Monday, June 1, 2009

The Murder of Dr. Tiller and the Imperilled Moral Foundations of Obama's Presidency

The shooting of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita yesterday has me thinking about the reasons I have been impatient with the new administration up to now. From the time of Mr. Obama’s election, I have felt a sense of urgency—one perhaps unique to me; I am not describing here a broader social movement, though such a movement may well exist—about implementing the president’s agenda of change.

To be specific: I have felt a strong sense of urgency about the need to consolidate a growing moral consensus that is absolutely essential as the foundation of a post-neoconservative social order in the U.S. In my view, that consensus is represented in the hopes of many citizens who voted for the new president, and who sincerely want change—and the new moral moorings for our society on which we understood the president to be placing his platform of change.

But it is also a threatened consensus. From the beginning of this presidency, I have had the sense that, unless some changes occurred quickly—unless the new administration made it crystal clear to the nation and the world at large that the country was going to move in a decisively different direction, vis-à-vis the moral foundation of a participatory democracy—everything might easily be lost.

I have had the sense that our country could
return to a very dark night, darker than any we’ve seen in recent decades, if Mr. Obama did not move decisively and unambiguously forward with his platform of change, and, above all, with the growing moral consensus on which that platform rests. That consensus needs to be consolidated. We cannot cure the considerable social ills we’ve been bequeathed by several decades of neoconservative dominance without it.

We cannot rebuild a vibrant participatory democracy without placing, front and center, the moral consensus necessary for such a democracy—the human rights-centered moral consensus on which any authentic democracy must necessarily rest. We cannot avoid discussing the moral foundations of democracy, with their unambiguious focus on human rights, if we expect a platform of progressive change to be effective. It is counterproductive, destructive even, to try to avoid such wide-ranging social conversations about human rights with the claim that they are divisive and a vestige of the culture wars.

Hence my impatience with the dilly-dallying, the compromises, the false balances between right and left that produce a bogus center which is really only a rhetorical cover for the continued right-leaning balance in the nation’s political and economic life. That impatience represents my growing sense of alarm—anguish is not too strong here—that, if the new president continues his policy of appeasing the disempowered right while the nation clearly wants to move in another direction, the right will reassert itself very strongly and we will find ourselves in a position where any effective change will be decisively checked, by violence if necessary.

Because violence is what reactionary groups do best. It is what they are all about. As I’ve noted in posting after posting on this blog, the moral claims of the “pro-life” movement in the U.S. have long since been exposed as fatuous, in my view. It’s not about respect for life. It’s about coercion, and the use of violence to assure coercive dominance when necessary.

If the “pro-life” movement in the U.S. ever proceeded from some coherent and persuasive moral center, whose moral claims about the sanctity of life are easily accessible to people of good will from all creedal and cultural backgrounds, that coherence and persuasiveness have long since been fragmented. The “pro-life” movement has now allied itself for far too long, and far too openly, to anti-life currents of thought, to remain credible as a witness to the ethic of respect for life. As things now stand, the “pro-life” movement stands for violent repression of women, for violent resistance to the rights of women (going far beyond reproductive rights), for male dominance and male subjugation of women, for homophobia and violent resistance to the rights of gay human beings, for militarism, for capital punishment, for an unbridled capitalism that allows the rich to oppress the poor without any checks on their rapacity.

I am aware that I am characterizing a movement with many nuances and multiple facets with a broad brush here. At the same time, I want to argue that this characterization does honestly represent how the “pro-life” movement has come to represent itself—to be seen—to many American citizens. This is a movement that strikes fear into those who question its motives, and which intends to strike fear into its opponents—every bit as much as a playground bully intends to walk into the playground every day and cause everyone in his presence to cringe in fear.

Morally persuasive movements—movements that expect to convince others that their claims rest on sound moral foundations—do not need fear. Their claims are patent enough that others can see, appraise, discuss, and then endorse those claims in the light of day, without fear of reprisal, without the need to twist conscience into knots in order to arrive at a manufactured moral consensus imposed on the majority by a powerful, violent minority.

Insofar as the pro-life movement represents the center of moral consensus of American neoconservatism as the 20th century ends, American neoconservatism has now been unmasked as a movement lacking strong moral foundations. We cannot build a viable democracy around fear, around coercion of those who do not think as the “moral” do, around thinly disguised theocracy that imposes the peculiar religious and moral beliefs of a minority on a majority.

The election of Barack Obama represented (I write in past tense deliberately here) a decisive repudiation of the bogus moral claims of neoconservatism and of the “pro-life” movements that neocons have made the centerpiece of their claim to own the moral universe. I will grant that many of those voting for the president and his platform of change also chose Mr. Obama for “pragmatic” reasons such as the hope that he would fix our ailing economy and healthcare system.

But underlying those “pragmatic” considerations are moral ones that, however inchoate they may be in many citizens’ explanation of their current political choices, are strong and real. We are a nation hungry for change that means something—in short, for change that will reestablish democracy. We are a nation ready to build ourselves anew on new moral foundations that are, in fact, not new at all, but as old as our democracy itself: on respect for the rights of all; on equal opportunity for all citizens regardless of accidents of race, gender, sexual orientation, or class; on empathy that expresses itself concretely in the many bonds that tie us together in civil society and the body politic.

About these expectations, a leader who hopes to bring about really effective change cannot remain silent. Not when those who wish to hijack democracy and to subjugate an entire nation to a tiny elite of obscenely wealthy folks do not sleep, and when they continue to use bogus religious and moral claims to distract us from their really dirty work of robbing the world (and their fellow citizens) blind.

To remain silent at such a moment is to allow that tiny elite to regroup, to discover new ways to disseminate its lies garbed in pseudo piety and mendacious morality ever more widely—and, eventually, to reassert its power over the body politic. And to do so by resorting to violence, if necessary.

At which point, nothing that the new president has ever promised or ever said, or nothing that millions of bloggers have written on blogs like this, will matter in the least. It is possible for a few dark-hearted people to plunge an entire world into darkness. If we allow them to do so.