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.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:
My parents don’t know that I know we’re the 99%.
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.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:
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.
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.Atkins can’t imagine how “those people” think. And he’ll never come to terms with those who can’t feel basic empathy!
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 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