It’s one of those moments when the abyss seems to open up at one’s feet. There is no surprise, of course, in the fact that a judge should have affirmed the right of a husband with an obvious interest in getting his wife out of the way to starve her to death just because she is prevented by illness from protesting about it. The ugly fiction of “choice” as the justification for appalling barbarity towards the innocent and helpless has never been more naked, but it has always been pretty apparent to anyone with eyes to see. No, what is shocking, what makes some of us wonder what kind of barbaric world we suddenly find ourselves living in, is the apparent majority of Americans — a large majority, we are told by the pollsters — who are quite happy that what has now been done to poor Mrs. Schiavo should have been done to her. And presumably to others in her situation.
Of course it may be the case that Americans have become so desensitized by 30-plus years of legal abortion-on-demand that the brutalization of the culture which opponents of such license have long predicted is already upon us. To some extent, we must be aware that this is true, and the media’s treatment of what amounts to legally mandated murder can be evidence of nothing else. The ever reliable Tina Brown wrote in the Washington Post on the day of Terri’s death that “It’s become downright harrowing to live in the crucible of these hourly Passion plays. The endlessly repeated tape loop of Terri’s gaping mouth has become as ubiquitous as Starbucks…” Downright harrowing, eh? Poor Tina! How hard Terri’s slow death is for her! But I think that a significant proportion of the majority who are supposed to think that the courts were right to give her husband the right to kill Terri Schiavo are not really saying that. Instead, they’re saying that they are tough guys (and gals) and they don’t want the world to think they’re squeamish or wimpish.
My guess is that you would get a very similar number of people answering “yes” to some such question as: “If you were seriously injured to the point where you lost brain function and were reduced to the condition of a vegetable” — the English, for some reason, colloquially insist on specifying the vegetable as a cabbage — “would you want your loved ones to ‘pull the plug’ and allow you to die?” Now that’s not what was happening in the Schiavo case, of course, but there may be another reason for people to pretend it was than mere eagerness to let her husband “get on with his life.” For one thing, it’s easy to answer yes. Not only are you not in such a lamentable state when you answer, but it’s very hard to imagine that you ever will be. Nor is anyone ever going to be in a position to accuse you of inconsistency if, should the hypothetical become real, you should change your mind. Either you would no longer have a mind to change, or you would be, like poor Terri, unable to signify that you had changed it.
Yet it is the culturally acceptable answer. It is thought to be both courageous and tough minded to regard life without — fill in the appropriate mental or bodily function here — as being not worth living. That, after all, is why Million Dollar Baby won the Oscars that it did. People, and especially people with a theatrical bent, were disposed to regard the decision of Maggie Fitzgerald, Hilary Swank’s character, to die even though she still had all her cognitive function intact as a good and brave and authentic one. Clint Eastwood, who had defined for a generation of Americans what it meant to be a tough guy, or at least to look like a tough guy, was now telling us that being a tough guy, or looking like a tough guy, means killing oneself rather than submitting to what Maggie tendentiously describes as the “humiliation” of paralysis.
What man doesn’t want to see himself, and to make others see him, as being like Clint? Remember how Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (Schiavo watch was “getting to be like Groundhog Day,” wrote Howard Kurtz, also in the Post) dresses up like the Man with No Name in acting out his fantasy? And what woman, now, doesn’t want to look like feisty, beautiful, unconquerable Maggie Fitzgerald? A big part of honor, or the science of looking good in the eyes of those who matter most to us, has always concerned itself about the right way to die. In Roman times and more recently among the Japanese, the suicide of the defeated and humiliated was taken for granted as an honorable obligation, but things have always looked a bit different in the culture of the Christian West. Now that the traditional moral compass supplied by Christianity is gone, however, what we may be seeing in the popular reaction to the Schiavo case is a reassertion of primitive, pagan honor.
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