A Hillary Clinton supporter here in Cambridge hosted a party for a friend who landed a new job. The Hillary supporter is in her 70s and rich and connected enough to have met Hillary on numerous occasions. At the party she expressed criticisms of Donald Trump, and her fellow citizens who had voted for him, pretty much nonstop. This was not out of hatred for the Mr. Trump so much as due to her bighearted sympathy for the vulnerable, most of whom she had never met and would never meet (Zillow estimates the value of her home, which is typical of the neighborhood, at $3.6 million).
She learned that an immigrant guest was heading out to Logan Airport to pick up a family member coming in with a visa obtained at a U.S. consulate (not in any of the countries that have been the subject of Donald Trump’s attempted executive orders restricting travel). She was effusive in her concern that the Trumpenfuhrer’s border thugs might obstruct this elderly traveler’s entry into the U.S.
Shortly after this discussion about a hypothetical problem we learned that a different guest was dealing with a real problem: her husband wanted to leave her and their two young children. The wife/mother said that she wanted to stay married and was trying everything within her power to persuade the husband to honor his promise. The kids were plainly at risk (see “Children, Mothers, and Fathers” for links to some of the research; plus, under Massachusetts family law they were sure to lose their college funds and inheritance to legal fees in the event of a typical non-mediated divorce). After the potential unwilling divorcee had left, the hostess was asked if she was concerned about the husband/father breaking his promise. She framed the issue entirely in terms of the man’s happiness: “Maybe he hadn’t found the right person [in the current wife].” The welfare of the children, who seemed to be solidly on track to losing their two-parent home, was not mentioned. Readers would be disappointed in me if I hadn’t asked “So you’re saying that if the guy found a 22-year-old off Craigslist you might not be able to support his decision, but if he has found two 22-year-olds and they are both super hot then, of course, he has no choice but to leave the wife and mother?” The Hillary supporter’s evaluation process turned out not to involve 22-year-old women, but it was essentially the same: she would approve of the husband’s decision to leave the wife/mother if he had found some way to make himself a lot happier. There were no circumstances under which the children’s welfare, suffering inflicted on the wife, or marriage vows would be a consideration.
Within our social circle, the folks who are not active opponents of Donald Trump and the Republicans (e.g., people who did not attend the Women’s March and who do not post virtuous and/or outraged political content on Facebook) are much more sympathetic to the wife/mother and are deeply concerned about the children.
Does it make sense to think of human sympathy and attention as a scarce resource? If so, can we infer that people who occupy their minds with concern regarding the ability of people they’ve never met to become undocumented immigrants will be therefore less sympathetic to suffering among people they encounter face-to-face?