With his home state of Arkansas embroiled in a controversy over a right-to-discriminate bill, Sen. Tom Cotton (R) was asked yesterday about how his state should proceed. "In Arkansas, we believe in religious freedom," the far-right senator replied.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer reminded the Republican, "Everybody believes in religious freedom. The question is the discrimination, potential discrimination against gay Americans." Believe it or not, this was Cotton's response (via Judd Legum):
"I also think it's important that we have a sense of perspective about our priorities. In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay. They're currently imprisoning an American preacher for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ in Iran. We should focus on the most important priorities our country faces right now. "And I would say that a nuclear armed Iran, given the threat that it poses to the region and to our interests in the region and American citizens, is the most important thing that we'd be focused on."
He didn't appear to be kidding.
It's an incredible perspective for anyone to share, but for a U.S. senator to make this argument on national television is striking, even by 2015 standards. Arkansas' legislature approved a proposal that would empower business owners to legally discriminate against members of the public. For Tom Cotton to endorse such a proposal would be par for the course.
But note that his argument goes much further: the far-right senator effectively argued that gays shouldn't complain too much about discrimination, since Arkansas is at least better than Iran. That's his point of comparison -- Cotton doesn't compare Arkansas to America's highest ideals; he compares his home state to a Middle Eastern theocracy.
Sorry, gay Americans, you may face discrimination in your own country, but Arkansas isn't talking about arresting or executing you, so apparently Tom Cotton doesn't want to hear your complaints.
Let's also not overlook the fact that the senator seemed annoyed that a debate over discrimination even exists at all. As Cotton argued, "the most important thing" is whether or not Iran might, at some point in the future, have a nuclear weapon, not whether some of his constituents face public discrimination. That, the Arkansas Republican said, is what we should all "be focused on."
And for those involved in ongoing, international nuclear talks, that clearly is the principal focus. But those of us who care about current events are usually able to walk and chew gum at the same time -- people, including Tom Cotton, need not have tunnel vision on one important issue, to the exclusion of literally everything else. The resolution of nuclear talks with Iran matters, but civil rights matter, too. So does climate change. And health care reform. And countless other issues.
Those elected to powerful offices don't have the luxury of effectively telling the public, "I don't care about your issue; I only care about mine." Similarly, those in positions of authority should resist the urge to say America isn't as bad as Iran, so those trying to make America better should pipe down.