Taking A Pass On Human Empathy

Susan Glasser in The New Yorker, “Fifty Thousand Americans Dead from the Coronavirus, and a President Who Refuses to Mourn Them”.

Impossible to argue with this description:

“To the extent that he discusses those who have died, he tends to do so largely in self-justifying, explicitly political terms, framing the pandemic as an externally imposed catastrophe that would have been much, much worse without him.”

Or this opinion:

“The numbers of dead citizens he throws about, meanwhile, seem to be abstractions to a President who believes that even the subject of mass death is all about him.”

Glasser with much needed historical context:

“Honoring the dead has long been one of the tests of American Presidential leadership. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was, after all, not just another political speech but a remembrance of those who were killed in the bloodiest single battle of the Civil War, in which some fifty thousand Americans became casualties and about eight thousand died. Twenty-five years ago this week, Bill Clinton’s lip-bitingly empathetic response to the Oklahoma City bombing, in which a white supremacist blew up a federal building and killed a hundred and sixty-eight people, was seen as a key moment of his tenure. He was dubbed the ‘mourner-in-chief,’ at a time when he was languishing politically. That speech is often said to have saved his Presidency. More recently, Barack Obama wept from the White House lectern in speaking about the deaths of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, and gave arguably the speech of his lifetime in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, singing ‘Amazing Grace as he mourned at a funeral service for nine African-Americans killed by a white supremacist at a church massacre. Even those Presidents who aren’t particularly good at speechifying—think of the two George Bushes—have considered public commiseration amid national tragedy part of the job description. Have we ever had a President just take a pass on human empathy, even of the manufactured, politically clichéd kind?”

Showing empathy is not something he could be coached to do, even if he was coachable. I wonder, do his supporters, some which are empathetic people, look for it in him or not?

Teams > Individuals

Who will win the 2020 Democratic Primary? Who will win the 2020 General Election? In the (dis)United States we seemingly think one person can make all the difference. That there’s one person with the exact right proposals for improving health care, establishing an environmental ethic, strengthening frayed ties with allies, reducing gun violence, and revitalizing our infrastructure.

Due to our intense individualism and the incontrovertible fact that uniquely talented individuals sometimes make disproportionate impacts on institutions and organizations, when it comes to getting things done, we almost always underestimate the importance of teams.

The Trump Administration’s list of accomplishments is short not because of mean “Do Nothing Dems”, but because Trump has settled for a constantly revolving door of increasingly acquiescent men and women of questionable qualifications. We’ve travelled a fair distance from Lincoln’s Team of Rivals.

If we were more savvy, we’d expect the Democratic Candidates for President to have already named their Vice-Presidents so that we would have longer to evaluate the relative quality of their teaming. We’d even go further and require them to name possible other members of their respective cabinets. Our questions would not be limited to what the Presidential Candidate hopes to accomplish, but how likely are their VP and them to team well together? How well do they complement one another? Instead of expecting them to come up with policy panaceas, we should expect them to convince us that they’ll team better with Congressional leaders to pass meaningful legislation than their opponents.

One might protest that Vice-Presidents sometimes come from the consolation bracket of the Presidential Primary. A much earlier expectation would simply require some with Presidential ambitions to decide whether to hitch their wagon to another more likely winner of the Primary.

Many of us resisting Trumpism are hopeful that the person who wins the 2020 Democratic Primary will right the ship, but she won’t. By herself. She’ll need a similarly skilled Vice-President and Cabinet. The sooner we can get a feel for that small group, the better our decision-making, and the greater the likelihood that we turn the chapter on this dystopian novel.

Write Like Lincoln

Like all writers, my writing students struggle with vagueness and wordiness. Inevitably, wordiness is built into our initial drafts because they reflect our speech, and when we speak, we routinely spin our wheels.

As we eliminate written words that don’t contribute to phrases, phrases that don’t contribute to sentences, sentences that don’t contribute to paragraphs, and paragraphs that don’t contribute to the whole, our ideas get traction, and readers better understand what we’re communicating.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, in ways that people still marvel at, only needed 270 words and just over two minutes to reiterate the principles of human equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence, proclaim the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union, and espouse the principle of human equality for all citizens.

Wordiness is a by-product of laziness. Seven score and ten years ago, it would have been far easier and quicker for Lincoln to write a longer address.

If one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history is the length of this post*, why do I routinely take two or three times as many words to communicate much less lofty things? Because I don’t always make time to, as one Kalispell Montana high school English teacher puts it, “put every word on trial.”

Word limits, whether imposed by one’s self or others, are one of the best ways to learn to write more concisely. Once we learn to write more concisely, we can turn our attention to vagueness. I’d elaborate on that challenge, but I’m out of words.

* a tribute to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this post is exactly 270 words