February 24, 2018
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American Emptiness

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I recently read an essay somewhere which I failed to "clip" by emailing the link to myself. It said that the reason we have an endless tolerance for school shootings, and for the suffering of others, and for the gross pettiness, vanity and immorality of our politicians, is that we ourselves have become psychologically and morally empty, mere suits without contents.

As a somewhat thoughtful human being, reading much and trying to sort things out, in my twenties I decided that my life's creed could be acronymized "RILJ": Reason, Independence, Loyalty, Justice. Today, at age 63, and for many years now, I have completely reformulated, and now believe in "CHOT": Compassion, Humility, Optimism, Tolerance. Like RILJ, these factors are not completely independent of one another; loyalty and justice were related, and humble people are likely to be tolerant. So are compassionate people. In each list, there was one item which bore the least relationship to the other three. Reason, loyalty and justice do not really dictate independence. Compassion, humility and tolerance do not necessarily produce optimism. As a very pessimistic person, who at times--increasingly often--longs for Huxley's "Kindly Comet" to end all suffering, I worked out a doctrine which I originally called "living as if one were an optimist". I had no idea that I had reinvented a version of Pascal's Wager, of living as if God existed. I believe that Dorothy Day was expressing a corrolary when she said that faithfulness is more important than effectiveness.

It is almost impossible to avoid the powerful perception, many times in a lifetime, that there are "two kinds of people". I developed a joke version of this, that "There are two kinds of people, those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don't". But this rhymes interestingly with my usual version these days that "There are two kinds of people, those who think they are a higher life form, and those who don't". I think this once or twice a week, when the exquisitely dressed customer in Starbuck's scolds the barista because she thinks the coffee used in her latte was not decaf, or my Hamptons neighbor rants at the post office employee about a piece of mail which went in the wrong PO box. On the Jitney, when the driver tarried at the Long Island airport stop on the expressway, to make sure a passenger he had dropped off could obtain a cab and was not going to be alone at the roadside, a surprising number of my fellow passengers howled at the driver quite immoderately to abandon the man. When as I exited in Manhattan, I told him I thought he had done the right thing, he gave me a justly weary and suspicious look: Why should I trust you?

I relate my "two kinds of people" aphorism to Kant's Imperative, which I find a stunningly simple and unassailable proposal which solves all problems. We should all behave as we wish everyone else would. Think, for example, of the plain fact that not one liar since the beginning of the world has wanted to be lied to. Anyone who really took the Imperative seriously could not possibly think she was a higher life form, entitled to any different treatment, than anyone. I know as a fact that I am smarter than many of the people I meet, but also that I am uglier. I just don't believe that either factor should dictate any differential treatment, better or worse.

Compassionate and humble people I would say all discover Kant's rule instinctively, even if they have never phrased it to themselves. Compassion provides the "There but for the grace of God go I" element. Humility nearly compels one in all situations to see others as at least equal to oneself, and thus to follow the imperative even if you've never heard of Kant. (Q. "Can you tell me who invented the Categorical Imperative?" A. "I. Kant".)

I discovered thirty or forty years ago that the only thing I care about in another human, the first element I look for, is whether she is compassionate. A compassionate person can be my friend, even though she lacks other qualities I enjoy, even the cultural references and the ability to banter with me about Kant. In fact, it makes sense to put compassion first in CHOT, because it flows through to the other elements: a compassionate person is very likely to be humble (how many arrogant people are compassionate?). Similarly, it is impossible to conceive of someone who is compassionate yet intolerant. A human concern for the in-group exists in humanity, as if someone had saved only Anglicans struggling in the icy waters after the Titanic went down, but I would not call it "compassion" because it is not based on the proposition that human (even animal) suffering is unbearable. Someone who could watch a baby drown calmly, because it belonged to a different ethnicity, is not "compassionate".

For a year or two in the 1980's, I loved a rather difficult Hungarian girl living in Holland, and made friends with her friends, who were all delightful and warm young Dutch people. One of them said to me one day, as we were walking down a street in Utrecht, that "The Germans are just like us, but with a piece missing". This had the character of one of those insights which is like a half-welcome glass of cold water thrown over your head on a very hot day. As an American Jew born after the Holocaust years, I was prepared to think Germans participated in radical evil, but it had never occurred to me that they might be otherwise normal people who lacked compassion. Afterwards, I became interested in the stories of German Jews whose neighbors and friends seemed like normal, affectionate people in 1928, but joined the Nazi Party or supported Hitler in 1933. One of the most visible and painful examples is Hannah Arendt and her friend and lover, Martin Heidegger.

In the 1990's, I founded and ran a subsidiary of a technology company whose VP of Operations I was. It ultimately had ninety employees, whom I thought were friends. It is actually a sort of ontological business error for the CEO to think his employees are his friends--a loaded statement which deserves its own essay one day. Anyway, when we sold the company and the new owners fired me ten months later, I discovered that eighty-eight of those people could simply re-orient themselves easily to the new reality. Two of them quit. I am reviewing a contract for free for one of them this week, and making a dinner plan, eighteen years later. The other could surge up in my life and ask for aid at any time, though it has been a few years since we exchanged messages on Facebook.

The American definition of friendship turns out to be very equivocal, especially among men. A college friend is someone who might go out for a beer with you on Friday night, but privately imagines that if you died, he might get your dorm room and girlfriend. That led me to a very demanding definition of friendship: a friend is someone who, hearing that you are in jail in Bismarck, North Dakota, immediately goes to the airport and boards the next plane. You can find little glimmers of this in the world, such as an account of white Texas Populists who “rode all night” in 1892 to protect a black colleague threatened with lynching. That “rode all night” is incredibly expressive. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1974) p. 62 But I can say that, apropos of the Kantian imperative, I have lived my rule: I have represented every dear friend of mine pro bono in landlord tenant court, or against a hostile university, or a company which had terminated a contract, or in a criminal trial.

Today I spend about half my time doing pro bono work, much of it of course for strangers. My first such experience, which was a formative one for me, occurred in 1981. Aware of the problem of the Haitian boat people, I vaguely thought that we had no American room for them, and could, consistently with RILJ, send them back. Then I saw a movie, The Boat is Full, directed by Markus Imhoof, about a group of German refugees who cross the Swiss border one wartime day. At the end of the movie, all of the Jews are put back into Germany, sent to their deaths, and the Swiss permit the one deserting German soldier to stay. I was completely floored; the film had the effect on me of a voice from the unseen. I volunteered to represent Haitian refugees in asylum proceedings under the tutelage of the magnificent Arthur Helton, one of the figures I have met in my life who radiated CHOT, who was always available for as long as I needed him to talk through any problem on a case, although he was the CEO of the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights and responsible for a hundred or more other volunteers. Arthur died later when the UN offices in Baghdad were bombed. The Haitian project was the beginning of my own arc from RILJ to CHOT, and the clients, who couldn't possibly have been more strange to me, made me understand that "Nothing human is alien". Wendy Steiner says: “Described by the establishment, the migrant is a beast, a monster, the embodiment of evil. Described by himself, he is a shape-shifter, a Joycean dream figure”. Wendy Steiner, The Scandal of Pleasure (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1995) p. 116

I started at some point to look for examples of normal humans with a missing piece. I found many in Texas. A young woman who transferred to the New York office, when we had known and liked her for months, unguardedly told us one day about the pleasure of taking your rifle out to the "tank" where the stock watered on your ranch, and shooting turtles off the logs. A lawyer in Austin who won two cases for our company took me to lunch at his club one day, when I had known him about two years, and volunteered his solution to the "homeless problem in New York": "I would put them all on a Pacific island, and fly a C-130 over once a month, dropping guns and drugs". I purchased and read with appalled fascination a conservative best-seller, Marvin Olasky's Tragedy of American Compassion, and I remember an anecdote, which I could not find a source for in a few minutes searching, that Newt Gingrich once wondered out loud if he had ever felt compassion.

So I think the essayist was correct about American emptiness. It is impossible for me to imagine that anyone who really felt CHOT, had it in their veins and bones, could have voted for Donald Trump. At least two of the people in my life did, people I have known thirty years, and in both cases I had that 1933 experience, that I had known and trusted people who had a piece missing. In that sense, the 2016 election was a transformative experience: almost no one turned out afterwards to be exactly who you thought. I had always credited the evangelicals with authentic religion, but when they lined up to excuse Trump's infidelity and misogyny, I understood they were just ambitious politicians completely ignorant of the teachings of Matthew: "Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them", 4:8. More shocking still were the Jews who defended Donald Trump, ignoring the shitstorm of Tweets and emails received by any journalist with a Jewish sounding last name who had criticized Trump, picturing them in an Auschwitz uniform or even in a gas chamber with Trump throwing the switch.

The murder last week of seventeen classmates and teachers by a young man with an AR15 at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida is a case study in emptiness (but there are numerous reminders and cases every American day). In Florida, a teenager who cannot buy a beer or a handgun can purchase a military grade weapon for mass murder. It is hard to understand why this would be. It is an easy thing to fix, and if the Florida legislature took the very limited step tomorrow of making the age to buy an AR15 the same as that to buy a beer or a handgun, certainly some people now alive will not die in the next few years as a result. But it will not happen. Since this is not an essay about gun control (and setting a three year higher age limit on AR15 purchases hardly qualifies as gun control) I am only interested in the mentality of apparently warm and human politicians like Marco Rubio, whio have taken substantial NRA donations, and who are able impassively to look at young survivors of school violence demonstrating outside their offices without experiencing a crippling remorse.

The world is full of people, men in particular, who radiate corruption: I am always surprised that anyone can look into Trump's face, or Gingrich's, without seeing how vain, self satisfied, immoral and ruined they are. But there are exceptions, and Rubio, who is young, handsome and charming, and apparently capable of warmth and laughter, is one of them. But he too must be a 1928 German for whom 1933 has dawned. I read an anecdote last week which was remarkable only for the rarity of similar accounts. In 1996, a Republican congress passed the Dickey Amendment, which stopped the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence. In 2015, shortly before his death, ex-Congressman Dickey said: " “I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time. I have regrets.”

i know now that Gandhi never actually said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world". Personally I have no other solution to being an activist in an empty world than to begin, defiantly, with my compassion as a cornerstone. This is more than a way of activism, but a way of life, of remaining sane, bringing meaning to life, which is very much a BYOM (bring your own meaning) enterprise. There is a Blake drawing of a man going through a doorway into darkness, lit by the glow of a planet or star he holds in his hand. St. Exupery said, "It is only with the heart one can see rightly". Whether my heart, and yours, can act as a solvent dissolving American emptiness is another matter. But I resolved (and resolve again every day) to live as if I were an optimist.