Rediscovering the Circle of Empathy – Part I

I’ve discovered what follows several times before, over the course of a couple of decades, but each time I got tripped up by the same mistake Columbus made. He discovered a new opportunity and then set about turning it into a bigger and more grievous manifestation of the problem that had sent him exploring in the first place.

Columbus and those who came after him discovered abundant “free” land in the Americas, but they did not discover the indigenous ways of life that were maintaining the freedom of the land. So then they had to discover “free” labor to keep the land “free” for them as well. In doing so, they also did not discover the spiritual strength that empowered enslaved Africans to make a European heaven out of the American hell that European immigrants were making for their African captives.

European people in Columbus’ time needed land, because the old-wealth holdings of landed aristocrats and the new-wealth acquistions of emerging investors were wedging the common people into an economic situation in some ways analogous to Africans caught between America’s industrialized north and plantation south.

When Europeans immigrated to America, however, they by and large found themselves unable to reap all of the opportunities (or what today would be referred to as the “privileges”) they had expected upon leaving Europe. They quite regularly relieved their resulting frustration by blaming and viciously abusing both Native people who were still attempting to live freely on the land, and Africans whose forced “free” labor gave birth to the American economy.

Nowadays, as the modern Western world seems to follow an American lead back toward despotic medieval Europe, it appears as if Columbus and those who followed him have indeed proved the world was round in ways that even they could not have imagined. They have traveled full circle, but rather than solve the problem that sent them forth, they have spread the problem globally, like a massive deadly pandemic.

All of us, who willing or unwillingly have been drawn into the legacy of Columbus, are approaching 360 degrees of travel on a circle whose name is empathy. Meanwhile the lack of empathy that Columbus began it with shouts “TRUMP NATION” in large and bold type from a gaudily colored roadside billboard. Is the billboard suggesting a new name for, or perhaps just cursing, America? The mid-day sky is darkened and too thick with wildfire smoke to breathe. The billboard also calls attention, like an old “Burma-Shave” ad, to a massive homeless encampment that appears a minute or so later on the same side of the same freeway. Who could plan this? Once abundant “free” land, now afflicted with foul air and rampant homelessness? Once abundant “free” labor, now still forced but in prison industries, and also more freely available from long-term and essentially structural unemployment?

The madmen (and mad women) who orchestrate such tragic absurdity are fighting a battle that they cannot ultimately win. Empathy is a lesson that nature teaches… nature that Western religion long ago separated from God. So the Western believer does not believe in disease pandemics, environmenal catastrophes, or even economic collapse as evidence of human malfeasance, simply because the modern terminology for such plagues does not specifically match the language in canonical works of Western scripture. Nonetheless, even the most stridently anti-religious observers have for some time both realized and preached that the fundamental cause and aggravator of such problems is the greedy aggregation of wealth and resources by a small minority that refuses to release such resoures for the public good, even in times of overwhelming public crisis. Might that be why interest in traditional Western religion seems to be on the wane?

This is definitely not a protestation of sainthood on my part. I, and I am sure most others, struggle with greed and failures to be even reasonably empathetic more often than I care to admit, even when brutally honest. That’s life and life is a learning process. But there is a big difference between struggling with difficulty to manage our lessons and simply joining the class bullies in overturning the entire educational enterprise, essentially attempting to blow up the school. 

Columbus and those who followed him may have conquered American and African lands and peoples, but the spirit of the people that made those lands free and prosperous has yet to be reckoned with. So those who now seek to return modern global civilization to feudal and despotic Europe, and to force all of us to go back along with them, are likely to discover (with the clarity of 2020 hindsight) that they will not be able to stop there. The spirit of free land that they discovered in America and the spirit of free labor they discovered in and stole from Africa will not allow them to do so. As I learned growing up in New York, “What goes around, comes around.”

Just about every time I rediscover the truth, beauty, and power of what is coming around, I at first (like Columbus) mistakenly imagine that it is humanly possible to discover anything other than a little bit more of my own limitless ignorance. The good news, however, is that Mother Nature (which includes all of our fellow human beings whether we like it or not) remains fully and inextricably dedicated to our mutual and ongoing education. Oh yeah, and Mother Nature’s school system, by the way, cannot be crippled by funding cuts to public education. Such cuts seem to actually increase the intensity of Mother Nature’s curriculum.

Trump nature?

The thoughts above are not at all new. They were inspired in large part by reading Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. DuBois, from which the quote below, based on a December 1865 address to the 1st session of the 39th US Congress by Thaddeus Stevens, was drawn:

This was the cogent, clear argument of Thaddeus Stevens, the politician. But Thaddeus Stevens was never a mere politician. He cared nothing for constitutional subtleties nor even for political power. He was a stern believer in democracy, both in politics and in industry, and he made his second argument turn on the economic freedom of the slave.

“We have turned, or are about to turn, loose four million slaves without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets. The infernal laws of slavery have prevented them from acquiring an education, understanding the commonest laws of contract, or of managing the ordinary business life. This Congress is bound to provide for them until they can take care of themselves. If we do not furnish them with homesteads, and hedge them around with protective laws; if we leave them to the legislation of their late masters, we had better have left them in bondage.”

He then resolutely went further in a defense of pure democracy, although he knew that in this argument he was venturing far beyond the practical beliefs of his auditors:

“Governor Perry of South Carolina and other provisional governors, and orators proclaim that ‘this is the white man’s government.’… Demagogues of all parties, even some high in authority, gravely shout, ‘this is the white man’s government.’ What is implied by this? That one race of men are to have the exclusive rights forever to rule this nation, and to exercise all acts of sovereignty, while all other races and nations and colors are to be their subjects, and have no voice in making the laws and choosing the rulers by whom they are to be governed.…

“Our fathers repudiated the whole doctrine of the legal superiority of families or races, and proclaimed the equality of men before the law. Upon that they created a revolution and built the Republic. They were prevented by slavery from perfecting the superstructure whose foundation they had thus broadly laid. For the sake of the Union they consented to wait, but never relinquished the idea of its final completion.

“The time to which they looked forward with anxiety has come. It is our duty to complete their work. If this Republic is not now made to stand on their great principles, it has no honest foundation, and the Father of all men will still shake it to its center. If we have not yet been sufficiently scourged for our national sin to teach us to do justice to all God’s creatures, without distinction of race or color, we must expect the still more heavy vengeance of an offended Father.…”

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