Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Counting the Omer: Compassion

In the typically vague and half-assed way I approach such things, I am engaging in a Jewish ritual I never did before (and actually never even heard of before) -- counting the Omer, which is a way of marking the period between Passover and Shavuout. There's a tradition of linking each week with one of the lower sephirot of the Kabbalah, and so I decided to try to produce a blog post for each week.

This week is Chesed, which means roughly compassion or lovingkindess. That's a subject which comes up here fairly regularly. I see it as an idea that just seems central to a lot of things I care about, from politics to the psychology of mind to Latourian notions of agency.

Here's what I wrote about on Christmas a few years back:
I'm rather trying to appreciate the shared feelings, longings, motivations, needs, whatever, that are common to both religions [Buddhism and Christianity] and perhaps all religion. The belief in a better way of being; the universal truths that bind all humans together; the thread of compassion that links humans and the divine. The longing for a savior. The role of religion as a focus for these otherwise inchoate feelings.

I'm no good at all at this kind of stuff, but what the hell, it's Xmas. So I'm taking a moment to dwell in these feelings before returning to the usual rounds of sectarian hatred. I'm by nature a negative person, an againstist, I'm with Heraclitus that conflict is the father of all things. But I'm tired of it, I want and need to get more peace love and understanding into my personal mix. Hence this slow, reluctant, erratic, but seemingly inevitable slide into religion. Most of my being resists it, truth to tell. But I have to assume that I'm just as human as the rest of the billions of people that exist now and in the past, and religion is just something humans do, as much a part of the game as eating, shitting, making love and dieing.
The political spectrum today seems to split along a line that divides the party of compassion from the party of its opposite, whatever that is -- authority, mercilessness, shrinking the circle of caring rather than expanding it. While I prefer compassion to its enemies I don't think I can wholly identify with either side, because compassion by itself can't manage a world and can't be a foundation for politics and generally is associated with a lack of rigorous thinking that bugs the hell out of me. Compassion must be tempered.

But the modern conservative movement is not about tempering compassion, it's about furiously denying it. Some branches do this through racism and xenophobia, dividing the world into an us and them, so we don't have to care about them. Another branch does it through a radical individualism as preached by the sociopathic prophetess of the satanic inversion of compassion, Ayn Rand.

But I have some compassion even for the compassionless, because I know they aren't monsters despite their monstrous ideologies. I imagine at the root they are driven by essentially the same forces that drive me. What leads one to anti-compassion, to the constriction of caring? Perhaps it's the seemingly limitless needs of the world. If you truly felt compassion for all the suffering in the world, you'd be overwhelmed, and useless. And once you start caring about your neighbors, where will it end? Better not to start. But to not care for others is to not be human. I think that part of the appeal of right-wing ideologies is that they promise to get the follower out from under this impossible dilemma. But it's a false promise, and the increasingly deranged shrieking of right-wing politics is just an effort to drown out the voice of conscience.


scw said...

When Dr. Johnson observed that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel, he had obviously not realized the potential of "compassion."

Political appeals to compassion have mostly been used to justify expansion of the state's powers - powers that are as easily abused as used for honorable purposes, and more likely to be. Washington said that government, like fire, was a dangerous servant and a fearful master. Franklin observed that those who give up liberty in exchange for security will soon find they have neither liberty nor security.

Fear that the powers given to government in the expectation of their compassionate use will be abused is, in my observation, a greater motivation on the part of opponents of larger government than are racism, xenophobia, or mere selfishness.

TGGP said...

I agree in terms of the small circle. I take the Chestertonian line about focusing on the people you know rather than strangers. I don't recognize obligations I haven't explicitly taken on toward other strangers, and so take a dealist approach to them.

TGGP said...

Since you've taken an interest in Lawrence Auster before, here is his quoting of ("secular humanist"!) Irving Babbitt against compassion.

scw said...

TGGP - re: focusing on the people that you know rather than strangers - one of the points is that it's harder to love thy neighbour as thyself than it is to love people halfway around the world. We are intimately acquainted with our neighbour's faults, whereas we are ignorant of the faults of strangers. It is somehow easier to be Mrs. Jellyby than to attend to the needs of those near, but not so dear.

There is a strain of misanthropy in the universal benevolence of the progressive. I was reminded of this the other day as I passed by a pro-life billboard that pictured a happy baby, with the words, "born to love." How true! The love of a child for its mother, and the love of a mother for her child, are just about as essential to our race as the sex drive and the survival instinct. They are profoundly natural and deeply human.

Despite this, to listen to the feminist movement, and the pro-abortion faction, pregnancy is nothing but a miserable, possibly life-threatening experience for women, and babies nothing but a source of expensive inconvenience. Better to be rid of your kid tout-de-suite. Planned Parenthood is ever ready to assist with curette and vacuum.

Yet even as they take such a callous attitude towards the replenishment of their own kind, the same earnest progressive types agonize about the poor malnourished piccaninnies in Haiti, or Gambia, or wherever. Why do they not fund abortion mills in those places, and choose to bring up their own flesh and blood? The Haitian or Gambian is easier. The hip urban progressives never have to get up at night to soothe the crying of an infant half a world away, or to change its soiled diaper. All they have to do is send money, most of it other people's. They want to compliment themselves on their compassion as they live life by proxy.

mtraven said...

The supposed dichotomy between helping those far away and those close at hand seems like a fiction promulgated by conservatives. In my experience they go together.

Reading Bryan Caplan declaim about morality is like having a deaf person write about music. The obligation to help strangers is a deep part of traditional moral codes (Jewish and others) "Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Deuteronomy 10:19). Which doesn't make it definitive and binding for anyone, of course, but I'd rather base my moral code on the Torah than on Ayn Rand or Hayek or whatever someone like Caplan pulls out of his ass.

scw said...

There are any number who seem more interested in helping those far away even as they neglect their kinsmen and neighbors. Rousseau, who dumped his own children at a foundling home, presumably so he could devote more effort to the philosophy of education and the reform of society, is archetypal. There is a lot of Rousseau in the modern American left.

As for "having a deaf person write about music," your choice of similes is ill-informed. Ludwig van Beethoven was deaf, and he not only wrote about music, but composed it. Perhaps you have heard of him.