DISPATCHES
No Empathy in the Snakepit
by Rob Schultheis
Oct 14, 2010 | 1136 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Whoever thought they would live in a time when “empathy” became a politically charged word, condemned by “conservatives” as somehow soft, subversive, smacking of surrender?

It’s mind-boggling, and incredibly depressing, too, to see the mindless insanity of today’s rightwing rhetoric; and I say this as someone who voted for Ronald Reagan for President.

I supported Reagan because of his strong foreign policy; at the time I was covering Afghanistan, and, like those who went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, my vision was myopically limited to the life-and-death struggle I was immersed in.

I ignored Reagan’s simple-minded belief that all government was bad and the free market immaculately perfect, shrugging it off as goofy by-product of SoCal eccentricity.

Little did I know; mea culpa. The truth is, we have reached a point in history where an ideal generated a republic and a republic an empire, and that empire is beginning to contract; and as it does, the original ideal of individual freedom, tempered by an implicit social contract of empathy and common interest, is completely forsaken.

We are supposed to be a nation of men, not laws, but that only works when the concept of citizenship, that we are all somehow bound together in a common enterprise, is so strong that it’s taken for granted. Throughout our history the power of that ideal has waxed and waned, but it has never been absent; and at times like the Second World War, when we believed we were fighting to free all people everywhere (except, for the moment, our own citizens of African descent), you could see that ideal animating our entire national consciousness.

Not only were we Americans brothers and sisters shoulder to shoulder in the same fight; everybody allied with us was regarded almost as a fellow citizen: Empathy extended all around the world. Hollywood films celebrated the courage of Russian partisans and Chinese peasant guerrillas the same way they did Yanks, our British cousins, and the other Europeans fighting against fascism.

Today, it’s hard to even imagine that kind of comradeship and commonality, even in regard to the war we are currently waging against Islamic extremists. The media doesn’t even bother to portray our Afghan allies as human beings with ideas, hopes and ambitions of their own, and our American soldiers aren’t treated much better; it’s as if they don’t really exist.

When a local columnist wrote of attending an Arizona Cardinals home game against the New York Giants, and mentioned how Giants fans shouted obscenities and insults about Pat Tillman, the former Cardinal player who enlisted in the Rangers and was killed in Afghanistan, I tried to imagine the same thing happening during World War II, or even Vietnam, and failed. At the same time, sadly, I wasn’t surprised. Empathy is passé these days, and the Free Market rules all, without mercy or regret: society as a snakepit.

No wonder America is plummeting on the list of nations on the Quality of Life scale: Government attempts to improve education, crime, pollution, medical care, even an efficient infrastructure, are painted as somehow “leftwing” or even “Marxist-Leninist.” And the public seems to buy it: When citizens in Seattle put forth a proposal to put a 5 cent surcharge on every cup of coffee sold in the city to fund better public education, Starbucks (unbelievably) spent tens of thousands of dollars campaigning against it, and succeeded in getting it defeated at the polls. Yes, unbelievable. But no more surreal than the specter of the so-called “Tea Party Movement,” a phony populist movement funded by big business and scripted by old Republican Party hacks which espouses “smaller government,” “lower taxes” and “a balanced budget.” Funny thing; we had a balanced budget – even a surplus – when that evil old tax-and-spend Clinton was in office. And under shrewd fiscal conservative George Bush, we lost it all.

The tea party is a scam invented by the super rich to get even richer, but instead of revealing it for what it is, the news media portrays it as a legitimate grassroots phenomenon that grew naturally out of spontaneous rage at “Big Government” and a bad economy. In the media’s eyes, if something excites enough Americans, it is automatically “authentic,” and therefore somehow “good.” They would have been great in Germany during the 1930s when Hitler was taking power: “Look at those crowds, how the people are cheering him! Ya gotta love it, folks!” So we have the very real possibility that government spending on medical care, schools, roads, parks et al will be cut back even further; pretty soon we’ll be battling Moldavia for 30th place on the Quality of Life index.

Welcome to the snakepit, boys and girls, and leave your empathy at the door.

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