Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Human Stories

Last Saturday, David Brooks wrote what I thought was a stupid and ill-informed column in The New York Times, arguing that the difference between supporters of Bob and Mary Schindler and those of Michael Schiavo was that the former (the religious right) based their arguments on bedrock issues of faith and humanity, while the latter (everyone else) fell back on dry arguments of policy and procedure.
Baloney. Everyone I know talked about the Schiavo case, and, regardless of their position based their arguments on the question of what constitutes a meaningful life. Is it defined by respiration and heartbeat, or is it something more? What has touched people about this story is the human connection: Our ability to put ourselves in the position of any of the central participants and to imagine how we might react under similar circumstances. And as tired as many of us have become of this story, it does raise profound and complex issues.
David Brooks may have been dead wrong about the differences between right and left on the Schiavo case, but he raised an interesting point: The public tends to react to stories whose human concerns engage their interests (and the fact that a large majority of the American public evidently sympathizes with Michael Schiavo suggests that the "liberals" in this case have made a much stronger human connection than Mr. Brooks gives them credit for).
A much better article on this subject is in this month's American Prospect: A discussion of the abortion debate and how the religious right has gained an advantage by humanizing the fetus at the expense of the childbearer. The author, Jodi Enda, begins her piece with a terrifying story of a woman raped by her estranged husband and then repeatedly frustrated in her efforts to secure an abortion, finally getting the procedure at the cost of losing a job.
Ms. Enda's point is that the left on the abortion front needs to make it clear that the issue is not so much enforcement of a law as it is the protection of real women with real, painful difficulties. Yes, enforcement of the law is important. But we all grumble about laws with which we disagree. It is more difficult to argue against human suffering.
The impulse to be fair and humane has been the foundation of important political struggles such as the labor and civil rights movements. It gave the early battles against "back alley abortions" much of their strength. But having won many of these important battles, it seems to be true that the left then began to rely on the fact that the law was on our side.
This, unfortunately, left the door open for the right to spring forward with painful human stories about reverse discrimination, talented individuals denied jobs because of quotas or closed-shop policies, the death struggles of early-term fetuses. They caught the attention of the public because they played on emotion, put people in the shoes of the "victims".
Are these "human stories" cheap and exploitative? Sure, sometimes, but perhaps only if they exaggerate or misrepresent a situation. In general, it's probably a good thing for people to understand that "dry" legislative and judicial acts have consequences for real people. This understanding is what gives us perspective on politics.
And the right has done a better job of this in recent years than has the left. But if you look at the successes of the left, you see the human factor at every turn.
Bill Clinton's sustained popularity in the face of vicious right-wing attacks was, I believe, largely a result of the public's identification of him as someone who had pulled himself up from an underprivileged upbringing into the most exalted political position in the world. People were willing to forgive his marital peccadilloes because they came across as real, honest human failings.
The left is currently favored in the Social Security battle not because of the hard-to-digest economic arguments, but because a greater portion of the public seems to be able to identify with financially strapped senior citizens trying to survive their final years despite bad decisions they've made along the way than with 20-year-olds out to make a killing in the market.
One of the only moments of effective political opposition I remember from the 2004 presidential campaign was when some Democrats countered the Republicans' nightmare vision of evil, greedy trial lawyers with the story of a child, represented in court by Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards, who had sustained permanent injury from a faulty swimming-pool filter.
The only thing that gives me the occasional glimmer of sympathy for George W. Bush is the thought of how terribly twisted his psyche must have been by his upbringing -- that acerbic, judgmental mother! That distant, tradition-bound father! That Beverly-Hillbillies-in-reverse childhood as a patrician in Midland, Texas! No wonder he spent his youth and young adulthood in an endless, drug- and drink-induced stupor, and climbed out with such a distorted view of the world.
The Schiavo case? I think people have reacted viscerally to the endless pictures and video footage of Terri Schiavo by deciding that they would not want to be kept alive under such circumstances. And, furthermore, I think they are frightened by the snarling visages of Tom DeLay, Randall Terry, Bill Frist, Pat Buchanan and CNN's Nancy Grace, all of whom seem like salivating monsters ready to leap into our homes to force us to submit to their wills.
I have always believed that the biggest thing liberals have going for them is a baseline commitment to fair play. We see healthcare as a human issue of access to good care regardless of economic circumstances, rather than as a way to enhance profits for the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. We see education as an inherent right of the citizenry. We recognize that the slippery enticements and usurious interest rates of some credit card companies cause real damage to families. We see that there are real people, with families and responsibilities, behind the demonized "special interest groups" -- otherwise known as teachers, nurses, police and firefighters -- fighting for job security and benefits. We know that gays, and Muslims, and Spanish-speakers, and all of those other unpopular minority groups are actually collections of diverse, living, breathing, feeling individuals with a reasonable claim on happiness and financial security.
The left needs to be a little bit shameless in telling these human stories.