From somewhere beneath all the ostentatious breast-beating over poor Terri Schiavo, the unresolved contradictions of modern conservatism are beginning to emerge. Amid the sideshows and distractions, which now feature Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader as well as the Bush brothers and Randall Terry, embarrassing reality intrudes despite the powerful urge to ignore it.
That reality is a deep dispute between the dominant tendencies on the right. Traditionalist conservatives who insist that Ms. Schiavo must be kept alive at any cost have run directly into libertarian conservatives who don’t want to pay for her medical care. The traditionalists believe that no price can be placed on a human life, while the libertarians argue that everything has a market price, without exception. And the politicians who straddle these two positions, in their eagerness to exploit Ms. Schiavo’s case, have yet to explain how society should pay for their religious absolutism.
The great minds of the right do their best to avoid discussing such contradictions, using reliable methods of misdirection and demonization. Rush Limbaugh insinuates that spiteful liberals “want Terri Schiavo to die just because Christian conservatives want her to live.” Peggy Noonan denounces the “pull-the-plug people … half in love with death, red-fanged and ravenous,” whom she identifies as Democrats. Most of the judges who have actually decided that Ms. Schiavo would no longer receive life support are conservative Republicans, but those inconvenient facts aren’t mentioned by the likes of Mr. Limbaugh and Ms. Noonan.
Instead, for propaganda purposes, the right-wing philosophers prefer to keep matters as simple as possible. They say that the Schiavo dispute represents a struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” On the righteous side of life, according to Ms. Noonan, is anyone who believes in God and who therefore realizes that “each human life is precious, of infinite value, worthy of great respect.”
That is a lovely sentiment, of course. But how do conservatives in power express their respect for the infinite value of each human life? They wage unnecessary war with “shock and awe.” They cut Medicaid benefits for the poorest of the poor, including children. They cut food stamps for the hungry. They oppose every effort to ensure universal health care, which would seem to be the best means to protect every precious life.
The funding matrix behind Ms. Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, and their lawyers illustrates the contradictory agenda of conservatism. Much of the money to finance the Schiavo litigation and public relations has been provided by foundations associated with the Philanthropy Roundtable, an innocuous-sounding outfit that serves as a central committee for major conservative donors.
The Roundtable foundations, which boast names like Mellon Scaife and Smith Richardson, simultaneously pays for the traditionalist “culture of life” litigators and for libertarian groups that promote draconian cutbacks and the withdrawal of government services from the poor. In the bright future that they’re bringing us, medical care for those who cannot pay their own way- including Terri Schiavo-will presumably be provided from direct-mail lists and church-collection plates. Don’t tell them there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Ironically, the right-wing policies promoted by the Philanthropy Roundtable and its pet politicians would have doomed Ms. Schiavo long ago. They constantly claim that the most important cost in medicine today is the prevalence of tort lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. The costs of Ms. Schiavo’s hospitalization and care have been subsidized for well over a decade by the proceeds of her husband’s successful suit against the doctors who failed to diagnose her bulimia (which stopped her heart and destroyed most of her brain).
With nearly all of that money already spent, Ms. Schiavo now depends on Medicaid to support her hospice care. In many other cases like hers, patients must rely on Medicare. Had the right-wing extremists in Congress prevailed in their zeal to slash or abolish those programs during the past 10 years, not much would have been left to pay for her or others like her-not to mention every other precious life that needs but cannot afford life-saving medical care.
In this demagogic moment, conservatism pretends to moral seriousness without confronting the real problems of life, death and financial constraint raised by the Schiavo case. The President and the Congress passed the decision back to the courts so that they could blame the judiciary. The right-wing ideologues tell us that we must protect every life, while demanding that we lower taxes, cut medical programs and deny care to the poor.
Meanwhile, the most active figures on the right are displaying the pragmatic attitude that has carried them so far. A conservative direct-mail company has contracted with the Schindlers to market the valuable list of their financial supporters, allowing any organization that buys those thousands of names to fill the mailboxes of their supporters with unwanted solicitations from the far right.
Let nobody say they lack principle.