Tuesday, March 29, 2005

We Value Life Above All Else

Wow, I'm actually addressing something concrete that's happening right now. For some reason I feel like that never happens.

The bottom line about Terri Schiavo, as Connor so astutely put it, is that the money that would have kept her alive for the next whatever-odd years should be used to immunize Mauritania. If we're to debate the sanctity of life, it's about time we do it on a scale simultaneously grander and more concrete. But we are not walking on the bottom line; we're walking on a tightrope parallel to it but about twenty feet above. Which is okay; that's where a lot of symbolic cases of aggressive individualism walk. I feel confident that what I have to say about Terri Schiavo is connected to what I have to say about torture, but I'm not sure how, so let's stick around this tightrope for a while.

Simply, I believe Michael Schiavo. I believe him because I can't see any other possible motivating factor for his actions. All financial matters have been settled, he got involved with this other woman and had kids with her anyway, so he didn't need to wait for Terri's death to do that, and if he truly, desperately wanted her dead he could have just killed her. So I believe they had this conversation; I believe he is motivated by his knowledge of his wife's wishes. There are gazillions of psychological explanations for why her family members are behaving as they are, for why they wish what they do, but I can't make any psychological sense of Michael Schiavo unless he's telling the truth. So, now in all probability Terri Schiavo is about to die of dehydration and starvation. And major brain damage. (Those water protesters were very much of interest to me, the utter symbolism and ineffectuality of it--it's not as if she can sip, why do you think she had a tube?) The cause of death will in all probability be called dehydration and starvation, at least by much of the press--there's also assisted suicide, murder (I mean, Michael Schiavo's already gotten death threats--there's no reason those won't continue once she dies), and "complications resulting from."

According to Bush, according to Congress, we value life above all else. "We" being America. Given the whole immunization-of-Mauritania argument, I'd say we value American life above all else, but if "we" refers to the government there's not really anything wrong with that. I mean, morally there is, but since the methods of defining and governing nation-states have not yet caught up to globalization, it's utterly reasonable and within the boundaries of their self-definition for governments of wealthy countries to put their priorities purely on their own people. I don't like it, but the logic is there. Then there's the second difficulty, that of we value the lives of white and decently monied people above the lives of others. Which doesn't have a government-philosophical excuse, and just sucks. Spend the money that is currently used to keep people who will be lifelong vegetables and have expressed a desire to die should that become the case (let me express that here for myself, by the by) to increase educational spending and drug prevention programs in the inner city or rural former industrial centers (the latter of which, as my father has explained to me, have very similar problems with violence, gangs and dropout rates, but fewer guns). But we won't do that either. We will value life exactly as we see life, exactly as we, the people in power, perceive our own lives to be. That we value, and on that we will put our financial and emotional and emotino-national priorities.

So how does this connect to torture? In torture, in the Disappeared, as well, we value not life in general, but a particular race and financial orientation of American life. It is not life we value above all else, it is *lifestyle*, a particular lifestyle. (A friend of a friend once worked for the U.N. and was trying to introduce sustainable urban agricultural processes and conservation to various committees, only to be told, "The American way of life is not up for debate.") We value our ability to stay as we are, or even to stay as we were before September 11, which two are closer to each other than our leadership cares to admit. We value not even American life, but Americanism, above all else. And we will use even the weirdest, most outrageous methods, even walking a tightrope twenty feet above what we're really talking about, to prove it.

Lucas, Bri and I had an interesting discussion last week about what the meaning of torture was, that one of the best arguments to be made against it was that it was simply ineffectual, that people who are being tortured will, as has been proven numerous times, admit to anything you tell them to admit to. "Of pain you could only wish one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain." (1984 again. George Orwell, copyright 1949.) However, the assumption inherent to that argument is that the extraction of information is the real reason you're torturing people. And I can't imagine, at this point in time, that it ever is. That truth about torture has been proven time and time again, and only gets truer with the advancement of DNA research in criminal investigations. So we head to the other truth about torture, which is that when people are in a situation where others are in pain, it is a reasonable if terrifying reaction to make as certain as possible that it's not they who will be in pain. I don't endorse it, and I think it's scary that it's so consistently reinforced by society, but nevertheless I think it's present. Torture is not for extracting information; it's for creating a culture of fear. It's always been like that. There are uses to a culture of fear, if you want everything to stay exactly the same forever.

I'd like to say it's self-preservation that we value above all else, but even that's not quite it. I mean, it is, but . . . We value self-preservation exactly as we are, self-preservation frozen in time. We don't like to imagine that our perceptions of what life is or what's most important about it, or what is most important about love, or what is most important about our relationships to our children, can change (Schiavo); we don't like to imagine that our position of power in the world can change or that our ideas might not be universal and universally desirable (Iraq); we don't like to imagine that we can be taken down, even for a second, or if we are we like to imagine that our reassertion of our power is all it takes to stop it (torture, Abu Ghraib, etcetera). The scary part is that sometimes I think we might be right; these days I'm certainly having a hard time imagining how they would change.


At 2:44 PM, Blogger Mixer said...

Why is Quality of Life Never a value?


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