Two public men with special children

03.16.2013, 11:37 AM

In my recent conversation with Jonathan Haidt on the culture wars, he made the (to me, striking) point that people change their minds on moral and political issues primarily through interactions with other people.  That is, we humans do not typically change our minds on such issues due to conscious reasoning (“thinking it thr0ugh,” weighing the pros and cons, etc.) but instead due to the effects of personal relationships. 

I think we see the truth of this point clearly on display this week, in Senator Portman’s announcement that he now supports gay marriage, mainly because of  … his relationship with his gay son.  Portman has taken some criticism for putting it this way — after all, some of his pro-gay critics say, not every man in public life is going to have a gay son, and so if the movement for gay equality is to succeed the grounds for being pro-equality have to be broader and more general — but I think his critics are to some degree missing the point. In my own case, it certainly seems true to me that I changed my mind on gay marriage primarily due to personal relationships, not through debating the issues and not through abstract conscious reasoning.

In this regard, I was also struck by Rick Santorum’s comments yesterday at the CPAC convention. Asked to respond to Portman’s announcement, Santorum delivered a short talk on the issue of homosexuality.  The gist of his commentary concerned what he called “setting the bar.”   We all “fall short of the bar” in various ways, he said; and when we do, society faces a choice.   Do we as a nation “lower the bar,” saying in effect that anything goes?  Or do “we keep the bar where it should be?”  On the issue of homosexual conduct, Santorum favors ”keeping the bar where it should be.”

Now, Santorum is a smart man and a man of integrity (I’ve met him a few times), and what he told the reporter at the CPAC gathering is believed by many good people and is also the clear teaching of his church.  So, while I disagree with him,  I have no desire to attack him on this point.   I just want, for now, to highlight the abstract, almost formal nature of his argument.  In his remarks on “setting the bar,”  I don’t think he even used the word “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian.” It was just a piece of philosophizing — and one that is of course utterly removed from how almost all openly gay and lesbian people concieve of their lives and would speak to others about who they are. 

But there’s more.  If you follow politics, you probably know that Santorum speaks movingly and personally and with deep conviction about children with special needs.  The issue at times brings tears to his eyes. When he was in the Senate he fought for legislation to help such children, and today he works tirelessly on their behalf, as a public advocate.  I admire him for it, and so do many Americans.  Why does he do it?   I can’t say for sure, but I do know for sure that Santorum is the father of a child with special needs.  So maybe there is a connection.

Here is a thought experiment.  What is Portman were the father of a child with special needs, and Santorum were the father of a gay son?  Which one them would likely be speaking out with conviction and in concrete detail about children with special needs?  And which one would likely be delivering lectures about keeping the bar where it ought to be?

15 Responses to “Two public men with special children”

  1. Kevin says:

    We can’t be making public policy based simply on what the personal and familial needs are of those elected to public office. Politicians are elected to represent the views and needs of the public, not themselves. If the GOP politician is so lacking in empathy as to only make a connection to public policy based on his or her personal circumstances, then he is an aristocrat, unfit to govern in a democratic republic. Because that’s what aristocrats did: they governed to protect their personal wealth and power interests.

    Was it not worth the effort, before his son came out, for Mr. Portman to consider how the parents of gay children might feel? Did he really have to personally have a gay son or daughter, to achieve clarity on the issue? That’s an astonishing confession on his part, and particularly discouraging since it took two years after he learned of his son’s sexual orientation. Too bad the father could not be so brave as the son in “coming out.”

    I’ve long supported the notion that in times of war, the sons and daughters of the politicians who want to start the war should be the first to go fight it. Put some skin in the game, as it were. It seems we used to have a system that worked that way. Good grief, even the future queen of England had to repair broken jeeps to support her country’s war effort! In this case, our leaders shouldn’t have to have skin in the game in order to do what is legally and morally correct. Though evidently it helps.

    Now, we have an aristocratic GOP, anxious to preserve its power and relevance, under the guise of “traditional values.” Their problem is that their values are too cramped and too era- and circumstances-dependent to adapt to changing times and new information. So once they have the stake in the ground that a family can only be one male adult, one female adult and as many children as regular sexual encounters can produce during the couple’s fertile lives, then they feel threatened when other kinds of families crop up.

    I guess the burden is on the kids of GOP politicians to come out the closet, even dishonestly, to help their parents reach clarity. How very sad.

  2. David Hart says:

    How do you know that Santorum does not have a gay son? Having gay children has not diminished the animus of either Phyllis Schlafly or Beverly LaHaye and there are many others who are similarly situated. Personally, I don’t think that it would make a whit of difference to Santorum.

    40% of homeless youth were kicked out when they came out by parents just like Santorum. What message does Santorum send to those parents? He has demonstrated little concern for the gay children of other fathers. Moreover, he is directly responsible for at least a few of those children being homeless due to his inflammatory rhetoric. How many kids have died because of Santorum?

    I suspect that my comment will be one of the kinder and more reserved responses.

  3. Kevin says:

    I envy you, David, that you are capable of doing kind and reserved responses. I’m working on it…..maybe

  4. David Blankenhorn says:

    Fellas: I certainly understand that it’s possible to denounce Santorum every day of the week and twice on Sundays, with conviction. OK, denouncing Santorum in this thread has now been accomplished. You know, it’s not like I learn something new from attacks on Santorum. I suspected that my post would trigger exactly this this type of response, but for what it’s worth I’m trying to make a somewhat different point, if that matters.

  5. David Hart says:

    With respect to Portman, my “intellectual policy” is to accept conversion uncritically. I really don’t care that it took Portman two years and asking for contrition is pointless. We should make it easy for people to change their point of view on LGBT issues.

    More to the point, I am reminded of the conversion of Louis Marinelli who was NOM’s bus driver for one of their discrimination tours. Gay activist were following the tour and Marinelli (I hope I recall the name correctly) got to know some of them and became an advocate for marriage equality.

    I am also reminded of Brian Brown’s visit to Dan Savage’s home. Brown’s stated intention (after the fact) was to prove that people do not moderate their positions from knowing gay people. Brown did his best to confirm his hypothesis.

    Critical thinkers are able to be influenced by others. They adjust their point of view as they receive additional information. They receive this information because they are intellectually curious.

    Brown’s truth is not malleable. Through selective observation and tortured logic, he constructs arguments to support a fixed and preordained conclusion.

  6. Kevin says:

    Santorum says, “Do we as a nation “lower the bar,” saying in effect that anything goes?

    Well, we seem to be willing to lower the bar of what’s in the best interest of children raised by same-sex couples, and lower the bar of what “equal treatment under the law” means. Do those bars not matter? Explanation, please.

    We also seem to be lowering the bar in terms of making grown men and women learn to cope with a diverse and changing world. Really, conservatives, buck up and go with the flow, at least some of the time. All change is not “anything goes.” By all means, critically analyze the change and see if it makes sense. You’ll see that much if not most change does make sense, including legalizing same-sex marriage.

  7. Wayne Wilkinson says:

    I welcome Portman’s evolution, but as a policy wonk he should not had to rely on a personal experience in order to realize the injustice of his previous position and discriminatory votes. I also wonder why it took him two years after his son’s revelation in order to come to the conclusion that equal rights under the law is a good idea.

  8. Mont D. Law says:

    (I also wonder why it took him two years after his son’s revelation in order to come to the conclusion that equal rights under the law is a good idea.)

    No need to wonder that. He had political aspirations. He was a serious contender first for president, then for vice-president.

    (We should make it easy for people to change their point of view on LGBT issues.)

    I agree with this 100%. But I don’t think that means you can avoid reality or that convenient timing will have zero impact, particularly if he wants to be involved in the movement for marriage equality going forward. Ken Melhman has zero credibility with me for just that reason.

  9. Wayne Wilkinson says:

    You bring up an interesting point re Portman’s ambition. He says that the Romney campaign officials told him that he was not passed over because of his son’s homosexuality. But I doubt that they were telling the truth. It would have complicated the campaign had the son come out publicly or had been outed during the campaign. Perhaps that experience of discrimination may have prompted him to change his position.

    I hope Portman is also paying attention to the scurrilous attacks being visited upon him and his by the religious right, some of have been wishing or predicting that Will will contract AIDS. Maybe that will open his eyes to the kind of company he has been keeping.

  10. Jake says:

    Good for senator Portman. And if it took him two years at least he did it. My own father couldn’t manage it. Which is why I haven’t spoken to him in 25 years. Will Portman seems to be a confident, accomplished young man. I wish him the best. And I look forward to the senator having a similar awakening on fiscal issues where he remains fast asleep.

    But I want to commend Mr Blankenhorn for something he writes in passing which caused me quite a lot of thought while walking the dogs.

    In his remarks on “setting the bar,” I don’t think he even used the word “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian.” It was just a piece of philosophizing — and one that is of course utterly removed from how almost all openly gay and lesbian people concieve (sic) of their lives and would speak to others about who they are.

    You’re right. That’s not how we think of ourselves. At least, that’s not how many of us think of ourselves but still too many do. Santorum seems to think this mythical bar should be set at the right level. Where God put it. Where his life and his family reside. My life, my marriage, are at the lower level he deplores because lowering bars is deplorable.

    Now, this is merely the expression of an unconscious assumption on his part. An expression of the same hard-eyed certainty with which he views the rest of creation. Do we understand how this assumption could offend, say, me? And again, I understand how this remark could seem trivial to someone with no skin in the game. But let me suggest that this is part of an avalanche of filth directed at those of us who happen to be gay. It never stops. I can’t turn on the TV these days without having to hear what Tony Perkins thinks about my sexual habits. We have a whole industry devoted to maligning gay people. Take NOM, for example, having invented a totally spurious definition of what marriage is this organization spends all its time trying to convince Americans that their neighbors, their friends, their colleagues, their relatives, are so toxic that children cannot be entrusted to their care. There is no other lesson to be learned from Gallagher, George, Peters, Roback Morse, Schubert. The fact that many of us reckon they’re only doing for money is actually an effort to comprehend the malignancy, to give it a human motivation: Money. We all understand an easy paycheck. Without that motive it becomes utterly bewildering. They’re not stupid people. They must know their argument is ridiculous. (Not to single them out, but only because their actions stand to most damage me personally, and yes I am taking this personally)

    Thanks to Mr. Blankenhorn’s observation I’ve come to consider why an ignorant remark from a politician whose politics I despise should sting so much. And it seems that the reason is volume. It never stops. It’s overwhelming. The number of people who volunteer themselves to deplore my life seems to grow every day. And they never shut up. They never tell the truth. And they are all completely ignorant of reality. I don’t know how other gay men here feel about this but that’s how it strikes me.

    Which makes me think that straight people don’t grasp this. Why would they? I’m sure there’s plenty I don’t grasp about other people’s lives. I’m utterly mystified by the AI discussion going on. But I have no personal knowledge so I read and try to put myself in someone else’s shoes and suspend judgement. But let’s not get general, I do have a small point to make and it’s this.

    Next time you think that teh gheys are overreacting, making more of a remark that might seem thoughtless but hardly criminal, remember the volume, the sheer amount of hate and lies we are confronted with every day. I don’t accept there is a culture war since it takes two to tango and all I see is the attempt to fight back against what used to seem like overwhelming odds. Doesn’t AFA have a m$40 annual budget?

    So far as I’m concerned, the single most important element of the Portman story is that fact that Will Portman felt safe enough to come out. And credit to his parents for letting him feel safe. I mean that sincerely. Given his politics he must be a fine and responsible father to allow his son that room. That’s a very dramatic progression from my own hideous 8 years of torment after I came out. Times change. But what I mean is that as more men and women step forward the rest of the country sees that it’s no big deal. Senator Portman realizes that his son’s emotional orientation is an aspect of who he is, not the totality. The lies of the anti-gay industry rest on the idea that we are sexuality with nothing attached. The rest of the country is beginning to grasp the extent of that lie.

  11. Mont D. Law says:

    (So far as I’m concerned, the single most important element of the Portman story is that fact that Will Portman felt safe enough to come out.)


    Parents willing to sacrifice their children, like Allen Keyes did his daughter and Randal Terry did his son, are becoming fewer and fewer. People don’t love their children more than they did in the past but we value them more as people. It’s why zenglish, Manny and NOM are going to lose. Once you lose the ability to enforce your will at the core level of the family the war is over.

  12. I think that humans naturally feel empathy and compassion for those in our own group – but “our own group” is a conceptual category, not a hard fact.

    So Mr. Portman didn’t used to recognize gays as within his own group, but his view changed because he does see his son as “one of us.” In essence, his internal conceptual category of who is “one of us” expanded.

    We can’t make every GOP legislator expand his or her conception of “one of us.” But the lgbt movement has been very successfully (albeit slowly) expanding the nations conception of “one of us” to be more inclusive. Eventually that will spread to even GOP legislators – if not in this generation, then in the next.

  13. maggie gallagher says:

    Off topic, but Santorum fought for special needs children well before he had one. (Bella is only 4 I believe).

  14. Diane M says:

    I think this is how things often work. Having LBGT people come out of the closet in the 1980s and onwards is probably the main reason Americans are accepting same sex marriage now.

    I think Haidt may be too deterministic with all of our reasoning coming from our gut feelings, but I do think we are affected by them.

    On the other hand, I like the idea that our interactions with people affect our morality. Changing our mind based on the people we know isn’t just about empathy and gut feelings, it’s also about learning something new.

  15. Kevin says:

    “So Mr. Portman didn’t used to recognize gays as within his own group, but his view changed because he does see his son as “one of us.” In essence, his internal conceptual category of who is “one of us” expanded.”

    As a married man himself, who acknowledges the happiness of his own marriage and the rewards of marriage as a concept, why can’t he (and so many others) find obvious empathy for other humans who created a couple and are often raising children? Why doesn’t “one of us” include all couples in committed relationships, possibly (like himself) raising children? Why does sexual orientation have to trump other aspects that make you alike?

    This is why the claims that it’s about marriage not gay people ring false. They’re making the decision based on sexual orientation, not the aspects of the relationship (committedness, child-raising, shared resources, etc.) that clearly are a part of marriage. Portman’s son isn’t even in a relationship, that we know of! So, obviously, it’s the “gayness” that is the deciding factor, and proximity to a gay person, not the nature of the relationship.

    I wish they’d just admit, for God’s sake: they don’t want the government to treat gay people with equal dignity.