Compassion for the Poor Is Not Enough

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A week or so ago Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast made an interesting point: in arguing against rightwing attempts to gut the food stamps program, slash entitlements and unemployment aid, and forestall young people from getting health insurance, liberals should not rely only on the language of compassion. His column gives me an opportunity to reflect on the relationship of compassion, literature, and progressive causes.

First, here’s Tomasky:

Liberals should stop talking about compassion. Oh, maybe not entirely. Some of the things Republicans are doing are just Dickensian mean, like cutting food stamps out of the farm bill, and Democrats should say that. But they should banish the word “compassion” from the broad, meta- economic dialogue.

What should they do instead? They should talk about how inequality is bad for the economy, bad for growth…Bad. For. Capitalism.

Let’s first revisit Dickens to remind ourselves what “Dickensian mean” looks like. Here’s his description of Scrooge:

Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

It’s not a bad description of those who emphasize austerity at a time when unemployment, underemployment, and badly paid employment are still running high. We can be pretty sure that this Scrooge would not support raising the minimum wage.

But can literature that focuses on compassion, and the lack of it, sway public policy? Sometimes yes. In the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped bolster the war to end slavery by showing us slave children torn away from their mothers and the villainous Simon Legree torturing to death the heroic and saintly Uncle Tom.

But Tomasky’s caution applies to literature as it does to policy. A colleague of mine, Christine Wooley, studies the sentimental novel and talks about how sentiment can be used for less than noble purposes. For instance, late 19th century African American novelist Charles Chestnutt was concerned that readers would bathe in novelistic scenes of pathos but not do anything about it. (As a countermeasure, he turned to realism and naturalism, providing almost scientific descriptions of the lives of African Americans.) More perniciously, Thomas Dixon in The Clansman, which D. W. Griffith turned into Birth of a Nation, used emotional scenes of brutish Blacks assaulting virginal white women to justify Jim Crow laws. Emotions can be used for reactionary as well as progressive causes, which is why (back to Tomasky here) there is something to be said for making economic rather than emotional arguments against GOP austerity measures.

In other words, don’t just say that it is immoral that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer in this country. Point out that society as a whole will benefit if the lower classes have more money to spend.

Tomasky doesn’t rule out invoking compassion, which novels do really well. But our greatest novels speak to the head as well as the heart and both need to be engaged if we are to get this country back on the right track.

One other note: if cheap sentiment engages the heart without the head and can be used for evil as well as good, there’s another kind of fiction that leaves out the heart altogether. I’m thinking of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, and the fact that Rep. Paul Ryan loves Atlas Shrugged helps explain the heartless budget blueprint that he has authored. Currently Ryan is leading committee hearings on poverty in the United States, and I suspect the picture he will draw will be more guided by ideology than the facts. What we really need are accurate three-dimensional depictions of poverty delivered with heart.

In other words, we need good novels.

 

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3 Comments

  1. sue
    Posted August 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I love this post, Robin. As a Myers-Briggs trainer, I see this as a matter of moving through both sides of a preference. Some of us prefer (in MB parlance) “feeling” and others “thinking.” While we both think and feel, we can notice that some are drawn to “pragmatism” while others prefer “compassion.” To use both sides of our brains, and to rely on both ends of this continuum, it is helpful to become bi-lingual, or cross-culturally competent. Thus, the most compassionate thing can be described in “thinking” languge – in this case, economic growth, etc. And the most logical thing can be described in “feeling” language. Take in point, our continued interest in what makes people happy, fulfilled, etc. Companies where employer’s well-being is taken into account are often more productive.

    When one demonizes a side – either side, think liberal/conservative, compassionate/pratmatic, or any other host of opposites, we lose the important other in an argument – or rather, a conversation with passion on both sides of the aisle. Noticing and understanding, even valuing the opposite virtue – and underlying every position is some sort of virtue, albeit twisted or deformed -is the way forward.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted August 6, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Terrific elaboration, Sue. What I love about great literature is that it gets us to think, even as it speaks to the heart. It doesn’t allow us to camp out on either side of the divide you describe. Or as I sometimes think when I’m in the presence of a great work (say, Anna Karenina), “I’m being treated as a grown-up.”

  3. sue
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    I was sure that Jane Austen gave a good example of this, and Pride and Prejudice came to mind. Each side is sure that their position is correct, but through continued interaction and truthful (painful) discourse, they learn to embrace what the other values. This is perhaps why the book is so satisfying. Although you’d like to root for Elizabeth without qualifications, I like her much better at the end of the book, as she’s seeing how her father’s leniency is really harmful not only to her, but also to her sisters. And, of course, we all love Darcy’s transformation, adding compassion to his sense of what is proper.

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