CHOOSING THEIR WORDS

Over at the National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru is defending anti-choice folks against criticism for highlighting Tim Tebow’s mom’s choice not to have an abortion while pushing to take that choice away from her. I’ll grant that it’s not contradictory for someone to both want abortion to be made illegal and to like it when women who legally could have abortion choose not to. But it’s intentionally misleading for a movement seeking a ban on abortion to appeal to the electorate’s good feelings about choice by invoking individuals’ choices as an argument for prohibition. It’s especially cynical given that it’s the pro-choice movement that stands up for women threatened coercive abortion or sterilization by the government or their employer. I wrote more about this (in an exchange with my brother, who’s sadly hopped off the blog wagon) here and here.

As for Tim and Pam Tebow, apparently they share Focus on the Family’s belief that it should be illegal for women like Pam whose doctors advise them to terminate their pregnancy to choose to follow their doctors’ advice. So why won’t their ad say that? Why not say:

“I’m Tim Tebow, football great. I’ve been blessed with so much in life. I know my life itself is a blessing. Doctors in the Phillipines recommended my Mom abort me because of serious complications in pregnancy. Good thing abortion was illegal in the Phillipines. It should be illegal here in America too.”

I think Focus on the Family isn’t running an ad like that because they know the median American has discomfort about abortion but doesn’t want to see it banned. But what does Ramesh Ponnuru think is the explanation?

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A CAVEAT OF YOUR CHOOSING

I am so sick of reading quotes like this:

I am pro-choice, but I must say that with the caveat that I have never had to make that decision, and I don’t know if it’s a decision I could make myself. It’s one of the hardest decisions any woman could ever have to make.

That’s Connecticut GOP Senate candidate Linda McMahon qualifying her self-description as “pro-choice” by adding that she herself might not choose an abortion if she had the choice. Guess it could be that she says “caveat” to distinguish herself from some abortion-happy pro-choice stereotype she doesn’t buy into herself. But the plain reading of her quote is that she’s not that pro-choice because she might choose against abortion. Which is bogus. Unfortunately, McMahon’s quote echoes the most common media frame on the abortion debate: pro-choicers pushing abortion across the board, anti-choicers pushing back against it, and women somewhere in the middle making hard choices. Meanwhile, back in reality, it’s pro-choicers who believe women should be able to make those sometimes hard choices at all. And when the government or the boss tries to force women not to give birth, it’s pro-choicers who have those women’s backs.

THINGS I’VE BEEN WONDERING (NON-SNARKY, EARNEST EDITION)

Points for answers. Extra credit if you can identify the podcasts I’ve been driving with recently.

Do GOPers make their global warming messaging about attacking Al Gore because they think he’s unpopular and they want to discredit science? Because they think he’s popular and they want to discredit him? Or just because they want to change the topic?

If Barack Obama combined a blue ribbon panel with a moratorium on firings of service members for being gay, how many Democrats in Congress would back him up?

Does having Democrats running the federal government make people who don’t like abortion but want it to stay legal feel more (not 8%, but maybe 1%) comfy identifying themselves “pro-life” without worrying about an abortion ban?

How do thousands of already-and-now-permanently married same-sex couples affect the fight for equal marriage rights for everyone else in California?

When will America have its first Supreme Court nominee who’s open about having had an abortion?

Is Obama serious about using our leverage to push Bibi?

Is Bruce Springsteen the only liberal immune from being tarred with the “elitist celebrity” brush? If so why?

DEVOLVE TO ME!

As our friends at The Corner debate whom conservatives should blame for losing the reigns of government, Jim Manzi argues that on social issues like abortion and gay marriage

many people who share the same country disagree in good faith, and are unlikely to be persuaded within our lifetimes. As I have argued at length, I think that the only workable compromise is not to try to force the creation of uniform national law when no national consensus on the morality of these issues exists. Instead, I believe that we should have an agenda of devolving as many of these social issues, as a matter of law, to as local a level as possible.

If we really want to devolve these questions – is abortion permissible? What about same-sex marriage? – to as local a level as possible, how about the individual? I can have my abortion, and my neighbor can opt for adoption (maybe by the gay married couple down the street).

Of course conservatives have all kinds of arguments about why my liberal choices will hurt my neighbor. And liberals have our own arguments about how our economic choices affect each other in a different way than our social choices (making it a good idea to ban $1/ hour labor but not condoms). But it’s just not true that a state is the most local level to which we can devolve decision making on charged issues.

Part of what gets lost amidst right-wing rhetoric about courts reaching down to take away Americans’ freedom is that in taking decisions away from state governments, actors that are bigger than particular states can uphold the autonomy of actors smaller than those states: individual Americans, who shouldn’t reasonably be expected to move from California to Massachusetts to get married because 52% of their neighbors don’t want them to.

CULTURE OF LIFE/ CHOICE

In the comments, Ben – who we can all agree should start his own blog ASAP – offers a thoughtful response to the last post:

Don’t you think a person can consistently hold that (1) under current law, abortion is a matter of individual choice; (2) as long as abortion is a matter of choice, there is a single right answer that women ought to choose; and (3) since many women nevertheless make the wrong choice (in this person’s view), and the harm of making the wrong choice is sufficiently great, the law should not leave abortion to individual choice? This constellation of beliefs would explain, without contradiction, feeling pride in another person’s choice not to have an abortion while supporting legislative measures to take the choice away from them. Similarly, “Choose Life at Yale” can consistently pursue a two-pronged agenda: (a) as a stopgap measure, advocating for women to exercise their choice under current law in a particular way, and (b) on the assumption that (a) will not be 100% successful, advocating for denying women the choice in the first place. In this way, Palin’s rhetoric about her daughter doesn’t seem different to me than a moral vegetarian’s both feeling pride in a child’s decision to be a vegetarian and favoring the criminalization of meat-eating.

Absolutely, I agree that it’s philosophically consistent (a) to want abortion/ animal cruelty/ awful haircuts banned and (b), for as long as the practice remains legal, to support/ admire people who choose against it.  I think very few people, whatever the practice in question is, would maintain (a) and not (b).  Lots of people, however, maintain (b) and not (a) (and not just on bad hair-cuts).  That is, lots of Americans believe abortion is a choice that should be available but that should not be chosen.  Others wouldn’t go so far as to say abortion is always the wrong choice, but will admire and be more comfortable with people who choose against it.  These pro-choice voters who (whether always, or just usually) want people to choose life represent a huge chunk of our electorate. That’s the reality politicians on both sides of this issue face.

Fortunately for these “(b) but not (a)” voters, there are a lot of “(b) but not (a)” politicians out there.  Depending on where you set the bar, you could count most pro-choice members of Congress in this group.  So voters who are uncomfortable with abortion but don’t want it banned tend to have ample opportunity to vote for representatives who reflect their desire for abortion to be both legal and rare.

Anti-choice politicians need these voters to choose instead to vote for someone who shares their discomfort with abortion but not their opposition to banning it.  There are different ways to do this: emphasizing abortion restrictions that these pro-choice voters may support and the pro-choice candidate does not, chipping away at the sincerity of the pro-choice candidate’s desire to reduce abortion, and more.  Another is to shift the focus away not just from Roe v. Wade, but away from policy questions entirely, so that (b) is the only issue.

I say the way Palin talks about these issues is misleading not because I doubt that she and others maintain both (a) and (b) with conviction and consistency, but because (setting law-breaking aside) (b) is only an issue given her failure to achieve (a).  And emphasizing (b) in the way Palin does regarding her daughter, and the way some of her admirers do in talking about Sarah’s choice to birth Trigg, obscures the most significant policy question here – abortion’s legality – while appealing not just to voters’ negative feelings about abortion but to their positive feelings about choice.

And when anti-choice politicians talk about their respecting their daughters’ choices – particularly when they are fathers like John McCain – it helps take the edge off their anti-choice politics by making them seem tolerant of the whole range of choices women make, even or perhaps especially when they cite their admiration for pro-life choices.  I don’t have reason to doubt that John McCain or Sarah Palin would continue loving a daughter who chose abortion without throwing her out of the house.  But if they had their way with the supreme court, those daughters could be thrown in jail.  So I think non-coerciveness as parents is a distraction from coerciveness as politicians.

There’s also a class issue here, in that as long as abortion is legal but subject to the cocktail of restrictions anti-choice folks are pushing at the state and federal level, women from families like the Palins and the McCains can go on making their choices while those “small town voters” they vouch for have less and less choice to make.

WHOSE CHOICE?

Dahlia Lithwick notes the mendacity of choice language on abortion from anti-choice politicians like McCain and Palin:

In announcing that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant last week, GOP vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin used this puzzling locution: “We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby.” Pundits were quick to point out that Bristol’s “decision” must have been at least somewhat constrained by her mom’s position–as articulated in November 2006–that she would oppose an abortion for her daughters, even if they had been raped…So what exactly, one wonders, was young Bristol permitted to decide?

These rhetorical somersaults are, as Lithwick notes, the same ones John McCain employed in talking about a hypothetical Meghan McCain pregnancy eight years ago. There’s no mystery here: Americans like choice more than they like abortion. Republicans know this, so they dress up their hard-line anti-choice positions as though they were just about choosing against abortion, while never conceding that there should be a choice at all (in my college days the student anti-choice group was called Choose Life At Yale; they published an ad comparing voting for John Kerry – who also advocates choosing life but is pro-choice – to voting for Jefferson Davis). And the media too often plays along, as when the New York Times profiled women in an abortion clinic making painful choices that weighed medical, religious, economic, and social factors; the Times held up these women, who were doing exactly what the pro-choice movement defends women’s right to do, as representing a middle ground in the abortion debate.

I’d add that watching Palin’s gymnastics on choice is probably the most interesting part of the 2006 gubernatorial debate re-aired on C-SPAN over the weekend. For someone who wants the government to criminalize a woman’s choices about her future, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric is awfully “personal.” She answers the first question on choice – about whether as a public official she would attend a public event to publicly support legislation banning abortion – by saying that she’s pro-life and “I don’t try to hide it and I’m not ashamed of it.” When asked whether a rape victim should be able to choose abortion, she objects that it wouldn’t “be up to me as an individual” whether that woman was forced to carry the fetus for nine months – leaving unsaid that if she had her way, it wouldn’t be up to the woman as an individual either. But Palin makes clear that she’d force the rape victim to carry the fetus by specifying only the life of the mother as acceptable grounds for abortion. Then she answers the follow-up question by saying rape is “a very private matter also, but personally, I would choose life.” The hypocrisy here is glaring: if Sarah Palin indeed wants that woman’s choice to be private, she should oppose government outlawing it. But she doesn’t.

So it should come as no surprise a minute later when she addresses euthanasia with the same rhetorical sleight of hand: “This is a very personal and private and sensitive issue and I do respect others’ opinions on it, but personally I do believe that no, government should not be sanctioning or assisting taking life.”

WIFE SWAP CONSERVATISM

While on vacation out East, I got the chance to pick up and read Walter Benn Michaels’ 2006 book The Trouble With Diversity. Might as well spoil the suspense and start by saying Benn Michaels didn’t convince me when he argues (like Michaels Lind and Tomasky) that left-wing “identity politics” around race and gender stand in the way of a serious left-wing class politics. The book reminded me at various points of Catherine MacKinnon’s argument (in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State) that feminists and Marxists view each other with suspicion because each party could undo one kind of oppression while leaving the other oppression intact. It’s often not clear to whom Benn Michaels, an English professor, is addressing his argument. He offers criticisms (often clever, always articulate) of some academic arguments about identity, but he doesn’t engage with many pivotal ones – like the literature on intersectional (rather than additive) approaches to identity, considering how identities mediate each other – how being identified as a poor Black woman has different social and economics meanings than just being poor plus being Black plus being a woman. He calls Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States “certainly the most influential academic text on the social construction of race,” but cites only two sentences from it.

If the argument is directed at political practitioners, we’re left wondering how he actually pictures the left gaining power and effectiveness by throwing race and gender overboard. In a telling line criticizing the focus on sexism at Wal-Mart as a distraction from exploitation there, Benn Michaels asserts that “Laws against discrimination by gender are what you go for when you’ve given up on – or turned against – the idea of a strong labor movement.” Tell that to all the folks in the labor movement and labor-allied groups who’ve worked to support the Dukes lawsuit and the fight against Wal-Mart’s sexism as part of a broad-based critique of a company that helpfully illustrates the connections between conservatism’s threat to gender equality, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and other values progressives and most Americans hold dear. Benn Michaels’ approach, which denies that rich people can be victims of oppression or that poor people can be oppressed by more than only poverty, would render the left unable to fully understand, let alone seriously engage, with what Betty Dukes and millions of women like her are facing (see also Whitewashing Race). As badly as Benn Michaels may wish for a revived labor movement, in advocating a disregard for identity politics he’s echoing the disconnection from progressive social movements which contributed the labor movement’s decline in the first place. Those blinders regarding oppressions besides class mirror the blindness to class of too many in, for example, the pro-choice movement – blindness of which Benn Michaels would be rightly critical.

That said, we needn’t accept Benn Michael’s arguments about the irrelevance of race- and sex-based politics to appreciate the book’s critical insight: that the plutocrats triumph when poverty is understood as an identity to be respected rather than as a problem to be eliminated. Conservatives, as he argues, have masterfully reframed our class problem as being about the elitists who look down on poor people rather than about the robber barons, de-regulators, and union-busters who make them poor. Examples abound in conservative literature (Tom Wolfe comes in for some enjoyable criticism in The Trouble With Diversity), but Benn Michaels is right that seemingly liberal takes on class often suffer from the same problem. And he’s right that conservatives draw on the language we use to talk about race to pull this off.

I was reminded of People Like Us, a very engaging PBS documentary about class in America that explores a series of interesting situations – working-class folks fight with ex-hippies about what kind of supermarket to bring into their neighborhood; tensions within African-American communities about whether Jack and Jill clubs aimed at well-off Black kids are elitist; a daughter’s embarrassment about her “trailer park” mom – but all from the perspective of how different classes can get along, not how we can reduce or eliminate class differences. The least sympathetic characters in the movie are a bunch of snotty high school kids at a mixed-income public school talking in awful terms about why they wouldn’t talk to the poor kids they go to school with (“What would we talk to them about?”). It’s a good movie. But you could walk away with the sense that our class problems would be solved if the rich kids would befriend the poor kids. Which, as Benn Michaels would argue, would be much less expensive or destabilizing for the powers that be than making those kids’ families less poor. As Benn Michaels writes (in one of many paragraphs that makes you wish more political books were written by English professors) about an episode of Wife Swap:

At no time, apparently, did it occur to the makers of the show, the people in it or the people reviewing it, that what the show really demonstrates is how much better it is to be rich than to be poor. Or perhaps one should say not that the show ignores this point but that it is devoted to denying it, and that it succeeds so completely (this is its brilliance) that we find ourselves believing that run-down shacks in the woods are just as nice as Park Avenue apartments, especially if your husband remembers to thank you for chopping the wood when you get home from driving the bus. The idea the show likes is the one Tom Wolfe and company like: that the problem with being poor is not having less money than rich people but having rich people “look down” on you. And the rich husband is bad because he does indeed look down on the poor people, whereas the rich wife (the one who has never done a day’s work in her life and who begins the show by celebrating her “me time,” shopping, working out, etc.) turns out to be good because she comes to appreciate the poor and even to realize that she can learn from them. The fault here is not in being rich but in thinking that you have better taste – more generally, in thinking that…you are are a better person.