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March 24, 2005

The Left and Terri Schiavo

In an open letter to progressive bloggers, Dave exhorts us to, well, see the forest in the Schiavo case.

You're nitpicking details and ignoring the larger narrative. They are "trying to save this poor woman." They are "defending this poor woman's family." Meanwhile, you are pointing out discrepancies in the finer details. "What about her husband?" you ask when they talk about her parents. "She can't feel pain," you say, when they accuse Democrats of starving her to death. How many people hear that they are trying to save this poor woman? Everyone. How many people, over time, will pay attention to the nitpicking details?


We're arguing the details of their lies instead of reaching the broader, general public with a larger narrative that reinforces public acceptance of the benefits of underlying Progressive values.

I'm inclined to agree. But you know how we got into this position? Because we ignored this case for too long. We were vaguely aware that Jeb Bush was raising some kind of Orc army in Florida. But we didn't give it much thought.

The "leftist murderer" meme predated any sustained progressive interest in the Schiavo case. In retrospect it seems obvious that the right hand-picked the helpless Terri Schiavo as a vector for their hate. Her case was perfect: tragic and doomed. For now, she's a good excuse to pontificate about the sanctity of life. Soon, her death will be conveniently blamed on murderous liberals.

In the spirit of seeing the forest, here are some plot points for the larger narrative:

1. Liberals are the champions of the weak. The weakest members of our society have as much right to make decisions about their medical care as the strongest, loudest bullies. That's why liberals support the rule of law and the integrity of the judicial process.

2. Liberals know that it's wrong to ram a tube into an unconsenting woman's body. But "no" doesn't mean no in the culture of life. Listen to how the pro-tubers talk about Terri. They just know that she's asking for it. They swear it's for her own good. She said "no," but she didn't really mean it. There is a slippery slope here, but it's not the slope from refusing medical treatment to the wholesale elimination of the lame. It's the slope that starts with "erring on the side of life" and slips towards state oversight of biological functions (especially the reproductive ones).

3. Florida isn't a slave state. It is supremely offensive to suggest that Michael Schiavo should give Terri back to her parents. He's not Terri's owner, he's her husband and her guardian. There is clear and convincing evidence that Terri didn't want a tube. There is no evidence that she'd want to be intubated, divorced, and shipped home to mommy, daddy and their creepy cabal of quacks and itinerant friars. Notice the subtext: Terri's desire to control her own body doesn't matter, nice girls sacrifice their dignity to spare the feelings of others.

4. The Schiavo case is about basic fairness. It's about how everyone ought to play by the same rules. No special dispensations, no do-overs, no trials by legislation for the favored few.

5. If anyone needs a sister Souljah moment, it's the pro-tube faction. If the Schindlers are decent people, they will distance themselves from the murderous zealots who threaten the lives of judges. However, nothing in their previous behavior leads me to expect that they will stand on principle. They are more than happy to ruin Michael Schiavo's life with unsubstantiated rumors of abuse, and even attempted murder. They care so little for their daughter's memory or her marriage that they are willing to use the intimate details of her marriage as ammunition, they schemed to parade her contorted body before Congress.

6. The left stands for reason over emotion. Principle over passion. Compassion over cheap sentimentality. And most importantly, for universality. We care about making the system better for everyone. The Schindlers have elevated themselves to the status of holy victims. They are narcissists who believe that their anguish takes precedence over all moral and legal principles. Progressives want to protect Medicare so that all Americans have health care options. We recoil at the Texas "Futile Care Act" because we believe that intimate medical decisions should be made by patients, their families, and caring doctors, not by cash-strapped institutions. And unlike the right wing, we're willing to put our money where our mouth is.

7. The left has the audacious pro-life attitude that healthcare and medical research are more important than tax cuts for the rich. Gawdy spectacle is cheap, but saving lives is expensive. On the left we care about life beyond reality TV.


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» Storming the Hospice from Kieran Healy's Weblog
Bloggers with more patience than me have been dealing with the tragic story of Terri Schiavo. Lindsay Beyerstein has been... [Read More]

» Reason and Compassion from Fallenmonk
It boils down to valuing reason over emotion and recognizing that there are practical limits to everything. [Read More]

» What She Said about Terri Schiavo from :: Links
What She Said about Terri Schiavo... [Read More]

» Schiavo from The Great Whatsit
I keep wanting to post on the Schiavo case and the role of emotionality in American politics and culture, but for now let me just direct you to these spot-on comments about how liberals should be talking about the issue. "Jeb Bush was raising some kin... [Read More]

» from Mark A. R. Kleiman
Terri Schiavo shouldn't be "given back to her parents" because she isn't property. [Read More]

» Her body, her self from Mark A. R. Kleiman
Terri Schiavo shouldn't be "given back to her parents" because she isn't property. [Read More]

» Her body, her self from Mark A. R. Kleiman
Terri Schiavo shouldn't be "given back to her parents" because she isn't property. [Read More]

» Terri Schiavo Is Not An Object from Agnosticism/Atheism
A common question we hear from the Christian Right is why not just give Terri Schiavo to her parents, the Schindlers. Michael Schiavo won't have to deal with her, the Schindlers get to keep her, and everyone will be happy.... [Read More]

» Her body, her self from Mark A. R. Kleiman
Terri Schiavo shouldn't be "given back to her parents" because she isn't property. [Read More]

» Persons, corpses, and toasters from Mark A. R. Kleiman
Can it really be true that Steven Landsburg can't tell the difference? [Read More]

» Persons, corpses, and toasters from Mark A. R. Kleiman
Can it really be true that Steven Landsburg can't tell the difference? [Read More]

» Persons, corpses, and toasters from Mark A. R. Kleiman
Can it really be true that Steven Landsburg can't tell the difference? [Read More]


Great points, Lindsay. But is it really true that "She [meaning Terri] said no"? I thought that before her heart attack, Terri had never said anything one way or the other, but that her husband was trying to guess what she would want.

Daryl, you need to read the site for full background, but here's the relevant part:

Was Michael the only person who testified about Terri's supposed statements on her views about living on life support?

No, others did as well, and when making the decision in the case, the trial judge took into account all of that testimony and additional evidence. As the Second District explained:

We note that the guardianship court's original order expressly relied upon and found credible the testimony of witnesses other than Mr. Schiavo or the Schindlers. We recognize that Mrs. Schiavo's earlier oral statements were important evidence when deciding whether she would choose in February 2000 to withdraw life-prolonging procedures. See ยง 765.401(3), Fla. Stat. (2000); In re Guardianship of Browning, 568 So. 2d 4, 16. Nevertheless, the trial judge, acting as her proxy, also properly considered evidence of Mrs. Schiavo's values, personality, and her own decision-making process.

dave is the one who's not seeing the forest here. a clear majority of the country is on our side on this one. 82% of the public was against congress ramming the schiavo act through monday night. the american people "get" the larger narrative and they are clearly and overwhelmingly siding with us.

our efforts pointing out the ugly details; the fake nobel nominations, the constitutional problems with the schiavo act, etc., are just adding to the general sense of unease that most americans already feel about the republican position on schiavo.

i think the real problem here is that dave, like most of us, are just not used to being in a position where we don't have to win over the public at large. on this issue we're actually squarely in the mainstream. the right's cries about saving poor terri are falling on deaf ears. they're the ones who need advice, not us.

Equally important, actions have spoken louder than words. We have proof who cannot be trusted with power, who will mislead and distort without shame to get what they want.

Somehow, this seems irrelevant to most of the commentary. They - the republican nuts - are a bunch of dirty rotten cheaters. They only got caught this time because it is an area of life the public is better informed than, say, how many nuclear weapons Saddam has, or, whether Osama bin Laden was at Torah Borah when American troops were ordered to hold up.

The Republican leadership has proven it lies and cheats and abuses state power to get what it wants. That is the issue. Not one life. Not a culture of life, but a culture of lying and cheating and abusing State Power with absolutely no shame.

This circus is another example of how the religious right is trying to advance their agenda by shoving their opinions down everybody's throats, no pun intended! It's another lame attempt by Tom DeLay to divert his ethical issues by focusing on the Schiavo case. They just don't care about her, just their political lives.

What I find most ironic is that the very thing Terri Schiavo had a problem with in life is the one thing that is being argued about..feeding her!

If Progressives had a strategic narrative to work from, it would not be a matter of having ignored this case until late in the game, it would be a matter of showing the public how the Progressive viewpoint FITS this case. That's how the Right is doing it. On a case-by-case basis they are able to explain how their underlying ideology is illustrated, because they have the ideology in place and they have the operatives ready to place each new case into the propaganda matrix.

There's a LOT more than just "coming up with a narrative" however. The Right has a funded network of "infrastructure" organizations. Over time they have developed this narrative, and the channels and operatives in place for communicating it. (They even spend tens of millions a year to train college students on how to communicate core right-wing ideology.)

Progressives have a number of narrow-interest organizations and have not yet come to understand the value of working together to explain how the narrower issues fit into a larger picture. And they have NO organizations in place dedicated only to promoting Progressive values to the general public. I think this is because there used to be a public consensus so we didn't NEED this. EVERYONE used to think it is moral to help the poor, for example. The Right came along with a plan to fracture that consensus, and that is what we are dealing with now. Now there are lots of people who think it is wrong to help the poor, for example, and no one out there explaining the underlyng reasons it IS moral...

The solution? For Progressives and their funders to understand that times have changed, and to understand how the Right operates. The next step is to start coordinating messaging and reaching the GENERAL public with core Progressive messaging. What I mean is that environmental organizations need to start talking about underlying Progressive values and how those relate to environmentalism. Unions need to start talking about underlying progressive values and how they relate to organized labor and worker's rights. Health care proponents need to start promoting underlying progressive values and then talking about how they relate to health care issues. And most of all we need central organizations whose mission is to reach the general public to promote core progressive ideals. The Right has Heritage, Cato, AEI, Hoover, and dozens of others designed JUST to preach core right-wing ideology to the general public.

But under it all is the understanding that fundamental progressive values tie it all together and we should all be promoting THAT first, and only after promoting Progressive values (and candidates) should we start talking ab out narrower issues. ALL the things we used to take for granted are under attack and we need to take a step back and start educating the public about basic civics and basic civility and basic community! Helping each other is GOOD - simple messages like that to counter the Right's messages that it is bad.

While I agree it's easy to get bogged down by the small details, we have to continue to keep addressing the facts. We live in the swiftboat type environment where if we don't attack on the facts the impression is left that "they aren't saying anything so it must be true".

There is so much misinformation on the Terri Schiavo situation, so very few people are willing to sit down and read the real facts because if they did? There would be the sounds of silence from the Right to Life movement.

Florida isn't a slave state.
Yeah, but to be fair, that wasn't their choice...

Today Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, O'Conner and Rehnquist refused to assist Terri Schiavo to keep her life and to prevent her murder. Yet I have not heard one word of outrage from any member of the right wing attacking them as liberals, anti-life, and judicial murderers as they did with Judge Whittmore. What gives? Hey, and these are the right wing who went ballistic when the Supreme Court gave "life to children and the metally impaired" over the death penalty. Hey, what gives?

Marty, I actually heard one of the zealots (I think it was Randall Terry) calling them tyrannical and judicial activists. Of course, I think he would attack anyone and "call them names" at this point.

Principles for a new Grand Unified Progressive Theory:

1."The left stands for reason over emotion." This cannot be stressed enough. Thanks to a bunch of muddle-headed Postmodern Continental philosophy influenced humanities professors, the Right has managed to convince middle America that they are the defenders of reason and *we* are the "bleeding heart" emotional ones. Fortunately for us, unfortunately for the country, they have given us the opportunity to portray them - rightly - as anti-science. That, and the recent emergence of analytic philosophy inspired liberal commentators such as Majikthise here can help us to flip that back around to where it belongs.
2. Individual Liberty, for the reasons explained by Josh, above.
3. Reclaiming of the commons. The natural commons, the legal commons, the social commons, and the cultural commons. The right wants to fence all of it off and give the titles to the rich. We want everyone to benefit from the commons. This third principle is what sets us apart from right-libertarians.

I agree w point 1 by the poster above, yet that means there will have to be some serious housecleaning on the Left, to purge the Democrats of the PC fringe element. They are to the Dems what the Christian wack jobs are to the right.
And again, speaking of larger issues it shd be pointed out, as it has on several other blogs the last week or so, that the far right didn't give a damn over the last few years when minority vegetables were allowed to die. DAN

i think the real problem here is that dave, like most of us, are just not used to being in a position where we don't have to win over the public at large. on this issue we're actually squarely in the mainstream. the right's cries about saving poor terri are falling on deaf ears. they're the ones who need advice, not us.

Ah, but talking about the issue in terms of broad principle is just as important, when they agree with us. Because if describe this issue where they strongly support us as an *example* of our braoder issues - science and liberty, for example - then we can build support for the principles, which we can then use to convince them about other issues.

there will have to be some serious housecleaning on the Left, to purge the Democrats of the PC fringe element. They are to the Dems what the Christian wack jobs are to the right.

I agree, but this example just show how even our crazies are less crazy than their crazies. Our crazies think it is wrong to morally condemn any non-Western cultures. Their crazies think the universe is less than 15,000 years old. I mean, it's not like you can prove our crazies are nuts using redshift measurements.

purge the Democrats of the PC fringe element

Dude, I think some perspective is in order here. The "PC fringe element" has ZERO influence over the modern Democratic Party. The radical right wingnuts get a special weekend session of Congress and the President flying back to Washington to sign off on an unprecedented piece of legislation devoted exclusively to a single case.

How about this:

how dare they slander the thousands of Americans faced with agonizing decisions about a dying loved one's medical care? how dare they accuse the thousands of Americans who have declined a feeding tube to fulfill a loved one's wishes or spare him further pain of starving their relatives to death?

how dare they accuse a husband honestly trying to fulfill his wife's wishes of murder and torture--at a time when he is already receiving death threats?

how dare they play with the emotions of heartbroken parents by giving them false hope for their daughters cure based on a few videotapes? how dare they deceive her heartbroken parents about what the law they passed actually said?

how dare they turn and blame judges--also receiving death threats--for doing exactly what Congress instructed them to do?

how dare they try to overturn X lawful Florida court decisions that they have not even bothered to read?


I find it comes quite naturally.

Republicans want to define marriage as between a man, a woman, their parents, and the United States Congress.

You are a mensch.

"And unlike the right wing, we're willing to put our money where our mouth is."

You're willing to put everyone else's money where your mouth is, too.

Good points and good post.

I would add that regardless of whether pulling a feeding tube is the same as pulling the plug, the Terri Schiavo case is still basically about the right to die in the way that it asks us as a society to grow up and get used to the idea that death is a part of life. In fact, without death, you can't have life. So to be pro-life, you have to be able to embrace death. It's elementary and it used to be understood by people who believed in a Heaven. Are they trying to save Terri Schiavo or "SAVE" Terri Schiavo?

So yes, it's not about life or ethics or medical diagnoses. And, yes, it's about politics of both the short term opportunistic and cynical variety, as well as politics of the longer term agenda setting and issue/language defining strain.

What, is that yours, praktike? I honestly don't remember where I saw that line, but I'm happy to give credit where credit is due.

(from Josh) .."Do you prefer your husband/wife/parents/children deciding whether you live or die, or George Bush and John Ashcroft? (Republicans should read that as Bill Clinton and Janet Reno.)"
I'd prefer to take my comfort in the framework of a community that cared about me, both as a unique individual and as a member of the community.

(ibid) .."Liberals don't trust the government to interfere with those choices unless exercising those rights interferes with other people's rights.."
Again, if my community has a structure of shared values, however encoded, I'd prefer to trust the outcome, based upon those values, rather than be forced into a "me against the world" scenario. Liberty is superb; but must be coupled with responsibility. Otherwise we have the basis for the observation that "the poor dislike being governed badly; while the rich dislike being governed at all." The Right's focus on (and espousal of) "family values" serves the purpose of drawing the smallest possible circle of morality based upon a social unit. A more progressive outlook, in my view, would be the espousal of "community values", which looks to the primordial intent of morality, ie the protection of the group in light of the self-serving aims of the powerful individual. ^..^


You diagnose the problem, then commit the sin of abstruse argument you decry.

I'm an internist who cares for dying patients daily.
Make it hard for us to let patients die and
we wil drug you, intubate you, put you in a bright noisy ICU, stick you daily with needles, and watch you get bloated, contracted and stupid.
(Then we have you invest your social security money).

"Gaudy spectacle is cheap, but saving lives is expensive."

That just about summed up my feeling on this whole spectacle.

One more thing, if I can trust the polls, the American people are seeing through this much better than previous republican hypocrisies. I don't remember the exact numbers, but a majority both agrees that Schaivo should be allowed to die and that the republican reaction is politically motivated. Bush & co might have thought that they're tossing the evangelicals a bone, while inadvertantly they're tossing the American people a clue.

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