New York City protest, Novembe 21, 2021. (Photo: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
The essential human need to give and receive empathy is often manipulated by corporate media, who act on behalf of the state and the ruling class.
This article was originally published in Hood Communist.
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of other beings, is present in some form in most living things on Earth. Scientists theorize that empathy developed as an evolutionary strategy to build stronger bonds among animals that depend on cooperation for survival. In one particular kind of animal, humans, empathy is clear evidence that the claim spread by the ruling class, that each of us is fundamentally cruel, self-interested, and greedy is nothing more than an attempt to naturalize the individualism and antisocial behavior that best serves their exploitative interests. In its purest form empathy is a net positive for us on a planet where for the last several hundred years the genocidal system of capitalism-imperialism has normalized massive daily violence happening against a backdrop of apathy and ignorance. Empathy’s endurance among us says that a better and more just way of living is possible despite our current conditions and that the (re)building of that way of living is within our capacity. However, empathy, like almost every aspect of the psyche when we are disorganized and unconscious, can be weaponized and manipulated by that same genocidal global system. We are witnessing this today on a grand scale.
Since president Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, over twenty thousand people – among them unaccompanied infants, parents and caretakers without their children, and queer and trans people fleeing repression – have been deported by the US Department of Homeland Security, back to the desperate conditions of the failed state created and maintained by Western imperialism in Haiti. Over two-thirds of those people have been expelled under the questionable legal basis of Title 42, a racist and xenophobic Trump era policy crafted by notable ghoul Stephen Miller. Title 42 claims that expelling the refugees created by capitalism-imperialism (without giving them access to due process, opportunity to make a claim for asylum, or appeal) is somehow an essential part of controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. One major problem with this claim is the fact that the spread of COVID-19 has never, at any point since the start of the pandemic, been under control in the United States. The other major problem is that from the inception of the Title 42 policy, public health experts have pointed out that it has no scientific basis whatsoever and is explicitly anti-refugee by design, with some describing it as ‘medical gerrymandering.’ Public health experts have also pointed out that the barbaric decades old US government policy of warehousing capitalism-imperialism’s refugees in concentration camps without access to vaccines, medical care, or even facilities to maintain basic hygiene prior to expelling them is itself a serious obstacle to the control of COVID-19 in the US.
When Trump was in office, the day to day inhumanity of Title 42 and the US empire’s approach to immigration took center stage. Masses of people outside of the so-called “Left”, people who had never understood themselves to be activists or particularly interested in social justice at all, were motivated to mobilize and take action to protest what they correctly understood as openly cruel policies and practices. We saw massive demonstrations at airports halting deportation flights, impassioned monologues from late night talk show hosts, breathless media coverage, undercover exposés, presidential candidates denouncing ‘kids in cages’, and members of the progressive Democratic caucus weeping in all white at the US-Mexico border. Though little was changed in practice, there was spectacle, outrage, momentum, and energy, a collective and righteous sense of empathy around the issue that took even longtime immigrant and refugee rights organizations by surprise.
But then Joe Biden was elected.
Biden was one of the presidential candidates who lamented the inhumanity of Title 42 and Trump’s immigration policies on the campaign trail. His platform, still visible on his campaign website, boasted that Biden would ‘take urgent action to undo Trump’s damage’ and ‘reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees.’ But when he actually did take office, his quickly issued executive order calling for a ‘moratorium’ on deportations, a campaign promise, was immediately undermined by an ICE plane flying Haitian babies back to the island in early February 2021. Title 42 was the pretext.
This practice has continued throughout Biden’s first term even after the Department of Homeland Security gave Haitian refugees what’s known as temporary protected status (TPS) in May of 2021. TPS was an acknowledgement that conditions in Haiti, again a direct consequence of US (and UN and CORE group) imperialist intervention in that nation, were unsafe for them to return to. But the deportations did not stop. By January 2022 the Biden administration was deporting hundreds of Africans back to Haiti every month, had reopened a child detention center in Florida, and was defending its right to use Title 42 and a number of other Trump era immigration policies in federal court. His campaign promises had been broken. Under Biden, however, we see no mass demonstrations, no crocodile tears, no exposés, no monologues. The planes chartered for the sole purpose of deportation, filled with African refugees bound with chains, fly out of airports throughout the United States in the quiet of the night with little to no media coverage. Immigrant and refugee rights organizations are still organizing, still fighting, still mobilizing, but most people in the US no longer have any idea of what’s going on. What changed?
In order to understand what happened, it’s important to understand that mass media in the US is not free in any sense of the word. The platforms that are the most prominent and widely consumed by the masses here—whether in print, TV, movies, or radio are tightly controlled by corporate monopolies that are themselves controlled by the global ruling class. For this reason, the messages that we are exposed to when we consume this media on a day to day basis represent, first and foremost, the interests and ideology of that ruling class. It doesn’t matter the identity of the talking head, nor their stated politics, nor the branding of the media platform, the agenda is the same. Another important thing to understand is that for the most part the ruling class and the petit-bourgeois class that comprises the media, politicians, policy makers, public intellectuals, and other ‘influencers’ within the United Snakes were not in any way seriously opposed to Trump or his policies.
When we saw the Daily Show or Rachel Maddow or SNL or Nancy Pelosi excoriating Trump (and helping to popularize and foment resistance against him) they were not doing so out of a moral objection to his policies. Indeed, Trump’s approach to immigration and most other things was simply a mask-off version of the explicitly white supremacist domestic and foreign policy that the US has had for hundreds of years. What these shows, pundits, and politicians were actually doing was expressing the antipathy of one segment of the ruling class towards Trump’s instability and irrationality. His inability to ‘play the game.’ Sure he handed them over $7 trillion in an upward transfer of wealth, passed a slate of tax measures that lowered their bills to Uncle Sam, and took a hardline position against the US empire’s official enemies like Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan, and China. But he was also a deeply ridiculous and unpredictable leader with no capacity for emotional regulation and little sense of the long term consequences of his actions from moment to moment. Trump was easily pushed into action based on what he’d just watched or who he’d heard from last and also came with a political base that was increasingly radicalized and difficult to control. That meant that at decisive moments (like his entirely spite-motivated investigation into Biden’s dealings in Ukraine that almost exposed disastrous US intervention in that nation) Trump wavered from the overall agenda for capitalism-imperialism set by the ruling class. That, more than anything, is what sealed his fate and what drove the deployment of their propaganda apparatus against him.
In this example of nearly identical draconian and inhumane approaches to immigration policy met with wildly different receptions from the masses, we can see both the strategy and the impact of capitalism-imperialism’s weaponization of empathy. How, when we are not politically educated, our sense of care and concern for the conditions of other living beings can be manipulated and deployed at the whims of the ruling class using their massive media monopolies. It’s not that people stopped caring about kids being put in cages, families being separated, and infants being deported without caretakers, it’s that our awareness of these issues is determined by the visibility the ruling class chooses to give them within the media we consume. They can turn that awareness off and turn it on and they can point it wherever they want to. This is why the spectacle around immigration stopped as soon as Biden entered office. This is also why even at the height of the outrage, mainstream media analysis of the cruelty of US immigration policy under Trump never got into the real reasons why so many people were fleeing their homes for the US border. Doing so would have required implicating US imperialism and no one on TV was trying to do that.
The ruling class propaganda apparatus depends on the cynical manipulation of our emotions and the weaponization of our empathy, it also depends on obscuring political and historical context in order to manufacture consent for imperialism. Another recent example which illustrates this clearly is the US and NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine.
As several contributors to Hood Communist have explained over the last few years, the attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty did not begin with Russia’s military intervention in February 2022. Ukraine has actually been the target of two separate US-backed color revolutions targeting the same democratically elected but-too-friendly-to-Russia-for-the-West’s-liking president Viktor Yanukovych, in less than two decades. The first, in 2004, was known as the Orange Revolution and was led by a so-called ‘grassroots’ youth movement with a slick media campaign almost entirely developed by the US. Its outcome was the overturning of the results of the 2004 election and the ascension of Viktor Yushchenko, an opposition leader who pushed European Union and NATO membership for Ukraine as well as the imposition of IMF structural adjustment programs.
The second US-backed overturning of Ukraine’s democratic process happened in 2014, and it saw US and NATO powers forming an unholy alliance with the literal neo-Nazis and fascists who comprised the vanguard of the Euromaidan movement that would force Ukrainian president Yanukovych out of office for the second time. Those neo-Nazis and fascists, with first political and then military backing from the US and NATO nations, engaged in acts of extreme organized violence, like the Maiden massacre, that quickly saw them dominate formerly peaceful protests and develop power far beyond their relatively small representation within the Ukrainian population. When Yanukovych was ultimately deposed in an unconstitutional impeachment process pushed along by the United States, the government that was formed in his wake had many representatives of Ukraine’s far right in key positions. Arseniy Yatseniuk, the heir apparently identified in a leaked conversation between current US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland and then US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pratt, became Ukraine’s new prime minister. Again, the push became NATO and EU membership for Ukraine and the newly formed US-backed far right wing government wasted no time applying the economy-tanking neoliberal austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a $20 billion loan. The Neo-nazis and fascists used their moment in the electoral sun to consolidate their power. They leveraged their relationship with the head of Ukraine’s Ministry of the Interior to officially integrate neo-Nazi paramilitary gangs like the Azov battalion into the Ukrainian army, won key positions within the security state as well as local and regional political offices, formed massive militias like the National Corps that were deputized to patrol Ukraine’s streets alongside police, and institutionalized Holocaust denial and the national glorification of Nazi collaborators like Stefan Bandera. The result of this economic and political devastation in Ukraine has been mass terror and a civil war that has claimed the lives of over 14,000 people in the 8 years since, all a direct consequence of US and NATO intervention.
Though we are being told across every media platform to pray and stand for Ukraine, to express our unconditional solidarity to Ukraine, to definitely ignore the political power of the far right wing and literal neo-Nazis in Ukraine, we are not being told this context. We have been manipulated into believing that the attack on Ukraine began two weeks ago, out of nowhere, and that it was provoked by nothing more than the poor mental health of a broad orientalist stereotype disguised as a man. We believe we are weeping for the people of Ukraine, but really we are engaged in a false fight for their sovereignty alongside the forces who destroyed that sovereignty in the first place. Any attempt to analyze the historical and political context that led to this moment— broken agreements not to expand NATO, the US-led attacks on Ukraine’s self-determination, the US and NATO’s long and uncomfortable history of knowingly colluding with fascists, is met with hostility and accusations of “apologism”. The call from the bourgeois propaganda apparatus is to stand with Ukraine and doing so means accepting that it’s history begins when the New York Times and MSNBC say so. Because the masses of people in the US are largely unconscious, not politically educated, pretty racist, and systematically trained and bribed into aligning with white supremacy and imperialism, this works.
I want to be clear that this article is not a call to abandon empathy or to push it down when we feel it. As stated in the beginning, empathy is an essential part of who we are collectively as human beings; an evolutionary gift meant to deepen our dependence upon each other and strengthen the social organization we need for survival. What we have to realize however, is that without consciousness and critical thinking skills developed through a process of political education (most effectively within the context of a revolutionary organization) our empathy can and will be manipulated and weaponized by the enemies of humanity to serve their interests. We have to understand that true identification and solidarity with the masses of human beings and other living things on this planet requires an actual understanding of their struggles and conditions with full context. We have to understand that emojis, hashtag campaigns, and slogans that tail the geopolitical interests of genocidal war mongering imperialists are a poor replacement for actual internationalism.
It is necessary for each of us in the belly of the beast to struggle to develop a true international solidarity and environmentalism that is grounded in an understanding of capitalism-imperialism as the primary contradiction. We have to develop our ability to recognize it in all its faces and forms. We also have to develop our commitment to take organized and collective action, by building socialism, to destroy it. Let us recognize our role in history as citizens of empire. Let us truly understand and claim our global interdependence and fight to defend it. Let us reclaim empathy as a weapon for justice and life.
Onyesonwu Chatoyer is an African woman marooned in the United States, organizing to defeat capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. She is an organizer with the All-African People's Revolutionary Party and the All-African Women's Revolutionary Union, an editor with Hood Communist, and also serves on the national committee of the Venceremos Brigade.