Just an Ounce of Empathy

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Disability was one noteworthy theme during the presentations Monday night at the Democratic National Convention—how we perceive it, how we react to it, how we treat those with serious physical and mental limitations. It is no small subject, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump did himself no favors earlier in the year with his mocking imitation of a New York Times reporter, which the Democrats have already been using in ads to question his character. And rightly, for it does make you wonder what prompted such an immature outburst.

But I am not writing to dwell on the missteps of Trump, nor on the virtues of Hillary Clinton in this regard as extolled by speakers with disabilities on the stage in Philadelphia. That comparison is one of many people can decide for themselves. I am about to suggest a simple way of thinking about the issue that all of us can readily use even if we are not among the estimated 56 million Americans afflicted with such shortcomings.

It may be apparent to some that this blog suffered a short hiatus on my part since my last post. To some extent, that was because I found myself very busy chasing deadlines after my return from the Natural Hazards Workshop in Colorado on July 14, a day later than anticipated because of a flight cancellation due to storms in Chicago. I was then squeezed for time, with just six work days left until taking a vacation this week, with two of those largely devoted to participating in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency symposium on urban sustainability. Nonetheless, by last Friday, I managed with some extra effort to clear the most urgent action items from my desk in preparation for a week off.

Then it hit. Maybe I was more vulnerable because of the time pressures, or maybe it was just something that caught up with me. There is no way to know, but my neck grew tight, and by the time I got home, fever and chills set in and my wife insisted on taking me to the emergency room. After three hours of tests and x-rays, strep and tonsillitis and similar problems were ruled out, but it was clear my right-side lymph nodes were inflamed and some sort of infection had taken residence inside my throat. The doctor gave me antibiotics, which I am taking for ten days, and they seem to be effective. But the illness certainly ruined an evening in which I was going to get a haircut and shop for groceries for an outdoor barbecue party in our backyard for my wife’s birthday on Sunday. I was pretty useless on Saturday, worn down and unable to swallow or talk without considerable effort, although I did help shop for groceries, including a birthday cake. I was not good for much more, and I was growing hungry because eating was such a chore.

That remained the case for much of Sunday, though I was energetic enough by then to join the party. I did not have nearly enough energy to play grillmaster in the hot sun, so someone else took over who enjoyed the job, fortunately. But all I could eat and swallow was watermelon and some cake and ice cream, none of which excessively challenged those inflamed lymph nodes.

Why share all this? My illness will pass, but when I watched Anastasia Somoza, a quadriplegic who also suffers from cerebral palsy, discuss attitudes toward disability on stage Monday evening, it reminded me of a thought I have had before. What if the condition I was suffering temporarily were something I had to live with permanently? How would I want to be treated? How would it make me feel, and how would it affect my outlook on life? Admittedly, a viral or bacterial infection generally does not leave lasting impacts, but there are other ways all of us can at least project ourselves into such situations to begin to understand how it feels to be the perennial underdog in life.

This thought actually first occurred to me more than 15 years ago, when I suffered a debilitating herniated disk in my lower back as a result of lifting a box of books the wrong way after having our house repainted. The pain was immediate and agonizing. I had to grab the rails to ascend and descend the stairs in our three-story house. Although I never needed surgery, and I am very glad because back surgery is generally brutal and barbaric (my father underwent it in 1968), I did undergo three months of strenuous rehabilitation therapy that required the discipline on my part to do sets of exercises three times daily between therapy sessions. I was determined not to suffer permanent impacts from the injury and followed the routine to the letter, ultimately achieving release from therapy two weeks early. There is a great deal to be said for willpower, and there is nothing wrong with having the pride in one’s willpower to struggle through such a situation successfully, as I did. I soon resumed jogging, and the experience is certainly a factor in my ongoing effort to remain physically fit.

But there is a great deal wrong with thinking we are better than anyone else because of such success. There is a great deal right with using such examples to encourage others faced with similar circumstances. The one thought that stuck with me afterwards was, What if I had not been able to recover successfully? What if I had suffered a permanent injury, like many veterans or just those born with serious physical limitations over which they never had any control? I know how humbling it was even for those three months to be unable to sleep in comfort, to be wary of being bumped by anyone in close quarters, and the challenge of climbing stairs. It does not seem so hard to me to be able to extrapolate that sort of experience into some empathy for those who may never be able to function as fully as the rest of us.

So, as you listen to this whole discussion about disability rights and how we treat each other, remember that this ought not to be a partisan matter. It was a Democratic U.S. Senator from Iowa, Tom Harkin, one of my personal heroes, who introduced and fought for the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it was a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, who signed it. Harkin was motivated in part by the experience of his younger brother, Frank, who was deaf. Disabilities cross party lines and so should our empathy and understanding of what it takes to include and respect all those who face challenges. By now this should be as settled an issue as universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Let’s be human, folks. In this particular instance, it does not take much to imagine ourselves in someone else’s wheelchair. Just think of the extraordinary exertions on behalf of others of one of our famous past presidents—Franklin D. Roosevelt. Enough said.


Jim Schwab

We Are the Cure, We Are the People

Our nation is suffering from a terrible social disease. It is not a sexually transmitted disease, though it can be spread orally, through the things we say to each other and over the Internet and the air waves. Since everything seems to need a name, I will call it BJ Disease, which stands for blanket judgment. It has been with us for a long, long time, latent in our political system and society, but it has gone viral, it seems, and become an epidemic in a very bad political year.

If there is one thing I personally learned long ago, it was to view people as individuals rather than as monolithic groups. In part, that is because I learned as a Christian that this is the way in which God values us, and it saddens me when I see people use religion as a weapon or a tool of exclusion rather than an opportunity for moral and spiritual growth. It has paved the way for my wife and me adopting two girls of varied backgrounds and becoming grandparents of a passel of children of racially mixed backgrounds, each with their own unique characteristics.

Adopting such an outlook has allowed me to see many more shades of meaning and value in the ways people speak and behave than if I were to see them simply as blacks, whites, Hispanics, or adherents of one faith or another, or of particular ethnic groups or sexual identities. Yes, many people in all these groupings have limited things in common, but there are far more that differentiate them as individuals and many more that we share in common as human beings across all those lines. But far too often, we refuse to see them. It is costing us lives and endleDSCF1345ss heartache, and that is a very sad thing.

Amid the uproar over black lives taken by police officers, most often though not always white officers, there is among a vocal minority of protesters an unfortunate tendency to paint all police as racially biased and prone to violence against minorities. There is, no doubt, a small segment of many of our police departments with such tendencies, though I am inclined to think it is a much smaller segment than it used to be. It is, however, far more visible today as a result of technology. Certain members of police departments have not yet adapted to an era in which the ubiquity of cell phone cameras virtually ensures that bad judgment in handling suspects, often in minor incidents such as traffic stops, will end up on the evening news. But lest I be accused of BJ disease myself, let me note that there are instances in which traffic stops have resulted in the deaths of police who did not soon enough realize that someone had a gun and intended to use it. Traffic stops can escalate, and there are reasons why police may be wary of the drivers they have pulled over.

At the same time, it is also perfectly clear that the shooter in Dallas made statements to the police, as they were trying to negotiate with him, that he hated white people and police. His indiscriminate shooting of officers at the end of what had been a peaceful protest not only bloodied and sullied the message of the protest but made clear that, in his mind, the people he was shooting were not individuals with families and unique perspectives and experiences but a single mass of people not deserving of such differentiation. It is hard to see the difference between that outlook and the views of a white racist who sees blacks as an undifferentiated force for evil. Both perspectives simply deepen the propensity for violence in our society.

At a time when it would be extremely helpful to have political leaders who can help us to escape the bonds of blanket judgment disease, which can become contagious through peer pressure and the desire to conform in the condemnation of outsiders, however they may be defined, it is disappointing in the extreme to have instead candidates for the presidency who engage in spreading the disease through inflammatory rhetoric. Take, for instance, Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. Trump may well understand that many Muslims condemn the violence of terrorists, and that many are fleeing their countries in search of safety, but the careless lumping of all Muslims into a suspect category that must be denied admission to the United States does nothing to further that understanding. It does nothing to foster our awareness of Muslims as distinct individuals, any more than racial fears of American Indians or Mexicans or Asians fostered such understanding in the past. But let’s be clear. While he emerged as the winner of the Republican nomination by dominating debates with such reckless proposals, Trump was hardly the only candidate to offer such blanket condemnations or stoke such fears. In fact, his ascendancy within the Republican party was made possible precisely by years of such pathetic pandering before he chose to take it to another level.

So—I have said my piece for this week in an effort to make peace. There are no links in this particular blog post because the links that matter are not on the Internet but between all of us as Americans and as fellow human beings. We need to foster those connections across racial and political and ethnic and religious lines. We need to reach out even when it takes courage to do so. We need to spend more time understanding each other and less time criticizing each other en masse. We need to focus on the eradication of BJ disease. I will pray for that tonight and every night until we can achieve a more civil and respectful dialogue. Is it too much to ask? Or, as Rodney King once famously asked, “Can’t we all just get along?”


Jim Schwab


Misusing the Populist Label?

Long ago, in a graduate urban planning course at the University of Iowa called “Collective Decision Making,” I had an interesting exchange of views with Professor Mickey Lauria, now at Clemson University. We are both much older than we were in 1982, so it might be interesting to reignite our brief debate over coffee or beer, but it was a friendly, if slightly testy, intellectual debate that has taken on some new meaning for me in the context of our current presidential race. Much of what I am seeing serves to reinforce my original beliefs, but it might just as easily serve to reinforce his as well. I just don’t know. What I do know is that, in objecting to the press describing Donald Trump’s rhetoric as populist, President Barack Obama seemed to land firmly on my side of the debate. I was pleased.

As I recall, and I am relying on an excellent but certainly not perfect memory, our classroom debate occurred in the midst of a discussion about some issue regarding the politics of public housing or low-income housing development in Minneapolis, where Prof. Lauria had acquired a Ph.D. in geography just five years earlier. Most of the details of the immediate issue are now obscure, but I recall that he made some reference to populism in a way that suggested it merely meant catering to popular sentiment, which, of course, can easily be turned against disadvantaged populations on issues like adequate housing. I objected by saying, “That just means anything goes.”

Mickey turned to me with a face that suggested some disbelief, even some cynicism, and replied forcefully, “Anything always has gone, Schwab.”

I insisted, in the face of his adamant response, that populism had some clear historical origins that rose above such a broad indictment, and that it was not as simple as catering to popular prejudice. I discovered that not everyone in the class was enamored of his take on the question, though I am sure I did not win all the endorsements that day, either. Mostly, I just deserved credit for offering and articulating another perspective.

It was a classic confrontation on the question of just how the word “populist” is used. Populism has certainly been denigrated by certain political scientists like Richard Hofstadter, author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And, heaven knows, American history has been full of such sentiments, which have gained and lost ground over time. Some of it is fed by nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments, but some also is fed by resentment of privileged elites, who sometimes can be blamed for stoking such resentment with their own brands of arrogance and condescension. Coming from a working-class family yet striving for higher education and intellectual achievements, believe me, I can see both sides of the debate. I can see both the grievances of many working-class people as well as the futility of the frequent search for easy answers that can dominate their thinking. And while the targets of resentment may vary among blacks, whites, Hispanics, and others, the temptation to latch on to easy answers is omnipresent in one form or another. It is often difficult for people to take time to think more deeply and to perceive that the world can be a very complex place.

But I have never seen that as an excuse for intellectuals to see populist politics as inherently naïve or to paint it with the broad brush of the ignorance of the unwashed. In the end, in my opinion, such attitudes about what constitutes populism concede far too much to the demagogues and manipulators among us because they then wear the populist label with honor when some of them clearly deserve opprobrium.

What Mickey Lauria almost surely did not appreciate, aside from my own undergraduate education in political science, was that I had specifically done my homework on the origins of populism as a political concept in American history. Part of this was due to my move to Iowa as executive director of the small but feisty Iowa Public Interest Research Group and connecting with the politics of agricultural protest during the emergence of the 1980s farm credit crisis. That subject eventually became the focus of my first book, Raising Less Corn and More Hell, for which I subsequently did a great deal more historical research over the next few years. But one book that had captured my attention was highly recommended by another urban planning faculty member at the time, Michael F. Sheehan, who later obtained a law degree to supplement his Ph.D. in economics, and then moved to Oregon as an environmental and public interest lawyer.

Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America, by Lawrence Goodwyn, had been a game changer for me in shaping my awareness of the role of protest politics in American history. It outlined the growth of the admittedly short-lived People’s Party in the 1880s and 1890s but led to the title of my first book, which came from a quote from Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Kansas populist politician of the time, who consistently told farmers that they needed to “raise less corn and more hell.” The populists essentially took over the state of Kansas in the early 1890s, a far cry from the Tea Party Republicanism that dominates there now. But their moment in the sun was relatively short. The party actually won electoral votes, largely in the West, in the 1892 presidential election, but the growing threat it posed also prompted Democratic leaders like William Jennings Bryan to engineer its absorption into the Democratic Party, where its voice became less distinctive. It articulated legitimated grievances against the industrial elite of its day, such as the railroad barons, but also worked in many instances across racial lines. It may be worth noting that similar grievances during the Great Depression prompted the emergence of the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, which elected one governor, but which also was eventually absorbed into the Democratic Party after World War II in part at the urging of Hubert Humphrey.

The tragedy is that some of its leaders, like Lease, a suffragist who broke with the populists, became anti-Semitic, and suffered from self-importance, and Tom Watson of Georgia, who later descended into racist diatribes, succumbed to the enormous pressures to conform to the prejudices of the day, taking the easier route to public acceptance after the collapse of their third-party effort. But it must be said that others helped form the core of the emerging Socialist Party under the leadership of Eugene Debs. Others helped minimize elitist tendencies in the progressive movement by keeping its focus on issues of economic justice for the working class, exemplified later in the Wisconsin initiatives of Robert LaFollette.

There is no question that much of this poses problematic history and that its implications are subject to debate. But I also think that populism at least presented an articulate alternative for a large segment of public opinion that felt oppressed by powerful forces emerging in the post-Civil War American economy. I would also ask what movement for social justice has ever failed to experience its growing pains, including often severe backlash from the powerful interests representing the status quo. Think of the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, and gay rights. The big difference with populism was that it once threatened the status quo not just with demonstrations but with viable candidates for elected office. No wonder the powers of the day reacted so vehemently.

That leaves the question of what has become of the populist label. Is it now whatever we decide it means whenever someone like Donald Trump can rouse large audiences to an angry froth by scapegoating minorities, immigrants, and women who do not conform to his expectations? If so, we had best be careful about the mantle we are allowing such leaders to wear and what they will do with it, for it will then take on authoritarian and fascist dimensions. On the other hand, if we insist, as President Obama did, that there must be a strong element of actually positively representing and fighting for the interests of working people, we can deny Trump and his ilk a hero’s label they have not earned. Demonstrably, Sen. Bernie Sanders has made a clearer case for building an honest populist movement in this century, whatever the shortcomings of his campaign, which did far better than most people ever expected, most likely including Sanders himself, who seems in any case to prefer the label “democratic socialist.” Curiously, that self-description seems not to be hurting him politically, although most politicians would have run from that label in panic.

Many have argued that both Sanders and Trump mounted populist campaigns. I would argue that both tapped into a palpable anger at the nation’s current political leadership, but that, while one is opening old wounds, another is trying to heal them. One is focused largely on himself; the other is actually building a movement for social change.

As I did in 1982, I still argue that the way we use the populist label has serious political implications, and that using it loosely and thoughtlessly may have dangerous consequences for our national political dialogue. The news media, in particular, need to rethink this one. Unfortunately, many reporters have only a cursory knowledge of history.


Jim Schwab