Lately many of the people who make their living writing about politics have come to rely on just two exclusive courses of treatment for their subjects. Voters for Brexit and Donald Trump were extensively subjected to these treatments. Now, so are Palestinians in Gaza and “involuntarily celibate” men who post on the Internet. Really just about every political or social grouping is subjected to them at one time or another: social-justice warriors, WASPs, DINKS (double income, no kids), the upper middle class, undocumented immigrants, etc. The two courses of treatment are “my empathy” or “their wickedness.”
Analysts and intellectuals arrive at the bloody news like a paramedic armed with these two bags. Each is a toolkit that offers the writer a number of hardy rhetorical implements to manipulate his subject.
First in the “my empathy” toolkit is the long list of historical ills that the subject’s larger group has endured. Next come the descriptions of recent social or economic decline, usually backed up with statistics. The whole thing will be wrapped up by a description of the subject’s political aims, which are presented as fundamentally, almost embarrassingly modest. Just looking for equal rights here. Just looking to not be destroyed by a mob. Just looking to vote in his own interests. Just asking to live.
The “their wickedness” toolkit is similarly equipped. Usually the implements resemble the ones mentioned above. First comes the long list of historical traumas that the subject’s larger group has inflicted on the world. Next comes a number of statistics about the relative advantages that the group may have. Finally it is wrapped up with a prejudicing description of the subject’s political aims, which are presented as fundamentally, almost embarrassingly malign. Just looking to destroy everything decent. Just looking to vote against the basic rights of everyone else. Just demanding to kill.
Sometimes the toolkit is chosen based on an imagined global hierarchy of victims and malefactors. At other times, the toolkit is chosen out of purely partisan interests; it becomes a matter of keeping the electoral coalitions together and sufficiently passionate. Downwardly mobile whites are defined by their economic status one day, and by their skin-privilege the next. Acts of political terror can be reclassified quite quickly as the lashing out of the aggrieved.
We so rarely look up and notice that the demons and angels we are expected to believe in resemble each other.
Often enough there are two ambulances rushing to the scene of a news event, and they are jostling to apply these treatments. Sometimes the two crews of intellectuals will engage in a long, idiotic debate about whether the subjects before them were “punching up” or “punching down” before they ended up in this state.
We so rarely look up and notice that the demons and angels we are expected to believe in resemble each other. One side conjures the danger of an uneducated, uncivilized, potentially violent, and religiously motivated menace from abroad. The other conjures the same, only changing his religion to the more popular local one, and substituting the word “domestic” where “foreign” once appeared.
Of course, empathy and wickedness don’t have to be exclusive. That so many who are supposed to aid our ability to understand the world have come to believe that sympathy and judgment are incompatible is lamentable in itself. Judgment without empathy is pitiless moralizing. And empathy without judgment is a sinister and destructive form of license.
Perhaps we should sympathize with our stunted intellectuals. They are asked to write about much more than they can possibly know anything about. And their education was deficient — and not just in history, philosophy, or the language skills that might help them understand their subjects apart from clichés. Our intellectuals mostly lack any rigorous education of their sentiments. They do not respond with pity to the pitiable, or awe to the truly awesome. Or maybe we should hate the interpreters of our world events, for their laziness and corrupting self-interest. I’m not sure, I’m still studying the problem.