Draining Traditional Distinctions Creates Modern Perils

We’re in the midst of a profound unraveling. I’m not thinking about the upheaval we’ve been watching at the Oregon governor’s mansion, but even that is part of the civic centrifuge we’re witnessing.

We’ve always been told that we can count on only a few certainties: life, death and taxes, by some accounts; love and war, by others. These fundamentals are shifting under our feet, slowly but surely. Look no further than the daily headlines.

No need to discuss measles and vaccinations again. Everybody has their opinion fixed by now. But how did it return as an issue at all? Measles went away, but then came back. Herd immunity gave us a mathematical protection from an epidemic. Dissenters seemed harmless. Once we slipped beneath that numerical threshold, we found ourselves facing a possible crisis and a real panic.

We thought we were protected, because we were. Slowly that changed, until we weren’t safe any more. Small changes can evade our detection.

A British biotech firm wants to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in southern Florida. They’ve done it already in Brazil. They hope to slow the plague of dengue, which is migrating north as the planet warms — another possible epidemic knocking at our door. Other British scientists have plans to combine two women’s DNA during in vitro fertilization to sidestep certain genetic defects, giving the child literally three parents.

Have we really thought these remedies through?

On the other end of the spectrum, Facebook last week changed its policy and will allow users to live forever on its site. Simply designate a “legacy contact” who will be allowed to respond to new friend requests, update your cover photo and profile, and post on your behalf after you die. Death, where is thy sting?

Nothing focuses a person’s mind like death or a nation’s resolve like war, but even here, we’re erasing the lines we’ve been careful to color inside. How do we declare war against something not yet declared a country? The so-called Islamic State claims a caliphate for itself, but without borders or diplomats or trash collection. What exactly is our goal?

A mythical state cannot surrender a sovereignty it never gained, so how do we wage war against it? What would victory even look like? We can relax after they’ve stopped threatening us, but it could eventually return — just like measles did.

Taxes are no longer as clear as they were just a few years ago. Individuals who fail to purchase health insurance will soon be getting a bill from the Internal Revenue Service. Is that a fee, a penalty, or a tax? The Obama administration claimed it’s a fee, but the United States Supreme Court classified it as a tax. Now some of the subsidies provided by the Affordable Care Act are coming under similar scrutiny. What you call something can change what it becomes. It’s all getting very confusing.

Which brings us to now-former Governor John Kitzhaber. He’s not confused, he has claimed, but we are.

Details already are emerging about how his lawyers intend to defend him. Since Cylvia Hayes was only the governor’s girlfriend until last summer, and only his fiancée since then, she is not legally part of his household.

Even though she lived with the governor and identified herself as Oregon’s first lady, only marriage would make her a public official, binding her to certain ethics laws and disclosure obligations. The trouble here is that Kitzhaber also would like to claim confidentiality privileges that are afforded only to spouses. (Oregon does not recognize common law marriages.)

If he’d been trained as a lawyer and not as a doctor, he may have seen sooner the tightrope he was walking. But we’re walking it too. We’re fine with our governor cohabiting with his girlfriend because we’re modern, enlightened, tolerant people. Marriage doesn’t really matter, until it really does.

We keep throwing out the bathwater of distinctions, figuring the babies can fend for themselves. I’m not suggesting the bathwater doesn’t need changing — only that it’s the babies that really matter, if only because they end up looking a lot like us.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs