April 22, 2004
Do YOU own your own body?

It sounds in a way like a question with an obvious answer to most people: "Sure, I do." But as Sabina and I keep finding out over and over, the obvious is by no means universally so for all people. When we see more and more instances of our government losing track of what many might see as a trivial and basic matter, perhaps its time to talk about how some very basic notions of freedom and liberty in this country are gradually being eroded away, and how that's happening in a way that's not at all clearly visible to most people.

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a place that, up until recently, hasn't been easily mistaken for a totalitarian state. It's because of this freedom that America hasn't been a stagnant place. One reason that's so is that people are free to screw up. There isn't a state bureaucracy watching over each of us to review our personal decisions.

For example, as an entrepreneur I was free to throw my day job overboard and start a company with a very few other people. I did that twice. The first time was a complete and total disaster, in a rather conventional line of business. The second time, the outcome was very different; because we live in a country where people can use their imaginations, come up with a product or service that many would have insisted couldn't possibly be sold, and can throw their nine-to-five lives overboard and go pursue that, we succeeded in growing a company to great success. I didn't have to explain the concept to someone else and get permission to quit my job and start a business; other than the usual formalities of starting any business, the only people who had to be sold on the service were our customers.

Again, I sometimes feel like I'm talking about the obvious. But it's not. In a different place where independent thinking and innovation aren't considered quite as valuable, and tradition rules, starting a business like that is much more difficult if not impossible -to some degree because of the burden of having to explain oneself to others and to authorities - which of course is one of the reasons why so many people emigrate from so much of the rest of the world to America. To such a great degree one can do one's own thing here.

Or, at least, that is the kind of freedom that we've enjoyed here for a long time. I say that because it looks to me sometimes that this country - at least some of its subcultures, and its government - are trending away from innovation and toward a stifling conformity. This trend tends to show up in ways that seem far removed from commerce, from things like my example. But these other ways are very much connected, because, for individual people, these are matters involving personal decisions; I call it intimate decision making. Whether I'm talking about what you want to do with the rest of your life - or what you're going to eat and wear today - or who you're going to bed with tonight, these are all products of our most intimate decision making. Some are obvious to others, and some are more private; they are all intimate decisions.

These intimate decisions extend to our physical bodies. In our free society, it is alleged, we have a great degree of control over what can be done to us physically. Medicine has, for the most part, adopted and universalized the practice of informed consent. And of course slavery is not tolerated.

Our biological and reproductive capacity are ours. We don't live under the threat that, because someone else might need a kidney and our body chemistry matches theirs, that we'd be kidnapped, strapped down and have a kidney yanked out of us to keep someone else alive - after all, we've all got two and we can each spare one to keep another alive, right? No, it doesn't work that way - or, at least, it doesn't work that way if I'm talking about kidneys.

And at the moment we aren't under any formal government mandate to have children. We can each be childfree, or have a dozen or more if we feel like it.

The kinds of things that raise an alarm in my mind come from many different places, but they all clearly stem from the kind of evangelical Christianity that has become dominant in this country in recent decades. Those of you who came through the barf.org website probably already noticed, that I call this subculture a "Biblical America," because that's what they want: all personal and social interaction to be governed by their particular interpretation of the Bible.

What isn't all that clear, I think, is what that actually means when it comes to intimate decision making and the idea of bodily ownership, across the board. This is a subculture that has people in it - from its leaders all the way down to street preachers - who, while allegedly taking the entire contents of the Bible literally, concentrate over and over on a few select passages. One of the verses we hear over and over is from 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, as in this example, which provides considerable context, from the head of Operation Rescue at a news conference. I've highlighted his quote of the verse:

We're dealing with two worldviews, a culture of death versus a culture of life. And the homosexual worldview is exactly the same as the worldview of abortion. You know what it is? It's my rights my body my choice my thing you don't tell me what to do I'll do what I want whenever I want to and the one commandment I have is thou shalt not get in my face and don't you dare judge me. On the other side of that is the worldview that brings life which says, you are not your own, you were bought with a price therefore glorify God with your body, that it's not my body I don't belong to me anymore...

You see it's not a battle about abortion or homosexuality, it's a battle about whose laws reign or who is Lord. And we're saying that Jesus is Lord and Mickey is not.

The remarkable thing is that people like the above-quoted Flip Benham have this habit, often while negating the idea of bodily ownership in a literal sense, of talking about the "laws" of secular government, that he seeks to overthrow, as if those laws appear out of thin air somehow, by the edict of someone or other. Even more horrifying is to watch a "liberal," gay law professor from a major university, called on to "debate" the subject, who can't come up with a reasoned, even understandable, response to the insistence of evangelicals that those "laws" must come from some absolute standard whether we're willing to agree with their Biblical-supremacistic assertion or not.

The fact of the matter is that our laws are the product of a centuries-long process, a long history of trial and error to find out what works, a system that, through the legal traditions predating our country, our godless Constitution and its amendments, and over two centuries of legal precedent, we have a legal system under which our rights and freedoms have come to be understood and protected.

Evangelicals who mouth off like this both suggest that we're all owned by God and that God makes the laws; while some of a more "liberal" religious persuasion might view these things to be true in some broad metaphorical sense, in this context these are people who are taking these things very literally. In practice, all this rhetoric does is to give those who're in the business of promoting their own notions of what "God" is, and interpreting the Bible, enormous power. They discard history, only to dispense factoids that, they claim, "prove" that the Founding Fathers were the same kind of zealous religious supremacists that they are today. They deliberately ignore over two centuries of American jurisprudence to insist, to varying degrees, that only the laws in the Bible - or their contemporary interpretation of them - should be reflected in civil law, no more and no less.

But perhaps you're shaking your head, insisting that this sort of thing is dismissible, that this so-called religious "fundamentalism" is only believed by people living in poverty in trailer parks in the deep South, or something. In fact, today's Bible Belt is the outer suburban ring around major cities all over the country, populated by the bored middle-class suburbanite with time on their hands to worry about all kinds of stuff about which they don't often have a great deal of understanding, and as a result they trust those nearby that they see as valid authority figures - the leaders of their churches. For them, the source of "laws" is just something too important to be left to an arcane process that they don't care to learn about or understand from sources they don't trust as much as their churches, so they easily accept an absolutist explanation that comes from and ultimately benefits churches, promoted by opportunists who've actually managed to get into the system, like (hopefully former) Alabama chief justice Roy Moore. It's a simple answer to a complicated process, but that complicated process has done a lot better job of keeping civil society prosperous and healthy compared to what might be expected from a totalitarian state that would result from such an arbitrary absolutism.

I can hear you still shaking your head out there, insisting that Roy Moore is just an example of that Southern trailer-park trash getting into power, or something. Well, let's take a look at George W. Bush, and what he said during his recent press conference:

I also have this belief, strong belief, that freedom is not this country's gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom.

What you have here is the redefinition of freedom, directly from the chief executive of the United States himself: the denial of the work of perhaps millions of people over time in creating the body of law under which we live, disregarded and replaced with some simplistic suggestion that only his "God" can grant freedom. Worse, that this country is obligated to play missionary to the planet, spreading this "God"-based redefinition of freedom to other countries, whether they care for it or not (my guess being that few will care for it.)

Again, this whole rhetorical construction, that's now coming out of the White House along with many others in state and federal government, only serves to grant enormous power to those who claim to have "God" on their side, and that's a very particular form of "God" too. You can throw anything that doesn't look like militant supremacist Christian evangelical belief out the window, along with basic things like religious pluralism, which in their mind is easily redefined to encompass primarily variations among Christian denominations and streams of thought and custom.

Given all this, what does the future hold for preserving a secular government at state and federal levels here in the United States? The immediate future doesn't look all that good. This week, we have both the Virginia House and Senate passing an unbelievably stupid and unconstitutional bill banning "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships" by a two-thirds majority in both chambers. (See text of the bill.) Getting back to those intimate decisions - it seeks to eliminate any state protection for whatever arrangements two unrelated people of any sexual orientation might seek to make, and have recognized by the state, in many areas of life including healthcare directives and property ownership, that might be interpreted as an attempt to extend the protections and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. It will only provide more fodder for those who insist that the justice system is populated by "liberal," "activist" judges when, one hopes, it's eventually found unconstitutional. It's another example of how "Biblical Americans," firmly in control of a legislature, implement their comic-book imagining of what other's lives look like. They have little appreciation for the infinite breadth and depth of human experience; they have only one rigid conception of what a gay relationship looks like, much like they have only one concept of what an abortion looks like in the real world. Both of these concepts are reinforced through mountains of propaganda, that reflect one simplistic, flat, rigid (and ignorant) view of what the lives of others must be like. Such legislation is the result of the eager acceptance of that propaganda.

What the future holds, I think, is an even more explicit attack on the notion of bodily ownership and individual autonomy over time. It comes from the simultaneous rise of "Biblical America," neo-conservatism and hyper-corporatism - the negation of the individual in relationship to corporations, both secular and religious. In the religious context, these corporations are churches and the whole institutional structure of evangelical Christianity; institutions that are aware that the notion that people are free to act independently of them, and can get along just fine in open violation of church teaching, spells their eventual end. They work against this concept of freedom by acting to assert their self-image of supremacy in all areas of life. Further, by eroding the idea of bodily ownership, they are able to harness human fertility for their own purposes. They have set up an enormous infrastructure of so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" to harness the reproductive capacity of other women, to grow their own families, and thus their congregations, through adoption. By working to eliminate the means by which people may control their own fertility - by working to outlaw or restrict abortion, and defunding public health providers such as Planned Parenthood - they attempt to fill their demand for adoptable newborns by direct means using their so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" while implementing direct means through legislation and governmental action.

So. Do YOU own your own body? You certainly won't if Biblical America, along with the neoconservatives, have their way with you.

Posted by Mike Doughney at April 22, 2004 06:55 AM | TrackBack

I just ran accross your sites by example and I'm intrigued by the depth of thought and degree of passion you have brought to branding and resisting a world-view that suggests our bodies are not our own. Many of your critical points are insightful.

Where I found myself wishing you would go deeper was examination of the very notion of ownership of anything (including land, cars, or our bodies) when the "owners" are born and die within a span of 100 years. It is perhaps more useful to think of control. I have "control" of my home and property only to the degree I can defend it, or have a collective (community, nation, etc.) who bands together with me to enforce my notion of ownership. If I'm running a meth lab in my home, my home can be stripped from me by the government. If I wish to use my house to slaughter stray cats, I might get moved into a "big house" and lose control of my house. Who really owns all of my property? The government that protects my rights to operate as a caretaker on the government's behalf.

Now the question arises - whence derives the government its authority? I used to think the "democratic" government was by, of, and for the people - but think for a moment - whose democracy is it? Can I run for President and have a snowball's chance in hell of winning? What do I have to do to be President? Can anyone get to national office without being part of or drawn into an inner circle of the rich and powerful whose only agenda is the retention and expansion of wealth and power for themselves? No!

The "Democracy" of early America was thought out and founded by the land-owning aristocracy of the day. To participate in that "democracy", you had to own land and pay a poll tax. The mechanisms of retaining power for the powerful have changed to suit the times - but the reality has not. We all are as much slaves to our government as the citizens of any government at any time. We drink our cokes and drive our nice cars, and imagine that because we can buy whatever we want, we are free. Bullshit! We are not free, never have been, and never will be!

Structural defects in our current political and economic system will eventually result in wiping out the middle class - and guess what, that's not going to be because you and I are willingly welcomed into the loving arms of the elite class. Revolution is an inevitable outcome of the growing divide between rich and poor, and the existence of a broad middle-class is all that is preventing it. Everyone harbors the illusion that we control our destiny and can improve our lot in life - but who's really pulling the strings that leave you "free" to start your own company? Call me a cynic, but I don't see any difference in government by what appears to be christian fundamentalists or by what appear to be thoughtful atheists - by the time they get to office, their "principles" are simply the clothes they wear to win support from those who like the same fashions.

Since all ownership is at the pleasure of the government, the question is not whether we own our bodies, but what the government will let us do with them. The language of ownership and freedom is the same language the founding fathers coined to rally the common folk to die so they could get richer and powerful without the interference of the rich and powerful in England. Our "democratic" society has never been the utopia school children are taught - no more real than the tooth fairy.

I guess what I'm pointing to is your lionization of the process of ariving at our current legal framework. I don't see any inherent virtue in the fact that it has been crafted over centuries, nor the particular mechanism by which it has been created - because who's been creating it is the elite class, and it has been fine tuned to serve their ends. If there is anything marvelous about it - it is the cleverness with which the apparent freedom of the governed is foisted on us by the elite. We think because we have a few million dollars we have power - but the captains of industry and government have us by the shorts - and they aren't letting go. Only a few in each generation (think Michael Dell and Bill Gates) get promoted into the ranks, and only then if they become part of the gang, because the tools of government can be used to dismantle their economic power.

So I ask you - regardless of what the laws say - where lies the path of true freedom? You and I are caught in the crossfire of a family feud among the elite. Some have harnessed the emotional energy of anti-abortion folks to be the cannon fodder in the battle, and others glady engage you as cannon fodder - and neither side cares really about the "truth" or "freedom", they just want someone to vote for them, buy their products, whatever.

I keep thinking: What if the rank and file (the cannon fodder) for both sides of the issue could sit down and talk through their points of view without the sound-bite gunbattle that has the elite rubbing their hands with glee? If we poor schmucks were to ever really begin to work things out amongst ourselves - the wind would go out of the sails for the elite, and what might happen then? The elite don't want reasoned dialogue between members of an informed population - they'd rather people on both sides of every issue draw people to their cause without reasoned debate and battle it out - because that extends their power and wealth.

If we want to effect real change, and not simply fuel the engine of a corrupt political system, we must engage those who disagree with us in open dialogue without name calling, and be willing to really examine the roots of our own points of view.

Posted by: James Terry on May 1, 2004 04:21 PM
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