Tom Cotton's Iran humiliation: How the talking points robot short-circuited on gay rights

Arkansas senator Tom Cotton can't be bothered with anti-gay discrimination because Iran wants nukes, or something

Published April 2, 2015 3:44PM (EDT)

Tom Cotton (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Tom Cotton (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Sen. Tom Cotton stopped by Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room” yesterday to talk about the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran and why he believes they should be abandoned in favor of sanctions and bombs. If you’ve heard Tom Cotton speak on the subject before, then you’ve already heard everything he had to say about it on CNN. But at the end of the interview, Blitzer abruptly changed gears from foreign policy and asked the senator to weigh in on the swirling controversy over the anti-gay “religious freedom” bills in Indiana and Cotton’s home state of Arkansas, and Cotton let fly with perhaps the worst defense of those bills imaginable.

Before we get to that, there’s something you have to remember about Tom Cotton: he’s basically a robot. He’ll say the things he’s programmed to say, and in most cases he’ll mechanically plow through any attempt to force him to deviate from his rigorously scripted message. But Blitzer’s hard pivot to social issues during an interview about Iran put too much strain on Cotton’s internal processes, which had to struggle mightily to somehow shift the topic away from anti-gay discrimination in the United States back to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The bridge he landed on was one of “perspective.” Specifically, Cotton argued that critics of the laws should remember that gay people are executed in Iran, and that’s an example of why Iran is dangerous, which is why we need to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

To Tom Cotton’s reckoning, this answer made perfect sense – the equation was balanced in his mind in the most efficient way possible and with a minimum of fuss. But to the normal observer, he comes off as something of a monster. The most charitable interpretation of his comments is that we shouldn’t even be arguing over potentially discriminatory legislation in the United States when there exists the much greater threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. That makes no sense and is callously dismissive of real concerns over gay rights. Also, it’s doubtful that Cotton would employ such dubious logic to dismiss an argument over a social issue that conservatives favor.

What’s genuinely upsetting is the implied message that because gay Iranians are repressed so horrendously by their government, we shouldn’t be as worked up over issues of discrimination here in the U.S. “It could be worse: you could be hanged by your government for being gay” sets the standard for bigotry so low that it becomes functionally nonexistent. Gay people are being denied their due complement of rights? Oh well. So long as we stop short of state-sanctioned murder, we’re still coming out ahead of Iran. Some guy once wrote that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” but he clearly lacked a proper sense of “perspective.”

The best case you can make for Cotton here is that he’s so completely and narrow-mindedly focused on Iran that literally nothing else matters to him. Even as the state he represents is struggling mightily to figure out how it will treat one of its vulnerable minority populations, Tom Cotton can’t be bothered to care.

By Simon Maloy

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