mistakes too”
It is good to talk to you again Ben.  I know you know this stuff already and you will move past it.

Compassion: Fat Babies, Homeless Youth

My response to the post titled Buddhist Compassion & Cheetos at The New Heretics blog

Some think the compassion is the hard part, but the wisdom is the real tricky part.  I would argue that, even though many people belittle compassion, wisdom is impossible without compassion.  In order to know what is genuinely good for another, you have to deeply understand that person and their situation.  Even then, nothing is ever clear or certain.

This is where compassion often fails.  We tend to do what we think will be best which may or may not be true.  Your parents cut you off and it turned out well, but many other parents have done the same thing and it didn’t turn out so well.  Sometimes very bad things happen to people who become homeless.  Maybe your parents understood you well enough that they knew you could pull it together, but then again maybe luck played a large role. 

In hindsight, it of course seems like it was a great decision.  It was a calculated risk that paid off.  Leaving the safety of the known is dangerous, but going off the beaten path can have it’s own benefits as your life demonstrates.

However, none of us absolutely knows the way for there is no single way.  We may know the general direction and have a good map, but it’s easy to get lost in the woods and never find your way out again.

I would say not giving a fat kid a cheetos is an entirely different issue than letting a family member become homeless.  In the former, the child’s health is potentially threatened by giving into his demands.  In the latter, the child’s life is potentially threatened by not offering help.

Healthcare: Right vs Responsibility

Insurance and Social Security…Pet Peeves (blog post by gina from Gaia.com)

Steve said in the comments section:

However, as a Libertarian, I do not see my healthcare as a responsibility of the Federal Government, nor do I consider it a “right”.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this on a philosophical level because it’s a rational perspective.  However, I disagree with it for reasons of compassion which aren’t precisely rational… although I would add that I believe compassion supports rationality when discussing issues specifically pertinent to the human condition.

When I hear statements like this, I immediately wonder about the background of the person making the statement.  I doubt someone who has spent their life in poverty would hold such a belief.  It seems to me a belief of convenience that justifies the person’s position in society.

I’m not picking on Steve for maybe he is just being honest about what he believes.  We all justify our lives with our beliefs.  Even poor people hold beliefs of convenience.  My main complaint is the word “responsibility” in his statement which is a moral judgment which implies poor people are to blame for their own lack of healthcare.  What I’m judging is the tendency in we humans to judge eachother from an assumed position of moral superiority.

I’ve noticed this kind of moral superiority in many people.  It always bugs me.  I know people who have lived righteous lives and who feel justified in their moral superiority, but this is in the context of their being middle to upper class people born into a stable and wealthy society.   What I think many of these people don’t realize is how many advantages they’ve had in life compared to the average person in the world and particularly compared to those on the bottom of society.

And Steve further commented:

But as for me, I do not look toward any other individual or institution to pay my way.  If I get sick and cannot afford my treatments, then all that hope is that I will reach around deep inside myself, find some dignity, and die with it.

This sounds rather convenient.  If he was a poor person born with a disability or who got an illness at a young age, he wouldn’t say something like this.  This is an example of ideology losing contact with human reality.  What is even worse about this statement is that it is one step away from eugenics.  Actually, it is eugenics using a passive methodology.  Just let the poor and needy die of illness and malnutrition.  That way, there is no blood on anyone’s hands.

Could you just imagine all of the sick and dying people crowded around the hospital doors.  No one would let them in because they couldn’t pay and yet they’d have no where else to go.  It would lead to riots and hospitals would become police fortresses and there’d be a black market of stolen hospital drugs.  If the the the chasm between the haves and have nots got too large, walled cities would have to be created and the lower classes would be isolated into ghettoes.

It could end up in some weird kind of Plutocratic Fascism.  Any ideology pushed to an extreme (meaning when the ideologues gain control of political power) ends up with some kind of oppressive political system.  You can start off with Libertarianism, but where you end up may not look so Libertarian.

This is a rather dark vision that I portrayed based on the extreme views of Steve, but it’s far from preposterous.  Many conservatives believe as Steve does.  Conservatives at least used to at least pretend to be compassionate, but that has fallen out of favor.  Since the Republican party has lost much of it’s power, it’s showing more of it’s ruthless nature.  The problem with taking away power from big government is it usually just means instead giving it to big business.  Libertarianism sounds like a good ideal, but sadly small governments seem to be no longer a possibility in the present globalized world.  There will always be some big dog in power, but the best we can do is try to keep it on a short leash.  If you ask me, a big business fascism wouldn’t be a pleasant world to live in unless you were one of the small percentage of wealthy elite.  Then again, Socialism taken to its extremes can also lead to some equally dark ends.  Maybe it’s better to keep all of the big dogs around so that they’ll fight with eachother.  Just tie them to the same leash that way when they try to go in opposite directions they won’t actually get anywhere. 

But that is just me being cynical.  I just get tired of ideologies no matter what they are.  Why is it so difficult to create a socio-political system that actually encourages people to care about and help eachother?  Is our only choice simply to try to curtail people’s selfishness by making laws and hoping that social darwinism will somehow lead to a greater good?