It is an extraordinary remedy for extraordinary situations, and if we reach for that remedy we should be prepared for the consequences.
What does it mean to turn politics into an exercise of compassion? That’s the question William Voegeli invites us to consider in his latest book The Pity Party. He bids us to the same conclusion, but in policy and political terms, that our parents once gave us: pity parties are a guilt trip. Of course, the particular politics Voegeli is discussing emerges from the sense of injustice and unfairness that modern liberals everywhere perceive. Their primary motivation, however, is to relieve their own inner discomfort. Their compassion, even more problematically, is disconnected from any real notion of virtue or individual integrity. So the results of policies they champion, and the abilities of programs to uplift those in marginalized economic circumstances, isn’t the first priority or much of a priority at all. What matters is President Bill Clinton telling us that “I feel your pain.” Or his wife exhorting us to a politics of meaning and to be devoted to raising everyone’s children because we’re all part of the collective village.
Voegeli and I discuss the policies of compassion ranging from the Great Society, gun control, the welfare state, racial preferences, etc. and what their substance is really about. What matters at the pity party is to do something, anything for the marginalized and oppressed. Measuring if it works is not even secondary, Voegeli notes. In most cases, efficacious results aren’t considered or valued. The protagonist in this drama isn’t the oppressed, it’s the suffering liberal conscience. And that means that we are prohibited from looking too deeply into behavioral and cultural causes and links that might uncover the sources of failures seen in the lives of countless individuals and families. No, that’s part of the oppression, and isn’t compassionate. And on and on it goes.
Fortunately, we have Voegeli to shed light on this, unpack the pathologies at work, and, perhaps, point a way forward to the rightful use of compassion.