Jewish Journal


December 19, 2011

Elaine and Lee—on democratic empathy


Last weekend, I met Elaine and Lee, an older retired couple, in a Starbucks in the Santa Monica area. They were talking about Robert Reich, the former U.S. labor secretary to President Bill Clinton.

I saw Reich speak not too long ago at an Occupy L.A. event, so I decided to strike up conversation with Elaine and Lee.

If nothing else, brief conversations with strangers always distract me from my personal issues.

Turns out Elaine and Lee are Jewish, and liberal. Very liberal. And big believers in education.

Elaine, who was sitting with an abridged guide to Chanukkah in front of her, and Lee both think that education is the key to solving this country’s problems and that democrats understand why and republicans don’t.

Lee pointed out that if you ask republicans why education is important, they’ll tell you that it’s so you can get a good job when you’re older.

If you ask a democrat, he or she say it’s so that they can become active citizens, Lee said.

It reminded me of something I read by Rabbi Sharon Brous—a High Holy Days sermon, entitled “Spiritual State of the Union,” which emphasizes the importance of empathy.

What Lee was saying, basically, is that democrats are empathetic.

I thought about this some more: obviously, democrats don’t have a monopoly on empathy. There are Republicans who are empathetic (although HBO’s Bill Maher might disagree with me), but this idea that democrats care and republicans, well, don’t, is a prevailing view in pop culture. Where does this come from?

Well, for starters, people like Bill Maher. And bands like Radiohead, whom I named this blog after. They espouse rhetoric about the unfeeling-ness of Republicans, their callous indifference to the suffering of others, their preoccupation with helping the wealthy. Every political article in Rolling Stone magazine, it seems, is about this topic, the greediness of Republicans.

Hollywood, too, is responsible for the caricature of Republicans as pink-faced dummies who just care about money and hunting. There’s a scene in “The American President,” a movie I’m not ashamed to say I love, starring Michael Douglas as the president of the United States. Richard Dreyfuss plays Bob Rumsfeld, a Republican candidate running against him for office. In one scene, Rumsfeld and his aides are in a meeting in a room that looks like a cigar parlor, talking about hunting in-between plans to take down the president on the campaign trail.  They’re made to look pretty stupid.

More proof of Hollywood bias: In 2008, a film called “An American Carol” was released, a David Zucker film that spoofed Michael Moore and liberals. The movie came and went, didn’t do much business.

Hollywood, I remember reading, wanted nothing to do with “An American Carol,” which probably hurt the film in the end.

It’s a cliche that liberals dominate Hollywood, but maybe it’s true.

Maher, Radiohead, Rolling Stone and Hollywood mislead, of course. There have to be some republicans who care.

Elaine and Lee care a lot about the future of this country—specifically, education. Elaine said that school is nothing but standardized tests that don’t teach students how to become engaged when they’re older. My own education experience was somewhere in the middle.

The middle—that’s where things need to go. We need more people who believe in empathy and self-interest. Those people might put this country on the right track.

Lee and Elaine think so too, although they don’t seem to think anyone but democrats are capable.

Lee also said it’s the rare person who has both, the empathy and the capacity to take on endeavors where the primary goal is personal gain.

This past weekend, my friend and I had a conversation about personal balance, about people who are charismatic and intelligent. My friend said this balance is rare. Practically nobody has it – President Bill Clinton being the exception, my friend said. The coincidence between him saying Clinton and my conversation with Elaine and Lee starting because of Reich didn’t occur to me until now.

Anywho, maybe it’s something to strive for. This New Years, maybe we should make a related resolution. Maybe we should all work toward balance, whatever that may mean for each of us individually.

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