Matt Wrechard at the Belmont Club has been characterizing the Terri Shiavo situation as a “butterfly effect” in that it will have far reaching and currently unknown effects well beyond its absolute significance. One specific section at the end of his posting struck me.
Even the symmetry of political orientation was momentarily broken. Robert Novak at the Chicago Sun Times noted that “nearly half of the Congressional Black Caucus members who voted on the Terri Schiavo case last weekend supported the Republican-sponsored bill”. Some will take this as evidence that this is not part of the culture wars, but I think the opposite is true: it suggests that even the old and stable invariances are no longer preserved. It is probably the greatest of ironies that street scenes the old Left had dreamed of unleashing came to pass — not because of the War on Terror — but over the death of a single woman. When something comes so abruptly out of blue it is usually a sign of cumulative stresses, long ignored, reaching a tipping point; it is a possible indicator of broken symmetry.
Cumulative stress and tipping points as a result of broken symmetry all point to the possibility that factors that previously stabilized our national culture (religion and the moral values it engendered) and gave it the ability to come through upheavals relatively intact may no longer apply. It looks like we are no longer a “buffered” culture (like buffered solutions that can absorb a certain amount of acidic or basic solution and not lose their stabile ph). As a result, even a small impetus can lead to an unexpected and radical reaction.
For many years, especially since World War II, our relatively stable cultural milieu has been under attack by a myriad of forces, but at the root of all the assaults (at least from my admittedly biased perspective) has been the denigration of religious belief, especially the overarching Judeo/Christian heritage of our shared memory. It has reached the point where the forces of secularism argue for absolutely no input from the venue of belief within the public sphere. Religious belief, if it is allowed at all, is relegated to private expression and any attempt at bringing it into the public arena is seen as improper discrimination and an illegal and unconstitutional attempt to inforce the tyranny of religious dogmatism (one wonders what has changed since the original supporters and interpreters did not see this as true).
This legislating of religion and specifically Christianity out of the public square and behind the doors of the habitations that surround the square has created tremendous pressure on our social fabric. On the one hand we have a popular culture that seeks ever-creasing freedom from any and all limits while on the other hand the majority of the people touched by that culture still avow values and religious sensibilities that demand limits be placed on our behavior.
One thing is evident, however, Terri Shiavos case has created responses well out of proportion to the actual event (this is not the first such case of its type). If Matt Wretchard is correct, the Terri Shiavo case is the butterfly flapping its wings which will cause a hurricane in our culture and what it will leave behind no one knows for sure. I for one will keep a vigilant eye on the fallout from this apparent tipping point and I expect Matt to do likewise.
One last thought. For me the thing that is different for Terri’s case has been the blogosphere and the Internet. Never have so many people been so energized and rather than this being an exception, it is becoming the norm. It is entirely possible that, at least for a while, the blogosphere and the Internet will prove to be mechanisms that facilitate the destruction of the remaining ability of our culture to be at all buffered. For a while talk radio has been looked at, in some circles at least, as a safety valve for radicalizing opinions. However, the blogosphere and the Internet seem to be able to tap into a hidden reservoir of discontent that with each new crisis, threatens to enter a self-reinforcing loop that carries things well beyond their expected threshold.
Will Terri Shiavos case be the first loop to spiral out of control? I dont know, but while we as a culture are adjusting to this new, self-reinforcing environment, one cannot help but wonder if there is a Pandora effect, lurking in there somewhere, just waiting for its optimum moment?