• Daniel Ethan Finneran

A Pilot In The Midst Of A Storm

September 2017

One best comes to know his pilot in the midst of a storm. That’s when he shows his mettle or reveals his cowardice. This takes on rather a literal than a metaphorical meaning in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. After Harvey doused South Texas in over fifty inches of rain, and tore asunder roofs, homes, schools, and parks, the region is just now beginning to assess the incalculable damage that it incurred. In less than one week’s time, President Trump and First Lady Melania have twice visited this once prosperous and now ravaged Texas coast. For better or for worse, like him or not, he is our pilot and this is our storm. Harvey is the first, and hopefully the last, natural disaster through which this pilot will be forced to navigate. So far, he’s done so remarkably well.

On Tuesday, the president and his first lady departed from an inclement Washington D.C. for Corpus Christie. There they arrived at that small but vigorous port town at the very southern-most part of the Texas Gulf Coast. Above them, curling into Louisiana and thence dissipating into the clouds, the storm continued to ramble. For this reason, some thought Trump’s visit was premature. Had he dithered in D.C., though, those same people would’ve charged him with being insouciant and unfeeling.

Even before the first man and lady could get beyond the Beltway, critics seized upon them. Cameras captured their first steps as they approached Marine One, which was grounded idly in preparation for their departure. As images of the two began surfacing, Twitter was abustle with commentary and snide remarks. The object of everyone’s attention was none other than First Lady Melania’s footwear. She was wearing a simple and elegant dress and stilt-like high heels.

Comedienne Chelsea Handler was quick to comment on her wardrobe as was Zach Braff, actor, writer, and now commentator who followed Chandler by tweeting, “Melania headed to a disaster zone in stilettos is my Halloween costume”. None of this was warranted. Within my heart, Melania reserves a unique place. I can’t help but forever feel a sympathetic tinge for her. She always appears to me like a guiltless accomplice when things go awry and a dignified presence when they go well. Admittedly though, I tend always to prefer function over fashion whenever the two vie for my priority, and—at least this time—she might’ve donned boots instead of heels.

Nevertheless, and for whatever it’s worth, upon arriving in Texas and alighting from Air Force One, Melania ditched the heels for canvas sneakers and proceeded undaunted to weather the grounds below. It’s evident she too finds value in that which is functional, but the critics didn’t stop there. Lampooning Melania that day was a cap-a-pie affair. Atop her head she wore a baseball hat with the acronym, “FLOTUS” inscribed on the front. Surely she missed the irony of wearing a hat whose pronunciation is mockingly close to the word, “floating” in a completely flooded city. So she missed this embarrass de choix in her dress. Should this really have been our consuming thought?

While Melania’s wardrobe was poured over, the president was also being keenly examined. As always, one needn’t scrutinize too microscopically, for his comportment is forever boldly on display. Trump delivered a galvanizing speech to a small but ebullient crowd gathered at a city fire station. Flanked by Governor Greg Abbott, Trump prefaced his remarks by commenting on—you may have guessed it—the crowd size. Like a visceral tic he can’t suppress, Trump enthusiastically exclaimed, “What a crowd! What a turnout!”. Admittedly, it was an indecent thing to say at the time and in the context. Surely, it was one better held in thought than voiced aloud. That said, it wouldn’t be our president if not for a little garnish of self-love and a shot of idiosyncratic self-congratulation.

But the crowd certainly was enraptured in Trump’s presence. If nothing else, those people of Corpus Christi must’ve been encouraged by the speed with which he travelled to greet them. This kind of alacrity in the face of catastrophe is no small beans; it sends an explicit and a re-assuring message that those who are struggling aren’t in it alone. To emphasize this point, one needn’t look further back in time than to President Bush’s late arrival to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He was widely castigated for not having rubbed elbows with the people on the ground sooner, opting instead to take in a belated aerial view of the damage from Air Force One. Granted, it did make for an emotional photo-op, with the lugubrious president gazing down from his plane window at the wreckage below, but this was scant consolation to those swimming, starving, and barely surviving on the ground. Trump, aware of his predecessor’s mistake, was prompt to get two feet on Texas soil.

Even so, further criticism was inevitable. Among other things, pundits aspersed the president for not approaching the storm and its aftermath with greater sobriety. As the storm strengthened in the Gulf but before it made landfall, Trump seemed to be tracking it with callow zeal. He seemed to be enamored of its destructive potential instead of solemnly anticipating its landfall. He Tweeted in real-time all of his sophomoric thoughts. After the storm, in his address to the people of Texas, he assured that “we’re going to get you back and operating immediately” and that “Texas can handle anything!”.

The implication is, of course, more than a little misleading, but that really wasn’t the point. His words were meant to be at the very least, consoling and if at all possible, uplifting. No city can be expected, after having sustained the ravages of so powerful a storm, to be immediately operational. Trump didn’t say what he did as if it were some kind of cursory actuarial assessment, but rather as an appeal to renewed life and hope. It was message harmonious with Texas’s nearly-mythological penchant for resilience and strength in the face of adversity.

The media also critiqued the president for being insufficiently empathetic to the victims’ plight. This word, empathetic, turned quickly into the word du jour. It became a cliché that the news outlets and their indefatigable commentators repeated hourly. Trump displayed a glaring lack of empathy, they alleged, because he made no reference to those still stranded, afflicted, or lost. He made no appeal to the millions of Americans watching his speech to turn over their wallets and donate to the charities and the foundations beginning their recovery work. How could the president be so remiss as to not make these kinds of appeals? Surely he knows that it’s within this window, in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when people are most willing to give. For this, he lacked empathy.

He also wasn’t mawkish. Nor was he lachrymose. He stepped into a disaster area and didn’t even shed a tear. Hardly did he bat an eye. For this too, he was accused of a blatant lack of empathy, something unbecoming, or so we’re told, of a man in his position. But is this truly a fault? Do we need or do we even want our statesmen and women crying, losing their composure, and sacrificing their stoic regard for a moment of pathos and sentiment? I’d frankly prefer that they not. I’m of the fading opinion that there’s something still to be said for the idea of a stiff upper lip. To conceal one’s feelings, I think, is not only useful, but essential.

There’s also the issue surrounding the media’s use of the word empathy to describe that which Trump so obviously lacks. Too often, the word empathy is misapplied, and this case proves the rule rather than the exception. The authority on the word’s etymology and its proper application is the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. In his book, Against Empathy, Bloom makes the delineation between empathy, sympathy, pity, and compassion manifestly and surprisingly clear. Based on his categorization of the word, empathy—by and large—isn’t something at all worth pursuing. Empathy, properly understood, is a quite literal sharing of feelings. It’s as if you were to stub your toe and I were to then feel the bounding and unrelenting pain in my own. Likewise, it’s as if you were to feel joyous and I were to share commensurately in the ecstasy. Nothing worthwhile nor useful can come of this. Instead, what’s to be desired above all is rational compassion. Rational compassion, as Bloom explains, is a more philosophical understanding of another’s suffering. It’s somewhat more abstract but no less personal. The added benefit of rational compassion though, and that which mere empathy lacks, is where it directs its energy. The objective becomes the alleviation of another’s suffering and the improvement through a determined and careful effort any wrongs and pains incurred. As such, I’m glad President Trump is not empathetic. Only with clear eyes and a stoic heart can he as the pilot navigate this storm.

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