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Culture of Life or Culture of Living Death?

From Terry Schiavo to Iraq

by RAHUL MAHAJAN

The mass mobilization and media circus surrounding the case of the unfortunate Terri Schiavo offer a rare view of current American culture and, in particular, of the "culture of life" that George W. Bush and the evangelical right wing are so fond of talking about. Right-wing Christians on the ground and right-wing Republicans in Congress have literally moved heaven and earth to save the life of a woman who has spent 15 years in a vegetative state and whose cerebral cortex is almost entirely gone. So far did this effort go that George W. Bush actually cut short a vacation at Crawford.

Before an extraordinary vote in Congress asserting the authority of the state over trifling private decisions like medical care, life, and death (and severely breaking legislative precedent, which suggests strongly that legislation is about general principles, not individual cases, which are to be left to the courts), Tom Delay said</a>, in impassioned tones, "If we do not act, she will die of thirst. However helpless, Mr. Speaker, she is alive. She is one of us, and this cannot stand." Exactly what quality of life Ms. Schiavo actually has is one under much debate, but there is no doubt that it is little to none compared to that of even a normal severely disabled person. This outpouring of compassion comes from the same man who, believe it or not, when called on to speak at a prayer breakfast for the tsunami victims, quotedMatthew 7:21-27 — the verse about the foolish man who built his house on sand and the wise man who built his house on a rock.

This unspeakably vile Bible-thumper, who could actually suggest in public that the tsunami victims deserved, suddenly discovers that he has a heart when it comes to saving the life of a women who has not exhibited anything beyond brain stem activity in 15 years.

These same people who believe so much in this culture of life and care so deeply about Ms. Schiavo and about every fetus seem completely untroubled by the fact that current Republican policies are consigning thousands of additional children in the United States to death every year. Not only has the infant mortality rate increased in the last couple of years, it is more than 10% higher than that of Cuba, a country that disposes of only a fraction of the resources this country can. According to Nicholas Kristof, if we had the infant mortality rate Cuba does, over 2200 American babies would be saved each year.

These people, and, it must be said, their opponents across the aisle, cared nothing about the over half a million children under the age of five who died as a result of the sanctions on Iraq, held on the country beyond all reason by U.S. pressure.

It is these very same people who care so much about the sanctity of life who held ecstatic religious rites before the destruction of Fallujah in November, and one of whom said, "The enemy has got a face – he’s called Satan, he’s in Falluja, and we’re going to destroy him." Terry Schiavo apparently still has humanity even without meaningful brain activity, but the 300,000 residents of Fallujah, most of whom have yet to return to their ruined city, have none to these adherents of the culture of life.

These are the very people who, in unguarded moments on talk radio and even TV can be found suggesting that we really need to exterminate the vile Arabs because apparently they don’t venerate the same God that we supposedly do.

And, in the right context, these same people, or at least George W. Bush, are just fine with having the state terminate care to a patient against the guardian’s will, as happened just a few days ago</a> with a poor black baby in Houston, Texas — killed under the auspices of the Texas Futile Care Law, signed by Bush when he was governor of Texas.

This right wing apparently has a belief in preserving life only where that life is almost devoid of meaning — and where the HMO industry doesn’t interfere. It’s not a culture of life; it’s a culture of living death.

And the absurdity and deep offensiveness of this new culture goes well beyond even such fundamental questions. This group of authoritarian statists who don’t believe in freedom of speech, don’t believe in international law or indeed in any restraint on the power of their Christian nation, who want to repudiate the Enlightenment and go back to the harsh world of the Middle Ages, dominated by a stern father in the sky who has made life a torment to us all and the world a vale of tears, somehow keep on telling us that they’re on a crusade for freedom and democracy in the world.

Life is not the only term they have drained of meaning. Democracy is defended only after it has been redefined to mean American hegemony plain and simple; I doubt that Bush, his advisers, and his evangelical dittoheads even understand that the two concepts are distinct in principle. "Freedom" is now redefined to mean not submission to Rousseau’s idealized "general will" but submission to the conservative, militaristic state — and the ability to participate in carefully scripted "political discussions" with the president, if your views exactly accord with his and you are roughly as fulsome in your praise of him as say a Russian under Stalin (in his later years).

In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky’s movie Network made famous the phrase, "We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more." For the last 30 years, unfortunately, it has been the bigots, the crusaders, and the so inaptly named "right-to-lifers" who have been mad as hell and the rest of us have had to take it. Well, enough is enough. Let’s get mad as hell too.

RAHUL MAHAJAN is publisher of the weblog Empire Notes, with regularly updated commentary on U.S. foreign policy, the occupation of Iraq, and the state of the American Empire. He has been to occupied Iraq twice, and was in Fallujah during the siege in April. His most recent book is Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond. He can be reached at rahul@empirenotes.org