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Schiavo Case's Intended & Unintended Consequences

The Schiavo case's intended and unintended consequences

Will the Rev. Jesse Jackson's appearance in Florida on behalf of the Schindler family broaden the 'culture of life' debate?
Bill Berkowitz

If the Rev. Jesse Jackson's last-minute appearance in the hours preceding the death of Teri Schiavo rubbed you the wrong way, hold on for just a moment. The Rev. Jackson, who made it clear that he passionately believed Terri's feeding tube should be reattached, had some other things on his mind as well. The fact that he got to talk about a broader "culture of life" agenda during several interviews was a direct result of his having stood with the Schindler family.

At 9:05 AM on Thursday, March 31, Terri Schiavo died. Apparently her passing will not end the rancor within the family. And her death could usher in a broad-ranging debate about an assortment of issues including judicial "malfeasance," and "culture of life" issues.

In the immediate aftermath of her passing, the cable television news channels were focused on -- some might say consumed by -- reactions to her death from her husband, her parents, protestors outside the Florida hospice, religious leaders, and by President Bush -- who suggested that the country honor Terri Schiavo by creating a "culture of life."

Now that the autopsy has been completed (the results will not be issued for several weeks), there is a battle brewing over her remains.

More importantly, there are significant political ramifications that might emerge from the case. Did President Bush and Republican congressional leaders overreach by leaping into the Schiavo matter, and was that the cause of the president's precipitous drop in the polls? Has Jeb Bush's political future been capsized? Will congress, led by a beleaguered Rep. Tom DeLay, rush to action? Have the Democrats become the party of states' rights?

A statement issued March 31, by the ethically-challenged House Majority Leader -- a primary mover behind initiating congressional intervention to enact legislation designed to prod the federal courts into ordering the reinsertion of Schiavo's feeding tube -- seemed to be calling for retribution against judges involved in the case (including possible impeachment proceedings). DeLay claimed that Terri's death was the result of those in "our legal system [that] did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change." DeLay warned that "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

Since President Bush's November victory, progressives have been whining about, lamenting over, and/or doing some serious thinking about "values" and so-called "values voters." Interestingly enough, if ever a political construct was pulled out of thin air and steamrolled into our living rooms, "values voters" is that concept. Culled from freak post-election polling, you would have thought that the mainstream media had discovered the Holy Grail when it stumbled upon "values voters."

While "values voters" have existed since the beginning of elections, only lately have they been elevated to their own demographic. As is its wont, the mainstream media -- woefully behind the curve on these issues -- is now playing catch-up on something that it likely doesn't quite fully comprehend. In this political climate, "values voters" are being identified as those anti-abortion, anti-gay rights folks organized by the Christian right. And, in our 24/7 news cycle, that's ready made for cable television's talking heads.

Regardless of its derivation, we can all agree that the "values voters" discussion -- and now the "culture of life" discussion -- has been the provenance of radical right wing Christian fundamentalists. Liberal and left points of view on values have been basically excluded from the discussion.

Along comes Rev. Jackson

In these strange times, within a 24-hour period the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke out on behalf of Michael Jackson, commented on the passing of civil rights attorney and activist Johnnie Cochran, and accepted an invitation extended by the Schindler family to stand with them in Florida.

Appearing with the Schindler family may have surprised some, and angered others, of Rev. Jackson longtime supporters. It sure caused a stir among those supporting Michael Schiavo.

Amongst the Reverend's various appearances in the twenty-four hours or so before Terri Schiavo died was a March 30 appearance on the Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" program. Interviewed by Sean Hannity, which in itself made for interesting viewing considering that Hannity -- who was on the scene in Florida doing his best impersonation of Dan Rather, sans the customary flak jacket -- has been an outspoken critic of the Reverend Jackson over the years.

On this night, however, the Rev. Jackson was getting only love from Hannity. The right wing host congratulated him for responding to the Schindler's call and for standing with them in these difficult times.

During the interview, as it has many times in Schiavo case discussions, the aftermath question was raised, as in: What will be coming out of all this?

Unintended consequences 101: We all have at least a rudimentary understanding of what "unintended consequences" is; generally, something that happens that is an unexpected result from an action or series of actions. According to Wikipedia, "unintended consequences" can be: "positive, in which case we get serendipity or windfalls"; a "source of problems"; or "definitively negative... the opposite result to the one intended." Wikipedia credits sociologist Robert K. Merton -- best known for having coined the phrases "self-fulfilling prophecy" and "role model" among others -- with coming up with "the Law of unintended consequences," which "holds that almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence. In other words, each cause has more than one effect including unforeseen effects."

After the Rev. Jackson talked briefly about Terri's situation, he turned his attention to broader issues: the need for a health care policy that includes all Americans, the importance of strengthening Medicare and long-term health services for the poor, and insuring that malpractice suits -- which helped provide money for Terri's care -- was still an available option.

Suddenly, in leaped Randall Terry. Terry, who was called to Florida by Terri's parents to galvanize support from the Christian right, was on the same panel.

Terry made three points: First, he thanked Rev. Jackson for coming to stand with the family, and he added, and I'm paraphrasing here, that he was honored to be in the same group with the Rev. Jackson when the Rev. addressed the press earlier that day. Second, Terry said that it was important that whatever policy debates were to follow would be conducted in a civil and respectful manner. (Coincidentally, as Terry was making that point the camera panned to one of Terri's supporters brandishing a sign that read something like "Michael and Greer will go to Hell.") Finally, with congratulations and conciliatory statements completed, Terry went off on a rant arguing that the primary issue that needed to be dealt with, and again I'm paraphrasing, was runaway judicial activism that thwarted the will of the parents.

GOP politicos and religious right leaders saw the Schiavo case as providing a number of opportunities: keep the grassroots stirred up and angry -- although the crowds outside the hospice were generally pretty small; peddle its wares to a national television audience -- although all the "God's law prevails over man's law" talk did not play well with the public; bring the sound-bite savvy Randall Terry back into the national spotlight -- his venomous comments made it clear why he no longer commands much respect; provide a bountiful fundraising opportunity for several religious right groups -- which it did.

The aftermath of Terri Schiavo's death may be the springboard toward passage of the "nuclear option" in the Senate -- cutting off Senate filibustering over Bush's judicial appointments by a mere majority vote.

What of the Rev. Jackson's motivation? While he certainly appeared sincere in his feeding-tube-reattachment advocacy, clearly he had something else on his mind. By standing with the Schindler family, Jackson was able to command air-time on the Fox News Channel and CNN and at least begin to lay out a vision for a more expansive definition of "culture of life" issues.

Rev. Jackson's intervention and broadening of the "culture of life" discussion may only have been a temporary intrusion. But at least for a moment, "culture of life" was no longer a wholly-owned Team Bush sound bite.


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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