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Explaining Portman
thanks, hunting, prayer
novalis
sandmantv and thekinginyellow have posted about Rob Portman, but I don't think either of them has it quite right.

sandmantv says "I think there’s too much emphasis on the personal dimension of this." Then he follows up with "Yes this is their personal journey and lots of people have their eyes widened regarding tolerance because of how it touched them or someone close to them. Basic compassion is how liberal morals march on." Which seems to be pretty much saying that the personal dimension is all there is. I don't think that this is how liberal morals are supposed to work, but since I am not a liberal, I guess I can't say for sure.

thekinginyellow says it's about philosophy -- that what matters is getting the right answer for the right reason, and that our society doesn't value that enough. This is closer to right, because a philosophy is how you avoid making the same class of mistakes again. Portman has compassion for gay people now? Great! But he's still got a lot of work to do; he could, for instance, start having some compassion for cancer patients and support medical marijuana (yes, I checked; he doesn't).

I think it's actually all about cookies. Portman did a bad thing for a long time. His actions hurt a lot of people. It's good that he's no longer doing that bad thing. But he hasn't apologized. And he hasn't done anything to fix the problem that he was a part of. He could introduce a bill in the House tomorrow legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. It probably wouldn't pass, but it might shift the debate some. But even if he's a lazy bum, he could at least put his name on a brief. Where are you, Rob? Apologies and reparations matter, because they're the only thing keeping purely cynical politics from being a dominant strategy.

There's also the whole God problem. If you had asked Portman five years ago why he didn't support marriage equality, he would probably have answered with something about God. (You might have had to ask twice in order to get past the meaningless boilerplate "I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman"). So, what changed? Is God wrong? Or did God change his (God's) mind? Or did Portman "pray" and come to this conclusion? And if so, did God tell him something different than he told the next Republican over? Or is the next Republican over just really bad at this whole praying thing? Shouldn't this make Portman question all of the other stuff he thought that God had strong feelings on, like abortion?

This, I think, also explains some of the anger at Portman; he doesn't have to give up religion, but he's got to give up the kind of religion that's about controlling other people's lives. And because he hasn't done that, we simply can't trust him.

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(Deleted comment)
More than that. We actively reward people for doing the "compassionate family thing," and we actively punish people for "figuring things out on their own." It's part of the American cultural makeup. Which is the really terrifying part.

Yeah, I think that's what I was saying.

I do think you're underselling sandmantv's point here, but he can speak for himself.

Regarding my own point: my stance here is not an abstract "it's important to be right for the right reasons" (although it is). My stance is that we as a culture have idolized a specific reason for taking any position on any issue, a reason that pretty much has to be the wrong reason in any circumstance, and that this actively encourages people to continue being wrong until the issue comes to affect them personally.

(There can be more than one takeaway point in a given situation!)

Those things said...I'm really, really, really not a fan of the "cookie" formulation in general. And I'm frankly surprised to hear that you are.

Portman didn't "do a bad thing." I mean, in actual fact he did, but that's not a useful way of framing the issue in any case where genuine controversy exists [regardless of the underlying truth]. He disagreed with us, and now he doesn't. Failing to reward that shift-towards-correctness, and instead demanding a Show of Contrition and Sincerity, is harmful on at least two fronts. It discourages others from becoming correct, because it places additional costs on them for shifting their stance rather than offsetting the already-substantial ones. And it pollutes the discourse, because it uses cultural capital as a club rather than responding to the underlying claims.

Cynical politics will always be a dominant strategy in a representative democracy. Shifting the false signals of sincerity will help in certain circumstances but is liable to have massive undesirable consequences. I for one am very happy that cynical conservatives can make cynical noises about toxic-but-popular stances without having to take action on them.

As for religion..."controlling other people's lives" has nothing to do with it, does it? Bad religious argument is bad religious argument, and that's true regardless of the content.

I mean, in actual fact he did, but that's not a useful way of framing the issue in any case where genuine controversy exists [regardless of the underlying truth].

I think "genuine controversy" is a problematic standard. It has the effect of holding fringe views to a higher standard than mainstream views. And it says that it's more important to protect the feelings of abusers than to talk about actual harm to abused people.

He disagreed with us, and now he doesn't. Failing to reward that shift-towards-correctness, and instead demanding a Show of Contrition and Sincerity, is harmful on at least two fronts. It discourages others from becoming correct, because it places additional costs on them for shifting their stance rather than offsetting the already-substantial ones. And it pollutes the discourse, because it uses cultural capital as a club rather than responding to the underlying claims.

This is what I was getting at with the comment about the cynical political strategy (admittedly, I was too brief). Define the cynical strategy as "There is some issue P where the correct position is A and the popular position is B. I'll take position B while it's popular, and then change my mind when it becomes unpopular. And doing so will have no costs whatsoever to me." If we place some cost on having previously held done bad things while under the influence of a wrong view, that discourages this strategy.

But I also more-or-less don't care what Portman's views are -- I care about what he does. So far, what he's done is given an interview. This interview basically doesn't help in any way. I discuss this a bit further in my reply to sandmantv. I also discuss Portman's underlying claims a fair bit.

(more replies to come)

Edited at 2013-03-18 02:48 am (UTC)

As for religion..."controlling other people's lives" has nothing to do with it, does it? Bad religious argument is bad religious argument, and that's true regardless of the content.

I don't think that's quite right. If someone says, "I've prayed about whether or not to run for Congress" (or go to college, or whatever), that's generally unobjectionable, in that they're not trying to privilege their internal experience to influence others. Maybe if R's neighbor prayed about whether R should run for congress, they would get a different answer, but so what? Sure, I believe that they are all mistaken to believe that they have had any communication with God. But it doesn't affect me that much. And there's a strong argument that R's neighbor is far more likely to be mistaken (since they're praying about something that doesn't directly affect them).

I don’t think it’s a contradiction to say “Portman did this for broader political reasons than this story lets on” and “left wing commentators are annoyingly cynical about the personal story.” They may get to fairly dissimilar points, and it’s an artifact of bad writing in my post if you think I was trying to make the same point at the time. I only brought that up then because well, I was only going to devote one post to this news story.

Why do I consider this annoyingly cynical? Well on an abstract level, I think feelings and intuitions have a lot more to do with morality than abstract rationality. I count on compassion to make people do the right thing (or not do the wrong thing) first, empirical data about results second, and pure logic third. That however, is a very large topic for another time.

More specifically, I think “using a personal story to express their political outlook” is something _the left wing and their allies do all the time_. Novalis you certainly never shy from mentioning how your wife benefited from hacker school, are we then to take it that you only support causes that benefit your wife? No, that’s a rudely cynical reading of your beliefs and how you formed them. Or those of us who have a gay friend who’ve been bullied, or a parent suffering under the poor healthcare system in this country or – look if you can’t find examples of people you know using personal stories to explain their ideological positions, I really don’t think you’re trying at all. And we don’t beat them up over it, in fact we praise their story often.
But when a Republican does it, be it Portman or Sarah Palin, it becomes some sort of sin and leftists because a bunch of rationalists. This makes me think “using personal stories as explanations for our positions” is an ambivalent practice, one that we praise in our allies and mock in our enemies. I am definitely not a fan of such extreme double standards.
Perhaps if I saw either of you, or the author I linked, criticizing people on the left for doing this, I'd be less bothered.

To go a little deeper, part of the annoyance can certainly be about how Portman is still in the wrong about many, many things. But few people have perfect opinions, and I don’t think this is enough reason to criticize what is still “a movement in the right direction.” (and I suspect the result of energetic lobbying behind the scenes by political allies of ours as well.)
Now, I do think it’s bad when a conservative is liberal on one issue that’s not very relevant, and uses that as cover to push much worse issues where they are much more relevant. The way the Cato institute uses a fig leaf of “legalize all pot now” to defend their support for abhorrent tax policy that is much more likely to actually happen, or that Tom Coburn might say something nice about Obama and gain credibility on his reactionary social views, these are obnoxious manipulations of the media, I agree. But I don’t see Portman doing any of that. As I said, he’s a relatively moderate Republican and not known for his right wing stand on any particular issue. His gay marriage stance isn’t going to give cover to a tax policy he’s really tied to or something. (If Paul Ryan did this, I’d be more worried.)

*Liberals. It's not very helpful for you to discard the term "liberal" for describing yourself as separate from lots of people, due to a presumably niche meaning. If you're going to do, that, give an example for another umbrella term for "you, me, most of our friends, and everyone else left of the median person in the country". You knew what I meant when I used it, and it was definitely in a way that applied to you novalis.

I have a lot of responses to this, but they're all connected. So I'll start with a random note, and then move into the meat of the issue:

Hacker School
I don't think Hacker School is a particularly good example here, since (a) it is a business whose services I am endorsing rather than a cause and (b) it has almost nothing to do with my political outlook. I say almost nothing, because of course my views on the effectiveness of traditional vs non-traditional schooling affect my views on schooling policy. But also I mostly had those views before Hacker School started up.

Why do I consider this annoyingly cynical? Well on an abstract level, I think feelings and intuitions have a lot more to do with morality than abstract rationality. I count on compassion to make people do the right thing (or not do the wrong thing) first, empirical data about results second, and pure logic third. That however, is a very large topic for another time.

It's not very helpful for you to discard the term "liberal" for describing yourself as separate from lots of people, due to a presumably niche meaning. If you're going to do, that, give an example for another umbrella term for "you, me, most of our friends, and everyone else left of the median person in the country". You knew what I meant when I used it, and it was definitely in a way that applied to you novalis.

These are actually the root of our disagreement, I think.

Descriptively, people do often learn compassion from personal experiences (or from history, or from fiction). But normatively, the thing that people should learn is not the object-level "don't gas the Jews", but the higher-level "don't oppress people". Otherwise, you wind up with a situation where you say, "well, I only know one Armenian, and he's kind of an asshole; maybe the Armenian genocide is exaggerated and/or deserved." Or, more generally "I live in a tiny town, and think that this is strong evidence about the rest of the world."

And if your compassion only extends to your 150 best friends, that's not really compassion at all -- that's just loyalty.

Consider Jonathan Haidt's moral foundation framework (descriptively; he has also since said a bunch of deeply confused stuff normatively). If "liberals" means people who consider only the harm and fairness foundations when talking about morality, that does indeed describe most of the people we know. It does not describe me. I only care about harm (and not fairness at all), but consider much unfairness to be a species of harm both because people tend to have a preference for fairness and I'm a preference utilitarian, and because unfair situations tend to not be Pareto-optimal. I feel roughly the same about his later sixth independent foundatin: liberty. That said, I have strong preferences for liberty and moderately strong preferences for fairness, so I often come to the same conclusions as liberals. And my parents would both identify as liberals, so it would be surprising if I didn't carry some of that baggage.

(cont'd)

But I don't feel that it's weird to describe myself as non-liberal. If I take the "World's Smallest Political Quiz", I find myself exactly on the line between liberal and libertarian, depending on how I interpret the questions (hilariously, the quiz's space for "Centrist" as so large that that's where they put me). Granted, that quiz is designed to make most people look like a libertarian (although it would be interesting to take the questions where GSS data is available and see what the score distribution actually looks like). And the quiz is about object-level debates rather than principles. But on a number of issues that are non-controversial among liberals (gun control, for instance), my views are very far from the common liberal position. Am I to the "left" of the median person? Maybe on many issues, if politics is one-dimensional. Congressional politics is (if DW-NOMINATE is to be believed), but I generally disagree with my congresspeople on a wide variety of issues (sometimes even agreeing with the theoretically-more-conservative party).

If I had to choose a self-description, I guess "radical" wouldn't be too far off.

But the name isn't the thing. The name is just a name.

For me, the thing is those moral foundations -- the things that underlie the decisions we make. Or rather, the things that ought to underlie those decisions. And if I or someone else gives an anecdote intended to make salient the harm foundation, by saying, "My friend was hurt by this in a way that you might not have predicted or been aware of," that's maybe reasonable. But that's not what Portman said. Another way that anecdotes could be legitimate is as causal explanations -- "I used to believe X, but then I met Y and I learned some new facts about the world (or new arguments) that changed my views. Here are those facts/arguments" But Portman also didn't say that. Indeed, he showed no awareness whatsoever of the harm that he had caused. Portman's statement instead made the loyalty foundation salient: "[w]e were surprised to learn he is gay but knew he was still the same person he’d always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love." The only good thing that a liberal or utilitarian can say about loyalty is that it might occasionally be a useful heuristic. But mostly, it just causes harm.

Portman did not in any meaningful sense move at all. All he did was give some interviews. And this is an important distinction. It is already becoming almost as unfashionable to be seen as a homophobe as it is to be seen as a racist. And as Thomas Eliot notes, "we as a society are much more tolerant of actually being an asshole than of calling someone an asshole." But if we can't talk about racism or homophobia, then we can't fix them. And if Rob Portman now were to say, "but I'm not a homophobe because I gave some interviews" -- without *actually considering how his actual actions have hurt actual people, and trying to repair the damage*, then he hasn't really done much good; instead, he's just made it harder to talk about (and thus work towards fixing) the real problem.

(cont'd)


Perhaps if I saw either of you, or the author I linked, criticizing people on the left for doing this, I'd be less bothered.

I rarely pay attention to what politicians say; the major reason I commented here was that you and thekinginyellow were interested. But to provide some balance: Obama is wrong about drones, privacy, national security, non-prosecution of torturers, and a dozen other thing as well. On same-sex marriage, Obama is only slightly better than Portman -- he didn't apologize, but he has consistently taken actions to support marriage equality (even before his official conversion). His statement was also somewhat better than Portman's; he gave anecdotes as causal explanations, but in the end he said, "it’s also the golden rule -- you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated." And that's more-or-less what a politician ought to be advocating: Liberalism in the sense of JS Mill.

No, by "this", I meant "when allies use stories of personal experience to explain their positions". It only seems to be popping up for criticizing enemies.

While I don't think of a lot of examples of it on either side off the top of my head, it is generally a trope that I'm unhappy with. State of the Union addresses, I guess, but those are universally so full of crap that it's hard to know where to start.

Here's one that I happened to read recently. Not a politician, of course. His anecdotes are doing a lot less work than Portman's; in the end, he gives a non-anecdotal reason for his view (and an explanation of how his previous view was wrong). The anecdotes are of the causal sort; how he came to the position he's now in (and the position he previously held).

He probably should have spent some more time explaining the new position. And he certainly should have apologized (although as a non-politician, he has less to apologize for).

The anecdotes seemed mostly to be an attempt to avoid responsibility. He does admit that he should have changed his position sooner. And I'm pretty happy to criticize the piece; especially the bit about his early life.

Mostly, if you're going to reject the commonly held term for describing a useful and widely held group (liberal), at least propose a replacement term. You know I meant "the broad community of LGBT supportive folks who are politically disposed against Republicans". Which includes you, me, TKIY, and anyone else who might comment here I imagine.

I don't care if you call all of us who are on the left side of DW-Nominate "DWNL's" or something, so much as you acknowledge it's a relevant group in this case. And that most of the country in the modern age means that when they say "liberal".

Quibbling over terminology doesn't help unless you actually try to make communication clearer.

I describe myself as a utilitarian, for what that's worth.

I don't care if you call all of us who are on the left side of DW-Nominate "DWNL's" or something, so much as you acknowledge it's a relevant group in this case.

DW-Nominate explains (this word is somewhat misleading here) most of the variance in Congress. It doesn't explain me, or many of the smart people I know.

You tell me that liberals believe X. Sure, maybe most DWNLs, or people who identify as liberal, or most of some other group believe X. I don't think this is a true statement about lbierals. But since I'm not coming at it from anything like the same place as most other liberals or DWNLs, (and I don't believe X), I'm don't want to say firmly, "you're wrong about liberalism" (even if I'm pretty sure that you are). It's not my belief system, so it's not my place.

What matters to me is what underlying principles his current actions are being driven by. "I changed my mind because of my son" is entirely consistent with "I now have compassion for others" or "I do what's best for me and mine" or "I want to get votes now, please," among other things. I think it's our responsibility not to take his story at face value, but rather to ask whether it's consistent with what he chooses to do - and to try to figure out, based on what he says and does, which set of underlying principles he's used to make this change. That allows us to make meaningful predictions about his behavior going forward.

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