Three things before I start.
1. The title is pretty misleading, but I’m a partisan and did not feel like titling the post “Adam Gopnik is wrong about Paul Ryan.” It’s my blog — I get to do that. And there’s plenty of Ryan-bullshit-calling, too.
2. Adam Gopnik is one of my favorite writers. Seeing his byline on a New Yorker article means it will have a wealth of interesting information and delightful prose.* You are going to find this hard to believe when (if) you finish reading this post, but I really do like his writing. How can one resist a writer who understands — and deftly conveys to the rest of us — that this year’s election is like a 70s comedy:
Romney seems like the smug country clubber in a hundred National Lampoonish movies, the one Chevy Chase takes the girl away from, while Paul Ryan … seem[s] exactly like the authority-pleasing, solemn student-body president who either gets pantsed midway by the stars of “Porkys” or else blissfully turned on to grass in the final reel by Bill Murray.
Gopnik is a fantastic and entertaining writer. He just went seriously off the rails in the post I’m posting about.
3. Paul Ryan is not pro-life. However devoted he may have been to the “bean” that would someday be his daughter and to the right of all similarly situated beans to develop for at least the first nine month of their being, his policies — taken together — will lead to far more death than life. His Medicaid cuts alone will leave millions of children, adults with disabilities, and older folks without necessary medical care and equipment. Many of them will die as a result. Ryan is the poster child for the brilliant Barney Frank insight that Republicans “believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth.”
That out of the way, this Adam Gopnik New Yorker blog post is seriously misguided. I have three major problems with it: First, that it treats religious faith differently from the other sources of moral reasoning that inform people’s lives; second, that it ridicules sincerely-held pro-life views; and third, that it isolates abortion from the sort of moral and political reasoning that has brought great liberal progress to our country.
Gopnik tees off the following Ryan quote from the vice-presidential debate:
I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do.
That’s a shocking answer—a mullah’s answer . . .
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to take Ryan’s comment on its face. As such, no, it’s not a mullah’s answer; it’s a human answer. Ryan stated that “our faith informs us in everything we do.” Ryan’s faith is an integral part of who he is and how how he thinks about the world. I’m guessing that Gopnik would not object if a woman explained that her gender “informed her in everything she did,” or similarly, an African-American, a gay man or lesbian, a person with a disability, or an immigrant to this country from another.
Ryan’s faith informs his views on abortion. Gopnik does not explain the sources of his opposing views on that subject, but let’s call it his philosophy — of the appropriate balance of the rights of the mother and the developing child, or of the appropriate role of government. And let’s give both men credit for having seriously thought through their opposing views and holding them sincerely. It is not fair or appropriate to ask Ryan to put aside his faith, while those whose views develop from non-religious sources are free to bring them to bear on political discourse.
Our system, unlike the Iranians’ . . . depends on making many distinctions between private life, where we follow our conscience into our chapel, and our public life, where we seek to merge many different kinds of conscience in a common space. Our faith should not inform us in everything we do, or there would be no end to the religious warfare that our tolerant founders feared.
Gopnik is correct that we all have to come into the common space understanding that our views are not the only ones – not the only correct ones – and to seek to merge different kinds of conscience into a working set of laws and policies. He would be correct about Ryan, then, if Ryan had used the verb “dictate” instead of “inform.” If this is what Ryan meant – that his faith doesn’t just inform but dictates unwaveringly everything he does in his role as congressman or vice-president – it is deeply wrong and unAmerican. Taking the words as spoken, though, Gopnik is wrong that “there would be no end to the religious warfare that our tolerant founders feared” if faith informs the moral decision-making of some part of our nation. Indeed, what of the large number of liberal Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other religious folks whose faith informs – even dictates – a position of tolerance and mutual respect. Is that, too, to be left outside the realm of civic discourse?
Which brings me to SECOND.
Gopnik moves (at dizzying speed) from denying the role of faith in public discourse to ridiculing opposition to abortion to a sort of reductio ad mullahrum** that compares anyone who would oppose abortion to those who would support the worst of radical Islamism.
The ridicule. Gopnik notes (correctly) that deciding what is a “life” is tricky, then adds:
It is this double knowledge that impacts any grownup thinking about abortion: that it isn’t life that’s sacred—the world is full of life, much of which Paul Ryan wants to cut down and exploit and eat done medium rare.
Seriously: “grownup”? There is so much packed into that one adjective, including intolerance for the sincerely-held views of a large swath of the grownup population of this country (that is, the sort of intolerance Gopnik is writing against); and exactly the sort of arrogance that makes people hate liberals.***
Would it also be over the top to point out that this is also its own bizarre reductio? And all I can do is apologize for this but let’s call it reductio ad steakum. Because your ribeye was once alive, you are not permitted to value any sort of life that is not a fully-conscious adult human?
Here’s the reductio ad mullahrum. Gopnik accuses Ryan of oversimplifying the question of what is life:
The cost of simplifying this truth is immense cruelty . . . This kind of cruelty—cruelty to real persons, killing the infidel in order to hasten him into heaven, stoning the fourteen-year-old girl in pursuit of some prophet’s view of virtue, forcing the teenager to complete her pregnancy to fulfill a middle-aged man’s moral hunches—is the kind of cruelty that our liberal founders saw with terror.
One of these is not like the other. Requiring a woman or girl to carry a pregnancy to term is not remotely like killing an infidel or stoning a fourteen-year-old. We can disagree on whether it is the preservation of potential life or an unconstitutional imposition on the rights of the woman. It is not, in fact, the taking of life in the name of religion.
And THIRD, Gopnik’s overall point demeans the sort of moral reasoning that opposed (and still opposes) slavery, Jim Crow, homophobia, totalitarianism, and other oppressive systems. Why was it OK for Martin Luther King to lead us out of Jim Crow, informed by his faith, and speaking in explicitly religious terms, but not for a modern-day believer to speak in those terms about his or her pro-life views? For Jim Wallis, Carrie Ann Lucas, and other progressive Christians to work for social justice informed by their faith, but not conservative Christians? We may disagree about the conclusions – and call bullshit when faith-based moral reasoning turns into hypocritical hot air –but it is deeply misguided to exclude faith from public political discourse.
Finally, however, speaking of hypocritical hot air: if faith is to participate in the arena of public discourse, it has to be able to hold its own. It cannot be hermetically sealed from criticism and bullshit-calling. And it is pure bullshit to believe in life from conception to birth. If Ryan’s Catholic faith informs his pro-life views on the question of abortion, he should answer for why his faith does not similarly inform his views of the budget.
* Apparently not everyone shares this view. Perhaps Wolcott does not like competition in the delightful prose department. Personally, I think delightful prose is one of the few things you can *never* have too much of.
** Like it? My attempt at a modern-day “Reductio ad Hitlerum”: “a term coined by conservative philosopher Leo Strauss in 1951. According to Strauss, the Reductio ad Hitlerum is a logical fallacy that consists of trying to refute an opponent’s view by comparing it to a view that would be held by Adolf Hitler or the Nazi Party.”
*** Have you ever walked into a Whole Foods and wanted to commit ritual suicide by organic carrot? Me too. That’s why people find us annoying. Not sure what we can do about it except point out that (1) we’re right; and (2) conservatives are even more annoying.
UPDATE: Edited for typos.