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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Monday, August 15, 2005

what the meaning of we is

To be straight up, I was taken aback at the tone of the attacks on NARAL before their ad...and taken aback at the tone of attacks after they pulled it. Now, I've got no problem with folks being critical of any and all organizations within our coalition...or, for that matter, of me and what I write...that's part and parcel of politics, and healthy debate actually makes us a better and stronger party.

But one thing I just don't get in all of this, is how a sense of solidarity seems to have left some folks' minds entirely. You see, solidarity is our start point, not some bonus value that we tack on if we're all feeling the rosy glow of victory. Speaking for myself, I've got more loyalty to women fighting for their essential rights than I do with the abstract notion of a Democratic victory that promises to protect women down the road but doesn't much act like it today. Some things are essential; control of one's own health and body is one of those things. It would be the same for gay rights or civil rights or for labor law. When the chips are down, you stand with your brothers and sisters, or you don't stand for anything at all.

What the anti-NARAL folks are asking us is that we cooperate in betraying the fight for reproductive rights by disassociating ourselves from the "we" that is in solidarity to defend them.

Now, since we're talking about abortion, and I've read too many casual statements about how overturning Roe is inevitable or beneficial or both...let me just make the picture clear. In practical terms we're talking about poor women in "red" and "purple" states who'll suffer the brunt of our casual acceptance of the rollback of reproductive rights: women of color, poor women, women in abusive relationships, women trapped by poverty, religion, family and circumstance who will pay the price for our acquiescence.

Now, these women aren't some abstract "serves them right" interest group that's outlived its political usefulness. To me, and to anyone who believes that solidarity means something, which I think is the majority of us, those women are us...they are we...and if we sell them down the river by "accepting" the inevitability of their loss of reproductive freedom, if you ask me, we've sold our soul.

Does that mean we accept whatever NARAL does or doesn't do? No. Does that mean we engage in a forthright discussion of strategy, and disagree if we must? Yes, of course, and we may have just such a situation in Pennsylvania. It is clear to me, however, that pro-choice solidarity in our coalition should actually mean something.

The standard we should demand of any Supreme Court nominee is that they accept the consequence of Roe and Casey as settled law...that they agree that abortion, as defined in Roe and Casey, should be safe and legal in all 50 states. That is a majority view in this nation. It is most people's common sense understanding of the law of the land. It is also most people's understanding of the position of the Democratic party. And that's what we should demand of John Roberts.

In my view, if we demand that pledge of a Supreme Court nominee, we should ask no less of Democratic candidates as well, whatever their private conscience or public position on related issues, like parental notification, that may or may not have majority support. This is a position that a clear majority of Democrats can and should take. It's not rocket science. But a language of acquiescence has crept into how we talk about abortion, a subtle shifting of our "we" has elided our basic solidarity...and I find it troubling. Take this quote from a writer I admire:

For the pro-choice advocates, the stakes could not be higher. If Roe vs Wade is overturned, they are looking at spending years -- decades -- fighting tooth and nail in places like Alabama, Missouri, Utah and Mississippi to try to win back for women the rights they have had for the last 30 years.

I know that some people think that's a radical and unlikely outcome, and I can't figure out why. It is quite clear that a fairly large number of states are going to make abortion illegal and very quickly too. While some Democrats blithely discuss whether it wouldn't really "be better" if the states handled abortion and allowed the local people to decide such a thing (never mind that the woman who needs an abortion and can't just jump on a plane to California will just have to take one for the team) for pro-choice advocates it means that they are going to have to ramp up their advocacy to unprecedented levels, hire huge staffs to begin the legal challenges and defenses that are going to be required in probably at least 25 legislatures and courts.
They are rallying their troops in hopes that they will be able to stop that horrid eventuality, but if they can't they are going to need lots and lots of help and they know it.

And all the while the constitutional right to privacy that undergirds the entire panoply of reproductive freedom issues is going to remain under assault. I would suggest that any young lawyers out there who are sympathtic with this cause study up on the history of abortion law in your state and begin to think about strategies. It's highly unlikely that Roe vs Wade is going to stand.

Now, I think Digby has tried to be fair in regards to NARAL. He's tried to see their strategy from a sympathetic point of view, and his writing has had the positive effect of giving some folks who were ranting... pause. My beef is not with Digby per se. However, it's because Digby is otherwise so good that this quote highlights two things I find cut to the core.

First, I find shocking his acceptance of the inevitabilty of Roe being overturned. Digby may be speaking more as pragmatic prognosticator here than as strategist, but I find this attitude chilling and highly problematic. It may or may not be an inevitability that Roe, despite the court's 5-4 reaffirmation in Casey and Clinton's subsequent nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, will be overturned as a matter of law...but if this attitude of resigned acceptance is the best we in the blogosphere can muster, why do we exist?

I, for one, don't take reversal or rollback as inevitable. And even if it were likely that Roe were to face a Supreme Court challenge in a "new court"...I cannot be so sure as to predict that the decision would be written so as to reverse Casey.

One thing I do know, for the good of our democracy, the pro-choice majority in this country damn well should have something to say in all of this. We should have something to say about whom any President nominates. Nomination is a political process. In the context of George Bush putting John Roberts forward to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, I find this blogosphere "inevitability talk" to be strategic horse manure of the highest order.

Nothing related to the Supreme Court and its decisions happens in a political vacuum. Nothing. If the Roberts nomination succeeds in the context of this Democratic acceptance of the overturning of Roe, and a blogosphere set on attacking and isolating pro-choice activists within our own coalition...we may well have laid the foundation for just such an eventuality.

Second, I have to confess that though I understand what Digby is doing rhetorically in referring to "pro-choice advocates" from a distance...essentially trying to help folks understand where NARAL is coming from...that turn of phrase gets to the core of this essay.

The very fact that Digby has to use this "distancing" to garner some sympathy for NARAL says profound things to me about the state of the blogosphere. You see, this distance, in the context of the scathing, and frankly misogynist, attacks on NARAL elsewhere, has the effect of glossing over that reality. When one of our best writers talks about "pro choice advocates" as if they are somehow...other people...in my view, it puts into clear relief how pro-choice activist and women's right's groups have been moved outside of the "we" of the blogosphere. Why is this so? It's a significant question.

Why has the Roberts nomination engendered, more than it's done anything else on the blogs, the occasion for a widespread attack on NARAL?

What is the meaning of our 'we'? That's my question for my fellow Democrats and blog readers. I've read too many folks talking as if their 'we' would fit comfortably inside the majority male membership rolls of the major liberal blogs...talking as if the loss of reproductive rights would be something that happens to 'other people.' ...talking about the overturning or erosion of Roe as if it would be something one might read about in the paper, from the sidelines, with a sense of mournful detachment. That's not my 'we'.

For myself, I certainly would include the folks at NARAL, pro-choice activists and the millions of women whose rights they're fighting for in my 'we.' Hell, I would even go so far to say that when it comes to reproductive freedom and the right to privacy it's all of our issue, something that is woven deeply into all of our lives.

I'm sure the vast majority of readers of Democratic blogs, insofar as they are pro-woman and pro-choice can understand that stand point. Solidarity should mean something to us.

In my opinion, and especially in the context of the Roberts nomination, it's time for the blogosphere to start talking like it.



  • I'd be perfectly happy if NARAL disappeared, not only from the progressive coalition, but from the face of the earth. I wouldn't miss them or shed a tear at their passing.

    I do support a woman's right to choose for herself when it comes to abortion. But I cannot bring myself to speak of it as a "right." That violates every moral sensitivity I've got. By the virulence of its advocacy for that position, and its total dedication to that one agenda, I would have to argue that NARAL is a de facto negative for the progressive cause.

    Because while the majority of Americans do agree that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, they are every bit as queasy as I am about calling it a right. The ideal world for me (and, I suspect, for most Americans) would be one in which abortion, while legal and freely available, was unheard-of. Maybe a handful every year when the pregnancy represented a grave threat to the physical well-being of the mother and no other options were available.

    We'll get to a world like that a lot quicker, I think, by following the Planned Parenthood model than the NARAL one. PP does offer information on abortion, and may even provide abortion services (I don't know for sure either way). But they don't make that the prime focus of what they do. They'd rather spend their time, effort, and resources on helping women not to get pregnant when they don't want to in the first place. No unwanted pregnancies = no need for abortions except to save the life of the mother.

    That's an agenda I can happily live with and easily support. Insisting that a woman has an absolute right to an abortion under virtually any circumstances, not so much.

    We have ample evidence that our political opponents operate by latching on to the most outlandish and extreme positions held by anybody in the progressive coalition, and painting them as typical of all progressives. And then they kick their direct-mail and telemarketing operations into high gear, raking in the bucks by convincing people that Democrats want to eat babies for breakfast, or force schoolchildren to watch two men having sex on a bar while toking up. Pushing NARAL to the forefront of the coalition or reflexively rushing to their defense every time someone dares to say a word against them only makes our opponents' jobs easier.

    NARAL is a single-issue group. Its goals are not necessarily those of the progressive coalition. It is certainly entitled to its opinion and its ends, but it is not automatically entitled to progressives' support, especially when its means and ends differ significantly from or interfere with ours. We shouldn't act as if they were a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party or the progressive coalition. When they are attacked on an issue or a concern we share, sure, we can support them and help them defend against it. But when they make a boneheaded political move that gives aid and comfort to our opponents, they should be able to stand on their own two feet and take the heat they've generated.

    By Anonymous Michael, at 6:11 AM  

  • Michael,

    You say "I do support a woman's right to choose...But I cannot bring myself to speak of it as a right"

    What is it that you support, if not that "right"?

    Please elaborate.

    Kid O - You Rock! You're a born leader!

    I'd link blogs with you, but you don't want to be associated with me. I published a story today about Michelle Malkin having sex with barnyard animals...you know, "unconfirmed reports"...

    ~somadude - the genius of rick nielson, the charisma of robin zander

    By Anonymous ~somadude, at 8:31 PM  

  • Well-written and articulate as always, KO.

    A couple of points about Roe/Casey:

    Casey was a 5-4 decision, not 6-3. Justice White, in the minority on Casey, retired and was replaced by Justice Ginsburg, who strongly supports abortion rights. Thus there are six justices on the current court (including O'Connor) who support Casey in varying degrees.

    The significant danger when Roberts joins the court is that the 5-4 decision in Stenberg v. Carhart will be reversed. Justice Kennedy joined the anti-Roe group of Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas in the Stenberg minority, and with Roberts they likely have a five-justice majority to overrule Stenberg. They will get their opportunity during the 2005-2006 Supreme Court term because there is a case on the docket, regarding a federal statute held unconstitutional per Stenberg, in which the court is invited to overrule Stenberg.

    That would be the tip of the iceberg, or the foot in the door, etc., permitting a wide variety of abortion restrictions while nominally allowing Roe and Casey to stand. There is a good explanation and discussion in this dKos diary from a few weeks ago.

    By Anonymous socal, at 11:55 PM  

  • Kid Oakland, I agree with every substantive point you make. However, it seems to me that you sometimes elide the distinction between identity (in terms of what someone is) and solidarity. This leads you, it seems, to sometimes equivocate between a literal "we" and a more metaphorical "we." This is important because I can coherently believe that none of my rights have been violated while standing in solidarity with those whose rights have been/are being/will be violated. Sometimes it sounds as if what you wrote implies that, in a certain sense, only victims (or potential victims) can stand in solidarity with each other. If this were true, it would mean that any claim to solidarity would be, in some real sense, self-serving. Although I stand in solidarity with women on this issue, I do so without making any claim that my own rights are being impinged upon. In fact, I recognize no right to abortion that inheres in males. That said, I still stand in solidarity with women on this issue because if abortion were made illegal, it would offend my sense of justice.

    This leads me to my critique of Michael. Michael would have us throw these rights of women to the wolves in some misguided attempt to win elections. (And make not mistake Michael, these are rights we are talking about). There are times when pragmatic considerations need to trump ideology, but not when it comes to fundamental rights. Let us call what the abortion-rights opponents want by its true name: oppression. They want to martial the powers of the state to illegitimately prohibit women from exercising their right to make decisions about their own bodies. Michael criticizes NARAL for its single-mindedness. However, zealously combating oppression is not only laudable, it is also the prerogative of those who would otherwise be oppressed. Michael worries that the Right might latch on to the rhetoric of NARAL and paint "them as typical of all progressives." This concern is not only cowardly, it flies in the face of all the evidence that Republicans will engage in utterly cynical duplicity when it comes to characterizing their opponents. We cannot run away from our principles in the hopes that somehow the Republicans will start playing nicey-nice with us. More to the point, any attempt to do so will only embolden them to continue.

    It just occurred to me that maybe the talk about so-called single-issue groups, really obscures the difference between the policies we as progressives love and the values that cause us to love those policies. It's one thing if a single-issue group advocates a policy that presupposes certain empirical facts. Something could convince me that some skepticism about the facts is, if not justified, at least justifiable. Also, the question about policy is often a question about which policy is the best. I think a politician can legitimately take into account pragmatic concerns that lead him or her to choose a policy that is not, in a certain sense, the ideal policy. But the question about abortion is really not a policy question at all. The "policy prescription," such as it is, is the recognition of a moral claim. Thus, a decision by the Democrats to abandon abortion-rights would not be a decision about what is best, but a decision about what is right. It almost offends me that someone would suggest we should compromise our sense of what's right just to win elections.

    By Anonymous Matt Lockshin, at 1:38 AM  

  • Sorry, Matt, but you've completely missed my point. I support a woman's right to choose. I don't support a woman's supposed right to an abortion. Two entirely different things, even if they lead, ultimately, to the same place.

    NARAL is not the National Right to Choose Action League. It is the National Abortion Rights Action League. Speaking of a "right" to an abortion is abhorrent to me. In a perfect world, abortion would not exist. Since we don't live in that perfect world, I must allow it as a possibility, and one I want to see kept safe and legal. But I cannot bring myself to denominate it a "right."

    I am absolutely not advocating that progressives stop supporting a woman's right to choose. I'd just like us not to talk about it in a way that offends the sensibilities of people like myself--and a whole lot more like me, whose votes we can plausibly win if we're careful.

    I know that the Republican smear machine is going to dig for dirt and when it can't find any legitimately, it will just make shit up. We should absolutely not toss overboard positions that will give the Republicans ammunition (such as gay rights--important to me as a gay man--and a woman's right to choose). But we can, and should, be crafty in the way that we talk about them. Just like the Republicans are when they want to try and slip something by under the radar. They'd never be able to get away with repealing the "filthy rich wealth transfer tax," so they call it the "death tax" instead, and blather on and on about double taxation when they know damn good and well that the estate tax affects a minuscule fraction of the estates of only the super-super-mega-rich, and that an estate tax is, like every other tax on the books, a transfer tax. Doesn't matter that the wealth has already been taxed as it was transferred to the testator: once he wants to transfer it to his heirs, it becomes legitimate to tax it again.

    We can and should be criticizing Judge Roberts' record on freedom of choice if there is reason to do so (and it appears that there is). I just don't think NARAL is the group in our coalition we want to have leading that charge.

    Whatever else we might think of our Republican opponents, they at least know how to play the politics of personal destruction. We've got to learn the rules of that game if we want to be able to compete with them. NARAL's bungled ad, and subsequent revocation of that same ad, demonstrates to me that we've still got a long way to go.

    By Anonymous Michael, at 6:04 AM  

  • I am BEYOND fucking tired of this subject. Especially when debated by men. No disrespect meant to any of the men who have commented so far, but face it guys, no way in hell will you ever be put in the pathetic position of being forced to carry and possibly have a child you never wanted in the first place.

    Birth control is not 100% effective. You can do all the right things for all the right reasons and that one little perservering sperm can get thru and voila, you're knocked up.

    You can get raped and get pregnant. It happens...trust me. Then not only do you have to deal with the actual rape, you have to deal with the pregnancy that you don't even remotely want.

    Not everyone believes that life starts at conception. I sure don't. No way. Don't believe abortion is a sin, either. It's an option, pure and simple. Would I force my opinions on others? Nope. But this country we live in may soon allow others beliefs to have an impact on what happens to me and my body. I don't like it...not one bit.

    Look guys, this is pure biology. The ONLY way a woman can get pregnant is with sperm...from a man.

    So here's my 'revolutionary' idea. Mandatory sterilization for all males at birth. The operation could be reversed when you prove you can be a responsible parent. Within 50 years, I'd bet the abortion rate would be non-existant. Of course, no one would take this seriously. Because men would feel they have a 'right' to decide for themselves as to what happens to their bodies. Gee, where have we heard that before?

    As simplistic as it sounds, you want to stop abortion? Then stop men from getting women pregnant. What a concept, huh??

    As long as we have a myriad of erectile dysfunction drugs on the market yet not ONE viable method of oral male birth control, I could care less what most males have to say on the topic of abortion.

    As the old saying goes, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.

    By Anonymous Kath, at 9:26 PM  

  • Michael, I apologize in advance if I sound harsh, but this: No unwanted pregnancies = no need for abortions except to save the life of the mother is a truly uninformed statement.

    also, I support a woman's right to choose. I don't support a woman's supposed right to an abortion makes no sense.

    From your explanation it sounds like it is just semantics.
    are you really saying that we are going to be more likely to "win" the abortion debate by emphasizing "right to choose"? because I hate to break it to you, but that is what we have been doing for 20 years. and we aren't winning.

    By Blogger Kathleen B., at 3:32 PM  

  • I didn't know what to do when I first read this thread. So, after some thought, I decided to revise the piece and post it on dKos. I think that was the right choice.

    Quite frankly, the opening paragraph of michael's comment is still troubling to me. There's no way around it. "from the face of the earth..?"

    I welcome discussion and debate, but not hate.

    That's not what k/o is about.

    socal, thanks for the fact check. and kath and kathleen thank you much for your words. they are appreciated.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 6:20 PM  

  • k/o, I don't hate NARAL. I am absolutely not suggesting that anybody should wipe them out. But if they were to disappear from a lack of business, I'd not only not miss them, I'd be happy.

    Kathleen, yes, politics is about semantics. It's about how to take a position you know is unpopular with voters, and get them to like it anyway. The Republicans are masters of this. We need to learn the tricks of that trade, and learn them both well and quickly. Especially on this issue.

    Look at any opinion poll on abortion. Seventy-five percent of respondents will say they think it should be safe, legal, and also rare. They support choice, but they don't like where that choice often leads. So if we make abortion the centerpiece of our coalition, we're at least potentially alienating a lot of votes we could otherwise woo away from the Republicans.

    Kath, I'm sorry, but your "only women get to have an opinion" position is untenable. Following your line of reasoning, you wouldn't be allowed to have an opinion about men's issues, and the United Nations would never have gotten off the ground.

    By Anonymous Michael, at 6:50 PM  

  • Michael,

    You are the one saying "put abortion at the center" or our coalition. That's a mischaracterization.

    We are talking about putting respect for women and their choices at the center of our coalition. we are talking about putting families...of all kinds...at the center of our coalition.

    pro-choice / pro-child is no different from pro-marriage equality. these are our values.

    As someone who has marched for choice in Washington...and as someone who has counter-protested "operation rescue"...I know very well who the "pro-choice advocates" are in this country...and the nameless /voiceless women they are fighting for.

    I embrace and respect these women...and most of them are women....and I embrace and respect their honesty and fight.

    I know for a fact that the pro-choice activist community draws its strength from teachers and nurses...ie. from those most committed to children and health in our society.

    I also know that there is a qualitative difference between women speaking frankly about control of their own bodies...and men running their mouths about said issue. It's just not the same thing, my brother.

    In my view, kath was doing you a favor by being honest in her anger. She was trying to tell you something, and it clearly took her time and energy to craft that comment. Your facile dismissal of her irks me.

    I simply would never have written that first paragraph of yours...no matter how you characterize it. I can understand what your are saying in way of explanation, or excuse...but I cannot lie that it still troubles me.

    Your willingness to mischaracterize NARAL and the pro-choice position...your willingness to use the language of evil and disease...virulence....in describing them...something is just not right here.

    I am pro choice / pro child / pro woman / pro marriage equality and pro gay.

    That is my view on "social issues". I start from there. There's nothing virulent about that. And I know that the vast majority of pro-choice activists feel the same way.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 7:25 PM  

  • Kathleen, yes, politics is about semantics. It's about how to take a position you know is unpopular with voters, and get them to like it anyway.

    but Michael, you are not responding to the fact (which I stated) that "pro-choice" has been our platform for 20 years. The "choice"/"abortion" semantics tug-of-war is old news. Is that all you are offering to the debate?

    and just for future reference, how does it make you feel when I say that I don't think there is anything wrong with abortion, and thinking about women having abortions makes me quesy not at all? does that upset you? because what you are feeling is exactly how I feel everytime I read someone's post about how he "totally" is pro-choice, but thinks abortion is an abhorrent option, and it makes him (or her) "queasy" to think about a woman having one. Just trying to help you see the other side.

    By Blogger Kathleen B., at 8:54 PM  

  • The question of the "we" is a good one. I think that is about the Democratic party and its historical effectiveness as a crusher of grassroots activism.
    Democrats are afraid of being associated with the "Left" - the attacks on NARAL are one example, the attacks on the ideologically moderate, but feisty Howard Dean are another.
    At the same time, Dems attack leftists who don't vote for Democrats and blame them for Bush's election in 2000. Why should I vote for a party that comes out to attack me and everything I stand for in the name of unity? I mean really, what do I owe this party? And if I represent such a tiny ideological minority that is so incapable of fitting into the "tent" of the democratic party's broad agenda, why am I responsible for Bush getting elected in 2000?
    People need to get past this idea that the democratic party is an opposition party at all. It's so toothless when it comes to actual policy differences (health care for example), that it only survives because the Republicans are criminals, and I think we can blame the Dems. for a lot of just how criminal the republicans are allowed to be. OK, sorry, ranting. just pissed off.

    By Blogger reb, at 12:13 PM  

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