Evil as the Absence of Empathy

Published on DissidentVoice,org, by Ernest Partridge, July 26th, 2008.

… In 1946, Dr. Gustav M. Gilbert, a psychologist fluent in German, was assigned by the U.S. Army to study the minds and motivations of the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg tribunals. The following year, his Nuremberg Diary was published, containing transcripts of his conversations with the prisoners. (Excerpts here: Nuremberg Diary, by G.M. Gilbert, 488 pages, 1995 Da Capo Press).

In words consistent with what I have read of, and about, Gustav Gilbert, he is portrayed in the 2000 TV film Nuremberg, as telling the Head Prosecutor Robert Jackson (Alex Baldwin): “I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants: a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

“Absence of empathy” is likewise, I submit, “the one characteristic that connects” most of the immoral and misbegotten tenets of Bushism: that dogmatic mix of market absolutism, libertarianism, corporatism and simple greed that falsely describes itself as “conservatism,” and which I choose to call “regressivism.” “Absence of empathy” is the essence of evil which, if unchecked and unreversed, is certain to bring about the demise of the American republic as we know it, just as it led to the fall of the Third Reich.

In contrast, empathy, the capacity to recognize and cherish in other persons, the experience, emotions and aspirations that one is aware of in oneself, is the moral cornerstone of progressive politics. It is a principle recognized and taught in all the great world religions, reiterated by numerous moral philosophers, and validated by the scientific study of human personality

… Regressivism and the Absence of Empathy: Empathy is conspicuously absent in the off-hand remarks of George Bush, his family, and his political allies. For example:

  • Bush himself, to an ordinary citizen after a campaign event: “Who cares what you think?” And to Bob Woodward: “History, we don’t know. We’ll all be dead.”
  • The President’s mother, Barbara Bush, on Good Morning America: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths. Oh, I mean, it’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?” (March 18, 2003).
  • Dick Cheney, in an exchange with ABC reporter, Martha Raddatz:

Raddatz: Two-third of Americans say [the Iraq War] is not worth fighting.

Cheney: So?

Raddatz: So? You don’t care what the American people think?

Cheney: No….

  • John McCain: “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” And in response to the news that cigarettes are a major US export to Iran, McCain remarked that it might be “a way of killing ‘em.”
  • Former Senator Phil Gramm, economic advisor to John McCain, in an interview with the Washington Times, remarked that the American economy is in “a mental recession.: “We’ve sort of become a nation of whiners,” he added.

The foundational doctrines of regressivism are equally devoid of empathy. For example, Ayn Rand: “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy.. the process of setting man free from men.” (The Fountainhead) And “Man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” (The Virtue of Selfishness) …

… But these are not normal circumstances, for this regime is supported by a formidable array of resources: virtually unlimited financial support, a captive media including a cadre of right-wing pundits, a proven ability to rig elections along with a refusal of the media to investigate and report election fraud, oppressive laws, a ruthless GOP campaign organization unconstrained by facts, fair-play, or even on occasion, by the law. All these resource might once again overwhelm the “consent of the governed,” and prolong the regressive regime for another four or even eight years. But eventually, it must fall. The longer it holds on, the greater the misery and repression that will ensue, and the more violent the eventual overthrow.

Best to end it now.

But it will take an extraordinary effort by an overwhelming number of ordinary citizens to bring it off. There are no guarantees. (full long text).

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