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Liberals Getting a Taste of How ‘Balance’ Feels

Author: Amity Shlaes, Former Hayek Senior Fellow for Political Economy
March 17, 2010
Bloomberg

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Lack of balance is the charge being levied against the Texas State Board of Education after it inserted changes to new standards in social studies programs in public schools. The Associated Press said in an article that a "far-right faction" of the board had succeeded "in injecting conservative ideals" into the curriculum.

The Texas flap matters because Texas is so big. Publishers will revise textbooks to win the prize Texas contract. But the debate also reminds us that our current definition of balance is distorted. After all, what's wrong with "injecting conservative ideals" into a curriculum, as long as they aren't the only ideals?

At its most devilishly aggressive -- and whatever lines it inserts about church, state, hip-hop or the Alamo -- the board will not restore true balance. It will merely manage to make the curriculum a little less skewed to the left.

These days the word "balance" means what policy makers say it does, not more or less. That kind of definition is responsible for the vertigo that impedes logical cooperation in crucial debates such as this week's over health-care.

Consider the trashing of Bart Stupak, the Democratic congressman from Michigan. At this writing Stupak holds the future of the health-care legislation in his hands. He and other anti-abortion lawmakers are withholding votes needed for passage until Speaker Nancy Pelosi agrees to include an amendment that would withhold funding from insurance companies that include abortion among services insured.

Specifically, the Stupak amendment reads: "No funds authorized or appropriated by this Act (or an Amendment made by this Act) may be used to pay for any abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion."

Mad Progressives

The "any health plan" phrase is driving the progressives mad. Liberal TV talk-show host Rachel Maddow devoted a show to attacking Stupak and to underscoring that the amendment wouldn't merely prohibit federal cash from subsidizing abortions. It would jeopardize entire funding streams for insurance companies should they offer abortions. Maddow and her producers seem to consider this infamy original to Stupak: making one practice so costly that the entire system rejects it.

As Maddow notes, the utility of a method like Stupak's isn't necessarily confined to health insurance. Such an amendment "could be hijacking anything." The outrage.

The Stupak method is hardly original. Civil rights activists operating in the early 1970s included Title IX in federal legislation. The Title had a worthy goal: ensure that no one -- male or female, black or white -- "be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." That bit of language in the law gave rights activists the tool they needed to hijack.

Opposite Meaning

Judges and the Department of Education subsequently interpreted the law to mean restriction, not inclusion. The rule's enforcers over time twisted the meaning so that it became: no varsity sport that isn't played by females at a university may be played by males. Dozens of men's teams were defunded. In despair over threats to their sport, proud wrestlers like John Irving, the author of "The World According to Garp," took to the op-ed pages. But the schools were pinned.

Noncompliant institutions risked losing grants important to areas of their operation far removed from sports. Schools that were perceived to discriminate in other areas -- housing, providing accommodation for disabilities, you name it -- realized they were likewise at risk. Political correctness, like money, is fungible. Even in non-recessions, federal cash is everywhere, too hard to do without.

Academic Hijacking

This college hijacking and the longer-term hijacking of textbooks by Texas progressives represent only limited versions of greater hijackings. Go back further to such laws as Herbert Hoover's Davis-Bacon Act, which required that the local prevailing wage (read: a wage on the high end) be paid in federally funded projects.

Through the decades you will find federal officials routinely threatening to withhold crucial cash from giant enterprises when the parts of those enterprises subsidized by the federal government didn't pay up. President Barack Obama recently reminded the construction industry that it was being hijacked by warning that companies that took one of the thousands of federal public works projects had to provide compensation packages generous enough to meet White House approval.

In a more general way, the left also hijacked U.S. culture. The most obvious example of this was the mainstream media, the broadcast networks and the big-city newspapers, with their centrist-to-left-leaning editorial stands. True, there were always token conservatives, but they were just that.

Going Nuts

Conservatives were driven nuts by the pretense of balance. Eventually, those who understood the intensity of this rage were able to exploit it to undreamt-of commercial advantage -- thus Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Roger Ailes of the Fox News Channel. New technology, of course, did its part as well.

What does this have to do with the current political fights? Conservatives see progressives codifying their culture in ways that will be hard to undo. So yes, when federal legislation affecting one-eighth of the economy is held up by a line or two on abortion, something in the country is indeed out of whack. But what makes all the sense in the world is that someone is highlighting the structural flaws in the pillars of the health-care plan.

View the Texas social studies issue as a small check on a larger problem, and it makes sense. View the Stupak amendment as a move that buys time for such exposure, and you'll see that, for the moment at least, he is the sanest guy in town.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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