January 8, 2012

Regarding the recent Rick Santorum “controversy”

Ross Douthat has written an insightful column regarding the “controversy” surrounding recent comments made concerning Gabriel Santorum. Gabriel was Rick Santorum’s fourth child, and he died in 1996 shortly after being born prematurely. Santorum and his wife dealt with his death by bringing his body home for their children to see, and burying him the following day. Some liberal commentators presented it as evidence that Santorum was crazy, a move that was quickly criticized by both conservatives and other liberals.

Douthat discusses how decisions like the Santorums’ — decisions that ought to be incredibly private — can so easily have a political dimension in this day and age.

In a sense, one could say that these kinds of invasive debates become inevitable once the traditional zone of privacy around public figures collapses. But it would be more accurate to say that the zone of privacy has collapsed precisely because of the deep moral divisions that these kinds of controversies reveal.

Privacy is a luxury of moral consensus. Nobody would have thought to politicize the premature birth and death of John F. Kennedy’s son Patrick, because abortion wasn’t a polarizing issue in the America of 1963. But if a white politician in the Jim Crow South had married a black woman, the relationship would inevitably have been seen as a political gesture as well a personal decision.

Today, we are less divided over race, but more divided over sex and reproduction. In a country that cannot agree whether fetuses are human beings, even questions like how to mourn and bury a miscarried child are inevitably freighted with ideological significance. Likewise, in a country where the majority of Down syndrome fetuses are aborted, the mere act of carrying a child with a genetic disorder to term — as both the Palins and the Santorums, whose daughter Bella has Trisomy 18, have done — feels like a political statement.

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But by turning their personal choices to political ends, politicians lose the right to complain when those same personal lives are subject to partisan critiques. They can and should contest these critiques, but they can’t complain about them. In a culture as divided about fundamental issues as our own, the kind of weird attacks that Rick Santorum is enduring come with the vocation he has chosen.

Meanwhile, liberal commentator Charles Lane has written a beautiful column that takes Santorum’s critics to task by discussing his own experience with a child’s death (emphasis mine):

I’m not defending Rick Santorum the presidential candidate. From what little I know about him, he seems to have his own issues with moralizing and judging. To the extent he has used his family’s experience to make a point about abortion, I object.

But I am defending the right of the Santorums and all families to grieve an infant’s death in accordance with their personal needs and beliefs. My plea is for a little more respect regarding the way people deal with loss, and a little more maturity about physical contact with the dead. If that puts me in sympathy, for a moment, with this right-wing politician, so be it.

Amen and amen. Or as one of my Facebook friends put it: “Some might argue that the cold and sanitized way in which we deal with death in America and the West is crazy or weird.”

This “controversy” hit a little close to home for me. Not because I’m a fan of Santorum, but because I have several close friends who have lost children due to miscarriages and other issues. I’ve seen the pain and grief they’ve experienced firsthand and the ways in which people cope with such loss shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as “crazy” or “very weird”.

Listen, even if you really and truly dislike Santorum and disagree with his policies, think he’ll make a bad president, etc., you should still be able to do the classy thing and not speak ill of his grief in order to score some cheap political points. That’s just the mature, dignified thing to do.