When We All Are Doing Better
By Carl Bloice
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board
Pctobr 20, 2011
One young occupier in New York's Zuccotti Square held
aloft a simple sign that read: "I Demand Empathy." BC
Question: What will it take to bring Obama home?Seeing
it immediately brought to mind a recent attempt to
denigrate the very thing the young man was asking for.
"Nobody is against empathy," wrote the New York Times
columnist David Brooks September 20. "Nonetheless, it's
insufficient. These days empathy has become a
shortcut," wrote the conservative scribe, who has been
called "The Bard of the 1 percent."
"It has become a way to experience delicious moral
emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our
nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them.
It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral
progress without having to do the nasty work of making
moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate
about moral categories and touchy about giving offense,
teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other
institutions to seem virtuous without risking
controversy or hurting anybody's feelings."
Yada, yada, yada.
Brooks writes a lot about original sin or "the
weaknesses in our nature." His aim seems always to be
to accentuate our sectarian differences and devalue any
notion of social solidarity.
"Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it
doesn't seem to help much when that action comes at a
personal cost," wrote Brooks. "You may feel a pang for
the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but
the odds are that you are not going to cross the street
to give him a dollar." Brooks should speak for himself
(which of course he's doing). Lots of people do walk
over or lean out the driver's side window and hand the
person a buck. I see it all the time. Of course, that's
in my neighborhood, not Brooks' suburban Bethesda.
And, a lot of people keep their wallets shut because
they think institutional giving is better and when they
get home, write out another check to the local food
bank. Or maybe they are convinced that the way to
respond to poverty is through social action and they
contribute to the political campaign of someone who
proposes to take some action to alleviate it.
Or, they may just decide to sit-in on Wall Street.
Empathy can prompt any number of responses.
That we may sometimes suppress emphatic pangs when our
personal comfort or security is involved, there is no
doubt. However, as Jason Marsh wrote on the Greater
Good blog, Brooks is "misguided, misinformed, or being
needlessly provocative to discount or disparage empathy
On October 10, Brooks decided to take on the occupiers
in Zuccotti Square, whom he derided as "small thinkers"
and "pierced anarchists." If ever there was a case of
empathy-less-ness, or unconcern for the fate of those
amongst us being slammed by the current economic
crisis, this was it. Check this out. "The U.S. economy
is probably going to stink for a few more years. It is
beset by short-term problems (low consumer demand,
uncertain housing prices, too much debt) and long-term
problems (wage stagnation, rising health care costs,
eroding human capital)."
"Realistically, not much is going to be done to address
the short-term problems, but we can at least use this
winter of recuperation to address the country's
underlying structural ones. Do tax reform, fiscal
reform, education reform and political reform so that
when the economy finally does recover the prosperity is
deep, broad and strong." The problem, he goes on, is
that we are wasting this winter (it come early in
Maryland) concentrating on "been a series of trivial
sideshows" instead of keeping our minds "focused on the
And, what are the big things? A "group that divides the
world between the pure 99 percent and the evil 1
percent will have nothing to say about education
reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or
polarization. They will have nothing to say about the
way Americans have over consumed and over borrowed.
These are problems that implicate a much broader swath
of society than the top 1 percent." In other words,
we're all to blame. "Let's occupy ourselves," he
"The policy proposals that have been floating around
the Occupy Wall Street movement - a financial transfer
tax, forgiveness for student loans - are marginal,"
wrote Brooks. "The thing about the current moment is
that the moderates in suits are much more radical than
the pierced anarchists camping out on Wall Street or
the Tea Party-types." Here he's talking about the
people who would spend the rest of the year undermining
public education and slashing Social Security, Medicare
"In other words, Brooks wants all those people who are
unemployed and losing their homes to just suck it up"
wrote Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for
Economic and Policy Research October 11 in his "Beat
the Press" column. "Nothing is going to be done to help
you: get over it."
"And why is nothing going to be done to help the 26
million people who are unemployed, underemployed or
have given up looking for work altogether? The reason
is that people like David Brooks and rest of the 1
Percent don't give a damn about you."
The fact is we are living in what the Times' editors
called "a deeply unequal society." The portion of
income garnered by those in the top 1 percent of
households is higher than at any point since before the
Depression of the 1930s and twice what it was three
decades ago. The paper recently reported: "From June
2007 to June of this year. median annual household
income declined by 7.8 percent for non-Hispanic whites,
to $56,320, and by 6.8 percent for Hispanics, to
$39,901. For blacks, household income declined 9.2
percent, to $31,784."
Last Friday, Brooks wrote: "Tax policy isn't just about
how to raise revenue anymore. Liberals see it as a way
to punish the greedy and redress the iniquities of
capitalism." That's just nonsense (not that said
redressing wouldn't be a grand idea). The problem
facing the country right now, and the one that has
brought so many people into the streets, is that
millions people can't find work, millions more are
facing home foreclosures, and many are burdened by
onerous student loan debt. The only realistic way to
alleviate the situation is for the government to
stimulate the economy, provide meaningful programs to
increase employment, and debt relief. That will require
revenue. "Conservatives" like Brooks can pretend
otherwise but that's what the debate over tax policy is
really all about.
"If the federal government increased spending on
infrastructure, gave teens jobs cleaning up their
neighborhoods, gave state and local governments the
funds to keep teachers and firefighters employed and
encouraged employers to shorten work hours rather than
lay off workers, we could quickly get the economy back
to full employment," wrote Baker. "Economists have
known this story for more than 70 years, but somehow
creating jobs doesn't rank as high on the priority list
in Washington as cutting Social Security and Medicare.
"In short we have an economic system that, even when it
is working, has been rigged to redistribute income to
rich. And we have a political system that at a time of
immense economic distress is more focused on
undercutting the means of support for working families
than fixing the economy. It is hard to understand why
everyone is not occupying Wall Street."
However, as most perceptive people have noticed the
occupiers of town and city squares aren't coming up
with lists of demands in the traditional sense and are
raising broader and more fundamental issues. Greed is
rampant, poverty and economic inequality are growing
relentlessly in our country and our political system is
ever increasingly corrupted by money. The system is in
Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote last week in
the Washington Post, "The movement doesn't need a
policy or legislative agenda to send its message. The
thrust of what it seeks - fueled both by anger and deep
principles - has moral clarity. It wants corporate
money out of politics. It wants the widening gap of
income inequality to be narrowed substantially. And it
wants meaningful solutions to the jobless crisis. In
short, it wants a system that works for the 99 percent.
Already Occupy Wall Street has sparked a conversation
about reforms far more substantial than the stunted
debate in Washington. Its energy will supercharge the
arduous work other organizations have been doing for
years, amplifying their actions as well as their
Last week I was fortunate to take part in a very
exciting and encouraging meeting of senior and
disability activists and their supporters who
enthusiastically identified with the occupations at
Wall Street and around the country. There, one young
man, outlining a proposal to increase the taxes of the
very wealthy drew spirited applause when he said our
motto should be: "We all do better when we all are
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Carl Bloice
is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National
Coordinating Committee of the Committees of
Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly
worked for a healthcare union
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