Friday, June 22, 2018

Fatigue Plus

     If you’re my age or not far from it, you might remember a phrase prominent in the political rhetoric of the Eighties and Nineties: compassion fatigue. It was advanced by various commentators – overwhelmingly on the Left, of course – to “explain” why Americans appeared to be turning away from the welfarism of the Democrats and back to an embrace of capitalism without guilt. We were simply worn out from “caring.” We needed a break from the troubles of largely faceless others, supposedly so we could concentrate on things nearer and dearer to us personally. But we’d be back to “caring” soon enough: after the Reagan Aberration and the Republican Revolt were sufficiently far behind us.

     I found the argument curious then. I find it ludicrous today.

     About twenty years ago, I donned my Adam Smith hat and set forth my own thinking about “compassion,” real and imaginary:

The Circle Of Care

     I came of age in the Sixties, a time when America was gradually being turned upside down. And that having been said, I'll spare you any soliloquy about the Sixties. It's the upside-down part that matters.

     I don't recall exactly when I learned about the duty of charity toward the less fortunate, but it was probably in my Catholic grammar school. The nuns were quite insistent about the obligation to help one's fellow man, when he was in genuine need. Every classroom had a "poor box," filled by contributions from the students. Its contents were periodically totaled and used for some charitable undertaking -- and I don't mean buying a color television for a family that didn't yet have one, or dragging a "homeless" man into a government-run shelter; I mean providing food or clothing for a struggling family that hadn't quite managed to make ends meet that month. Blauvelt parish, a blue-collar sector of Rockland County, New York, always had a few such.

     A lot of things come to mind about that poor box and its uses, but none so strongly as this: no one ever suggested that the money be sent far away, to people none of us knew personally. It was to be employed right there, in Blauvelt parish, among the people we knew. This was so obvious, so fundamental to the concept of charity, that the contrary idea was never considered.

     "Charity" derives from the Latin word "caritas," the concern for others that springs from personal connection. A related word of Greek derivation is "sympathy," the ability to "feel with" another person. These are not relations one can truly have with faceless and nameless strangers at a distance.

     True charity requires proximity, for at least two reasons. First, the necessary personal connection, the sense that one is helping one's own, fails at any great remove. Second, human fallibility and weakness guarantee that, just as some will fail to prosper on their own, others will fail to employ charity properly; indeed, to receive money from others sometimes makes one's troubles worse. When this occurs, the giver must give no further, for other measures -- criticism, instruction, discipline -- are clearly indicated. With any separation between the benefactor and his beneficiary, it becomes impossible to know whether help helps in fact, or only in theory and intention.

     Compare this ancient, common-sense approach to charity, preserved and perpetuated by all the great religious institutions of Man, to the modern concept. Today, our media would have us believe that charity is about voting for tax-funded, government-administered programs to redistribute our income to others we don't know. Some of the supposed beneficiaries are in far places where America and Americans are routinely vilified for their prosperity and derided for their generosity. Whatever rules modern charity observes are determined and enforced by salaried bureaucrats who pay no costs for any mistake. Volunteers and private institutions that attempt to take a role are tolerated, but distrusted. The apostles of modern charity would prefer that all of it be under the watchful eye of government monitors, to insure that no misleading messages about the importance of sobriety, continence, or self-reliance are packaged with the gifts.

     Obviously, there's been some change to the concept. I'd like to leave aside the political implications of this change for a moment and concentrate on the inversion of the circle of care.

     If proximity was regarded as the most important of the requirements of the old concept, it is considered no better than optional under the new one, and quite possibly a detriment. If personal concern, for both the bodies and the souls of others of one's direct acquaintance, was the fuel for the charity of old, the motive power of the new charity is rules: rules that direct the bureaucrat to shower largesse without regard for its actual effects, and rules that punish the citizen brutally if he attempts to avoid "contributing."

     The new concept of charity first rose over the old one in the late Sixties, when the American welfare state began its explosive growth. In the years since then, we've seen many other things explode as well: crime, vice, filth in the streets, and social pathologies such as fatherlessness and illegitimacy whose effects have eclipsed even the darkest predictions.

     Meanwhile, law-abiding, self-supporting Americans of the cities, they who are mulcted for the funds that support the new charity, have been drawing in upon themselves, isolating themselves as best they can from the madness that surges around them. Their circles of care have contracted to hold only themselves and their immediate families.

     Count Leo Tolstoy once spent a night wandering the streets of St. Petersburg, giving to the poor whom he encountered until his pockets were empty and his energy was spent. At the end of his sojourn, those to whom he'd given were a little better off for a short time, but he knew and admitted that he'd made no lasting difference in their lives, that as soon as they'd exhausted the night's benison, the darkness would return. He concluded that one should act with love toward those whom God has placed in his path, rather than to ride forth and scatter his substance widely and without regard for efficacy.

     Who are the needy whom God has placed in our path? Are they not our family members, neighbors and friends? Is it not these whom our circle of care should encompass?

     I still feel that way. Indeed, I’m ever more convinced that the politicization of “compassion” has transformed what was once a virtue into a vice: a way to feel virtuous without actually doing the work, and a way to feel superior to others who hold dissenting opinions.

     Yes, there was a lot of fatigue over it...but not because Americans had ceased to “care,” however that might be interpreted.

     I see my function – no, it wasn’t assigned to me by some authority – as noting the patterns and parallels others don’t deign to mention. One of the patterns most notable in contemporary American life is how the gulf between Left and Right manifests in the distribution of our attention. This isn’t a new topic, even here at Liberty’s Torch. However, an uber-pattern of importance has gone largely undiscussed. I’ve come to see it as critically important: certainly important enough to break out the large font:

Every one of the Left’s tactics induces fatigue in those at whom it’s aimed: we in the Right.

     It might not have been planned that way by a gathering of Leftist strategists huddled over a guttering candle. (Actually, I’d prefer to think that it was.) Yet the pattern is strong: the use of endless, mindless repetition and the vilification, not only of prominent public figures but of those of us who dare to have opinions that diverge from the Left, induces a terrible weariness in everyone on the receiving end. The principal response to deep weariness is to absent oneself, to find a retreat in which one will be free of the wearying influence.

     In the matter of political engagement, that means a retreat from politics.

     One of the open secrets about the American electorate is how fundamentally conservative it is. The great majority of us aren’t political activists in any sense. We merely want to be left alone to labor over our own vines and fig trees, where “none shall make me afraid.” But that majority went largely unnoticed in the years between the Reagan Administration and the election of Donald Trump.

     A fundamental virtue of a regime of limited government is that it makes it possible for the average Joe to ignore the State most of the time. When governments burst their bonds and begin to intrude into every area of human life and enterprise, this is no longer possible. The private citizen is compelled, for the sake of his life, liberty, and bank balance, to be aware of the State, in whichever form it’s relevant, regardless of what he’s doing or contemplating. And that is supremely wearying.

     It’s natural for the citizen so State-ridden to “pull in his horns:” to shrink his circles of activity and sociality to the point where the State is unlikely to notice him. In a sense it’s a survival response, as allowing one’s energies to be sapped by engagement with a parasitical force one cannot negotiate with, much less control, reduces the resources available to cope with more immediate needs.

     I suspect that the commonplace “they’re all thieves so why bother?” representations of the politically disengaged are largely cosmetic, donned to conceal a deep weariness that it would embarrass them to express. I further suspect that that weariness is one of the goals of the political Establishment, predominantly on the Left but with a growing component among prominent supposed conservatives as well.

     Time was, I believed that the attitude toward popular engagement with the political system went as follows:

  1. The Democrats seek a high degree of engagement, from the belief that their positions are the more popular.
  2. The Republicans seek a low degree of engagement, from the belief that their positions are the less popular.
  3. However, if the Democrats expect the turnout to be low, they’ll work to lower it still further, because the cohorts that most reliably vote are its mascots: e.g., government workers, union members, and welfare state clients.

     The developments of recent decades have caused me to revise those opinions:

  1. Non-Establishment Republicans, knowing that the country is fundamentally conservative, want a high turnout, especially in the “heartland” states typically disdained by the Democrats and their media allies.
  2. The Democrats would prefer to depress “heartland” turnout, which would raise the profile and the power of the coastal regions where its mascots are numerous and its media allies are influential.
  3. The political Establishment, regardless of party, would prefer that only its allegiants and hangers-on be politically alert and engaged. That way lies the indefinite perpetuation of its power, prestige, and perquisites.

     For group 1 in the revised enumeration, an energized citizenry that welcomes political engagement is critical. For groups 2 and 3, inducing political fatigue in the electorate would appear to be a potent strategy.

     I could go on from here in several directions. I could note the sameness of the nightly news broadcasts, which repeat the same stories night after night and routinely privilege the positions and statements of the Left. I could note the world-weary attitudes and soporific styles of the most prominent “conservative” commentators, nearly all of whom remain NeverTrump diehards who’d rather drink hemlock than allow that the president is amassing a formidable list of achievements. (I could also note the old “joke” definition of “conservative:” “One who never wants anything to be done for the first time.”) But I trust my Gentle Readers’ intelligence will make that unnecessary.

     I don’t have a detailed prescription for how best to resist induced political fatigue. An important component of the strategy might be to pay less attention to the news – not zero, but sufficiently less that its mind-numbing effects fall to a level one can easily resist. Another component might be to allocate a greater share of one’s attention to local affairs, for it’s the government nearest to you that has the greatest likelihood of (and propensity for) doing you harm. We who prattle about the need for term limits on federal offices – highly desirable, to be sure, but impossible without a Constitutional amendment – seldom take note of the lifelong careers local politicians spend in town, county, and state offices, whether elective or appointive.

     In any event, let’s contrive to remain energized. If it means turning off the television and spending less time at the computer, so be it. Don’t let “them” weary us out of our freedom.

1 comment:

Manu said...

I've long felt the same way about compassion. God may have an unlimited amount of compassion, and the knowledge to deploy it perfectly. Man does not. It's folly to think we do.

But people we know, people we interact with... friends, family, community... that is a different matter. And looking back on it, the way to help those nearest to us isn't usually with a few alms.

I introduced one of my oldest friends to his future wife, and they are quite happy together (she is pregnant with their first). That feels good! I am very happy to have been of service to my friend.

Another friend I've known since middle school has had a rough time in life. But his problem wasn't really money. To someone who didn't know him it would seem he needed money. What he really needed was someone to talk to. A good example. A little advice here and there. Today, his life is put together again. Oh, he'll never be living in the lap of luxury, but he does okay for himself, has a family, and turned things around in part because his friends were there for him when things were bleak.

Here's a funny one. Once, when I was leaving a company to get a higher paying job elsewhere, I realized that a friend of mine and old coworker from a previous job, could use a boost in pay himself. I called him, told him I had quit my position, and recommended him as my replacement. It was more money for him, and left my coworkers at the company I was leaving in a good spot - they got someone I know was competent and could do the job.

Now, I'm not trying to brag, or blow the moral trumpet before me. I do these things because, at the time, they felt right to do. I desire no credit, nor praise - in fact, quite the opposite. I would feel bad if I did not take the opportunity to help my friends, when such chances presented themselves.

And you know, Francis... when the government takes my money and hands it to so me random person I'll never meet, I feel robbed. Not just robbed of money (though that too), but also robbed of the ability to feel genuinely good about a bit of help I might have done.