Judging by the political mail I’m getting these days (today’s most hokey bad-pun specimen: “Romney Hood” who steals from the middle class and gives to the rich), the whole balance of good and evil, earth and heaven, and the move toward either the new, brighter, better America or the squalid, inept, worsening America – depends entirely on my vote.
The political mail on my doorstep is helped along by the election’s main narrative: that all the important questions and issues that we face in society can only be helped by political parties. Each party has therefore helpfully encapsulated its views on “the issues” and placed them on a “platform”. All the discerning voter need do, then, is compare the platforms, vote according to the way politicians talk about the issues – and voila! The next best society emerges.
Until the next national election, that is – when, emerging from the past 2 or 4 years and seeing that we have not, after all, solved the issues we promised to solve only a short while ago, we believe that time, and the world, must be coming to an end! Hell will come after all, and it will be on our hands – especially if we don’t vote. To avert that crisis – to the polls! Vote for the party (sorry, person!) who can best turn things around.
The difficulty with this narrative is neither necessarily with the idea of political parties, nor with the “issues”. Both are important. Political parties offer (one) opportunity for people to come together, think about the common good, and collectively act for that good. Issues – economy, death penalty, crumbling infrastructure – provide us ways to think about our common good, as well. And issues are, frequently, matters of life and death, heaven and hell. (At least, I suspect the homeless girl forced into sex trafficking would think so.)
Where we go wrong is in placing such ultimate concern on them, to the point that political parties are seen as the necessary bastion for solving “the issues” at the expense of all else. Where we go wrong is in conflating political parties and issues to the point that they are inseparable, and therefore – my failure to vote (for the right candidate) heralds doom. Where we go wrong is in responding to each other as enemies when we think they’ve got absolutely the wrong answer.
Abortion – as an issue that is so fraught with identification with one party or the other – might prove a case in point.
A friend of mine recently, and helpfully, posted this piece by a British Muslim, discussing why he is pro-life. Medhi Hasan, the author of the piece, is writing in the context of British politics, particularly the move from the National Health Service to limit abortions to within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. Hasan names several reasons why he is pro-life, including using a quote from the atheist Christopher Hitchens:
[A]nyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows that emotions are not the deciding factor [in abortions]…In order to terminate a pregnancy, you have to still a heartbeat, switch off a developing brain . . . break some bones and rupture some organs. (Nation, April 1989)
I was surprised to find that I am actually in agreement with Hitchens on this view of his. I also share the view Hasan discusses, that being pro-life as fully in line with being pro-woman. One feminist scholar he quotes writes:
If women must submit to abortion to preserve their lifestyle or career, their economic or social status, they are pandering to a system devised and run by men for male convenience.
I think she’s right – and this is one of the many reasons I have been concerned about abortion and its acceptability in our society, including in both major political parties. Women lose out, and so do children, (and so do men) when the societal presumption is that a child is an absolutely individual choice for which “I” am solely responsible. And in this, both parties’ politicians and members are to blame for their insistence – in a variety of ways – that children are private, individual things that must not be allowed to encroach on economic life.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, sex equals babies – certainly not all the time – but contraception fails. Contraception use is no fail-safe surefire way to be the non-pregnant, detached-from-family women and men that our late capitalist culture tends to demand. Abortion then looks like a “solution” to the problems that are not, in fact, solely “my” own. It is not only that it takes more than one person to make a baby… It is also that we do (all of us), in fact, need children. (At the least, economists note the need for future workers to sustain an economy.)
Thus, insistence on corporate freedom (which many on the “Right” support) at the expense of, say, a federally mandated, substantial (3 month paid), maternity leave policy or other kinds of policies that favor women, children, and their jobs in equal measure does us all a disservice. Three-fourths of all women receiving abortions state “work” or “school” as a reason for doing so; this is linked as well to poverty and the ability to care for other children. Individual women are expected to “take care of” the problem of a child regardless of whether they are pro-life or pro-choice. Impoverished women who need to work are told (rather flippantly) that they should just not have had sex at all, while women who come from upper strata of society are able either to stay at home or pay for full time child care – or, have an abortion and just not face that whole thing at all.
Though their responses to “the problem” may be vastly different, still women on both sides of the abortion question, across the spectrum, are responding to the same poorly devised assumption: that children are largely an individual’s problem. It is just that Right and Left identify different times at which it is, or should be, an individual’s problem: at the moment of conception (so-called Left)? At the moment of deciding to keep the baby even against all odds, and even when a woman loses her job and needs welfare (so-called Right)?
It is in thinking through that context that I think one of the key points Hasan makes is this one:
Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and “defending the innocent”, while left-wingers fetishise “choice”, selfishness and unbridled individualism.
Though I myself would have changed the last bit of the sentence to read “‘choice, autonomy and individualism’” to more accurately describe (and in a less inflammatory way) where I think people are coming from when they focus on choice and individual rights, regardless of the issue, still there is something true being spoken here.
The political dichotomies that exist (especially Right and Left language) use the same language to speak about their issues, though ostensibly in opposition to each other on a variety of issues. In the US, for example, a Libertarian focus on individual rights has led to some on the so-called “Right” to name themselves as pro-choice, despite the fact that the general public tends to understand “pro-choice” as a default “Left” position. When we use the same language, but yet are at incommensurable odds with each other -as surely we would define the abortion debate to be – it makes me suspect that our language is not doing what it needs to do for us.
“Right” and “Left” words and “Liberal” or “Conservative” labels, so often used, simply do not work when it comes to something as centrally of importance as abortion. I think that is especially clear in the present national election, where neither presidential candidate could be said to be wholly upholding the Church’s teachings against abortion. Indeed, theologian Michael Peppard has spoken about the ways in which the apparent pro-life agenda of the Republicans is also not in keeping with Catholic teaching, strictly speaking.
In the midst of all this, what might we do? I offer a couple brief thoughts:
1. In general – do things that enable us not to concede the end of time on the basis of political dichotomies, and especially the places where those political dichotomies best operate. Patrick Deneen has written, for example, on his move away from the bright lights, political influence and elitism of Washington DC to South Bend, Indiana:
While we are drawn into the weighty battles between liberals and conservatives, sides pitted against each other, we cease to notice that they are part of a common effort to secure our allegiance to the belief that the fate of our world and our lives hangs in the balance with the outcome of the next election, or the election after that, or the election after that. As our attention focuses with greater exclusivity upon the concerns of Washington DC, the scale of our vista actually shrinks…I have left Washington, but I am still learning to leave Washington. I am trying to learn that what takes place in my city, in my neighborhood, my region, deserves more attention and concern, deserves my energy and devotion and passion, far more than whatever the debate I’m told to care about by my betters who seek to focus my attention on the national and international stage, to distract me from the “slender allurements” of mere “domestic” life. Rather than “win” Washington, I am trying to learn to ignore Washington, to live in and care about where I am.
In other words, instead of (or in addition to) “To the polls!”, why not: “To the bus stop right outside my house!” I may not be able to secure a long-term aim against abortion (or fix an infrastructure problem or so on) - but that’s not really the point anyway. I won’t “win”. This world will keep going on around me, with all its issues and political parties, long after I’m gone.
2. Conceding #1 does not mean that we do nothing about what the “issues.” In a situation where neither party adequately reflects Catholic teaching, recognize that restricting abortion in a variety of ways is also helpful. Blessed John Paul II wrote: “In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.”
How about worrying about that high growth rate (25%) in abortion among women who live below the poverty line, for example (all while abortion rates decline across all other identity markers)? That surely, hopefully, doesn’t rest on how I vote – it is also impacted on how I work to help the situation – as well as how willing I am to try to change the narrative about individualism and children.
But that also means I’m going to aim high, as well and not only in terms of voting, but in terms of advocacy. As long as abortion gets to be a national, federally-mandated point, then I think we owe it to ourselves to make maternity leave policies, job shares, and work-at-home also part of federally mandated policies. That is to say: abortion should not be the last word (especially for small-government enthusiasts) on what it means to care for the common good – nor should it get to be the first word on human rights.
3. Despite even how I respond locally, I must also concede that what I do on my own will not be enough either. But this, too, should not lead me to the depths of despair, or my own personal hell. Thinking too much of myself and what I can do can become a false eschatology as well.
No, after all that – we’d do well to remember: God’s love is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). That’s the real end of time and nothing in our power will stop that. Not even my little vote in this election.