Perhaps you have heard that the Cheney family is about to have an uncomfortable family holiday season. If you blissfully ignore most to all news about the Cheneys now that Dick’s death grip is no longer clutching the levers of power, I will give you a quick rundown. Liz Cheney is running to unseat old family friend Mike Enzi in the Republican primary for the Wyoming Senate seat. In an effort to burnish her conservative cred and make it seem like she truly represents the people of Wyoming (as opposed to just parachuting into a state where she could capitalize on her family name), she came out and said that she supports traditional, one-man, one-woman marriage. One problem: Her sister is a lesbian, and married, and has children with her wife. Both Mary Cheney and her wife, Heather Poe, responded to Liz’s comments on Facebook. And then the media covered it a lot.
But I’m not really interested in discussing the Cheneys. What I’m interested in discussing is the response of two women columnists at the two most prominent newspapers in the country.
Maureen Dowd mentioned the Cheney feud in her Wednesday column for The New York Times, although she tried to make inept comparisons between the Cheney sisters having a public argument over gay marriage and Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his brother, who seem like a made-for-reality TV duo (with the Bush brothers inexplicably jammed in). This is the latest in her history of being not at all offensive to people who are not hetero.
My sister, who loved W. and worked on his 2000 convention, made it clear that I was not welcome in her guest room when I was writing about the phony run-up to the Iraq war. And my brother once scolded me at a holiday dinner, “If there was a hurricane, you’d blame Bush for it.”
Then the Katrina catastrophe unfolded, as W. blithely mountain biked in Crawford, and I did.
But my conservative siblings never would have quarreled with me in public. And, besides, as my sister once said, she knew I’d be the one holding her hand at the end, not W.
So it’s painful to watch the Cheney clan tear itself apart over politics — one of three titanically screwed up political sibling relationships playing out now.
Such a shame, that the Cheneys, who are a microcosm of the debate we’re having on gay marriage, are playing their family drama out in public! To be fair, she does go on to say later that it’s sickening to watch the Cheneys throw Mary Cheney and her family “under the campaign bus.” Contrast this to Ruth Marcus’ Tuesday column at the Washington Post, which was originally titled, “Liz Cheney deserves to be heard” and is now called “A same-sex marriage debate we need.” Since she most likely does not write her own headlines, I’m going to assume someone at WaPo realized the first was a ridiculous headline, as Liz Cheney is not a marginalized person who is routinely silenced, but from a prominent political family with a media platform and a Senate campaign, who will be “heard” whether we want to hear her or not. She takes a lot of time to say she finds Liz Cheney’s views reprehensible, of course, before moving on to some hand-wringing about how this family – namely its lesbian wing – is behaving in public:
Then there is the unfortunate matter of waging this family war in public. It’s easy to imagine how infuriating it felt for Mary and her wife, Heather Poe, to be sitting at home watching Liz spout off on Fox News. The urge to fight back obviously was irresistible.
But taking matters further public? Going nuclear on Facebook? Heather’s post painted her sister-in-law as a political carpetbagger who shifted positions along with states:
“I can’t help but wonder how Liz would feel if, as she moved from state to state, she discovered that her family was protected in one but not the other,” Heather wrote in a post Mary shared.
And, “when Mary and I got married in 2012 — she [Liz] didn’t hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us. To have her now say she doesn’t support our right to marry is offensive to say the least.” But maybe Liz was merely being polite at the time. To say she’s happy for the married couple is not the same as saying she embraces their marriage.
Look, I would have been tempted to post, too. I would have been tempted to tweet. Then I would have thought better of it — or, more likely, my spouse would have told me to step away from the keyboard. That’s what Heather should have done for Mary. Instead, Mary reposted Heather’s incendiary message.
Social media knit us together but they also fuel our worst instincts. They serve as a powerful accelerant to the fire of anger. When we should be counting to 10, we are banging out 140 impulsive characters. In the hands of warring sisters, Facebook is a weapon of mass family destruction.
I admit when I read that, it landed with a thud. Sure, having your sister in law denigrate your marriage and basically deny your legal rights under the law in a mad dash to prove how conservative she is for a Senate seat she didn’t earn is probably offensive. But the real problem is social media! Heather shouldn’t have written such a response to the deep insult hand-delivered to her family by her own sister-in-law. And her wife Mary should have physically been restraining her, not encouraging her by reposting! (As an aside, I find it interesting that Marcus thinks that Heather Poe’s slyly smart response was the “impulsive” reaction rather than the “count to 10” reaction. Because knowing myself, if I had been in Heather Poe’s shoes, that would have been my reaction after I took a 10 minute break to take a walk and drink a glass of water, and think about what I should say and whether I should say it! My impulsive reaction would have been a sputtering, “FUCK YOU LIZ.” So really, I admire her restraint.)
Ruth Marcus is more concerned with playing Miss Manners of the Internet in the name of “civil debate” than getting into the actual substance of the debate. She thinks, “for the good of the country,” we should be debating this, because it’s so healthy for society. But here’s the thing – up until the last decade, there hasn’t been much of a “debate” at all. The “debate” was that gay marriage was illegal, period. And to whatever extent there was a “debate” about whether that should change, Liz Cheney’s position was aligned with the side holding all the cards and retaining all the power.
But I’m not interested in defining the terms of the debate we’re having today, now that 15 states have legalized gay marriage and the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Because I think this isn’t really a debate at all. It is inherently offensive to put someone’s rights up for “debate.” It is inherently offensive to tell people that they should be quiet and smile politely while they endure second-class status because the country is too busy having a healthy debate about whether they should enjoy the full rights of citizenship. And it’s inherently offensive to police the reaction of someone from a marginalized group standing up for her own rights when she’s being used as a political game piece – by a member of her own family.
There’s a tension in defending Liz’s right to be heard even if her views are reprehensible while silencing Heather Poe and Mary Cheney when they try to defend their marriage. Because that’s what we’re engaging in when we tell people, particularly people in same-sex marriages, that they should keep it a family matter. Somehow it’s more offensive to Ruth Marcus that Heather Poe should suggest Liz Cheney is a carpet-bagger than the fact that Heather Poe is pointing out she doesn’t have legal protection in more than half the country.
Not to mention, there’s a tension in wanting to have a public debate for the good of society while wishing the Cheneys would quiet down and go back to being a “buttoned up” family. The Cheneys are, for better or for worse (and by that, I mean definitely worse) public figures and political leaders. I actually can’t think of a better family to expose what the sides of this “debate” really look like – faux “Christian compassion” dripping with condescension from the “traditional marriage” supporter on one side, and a strong, supportive family unit on the other side.
This all exposes the “debate” for what it really is – not a debate at all. There is no equal ground between people who want to deny the rights of others because of hatred or politics or whatever terrible reason, and those who just want the right to legally-protected families. If you pretend there is, then you’re just engaging in ignorance masquerading as civility. And if you think we need the debate to expose the weakness of the side exposing gay marriage, well, I think that’s already happened. Debate time is over. Let’s focus on what matters – making sure every person has civil and human rights in our society.