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Conservatives Are Waging a War on Empathy -- We Can't Let Them Win

Conservatives are trying to redefine empathy as irrational personal feeling. In fact, empathy is the basis of our democracy and must be defended.

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Empathy here has been reframed as emotion that is "idiosyncratic" -- personal -- a danger to reason. "Sentiments," that is, emotions, must be "disciplined" to fit "manners and morals, tradition and practice"-- in short, the existing social and political order. This is perfect radical conservatism in the guise of sweet, moderate reasonableness. Where Rove and Krauthammer have the iron fists, Brooks has the velvet glove.

The attack on empathy becomes an attack on feelings, with feelings as not merely at odds with justice, but at odds with good sense. Where Brooks' tone is sweetly reasonable, G. Gordon Liddy is outrageous:

Let's hope that the key conferences aren't when she's menstruating or something, or just before she's going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then.

Liddy is saying what Brooks is saying: Emotion is irrational and dangerous. Only Liddy is not nicely-nicely. The attack on feelings is of a piece with the old attack on "bleeding-heart liberals. And one step away from Cheney's attack on Obama and defense of torture.

What about Newt Gingrich calling Sotomayor a racist? It is linked directly to the personal feeling argument: because of her personal feelings for her own kind -- Latinos and women -- she will discriminate against white men. It is to support that view that the New Haven firemen case keeps being brought up.

The real target here goes beyond Sotomayor. In the last election, conservative populists moved toward Obama. Conservative populists are working people, mostly white men, who have conservative views of the family, of masculinity, and of the military, and who have bought into the idea of the 'liberal elite" as looking down on them. Right now, they are hurting economically, losing their jobs and their homes. Empathy is something they need. The racist card is an attempt to revive their fears of affirmative action, fears of their jobs -- and their pride -- being taken by minorities and women. The racist attack has a political purpose, holding onto conservative populists. The overt form of the old conservative argument is made regularly these days: liberalism is identity politics.

Incidentally, Democrats are walking into the Gingrich trap. I heard Ed Schultz defending Sotomayor by saying over and over why she was "not a racist," and using the word "racist" next to her name repeatedly. It was like Nixon saying, "I am not a crook." When Democrats make that mistake, I sometimes wonder why I bothered to write Don't Think of an Elephant!

The attack on Sotomayor as an "activist judge" completes the pattern of radical conservative reasoning: Because of her empathy, which is personal feeling, which in turn is a form of racism, she will interpret the constitution not rationally, blindly, and objectively, but to suit her emotions.

It is vital at this point to understand how conservatives get away with the "activist judge" ploy. As any cognitive linguist knows, there is no such thing as "strict construction" of the Constitution. The reason was given by, of all people, David Brooks, as we discussed above.

Supreme Court justices, like all of us, ... begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work... These models shape the way judges perceive the world.

These models also shape they way the most "strict constructionist" of judges read the Constitution. Such models are physically part of the brain and typically operate below the level of consciousness. Conservatives are thus as much "judicial activists" as anyone else.