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Empathy – the Enemy?

 

I read an interesting piece by Mark Steyn recently that questioned to oft-vaunted “empathy” of the Left.  The occasion for this discussion was the horror that some members of the media showed when Rick Santorum explained the circumstances around the death of an infant child.  In brief: though told that the baby would live only hours outside the womb, Mr. and Mrs. Santorum decided to take the child home so that the family could meet him.  Basically, he decided to treat his non-viable child like…a life.  How strange.

Steyn points out the irony of the “empathetic” Left showing horror at this occasion:

The Left endlessly trumpets its “empathy.” President Obama, for example, has said that what he looks for in his judges is “the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.” As he told his pro-abortion pals 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.” Empathy, empathy, empathy: You barely heard the word outside clinical circles until the liberals decided it was one of those accessories no self-proclaimed caring progressive should be without.

Of course, the irony goes deeper than this instance.  The Left’s empathy ends when it meets people with whom it disagrees:

The Left’s much-vaunted powers of empathy routinely fail when confronted by those who do not agree with them politically. Rick Santorum’s conservatism is not particularly to my taste (alas, for us genuine right-wing crazies, it’s that kind of year), and I can well see why fair-minded people would have differences with him on a host of issues… The usual rap against the Right is that they’re hypocrites — they vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, and next thing you know they’re playing footsie across the stall divider with an undercover cop at the airport men’s room. But Rick Santorum lives his values, and that seems to bother the Left even more.

All this has me wondering if empathy is much good at all.  I recently completed Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve.  If you aren’t familiar with systems theory, you probably should be.  His basic argument in this book is that leaders lead best who lead themselves.  That is, the best leaders are able to remain connected while staying differentiated (not “bound up” on a core level with those one leads).  Doing so enables leaders to take well-defined stances that, if maintained, encourage growth on the part of those around her or him.

Empathy, as it turns out, is counterproductive to this model of leadership (and maturity).  Friedman points out that “empathy” entered our language very recently, and yet in its short history has come to be viewed as indispensable in all kinds of professions and contexts.

“As lofty and noble as the concept of empathy may sound, and as well-intentioned as those may be who make it the linchpin idea of their theories…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the “sensitive”…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of “empathy” into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

The basic assumption of empathy is understanding.  The classic illustration is that sympathy can look down on someone from above with pity, but empathy puts us right next to the person in trouble.  Friedman’s argument – and he is not a reactionary arch-conservative but a Reformed Rabbi and counselor – is that the empathetic stance is actually counter-productive to the growth and “self-regulation” (read: maturation, development, positive change) of the others we seek to help.

The bottom line:

“Forces that are un-self-regulating can never be made to adapt toward the strength of a system by trying to understand or appreciate their nature…it is self-regulation, not feeling for others, that is critical in the face of entities which lack that quality.” (133-135).

What do you think?  Is empathy actually holding back our churches, families, and communities?  Is empathy the enemy?

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Obama Endorses American Exceptionalism(?)

Has the President been reading National Review?  The day after a column by Rich Lowry defended the oft-debated notion of American Exceptionalism, Obama seemed to endorse precisely the core tenets of the doctrine.  The Weekly Standard points it out thusly:

The day after Rich’s column appeared, on January 1, President Obama asserted in his weekly address that “we’ve had the good fortune to grow up in the greatest nation on Earth.” Then, in case anyone missed it, Obama repeated eight sentences later that he’s confident we can “do what it takes to make sure America remains in the 21st century what it was the 20th: the greatest country in the world.”

Has anyone on the multiculturally-inclined left caught on to this? Surely some of Obama’s cultured sycophants will not stand for this.  For the time being, as the Weekly Standard concludes,

…we look forward to denunciations from the usual enlightened quarters of this vulgar expression of American chauvinism and boastful claim of American exceptionalism by an American president.

 

Note: For my leftist friends, National Review and Weekly Standard are both conservative magazines.  Clicking on the links in this blog may cause your liberal friends to disown you.

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“The Judgment That Judgments Are Wrong…”: Scruton on Contemporary Culture

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A very handsome Roger Scruton.  Foxy.

I’ve been a fan from afar of Roger Scruton for quite some time now.  He is a brilliant and sometimes hysterical British thinker whose published works range subjects as diverse as aesthetics and fox hunting.   In an attempt to become more philosophically adept, I’m reading his An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy.

Philosophy really, really is not my gig.  I’d prefer to read one of Scruton’s works of political theory; he is a British conservative, which means that his reflections are often as sweet as honey compared to what passes for conservatism in the US.  But I need some philosophy bad.  On the whole, this is an interesting and satisfying little book.  Reading all 164 pages is worth it for gems like this:

Nothing in this world is fixed: intellectual life is one vast commotion, in which a myriad voices strive to be heard above the din.  But as the quanity of communication increases, so does its quality decline; and the most important sign of this is that it is no longer acceptable to say so.  To criticize popular taste is to invite the charge of elitism, and to defend distinctions of value – between the virtuous and the vicious, the beautiful and the ugly, the sacred and the profane, the true and the false – is to offend against the only value-judgment that is widely accepted, the judgment that judgments are wrong. (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, [New York: Penguin 1996] 12)

Of course, if he’s right, it may mean that most of us ego-centric bloggers are only contributing to the increasing quantity of communication, with its resultant damage to the quality of discourse.  Oh well.  I try my best to buck this trend.

Oh, and one more thing: Scruton has the stones to call Michael Foucault a “fraud.” (8)  Zing!

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Hating Conservatives

http://thestar.blogs.com/.a/6a00d8341bf8f353ef0120a782fbc3970b-800wi

Howard Dean talking to a conservative kitty-cat.

From the National Review:

….the Left thinks the Right is evil. Granting the exceptions that all generalizations allow for, conservatives believe that those on the left are wrong, while those on the left believe that those on the right are bad. Examples are innumerable. Howard Dean, the former head of the Democratic party, said, “In contradistinction to the Republicans, Democrats don’t believe kids ought to go to bed hungry at night.” Rep. Alan Grayson (D., Fla.), among many similar comments, said, “I want to say a few words about what it means to be a Democrat. It’s very simple: We have a conscience.”

The point is not that there is no hatred for the left to be found on the right – far from it.  But rather, leftist hatred of conservatives is accepted by the mainstream and acceptable from its most public spokespersons.  As the piece goes on to say,

Would mainstream conservative journalists e-mail one another wishes that they could be present while Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi or Michael Moore died slowly and painfully of a heart attack?

and

Has any spokesman of the Republican party ever said anything analogous about Democrats’ not caring about the suffering of children or not having a conscience?



I’m open to the possibility of someone proving the thesis of this article wrong.  It’s a fair critique to say that the typical reader of the National Review is not going to be sensitive to outlandish statements against liberals by conservatives (including myself).

But I think the point stands, and it is an interesting one.  The amount of vitriol on the left seems to be reaching newer and newer heights.  This is odd from the set that claims to be more sensitive, tolerant, and open than its opponents.  But it’s also detrimental to our ongoing conversation as a democratic people.

Good government demands that citizens be capable of decent, maybe even virtuous, political discourse.  The less we practice this basic part of civic life, the worse our situation will become.  And while the right certainly has its folks who are harmful to this end – here’s looking at you, Glenn Beck – on the left, the most vile kinds of political hate-mongering seem to be increasingly acceptable from the leaders of America’s left.

To paraphrase Jean Bethke Elshtain – when addressing a different kind of hate – “One cannot effectively critique what one loathes.”

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The 4th and the Lord’s Table

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Like many other United Methodist churches, we will celebrate Communion on this first Sunday of the month.  Of course, it is also the 4th of July, a time for many Americans to drape themselves in the red, white, and blue, enjoy small explosives (called fireworks), and sing songs about their love of America.

Christian pastors and theologians disagree over what kind of challenge the 4th of July and the celebration of Christian worship represents.  Is it a conflict of competing political orders? Is it “The Kingdom” vs “The Flag”?  In North American evangelical circles, a renewed interest in Anabaptist ecclesiology has led many to see this – rather simple – bifurcation as the story of this Sunday.

I don’t buy this though.  Augustine spoke of natural forces by which our “bonds of affection” would create earthly loyalties in the civic arena.  The City of Man is not to be confused with the City of God, but it too, has its place.  For me, then, the issue becomes one of rightly ordering our loyalties.  And granted, in the modern West, this is a difficult task.  One reason I am wary of those who worship government authority is a theological conviction that we should not expect from the State what God alone can provide (for instance, eternal security, comfort, and peace).  The goods of the state are always contingent and apt to fail, and we should treat the state as such.

The details of this, when it comes to doing church, are where the devil lies.  Some churches turn their Sunday morning into a full-scale patriotic celebration (and think nothing of it).  Others will make a point to do nothing remotely patriotic in the interest of loyalty to Jesus or love of being counter-cultural (some think that these are the same things).  I’m trying to trod a middle path…though I like to think I’m being a bit ironic by using a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer on a day when we celebrate our independence from Britain.  I think we can and should recognize what the people in the pews are celebrating, join with them when we can, criticize it when we should, but all the while try to keep it about Jesus.

The peaceful life of families and communities that we all appreciate would not be possible without the political “sword” that Paul speaks of in Romans 13.  At the end of the day, the sword of order that is a gift of God’s love is wielded by flesh and blood, men and women who have made and continue to make great sacrfices so that we might be able to worship, love, party, sleep, and die in peace.  People like my friends George, David, Alicia, and Trish.  Their service, and that of our forebears, deserves praise – but not the same praise that is reserved for God alone.

I think an example of this “middle way” is found in the communion liturgy for tomorrow that has been suggested by the United Methodist Church.  Perhaps this makes me a “company man,” but I think they struck the right tone and balance here.  What do you think?

A Great Thanksgiving for Independence Day

Hoyt Hickman and Taylor Burton-Edwards

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Almighty God, Creator of the universe,
Ruler of all nations, Judge of all flesh,
you have placed us, your people, in this land made rich
with rivers, forests, mountains, and creatures great and small.
Here, you set before the founders and pioneers of this nation
an opportunity beyond measure
to build a realm of justice, peace, and freedom.
Here you continue to call your people,
freed from the law and baptized into Christ Jesus,
to be a sign of your reign in all the world.
For such a place, such a vision
and such a calling we give you thanks,
praying we may ever join afresh the dreams you set before us
as we join with your people in every land on earth
and with all the company of heaven
in your unceasing praise:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Above all we give you thanks
for the gift of your Son Jesus Christ,
who sends us into the world
to declare the good news of your kingdom
to every creature:
Justice to all peoples,
good news to the poor,
release for prisoners,
sight for the blind,
and freedom for the oppressed.

On the night before he was arrested and sentenced to death
by the authorities of his own nation,
he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to his disciples,
and said: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.”

When supper was over,
he took the cup, gave thanks, gave it to his disciples,
and said, “Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the covenant
poured out for you and for many,
for the forgiveness of sins.”

And so we remember and proclaim the mystery of faith.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

We pour ourselves out before you in praise and thanksgiving,
a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us.

So pour out your Spirit
on us and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make Christ known to us in the breaking of this bread,
and the sharing of this cup.
Renew our fellowship in him,
that we may be for the world his body
poured out for the world
at this time in this nation,
and at that great banquet in the fullness of your new creation
where justice flows like rivers,
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,
where none shall hunger or thirst,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

By him, with him, and in him,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor is yours, almighty God,
now and ever. Amen.


Copyright General Board of Discipleship. www.GBOD.org Used by permission.

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I can’t stand Glenn Beck because…

….sometimes I have to hate myself a little bit for agreeing with him in even the smallest way. Case in point: I have to agree with him in disliking the terms “economic justice” and “social justice.”  But in his equation of this idea with Nazism and Communism, and his advising people to leave churches that teach and preach this, I cannot find words strong enough to condemn his virulent comments.

I’ve covered this territory before, but I’m guessing all the Beck-hate will garner a lot of new traffic thanks to a provocative title (yes, this means you).  Face the facts: no one can define what “social justice” or “economic justice” means.  This doesn’t mean they are super-secret “code words” for totalitarianism, though they are generally associated with people of a leftist persuasion.  Both terms describe various schemes for distributive justice.  Some conservative commentators have pointed out that anyone government powerful enough to establish a perfect state of “social” justice would be unjust by the sheer fact of its magnitude, coercion, and requisite violation of the private sphere of life.  In other words, if advocates of social justice had their way, the policies the would require to fulfill their vision would likely run roughshod over the rights of many others – particularly property rights – in pursuit of their ends.

This does not mean mean advocates of distributive justice are all totalitarians in our midst.  It is simply an undefined bit of language that some on the left use to denote a whole host of attitudes with no single definition.  On the right, an equivalently problematic and undefined phrase might be “family values.”  In my experience, most people who advocate social justice are good-hearted souls who want to help people, particularly the poor and oppressed (however defined).  If they are guilty of not thinking through all the presuppositions of their language, well, that makes them anything but special.

But Glenn, you’re a carbuncle on the face of American conservatism.  I wish you were in a less unsavory place, like the buttocks or armpit where no one would see you, but the fact is your brand of populist nonsense is front and center on the airwaves.  The sad part is, this is coming from someone who has watched his share of Fox News – so don’t go calling me a Commie.  You desperately need a lobotomy or a kick in the pants, maybe both.

We have enough people leaving churches.  Our modern suspicion of all institutions, traditions, and authorities, is taking care of that.  There are good reasons to leave churches – we all know this.  But social justice? Really?  Was it that slow of a news day?

Do us all a favor: crawl into a hole, shut your mouth, read the Bible until you have enough humility to realize it should stay shut permanently, and find something useful to do with your time that does not involve infecting American politics with your bleating lunacy.

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Scott Brown and (slow) change we can believe in…

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The election of Scott Brown to the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is being seen, and I believe rightly so, as at least a partial referendum on President Obama’s first year.  Obama and his PR machine have chalked up the recent setback – and dwindling approval ratings – to not getting the message across. For a President that is more media-savvy and media-beloved than any in recent memory, this seems ludicrous.  President Obama’s problem is not that people don’t *get* the message – but rather, precisely the opposite.  (How could we not get the message with THIS LEVEL of media exposure??)

Obama was elected on the promise of “hope” in some degree of “change” that he would bring to the White House.  He rode a wave of (especially) youth support to a victory (not a landslide, though) over John McCain.  The Republicans, in my view, rightly paid for many years of not living up to their own beliefs with George W. Bush, especially in fiscal matters – and of course, W’s woeful public persona.  Personally, I liked the man and still do, but his public attributes fit Texas much more than the international scene.

And so, Obama was elected to get us back “on course.”  “The world” was so happy that Americans agreed with them on the Presidency of George W. Bush, that they hurried to give Obama unearned accolades (the dynamite-prize for peace, in particular).  What change would come?

Hard to tell, so far.  The radical, anti-war left has been unhappy with his ratcheting up of the war in Afghanistan.  Many of the young supporters that were so hyped up during the campaign have retreated to their dorm rooms, back to listening to their iPods and watching ghastly excuses for entertainment like ‘Jersey Shore’.  And an attempt at hurrying through sweeping legistation that would dramatically (and permanently!) alter the entire American health care sector has gone, by any measure, less than smoothly.

And now, with Scott Brown’s election, there is chance that it may not work at all.  Why the turnabout?  I think this change in our medical system is, for better or worse, inevitable.  But I fervently believe that the Obama administration has attempted too much, too fast (not unlike W trying to get Social Security “fixed” immediately after his reelection).  Winning roughly 60% of voters to your cause does not give you the mandate, whoever you are, to rush through such major changes.

Obama’s election has woken up a sleeping Right.  Conservatives, unfortunately, tend to criticize better than they govern.  Yes, there are extremes, and they are sometimes deplorable (on both sides).  I believe, though, that we are seeing that Americans are, as is often said, a center-right country.  Being by and large moderately conservative, though, does not mean we are opposed to all change.  Conservatives seek to do precisely that – conserve – not cement.  We believe that a government does its best work when it goes slow.  Incidentally, this is why the Constitution was set up with so many checks and balances, and such flexibility.  Ours is a great system because it is highly adaptable but not in short periods of time.  So, President Obama, perhaps we want your change. It is hard to tell at the moment.  But you can be sure of this: we are in no hurry.  If your program is indeed what’s best for us, take your time with it.  I am not one of your supporters, but I hope that those who are will insist on this: take it slow.

A historical aside:

Why do conservatives prefer slow change? Quite frankly, because we generally trust what is, what is known, what has been practiced and found true, more than what might be preferable around the corner.  Edmund Burke, writing just as the French Revolution was entering its darkest days, wrote the following:

…we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.

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