Thursday, May 13, 2004

Empathy as Fee Splitting Magnificence 

My experience of watching ABOUT IRAQ at the Quaker Center last week gnaws on me. What I keep thinking about is the way the audience reacted to the interview with -in particular-one Caucasian American soldier. It stays with me because THE REASON we were there to watch this film was to build empathy. I believe I'm correct in saying this.

It was an opportunity, a RARE opportunity for us to sit in a room, and view a recently made documentary about what is going on in Iraq. We were given the chance to see footage of the landscape of Baghdad, with it's incredible suffering, and it's beautiful art schools and museums and libraries destroyed beyond repair. We got to see our contribution to pain.

But it bothered me that when it came time to listen to an American GI tell his feelings about what it meant for him to be there, the audience hissed, and made fun of this man, making very obvious damning comments which landed square on this man's class. Okay, it was clear that the man didn't have the best education, didn't have the best command of English, and most likely came from poor, working people somewhere in the states. But most likely so did the Asian American and African American soldiers who were also interviewed in the documentary. But there was no sound whatsoever made when these soldiers were interviewed. And as soon as the white GI opened his mouth there was nonstop mockery, all around me, in the entire room.

I was literally sitting in the middle of about 70 to 80 audience members, 99% of us white, and probably 75% to 80% of the room making elitist comments and noise surrounding this white GI. Where was the empathy at this point? Why can't we have empathy HERE?

America's biggest problem isn't racial inequality, it's class. Racial and gender politics fall into line behind class. This is most evident with the gay community (if there actually is such a thing as the gay community, because I for one do not believe it exists in any way outside of class distinction.) The other night I was hanging out with my boyfriend (or whatever he is) and he wanted to watch Will & Grace. Frankly, I hate television outside of the news, but I said okay. And I was so appalled by that show. I'm glad I agreed to watch it finally, so that I could get a gauge on just how despicable it is. The writers of that show make me want to puke. Here we have the epitome of what gay culture is presently, not only as it appears to be seen, but how it actually is in some senses, but modified in such a way that it makes it seem okay. Will and Jack are trying to convert a fuzzy-faced gay man into an acceptable form for dating. Will openly talks about the role of gay men buying homes in poor neighborhoods to create a gentrified community, and run the poor people off the block.

Let me just stick with that example from the show. Open the Philadelphia Gay News and turn toward the back of the paper and you will see (no lie) FIVE FULL PAGES of sheriff sales. Unless you're gay, you're probably not opening the Philadelphia Gay News, and wouldn't know. But it's been this way for quite awhile now, that that newspaper devotes pages and pages of ink and paper to sheriff sales. Now, it's different if a family wants to buy a house, and they want to raise their children, etc. It's another thing altogether to buy blocks of houses from the cost of misfortune and to jack the prices, rents, taxes, etc., which then destroys neighbors who might have been living there for generations.

This is a very long example of what I'm meaning about empathy missing at the table when it comes to class. It's an old story, but we need to make it new. We need to STOP seeing this world as anything but ourselves, our collective lives. We need to start seeing how we affect everyone and everything with our daily purchases, our taxes we pay, etc.

Empathy is always strongest with those who suffer, or who at least encounter suffering. It's a very unpopular subject, but in the early 1970s when China forced teenagers in Shanghai and other large cities to move into the country to work on farms, it was empathy that was the goal. I'm NOT saying that I agree with the tactic, so don't start with the hate mail here. I'm saying that I believe that the ultimate GOAL was to create empathy. Actually, send hate mail, I don't care. It's true! That was the goal! Did it succeed? I'm sure in some cases yes, and others no. But I'll always remember dating Jian, a young man from Shanghai, who told me that if it had NOT been for this action made by his country's government, that his mother would not have been given the opportunity to become a doctor. And that most likely he today would not be studying at Jefferson in Philadelphia to also become a doctor. His mother grew up in a very poor farming community in rural China, a community Jian says which is always on the brink of starvation and disaster. And it was when city kids were made to work on the farms, that there were several well-off kids who worked on his mother's farm, and noticed her intelligence and curiosity for the world. They convinced their parents to help her go to college. And because of this, generations of lives in Jian's family would be forever changed. Now, we're also talking about Jian, who has no sympathy or empathy for the poor. He would LITERALLY say that the homeless should be exterminated for their own good. He had a cruelty and lack of empathy to him that eventually made it impossible for us to stay together, just one generation after his mother's hardships. But anyway, my long point here is that there have been cultures who have noticed the favorable sides of forced empathy. And of course it was horrible for these families in the cities to be split apart to complete the goals of this governmental program. It's awful, and I'm not recommending it, but my hope is that we find some way to achieve this form of empathy on our own, without tyrannical intervention.

We have of course experienced such things, in similar ways in the states. Forcing all-white communities to accept black students is forced empathy. And it was hard, very hard for everyone involved, but in the end was good. We've experienced this with forced bussing. Making a racial mix in the school system in the North as well as the South, in order to force empathy racially. It is interesting that it's ONLY been done to force racial empathy. We've NEVER ONCE (correct me if I'm wrong here) forced bussing to create class empathy. It's never been the case that we force rich kids in one PUBLICLY FUNDED Public School to attend classes with underprivileged PUBLICLY FUNDED Public School kids. Something to think about.

Maybe I seem FAR AWAY from my original topic with the viewing of ABOUT BAGHDAD, but I tell you I'm NOT! The fact is, we're living in a country where middle and upper middle class white people (to some degree) will have extraordinary guilt around racial issues, but will have NONE when it comes to -in particular-poor whites.

On Mother's Day when talking to my mother, she told me that my cousin Gloria's younger son just came back from Iraq. The high school had an event complete with marching band to welcome him home. I had thought, by the way, that he was in the marines, like his older brother, but he was in fact a reservist. Anyway, my mother started crying when talking about this. And I said to her how I understand that these young men in our family come from nothing, nothing in the sense of no money, and how REALLY FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE their situations are out there in Iowa. And how, putting on those uniforms not only gives them opportunities that they wouldn't easily come by -such as jobs, such as tuition money, etc.-but also, putting on those uniforms really makes them FEEL like SOMEBODY. And THAT is exactly what I was thinking when watching ABOUT BAGHDAD last week. That young white guy in his desert colored army fatigues was talking with pride. He believes he is there to do good, to help people. And you know what?, he PROBABLY IS! It's so easy for us to sit in a room in Philadelphia on Quaker owned land, and judge and mock this soldier. But he does believe it. He spoke with pride, and he spoke with confidence, and I'm not for one second agreeing with his statements about how he believes our president is doing a good job, but I do believe good changes have been made. You cannot watch this documentary ABOUT BAGHDAD and hear those horrible interviews from people about the tortures that they underwent under Saddam and NOT believe that there is some relief to some of the suffering. Are we creating more suffering in other ways? Of course! It would be idiotic to say anything but YES! But that young, 19 or 20 year old white kid believes strongly that he is empathizing with the people of Iraq. And I believe him.

The people in the audience who hissed and mocked him with "Gollllllly" and other dumb sounding language have some work to do on empathy. This war is without a doubt, to the benefit of the rich. It's the rich who should be mocked. It's the rich who are sending us there to build an empire unlike any the world has ever seen. The rich, and even the slightly rich in America have been buffering themselves (because they can afford to) from empathy for the poor. It's this buffer which endangers the existence of the human race. Dare I sound so dramatic? Yes.


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