Monday, February 13, 2012

Romney, Obama and the 'empathy' debate

A South Indian poet said his heart bleeds whenever he sees a starved sheaf of corn. Another poet admonishes that all learning becomes moot if one cannot internalize the suffering of another. 'Empathy', it is reiterated, across ages and cultures, is one of the defining characteristic of being human. Christ, echoing similarities in Hinduism, asked that we treat every person as if we served the Lord himself. Given America's penchant to simplify a lofty philosophy, a question posed during Presidential elections is "amongst the candidates who would you like to have beer with?" another variant is "who would you prefer to have as your neighbor". 

When FDR's cortege wound it's way through Virginia seeing a common man weeping inconsolably a reporter asked him if he knew FDR personally. The commoner replied "I did not know him but he knew me". Gandhi, the leader and empathizer par excellence, not only dressed and led the life of the poorest of Indians but his instinctive knowledge of suffering has spun its own tales of legend. 

Romney appearing in a morning interview on CNN said, with a straight face, "I am not worried about the poor, they have a safety net, I am not worried about the rich, they are doing just fine. It's the middle class I worry about". All networks immediately relayed "Romney says he is not worried about the poor". People who call themselves conservatives to the bone cringed because according to deep conservative beliefs everyone should progress economically. Romney's comment fed into a double narrative, first that conservatives are cold and do not care about the poor, second a rich republican does not really care for the poor.

Obama held a youtube town hall where a woman asked him if he would consider reducing H1B visas in view of highly skilled Americans being unemployed. Her husband, a semiconductor engineer, remains unemployed. Obama's response was "It is interesting". 

During the 2008 primaries one criticism that kept hurting Obama was that he does not 'connect' with blue collar voters. Hillary herself was characterized as "cold" until she shed a tear on live telecast in New Hampshire. When Hillary, after a long string of defeats, defeated Obama decisively in Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries again a collective chorus of "Obama does not connect" went up. Hillary supporter and PA governor Ed Rendell said Obama has an "appalachian problem". To make matters worse Obama was recorded as saying that "people cling to their guns and religion". That fed into the conservative narrative that liberal look down upon simple folks and their faith. Obama's allies, especially Afro-americans, bristled at this characterization of him being 'aloof' and not empathetic. His allies pointed out indignantly that Obama's mother raised him on food stamps. 

On the day of 9/11 carnage Bush appeared on live TV and let tears roll down freely. Bill Clinton let his tears roll down receiving the caskets of US soldiers killed in Somalia. Presidents need to reflect a nations grief and they need to do it spontaneously.

President's also need to channel a nation's outrage and anger when enemies strike. When Bush said, about Osama Bin Laden, "there is an old poster out west that says 'wanted:dead or alive'" some in the press demurred at such language. But Americans nodded that their President understood them. Many democrats, in private whispered, "thank God Gore is not president he would be wooden".

Bill Clinton was very famous for being connected. It is said that if you stood in a room full of people and Bill Clinton talked to you for a minute he would make it appear that you were the only person in that room and he was intently listening only to you.

Obama is known to shun hobnobbing dinners and rope lines. Bill Clinton's oxygen was being connected. Gandhi, FDR, Nehru were all born rich. Both Clinton and Obama were born into poor homes. Whether somebody is rich or born poor has little to do with a person's ability to empathize. 

What about empathy amongst common men in their daily lives? That's for another day.

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