Friday, September 25, 2009

Kyl v. Stabenow

Jon Kyl, Republican senator from Arizona made a bit of a mistake today. Michael Kinsley famously said that a gaffe is what happens when a politician tells the truth. Kyl, in this case, said something that is undeniably true. Speaking of health care and requiring insurance companies to cover certain conditions, he mentioned that he does not need maternity care. So forcing him to pay for it will make his policy more expensive. Good thing he has health insurance - I think he's going to need surgery to extract his foot from his mouth. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when he has to meet with his female staffers. To say nothing of his wife or daughters.

Debbie Stabenow, Democrat senator from Michigan, came right back with the perfect response: "I think your Mom probably did." Wow. She's going to be a feminist hero for the next election cycle. At least. I'd love to be a fly on the wall in the next conversation she has with her campaign treasurer. I think she probably got a few clicks of the PayPal button for that line.

But other than a moment of good political theater, this illustrates a couple of things. First, it illustrates that Jon Kyl does not understand the basic principle of insurance: the point is to spread the risk. Of course he can't get pregnant. Of course, he can GET someone pregnant, and if he doesn't believe in paying for maternity care, I think we need to ask him some questions about how he feels about men being responsible fathers. But there's also almost no chance that he will get breast cancer, and there are other diseases that he can't get. There are, however, diseases that he can get that women can't - does that mean that women shouldn't pay for prostate cancer coverage? We do make adjustments for insurance coverage based on things like smoking, but that is a personal choice, not a result of genetics.

Second, it also illustrates a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. The classic liberal criticism of conservatives is that conservatives are not compassionate. I'm not sure that's the case; I've known some conservatives - notably my grandparents - who cared very deeply for their loved ones. The difference seems to me to be a matter not of compassion, but of imagination. Conservatives do not seem very good at empathizing with someone with a different point of view. This explains why conservatives are very compassionate towards people who are like them, but not so much towards people who are not like them. This is why conservatives are willing to use torture. They feel the pain of people who died on 9/11 - mostly Americans, like themselves - but they do not feel the pain of the people being tortured.

This is also why Jon Kyl doesn't want to pay for maternity care - he doesn't empathize with women who might have to go through childbirth. I have a feeling, however, that he is going to be empathizing with women on this score in short order. There are many, many women who are not going to let him forget this comment. It has to be one of the most sexist things I have heard in a long time.

It feels almost trivial to be pointing this out, but it does seem to highlight a basic difference: liberal brains are wired to empathize with people who different than they are, and conservative brains are wired to empathize with people are similar to them. This applies to "liberal" and "conservative" as we currently understand them in American political discourse; there are philosophical definitions of each that do not necessarily mesh with this distinction.

There are strengths and weaknesses of each; conservatives are more self-reliant, and forge tight bonds with each other, while liberals appreciate differences and are better at forming political allegiances across all kinds of differences. Conservatives don't deal well with people unlike themselves, but liberals can overcompensate and become hypersensitive to differences.

Fortunately for liberals, the ability to understand and empathize with people with different perspectives confers a substantial advantage in politics. Particularly when there are more and more people like that, both in this country and around the world, who are demanding to be treated as equals.

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