Democratic Underground

Culture of Life: A Platform for Progressive Values

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 war.

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 progressive direction.

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 case.

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 standards.

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 vulnerable citizens.

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 consistent way.

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

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