Fragments: History, Politics, and Empathy

Last week was a bit trying here in North Dakotaland. It wasn’t as much because of the political events at a national level – although those were a bit shocking (and I’ve been told that they were shocking to both parties) – but on the local level many people who had worked hard to promote the welfare of the state and its citizens (on both sides of the aisle) found themselves out of office or that their candidates had come up short.

I do not generally follow politics in part because I find the issues either hopeless complex or so cut and dried as to not really reward my consideration. But as people struggle to grasp the events that transpired last week, I’ve discovered that my experience and training as a historian of both Late Antiquity and the modern world has helped. 

From Late Antiquity, I’ve encountered more than my share of deeply committed radicals of various sorts. From saints who withdrew from their communities and society and made homes atop pillars at the edge of the desert to charismatic firebrands who incited violence and deeply pious bishops who tended carefully to their flocks and communities during trying times. Maybe my familiarity with these individuals has made me comfortable (perhaps too comfortable?) with a particular strand of discourse (outrage?) that has become so prevalent in American political culture. The vigorous protests, the outlandish proclamations, and the boorishness of Late Antiquity feels distinctly modern. I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way. In fact, it may account for two recent biographies of St. Epiphanius of Cyprus who made his career by inveighing against all sort of heresies real and imagined.

My recent research in the Bakken has also exposed me to differing perspectives. In 2013, when we were still figuring out the lay of the land, not a few oil patch workers assured us – with genuine fears for their livelihood – that present Obama would shut down the Bakken and ban fracking. Whatever the origins of these fears, they were real, and these were hard working folks who both respected our interest in their world and felt profoundly disconnected from the centers of power that controlled their economic (and in a basic way social) destiny.

As one guy told us: 

CY: I think the election year’s going to be a really rough year for the Bakken.
AB: Okay, yeah
CY: I mean when I was in Wyoming
AB: You mean like a statewide election?
CY: No, I’m talking the whole country.
AB: Okay the whole nation, yeah
CY: I’m talking the whole country, because when I was in Wyoming, that was when Obama got elected.
AB: Yeah?
CY: And when Obama got elected, I lost my job.
AB: Okay?
CY: The oil elds dried up.
AB: Just like that?
CY: Yep everybody was invested in McCain.
AB: Okay
CY: And I lost my job out there because Obama got elected. I don’t know what’s going to happen this year.

Another said:

M: No, although I do feel if Obama gets in the house again, he’s going to put an end to this up here.
BW: Ah-ha
Mike: That’s just my opinion
BW: You’re not the only one, again, there’s a lot of people that feel that the EPA
Mike: Yeah the EPA is…
BW: Come in and shut things down?
Mike: Yeah they’re bad enough already, which I can see their point in one way. In another, I can’t. I think they’re overstepping their bounds really.

And another:

JP: Oh that’s what I was going to tell you. If Obama stays in office, I believe he’s going to send the EPA up here to…
BW: Shut it down huh?
JP: Clean house. Hand out some serious fines.

Needless to say, this didn’t happen. There were no serious fines, no shutting down of the Bakken, but plenty of anxiety and uncertainty. I feel like encountering this anxiety (and teaching in a deeply red state, like North Dakota) has given me a chance to a distinct perspective in the events of last week. 

This week, as a kind of therapy, I unfriended a bunch of people on Facebook. They were making me anxious and the echoes of their posts made me feel like I was in a terrible house of mirrors that offered no escape. I also said down with Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016). The book’s premise is pretty basic: empathy matters and even more so during our politically fractured times. (Her thesis is more complex.)

“The English language doesn’t give us many words to describe the feeling of reaching out to someone from another world, and of having that interest welcomed. Something of its own kind, mutual, is created. What a gift. Gratitude, awe, appreciation; for me, all those words apply and I don’t know which to use. But I think we need a special word, and should hold a place of honor for it, so as to restore what might be a missing key on the English- speaking world’s cultural piano. Our polarization, and the increasing reality that we simply don’t know each other, makes it too easy to settle for dislike and contempt.” (p. xi).

Her book is the story of anxiety. Real anxiety. Hochschild’s book documents the history and experiences of a group of Tea Party advocates in Louisiana. Living the shadow of toxic waste spewing plants, enduring economic stagnation, and witnessing the growing condescension toward they way of life, white southerners in Louisiana found strength in shared political commitments and a kind of dogged persistence and self reliance that offered a kind of personal redemption. This personal redemption embedded in community and faith offered a kind of strength and direction when conventional institutions of political authority have failed.

I’m loath to give advice or make sweeping cultural statements, but it strikes me that both sides of the political spectrum have a deep need for empathy grounded in history and experience. This means a refusal to trivialize the experience of people not like us and an openness to the real anxieties felt across the country. Empathy is bulwark against hatred.

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