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Vegetable Christians, Generic People

The news this early spring has featured the Florida woman living in a vegetative state for the past fifteen years – kept alive only by intravenous feeding.  Terri Schiavo was unconscious all this time, though her eyes were often open, and she showed facial expressions, which her parents interpreted as human responses.  They wanted her kept hooked up to the technology that kept her biologically alive – pending a miracle. 

Terri Schiavo's husband said no, his wife never wanted to be kept clinging to life through technology propelling but vegetative functions.  Politicians in Florida intervened, however, insisting she stay on her life support systems – and early this spring it became a federal case, too, as the Republican-dominated Congress rushed to special late-night session for legislation expressly for this woman's right to "life."  George W. Bush, as president, again on a Texas ranch vacation, interrupted it for melodramatic return to Washington, where just after midnight he signed this brand new federal law into effect.

America's far right Christian movement impelled these politicians to these actions, determined on keeping Terri Schiavo hooked to her machinery.  With their petitions, e-mail campaigns, and placard-carrying demonstrators, they espoused her vegetative state as embodying the same humanity they hold, too, for all fetuses in their mothers' wombs.  "Pro-life," thus they militate for a blanket and uniform "right to life."

America has a sickness, these conservatives believe.  Over the years, through corporate-endowed think tanks and church networks, they have well organized themselves as if the country were threatened on many fronts from serpentine deadly cabals:  secular humanists, Hollywood packaged sin, demanding homosexuals, godless scientists, and a national media of "liberal bias."  Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush brilliantly exploited these fears in the 2004 election, posing as America's bulwark for traditional values, and against all "evil."  This script resonated with those in America's rural and suburban sprawl.  They crushed their willy-nilly, sissified, urban fellow Americans.

Such culture wars are not new.  America similarly split 150 years ago, from the era of Jacksonian frontier Democrats to the Civil War, when a nationwide "Know-Nothing" movement portrayed pure America's enemies as all foreigners, immigrants, and urban life.  The same fears arose 100 years ago, in the populist era of the 1890s, when new waves of immigrants, and surges in technology, industrialism, and commercial trusts all aroused people's alienation otherwise charmingly expressed in Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz.  Post-WWII McCarthyism fanned the same fears 50 years ago, with this time slick commies morphing into the elitism of what Richard Nixon called the eastern establishment.

It's our oldest script:  the folk as victims (or, at least, necessary loners).  And they've returned, our culture wars.  They were here by 1992, when a William Greider essay, "Angle of Vision," appeared in his book, Who Will Tell the People:  the Betrayal of American Democracy.   Greider agreed that Americans had good reason to feel betrayed by our national media and to cavil at its "liberal bias."  A journalist and one of our finest liberals himself, by 1992 he knew why he and his profession deserved blame.  His own thirty-year career showed how American journalism had become thoroughly corporate, and had severed itself from millions of Americans.

"Angle of Vision" begins in a late '50s, early '60s working class world which then still spoke to the variety of voices Greider knew American journalism had always served.  This world ended, however, in specialization, and the advent of niche demographics.  It ended when journalists began addressing mass markets in impersonal voice. 

Greider grieves for the enervating of voice in his profession – the loss of audiences previously working-class, earthy, idiosyncratic, burled, opinionated.  They disappeared not just from newspaper subscription lists, but from all levels of participating in democracy.   Their disenfranchisement, he points out, coincided with the growing franchise of "higher education."  In their many new departments of specialists, they, too were divvying up niche conceits that differed by jargon, though all hewed to the same coercion of impersonal voice.  Thus we got newspapers such as USA Today – and since then more mutualities of cloned, corporate television news – that all "speak of America in the optimistic 'we' and are strong on national celebration – but nearly silent on authentic outrage."  USA Today at the time of Greider's essay, even more for all chain newspapers and corporate television now, "evokes a mythical nation that has a single, homogenized viewpoint, and . . . shies away from the difficult stories that would disrupt this sunny vision."  He sees these developments "as if the cadaver of the old working-class newspaper had been exhumed from the grave and brought back to life, its cheeks rouged with gorgeous color photos – then lobotomized."

Greider concedes that specialization has brought some improvement – better serving "elite readers with special tastes and attitudes and political opinions."  This follows the related developments in America, and in the global economy, where specialization finds all of us in our clearly differentiated lifestyle groups.  There we further style and tweak our identities within the arrangements made for us by marketers, advertisers, pollsters, and departmental academics.   They have all tracked us and taught us to accept our being tracked as a given.  In our consumer and entitlement zones, however, we have lost the variegated voices and registers earlier journalism and earlier academies served.  We have lost our resources for a connected public life.  Thus so many millions of Americans feel, he says, disenfranchised.  Thus it's easier to get mugged by the corporate interests – as in Congress exploiting the Terri Schiavo case, posturing as pro-life Christian, even while again voting down any increase in the minimum wage for the millions of working poor, though granting itself yet another of its own regularly annual pay increases.

Andrew Delbanco more recently gives another look at how we reduce ourselves for our mutual isolations.   We do it for the entitlements we presume our niches confer.  Our "higher education" system has our "betters," our professors, all modeling the ways that retreat into departmentalism supposedly empowers us.  In "The Endangered University," an omnibus review in The New York Review of Books for March 24, 2005, Delbanco notes how sinecure and security promises trump all other dynamics for public life.  Too many professors today, he says, commonly "regard the university as serving them, rather than the other way around."  Henry Rosovsky, says Delbanco, pointed this out about academia in 1991, about the same time Greider was observing similar changes in journalism.  In a more recent book, one of those under Delbanco's review, Derek Bok recounts how the "ethics" of corporate America have taken over academia.  In Delbanco's phrasing of Bok, our universities now largely serve "opportunities for institutional and personal growth in 'technology-transfer' partnerships with corporate investors and government agencies."  This has developed, he says, "especially since the passage in 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which permits both universities and individual researchers to share in profits from inventions or therapies developed with public funds."

The problem – Greider, Delbanco, Rosovsky, and Bok agree – is one of public life.  It has nearly disappeared.  Greider puts it in terms, that "democracy" has nearly disappeared.  Another observer, Donald Kennedy, puts it in terms of "institutional citizenship" which is now "under siege."  In his omnibus review, Delbanco refers to Kennedy for his book, Academic Duty, which he wrote "in an effort to articulate the responsibilities that ought to go hand-in-hand with academic freedom."  This book, Delbanco wryly notes, "has had no discernible effect."

The problem grows.  Call it "democracy," or "institutional citizenship," or the ways we have all reduced public life, but we now live in an era of "me" entitlements – me and my specialization niche, me and my group's consumer demographics.

These appear to us as comfort zones, as if, in them, and in the impersonal voice that flattens all in them, no one can question us.  No one can question any values in us so long as we hum along, following procedures correctly, speaking professional jargon, slogans, and banality, and dealing further with each other mainly by the exchanges of our show-&-tell consumerism.  It takes skills to escape these comfort zones – literate skills to see that even in public we also widely inhabit other ethics.  We exhibit and express a large spectrum of public stories by our clothing, our food presentation, our travel modes, and our landscape and building architecture.  We can see these stories, more sides of our values and of "others."  Call it better public life, or "democracy," or "institutional citizenship."  With Essaying Differences, call it the Golden Rule, with literacy.

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