June 03, 2009
The 'big M' is 'empathy'
Posted by: Chris
It was a bit of a head-turner this week when Dick Cheney, the former vice president and conservative attack dog, took time out from his blistering critique of Barack Obama to disagree with the president from the left on the issue of same-sex marriage.
“I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish — any kind of arrangement they wish,” Cheney said during a question-and-answer session that followed his harsh assessment of how the current occupant of the White House is handling the economy and national security.
“The question of whether or not there ought to be a federal statute to protect this, I don’t support. I do believe that historically the way marriage has been regulated is at the state level. … But I don’t have any problem with that. People ought to get a shot at that,” he added.
Instant analysis from the blogosphere took pleasure in the obvious irony that such an iconic figure from the Republican right now appeared better on the issue than the Democratic president who despite opposing marriage equality has promised to be a “fierce advocate” for gay rights.
Not so fast. Careful observers like Denis Dison, who blogs for the Victory Fund at GayPolitics.com, noted that Cheney stopped just short of saying he actually supports marriage for gays, referring as he has in the past to gay couples entering into “any kind of union they wish.” We are dealing here, after all, with a politician who knows how to parse his words, re-branding waterboarding and other forms of torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
More concretely, Cheney’s opposition to “a federal statute to protect this,” while also vague, could either be referring to a law banning states from marrying gays or a law that extends marriage rights nationwide.
In that sense, Obama still comes up better than Cheney on marriage friendliness, since the president supports full repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the heinous federal statute that allows states to ignore same-sex marriages elsewhere, as well as blocking federal recognition.
A “federal statute” repealing DOMA could decide things nationwide as a practical matter, since even couples in states that ban gay marriage would be able to travel to places like Massachusetts or Iowa, get married, and demand legal recognition back home.
Even if Obama remains better on paper, it is certainly fair to complain that he’s done nothing concrete thus far toward ridding us of DOMA — much less been a “fierce advocate.” Then again, no Democrat in Congress has introduced repeal legislation either.
All in all, Dick Cheney’s supportive comments tell us less about the president than they do about gay marriage as an issue and how a personal connection can be so critical in winning over even hardened hearts and minds.
As we all know, the former veep’s younger daughter Mary is gay, and she and her long-time partner have a young son. By all accounts father and daughter are very close, personally and politically; so much so that Mary managed her father’s re-election campaign in 2004. From that close-in vantage point, Dick Cheney understands full well that her desire to marry — or “union”-ize — is a basic human need that poses no threat to the “traditional family.”
A Gallup poll out last week confirmed the importance of that personal touch. Among Americans who said they don’t know personally know anyone who is gay or lesbian, opposition to same-sex marriage runs almost three to one. Among those with who do, slightly more support marriage equality than oppose it.
Marriage isn’t the only hot-button controversy impacted this way. Nancy Reagan became such a "fierce advocate" for stem cell research, parting ways with the religious conservatives who are her husband’s greatest admirers, because she saw firsthand the devastating effect of Alzheimer’s.
There is a word to describe this ability to look beyond politics and even religious teachings to see how an abstract issue has real impact in real lives, whether among loved ones or strangers. It’s called empathy.
It’s the quality that President Obama said he was looking for in a Supreme Court nominee, and it’s the reason Sonia Sotomayor may well be right that, on average, “a wise old Latina” ought to make a better judge than “a wise old white man.”
It’s the reason your's truly is no longer the conservative Republican I once was, because seeing bigotry and grossly unequal treatment up close has given me greater empathy than I had before for the struggles of others.
And it’s empathy that will ultimately be responsible for President Obama eventually finding the political courage to lend his support for full marriage equality.
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