When Merle Haggard, troubadour of flyover America, died Baptist Theologian Russell Moore had this to say about him:
The defiance of the song (“Okie from Muskogee”) was a defense, as many of his songs (“Workin’ Man Blues,” for instance) were—of those who were derided by the mainstream of society, like the “Okies” demonized in California, as, at best, a drag on the economy and, at worst, a threat to public safety. Not everyone can surf the wave of creative destruction that has upended markets and morals. When it comes crashing over ordinary folks, some will cling to God or guns. Or even vote for Donald Trump. Haggard understood these responses without necessarily sharing them. He sided with the outlaws, not their law-breaking. He was loyal to the little guy, not a spokesman for his politics. He stood with, not for.
The phrase with, not for has been on my mind a lot the last month or so.
Some people claim to base their social and political views on empathy, which is just a fancy way for them to claim that their tribal affiliations are morally superior to other people’s. Their empathy – like all emotions – is of course selective: no one has the capacity to penetrate the inner feelings of all beings so we pick a handful with whom to empathize. I expend most of my empathy on Trump voters, being surrounded by them, but I have no plans to vote for the fool. (A couple of months ago I overheard a college kid talking about how much he hated Trump supporters. “Why do you hate poor people?” I asked him.)
Empathy is easily manipulated. In any spy movie the “hero” is usually just as amoral as his opponents, so the only thing that makes him the hero is the fact that the screenwriter and director choose to tell the story from his perspective, aka, manipulate the audience into identifying with him. On a social level it is easy to see how tribal, class, or political affiliation determines our empathies. The affiliations are just the movie screens through which we watch life and decide who to root for.
Simply being able to empathize has no bearing on one’s moral standing: sociopaths are highly empathetic, a trait that enables them to manipulate people.
Empathy invoked as a justification for a partisan political issue is ipso facto fake. Which brings me to Haggard. His empathies lay with people who most definitely did not share his politics or his lifestyle. His art stood with, not for or against.