Hate -- A Cheney Family Value

I already believe that Dick Cheney is among the luckiest men to ever walk the face of the planet. He will never have to pay, in real terms, for the blood of untold thousands he has on his hands. He will live out his days not just a free man but also with another human being's heart beating relentlessly in his barrel chest. And, just this week, the eruption of a Cheney family schism over marriage equality falls fortuitously on the eve of the holiday season, just as so many of us face our own uncomfortable family gatherings.

Almost every family contains a divide of some sort, papered over for gatherings by politesse or booze. It could be a simmering long-term dispute about team loyalties or political affiliations; it could be a snap debate over what movie to watch. My family has almost come to blows over bridge games; my father and his brother will probably never settle whether property and casualty insurance presents a greater actuarial challenge than life insurance. For the Cheney family, it's that Liz Cheney doesn't think her sister, Mary, who is married to another woman, should be equal under the law. "I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage," Liz said on Fox News Sunday.

As family seating chart challenges go, that's a pretty big one. ("Liz, guess who's coming to dinner? No, really, guess, because Mary and her wife aren't.") But the timing of the controversy gave the elder Cheneys an especially good chance to exploit emotion I'm not sure they understand themselves: empathy. "This is an issue we have dealt with privately for many years, and we are pained to see it become public," Dick and Lynne said in a statement. "Compassion is called for."

Dick Cheney's record of callousness extends from his enthusiastic embrace of torture to his blithe disregard for the man he shot in the face, a deed for which –like most every other act of grievous harm he's committed – he has yet to apologize. His own endorsement of marriage equality in 2009 was typically detached and nonchalant almost to the point of dismissiveness: 

One of my daughters is gay and [that's] something that we've lived with for a long time in our family. People ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish, any kind of arrangement they wish.

I admire the remark's broadness, but its impersonality suggests he arrived at the position as the result of a technicality, or perhaps via the kind of acceptance one has for a family member with a disability: Mary's sexuality is "something that we've lived with for a long time". 

To judge by their public exchanges, the Cheney family didn't attempt a compassionate reconciliation between the two sisters. They just let Mary and her wife, Heather Poe, believe there wasn't a need for it. "Liz has been a guest in our home," Poe wrote on Facebook. Liz, she said, "has spent time and shared holidays with our children". So when Dick and Liz said of a contentious split in beliefs, they "dealt with it privately," they meant it same way most families do: they didn't deal with it at all.

The elliptical statement about compassion also left unclear whom we are supposed to feel it for: poor benighted Liz, who is desperately trying to appear as conservative as possible for her Wyoming Republican Senate primary campaign? The Cheney family as a whole, again in the spotlight over sharp words not meant for public broadcast? (Really, this is apattern for them.) Obviously, one should feel for Mary and Poe, who have to put up with this crap.

The best face one can put on Liz's statement is that she might not mean it. But the statement from Dick and Lynne contains a strange twist of logic that belies any thin hope of insincerity. Liz "has also always treated her sister and her sister's family with love and respect," they said. "Liz's many kindnesses shouldn't be used to distort her position."

To start with, the Cheneys appear to have a very low bar for what counts as a "kindness", treating a family member with "love and respect" is a baseline for most people. More important, they imply that Liz's willingness to continue a relationship with sister shouldn't be used as proof that she is anything but a righteous homophobe. This argument is the opposite of how most families justify a holiday invitation extended to that one uncle who still says the n-word and has elaborate Birchian theories about the New World Order. In that case, mom and dad point to the backwards uncle's work buddy who is black and his great relationship with his Jewish neighbors: "Ignore his explicit statements of ignorance and hatred, focus on his everyday tolerance." Here, the Cheneys argue, "Ignore her everyday tolerance, focus on her explicit statements of ignorance and hatred."

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