11/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Way It Is: Are Liberals Disgusting?

Many people who call themselves "conservatives" and who should know better use the word "liberal" as a pejorative noun, as if it's disgusting to have an interest in political, social, and economic justice. Conservatives say that the old way is usually the best way, and that if there's any change it needs to be slow because rapid change can be dangerous.

So the conservative argument is that it's not change that's disgusting but rapid change. Disgusting? Yes, the emotional conservative response to the idea of rapid change is that any rapid change in the order of things is frightening and even repulsive. Certainly the French Revolution is considered by many conservatives to have been repulsive. And the American revolution? American conservatives usually pass to another subject--or tell us about the special circumstances of the American revolution. But there were really no special circumstances--wanting rapid change, the colonists dumped the home country to fend for themselves.

So is rapid change really repulsive? A hundred years ago, many thousands of women in Britain and America decided they had waited long enough for political justice and they joined the Suffragette Movement--the movement to get their all-male governments to allow women to vote in elections. Conservatives had their stock answer: The old way was the best way--only men were clear-headed enough to have political power. So they arrested suffragettes whenever the women demonstrated and put them in prison like ordinary criminals. And when the suffragettes in prison went on hunger strikes to protest that they were political prisoners and not ordinary criminal prisoners, the men in power shoved feeding tubes down their throats and force-fed them the way patients in insane asylums were force-fed when they refused to eat.

A generation later the Soviet Communists would put people who opposed the social order in insane asylums. In 1909, the British did not put suffragette women in insane asylums, they simply put them in prison and forced tubes down their throats as if the women were mental patients who refused to take nourishment.

Forced-feeding was a 19th century habit in European and American insane asylums, ostensibly to keep people alive, but more often as a punishment. The most common method of forced feeding in the 19th century involved the use of a stomach tube. After soft rubber tubing became available, forced-feeding became routine--maybe too routine, since there is no doubt that with recalcitrant patients and a busy hospital staff forced feeding by stomach tube was a simpler technique than attempts to verbally cajole a patient into taking nourishment. There were certainly many asylum patients abused by vindictive attendants, and forced feeding with a stomach tube was certainly one technique of abuse.

Stomach tubes could be dangerous, and some asylums tried to avoid their use. Stiff rubber tubes often damaged the larynx and pharynx, and if by mistake the tube was pushed into the trachea instead of the esophagus, fatal aspiration pneumonia could result from the error. There are no records to tell us how many 19th century asylum patients were killed by aspiration pneumonia resulting from forced feeding. What we do know is that in the 1860s approximately one patient in ten who refused food died as a consequence--either from starvation or from a complication of forced feeding.

The suffragettes demanded rapid change. In the years immediately preceding the World War I, militant suffragettes in Britain were arrested in great numbers and imprisoned. Between 1905 and 1913, approximately 1000 British suffragettes were incarcerated and treated not as political prisoners but as ordinary criminal prisoners. Beginning in 1909, many of these women went on hunger strikes in prison and they were force-fed. The British government, supported by many conservative physicians, rationalized the forced feeding by citing the success of forced feeding in insane asylums. Here is a description by a suffragette of her forced feeding in prison:

"I was fed by nasal tube. Knowing what to expect I braced up my nerves and sat quietly in the chair instead of struggling and fighting ... The passage of the tube through the nose caused me but little inconvenience ... but its further passage caused me to retch, vomit, shake, and suffocate to such an extent that in the struggle for air I raised my body till I stood upright in spite of three or four wardresses holding me down, after which I sank back in the chair exhausted. When the tube was withdrawn I seemed to be afflicted with chronic asthma and could only breathe in short gasps. To take a deep breath caused me excruciating pain. Two wardresses helped me back to my cell where I lay in agony, the pain becoming worse every moment."

The forced feeding of suffragette prisoners continued for several years and apparently left many women physically and mentally wrecked. In 1912 a committee of three physicians, including the eminent neurologist Victor Horsley, investigated the forced feeding of imprisoned suffragettes and interviewed many of the women. The committee concluded that the forced feeding of these women was a form of "prison torture" and had to be stopped: "We are confident that were the details of the statements we have read and cases we have examined fully known to the [medical] profession, this practice, which consists in fact of a severe physical and mental torture, could no longer be carried out in prisons of the twentieth century."

We have little certainty about the motivations of the British establishment a hundred years ago. The suffragettes started their hunger strike not to reduce or end their imprisonment but to insist they be treated as political prisoners and not as ordinary criminals. The idea, proposed by the government, that experience demonstrated that forced feeding was harmless, was a convenient myth. The government most likely knew that forced feeding was a painful procedure that often caused both biological and psychological damage. Who was it who wanted the suffragettes to be explicitly treated as ordinary prisoners? The conservative establishment, of course, and especially the King. The decision to use forced feeding was taken by the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, after he received a message sent on behalf of the King, Edward VII. The message was clear: "His Majesty would be glad to know why the existing methods, which must obviously exist for dealing with prisoners who refuse nourishment, should not be adopted." Public outrage soon stopped the forced feeding of suffragettes.

Maybe a Martian anthropologist visiting the Earth a hundred years ago would have thought it was the old conservative men who were disgusting and not the liberal suffragettes who wanted the right to vote.

Our current American commotion concerns conservative versus liberal attitudes about health care. What would a Martian anthropologist think of the idea of maintaining health care as a profitable business at all costs rather than as a public necessity? Maybe the anthropologist would be puzzled that the idea even exists.

What a sad thing it is that our public necessities are the military, the coast guard, the postal service, the police, the fire department--but not health care for everyone, especially the preventive health care so crucial to the strength of any society. The apparent reason is that health care as a public necessity might diminish the profits of health care providers. The offered argument is that public health care would be too expensive. But everyone knows that's a fallacious argument and that the covert reason for the opposition to public health care is a desire for private profits.

The idea of public health care is said to be a "liberal" idea--the accusation spoken into media microphones with the usual smirk, the same smirk offered to the suffragettes a hundred years ago. The suffragettes were told that political justice for women was not feasible. The American people are now told that universal public health care is not feasible. What would our Martian anthropologist think of all of this? In our current health care cacophony, who is it that seems disgusting?