The War On Empathy

A War on Empathy

I was listening to Terri Gross’s “Fresh Air” the other day as she was interviewing the British singer/songwriter/author/rock historian Billy Bragg and he said two things that really hit me as tremendously insightful.

First, he said the most dangerous thing happening in our societies (the UK and USA, but I assume several other western democracies) was not the partisan politics or bad judgement or even terrible policies, but, rather, our own individual cynicism that nothing can be done, nothing will change, that politicians are all the same, and that we, as individuals have no impact.  Just want to point that out, because I believe it is absolutely spot on.

The second thing he said, in criticizing the Conservative Party under Theresa May in the UK, and the Republican Party under the putative Republican Donald Trump in the US is that those parties and those leaders were waging a war on empathy.  And I thought, that’s exactly what’s happening.

That’s exactly what’s going on.  With malice aforethought and doublespeak explanations, they are sucking the optimism out of all of us, creating huge doubts about our traditions and institutions, and eroding any faith in leadership.  Let’s review the specifics:

Immigrants are Criminals:  We are being asked to believe that the thousands of people seeking entry into the US are criminals, rapists, and drug dealers rather than the same as the last 240 years’ worth of immigrants who came to this country for religious freedom and economic opportunity.  Many, perhaps most us have a name for those immigrants.  We call them grandparents or great-grandparents.  The Trump administration calls them a drain on our society.

Deporting Husbands, Wives, and Children:  ICE officers are being asked to separate families for obscure reasons and for petty offenses (like parking violations).  The party of “family values” is supportive of these measures.  We are tearing families apart.

Calling Tax Breaks a Healthcare Bill:  At a minimum, the House and Senate attempts at revamping or repealing the Affordable Care Act would result in millions (estimates range from 20-to-30 million according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office) losing healthcare coverage.  In return for $800 billion in tax-breaks for the wealthiest Americans, the current Congressional plans cut healthcare for the poorest Americans.

More Military Spending/Less for Everything Else:  Trump’s proposed budget is about $4.1 Trillion (that’s $4,100,000,000,000) about the same as Obama’s last budget.  But Trump proposes $53 billion more in Defense spending (+10%) and Homeland security $3 billion more (+13.5%).  Note that before this proposed increase (according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies), the USA defense spending (at around $600 billion a year) accounted for more than 36% of all the military spending in the world and as much as the next 10 countries combined, 4X the #2 spender (China) and, per capita (if my math is right), we spend almost $2,000 while China spends a bit more than $100 per person.

What does this budget cut to pay for those DOD and DHS increases?  They cut the Environmental Protection Agency by 31%, the State Department and Foreign Aid by 29%, Education by 14%, and the Department of the Interior by 11%. This doesn’t even begin to match the catastrophic declines proposed for Medicare, Health and Human Services, and Housing.

In other words, to pay to ensure we account for even a bigger share of world military spending, we sacrifice our air and water quality, our aid to the poor, improving our housing availability and fairness, aid to other countries in need and in crisis, and, of course, all efforts at combating climate change.  Our people will be worse off, and our planet in worse shape.

Pro-Life is a Misnomer – they are really just Anti-Abortion:  I am not taking a stand here on abortion (though, as below, a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal with some restrictions).  I will also give credit where credit is due and say that the “pro-life” movement has done a great job with their marketing slogan.  It is, however, a provable lie.  They are not pro-life.  If they were pro-life, they would also be pro-Headstart and pro-free school lunch, and pro-Meals on Wheels, and pro-Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and pro-Family Leave, and pro-Medicare, and pro-Drug Rehabilitation programs and pro-Diversion programs that keep mothers with children instead of sending moms to jail and pro-childhood reading programs and pro-breastfeeding and, and, and….  They would be all of those “pros” and many more in addition to being anti-abortion if they were truly “pro-life”.

But most are not, and the anti-abortion Republican party is decidedly not “pro” for all those things that help children.  It would appear that many “pro-lifers” are really just “pro-birth” and don’t really care much for those children beyond that.

Defunding Planned Parenthood:  The vast majority of Planned Parenthood’s budget and programming is aimed at improving health outcomes for people in need.  Preventing sexually transmitted disease (45% of their budget), Contraception services (30%), providing services for women’s health (14%), Cancer Screening (7%) and yes, abortions (3%).  It should be noted that there is already a federal law preventing Federal funds to be used for abortions, so that money is raised through fees and private sources.  In order, however, to punish Planned Parenthood for providing abortion services (something a majority of Americans support), this Congress wants to defund ALL the healthcare services provided to people in need.  And that is a lot of people.

The list goes on.  Betsy DeVos at Education wants to de-emphasize the rules regarding sexual assault and Ben Carson at Housing wants to make the requirements for low-income people to get assistance harder.  The folks at the Interior Department want to allow drilling on park lands.  The Commerce Department is against raising the minimum wage and our Attorney General believes that marijuana use (now legal in some form in 26 states and the District of Columbia) should be recriminalized and the sentences made more severe.

Billy Bragg had it right.  This Administration and this Congress are waging a war on empathy.  And they are winning.

Now, some readers may complain that I am only picking on the Republicans and to some degree they are right.  My excuse is this:  the Republicans now control the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House.  They have a 5-4 majority in the Supreme Court.  The Republicans control 33 of 50 states as Governor.  In short, they are the party in charge.  The lead guy gets all the arrows.  I’ll get to the Democrats later.

3 thoughts on “The War On Empathy

  1. Dan, your columns are for the most part well thought out and stated. I did want to offer you some insight about your first discussion point above regarding Immigrants are Criminals. Who we call grandparents followed a process seeking legal immigration. Not all made it to these shores. Once here, they learned the language for the most part and insured their children did. Further they attempted to assimilate. It is not a question of illegal immigration as much as it is the concept of “the melting pot” has disappeared. There is no more assimilation.

    A 2012 Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project report showed 95% of Hispanic adults—including those born in the U.S.—said it is important that future generations of Hispanic speak Spanish. And today’s young Hispanics are more likely than their parents to say they hear messages about the importance of speaking Spanish.

    Data obtained from the US Census Office suggests that the US will have an estimated 138 million Spanish speakers by 2050 — which would make it the biggest Spanish-speaking nation on Earth.

    If you agree that language and culture are intertwined then we will shortly be coming to the point that ESL (English as a second language) will be replaced by SFL (Spanish as a first language). If you do not believe that having two languages in this country has a cost you are mistaken. By permitting individuals to NOT learn to speak English dooms them to lesser opportunity and ensures an economic drain for the rest of us. Mas Ron par favor.

    1. I think we have two different issues here. I believe we can concur that – regardless of what language spoken – immigrants are not criminals and are not to be feared. Then we get to the issue of how immigrants become part of American society. On this, I cannot but agree that learning English and participating in the larger society is critical. However, my great-grandparents, immigrants all, never spoke English. Their children, however, were all bi- or tri-lingual. Nothing wrong with maintaining your heritage. However, isolating yourself – by language and culture – from the larger society is, in my opinion, unhealthy.

  2. Another well written essay…I look forward to your assessment of how the other party managed a similar opportunity and its impacts on society. I don’t know what Billy Bragg may have labeled this period (Obama/Cameron administrations) but I look forward to hearing yours.

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