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Some Final Words On “Ending the Culture Wars”

I really didn’t intend to write a long series of posts on the question of “ending the culture wars,” or specifically on abortion policy. But my friend Damon Linker at TNR has responded in some detail to my arguments against a strategic retreat on the “constitutionalization of abortion” as a way to detoxify the subject, so I’ll go one more round, and also note some comments made by other folks during this discussion.
First of all, in his latest post Damon makes a rather crucial clarification of his “deconstitutionalize abortion” argument: this isn’t, he says, a practical proposal, but rather a “hypothetical thought-experiment” to convince pro-choice progressives that anything short of such a radical step would not succeed in making the abortion battle anything less than “intractable.” I certainly don’t need convincing on this point; I despair of any end to this particular front in the “culture wars,” but strongly think the “thought-experiment” might make the abortion wars even worse, while providing the people on the other side of the barricades from me and other pro-choice Americans with the opportunity to actually put their convictions into practice backed by the power of the state–not an inestimable factor.
Second of all, shifting to the arguments against his “thought-experiment,” Damon distinguishes between the “conservative side of the culture war” from the “pro-life movement,” and suggests that it’s the former, not the latter, who might be “convinced to stand down from the culture war if the identity-politics provocation of Roe were removed.” Now I’m afraid this reasonable-sounding distinction drifts into all sorts of treacherous territory, not least among them the exceptional slipperiness of trying to measure nuances in terms of public opinion on abortion. By Damon’s math, a quarter of the American electorate wants to outlaw “most” abortions, but isn’t “pro-life” because it recognizes exceptions. But those exceptions can get pretty large: sizable majorities of Americans favor a “health of the mother” exception even to a ban on the very unpopular and rare “partial-birth abortion” procedure–as John McCain learned when he mocked the exception in a presidential debate last October, reflecting the common right-to-life view that it makes any abortion restrictions meaningless. So it’s not that easy to divide people into neat categories like “anti-abortion but not prolife,” much less make the categorization the linchpin of an argument for ending culture wars.
More importantly, Damon offers no evidence that this “non-RTL cultural conservative” grouping is really “provoked” by Roe. Perhaps some conservative intellectuals like Ross Douthat are duly provoked, but it’s significant that the “judicial tyranny” argument that is at the heart of Damon’s case is almost exclusively aimed by Republican politicians at serious RTL activists, often in very targeted settings like John McCain’s“dog-whistle” speech to Christian conservatives last May. Participation in the annual protests against Roe doesn’t seem to extend beyond the organized RTL ranks. But this gets to the real problem with Damon’s “thought-experiment”: if a large segment of “culture-war” conservatives are motivated by mere cultural conservatism, and oppose abortion for traditionalist, or anti-feminist, or anti-sexual-freedom reasons, and not because they believe a fetus is a full human being deserving the same rights as any other human being, then their anti-abortion opinions are as malleable as their opposition to gay marriage or church-state separation. Since these are issues on which Damon agrees that time and generational change will heal most wounds, the same should be true of abortion for those outside the serious RTL ranks. This is particularly true if the status quo is legalized abortion rather than the endless, daily warfare about abortion policy we’d see if Roe is ever reversed (BTW, if anything, I may have understated the havoc that would ensue in a post-Roe abortion polity; see Linda Hirshman’s fascinating Washington Post article last September about the strong probability that states with abortion bans would seek to prevent out-of-state abortions).
Third of all, I probably invited one rejoinder from Damon by suggesting unhappily that the only real comity that pro-choice Americans can offer their RTL brethren was the cold comfort of the slogan: “Oppose abortion? Don’t have one!” Damon took that to mean I was arguing that legal abortion represents “moral neutrality” on the issue. Of course not. But it’s actually the closest to neutrality that the state can get, since after all, nobody in the Roe era is being forced to have an abortion, while in a post-Roe situation–much less the constitutional abortion ban that RTLers favor–some women would certainly be forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will. And I don’t think it’s a very good idea to bring up the slavery analogy as part of an argument for a “states’ rights” position on abortion.
Speaking of “states’ rights,” Jack Whalen of After the Future wrote one of the most cogent of many blog posts agreeing with Damon:

The Dems on the national level should not take sides on abortion. The culture war might rage on, but let it be fought out in the state legislatures rather than in Washington. This should be perceived as neither a Dem nor a Republican issue. If abortion policy was determined on a state-by-state basis, it would make it easier for Democrats on the Federal level to elect legislators whose positions on the economic and civil liberties issues are more in line with Main Steet aspirations without abortion or other divisive cultural issues being a wedge issue or distraction.

His full argument reflects a very common belief among Democrats, which I’ve battled for years, that “cultural” issues are somehow not legitimate, and if we can find a way to consign them to the sidelines, Democrats will win on economic and other issues.
And that brings me to Kay Steiger’s argument (as a guest blogger on Matt Yglesias’ site) that the habit of referring to issues like abortion or same-sex marriage as “cultural issues” trivializes them. I disagree, because “culture” is as important a fulcrum for public policy as any other aspect of human society. Indeed, a nation that can’t figure out how to reflect in public policy a fixed notion of what represents “homicide” or “a family” isn’t likely to do very well in figuring out how to prevent “homicides” or give “families” economic opportunity. And that’s why after decades of agonizing over the subject, I’ve arrived at Linda Hirshman’s position that pro-choice Americans–or more properly, pro-abortion-rights Americans–need to be willing and able to defend the morality of abortion. If we don’t, then we deserve the contempt of the Right-to-Life movement, and are rightly condemned to the self-doubt and guilty consciences that so regularly produce offers of unilateral compromise in the vain hope of peace.

3 comments on “Some Final Words On “Ending the Culture Wars”

  1. Jon on

    Agreed about the general problems of diversity in the political blogospheres — and yeah, progressives certainly could do more to correct this.
    With respect to Linker et. al.’s arguments, yes, on the one hand it is just an example of the general tendency to ignore everybody who’s not a straight white male. Still it seems particularly egregious to me: leaving out the perspectives of those who would be victimized by a proposed change in policy (e.g., ignoring women’s views on a subject like abortion or LGBT views on marriage equality). Would Linker advocate punitive changes to the corporate tax code without including corporate perspectives? Hmm, no, probably not.
    In terms of time pressure, point taken, but I don’t think the conversation would have ground to a halt if anybody involved had taken a couple of extra hours to get some additional perspectives. As you highlight, Kay and Linda had some very different things to say; the overall discussion really benefited by including them. And with some practice, it doesn’t take that long to routinely examine each post-in-progress and see who’s being overlooked — it’s often very easy to bring these other standpoints in. [I learned to do this when I was working in the technology space, which is equally male- and white-dominated.] Doing this regularly is a small step to countering the lack of diversity in the progressive blogosphere.

  2. edkilgore on

    The question of gender and abortion discussions is complicated. There is, as you probably know, a general diversity problem in the political blogosphere, which most of us (at least on the left) struggle with, but don’t necessarily do enough to correct.
    On abortion policy (which, you might note, was only a subset of the original discussion here) my position is ultimately that women should make all the real decisions. This doesn’t mean I think that women are the only people entitled to an opinion on the subject, since it is, for better or worse, a political and constitutional issue that men get to vote on, directly or (in the case of Supreme Court appointments) indirectly. And while I think it’s legit for pro-abortion-rights women to criticize anti-abortion-rights men for a particular insensitivity to the impact of their opinions on women, I don’t know that the failure of Damon Linker or anybody else to specifically quote or link to women in making his case should matter any more than his or my general failings in linking to non-white-men who make worthy arguments on any subject. I do know that if I were taking Damon’s position, I’d go far out of my way to preempt the “another white man dictating to women” objection, if only to make sure my arguments got a hearing among the progressives who are his intended audience. A half-insulted audience won’t be terribly sympathetic.
    As it happens, I cited Kay Steiger and (twice) Linda Hirshman in this latest post less because of their gender than because they were making excellent points; Kay’s argument was one that definitely needed to be noted and addressed, and Linda’s been amazing on this subject for a long time, and should have been quoted and cited in my earlier posts. But it’s the nature of blogospheric debates to focus on the immediate object, which for me was originally Beinart’s rather conventional take, and then Linker’s provocative argument on abortion. And you have to appreciate how quickly these things have to be written (in the case of my earlier response to Damon, I had a software crash that forced me to write it twice).
    In any event, thanks for raising this issue, and letting me express my conflicted views on the subject.

  3. Jon on

    It’s been interesting seeing you, Tim, Damon, Peter, Chris, Brian, Daniel, and Scott discuss abortion as a “culture war” issue. It’s really revealing that other than you in this post, nobody else bothered to include any women’s views.


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