The Erosion of Compassion

“All you need is love. . . .” The lyrics, wrapped in brass instruments, danced out of the speakers attached to Peter’s tabletop record player. Jim, Peter, and I sat around Peter’s bedroom as we listened to Magical Mystery Tour by the Beatles for the first time. We marveled at their musical progression and compared its playlist to Revolver and Rubber Soul. But we were also disappointed that none of the songs dealt with important issues like the Vietnam War. We were all sixteen and were only two years from being drafted. Other groups, like Jefferson Airplane, were putting out protest songs about the war and pressing social issues such as civil rights.

Growing up in the Sixties was strange. Sure, every generation has its obstacles. Compared to WWII and the Depression, our issues didn’t have the same urgency. But watching how the government treated protesters, both those against the war and those against racism, filled us with anger. We wanted to do something about the injustice we saw. There is some irony in that all three of us opposed the war and yet all three ended up in it. Peter was stationed on a destroyer safely off shore, but Jim and I both ended up in the army and on firebases in country.

I saw Peter briefly after the war. In fact, he was partly responsible for introducing me to the woman I married. But that’s a story for another time. When I saw him at Pikes Peak Community College, all Peter cared about was smoking pot, listening to music, and figuring out how to get paid for not working. The GI bill was his current dodge. The last I heard of him was that he had gotten a regular workman’s comp check. Jim was a different story. He moved before our senior year and I didn’t hear from him until stumbling upon his profile on Facebook a few years ago. It was good to reconnect and I enjoyed looking at his family pictures and hearing about his experiences in the ‘Nam. He had had some of the same frustrations with USARV that I did.

There are few people from my high school days that I still keep up with. Part of it is the evolution we all go through. Personal interests and hobbies are modified as family and career take up increasing amounts of time. Little is left for old friends. That changes, of course, as we get older. Relieved of our family obligations, we can reconnect. But some of the changes in our friends are hard to deal with. Exhibit A is a story that Jim forwarded to me on Facebook that he wanted me to pass on. It was a story about the five states who have initiated drug testing for welfare recipients. Jim thought it was a great idea and that “anyone who has money for drugs doesn’t need money for food.”

I was a little stunned by this. Not because I was unaware of these laws. As a teacher of college rhetoric, I am quite aware of them. I spend a lot of time researching the political, social, and cultural trends in the country and world. My students depend on me as a sounding board as they write essays on a wide variety of topics. What bothered me was the pleasure Jim seemed to express while passing this story along. It was as if he’d forgotten the humiliation of having to urinate in front of medics in order to come home from Vietnam. I didn’t understand the apparent lack of compassion from someone I know has a great deal of compassion in other areas. I expect enthusiasm for drug testing from my father-in-law and other stone age Republicans. I didn’t expect it from the only guy in our school with a genuine Beatle haircut.

I didn’t know how to respond to Jim. I suppose I could have chosen facts. These programs have been around for a while and have been a colossal waste of tax-payer money. After spending millions on drug tests, less than 1% (.6% to be exact) of those tested have been identified as drug users. A little logic comes in play here. Most people who collect assistance have jobs. I realize that’s contrary to the narrative that’s been built in the national consciousness. But it’s a fact that most people who get benefits are the working poor. To keep their jobs, many of these people have to pass regular drug screenings. It’s ironic, (and why I quit the Republican Party) that the party of smaller government, the party that advocates letting free market forces solve problems, wants the government to solve a problem that corporate America has already addressed.

I don’t know if Jim will respond to a fact-based argument in this “post truth” world we live in. Even pointing out that cutting off benefits from drug users means they will turn to crime, doesn’t seem to have an impact on those who advocate such humiliating measures. It’s a fact that most street crime is drug related. Taking food away from druggies will not improve their situation or their attitude towards society and other people. Personally I’d rather give food to people than have them commit crime. I’d rather give them drugs too but that’s another story.

My views are shaped by science, by facts, by evidence. I shun labels such as liberal or conservative. I’m interested in what works. If drug testing programs helped people and/or saved tax dollars, I’d be behind them 100%. But they don’t. Working with felons, many of whom are addicts or alcoholics, gives me a different perspective than Jim. Most of America views addicts and alcoholics as morally bankrupt. They often see the poor in the same light. Therefore most Americans don’t see the need or ethical imperative to help those who struggle with poverty and addiction.

For me it’s a practical matter. We can spend $45,000 per year locking up addicts or we can spend $6000 a year on a treatment program. Guess which path has the greatest success rate in actually helping people kick their addictions and becoming productive citizens? But besides the obvious financial advantage to helping people, there’s the question of compassion. Taking care of the dregs of society is a commandment from Christ. Yet few people who call themselves Christians will be able to pass muster on this directive. As someone who has spent much of his life working with young people I can testify to the fact that many of them are very concerned about injustice and those who are less fortunate.

What happens to them as they get older? Is it the difficulties of career and family? Is it the isolation from people in need? Perhaps the personal tragedies that accumulate in their lives hardens their hearts? Or maybe the aches and pains of growing older makes them more self-centered? Whatever the reason, their empathy for others seems to slip away like helium from a balloon. And the end result is public policy that hurts the very people who need help the most.