Ever since the election, which they wrongly saw as turning on "moral" issues, the right has been scrambling to place itself on the moral high ground. This has culminated in the utilization of the Terri Schiavo case to express the conservative movement as one centering on "the value of each individual life," as David Brooks writes in one of his recent op-ed pieces in The New York Times.
The conservative plan is to focus attention on the beginning of life and the end of life, and to claim that this carves out conservative possession of "compassion" and of protection of life. By claiming to protect the unborn and the comatose, the two groups least able to speak for themselves, the conservatives risk no argument from the constituencies they are thereby "representing" and can bully their way through objections that compassion and respect for life are more strongly expressed when aimed towards those who can respond.
After all, aren't those unable to speak for themselves most needing of representation, of surrogates?
This question is based on the conservative assumption that all the rest of us are able to take care of ourselves. That when we drop into poverty, it's our own fault. That when our children are damaged by mercury, well, we chose where to live. That the murderer we kill brought about his or her own death ("We have nothing to do with it," they say, as they pull the switch). That the enemy has to be killed simply because of choices of their own ("They made us do it," they say, as they drop the bomb).
By focusing on the helplessness of both ends of life (and only at the extremes: they aren't trying to help children or the elderly), the conservatives are deflecting attention from their own failure to follow the teachings of Jesus that one has an obligation to help the less fortunate. "It's their own fault. Let them help themselves--then God will help them."
"We," the conservatives say, "only need to help those who can't help themselves. And the only ones who can't are those who lack consciousness."
If we allow ourselves to get caught up in questions of the beginnings and ends of life--as the conservatives have made happen--then the questions of real compassion and real aid to the less fortunate get left behind.
And that's what the conservatives want.
For isn't that how many of them see the rest of us, as simply "the left behind"--the people who have abandoned God and whom God will soon abandon?
Fortunately, the plan is failing, the tide is receding.
Yesterday, in one of my classes, I brought up the Schiavo case. My students, a very conservative bunch, overwhelmingly rejected the right-wing position on this issue.
For them, compassion includes the living, the feeling.
But the tide will go out only if we on the left make sure we don't let the right continue to define the discussion. Every time they bring up their "protection" of the unborn and the comatose and use that to call themselves "compassionate," we need to respond with questions of compassion for those actually trying to live. That's our strength, their weakness.