Sunday, February 5, 2012

Is This Really Where Our Passion Goes?

How many of you, like me, no longer identify yourself with one of the two major political parties? How many of you who don't identify yourself as Democrat or Republican have partisan friends of both persuasions? How many of those of you who don't identify yourself as either Democrat or Republican and have partisan friends of both persuasions use a social networking site like Facebook or Twitter?

Those you who can answer yes to all of the above have probably had an experience similar to mine regarding the decision (and subsequent reversal) of the Susan G. Komen foundation (SGK), a charitable organisation dedicated to fighting breast cancer, to end its grant to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening. In the 3+ years I have been on Facebook, I have never seen anything like the passion generated by this decision (well, except for maybe outrage over the Casey Anthony verdict). I am a practicing Catholic and get Facebook posts from some Catholic Church sites which praised SGK for standing up for unborn children (in addition to breast cancer screening and contraception, Planned Parenthood is an abortion provider) and enouraged Catholics to donate to SGK. Meanwhile, my Democrat friends where scathing in their condemnation of SGK, promising to withhold donations and calling them cowards for succumbing to right-wing sex bullies (in reality they succumbed to no one, the new VP of SGK is an opponent of abortion rights and campaigned for Congress on a platform that included cutting federal funding of Planned Parenthood). At their most charitable, my Democrat friends shamed SGK for placing politics ahead of women's health (a fair point to be sure). Clearly SGK realised that they stood to lose more donours than they would gain from Catholics and Conservative Christians. When they reversed their decision, the Catholic sites were outraged at the betrayal, as were many of my Protestant conservative friends, and started encouraging people NOT to donate to SGK. My Democrat friends celebrated the "power of the people," and warned that this battle with SGK and other foes of Planned Parenthood is just beginning.

On one level, it is refreshing to see people that are engaged rather than apathetic. But why is this the issue that gets everyone's dander up? In truth, it isn't really an issue at all. SGK is a private charitable organisation, as is Planned Parenthood. Individuals are free to donate to each, or not, depending on their assessment of the goals of the organisation (and, of course, individuals are free to criticize the organisations for their decisions and change their minds to donate or not based on the organisation's actions). Nor, is there really a significant women's health issue here. The SGK grants accounted for less than 5% of the breast cancer screening provided by Planned Parenthood and it is hard to believe that Planned Parenthood couldn't have found alternative funding for that small number of screenings. And yet, this is what people get excited about.

In Syria, Iran, and Yemen, social media is critical for getting out news about the atrocities of dictators and coordinating resistance. In the United States, we are subject to increasingly more invasive searches at airports; our government can initiate eavesdropping of cell phone calls made overseas without a warrant; under the PATRIOT Act our government can monitor what we borrow from the library and Lord only knows how much our internet activity is monitored; thousands of enemy combatants are held indefinitely (and sometimes erroneously) without charges or access to counsel and one month ago the President of the United States signed into law a new National Defense Authorization Act which redefines U.S. soil as a battlefield in the war on terrorism and removes the constitutional protections that would prevent this same treatment for U.S. citizens apprehended on U.S. soil for suspected terrorism; and the government maintains a program of targeted assassination of American citizens suspected of terrorism, without due process, and recently has used this program to murder an American citizen (Anwar Al-Awlaki) and his 16-year-old son (fortunately the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Administration's claims that it doesn't need a warrant to track American citizens using the GPS on their mobile phones is a bridge too far). But no one seems terribly upset about this systematic bipartisan assault on civil liberties in the name of, "making us safer." Everyone seems to feel if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to worry about. Despite the history of detention of innocent Americans indefinitely during the Civil War and World War II, Americans seem oddly complacent that our leaders today are more benign and would only do this to "the bad guys." The actions of Susan G. Komen threaten no one's rights. Their decisions neither deprive unborn children of the right to life nor deprive women of access to contraceptives or abortions. But people are upset about this and not about the government's assault on their civil liberties.

Social issues like abortion, contraception, school prayer, and gay rights are called wedge issues for a reason. They are used to divide Americans into partisan groups for the purpose of the politicians who stoke the flames of public opinion over them to motivate people to vote. Indeed, there is probably no more reliable indicator of whether someone is likely to vote Republican or Democrat than one's opinion on abortion. They are a diversion from the real issues that threaten our nation, a sideshow by the great Wizards of Oz that rule in Washington to divert our attention from the man behind the curtain. My friends, we have bigger fish to fry than this. In the words of one of my favourite bands, Pendragon, "Is this really where our passion goes? Is this really where our energy flows?"