Empathy. You either got it or you ain’t. Sonia Sotomayor’s got it, which is why she’s just been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. President Obama said that what he’s looking for in a big-time judge is “the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.” As he told his pro-abortion chums at Planned Parenthood, “We need somebody who’s got the heart—the empathy—to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old—and that’s the criteria by which I’ll be selecting my judges. Alright?”
Er, well, alright. But what does it boil down to in practice? Then-senator Obama voted against the confirmation of Chief Justice Roberts because the nominee said he saw the judge’s role as that of “umpire.” The President wants someone less hung up on the rule book. He likes to cite the case of Lilly Ledbetter, who sued Goodyear Tire for discrimination but ran up against the pesky old statute of limitations. An “empathetic” judge would presumably say, “Screw the statute of limitations.” Strange to hear the same folks who complain that Bush disregarded the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Constitution at Gitmo (both charges untrue, by the way) simultaneously hailing the ability to disregard inconvenient laws as the indispensable attribute of a Supreme Court justice.
Obama’s judges sound less like “umpires” than cheerleaders: designate the approved identity group, and twirl your baton accordingly. Why not? It works in many other areas of life. In contemporary education’s flight from facts to feelings, “empathy” has become a useful substitute for history. In the schoolrooms of the developed world, you’ll be asked to empathize with, say, a West African who’s sold into slavery and shipped off to Virginia, or with a hapless Native American who catches dysentery, typhoid, gonorrhea and an early strain of avian flu by foolishly buying beads from Christopher Columbus. This would be a useful exercise if we were genuinely interested in socio-historical empathizing. But instead the compliant pupil is expected merely to acknowledge the unlucky Indian as an early victim of European racism, and to assign the slave a contemporary African-American identity and thereby “empathize” with his sense of injustice. At this level, empathy is no more than the projection of contemporary and parochial obsessions—racism, sexism, imperialism—over the rich canvas of the past.
It’s a modish fancy. You didn’t hear the word much a generation back. Now people who would once have sympathized with you insist on claiming to “empathize” with you. In his book Clinical Empathy, David Berger offers the following definition: “The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person.”
My italics. Because, after all, that’s the tricky bit. Take the presidential requirement “to understand what it’s like to be disabled.” If you’re paralyzed in a riding accident, I can sympathize at the drop of a hat: my God, that’s awful. Helluva thing to happen. But can I empathize “from within the frame of reference of that other person”?
Example: “Driving down there, I remember distinctly thinking that Chris would rather not live than be in this condition.” That’s Barbara Johnson recalling the immediate aftermath of her son Christopher Reeve’s riding accident. Her instinct was to pull the plug; his was to live. Bill Clinton famously claimed to “feel your pain.” He can’t, not really. But the immodesty of the assertion is as pithy a distillation as any other of what’s required in an age of pseudo-empathy.
The first definition in my Webster’s gets closer to the truth: “The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.” That’s geopolitical empathy as practised by the Western world. The more depraved the subjects of the Palestinian Authority become, the more energetically the great powers invest in the delusion that this is a conventional nationalist struggle. Thus, “empathy” becomes the very opposite of David Berger’s definition: we examine these subjects from within our frame of reference. As Condi Rice told the columnist Cal Thomas a year or two back, “The great majority of Palestinian people, they just want a better life. This is an educated population. I mean, they have a kind of culture of education and a culture of civil society. I just don’t believe mothers want their children to grow up to be suicide bombers. I think the mothers want their children to grow up to go to university. And if you can create the right conditions, that’s what people are going to do.”
Mr. Thomas asked the secretary of state a sharp follow-up: “Do you think this or do you know this?”
“Well, I think I know it.”
I think she knows she doesn’t know it. The last time I was in the West Bank the genial proprietors at most convenience stores had various heroic Martyrs of the Week pinned up on the wall behind the cash register, and the Education Ministry was giving first prize in its letter-writing competition to a seventh-grader from Jenin pledging to his deceased father to become a suicide bomber and “propel my living-dead body into your arms.” As to what mothers want for their children, I would be wary of deluding myself that I could “empathize” with Mariam Farahat, a mother of three, formerly a mother of six, triumphantly elected to parliament as “Um Nidal” (“Mother of the Struggle”) on the strength of having persuaded a trio of her sons to self-detonate over various surrounding Zionists. Granted, this makes university education much more affordable for her surviving offspring, yet call me unempathetic but I don’t get the feeling it’s a big priority.
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