Republicans Don't Have a Ton of Empathy for Strangers

By Peter Miller

Something inevitable happened. The Senate voted down that bipartisan plan to expand background checks for guns. And, if you take the action-packed headline of the NY Daily News as any indication, Obama is so “furious” about it that he is publicly “slamming” the Senate. Read further: Joe Biden is “on the brink of tears.” This is some dramatic stuff!

This bill was conceived in response to the mass shooting of twenty children in Newtown, Connecticut. Obama of all people should understand that even 20,000 dead children wouldn’t make a difference to the hard-liners. That is, not unless it were their 20,000 kids. Put another way, gun control in America isn’t happening unless a) Republicans learn to spawn thousands of young at a time, like fish, and b) all their Fishpublican-spawn babies are killed with guns. These conditions are both necessary and sufficient. 

I’m not saying that Republicans are monsters. I’m not even saying they don’t care about other people’s kids. They probably don’t, but that’s beside the point. The point is, right-wingers of all stripes, from the feisty libertarian to the noble Santorumite, are incapable of learning from the experiences of others. They just can’t help it. Need some examples? Right this way, friends.

“God hates fa—whoa, never mind”

Last month, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) announced his support of equal marriage rights. Portman said in a statement, and I’m paraphrasing here, that grown-ups who are in love should be allowed to do what they want. He sounds like a pretty chill guy, right? Let’s Google him and have a look at his stellar record on LGBT rights, then. OK, now that we’ve finished doing that, let’s brush the rage-vomit off our keyboards and try to make sense of it all. 

In 2011, Portman went on an antigay tirade during his commencement address at the University of Michigan law school. Instead of reading Dr. Seuss and telling those kids to wear sunscreen, this guy boldly subverted audience expectations by ranting about homosexuality for no clear reason. About a hundred law grads walked out on their own graduation ceremony in protest. 

So, why the change of heart? Naturally, it’s because Portman learned his son is gay. Portman just wants his kid to have a good life, you see. That’s great and all, very touching, but don’t forget: back in Portman’s salad days of homophobia, he knew about people like his son. He just didn’t give a shit about them.

This isn’t an isolated incident, either. Former Vice President Dick Cheney ran on a platform of anti-LGBT bullshit in 2000. Then, in 2004, he announced that he was switching sides on the issue, after learning his daughter is a lesbian. They say his mechanical heart grew three sizes that day.

“If it’s not fun, then why do they call it waterboarding?”

The year was 2008. America was dancing to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” a young Matthew Fox dazzled TV audiences in LOST, and the government was openly torturing people. Or, excuse me, waterboarding people. 

A somewhat pudgy and very much alive Christopher Hitchens volunteered to undergo the procedure for a piece in Vanity Fair. Never mind that countless experts and former POWs unequivocally said that waterboarding feels the same as drowning—we’re not going to make up our minds until we humiliate that posh guy over there. Waterboarding Christopher Hitchens is funny the same way that hitting Sideshow Bob with a pie is funny. To quote Krusty, it works because “the sap’s got dignity.”

Hitchens didn’t last long. And, to his credit, he wrote about the painful experience beautifully. That said, the whole affair felt a little “white Indian.” We only needed Hitchens to convey this information if we didn’t think the professionals, witnesses, and victims were credible. For better or worse, we had Hitchens’s testimony. At least now other hawkish blowhards would see his example and take his experience to heart. 

Except that didn’t happen at all. Instead, bottom-rung conservative radio personality Erich “Mancow” Muller, host of Mancow’s Morning Madhouse, volunteered to be waterboarded himself, the following year. He lasted six seconds before crying uncle and reversing his position on “enhanced interrogation.” Now he was calling it torture. (Note that there’s some disagreement over how committed Mancow and his interrogator were.) 

Still, it would not end. Sean Hannity volunteered to be waterboarded, but nothing ever came of it. The issue blew over before we could arrange the nationwide, baptism-style waterboarding necessary to get us all on the same page of this ridiculously cut-and-dry issue. 

“Here’s the story / of a man named Brady / who was very nearly shot to death”

To drag this thing back to gun control, let’s turn to the 1981 assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan. John Hinckley, Jr., in an effort to win the heart of a 13-year-old Jodie Foster from the movie Taxi Driver, shaved his hair into a Mohawk and set out to shoot the president. In the aftermath, White House Press Secretary Jim Brady lay hospitalized with a bullet in his head. Hinckley was deemed insane, on the grounds that Jodie Foster is totally a lesbian.

Prior to the shooting, Brady’s private views on gun control were not made public. However, at least in his service to the Reagan administration, it’s safe to say he did not stray far from the president’s position. Reagan was staunchly pro-gun. In 1975 he wrote a column for Guns & Ammo, opposing some of the earliest attempts at gun control. Five years after the assassination attempt, Reagan signed the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 into law. The NRA was pretty happy about that.

When Brady recovered and returned to public service, he was reborn as an advocate for gun control legislation. Handgun Control, Inc. was renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Then, in 1993, the Brady Handgun Prevention Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton. The law mandated that background checks be performed whenever a gun is purchased from a federally-licensed dealer. The NRA wasn’t especially happy about that.

Would Brady have supported the law if he had never been gunned down? There’s no way to tell. It’s also possible that Rob Portman and Dick Cheney might’ve come around on marriage equality, given enough time to really think about it. And Maybe Mancow secretly thought waterboarding was torture even before he handed his buddy a watering can and strapped himself to the bondage table he mysteriously had available. It’s possible, but I doubt it.

These guys needed the firsthand experience. The right will always need firsthand experience to change their minds. This is why, once in a while, some backwoods lawmaker will say he can’t comment on evolution, because he “wasn’t there.” It’s why the consensus of climate scientists isn’t worth anything. And it’s why bloated old white guys will always know best for women, for people of color, and for the LGBT community. There is no point of view that is on equal footing with their own. They’ll believe it when they think it. In other words, the right is more than halfway to solipsism. 

How do you argue with a solipsist? You don’t, of course. You become furious. You “slam” them, whatever that means. You squeeze out a few tears in front of reporters, if you can manage it. You hope you’ll have better luck after the next massacre.

@peter_miller

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