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Forget people, let's argue about politics!

By W. James Antle III
web posted April 28, 2003

For months, her family and friends waited and hoped. The public soon became familiar with the image of a young woman with a big smile. She disappeared on Christmas Eve, her baby was due on February 10 and the public was watching to see if she would be found. Then came the news: The bodies of Laci Peterson and her unborn son Conner were identified after they washed up on the shore of the San Francisco Bay.

A sad ending to a wrenching news story. But not everyone's mind was on the sorrow. In a revealing interview with the Piscataway Daily Record, Morris County NOW President Marva Stark objected to the double murder charges against the alleged perpetrator, Scott Peterson, because the unborn child was included as a victim. "If this is murder, well, then any time a late-term fetus is aborted, they could call it murder," she told reporters.

The national leadership of NOW did not rush to embrace this position – or to clarify their official stance on fetal homicide laws - and Stark would later equivocate somewhat in her radical pronouncement. But the politics of abortion were thus interjected into this case. Thoughtful pro-life reflections were also then contributed to the debate by such commentators as nationally syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher and WorldNetDaily columnist Joel Miller. Sara Rimensnyder posted a brief, interesting piece ruminating on the issues raised by the mini-controversy on Reason magazine's website.

Now, there are many important things that can and have been written about the legal schizophrenia that criminalizes fetal homicide yet permits elective abortion, as if "wantedness" was the determinant of personhood. But it nevertheless seems odd that we began by looking at a human tragedy and ended up arguing about politics. It seems all the more odd that this occurred because a representative of a self-styled women's rights group looked at a husband accused of murdering his wife and son and saw only what the ramifications might be for abortion.

The feminist obsession with abortion above all else is symptomatic of a culture saturated by politics. As a political junkie who reads, listens to radio reports, watches television shows, studies and writes about politics, I am not one who believes it to be a trivial or uninteresting subject. Nor do I find anything wrong with taking a current event like the Laci Peterson case and using it as the starting point of a relevant political discussion. It's an approach I use in many of my articles. But I do wonder why the events behind news stories become crowded about by political arguments as frequently as they do. It is possible to take one's preoccupation with politics and ideology to such an extreme that any sense of proportion or reality is lost.

It is increasingly difficult to attend a lecture on a college campus on a subject other than, maybe, mathematics without some kind political speechmaking entering into it. University course catalogs are replete with politicized offerings, animated by feminist ideology, multiculturalism, critical race theory, radical liberation theology and a whole host of philosophical underpinnings friendly to the idea that politics is central to human progress. Campuses and corporations now introduce speech codes and sensitivity training that conforms to the latest politically corrects fads. Even religious services are often intruded by the assumption that salvation may be found in certain political programs here on earth, with the preaching of theological liberals politicized at least as frequently as that of the much-maligned "religious right."

The war in Iraq has generated a lot of debate over celebrity political activism, with entertainers ranging from country music stars the Dixie Chicks to actor Tim Robbins inviting criticism for their antiwar pronouncements. I myself have no problem with celebrity politicking; I was a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan and an admirer of Charlton Heston's efforts on behalf of gun rights. It would thus be hypocritical of me to say that it is not the place of movie stars and musicians to speak their minds about politics. But I do marvel at the ubiquity of the practice. It seems like nearly every major entertainer delves into political commentary at some point. Concerts by your favorite recording artists often feature unwelcome and inarticulate speechmaking. It is a great leap from the ability to play an instrument or act in a movie to statecraft, yet it is one relatively few entertainers seem to hesitate making.

Many people actually think the way political fundraising letters read: If Candidate X is elected, the world as we know it will come to an end. The people will be enslaved, the poor and disenfranchised will be slaughtered, and the elderly will be starved. Locusts will descend upon our land amidst great weeping and gnashing of teeth. Only a donation to those of us who defend All That is Good and Right will forestall this misery and human suffering.

Such letters – and such thinking – may be found even in campaigns pitting moderate, practically indistinguishable candidates of opposing parties against each other, or in cases where the activists are organizing around causes that few people really care about. The fire and brimstone tends to be disproportionate to the issues being discussed. Ideology has taken on a role similar to a crusading religious faith. Nor is this political obsession limited to liberals. While Russell Kirk warned against utopian sentiments and described conservatism as the "negation of ideology," today many on the right seem believe that political authority backed by military force has an unlimited ability to remake societies and cultures.

William Anderson reflected on the changes this has wrought throughout our culture in a column for LewRockwell.com, a webzine that itself often displays ideological obsession: "Literature, literary publications, and religion once upon a time dealt with the weightier issues of right and wrong and the temporal and the eternal. Today, they are a mishmash of political pronouncements. For example, even in this century, the Trotskyite publication The Nation actually devoted many of its pages to literature and literary criticism. No more. From the New York Times to the New Yorker (and the New York Review of Books), we are treated to political discourse. Even modern poetry is nothing more than a gaggle of political ranting."

Some of this stems from the expansion of government. As government has become involved in more activities and has increased its power to redistribute wealth and access, the stakes of political outcomes have been raised. Despite - or possibly because of – the public's deep cynicism about politicians and government (about which entire books, such as E.J. Dionne's Why Americans Hate Politics, have been written), our collective faith in what politics is supposed to achieve has increased. In much of our culture, it is taken as axiomatic that grave problems ranging from race relations to the provision of health care can only be solved by government power. Virtually all problems are viewed as proper objects of public – read, government – concern. In spite of the tremendous record of innovation within a spontaneous order being able to meet challenges, government is viewed as the problem-solver of first resort rather than civil society, the church or the market. Much of the marked decline in the civility of political discussions can be directly traced to this phenomenon: As people have come to believe in messianic politicians and political programs, their political debates have been transformed into something approaching the ugliness of religious wars.

Yet the belief in the centrality of politics is contradicted by the experience of our daily lives. Political authority is powerless to truly shape the bonds of family and friendship, our deepest faiths and our sources of joy. There are a lot of more important things in life than politics. And much of what makes politics important is that it enables us to enjoy these finer things. The proper role of government, as described by the Declaration of Independence, is to secure and protect the people's inalienable rights. Political debates properly center on what this means and how it can best be achieved.

But it is always important to remember which is the end and which is the means. When young lives full of potential are snuffed out, it is an event to be mourned and reflected upon for its own sake. It does not need to be tied to some larger causes to make it so. Serious thought about the affairs of state can be heady stuff. Those of us with deep political convictions must always work to avoid giving into the temptation to place politics above actual people. For when we do exhibit such misplaced priorities, we are missing the point indeed.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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