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November 27, 2004

Earthly Rewards for the Christian Voter

By Katha Pollitt
In The Nation, December 6, 2004

katha_pollitt.jpgSitting alone in a classroom at a Catholic all-boys high school this weekend (don't ask), I passed the time by browsing through the health textbooks stacked on the window sill. Sure enough: no discussion of contraception (condoms are mentioned, but not described, in connection with people who have HIV); abortion, still legal here in the United States, isn't even listed in the glossary. Sex itself is discussed only in the vaguest terms, with emphasis on how to avoid it. This wasn't a special Catholic-boy textbook, either-Health: Skills for Wellness is one of the bestselling health texts in the country.
Think about that when you read that "moral values" voters will get no payback for helping Bush to victory. Tom Frank, whose much-discussed What's the Matter With Kansas? is a colorful guide to the wing nuts of the Sunflower State, is the chief exponent of this view. Year after year, says Frank, working-class voters fall for fire-breathing crusaders who promise to crack down on abortion, gay rights, porn, Darwin and so on, but once in office all they do is cut the taxes of rich people and shovel favors to corporations. Not only do these right-wing radicals vote against their own economic interests, Frank argues, they're suckers, too.
Has the Christian right really so little to show for its self-sacrifice? "John Kerry's defeat notwithstanding," Frank Rich argued in his New York Times column recently, "it's blue America, not red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a landslide." So you might think if you watch a lot of TV, where, as Rich often points out, hedonism, vulgarity and excess flourish more lavishly with each passing season--and nowhere more so than on Fox, the right's own network. It's probably true that when humongous amounts of corporate money unite with the national longing for wardrobe malfunctions of every kind, the mores of small-town Kansas don't stand much of a chance.
It may also be true that the radical right will never achieve its stated legal goals--the overturning of Roe v. Wade, passage of the Human Life Amendment, a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage, the reinstatement of prayer and Bible reading in the schools--much less such dystopian dreams as making Christianity the national religion, abolishing public schools and banning the Pill and divorce. But that's like saying the left got nothing from FDR because it didn't get socialism. The fact is, anyone who thinks the GOP is stiffing its "moral values" backers hasn't been paying attention: George Bush, for one, has been paying them back for the past four years. He's promoted a raft of anti-choice legislation--including the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and a law making it easier for health professionals to deny women abortions and even birth control for "reasons of conscience." He's packed the federal bench with antichoice reactionaries, and he's seeded the federal bureaucracy and the government's international agencies with hard-line social conservatives like the faith-healing Dr. W. David Hager of the FDA reproductive health panel. These people wield immense power over regulations and funding and the flow of information. It did not take a Senate majority to keep emergency contraception from being sold over the counter; all it took was compliant Mark McClellan, willing to overlook the recommendation of his own expert panel and the overwhelming weight of medical opinion.
Bush has flat-funded Title X, which pays for birth control for poor women, while heaping federal dollars on abstinence-until-marriage programs, $138 million in fiscal 2004 and a requested $272 million for the next year. He's appointed delegates to UN conferences who have done their best to wreck global consensus on reproductive health, the rights of women and children, and AIDS. Fully one-third of the $15 billion budget for his international AIDS initiative goes to abstinence-only programs, cutting out established workers in the field in favor of Christian groups with zero experience. Even though his faith-based initiative tanked, Christian entrepreneurs--pastors, counselors, creators of "educational" materials, inspirational speakers, anti-sex impresarios--have gotten loads of federal money, with more to come. As a bonus, if you visit the Parks Department gift shop at the Grand Canyon, you can now buy Grand Canyon: A Different View, a creationist volume that claims that the earth couldn't possibly be more than a few thousand years old.
The cultural right may eventually find itself stymied at the federal level--although it may also luck out with Bush's upcoming Supreme Court appointments, and with such Talibanesque new senators as Tom Coburn, who wants to execute abortion providers, and Jim De Mint, who doesn't want gays or unmarried mothers teaching school. Most of government happens in the states, though, and in some the right is doing quite well. Eleven states passed gay-marriage bans. Four states--Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin--are poised to require that evolution be taught as an unproven hypothesis, with Kansas, where creationists just won back control of the school board, probably to follow. Florida is the proud home of a faith-based prison. In Mississippi, women who want abortions must be told, falsely, that there's a link between abortion and breast cancer. In Texas, due to a little-noted regulatory change reported in this space last spring, there is now exactly one clinic where a woman can get an abortion after sixteen weeks. I could go on and on. Some of these victories for the radical right may seem minor, or bizarre, or symbolic, but they add up.
I too believe that in the long run equality and tolerance and liberal sexual mores will win out over repressive Christian "moral values." After all, civil union, which no one had even heard of a few years ago, is now supported by two-thirds of the population. But before the tables turn on the Christian right, how many biology classes will be clouded with creationist nonsense? How many young people will suffer STDs and HIV and pregnancy because they learned in school that condoms "don't work"--or didn't hear about them at all? How many women will carry disastrous pregnancies to term? It's not much comfort that Pat Robertson can't ban Trading Spouses.

Publicado por VB às 05:36 PM

November 06, 2004

Jesus and the FDA

In TIME Magazine, web exclusive, Saturday, Oct. 05, 2002
A quiet battle is raging over the Bush Administration's plan to appoint a scantily credentialed doctor, whose writings include a book titled As Jesus Cared for Women: Restoring Women Then and Now, to head an influential Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel on women's health policy. Sources tell Time that the agency's choice for the advisory panel is Dr. W. David Hager, an obstetrician-gynecologist who also wrote, with his wife Linda, Stress and the Woman's Body, which puts "an emphasis on the restorative power of Jesus Christ in one's life" and recommends specific Scripture readings and prayers for such ailments as headaches and premenstrual syndrome. Though his resume describes Hager as a University of Kentucky professor, a university official says Hager's appointment is part time and voluntary and involves working with interns at Lexington's Central Baptist Hospital, not the university itself. In his private practice, two sources familiar with it say, Hager refuses to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women. Hager did not return several calls for comment.
FDA advisory panels often have near-final say over crucial health questions. If Hager becomes chairman of the 11-member Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, he will lead its study of hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, one of the biggest controversies in health care. Some conservatives are trying to use doubts about such therapy to discredit the use of birth-control pills, which contain similar compounds. The panel also made the key recommendation in 1996 that led to approval of the "abortion pill," RU-486—a decision that abortion foes are still fighting. Hager assisted the Christian Medical Association last August in a "citizens' petition" calling upon the FDA to reverse itself on RU-486, saying it has endangered the lives and health of women.
Hager was chosen for the post by FDA senior associate commissioner Linda Arey Skladany, a former drug-industry lobbyist with longstanding ties to the Bush family. Skladany rejected at least two nominees proposed by FDA staff members: Donald R. Mattison, former dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, and Michael F. Greene, director of maternal- fetal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Despite pressure from inside the FDA to make the appointment temporary, sources say, Skladany has insisted that Hager get a full four-year term. FDA spokesman Bill Pierce called Hager "well qualified."

Publicado por VB às 08:42 PM

November 05, 2004

Reinventing democracy

By José Saramago
August 2004
So while the rich may legitimately participate in the democratic government of the polis, the unchallengeable principle of proportionality means they will always be in the minority. Aris totle was right in one respect: the rich have never been more numerous than the poor. Despite that, they have always governed the world or pulled the strings of those who governed.
Any textbook of constitutional law defines democracy as "an internal organisation of the state in which the source and exercise of political power lie with the people, enabling the governed to govern in turn through their elected representatives". To accept such a definition, with its precision that borders on an exact science, is to ignore the infinite gradation of pathological conditions affecting the body politic at any moment.
The fact that democracy can be defined so precisely does not mean it really works. Look at the history of political ideas and you discover two things often dismissed as irrelevant to the modern world. The first is that democracy appeared in Athens in the 5th century BC; it was based on the participation of all free men in the government of the city, the direct attribution of office through a mixed system of elections and lots, and the right of citizens to vote and submit proposals in popular assemblies.
The second is that the democratic system was not successfully imposed on Rome, the successor to Greek civilisation, because of the inordinate economic power of the landed aristocracy, who saw it as a direct enemy. Although historical ana logies are risky, it is hard to avoid asking whether modern economic empires are not also radical opponents of democracy, even if a pretence at it is maintained for the moment.
Political authorities are concerned to divert our attention from the obvious conflict at the heart of the electoral process between political choice, as represented by a vote, and the abdication of civic responsibility. At the moment when the ballot paper is dropped into the box, the voter transfers into other hands the political power he possessed until then as a member of the community of citizens, and he gets nothing in exchange except promises made during the election campaign.
Let us consider what our democracy really is and what purpose it serves, before claiming, in accordance with the obsession of our time, that it should be compulsory and universal. The caricature of democracy that we want to impose on the rest of the world is not Greek democracy but a system the Romans would have been happy to impose on their territories. Democracy of this kind, undermined by economic and financial factors, would have changed the minds of the landowners of Latium and turned them into ardent democrats.
Since I have strong ideological inclinations (3), some readers may doubt my democratic convictions. But what I am arguing for is a truly demo cratic world that could become a reality 2,000 years after Socrates, Plato and Aristotle: the Greek dream of a harmonious society making no distinction between masters and slaves, as conceived by innocent souls who still believe in perfection.
Some people will claim that suffrage in western democracies is not based on race or tax assessment, that the vote of a rich citizen with blond hair counts for no more than that of a poor, dark-skinned citizen. If appearances are believed, we have reached the height of democracy. But the brutal reality of the world makes nonsense of this. What we always meet is an authoritarian body clothed in the finest trappings of democracy.
The right to vote, an expression of political will, is also a renunciation of will, which the voter delegates to a candidate. The act of voting is, at least for part of the population, a temporary renunciation of personal political action, which is put into abeyance until the next election, when the process of delegation begins again and repeats itself to the same effect. Despite the vain hopes of the electors, their renunciation of the political is often the first step in a process that enables the elected minority to pursue aims in no way democratic and sometimes illegal. In principle, no one imagines voting for people known to be corrupt. Yet we know from experience that higher spheres of national and international power are peopled by criminals and their agents. No examination of ballot papers would reveal any sign of the relations between states and economic groups whose criminal activities and acts of war lead our planet to disaster.
Experience confirms that political democracy is of little use unless it is based on economic and cultural democracy. Yet economic democracy is now a despised idea, replaced by an obscenely triumphant cult of the market. Cultural democracy has been replaced by the no less obscene idea of industrialised mass culture, a pseudo-melting pot that conceals the predominance of one culture over all others.
We think we have progressed but we are regressing. Talk of democracy will become absurd if we persist in identifying it with institutions called parties, parliaments and governments, without examining the use those institutions make of the votes that bring them to power. A democracy incapable of self-criticism is doomed to paralysis.
I am not against parties (I am a militant member of a political party). Nor do I despise parliaments, though I would appreciate them more if they devoted themselves to action rather than words. I haven’t invented a formula that will enable people to live happily without a government. But I refuse to accept that we can only govern, and want to be governed, according to the current model of democracy - a model that can only be described as incomplete and incoherent.
True democracy should begin with what is immediately to hand - the country of our birth, the society we work in, the street we live on. Without that, all the underlying reasoning, the theoret ical foundation and practical operation of the system will be vitiated. It is no use purifying the water in the taps if the reservoir is contaminated.
Power has always been the central issue of all human organisation. The main problem has always been to determine who holds it, by what means it was got, how it is to be used, its aims and methods. If democracy really were government of the people, for the people and by the people, there would be no further discussion. But only a cynic would claim that all is for the best in the world. Democracy has been called "the worst system of government, except for all the others". No one seems to realise that resigned acceptance of the least bad is a brake on the search for something better.
Democratic power is by nature temporary. It is dependent on electoral stability, ideological flux and class interests. It is a barometer that records the variation of political will in society. But it is obvious that there have been many apparently radical political upheavals resulting in changes of government that have not been followed by the fundamental social, economic and cultural transformations that regime change had led us to expect.
To describe a government as socialist or social-democratic, or even conservative or liberal, and to apply the word power to it, is a cosmetic operation. Real - economic - power lies elsewhere. We perceive it only dimly. It slips away whenever we approach it yet hits hard if we attempt to loosen its grasp and subordinate it to the public interest. Citizens do not elect governments so that those governments can serve up the citizens to the market on a platter. But the market conditions governments to make a present of their citizens. In our era of free-market globalisation, the market is the super-instrument of the only powers worthy of the name, economic and financial power. That power is not democratic: it was not elected by the people; it is not managed by the people; and the people’s happiness is not its aim.
These are elementary truths. Political strategists of whatever shade impose a safe silence so that no one dare imply that we are continuing to nurture a lie and act as willing accomplices. What we call democracy looks more and more like government by the rich and less and less like government by the people. We cannot deny the obvious: the masses of the poor called upon to vote are never called upon to govern. Assuming the poor could form a government in which they were the majority, as Aristotle imagined, they would lack the means necessary to change the organisation of the universe of the rich who dominate and control them.
"Western democracy" has entered a phase of retrograde transformation that it cannot halt and will foreseeably bring about its negation. No one need take responsibility for killing it: it is committing suicide. What is to be done? Should we attempt to reform it? But we know that reform, as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (4), means changing everything so that it can stay the same. Renew it? Which period of history would be a viable basis for rebuilding, in modern materials, a system on the way to perdition? Ancient Greece? The merchant republics of the Middle Ages? English 17th-century liberalism? The French Age of Enlightenment? A pointless question.
So what should we do? Let us stop considering democracy as an immutable value. In a world in which everything can be questioned, only democracy remains taboo. António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970), the dictator who governed Portugal for more than 40 years, said: "We do not question God, fatherland or family." Today, we happily question God and fatherland, and the only reason that we do not question the family is that it is questioning itself. Only democracy is not questioned. We must question it at every opportunity. Unless we discover a way to re-invent it, we shall lose not only democracy but all hope of seeing human rights respected on earth some day. That would be the greatest failure of our time, a betrayal that would mark humanity for ever.

(1) Aristotle’s Politics, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Clarendon Press.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Saramago is a member of the Portuguese Communist party.
(4) The novel Il Gattopardo by the Sicilian writer di Lampedusa (1896-1957), first published in 1958 (English translation by Archibald Colquhoun, 1961) contains the famous line: "If we want things to stay the same, they are going to have to change."

Publicado por VB às 05:29 PM