WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE! David Atkins won’t talk to those people!


PART 3—EMPATHY FOR SOME: Some scribes have gone to Zuccotti Park because that’s Where the Wild Things Are.

“Those people”—those in the other tribe—have been laughed at for their appearance. They aren’t as schooled in economics as some journalists may be; some have even been spotted in beanies. They claim to be against corporations—but they use products developed by corporations! Why, one of them went to a bank machine right after spouting off! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/11/11.)

In these ways, one tribe conspires to make beasts of the other. It has been this way all through the annals of human history, of course.

Some pseudo-liberals did much the same thing starting in April 2009. Rachel Maddow waged an unusually repulsive campaign as the first tea party events were occurring. For more than a week, she aimed nightly dick jokes at “those people,” many of whom didn’t seem to be former Rhodes Scholars from Stanford—while pretending to be embarrassed by her own conduct, of course.

In that last bit of pretense, her rancid contempt for The Other was matched by her own fake phony conduct.

In the past week or so, the other tribe has been returning these volleys. Sorkin and Brooks and other strivers have been mocking the Occupy Wall Street folk, just as Maddow mocked those tea party beasts. In the face of their derision, we were pleased—at first—when we read last Saturday’s post by David Atkins at Hullabaloo.

“Empathy and the 99 percent,” Atkins’ headline said.

Atkins asked us to feel for those who are suffering in the current economic disaster. He directed readers to this web site, We Are the 99 Percent. “The site is filled with photos of real Americans and their brief stories,” Atkins wrote. This was the first story he cited:
WE ARE THE 99 PERCENT: My name is Allison, I’m a 13 year old 8th grader. I only get a few hours of sleep at night, but I don’t tell my parents because they don’t need to know that I need sleeping pills. I’ve been showing symptoms of Schizophrenia but we can’t afford for me to go see a doctor about it. My parents get really scared when they have to pay the mortgage because it really cuts down on our money. I’ve stopped eating a lot so there’s more food for everyone else.

My parents don’t know that I know we’re the 99%.
However one might want to explain it, stories like this now litter the landscape. Atkins quoted two other stories, then described his own situation. We’ll edit his story down a bit, though you may want to read his full account of the ways in which he himself has been fortunate:
ATKINS (10/8/11): Reading [these stories] is a constant reminder of how perilous is the line between good fortune and the threat of homelessness. I personally am one of the very lucky ones. At 30 years old, I make a modest five-figure income (well below what is necessary to live simply for a family of four in my area.) I run a small business which has managed to remain moderately successful for over six years even as many of my friends and acquaintances in my profession have abandoned the field. I have some decent savings and no debt. I went to a good university on full-ride academic scholarship and thus had no need to take on student loans. I was lucky enough to realize that the housing market was wildly overinflated, and chose not to purchase property even though my parents and many of my friends did; I have a month-to-month lease on a nice apartment. I have decent health insurance through the individual market, and have only had a six-month gap in my life without health insurance.

Yes, I have worked hard, and yes, I have been frugal and had good predictive judgment. In theory, I could easily say that I earned my good fortune and tell these people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take their hands off my tax dollars. In theory.

But doing that would make me a delusional, self-absorbed narcissistic asshole. Because the reality is that as hard as I've worked, I've also been incredibly lucky...

But I've also been blessed with remarkable good fortune—fortune that I understand could run out at any time.

No, I'm not in the top 1 percent of incomes. I'm not even in the top 10 percent. But I'm incredibly fortunate nonetheless. I realize that, and I intend to do my damnedest to help those who have been less fortunate than I.
We thought that made good sense, although we’d advise this fiery young man to clean up his fiery language! But just like that, Atkins began to savage a very bad person—someone who almost surely hails from the 99 percent! Unfortunately, this person also comes from the other political tribe; rather plainly, she tends to vote Republican. In a post devoted to empathy, note the way Atkins started his discussion of this beast:
ATKINS (continuing directly): I can't even imagine what it must be like to live in the moral vacuum inhabited by people like this…
You’ll have to admit that’s a little bit funny. His headline announced the need for empathy. But halfway through the post, Atkins announced that he “can’t even imagine what it must be like” to see the world in a way which differs from his point of view!

As he continued, Atkins quoted an unnamed person expressing a negative view about the way the student loan program functions. After posting several paragraphs, he thundered about the person who had written the passage in question.

“There are few things more morally repulsive than people who started on third base, enjoyed the benefits that government and society provided them, and then think they hit a triple while declaring that human rights such as healthcare and education should only be available to those who can directly afford to pay for them,” Atkins roared. “Few things are more disgusting and shameful than..."

You can read the rest for yourself. David Atkins, 30 years old, had gone Where the Wild Things Are.

Yes, we’ll admit it—we chuckled a bit at Atkins’ argument. Come on, crackers! It’s funny when someone stresses his empathy, then quickly says he “can’t imagine” the way other people think. Just that fast, Atkins’ empathy had disappeared under the bus. There was no way to understand the views of those savage strange people!

Maybe we’re especially sharp, but we were able to imagine the way the Wild Thing in question thinks. We clicked Atkins’ link, and read the full post by the woman blogger in question. (Atkins had posted a passage she herself had quoted from somebody else.) We were able to imagine this woman’s view because we read her full account of the way students loans sometimes work.

We don’t know how representative her experience is. But in all honesty, it wasn’t hard to “imagine” how she formed her view of this matter.

We chuckled a bit at Atkins’ fire, in part because we’ve seen this before. It’s amazing how often we liberals adopt this somewhat comical approach—how often we boast that we just can’t imagine how those in the other tribe think. It doesn’t seem to occur to us that this may reflect a bit poorly on us—on our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes.

Can we talk? You can understand how a person thinks without sharing her ultimate judgment—unless you lack a certain je ne sais quoi. (Atticus Finch described it to Scout as the ability to walk around in someone else’s shoes.)

Before he finished, Atkins was raging, foolishly in our view. Atkins is young; he often reminds us of headstrong Diomedes. In our opinion, this is a foolish view—and it flies in the face of Occupy Wall Street’s highly potent new math:
ATKINS: Pearl clutchers and "bipartisan" hand wringers insist that the left and right in this country must come to some meeting of the minds. An agreement on rational, sensible policy on which we can all come to consensus.

But the truth is that there is no coming to terms with those who live in an ideological bubble that prevents from feeling basic empathy or shame. There is a real battle of ideas being waged in this country, and only one side is going to come out victorious.

It will either be those who understand what it's like to be part of the 99 percent and realize that the system is broken. Or it will be those who believe that all of these people deserve to suffer in squalor. There can and will be no middle ground.
Atkins can’t imagine how “those people” think. And he’ll never come to terms with those who can’t feel basic empathy!

Atkins was begging and pleading here: Don’t talk to “those people!” But then, Digby has been advancing the same message at Hullabaloo this week. It’s a famous, familiar old message—a message which reaches into prehistory.

We aren’t the 99 percent, it says. Tribesmen, please! Don’t even think things like that!

Tomorrow: The timeless allure of The Hate


  1. It's typical of Bob Somerby's integrity that he criticizes contempt for The Other whether perpetrated by someone on the left or on the right.

  2. Mr. Atkins is less than honest about his "humble" beginnings.

    He grew up right outside Beverly Hills and his business is a spin-off from his family's large market research firm.

  3. Anonymous, so far, what you've typed is insinuation, no more.

    Thanks, Bob. You're a treasure.

  4. David talks about walking 3 blocks from his parent's house to the family business on his 9/11 post this year.


  5. I'm not sure whom Atkins is referring to by "those who live...." The Mitch McConnell's and Jamie Dimon's? Because, sadly, he may be right about people like them. If he's talking about others, "regular folks" who have misguidedly bought into the policies of a McConnell or Dimon but who don't share their basic lack of empathy or shame, then, obviously, that's a huge problem. I'm not sure what Atkins meant, though.

    I was talking the other day to a woman, someone who is struggling to become part of the solid working class, who is upset because both her children have been skipping school a lot. In the case of one, she's feeling quite desperate. (She recognizes how important it is for her children to graduate from high school, something she didn't do.) She's upset with the school because they've laid off many of their counsellors, one of whom had been really helping the particularly troubled child. "And we pay taxes," she said with disgust. Her tone and a few other comments she offered made me suspect I was hearing refracted Republican talking points about taxes combined with the rhetoric of "blame the schools" that so many public figures have promoted. I pointed out how strapped for funds schools are and that her children's school may have had no choice but to lay off those counsellors. I suggested that the schools simply need more funds, which wealthier people could afford to provide by paying higher taxes. This was like a new idea to her -- though not one she seemed willing to entertain for long. I think she's just too accustomed to feeling downtrodden and isolated, and she lacks the self-confidence to challenge structures of power. And she doesn't participate in larger communities (a union, for instance, or even a church) that might help her overcome her sense of isolation and increase her self-confidence. (She has family, and they are her rock -- but they're as limited in education and political imagination as she is.)
    If David Atkins is talking about people like her (and again, I'm not at all sure he was), he's obviously and totally misguided.
    I'm still stuck, though, on how to reach the increasingly isolated people in this country, whether they're downright poor or struggling working class. Even the solidly middle and upper middle classes (well under that 1% threshold) tend to think atomistically, about themselves in isolation from one another. That's where Obama has squandered something huge.

  6. Of course, if Wall Street hadn't helped tank our economy, many of those student loan debtors would have jobs and be paying off their loans. And, since when are a right-wing blogger's anecdotes good enough for Mr. Somerby?

  7. I am going to disagree with you somewhat, Bob. In her own example, the woman blogger (McKinley) mentions her kids' friends who used their student loans for all sorts of non-educational purposes. Well, I don't have much of a quarrel with her personal observations. I may disagree with her conclusions or suggest different policy remedies, but I have no basis to question her observations. However, she goes on to quote at length someone who heaps derision and contempt on a whole segment of population; the other tribe, as you might put it. In that instance, she is a fair game. Is it wrong to be intolerant of intolerance and hate on the haters? Should we have empathy for such derisive attitude? The quote is about 1/4, or more, of McKinley's entire post.

  8. 'Is it wrong to be intolerant of intolerance and hate on the haters?'

    Jesus H. Christ.

    Once upon a time, this guy named Martin Luther King Jr. spoke all about such things...then again, he was a Christian. (Infer snark or not)

  9. 'Once upon a time, this guy named Martin Luther King Jr. spoke all about such things...then again, he was a Christian. (Infer snark or not)'

    I was thinking about the rest of us, heathens. (do take it at face value)

  10. David here. I grew up fairly poor in Riverside. The "family business" was founded when I was sixteen, and isn't large. It's a single space in an office.

    The funny trolls at Crawdad Hole really have no idea who I am or what my upbringing was like. No clue at all.

    Meanwhile Bob, being unable to empathasize with those who lack empathy isn't a failure of empathy in itself. That's a logical circle, and a particularly stupid bit of wankery. I don't respect the Tea Party ethic, and I don't have to. It's not worth respecting.

    I could similarly quote Bill Maher: "I refuse to be so tolerant that I tolerate intolerance."

  11. How very tolerant of you, David!

    So as a 99%er, a fortunate 99%er who got lucky in many ways, you feel safe enough within your tribe of the like-minded enlightened ones that you can safely write off and ignore the ignorant folk and wild things in the other tribe?

    Have you so mastered the art of empathy that you can turn it on and off at will? Have you considered what effect your fun ten minute hate rants might have on those less skilled in the art of cognitive dissonance than you?

    Bob in his own tortuous way makes a rather important point that skimmers and surface readers may miss. A metallic substance that's shiny and irony.

    What qualities of teh shrill socialist left's blinders are superior to those of the reactionary teabagging right? (Assuming of course that there can only be two polar opposites along a very short straight line where opinions can exist).

    Suppose that long-term exposure to lovingly crafted propaganda manufactured by the best the public relations industry has to offer was intended to divide and conquer the bewildered herd of the 99% and to keep them perpetually at each other's throats, each oblivious to the other's humanity, unwilling and unable to contemplate the other tribe's very real or very imagined grievances.... Aren't you quite possibly being a willful participant in the deceit?

    No, you're clearly too smart and possess far too much empathy to fall for that. I must be nuts to even have allowed such a thought to have considered crossing my mind.

    Nice work, Bob. You had me howling.

  12. Some liberal writers tend to be "outrage merchants" because it worked so well for the right. It's also what worked so well for some of the left in the media.

  13. Also because they've gotten tired and frustrated at the neverending avalanche of dumb. I feel like that quite often myself.

  14. Atkins can't imagine what is like to be Kathleen McKinley, a right-wing mouthpiece at the Houston Chronicle. McKinley quotes Jonah Goldberg--who brought us "Liberal Fascism."

    This is not at all the same as being unable to imagine a regular member of the 99% who has bought into the facile and fallacious arguments that people like McKinley and Goldberg spew regularly.

    Can't agree with you here, Bob.

  15. I can speak for David and his writing style.

    He censors his commentors.

    That says it all.

    Party message or no posty on my bloggy.

    No better or worse than the right wing astorturfers pushing the red koolaid while bush was president. He just happens to sell blue koolaid.