Monday, March 21, 2005

Frayed Garment

In C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce--his finest achievement, in my view--there is a moment where the soul of a bitter, shrewish woman, condemned to hell upon her death but given a chance to repent and enjoy an afterlife in heaven, refuses to do so, because her son--who died as a child, and whose soul already resides in heaven--cannot personally accompany her on her way. The angel sent to comfort and guide her in her hoped-for transition to heaven tries to explain that it is exactly her demand that her son be with her, in her care, as her possession, that warped her life and made her such a hateful person in the first place. Her husband, her other children--they all suffered because this woman's "mother love" became twisted and ugly after she lost her child, so much so that she could admit no other need, no other principle, no other thought into her life that might distract her from her never-ending, justified yet also self-indulgently distraught mourning. Her child, in death, became a fetish object, and thus she lost the ability to care for all of God's children as any Christian is commanded to do. When confronted with this realization, the woman rebels, insisting that she has a "right" to her dead son, and that it is a cruelty beyond imagining to keep them apart--even in death, even if that would mean that her son's soul would have to dwell with his smothering, demanding mother in hell for all eternity. As this crisis plays out--and ends tragically for the woman's ultimate destiny--an observer (the narrator of the book) confesses amazement to his angel guide: he had seen souls marked with truly depraved and manifold sins embrace God's grace and ascend into heaven; how is it that this woman's excess of love could pose an even greater obstacle to change?

"Did ye say excess?" the angel responds sharply. "That was no excess. That was defect."

Schiavo's mother, Mary Schindler, went before television cameras on her way into the hospice and tearfully begged, "President Bush, politicians in Washington: Please, please, please save my little girl."

That the Terri Schiavo case is complicated goes without saying. I don't know the heart of any of the participants (and neither does anyone else); not Terri, not Michael, not the Schindlers. In cases like these, where medical technology and subjective experiences combine to create thorny legal questions, there'll always be room for debate, disagreement, and recriminations. That is not to throw up one's hands and say that the issue is fundamentally irresolvable--on the contrary, depending on how one frames the issue, there are very clear resolutions available. But since the framing of the issue itself is put into question by the aforementioned technology and experiences, there's little hope that any one resolution will ever satisfy everyone. For my part, let me go on record saying that I'm in agreement with those who doubt that any of the medical testimony presented by the Schindlers amounts to a plausible challenge the original and subsequent decisions of Circuit Judge George Greer to define Terri as in a persistent vegetative state and thus support Michael's contention about his wife's presumed wishes. However, let me further go on record as saying that I'm also in agreement with those who insist that Michael's behavior--as one who has plainly left his wife emotionally, if not legally--is a legitimate ground for challenging the rightness, though unfortunately probably not the legal legitimacy, of his ability to play the role which judicial decisions have delivered to him. In short, I see no good reason to believe that the more-hopeful-than-actual "evidence" supplied by the Schindlers and others ought to sustain an argument for re-examining everything all over again, and I further see plenty of reason why the Schindlers parents and others would want to force that re-examination insofar as Michael's personal role in the matter is concerned. If that doesn't put me on both sides of the fence, I don't know what would.

As for the actions in Washington DC over the past two days, put me down as doubting that the "Palm Sunday Compromise" reaches the level of an unconstitutional bill of attainder (for it to do so, it would have to uniquely punish Michael and/or Terri Schiavo, and the point that there continues to be a dispute over whether Judge Greer's interpretation of his and/or their wishes is final means that remains disputable as to whether this law causes harm to any legitimately recognized interests), and more generally as not finding the Republicans' actions particularly scary--the U.S. Congress is hardly a populist assembly, and the possibility that they're reacting to a true groundswell of opinion is remote at best, but all things considered I'd still rather have contested decisions played out in the political rather than the legal sphere (I see to recall more than a few Democrats rightly making this argument in regards to a little matter called Bush v. Gore.)

But all that is just a matter of making my own relatively worthless opinion known, and besides my real point.

Yet, the most striking protesters were the quietest. All along the street, young people--many of them appearing to be no more than teenagers--kneeled silently, their mouths covered with red tape with the word "Life" written on it. Most would not return the smiles of passersby, instead gazing somberly at the hospice where Schiavo is staying.

Everyone in the blogosphere who cares has long since read the important post from Mark Kleiman which points out the, at best, inconsistency of those fighting on behalf of Terri Schiavo's continued existence. Parents object to the ending of medical treatment for terminal children all the time, and all the time are rebuffed, by hospitals and other institutions who aren't interested in or can't afford the expense--and who, of course, aren't the subject of intense protests and media attention which would force them see keeping such patients breathing or eating as a priority. And since a lot of the funds which might make it easier for hospitals to respond to parental pleading without any supplemental media glare come from Medicaid, the fact that more than a few of the same Republicans who voted in support of federal intervention in the Schiavo case also voted to cut Medicaid--with barely a peep from Schiavo-focused culture warriors--ranks as a deep and terrible hypocrisy. As Matt Yglesias put it, one is hard-pressed to come up with any explanation besides the possibility that the "organized Christian Right in the United States [is] willingly play their part as hack partisans rather than genuine advocates for the culture of life."

Matt, of course, is turning this against the Christian right because it's a handy tool, not because he would consider himself a strong supporter of "the culture of life." But what about those of us who are? Is there any explanation besides the possibility that whole movement is a circus, manipulated in exactly the way Thomas Frank alleges, with foes of abortion and euthanasia, many of them young and dedicated, passionately protesting on behalf of a party that doesn't care?

Well, yes there is. Maybe the "culture of life" position is one which really does resonate with Red America (and more), and one which many Republicans genuinely endorse--but for any number of reasons, is also position that has been misunderstood, curdled, and used (perhaps consciously, certainly unconsciously) to provid cover for warped and misguided (if sincere) passions. As the culture of life is originally (though not solely) Catholic, we might as well turn to the source here for a correction:

Nowadays, in America as elsewhere in the world, a model of society appears to be emerging in which the powerful predominate, setting aside and even eliminating the powerless: I am thinking here of unborn children, helpless victims of abortion; the elderly and incurably ill, subjected at times to euthanasia; and the many other people relegated to the margins of society by consumerism and materialism. Nor can I fail to mention the unnecessary recourse to the death penalty when other bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons....This model of society bears the stamp of the culture of death, and is therefore in opposition to the Gospel message....If the teachings of the divine and natural law are to be upheld, it is essential to promote knowledge of the Church's social doctrine and to work so that the values of life and family are recognized and defended in social customs and in State ordinances....At the same time, it is essential for the Church in America to take appropriate measures to influence the deliberations of legislative assemblies, encouraging citizens, both Catholics and other people of good will, to establish organizations to propose workable legislation and to resist measures which endanger the two inseparable realities of life and the family. Nowadays there is a special need to pay attention to questions related to prenatal diagnosis, in order to avoid any violation of human dignity. (Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, Part 63)

The key phrase there is "the inseparable realities of life and the family." For some people, this makes the Pope--and Catholic social teaching in general--into an advocate of a "seamless garment" ethic, a "progressive pro-life" position. Some would question that, pointing out that a "true defense of life is more subtle and complex than the so-called consistent life ethic....Distinguishing between evils is one seam in the garment of life." Very true, and an important point; without that perspective, it because too easy for people such as ourselves, caught up in the sympathies and sentiments of everyday life, to become monomaniacal, focusing all our efforts on a single, overriding principle (and, of course, our preferred interpretation of such). You can, of course, dismiss Catholic teaching on this or any point; there is no reason to take the current pontiff's words as authoritative in how one as a Christian responds to the call to defend life. But one ought not dismiss the basic wisdom in JPII's message: inseparability. A true culture of life would be one which takes all considerations which impinge upon living a flourishing life and address them collectively, some prioritizing one over another, sometimes changing priorities, but never losing contact with the garment which makes up the whole.

As I said before, I have no idea what, in the end, motivates the Schindlers. Let us grant them the best of all possible motivations--that they genuinely want to attend to their child's body and whatever life (in the sense of conscious, spirited existence) may or may not remain in it. There's no evil in that, even if (perhaps even especially if) you merely engage in utilitarian calculations. But what about the worth of that motivation itself? Even if it is understandable, at what point does the anguished cry of a mother for a "little girl" who has resided in a bed for over fifteen years become, well, possessive? This is not a criticism; such possessiveness is part of our nature (and the natural world as well--as Lewis's angel gently told the soul of the defensive mother when she trumpeted her devotion to her children as something noble and deeply humane, "tigresses feel that way too!"). But is it a good way to articulate and construct and enlist people into a movement for life? I doubt it. Those teen-agers with the red tape over their mouths, silently shouting "Life!" to those who pass by--I would not critique the purity of their intent for a moment. But when the movement which makes use of their intentions is one which separates concern for the unborn from concern for the born, which disaggregates social policy governing feeding tubes from that which governs food stamps, which rushes to engage the federal government to give Terri Schiavo every therapeutic measure, but provides no therapy for those who already lack such...well, perhaps what we have here isn't wrongheadedness, isn't crass manipulation, but defect. Something cultish, engaged in a selective and derivative witnessing, rather than something broad and decent. I defer to no one in my horror of abortion, but to make abortion and abortion alone (or euthanasia and euthanasia alone, or even just this case or that case but not all the sundry--and expensive!--cases in between) the measure of one's seamless garment of life is to wear something frayed and threadbare. (To say nothing of the fact that such garments are unlikely to be thick and strong enough to resist their appropriation by dangerous, self-deluded grandstanders like Randall Terry. Pro-lifers will have a hard time denying that such men are part of their base if they themselves don't notice or take care to make certain their seamless garment already covers all possible bases.)

Why do progressives like myself knock ourselves out trying to inject moral and religious values--not just respect for such, but the concerns and positions themselves--into the left? Because we strongly fear that the culture of life won't go anywhere unless it is taken up by people inclined to view more than a few select threads; such sewing does not a seamless garment make. My heart goes out to the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo and everyone torn apart by this case; my mind tells me that such focus, such pre-occupation, such hysterics, only lead to a kind of idolatry, a distraction and defection from larger, inseparable issues. What we have allowed to develop in America isn't a culture of death, but a culture where "life" is associated with a few (very crucial, yet also very distinct) topics, and so long as society allows whosoever is so concerned to play with those threads, it can continue on its merry way, uncontested. I can't guarantee what a truly progressive, pro-life society would look like, but I strongly suspect it wouldn't involve grateful Christians singing the praises of Tom DeLay. If he's today's culture of life champion, then the culture of life has very low aims indeed.


Anonymous said...

Very nice post Russell. I come from a very different angle on much of this stuff, but your post is excellent. 

Posted by theCoach

Anonymous said...

I echo the previous comment, entirely.

Also, I was struck by these remarks in particular:

“My heart goes out to the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo and everyone torn apart by this case; my mind tells me that such focus, such pre-occupation, such hysterics, only lead to a kind of idolatry, a distraction and defection from larger, inseparable issues.”

- and their relevance to the subject of your other current posts, viz. the return of (a crude version of) retributive justice, and in particular how the rising profile of victims’ families figures in this. One can sympathise utterly with victims’ families, and yet worry about their being cast as spokespersons or activists. It may be good for them (in a therapeutic sense – though I wonder about this, for some of the same reasons you take from Lewis); but I doubt it is good for the debate. The assumption is that they speak with unmatched moral authority (or authenticity?). But they can also – entirely excusably – contribute to ‘a distraction and defection from larger issues’.  

Posted by mc

Anonymous said...

Very nice pair of posts. A key link between them, I believe, is the curious union of the personal and the political in the United States. The particular experience, or personal feeling of loss take on, in so many ways authenticaing and legitimating functions in our public sphere. As a result matters which should have public, universal meaning become the ownership of the few who 'know what it's like'. The intelligence expert who has labored for decades to keep the country safe from harm must defer to the moral authority of the 9/11 families. 

Posted by Jeremiah J.

Anonymous said...

This is by the far the most thoughtful and compassionate post on the Schiavo case that I have read.

For that reason, I am hesitant to split hairs with a small part of it. But I still find myself unconvinced by attempts to undermine Michael Schiavo's credibility by arguing that he has left his wife "emotionally" if not legally. In the first place, if this argument holds, then why has he not left her legally? That would be easy enough to do. I agree with you that it is impossible to know the motivations of any of the most intimate actors in this case (though the motivations of political demagogues are easier to guess). But I can at least imagine a man who, distraught by the personal tragedy of watching his wife descend into a vegetative state, seeks solace in a new relationship, but who also loves his wife enough to ensure that her wishes were carried out. I'm not saying that I know Michael Schiavo is that man, but why assume that he is not? I find it hard to see anyone who has stayed voluntarily attached to this case as purely selfish. However motivated, his actions seem to me to constitute real sacrifices of privacy and self-interest.

I read the link you provided that insists otherwise. But I'm still not convinced. The chronology given in these kinds of arguments are very murky to me. For instance, the page you cite insinuates that Michael tried to help Terri until doctors told him it was futile. How is that evidence of bad faith? And it seems to me that all of the other supposed indictments on his character draw from periods after this point of no return.

I don't mean to nitpick, though. There's been enough of that on this issue throughout the blogosphere. So I'll close by thanking you again for a very thoughtful post. 

Posted by Caleb

Anonymous said...

What is it about a cry to save one's child from a wrongful death by starvation that is possessive? I confess I don't see what's possessive or defective in the love and attention given by the Schindlers for their still-living daughter. To reduce the love they show for their still living child to the defective attachment one might have to a fetish object is to completely dehumanize Terri. It isn't possessiveness--or at least there's no reason to think it is possessiveness--that causes them to insist on justice for their daughter. The idea that a properly ordered love for another involves abandoning them to an unjust death, so as to avoid even the appearnce of overbearing concern, is ridiculous.

It may be that the culture of life has low aims in the US. But it is failing to reach even those. The reaction to the Schiavo case is more frightening than even the case itself. I'd never imagined such an outpouring for death, but here it is. All the legal niceties can be swept away (as they were in the Florida courts), and we're left with, who would want to live like that? And the related question, from putative allies: who would let their child live like that? The preference for death is everywhere, and it has a logic of its own.


Posted by Thomas

Anonymous said...

Something cultish, engaged in a selective and derivative witnessing, rather than something broad and decent. 

Very true. But I see no one pointing out that most of the pro-life warriors are totally silent on the death penalty, thoughtlessly applied by Dubya. Presumption of life?? 

Posted by Matthew M Cand

Anonymous said...

Best peice I've read yet on the whole issue. I'm right on the fence with you.  

Posted by Lisa