I didn’t think I’d ever support Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, but there I was, cheering him on. I was watching secretary of state-nominee Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, frustrated and unimpressed with Tillerson’s smooth delivery of objectionable answers. Some of his greatest hits included “forgetting” the international lobbying work of ExxonMobil (of which he was CEO) and “needing more information” on women’s rights violations in Saudi Arabia. Sad!
Then, several hours into this confederacy of dunces, “Little Marco” stepped into the spotlight.
Rubio’s question for Tillerson wasn’t about cyber warfare or “radical Islamic terrorism.” Instead, he asked about a less Fox-News-y topic: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s human rights violations — slaughtering his own people under the guise of “drug raids.”
Tillerson was, unsurprisingly, clueless. But his performance is not the point. The point is that — despite Tillerson’s incompetence, despite the coming presidency of Donald Trump, even despite a Republican-majority committee with a deficit of principled leadership — there was Marco Rubio. And he devoted a 10-minute line of questioning to the 6,200 women, men and children killed in a country on the other side of the world. This wasn’t about politics or strategy or even a “gotcha moment.” This was about a humanitarian injustice.
And in that dark hearing, in preparation for what likely will be a very dark presidency, the glimmer of unequivocal empathy shone bright. Rubio, in this moment, modeled effective civic empathy.
The next four years will be different than the last eight. No matter our politics, we’ll have to defend principles we didn’t realize needed defending. We’ll have to accept that the new administration will make decisions we’ll likely disagree with. There will be times when we’re outraged. There will be times when we’re hurt. But no matter what the next four years will bring, there will still be those moments of empathy that, regardless of the messes surrounding them, will retain their own brightness. We’ve got to look for those moments.
The night following Rex Tillerson’s hearing, another moment of empathy occurred.
The Senate was holding a so-called “Vote-a-Rama” — a late-night flurry of votes happening while most of the country was fast asleep. The vote at hand was the first step toward dismantling the Affordable Care Act. The bill passed.
But something incredible happened in the process. Democrats opted for the Senate procedure by which they orally provide their vote to the chair. In violation of Senate rules, as each Democratic senator was called, they didn’t just give a “yay” or “nay.” Instead, they began each answer with “on behalf.”
“On behalf of the millions of Americans who will see their costs go up, I vote ‘no,’” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, over the objection of the annoyed chair.
“On behalf of the downstate hospitals of Illinois, I vote ‘no,’” said Sen. Dick Durban, D-IL.
“On behalf of the thousands of New Hampshire residents who struggle with addiction, I vote ‘no,’” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-NH.
It sounds insignificant, but in the context of the typically dignified, buttoned-up Senate, even as the majority party began dismantling a program that helps provide millions of Americans with healthcare, Democrats violated protocol to vote with a parliamentary shout of empathy. By Senate standards, this was unprecedented — and also, probably unknown and unseen by most Americans. But still, they were there. And in a dark context, their choice shone brightly.
The same kind of moment happened during Sen. Jeff Sessions’, R-AL, attorney general hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a hearing that could potentially render itself meaningless in a Republican-led Senate, Rep. and civil rights leader John Lewis, D GA, still offered a stirring testimony.
“We can pretend that the law is blind. We can pretend that it is even-handed,” Lewis said, “but if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we are called upon daily by the people we represent to help them with unfairness in how the law is written and enforced.” He sighed. “We all live in the same house.”
Maybe we weren’t all watching C-SPAN that afternoon. But he still delivered that testimony. Even amidst a hearing for a racist nominee, Lewis spoke in a moment of pure, eternal, empathetic goodness.
The worst thing we can do in the next four years is look away. We can’t look away. We can’t forget that the majority of voters didn’t want any of this. We can’t throw our hands up and allow a troubled national politics to color our view of our political order. And we also can’t forget all the good that still happens. The truth is, the things that will get us through this — those small, quiet moments of empathy or decency or humanity — are worth celebrating.
Emil Friedman is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .