My morning routine is usually to give a good read to the Sports section of my paper, then check the local crime headlines, and finally check the op ed page to see if there’s a George Will or Charles Krauthammer column to read. Sometimes I’ll skim the letters to the editor too, if my stomach is feeling all right. Once these necessarily preliminaries are out of the way, I pour a second cup of coffee and enjoy the crossword puzzle.
In my paper, the solution to that day’s crossword is printed opposite Amy Dickinson’s advice column, so that’s often the last thing I read. Advice columns seem to have been a staple of newspapers for a hundred years, though their appeal escapes me. What kind of person gets to some trivial or, in many cases, great crisis in his or her life and decides that a 150-word letter to a stranger might be the answer? I also wonder how many of the letter writers miss the paper the day the answer is published, or in how many cases the answer is published months later, long after they’ve solved the problem they have written about – or made it much, much worse. And based on the leading way in which some of these letters are written, I also suspect that at least some of them are written by the advice columnist herself, to provide the avenue to make some point chance has not yet allowed her to make. (I use the female pronoun only because my papers have happened to carry exclusively female columnists – Abby, Amy, and Carolyn Hax.)
A letter to Ask Amy from September 30 caught my eye, not only because the advice she provided was absolutely perfect, but because in both the letter and the answer there were multiple important issues that are addressed, from time to time, on The RAP Sheet Blog. I was also fascinated by my own response to the column. First I felt some dismay at the letter-writer’s point of view. Later though, I felt some dismay in sympathy with the letter-writer. I will address these reactions – both of which I still hold – in the order in which they arose.
First, the letter (with pauses for editorial comments):
DEAR AMY: I love all of my neighbors and have been on great terms for many years with an older couple who live down the street.
In all the years I’ve known them, we’ve never discussed politics. Maybe that was a good thing, because in the last few weeks a sign appeared in their yard for a candidate I cannot stand.
I’m going to go out on a very short and secure limb here and presume that the carefully-guarded “specifics” are that the older couple placed a Romney/Ryan sign in their yard. Perhaps it is unfair to nitpick this letter – it is hard to frame a context in a few sentences – but what exactly does it mean to say one “love(s)” a neighbor but one prefers to write a stranger about a conflict with that neighbor rather than not to attempt to resolve it “a few weeks” after it has arisen?
Without going into specifics, if this candidate should happen to win, I would seriously think about moving to another country.
I’m gay, and my neighbors know it, and the man they are supporting is only too happy to see me and my life sold down the river if he thinks it’ll get him one more vote. Prejudice against gay people is a plank in his political platform.
What does one make of this overwhelming bit of hyperbole? I think there is one reasonable bit of criticism in here. When the letter-writer says that Romney “is only too happy to see my life sold down the river if he thinks it’ll get him one more vote,” I think the letter-writer is making a valid point about the “etch-a-sketch” candidate. Romney has shifted his public discourse quite a bit in his political career, and certain of his statements, such as on gay marriage, do seem calculated to seize an issue that public opinion polls indicate puts him with the majority of voters.
I don’t know what the letter-writer means by the metaphor “see me and my life sold down the river.” As a married heterosexual man who treasures his wife and family, I consider my own marriage of great importance, but if tomorrow I were to be told that I was no longer married though I could still live and love my wife and family, I would be disappointed but I wouldn’t feel that my life was over or no longer in my control.
It is also difficult to understand why the writer would seriously consider moving to another country. It sounds like, with the exception of the political views of one elderly couple, the writer loves the neighborhood. What, exactly, could a President do to affect this person’s life? Here, I’m talking about the part of life relevant to the letter. Apparently we – for the first time in the history of our nation – have a President and Vice President who are both in support of gay marriage. Yet what have they done about it? What can they do about it? The letter-writer presumably lived in the United States during the administrations of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and the first 3 years of Obama, during which Presidents generally believed that marriage was a heterosexual institution. The letter writer only now considers “moving to another country”?
The thorniest line in the letter is the last one quoted above. “Prejudice against gay people is a plank in his political platform.” There is a sense in which this is true. When deciding whether two people can marry, it is necessary to make a prejudgment. If the two people are of the same sex, according to Romney, they cannot marry.
Of course, if the two people are 12 years old, or if the two people are brother and sister, they cannot marry either. So in another sense, prejudice against gay people per se is not a part of Romney’s platform. Otherwise the charge might be that prejudice against brothers and sisters, or prejudice against young people, is ensconced in his platform as well. I don’t get from Romney that he dislikes gay people and wants to make life miserable for them. It would be as silly as saying he is waging a war on women because he’s pro-life. Oh wait, that silly charge has also been leveled against him. What a world.
Stepping back from politics, though, there’s the issue that this letter-writer is actually asking Amy about:
I tell myself that my neighbors are the same people I’ve liked for many years, but I feel different about them now. Should I talk to them about it and try to explain what this man’s election would mean for people like me? Or should I ignore it and try to forget what I now know?
I do know that the memory of all sorts of injustices and slights (both real and imagined) fades with time, but I hate feeling this way. — Confused Neighbor
The question for the advice maven is: should I talk to these people?
These are the people, remember, that the letter writer claims to “love”, to have “liked for many years”, and with whom the writer has “been on great terms with for many years.” Perhaps that’s hyperbole as well, but I think it would be worth our while – as conservatives – to presume for the moment that it isn’t. What kind of political issue can immediately turn friends into enemies? What could be of such importance that one is ready to flee the country rather than have a conversation?
Bottom line: this is a moral issue. That gay marriage is a “moral issue” is hardly a revelation to those who are against it – after all, the idea that man marries woman is a commandment from God. But understand, gay marriage is a moral issue to those who are for it as well. And that’s what will make it a litmus test issue. People who ask you if you are for or against gay marriage are asking you a moral question – they are judging not just your assessment of public policy, they are judging you. Are you moral or immoral? That’s what pro-gay marriage citizens are doing, just as surely as anti-gay marriage citizens. This letter writer is saying – I just found out my neighbors are immoral, when all this time I thought they were good, upstanding, moral people. How can I deal with that?
I liked Amy’s answer:
DEAR CONFUSED: Your neighbors have posted a yard sign advertising their support for a candidate, inviting a conversation with people who see it. The question is whether you are up to having this conversation with them.
Your neighbors may not be aware of this candidate’s stand on gay issues. They may be aware of it but might not vote on social issues. Or they may agree with this candidate’s views.
If you choose to speak to them, approach them with an open attitude, tolerance and a determination to listen. This is an attitude you would want from anyone questioning your own political views.
Sophisticated people living in a country devoted to free speech should be able to tolerate different — or even offensive — perspectives without wanting to leave the country, but you don’t seem able to see things this way. This is something for you to work on.
There are two things I particularly like about this answer. One is that she uses the word “tolerance” in her reply. Tolerance is highly valued on the Left, but it is not uniformly practiced by the Left. I think the major problem is that the noun “tolerance” is automatically converted into an adjective “tolerant” by the Left. Tolerance is something you practice, tolerant is something you are. Conversely, a person can easily be labeled intolerant – which is equivalent to immoral.
The second thing I like about the answer is the second paragraph, which lays out three logical reasons why the neighbors might be supporting Romney. It is the second possibility that is particularly instructive:
They may be aware of [Romney’s position on gay marriage] but might not vote on social issues.
Full disclosure: this is my position. I support gay marriage, but I understand the American political system well enough to know that a President’s position on “social issues” is far less important than a President’s position on foreign policy, free trade, and taxation. I understand that social issues are moved by public opinion, not by Presidents. Indeed, that was the whole idea of America in the first place. Our leaders are of us, they are not in charge of us. So the Founding Fathers built a system in which Presidents were helpless in the face of public opinion. That does mean certain important issues – like women’s suffrage or civil rights for blacks – progress only slowly, even generationally. But in the long run this is the greatest protection for minorities, because it systemically prevents leaders from directing their power against vulnerable groups. History is replete with examples, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Cultural Revolution to the Holocaust.
Any candidate has a range of positions that a citizen will agree with and a range of positions they will disagree with. No candidate is perfect. A thoughtful voter must consider two things: One, which of the candidates has fewer positions with which I disagree? Two, which issues are most important? The couple down the street may well support gay marriage, but know that a President can do very little about the issue. They may also be worried about the debt the country is leaving their grandchildren, and believe Romney is more serious and capable about addressing that issue.
There is one catch though – a third thing that thoughtful voters consider when choosing a candidate to support. We want our Presidents to be morally worthy of serving. Some voters likely thought Bill Clinton was not morally worthy to be President given his serial philandering. Some voters likely thought Richard Nixon was not morally worthy to be President given his abuses of power. If we discovered some candidate for the Presidency, though brilliant from a policy and experience perspective, was a rapist or a child molester or a murderer, a thoughtful voter would be wise to exclude that candidate.
So it is important for Republicans to understand that for some people, the wrong position on gay marriage will lead some voters to deem a candidate morally unworthy to serve. I do not feel that way. I support gay marriage but I do not think people who are against gay marriage are immoral. But there are some who do, and that segment of the population will grow as public opinion on this issue shifts.
This will be the last Presidential election that a candidate can stake out the anti position on gay marriage as a gambit to win votes. In a year when so many independents can be persuaded by the debt, the economy, the failing schools, the successful checks on union power by Republican governors, the behemoth that is the Affordable Care Act, the failure of soft socialism in Europe, crises in Medicare and Social Security, and so many failed promises and ambitions of the current President, it’s not a gambit worth taking this time around either.