Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Politics of Empathy

excerpt from the article
The Politics Of Empathy And Barack Obama
by Correspondent Beverly Darling.


Traveling around the U.S. and talking with people, I have yet to find an individual who dislikes Barack Obama, the Senator from Illinois. What is it about him that resonates with and captures the imagination of the American people?

In numerous interviews and books Obama talks about one of the most important and greatest characteristics that his mother instilled in him: Empathy! For Obama, empathy means putting yourself in 'another persons shoes,' having feelings for others, and being able to understand another individual's perspective.

It is with this trait, I believe, that he has touched a 'responsive chord' with the American people. Maybe it is not so much about Obama the Politician, but Obama the Empathian and the compassion he displays towards others that makes him an attractive candidate.

Every so often, an empathetic politician appears and confounds longstanding political myths. I can think of two, along with Barack Obama.

Most people know Abraham Lincoln as the great Emancipator and President during the U.S. Civil War. However, people often forget his modest and humble beginnings and his bouts with depression. He suffered a life of political defeats, even one time declaring bankruptcy. He once claimed that he was not fit for the Presidency and thought of himself as a 'poor nobody.'

Perhaps it was this background that caused him to speak out against the Mexican-American War and the expansion of slavery, knowing that it would probably cost him his Congressional seat-and it did. In 1850, Lincoln proposed a bill stating that all children born to slaves should be freed, which also contributed to his unpopularity.

When his son died, President Lincoln moved into the Soldiers Home on the grounds of an 'asylum,' a residence for disabled veterans just outside of Washington. Here, he would often share meals with the soldiers and discuss the war. After the Battle of Gettysburg, he entered another period of deep depression mourning the loss of lives. He also wrote many personal letters to fathers and mothers who lost their sons during the war.

Lincoln offered Amnesty to Confederate troops in 1863 and again in 1864. After the Civil War he proclaimed 'charity to all with malice towards none,' and signed a bill to provide care for volunteer soldiers who were disabled. It was Lincoln who established the Medal of Honor recognizing sacrifice and bravery. As a former soldier in the Black Hawk War and one who witnessed real battles, I believe he truly understood death and the value of life and was empathetic to the plight of soldiering.

During the Great Depression, what was it that made Franklin D. Roosevelt declare that he saw a third of the nation ill-housed, ill-fed, and ill-clothed? Even though he was born into a wealthy family, the private school that Franklin D. Roosevelt attended emphasized public service. He was also stricken with the disease of polio that paralyzed his lower extremities. FDR could only walk with steel braces and the help of others.

Is this why FDR instituted many reforms and programs to help the disabled, unemployed, and elderly, while Governor of New York? In 1932, the Democratic Party nominated FDR. He broke tradition and flew to Chicago to deliver his speech. He said it was unprecedented and unusual to do this, but then these were unprecedented and unusual times. FDR sensed the hardship of others, since the economic depression was deep and severe resulting in millions of unemployed workers that had lost their homes and dignity.

FDR claimed that the current political leaders had failed the nation and had no vision or hope. Actually, they were un-empathetic and unable to identify with the common people. Even when President Hoover was confronted with starvation in the Appalachian Mountains, he shut the experience out of his mind and heart. Roosevelt's close friends and relatives said that his suffering and his struggles-due to his disease, had humbled him and made him feel for others. FDR always remembered the 'forgotten man' and was often called a 'traitor' by his own class.

One time when his wife was speaking and someone questioned her about FDR's physical disability and suggested his mental state was unfit, Eleanor said 'anyone who has gone through great suffering is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.' On another occasion, someone asked FDR about his difficulties as President. He replied 'if you had spent two years in bed trying to move your toes, you would understand how easy the rest has been.'

In 2004 when Barack Obama, a child of mixed race, delivered his speech at the Democratic Convention, he not only talked about the greatness and hope in America, but he also humbly acknowledged that he owed a debt to all those who came before him. He announced that there was more work to do, since he had met and talked with many workers whom had lost their jobs due to outsourcing.

Obama said it mattered to him if there was a child who cannot read, a senior citizen somewhere who cannot pay for their medicines, or an Arab Family being arrested without benefit of an attorney or due process. He spoke of children without health insurance and committed soldiers who were not worthy of dishonest politicians.

A former Community Organizer for the poor in Chicago, he had witnessed the oppressed, the marginalized, and the poor. It is his frankness and empathy that is refreshing.

Empathian Politics, whether it is embraced by Obama or some one else, should be a new gauge and measure when deciding on state and national leaders, for it is through suffering, humility, understanding, and the ability to identify with others, that political leaders are able to accurately represent their constituents and forge a more just and equitable society.

I think the Machiavellian mistakes and the Hobbesonian horrors of the current administration have definitely proven this.

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