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All the empathy in the world won’t help?

(1) I write fiction about telepaths and examine whether the increased empathy from knowing others thoughts could be a key to world peace. (2) I like Rachel Maddox a lot and occasionally watch her show.

driftI read Rachel Maddow’s new book “Drift” because of the second item, but was surprised when I discovered that her central thesis casts doubt on the whole theory of my book x0. If Ms. Maddox is correct, U.S. wars today are waged by our leaders not our people, and all the empathy in the world is not going to stop the fighting. She does a wonderful job of detailing how over the past fifty years the United States has moved from the World War II model of “a nation at war” to the current state of affairs in which our commander in chief uses executive powers and resources to keep conflicts going around the world with very little involvement from most of the citizens and very little consent from other branches of government.

I like how she sticks to the facts and interjects very little of her political bias. Rather, she places blame at the feet of every president, Republican and Democrat, and credits all of them with generally trying to do the right the thing while making matters worse. It’s very un-MSNBC, but all the more compelling.

Her one exception is Dick Cheney, to whom she dedicates the book. He pops in and out of the story over the course of four decades, continuing to push his personal agenda of making war ever easier for us. She never asks why, but begs him in the dedication to let her interview him. As far as I know, he never has.

Her careful weaving of the small decisions that lead to our current ability to wage ongoing wars with almost no emotional involvement could have made for very dry reading, but it doesn’t. In spite of the fact that she has no political axe to grind, her sense of humor shines through, as does her incredulous disbelief at some of the well-intended but just plain stupid decisions that were made along the way. You can almost hear her voice in your head as you read, and you have to smile in spite of how sad a story it is.

The end result, she points out, is that U.S. presidents now have the technological ability and the ridiculous authority to quietly conduct ongoing wars in any corner of the globe for as long as they wish. Yet, Ms. Maddow ends this book on a hopeful note. She argues persuasively that going to war should be hard, and should require the bulk of our people to wish harm upon another nation or at least be willing to hurt that nation significantly in order to stop its leaders.

growing bolder 4Powers that have been given over time, and even for good reason, can be taken away, she says. It won’t happen quickly, but she convinced me that we can make waging war the messy, inefficient, and difficult task it once was. We can make it painful again. If we do, we won’t be quite as good at it, but we will more far more incentivized to find other solutions.

Then, just maybe, superheroes gifted with telepathy could help guide the population towards more compassion and understanding. Okay, that could be bit of a stretch in the real world, but it might make for a fun read.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2016 in empathy, peace

 

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Through the eyes of another …

Last night I finished reading the 1952 classic The Space Merchants. I was so happy to have found this older story in my dad’s science fiction collection, and I’ve been talking about it on my other blogs. Today I realized that the discussion of one of my favorite elements of this book belongs here.

I’ll post a full review this novel by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth on Goodreads and will only say now that it is not a total thumbs up. I know that styles have changed over the decades, and science fiction has never been know for its complex character development, but I found the ending and many of the emotional transitions abrupt. I had high hopes for the story and it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, even though I’m glad I read it.

So what did I like? The satire of a society driven by ever increasing sales was spot on, in spite of the author’s failure to predict so much of modern society. What made the dichotomy between the ruling class of advertisers and lower class consumers work was the way in which the sales people so thoroughly misunderstood the lives of the average person. It’s barely a spoiler to reveal that protagonist and ad agency executive Mitchell Courtenay finds himself stripped of his identity and turned into a low life laborer. Once he is on the receiving end of his own work, his perspective changes.

Psychedelic 9The idea of obtaining personal growth and better perspective by walking the in shoes of another is a common plot tactic and rightfully so. From the literary classic The Prince and the Pauper to Trading Places, the hilarious movie it inspired, story tellers have shown how the heart is softened once a human walks in another’s shoes. Sexism took blows from both Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire. Black Like Me opened minds in entirely white Hays Kansas in 1968. I know, because I was in the English class that was required to read the controversial book.

The authors of the “The Space Merchants” use this powerful tool well as the privileged Mitch discovers that workers do not hold menial jobs merely because they are lazy. In fact, he is surprised to learn just how much hard work a menial job requires.

If the idea of experiencing the life of someone you don’t understand is powerful in a novel, it is even more powerful in the world. Reality TV shows, such as Wife Swap, have used this theme about swapping lives, and student exchange programs are based on it. At their best, travel and intercultural communication of all kinds can foster enough exchange to encourage empathy and respect.

My initial interest in telepathy grew out of curiosity about how difficult fighting a war would be if you could read the mind of your enemy and feel his or her emotions. Most of us can’t read minds and never will, but living a life similar to that of your “enemy” is the next closest thing.

Mitch Courtney is willing to sell anybody anything, until he experiences a life in which his small amount of discretionary income is the continual target of clever ads trying to pry his limited money away for things that bring him little joy and even harm him. The emotional transition that rang most true in this novel was the story a man who learns to see the world through the eyes of another, and changes his own life as a result.

(For more about the Space Merchants, see my posts I Know Sexism When I See It?The Kinky of the Future and Predicting the Future or Shaping It.)

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2015 in empathy, peace, telepathy

 

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