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Worrying a Fragile Social Cohesion

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During the height of the cold war in the sixties, a psychiatrist expressed his fear to me that once the Soviet Union saw itself losing out in its competition with the US and Western Europe, it might resort to its final remedy: If we can't have it, then you can't have it either. This did not come about, fortunately, because saner people were at the helm at the critical time, but we are facing that issue now in our engagement with radical Islamic terrorist groups. They had nothing to lose in the first place, and everything to gain. This model may also apply to the agitated right in this country. Our government has become the adversary in their sights. They are so disaffected from government that mere obstruction is seen as progress.

This came home to me some years ago when I saw the passionate hatred that many folks out in the Rocky Mountain West bore President Clinton. The man was practically a Republican in the way he governed; what kindled all this passion against him? Then came the campaign of personal destruction against Al Gore. The ostensible "lies" about Love Canal, his promotion of Internet awareness within the Congress, and his connection with "Love Story" had all been answered, but they took on a life of their own, sustained by interminable repetition. Then came the vile verbal detritus that was hurled against President Barack Obama.

Over time, California has become essentially ungovernable because Republican intransigence is categorical. Their votes are simply unavailable for any policy favored by the majority. No level of misery in the public at large is capable of altering the script of relentless and implacable opposition. Now the same is likely being replicated at the national level.

At the same time it is very difficult to discern a coherent philosophy behind the movement. It seems to be animated by the very fact of opposition rather than by any positive vision. So perhaps that should be the starting point of our analysis. The galvanizing motive force is the opposition to Leviathan, the emergence of an overbearing State. But this opposition is highly selective. After all, government activism is not in question when it comes to maintaining our imperial status abroad, imprisoning our population massively, or keeping a lady in Sacramento from growing her own medical marijuana.

There is only one consistent common thread that brings coherence to all of this, and it is the centrality of a religious world view. We saw this explicitly in the 1994 election, with the critical role played by evangelicals, but it is still implicit now. In much of its activities, the government is seen not only as a secular agent, as indeed it must be, but as acting in a manner that is hostile to the religious persuasion. Even more, the Democratic Party is seen as overtly hostile to the religious perspective. As a result, the issue on the table, whether it be health care reform or gay rights, is encumbered by this larger issue. While many on the right have wanted to drown government in a bathtub, many people on the left have that fate in mind for religion---or at minimum are suspected of having that agenda.

This is not a battle that we want to have if progressive politics is to be served. I am reminded on this point of an old Nordic myth in which a competition is staged between two adversaries to see who can be the first to drain a flagon of mead. The competition is unfair, however, because one of the vessels has a hidden connection to the ocean, and to drain it down would mean lowering the level of the ocean as well. This is where we are now with respect to religious belief. Every domestic issue is being tied in to the larger question of whether the religious worldview will be respected and accommodated in our politics, and on that score every Democratic domestic initiative is born suspect. To ignore this is to miss the oceanic depth of passion that animates the religious world view.

The dividing line has been long in forming. It did not help George McGovern that he was a Methodist minister. And it did not help Jimmie Carter that he was a devout Southern Baptist. Their personal faith did not count for much in the face of their association with the Godless party. On the other side, much was forgiven in the case of George W. Bush because he professed to be governed by a strong personal faith. No opposition to him found any sustained traction. It was the symbolism of George Bush as advocate for the religious worldview that needed to be sustained, even in the face of all the policy failures and misdeeds.

It is important to recognize that there can be no winner-take-all solution here. The religious impulse must be respected, or our progressive policies will continue to come to grief. This means that for key social issues, the remedy must be accommodationist in character, rather than adversarial. It is tough to say this at a time when Democrats are being flogged for being spineless. But while the progressive party is being ineffectual, we might as well cast about for an explanation and seek a remedy.

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Let me grasp the nettle and briefly address the divide in our politics with respect to three "litmus-test' issues: Partial-birth abortion; gay marriage; and Intelligent Design.

Partial-birth abortion

The issue of partial-birth abortion has never actually been a matter of women's rights. Within the framework of Roe-versus-Wade, a late-term abortion cannot be decided upon by the mother-to-be alone. It requires a doctor's decision. Just recently, an ob-gyn MD had his patient hospitalized to forestall a possible miscarriage late in pregnancy. When the woman refused to follow the doctors' orders, a judge's ruling supported the doctor. So much for women's choice in these matters. Partial-birth abortion was about medical autonomy, not women's autonomy.

Seen in a larger frame, however, matters are even worse. The essential argument of the right-to-life movement is that the defining moment which establishes who an individual is going to be is that of conception. If one also proceeds from the assumption of the sanctity of human life, then one can easily argue that legal protection should extend all the way back to when such life first acquired identity and individuality.

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In the biological perspective, by contrast, one sees much more continuity. The early embryo is hardly distinguishable from a fish or a rabbit, except in terms of potential yet to unfold. A miscarriage early in gestation is not typically lamented in the same way that our family faced the death of our 14-month old daughter due to a brain tumor. We grieved someone who had already made bonds of connection, whose personality was already a presence in the world, someone we still hold in our hearts more than thirty years later.

If the principle of continuity is to be applied around the time of conception, it is most certainly applicable around the time of birth. The fetus' capacity for relating to the outside world, and its capacity for feeling pain, is surely identical in the periods just before birth and after. Partial-birth abortion is therefore biologically indistinguishable from infanticide.

One cannot insist upon the principle of biological continuity in one context while ignoring it in another. If a zygote is 99.99% potential, then the fetus about to be delivered is 99.99% actualization. One cannot attach great legal significance to the event of birth and then deny it to the event of conception. If legal formalism is not to trump biology at conception, then it certainly should not do so at the time of birth.

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 28 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles.

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