Our Empathy and Education Deficits – Nurtured by Right-wing Authoritarians, But Beatable

The two deficits, their causes, and solutions summarized below from writings by former Senator Barack Obama and Professor Henry Giroux, author of many books including Zombie Politics and Casino Capitalism, are much more critical to America’s future than the deficit the right-wing authoritarians distracted us with prior to Occupy Wall $treet – the budget deficit.

Deficit Descriptions:

In 2006, then Senator Obama talked about our “empathy deficit:”

…There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.

As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You’ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going on in your own little circle.

They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they’re all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can’t learn and won’t learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes … are somebody else’s problem to take care of.

When we measure our greatness as a nation by how far the stock market rises or falls instead of how many opportunities we’ve opened up for America’s children, we’re displaying a preference for the childish. When we believe that force is the only way to accomplish our ends in the world, when our leaders exaggerate or fudge the truth, we haven’t set aside childish things. When we run our budget into red ink for things that we want instead of things that we need, we’re indicating that we’re not yet full-grown.

… Republican and Democrat alike went back to procrastinating about problems that we now have to face. We sent young Americans to fight a war without asking anyone back home to sacrifice their time or their tax cut. We argue about the inconsequential, and caricature our opponents to score cheap political points. Our media returned to covering the sensational and feeding our ever-shortening attention span.


Henry Giroux is concerned about another deficit. He has written extensively about the failure and transformation of education in America and the authoritarian leadership that has made it happen. His most recent article on this matter is available here. Some selected quotes on this deficit and its authoritarian nature are provided:

One of the major consequences of the current education deficit and the pervasive culture of illiteracy that sustains it is what I call the ideology of the big lie – which propagates the myth that the free-market system is the only mechanism to ensure human freedom and safeguard democracy.

The education deficit, along with declining levels of civic literacy, is also part of the American public’s collective refusal to know – a focused resistance on the part of many members of society to deal with knowledge that challenges common sense, or to think reflectively about facts and truths that are unsettling in terms of how they disturb some of our most cherished beliefs, especially those that denounce the sins of big government, legitimize existing levels of economic insecurity, social inequality and reduced or minimal government intervention in the field of welfare legislation.

… The cultural apparatuses of popular education and public pedagogy play a powerful role in framing how issues are perceived, what values and social relations matter and whether any small ruptures will be allowed to unsettle the circles of certainty that now reign as common sense. …

… Most of the stories now told to the American public are about the necessity of neoliberal capitalism, permanent war and the virtues of a never-ending culture of fear. …

… America seems to have moved away from that possibility, that willingness to think through and beyond the systemic production of the given, the pull of conformity, the comforting assurance of certainty and the painless retreat into a world of common sense. …

… The education deficit, a hallmark achievement of neoliberal capitalism, has produced a version of authoritarianism with a soft edge, a kind of popular authoritarianism that spreads its values through gaming, reality TV, celebrity culture, the daily news, talk radio and a host of other media outlets now aggressively engaged in producing subjects, desires and dreams that reflect a world order dominated by corporations and “free markets.” …

Notwithstanding the appeal to formalistic election rituals, democracy as a substantive mode of public address and politics is all but dead in the United States. The forces of authoritarianism are on the march and they seem at this point only to be gaining power politically, economically and educationally.

This new mode of authoritarian governance is distinct from the fascism that emerged in Germany and Italy in the mid part of the twentieth century. As Sheldon Wolin has pointed out, big business in this new mode of authoritarianism is not subordinated to a political regime and the forces of state sovereignty, but now replaces political sovereignty with corporate rule. In addition, the new authoritarianism does not strive “to give the masses a sense of collective power and strength, [but] promotes a sense of weakness, of collective futility [through] a pervasive atmosphere of fear abetted by a corporate economy of ruthless downsizing, withdrawal or reduction of pension and health benefits; a corporate political system that relentlessly threatens to privatize Social Security and the modest health benefits available, especially to the poor.”

… If they [conservatives without conscience] win the 2012 election, they will not only extend the … legacy of militarism abroad, but likely intensify the war at home as well. Political scientist Frances Fox Piven rightly argues that, “We’ve been at war for decades now – not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but right here at home. Domestically, it’s been a war [a]gainst the poor [and as] devastating as it has been, the war against the poor has gone largely unnoticed until now.”(17) And the war at home now includes more than attacks on the poor, as campaigns are increasingly waged against the rights of women, students, workers, people of color and immigrants, especially Latino Americans. As the social state collapses, the punishing state expands its power and targets larger portions of the population. The war in Afghanistan is now mimicked in the war waged on peaceful student protesters at home. It is evident in the environmental racism that produces massive health problems for African-Americans. The domestic war is even waged on elementary school children, who now live in fear of the police handcuffing them in their classrooms and incarcerating them as if they were adult criminals.(18) It is waged on workers by taking away their pensions, bargaining rights and dignity. The spirit of militarism is also evident in the war waged on the welfare state and any form of social protection that benefits the poor, disabled, sick, elderly, and other groups now considered disposable, including children.

… There is more at work here than carpet bombing the culture with lies, deceptions and euphemisms. Language in this case does more than obfuscate or promote propaganda. It creates framing mechanisms, cultural ecosystems and cultures of cruelty, while closing down the spaces for dialogue, critique and thoughtfulness. …

Anti-public intellectuals rail against public goods and public values; they undermine collective bonds and view social responsibility as a pathology, while touting the virtues of a survival-of-the-fittest notion of individual responsibility. …

Nothing is said in this pro-market narrative about the massive human suffering caused by a growing inequality in which society’s resources are squandered at the top, while salaries for the middle and working classes stagnate, consumption dries up, social costs are ignored, young people are locked out of jobs and any possibility of social mobility and the state reconfigures its power to punish rather than protect the vast majority of its citizens.


Causation of these deficits:

The growing empathy and education deficits – and for that matter the federal budget deficit – have developed over recent decades under the auspices of right-wing authoritarians and their finely tuned processes and a plan laid out years ago: in The Powell Memo.

Senator Obama’s “commencement speech in 2006 summarized the deficit causes in this way:

… a passage from scriptures that some of you may know: Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.”

I bring this up because there’s an assumption in rites of passage like this that growing up is just a function of age; that becoming an adult is an inevitable and natural progression.

But in fact, I know a whole lot of thirty year olds and forty-year olds and fifty year olds who are not yet full-grown. And if you talk to my wife, she’ll tell you that there are times when I do not put aside childish things; when I continually struggle to rise above the selfish or the petty or the small.

… we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.


As summarized by Henry Giroux, the processes destroying our democracy are: “neoliberal capitalism, permanent war and the virtues of a never-ending culture of fear.” His recent article added the following detail:

This type of turbo capitalism with its crushing cultural apparatuses of legitimation does more than destroy the public good; it empties democracy of any substance and renders authoritarian politics and culture an acceptable state of affairs. As the boundaries between markets and democratic values collapse, civil life becomes warlike and the advocates of market fundamentalism rail against state protections while offering an unbridled confirmation of the market as a template for all social relations.

a powerful new mode of capitalism that not only controls the commanding heights of the economy, but has now also replaced political sovereignty with an aggressive form of corporate governance. The state and elite market forces, perhaps inseparable before, have become today both inseparable and powerfully aligned.

As public spheres are privatized, commodified and turned over to the crushing forces of turbo capitalism, the opportunities for openness, inclusiveness and dialogue that nurture the very idea and possibility of a discourse about democracy cease to exist.

… And it is precisely this notion of civic agency and critical education that has been under aggressive assault within the new and harsh corporate order of casino capitalism.

The moral coma that appears characteristic of the elite who inhabit the new corporate ethic of casino capitalism has attracted the attention of scientists, whose studies recently reported that “members of the upper class are more likely to behave unethically, to lie during negotiations, to drive illegally and to cheat when competing for a prize.”

Democracy withers, public spheres disappear and the forces of authoritarianism grow when a family, such as the Waltons of Walmart fame, is allowed “to amass a combined wealth of some $90 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of US society.”

Antidemocratic forms of power do not stand alone as a mode of force or the force of acting on others; they are also deeply aligned with cultural apparatuses of persuasion, extending their reach through social and digital media, sophisticated technologies, the rise of corporate intellectuals and a university system that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney continues spinning this spider web of lies unapologetically now produces and sanctions intellectuals aligned with private interests – all of which, as Randy Martin points out, can be identified with a form of casino capitalism that is about “permanent vigilance, activity and intervention.”

University presidents now make huge salaries sitting on corporate boards, while faculty sell their knowledge to the highest corporate bidder and, in doing so, turn universities into legitimation centers for casino capitalism. …

… The conservative re-education machine appears shameless in its production of lies …. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney continues spinning this spider web of lies unapologetically ….

… But today, distraction is the primary element being used to suppress democratically purposeful education by pushing critical thought to the margins of society. … Academics who make a claim to producing knowledge and truth in the public interest are increasingly being replaced by academics for hire who move effortlessly among industry, government and academia.


Deficit Solutions:

These destructive processes can be stopped and the former Senator Obama and Professor Giroux have some suggestions. The then Senator Obama said:

… I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential — and become full-grown.

Instinctively, they [observers of the Civil Rights Movement] knew that it was safer and smarter to stay at home; to watch the movement from afar. But they also understood that these people in Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi were their brothers and sisters; that what was happening was wrong; and that they had an obligation to make it right. When the buses pulled up for a Freedom Ride down South, they got on. They took a risk. And they changed the world.

…Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.

…What America needs right now, more than ever, is a sense of purpose to guide us through the challenges that lie ahead; a maturity that we seem to have lost somewhere along the way; a willingness to engage in a sober, adult conversation about our future.

We can meet this challenge if we fix our schools, if we make college affordable, if we train our workers, if we invest more in research and technology. We know what needs to be done. What’s lacking is the political will.

Each and every one of these challenges calls for an America that is more purposeful, more grown-up than the America that we have today. An America that reflects the lessons that have helped so many of its people mature in their own lives. An America that’s about not just each of us, but all of us. An America that takes great risks in the face of greater odds. An America that, above all, perseveres.


Professor Giroux had the following suggestions for halting these destructive forces:

The solution in this case does not lie in promoting piecemeal reforms, such as a greater redistribution of wealth and income, but in dismantling all the institutional, ideological and social formations that make gratuitous inequality and other antidemocratic forces possible at all. …

… Nothing will change politically or economically until new and emerging social movements take seriously the need to develop a language of radical reform and create new public spheres that support the knowledge, skills and critical thought that are necessary features of a democratic formative culture.

Our education deficit is neither reducible to the failure of particular types of teaching nor the descent into madness by the spokespersons for the new authoritarianism. Rather, it is about how matters of knowledge, values and ideology can be struggled over as issues of power and politics. Surviving the current education deficit will depend on progressives using history, memory and knowledge not only to reconnect intellectuals to the everyday needs of ordinary people, but also to jumpstart social movements by making education central to organized politics and the quest for a radical democracy.


There is much to do and learn as we continue to mature.



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About Andy Hailey

Vietnam Vet, UT El Paso Grad, Retired Aerospace Engineer, former union rep, 60's Republican now progressive, web admin, blogger.

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