Sex, Sex, Guns And Money

As soon as Elena Kagan was named to the Supreme Court the news media set up the rope lines for what they assumed would be the upcoming confirmation tug of war.

On the “liberal” side are those who favor a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, those who defend gay marriage, those who favor some form of gun control and supporters of programs that require federal spending, such as the new health care law.

On the “conservative” side are those who don’t.

These issues will consume the better part of senatorial statements and questioning about Kagan and will dominate news coverage about her confirmation.

From the perspective of the news media, sex, guns and spending are always the default positions defining liberals and conservatives. And it’s so misleading.

Years ago France Telecom introduced a device much like a computer which it distributed to all of its customers. Among other things the device could print out France Telecom’s monthly bill. This was pretty hot stuff at the time and a French friend of mine demonstrated it for me. I quickly noticed that the bill came merely as a total, without the detailed information we’re used to in the U.S.

My French friend didn’t find this surprising. “What French man would like to see a bill listing strange phone numbers on it?” he asked. Translation: Most Frenchmen had mistresses whose phone numbers on the bill would raise uncomfortable issues.

I heard a segment on NPR the other day where a Nigerian woman discussed a “sex strike” many Nigerian women staged recently to prod males into breaking an impasse in the nation’s government. It worked, she said, because Nigerians are so sex obsessed. “If sex was an Olympic sport,” she said, “Nigeria would always win the gold.”

I doubt it. Sex, like the air we breathe, is everywhere. Some talk about it more than others, but that doesn’t mean the sex meter isn’t running even in “quiet” parts of the world. In fact, most of the world was amazed that President Clinton nearly lost office over a sex act with someone other than his wife. In most other national cultures this hardly made any sense at all.

But in the U.S. we are clearly living in parallel universes. I doubt you will find any fewer white southern Republicans interested in sex, or straying from the marriage to have sex, or having sex with members of their own gender than the population at large. In their own sex lives many have a most “liberal” attitude, even if some things are left in the shadows. So why is sex one of the liberal-conservative political markers?

I’ve never known a woman who I considered “pro-abortion.” Aborting a fetus is a wrenching act. That’s why the number of abortions performed in the U.S. each year is such a small fraction of the number of pregnancies.

Many of those abortions are medically necessary to remove unformed fetuses and to save the lives of mothers. Others are the outcome of rape or incest. Some are elected by older parents who can’t financially, emotionally or physically handle the raising of a newborn. These are all deeply personal acts and decisions. Yet those who respect the right of individuals to choose abortions wear the label “liberal,” and those who want government to play an intrusive (anti libertarian) role in personal lives are called “conservatives.”

Even more baffling, these labels reverse when it comes to guns. Where on abortion questions those who want the government to keep out of the decision are “liberals,” when it comes to guns those who want the government to keep out of the decision to buy and own are “conservatives.”

Those who believe in the right of local jurisdictions to decide important local issues without federal interference are “conservatives” except when it comes to guns. People in the District of Columbia, deeply concerned about urban crime, who have voted overwhelmingly for a relatively mild form of gun registration, are “liberals.”

The money thing is more subtle. If you want the government to spend federal tax dollars to treat health care as a right, like education, you’re a liberal. But if you have no objection spending those dollars and a lot more with insurance companies for a skinnier form of insurance protection you’re a conservative.

“Conservative” is the label applied to those who have problems with raising tax money for new roads and bridges and other public improvements. But “conservative” also defines governors like Indiana’s Mitch Daniels who’s led the charge to sell or lease public roads to private companies which will then levy their own “taxes” called “tolls.”

Getting back to where I began, Elena Kagan will be grilled on gay rights, abortion, guns, and presidential policy affecting program spending. And all of this discussion will come with “liberal” and “conservative” boxes—few of which make sense or seem accurately placed.

If you I and hundreds of millions of other U.S. citizens were asking Kagan questions at her confirmation hearings the conversation likely would evolve much differently.

Maybe we should all weigh in to have just that kind of a confirmation hearing—-one where the public gets a seat at the confirmation table along with the senators…through emails, YouTube, Twitter and the like. I’d expect the conversation would be much more interesting, useful and informative.

And in asking them we wouldn’t be thinking of ourselves as liberals or conservatives, labels which when you come right down to it are meaningless.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at


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