Culture of Life: A Platform for Progressive
April 15, 2005
By Carolyn Winter and Roger Bybee
For those listening closely, President Bush's statement on Terri
Schiavo's death was truly breathtaking: "The essence of civilization
is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak."
The recent outpouring of emotion over the Pope's death underscores
the hunger most Americans have for a sense of compassion, justice,
and global community that Bush insecerely expressed. While Bush's
astounding hypocrisy is hard to stomach, the sentiment he expressed
is certainly one that most Americans would staunchly support.
However, for those with an expansive concept of social justice,
the weak among us include more than fetuses and people on life support.
For us, the vulnerable also encompass low-income families, children,
the elderly, the unemployed, the homeless, the handicapped, the
mentally ill, and returning Iraq war veterans suffering from mental
and physical wounds.
As mind-blowing as it may seem, perhaps progressives have been
given a golden opportunity to use the President's rhetoric to promote
an alternative moral vision. We, too, certainly want to "err
on the side of life." That perspective seems tailor-made for
confronting capital punishment, as well as opposing pre-emptive
If we could expand the "culture of life" to include
adequate health care, protecting the environment, supporting the
elderly and handicapped, and a foreign policy that respects the
lives of our servicepeople and civilians in Iraq or Iran or elsewhere,
we could begin to harness the commitment of most Americans in a
We face a temptation to fixate upon the rank hypocrisy of Bush's
comment on the meaning of "civilization." But instead,
we might recognize that we are actually offered a great opportunity
to challenge Bush, DeLay, and the Administration for their exclusion,
for example, of poor children from the category of the "weak."
After all, by Bush's own statements, the treatment of the weak is
the basis upon which this Administration will be judged.
In the current political culture, Democrats and progressives have
been unable to promote our own "culture of life." Whenever
we defend the poor and ostracized, we are condemned by the Right
for coddling the "weak" and reinforcing "bonds
of dependency" on government programs. Well, Bush and Co. can't
have it both ways. Who exactly deserves to be protected, using the
Right's own declared standard of "civilization?" Do the
largest corporations in the world also conveniently fall into this
category of the weak?
The public has spoken most strikingly - both sides of the Schiavo
debate obviously feel strongly on the need to protect the very sick.
The vast majority has defended the right of families to make decisions
without interference from the ultra-pious and the government. Others
have expressed their intense and immediate identification with the
most vulnerable, regardless of the actual history of Terri Schiavo's
So how can Bush possibly reconcile the desire for humane treatment
of the fragile in our society with the recent bankruptcy legislation
that makes it more difficult for families to gain some protection?
After all, nearly 50% of those seeking bankruptcy are forced to
take that step because of medical expenses incurred during the tragedy
of losing a loved one or suffering a terrible accident or illness.
And how are Bush's plans for cutting Medicaid consistent with overwhelming
public support for health care for those in need? Who is going to
pay for 15-plus years of round-the-clock maintenance on life support,
as in the Terri Schiavo case?
These should be obvious questions, but they are not being pursued
with the same vigor and tenacity that the Religious Right brings
to its concerns. Challenging the Administration's domestic policy
is a no-brainer, yet somehow our voice is muted and diffused. Given
the comprehensive assault on democracy at home and abroad, we are
understandably scattered in responding to so many assaults on civilized
In this context, we need to recognize the need for a comprehensive
framework that expresses our demand for "a foreign policy dedicated
to peace and life," which translates into defending the vulnerable
around the world from military assault, hunger, and sickness.
By outlining an alternative set of values, we can incorporate
diverse issues into our struggle to provide dignity for the majority
of families in this country and around the world who are struggling
to survive with dignity. From our successes on the Social Security
issue we should take heart: when the issues are clear, the public
is united in wanting fairness and humanity for the elderly and other
By proclaiming "democracy" and freedom" as its goals
in foreign policy, the Administration has again provided us with
a gift. The contrast between support for virtual dictatorships among
US allies like Pakistan, Columbia, Russia, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia,
Mexico and other vital US client states, and the basic principles
of democracy, could hardly be more glaring.
Further, the "democracy gap" provides us with an opportunity
to highlight the undermining of justice both at home and abroad.
Shouldn't American elections be evaluated by the same standards
of fairness as those held overseas? If 15,000 Syrian troops make
a fair election impossible in Lebanon, how do 150,000 American soldiers
set the stage for a fair election in Iraq?
While the Democratic Leadership Council shamefully calls for an
aggressive foreign policy little different in its goals than Bush's
extraordinary unilateralism, it remains true that more progressive
Democrats have never forcefully challenged the "pre-emptive" strike
policy that is the cornerstone of Bush policy nor fully outlined
a foreign policy built on human rights and mutual respect.
Further, we need to challenge American actions that are premised
upon a separate standard for the "Lone Star Nation" that contemptuously
tramples on international law.
Why do rules that apply to other nations not apply to in United
States? If pre-emptive strikes are an excellent idea for the US,
why not for China or anyone else? Does the most powerful nation
in the world get to create the rules and oppose the Kyoto Protocols,
the United Nations, the World Court, and even the Geneva Conventions
because we don't like their rules? The arrogance with which
we are challenging the world goes unchallenged in a serious and
Make no mistake about it: if you question U.S. violations of international
law in the America of 2005, you are inviting challenges to your
patriotism and, more pointedly, to your empathy with the American
families who lost members during the attacks of 9/11 and on the
streets of Baghdad. Within the prevailing confines set by the corporate
media and even Democrats like Sen. Joe Lieberman, it is almost impossible
to even mention the British medical journal Lancet's estimate
of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths.
However, the overwhelming public response to events like the Schiavo
case and the Pope's passing seem to reflect a very different outlook,
a profound desire for an ethos of mercy and for a sense of global
connectedness. This aspiration for a genuine "culture of life" can
perhaps be the foundation for advancing a humane and progressive
agenda in a very troubling time.
Carolyn Winter and Roger Bybee are progressive writers and
activists based in Milwaukee, Wis. They can be reached at email@example.com.