The politics of pity 1

This post is about “the false and dangerous morality of pity”

The quoted words are those of Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor and foreign-affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He delivered a speech at Commentary’s annual dinner on June 4 at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City, from which these  extracts, from an adaptation of the speech at the Commentary website, are taken:

On the fourth of June, 1967, there were excellent reasons to side with Israel. It was a democracy besieged and assaulted by tyrannies. Its maritime rights had been violated by Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran; international law was on its side. It had compelling reasons to believe it was under mortal threat. It made no territorial demands on its neighbors, much less call for their destruction. It was a net contributor, scientifically and culturally, to the march of civilization. Simply put, the Israelis were the good guys.

Yet the reason usually cited for sympathizing with Israel that fourth of June is that it was the underdog — the proverbial 98-pound weakling versus its big bullying neighbors. And this was true, albeit only partially true, because Israel quickly demonstrated that it wasn’t such a weakling after all.

And from the moment Israel won that war, thus securing its survival, it lost the sympathy of the world. We know that some newspapers had prepared Crocodile-tear editorials regretting the demise of a short-lived state of Israel. To feel for Jews suffering flattered the “feelers”; to feel for Jews triumphant did not.

It is to this deplorable weakness, this eroticism of the ego, that Christian morality and “social justice” advocacy – which means the entire ideology of the Left – pander.

Bret Stephens reasons:

But it’s hard to make a defensible case for siding with the underdog based on underdog-status alone. Was Saddam Hussein hiding in his spider hole a better man than he was in his palaces? Were the allies in 1945 less deserving of victory than they were in 1942? Was Israel’s cause less right on June 12, right after the war, than it had been on June 4? These are the kind of nonsense propositions you are bound to wind up with if you make moral judgments based on underdog – or overdog – status alone.

The instinct to side with the underdog arises, at least in part, from the guilty pleasure of pity — the feeling of superiority that the sensation of pity almost automatically confers. Pity, it turns out, is not a form of sympathy, or empathy, or a genuinely humane concern for the misfortunes of others. On the contrary, pity is really a form of self-congratulation, an act of condescension, a sublimated type of narcissism. Little wonder, then, that the politics of pity should thrive in … our culture of narcissism.

Consider the ways these politics plays out in our lives today. Remember that headline in Le Monde from September 12, 2001—“Nous Sommes Tous Américains”—“We Are All Americans”? Le Monde’s editorial pity lasted just so long as the wreckage of the Twin Towers smoldered in the ground, and then it was straight back to bashing the hyperpuissance. Or take the condemnation of the United States, by outfits such as Amnesty International, for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Poor Osama, defenseless before those marauding SEALs!

Yet nowhere do the politics of pity play out more vividly than when it comes to the Palestinians. How is it that, at least on the left, the Palestinians have become the new Chosen People? Part of the answer surely lies in the fact that Palestinians, uniquely, are the perceived victims of the Jewish state, and therefore another vehicle for castigating Jews. If you believe that Jews can do no right, you’re probably disposed to think that Palestinians can do no wrong — especially when they are attacking Jews.

But that’s not the whole answer. People who really aren’t anti-Semites or knee-jerk enemies of Israel nonetheless are disposed to make all kinds of allowances for Palestinians that can only be explained by the politics of pity. How many billions in international aid have been given to the Palestinians, and what percentage of those monies has been squandered or stolen? How often have Palestinians made atrocious political choices without ever paying a price for them in terms of international regard?

The reason Palestinians don’t have to earn global sympathy by showing themselves worthy of it is that they are the perceived underdogs and are therefore automatically entitled to the benefit of every doubt. And it is because “caring” for the Palestinians flatters the vanity of their sympathizers. I don’t think the world really loves the Palestinians. But … it does “love to love” them. Being pro-Palestinian, as that term is typically used, is not a testament to compassion. It is, more often than not, an act of self-love. It’s moral onanism.

Competing for the title of who is the most pitiable is shameful. Competing for the title of who is the more pitying is despicable. 

Bret Stephens warns mistaken friends of Israel from entering the pity-stakes:

In recent years, friends of Israel, and many Israelis as well, have sought to reengage the world’s affections by trying to portray Israel as the real underdog — in other words, to enter a contest of victimhood with the Palestinians.

Israel was not founded to serve as another vehicle for showcasing Jewish victimhood, but for ending it.

Right, right, right!

In order for one to deal effectively with the world, whether as individual or statesman, it is necessary to know the world as it is. It is a world full of danger, evil, and cruelty. Sentimentalizing it into something other than it is, pretending that human nature is “fundamentally good”, or can be changed by ideology, is to make a dumb mistake. Every human being suffers, and every human being inflicts suffering. The moral thing to do is to try not to harm others – a hard, if not impossible, task. 

Bret Stephens looks at what is happening in the world now with clear sight:

The world as we would wish it to be is not a world in which Syria is bleeding, the Chinese are increasing the rate of annual military spending by a double-digit percentage, the Arab Spring is turning to an Islamist winter, Europe is imploding economically, and Iran is brazening its way to a nuclear bomb. That world is the real world, and it is the world the rest of us inhabit: the world of the concrete fact, the world of the worsening circumstance. It is the world in which decisions are made harder, not easier, by delay, in which delay increases the chances of failure, and of death.

It is a world choked with pity, yet pitiless.

The whole speech as it appears in Commentary is well worth reading.

  • Liz

    Another aspect of this is that people are not only prone to egotistical pity for “victims”, they are also easily manipulated by those who have an agenda to paint them that way.  Just as Obama’s communist mentoring was omitted by the press to get him elected, the true nature of the PLO is studiously avoided.  But Israel is bashed on the slightest whim.