Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No Compassion

The latest TSA regulations seem to have converted large swathes of the normally politically supine into rabid civil libertarians, ready to lay down their life for the principle that their junk should not be touched. Well, great, I sympathize with them, they are right. But where was this outrage when the government was fomenting illegal wars, ordering the assassination of US citizens, putting obviously innocent people to death, torturing teenagers, pouring a trillion dollars a year into the security apparat...well, I could go on. Apparently none of this matters because it didn't happen to normal, white, middle-class people. But mess with air passengers -- people with credit cards and Samsonite bags -- well, that's a different story. Aux barricades!

To me, this indicates that our political culture suffers from a lack of imagination and empathy. The underlying psychology of conservatism involves the deliberate denial of these factors, while liberalism promotes them. That does not mean, of course, that conservatives are sociopaths who lack empathy -- they are for the most part just normal human beings, and perfectly capable of putting themselves into another person's point of view -- and also capable of not doing so. To first approximation, everyone can empathize with their neighbors or co-workers and people who they see every day. It's a bit more of a stretch to take the point of view of people in the next town, or those from a different ethnic group or class, or the gay, or the homeless, or those who dwell in radically different social worlds (Afghan tribesmen, say). The liberal humanist imagination at least strives to see the world through the eyes of others; whereas the conservative mind seems to thrive on shutting out foreignness, or reducing it to something known. Here's an interesting piece which shows several examples of conservative politicians who depart from their usual hard line of no handouts when they actually have personal contact with someone from the needy classes -- ie, Nancy Reagan suddenly is all for Alzheimer's research. So they can have empathy for people like them or people they personally know. That works great for peasants, but doesn't really work in a modern society.

Politics involves the construction of fictional identities that promote collective identities and thus a degree of cross-empathy with ones fellow citizens. I think this is most clearly visible in the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, when the meanings of "Frenchman" and "Italian" were quite deliberately cobbled together, but I think it's a universal principle. The underlying conflict of our resent-day politics is over the American identity -- whether to be an American is to be an urban, cosmopolitan, inclusive, multicultural person, or a member of a white christian tribe. Naturally I favor the former, but I feel like I need to acknowledge that there is at least something vaguely legitimate about the emotions that power the latter group. Being cosmopolitan is hard, it takes work. Empathizing with others is also hard -- and it's not even clear what it should mean. Nobody has the time and resources to empathize with everyone, but the modern world puts us in contact with essentially everyone. The American identity that grew up over the last few centuries (and evolved through many different versions during that history) is being eaten away by globalization and many other factors. What will replace it? Nobody is sure. The elites will do OK, they always do, but those not in the elite don't know what they are going to be in the future, and that produces existential fear, which I think is what is really driving the tea partiers.

On the other side, Obama positioned himself as the One to lead the country into the imagined future of the cosmopolitans -- which was a great marketing campaign, it was what we needed and he had the unique personal story to embody it. But now buyer's remorse has set in, and we realize that the perfectly designed package just had a very normal mainstream centrist politician inside the wrapping.

Sorry, this post was supposed to be about airport screening, wasn't it? Anyway -- I think we have a real failure of social imagination in this country, and in addition to all the factors mentioned above we have a glut of media, and as a result a lack of compelling unifying stories. The national mind pays more attention to balloon boys and Bristol Palin than it does to our foreign wars or departments of torture. And why not? Those are compelling, understandable narratives, as is the overreach of the TSA and the brave citizens resisting it. It doesn't take much work to understand it and take a side. That could be me getting my groin felt up -- but it's hard to see me getting my wedding party hit by predator drones. That only happens to some other sort of person, so it doesn't really happen at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not quite sure where all this groping and body-scanning is going on - I flew to Portland, Oregon, over Thanksgiving, and experienced none of this on either leg of the trip. Perhaps it is being reconsidered?

To all of your arguments, there is, nonetheless, the obvious response that the terrorist activity that has led to all of this security obsession was not committed by "normal, white, middle-class people." So why SHOULD normal, white, middle-class people be inconvenienced? Why not just inconvenience those who are most likely to commit dastardly acts?

Needless to say, the elites that put these measures in place don't fly commercial - or at least didn't (thank God for the small favor that Nancy Pelosi is losing her government plane!). In typical fashion, they assuage their egalitarian consciences by making everyone but themselves equally miserable. It's entirely analogous to the same liberal politicians' predictable opposition to education vouchers or anything else that might offend the teachers' unions, even as they send their own children to private schools.

I was unaware of the attempt of a 19-year old Somali immigrant to bomb the Portland Christmas-tree lighting ceremony until I saw the Sunday "Oregonian" at an airport newsstand. On reading the story my immediate reaction was, why was such a person let into the country to begin with? What did "the liberal humanist imagination" expect?

The Diver of Chappaquiddick haunts us from beyond the grave with such consequences of his Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.