WoN has been on hiatus for the past few months for a couple of reasons, mainly physical relocation across the pond (and a continental land mass) to the US. And the arrival of Cost Center #1, to borrow a phrase from the FT's Mrs Moneypenny, a time-consuming investment of energy for which costs are very much front-loaded.
Nevertheless, a change is as good as a rest and a change of perspective will at least give me some fresh material for this blog, not least a close-up view of the 2012 US elections, which are thus far veering between outright circus and non-event. Three of the Republican candidates have dubious backgrounds of some kind or another - hypocrisy on marital infidelity, fringe views on economics, religious fanaticism - and the remaining 'normal'-ish one is Mormon so that's a challenging set-up. Then again, a dubious background never stopped other Republicans from being elected so it's still an open race in that sense.
The most disappointing thing, however, is how coverage of policy issues is still so superficial, even now, with Super Tuesday just around the corner. Is this because the Republican nominees are such an oddball collection of kooks that no-one can focus on the policy debate? Or is it because there is no policy debate to focus on because while one side puts forward a fairly standard-issue Democrat proposal for healthcare reform, the other side calls anyone who supports a values-free approach to the provision of birth control "a slut..(and) a prostitute"?
In his book 'What's the Matter with Kansas?', Thomas Frank looks at how the Republican party began to exploit moral wedge issues to convince Americans to vote against their own economic interests. The debate on healthcare reform is a classic example of this tactic. Instead of having an intelligent debate about the pros and cons of private versus public healthcare, conservatives have seized on the issue of birth control to twist the debate into one that focuses on religious beliefs and public morality instead.
So what would happen in the conservative-dream-come-true of a society dominated by religious values? I don't have to dig very deep to find an example. There are theocracies around the world where religious values prevail over the welfare of people. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one example. Ireland of the 1950s is another. What happens when you put the moral prerogatives of male theocrats above the welfare of women and children?
You get political tragedies like the 1951 Mother and Child Scheme that brought down the Irish government of the day. Noel Browne, a doctor who had switched to a career in politics later in life and was made Minister for Health in 1948, put forward a proposal for a Mother and Child Scheme, that would provide universal access to maternity healthcare for all mothers and all children up to the age of 16. The Catholic hierarchy immediately opposed the Scheme as being against Catholic social teaching, and more importantly, as an opportunity for birth control and abortion (illegal in Ireland) to become avaialble to women by stealth. Browne's inability to build a political consensus for his Scheme in the face of Church opposition led to the end of his political career and the downfall the government he was part of.
Such a clash between attempts at secular social reform and theocratic power is tragic in a small, poor, parochial country on the edge of Europe in the 1950s. Seeing a similar situation arise today in the 21st century in the richest large economy in the world is just ridiculous. Worst of all, the birth control / health insurance debate is mostly just rhetoric and hot air. Most Catholics in the US have used birth control and most Catholics support the provision of birth control through employer insurance. Even evangelical 'religious' Americans, the key voter base that Republicans try to tap into, want their barbeques and their SUVs and their megachurches and their Christian rock. They don't really want theocracy. They want to have their cake and eat it by living in a country that protects their freedom of religion because of the Enlightenment values of the US constitution but where they also have the freedom of speech to rant and vent hatred on people who don't fit their value system, using a superficial badge of religion to hijack valid political debate.
Unfortunately the tactics are working and religious hate-speech, like Limbaugh's rant against Sandra Fluke, dominates political discourse at the expense of real potlicial debate that could spark refrom and progress. As a result, you end up with a situation where the White House Chief of Staff finds himself debating the provision of contraception on the talk shows instead of focusing on issues of real concern, such as the new budget.
The budget and Obama's plans for fiscal reforms to push forward the tentative recovery in the US economy is far more critical than the loony rantings of demagogues. A slight economic pick-up is happening here in the US but the eurozone is still teetering on the brink of crisis and the prospects for global growth are still much diminished. Policy-makers are wasting valuable time responding to lunatics like Rush LImbaugh instead of keeping their focus on tackling core problems, like the economic recovery. It's one thing for cowed politicians in a small country to bow to the power of the Catholic Church. It's a pathetic spectacle to see politicians in a country as large as the US bowing to the power of a radio demagogue who is losing advertisers faster than he can spew out the hate.