Saturday, October 22, 2005

Letter to a Pro-Lifer

Guest Post by "Adam"

Adam, a student of philosophy and neuroscience, is regular commenter on AmbivaBlog, where he wrote the following in an exchange with another regular commenter, Karen, who is Catholic and pro-life but open to dialogue.

[W]hat I really think you need to do is to distinguish between your goal and your means. Your goal is to limit abortions as much as possible, right? From what I understand, abortion rates are actually a lot higher in some foreign countries where abortion is ILLEGAL. Seriously, what if banning abortion is like prohibition? Would you approve a ban on abortion if it would actually increase the abortion rate? Or if it would only reduce the number of abortions by a very small amount? Would creating a black market and forcing women to bear children against their will, not to mention the huge cost of law enforcement be worth a neglible decrease in the abortion rate?

I know, to you, a life is a life is a life, and murder is murder is murder. But, to speak frankly, this kind of "principled," dogmatic attitude that completely ignores real-world consequences really, excuse my French, fucks up this country and the world big-time.

Why? Because this firm insistence on principle obstructs the very gains you desire. Once on C-SPAN, I saw this fairly conservative bioethicist, appointed by Bush, lament how the intransigence of the pro-life movement prevented anything from being done to legislate cloning. Certain pro-life groups and representatives were obstructing the passage of a bill that would regulate cloning because it was not stringent enough. However, the Democrats and moderate Republicans would not sign such a stringent bill. Therefore, do you know what happened? Nothing passed at all, even though everyone agreed that we should have at least moderate restriction because the hard pro-life side refused to sign onto anything that was not EXACTLY as they wanted it.

I think it would do well for you to study the case of Ireland. As I understand it, for quite some time, they were living under a Pope-acracy, under strict Catholic law. No condoms, no birth control, etc. However, relativly recently, the whole thing collapsed and just legions and legions of young people left the Catholic Church because it was too strict.

(Some conservatives favor a smaller, purer Church, but is this really Christian? Is this spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth? I have no problem if the Church says, ideally, people should not use condoms, etc. But if they turn people out of the church for these and similar matters, how are you fostering the purpose of Jesus? I think it's fine to say "this is better" and "this is best," but I have a problem with "must.")

And look at Iran. From what I understand, a lot of the kids there party and drink (Muslim kids drinking!) and are atheists--and all this in a THEOCRACY.

Bottom line: you can't force people to be moral. It will likely backfire as it did in Prohibition, Ireland, and Iran.

In many ways, I feel that the staunch inflexible pro-life side is in cahoots with NARAL to PREVENT stricter abortion laws. Meaning, you guys shoot yourself in the foot to some extent. By insisting on everything, you get nothing.

Most people, Democrat and Republican want to reduce the abortion rate. Most everyone who is pro-choice knows of the fetus pictures and the grotesque details and has heard a life is a life is a life, but they STILL are pro-choice--for practical reasons. I don't believe people should drink, but I don't support prohibition. Likewise, I don't favor abortions, but I don't support a blanket ban.

Point being, your arguments have convinced all the people that they're going to convince and you're very unlikely to get many more staunch pro-lifers. Think about it. 2/3's! of the population support abortion in the first trimester! However, almost everyone would like to drop the abortion rate.

Second and final bottom line: if pro-life people focused their efforts on people VOLUNTARILY not having abortions and limited their LEGAL efforts to only the extreme cases--third trimester for instance--you would be much more successful. People vote for pro-choice politicians not because they like abortion, but because they're afraid that the pro-life politicians secretly desire, or overtly desire, to ban all abortions at all times--and to hell with the black market, to hell with the costs of law enforcement, and to hell with what women want. The take-home message is that when you insist on everything, you may walk home with nothing.

Monday, October 10, 2005

A Progressive Insurrection?

Cross-posted on the Moderate Republican:

There have been a flurry of posts and articles over the weekend calling for a new Progressive Movement in America.

When I say "progressive" I don't mean it in the way that the word is being used now, namely, to refer to ideas and groups on the far left. I am referring to the originally meaning, those group of reformers who came of age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were people who wanted a government that was effiencent and professional. They wanted capitalism to flourish, but they also wanted it to treat workers with respect and get rid of such abominations like child labor. This form of progressivism presented itself in the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

If this is the meaning of progressive, then I am one. I think we have to go beyond the small government v. big government argument. I don't think government should be big, but it has to be efficient. I believe in our capitalist system, but I also think government has to provide some checks against the excesses of the system. Writer Joel Kotkin explains what progressivism is:

As many owned property themselves, they naturally advocated not the redistribution of wealth but such middle-class measures as antitrust legislation and federal loans for farmer and homeowner mortgages. The Progressives were politically pragmatic rationalists who helped make this nation the most powerful and successful large society in world history. They fostered the creation of our great national and state parks, pushed the development of water and power systems, promoted agricultural conservation and state-supported education.

If anything can be said to define the Progressives, it was their commitment to governmental efficiency. They embraced neither the contemporary conservative notion that government could do no right, nor the current liberal conceit that governmental ineptitude is acceptable as long as it's in service of well-intentioned ideological causes or aggrieved minorities.

Their ideal, formed in reaction to the political corruption and corporate dominance of the era, was government operated in a businesslike and rational manner. The pro-labor New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who served from 1934 to 1945, didn't hesitate to make exacting demands on public employees, leading some to liken him to the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. As he famously proclaimed: "There is no Republican or Democratic way to clean streets."

The Progressive legacy provides an excellent framework for responding to the challenges facing 21st-century America. As we do today, the early 20th-century Progressives confronted a society beset by a widening chasm between classes and fearful of growing foreign competition. They addressed these challenges by fostering education and science, and also by modernizing basic infrastructure -- roads, bridges, public transit, water, ports and power systems. Many great construction projects of the 20th century were the result of their peculiar political vision.

New York Times writer David Brooks (Oh, how I miss him) describes his version of Progressivism:

"After a while, you get sick of the DeLays of the right and the Deans of the left. After a while, you tire of the current Republicans, who lack a coherent governing philosophy, and the current Democrats, who are completely bereft of ideas. After a while you begin to wonder: Did I really get engaged in politics so I could spend months arguing about the confirmation of Harriet Miers, the John Major of American jurisprudence?

"And when you begin thinking this way, you find yourself emotionally disengaging from the exhausted clans that dominate the present. You find yourself going back to basics and considering the fundamental questions: What visions originally excited me about politics and government? If it were completely up to me, where would I plant my flag?

"Here's where I would plant mine.

"I believe in the lost tradition of American politics, the tradition of Hamilton, Lincoln and the Bull Moose. In other words, I believe that social mobility is the core of the American experience. I believe that society should be structured so that as many boys and girls as possible can work, and rise the way young Hamilton and Lincoln did...

"I know, having learned it from Lincoln and Roosevelt, that individual initiative should always be tied to national union. I know we need a national service program to bind our segmented youth through citizenship. I know we need to protect the natural heritage that defines us. I know America has to persevere in its exceptional mission to promote freedom, and the effort to promote democracy in the Arab world is one of the most difficult and noble endeavors any great power has undertaken.

"When I cut myself loose from the push and shove of today's weary political titans, and go back to basics, I find myself strangely invigorated.

"It's time for an insurrection."

Bull Moose adds:

Buckle up, fellow Mooseketeers, we are headed for some turbulence - and that is a good thing. As the Bushies implode, who willl take their place? Will it be a reformed Republican Party? Will the Democrats get their act together and convince the mighty middle that the party is not beholden to its liberal interest groups?

Will a force emerge within or outside the major parties that puts the national interest first? A faction which comes forth that argues that we must have a strong national defense, reform entitlements, requires national service and promotes progressive, pro-capitalist economics? Independent voters have largely given up on this Administration, but do they have anywhere to go?

I think it is time for a new progressive movement that might work with both parties but isn't tied to either party. They are more concerned with putting the nation first instead of the parties.

My own party has done me wrong with its business cronyism and far right hate filled politics, but I'm not ready to support the Democrats with it's interest group liberalism. We need something that is new, that doesn't look to the past (the Dems look back to the 1960s and 70s and the GOP to the 50s and 80s), but is interested in what America can become.

I'm ready to join that fight.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


[Cross-posted at AmbivaBlog]

Here, at The Gruntled Center: Faith and Family for Centrists, is some very, very interesting thinking on what centrism is all about:

[T]o define a centrist policy about anything, we need a category of social practice between the preferred and the prohibited. The natural thing to call this category is “tolerated.”

For example, historically and cross-culturally, marriage is the preferred institution in which to raise children, and incestuous unions are a prohibited way. What centrists need to be able to say is that marriage is preferred for raising children, and some other ways – my nominees would be single parenthood and same-sex unions -- are tolerated, acceptable, good enough. This is true of any social policy. The best way is still better, and social policy should provide incentives to promote the best way. But those who fall in the middle category, the good enough way, should not be penalized beyond the natural inefficiencies of doing something in a less than optimal way.

For liberal egalitarians having any kind of second class status is unacceptable.
For conservative perfectionists permitting any but the preferred way is to connive at social breakdown.
[my emphasis - a.]

The primary political and philosophical problem of centrism is legitimizing the distinctions among the good, the bad, and the good enough.

It seems to me that that's how the commonsensical center of America already operates de facto, but it's good and important to have it articulated, because the people who operate like that are constantly being assailed from both sides, hearing in each ear that their way is not good enough, for opposite reasons.

And here's what it means to be "gruntled," from a refreshing post called (in a twist on the apoplectic bumper sticker) "If You Are Not Outraged, Perhaps You Are Paying Attention to the Bigger Picture":

I have an informed hope that many things in life are getting better. The world, the country, my town, my family, are all richer, freer, healthier, and with a more open future than ever. Of course there are still bad things in the world. But more people have more capacity to make them better than ever before. One of the reasons that so many people have the option (indeed, the luxury) of being outraged is that many more problems can be ameliorated or even solved than ever before. Conditions in the world that can’t be changed are not “social problems,” they are facts of life. Sun spots are not a social problem; skin cancer is. Two hundred years ago polio was a bad thing that just happened, like a tree branch falling on your head; now it is a worldwide social problem that is nearly solved. Yes, there are very scary possibilities for the future. I myself am worried about the potential clash of civilizations. Yet this very danger also brings hope of an outcome – because civilization itself is a huge and hopeful achievement.

I have faith that Providence ultimately guides all creation. Of course, people use their God-given freedom to create problems all the time. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. I also don’t know why good things happen to so-so people, like me. As my wife and I say to one another often, “it’s not fair.” We are grateful for our great kids, whom we did not create. Undeserved good fortune is as mysterious as undeserved bad fortune, and both are an argument for Providence – or nihilism and despair.

As for me and my house, we will have faith in Providence.

Cheerfulness, smarts, and common sense are a pretty rare combination. I'm going to be reading this guy -- Beau Weston, a sociology prof, Democrat, husband and father of three, Presbyterian elder, and author (Leading From the Center) in Danville, Kentucky -- and I commend him to you.