Sunday, March 27, 2005

Sunday Reading

  • Billmon has some thoughts on the Passion of Terri Schiavo.

    Why has Terri become such an icon? Part of it no doubt is simply a reflection of the normal human tendency to respond emotionally to specific examples, rather than abstract generalities (Stalin knew his audience.) As a nation, we’ve also been media trained to respond to what we see on the tube. Like Pavlov’s dogs, who sailvated when they heard the bell even when there was no food in front of them, we’re now conditioned to become emotionally involved with people we see on television, even when they’re complete strangers — or fictional characters. So millions of the conservative faithful now feel they know Terri and her family and (boo, hiss) her husband, in a way they don’t know, and would never want to know, the hundreds of thousands of fetuses aborted each year.

    But what’s also clear is that the Terri Schiavo story has a uniquely high emotional appeal for religious conservatives because of the ease with which her personal tragedy can be turned into a collective passion play — using the traditional Christian imagery of sin, crucifixion, death and even resurrection. And so we get comparisons of Jeb Bush to Pontius Pilate:

    A flier being passed around outside the Pinellas Park hospice where Schiavo has gone without food and water for more than a week urges Bush: “Please Do Not Repeat Pontius Pilate’s Mistake This Good Friday.”

    And Michael Schiavo to Judas Iscariot:

    Just as Jesus was betrayed by Judas, Terri was betrayed by her husband.

    And, inevitably, Terri to the Big Kahuna himself:

    TOM DELAY: Terri Schiavo has survived her passion weekend and she has not been forsaken.

    Now many of these allusions are simply self-serving political bullshit, not sincere religious parallels. (Unless perhaps one wants to argue that in running away from the bad polling numbers, the Republicans are emulating Peter — who after all, denied his master thrice after the Roman heavies showed up.) When conservative fireeaters scream that Terri is “dying for our sins,” they don’t literally mean that her death will wipe clean the spiritual ledger sheets of the true believers, they mean she’s being murdered by the sins of the heathen leftists and “tyrannical judges” — the modern-day Pharisees.

    But I have no doubt that for many members of the Cult of Terri, the religious fevour they feel when they picture her pitiful body wasting away on her Pinella County Golgotha is utterly sincere. They are, almost in a literal sense, reliving the Passion of the Christ (the book and the movie.)

    And this is where things go deep, because in embracing Terri as a martyr, the followers are following in the footsteps of some of their earliest Christian forebearers — that scraggly crowd of wayward Jews and searching gentiles that converted the wisdom school of Yeshua ben Joseph into the Cult of the Risen Christ.


    Maybe it will all blow over once Terri Schiavo’s poor brain-dead body is finally laid to rest. But the emotional intensity of the event — and the depth of the self-righteous hatred it has stirred on the religious right — will be hard to forget. It feels like we’ve passed another milestone in the descent of our deeply divided, culturally inflamed society towards . . . well, I’d rather not think about what.

    Thanks to rubber hose for the lead.

  • Harold Myerson in the American Prospect on the circling vultures of politicial opportunism.

    For Tom DeLay, Terri Schiavo came along just in the nick of time. “One thing that God brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to help elevate the visibility of what is going on in America,” DeLay told a group of Christian conservatives last Friday.

    And what, exactly, is going on in the United States? “Attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others,” DeLay told his flock. So God has now thrown in with DeLay in his efforts to pack the House ethics committee with his allies so that he no longer need be the subject of the scrutiny and censure of his peers.

    I don’t think this is what Martin Buber meant when he referred to an “I-Thou” relationship with the Lord, but I could be mistaken.


    At its topmost ranks, and not only there, the party of Lincoln has become the party of Elmer Gantry. It peddles miracle cures and elixirs of life, to the benefit of the preachers, not the patients. When it comes to promoting real cures, today’s Republicans are nowhere to be found. The Medicaid cuts pushed by the White House and passed by House Republicans last week would, if enacted into law, shorten the lives of numerous poor Americans living in conscious, not vegetative states. But that’s a topic of no demonstrable interest to Christian conservatives, though I’ve yet to come across the biblical passage that exempts them from such concerns.


    In their haste to curry favor with the Christian right, the Republican leaders have run roughshod over some very deeply rooted American — and conservative — beliefs. Americans tend to believe in their doctors, and in the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship. They believe in spheres of privacy where the state cannot intrude. There’s no more distinctly American belief than the right to be left alone by government. Liberals and conservatives differ over which great causes compel a suspension of that right, but both sides of the spectrum acknowledge it axiomatically.

    That places a special burden on advocates for governmental activism in the United States. At a minimum, the consequences that the government’s intervention will have on private lives — and on the principle of the private life — need to be weighed. And by intervening by fiat in the Schiavo tragedy, at the last minute, from on high, with no serious inspection of the particulars of the case and to clear political ends, the Republicans failed that test abysmally. In that sense, the Schiavo affair looks like their equivalent of what court-ordered busing was to liberals: an act of social engineering that runs counter to Americans’ desire for control over their own, and their families’, lives.

  • Garrison Keillor offers some words of hope, comfort, and renewal in springtime.

    It is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. You can sense the days lengthening on the frozen tundra and start to notice colors again. So we dye some boiled eggs pale blue and yellow and green, and put on a pink shirt and shove the ham in the oven, and head for church where, on Friday night, the choir sang, bleakly, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Into thy hands I commend my spirit” and the service ended in silence. Today, there are banks of lilies, and old ladies in big hats, and little girls in spring outfits, and the sermon will be about New Beginnings, and the force of love that drives life to triumph over death. Often it is a sermon in which the minister, trying much too hard to be profound on a high holy day, loses us in the first couple of minutes and we turn our attention to the hairstyles of the people in front of us. And we are visited by the images of the week’s sad news. The woman in the Florida hospice, unable to move or to speak for 15 years, exploited by politicians. The teenage boy with the devastated childhood who came to his high school on Monday afternoon, intent on killing.

    The fate of Terri Schiavo is one that everybody over 50 has considered long ago. The particular hell of a living death is one our parents sought to avoid. They didn’t ask us to suffocate them with a pillow, but they did make it clear that lying inert in a nursing home was not how they envisioned spending their twilight years. Twilight is supposed to be brief. They were crystal clear about this. The state courts of Florida, and now the federal courts, seem to be clear on this. What’s not clear is the dramatic intervention of the president of the United States, striding into the White House after his last-minute flight from Texas, deciding to “err on the side of life.” One hopes that he will go on to make even bigger mistakes in behalf of children who lack basic medical care, or in behalf of suicidal teenagers. All week the news was about lawyers and politicians and rhetorical flourishes and there was almost nothing about the woman herself or who she was, may she rest in peace.


    So here we are at Easter. I can’t speak for you but to me the gospel of the Lord is what makes this sad world of March comprehensible. And it relieves us of the need to be profound about Terri or Jeffrey or the innocents at Red Lake High School who suffered his rage. We come into the Lord’s house and kneel and we believe, or we don’t, or we sort of do, but nonetheless we place them — all of them, along with ourselves — in the Lord’s hands, and then we come out, and it’s spring, or almost spring, and something else happens.

    Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate it. To the rest of you, enjoy a spring day — the one natural sign that no matter how dreary things can be, they do get better.