Saturday, November 05, 2005

Canadian Cowardice

Via Fr. Dowd, we learn that Canada's debating whether to create a programmatic, state-sanctioned approach to killing the sick and mentally ill. Fr. Dowd's blog has all the details, as well as good observations about what it all can mean for Canada. I'm not Canadian. But I thought I'd sit in the gallery for the Parliamentary debate via the links on Fr. Dowd's site. Here's what I think about it.

Ms. Francine Lalonde moved for the bill to go forward. It is time, she said, for Canada to join the progressive and forward-thinking nations who kill the incurably sick, the socially useless, among their populations:
Death is never a mercy. To characterize death as merciful is to invest it with nearly altruistic qualities, with tenderness, which is a kind of anthropomorphizing, as if death has a personality and we can alter its features, render it more kindly, make of it even a friend.

Merciful death — it was for the best ... at least he's not suffering any more — is but a shallow platitude, seized upon most eagerly by those who cannot otherwise admit their own relief in being released from the exhausting burden, emotional and otherwise but essentially vicarious, of illness and infirmities and frailty; of how awful life looks, wasting and desiccated and necrotic, when it's trickling away.

This is, I think, the unbearable heaviness of being.

Of growing old and feeble, or not even so old but terribly sick, losing one's faculties, one's mobility, one's mind — reverting, yes, to the helplessness of infancy. But it is inevitably the healthy who recoil from this, as if even death were a preferable alterative to such dependency and deterioration.

We project our revulsion — which is essentially rooted in fear of our own mortality — and convince ourselves that somebody else would be better off dead because look, just look, at how wretched their existence has become or will become. And that says a great deal about the value that we subtract from a life when it is no longer vigorous and productive; when it just lies there, maybe thinking, maybe dreaming, maybe remembering.

Little wonder that the sick and dying begin to see themselves as valueless, too, abhorrent, ashamed, unworthy because they can no longer walk or talk or feed themselves.
Oh, sorry, that's not Ms. Lalonde. It's Rosie Dimanno writing in the Toronto Star. I thought it might be interesting to look at Ms. Dimanno's editorial first, because so many of its themes are echoed by Ms. Lalonde's argument for the bill.

Take, for example, Ms. Lalonde's brilliant , languid praise for the artistic beauty of being murdered by your family physician:
"The experience of doctors who look after individuals who have been allowed to be helped to die in countries that have passed legislation in this regard is enlightening. One might infer that, knowing that they will be able to get help to die with dignity when they reach the point where their life has definitely become unbearable, it will be easier for people to live fully a painful end of life or a life of extreme limitations because they feel imprisoned in their bodies. As Félix Leclerc reminded us, death is full of life."
Now this really is good rhetoric. A lot of arguments against euthanasia legislation are focused on the dignity of life and its inextricable end in a (hopefully natural) death. What Ms. Lalonde's just done is plant her flag on the same moral high-ground by plausibly using the same line of thought to justify suicide. If, she says, the pro-life bunch are right and death really is part of life, then why not follow the idea where it leads us? If we use our freedom and our medical technology to help us live as we wish, why not continue using them in order to die as we wish?

I thought Ms. Lalonde's reference to Felix Leclerc was curious. The only Leclerc I know fought the Germans in WWII. So I read up on him as much as I could, which isn't much, because just about everything on him is in French. He's a famous artist, a prominent figure in Québécois culture, a folk-singer whose work apparently helped make it "okay" to be French in Canada. That last bit's no small achievement, from what I understand; there's a lot of Anglo-Gallic tension in Canada, and it's tough to find an American analogy. As near as I can gather, it's as though Americans lived in a society where the words "white trash," "trailer-court" and "redneck" applied to French-speaking people. I found this in the Canadian Encyclopedia:
The lyrics of the songs [in Leclerc's considerable repertoire] . . . speak to men of themselves. The naturalistic and mythical aspects of man's origins have been retained. He draws inspiration from the elements - water, earth, sun, fire, and wind - and his themes reflect a love of animals and nature. . . . His poetry, simple and direct, conveys a tragic vision of existence. To him the tragic character of humanity is rooted in nature. Human effort occasionally may lead to death under the yoke . . . but at the same time it provides a link with the beyond and adds a spiritual dimension to everyday actions and indeed to life in general. Nature is omnipresent in Leclerc's songs. The seasons provide the backdrop to the recurring themes of escape, death, God, woman, and country.
That doesn't sound very healthy to me. "[N]aturalistic and mythical aspects of man's origins . . . tragic vision of existence . . . . character of humanity rooted in nature . . . recurring themes of escape and death . . . " It all sounds like something Silverweed might sing in the Warren of Shining Wires.

Of course I may be greatly maligning Leclerc's work, and I apologize for it if I have. His view of the world may have no connection with Ms. Lalonde's -- "death is full of life" is the kind of brass-plated bromide that occupies the place ordinarily reserved for intelligence in the minds of legislators and sophomore English-lit majors. It may not be a distinct theme which Ms. Lalonde picked up from Leclerc's ouvre.

Still, I mention it because one thing Francis Schaeffer taught me is that culture and religious philosophy are inseparable and that secularism is a religious philosophy. I mention it because one thing John Paul II taught me is that all this has been wrapped up in a culture of death. Why shouldn't a culture of death have its own hymns, its own poetic insights? It should, and it does; while Leclerc's chansons may not be a part of all that, Ms. Lalonde's lyrical transmutation of death into a life-giving apotheosis certainly fits the bill. It goes beyond the prosaic, utilitarian arguments about socially-assisted killing, although Ms. Lalonde uses them too. It makes murder and self-murder into holy things, experiences of the transcendent available to anyone with enough personal religious excellence and will to use a syringe.

Ask Ms. Lalonde whether men and women should try to become the best people they can be, and you'll see the road she's paving. It runs straight into a great Canadian abattoir where the troublesome poor, the expensively sick, and the embarrassingly demented can redeem themselves by producing more "life" for Canada. A maple-leaf mockery of the Crucifixion, that, and how Satan must be chuckling over it. From Druid to Aztec, and now to Québécois -- encouraging human society to murderously sacrifice their own in the name of good harvests and life-giving plenty has always been one of his little tricks. What else can we expect to enter secularism's garnished house, swept clean of all religious dogma? Nothing, nothing at all, except for Ms. Lalonde and her own blasphemous chanson about the recurring themes of escape and death.

The isolated voices now singing through Ms. Lalonde and only a handful of others will swell to a vast chorus as more Canadians enter the melody. Canada, they will sing, why do you tarry? If self-inflicted death produces so much life, why should you restrict its gift to the least among you? Why should people have to wait until they are suffering before they give more life to our great country? Some may have to wait, one supposes, if society's needs demand their continued physical presence. Doctors and nurses who kill the weak and sick, and the grave-diggers who bury the mess, certainly fall in that category. But that just proves life is a burden to be carried for others, one which should be shed at the earliest opportunity. Far better to glorify oneself and one's country, to give oneself in the very flower of one's youth and strength . . . . . Oh, yes, Satan will get them to mock every stage on the Via Dolorosa, especially carrying of the cross.

He'll do it because he has to, and he has to because there's truth in Ms. Dimanno's words. It's not good to be sick and dying. It's not pleasant. It's not even tolerable most of the time. What kind of society would expect its members, and their families, to go through all that? To find out, one merely has to ask whether any of the things Ms. Lalonde herself might value -- womens' sufferage, the end of slavery, the survival of native peoples -- were gained without equal degrees of suffering. What will become of those great achievements, or of others yet to be attained, when we no longer value suffering? If the right and duty to live one's life to the bitter end can be an unnecessary and intolerable burden, why then all the rights which come with life can be unnecessary and intolerable too. How kind of the state to relieve us of all that stress, all that strain, all that suffering!

But, as the death-mongers will say, the sick and dying aren't suffering for any cause, they're suffering for no reason at all. It's one thing to praise dead soldiers, wounded civil-rights marchers, men and women who chose to suffer for something noble. The others kind of suffering, well, it's just humiliating. The real noble suffering is done by the family and the doctors who decide to kill grandmamma for the greater glory of Canada. It's quite understandable, once you make the same twisted assumptions that lie behind Ms. Lalonde's smiling face. Officers guarding Auschwitz used to routinely commiserate about how difficult the job was, how much it took out of one, and about the special kind of moral bravery required to keep the bath- houses and crematoria running at maximum capacity. But the killing had purpose you see -- it was for the greater glory of the German Volk and the Thousand-Year Reich. On the other hand, a Jewish life was a canker, the eruption of a disease. Everybody said so. Best to wipe out that pitiable species altogether.

To think that way, one must first deprive another human being of the non-negotiable, intrinsic value of his life -- all of his life, including everything that happens in it. Mr. Jason Kenney, another member of Parliament, saw this quite clearly:
[H]uman dignity, which is the basis of our civilizational belief in the sanctity of human life, is ontological, that is to say, an essential and inseparable characteristic of human personhood, of human existence. To legalize or seek to legitimize the deliberate taking of innocent human life as this bill seeks to do is to commit the gravest offence possible against the human person. In short, it would turn a society such as ours, grounded as it is in the objective existential understanding of human dignity, on its head.
The place of human dignity in social thought is either a fixed, non-negotiable element of the universe, like a spherical planet called Earth, or it isn't. If it is, then you can't kill people just because you've developed your own flat-earth theory of dignity that makes them into disposable snot-rags. It doesn't matter if we're killing them because we've got a new lyrical theory of dignity that makes their deaths into beautiful things; we've still made them into disposable people because we've made a world where the value of anyone's life is negotiable within the state, dictated by the state.

Whether or not they know it, the people who allow themselves to die naturally from incurable illness in Canadian hospitals or homes are soldiers fighting against that disgusting vision of life. They're soldiers whose sacrifices are every bit as noble as the ones who fell at Dieppe and Juno Beach. Nobody wants to do that. I don't want to do it. I don't want anyone in my family to do it. But what difference does that make? Some things in life you have to do even if you don't want to do them. You have to do them even if they're gruesome, terrible, beyond anything that can reasonably be expected to be borne. That may be a shock to Ms. Lalonde. They didn't like hearing it in the Warren of Shining Wires, either. Nobody likes hearing it. That's beside the point. Because if we run life on the basis of what we like or don't like to hear, we'll end up with a society very different from the one Ms. Lalonde thinks she's building. The Germans found that out, in no small measure because Canadians taught it to them. It's sad to see Canada going the same way now.

People who live or die amidst physical or mental circumstances that seem unendurably grotesque teach us real lessons about the glorious nature of human life. They do it because we have to pay attention to them, take care of them, listening to our consciences when their suffering asks us questions about the real meaning of human dignity. We have to do that because their lives, their voices, are "ontological," non-negotiable parts of our own lives. We can't turn them off like displeasing pop songs. Canadians are free to choose otherwise, of course. They can choose to be a nation of cowards who kill other cowards because some more cowards talked a lot of juvenile bosh about life-giving death and merciful murder. God knows, Americans couldn't judge them for it if they did. But we can mourn the loss of a good example as I, for one, will mourn it. I still hope the bill will be defeated. It depends, I guess, on whether Canadians have more guts than their politicians.