Well, an impressive and rapidly growing number of people I really respect are arguing that there’s nothing wrong with Kerry or Edwards pointing out that Cheney’s daughter is a lesbian. I noted earlier that their doing so made me a bit squeamish, for reasons I couldn’t really put my finger on. I’m still having trouble sorting how what I think about this, so let me make a few preliminary points:
1. Yes, of course this isn’t an outing. Of course Dick Cheney is a hypocrite. (As Rodger Payne, among others, points out Cheney didn’t say a damn word when Alan Keyes was slandering his daughter a month ago.) And of course the hypocrisy is politically relevant.
2. A distressing number of people – including a bunch I really respect – are claiming that anyone who is a bit squeamish about this tactic is only revealing his or her own homophobia. Bullshit. I’m not a homophobe, and neither are the friends I spoke to about this who also felt the way I did. Trust me on this, okay? I’m sure that many people are revealing their own homophobia when they complain that this is a smear. But I’m not complaining that this is a smear, and my sense that there’s something unsavoury about the tactic doesn’t rest on a feeling that there’s anything wrong with homosexuality.
3. My main worry is that there is something unethical about appealing to, or attempting to make use of, homophobia, for political purposes. When Kerry and Edwards seek to remind Republican voters that Mary Cheney is a lesbian, they are trying to play on the Republican base’s homophobia; they are trying to gain a political advantage from it. Homophobia is a base (excuse the pun) tendency, an intrinsically bad attitude. At the very least, attempting to play on it for political gain raises difficult ethical questions. To claim that this is simply an ethical no-brainer is false.
4. Now, I don’t think that this is the same as, or nearly as bad as, attempting to gain a political advantage from your own base’s homophobia. So I think it would be much worse if Kerry had a gay daughter and Bush repeatedly brought it up in order to excite disgust in his own base for Kerry. Perhaps the reason for this is partly that the connection between political gain and an intrinsically bad attitude is much tighter. It’s probably also partly because the rank hypocrisy in Cheney’s own position. I acknowledge the strong desire to say, “Fine. You live by the homophobic base, you die by the homophobic base.” I acknowledge that there is something a bit satisfying in seeing Cheney hoist with his own homophobic petard. (Not that all Republicans are homophobes, of course. But enough are to make Kerry and Edwards’ political strategy viable.)
5. But notice that Edwards and Kerry didn’t raise the point about hypocrisy, at least directly. They made the point that Cheney’s daughter is a lesbian, and I’m pretty sure they did it to chip away at the base. The Republican base is going to be disgusted at the sexual orientation, not at the hypocrisy.
6. I don’t see how anyone who notices and loathes Bush’s smirk could have failed to notice that Edwards had quite the smirk himself when he noted that Cheney’s daughter was a lesbian. Perhaps part of my own gut reaction to all this stems from the fact that Edwards just looked like a complete asshole when he said it. (Kerry managed to avoid this.)
7. Yes, I think I’m keeping all this in proportion. Even if it’s a bit low, it’s not terribly low.
8. And no, I haven’t made up my mind about this for once and for all. But something is holding me back from the liberal consensus on this one. If I figure out a compelling explanation for my attitude, I’ll let you know.
Many thanks to Anne, Aga, Rodger (in the comments and on his site) and Emily for helping me sort through this. If you think you can help unravel my confusion, either way, let me know in the comments.
UPDATE: Over at Crooked Timber, Ted quotes Andrew Sullivan:
Some of the subtler arguments Iï¿½ve heard overnight say the following: itï¿½s not that homosexuality is wrong; itï¿½s just that many people believe that and Kerry therefore exploited their homophobia to gain a point. I donï¿½t buy it, but letï¿½s assume the worst in Kerryï¿½s motives for the sake of argument. What these emailers are saying is that Kerry should hedge what he says in order to cater to the homophobia of Bushï¿½s base. Why on earth should he? The truth here is obvious: Bush and Cheney are closet tolerants. They have no problem with gay people personally; but they use hostility to gay people for political purposes, even if it means attacking members of their own families. What they are currently objecting to is the fact that their hypocrisy has been exposed. To which the only answer is: if you donï¿½t want to be exposed as a hypocrite, donï¿½t be one.
To which I say: Absolutely. Cheney and Bush have no right to complain. That they’re raving hypocrites is beyond dispute. But the fact that your opponent is a hypocrite and has no right to complain of your treatment of him doesn’t rule out the possibility that your treatment of him is wrong in some way. The thing that makes me uneasy is that Kerry and Edwards are trying to use homophobia for their own political advantage, and this point doesn’t address that worry.
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