Tuesday, June 06, 2006

"A Frigid and Pitiless Dogma"

Sometimes a liberal blog will link to a selected item from a conservative blogger's post, highlighting the conservative blogger's apparent agreement with liberal thinking on something, or in contrast, highlighting the conservative blogger's outrageousness, and when you click the hyper-link you end up in a post that is either less liberal friendly or less outrageous than advertised (no doubt conservative bloggers do the same).

To a certain extent, this could be said for this TAPPED extraction from, and hyper-link to, this John Derbyshire book review of fellow NRO'er Ramesh Ponnuru's Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.

For example, Garance Franke-Ruta doesn't mention that Derbyshire believes, like Ponnuru, that Roe v. Wade is or was "jurisprudentially preposterous", that this conclusion is "indisputable" and that because the Constitution doesn't say the word "abortion", it's regulation should be "a matter for the states", despite the fact that the Constitution doesn't say anything specific about a lot of things, for example, the right to privacy, but do to other Amendments included in the Bill of Rights, this right has been recognized as superceding the ability of tyrannical majorities from invading.

Nonetheless, the Derbyshire paragraphs that Franke-Ruta does include are, indeed, "shocking":

I wonder again: Who, actually, is the Party of Death? Here I see a woman who, having missed her period and found herself pregnant, has an abortion, comes home, downs a stiff drink, and gets on with her life. With her life. Here I meet a man whose loved wife has gone, never to return, yet her personless body still twitches and grunts randomly on its plastic sheet, defying years of care and therapy. Let her go, everyone begs him, and his own conscience cries; and at last he does, whichever way the law will permit. Here I find a couple who want a lively, healthy child, but who know their genes carry dark possibilities of a lifetime's misery and an early death. They permit multiple embryos to be created, select the one free from the dread traits, and give over the rest to the use of science, or authorize their destruction.

The RTL-ers would tell me that these people, and the medical professionals who help them, are all moral criminals, who have destroyed human lives. They support their belief with careful definitions, precise chains of reasoning, and -- I do not doubt it -- sincere intentions. Yet how inhuman they seem! What a frigid and pitiless dogma they preach! -- one that would take from the living, without any regard to what the living have to say about it, to give to those whom common intuition regards as nonliving; that would criminalize acts of compassion, and that would strip away such little personal autonomy as is left to us after the attentions of the IRS, Big Medicine, the litigation rackets, and the myriad government bureaucracies that regulate our lives and peer into our private affairs.

For RTL is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality. that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years. We have lost our innocence, traded it in for a passel of theorems. The RTL-ers are just another bunch of schoolmarms trying to boss us around and to diminish our liberties. Is it wrong to have concern for fetuses and for the vegetative, incapable, or incurable? Not at all. Do we need to do some hard thinking about the notion of personhood in a society with fast-advancing biological capabilities? We surely do. (And I think Party of Death contributes useful things to that discussion.) Should we let a cult of theologians, monks, scolds, grad-school debaters, logic-choppers, and schoolmarms tell us what to do with our wombs, or when we may give up the ghost, or when we should part with our loved ones? Absolutely not! Give me liberty, and give me death!

This is wild, bold ripping from a fellow traveler in the conservative empire. I wish Democrats would talk like this, instead of acting as if any comment on abortion, gay rights, or religion is tantamount to walking on egg-shells. Derbyshire's smackdown on Ponnuru's party of death thesis and counter-attack against the right's culture of privacy invading, liberty reducing, ambiguity ignoring mania is refreshing.

Nonetheless, Franke-Ruta's depiction of Derbyshire's broadside is in some ways understated. For example, right out of the starting gate Derbyshire doesn't hesitate to slap the cult designation on the right to life (RTL) movement:

Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind. Some of the common characteristics of culthood are missing--the Fuhrerprinzip, for example. On the other hand, RTL has the following things in common with every cult in the world: To those inside, it appears to be a structure of perfect logical integrity, founded on unassailable philosophical principles, while to those outside--among whom, obviously, I count myself--it seems to some degree (depending on the observer's temperament and inclinations) nutty; to some other degree (ditto) hysterical; and to some yet other degree (ditto ditto) a threat to liberty. My own ratings of RTL on those three degrees are 2, 6, and 4 out of a possible ten each.

The second of those ratings would have been lower before the grotesque carnival surrounding the death of Terri Schiavo last year, when a motley menagerie of quack doctors, bogus "Nobel Prize nominees," emoting relatives, get-a-life monomaniacs, keening mobs of religious fanatics, death-threat-hissing warriors for "life," dimwitted TV presenters straining to keep their very best my-puppy-just-died faces on while speaking of "Terri" as if they had known her personally from grade school, pandering politicians, and shyster lawyers all joined forces in a massive effort to convince the American public that RTL was a thing no sane citizen ought to touch with a barge pole while wearing triple-ply rubber gloves.

On the other hand, the first of those ratings would have been a couple of ticks higher before I read Party of Death. Ramesh Ponnuru is one of the best advocates a cult--cause, movement, whatever--could hope for; so much so that (just to complete the set) the third of my ratings went up by a corresponding amount after setting down his book. With polemical skills and intellectual firepower of this order, it is possible that RTL might break out from its natural habitat in student chapters of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception to attain real influence in the land. A general reduction of our liberties would indeed follow, since RTL is, in its essence, an authoritarian movement, whose ultimate desire is to boss the rest of us around.

Then, highlighting the event that might soon, if it hasn't already, serve as the marker of the right-wing's self destructive over-reach, it's point of no return, the high water mark of the Republican Revolution, Derbyshire let's fly a glorious ripping of the media circus that was the Terri Schiavo case:

Part Two opens with a discussion of euthanasia, with several references to the Schiavo case. To Ponnuru's credit, even he seems a little embarrassed by the freak show that surrounded Mrs. Schiavo's last days, and he spares us most of the details (which are anyway thoroughly covered, from both sides, in at least five recent books). Not that his embarrassment prevents the author from engaging in a dense flurry of those rhetorical sleights of hand I noted earlier. He tells us, to take one example from many, that Michael Schiavo won a $1.1 million settlement in a negligence suit against his wife's doctors, without also telling us that Mrs. Schiavo's parents fought like cats to get their hands on their daughter's estate; or that Mr. Schiavo offered (in writing, in documents deposited with officers of the court) to sign over that estate--which was anyway much diminished by legal bills--to a registered charity if his in-laws would withdraw their lawsuits; or for that matter that Mr. Schiavo was a well-paid working professional well able to support himself, while his in-laws were chronically broke, at least until the big RTL foundations showed up with checkbooks a-flapping. And of course Ponnuru does not mention the few seconds of misleading videotape, carefully selected from over four hours' worth, released (in violation of a court order!) by the in-laws to the media, and endlessly replayed on sensationalist TV news programs.

In fact, Ponnuru has nothing to say at all about the monstrous character assassination, carried out by utterly unscrupulous RTL propagandists, of a decent man who coped humanely and well with a terrible life calamity. Well, not quite nothing: "It cannot be denied that pro-lifers were guilty of some excesses," Ponnuru murmurs. Some excesses? I would say. Here the author sounds like nothing so much as a Soviet Communist Party apparatchik, circa 1960, offering a grudging admission that Stalin and his cronies might, just once or twice, have been a tad over-zealous in dealing with class enemies. Perhaps I should add here that after reading three (Schiavo, Schindler, and Eisenberg) of the above-mentioned five-or-so books, I came away more convinced than ever that Michael Schiavo is a good man criminally traduced by brutal, unprincipled RTL fanatics, from whose number, on the evidence of this chapter, Ponnuru cannot with certainty be excluded.

I'm thankful for Derbshire's recognizing that the bizarre and paradoxical "culture of life" crowd was prepared to sacrifice Michael Schiavo on the nearest alter of burnt offerings, willing to bring death to promote "life". I'm glad someone is finally pointing out the bullying incongruence of the RTL's agenda. And he didn't even mention how RTL's want to end abortion while also outlawing contraception.

As I suggested to Barbara O'Brien, guest posting at Glenn Greenwald's pad, the conservative movement practices an extreme but highly recognizable and decipherable form of psychological projection:

Seems like a classic case of projection to me.

Conservatives celebrate death but accuse of liberals of being the party of death.

Conservatives proclaim a dedication to small government and express contempt for liberal do-gooders but paradoxically defend a power-grabbing presidency and complain that the culture is too crude.

Conservatives complain that Christianity is given short thrift in the "public square" and that liberals are out to destroy it, but by their words and actions, don't appear to even be aware of their religion's basic tenets, spirit and Biblical foundation.

I might have added how peculiar it is to be lectured about the depravity and crudeness of our culture and our supposed moral relativism by a crowd that would allow Ann Coulter to represent them and that as far as I can see practices a form of moral relativism itself in that the only morals it appears to willing to defend, and the only actions it appears willing to justify are those used in the service of advancing a narrow version of America's self-interest.

A few glances at right-wing responses to Abu Graib and the latest reports from Haditha should be enough to demonstrate that the right, or at least a sizable class of it, has no morals whatsoever. The only morals it holds dear are those associated with its fantasies of American exceptionalism and world dominion.

Moreover, the "war-right" and the RTL crowds are not only fellow travelers in the bitter, alternative universe that is American conservativism, they are often and usually the exact same people.

The result is a weird mix of anachronistic, selectively chosen, biblically-based moralizing with an unhealthy dose of fascist privacy invading and nationalist tendencies, all of which serves to produce as Derbyshire notes, A Frigid and Pitiless Dogma, ready to sacrifice individual rights for those of an embryo while celebrating the deaths of people like Rachel Corrie and David Rosenbaum, not to mention willing and eager for others to make Iraq a desolate, wasteland of broken lives and burned bodies so that their country might achieve its glorious destiny.

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