Two articles from Talking Points Memo: “Topless Texans Spar with Open Carry Activists: ‘Boobs for Peace!‘”
I do not have the knowledge — or the kevlar underwear — to opine on the situation in Gaza, but I’ll say this: nothing seems better designed to ensure that Jewish lefties simply tune you out than the choice to use inflammatory — borderline anti-Semitic — language.
I’m a liberal and a Jew, and would be the natural audience for arguments that Israel has — what’s the technical foreign policy term? — seriously fucked up this time. But when I hear words like “genocide” or “apartheid” or see images of Israeli politicians with blood on their hands, I don’t think, “Hmmm, that person has an interesting point I should think about.” I think, “asshole.” Or, with slightly more nuance, “grandstanding asshole who is more interested in left-wing tribal solidarity than actually having a rational dialog.” And ultimately:*
I know this can be said of almost any fraught issue in American politics today. If you say either “baby killer” or “the government wants to own my uterus” you are not interested in having a rational discussion about abortion; you are expressing tribal solidarity. I’m firmly convinced that tribal solidarity drives most political opinion. Once you’ve identified as a Republican and that has become part of your identity, it’s hard to say, “you know, perhaps we should treat children arriving at our border with compassion.” Your tribe has made it a mark of in-group-ness to decry these children as shock troops of an invading horde of Obama-inspired future Democrats,** and taking a contrary position would be as hard as making a Red Sox fan cheer for the Yankees. It is similarly hard, I think, to get most Democrats to even admit that people who oppose abortion might do so from deeply-felt, well-thought-out reasons and not simply because they hate or want to suppress women.***
So ultimately if your goal in discussing the situation in Gaza is just to express tribal solidarity with your co-opinionists, go for it. Use whatever inflammatory language makes you feel like part of the in-group. If you actually want to have a rational discussion with people who just might share some of your lefty views, you might want to reconsider.
* Well, no, ultimately what I feel is fear, because historically when people start down this road, things do not end well for Jews.
** Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
*** Two additional notes about this. First, these two examples are in no way intended to suggest some sort of faux balance. In my view, Democrats remain largely right, policywise, and Republicans largely wrong. Second, I think tribalism is stronger on the right than the left because one of the substantive values of the right is conformity, while one of the substantive values of the left is iconoclasm. Which makes it all the more ironic and, to me, disappointing to hear left-wing tribalism.
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.
I’m writing about this here not only because I’m too chickenshit to announce my views in person to most people I know — and let’s be honest, it doesn’t come up in conversation very often — but in the hope that I can learn from the process of being told how wrong I am. Bring it on!
I’d like to explain how I got here, but first a warning: When your brain starts out with very few nuance skills, and then receives a legal education, this is the sort of thought process that results. But it’s the only brain I have, and this is where it has led me on the question of abortion. I’d also like to be clear that I respect people with views on both sides of this difficult question, and I’m far from sure I’m right.
I’m pro-life as both a legal and personal matter. The core of my legal reasoning is this: we don’t really know when life begins and as a result we should err on the side of preserving life. Both sides of the abortion debate must agree on one thing or retreat to the trenches of irrationality: we do not, as a matter of science, know when life begins. Each side has a belief about when it begins but neither side can prove its belief scientifically. From a logical perspective, then, the pro-choice side must concede that it is possible that life begins at conception, just as the pro-life side must concede that, faith aside, it is possible that it does not. It is also undeniably true that, left alone, most pregnancies will eventually result in a life, which potential is undeniably curtailed if aborted.
Given this admitted state of scientific uncertainty, the law can do one of two things: it can let women choose whether or not to have an abortion, with the logical possibility that we as a society are permitting the killing of a human being. Or it can err on the side of life. We can prohibit abortion on the grounds that society should, as best it can, eliminate even the possibility of destroying life, with the logical possibility that we are penalizing the destruction of what is — at least at first — not life.
That’s all well and good as a logical matter, I hear you protest, but what about the reality and risk of carrying an unwanted child to term. I get that my views essentially hijack nine months of the unwilling mother’s life. And full disclosure, I don’t have kids, so it’s nine months I’ve never experienced. I would argue that it is reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child to term — to undergo those nine months of discomfort and risk — for even the possibility of saving a life.
Perhaps where I’ll really get pounded (there so so many opportunities here!) is in saying that I don’t see the nine months of pregnancy as a unique imposition. There are other contexts in which we ask for sacrifice in the name of the unborn, though mostly unborn future generations rather than specific unborn gestating kids. And as a country, we ask a great deal of a great many people when other lives are at stake. We promote and in some cases require measures that preserve the environment — measures not without costs — so that future generations will be safe and healthy. We send soldiers into war — not always voluntarily — and ask them to endure extremely physically trying conditions and risk death both for other lives and for important national principles. We ask police officers and firefighters to put their lives on the line for the lives and sometimes property of others. We ourselves — and I think especially we liberals believe this of ourselves — would risk our own lives to save the life of another. Yes, it’s a horrible thing to have to carry a child to term when you don’t want to but at bottom, it’s nine months of discomfort and risk with the potential of saving a life.
But what about back alley abortions and the risk they pose to women’s life and health? Two answers. If an act is wrong, it should not be permitted simply because, if prohibited, the perpetrator will cause harm to himself. We don’t permit theft because without it, some will starve. And we should do everything in our power to make it possible, acceptable, affordable and preferable to bear a child and to raise him or her* — with the work schedules, benefits, leave, and societal support that that requires — or to put him or her* up for adoption.
Unlike conservatives — in the immortal words of Barney Frank — I’m not just pro-life from conception to birth.
I honestly think being pro-life is far more harmonious with a generally liberal world view than being pro-choice. We’re supposed to support those at the margins of life, to paraphrase Hubert Humphrey. We stick up for the little guy, for the worker against big business, for the political prisoner against totalitarianism, for minorities enslaved or oppressed by majority laws and prejudices.
These views have been strengthened by working in the disability rights community, where I have seen the variety of complicated hands life can deal and the many creative ways of playing those cards. Taking nine months out to ensure no one gets killed seems pretty small beer in comparison. I have also seen the pernicious effects of a societal decision that some people aren’t really people or that we can decide for others whether their lives are worth living. When we start down that path — in which abortion is one paving stone, I believe — we end up with the evil that is Peter Singer.
So what should we do about this? Criminalize abortion? Put women in jail? Doctors?
Oops, sorry, I see my time is up. Thanks for coming!
What? I have to stick around and address the tough questions? Well here’s the answer: I don’t have a clue. In the current political environment, however, I would ask both sides to stop fighting about rights and start creating a world in which fewer abortions actually happen. While it’s fun — and accurate — to direct most of my cynicism on this point toward conservatives who fight against abortion while resisting any public efforts to make it easier to bear and raise children, opposing sex education and birth control and cheerleading for torture and the death penalty, I think the issue has a distorting effect on liberals as well. We direct an enormous amount of money and energy toward court cases designed to preserve the right to terminate a pregnancy, which money and energy could be better directed toward policies that support mothers, children, women, workers, immigrants, and other underdogs. Imagine health care reform that unabashedly refused to fund abortion and enthusiastically supported comprehensive prenatal care, adoption, daycare, and maternity and paternity leave? I’m sure the Republicans would have found something else to demagogue, but it might have helped forge a coalition of righties and lefties who are actually pro-life in the full sense of the word. (No, you can’t have any of what I’m smoking; I need all of it myself.)
I’m going to end this as I end all of my blog posts: awkwardly. I may know more or less how to write, but conclusions are still hard, largely because most of what I write concludes, “for the reasons set forth above, Plaintiffs respectfully request that this Court deny Defendants’ motion.” So I’ll just sign off and turn it over to anyone who is still reading at this point to explain how wrong I am.
Just as I was about to publish this, the incredible advocate Stella Adams posted this on Facebook:
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, protect the rights of those who are helpless. Speak out and pronounce a sentence of justice, defend the cause of the wretched and the poor.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)
Stella – If you’re pro-choice, my apologies for hijacking your post, but this speaks directly to why I think liberals should be pro-life.
*Amy’s 2020 edit: or them.