Tuesday, April 11, 2006

How did ethics get reduced to abortion?

Aspazia, over at Mad Melancholic Feminista, asks a good question -- do anti-abortionists use the same logic as racists? The answer is, in part, yes. The explanation of that answer related to another interesting and seemingly obvious question that no one seems to ask, "How did abortion -- out of all the issues that we deal with in this culture -- become the issue?" how did all of ethics get reduced to abortion?

The answer is similar to why Ward Churchill, a little known academic, is opposing David Horowitz in public debates as the face of the left. How did this guy, who had little recognition, muchless influence on contemporary progressive viewpoints, become someone who could be put up as the face of the movement? The answer is that the right chose him and they get to set up the debate. This is not merely a quesiton of framing -- that deals with the linguistic structures we use in discussing issues. This is the even more important question of detemrining what it is that gets onto the cultural agenda in the first place, and the left was suckered into giving up that power. The source of this shift goes back a couple of decades.

Under Nixon, the Republicans realized that the only way to break the strangle hold that the Democrats had on federal politics was to find a way to bring some of the traditional Democratic voters into thier ranks. they looked for the most tenuous connection and found it in the South where vestiges of the not-so-Civil War had made the Dems the party of the region. But there was no wedge so divisive in the area as race and it could easily be used to sever the connection between the Dixiecrats and the party of the Voting Rights Act. (Kevin Phillips, one of the architects of this plan, has a new book out American Theology -- read it.)

After picking off low-hanging fruit like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace and those behind them, the right realized that just as Martin Luther King's power was in his pulpit, so too the white churches could be the best place from which to launch their political attack in the coming decades. The growing evangelical movement contained many working class voters who traditionally voted Democratic -- if at all. If they could be turned out on election with explicit instructions from clergy on how to vote Republican, it would allow them not only to control the South, but also the Midwest where racism under the guise of "states' rights" was not the motivator it was in the old slave states.

The problem was that the Republican platform opposed the actual intersts of those people.The solution was to refocus the southern strategy. No longer about segregation, they would pick a small handful of issues that these folks would go nuts over and paint a bulls-eye on the fronts of the despicable liberals. The left’s views could be lampooned as against the church, against God and country. This handful of bogeymen would keep closed ranks behind charismatic preachers wiht whom political bonds had been forged. And if the church was behind you, then the ethics game is won because how could the church not be on the side of moral values? And so absolute adherence to theological doctrine, some of it quite non-mainstream, became a standard substitution on large swaths of the right for any and all moral deliberation of any real depth.

The key is, in the Bard’s immortal phrase, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Conservatives would take both the middle class and Evangelical working class away from the Democrats by being clever. The trick would be not only to pick their battles, but to then sucker the left into making those and only those battles into the entire war. It was the equivalent of setting up a rigged bet and making the rube go in all or nothing. It was ethical three-card monty and the liberals were sure they could find the queen this time.

The left had won the morality battle over civil rights, so the key was not to press the old racist line – that line is known to be a sure loser with the suburbanites. Instead of trying to reinstate Jim Crow, the right would instead focus their entire attack on a tiny little insignificant corner of the discussion, the unfairness of affirmative action. Everything else having to do with civil rights would be eliminated from the discussion and affirmative action in hiring and college admissions would become the sole battleground for all civil rights issues. Further, affirmative action would be spoken of only in terms of blind quotas that are cast as forcing the promotion of less qualified minorities into positions that by all rights belong to more qualified white men. The deepest, darkest fears of Suburbia – the loss of upward mobility, not only failing to keep up with the Joneses, but not even keeping up with the Jacksons – would be exploited. The delicious irony of this move is that civil rights advocates, those who had been willing to sacrifice their own lives to secure the rights of others, could now easily be portrayed as the ones in favor of discrimination. In this framing, supporting civil rights isn't morally right, it's morally wrong. Opposing civil rights is now both in the interest of white suburban families and morally justified.

Similarly, the left won the morality battle over women's suffrage and were making head roads into the furthering of women's rights. So pick your battle and make that the only issue on the table. Instead of trying to take away the vote or defending unequal pay for equal work, all discussion of women’s rights would be single-mindedly focused upon the legality of abortion. Abortions aren’t needed by good girls from suburban homes, only those promiscuous sluts from the other side of the tracks who need to be taught to take responsibility for their wicked ways. By opposing abortion, the entire suburban ethos, as well as the chastity of their precious little girls, was being defended. Even more, everyone knows that God hates abortion as much as he hates gays, maybe more. Those who don’t condemn abortion are clearly showing how much they hate God. Those who were advocating justice for women, control over their lives and bodies, and a more fairly constructed family were portrayed as trying to murder innocent babies and destroy the foundation of the family and undermine faith itself. In this framework, with every other issue that concerns the welfare of women securely off the table, supporting women's rights isn't morally right, it's morally wrong.

And the same move is made on the environment, foreign policy, gay rights, public health, education,...wherever the left had the moral high ground, the right would seek some very small corner of the fight where the issue could be reframed in such a way as to threaten the comfort of the middle class. That issue would have its profile raised to the point where it could be substituted for the entire area of moral concern. In this way, the right could reduce the complexity of inter-related issues to one single debate that they were confident they could win and thus deem themselves morally superior. By carefully picking and choosing their battles against public schools, against helping needy children, against environmental regulation, they could invert the ethical equations making right into wrong. The left had attacked moral issues like the British Redcoats, openly marching in a row stretching all the way across the moral battlefield, sure of their power. The right would hide behind trees waging a guerilla war against morality, choosing where and when to fight moral battles.

And like Washington’s rag-tag army, they won.

What cemented the success of this move was its reception on the left. Progressives have a deep, core distrust of people or institutions who claim to have exclusive possession of unrevisable truth and/or principles of moral rightness and who demand unquestioning adherence. This is why blind patriotic correctness and certain forms of institutional religion are seen as deeply problematic. Liberals look at history to learn that even our most cherished beliefs may in time be shown to be wrong, there is something to be learned from folks who see or do things differently, and that when we hand over our minds to some authority – even one that is claiming to protect us from earthly or other worldly evil, be it Osama or Satan – we are inviting serious abuses of our loyalty by those in power. The examples are legion.

It was from this desire to avoid the closed-minded absolutism that lay at the heart of the new so-called “Moral Majority” on the right, that the left placed tolerance in a privileged position above virtually all other virtues. Since no one knows everything, we need to allow everyone a seat at the table. “If the right wants to say that ethics is a matter of appeal to absolute authority,” said progressives, “then we want no part of it. Let them have it.”

And so the liberals accepted the picture of ethics as blind adherence to radical theology and rejecting radical theology, they forfeited virtually all public discussions of ethics. And that is a big part of how we got to where we are today. That is part of the reason that war, hunger, pollution, and health care are no longer seen as issues of morality.