Monday, January 16, 2012

A Moral Politician

Rick Santorum, former Senator from Pennsylvania, has cultivated a certain public image. Whatever else you may say about him, the thinking goes, he's sincere and he's moral. Plenty of people who disapprove of his politics nevertheless subscribe to this view.

I have my own opinion, but explaining it is a rather delicate issue. The sad and awkward fact is, it has to do with Santorum's dead son. I'm just going to barrel forward and explain, hoping I don't sound like a complete jerk.

Santorum's family suffered a personal tragedy in 1996, when their son Gabriel died at birth. The grieving parents brought their dead son home for a ritual of saying goodbye as a family. This act caused some tittering and shaking-of-heads among people in Pennsylvania not predisposed to supporting Santorum.

I believe there is nothing 'weird' about this, and people who would criticize Santorum over it are being narrow-minded and culturally provincial, not to mention insensitive jerks. Humans process grief in different ways, and the Santorums' actions don't strike me as especially bizarre, or outside the realm of empathy.

We as a culture are not good at dealing with death. We nervously titter when a grieving person's displays of emotion go beyond what we are comfortable with. We lack the mental and emotional facility to handle it.

It's a fairly well-known bit of historical trivia that in Victorian times, families would have formal photographic portraits taken of their dead children. (A Google search will turn up some examples.) What's less well-known is that there's still an industry for that in American today. This recent Dear Prudence column on Slate contains a letter from someone whose sister had such a photo taken.

Yes, some of us will mock these practices. But we shouldn't. We're talking about grieving families here. Let's leave them alone.

There's nothing strange about how Santorum handled the death of his son in 1996.

How he handled it in 2012 is another matter. The following comes from a New York magazine story on the Republican race:

Then, at his penultimate event, at a Pizza Ranch in Newton the night before the caucuses, Santorum was asked about some criticism leveled at him over how he and his wife, Karen, handled the death in 1996 of their infant son, Gabriel, after she miscarried: They brought the dead child home so their “children could see him,” as Santorum put it; so they could “know they had a brother.” Choking back tears—as Karen, standing beside him, let hers flow—Santorum told the story and then chastised those who would attack them for it. “To some who don’t recognize the dignity of all human life, who see it as a blob of tissue that should be discarded and disposed of, [what we did] is somehow weird,” he said. “Recognizing the humanity of your son is somehow weird, somehow odd, and should be subject to ridicule.”

Wow, Mr. Santorum.

I was going to address the rest of this post directly to the former Senator, but then, owing to the sensitivity of the matter, I decided to be charitable. I'm going to address Mr. Virtual Santorum, the impression of the candidate that is created through the mass media. After all, there is always the possibility that New York magazine misrepresented what Mr. Flesh-and-Blood Santorum said. That is the only possible defense.

Like I said, Virtual Santorum, I don't doubt that small-minded people would attack you for what is nobody's business but your family's. In fact, it's probably true that most of the people who attacked you are culturally liberal, although that's because people who are culturally liberal are more likely to dislike you, and thus more predisposed to attack you generally.

But look at what you said in that quote. I'm going to mercilessly unpack it.

Your language makes me think you are trying to make a point about the abortion issue. People who are pro-choice, people who think a 'blob of tissue' should be discarded and disposed of, are unable to understand why a person like you would want to bring a dead baby home from the hospital, so your children could know 'they had a brother'. Am I right?

Never mind that every day staunchly pro-choice people suffer miscarriages.

Never mind that for the most part it is a terribly traumatic experience.

Never mind that they grieve over their lost children afterwards.

Never mind that they certainly don't feel like they've merely lost a 'blob of tissue'.

No, what's more important is that you make people think pro-choicers want to mock you for treating your dead child as anything other than a 'blob of tissue'.

But what am I doing, dragging reality into this? The overriding fact of American political discourse is that people on the other side of the culture war are to be vilified and caricatured. They don't have inner lives. Their feelings aren't real. They don't really exist in the same way that we do.

You're a victim. People who feel sad at stillborn babies are victims. And once you feel like a poor old put-upon victim, you get defensive and become less willing to listen to the other side's point of view. I hate victim-making in politics. I know everyone does it. But I hate it.

Mr. Virtual Santorum, when you brought up your son it was genuinely touching. I may not care for your politics, but you can't criticize a man over his dead son. People who attack you over it are jerks.

And then you blew it big-time. The whole reason you mentioned him was to use him as a tool to vilify the Other Side.

I know you're far from the first politician in history to use a dead relative to make a point. No need to remind me of others. This doesn't mean you're the worst human being in politics today. It just means you're no better.

Look at the very next paragraph in that New York article. The one immediately following the 'blob of tissue' paragraph.

Say what you will about Santorum and his wife’s ardent pro-life views and how they chose to process their grief over losing their son. The sincerity and depth of the candidate’s feelings on the subject are indisputable, and the moment at the Newton Pizza Ranch was a moving display of his humanity. This is no small part of the attraction that some voters feel for Santorum: There is scarcely a shred of slickness or phoniness about him—something that cannot be said of his rivals, and, indeed, a quality that is the opposite of the perceived plasticity that disturbs many Republicans about Romney.

No. No no no.

To me, Mr. Virtual Santorum, that quote showed exactly the opposite.

In fact, your soulless bit of rhetoric, where you mentioned your dead son in order to use him as a tool to make vague smears is precisely why I find your ilk -- no matter where on the political spectrum -- to be facsimiles of human beings. You have no more of a soul than your rivals do.

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