Monday, December 17, 2012

A New Age of Sympathy?

I had not intended to reintroduce Ain't Studying You with this post, but I've been doing so much writing and thinking on gun violence in the US that it seemed appropriate.

I nearly typed that I'd been doing thinking "in the wake of Newtown." I hesitate there because I am disturbed by the tendency to disconnect Newtown from Kansas City, Jacksonville, Sanford, not to mention the number of fatalities by guns or drones that remain untold and publicly unmourned.

It seems important to think about the injunction to feel worse about this loss of life than about others. (I'm drawing here on Fred Moten's crystalline explanation of the demand on the so-called Left for "more feeling" for the dead of 9/11 than those innocent dead of US strikes before or after it.) The distribution of sympathy--as much as that of wealth, rights, and guns--remains a life or death matter. What follows is, quite simply, a call to feel more often about more people.

Sanford, Fla. v. Newton, Conn.
Though even his opponents claim the election of the First Black President signaled the dawn of the postracial, caution told President Obama to take two weeks before issuing an oblique statement that a hypothetical son of his "would look like Trayvon [Martin]." To his credit, he expressed deep sympathy with Martin's parents and said that "every parent in America should be able to understand why it is imperative we investigate every aspect of this." Many were contented, even elated by the "look like Trayvon" sound bite. In that satisfaction, though was lost the doubtful word should. Compare "every parent in America should be able to understand [the need for an investigation]" with Friday's statement, made with the assurance of national sympathy after Newtown: "Our hearts are broken." 

Given that friends and foes alike find President Obama a politician who speaks from consideration rather than from impulse, the difference between these two statements is unlikely to be accidental.

The "would look like Trayvon" remark was not accompanied by tears or a hint of them. No flags flew at half mast.†
†And before it is said that "one child" matters less than "twenty," I would like to say 1) not when it's your child and 2) by that measure, Americans should grieve the dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya more than the smaller number of US soldiers who died fighting them.

Sympathy as Property

Neither the President nor his advisors are fools. Sympathy is jealously guarded property in this country because fellow-feeling is understood to make a claim on the sympathizer. To be credited as sincere, the person of feeling must wed said feelings to public actions: joining the rescue effort in NOLA, opening one's home to a woman and her children caught outdoors in Sandy, or, at the very least, texting in a donation to the Red Cross. Without these outward signs, the Puritan influence on national morality leads us to suspect hypocrisy: the discrepancy between action and inward thought. 

Expressing sympathy levies a tax on one's resources of time, care, and money. And you know how violently opposed some Americans now are to taxes, even purely emotional ones.

The right to revoke sympathy--and with it citizenship, personhood, and even life itself--has not yet been distributed equally in the US or on a global scale.

Last night, I was watching a special about the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson. Speaking to an interviewer during the years of her fundraising concerts for the SCLC and other civil rights organizations, she discussed two important ironies. First, she wondered at her dichotomous experiences in the South, ecstatically received by white audiences in public halls but harassed by police for Driving While Black afterward. (Jackson had the ingenious strategy of having a white friend on call for the police to ring. The white friend would claim ownership of the Cadillac and say Mahalia had her permission to drive it and was bringing it home soon.) Second, she talked about her days as a young woman in NOLA working as a domestic, when she was entrusted with the rearing of white children. Despite the myriad ways that she was reminded daily of whites' contempt for her, she said that she, as a Christian, struggled and found a way to love those children.

The routinized imbalances of the distribution of sympathy in the US are apparent in Jackson's memories of the expectation that she nurture white children but expect no reciprocity. To put it bluntly, black people are expected to be able to sympathize with white victimhood as a condition of inclusion in the nation. Let us not forget that even the Nation of Islam--which held that white people were the creation of an evil scientist--censured Malcolm X for his refusal to feel worse about the assassination of Kennedy than he did about any of the atrocities committed against nonwhite people at home or abroad.

There was no equivalent requirement that white people reciprocate the sympathies Mahalia Jackson offered the children in her care. The election of a black President may have inched us somewhere closer to it. I can't tell because I'm not good at predicting the future. 

The Blond Boy and the National Soul
In terms of how we got here, we have habits of identifying with some and detaching from others--a historical legacy reinforced by technologies of lighting, Kodachrome, and other tools that make white people in every medium look SO good in every sense of the term. This is the point of film scholar Richard Dyer's awe-inspiring book White. In terms of my own practice in identifying with whites, I think about how many episodes of Law and Order: SVU rehash the plot of the Macaulay Culkin vehicle, The Good Son: Can you believe that this beautiful, blond boy could be so evil and at such a young age? Surely not. But there he is, torturing cats, stabbing other children. From all appearances, his parents aren't drunks or molesters, aren't neglectful. How could this be? He seemed like such a nice boy.

I can say I don't believe anybody--least of all this blond American boy--is that innocent. I can laugh at the obvious television cliché. I can note the preponderance of white male mass killers, sympathize with black victims of violence. But when I speak to, for, and as the nation, I have had to speak on behalf of that blond boy.

His innocence, impossible to sully, appears on every procedural, even on my departed favorite The Closer. The character, it should be said, is not one that I've ever seen cast in a colorblind way. There simply isn't as stubborn a presumption of innocence for any other group. There is no discrepancy between, for example, a black child's appearance and his conduct to ponder. I have certainly seen black, Asian, and Latino children cast as innocent victims, but never as destructive people who yet retain the smack of guiltlessness. How does our fair-haired national mascot continue to "seem like such a nice boy"--despite substantial evidence to the contrary? 

I would venture to say that he is an ideal reflection of the American ego-ideal. He is the mascot of our belief in our individual and national innocence, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The President and his advisers know this icon well, and they know not to discount his position as emblem of the national soul. That is why, when the President and First Lady speak for the nation, they invariably speak of America as successfully combatting evil that originates in some outside force: Nazism, a faltering economy. Slavery, the Civil War, and Jim Crow, Indian Removal, sweatshop labor, proxy wars: all of these necessarily disappear from the narrative because they too clearly show the US either as a perpetrator of evil or as internally torn between good and evil impulses. So the slaveholders, the robber barons, and those against women's suffrage get rewritten as something other than what they were: tremendously influential Americans who were able to impose inequality as a patriotic imperative for decades.

In the resulting narrative, American prosperity is evidence of some abiding, internal good. It's American exceptionalism with a Providential stamp of approval. Admittedly, those who wallow in every sin of omission and commission in relation to others surely find themselves incapable of acting. To live with other people is inevitably to hurt them, in large and tiny ways. For precisely that reason, it's very dangerous for anyone--a priest, a parent, or the world's last remaining Superpower--to assert a perpetual right of self-exoneration. 

That's why, in the Christian faith, any possibility for human goodness derives from Christ's sacrifice. The plain lesson of my years of Catholic education was that no human alive could withstand judgment and be found innocent. You don't have to believe Jesus is God--or that there is a God at all--to know that whatever goodness we have 1) is a gift modeled, implanted, and nurtured by someone outside ourselves and 2) results from the sacrifice of others on our behalf.

To know these two things is not to collapse into the belief that humankind is fundamentally and exclusively evil. But to know them makes it much harder to enact vengeance and to justify it in perpetuity by insisting that our personal mythology speaks more compellingly than the evidence of the hurt we cause. A blond white child may be the US's ego-ideal, but this fair-haired boy has done damage at home and abroad that cannot be explained away as the "boys-will-be-boys" pranks of a Dennis the Menace.

It would seem an expansion of sympathy can begin to address the actual damage caused by our nation's inner blond child. For, in the world outside The Good Son and police procedurals, the dead cats are someone else's dead children. For them, there have been no tears, no flags at half mast, and no urgent calls for legislation. In an enlarged circle of sympathy, that failure would be seen as a shame--not because other people have to be recognizable as some version of me to gain my respect but because they are inherently deserving of it whether I can place myself in their shoes or not.


  1. Point well stated. I guess now one of the obvious questions is: how to rally the grassroots troops? Lord knows the politicians don't budge until the money does, or the people force.

  2. Speaking of the President's role as "voice of the nation," he must be credited, again, for bringing the 400 deaths in Chicago in the same conversation as the Newtown murders. Nevertheless, the national profile (quite literally, the national face) does not include them. The President is not the culprit here but, rather, the national opposition to the tax of sympathy.

    Of course, Vijay Prashad was here before I was: