Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Liberty for some, democracy for none: The "culture of life" and right-wing absolutism

It didn't take long to come across yet another example of absolutism masquerading as political commentary, this time from Fred Barnes -- never one known for non-partisan independence or nuanced argumentation -- in The Weekly Standard. In an editorial in the current issue, and now available online, Barnes contends that liberals have abandoned the moral high ground in American politics they once held to be the Democratic Party's "exclusive heritage". Specifically, Barnes claims that liberals -- according to his facile and sweepingly partisan bipolarization characterization of American politics -- have rejected the "motto of American liberalism" first presented by Hubert Humphrey in a 1977 Senate speech: "The moral test of a government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life -- the children; the twilight of life -- the elderly; and the shadows of life -- the sick, the needy, and the handicapped." In a recent post about Pope John Paul II, I more or less said the same thing: "I have long thought that a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members: the young, the old, the infirm, the mentally and physically handicapped, the poor, the helpless. A civilized society cares about -- and for -- its weakest members and dignifies their lives." (I guess that makes me a liberal. If so, I'm proud to be one.)

What Barnes is saying is that liberals, and hence most Democrats (since right-wing hacks use those labels interchangeably these days), no longer care for children, the elderly, and the sick, needy, and handicapped. Proof of this reversal, the self-rejection of liberals, is to be found in the Democratic Party's positions on a number of key moral issues of our time. Barnes cites "[t]he indifference of liberalism to the fate of Terri Schiavo," which "by itself" demonstrates that "those in the shadows of life do not have advocates in liberalism and the Democratic party [sic], at least not many". In other words, "liberalism washed its hands of Schiavo," and, in so doing, showed what now lies at its core. (He neglects to mention that in 1999, while governor of Texas, Bush supported a bill that empowered medical practitioners to remove life-support from patients with irreversible conditions, even against the wishes of their families. The bill, needless to say, was biased against poorer families that couldn't afford continued medical treatment, another case of Bush's class warfare conveniently trumping morality.) To back up his claim, he argues that liberals support unlimited and unregulated abortion rights, including the full right to partial-birth abortion, and oppose, or at least question, both "the spread of liberty" and "the advance of democracy".

In short, "the weak and the innocent are targets. Democrats and liberals have fled the moral high ground, and they've done so voluntarily". In Barnes's bipolar world of drunk extremism and the absence of sober moderation, there are moral conservatives (Republicans) and immoral liberals (Democrats); the former stand up passionately and courageously for the so-called "culture of life," while the latter are homicidal monsters committed to some sort of culture of death. It's that simple.

Now, I hesitate to quote so extensively from Barnes's editorial, but I think it's important to let such astonishingly idiotic assertions speak for themselves. I mean, does he really believe this? Does anyone really believe this? Barnes may or may not believe what he wrote, and I cannot help but wonder if his absolutism -- his drunken partisan zeal with no goal other than winning the political game -- has blinded him to reality, but it's obviously the case that many out there do, and not just at The Weekly Standard. Absolutism is hardly limited to the right -- there is far too much of it on the left, too -- but it is being given increasing aid and comfort by conservatives who in the past, by temperament, must have abhorred it. Otherwise, they were never true conservatives. For isn't the rejection of absolutism precisely what conservatism, conservatism rooted in Burke, is all about? (Oh, right, this is neoconservatism, so the old rules don't apply.)

To begin, I have a simple question: What kind of massive self-delusion is at work here?

First, liberals were not indifferent to "the fate of Terri Schiavo". It is true that many liberals focused their attention on the legal aspect of her case and were rightly troubled by the intrusion of Congress, President Bush, and, through their last-ditch ad hoc legislation, the federal judiciary into what was essentially a private matter. This was a valid concern. While rabid conservatives like Bill Bennett, Alan Keyes, and even Barnes's boss, Bill Kristol, conveniently dismissed central aspects of American federalism like the separation of powers and states' rights, and in effect trampled all over the Constitution they claim to love with strict constructionist ardour, and even went so far as to call upon the two Bushes, George and Jeb, to circumvent the Constitution entirely and to engage executive authority to save Terri's "life," liberals stood by the law and by the reasoned decisions of the courts at all levels. But what liberals also understood -- and what conservatives, in their madness, hypocritically failed to see -- was that there is more to life than mere life. Decisions of life and death may be private matters in these cases, but liberals do not fetishize life the way "culture of life" conservatives do. Barnes says that Terri was "[s]ick, needy, and handicapped," but the fact is, that wasn't Terri anymore. Terri had died 15 years earlier, and what was left was a shell of a human being with a brain that had deteriorated to the point where it surely wasn't even human anymore. (See also Barnes's absurd take on the "facts" of the Schiavo case, facts refuted by serious neurologists, here.) Surely a genuine "culture of life" means more than keeping anyone and everyone alive at all costs and through extraordinary means. Surely it means valuing life enough to consider how life is lived. Terri's case was difficult because she wasn't in any pain -- really, because she was incapable of feeling. But is it a "culture of life" to keep alive, say, a person suffering through some horribly painful degenerative disease? Isn't a "culture of life" one that allows human beings to live -- and to die -- with the dignity that is their right?

Second, not all liberals are unrepentant abortionists who disregard any and all concern for the unborn. Like the Clintons, many thoughtful (and moral) liberals believe that abortion should be rare -- safe and legal, yes, but above all rare. This is very much my position. Allow me to speak anecdotally: Back during my high school days in New Jersey, I spent a weekend in Washington with a friend and his family. Coincidentally, one of those massive pro-choice marches was scheduled for that weekend, culminating in a rally at the Lincoln Memorial. My friend and I were out walking the night before the march, and we ended up spending much of the night among the 4,400 crosses and stars of David on the Ellipse in front of the White House, protecting what is an awe-inspiring memorial in its own right against drunken, marauding goons who were trying to topple them and destroy the memorial. I was not then pro-life, and I do not claim to have an answer to the question of just when life, a human life rather than a microscopic amalgam of cells, begins. But I knew then, as I know now, that abortion is nothing to be happy about. Barnes claims that liberals "lack... sympathy for the unborn," but, honestly, is that the right way to put it? Are liberals happy about abortion? Surely not. Once again, pro-life conservatives like Barnes are living in a fantasy world, while pro-choice liberals acknowledge, and work within, the reality of the problem. Abortion is going to happen. It cannot be legislated or prosecuted out of existence. The questions really is, do we want abortion to be legal and safe or illegal and unsafe? In the former case, the liberal case, at least we can talk openly about it and seek to reduce it. In the latter case, it becomes an underground horror. You want to be pro-life? Then support proper sex education (and not merely abstinence counselling) and contraception to reduce abortion. Empower girls to take control of their bodies and to make informed decisions about their sex lives. Support social welfare programs that would allow younger mothers and poor families to take care of their children, rather than to seek abortion as the only way out. And so on. Liberals understand all this, which is why, to me, it is pro-choice liberals who make the honest "pro-life" case, while pro-life conservatives embrace an absolutist solution to one of our most complex and challenging problems.

Third, liberals do not oppose "the spread of liberty" or "the advance of democracy". This is simply ludicrous. Yet predictable. What liberals oppose is Bush's foreign policy, or at least certain aspects of it, including the actual conduct of that policy. Let's not forget, after all, that most liberals -- moveon.org notwithstanding -- rallied around Bush after 9/11 and supported his initial military intervention in Afghanistan, leading to the fall of the Taliban. Moreover, many liberals supported the invasion, and subsequent occupation, of Iraq, at least based on what was known, or thought to be known, at the time. I opposed Bush in 2000 and never quite accepted his legitimacy, but I believed that Iraq posed a threat in terms both of the proliferation of WMDs and of stability in the Middle East; moreover, I accepted the humanitarian argument, made most compellingly by Tony Blair, that Saddam Hussein's regime needed to be taken down for the sake of Iraqis themselves. At the time, I found opponents of the war (i.e., the proponents of appeasement) cowardly, if not downright shameful. And I was hardly alone. Liberal "institutions" as influential as The New Republic supported the war -- and, like me, that publication has since undergone some serious soul-searching and regret. But here's a larger point: From FDR to Clinton, Democrats, propelled by liberalism, were consistently on the right side of history. LBJ may have been the exception, given the fantastic failure that was American military involvement in Vietnam, but, even there, it is hard to doubt that he stood for liberty and democracy. Indeed, Democrats and liberals have stood firm against both Fascism and Communism, while never losing sight of the need to cultivate democracy in the developing world. And what of conservatives and Republicans? For a long time, they were mostly isolationists who rejected American participation in the community of nations, or realists who promoted national self-interest above broad ideological concerns like democratization. And this often meant supporting undemocratic and illiberal regimes around the world. Do the Philippines, El Salvador, Panama, Iraq (propped up by Reagan, lest we forget), Pakistan (how many F-16s are you selling them, Mr. Bush?), and Saudi Arabia (long good friends of the Bushies) ring a bell? And do we remember that it was the hated Bill Clinton who finally took a stand against the bloodshed in the Balkans, while many conservatives, and much of the Republican establishment, objected to intervention of any kind? Liberals welcome positive developments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and throughout the Middle East, but they remain cautious -- as they should. There is still much left to do, and it's not clear that Bush has any idea what he's doing. Imminent threats like North Korea and Iran still need savvy diplomacy and long-term solutions, not the triumphalist, partisan rhetoric that characterizes Bush's foreign policy (and it's what destroyed bipartisan support for Bush after 9/11). Barnes's claim is typical of that rhetoric. Either you're with us or you're against us. And if you're against us, you're on the side of terrorists and dictators. Oh, really? Liberals continue to stand for liberty and democracy, not rhetoric.

Fred Barnes is a partisan. He's wrong on these three issues, but he's also wrong on so much else. And he's wrong on so much else because Bush is wrong on so much else. It takes extraordinary gall to write what he wrote in a magazine that, in my view, has simply lost perspective and is now just another right-wing attack rag. Conservatives -- and, in many ways, I myself am I conservative who's been abandoned by these ideologues, so much so that I am now proud to call myself a liberal -- deserve better. And so does America. For all the blather about the so-called "culture of life" -- and conservatives have been falling all over themselves in recent days to portray Pope John Paul II as one of their own, despite his opposition to the death penalty and to the war in Iraq (at least the pope was consistent) -- conservatives continue to advocate policies that make a mockery of any such culture. After all, the G.O.P., a select few (and persecuted) moderates aside, is a party that supports the death penalty (even for minors and the mentally retarded) and that pursues a facile, militaristic foreign "policy" that promotes shock-and-awe bombing campaigns (and hence countless innocent deaths) over diplomacy, multilateralism, and full-scale engagement with the rest of the world. It's a party that is ruled by hypocritical, absolutist social conservatives who seek to impose their biblical worldview on America (and the world) without any regard for the Constitution or, more broadly, for liberty and democracy, and almost equally absolutist free marketeers who seek to impose their unsustainable brand of deregulated capitalism, a culture of profit, on America (and the world) without any regard for social justice (or for the "culture of life" -- witness the recent bankruptcy bill that the G.O.P.-controlled Congress passed (and Bush gleefully signed) at the instigation of the insurance industry: has there been a more obvious, noxious example of class warfare in recent memory? oh, right, those billions in tax cuts for the rich, not to mention those massive budget deficits, with debt piled on future generations of Americans). It's a truly unfunny joke to have someone like Barnes argue, by analogy, that Republicans continue to be the anti-slavery party, implying that the Democrats' "culture of death" is akin to slavery. He argues that Republicans have assumed the moral high ground in American politics. It's just that kind of self-righteous self-delusion that is now a staple of American conservatism. Barnes's editorial shows just how transparent it is.

Liberals know better, and the Democratic Party, after two difficult presidential losses, needs to find its voice again. Liberals are under assault from a powerful Republican machine that knows how to win and a conservative movement that somehow finds common ground despite glaring internal inconsistencies, but they remain the true champions of the "culture of life".

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