Power and wealth are not compatible with empathy

Our movers and shakers are increasingly one-dimensional. Why do we let them influence us?

NEWFANE — The rich and powerful seem to share at least one trait: They have a remarkable ability to ignore the real life consequences of their pronouncements, acquisitions, and policies.

President Joe Biden puts on his earnest face and speaks with great empathy during his speeches. When campaigning, he assured us that he would end the suffering being inflicted on asylum seekers by the brutal border policies of former President Donald Trump.

But after a year in office, asylum seekers are still suffering the same degradation and life-threatening danger that they did under the former president.

Trump, in a desperate attempt to illegitimately hang onto power, encouraged his followers to come to Washington D.C., telling them, “If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore” and “Because you'll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

Then after sending them to the Capitol with a promise that he would join them, he turned his back on his crowd, leaving them to their fate as he returned to the White House to watch it all on television.

Has he been moved by the hundreds of followers who have been sanctioned or imprisoned for believing his words? Not a chance.

How can Sen. Joe Manchin prattle on about funny-money economic arguments in order to shield the ultra-rich from fair taxation while leaving his own constituents to hang out to dry, living on the meager, insufficient dregs left after the 1 percent have plundered the economy and bought policies that ensure that the poor stay poor and the hungry stay hungry?

How could former President Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, say that the deaths of more than 570,000 Iraqi children was “worth it” in order to contain Saddam Hussein?

America's political/economic establishment reveled in Jeffrey Sachs' work in Russia when he guided the pillaging and looting of much of the wealth of the former Soviet Union on behalf of what became Russia's new class of thieving oligarchs. London became their banker, welcoming the stolen wealth.

And when The Lancet published a study saying that the pillaging had cost millions of lost lives in the newly impoverished Russia, the ruling and economic elites shrugged their shoulders, seeing it as simply the cost of doing business.

Vladimir Putin, obsessed with his notion of restoring Russia to imperial greatness, speaks of the Great Motherland and defending her from terrorists and Nazis, but, in launching a full-on invasion of Ukraine, he shows that he cares not a whit for Ukrainians nor for the conscripted Russian soldiers who are now slaughtering one another for no good reason, creating misery, suffering, and death.

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And here in Vermont, Paul Belogour, from his perch atop his newly acquired Vermont real estate, blithely tells us that “[w]ar is the answer.”

In a Feb. 22 column in his newspaper, the Brattleboro Reformer, he delivers a geo-politico-economic assessment of how great it will be for us to see Russia hamstrung by what may prove to be an unsuccessful war.

He seeks to blame America's problems on the recent ascent of Russian power, completely ignoring the rot within our own society, the costs of the obscene wealth inequality that our form of capitalism has engendered, and the legacy of racism and prejudice that has poisoned our society and is undermining its future. He is almost giddy with the thought of Russia's loss being our gain, propelling the U.S. back into the top chair as the world's superpower.

In his half a page of commentary, he makes one sole reference to the human suffering that will be the outcome of this war, noting that the Russians will be brought back to poverty - which he sees as a good thing.

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There seems to be a pattern here.

Power and wealth are not compatible with empathy. This is not just anecdotal; numerous scientific studies have shown a direct correlation between the rise of power and the loss of empathy.

In fact, the part of the brain that governs logic and analysis, among other things, grows larger as a person accumulates power and wields that power. And the part of the brain where emotions and empathy lie atrophies when it is not sufficiently used, as when someone is putting all of their focus on winning, achieving, and controlling. It actually shrinks, making empathy all the more difficult.

Now anyone who is gaining power can easily maintain their empathy if they want to. Mindfulness, meditation, exercise, tai chi, and other activities keep empathy healthy and functioning, even while the person is regularly exercising power and control.

But most of the “leaders” we now have in the political and business spheres don't seem to think that they have the time for such “non-profitable” endeavors. God forbid someone might think that the captain of industry or the emerging leader be seen as a soft-headed Kumbaya singer!

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The real question we need to ask ourselves is not how we can get our increasingly one-dimensional movers and shakers to have more compassion and thus make better decisions that would ultimately improve all of our lives.

The question is: Why do we allow ourselves to be influenced by them to the extent that we do?

Just because someone has become (or was born) rich does not give them acuity and brilliance in thinking about what is good for the rest of us. In fact, they almost inevitably act against the interests of the vast majority of beings on the planet.

It is time to trust ourselves and to put the rich and powerful on the dock for scrutiny and accountability.

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