Sunday, March 17, 2013

Selective Empathy Is a Start

Cynics are having a field day with Rob Portman’s sudden conversion to gay marriage based on his son’s sexuality: If only more Republicans could discover close relatives who are poor, Latino or otherwise disadvantaged...

Yet selective empathy is better than none and deserves more than a reflexive sneer. Contrast Portman’s response with another. Asked what he would do if a son of his were gay, Rick Santorum says he would still love him but urge him to lead a life of abstinence.

In a larger sense, close exposure to social “others” has always been part of the process of breaking down prejudice, which thrives on categorizing the unseen as less than human.

Portman’s conversion recalls the 1956 movie epic “Giant,” in which a Texas cattle baron treats Mexicans like slaves until his son marries one. He ends up in a fist fight with a lunchroom bigot before a final scene showing a white and a brown grandchild in playpens together.

Luckily most Americans have the heart and imagination to respect otherness without such close family encounters, but in advancing respect and equal treatment for everyone, does neatness really count?

Even as the Radical Right selects Marco Rubio and Rand Paul as their heroes at the CPAC convention, a celebrated neurosurgeon named Ben Carson, who grew up black and poor with a single mother in Chicago, excites their attention with conservative views on health care and the national debt, reminding them that in surgery all brains look the same.

If only Sarah Palin and Karl Rove could stop fighting long enough to let that lesson sink in, even selective empathy might do its work in starting to heal the American mind.

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