“Ain’t No Son”

This video demonstrates how politics is insidious, and not in a good way.

Last week, prominent Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman came out (pardon the pun) in favour of gay marriage after fighting against it for years.

Why the change of heart?

“I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do, to get married, and to have the joy and stability of marriage that I’ve had for over 26 years. That I want all of my children to have, including our son, who is gay.”

Needless to say, there’s been a lot of push back against Portman’s position, mostly from those who find it troubling that Republican politicians only seem to grow hearts when their own family members are affected by their draconian policies.

I’ll admit that my favourite response was this one:

Matthew Yglesias wrote:

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’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

This really speaks to the heart of the tension between politics and citizenship, which I’ve talked about before: how do politicians represent the wide differences of opinion that exist in their districts, and how do their own beliefs fit into this?

I agree with Jonathan Chait:

Wanting your children to be happy is the most natural human impulse. But our responsibility as political beings — and the special responsibility of those who hold political power — is to consider issues from a societal perspective.

Unfortunately, we live in political systems that are designed to reflect the will of the majority, leaving minorities in the uncomfortable position of having to fight for their rights. This is further complicated by the party system which leaves MPs beholden to their party; in exchange for power and campaign funds, they agree to tow the party line. It’s a terrible conundrum.

On a human level, I think we ought to cut politicians such as Senator Portman a little slack. I know good, kind and decent people who don’t agree with gay marriage, and I’ve seen them struggle with it, mostly for faith reasons. When you’ve been taught all of your life that something is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, it’s difficult to admit that what you’ve been taught is what was actually wrong.

But as a politician, don’t people in Senator Portman’s position owe it to society to be a lot more compassionate than they are?  Yes, because

[p]ower is concentrated in the hands of people who routinely make policy on matters they have little experience or real stakes in. You don’t need any conscious malice in this setup to produce policy that has devastating effects on the communities these issues touch most directly (though there’s plenty of malice, too). All you need is a system run by people who can afford not to care that much about policies that mostly impact other people’s lives.

This is the problem with privilege. If you don’t identify as LGBTQ, you don’t have a clue about the discrimination, the hatred and the bullying that this group endures.  As Yglesias said, in the context of politicians being unable to identify with the circumstances of poor Americans,

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.

Yes, things get pretty complicated when life, faith and politics are pulling you in different directions. But our politicians are paid pretty well and have infinite resources to come to terms with these intersections and figure out the best way to proceed.  The problem is that our politicians, as well as us as citizens, have forgotten that they are paid to represent ALL of us – everyone in their districts.  They are not there to push their own personal views and biases.

My biggest problem with politicians of Senator Portman’s ilk is that while I’m happy they’ve come around on this issue, the hurt and pain they’ve caused by their past words and policy stances can’t be undone.  They never thought that their job was to represent the interests of all of their citizens, and that includes the ability to be free from discrimination and to be treated with dignity and respect.

Our politicians represent all of us.  Perhaps we should start demanding that they do so.  I think it’s time for me to write a letter to my own MP.

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