Thursday, March 25, 2010

ONCE "NEVER," NOW "NO"

Republican political rhetoric since the election of the half-black, half-white Barack Hussein Obama has undergone a degeneration not seen in over half a century. Then, McCarthyism was the rage, and the John Birch Society was the army of rage. But it did not take long for Senate Republicans to realize the danger of enabling the fringe, of putting democracy itself in harm’s way. So they censored McCarthy, shunned him, and let him get drunker more often, to die of alcohol-related disease.

I am not sure that today’s Congressional Republicans care. I am not sure that their unbridled anger at a black president with a New-Deal-Fair-Deal-New-Society view of America does not, in their minds, justify tearing the temple down. Even if you say only “no” but say it often enough, you say “no” to Democracy and to America as we have known it.

Over the years, researchers have studied intellectual and moral differences between people of different political persuasions. Most such profiles, the greater populist anti-intellectualism on the right than on the left, and the prejudices of better educated people—all lead many people to believe that conservatives or Republicans are not as intelligent or as smart as liberals or Democrats. I do not share such beliefs. I have known far too many intelligent and smart conservatives or Republicans, and far too many unintelligent and stupid liberals or Democrats to think that one side has a greater share of brains than the other. I think that I know what accounts for this stereotyping.

From almost the beginnings of Western recorded thought 2500 years ago, people have carefully distinguished reason from passion. Except for the Romantic Movement of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and its intermittent recrudescences thereafter (the Hippie Movement being one of them), most serious thinkers have favored reason over passion in the conduct of a well and wisely lived life and of a civil and civilized society.

Accordingly, some people try to live a life guided by reason regnant over emotion. In the extreme, they may be characterized by their respect for facts and logic, their openness to new evidence and better arguments, their respect for others and their opinions. They incline to introspection and self-restraint, struggle to understand their motives and purposes, and act on conscience to eliminate personal prejudice.

Other people make no such effort, but live a life guided by reason serving the demands of emotions and thus directing people toward the ends which their emotions determine. In the extreme, they may be generally characterized by their efforts to confirm their convictions; their responses to others on the basis of agreement or disagreement with their views, attitudes, or values; and their likings or dislikings, however acquired or sustained.

Most of us fall somewhere along the spectrum between these extremes. However, the contrast makes a point: the first group reasons; the second group rationalizes, and the difference makes all the difference as we have seen it recently in the prolonged and pointless exchanges between the two political parties. We are, I think, not dealing mainly with the interplay between policy positions and political advantages. We are dealing with radically different mind-sets, between those who reason from problem to solution, and those who know the answer regardless of the question. Everyone can be equally intelligent or smart, or not, thereafter.

Whatever one thinks of Democratic positions on the bail-outs, stimulus package, health insurance reform, and the rest of the agenda, they are like past Democratic (even some Republican) positions. The Democratic view that government can be, and do, good is not novel. Finally, the party seems as fractured and dysfunctional as ever, with unity achieved as a ramshackle arrangement energized by necessity. Republican opposition to Democratic positions and the Democratic view of government is not new either. Even Republican party unity is no surprise, though its unanimity is, and is suspect.

Even the vitriol is new, not in kind, but in degree; so, too, the discourtesy and distance between members of both Congressional chambers. Joe Wilson’s shouted “you lie” addressed to the President during the State of the Union message seems no longer an aberration, but an inauguration of John Boehner’s remark that a Congressman from a neighboring Ohio district “may be a dead man. He can’t go home to the west side of Cincinnati.” Boehner’s disclaimer notwithstanding, being “a dead man” is no metaphor for suffering a political defeat; political defeat means that you can go home to spend more time with one’s family.

What underlies this rhetoric of vitriol and violence is a political hysteria stretching from armed nutwings to some elected federal officials—all conservative, all Republican—all afraid that the modest grant of political power to a black minority in the Sixties is now, given the demographic changes of the recent past, becoming an enormous transfer of political power to a non-white majority. Opposition to that change is summed up in one word: not “never,” but “no.”

ENCOURAGE THE REPUBLICANS--JUST KIDDING

That Mike McConnell, the Senate Republican Minority Leader is one funny fellow, not just one of the drollest elected federal officials. He has done a superb job of keeping Republican Senators united in a bloc opposing almost all Democratic legislation. But this leader of the Party of No has nevertheless shown his sense of humor in his mock concern for his Democratic opposites. Toward the end of the legislative process leading to Senate approval of the health insurance reform legislation, Mitchell advised Democrats to avoid enacting a law which would come back to haunt them in the November elections.

Somewhere in America, someone is touched by this expression of concern for one’s opponents—what a good sport Mitchell is. Everyone else knows that the advice was a threat not even veiled to Democrats to vote down the legislation or face defeat at the polls. Democrats were not fooled for one moment, but I hope that they appreciated the cognitive dissonance as a cause of political mirth and merriment.

Now that the main law has passed and modifications in a reconciliation bill will soon pass, Republicans have adopted a two-pronged attack on the latest law of the land. One prong is to launch attacks on its Constitutionality. Even before the President signed the bill—no time to wait for the ink to dry—several states announced their intention to file suits testing the law in court. I have read nothing which suggests that the suits have merit, but I have read some who believe that activist Supreme Court conservatives will overturn many precedents to override laws contrary to their political views. I cannot foresee the consequences in the areas in which those precedents have defined legal behavior, some for over a century, cannot believe that they will be beneficial in the long run, but can imagine that they will be disruptive in the short run.

The other prong is to campaign on a Republican platform to repeal (and replace) this landmark legislation. Republicans assume that Americans, because they so dislike the legislation, will repudiate many Democratic candidates, cost them their Congressional seats, and perhaps return control to Republicans. Their assumption rests on their liking for good news; they trust some polls but not others. Asked about the process, Americans disapproved of the legislation; asked about its provisions, they approve of it. And when they or those whom they know and for whom they care begin to receive health insurance benefits, they are not likely to vote for those who want to take them away, even if they worry about the national debt.

For this reason, the Democrats have been daring Republicans to run on this platform. Some of them are offering up funny stuff to match Mitchell’s—advising them that this plank is a weak one and, if they walk it, will dump them in the drink come Election Day. I do not think that the advice is at all friendly, much less funny; indeed, I think that it is perverse. Given Republican antipathy to anything Democratic, I suspect that Democrats advising Republicans not to do something are really adopting a strategy of “reverse psychology” intended to get them to do it. If so, I hope the ploy works.

I can imagine that there are sensible alternative, supplemental, or modifying ideas to those incorporated in the just-passed legislation. But I did not hear them, except for a momentary hiccup (like their 19-page 2010 “budget” without numbers). Instead of offering up what they presumably regard as better ideas, Republicans preferred to oppose Democratic ideas. There is something to be said for criticism, even destructive criticism; much more to be said for constructive criticism as a prelude to constructive suggestion. Either way, after over a year of legislative activity in both Congressional chambers, Republicans have not vigorously advocated any, not to mention many, serious ideas to address the problems of health insurance: rising costs, comprehensive coverage, denial for pre-existing conditions, or rejection after disease or injury—nothing adding up to reform.

By now, you are sick and tired—need medical attention, yet?—of this issue. Me, too. I am sure that Americans’ collective exhaustion about it will make Republican reminders ever more unpalatable as Election Day approaches. Americans do not like sore losers or mean people. But I think that the recalcitrance of Republicans on this issue is itself an issue. Do they constitute a party capable of identifying the problems and introducing solutions to them? Can they get past slogans and smear? Do they need to rely on violence or threats of violence against their opponents? Now that Democratics are becoming real targets for assassination—John Boehner declared that “Steve Driehaus [a Congressman from a neighboring district] … may be a dead man. He can’t go home to the west side of Cincinnati"—are they going to go all English major on us and talk about metaphors and their surprise that anyone went all literal on them. I expect someone—will it be that funny Mitch McConnell or that other funny Michael Steele?—to say it was just a joke—no kidding.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

ABORTION AND THE CONCEPTION OF LIFE

Abortion is a tricky subject. The word “abortion” itself means nothing more than the termination of a pregnancy before birth. The question whether the abortion of a zygote, embryo, or fetus—henceforth, an unborn—kills a living being matters in Christian and Jewish faiths, ordinary ethics, and American law. The Supreme Court’s answer in Roe v. Wade depends on the trimester of the pregnancy and the mother’s well-being.

The central tenet of the strict anti-abortionist position is its definition of life: the combination of ovum and sperm resulting from fertilization; this moment of conception marks the creation of a human being. Circumstances of conception—rape or incest, say—are irrelevant. This unborn has “inalienable rights” and deserves protection. If, during the pregnancy, the unborn threatens the life of the mother-to-be, the question becomes which life to spare?

This question also arises in some cases of fetus in fetu, a rare situation involving twin embryos, one of which grows inside the other. The mother’s pregnancy in such cases has one of three outcomes: both embryos or fetuses die, the embedded embryo or fetus dies either during pregnancy or after delivery, or the embedded twin survives inside the newborn. A recent case was a seven-year-old Mongolian boy carrying his twin brother in his abdominal cavity. At that point, the growth of the embedded twin threatened the life of the independent twin. Again the question: which life to spare?

Law, religion, and ethics often decide such cases in favor of the one already alive or apt to survive independently. By strict anti-abortionist definition, however, this decision still means killing an unborn. Of course, not killing the embryo or fetus means letting the mother or twin die. Dogmatic justifications for terminating an unborn or letting an already living person die (commission vs. omission) are easy only for dogmatists. Others struggle with the question: which is more sacred, potential or actual life.

Relaxing the strict definition raises an enormous theoretical problem: where to draw the line? Consider rape and incest. Whether involuntary or not, both can and often do result in an unwanted and presumably unintended pregnancy, at least from the woman’s perspective. But if such circumstances justify the chemical or surgical termination of an unborn, then why only these? Others can result in unintended or unwanted pregnancies. One circumstance is the “oops” factor—accidents happen—between consenting partners who do not intend or want pregnancy for a variety of reasons, none of which need imply casual sex by unmarried persons. (Advocacy of abstinence to avoid accidents is driven by doctrine and deprived of realism.)

The strict anti-abortionist definition of life is a tendentious one—merely one, with limitations, among many. First, it applies to the fertilization of humans only, not other animals—not a negligible consideration, but still a biased—that is, a homocentric—one. Across the spectrum of organic life forms, fertilization is a relatively rare means of procreation (and I exclude parthenogenesis). At the extreme, single-celled organisms reproduce by various, non-sexual means. For instance, amoebas, by mitosis, simply enlarge and split.

Second, the definition of life—specifically, human life—reflects different contexts in which it is used. Scientists define the word “life” differently in different contexts; their definitions are themselves stipulated and thereby subject to debate within scientific communities. Some textbooks define life as beginning at fertilization; others, at viability. One irony in the abortion debate is that anti-abortionists assert their moral or religious position by insisting on a scientific definition of life, one itself presupposing a moral or religious, not a scientific, position—thus, begging the question.

And scientific definitions are not the only definitions; non-scientific definitions—religious, moral, and practical—abound. By Biblical account, Adam and Eve came to life by means other than fertilization; so, too, Jesus. Although Jews of all varieties respect the potential life of the unborn, almost all define life as beginning at the moment the unborn breeches the uterus; a few, after survival for a month. Christian definitions, some linked to the Aristotelian idea of “ensoulment,” have varied throughout theological history. Non-Western cultures define life differently.

Anti-abortionists believe that life created at the moment of fertilization also creates a person. Not all cultures equate life, however defined, and personhood. Navahos regard a life as a person only when he or she first laughs, and the person who causes that first laugh assumes special responsibility in rearing the child, like a godparent in Christianity.

So definitions of “life,” “human being,” and “person” are contextual and change as contexts change. To insist on, and implement, one definition dismisses the various ways by which, and purposes for which, people in different cultures have defined these terms. The anti-abortionist definition is only one of many, and only lately important. Until recent times, abortion has been a minor issue, probably because it was secret, unsafe, and infrequent. Only with the advent of modern medicine and with public access to safe procedures has it become a contentious issue.

In the end, the abortion conflict, which involves different terms and values, reflects divergent responses to the strains in our culture as it undergoes modernization. Maybe we should address those strains directly and not avoid them with dogmatic prescriptions and coercive legislation about how people other than, and perhaps different from, us live their lives.

Friday, March 19, 2010

MIDWEEK MUSINGS ON HEALTH INSURANCE REFORM

Better a health insurance reform bill which can be fixed than a health insurance system which cannot.

Those who think that Republican proposals can ensure coverage at reasonable prices by enabling competition across state lines are promoting a race to the bottom. Companies will issue policies from states with the weakest regulations, at perhaps lower costs but with certainly much less coverage, and still deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions or cancel it to those with post-coverage illness or injury. Tell me again: why do the Republican offer this suggestion at this late date? (I guess it goes along with their new-found commitment to fiscal responsibility after the Bush “surge.”)

I have noticed how well the free market works in restricting itself rather than expanding itself—not. I cannot figure out why even niche policies do not exist for those willing to pay extremely high premiums for their pre-existing conditions. Part of the answer cannot be economic but must be cultural.

My guess is that Republicans fear this reform bill because it will work, it will discredit the view that government cannot do anything right at reasonable cost, and it will reveal that Republicans make no sense and care about nobody but the rich.

If the bill passes, the Republicans may relentlessly try to undo it, but only as a campaign tactic. Even if they were to get control of both chambers of Congress in the fall elections, they would have to get a two-thirds majority in each to override a certain Presidential veto. Moreover, once the politicking is past, the public will not care (a) about past politicking on the subject and (b) for Republican reminders of what they want to forget. Finally, as the benefits start kicking in, not least with the ability of those denied coverage to get it, most people will realize that the Republicans were not acting for any interests by those of their corporate campaign contributors. All of which shows how tin-eared the Republicans are. But I am not going to advise them not to do what will likely prove damaging to them.

BTW, I attended a local Republican candidate’s confab cum fundraiser with doctors on the subject. The campaign refused to give me a copy of its AV tape. Why? One doctor objected to the Obama plan because it would limit doctors to an annual earned income of $175,000. Poor poopsies! Bruised egos and their sense of entitlement. Another complained that it did not cut costs but wasted resources on those whose terminal condition was a lengthy requiring expensive treatment to prolong life. Such doctors seem mindful of the price of everything and the value of nothing, ironically, including human life. “Death panels” everywhere, even on the right! Call for Sarah Palin! But I was impressed that others expressed a desire to provide medical services to the neediest no matter what. Some troops seem to have a better sense of public service than their leaders, actual or prospective.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

AMERICANS—VOTING AGAINST THEIR INTERESTS?

“Why do people often vote against their own interests?” is the question asked by one Frank Waters in a late-January BBC program. His answer is a simple one: resentment at politicians and policy wonks who give the impression of knowing what is better for the people than they themselves do. His support is his analysis of the opposition to health care reform.

Like many analyses, this one has some supporting evidence and some plausibility. But some is not enough for most single-cause analyses. Resentment may fuel much hostility to health care reform, but so, too, does disappointment. Polls have consistently shown that most Americans want a public option. So its omission from the legislation, largely in response to vociferous objection to it as “socialized” medicine has led many favoring health care reform with the public option to oppose the resulting legislation lacking it.

In looking to explain the present, Waters ignores the past. He overlooks the long history of American anti-intellectualism and its manifestations in resentment and hostility to those smarter and better educated than most. George Wallace famously referred to them as “pointy-heads.” (Although intellectually challenged people resent the smart, economically challenged people admire the rich.) If resentment at political elites matters today, it matters more by degree than kind. So the question should be: what aggravates it today?

Waters’s answer omits much of the present, including the obvious fact of economic distress. Most but not all resentment comes from a certain demographic—white and lower middle- to lower-class—and a certain geographic—southeastern and southcentral. The demographic but not the geographic applies in New Jersey and Massachusetts; it may well repeat itself in other states as well. For when the economy is bad and stagnant, and improvement not evident, people become insecure, fearful, and angry. Such feelings are appropriate, but not for good decisionmaking or self-interested voting.

Some part, size unknown and probably unknowable, of this resentment comes from two other sources: government gridlock and demographic change. I shall take up the former at another time. The latter seems obvious. Whether the response to Obama is a specific instance of racism or a more general fear of displacement by non-whites is a question with the likely answer “yes.” Within a few decades, whites will no longer be a majority, only a plurality. In highly populated coastal states—California, New York, Florida, and Texas—and in many large interior cities in other states—Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, and St. Paul/Minneapolis—, growing concentrations of minorities are powerful, if not dominant. White anxiety about their growing political power makes them fearful of change of any kind. Thus the angst of the white, Alabama woman who cried out at a town hall meeting, “I want my country back.”

It will not come back. It will be different. Whether it will be better or worse depends on whether those who stoke the underlying conditions of resentment prevail or not. The Republican Party and conservative groups are doing their best to hold the line by fighting the fight—I do not say the “good fight”—to prevent the inevitable.

So politics rears its ugly head and fans the resentment, with Republicans fighting against Obama and anything which he favors. My guess is that, with a modification here and there, most of Obama’s policies, if enacted into law, would so greatly improve the condition of the country that Republicans would become a permanent minority for a generation. Thus fearful, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint urged opposition to health care reform even before a bill existed, to cripple the president. Thus fearful, Kentucky Senator and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who last year proposed a Congressional budget commission, this year voted against it when Obama came out in its support. When, in his State of the Union speech, Obama supported a tax reduction for small businesses and the self-employed, a reduction long urged by Republicans, they refused to applaud and afterwards lied that Obama intended to raise, not reduce, those taxes. (My computer crashes on the subject of John McCain.)

The insecure, angry, and fearful are not bothering with such facts; they are consulting their fears and building them into smoldering resentments—both fanned by Republicans. They earn their exploitation by those who play them to win power at their expense. Sarah Palin’s appearance at the Tea Party convention for a $100,000 speaking fee is the perfect example. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer; the smart stay smart, and the stupid stay stupid. For a while, they may get their country back, but not for long.

Meanwhile, although off-year elections have gone against the Democrats, change may be coming to the Republicans. It is a long shot, but Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown may surprise everyone by re-creating moderate New England Republicanism to serve a constituency wanting problems solved, not politics as usual. Can the party of “no” become the party of “new”?