Politics in Command

The bitterness and animosity that have developed around the issue of mandated insurance coverage of birth control is just the first fruit of what looks to be a long and divisive and totally unnecessary national struggle over health and medicine and lifestyle.  This is what happens when you try to "universalize" something -- in this case, health care.  It's easy to foresee arguments over in vitro, coverage for smokers and the obese, drug counseling, and various wellness activities, with each of these arguments dividing us more and more.  It's ironic: in America, the "universal" produces only universal acrimony.

Why is that? Because America is not Sweden.  Sweden is a small country -- it has only 9 million people, smaller than the metropolis I live in.  Sweden is ethnically un-diverse -- 92% of its population is Swedes, Finns, and Lapps.  In such a country, you can make decisions about the "universal" -- because everyone in Sweden has a lot in common.

Sweden is not America.  America is huge.  We are incredibly diverse.  Under (what was) our system, that diversity was a strength.  Federalism and the localization of decision-making on such issues as, say, marriage or health care or education allowed different communities to make different decisions about how they would live -- recognizing the different values and the different webs of connection that created all those different communities.  Hawaii has something like a government health system.  Oregon decides to rebalance health care away from end-of-life care.  Massachusetts experiments with a mandate.  No problem -- if you don't like it, you can move to Utah or Texas.

The urge to impose a universal set of values on all Americans turns our diversity into a weakness.  Because some people aren't going to be comfortable covering contraceptives or...you name it.  And it's not enough to say, well, those people are just stupid and ignorant and "want to oppress women."  Because this is America, not Sweden.  We let all sorts of folks run around believing whatever they want -- as long as they pay their taxes and don't break the law.  When you try to impose one point of view on all of them, this is what you get: a national discourse dominated by a bunch of loudmouthed jerks hating on anyone who doesn't agree with them -- hating on anyone who's not willing to buy this one "universal" version of what America is, that somebody in Washington decided on.

So instead of working with each other, we fight each other.  Consider the current fury over Ms. Fluke.  There are hundreds of law schools in this country.  The whole point of having a huge country with all kinds of different people is that you can have right-wing law schools and left-wing law schools and Catholic law schools and full-on atheist law schools.  There are even a meaningful number of super-feminist law schools.  For goodness' sake -- ex-terrorist feminist Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn (Bill Ayers's wife) teaches at an excellent law school, Northwestern.

All of those different law schools can -- within some broadly defined limits -- create their own academic and student communities.  What on earth is the point of going to a Catholic law school and then complaining that its faculty and students behave like Catholics?  Do you want Catholics to just go away?  That isn't America.

This project -- the universalization of institutions according to a set of values agreed upon in Washington -- is doomed.  Not because Kathleen Sebelius isn't competent or smart or doesn't "share our values."  It wouldn't work if it were a right-wing Republican who was making these decisions, deciding not to cover contraceptives and to cover anti-abortion counseling.  You cannot "run" this country on universals -- at least not universals this microscopic.  Yes, there is broad consensus on issues like freedom of speech, to move about, to work (sort of).  There is no consensus on all these very particular issues, on which many Americans have very different and very particular points of view.

Trying to impose one "universal" view of them is only going to make a mess.  Like the one we are in now.

The bitterness and animosity that have developed around the issue of mandated insurance coverage of birth control is just the first fruit of what looks to be a long and divisive and totally unnecessary national struggle over health and medicine and lifestyle.  This is what happens when you try to "universalize" something -- in this case, health care.  It's easy to foresee arguments over in vitro, coverage for smokers and the obese, drug counseling, and various wellness activities, with each of these arguments dividing us more and more.  It's ironic: in America, the "universal" produces only universal acrimony.

Why is that? Because America is not Sweden.  Sweden is a small country -- it has only 9 million people, smaller than the metropolis I live in.  Sweden is ethnically un-diverse -- 92% of its population is Swedes, Finns, and Lapps.  In such a country, you can make decisions about the "universal" -- because everyone in Sweden has a lot in common.

Sweden is not America.  America is huge.  We are incredibly diverse.  Under (what was) our system, that diversity was a strength.  Federalism and the localization of decision-making on such issues as, say, marriage or health care or education allowed different communities to make different decisions about how they would live -- recognizing the different values and the different webs of connection that created all those different communities.  Hawaii has something like a government health system.  Oregon decides to rebalance health care away from end-of-life care.  Massachusetts experiments with a mandate.  No problem -- if you don't like it, you can move to Utah or Texas.

The urge to impose a universal set of values on all Americans turns our diversity into a weakness.  Because some people aren't going to be comfortable covering contraceptives or...you name it.  And it's not enough to say, well, those people are just stupid and ignorant and "want to oppress women."  Because this is America, not Sweden.  We let all sorts of folks run around believing whatever they want -- as long as they pay their taxes and don't break the law.  When you try to impose one point of view on all of them, this is what you get: a national discourse dominated by a bunch of loudmouthed jerks hating on anyone who doesn't agree with them -- hating on anyone who's not willing to buy this one "universal" version of what America is, that somebody in Washington decided on.

So instead of working with each other, we fight each other.  Consider the current fury over Ms. Fluke.  There are hundreds of law schools in this country.  The whole point of having a huge country with all kinds of different people is that you can have right-wing law schools and left-wing law schools and Catholic law schools and full-on atheist law schools.  There are even a meaningful number of super-feminist law schools.  For goodness' sake -- ex-terrorist feminist Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn (Bill Ayers's wife) teaches at an excellent law school, Northwestern.

All of those different law schools can -- within some broadly defined limits -- create their own academic and student communities.  What on earth is the point of going to a Catholic law school and then complaining that its faculty and students behave like Catholics?  Do you want Catholics to just go away?  That isn't America.

This project -- the universalization of institutions according to a set of values agreed upon in Washington -- is doomed.  Not because Kathleen Sebelius isn't competent or smart or doesn't "share our values."  It wouldn't work if it were a right-wing Republican who was making these decisions, deciding not to cover contraceptives and to cover anti-abortion counseling.  You cannot "run" this country on universals -- at least not universals this microscopic.  Yes, there is broad consensus on issues like freedom of speech, to move about, to work (sort of).  There is no consensus on all these very particular issues, on which many Americans have very different and very particular points of view.

Trying to impose one "universal" view of them is only going to make a mess.  Like the one we are in now.