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Well, If It Affects Me, That’s Different!

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Rob Portman has decided that he’s only comfortable denying fundamental rights to strangers:

Sen. Rob Portman has renounced his opposition to gay marriage, telling reporters from Ohio newspapers Thursday that he changed his position after his son Will told the Ohio Republican and his wife Jane that he is gay.

This is a classic example of what Mark Schmitt calls “Miss America” compassion:

Second, I’m tired of giving quasi-conservatives credit for what I call Miss America compassion (I’ll explain in a minute). Smith’s son’s suicide led him to support more funding for suicide prevention and for mental health care generally. Great — my life has been affected by suicide also, so I’m all for that. Similarly, Senator Pete Domenici’s daughter’s mental illness made him an advocate for mandating equitable treatment of mental and physical well-being in health insurance, a cause in which he was joined by Paul Wellstone. Again, I’m all for it, and I have no doubt that Domenici was at least as personally sincere and driven about it as Wellstone, and watching the two of them pair up on this cause and learn to work together was a good example for the potential of democratic institutions to create understanding.

But what has always bothered me about such examples is that 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? Shouldn’t it also lead to an understanding that if we want to live in a society that provides a robust system of public support for those who need help — whether for mental illness or any of the other misfortunes that life hands out at random — we will need a government with adequate institutions and revenues to provide those things?

And that’s what I mean by “Miss America Compassion.” These Senators are like Miss America contestants, each with a “platform”: Mr. Ohio: “Adoption Assistance.” Mr. Oregon: “Suicide Prevention.” Mr. Minnesota: “Community Development.” Mr. New Mexico: “Mental Health Parity.” Mr. Pennsylvania: “Missing children” The platform is meant to show them as thoughtful, deep and independent-minded, but after the “platform segment” they return to play their obedient part in a degrading exercise that makes this country crueler and government less supportive.

And, of course, as with Miss America contestants’ “platforms,” there are a few approved topics and many more that simply couldn’t be considered. It’s not too likely that you’ll see Miss Alabama adopt “Income inequality” as her platform or Miss Colorado, “Corporate tax evasion.” Nor is a Senator likely to have a family experience with lack of health insurance, or personal bankruptcy, or Food Stamps.

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