Economics, not culture wars, may determine this election – but culture wars need to be understood on their own terms.
Many Republican-sponsored bills have targeted women’s health issues, prompting large protests [EPA]
In the 1960s, progressive movements in the US made unprecedented breakthroughs in achieving formal freedom and equality for women, blacks and other minorities, shattering long-standing moral frameworks of subjugation. The powers of subjugation did not go away, of course, but their instinctively presumed morality had been shattered.
In reaction, the right began serious mobilising during the following decade, aimed at reclaiming the “moral high ground”, in what would come to be known as “the culture wars”. The National Rifle Association was a key organisation in promoting a rival libertarian definition of “freedom”, while the anti-choice movement claimed it was “pro-life”, not anti-freedom. Both were deeply inflected with racism, largely unrecognised by millions of their followers. This election cycle brings potential harbingers of a long-brewing shift.
On the one hand, the killing of Trayvon Martin highlights the NRA’s paranoia-driven promotion of vigilantism, undermining the very foundations of the social contract that secures the totality of all our liberties against just such violence. On the other hand, the anti-choice shift of focus to birth control, trans-vaginal ultrasound and the like, makes the pro-choice perspective inescapable: the basic issue really is: who will control womens’ bodies – themselves? Or remote, unaccountable male power-wielders of church and government? Connecting the two is the question of which organisation represents and defends the more authentic and robust model of freedom – the NRA, or Planned Parenthood?
The NRA’s paranoid hysteria - dramatically played out last week thanks to national board member Ted Nugent – may finally be drawing the sort of negative attention it so richly deserves. On the other hand, Planned Parenthood – long a target of similar paranoid hysteria – is overwhelmingly a service organisation, much like the NRA prior to 1977. As such a service organisation, Planned Parenthood has long enjoyed support from both parties – as demonstrated, for example, by Mitt Romney’s past support. The recent spate of attacks on it directly threaten the health, well-being, and yes, freedom, of millions of women in ways that the country’s political elite has been remarkably blind to. A realignment of moral authority between these two organisations would be long overdue. The NRA’s recent political activities have pushed it increasingly into fringe positions that even its own membership does not support (as revealed in a 2009 poll by Frank Luntz) – but without adverse consequences, so far. While the NRA claims to only be protecting gun rights of virtuous “law-abiding citizens”, it opposes crucial provisions to weed out dangerous individuals – provisions its membership strongly supports. It does this largely by promoting a paranoid vision of “gun-grabbing” others who cannot be given an inch, even to keep guns out of the hands of potential terrorists, convicted felons or those with potentially dangerous mental problems.
We may indeed be seeing the first temblors of a seismic shift in the US culture wars, which would also be in step with rapidly changing views on equal rights for gays and lesbians. These potential shifts run directly counter to Ron Paul’s emergence as an anti-choice, gun-loving paleo-libertarian, which in turn raises the question of where a progressive vision of economic freedom fits into the mix, something along the lines of Franklin Roosevelt’s “freedom from want” as part of his “Four Freedoms”, something along the lines of Occupy Wall Street. There is much more at stake here than the presidential candidates themselves.
Contested visions of freedom
Two very different books on American freedom make the same point – that “freedom” is a highly contested word. InThe Story of American Freedom, historian Eric Foner makes this point by exposing a succession of the most dominant or dynamic views of what constitutes freedom, all the way from the colonial era to the present day. InWhose Freedom?, cognitive linguist George Lakoff explores to major variants – liberal and conservative interpretations based on different ways of filling out a shared common schema, which he grounds in the physical experience of the freedom to move. Both books also agree on a further point – that freedom in the US is predominantly a progressive idea, but that conservatives over the past few decades have done a better job of claiming it for themselves.
|“It’s not just that conservatives are opposed to womens’ freedom, they genuinely can’t even conceive of it… women are non-persons.”
This year, however, the right seems to have overplayed its hand. Enraptured with their pet narrative of Obama’s “war on religion” they completely blinded themselves to their own attacks on womens’ reproductive freedom. It’s not just spin on the GOP’s part. They literally cannot see their own war on women. It is invisible to them, in the same way and for the same reason that women as rights-holding political beings have always been invisible to patriarchy. It is this utter blindness to women as subjects, not authors of their own destinies, which lies at the core of the GOP’s war on women.
It’s not just that conservatives are opposed to womens’ freedom, they genuinely can’t even conceive of it. That’s the ultimate reason why no women were allowed to testify before Darryl Issa’s committee, when Sandra Fluke was specifically excluded from testifying. Conservatives simply don’t see the point. Women are non-persons. They have nothing to do with discussions of freedom – unless, of course, they want to buy a gun.
Race, guns and Reagan’s grand flip-flop
For a better understanding of what’s involved, some history may be in order. As explained by historian Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, the NRA’s current strong association with the Second Amendment, interpreted to support an individual right to gun ownership, is a relatively new development. Throughout most of its history, the NRA supported gun control legislation – even helping to write it – and viewed the Second Amendment as unconnected with its concerns. What the NRA now portrays as a defining eternal right, its own history shows to be nothing of the sort.
Indeed, Winkler’s whole point is to illuminate gun rights as part of history, with quirks and surprises on all sides – for those who naively believe that today’s political alignments reflect eternal truths. Nothing could be farther from the truth, Winkler shows, particularly since black Americans – from the Southern Freedmen of the 1860s to the Black Panthers of the 1960s – have been among the strongest advocates of an individual right to bear arms. In their case, jackbooted thugs actually were out to get them, and had racked up a considerable body count. When the Black Panthers showed up in Sacramento on May 2, 1967, carrying loaded guns, they were not treated like the Tea Party in 2009/2010. Their guns were not viewed as emblems of patriotism – but of potential terrorism and revolution.
‘Just as the threat of violence threatens the security of all other rights, so, too, women’s lack of autonomy over their own childbearing threatens all their other rights and freedoms’ [GALLO/GETTY]
Indeed, Winler says in an Atlantic magazine article based on his book, that their “invasion of the California statehouse launched the modern gun-rights movement”. And the man who signed the first gun law passed by the movement was Ronald Reagan, governor of California at the time. Thirteen years later, with the NRA firmly embracing the Second Amendment for the first time in its history, that very same Ronald Reagan became the first presidential candidate the NrA ever endorsed.
From one perspective, this was one of the greatest flip-flops of all time. From another perspective, not so much: Reagan kicked off his general election campaign at the county fair in Neshoba County, home to Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town nationally famous for just one thing: the law enforcement/KKK vigilante murder of three civil rights workers in 1964, at the beginning of “Freedom Summer”. It’s not so terribly hard to figure out what the “eternal principles” involved here really are. If anyone’s still wondering, Reagan used his speech to endorse the principle of “states rights”.
My general purpose here is to distinguish between shifting historical and political tides and the underlying, unchanging right and principle. That principle is the right to be secure in one’s person, so that all other rights are secured. Sometimes a gun is indispensable in securing one’s rights – sometimes it is an instrument of destroying them. More precisely, my purpose is three-fold: First, to show that claims about “eternal”, “God-given” or otherwise privileged rights in the realm of guns need to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Second, to highlight the role of race as one of the most significant historical factors in how the rights discourse shifts. Third, to clear the way for a deeper understanding of the logic of self-defense and how it fits into the intellectual framework of liberal political rights.
Locke vs load
In Locke’s social contract theory, the source of the concept that legitimate government rests on “the consent of the governed”, people in a “state of nature” have all their rights and freedoms in theory, but none of them are secure in practice, because of the threat of violence. Legitimate government comes into existence to secure these rights – and that necessarily entails a limitation in the individual’s right to use violence to settle disputes. The right to armed self-defence in one’s home is clearly supported by this logic, just as claiming this right in public runs into trouble, because conflicting interpretations and claims can readily lead us back to the “state of nature” in which no one’s rights are secure.
Selective licensing and other forms of regulation – which the pre-1977 NRA supported for more than 100 years – are the logical way to provide for individual armed self-defence when plausibly necessary, with minimal immediate risk to innocent others and without the long-term risk of slipping back into the state of nature. This is the framework that truly sensible gun laws would be guided by, if we were to follow the logic of the political philosophy on which our nation was founded.
As with the Lockian logic of self-defence within the social contract, there is a tension-balancing logic undergirding women’s reproductive freedom as well. Just as the threat of violence threatens the security of all other rights, so, too, womens’ lack of autonomy over their own childbearing threatens all their other rights and freedoms. Just as a core absolute right to self defence in the home co-exists with regulated rights outside of it – where other concerns come into play as well – the same logic applies to reproductive rights.
|“The Bible places no value on infants less than one month old (Leviticus 27:6) and does not even count them as persons (Numbers 3:15-16)… but for some, the Bible was never meant for reading – it was meant for beating people over the head.”
An absolute core of self-determination in controlling one’s own childbearing can be seen to co-exist with regulations beyond a certain sphere – a sphere that Roe v Wade, for example, defined primarily in terms of a trimester framework. But for those opposed to reproductive rights, the issue has never really been Roe, but rather the decision that preceded it, Griswold v Connecticut, the decision that legalised birth control for married couples.
And the contest over Griswold – which the vast majority of women (and men) in the US have long considered settled, is what actually stands at the centre of today’s War on Women. That is how the anti-choice forces want it. Deep down, it’s what they’ve wanted all along.
Race again: Origins of the anti-Biblical anti-choice movement
From the beginning, the Catholic Church was not just opposed to abortion, but to birth control as well. Evangelical Protestants, however, were initially not so interested. After all – despite four decades of propaganda to the contrary – the Bible says almost nothing directly about abortion, and the most relevant passages make it clear that fetuses are not considered persons. If a woman is injured so that she miscarries, the Bible says it’s a property crime, not murder (Exodus 21:22-23).
Furthermore, the Bible places no value on infants less than one month old (Leviticus 27:6) and does not even count them as persons (Numbers 3:15-16). Moreover, in several passages, God commands abortion (Numbers 5:21-28) or even the death of infants (2 Samuel 12:14) as parental punishment. In contrast with countless passages about the poor, Jesus says not one word about abortion. All of this is generally compatible with the pro-choice position, and not with the anti-abortion one. But for some, the Bible was never meant for reading – it was meant for beating people over the head.
In a Nation article published after religious right leader Jerry Falwell’s death, Max Blumenthal explained that “WA Criswell, the fundamentalist former president of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, casually endorsed” Roe v Wade when the ruling came down, saying: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” Given the Bible passages cited above, there’s nothing remarkable about Criswell’s position, regardless of how it might seem to evangelicals today.
Blumenthal further noted that rightwing Catholic activist Paul Weyrich “took a series of trips down South to meet with Falwell and other evangelical leaders” hoping to “produce a well-funded evangelical lobbying outfit that could lend grassroots muscle to the top-heavy Republican Party”, but “his pleas initially fell on deaf ears”.
What finally did ignite the evangelical right was segregation, Blumenthal reported:
|“I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” Weyrich recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. “What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”
Of course, there was hardly any highly motivated mass support for fighting rear-guard segregationist battles by that time. Abortion and school prayer were much more saleable issues to rally around. They were not the reason why the religious right was formed. They were its product lines, nothing more. What the Bible said about either was irrelevant. All that mattered was what people could be convinced that it said. (Note that as far as school prayer is concerned, Jesus was the first recorded advocate of separation of church and state: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”, he famously said, “and unto God that which is God’s”.) And so the seed of lies was sown at the very founding of the religious right.
False witness and the demonisation of Planned Parenthood
This is not to say that abortion isn’t a troubling moral issue for many millions of women and men. But the highly organised anti-abortion movement has remarkably little connection to that fact, and is much, much more of a political movement than it is anything to do with religion or morality. Perhaps that’s why the anti-abortion movement as a whole is seemingly so comfortable about bearing false witness.
|“Abortion providers are labeled not just an industry, but an ‘abortion-industrial complex’. Abortions are not something women seek out, but something they’re tricked into… flying directly in the face of what the pro-choice movement is all about.”
Really believing that abortion is murder would mean painting tens of millions of women as murderers. Whether they know it or not, virtually everyone in the US knows someone who has had an abortion. But murderers are clearly a social “other”, beyond the pale. Ergo, it’s not the women who get abortions, but the doctors who provide them – and those associated with them – who are targeted for “otherisation”, making them, in turn, fair game for all manner of lies – and ultimately, even murder.
This is the process through which Planned Parenthood has become subject to increasingly vicious and irrational attacks over the past few years, as the anti-choice movmeent has shifted its focus from abortion to contraception, while simultaneously shifting its anti-abortion focus to increasingly direct control over women’s bodies. Abortion providers are labelled not just an industry, but an “abortion-industrial complex”. Abortions are not something women seek out, but something they’re tricked into, or that’s forced on them. Or so the anti-abortion narrative goes. But of course, it’s entirely false, flying directly in the face of what the pro-choice movement is all about.
At the same time, there’s been an intensification of malicious false propaganda about birth control, most commonly claims that birth control doesn’t work, and most notably false claims tying birth control pills to breast cancer, and all manner of other ills. In reality, teenage pregnancies are now at an all-time low, and increased use of birth control is directly responsible for the most recent gains. There is no relation between taking birth control and getting breast cancer. To the contrary, Planned Parenthood is vital in early detection of breast cancer, right alongside providing birth control information and services.
Malicious, mendacious attacks on Planned Parenthood have escalated to the level of absurdity since the 2010 mid-terms, capped by the antics of Lila Rose, an associate of James O’Keefe, whose misleadingly edited videos played a central role in the destruction of ACORN. Planned Parenthood is more centralised organisationally, and has far more experience fending off such attacks than ACORN did; so when Rose’s accomplices approached Planned Parenthood offices in several different states trying to trap them into seemingly aiding individuals involved in child sex-trafficking, Planned Parenthood was all over it, sending a letter about it directly to Attorney General Eric Holder, and calling on him to investigate – exactly the opposite of “aiding and abetting” the cover-up behaviour Rose accused them of.
Lies and deception are practiced by elected anti-choice politicians as well as activist organisations. Under the Hyde Amendment, no federal funds have gone to fund abortion since 1979. Everyone in Washington knows this. Yet, escalated attempts to defund Planned Parenthood in recent years have repeatedly relied on misrepresenting these funds as going to fund abortions. Most dramatically, Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) claimed on the Senate floor that abortions are “well over 90 per cent of what Planned Parenthood does” – as opposed to the real figure of three per cent. When challenged by CNN, Kyl’s office responded by saying, “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement.” Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had a field day with Kyl. “Kyl just rounded up to the nearest 90,” Colbert explained, adding: “You can’t call him out for being wrong when he never intended to be right.”
This is not to say there aren’t anti-choice activists who are troubled by all this lying. There clearly are. And for good reason, noted Sarah Morice-Brubaker at Religion Dispatches (“Lila Rose Targets Planned Parenthood with Lies”). Lying doesn’t just violate the Ten Commandments, but also the Catechism of the Catholic Church), which goes on at considerable length. Lying, she writes, “is a sin. Always. Even if done for a good reason. And no, you can’t commit a sin to bring about a greater good. That point was made in oh, say, the 1968 papal encyclical reaffirming the Catholic Church’s ban on artificial birth control. ‘Neither is it valid to argue,’ the encyclical states, ‘that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one… [I]t is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it[.]‘ (Humanae Vitae II.14)”. Rose is a Catholic – or at least she claims to be. But lying doesn’t really seem to trouble her at all.
Elections and culture wars
As top-down contests between two political parties, presidential election campaigns are not designed or intended to serve the same sort of purposes as social movements. And yet, the forms that social movements ultimately take are often profoundly influenced by their engagements in presidential politics. Most famously, Abraham Lincoln did not run as an abolitionist in 1860, and yet the abolitionist sentiment that helped elect him was ultimately vindicated in the aftermath of the war that Southern secessionists started in response to his election.
Although not so clear-cut or so dramatically, a similar story seems to be unfolding with the culture wars of the US today. The campaign-shaped electoral issues are not the same as the culture war issues – they are a customised adaptation blended with other concerns. But in the long run, the election will be over, and culture wars will continue in somewhat altered form. It could be radically altered, if it comes down to a clarifying clash between two different models of freedom. There is no guarantee that it will. But there is the potential – and that is rather rare in a US presidential election.
Rarer still would be a serious discussion of money, power and class, the sort of discussion that Occupy Wall Street initiated last August. Ultimately, that discussion will be part of the mix as well. More on that in columns to come.