The Eclipse of Empathy

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Before you write, check your empathy. Even if you’re writing primarily to express yourself, you are also writing to inform other people, to persuade other people, to impress other people in the way you want to impress them. Empathy lets you do that. Empathy is the art of figuring out how your readers will respond to your words.

Like any other art, empathy has its tools and techniques. One of them, believe it or not, is a knowledge of standard grammar, diction, and syntax, because that’s what your readers use to understand what you mean.

Here’s a passage from an article in the March issue of The New Criterion — a good journal, but the copy editing is off and on. Adrian Goldsworthy is discussing the politics of the Roman empire: “Aristocrats remained nostalgic for the centuries when they had real power and political independence without ever really doing anything to revive the system.” Never mind what the difference might be between “doing anything” and “really doing anything”; think about when the aristocrats didn’t do it. Did they fail to revive the system while they had some real power (there’s that real again), or did they wait to fail to revive it until, to quote The Wizard of Oz, it was not only merely dead, but really, most sincerely dead? I vote for the second alternative, but why should I have to vote? Why couldn’t the author have foreseen my plight and worded his thought in this way: “Aristocrats remained nostalgic for the centuries when they had real power and political independence; nevertheless, they did nothing to regain them”?

Trudeau has never shown much empathy toward people who care about the meanings of words.

That was easy, wasn’t it? Still easier is the act of remembering that some of your readers are in touch with a dictionary, and that this technology is available to you, too. If you remember the dictionary, you won’t say such things as a Breitbart author said on March 19, while writing about Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke. “Beto” is a rich person who must be very bored with everything but himself and has spent his life looking for something to do — such as being president, or (wait for it) eating dirt. Yes, Breitbart reported, after O’Rourke lost his Senate race to Ted Cruz, he traveled to some mystic location in the Southwest where you can get some kind of dirt with “regenerative powers.” He got the dirt, and ate it. He also took some home, for other people to eat. Well, that’s odd. But what does our Breitbart author say? He says, “The strange antidote is one of several unflattering details to have emerged regarding O’Rourke’s past.” Empathy can teach us that there are some readers who know the difference between an antidote and an anecdote. Even politicians should know that some people — many people — are pedants like that.

Now, you wouldn’t know it from the American news media, but (I could follow that but with almost anything) for many days now, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, has been the subject of a terrific scandal. The issue in mid-March was whether he would let significant details about his alleged attempt to influence a prosecution come to light. The Conservative opposition used parliamentary tactics to force the information out, but failed to break through Trudeau’s apparent stonewalling. According to a March 21 article, “Trudeau said there has already been a ‘fulsome’ accounting of the scandal.” There is a big difference between full and fulsome, but Trudeau has never shown much empathy toward people who care about the meanings of words.

Some people have too much empathy with their audience, too ready an understanding of how people will react to their falsehoods, prevarications, stupidities, or inanities.

I need to add that CTV, which published the passage just quoted, apparently doesn’t empathize with word-carers either. Its report includes such elegancies as: “attempts over the several weeks to have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take further steps to allow [MP Jody] Wilson-Raybould speak further and in more detail about the scandal, [further steps to further speaking!]” “there’s since been two federal cabinet shuffles [ah! shuffles there has been],” and “Conservatives voted against every line item, which Liberals used to try to score political points on social media [using their own line items to score points, eh?], pointing out some of the government programs and services the Tories opposed. Though [look out, here’s a sentence fragment!], from the Conservative’s perspective [just one Conservative, I guess], their ‘no’ votes were to signal they do not have confidence in the government.” The CTV report was updated without correction of those remarkable phrases.

It must be admitted that some people have too much empathy with their audience, too ready an understanding of how people will react to their falsehoods, prevarications, stupidities, or inanities. Like good authors and speakers, they know how others are likely to feel, and they shape their words accordingly. As you know, Christopher Steele is the author of what is called, both by people who know the meaning of the word infamous and by people who don’t, the infamous Trump dossier, the document accusing Donald Trump of doing various weird things in and about Russia. Steele has been deposed in a lawsuit brought by a Russian whom the dossier accused of employing electronic means to disrupt the Democratic Party. Questioned about whether he verified the allegations in the dossier, Steele said, “We did,” and referred to “an article I have got here,” an article that was posted on a CNN website. He understands that many readers will think, “Well! There’s a CNN news report, and he’s got it right there! That’s good enough for me.”

But there’s a problem. The CNN webpage was just a bulletin board on which anyone was allowed to post anything. CNN itself posted signs on it saying that its contents were “not edited, fact-checked or screened.” So what did Steele have to say to that?

“Do you understand that CNN iReports are or were nothing more than any random individuals’ assertions on the Internet?” an examiner asked [him].

He replied: “No, I obviously presume that if it is on a CNN site that it may has [sic] some kind of CNN status. Albeit that it may be an independent person posting on the site.”

At that moment, Steele triumphantly reestablished his mind meld with the credulous reader. Such readers are impressed by apparent forthrightness — “No!” — and by the assumption that they themselves are too sophisticated not to know the ways of the world. Steele obviously presumed . . . Why, of course he did. We all would, wouldn’t we?

But there’s a problem. The CNN webpage was just a bulletin board on which anyone was allowed to post anything.

Who among us has time in our busy lives to fuss over the CNN status of something that is, after all, a CNN site? Not Steele! Not the reader! The reader, being a sophisticated man or woman, also understands what “albeit” means and, if not, can still pass directly on to a concept of which all forthright, independent readers approve, that of an independent person posting on a website. Of course he posted something! The reader probably posts things too! And why not? The problem with this world is that forthright, independent people post their brains out, without ever being recognized or believed. But Steele saw the truth in the independent person’s post — saw it, and believed it!

I wonder how many politicians, newspaper editors, television commentators, and news junkies have read the infamous dossier and actually believed it. Many of them cynically claimed to believe it, or part of it, or some deduction that might be made from it; but lots of them probably swallowed it whole. It was the right thing for them, and Steele had enough empathy to know that.

There is such a thing as selective empathy, the ability to put yourself in the minds of some people, though not of others. President Trump has made a career out of selective empathy. He doesn’t know or care how lots of people will receive his sayings, but he knows very well and cares very much how lots of other people will react. Whether that kind of empathy will win him the next election, as it won him the last, I cannot predict. But I can say that Hillary Clinton’s entire political life — and she has had no other life — demonstrates what happens when your empathy is too selective. Even among people who were certain to vote Democratic she aroused constant antagonism, and it wasn’t because of her “program” or even her personal history; it was because of her words, her tone, her manner of delivering her thoughts. This antagonism remained mysterious to her; she lacked the empathy to perceive its source. The only people with whom she empathized were those who thought her “deplorables” remark was, in the words of a Stephen Sondheim song, “another brilliant zinger.” Her circle of empathy included only people exactly like herself — uptight snobs who never talk to anyone except other uptight snobs.

Many of them cynically claimed to believe it, or part of it, or some deduction that might be made from it; but lots of them probably swallowed it whole.

Elizabeth Warren has the same problem, except that her circle of empathy is even more contracted. It was originally limited to the staff of the Boston Globe and some people in Cambridge who regard themselves as an intellectual aristocracy. But her long, insistently repeated series of “Indian” gaffes finally proved surprising even to them. They couldn’t empathize with the mind that could proclaim it was right all along about being Native American, because a DNA test purportedly showed a possible one-six-hundredth admixture of the appropriate “blood.”

Dimly sensing that something was wrong, Warren sallied forth in quest of the real America. She first tried to establish herself as a regular person by releasing a video that showed her drinking beer. Somehow that didn’t instill warm feelings in the breasts of average Americans. Then she took up the idea of ethnic reparations, announcing that she “loved” the idea of a congressional commission to study the matter. “I believe,” she added, “it’s time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations.” Another amazing failure: it was as if her words were designed to prove her lack of empathy. In a nation largely populated by people whose ancestors were nowhere near America in slavery days, or were here and fought to end slavery, the idea of reparations hardly evokes “love.” Maybe duty. Maybe fear. Maybe disgust. Maybe boredom. Not love. Warren had no clue about that. She also didn’t realize that the words national conversation have been used so much by people like her that to everyone else they now mean “orders from on high.” To refer to the national conversation, as if it were inevitable, merely confirms that reading. Nor did she realize that to most people “full-blown” sounds like something that happens when a gas line explodes.

Nothing can save the Elizabeth Warrens of America from their assumption that politics is a matter of policies and constituencies and one-sided conversations, bereft of the (to them) mysterious quality of empathy. And not only are they lacking in empathy; they are lacking in a knowledge of history. The American political landscape is littered with the wreckage of political careers, blown up when the pipe line of empathy failed.

The words "national conversation" have been used so much by people like Warren that to everyone else they now mean “orders from on high.”

In 1884, James G. Blaine (to his friends the Plumed Knight, to his enemies Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine) was running for president when he was done in by the lack of empathy of a prominent supporter, who described Blaine’s Democratic opponents as the party of “rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” — in other words by anti-prohibitionists, Catholics, and former Confederates. Those three groups proceeded to vote enthusiastically against him.

In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt, campaigning for a third term, proclaimed that “we [he and his followers] stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” The statement earned him a predictable derision, both from secularists, who were irritated by his sanctimony, and by religious persons, who knew what Armageddon was supposed to be (and it wasn’t the election of 1912). In 1967, George Romney, father of Mitt Romney and every bit as empathetic as his son, unintentionally terminated his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by claiming that he had formerly supported the war in Vietnam because he was “brainwashed” by the military: "When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." The comment grated on everyone, including Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was even more distant from normal people than Romney was. For Romney, he said, “a light rinse would have been sufficient.”

In the presidential debates of 1976, Gerald Ford, intending to flatter Polish Americans by saying that their European relatives would not passively concede to communist rule, pressed boldly into the realm of idiocy by claiming that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration." The Poles were not flattered. Ford lost the close election — to Jimmy Carter, who was soon to lecture Americans on the malaise that, he believed, had overcome their values. Although his “malaise” speech is supposed to have impressed people on the night it was given, it was one of those things that just don’t sit well with ordinary folks. Carter lost his own next election.

Blaine, Romney, Ford, Carter, Clinton, Warren, Theodore Roosevelt in his crazy years — all zeroed out by lack of empathy. And if you’re running a list, you can add Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Richard Nixon . . . When you think about it, I guess you could say that empathy is good for writing, but lack of empathy is good for weeding.




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The Carnival at Dallas

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The spectacle of five presidents — Carter, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Obama — meeting to compliment one another at the opening of the second Bush’s presidential library reminded me irresistibly of chapter 26 of Candide, the Symposium of Monarchs. In that episode, Voltaire satirizes authority by arranging for six kings to discover that they are staying at the same inn at Venice. Their conversation reveals their inanity and (as Voltaire would have it) the inanity of human life. Whatever you think of Voltaire’s ideas, it’s a very funny chapter.

So here we have our own Symposium of Monarchs, a meeting of men who have wielded infinitely more power than any king of the Old Regime. Who are these people?

None of them had any qualification whatever for the office once assumed by Washington. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone, among all the varied occupants of the presidential chair, who was less qualified than they were. Maybe John Tyler. In fact, none of them was impelled to the position by anything other than ambition for office.

Two of them — the Bushes — are agreeable human beings, and the elder Bush was a war hero, a real war hero. Unfortunately, neither father nor son had any intellectual qualifications. The younger Bush reads history but is incapable of profiting from his studies. The elder Bush showed himself incapable of understanding even his own emphatic promise not to raise taxes. He folded as soon as the opposing party offered to sell him a bridge in Brooklyn. He bought the bridge, and lost the presidency. The younger Bush was unable to understand even the rudimentary principles of limited government. But you could say that about all of them. None of them showed even the faintest understanding of his oath of office.

Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that.

Intellectual qualifications . . . unlike virtually all former presidents, none of the five, with the possible exception of Carter, is able to speak in his own voice for even one minute without committing a gross grammatical error. None of them, including the current president, himself reputedly the author of a book, is capable of an accurate allusion to anybody else’s book. Most of them don’t even try. Listen to Obama’s speeches; notice what or whom he mentions. It’s always “a teacher in Montana” or “a little girl in New Jersey.” Acton? Madison? Webster? Whitman? Churchill? Cather? Twain? And here they are at the dedication of a library.

Experience? Carter and Clinton were goofball governors of Southern states. The Bushes were rich people. Obama was a black student who was elected, for unknown but surmisable reasons, editor of a college law review, then a hack politician employed by the Chicago political machine.

Personal qualifications? Great personalities? Commanding leadership? Eccentric and interesting insights? Inspiring examples of morality? All these people, except the elder Bush, who was a professional promiser and non-fulfiller, can properly be called professional liars. Some lied with an exuberance appropriate to men who really enjoy the sport. On Carter, see Robert Novak’s autobiography; you’ll be entertained. On Clinton, consult your memories. On Obama, just listen to the man. On the younger Bush . . . I’m not referring to his theories about Iraq, on which he appears to have been sincerely deluded. On such issues as censorship (freedom of speech is sacred, but take all this sex off the internet), big government (I’m against it, but raise high the roofbeams, carpenters!), and immigration (open the gates, but pretend to be building walls), he lied with abandon.

Which one of these people would you like to serve with on a condo board? A department committee? A working group of any kind? Chorus of “None!” Carter would automatically attack as “racist” anyone who disagreed with him. Obama, a good casting choice for Creon in Antigone, would insist on lecturing everyone like a high school principal. The Bushes would never finish a sentence. Clinton would be looking for a deal that would enrich himself and promote the career of his banshee wife. And which one of them would you like to have a beer with? Which one — to return to the Candide analogy — would you like to encounter at the Carnival of Venice?

My answer used to be, “All of them but Carter.” Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that. But I used to say that if I lived next door to Obama or one of the other recent presidents, I would enjoy talking to him. I used to say that I imagined he would be a good neighbor. A couple of years ago, I got in trouble at a libertarian conference by saying these things.

If these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them?

But now I’m not so sure. I guess it’s still true about the good neighbor part. None of the non-Carter presidents fits the profile of a bad neighbor, if only because none of them cares very much about who waters the lawn. (Some underling will do it.) On Centre Street in San Diego, this noble disengagement would be a relief. It’s a long way, however, from qualifying someone for political power. I don’t think that Obama, Clinton, or the Bushes would start baying at the moon, or building houses for po’ folk in my back yard. But do I want to have a beer with one of these presidents? Maybe not.

True, I’d like to hear them discuss their political experiences. I wouldn’t object; I’d just listen. I’d buy a whole saloonful of beers, just to be able to do that . . . except . . . except for this vagrant thought: if these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them? Would I have thought they merited a change in my schedule?

The obvious answer is: Hell no! Are you kidding?

If Obama were a high school principal, or even a congressman, who would want to talk with him? There is nothing, nothing whatever, that is interesting about the man, except the weird political processes that elected him — on which he himself is unlikely to be an authority. Ditto Clinton — of no interest unless you’re one of those old-timey guys who liked to hang with the whores and the cops and collect their observations. The Bushes? Sorry. Life is short. As Gertrude Stein opined, “There’s no there, there.”

When, in Voltaire’s novel, Candide meets his useless monarchs, and so many of them at once, he is at first convinced that he is “witnessing a masquerade.” Then he says, “Gentlemen, this is an odd joke. Why are you all kings?”

He never gets an answer.




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Argo F*** Yourself

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One part compelling documentary, two parts zany Hollywood comedy, and three parts suspenseful spy thriller, Argo is one hundred percent excellence in filmmaking.

Although the events depicted in Argo occurred 33 years ago, they could not be more timely. In 1979 we had a likable but inept president whose policies could not avert double-digit interest rates, double-digit inflation, and the doubling of gas and oil prices; today we have a likable but inept president whose policies have led to stagnant growth, high unemployment, doubling of the national debt, and another doubling of gas prices. Both presidents dealt with turmoil and crisis in the Middle East as they campaigned for reelection.

When Ben Affleck set out to dramatize a recently declassified covert operation that took place within the context of the Iranian hostage crisis over 30 years ago, he could not have known that a similar crisis would erupt in the same part of the world exactly one month before his film was released. Watching hostages in Argo quake with fear as they are blindfolded by their tormentors and dragged before a firing squad, viewers cannot help but think of Ambassador Chris Stevens being dragged through the streets of Benghazi on his way to a horrifying death just last month. This unintended melding of the two stories adds to the suspense created in this well-made film.

Argo begins with a brisk montage of historic photos, film footage, and newspaper headlines taken from the days and weeks of the Iranian hostage crisis that began November 4, 1979. A young Walter Cronkite and an even younger Ted Koppel report the news from old-fashioned television screens. Many people have forgotten that ABC's “Nightline” began as a temporary nightly update about the hostage crisis; 444 days later, when the hostages were released (on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration), the news show had become so entrenched that it stayed on as a serious alternative to NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and the CBS “Late Movie,” which eventually gave way to Letterman's “Late Show.” Ted Koppel earned his stripes reporting the Iranian hostage crisis and paved the way for all-news cable shows.

As the crisis begins, embassy personnel are busy doing other things: processing visas, filing reports, and interviewing local Iranians who wait patiently in the outer rooms. When angry mobs threaten to storm the building, embassy workers rush to shred documents, burn files, break metal plates used for counterfeiting documents, and destroy computers. Ignoring threats to their own lives, they focus intensely on eliminating all sensitive material that could lead to the torture and death of Americans and local residents who are friendly to Americans. This is absolutely essential for national security and for the safety of regional operatives (local spies) in Iran.

The film deftly portrays the rising panic among security personnel inside the building while angry young men climb the walls and breach the compound. “We need some security, and you’re responsible!” one man screams into a phone, presumably to someone in the State Department. During a security briefing another man warns, “Don’t shoot anyone. Don’t be the one to start a war. If you shoot one person, they will kill everyone in here.” As a result, security personnel seem afraid to act. They hold their guns, but they don’t use them. One goes outside to try reasoning with the mob, but of course that just feeds the frenzy. In short, the fear of being responsible for diplomatic consequences is crippling.

During this confusion, six Americans slip out a back door and run for safety. But in a country overpowered by anti-American sentiment and energized for a fight, where might safety be found? Several embassies turn them away before the Canadian ambassador and his wife (Victor Garber and Page Leong) agree to take them in. But they are still far from being free, or even safe. Forced to hide in a room beneath the floorboards, they cannot leave the ambassador’s residence. They live in constant fear that local domestic workers will reveal their presence to Iranian insurgents, putting Canadian embassy personnel in danger as well. The scene is reminiscent of Jews hidden in attics and basements by friendly neighbors during the Holocaust. Spiriting these six unexpected hostages out of Iran becomes an even stickier problem for the US State Department than negotiating for the 52 publicized hostages.

Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials.

This is where the zany Hollywood comedy comes in. State Department officials come up with such solutions as providing the six Americans with bicycles so they can ride to the border (300 miles away) or pretending that they are part of an agricultural team investigating crops (even though it is winter) or that they are volunteer teachers (even though all Western teachers have been withdrawn from the country). After dismissing these ideas, seasoned CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) suggests pretending they are members of a film crew doing a site inspection for a science fiction flick called Argo.

Mendez turns to makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to act as director and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to act as producer on this bogus film, and together they select a script from among genuine screenwriter submissions. Goodman and Arkin ham up their scenes with insider jokes about Hollywood while also demonstrating that they understand the gravity of the situation. Human lives are at stake, and they know it. They also impishly create a tagline with more zing than "Who is John Galt," a phrase that is reflected in the title of this review.

But the real story of this film takes place in Iran, where Mendez must first convince the six hostages that the plan will work, and then teach them how to play their roles as set designer, director, cinematographer, etc., all in a matter of two days. Tension mounts as time draws near. They must act their parts convincingly and be prepared to answer any question that might come up as they go through airport security. If one person blows it, they all go down. Audience members have to be thinking, “Could I do this? Could I make it through this intense scrutiny?” and this adds to the tension of the film.

Mendez must also convince the State Department not to give up on the plan. At one point a State official says pragmatically, “Six Americans executed at the Canadian embassy is an international incident; six Americans caught playing filmmakers with a CIA spy is an embarrassment.” Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials. I'd like to think they were concerned that CIA involvement would lead to retaliation against the remaining hostages. Mendez, however, refuses to leave without the people he has come to rescue.

To avert retaliation against the American hostages still held in Iran, Canada received all the credit for masterminding the rescue. Now that the case has been declassified, the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez's daring plan for spiriting the six hostages from the Canadian embassy and onto a plane leaving Iran can be revealed. But this should not detract from the gratitude afforded the Canadian ambassador and his wife. They risked their own lives and gave up their residence to help these American strangers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Argo," directed by Ben Affleck. Warner Brothers, 2012, 120 minutes.



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