In 1971, philosopher John Rawls postulated that an ideal world would be one we created based on a “veil of ignorance”…that we should design a society as though we had no idea where, and to whom, we would be born. If you don’t know if you’ll pop out of the womb black or white, rich or poor, handsome or ugly, smart or stupid, you might be more likely to make sure all of those groups have at least a fighting chance at achieving happiness.
This idea is crystallized in the recent double-revelation by Republican Senator Rob Portman that not only is his 21-year old son gay, but that he is reversing his long-held position against the legalization of gay marriage. It’s a move that I, for one, applaud, although it should remind us all of the fragility of our convictions. For many of us, our principles are a luxury we’ve been afforded because we haven’t had to walk a mile in anyone’s shoes but out own.
Rob Portman went his entire political career thinking that gay marriage was wrong, or at least, that it wasn’t his problem, because he wasn’t gay. He never took two minutes to wonder what he might think about it if he were gay. Or if one of his children were gay. Well, today we found out what he would do: completely reverse his opinion.
While Senator Portman is enjoying his involuntary crash course in Rawls’ Theory of Justice, here’s some other fun scenarios he can ponder:
Rob Portman could imagine that instead of being born to an upper middle class family that owned a successful business and sent him to Dartmouth, he was born to an uneducated, single mother on welfare. Does he still think children of all socioeconomic backgrounds shouldn’t be guaranteed health care?
Or he could imagine that instead of being born in the United States, he was born in Baghdad, Iraq. Does he still think the invasion of that country, which cost 100,000 Iraqi lives, was a decent thing to do? Or he could imagine that he’s the unfortunate neighbor of some suspected militant in Yemen. Does he still think unmanned drones flying overhead, assassinating villagers at will, is a fair weapon to use against people you aren’t even at war with?
He might for a moment ponder that instead of being in good health, he had Parkinson’s disease. Is he still against stem cell research that could cure his illness? For that matter, he could imagine that instead of being born tall, white, intelligent and good-looking, he was born short, Mexican, with a learning disability and facial disfigurement, and see if that maybe has any impact on his ability to win elections.
Or if he really wants to stretch his mind, he could imagine that, instead of being born a boy in America, he had been born a girl in the poorest area of Nepal, and sold into sex slavery for a few dollars by parents who couldn’t afford to feed her. Does he still think tax breaks for billionaires in America are good, and foreign aid to poverty stricken countries is bad? Or has briefly imagining life as the least fortunate among us informed his world view in any different ways?
I’m not trying to pick on Rob Portman, who I’m sure is a decent enough guy. But like so many of us Americans, he seems to walk through life mostly unaware of a simple fact: There are objective right and wrongs in this world, but we often ignore them, because we’re only thinking about what’s right for us. We may have worked hard and earned everything we have, but at the end of the day, don’t forget that we happened to pop out of a nice, middle class vagina in the 20th century in the wealthiest nation on Earth. Little baby Rob Portman didn’t earn that, he just lucked into it. He had already won the social lottery before he was even born. I know we can’t snap our fingers and solve the problem of global inequality, but we can at least act like we’re aware of it, be humble about our good fortune, and think twice before further improving our own lot at the expense of another’s.
I’m glad Senator Portman was able to open his mind a little after considering what would be fair to another person, his son. If our elected leaders could do that for the other 300 million Americans—and the other 7 billion people on the planet—then I’m sure America would become the great champion of freedom and justice that we all imagine it is.
Adam Farasati is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, CA. He recently published his first novella, The God Killer.