Rediscovering the Circle of Empathy – Part II

Writing about this stuff is not easy. Last week I got stuck in my own anger once again. So I missed the point that WEB DuBois appears to be developing at length in Black Reconstruction in America, or at least the point that inspired me to “rediscover” the idea of a circle of empathy one last time. DuBois’ historical perspective differs radically from what I learned in school. Partially because I bring a different perspective now, but it’s primarily because DuBois’ analysis (as stated in his introduction) treats Black people like any other people, rather than as less-than-human aberrations or commodities. The latter perspective was still common in the 1930s, when this book was published, and didn’t really begin substantive change until the social change movements of the 1960s began to challenge it. DuBois’ approach, however, seemed to bring out the humanity in everyone he wrote about. His imagery of five million poor Whites living in the antebellum south, alongside four million enslaved Blacks during the Civil War and Reconstuction era is riveting. Despite having basic human rights and protections (some quite considerable, such as the freedom from being legally and openly tortured at will) that Blacks did not, these Whites often lived in a state of hopeless and absolute poverty, just as bad and in some cases worse than many of the enslaved.

The key takeaway for me came in reflecting that US politicians described as “populist” such as previous presidents Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson,  Alabama Govenor George Wallace, and current president Donald Trump seem to build their power bases by pitting poor Whites against poor or disadvantaged people of all other ethnicities (especially Blacks) rather than building a potentially much larger and stronger power base across Blacks and Whites, or across all poor or disadvantaged groups. It appears that in some cases, populist politicians actually started out with broad cultural perspectives, but eventually to chose to pit Whites against Blacks because it helped them win elections. My own anger at such madness, and at the massively untold suffering and grief that it has caused and continues to cause, was as far as I was able to get in the previous post. A couple of people who I discussed this with said it was just my first stage of awareness, but I really wasn’t hearing it at the time. I was feeling angry. I needed to scream, to emote! Might those be the feelings that so-called “populist” candidates tap into for success?

Now that my tantrum is out of the way, I can finally stumble through to where I was intending to take this reflection in the first place, to the profound suffering and grief that such populist success has caused far too many people for far too long. The point is that until we can take the time to feel and share each other’s grief—particularly when my supposed windfall benefit is a direct result of (and perhaps also in direct proportion to) someone else’s grief—nothing changes. This is the bottom line in the empathy alluded to in the previous post as ultimately making both land and labor truly free and healing for all involved. I don’t believe that such understandings or ways of living are unique to any particular culture or heritage. I also don’t know to what extent such capacities have been lost among human societies or are yet to be developed. Maybe the grieving I’m talking about is mostly just for old people like me, in part due to reflecting on past life experiences, and in part due to (often) reduced involvement in the day to day crises that greedily consume time, we might otherwise spend in reflection and grieving.

Even as an adolescent, I was struck by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s decision to broaden the Civil Rights Movement into a Human Rights struggle against poverty, and against Imperialist warfare as well. I recognized then that I wouldn’t have wanted to have to make that kind of decision. King broadended his focus to embrace the poor and disadvantaged, not just in America, but throughout the world and was killed while helping to secure a living wage for Black sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. Malcolm X was also killed, during my adolescent years, when his message and social change efforts broadened to take on an international scope. Is that why the most succesful populist politicians seem to have pitted one race against another rather than uplifting the poor, disadvantaged, and common laborers of all races and ethnicities? I don’t know the answer. I’m sure the answer is complex.

I am also quite sure that until we take the time to grieve, to take real “memorial days” in which we feel each other’s pain and sorrow (more often than once a year and not just for wars), we will not learn from our mistakes, and the problems will keep getting worse. Nowadays when so many statues are getting torn down, maybe we ought to replace a few of them with statues of grieving. Instead of commemorating victorious generals, we may need statues of “unknown” soldiers or sailors, surrounded by statues of family members they left behind to protect and never came home to. The problem with such an idea (of course) is that we have no time to grieve, because we are always in one state of crisis or the other. I personally feel as if I was born into a world where even making a living is an ongoing all-out crisis. I don’t know for sure, but I keep asking myself whether or not this ongoing state of crisis might be actually caused by our lack of grieving.

So it goes. My circle of empathy goes round and round, until I realize that Columbus did not discover America. Columbus was the first successful American populist. He exploited the people he found in the place that came to be called America, for what he mistakenly thought would become his own benefit. The “freedom” that the “founding fathers” wrote about (but did not quite live) was already here when they got here, and it’s still here. We are now both the people in the place that came to be called America, and the explorers who are discovering this place (along with the people in it) for the first time. Divisive populist doubletalk cannot help us here. We can either continue killing and enslaving our mirror images in search of imaginary gold and spices, or we can embrace the courageous vulnerability, the open-hearted empathy, that it takes to live freely. The Thanksgiving Holiday and Indigenous Peoples Day observances do not conflict when both are embraced within a season of remembrance and grieving, remembrance and grieving of the now-institutionalized crimes against the very same humanity that fed us rather than letting us starve to death, when we showed up foolishy looking for gold.

Such a season of deep grieving and remembrance might prepare us to come forth and see ourselves and this land, to see Americans and America, with new eyes: New eyes that appreciate the unfathomable mercy that has allowed us to continue even to this moment; new eyes that appreciate our continued and fundamental complicity in the evils that oppress us; and most importantly, new eyes that humbly embrace the unfathomably great challenge of courageous vulnerability, of open-hearted empathy that is the only true American heritage. I have come to understand my own true American heritage as the hard and thankless labor of an unseen founding grandmother, who can only be requited through dedicated continuance of her courageous vulnerability, of her open-hearted empathy.

That said, it’s now time for me to stop writing and to start voting the reigning “populists” out of office, “from sea to shining sea.”

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