Friday, May 11, 2012

It's the empathy, stupid

As I said in my previous post, I was initially going to ignore the story about Mitt Romney being a bully as a young man. I seriously doubted the story would gain traction.

I have two ways to check whether or not something like this is catching hold. The first is to see if it shows up on the morning "news" shows. This was the first story The Today Show reported this morning.

My second check is to see how the wingnuts are reacting. When they go into full counter-attack mode, you know its a biggie. What you would see today if you took a look is that they're consumed by this one. One story from the Breitbart crew even hails Romney's action as being an enforcement of the school's rules of conduct (I kid you not!) And of course, they all seem to think that Obama admitting to smoking dope is EVERY BIT as problematic as anything Romney did.

So it looks like this story is hitting a nerve.

One of push-backs from the wingers is very revealing about these two candidates if we bother to take a look. They wonder why we're not talking about an incident in Obama's book Dreams From My Father where he talked about bullying a little girl.

The first distinction to make here is that Obama told this story himself. He didn't wait to have it drug into a presidential campaign. And he told the story for a reason - it was part of his own attempt at self-examination. He wasn't happy with what he saw.

After speaking about his own initial feelings of isolation  when he started school at Punahou at the age of 10, he tells this story.
There was one other child in my class, though, who reminded me of a different sort of pain. Her name was Coretta, and before my arrival she had been the only black person in our grade. She was plump and dark and didn't seem to have many friends. From the first day, we avoided each other but watched from a distance, as if direct contact would only remind us more keenly of our isolation.

Finally, during recess one hot, cloudless day, we found ourselves occupying the same corner of the playground. I don't remember what we said to each other, but I remember that suddenly she was chasing me around the jungle gyms and swings. She was laughing brightly, and I teased her and dodged this way and that, until she finally caught me and we fell to the ground breathless. When I looked up, I saw a group of children, faceless before the glare of the sun, pointing down at us.

"Coretta has a boyfriend! Coretta has a boyfriend!"

The chants grew louder as a few more kids circled us.

"She's not my g-girlfreind," I stammered. I looked to Coretta for some assistance, but she just stood there looking down at the ground. "Correta's got a boyfriend! Why don't you kiss her, mister boyfriend?"

"I'm not her boyfriend!" I shouted. I ran up to Coretta and gave her a slight shove;  she staggered back and looked up at me, but still said nothing. "Leave me alone!" I shouted again. And suddenly Coretta was running, faster and faster, until she disappeared from sight. Appreciate laughs rose around me. Then the bell rang, and the teachers appeared to round us back into class.
One thing the wingers miss about this story is the bullying that started the whole incident. Their focus is solely on Obama's response to that bullying.

But the most important point they miss is that they stop the story there - which is to miss why Obama remembers this story in the first place and wrote about it. Here's the very next paragraph.
For the rest of the afternoon, I was haunted by the look on Coretta's face just before she had started to run: her disappointment, and the accusation. I wanted to explain to her somehow that it had been nothing personal; I'd just never had a girlfriend before and saw no particular need to have one now. But I didn't even know if that was true. I knew only that it was too late for explanations, that somehow I'd been tested and found wanting...
What we see is that a 10 year old boy, who did something cruel, has more empathy for his victim than a 65 year old presidential candidate who can't even remember an even more serious event from when he was 18.

I want to thank the wingers for reminding me of this story. I don't expect to have a perfect human being for president. We've all been cruel at one time or another. But what I CAN hope for is a person who feels empathy for the victim of that cruelty. That's what keeps it from happening again. And that's exactly what we have in President Obama.


  1. There is a HUGE difference between the two stories. Young Barack was teased about being someone's boyfriend when he was still at the "girls have cooties" age. He reacted the way most kids would have reacted in that situation. The difference to most people: he reflected on it and was embarrassed by what he had done. Most people would have dismissed it as "kid stuff."

    Young Willard, at the time he assaulted his classmate, was old enough to know better. In fact, he was legally an adult. He was not teased or taunted; instead, he took the initiative (after assembling a posse) to attack someone whose hair he didn't like.

    Btw, when I went to prep school, I witnessed a similar incident. A girl in my class was growing out her bangs and wore an in-between hairdo that covered up most of her face.
    One day, one of the boys chased her, pinned her down, and attempted to cut her bangs. Before anyone else could intervene, she fought him off by biting his hand. I don't remember how long he was suspended, but I do know that he got in a world of trouble.

  2. the spot on, sucker punch of truth lies within this blog. specifically this quote:
    "What we see is that a 10 year old boy, who did something cruel, has more empathy for his victim than a 65 year old presidential candidate who can't even remember an even more serious event from when he was 18."
    amen, thank you and hallelu!