Friday, March 13, 2009

Empathy, Sympathy and the Wealthy, Swarthy and Stealthy

This post will probably get me in some trouble and it going to seem out of nowhere. But these are the things I think about on my morning runs…

I am feeling a little over-saturated with the 24-7 Bernie Madoff coverage. Society loves its villains and he certainly fits the suit very well. And the media more than happy to deliver him to us. How many times have you seen that footage of him being pushed by a photographer as he tries to walk into his luxury apartment building? I think everyone agrees that what Madoff did was evil, stupid, corrupt, immoral, illegal, crooked, lawless and just plain wrong. His punishment — most likely life in prison and the immediate and drastic cessation of life as he knows it — will certainly give him time to ponder what he has done, if his conscious even works like that.

And yet I feel sorry for the guy. I do. He made some jaw-dropping business decisions and now he will pay for it dearly, for the rest of his life. Even our broken-down justice system can ensure that.

But why this insatiable need to hate? We need a person to funnel all our anger to, and he is the latest. People want to kill this man; they want to torture him. I get that, I really do, but it just seems like a lot of energy wasted on an awful, poisonous feeling of which nothing good can come. I feel sorry for him, not because he is a riches-to-rags story and not because he got caught, but because freedom as he knows it is done. His life is over. Take him out of the context of his crime and how can one, as a human being, not feel just a little pity? He will spend the rest of his life in jail. He will die alone or on a bunk with a roommate hovering way too close. He will shower in giant rooms with no privacy and live in humiliation every day. He will never go to sleep feeling his loved one next to him or have the luxury of complaining about weather systems or the chance to take his marriage for granted. And we all have front-row seats to this dramatic demise, gladiator-style.

My point (and it has taken me a while to get to it): We as a society have powerful, strong, tidal waves of venomous hatred for the wrong-doers and just a little dot of empathy for the victims. All that energy in hating. All of those thoughts wasted on something we can’t change. And nothing but of "poor them" for the victims. Our empathy seems limited but our hatred goes on for miles and miles and miles. This, I think, is epidemic. I am not going to pretend like I am the poster child for empathy. I have a special place of hatred in my heart for, say, people who orchestrate the genocide of millions of people (and how sad is it that there are several people who fit that description?). And I have moments like when I read about a mother and her child killed by a drunk driver at 11 at night when I think “What is she doing taking her child out that late?” But I am trying.

This Madoff debacle portends a dangerous trend: Our empathy is dialing down and our hatred and anger is ramping up. There are too many people who have not an ounce of sympathy for smokers who die of lung cancer and flood victims who lose everything because they don't pay for flood insurance and the so-called "lazy" poor who deserve nothing but the worst because they just don't work hard enough. We send so much time judging Octomom that we forget there are 14 kids' lives in the balance here.

Do the people who get so bent out of shape about Madoff also get bent out of shape about the fact that 1 in 50 American children faces homelessness? Or about the fact that millions of people are starving this very moment? Or about the millions of people who live below the poverty line? Or that our neighbor may be drowning in debt and on the verge of foreclosure? Is it that empathy is too raw and makes us too vulnerable? Is the grand scope of human suffering too hard to grasp? Is it just easier to go through life hating ad blaming and judging? I can attest to the fact that sometimes it is easier to walk around with a chip on my shoulder and a wall around my heart. But now, with two little beings looking at me, those chips feel very wrong and those walls seem just stupid.

Isn't there some religious principle of "love the sinner, hate the sin?" That makes sense. I am not going to say Madoff should "rot in prison" or "good riddance" or repeat the pinstripes to jail stripes jokes. I will say he was very, very very wrong and I feel sorry for him and for every family touched by this and for the people who took their own lives because of this (two so far) and the collateral damage that many are going to feel because of his actions.

And this is not the end. Not everyone sees him as a villain; some think of him as a role model. Mark my words: There are already mini-Madoffs out there trying to get their hands on his playbook so they can copy him.

Which all reminds of of those quote, by Ani DiFranco, pilfered from a Facebook friend's page (thanks, Cynthia, for in part inspiring tis post): “We have to be able to criticize what we love, to say what we have to say 'cause if you're not trying to make something better, then as far as I can tell, you are just in the way.”

OK, I feel a little better now.

Pictured above, is it me or does Madeline’s hair look a little like Gene Wilder’s? And below, Avery, one of the two constant incentives I have to get my sh*t together.


Jen said...

I don't feel sorry for him (much - maybe a tiny smidge) because he KNEW what he was doing was wrong and he did it anyway. I do feel very, very sorry for the people who invested with him and lost money. Some of them were people like me, who don't make much and tried to do what they knew they should by saving what they could.* And now they have NOTHING and no hope of getting it back. I can't imagine their despair. For that, yes, I think he does deserve to go to prison, absolutely. Doing that to thousands of people, knowingly? Definitely a crime, and definitely deserving of punishment.\

*Should they have known it wasn't a good investment? Maybe, but if the SEC didn't find it problematic, I don't find it impossible that regular people with busy lives who aren't financial professionals thought it was safe. As the woman interviewed on NPR last night said, compared to the dot-coms, annual returns of 10-12% didn't seem pie-in-the-sky or fishy, either.

Jennifer said...

The Madoff investors were not the average investors: In order to invest in a hedge fund you need to have an individual net worth in excess of $1 million and you must have had an income of more than $200,000 in the previous two years. That excludes about 95 percent of our nation's population.

This doesn't mean I don't feel sorry for the investors; I do. But the reality is the average Madoff investor is not going to be destitute, despite some of the extreme examples portrayed by the media. But the Enron victims, whose pensions were depleted by greedy bastards, these are blue collar workers who are indeed destitute.

K J and the kids said...

I thin that in a state of depression, yes we are in a depression....people need someone to blame, hate. We had a conversation at my parents house about where are of the state's money is being funneled to. My dad was ANGRY with the people recieving money for what he thought were ridiculous reasons. When I tried to explain that these groups have been receiving money all along and that it's just come to light because of the economy he needs to change.
OK ! fine. Use Madoff as an example. Let him waste away in his multi million dollar penthouse. I just wish that we could stop pointing fingers and start looking to the future. What CAN we do. What should we do.

I LOVE those comparison pics :) How hilarious.

Jen said...

Then the media is (not surprisingly) focusing on the 5%, and misleading people, in which case I see your point. But the stories I've read have been of the small investors, and I DO feel sorry for them.

Jennifer said...

The media and its wicked wicked ways is a whole other post! The media is going to focus on the extreme because no one would care if someone's net worth dropped for 33.8 million to 31.2 million. So even if an investor lost all of their savings — over a million dollars — they still have a net worth of at least a million in property, etc. Hardly destitute, but that doesn't mean what was done to them in fair. The media just works us all into a frenzy.

Still, very billionaires were screwed or blue collar workers doesn't mater: What was done is wrong. And Madoff is a sad, pathetic man.

amy said...

thanks for writing about this. i agree with your observations and am scared of what it means for the path our society seems to be heading down. so much hate and rage, not nearly enough empahty and support!!

there are also plenty of ways to get around the $$ minimums for investors, sadly i know that from personal experience with mortgage investments that had similar net worth requirements.

Anonymous said...

I love the place in your heart where that post came from. I also mostly agree with your philosophy. Thanks for posting this, all too often, forgotten point of view.

calliope said...

first off- cracking up over your cute as hell Gene Wilder daughter!

I also get really upset over the media's need to have a villain. ALWAYS. And while I think what this guy did was truly horrible, I also see that he will be punished and that is enough for me. I don't feel a need to pile on anything else on top of that.

In a way this also goes back to Octo-Mom and the media's coverage of her. It just felt like, "enough already!" The kids are here, they are born. To get all whipped up over the hows doesn't help at all. In fact it hurts (I'm looking at you, state of Georgia).

Glad to know I am not the only one wishing we could stop talking about this guy.

Jenni said...

Wow, the girls look so alike to me, yet so different! The older they get the more their individual personalities shine through. They're just adorable :)

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