July 16, 2009

"Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another." -- Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama

I was struck by this key sentence in Sessions' opening remarks Monday in the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, especially because he presented it as the essential logic behind their opposition to Sotomayor -- their abiding fear that when she sits on the court, she'll be ruling against every white man who crosses her path.

We know this, according to their logic, because she is Latino -- and because she emphasizes her "empathy" for other Latinos, she will be prejudiced against any non-Latinos in her courtroom.

It is, as logic goes, about as obviously faulty as syllogisms get. Normal human empathy is not exclusive -- that is, our ability to feel empathy for one party does not necessarily exclude empathy for another party (or moreover, in Sessions' formulation, necessitate an animus to any other party). Being empathetic typically means the ability to place oneself in another person's shoes regardless of background. Identifying closely with one group at the exclusion of another typically is the antithesis of empathy.

What Sessions is describing is not empathy but rather the crude tribalism that underscores and animates most racist belief systems, and has done so since time immemorial. It is, essentially, an almost astonishing confession to being racist on Sessions' part.

And it animates not just Sessions but nearly the whole of movement conservatism and the Republican Party. If you were to poll Republican senators this week and ask them if they agreed with Sessions' "logic," I'd wager the numbers would be in the vicinity of 90 percent.

Nor is it just the senators. Look at Pat Buchanan yesterday, and Rush Limbaugh every day. The same core belief -- that empathy for Latinos, or black people, or any nonwhite, equals prejudice against whites -- indeed animates nearly the entirety of the conservative movement. I'd like to find a single conservative who would repudiate Sessions' formula. I bet I won't.

Rachel Maddow provided an ample survey of how bad it is out there last night. She was especially appalled by his column calling for Republicans to indulge in nakedly racial appeals to gain the sympathy of white voters -- though of course, for Buchanan, this is nothing particularly new. Back in 1989, he was arguing to the GOP to gradually adopt David Duke's positions at the time. And you know what? They did.

Maddow says Buchanan will be on her show to explain himself tonight. That should be entertaining. She won't need to ask Buchanan if he agrees with Sessions -- I think we already know the answer.

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