At first, I thought the real story about Charlottesville involved the weekend itself – the March, the fighting and, finally, the murder. Then I thought the story was the President’s subsequent statements – the moral relativism, the vilification of counter-protesters, and the suggestion that “very fine people” march with Nazis. But now, I think that the story is the polls – in particular, the polls that indicated that roughly two out of three Republicans approved of how the President handled the situation. What exactly does that say about today’s Republican Party? And what does it say about our contemporary society?
The President may have been motivated by the desire not to antagonize those of his supporters who sympathize with the Alt-Right movement. But rank-and-file Republicans aren’t politicians; when they respond to a poll, they shouldn’t be worried about antagonizing anyone. Could it be that two out of three of them are truly White Supremacists or Alt-Right sympathizers?
No, I’m not cynical enough to believe that. To me, the problem is both less dramatic and more pervasive. To diagnose it, let’s go back to the 18th century and the writings of that great Scottish philosopher, David Hume.
In discussing human nature, Hume focuses largely on what he calls “two principles which are very conspicuous in human nature.” The first is “sympathy,” the second “comparison.” In touting the extreme power of sympathy, Hume addressed something that many of us take for granted. Who and what we love and how we think of beauty largely depend on that faculty. Yes, even our sense of beauty – our appreciation for faces or for random acts of kindness – begins with our ability to sympathize. It is precisely that ability that causes us to love other human beings, strangers included. Indeed, it is our sympathy that leads us to try to heal our planet and nurture all its creatures. Thank God for this faculty; on that point, I would hope we’d all agree.
But as was apparent from Charlottesville, we are not built on sympathy alone. As Hume pointed out, sympathy impels us to act and feel in one direction, whereas the pressures to compare ourselves with one another push us in quite the opposite direction. It is our tendency to view ourselves in contrast and in competition to other human beings that we locate the source of so much envy, hatred and hubris. For just as sympathy has forged much of our sense of beauty, this tendency to view society through the prism of comparison has come to underlie our sense of ugliness. Bullying, showing off, condescension, and all the other signs of insecurity – this is what results when our tendency to view ourselves in comparison to others goes hog wild and swallows up our ability to sympathize. Sadly, however, this is a fact we tend to brush under the rug, at least if we don’t read Hume. We’d rather celebrate this sense of comparison when it manifests itself in a great athlete, a confident attorney, or a diva on a stage – i.e., the achievers among us who best demonstrate the importance of being prideful and having a “winning” attitude. Nobody wants to think about the “root of all evil” (comparison) when that same root has given rise to many a productive and successful tree.
Thinking about Charlottesville and its aftermath, I’m struck by the extent to which our faculty of sympathy has narrowed and our thirst for comparison has fully bloomed. This is a dangerous and combustible combination. Charlottesville happened because so many of us are no longer able to sympathize with all human beings; we now sympathize only with our “own kind.” We love them because we share the same religion, ethnicity, or political views. But we sure as hell won’t sympathize across party lines and now, perhaps, not even across racial ones.
As for the aftermath of Charlottesville – the polls suggesting that two out of three Republicans are fine and dandy with the President’s comments – I see this as a sign that our tendency to compare ourselves with one another is consuming us. As soon as the President made his ill-advised statements and was justifiably called to account for them by the media, the battle lines were drawn. The loyal Republicans weren’t so much defending the President as they were seizing yet another opportunity to attack his enemies and theirs. These loyalists call their enemies by many names -- “fake news,” “commies,” “globalists,” “Alt Left,” “politically correct”.... The first thing one does these days is to label and vilify the “other.”
Sadly, it has become the norm to identify oneself primarily in comparison with one’s enemies, rather than by looking ourselves in the mirror and taking stock in what we see. In other words, we have come to feel good about ourselves primarily because of who we’re not, rather than who we are. More often than not, those “others” with whom we compare ourselves are seen as responsible for destroying our society and committing the ultimate sin of our generation: leaving our children poorer than we are. Someone has to pay for that sin of sins, and inevitably, we identify groups and bogeymen to fit the bill. In short, when the President was attacked by those groups after his comments on Charlottesville, his defenders rushed to his support – not because they agree with everything he said (some of which is impossible to agree with) but because they despise his attackers. Our source of pride is that “we” are not like “them,” rather than that “we” have accomplished anything worth celebrating.
This is how far the balance in our society has swung away from “sympathy” and toward “comparison.” The leaders we need in this society are the ones who can swing that pendulum back before it snaps.