One young occupier in New York’s Zuccotti Square held aloft a simple sign that read: “I Demand Empathy.” Seeing it immediately brought to mind a recent attempt to denigrate the very thing the young man was asking for.
“Nobody is against empathy,” wrote the New York Times columnist David Brooks September 20. “Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut,” wrote the conservative scribe, who has been called “The Bard of the 1 percent.”
“It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.”
Yada, yada, yada.
Brooks writes a lot about original sin or “the weaknesses in our nature.” His aim seems always to be to accentuate our sectarian differences and devalue any notion of social solidarity.
“Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost,” wrote Brooks. “You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.” Brooks should speak for himself (which of course he’s doing). Lots of people do walk over or lean out the driver’s side window and hand the person a buck. I see it all the time. Of course, that’s in my neighborhood, not Brooks’ suburban Bethesda.
And, a lot of people keep their wallets shut because they think institutional giving is better and when they get home, write out another check to the local food bank. Or maybe they are convinced that the way to respond to poverty is through social action and they contribute to the political campaign of someone who proposes to take some action to alleviate it.
Or, they may just decide to sit-in on Wall Street. Empathy can prompt any number of responses.
That we may sometimes suppress emphatic pangs when our personal comfort or security is involved, there is no doubt. However, as Jason Marsh wrote on the Greater Good blog, Brooks is “misguided, misinformed, or being needlessly provocative to discount or disparage empathy altogether.”
On October 10, Brooks decided to take on the occupiers in Zuccotti Square, whom he derided as “small thinkers” and “pierced anarchists.” If ever there was a case of empathy-less-ness, or unconcern for the fate of those amongst us being slammed by the current economic crisis, this was it. Check this out. “The U.S. economy is probably going to stink for a few more years. It is beset by short-term problems (low consumer demand, uncertain housing prices, too much debt) and long-term problems (wage stagnation, rising health care costs, eroding human capital).”
“Realistically, not much is going to be done to address the short-term problems, but we can at least use this winter of recuperation to address the country’s underlying structural ones. Do tax reform, fiscal reform, education reform and political reform so that when the economy finally does recover the prosperity is deep, broad and strong.” The problem, he goes on, is that we are wasting this winter (it come early in Maryland) concentrating on “been a series of trivial sideshows” instead of keeping our minds “focused on the big things.”
And, what are the big things? A “group that divides the world between the pure 99 percent and the evil 1 percent will have nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization. They will have nothing to say about the way Americans have over consumed and over borrowed. These are problems that implicate a much broader swath of society than the top 1 percent.” In other words, we’re all to blame. “Let’s occupy ourselves,” he writes.
“The policy proposals that have been floating around the Occupy Wall Street movement – a financial transfer tax, forgiveness for student loans – are marginal,” wrote Brooks. “The thing about the current moment is that the moderates in suits are much more radical than the pierced anarchists camping out on Wall Street or the Tea Party-types.” Here he’s talking about the people who would spend the rest of the year undermining public education and slashing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“In other words, Brooks wants all those people who are unemployed and losing their homes to just suck it up” wrote Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research October 11 in his “Beat the Press” column. “Nothing is going to be done to help you: get over it.”
“And why is nothing going to be done to help the 26 million people who are unemployed, underemployed or have given up looking for work altogether? The reason is that people like David Brooks and rest of the 1 Percent don’t give a damn about you.”
The fact is we are living in what the Times’ editors called “a deeply unequal society.” The portion of income garnered by those in the top 1 percent of households is higher than at any point since before the Depression of the 1930s and twice what it was three decades ago. The paper recently reported: “From June 2007 to June of this year… median annual household income declined by 7.8 percent for non-Hispanic whites, to $56,320, and by 6.8 percent for Hispanics, to $39,901. For blacks, household income declined 9.2 percent, to $31,784.”
Last Friday, Brooks wrote: “Tax policy isn’t just about how to raise revenue anymore. Liberals see it as a way to punish the greedy and redress the iniquities of capitalism.” That’s just nonsense (not that said redressing wouldn’t be a grand idea). The problem facing the country right now, and the one that has brought so many people into the streets, is that millions people can’t find work, millions more are facing home foreclosures, and many are burdened by onerous student loan debt. The only realistic way to alleviate the situation is for the government to stimulate the economy, provide meaningful programs to increase employment, and debt relief. That will require revenue. “Conservatives” like Brooks can pretend otherwise but that’s what the debate over tax policy is really all about.
“If the federal government increased spending on infrastructure, gave teens jobs cleaning up their neighborhoods, gave state and local governments the funds to keep teachers and firefighters employed and encouraged employers to shorten work hours rather than lay off workers, we could quickly get the economy back to full employment,” wrote Baker. “Economists have known this story for more than 70 years, but somehow creating jobs doesn’t rank as high on the priority list in Washington as cutting Social Security and Medicare.
“In short we have an economic system that, even when it is working, has been rigged to redistribute income to rich. And we have a political system that at a time of immense economic distress is more focused on undercutting the means of support for working families than fixing the economy. It is hard to understand why everyone is not occupying Wall Street.”
However, as most perceptive people have noticed the occupiers of town and city squares aren’t coming up with lists of demands in the traditional sense and are raising broader and more fundamental issues. Greed is rampant, poverty and economic inequality are growing relentlessly in our country and our political system is ever increasingly corrupted by money. The system is in trouble.
Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote last week in the Washington Post, “The movement doesn’t need a policy or legislative agenda to send its message. The thrust of what it seeks – fueled both by anger and deep principles – has moral clarity. It wants corporate money out of politics. It wants the widening gap of income inequality to be narrowed substantially. And it wants meaningful solutions to the jobless crisis. In short, it wants a system that works for the 99 percent. Already Occupy Wall Street has sparked a conversation about reforms far more substantial than the stunted debate in Washington. Its energy will supercharge the arduous work other organizations have been doing for years, amplifying their actions as well as their agendas.”
Last week I was fortunate to take part in a very exciting and encouraging meeting of senior and disability activists and their supporters who enthusiastically identified with the occupations at Wall Street and around the country. There, one young man, outlining a proposal to increase the taxes of the very wealthy drew spirited applause when he said our motto should be: “We all do better when we all are doing better.”
The Black Commentator
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