It’s a shocking historical juxtaposition. The pro-democracy movement known as the Arab Spring is in significant part a consequence of rising literacy and declining birth rates in the Mideast. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Right is mounting a direct assault on education and a renewed war on contraception. This ought to tell us something.
It may be spring in the Mideast, but a chill wind is howling in America as America’s Right puffs its cheeks like Old Man Winter. Education and the personal freedom to control one’s body and sexual life fuel powerful democratic movements. What kind of movement then is America’s Right engaged in?
French social scientist Emmanuel Todd is explicit about the democratizing power of literacy and reproductive freedom. They lead to:
…the transformation of the political system, a spreading wave of democratization and the conversion of subjects into citizens.
But the American Right seeks the opposite, the conversion of citizens into subjects. That they do so while speaking of liberty is just more authoritarian “denying and distorting of information” in the words of Italian humanist, Auschwitz survivor and anti-fascist Primo Levi.
Is the Right really mounting a war on contraception? While far-right conservatives have largely succeeded in snookering the credulous news media into framing its anti-birth control agenda as all about abortion, they seek much more than an abortion ban.
In a moment of unintended candor, a leading conservative Texas state legislator, Wayne Christian, recently confessed. The Texas Tribune asked Christian whether he was engaged in a war on birth control. He answered:
Of course it’s a war on birth control, on abortions, on everything. That’s what family planning is all about.
Christian is no isolated crank. He has helped lead the charge to eliminate spending on family planning and force women to undergo sonograms before a pregnancy is terminated. In Texas, insurance companies no longer have to cover birth control.
Despite the recent federal budget fight over Planned Parenthood, progressives seem only drowsily aware of the assault on birth control. Painful as it is to do, we should listen more carefully to Rush Limbaugh, who recently mocked birth control and laughed in agreement when a caller said a woman should just keep her legs closed. We should also keep tabs on the Family Research Council, which thinks birth control is a contrivance of the devil.
On education, the Right’s assault is well underway. According to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 34 states and the District of Columbia have cut aid to K-12. Forty-three states have cut funding for public colleges and universities.
This weekend, we can add Texas to that list. The Legislature, wrapping up a session that looks more and more like a Rick Perry for President campaign commercial, is cutting public education by $4 billion and locking 20,000 qualified students out of a college education.
Most Americans don’t support these anti-democratic policies, but they don’t really know they are happening. It’s a very small number of conservative elites driving the agenda. Their followers are blind and weak, convinced by decades of conservative propaganda that all their troubles stem from a too-big liberal state or from various “Others.” Some of these Others, demonstrably poor, stand accused of taking more than their fair share. The contradiction is lost on the intellectually infirm.
America’s most dangerous myth is the “It-Can’t-Happen-Here” story. The cowed political press continues to treat the profoundly authoritarian conservative agenda with kid gloves.
And Democrats get the framing wrong on most of the issues at hand. For instance, millions of American Catholics defied the Vatican on birth control. Don’t we think Catholics and non-Catholics would defy the anti-contraception Wayne Christians of the world? But we allow the debate to be framed solely around the question of abortion when we should be talking about the War on Contraceptives, government control of our bodies and private lives and the loss of personal liberty.
We get deep in the wonky weeds on education, and we always have. The fundamental issue is simple to frame: Without free public education there is no democracy, there is no America.
But, of course, It Can’t Happen Here, so why worry. That’s my great frustration. I know most Americans are deeply committed to democracy. We stood in awesome solidarity with the pro-democracy rebels in Egypt and elsewhere. But many are blind to the real struggle at home.
Primo Levi, in a 1974 essay called “A Past We Thought Would Never Return,” wrote these words:
Every age has its own fascism and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of the privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.
In his brilliant, just-published essay on Levi, Stanislav G. Pugliese adds:
…the attempt of the fascist state to seize control of the family through social legislation (preventing abortions, outlawing contraception…)
Let’s check off the list with reference to the American Right’s agenda. Paralyzing public education. Check. Outlawing contraceptives and abortions. Check. Denying and distorting information. Check. Undermining systems of justice. Check (Patriot Act; tort reform). Forced labor (union busting; wage and pension cuts). Check. Nostalgia for an imagined world of perfect order, authority and obedience. Check.
With regard to America or Americans, the word “fascism” is taboo. We could be prohibited by convention from using the word “cancer,” too. But rogue cells would still destroy bodies.
There is no comparison to Hitler here. His was a special evil. I would just like the Right’s agenda to be seen for what it is, profoundly anti-democratic and authoritarian. When it is seen for what it is, and if it’s not too late, Americans will condemn it. And defeat it.