politics

Is Roe v. Wade our Dred Scott?

Earlier this week I wondered if there were a central axis to the cold Civil War we have in America. In the years leading up to the actual Civil War, all public debate revolved around the question of slavery. You couldn’t fully participate in the world beyond your door without calling yourself either abolitionist or pro-slavery.

When the Supreme Court, lead by the pro-slavery Chief Justice Roger B. Tawney, ruled in Dred Scott in 1857 that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” the country was torn in half. Instead of settling the question of slavery, as Tawney intended, we moved closer to war. In response, Republicans in Congress added another justice to tip the Supreme Court in favor of abolition.

In an editorial for the Post (which was summarized in The Week), Michael Barone posits that Roe v. Wade is the hidden fault line in our current politics. Barone’s editorial isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of abortion, but about the way that the issue has shaped electoral politics for 30 years, putting both Republicans and Democrats on ideological islands, unable to find common ground on anything, even when their beliefs or expediency in serving the public good might dictate it.

Is the abortion debate the source of the vast reserves of emotional energy that have been heaped on the Kavanaugh Affair by both sides?

Even if you believe that Kavanaugh’s offenses or the shadow of doubt cast on him render him unfit for the Supreme Court, or if you believe that his confirmation is a deliberate punishment of feminists by reactionaries, it is still worth considering how the abortion debate has invisibly fueled this controversy. It is like the sleeping dragon buried beneath the castle of contemporary politics. We don’t talk about it. We don’t dig it up. But we can feel its heat.

What do you think is the central axis of our politics?

P.S. – I almost didn’t post this, for fear of being misunderstood. Let me be clear: I am *not* calling for a repeal of Roe v. Wade. I am *not making a moral correlation between the wrongness of Dred Scott and the rightness or wrongness of Roe v. Wade. I am making a historical analogy that I hope will help us solve something that puzzles me about our politics, i.e. the source of the hatred and the co-existing unrealities that I see fueling it daily. 

Do the facts of the Kavanaugh Affair even matter?

Before last week was out, The New York Times released a report detailing how President Trump likely engaged in hundreds of millions of dollars of tax evasion before his election. In any prior time, a bombshell like that about a sitting President would’ve warranted an address to the nation. It would have been not quite Watergate, but certainly a Whitewater-grade crisis.

And yet all we have time for at the moment is the roiling emotional whirlpool of the Kavanaugh Affair. And even in the trenches of that debate, the two sides seem to be arguing about a different event.

Conservatives see themselves in a war to vindicate a sane, decent man against intimidation by a conspiracy. Liberals see themselves preserving public virtue against partisanship, and defending the de facto equality of women before the law. One the one hand, common decency. On the other, moral and political progress.

But of course every event is now just a chapter in an exhausting clash between two these two alternate realities. Every event is our next potential Dreyfus Affair, and we must always have a Dreyfus Affair as a heat sink for our collective rage.

What was the Dreyfus Affair? Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jewish military officer who was convicted in the 1890s of treason for sharing military secrets. Because French conservatives, bereft of a monarch, rallied around the military as an organ of nationalism, there was no chance that Dreyfus, a Jew, was going to be acquitted. Dreyfus’s guilt was what what the historian Barbara Tuchman has called an “overdetermined” event. Everybody knew how the jury was going to vote, yet the dragged out debate about his guilt or innocence gathered nuance and meaning and swept up every national figure of the time, forcing them to one side or the other. The details of the Affair became like the objects and situations in a nightmare, having an ominous quality in the dream that seems absurd upon waking.

To this day, nobody knows what the exact details of the case were (though Dreyfus was innocent), but the Affair lives on as the first great mass media-fueled all-consuming controversy. It was such a big deal that the writer Emile Zola had to flee the country after being convicted of libel for writing an opinion piece on the verdict. I think of it as the first salvo in a kind of cold civil war between French conservatives and liberals, a model for the way things get hashed out in our time here in America.

It’s better than a hot civil war, I suppose, but the consequence of governing national life this way is a level of unreality and emotional charge that can be hard to contain or escape from. And we engage in it now on television and not in print, which means the thoughts that get tossed around are courser, shorter, and smaller.

Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, was concerned that her testimony would not affect the course of his nomination and approval, as indeed it has not. The outcome of Kavanaugh’s nomination process was “overdetermined,” in Tuchman’s sense of the word. Whatever the facts, they no longer matter. All that matters is that these hearings are the latest scapegoat, to be paraded down the street for both right and left to heap their scorn on before the next scapegoat is found.

What do you think it will be?

Do You Feel Like You’re Living in Alternate Reality? About Half of America Agrees With You.

For the record, I have been feeling for most of my life like I was living in an alternate reality. It’s best encapsulated by C.S. Lewis when he said:

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

But I don’t think that kind of metaphysical unease is quite what the author of this piece in the Times had in mind when she says that forty-seven percent of Trump voters feel like they are strangers in their own country, or that half of American women feel the same, regardless of party, or that 60 percent of black and Asian Americans do.

The piece makes the expected comparison between our time and the decades before the Civil War when the nation was split by the debate over whether America would be a slave-owning society.

We have the animosity of that time without the intellectual clarity. Slavery was the central axis around which the American debate revolved. Does our debate have a central axis today?

Tough to say, really. When I talk to people who voted for Trump, I get the creeping sense that there is this huge divide between us. But I can’t quite put my finger on any one issue. It’s all of them and none of them at once.

What do you think?