For Sen. Portman, Sen. Kirk and the rest of us: The next big step is the important one

For Sen. Portman, Sen. Kirk and the rest of us: The next big step is the important one March 21, 2013

Earlier this year, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., returned to Washington after a long, arduous recovery from the stroke he suffered in early 2012. In an interview with Natasha Korecki of the Chicago Sun-Times, Kirk said he:

President Barack Obama and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk greet one another at the State of the Union in January 2013.

[Plans] to take a closer look at funding of the Illinois Medicaid program for those with have no income who suffer a stroke, he said. In general, a person on Medicaid in Illinois would be allowed 11 rehab visits, he said.

“Had I been limited to that, I would have had no chance to recover like I did,” Kirk said. “So unlike before suffering the stroke, I’m much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face.”

Kirk has the same federal health-care coverage available to other federal employees. He has incurred major out-of-pocket expenses, which have affected his savings and retirement, sources familiar with Kirk’s situation said.

Harold Pollack commended Kirk for those “wise words, sadly earned,” writing: “Such a profound physical ordeal – and one’s accompanying sense of profound privilege in securing more help than so many other people routinely receive — this changes a person.”

Steve Benen was also impressed with Kirk’s hard-won change of heart, but noted:

I do wish, however, that we might see similarly changed perspectives without the need for direct personal relevance. Many policymakers are skeptical about federal disaster relief until it’s their community that sees devastation. They have no interest in gay rights until they learn someone close to them is gay. And they’re unsure of the value of Medicaid until they see its worth up close.

Which brings us to this week, and the news that conservative Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio now supports marriage equality for same-sex couples. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s headline for Sabrina Eaton’s report tells the story, “Sen. Rob Portman comes out in favor of gay marriage after son comes out as gay“:

Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman on Thursday announced he has reversed his longtime opposition to same-sex marriage after reconsidering the issue because his 21-year-old son, Will, is gay.

Portman said his son, a junior at Yale University, told him and his wife, Jane, that he’s gay and “it was not a choice, it was who he is and that he had been that way since he could remember.”

“It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years,” Portman told reporters in an interview at his office.

The conversation the Portmans had with their son two years ago led to him to evolve on the issue after he consulted clergy members, friends — including former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter is gay — and the Bible.

This is a big deal. Portman is the first Republican senator to endorse marriage equality. And he wasn’t previously someone who seemed on the fence — he was adamantly, religiously opposed before.

So the first thing I want to say is congratulations, kudos, and thank you to Portman. I heartily second the commendations and praise he’s receiving from groups like the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry Ohio, and PFLAG.

For Portman, as for Kirk, an unbidden circumstance expanded his perspective of the world. That new, larger appreciation in turn expanded his understanding of what justice requires — of what justice requires for people who aren’t necessarily just like him.

This is one way we all learn — one way we all become bigger, better people. It is, for almost all of us, a necessary first step toward a more expansive empathy and a more inclusive understanding of justice. Even if it is only a first step, it is an unavoidable one, and we should celebrate the epiphany that challenging circumstance has allowed these senators.

What Steve Benen said about Kirk is still true for Portman. It is good to see his perspective change due to “direct personal relevance,” but it would be better if he could learn to expand his perspective even without it. That’s the next necessary step, the next epiphany awaiting these senators.

Kirk’s long recovery provided his “Aha!” moment when it comes to other people who are also recovering from a stroke. And Portman’s coming to grips with his son’s identity provided him with an “Aha!” moment when it comes to other LGBT people and their families. But it’s not yet clear that either senator has yet taken the next logical step — the next “Aha!” moment. The next step is the big one. It’s the realization that because I didn’t understand others’ situation or others’ perspective until I myself faced the same thing, I should then strive to listen and to learn and to see the world through others’ eyes so that I can better understand the world without having to experience every situation, every injustice, every ordeal personally.

This next step is necessary for justice, which can only come “When those who are not injured feel as indignant as those who are.”

That next step may seem obvious, but epiphanies always seem obvious in retrospect.

Until that next step occurs, though, the slightly expanded empathy of people like Kirk and Portman seems self-serving, like the “cowardice and hypocrisy” of the privileged, as Morf Morford describes it. They still seem to cling to a cramped, self-centered understanding of justice — one that can only grow when their own, personal interests require it to do so. It still lacks the ability to be “indignant” except when one is personally among the “injured.”

“Moral and political positions aren’t supposed to be something you only take when they’ll benefit you,” Mark Evanier wrote. Empathy becomes suspect when it coincides so closely with personal benefit. It begins to look like what Mark Schmitt calls “Miss America compassion“:

Their compassion seems so narrowly and literally focused on the specific misfortune that their family encountered. Having a child who suffers from mental illness would indeed make one particularly passionate about funding for mental health, sure. But shouldn’t it also lead to a deeper understanding that there are a lot of families, in all kinds of situations beyond their control, who need help from government? Shouldn’t having a son whose illness leads to suicide open your eyes to something more than a belief that we need more money for suicide help-lines? Shouldn’t it call into question the entire winners-win/losers-lose ideology of the current Republican Party?

If we take the first step without ever taking the next step — changing our perspective only when “direct personal relevance” demands it and not otherwise — we can fall into what Matthew Yglesias describes as “The Politics of Narcissism“:

Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn’t lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers simply struggling to raise children in conditions of general poorness. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who’s locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son who’ll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn’t care.

… 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.

Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about.

Will Femia notes that this widely shared observation prompted an insightful — and darkly funny — meme about “hypothetical Republican empathy.”

“If empathy only extends to your flesh and blood, we gotta start shoving people into those families,” Rachel Maddow said.

“Now all we need is 59 more gay Republican kids,” Dave Lartigue wrote.

“Perhaps if we could get the Republican caucus to adopt gay, black Hispanic illegal-immigrant children, who will grow up to be denied insurance due to pre-existing conditions, we’d make some more social progress,” mistermix wrote.

“Eventually one of these Republican congressmen is going to find out his daughter is a woman, and then we’re all set,” Anil Dash tweeted.

And Andy Borowitz chimed in with “Portman Inspires Other Republicans to Stop Speaking to Their Children.”

Endless variations of that joke circulated this week because that joke offers limitless possibilities — as limitless as the stunted “hypothetical empathy” of “Miss America compassion” is limited.

That joke and Yglesias’ argument are correct. An empathy that never moves beyond that first step and that first epiphany is morally indistinct from selfishness. To take that first step without the next one is only to move from “me first” to “me and mine first.” (David Badash and Jonathan Chait also have insightful posts making this argument.)

But no one can take that next big step until they take the first one. So I’m less interested in criticizing Portman or Kirk or anyone else in their position than I am in figuring out how we can urge and encourage them to take that next big step. How can we facilitate the next epiphany?

That’s the bigger issue, the more important challenge. Ari Kohen tackles this challenge in a bookish post building on Richard Rorty’s thoughts. Kohen is interested most of all in how “to accomplish this progress of sentiments, this expanding of our sense of solidarity”:

The best way to convince the powerful that their way of thinking about others needs to evolve is to show them the ways in which individuals they consider to be “Other” are, in fact, much more closely akin to them than they ever realized. It is, in short, to create a greater solidarity between the powerful and the weak based on personal identification.

Rob Portman’s change of heart is a good example of the way in which we ultimately achieve a progress of sentiments that leads to the equal treatment of more and more people. Viewed in this way, it’s really not something people on the Left ought to be criticizing; it’s something we should be working to encourage for those without the sort of immediate personal connection that Portman fortunately had.

(Note that we are, yet again, confronted with the idea of ethics as a trajectory.)

The vital question, then, is how? How can we encourage “a progress of sentiments” along a trajectory “that leads to the equal treatment of more and more people”?

Part of the answer, I think, is to remember how we ourselves were encouraged along — how we ourselves each came to take that next step, how we ourselves came to have that second epiphany.

That’s the approach that Grace at Are Women Human? takes in a firm-but-generous post titled “Changes of heart and our better selves.” Grace highlights Portman’s case as an example of “the tensions between celebrating progress and recognizing that there’s still work to be done.” She draws on her own story and history for humility and perspective, and as a guide to helping others see and take the next steps in their journey:

How easy it is to say Portman … should have done better and forget that I wasn’t so different, not so long ago.

The honest truth: it was getting to know and love queer people that, more than anything else, led me away from the bigotry I’d been taught as faith. … It’s important for me not to forget this, or that it took the thought that my not-yet-born child might be transgender for me to realize that I needed to educate myself about gender identity. It would be dangerous to indulge the fiction that I’ve always held the moral “high ground.” …

That history — her own and that of others who have come to a more inclusive, expansive understanding of justice — informs the advice, and the warning, that follows:

Portman isn’t an exception in having, and indulging, the luxury of ignoring the consequences of politics that don’t affect him personally.

This is a feature, not a bug, of our culture and political system. Power 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.

Which, I suppose, is why civil rights activism often depends on cultivating these very moments of identification with the “other,” on spontaneous and planned appeals to emotion and basic decency. Systemic lack of incentive to care has to be confronted with stories that get politicians or the public to care.

Emmitt Till’s open casket. Rosa Parks’ carefully planned protest of bus segregation – as a more “respectable” face of black resistance than Claudette Colvin. Hydeia Broadbent and Ryan White as the faces of children with HIV. DREAMers taking over public spaces, stories about families torn apart by racist, classist, unjust immigration policies.

… Rob Portman is not an exception. He’s the rule. I don’t say this to suggest that we cut him slack for finally arriving at a basic (and still incomplete) recognition of the humanity of queer people. Nor am I arguing that we shouldn’t critique the circumstances around his change of heart.

What I hope is that we don’t forget ourselves in these calls to do better. That we don’t fall into the deceptive confidence that because we know or do better, we’ve arrived…or forget how many of us had to change and grow to get to where we are now. We’re all capable of fooling ourselves into thinking our standpoints are clearly “rational” or “moral” when it comes to issues that don’t affect us.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • its called fear mongering. Works well on uneducated people.

  • Sadly, not all of us can contact a psychiatrist — a few hundred dollars an hour is impossible for someone making minimum wage (or less).

  • probably embarrassment on his part, especially being a repub.

  • take what you can get and try to help them understand the other issues. Portman is anything but a sociopath – he’s struggled for several year with having a son who his church probably condemns.

  • That’s what I’m saying. Republicans revised history. As far as right wing talking points are concerned, Bush never existed. Not in any capacity. It’s not uncommon to hear the War on Iraq blamed on Obama.

  • whne hte right sceams about they are not bigots remind them that………..

    Bigot – from the german Bei gott By god. Inother words hatred in the name of god., whose supposed to be about love.