Empathy Impaired

The New York Times’ commentators have been writing a fair amount about how to revive our moribund economy and related issues like consumer and government spending, taxes, and unemployment. Sometimes I find the readers’ “recommended comments” more interesting than the essays themselves. They’re liberal and decidely cynical about life in the U.S. today. Their most common rallying cries are corporate greed, class warfare, out-of-touch politicians, and right-wing media.

Recently, they’ve been most fired up about members of Congress being out-of-touch with ordinary citizens, many who have been laid off, and too many that appear to be entering into permanent unemployment.

The question I haven’t seen asked is how does one, whether a member of Congress, or a college professor, develop empathy for the under-employed or short, medium, or long-term unemployed? The best answer of course is direct personal experience, but giving up one’s job in the interest of greater empathy doesn’t make much sense.

There have to be better ways, whether documentaries, essays, novels, photographs, music, and plays, that can help humanize the out-of-touch among us. The arts seem especially well suited to this task. I wish The Times’ irate, cynical commentators would each choose an art form and begin telling their stories with the out-of-touch Congress as their primary audience.

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