The GOP and the compartmentalization of dignity

Posted on 17 Feb 2012 at 2:36pm

There are historians (and I know some personally) who will argue that the “cause” of the U.S. Civil War was not slavery: It was economics.

“Oh, yes, there were some abolitionists who sincerely were opposed to slavery,” the line goes. “But they were the tools of the industrial North, which wanted to destroy cheap labor in the South.” The proof? After the war, the Northern carpetbaggers came and forever changed the face of the nation, especially in the South.

Some others will argue it wasn’t about slavery or economics — it was about states’ rights.

Let’s concede for a moment that true abolitionists were a small minority and were manipulated by Northern robber-barons for their own purposes. Even so, you know who the Civil War remained “about slavery” to? The slaves. Economy, states’ rights… Pfftt! Fact is, when the war ended, the Constitution was amended to give an entire class of Americans rights guaranteed to them that they had never been given, despite being human beings. Before the Civil War, one man could own another in this country; after, they could not. That’s a big deal.

I am not claiming all of the historians above are right wingers, or racists, or anything of the sort. But I do find mankind’s capacity to compartmentalize facts — to divorce the realities of living in a society with perceived causation issues, or esoteric analysis.

That came into stark light yesterday at the House oversight committee hearing on the employer-insurance contraception issue.

Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California, pictured, convened a panel to inquire about whether religious institutions should be required to provide contraception to their employees, on the grounds that such a requirement violates “religious liberty.” Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D.—N.Y.) objected to the panel of witnesses set to testify, as it consisted entirely of men — not one woman was on the panel. There was, however, a woman in the gallery who was qualified and ready to testify. All Maloney asked was that she be added to the panel — not replace any of the five men.

Issa pissed on her request, saying that the female “expert” was not an expert in religious liberty; she was instead a women’s rights expert who knew a thing or two about contraception. As such, she was unqualified to offer testimony at a hearing on the topic of religion.

Maloney and another female Congressperson stormed out of the hearing, refusing to participate.

What fascinates and infuriates me about Issa’s position is the bone-headedness of a man who cannot for an instant see how issues relating to women might need to be addressed by women. Issa apparently believes the hearing is about religious freedom; even if it is, the implementation of that freedom affects almost exclusively one segment of the population (female) and there wasn’t anyone there who could testify about that.

It’s not even a question of whether Maloney’s witness should have been allowed to testify; it’s a question of how a congressman could impanel a slate of witnesses and not have invited one woman to partake. I mean, that seems to me to be true of almost any topic.

But the truth is, this is about contraception, and women’s issues, as much as it is about religious freedom. To claim otherwise is to put one’s head in the sand. That is say, compartmentalize.

Ask yourself: What is the purpose of the hearing? If it is just a publicity stunt, a way for Issa to show his constituents he’s appalled at the Obama administration’s disregard for values, then it’s a waste of tax-payer dollars. If it is intended as a fact-finding investigation into what the definition of religious freedom is, then it sounds academic and again, a waste of money. But if it is to obtain information from which to set policies about whether religious freedom should trump female reproductive rights — which, given the context, is the only sensible and justifiable expenditure of time and money — they having a woman there to testify seems not only appropriate, but necessary.

The fact is, Issa is — like those Civil War historians — compartmentalizing. He has found a rationalization by which he separates religious right from human right. And because he feels more comfortable coming out in favor of religious freedom than those of women, he finds a reason to exclude one, despite its complete illogic.

Because religions do not come with any litmus test to be “legitimate,” “religious freedom” is a bit of nonsense from a practical standpoint. The Mormon Church very deliberately disavowed its belief in polygamy in 1890, basically as a  means of gaining admittance into the Union. But fundamentalists who still practice it (notably, in Texas) are rounded up as law-breakers.

There are all sorts of mandates — local, state and federal — that probably contravene some religious doctrine. It’s odd that GOP-ers have focused on contraception, which even among Catholics is practices at some level by 98 percent of the population. I would imagine Christian Scientists, who do not believe in modern medicine, would be able to deny any health insurance to any employe, on the grounds that health care itself is anathema to their belief structure. I don’t see any Christian Scientists on the panel. Buddhists are vegetarian pacifists, but their tax dollars go to fund school lunch programs that include meat and military expenditures. Where’s the outrage for them?

In simple terms — which are the only ones most of these people can understand — Issa and his ilk are bigots who deny the dignity of people (women) while demagoguing about religion. If they really looked at the consequences of their position in a broader sense, they’d realize it is untenable. But that requires thought, and true thought is poison to the compartmentalized mind. Better they convince themselves that denial of contraception isn’t a “women’s issue,” just like the Civil War wasn’t a “slavery issue,” and therefore their role in the discussion is irrelevant. Men and men alone can made fair, rational decisions about “religious freedom;” if it incidentally affects women, well, that’s of no concern to us.

Don’t fool yourselves: This entire debate is totally a women’s rights issue that has been recast by clever manipulators as one of religious freedom. And the exclusion of women from this panel is just the first step in turning back the clock on personal liberty for all.

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