A Moment For A Promotional Message

Tomorrow night, Tuesday, February 28th, I’ll be reading at a venue that is somewhat a departure for me.  It will be at a little ongoing literary rumpus called Noir At the Bar—here’s a blog post to give you a taste—in University City, on Delmar, at a little place called Meshuggah’s.  I’ll be there with three other readers—Kevin Lynn Helmick, Caleb J. Ross, and Gordon Highland—and what makes this unusual for me is that Noir at the Bar is, as the name suggests, for NOIR.

Now, yeah, I write mysteries.  After all, my three Asimov robot novels were “robot mysteries.”  Remains is as much a mystery novel as a near-futre SF novel.  Realtime was a police procedural of sorts.  But I haven’t published any straight mysteries.  And having attended a few of these events before, I can state unequivocally that my work is very different from theirs.

Or maybe not.  We’ll see.  But I am the first science fiction writer invited to attend, so it will be interesting to say the least.

I thought I’d write something new for it, but since I’ve been eyebrow deep in finishing the current novel I haven’t had time, so I’m taking a few possibles along to see what will be the best fit.

If any of you in the St. Louis area want to come by and lend some support, I can promise you something different.  It’s a good crowd and the stories are…unique.

So: Meshuggah Cafe, 6269 Delmar, St. Louis, MO, 63130 tomorrow night, 7:00 PM.

Narratives and the American Landscape

I watched the Bill Moyers interview of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt with great interest. Haidt tried to describe what has essentially become what might be called the Two Nations Problem—that is, that America, the United States, has become in many ways two very distinct countries.

At its simplest, what this means to me is that people, using the same documents, the same laws, and the same presumptions of national character, have created two very different narratives about what it means to be an American.  Quite often these beliefs overlap, but at the extremes such instances are ignored or treated as anomalies or expressions of hypocrisy.

It might be reassuring to keep in mind that it is at the rhetorical and ideological extremes where this happens, that the larger portion of the population is between the extremes, and by inference less rigid in their misapprehensions of both sides, but in reality this may not matter since it is those who establish the most coherent narratives who dictate the battle lines.  And we have come to a point where a willingness to hear the opposite viewpoint gets characterized as a kind of treason.

As an example, try this: for the Left, any suggestion that corporations are important, vital, and often do beneficial things for society is relegated at best to a “So what?” category, at worse as an attempt to excuse a variety of evils committed in the name of profit.  For the Right, any criticism of the shortcomings of corporations and attempts to regulate activities which can be demonstrated as undesirable is seen as a direct attack on fundamental American freedoms.

We can go down the list.  Attempts to regulate the distribution and availability of firearms is seen by the Right as a threat to basic liberties while for the Left the defense of an absolutist Second Amendment posture is seen as irresponsible at best, the promotion and propagation of a culture of violence at worst.  Environmental issues divide along similar lines—for the Left, this is, using Jonathan Haidt’s term, sacred, but for the Right is again an assault on the freedoms of Americans to use their property as they see fit.  And taxes? For the Right, taxes have become a penalty, for the Left a kind of grail for equitable redistribution of wealth.

Tragically, none of these hardened positions—none—addresses the reality of most Americans’ lives.

Oh, there’s some truth in all the positions, otherwise it would be simpler to dismiss them.  But the hardest truth to get at is the one being used to advance a false position.

What Haidt suggests—and I’ve heard political strategists talk about this—is that the difficulty lies in the particular narrative embraced. The story we use to describe who we are.  In the past, that story has been less rigid, porous in some ways, and flexible enough to include a variety of viewpoints from both Left and Right, but in recent years both narratives have taken on the stolidity of religion.

But the related problem is that really there’s only one narrative, at least one that’s cogent and accessible, and that happens to be the one best described as conservative.

Recently, I’ve been giving thought to this dichotomy of Left-Right, Liberal-Conservative.  I’ve been uncomfortable with it for a long time, but have found myself shoved into the Left-Liberal camp as a reaction to policy proposals I find unacceptable which always seem to come from the Right-Conservative side.  In the hurly-burly of political competition, sometimes there isn’t room for the kind of nuance which, say, historians can indulge.  You find yourself defending or attacking in an attempt to preserve or change and the finer points of all positions are reduced to sound-bites and slogans.  I’ve never been particularly pleased with the welfare system, but faced with conservative assaults that seem determined to simply tear it down and leave a great many people without recourse  has found me defending it against any criticism that seems aimed at finding a reason to end it.  It has always seemed to me that people opposed to it are not interested in offering a viable alternative (“They should all get a job!”) and dismantling welfare would do nothing but leave many millions of people with nothing.

But nuance, as I say, gets lost.  I don’t care for the way in which welfare is administered, but that’s not the same as saying we should not have a system for those who simply cannot gain employment.  And in the economic environments of the last forty years, it is simply facile posturing to suggest there are plenty of jobs.  If you want to see a real-life consequence of the kind of budget cutting being discussed, look at the upsurge of homelessness after Reagan gutted the HHS budgets and people who had been in mental hospitals were suddenly on the streets.

But I don’t want to continue the excuse making.  The problems Haidt elucidates have to do with an avoidance of reality on both sides and a subsequent process of demonizing each other.

And with a political mischaracterization that has resulted in the alienation of a great many people from both camps.  Often such people are given the broad and thoroughly undescriptive label Independent.  I consider myself that, though I have voted consistently Liberal-Democrat since 1984.  (Admission time.  I voted for Nixon in 1972 and I voted for Reagan in 1980.  In hindsight, it would seem I had always been looking for the Other Designation—Progressive—for which to cast my ballot, but that’s a very slippery term.  Reagan was the last Republican I voted for in a national election.  I have felt consistently alienated by GOP strategies and policies, but the reality has been that my votes for Democrats have usually been “lesser-of-two-evils” votes, not wholehearted endorsements.  Until Obama.  He was the first presidential candidate since John Anderson in 1984 who I felt actually had something worthwhile to offer rather than merely a less odious choice to the Republican.)

Once upon a time there were Liberal Republicans.  There are still Conservative Democrats.  But I think in general we no longer know what these terms mean.  The narrative that has been driving our politics since Reagan has buried them under an avalanche of postured rhetoric designed to define an American in a particular way that no doubt was intended to transcend party politics but has instead cast us all in a bad Hollywood movie with Good Guys and Bad Guys in which a final shoot-out or fist-fight determines the outcome.

I think it is fair to say that this America is ahistorical.  On the Left, it is a country demanding atonement, built on the backs of the abused and misused, hypocritical,  concerned only with power and wealth.  On the Right is the only country ever that has offered genuine freedom for its citizens and has stood on the principles of fairness and justice (which are not always the same thing) and because it has done more good than not its sins should be absolved if not ignored.

Neither portrait is true, although many true details inform both.

What perhaps needs to happen is for new storytellers to come to the fore.  I’m not sure how they’re going to be heard through the constant din of invective-laden blaming, but I think Obama took a stab at it.  He got drowned out more often than not and didn’t finish constructing the narrative, but he seems to have a grasp of how important the story is.

Because here, almost more than anywhere else, the Story is vital.  When we broke free from England, our story up till then had been England’s story, and it was long, deep into the past.  When we stepped away from that it was into political and social terra incognito, and if there was going to be a story for us it would have to be one that looked into the future.  We had no past at that point, not one we could claim as our own.  We have been constructing that narrative ever since.

Here’s where the crux of the problem now lies, I think.  For one side, there is the sense that we finished the story quite some time ago and that it is fine as it was and should go on unmodified.  For the other side, that narrative is too filled with burdens of a past it seems no longer applies.  This ex stasis has left us in a kind of limbo.  Neither side seems willing to admit that the other might have something of value to add to the narrative and that maybe some of the narrative went off the rails here and there.  Neither side wants to admit that their version of who we are really needs the other as well.  Until that occurs, those caught in the crossfire find themselves having to pick and choose the parts of both narratives that work for them and then figure out which way to go with the hodge-podge so assembled.  By these means we lurch on into an uncertain future.

I’m likely going to revisit this from time to time.  For now I think I want to do without labels.  But I’ll leave off for now with this: My Way Or The Highway is absolutely idiotic when we’re all still building the road.

New Look, Errata, and a Policy Statement

I’ve seen some blogs that change their look every month. Frankly, it’s too much bother, but once in a while…

So, here’s a new look.  I’ve noted a few comments about the difficulty of reading white-on-black (or pale blue-on-dark blue, etc), so I found one that reverses that and reads pretty well.  I’ve also found one that allows me to put my own images in the header, and that I may change more regularly, but for the foreseeable future, this is what the Muse is going to look like.

I suppose I should make a few other comments to go along with that.

I promised a post on the content of the Moyers-Haidt video and that’s still coming.  I’ve been working steadily on finishing a novel and I’m within striking distance of the complete first draft.  Oculus is the sequel to Orleans, which is currently in the hands of my estimably cool agent, Jen Udden.  Once I finish this, I will hand it to my wonderful partner and first-reader, Donna, who will take a red pen and scrawl viciously all over it so that I may take the shredded remains and build from them a better book.  While she’s doing that, I will be doing a number of things, among which include cleaning my office (which is a shattered and broken No Man’s Land, unfit for human habitation), doing some more work for Left Bank Books (link on the sidebar, go visit), working on more writing (surprise!) and penning more annoying commentary to post here on matters political, philosophical, personal…

Speaking of which, I recently endured one of the pitfalls of having strong opinions and the ability to voice them that, when it involves relative strangers, usually scrapes no skin off any body parts.  I hope I’m wrong, but I seem to have lost a friend as a consequence of one such post.  Politically, we were quite far apart, but managed what I thought was a fairly solid relationship—based on music, good food, good wine, things like that.  After a few political conversations, we had, I thought, opted for detente and simply didn’t discuss it.  But when you have a public face, that becomes a bit difficult to manage.  What do you say to people?  Don’t read this if you know we disagree fundamentally?

My attitude is caveat emptor.  You come into my online home, feel free to froth and fret or even agree wholeheartedly.  Feel free to take umbrage, throw money, tell me I’m wonderful or the scum of the earth.  It is a public forum.  I won’t back down from my principles or beliefs.  If such offend to the extent that you feel compelled to collect your marbles and never visit again, so be it.

I will say this, regarding the broader arena of public discourse: I can become furious over a stated position and manage to regard someone as a friend.  I’m willing to talk about anything, with just about anyone, as long as the dialogue is honest and honestly engaged.  I may go away wondering how such opinions over this or that can possibly be held by a thinking human being, but I promptly caution myself that I am no judge of absolute right or wrong and no doubt some react the way to me.  But I will ask that my writings be read completely and taken for what they say and judged according to their content.  Factual mis-statements, hyperbolic distortions, and hissy fits do nothing to further anything and I will call anyone on them.

As I would expect them to call me on the same.

So.  If you know in advance that your sensibilities may get rubbed raw by what you may find here, and you come anyway, react as you will, but know it’s on you.  There are plenty other places on the intraweebs to go visit, many of which may offer solace rather than sandpaper.

That said, all are welcome.  I have a FaceBook page with over four thousand “friends,” many of whom I doubtless disagree with on some topic.  I do not unfriend anyone who disagrees with me.  That’s childish.  I believe we should engage other viewpoints.  The polemical in-group isolation that has arisen from the self-selection of media has caused enormous damage to our public discourse.  It has become far too easy to avoid opinions and beliefs and even facts that make us uncomfortable or that we wish were not true.  I try not to do that.  It is limiting and potentially destructive.  What we are doing thereby is creating entirely separate languages.  Words that mean one thing to one group mean something entirely different to another and because they no longer converse with each other on any regular basis, such meanings concretize and become barriers.

Anyway, I hope you all like the new look.  The mission, however, remains the same.

Moyers & Haidt On Moral Psychology

I have a lot of things to say about what is discussed in this video, but first I’d like people to give a listen.

Jonathan Haidt Explains Our Contentious Culture from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

As a teaser, let me say that what Jonathan Haidt has to say needs to be heard by both sides of current political divide in this country before we completely screw ourselves out of a functioning community. More to follow.

Where The Rubber Meets The Road (Womb)

Congress is holdings hearings on President Obama’s mandate that insurance companies cover contraception for employees of religious institutions. His earlier initiative, that such institutions pay for it themselves through their employee insurance plans, was met with outrage over a presumed infringement of religious liberty. He made what I, at least, consider an admirable compromise, sidestepping the primary complaint by mandating that the insurance companies pick up the costs. However, that didn’t satisfy congressional Republicans and religious conservatives.

Hearings were held.

Representative Issa of California held a panel to discuss the issue comprised entirely of men. All his witnesses were men. When challenged about why there were no women testifying, the reply was that the issue was not about contraception but about federal infringement of religion.

Women don’t have an opinion on that?

This is simple: the hullabaloo is over contraception coverage. The counterargument is that forcing religious institutions to provide for it, even by association, is a violation of their First Amendment rights, that if something violates religious conscience that religion has the right to refuse to participate.

I could concoct any number of scenarios in which that position is questionable at best. But for our Congress then to accept not only that proposition but to accept the further condition that even discussion of the fulcrum issue is out of order is absurd and not what we’re paying them for.

It is about birth control. State supercession over religious privileges happens all the time. Santeria animal sacrifice practices are regulated and in many areas prohibited because they violate secular health laws. Christian Scientists may not deny their children medical care unto death. Peyote use among certain Native American tribes is proscribed, regardless of the ceremonial claims and religious liberty arguments. And here’s the thing—outside of the group affected these are not controversial. So it must be asked, what is it about this that makes it different?

Contraception. Religious conservatives claim Obama is waging war on religion. As John Stewart has pointed out, “don’t confuse war with not getting everything you want.”

What is clear is that religious conservatives are conducting an extreme campaign to roll back contraceptive liberties, which ought to have no religious test. This is very much about women and civil liberties and health care costs and the sensitivities of groups who hold archaic views of “a woman’s place” and traditional values. For Congress to hold hearings that tacitly ignore this aspect is politically irresponsible at best, campaign year posturing at a minimum, and socially negligent at worst.

But the most aggravating aspect is the pretense that they aren’t talking about birth control. Of course they are. The religious position is that birth control violates religious conscience. Since when do we let religious conscience that does not reflect the views of even a majority of adherents to those institutions dictate secular policy? This is a breech of the wall of separation in the other direction. If I go to work for a Catholic hospital, I do not take that job to support Catholicism but to support myself and my family. If they’re going to offer me health coverage, then they should offer it in parity with what any other comparable facility offers, because as my employer they do not represent my convictions and have no right to dictate conscience to me through essentially punitive economic policies. (I shouldn’t even have to say that in this employment environment, to tell me that if I don’t like it I should get another job would border on criminal. What other job?)

I will be tremendously disappointed if Obama backs down from this. I am tired to having my conscience violated simply because I have no religion. I do not wish to live in a country run according to theocratic principles.

Yes. It is about birth control. Also about control. Period.

Trust In Your Message?

There’s an aspect of this flap over Obama’s insistence that health care policies offered by institutions with religious affiliation cover birth control that I don’t see many people discussing.  All the posturing over how this is anti-religious and a blatant slap at religious freedom, blah blah, is both predictable and irrelevant.  For one, it’s not.  For one thing, it doesn’t even approach the kind of infringement of a basic freedom that Bush’s infamous “gag rule” on abortion information represented, which Obama overturned.

But there is a common link between both that Bush-era ruling and the current stance taken by the Catholic bishops.  Namely, a complete lack of confidence in their message.  What it comes down to is a denial that people have not only the right but the ability to make decisions for themselves based on good information.

It’s simple.  The Gag Rule assumed that if people never found out about certain options, then they wouldn’t use those options, but that if they did learn about them, they would.  It represented a complete lack of confidence that people could both hear all the options and then make decisions in their own best interest, some of which would be consistent with the policy Bush’s administration was backing.  Likewise here.  Just because birth control is covered by an insurance policy purchased for the benefit of employees does not automatically mean that all these people will start using birth control.  If the Catholic message is sound, if it has merit, that option will never be exercised.

But no.  Safer, they must think, to restrict access, to keep it off the table, to ban the pamphlet, and remove the service than to trust that people will do what the Catholic Church wants them to do.

For all the posturing about what is or is not “American,” this is as unAmerican as it gets.  Honored more in rhetoric than practice, the right of the individual to decide for him or herself is supposed to be at the heart of what makes us who we are.  So how does barring choice square with that?

Granted, we do it all the time.  We do it in drug use, we have age-specific restrictions dealing with movies, bars, driving, we have all manner of qualifying rules and regulations that keep people away from certain options, and a lot of it makes perfect sense.

But this is not one of them.  If we were going to ban coverage of birth control from all insurance policies, then there would be no controversy over religious issues.  It would be controversial for a different reason, but since the ban would be universal it would not be liable to the kind of ideological argumentation we’re now seeing.  But if you’re going to offer it to some and not others based on where they work, then you have a basic civil rights question.

Look, this isn’t even about making churches provide birth control.  It’s about church-affiliated institutions with large employee payrolls that are not denomination-exclusive—like universities and hospitals—being required to serve that employee base in accord with the standards every other employer must meet.  Despite the association with a religious institution, what we’re talking about is workplace rules where the institution and the community interface on the level of employment.

But that argument will be made in court, no doubt. What strikes me about this is the so far unremarked tendency in this country to not trust in our own messages.  We do this all the time, suppressing certain ideas, barring certain speakers from addressing certain audiences, criticizing open discourse over things which we fear—it’s arguable that most Americans had no idea what communism actual was back during the Cold War, debatable whether we do now, but we so feared it that we wouldn’t even talk about it—and frankly that’s not us.  It’s not who we claim to be, not who we’d like to be, but there it is.

Of course, in this instance the Catholic bishops have a real concern.  According to studies, 98% of Catholic women use or have used birth control.  Obviously, the message the Church wants delivered doesn’t have as much traction as they’d like.  By that token, taking a stand on this is clearly in response to evident failure.

But it’s still a matter of personal choice, something the Catholic Church—or, for that matter, any church—has never been comfortable with.  Trusting an individual to make a decision like this for herself has always been fraught with the likelihood that they will make the right choice—but not the one desired.

This is vestigial moralizing.  If we accept as a concept that all people should be considered equal, then it follows that the opportunities and privileges available to everyone should be equal.  At one time, that equality was meted out based on the notion of a family unit.  The family, represented by the man, enjoyed the rights and privileges of the community.  With changes in technology and the economy, the focus has shifted more narrowly on the individual, which has eroded the primacy of the male as women have become more and more able to act independently*.  If we are serious about equality, then it should come as no surprise that we have to make adjustments for those things that enable the expression of equality.  That is the American message and all this political posturing over birth control is exactly apposite that message.

In the wake of the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood kerfluffle, it seems finally enough people are waking up to the fact that if we do not assert the primacy of that message, we could lose what equality we’ve gained since—

Well, since the 1920s when you could receive a prison sentence for distributing pamphlets about birth control.  Or since the 1940s when women were forced out of jobs they had held all during WWII and were told they were incapable of doing those jobs by virtue of their sex.  Or since 1965, when finally the Supreme Court declared that couples had a basic right to contraception.  Or—

The Catholic Church obvious doesn’t trust its people to heed its message.  It may be that the message is flawed.  Or maybe Americans are beginning to trust their own message.

_____________________________________________________________

*I am talking here about the way society was structured, not the right or wrong of the distribution of rights and privileges.  It is an unfortunate fact that the basic biological reality concerning reproduction has placed women in a vulnerable position in regards to power relations.  My belief is that there has never been a excuse for the disenfranchisement of women, but until effective birth control and the subsequent changes in economic life that resulted, the initiative has been with men to set the rules.  Even so, it took a long time for men as a group to accept equality as a reality, never mind as a principle, and I do not for a minute believe that the majority of men who now take it as given are of sufficient numbers to guarantee we would never return to a culture of female subjugation.  The attack on reproductive rights strikes at the main foundation of contemporary political freedoms for women.

Let Us Not Snicker In Complacency

Rick Santorum won the three primary-type elections yesterday.  Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado.  A sweep.  But really, I should put that Won in quotes.  He “won” by virtue of garnering more votes than the others, which I admit is the traditional way in which winning is established.

But, really, did he?  The largest voter turn-out was Missouri, with 6% of eligible, registered voters going to the polls.  Out of that he took somewhere around 40%, which means he got less than 3% of Missouri’s potential vote.  It was worse in the other two states, Minnesota with 1% and Colorado with 2%.

And yes, these are caucuses, nonbinding, no delegates are assigned based on these, it was more a moral support effort.

But still.  In the past, it has been the Republican base that has been the most energized in these things, and this time their showing was pathetic. Less than.

So, what exactly did Santorum win?

Not much, but please, let us not make assumptions.  It’s a long way to August, much less November, and all kinds of bizarreness can happen before then.  The idea that Rick Santorum could be the GOP nominee for president fills me with both glee and trepidation.  Glee because the only candidate the GOP has fielded that has a chance of challenging Obama is Romney, no matter what the Party faithful might wish to believe.  Trepidation because I tend to hedge my mental bets these days concerning the political landscape and the thought that Santorum might actually unseat Obama scares the bejeezus out of me.  In his own way, he is as polarizing as George Wallace in 1968.  (Gingrich less so, for two reasons—he is inconsistent in his message and he is far too intellectual.  He’s the closest thing the GOP has right now to an Egghead, something they have tended to vote against for a very long time due to a nebulous perception that “average” Americans won’t vote for someone who is too smart.)  The positions he has taken on privacy issues troubles me no end.  Even if he couldn’t get his program through Congress on these matters, the fact that enough of my fellow citizens would put him in office would frighten me.  It wouldn’t be Santorum who would concern me so much as my next door neighbor.

Hence, my admonition that we should not feel smug, we who would rather see Obama get a second term than any Republican who has the remotest chance of winning.  National politics is a fey and fickle creature and has surprised people before.

But more than that, if I read this correctly, we are seeing the self-dismantling of a major political party.  For the first time in decades, the Democrats are showing more solidarity and cohesion than the Republicans, and may end up being the remaining “super power” when this is over, the GOP having splintered into factions that will eventually recombine into something else.

There is a danger here that comes with all such victories, that of self-satisfied, uncritical assumption of Being Right.

Being Right is the disease to which the Republicans are succumbing.  Not that they have been—right, that is—but that they have built their entire strategy on the assumption that (a) this is what people vote for and (b) that they in fact are right.  It has led to a number of unfortunate distortions of the political process in the name of saving the country that, I think, have also led to their current malaise.  It has pushed the Republicans into more and more strident and restricted positions from which they have become ineffective in the actual job they’ve been hired to do—namely, govern the country.  (I mean, seriously—who gives a damn about who is or is not allowed to get married when there are 58 million adults without jobs?  And given the ranking of American schools in math, science, history, and reading, does anyone think allowing prayer in the class—which as a silent practice is not now prohibited—is really the issue we need to focus on?)

Americans as individuals can make the call as to what is right.  That’s not what we send representatives to Washington do establish.  We send them there to conduct the people’s business, a phrase I haven’t seen in general use for a very long time.  Yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about that, but this is a tactical question.  I do not look to Washington to tell me what my morals should be.  Nor do I want Washington telling my neighbor why I am not to be trusted because I have ideas that might run counter to the current rhetorical postures on offer.

Democrats have no better claim than Republicans on that.  While much lip service is given to America’s pluralism, at the end of the day, when the campaign ads run, and the blood flows in the primaries, both parties indulge in the politics of false unity.  They both paint Americans as this or that and our differences are minimized to the point that if someone actual has a distinct need or identity, we either ignore it or try to force him or her into a mold that conforms to current prejudice.

A political party that feels it has a mandate as representing True Americans is a dangerous thing, because it can forget to represent All Americans.  Cycles of rapid turn-over in congressional seats are indicative of the kind of blunt messaging an ill-served electorate sends when they elect someone who then goes to Washington and doesn’t do what they were sent to do, but instead takes winning that seat as a ticket to try to make the government conform to his or her vision of True America.  (I sent you there to rein in spending, not gut the SEC.  I sent you there to fix Social Security, not blame the Democrats for pursuing socialism.  I sent you there to do something about education, not shoehorn in your pet projects.)

The Democratic Party has its share of blindnesses and prejudices and we should all be wary of seeing them burgeon into the kind of bombastic over-confidence that the Republicans are now paying for in their own party.  Since the Depression, the Democrats have more and more become the party of the One Solution To Fix It All, blithely ignoring local conditions and the very uniquenesses both parties like to brag about but neither really knows how to deal with.  If there is a problem, a federal agency must be created to fix it, and while that has certainly been effective in some things, in other matters it has been an irritant if not downright destructive.

(The model for federal agencies, it seems to me, should be NASA.  No, seriously.  When you look at NASA and how it is structured and what it is actually supposed to do, it’s a terrific idea.  It hasn’t, of course, stuck to its original concept, but close enough for an example.  NASA is publicly seen as a government space program that is supposed to do all of our off-earth exploring and so forth.  This is a mischaracterization.  NASA was established as a federally-funded research-and-development organ that would create the technology to be used in space exploration, with the idea that, once developed and tested, this technology would be available to the private sector or to universities to do with as they will.  NASA was supposed to continually develop solutions that we could then take off the shelf and use.  It was never intended to set priorities and dictate the direction we would take, although by default it has done so.  This would be an effective model if deployed more as it was intended.  Other agencies do exhibit these protocols—OSHA, for example—but many are imperial, dictating rather than assisting.  This is a product of the kind of arrogance we have yet to figure out how to be rid of in government.)

Starting now, with what is so evidently happening to the Republican Party, all of us should be more aware of what the Democrats do.  I shy away from predictions with too much specificity—the more detailed you get the farther off target you fall—but if not this year then by the next election cycle I would not be surprised to see the rise of an effective third party and the eventual obliteration of the Republican Party as we have known it.  I don’t think this would in itself be a bad thing—in 1976 they courted and in 1980 brought in an infection that has transformed it into something its own leadership is uncomfortable with and cannot effectively control—but I don’t think it would be automatically a good thing, either.   We have seen what happens in countries with only one political party and we should fear it.

 

Stepping Up

I’ve been hesitant to write anything about the Susan G. Komen fiasco.  Not for fear of invoking controversy, but because things started unraveling so fast it was difficult to know when it would play out.  Here is a handy overview of the series of events.  The position taken by the Komen charity group shifted, mutated, and reeled in the sudden upwelling of negative response, that on any given day whatever I might have said would be irrelevant the next morning.

One aspect, however, strikes me as significant.  That response.  It came swiftly and it came from all quarters and it came with cash.  I cannot recall a similar response happening so swiftly and so decisively in this ongoing struggle over abortion rights.  One of the most annoying things about being progressive and/or liberal is the tepidity with which we meet challenges.  It would appear that all of us who espouse a progressive view, when it gets down to the nitty gritty of political position-taking and infighting, have feet not even of clay but of silly putty.  It is actually heartening to see an abrupt and united response that is categorically decisive for once.

It would be even better if this were the harbinger of the rediscovery of our collective spine.  The Religious Right has been canvassing, politicking, and buying politicians for a long time now, absolutely dedicated to their position, over which it has been clear for over three decades that what they want is not negotiable.  What hasn’t been so clear till the last few years has been the full extent of what they want and finally—finally—progressives are beginning to understand that this is not a disagreement but a war.

Thanks to people like Rick Santorum the full program of the antichoice movement is impossible to ignore.  If they were interested in eliminating abortion only, there would have been several points along the way over this long and acrimonious struggle where common cause could have been made.  But the fact is they wish to eliminate what they see as inexcusable permissiveness, sexual license, and immorality, and they would do this by eliminating access to all forms of birth control.  What they doubtless assume is that if pregnancy once more regained its power to scare women into celibacy then the United States would become the country they prefer to live in and their version of morality would hold sway.  They have a number of reasons for pursuing this, some less plausible than others, but at the end of the day they very much want people to stop having safe sex.

Safe, that is, in terms of pregnancy.

Rick Santorum has gone on record believing that even within marriage sex for pleasure is a no-no.  Probably most people think that’s just an eccentricity of his and that he would be unable to actually turn the clock back to try to make such a condition a general reality.  More and more people, I think, are beginning to realize that there is a rather large and loud segment of the population that would support him in this.  Not a majority, not by any means a majority, but the political Right acts like it speaks for the majority all the time, so it might be understandable if people in general had the idea that the majority of their fellow citizens were like this.

They also don’t realize, probably, that the foundational Supreme Court case establishing a right to contraception—Griswold v. Connecticut—was over a married couple’s right to control their reproductive life.

I also don’t think a lot of people, especially young women, have given much thought to the kinds of opportunities that would close up in their faces in such a regime.  They do in some states.  Whether or not abortion is  legal and a right nationally, there are some states where the anti-choice movement has made it so difficult for clinics to remain open—often using extra-legal means—that this is a right in name only.

I’ve been wondering how much more would have to happen before the actual majority finally said enough and acted.  Planned Parenthood lost a grant of roughly $640,000 from Komen.  They’ve received over three million as replacement.  The outcry of protest has been loud enough that Komen is trying to backtrack.  They’ve made noises about reinstating the grant, but it remains to be seen if they actually will.

In the meantime I have had some exchanges with people who think what Komen did was absolutely correct and a moral victory and the troubling thing about these was the mendacity attached to the arguments.  One response to me was that only three percent of Planned Parenthood’s budget went to non-abortion services, while in fact the reverse is true.  As argument continued, I responded with actual numbers.  Planned Parenthood performed around 325,ooo abortions last year.  They provided contraceptive services to nearly five million women.  And contraceptive services do not account for even half of what they do.  The rest are services for STDs, counseling, and related health services.  The counterargument ended there.

These are publicly available figures and the number of abortions is a mandated report.

Komen handled this badly.  They have suffered resignations within their own organization over it.  Brinker herself tends to the Right politically, but she hired a vice president who is on record as having run on an anti-abortion, anti-choice platform—unsuccessfully—and from appearances seems to have used her position to strike a blow against Planned Parenthood.

Again, what I found most encouraging in all this was the sudden and clear reaction on the part of people who may finally be reaching their limit over the hypocrisy of this conflict.

Hypocrisy?  One of the more interesting facts about the whole anti-choice movement has been the numbers of women who end up in the very clinics they have been protesting when they come up pregnant.  Some even sit in the waiting room preaching at the others there how they will all go to hell for killing their babies, and then go in and have a D and C to rid themselves of their own “inconvenience.”  I’m not particularly surprised or shocked by this.  People compartmentalize.  What seems to be the case here is a desire for the law to change to prevent them from doing what they know they’ll do if something they detest is legal.  They can’t face up to their own responsibilities so they want the rest of society to make them do it.  But for that to happen, everyone else has to be under the same restrictions.  “Somebody stop me!”

What may finally be changing is the forebearance of all the other people whose lives would be negatively affected by the changes being demanded.  We can tolerate easily the hypocrisy in our neighbor—until such hypocrisy becomes a national movement and threatens our freedoms.

I know there is a genuine disagreement over the basic question here—not so much when does life begin but when is such life Human?  If you believe that it is from the moment sperm fertilizes egg, well and good.  But if, like me, you believe “human” is more than a biological definition and requires a personality, then we’re talking about a progression from nonhuman to human that takes nine months and then some.

That leaves the decision up to each individual, though, and I can even understand the argument that collectively we cannot endorse murder.  And yet we have numerous legal distinctions to qualify the taking of life that is not murder.  We all understand what constitutes murder and we all understand what constitutes self defense and all the shades in between.  As a practical matter, to me, abortion is self defense.  In very real terms, an unwanted pregnancy is a life-threatening condition.  Perhaps the mother will not die from it, but that does not mean her life will not be threatened with profound and in many instances unwanted and detrimental change.  In the case of the poor, this is a materially significant fact.  If you can’t feed yourself, how to you feed another that you didn’t even invite into your home?

And the Komen decision to end that grant went straight to poor women, because that’s who received the benefit of that money.

Let’s be clear—abortion has always been available to people with means.  It did not become an issue until the poor came into the equation.  And if it is once more rendered illegal, women with money will still have access.  Only the poor will suffer.  This is reality.

In combination with Occupy Wall Street, there is a groundswell of populist anger directed toward the basic inequities in our society.  We will never be rid of certain inequities—that is human nature, and let’s face it, our success, at least economically, is based on such inequities and the promise of “rising above”—but we should at least strive to eliminate the grosser aspects that serve only to rub the less fortunate’s collective face in the mud of failure.  People do not have to be rich in order to be safe and comfortable and feel secure and invested in their society.  They only have to feel that in certain fundamental ways they are treated fairly and have the same rights as any one else, rights that are not exclusive to the wealthy, the privileged, or the hypocritical.

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As a coda to all this, here is a report on one of the items offered as part of Komen’s awareness outreach.  In conjunction with a weapons distributor, a pink Walther P-22 is available for purchase to support Komen’s program.

It has always struck me how often the aggressive advocacy of 2nd Amendment rights, support of the death penalty, and a kind of libertarian default to the power of the gun seem to be expressed by the very same people most vocal about the “immorality” of abortion.  The horror, it sometimes seems, of  taking human life is very categorical.  The apparent contradiction evaporates when seen from a religious viewpoint that centers on spiritual concepts of innocence and an oft unspoken assumption that this is a determining factor in deciding the appropriateness of killing.  Adults are not innocent by definition and fall automatically into a different category than a fetus which has never had a chance to “sin.”

Even so, the apparent hypocrisy is even less difficult to understand when seen from the viewpoint of people determined that their ideas of public morality should trump all personal rights that fall outside of a tightly-defined range of so-called “decency”—a view advanced and backed up by the implicit threat of violence demonstrated by a political posture that sees no contradiction between a “right to life” stance on the one hand and a willingness to mete out death to the deserving on the other.

 

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One more addendum in a story that I am sure will continue to repercuss for months if not years to come, the person at the center of the policy flap at Susan G. Komen has resigned.   Of course she is trying to spin the situation, but where there is smoke, as the saying goes.  I suspect at the core of this was a ploy of some orchestration between Ms. Handel and certain politicians—enactment of the “policy” then the move to investigate Planned Parenthood—or maybe not.  Maybe this was all just a confluence of unlikely coincidence and no one had an ulterior motive.  What’s that about pigs and air travel?