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Empathy In The Time Of Numbness Printer friendly page Print This
By Mankh (Walter E. Harris III). Axis of Logic
Axis of Logic
Tuesday, Jan 28, 2014

Nobody feels any pain / tonight as I stand inside the rain
 - Bob Dylan
Aside from, or perhaps along with, the recent polar vortex phenomenon there is a coldness at the heart of world affairs. Upon reading the news day after day, is there such thing as an appropriate response? At one level one may react numbly (or with pseudo-Buddhist detachment) so as to protect a sense of self, maintain equilibrium.

Yet one might burst into tears, become depressed, or rant angrily at the various atrocities and perpetrators, from drone bomb killings to the devastating side-effects of wars and the manipulated economic sanctions and neo-liberal policies skewering various sectors of the globe. Wait, that sounded like numb journalistic propaganda, not “various sectors of the globe,” rather, actions affecting human beings, various critters, and Mother Earth.

Professor, author, and activist Howard Zinn serves as a fine example of someone who woke up from the numbness:

“Eager to fight fascism, Zinn joined the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and was assigned as a bombardier in the 490th Bombardment Group, bombing targets in Berlin, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. As bombardier, Zinn dropped napalm bombs in April 1945 on Royan, a seaside resort in southwestern France. The anti-war stance Zinn developed later was informed, in part, by his experiences. . . . On the ground, Zinn learned that the aerial bombing attacks in which he participated had killed more than 1000 French civilians as well as some German soldiers hiding near Royan to await the war’s end, events that are described ‘in all accounts’ he found as ‘une tragique erreur’...”1

One of the great dangers of the current booming techno-gadget military complex is that the opportunities for long-distance, video-gamesque death machines have increased. “On July 6, 2010, Private Bradley Manning, a 22 year old intelligence analyst with the United States Army in Baghdad, was charged with disclosing this video (after allegedly speaking to an unfaithful journalist). . . . The video, shot from an Apache helicopter gun-sight, clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers. Two young children involved in the rescue were also seriously wounded.”2

The imprisonment of Bradley, now called Chelsea Manning, is a prime example of the macho numb-nuts’ attempt to keep the doors of empathy closed so as to continue to perpetuate their inhuman and profitable atrocities in cold blood.

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door / is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
- Bob Dylan
Various psychological studies depict sociopaths as lacking any empathy, thus they continue on pathologically. The military-politico-bankster elite is loaded with such types.

A subtler form of numbness has to do with so-called foreign affairs. If the war or the devastation is way over there in another country or on an Indian reservation, for examples, it is easier to say, “Not my problem.” Out of sight, out of mind . . . and emotion. Yet becoming a world citizen and taking on a OneEarth perspective can be a gateway drug to compassion and empathy. 
On a personal level, one can learn a lot from pain. Having learned a lot that way myself and then trying to put it all in a non-sadistic framework, I came up with this phrase: Pain is a great teacher that wants the student to graduate to a more pleasurable experience.

Whether experiencing pain directly or simply witnessing it, also a form of experience, each individual has a reason for a turning point. The reasons may be many, yet at the core is a caring, a not wanting to cause any more pain or harm, and a not wanting to see any more pain or harm caused. Recognizing another as a form of self can also flip the switch.

Literature often provides an outlet of expression for the author as well as a potential turning point for the reader. Kurt Vonnegut is a prime example:

“Vonnegut was one of a group of American prisoners of war to survive the attack in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker used by the Germans as an ad hoc detention facility. The Germans called the building Schlachthof Fünf (“Slaughterhouse Five”) which the Allied POWs adopted as the name for their prison. Vonnegut said that the aftermath of the attack was 'utter destruction' and 'carnage unfathomable.' This experience was the inspiration for his famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, and is a central theme in at least six of his other books.”3

Other of Vonnegut’s firsthand experiences affected him deeply:

“ . . . Vonnegut made a damn good entertainer, but there should be no mistake: Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t standing at all those podiums talking just to earn his (sizable) fee. He had a purpose, and that purpose was to testify about what he witnessed and what he learned as an American soldier and prisoner of war in Germany near the end of World War II.

“Vonnegut spent ten painful days in a packed boxcar with his fellow prisoners before finally arriving in the grand old German city of Dresden, and he was there on February 14, 1945, when an experimental new type of incendiary bombing created a firestorm that destroyed the entire city in a single day, claiming more lives than the first atomic bomb would six months later in Hiroshima. Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners remained in Dresden for the aftermath, dragging corpses (mostly women and children, since the German men were all fighting) from the ruins.

“No 20th-century American writer—not Ernest Hemingway in Europe, not Norman Mailer in the Pacific, not Matthew Eck in Somalia—can tell a war horror story like this one. (Though Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti is close, having landed in Nagasaki with a U.S. Navy force a month after the atom bombing. It’s worth noting that Ferlinghetti also became an extreme pacifist.)”4

From an interview:

Christopher Bollen: You served in World War II and you actually visited Nagasaki right after the bomb was dropped there.

Ferlinghetti: I was there seven weeks after the bomb was dropped. It was just like walking around in some landscape that wasn’t on Earth. It was an unearthly feeling. The site had been cleaned up—somewhat—or they wouldn’t have let us in. I was just off my Navy ship down in southern Kyushu, and we had a day off and went up by train to Nagasaki. It was pretty horrible to see. And that was just a toy bomb compared to the ones that are available today.

Bollen: Did that experience have anything to do with your deciding to become a poet? I imagine those images burned into your brain.

Ferlinghetti: No, I was a poet long before. But I wasn’t political before that. Besides, I was a good American boy. I was a Boy Scout in the suburbs of New York—trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Bollen: And have you stuck to all of those principles?

Ferlinghetti: Of course. [laughs]5

Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore, you may not see me tomorrow.
– Bob Dylan
It would take a larger scope to determine the origins of the penchants for tragedy but one historical clue can be derived from the following, from James W. Loewen's book Lies My Teacher Told Me:

“Britain exterminated the Tasmanian aborigines; Germany pursued total war against the Herrero of Namibia. Most western nations have to face history. We also have to admit that Adolf Hitler displayed more knowledge of how we treated Native Americans than American high schoolers who rely on their textbooks. Hitler admired our concentration camps for Indians in the west ‘and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination by starvation and uneven combat’ as the model for his extermination of Jews and Gypsies.”6 . . .  And others.

In 2009, David Swallow, Jr., a Traditional Lakota Spiritual Leader, wrote:

“In 1876, the Indian Appropriations Act demanded the Sioux give back the Black Hills or starve under siege. Then they ordered the destruction of all the buffalo herds. By 1889, the Federal Government had forced the Lakota into prisoner of war camps which they now call Reservations. According to government documents, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is prisoner of war camp #344. . . . We are the longest prisoners of war in the world’s history. It must change. We need to be set free so we can deal with our own people and our children and their children.”7

Another angle for un-numbing comes from Ehren K. Watada,

“a former First Lieutenant of the United States Army, best known as the first commissioned officer in the US armed forces to refuse to deploy to Iraq, in June, 2006. Watada refused to deploy for his unit's assigned rotation to Operation Iraqi Freedom, saying he believed the war to be illegal and that, under the doctrine of command responsibility, it would make him party to war crimes. . . . On October 2, 2009, the Army discharged Ehren Watada. Watada’s defense attorney stated that in his opinion, ‘the Army came to the conclusion that it was not going to be able to prevail in a prosecution, and when the new solicitor general came in, her office had a fresh look at it, and as it was not bound by any of the decisions that had been made previously, they saw fit to put a stop to the appellate process.’”8

People tell me it’s a crime, to feel too much at any one time.
- Bob Dylan

For some whistleblowers it has become an Orwellian crime to feel and reveal various information and truths. Manning, Snowden, and Assange are some of the high-profile cases.

It is left to each reader of daily news to determine what levels of empathy, action, and/or compassionate witnessing serve the best purpose.

When I was deep in poverty you taught me how to give.
- Bob Dylan
As the proverbial sun shines on both the good and evil, it is perhaps when one is standing "inside the rain" and wondering why "nobody feels any pain" that a turn-around or transformation is ripe for the happening. While the bringing down of the walls of un-empathetic fascist empires may be left to the masses or when a chunk of time has run its weary course, each human being has the ability to experience redemption, to display forgiveness amidst pain, to feel the cold rain on the skin and instead of taking revenge, know that the sun will shine again.

Mankh (Walter E. Harris III) is an essayist and resident poet on Axis of Logic. In addition to his work as a writer, he is a small press publisher and Turtle Islander. His new book is “On Behalf of Those Who Speak Different Languages.” He also hosts an audio show "Between the Lines: listening to literature online." You can contact him via his literary website.

  1. Howard Zinn

  2. Collateral Murder

  3. Kurt Vonnegut

  4. Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

  5. Lawrence Ferlinghetti - Interview by Christopher Bollen

  6. Lies My Teacher Told Me – James W. Loewen, p. 126, Touchstone/Simon&Schuster, 1995.

  7. The Black Hills Are Everything! - David Swallow

  8. Ehren Watada

  9. Bob Dylan lyrics from:
"Just Like A Woman”
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”
“Oh, Sister”
“Simple Twist Of Fate”
“Wedding Song”

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