Imaginary sons

>> Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hypocrite. Narcissist. Wingnut. Bigot. Those are some of the epithets—not counting the expletives—that have been hurled at Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, since he announced Friday that he now supports same-sex marriage because his son is gay. But these epithets aren’t coming from the right. They’re coming from the left.

According to liberal columnists and bloggers, Portman’s conversion—the first on this issue by any Republican senator—is too little, too late, and short on "empathy." But it isn’t Portman who's having an empathy problem. It’s his critics. They don't really understand Portman, conservatives, empathy, or how people change.

- William Saletan, "Rob Portman’s Empathy Problem";
Slate, March 18th, 2013.

Meh.  This was in the news last week: I rolled my eyes and trundled along, but I have to admit Senator Portman's late conversion irritated and annoyed me.  Not to the point I see a lot of benefit (personal or otherwise) to insulting the guy.  If anything, I suppose those of us who favor gay rights ought to refrain from epithets even if they're marching up to the tips of our lips; after all, regardless of whether the Senator is the kind of guy we want on the side of supporting same-sex marriage, or whether or not his motivations are the kind of thing we'd wish for an ally to have, better to have him (as LBJ would have said) inside the tent pissing out than to have him outside pissing in.  (Gods know, Lyndon Johnson may have been a rat bastard in so many ways, but I do love me that salty LBJ pulled-barbecue rhetoric.)

The thing is, though, that what William Saletan doesn't seem to get is that these kinds of conversion stories--however personal and human and sincere--really do reveal something about a certain kind of person that isn't the least bit laudable even if that mentality eventually comes around to the side of what's decent and right.  And it is about empathy at a really basic level.  There are people--and I'm not looking to tar a whole political party with a broad brush, though these folks seem to gravitate towards one party more than the other--who really seem to fail at empathic imagination, who really don't seem able to grasp what it might be like to walk in someone else's shoes (which is ironic given the religion many of them claim to subscribe to) and only come around on social or economic justice issues when it's directly affecting them or when some issue comes under their roof.

I'll be candid and confess I myself became more passionate about gay rights issues when I became more personally aware of how those issues affected family members and friends.  Which is one thing.  But it always seemed to me from the moment I gave these issues any thought at all, "Wow, that would really suck if it happened to me."  That is, my first instinct when I became conscious of the fact that gays and lesbians couldn't have the economic, social, medical, etc. benefits from marriage a straight person would was to instantly imagine what that would be like if I were gay or lesbian, or if those restrictions were applied to me.  Just as my first instinct upon hearing about racial injustice is to imagine what it would be like to be a black guy arrested for trying to sit down at a lunch counter or for trying to go to school.  Or--and I'm not trying to analogize apples and oranges, I'm just giving examples of where my brain goes when I hear about something horrible like this--my first morbid mental sensations when I heard about the Holocaust were to imagine myself surrounded by barbed wire and queuing up for the ovens.

This seems to me natural and instinctive--and not the least bit special; it seems to me to be fundamentally human, the basic cognitive processes of a social animal evolved to feel empathy and sympathy and pity, a creature with the cognitive and linguistic capacity to think about what-ifs? and to tell stories to itself and others about things that have happened, could happen, would happen.

I'm a big Philip K. Dick fan.  A recurring theme in his pulp stories and serious novels--I would contend the dominant theme linking practically all of his work--is the idea that empathy is a distinctively human trait, so human it's something that separates us from brute animals and simulacra.  Indeed, one of PKD's default paranoid obsessions, appearing over and over and over again in various short stories and longer works, is the question of whether you could ever tell a machine perfectly designed to imitate a person from a real live person (and sometimes, conversely, could you ever tell a real live person from a machine)?  Empathy was the answer Dick always came back to.  In Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (very loosely adapted into the 1982 film Blade Runner), for instance, they even have a polygraph-like machine that gauges physical reactions to emotionally-affecting questions that are designed to trick humans into having visceral reactions to situations that would affect other people and animals, reactions that robots can't precisely imitate or can only imitate by consciously mimicry (causing a detectable lag in response).  With a related implication that psychopaths like the bounty hunter Phil Resch have become machinelike in some vital way, however their innards work.

The idea that to be empathic is to be fully human is a notion that's stuck with me, though some recent studies have suggested that all sorts of birds and mammals, and not just higher-functioning critters like dolphins and apes, might be capable of various levels of what PKD implicitly defined as a hominid characteristic.  So I'm not quite as committed to it as I might have been when I was younger (and I certainly don't want to go to the place where being a non-empathic Homo sapiens means your humanity license gets revoked).

But if lab rats have been observed sharing stress with other lab rats over things that only affect them sympathetically, there's still something we do that birds and rodents and--at least so far as we know--dolphins and elephants and chimpanzees don't do: we make up stories about imagined people and their imagined problems that touch us; we have empathic imaginations, and this may be the trait, if there is one at all, that singles us out as being special.  And I mean, of course, we make up stories in the broadest sense of that phrase: we paint pictures that tell stories, write songs that tell stories, compose epic poems that tell stories, we tell stories that tell stories... well, you get the idea, right?  The ability to appreciate Shakespeare's Hamlet or Michelangelo's Sistene Chapel murals is the ability to put yourself in multiple places outside of yourself: to be, for instance, a man in medieval Denmark trying to cope with his father's untimely death and to be a spurned young girl in love and to be an angry brother seeking revenge on the one who wronged his sister and father and to be the poet composing all this ado about something, et alia, et cetera, with special emphasis on all the possible ets.

I have no idea why Rob Portman couldn't do this twenty, thirty years ago.  Or more.

I'm not trying to poke or punch--which is why I don't see the point in calling him out as a hypocrite or narcissist or whatever--I just find it genuinely baffling that he couldn't say, "Wait, that's really unfair and it sucks."  Even in the context of his religious whatevers, which he's apparently willing to set aside now: "That's really unfair and it sucks, but such is the way of the inviolate laws of The Creator Of All Things" (I mean, you can feel sympathy for the Devil, to borrow a pithy one from The Stones; Milton certainly did, and still chastised him).  I dunno: maybe Portman did; but the conversion narrative I was hearing last week wasn't that kind of thing at all.  He certainly has a right to change his mind, I just don't understand where his head was to begin with, is all.

It seems inevitable to bring President Obama's conversion into it; Saletan certainly does.  I suspect the big difference between left-wing acceptance of Obama's change-of-heart and Portman's is less about partisanship than it's about nobody really believing that Obama had a change of heart.  The President has a remarkable and charming talent for convincing people--often including myself--that he's really on their side and always has been, whatever it is he might be saying or doing right now, which is why so many on the left either express incredulous disappointment or overly-credulous support so much of the time.  I suspect most people on the left, anyway, were convinced the President was always secretly sympathetic to gay marriage and if anything were angry he wasn't demonstrating the courage of his convictions, and that his "change" following Vice-President Joe Biden's "gaffes" expressing Administration support for gay marriage was really more of an outing.  In other words that the President is basically lying about how he came to support gay marriage, but it's mostly okay because it was a kind of political white lie to get himself elected, pretending he was mildly opposed or undecided so as not to antagonize the homophobe vote or whatever.  To be honest, I don't know and I'm not sure I actually care; the whole thing kinda seems like it was always triangulation or whatever and that whatever the President really believe/s/d, he'd say nearly anything and tailor it to what would help most or hurt least.  It's not necessarily commendable, but I don't think I'm inclined to get upset about it either way at this point.

And anyway, I don't get the sense that Obama lacks imagination, and a lack of imagination is what's bugging me today.  It seems to me the mindset that doesn't grok why a lesbian would be upset she can't marry her lover also doesn't grok that a Middle Eastern shepherd might not be happy about a tank rolling through his flock, or that a citizen of a South American banana republic might be mildly happier with his local totalitarian warlord than he was or would be with a foreign fruit or oil company imposing the same policies through a puppet regime (and not even keeping the vig local, for chrissakes), or grok that a pregnant woman might consider having a probe stuffed up her snatch as part of some pointless demonstration of a fact she's probably already aware is violating some kind of boundary.  These things and items like them don't seem to me to be wholly unrelated and seem to have a common thread winding through them.

I realize this is all a bit long and I hope it isn't repetitive, but there's at least one more point that has to be made and that's that empathic imagination certainly isn't an endpoint.  I mean, being able to imagine how horrific it would be to have your family raked to pieces by a drone aircraft is, I think, very informative to the hows and whys of drone warfare, for example, but it's not an exhaustive and definitive argument either way: you could feel deep sorrow and solidarity for the victims of your violence and yet decide this act is necessary for some greater good (or at least is a lesser evil).  I'm not presenting this as an endorsement of a troubling and frankly horrific drone war, merely using it as a direct example and (as mentioned earlier) to also get to the point that an opponent of gay marriage could, I imagine, feel the gravest empathy for those his policies would injure but feel that the pain being caused was outweighed by all the other arguments against gay marriage--if he had any, which is (of course) part of the problem (the best he can really do is to say that God might kill and judge them based on what Paul says in his first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans and/or on how you interpret the bit about Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis--which is possibly not really their problem depending on how you take the second chapter of Romans 1; but, anyway, it isn't the strongest argument you could make for a variety of reasons, right?).

I don't, anyway, see any more point in praising Rob Portman than I do in damning him.  The reasons for his turnaround betray something in his mindset that I find kind of baffling... and kind of offensive, actually.  At the risk of getting too geeky by following a brief discourse on PKD with a Star Wars reference, Portman's change of heart has the same kind of unconvincing shallowness as Darth Vader's redemption at the end of Return Of The Jedi: okay, so when you were being ordered to kill children and blow up whole defenseless planets, being bootlicker to ultimate evil wasn't that big a deal, but when he started electrocuting your estranged son it became a "thing".  Good on you?  Glad you have your priorities lined up?  (By the way, you do realize now that you drugged and tortured your daughter, killed her adoptive parents, and turned her boyfriend into a wall ornament, right?  Hope the Rebellion's group policy covers therapy, because I think she might have a few issues to resolve--but at least you got some alone time with the boy during your last five seconds of life, amirite?)

I mean, no, it's not exactly the same thing--so far as I know, Senator Portman has never Force choked a couple of guys to death on an afternoon or chopped his surrogate father in twain or telekinetically roughed up his preggers wife (or blown up a whole planet--is there a limit to how many times we can mention that one?  or the Jedi younglings?  Jesus, George, what the hell is wrong with you, man?).  But yeah, it has that, I dunno, taint.  You might have thought he could have said at any point in his life, "What if that were me?  Or my brother?  Or my son before I knew he was actually gay or anything?"  Part of this whole deal with having a tricksy brain that can imagine possibilities and other people's feelings is that he wouldn't have even had to be gay, or have a gay brother--or, for that matter, a gay son.  But that's what it took.

Seems kind of sad and unfortunate in a way, if anything.

POSTSCRIPT:  Matthew Yglesias says it shorter and sweeter:

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.

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't have direct access to the corridors of power.

I might have saved some time if I'd read that first... no, I think I still needed to get it off my chest.


TimBo Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 12:40:00 AM EDT  

It's hard for people to change their minds, particularly about something that they've made public pronouncements about, particularly when it will mean a backlash against them by their friends and supports, particularly when the foundation of their beliefs is religious doctrine. Whatever the reason for the change it's hard to change a belief.

Do you have the empathy or desire to understand why Jeffery Dahmer eats people? Probably not, but in Portman's social/religious circles homosexuality and cannibalism are on the same plane, both are an abomination. For him to even examine that belief is amazing and the change his mind even more so. Sure, it would have been better to do it years ago and he could go a lot further, but it's still pretty amazing.

What major public belief have you changed in the the last twelve months?

John Healy Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 6:37:00 PM EDT  

Rob Portman is positioning himself for 2016. Gerrymandering means every Democrat in Ohio is looking at the statewide offices like Senator. Portman can run for President and run away from Ohio Democrats at the same time. Without gerrymandering he would be pretty safe, and wouldstill be positioning for 2016.

Eric Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 8:24:00 PM EDT  

TimBo, I actually do have the desire to understand what makes a Dahmer tick, as that seems like the only way to cure or prevent such people. Some other points worth observing: (1) that pity isn't a zero-sum thing and one can pity Dahmer while pitying his victims more and (2) that if I found out my son were Jeffrey Dahmer, it wouldn't alter my feelings on torture and murder one whit, which sort of leaves one wondering just how committed Portman and those in his circle are to seeing homosexuality as an "abomination".

If you look at my reading list for the moment (it's one of the sidebars), you'll note that one of the books I'm working through is Dave Cullen's Columbine. It's making me cry--and not just for the victims and their families, but for the perpetrators and their families.

As for major public beliefs I've changed in the last twelve months: my opinion on the use of drones is wobbling all over the place these days. There's been an evolution in my opinions re: the Constitution Of The United States that has played out somewhat in posts here. That's all that comes to mind right now. It may well be that there's some other beam in my eye blocking my sight, but my failures as a human being don't really change Portman's, do they?

Indeed, I'm not even sure why anyone ever makes that kind of reversal argument at all: if you were to somehow prove I'm as contemptible as Portman, you'd only be proving I was contemptible, not that I was wrong. Just sayin'.

TimBo Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 11:33:00 AM EDT  

I edifying this from my phone since I can't comment from work, so please forgive any bizarre autocorrect artifacts.

First let me say that I'm not in the least trying to say that you're contemptable, not in the least. Nor even that you're wrong. And maybe cynical John is right and it's a cynical move by Portman, I hope not.

Really, as someone who has reversed himself on some major issues, including this one, in the last ten years I can say it isn't easy. There's a lot of soul searching, regrets and making amends, none of it easy. I hope people have the grace to cut me some slack and maybe they should with Portman too.

Of course other than this I know nothing about Portman and perhaps he deserves nothing but contempt. You on the otherhand are pretty cool.

Eric Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 4:11:00 PM EDT  

Thanks, Tim.

I should be clear that I'm not unwilling to cut Portman et al. slack; it's more that this whole business points to an across-the-board problem with a certain kind of person. I wish the Portmans of the world didn't have to have children who were gay to realize what it might be like to have a gay kid, and that they had the imagination to take other strides without having to have a family member who was affected by something to feel affected, too.

As Yglesias wrote, " 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." Sometimes that's the challenge of being human, too.

Nathan Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 11:16:00 AM EDT  

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.

Lots of important and influential people also happen to have daughters. You'd think they might want what's fair for them too.

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