Empathy Is NOT Us

Running through all of U.S. foreign policy is one basic flaw:  a total lack of empathy for other nations and cultures.  I don’t mean by this statement that our government doesn’t calculate that if we do A, then the other country will react by doing B.  Obviously, diplomats, policy strategists, and the medal-laden occupants of the five-sided complex in D.C. DO game out theoretical causes and effects.  I’d argue that diplomats have a somewhat higher accuracy rate with their predictions, but that’s open to debate (for reference, see Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, as one example). 

There’s a Grand-Canyon-sized chasm between sitting in a well-appointed room in Washington, playing chess with a globe, however, and actually understanding a culture other than ours (which is why those theories crash and burn in practice).  Not having such intimate comprehension is an almost universal error among empires, though.  The Brits failed to believe that the independent mindset of the leaders in the Colonies in the 1770s would win out; they assumed that loyalty to the crown would prevail.  They were largely ignorant of India under the Raj, as well, and were forced to grant independence.  Napoleon and Hitler both made the mistake of underestimating the determination of Russians to fight for their land.  I’m painting in broad strokes here, using generalizations, but I think the circumstances of these examples are similar:  empires + insufferable hubris —->  ruin.

The Roman Empire was a notable exception to the above rule, lasting 500 years, having evolved from the Roman Republic, which had existed for the previous 500 years.  Although the Empire had sunken to a state of corruption and near-oligarchy at the end, it was ultimately destroyed from outside.  The reason that the Romans were able to control large swathes of Europe, northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East for centuries was that they followed a simple principle:  collect tribute from a conquered state, but leave it largely alone, to practice its own religion and retain its original culture.  Rome did embark on infrastructure projects, but it made no attempt to superimpose its customs and mores.  If Caesar was rendered unto, that was enough.

As has been pointed out in myriad forums over the last decade or so, the United States has not “won” a war since 1945, though not for lack of pouring lives and money into the conflicts it initiates or joins.  The French made little or no headway in Vietnam in the 1950s, essentially fading out of a country in turmoil.  Then the U.S. took up the gauntlet, under the infamous domino theory, a late-20th-century version of, “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.”  With no understanding of that Asian culture, and zero effective examination of the French failure, the U.S. waded in with its carriers and planes and bombs and napalm, raining down destruction on the jungles and rice paddies, spreading the conflict into neighboring Cambodia and Laos.  What Robert McNamara and his war-era successors didn’t take into account was that, not only were the Vietnamese they opposed fighting for their homes, their form of warfare could ultimately not be overcome.  That is, guerilla attacks and low-tech weaponry proved to be a match for U.S. firepower.  The Vietnamese didn’t conduct war on the terms that the United States did, which was the same lesson that the Continental Army taught the British. 

And the same lesson that the Afghanis taught first the British, then the Soviets, and then the Americans.  The leaders of our country seem to have a limitless capacity for NOT learning from history.  The U.S. military and spy agencies helped the Taliban stalemate the U.S.S.R., but subsequently developed amnesia when they ginned up their own invasion in 2001.  They didn’t care about the culture of the mountains and small farms; they discounted the constantly-shifting web of alliances; they never even conceived the idea that Afghanis would not want their society to be controlled and Americanized.  By definition, the American Way MUST be the best way, just as British rule was so much “better” for the benighted heathens of India.  [I’m leaving out the religious aspects here, but suffice it to say that the Catholic empire has always been similarly tone-deaf in terms of subduing non-Catholics, as an example.]  Without any appreciation for the long and rich history of Afghanistan, or its traditions, or its passions, the boys in the tailored uniforms decided that they could simply swoop in, and with overwhelming force and fireworks, subjugate the Afghanis, kill the terrorists, and impose their preferred way of governing.  Obviously, that certainty was trampled and buried, but Afghani civilians paid the price for the U.S.’ overweening arrogance. 

The same can be said of Iraq.  I’d bet that the percentage of the old-[mostly]-white-male shot-callers in the MIC who’ve studied the differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites is vanishingly small.  No, nobody ever bothered to read those intelligence analyses.  Instead, Dick Cheney and Donnie Rumsfeld, lusting to implement their PNAC ambitions to rule the non-Western world, leading Bush II by the nose, just declared that the U.S. was going to take down a ruler that those same men had propped up a decade before.  Because oil, because control, because End of Days scenarios, because daddy issues.  The balancing act among the factions in Iraq that Saddam had implemented with an iron fist was discarded, with no strategy to replace it.  Sacred sites that had existed for millennia were destroyed or despoiled.  If the various sects were even considered, it was only a lip-service affair.  The Kurds, who were the most pro-Western of the groups in Iraq, were abandoned, their desire for their own part of the country ignored.  The MIC left the entire nation in a shambles, amid wrecked infrastructure and, again, hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.  But the generals didn’t care, because the Iraqis were there and the generals were here. 

The debacles of the last six decades could be chalked up to a collective failure of imagination, and indeed, that did happen.  Nevertheless, the sheer dearth of information was the insurmountable handicap, but not because it had to be so.  Analysts all over the country — and worldwide, if our allies’ experts are counted — continuously accumulate mountains of details and knowledge about every area of the planet.  Speakers of native languages contribute their grasps of cultures, histories, and beliefs.  It’s a matter of taking those volumes of facts and informed opinions into account.  But the guys in charge aren’t interested in knowing their “adversaries,” because they’ve invented reasons for those enmities, and facts just get in the way.  In short, they simply DO NOT CARE.  Their reasons supersede the simple truth that Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afganis, Yemenis, Syrians, Somalis, and the inhabitants of all the other nations the U.S. has devastated are people, too, with families, homes, farms, businesses, and customs.  Why understand when one can simply bomb? 

The lack of empathy, another facet of American exceptionalism, will doom our empire, in the end.  And rightfully so.

32 thoughts on “Empathy Is NOT Us

  1. And there’s me thinking that Britain in general between 1945 and 1975 retired from empire rather gracefully.
    And certainly NOT “largely ignorant of India under the Raj” – that is a major calumny. (The error there was in rushing a messy withdrawal rather quickly – Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and the present Queen’s cousin was probably the least knowledgeable about India but sympathetic and perhaps lazy enough to want to get out quickly – or was he rescuing his marriage from Nehru?).
    As for Afghanistan? Never part of the British Empire of course – only part of the failing American empire for 20 years!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps my reading was biased, Trevor, or not sufficiently nuanced. It’s my general understanding that, after control of the states that made up India was turned over to the British government from the British East India Company, Hindu and Muslim factions continued to oppose each other, sometimes violently, throughout the Raj, with other segments of the population also contending for power. Britain went back and forth with various declarations and attempts to reconcile the fighting parties, sometimes employing the military, amid an overall push for independence (Gandhi) and partition. Depleted by WWII and thus unable to keep peace, despite the installation of a British civil service system, courts, etc., the U.K. gave in to the demand for independence and partition, after which there were bloody clashes, mostly along the new India/Pakistan border.

      In other words, as with the U.S. in Iraq, the Brits tried to impose their form of government, impose order, on competing factions who’d vied for control in a given area for centuries. It was an effort that was doomed to failure, by definition.

      If my understanding is way off, I’d be very glad of a correction! I don’t want to proceed on incorrect assumptions.

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      1. Not quite right Denise. For all its failings India today is a parliamentary democracy ; its railways, postal service, armed services etc all run on a somewhat Victorian British model – no comparison with the American disasters in Afghanistan and elsewhere – but then invading Afghanistan is usually a disaster as you note. I think Alexander the Great managed it though – or passed through.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The only reason the British got control of Hong Kong is because British Drug Dealers were selling Afghanistan opium to the Chinese in the 1850s, and the Chinese Authorities clamped down on the British Drug Dealers.
    The British sent in the Royal Navy to back up the Drug Dealers, and captured Hong Kong in those Opium Wars.

    I thought it was a gross misappropriation of Canadian Tax Dollars when Conservative Prime Minister Harper approved building a Monument to the Victims of Communism.

    He should have built a Monument to the Victims of European Christian Colonialism of this World. There are many more Victims!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. In 1900, in what became known as the Boxer Rebellion (or the Boxer Uprising), a Chinese secret organization called the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists led an uprising in northern China against the spread of Western and Japanese influence there.

        The rebels, referred to by Westerners as Boxers because they performed physical exercises they believed would make them able to withstand bullets, killed foreigners and Chinese Christians and destroyed foreign property.

        From June to August, the Boxers besieged the foreign district of Beijing (then called Peking), China’s capital, until an international force that included American troops subdued the uprising.

        By the terms of the Boxer Protocol, which officially ended the rebellion in 1901, China agreed to pay more than $330 million in reparations.

        By the end of the 19th century, the Western powers and Japan had forced China’s ruling Qing dynasty to accept wide foreign control over the country’s economic affairs.
        In the Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60), popular rebellions and the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), China had fought to resist the foreigners, but it lacked a modernized military and suffered millions of casualties…………….

        Modern China just isn’t going to take it from the hypocritical West anymore.

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  3. Thanks for the information, Ray. As I said to my husband this evening, the Chinese had an advanced society centuries before the West did. They have accumulated wisdom enough to take the long view. I think they’ll just watch the U.S. defeat itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When one expresses empathy, they are entering an interrelationship with another that signifies a union based on togetherness. Emotions that one expresses when inside the state of empathy could be described by language such as, affinity…mercy…tenderness…
    benevolence…compassion…
    It’s hard to place these terms on the execution of any foreign policy carried out by armed forces. But this empathy thing surely might become a winning strategy if practiced with pure intention. It seems that this might create lasting relationships that would be a mutual blessing for both nations. But, alas; there’s probably no money in such a misguided venture; so let’s just forget such foolishness and carry the fight to the next victim. Power and greed, and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When it comes to “E” words, we’re much stronger with Empire and Exploitation than we are with Empathy.

    So much of what passes for foreign relations in the U.S. is really empire and exploitation. And exploitation is about resource extraction as well as weapons sales. Extractive capitalism. And for that, empathy is a burden. It gets in the way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Including empathy for plants, trees, and non-human creatures, Bill. But then, lack of empathy in that regard is definitely not limited to Americans, when it comes to extraction of resources and exploitation of land.

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  6. I had a few thoughts on empathy here, Denise. An older post:

    So, when Americans kill civilians in those places, it’s almost like it’s cinematic, not real, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” We just move on.

    Of course, Americans are not encouraged to be empathetic people. The world is supposed to revolve around us. “You can have it all.” In a world of selfies, why care about others? Look out for #1!

    To put a bow on this, consider evangelical Christianity and the prosperity gospel. (The idea God will reward you with material goods and money as a sign of righteousness.) Remember when charity to others was valued? Not anymore.

    Another way of putting this: In America there’s a huge market for self-help books, videos, etc. But where are the books and videos encouraging us to help others?

    Why America’s Wars Never End

    Liked by 3 people

  7. The New World Order you mention here was [is?] likely meant to be a result of the New American Century, as proselytized by Cheney, Rummy, and company. Too early to tell if it’ll work out as they’d planned.

    I like your point about the prosperity gospel, too. Could there be a less empathetic way to conduct one’s life? As Caitlyn Johnstone said in a recent post, there are no good billionaires, because if they were truly decent people, they’d have given most of their money away.

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      1. Ya know….I don’t follow pop-culture news at all, but I saw a headline awhile back to the effect that it would take several years to disentangle their financial affairs before the divorce is final. I guess one could say that if they were truly altruistic, such a lengthy process wouldn’t be necessary. Years ago, I read that Bill was worth $37 billion, and that’s just obscene.

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    1. I FOUND ONE!!!!
      Imagine that….Miss Johnstone! I believe I love leaving Mr. Feeney’s story liberally around the internet as much as anything I could ever cobble together and drop our into a commentary thread. He’s an amazingly “EMPATHETIC” soul who is extremely rare in our times. This piece does a great service to nuances throughout his life,that pointed to a heart centered soul, and were such a unique skill set for a person of extreme wealth. When there was a need before him; he never flinched. His story is worth the time it takes to learn about how he navigated the life of excessive capital.

      https://www.atlanticphilanthropies.org/news/billionaire-who-selflessly-and-quietly-gave-it-all-away

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But if he has given it all away, does he still count as a billionaire??? : ) Or is he a former billionaire who has “redeemed” himself?

        Whatever the terminology, Feeney is light-years better as a person than most other uber-wealthy individuals. He’s serious about helping the world.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Billionaire Averse maybe?:•} He invested in the relief of suffering and grew the most wonderful garden paradise.
        Farmer Bill is still fiddling on his “G” strings…. GMO & Glyphosate and poisoning his yield! I wonder if he will ever see the light that Mr. Feeney nourished his crops with? One can only pray and hope he wakes up….

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Obviously, it’s a gross presumption for me to speculate on Farmer Bill’s character. That said, based solely on his public actions to date, I’d question whether he has the capacity to understand or emulate Feeney’s generosity and devotion to doing good. I don’t discount the contributions of the Gates Foundation, but neither would I argue they’re anything but a tax dodge. I still contend that anyone with a net worth in the billions hasn’t given enough back.

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    1. I’m not sure if it’s a meme or not, but I read if Jeff Bezos was taxed at the rate of 90% with no deductions, he’d still have a $BILLION left over.

      Most Christian America in their efforts to “Save Souls” discount Christ saying ‘hardly ever will a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven,’ as they support the Status Quo of the rich Establishment domination at the top of our Oligarchic Plutocracy Pyramid System.

      In this money driven World, with more People made in the Image and Likeness of God dying of Starvation than from COVID, with the oft asked question ‘WWJS?’ I think Jesus would say, ‘Billionaires are a Crime against Humanity!’

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Or at least, billionaires’ general greed and failure to give much back are crimes. Also, in many cases, the ecological destruction they wreak in the course of acquiring those billions is criminal. As is the related human damage.

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    2. I’m not speculating about Farmer Bill. He’s on record loud and clear about his use of GMO technology and MONSANTO products for crop production. It’s a crime to poison the soils microorganisms with glyphosate and slip synthetic strands of RNA/DNA into the plant kingdoms microbiology; creating unnatural plant and animal cell lines that our bodies will then be asked to incorporate into our genetic structures. That’s just cruel. Soil microorganisms and the animal kingdoms booms are sacred; not insignificant in any stretch of the imagination. Step into the world of cell biology a bit and understand that it is a mysteriously unknown science that we are not even beyond understanding 1% of it’s wisdom. Old paradigms are being shattered in this field and the foundations of the past that support today’s “original” knowledge about the sub atomic particles are being dismantled by labs that investigate the complex nature of these micro organisms. Farmer Bill has some ideas and theories; but they should be kept in his Laboratories for decades more research before asking 3rd world populations to trust his relatively small science. What he’s doing now damages the human system and is causing disease; the studies are already warning about the dangers. It is insidious.

      https://billmoyers.com/segment/vandana-shiva-on-the-problem-with-genetically-modified-seeds/

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for enlightening me about Farmer Bill’s experimentation, Utejack. I really had no idea. I’d just read in passing that he’d bought up a lot of land and was trying his hand at farming. I’d thought it was just an affected, rich-guy hobby. So he’s actively corrupting soils and plants, is he? Couldn’t be happy with owning most of the computer operating system world? Untold billions to play with, and he has to find new things to wreck. A pox upon his house!

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      2. Vandana Shiva is an impressive figure in our time. Her story is well documented.
        From my perspective, and it’s just my own, so there shouldn’t be too much weight placed upon it. But,when interjecting our desired intentions and entering into the sequencing of genetic codes one should take a meditators approach. Thought should carry no energy during the conception of theoretical postulation. This way one can keep the emotional force out of the process of imagination and postulating all possibilities. Every movement of the genetic coding should be at a snails pace. The genetic changes we are aware of through study have taken a very very very long time to manifest. So, coming from this perspective of observation, we should proceed accordingly and emulate that slow pace. Testing the testing of the testing; so to speak and wait 7 generations to see the experimental outcomes; now that’s a pace I could agree with. I believe this field is still in the darkest recesses of discovery and knows very little about the certainty of their claims. It’s like peering up into the night sky with just our eyesight and making factual claims about life outside our solar system. I am stunned that the ideas of today’s laboratory studies are being fast tracked into our world without factual proof of the long term effects on all environmental systems. I don’t care how powerful the computing capabilities believe themselves to be; the insertion of foreign genetic code into the biosphere is an infinitely faceted experience that I am willing to venture; will take a whole bunch more investigation than what has already been accomplished. Whatever Farmer Bill is working on; I would tell him …it’s not going to be applicable just yet, in fact, not even in your lifetime.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. My best friend is an entomologist, and she commented at least 10 years ago that we might not know the effects of GMOs for 50 years or more, so, as you say, Utejack, all the claims of “safety” are very much premature.

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