Compassion fatigue?

Tara Wall CNN Political Contributor
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America has lost its compassion. Apparently, we have more of a soft spot for questionable athletes than for the poor or afflicted. Compassion, it seems, extends more readily to the multimillionaires who cheat than it does to those whose lives and livelihoods hang by a limb. These are my observations following a lively discussion on a recent panel I participated in for BET, with topics that included “compassion fatigue” and whether college athletic programs are “pimping” black athletes (to use the words of host Ed Gordon).

The controversy surrounding Auburn’s Cam Newton is now notorious. The embattled college quarterback got his eligibility reinstated because, in my view, American football fans, analysts and Heisman judges are generous — to a fault. Generous with a kind of compassion (or greed) that forgives even the most absurd mistakes. Forget that this kid has already had a brush with the law when he was arrested for larceny, suspended from his first college of “choice,” yet “allowed” to transfer to Auburn once those charges were conveniently dropped. Months later, he finds himself in the middle of his father’s apparent pay-for-play scheme, violating NCAA rules any idiot who knows anything about college ball is acutely aware of. A scheme designed for Newton’s benefit. But because we love our potential Heisman Trophy winners, we feel sorry for them; our heart stings ache at the thought of helping to make a rich star out of a seemingly impoverished student who has a shot at making it big now that his talent has been recognized by the NCAA and professional scouts. Another feel-good story that makes it easy to look past a few potential illegal indiscretions, because he’s a young black kid from the hood who just can’t help himself. Surely there must be a reason he needed the money and couldn’t subsist on his paltry four-year (roughly) $100,000 college scholarship that almost guarantees him a professional football contract upon graduation. He had to steal and extort money because he was being exploited, as the subtleties behind the argument go. And because we are compassionate people, we express our abundance of pity on this poor kid.

So, one might surmise, when it comes time to help those who really need our help, compassion is flowing. We’re ready to step up to the plate, right? Wrong. Apparently, when it comes to helping the truly afflicted and downtrodden, we’re fresh out. Fatigued. Economic circumstances, the war and uneasiness in the marketplace have taken our passion away. We only have so much to spread around and apparently spent it all up somewhere between Tiger Woods’ last hole and Cam Newton’s 24-hour ineligibility. That’s where the BET conversation drifted when the question was posed as to whether the Obama administration is “doing enough” to combat HIV/AIDS at home and abroad. While the number and disparity of cases among minorities in the U.S. is arresting and should give us all pause, the numbers of new cases are down overall. And what we have committed as country over the past 10 years to change the course of this disease is second to none.

We are still leaders of the heart, especially compared to our counterparts: In Africa, for example, the United States contributes 58% of all international funding, about $4 billion a year, in efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.

Having worked for the administration that coined the phrase “compassionate conservatism,” there is no doubt that we did more to aid, impact and decrease HIV/AIDS in Africa than any other administration in the history of this nation. Thus, paving the way toward a lasting legacy of what real, bipartisan compassion can do. As President George W. Bush remarked when he reflected on World AIDS Day last week: “Saving lives is never a waste of money.”

Whether you believe there is compassion fatigue when it comes to charitable contributions, or not, overall I believe we are an innately generous society that steps up when it matters. Yes, charitable giving was down slightly for 2009. But corporate giving has increased and more individuals gave to causes where the need was the greatest. There is no lack of giving, just moments of misguided priorities. While some athletes may make a mockery by milking the system and playing on our natural sympathies, as a country we never seem to let personal circumstances get in the way of our desire to alleviate someone else’s suffering. Our compassion is still alive and well.

Tara Wall is a conservative columnist, former Deputy Editor for the Washington Times and CNN Political Contributor.