Friday, September 17, 2010

Abortion Matters. Still.

Excellent short essay in The New Republic today by Ed Kilgore, on how the dominant media narrative about the Tea Party movement consistently misses or underplays the fact that it is, whatever it's official (or unofficial) rhetoric, a movement deeply indebted to right-to-life thinking. Here's the best bit:

We have been told repeatedly that the Tea Party movement is all about economics and fiscal issues, and other than a couple of articles about how [Californian] Carly Fiorina's pro-life position is a problem for her in the general election, I've seen zero discussion of abortion this year in non-conservative publications, particularly as it affects the Republican primaries. Perhaps because the national media tend to be secular, we are persistently underestimating the role that abortion plays in right-wing politics. Yet it is key to understanding some of the zealous opposition that caused GOP primary voters to overthrow Mike Castle [in Delaware]. Unless you are an aficionado of conservative blogs, you probably didn't notice the deep opposition that many on the right were taking to Castle's pro-choice views....Even if...many conservative voters now think of climate change legislation as a serious threat to American freedom, it is worth remembering that the [right-to-life] movement considers abortion analogous to the Holocaust, and pro-choice pols to be enablers of monstrous evil--at worst conscious advocates of genocide.

This strikes close to home for me because I recognize myself in there. No, I don't think the fact that the Constitution has been interpreted so as to nationally require basic abortion rights makes the U.S. a participant in a Nazi-like Final Solution--that's bonkers. Despite all the science and philosophy (on both sides), the struggle between the integrity and privacy of women's choices versus the life and rights of an unborn child remains a constitutional and cultural morass, and that isn't likely to change anytime soon (certainly the welter of often contradictory state laws covering abortion gives proof to that). So no, I'm hardly an advocate of black-and-white responses here, as I hope my previous posts on the topic would show. But let's face it: I'm a socialist for heaven's sake, and yet I felt genuinely tempted to vote for John McCain, solely because of this issue.

People--particularly people opposed to the practice of abortion, and willing to try to legally as well as morally argue against it--have talked for a long time about Roe v. Wade and all the political reactions and social transformations since in apocalyptic, Civil War-type terms: that this is a dispute that can only end, or just continue on indefinitely, in the realm of tragedy. This is the way my friend Damon Linker talks about it in his new book The Religious Test (which I'll be reviewing next week). Damon used to be one of those who felt that overturning Roe v. Wade and returning the issue of abortion to the states would be a "solution" to the political problems it poses; he believes that no longer (persuaded in part by Ed Kilgore himself). "There is no political or legal way out of the conundrum of abortion," he concludes; "the competing moral claims are simply too intractable" (p. 168). His answer then, is to simply hold to a procedural liberal line of neutrality and wait, and hope, that eventually technological and economic developments will make abortion rare enough that as an issue it will disappear. I don't like that response--though I recognize its wisdom--for the same reason that Martin Luther King didn't like the idea of just waiting for the white moderate majority to come around to his point of view. Damon, and others, might observe that the "competing moral claims" of white and black citizens were not nearly so personal or "intractable" as those involved in the fate of a fetus, and I would agree with them...but then again, we are speaking with a half-century of hindsight. Who knows how the abortion struggle will be understood once Roe v. Wade reaches that distance? The Tea Party, at least, apparently has no intention of letting the next thirteen years or so until that anniversary is reached go by without keeping up the drumbeats, both nationally and in states across the country.

So I say Kilgore is right, at least in regards to his general thesis, and it is necessary to talk about abortion in public places, even if it is a fruitless, tragic language to use much of the time. However, if you are convinced, as Kilgore mostly seems to be, that the Tea Party is essentially just another expression of the same organized conservative movement which has challenged the postwar liberal establishment (which included at one time both the Republican and Democratic parties) over the decades, than there is no practical reason to think of any other "solution" to abortion besides organizing the opposition and keeping the abortion rights coalition together in the face of those who oppose it. My favored approach, following in the footsteps of my friend Matt Stannard, is to seek to talk to those whom the Tea Party talks to and for, at least partly; to articulate and promote a clearly "pro-life" position (though I still don't like the phrase) which is progressive, or at least "post-conservative." That there can be a voice for this position is undeniable, if those aggressively committed to both abortion-rights progressivism and neutral liberal secularism allow it to be heard. If they'd support it, would the Tea Party hear it? Probably not. But never forget that the Tea Party is, to the extent one follows Kilgore's analysis and notes their common animus to abortion rights, basically "the Homelanders," a crucial but still relatively small group of white, rural and exurban, libertarian-conservative Protestant voters, who have been able to punch above their weight through the GOP primaries of late. The larger culturally conservative environment through which the Tea Party organizes and operates is broader than that, and some of those in that environment may listen to such a voice. In time, maybe even more than just "some." Certainly Obama thought so--though he hasn't given and probably won't ever give the requirements of such a voice nearly the thought it deserves. As I commented when discussing Amy Sullivan's The Party Faithful some years back, I observed that if such respectful attention to the moral claims against abortion are to be ever anything more than a characteristic of one party or one movement only, it'll have to be shown to be, at least potentially, capable of incorporation into the intellectual infrastructure of the party in question. In other words, it must be the case that the Democrats--or my own Democratic Socialists of America, for that matter--can be seen as capable of supporting a "pro-life" argument, though admittedly a progressive one, as opposed to merely tolerating the occasional odd Democratic politician who with concerns about abortion rights, as well as personally opposing it.

Maybe that's just a silly hope, given present day electoral realities. The Democratic party won't change that much, and the Tea Party are doing good work in cleaning out most of the few pro-choice Republicans left on the national stage anyway. As I said above, I do see the wisdom of Damon's point, and in choosing to just hunker down with the liberal neutrality argument, and endure the tragic, perhaps endless argument over abortion as best one can. I'll keep trying to for some other other framing though, because that's just the way I am. Either way, in the end, Ed's point stands: ignoring the divisive fault-lines over abortion rights while trying to explain American politics is no way to do justice to the foot soldiers actually carrying signs and casting votes. Left or right, nobody should forget about that.

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