Nel's New Day

March 19, 2013

Portman Heats Up Marriage Equality Discussion

When potential GOP vice-presidential candidate and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) came out of the closet last week to support marriage equality because his son is gay, the reactions went from lukewarm to downright hot—against him. 

The most common response from the left was approval of Portman’s supporting same-sex marriage combined with questions about why he took over two years to reverse his support of DOMA. He did wait until after Mitt Romney selected his running mate—which was not Portman. A few tweets pointed out the hypocrisy of politicians supporting only issues that affect their families.

“Portman’s son came out & now he is for Gay Rights. Any GOP members with daughters so there could be support for Women’s Rights?”

“I invite every elected official to come spend a day in my house, learn reality of autism, dementia,living w/o health insurance after cancer.”

“Now all we need is a Republican senator whose kid is having sex with an undocumented, union teacher on Medicare and social security.”

Then there were the voices from journalists:

“More importantly, I think, now I want to arrange for every Republican who signed onto the Paul Ryan budget to wake up with a poor son. Because then I know all of a sudden you won’t want to cut food stamps. You won’t want to cut school nutrition. If empathy only extends to your flesh and blood, we gotta start shoving people into those families.”—Rachel Maddow on Real Time with Bill Maher

“Empathy, especially in elected officials is a good thing! But there’s also something frustratingly blinkered and limited about this form of persuasion. If it’s going to take every anti-gay politician having a gay son for gay people to be treated like the other human beings in this country, then equal rights are going to take longer to achieve than they should.—Chris Hayes

“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. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.”—Matthew Yglesias

 CPAC attendees weighed in:

“Horrible!” said Tony Mele, an 88-year-old woman from New Jersey. When told he did so because of his gay son, she responded, “That’s his fault! He gets no sympathy from me.” A pastor from Georgia, William Temple, told Portman to “quit being so selfish as to only think about his son,” and if he won’t reverse himself, “to step down and go home.” Another pastor, Rev. Robert Lancia, dismissed Portman’s point that people should follow the Golden Rule: “That doesn’t cover it.” One man, David Kern, even said Portman’s son’s choice of college turned him gay. “Well what did Sen. Portman expect when he sent his son to Yale?”

And the far-right evangelicals capped off with vitriol:

“Homosexual sex is ultimately just as destructive as cocaine use. Would you suddenly call for the legalization of cocaine if his son had announced that he was a cocaine addict? Would that be ‘loving’ and ‘compassionate’? What will happen to Rob Portman’s belief system when he discovers that his son is infected with HIV or throat cancer?”—William Murray, head of the ultra-right-wing “Government Is Not God” PAC

My favorite comes from Bryan Fischer for the so-called American Family Association:

“@ gay son: SSM: A father can still love a son who robs a bank without changing his mind about the morality of bank robbing.”

My taken on it after having had a committed relationship with the same woman for almost 44 years? Portman’s statement is like civil unions: better than nothing but still not good enough.

July 14, 2012

Poor, Lazy and Undisciplined–Brooks

In late April when both Rachel Maddow and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos appeared on Meet the Press, part of the discussion surrounded the fact that women are paid less than men for the same work. A fact, that is, except for the Republicans, like Castellanos, who believe that women get equal pay. After this clash, Maddow pointed out that Republicans actually believe the outrageous things that they say. (This may be part of Mitt Romney’s problem: people think he is lying when he may believe his falsehoods.)

Last week, columnist David Brooks blamed the “welfare” state for the country’s problems, ignoring the housing bubble and the successes of the 1990s when people still received government help. This week, he tackled Chris Hayes’ new book, Twilight of the Elites when he claimed that the wealthy deserve everything they have.

Excerpts from Brooks’ column:

“[Hayes] argues that meritocratic elites may rise on the basis of grades, effort and merit, but, to preserve their status, they become corrupt. They create wildly unequal societies, and then they rig things so that few can climb the ladders behind them. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy. Far from being the fairest of all systems, he concludes, the meritocracy promotes gigantic inequality and is fundamentally dysfunctional. No wonder institutional failure has been the leitmotif of our age.

“It’s a challenging argument but wrong. I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.

“The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites. As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess.

“The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

“The difference between the Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals.”

If Brooks believes that today’s elite do not perceive themselves as part of the meritocracy, he missed the example of the woman attending Mitt Romney’s fundraiser who asked, “Is this the V.I.P. entrance? We are V.I.P.” As for the belief in stewardship of the elite a century ago, he needs to remember the abuses of labor that improved only after strikers and unions demanded laws requiring minimum wages, restricted child labor, and reasonable working conditions. George W. Bush is a prime example of the meritocracy when his position allowed him to dodge the draft after his family got him into a prestigious university.

The most egregious statement, however, is that the meritocracy are more hardworking and better organizing while spending much more money and time on enrichment. They do spend more money on “enrichment” simply because they are already wealthy, many of them inheriting money or cheating others to obtain it. But do they really work harder?

Teachers put in up to 80 hours a week in school and class preparation while still caring for their families, probably taking kids to piano lessons, and then attending classes to better their education. Picking strawberries is the hardest work in the nation, yet it doesn’t pay well. In fact, after the migrant workers left Alabama because of the restrictive immigration laws, farmers could not find anyone else to spend more than a couple of hours to do the labor that the migrants did. People waiting tables in a restaurant have one of the hardest jobs I know, both physically and mentally. Yet in many cases their pay is so low and the tips so bad that they work overtime just to pay the rent on a one-bedroom apartment.

Jason Linkins disagreed with Brooks when he compared his personal experiences between working “down the income scale” and writing “pithy jokes about politics for substantially more money than I ever did razing and remodeling apartment buildings with my bare hands.” He also passed along a tip.

“If you are chilling outside your kid’s piano lesson and taking a conference call, you aren’t ‘working long hours.’ You aren’t even working. I’ve been on thousands of conference calls. They are not ‘work.’ If your job involves a lot of conference calls, then congratulations, you are a winner in the game of life. Who is actually working the “longer hours” in the scenario Brooks describes? The person teaching his dumb kid how to play the piano.”

Dean Baker also addressed the issue of hard work.

“Perhaps Brooks can tell us what Erskine Bowles did for the $335,000 that he earned as a director of Morgan Stanley in 2008. That year might ring a bell, since that was the year that Morgan Stanley was at the center of the financial crisis. It would have gone bankrupt had it not been for a rescue by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke.”

I haven’t read Hayes’ book, and Linkins bets that Brooks didn’t either, at least completely. According to Brooks, Hayes proposed that we “upend the social order.” In fact, Hayes wrote,

“At its most basic, the logic of “meritocracy” is ironclad: putting the most qualified, best equipped people into the positions of greatest responsibility and import. It would be foolhardy to toss this principle out in its entirety. You certainly wouldn’t want surgeons’ licenses to be handed out via lottery, or to have major cabinet members selected through reality TV-style voting. Anyone who’s ever worked in an organization of any kind has seen first hand that there are sometimes vast differences between individuals in ability, work ethic, and efficiency. An institution that pays no heed to these differences will almost certainly fare poorly.”

In one way Brooks is right: a half century ago, the privileged elites paid far higher tax rates, built businesses, and created jobs rather than gambling on the failure of others through hedge funds. He does, however, support the Republicans’ point of view, that people are poor because they are lazy and undisciplined. The irony is that many Republicans, particularly the evangelists, are poor. Do they realize what their leadership thinks of them?

Julia Child explained the fallacy of Brooks’ argument: “I was a Republican until I got to New York and had to live on $18 a week. It was then that I became a Democrat.”

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