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We're Walking Right into a Trap

Misleading Shiavo Polls Blind Progressives for New Stealth Campaign

by Dr. TERESA WHITEHURST

From the Famous Last Words Department:

"I think it’s also possible that Frist and DeLay have seriously misread their Red State base. For one thing, the pollsters and political scientists I know say the Schiavo case is unusual…"The issue is a risky one," says Utica-based pollster John Zogby. "Who emerges the winner?" Just seeing the matter debated makes most people cringe. And though the Schiavo case might rev the religious right into spasms of political fervor, I can’t imagine it creating waves of excitement beyond that." Frist and DeLay’s trap has another catch, Newsday, 3/24/05

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but the Schiavo case could be the beginning of the end of democracy as we know it. Hyperbole? Hysteria? Paranoia? I certainly hope so.

But I see a trap.

Buttressed by polls claiming that Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of political interventions by Bush, Frist and others to reinsert Terri Shiavo’s feeding tube, progressives feel reassured by the courts’ rebuffs to her parents’ appeals, funded as they are by anti-abortion groups and pushed through by the Bush brothers, Frist, DeLay, and other rightwing power grabbers.

On left-leaning websites and blogs you’ll see discussions about "death with dignity", "the quality of life", or even "the painlessness of starvation". Now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case, the verdict appears to be in: The conservatives were wrong about public opinion. They overplayed their hand and will pay dearly for their reckless abuse of the system. Progressives, believing that the masses now side with them, are calmly walking into what may one day be known as the well-laid snare that ushered in a new era of theocratic one-party rule.

I hate to see it happen. And it doesn’t have to. But first we have to think more clearly-as do our political representatives. The polls themselves are traps, and I won’t indulge in conspiracy theorizing here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the polls were designed to lull progressives (especially progressive politicians) into believing that supporting Terri’s starvation is perfectly safe politically, and will not result in voter backlash after she dies.

"Do Not Think There Are No Crocodiles Because the Water is Calm"

Mayan Proverb

I’ll list the misleading aspects of the polls in the addendum to this article. For now, let’s consider some important things about the Schiavo case, human nature, and history.

Never underestimate the power of repeated imagery.

The videotape of Ms. Schiavo is becoming firmly planted in the American mind, just as the 9/11 bombings became engrained through repeated viewings of the same footage. Functioning somewhat like brainwashing, the repeated exposure to stress-provoking imagery arouses negative feelings such as fear, powerlessness, horror, anxiety, pity or anger.
Such "vicarious trauma" burdens viewers, who handle it in one of two ways: numbing/avoidance/minimization or agitation/obsession/exaggeration. Those who are becoming "numbed out" to the images of Ms. Schiavo’s real-time starvation-a gruesome reality-TV event for which none of us were prepared-will either avoid the news, crack jokes, or minimize the significance of her dying ("they say starvation doesn’t hurt" or "people die all the time-get over it!"). But the many Americans who are growing increasingly distressed (with accompanying feelings of powerlessness) are likely to undergo a personal transformation wherein their more moderate views are discarded and they begin to identify with angry, extremist persons or groups.

One highly personal event-especially wherein one person/one name captures the public’s emotional attention-can function as a "tipping point", shifting public opinion to the far right in societies already infected with quasi-fascist framing of national crises (see George Lakoff’s work on framing). Here’s an admittedly extreme but nonetheless pertinent example of the power of one well-publicized person/name to tip a citizenry towards an acceptance of authoritarian values:

"To understand fully how fascist regimes worked, we must dig down to the level of ordinary people and examine the banal choices they made in their daily routines. Making such choices meant accepting an apparent lesser evil or averting the eyes from some excesses that seemed not too damaging in the short term, even acceptable piecemeal, but which cumulatively added up to monstrous results. For example, consider the reactions of ordinary Germans to the events of Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass).

"During the night of November 9, 1938, incited by an incendiary speech to party leaders by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and in reaction to the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a young Polish Jew enraged by the recent expulsion of his immigrant parents from Germany, Nazi Party militants rampaged through the Jewish communities of GermanyIf we can understand the failure of the judicial system or of religious or civilian authorities, or of citizen opposition to put any brakes on Hitlerwe have begun to understand the wider circles of individual and institutional acquiescence within which a militant minority was able to free itself sufficiently from constraints to be able to carry out genocide in a heretofore sophisticated and civilized country."

Robert O. Paxon, The Anatomy of Fascism (2004) (emphasis added)

While progressives slumber, the radical right is plotting many moves ahead on the political chessboard.

There’s no better time for political positioning than when progressives’ defenses are down and all seems well, a state of affairs that the misleading opinion polls of last week made possible. While progressives assume that the legal and democratic system "still works" because conservatives’ appeals have been repeatedly rebuffed, the crafty right is aiming to keep the Bush family in power by being the only sympathetic voice. Progressives, "states-rights Republicans" and moderates aren’t making the fuss, in fact they condemn the parents’ attempts to feed their daughter.

By siding with her husband, we shoot ourselves in the foot in two ways: (1) we are reinforcing patriarchal nuclear family values as ensconced in the conservative circles ("when you marry, you leave your family and cleave to your spouse") and in the US legal system, wherein the spouse automatically has more authority over the incapacitated individual than his or her family of origin, and (2) we willingly give up all claims to supporting real "family values" (the extended family, not just the Dobson/Falwell nuclear family) such that we lay ourselves open to inaccurate but persuasive charges that we’re "anti-family".

Progressives have been conspicuously silent regarding the family’s suffering, and most won’t even consider her parents’ claims that Terri might not want to be starved to death, even in her present condition. The radical right, however, is busy endearing itself to the public-all those millions of average Joes who get all their news from TV, and are watching Terri’s withering little body, sad face, desperate parents and the conservative leaders lending them sympathy and support. For the viewing public, I’m afraid it’s Michael Schiavo, the man who’s forcing his will on Terri and her family, who’s speaking for us, and for liberal/progressive values.

Come election time, the masses will remember who’s who. If we don’t speak up and speak up now, here’s the equation that millions of voters will remember at the polling booth, just as the Bush administration hopes: Sympathetic to dying woman and her family=Conservatives. Unsympathetic to dying woman and her family=Liberals.

Skeptical? Here’s a taste of what’s to come:

"Several associates noted that he had been devoutly religious longer than President Bush, and even critics said his efforts – prodding the Florida Legislature and the courts and defying much of the electorate – were rooted in a deep-seated opposition to abortion and euthanasia rather than in political positioning.

"Yet inevitably, the events of recent days have fed the mystique of Mr. Bush as a reluctant inheritor of perhaps America’s most famous dynasty since the Adams family two centuries ago. He has assumed a very high profile in this polarizing case just as Republicans are contemplating the void that will be left when President Bush begins his walk off the stage in two years or so."

In a Polarizing Case, Jeb Bush Cements His Political Stature, New York Times, 3/25/05. Addendum: How End-of-Life Polls Underestimate American Outrage

The first and biggest problem is the disconnect between what the poll asks and what people see on TV. The CBS poll, for instance, asks respondents their opinion on removing feeding tubes from people who are "in a coma" (which Ms. Schiavo obviously is not) or have "no brain activity" (which appears not to be the case on the video that’s aired repeatedly on every news channel). The ABC poll describes Ms. Schiavo as having "no consciousness" (she certainly appears to be looking around, albeit with an empty expression most of the time-but this is not what most people think of when they imagine "no consciousness", which sounds like "being unconscious", as when under general anesthesia, with eyes closed and no movement), and of being "on life support" (technically she is not, and now that the video is playing constantly, everyone can see that she doesn’t seem hooked up to "life support").

These are serious flaws that will become more apparent with time, and please note that the polls were taken 3/20-22, after which the public has been saturated with new claims, videotape, etc., that doesn’t fit with the descriptions used in the polls to assess public opinion. Progressives must face facts: For the vast majority of people, appearances matter far more than facts. Anyone who thinks that Americans-the bulk of whom still believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 bombings because that’s the impression they got from TV-will believe doctors over the evidence before their eyes (yes, even if that evidence is misleading) is suffering from a dangerously naïve belief in American rationality.

Polls do not necessarily reflect reality. It simply doesn’t make sense that the huge evangelical bloc that voted for Bush-which is predominantly anti-abortion-can watch Terri die in real time on the ultimate reality TV horror show without becoming terribly upset and feeling conflict (to say the least) about this event vis a vis their avowed pro-life position. What’s interesting to me is the order of the questions in the CBS poll: the feeding-tube questions immediately followed questions about abortion. Think about it.

Dr. TERESA WHITEHURST is a clinical psychologist and writer. Her most recent book describes the nonviolent guidance of children,Jesus on Parenting: 10 Essential Principles that Will Transform Your Family, Baker Books, 9/2004.

You can contact her at DrTeresa@JesusontheFamily.org