I’m writing this on Martin Luther King Day and, as I do every MLK Day, I’m spending some time meditating about the radically transformative power of MLK’s vision: of caring for the downtrodden, of looking at the world not through the eyes of the powerful but of the weak, of building bridges of solidarity rather than dividing people into warring tribes and political sects.
One of my less pleasant duties today, before I join thousands of others at our local MLK Day parade, is checking to see where the current administration and its acolytes are on the empathy scale. The answer is, pretty damn low. While Trump did retweet one pro forma White House statement praising MLK, it was outweighed by a stream of narcissistic, self-absorbed tweets, including one on the Virginia gun owners’ rally and a long thread about how the Democrats are trying to destroy the Second Amendment. There’s a self-praising retweet about the China trade deal and a self-pitying retweet about impeachment and the “UNLAWFUL HIJACK ATTEMPT of a 2020 REELECTION LANDSLIDE of @realDonaldTrump!” Noise, Noise, and more Noise.
But there’s nothing about poverty, or race relations, or feeding the hungry, or ministering to victims of war; there’s nothing about doing unto others what you hope they would do unto you; nothing about using one’s position of privilege and power to help those with no political or economic voice. The Signal this MLK Day is Trump and his minions’ being entirely AWOL on the empathy front.
Witness: This government, committed to making life for immigrants more precarious, has been rushing through deportations at breakneck pace. Last week a California man was deported to Cambodia two days before a judge issued an emergency stay. By the time the man’s attorneys received it, he was thousands of miles away, in a country where dozens of deportees have died in recent years from sickness or suicide.
In Missouri, legislators will soon get a chance to debate the “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries” bill, proposed by GOP Representative Ben Baker, which would empower panels of parents to produce lists of books they believe their children shouldn’t be reading, and to allow the state to fine and/or imprison for up to one year any librarian who lends such books to kids without parental consent. Baker was apparently inspired to author his bill by reports that local libraries were hosting “drag queen story hours.” Presumably he was worried that if children began to empathize with drag queens, they might fear them less and be less inclined to fall for scapegoating political rhetoric.
The empathy deficit goes beyond official policy and into public behavior. Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara recently mocked Joe Biden for his stutter. It was an ugly moment—but no uglier than when her father-in-law mocked a disabled New York Times reporter during the 2016 election. And no uglier than last week’s insulting outburst by Arizona Senator Martha McSally against a journalist who had the temerity to ask her questions about Trump’s Senate trial.
This is a government of, by, and for bullies. They highlight the trivial and the inane and have nothing to say about the morally important issues of the day. I’ll finish this column with one of MLK’s oft-quoted lines. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”