Published on Saturday, April 30, 2005 by The Nation
Practice What You Preach
by Katha Pollitt
Pharmacists think they have the right to deny women birth control and the morning-after pill. Senator Frist thinks God wants more ultraconservative judges on the federal bench and if you disagree, well, you know where you're going. Forget common ground, it's time to divide up the country. The red-state blue-state map is too crude--too many blue pegs in red holes and vice versa. In the great tradition of American individualism and modern in-depth polling procedures, let's make everyone respond, in writing, to a detailed questionnaire on hot-button "values issues" and then be legally compelled to live by the answers they give. It's a glorious blend of academic right and left--rational choice theory (people make decisions in their own best interests) meets postmodernism (there is no one truth).
Consider what happened in Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona, where engaged couples can opt for a more restrictive form of marriage. Despite its popularity among conservative pundits and preachers, covenant marriage--which allows only a select few grounds for divorce, like infidelity--has attracted less than 2 percent of marrying couples. That tells us something important about the way people want to live as opposed to the way they think other people should live, and what people choose when they have to live with the results. Let's apply that principle more broadly. For example:
1.Stem-cell research. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 22 percent of the population thinks extracting stem cells from pre-embryos frozen in fertility clinics is unethical. These tender souls have prevailed upon the Bush Administration to restrict federal funds for stem-cell research. This has resulted in a bidding war among states eager to lure researchers, which nobody sees as the best way to do the science. Why not split the difference? Bring back federal funding, but those who oppose it can take the appropriate tax cut. The catch is, they agree to forgo any cures stem-cell research might yield: They'll have to live with their Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's or cancer, which, since they believe stem-cell research is wrong, is surely what they would want to do anyway.
2.Creationism. According to NBC, 44 percent of Americans believe that the biblical account of Creation--God, six days, species created individually in the forms that now exist--is literally true. According to Gallup, 45 percent believe the Earth is at most 10,000 years old. A CBS News poll found that 65 percent believe these versions of events should be taught in school alongside evolution, and that given the opportunity 37 percent would ditch Darwinism altogether. Under the new plan, creationists could continue their efforts to wreck science education and dumb down their kids--but first, they would pledge to abstain from any real-life benefits of evolutionary theory. Flu vaccines, for example, rely for their effectiveness on yearly reformulation to account for the evolution of the influenza virus. No evolution? Achoo for you!
3.Terri Schiavo-like situations. According to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 24 percent of the population worry they'll be allowed to die if their brain turns into boiled squash. Sixty-one percent fear that they'll be kept alive forever in a boiled-squash state. Under the new plan, everyone signs a living will, to be updated yearly. Those who opt for life are enrolled in the private squash-maintenance program of their choice--Comatose for Christ, Operation Get Randall Terry on TV, Concerned Women for Zucchini. Those who prefer a quick exit go off in a delightful NORML-funded haze of controlled substances--they'll be totally unaware of it, unfortunately, but it's a nice thought.
4.Teen sex. Every school will offer both abstinence-only and comprehensive sex ed--parents can sign their kids up for the course they prefer. In states with notification/consent laws, parents will remain free to discourage or prevent their daughters from having abortions. The catch is, if they choose this route, they are legally responsible for the total financial support through college of the babies their underage daughters produce. After all, if a girl is too young to learn about birth control, too young to have sex and too young to decide on her own to have an abortion, she's obviously too young to be a mother. Having made the choice for her, the parents should bear the consequences. If they don't like this system, they can try to extract child support from the baby's father (or his parents), and good luck to them.
5. Capital punishment. Against it? Should you be convicted of murder or the like, instead of lethal injection you get a long stay at a Swedish-style prison with college classes, a salad bar and condom dispensers in every shower room. Pro-death penalty? Uh-oh: there's Sister Helen Prejean. Your appeal must not be going well. You should have more carefully evaluated your propensity for mayhem and/or the fallibility of the justice system.
6. English only. Do you blow a gasket when your ATM asks you if you'd like to bank en espaņol? Check the English-only box, and get priority on tract housing in Utah or Idaho. But first, just to make sure your own linguistic skills do justice to the language of Shakespeare, Woolf and Baldwin, you'll be enrolled in a free, intensive, yearlong literature class taught by brilliant, dedicated, culturally conservative professors who firmly believe they failed to get tenure at Ivy League universities because of their resistance to grade inflation and what passes for education these days. Less than a B sends you back to the land from which your ancestors most recently escaped.
7. The judiciary. Guardians of liberty or power-hungry perverts? Maybe a little of both? If you think the courts should say what's constitutional, your lawsuits get decided by judges and, yes, that includes Antonin Scalia. If you think judges have too much power, so be it: Your lawsuits go before a panel made up of marital counselors, rational choice theorists, postmodernists and the people who decide whether your HMO covers your hospital bills.
Check your mailbox for the values questionnaire, and think very, very carefully about your answers. For the first time in history, you will be stuck with them.
"Subject to Debate" columnist Katha Pollitt has written for The Nation since 1980. Pollitt's writing has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Ms. and the New York Times. In 2001, her Nation essays were published as a collection, Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.
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