Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Personal and the Political

Senator Rob Portman with his family.  His son Will is on the right.

I must admit to feeling very puzzled about the controversy surrounding Senator Portman's change of mind on gay marriage because his son came out to him as gay.  There is a lot of skepticism about the senator's motivations.

Jonathan Chait says that Portman's motivations are entirely selfish and cynical:

It’s pretty simple. Portman went along with his party’s opposition to gay marriage because it didn’t affect him. He thought about gay rights the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care. And he still obviously thinks about most issues the way Paul Ryan thinks about health care.
That Portman turns out to have a gay son is convenient for the gay-rights cause. But why should any of us come away from his conversion trusting that Portman is thinking on any issue about what’s good for all of us, rather than what’s good for himself and the people he knows?

Matthew Yglesias goes even further, accusing both Portman and American right wing politicians in general of a selfish lack of empathy:

It's a great strength of the movement for gay political equality that lots of important and influential people happen to have gay children. That obviously does change people's thinking. And good for them. 
But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn't he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don't happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don't just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son's eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn't that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn't to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It's to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don'thave direct access to the corridors of power. 
Senators basically never have poor kids. That's something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.

Noah Berlatsky, while not entirely dismissing the concerns of Chait and Yglesias, comes to a different conclusion:

Portman's op-ed makes him sound like someone who, faced with a moral dilemma, has muddled through as best he can with the least thought and effort possible. The fact is, though, that most of us, most of the time, are more like Rob Portman than we are like, say, Mildred Loving, the woman whose Supreme Court case overturned the laws against interracial marriage. The marriage equality movement, like any moral movement, has been built by activists with great struggle and courage. But it's success is measured by the fact that it has framed the issues in question such that even the selfish and small-minded can, given a little push by their families, make the right choices. Portman is not an inspiring figure. But there is something inspiring in realizing that the movement has reached a point where even someone like him finds it easier to make the right choice than the wrong one.

I wonder about the Senator's son Will.  No one has said much about him.  I think that coming out to a right wing father who is a US Senator with a lot to lose from such a revelation was no small act of courage.  I notice that the right wing religious crazies are already sharpening their Long Knives to fillet both Senator Portman and his son Will.

I don't think Chait and Yglesias are entirely wrong, but the whole recent success of the cause of same sex equality rests on millions of accumulated personal revelations like what Portman and his family experienced, revelations that put a very human and personal face on what was previously an abstract issue.  The whole history of the struggle for LGBT liberation is about fighting against generalizations and broad abstractions that falsely represented our own experiences as individuals and as a group.  Regular readers of this blog know my great distaste for big sweeping ideological and doctrinal abstractions.

Empathy matters, though I agree with Chait and Yglesias that it shouldn't be central to making sound and right policy decisions.

Politics, I've always argued, is not about ideology.  It is about doing real and concrete things for real and concrete people.  It is about trying as much as circumstance and possibility will allow to create a decent place to live that insures the freedom and dignity of everyone who dwells there.  Left politics today is about the long hard effort, both personal and social, to stop seeing people as types and to start seeing them as individuals with histories, and to build a social, economic, and political order that enfranchises everyone, including our opponents.

Jacques Louis David painted a famous painting about the personal and the political right on the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, a painting about a political leader and his sons.

In this painting by David, lictors bring back to Brutus (not the assassin, but the founder of the Roman Republic) the bodies of his sons who he had arrested and condemned to death for treason.  David presents this harsh story from the pages of Livy as a secularized version of the story of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac.  Only this time, God is replaced by Rome as indicated by the darkly silhouetted statue of the goddess Roma beside the shadowed figure of Brutus on the left.  This time, the sons were not spared and there was no ram to complete the sacrifice.

Many times in history, families have been asked to sacrifice private happiness and even sons and daughters to the public good.  Families must face this decision every time a country goes to war.  Senator Portman faced such a decision when confronted with his son's confession of homosexuality.  In order to please the far-right religious crazies that still wield considerable influence on the Republican party, he would have had to sacrifice his son Will.  Portman decided that the cause of homophobia simply wasn't worth the sacrifice of his son, a decision reached by thousands of other families from all kinds of backgrounds and classes.  People are deciding that placating a backwards and bigoted priestly caste is not worth the sacrifice of their children.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

I'm trying to figure out why you are puzzled?

I'm very glad Rob Portman changed his mind--but does he really deserve a medal for deciding to be a decent human being only AFTER he finds out that an issue affects him personally? Why shouldn't we take the opportunity to call him out on other issues when he's made it so plain that he can be moved when he realizes that the things he supports are not just abstractions?

Counterlight said...

A fair point.

JCF said...

I don't care HOW Senator Portman came to support marriage equality, only that he *did*.

Criticizing him for other issues (ones he does not have a personal connection to) is legit . . . but I'd still give him a pass for, say, another 48 hours or so.

MarkBrunson said...

I don't think he's owed any accolades, but he is owed the compassionate approval and support that all who move from wrong to right deserve. He may well become a great champion, but, for the moment, he's as good as the rest of us and better than some.