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I Feel Your Pain, See Your "Empathy," and Raise You a Little EST

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Empathy is our newest cultural celebrity, now that Susan Boyle has collapsed in the face of the unrelenting beast of huge and instant fame. (But we really feel for her and understand her let-down and nervous exhaustion as if it were our own. Honest.)

Like "networking" years ago or "creating community" more recently -- or Diversity, Synergy, Empowerment, Wellness, and Green -- empathy is the current buzzword bait dropped into our civilization's fighting cage.

Lionized by the president and blackjacked by conservatives, the empathy scrap is furious. The pro side was luxuriously argued on truthout by George Lakoff; Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, in his own uniquely articulate style, dissed it as "empathy right on your behind."

But the historical trajectory of this empathy thing has some roots and I know where they lie because it was right here in San Francisco and I was around then.

These warm and fuzzy feelings we're debating now are a direct backlash to a '70s movement/hustle that was the antithesis of empathy. It was about being guilt-free and basking in the wonderfulness and perfection of yourself. This deal was a conscious-numbing plague of narcissism that crept into the upper reaches of the Jimmy Carter White House, and had hundreds of thousands of adherents who came to believe they were fine just the way they were. No feeling other people's icky pain and suffering necessary.

They called it EST.

Right. That thing. Erhard Seminar Training, the brainchild of former encyclopedia salesman and new age wizard Werner Erhard (actually Jack Rosenberg; apparently not everything was perfect "the way it is" -- as his EST slogan had it.)

To be fair, Mr. Erhard got a lot of people on board his feel-good wagon, including celebrities (John Denver, Diana Ross), political wives and a lot of young adults who felt the flames of '60s social activism licking the edges of their BMWs and just didn't want to have to feel guilty about their own creature comforts.

As I saw it, EST boiled down to this: don't feel bad. Don't worry about anything but yourself. And you're pretty damn perfect the way you are. Who doesn't want to hear that, even if you're Woody Allen?

Brilliant! As James Lipton would say.

Werner Erhard even started an offshoot called The Hunger Project where, so far as I could tell, no one actually got fed, directly. But the message seemed to be that you don't have to actually do anything about world hunger. Just acknowledging its existence is enough. How freeing is that!? You could do that and play a game of squash at the same time.

While he brilliantly synthesized useful tips from Zen Buddhism, Dale Carnegie, and mass hypnosis, his jewel of conscription was a full weekend of large room, haranguing lectures from Jack himself where no one could leave to pee the entire time.

Suspicious by nature, I went to an EST orientation briefing around 1971 after hearing about this "life-changing experience" from friends whose eyes seemed a little opaque from their own seminars. I took a lot of notes and was immediately surrounded by several EST coordinators demanding to know what I was doing. Always a good sign that something's up other than what people are telling you.

What I recognized in the EST shtick there were some basics I'd heard when I briefly got trained and sold Great Books of the Western World door-to-door to support my journalism habit in my late teens. Sure enough, when I looked it up, Mr. Erhard had the same job years before, though I'm sure he was much, much better at it than I was. ("And if you sign tonight, I can throw in a bookcase for free!")

Today, President Obama and many others are leading a rebellion against the self-comforting bath of EST, and in a big way.

Caught up in his own empathy epidemic, Mr. Obama is now inviting evil Iran to US embassy Fourth of July celebrations overseas. Just check the firecracker load carefully.


Even Dick Cheney feels someone else's urges and has signed up for the same sex marriage camp. (Did Gavin Newsom reach out to him personally?)

It's unclear where all this will end, but let's remember where it started: with Werner Erhard's "revelation" on highway 101, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, when the me-generation was conceived.

Vestiges of what became EST are still around and their lawyers can be pretty assertive. So let me hasten to add, watching out for my own behind, that this is all my opinion.

I'm sure an empathetic judge like Sonia Sotomayor would defend my right to have one of those.