It’s tricky to pinpoint the date on which Barack Obama began his make-over from undistinguished senator to Hillary Clinton’s first great electoral disappointment. But, let’s call it June 16, 2006. Delivering the commencement address at Northwestern University, Obama first uttered a phrase that would be slavishly evoked by love-struck journalists many times. The problem with this nation, said the senator, was not so much a budget deficit, but, an “empathy deficit”.

We can read other very similar claims in the current critique of Manus. The rationale goes: the problem here is not only a lack of government empathy — undeniable, but only part of the horrific policy story — but our individual failure to empathise.

There are plenty of opinion pieces written on the topic of awful and racist Australians. While it is entirely true that there are awful and racist Australians, it is also true that their “empathy deficit” is not the primary thing consigning 600 men to an unconscionable hell.

These are typified in this short communication by Jonathan Green, a former Crikey editor and a chap I happen to personally admire. His personal virtue notwithstanding, he is wrong to say, “Oz people clearly don’t care. It’s not politics, it’s us.”

No. It’s not us. Of course, maybe the “us” of marginal seats invited to focus group research do have more culpability. But at what point did Australia become such a functioning democracy that it reflected the will, either good or bad, of its citizens?

Barack is right. A budget deficit is of little importance — especially in the USA. But so is an empathy deficit. Surely, a “democracy deficit” is the problem. And we have one. How else do you describe what has essentially become a one-party system? One in which we have been politically coerced since 1992 into having an opinion on the small number of asylum seekers who make it to Australia by boat.

Empathy deficit?

Look. You can forgive a bunch of 18-year-olds from credit-worthy homes for lapping up this liberal pap. Sure, if you’re an American kid who has never known hardship, you’d be inclined to believe that individual virtue — most especially yours — is the stuff that will change the nation. If you’re a political journalist, however, or just an adult whose familiarity with the machine of liberal democracy is average, surely you’d know better than to believe that strong feelings find strong policy expression.

Nah. This Enlightenment-era tenet — that individual good will leads to public good — is big and is back. If everyone were better, so our new idealists have it, then the world would be a better place. Even if this were true — even if the institutions and complexes we have built to govern the planet were not, in fact, machines and somehow actually capable of squishy human feeling — it remains unclear how individual goodness could be universally imposed. What do we do? Make everyone wear a goodness awareness ribbon, or instruct all the children of the world — even those in nations with very few schools and scant literacy — in goodness? Do we print a pamphlet? Perhaps a hashtag could do it.

Personally, I hold the unpopular view that it is not the consciousness of individuals that makes for good societies. Rather, it is the good society that produces individual consciousness. If, for example, I cannot depend upon sufficient healthcare, I am unable to afford secure housing or, perhaps, I had a family member struck by one of the 26,171 compassionate bombs deployed by Obama in the final year of his loving administration, I may find myself emptied of good will. If, however, there is virtue built into the (inhuman) complexes that govern my nation and world, I would stand a chance of being more individually virtuous.

My individual virtue, I hold, is not the point. Nor even is the virtue of individual policymakers. It is quite likely that Obama is a virtuous man. It is also true that much of his policy was not. Save for Obamacare, itself a flawed policy that delivered great benefit to insurers, his legacy is one of increased US poverty and underemployment, devastating foreign policy and a drastically diminished right to privacy.

The power of individual goodness was a preoccupation for Hannah Arendt, and for the members of the Frankfurt School, with whom the famous critic often disagreed. I guess the philosopher who manages to escape Nazism with their life holds onto the idea that a system without virtue cannot be undone by individual virtue.  

It is an extreme idealism to hold that democracy, particularly as it currently exists, is, or can be, the product of collective good will. These days, as we have seen in the USA, it is largely the partner to its economy, and to the international relations that serve to underscore that complex.

Our empathy will not save the souls on Manus. Our empathy, which was on conspicuous display during the Iraq War, did not save the souls of that nation. What will save our souls, our consciousness and our good will is a better society. It’s just not the other way ‘round.


Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey