A Platonic Thought: The Number of Abortions Is not the Main Concern

In this strange season when the world waits for the Republican primary field to solidify, one can say that certain things are hard to predict and others not hard at all.  Whether Romney or Daniels or Palin or Gingrich will ultimately oppose Obama in 2012 I couldn’t say; likewise, whether there will be a strong right-wing third-party candidate or another significant appearance by Ralph Nader or, as in 2008, whether both will be there but most people will ignore them, I wouldn’t even guess.  But I can almost guarantee that evangelicals will be talking about abortion.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I really don’t think that abortion is a genuine concern when one decides between a Democrat and a Republican; during the thirty or so years when Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, the White House, the Supreme Court, or some combination of the above, they have passed and defended many pieces of public policy, some of them far more revolutionary than what a party that calls itself “conservative” should pass, defend, or otherwise consider.  But at a federal level, in spite of thirty years of partial and complete control over the levers of state, there  has been little if any movement on abortion policy.  As long as the DNC and the GOP are running the show, abortion is here to stay, and only a genuine abolitionist movement is going to stop it.  That much I wrote before, and I stand by it.

Now, though, the so-called Evangelical Left (I prefer to call them the Democratic Party at Prayer, since their political aims seem far more in tune with civil libertarianism than with anything resembling a socialist platform) seems to tired of apologizing for voting Democrat.  Apparently inspired by a certain accountant-flavored sense of utilitarianism, online chatter of late (often on Facebook, which is hard to cite or link to) seems to be turning more often than before to claims that this or that bit of political reality (ranging from Democrats’ being in office to Planned Parenthood’s presence in a community) has a tendency to “reduce the number of abortions.”

On its face, it’s hard to argue against–one keeps the benefits of rights-language for the women who choose to abort, but the actual phenomenon, which in this formulation is framed as unfortunate at best and a necessary evil at worst, happens less frequently.  It would seem that nobody should leave that exchange unhappy.  My fear, though, is that framing the discussion in these terms misses the point of the law.

I should pause here and note that I write about legal and constitutional matters as a non-specialist, someone whose training in theology and philosophy and literature has, I hope, rendered me literate and perhaps even thoughtful but which has not made a lawyer of me.  I do hope that those actually trained in law will help me think through this question.

Laws in Callipolis

When I teach the Republic to college freshmen (and I’ve done so now for four years), one of the most interesting discussions we have has to do with the purpose of laws.  Like Plato’s discussion of the division of labor within the city and the origins of armed conflict, Plato begins not with a Hobbesian war of all against all but with the idea that people are different and that some people’s strengths, in a good city, help other people who lack those strengths.  For Plato, the contingent, material, historical city is never merely an organic outgrowth of chance processes or “natural” desires but exists at some distance from dikaiosyne, which translators render alternately justice or righteousness or morality.  As Socrates in Republic lays out, dikaiosyne happens when everyone in a city is bringing one’s strengths to bear, whether those strengths are money-making or fighting in wars or governing, for the sake of the city.  Plato is not naive about human nature, but at the same time he does hold the strong conviction that, in a properly ordered city, every human being will have something to do that benefits the other citizens.  The best sorts of cities, according to Plato, are those ruled by the agathoi, those suited to govern other people because of their philosophic intellects and their desire for truth and goodness.  In the absence of such leadership, a city by necessity comes to be ruled either by those dedicated to the military life; by the wealthy; by the mob; or ultimately by the tyrant, the picture of bad government and the unhealthy soul.

The question arises, though, what a city is to do with those people who are not naturally gifted as philosophers, a segment of the population that will likely constitute the numerical majority of a city’s population.  After all, no matter how many times some people receive instruction in geometry, they’re still going to think that the bottom of a beer can is just as good a circle as any other, and all of this talk about form and transcendence is going to sound like so much hogwash.  In response to that, Plato turns to the law.

Laws, in Plato’s imagination (and in Socrates’s direct teaching later in the dialogue) have a moral function which stands prior to their role as protectors of people.  Such a conception makes sense especially in the ancient world but to some extent in our own: a law against certain types of killing (called murder in English-language law) is not going to prevent unlawful killing–when someone has motive and a weapon, even the most intrusive surveillance state and the most clearly stated laws will not be able to prevent every murder.  But making distinctions in the law between killing the enemies of the polis on the battlefield because a stratego has ordered a charge (a kind of killing that every nation sanctions) and killing a fellow-citizen in the street because he has insulted one’s nose (a kind of killing that no nation ever sanctions) puts the raw act of ending another being’s existence under closer scrutiny, and if a person does not have the time, resources of mind, education, and other blessings that result in a naturally reflective mind, the codified content of other people’s deliberations serve to structure the messy range of possible human action.  In other words, the law functions, at a remove, as the philosophical mind for those whose philosophical minds are not yet developed.

Such are things in Republic, and that articulation of law’s function seems to hold, for better or worse, when one considers modern constitutions as well as ancient ones.  As a perfectly obvious example, property laws lead to people’s thinking that certain physical objects in the world (this car, this house, this dollar bill) are proper to one person and thus not proper to other people, and thus, even if a person has not given the time over to thinking about the propriety of physical objects to this or that human being, property laws in effect shape the soul so that we actually see the world as divided up between my property, my neighbor’s property, the state’s property, and so on.  Such a division is not by any means the only way one could imagine the world, but it’s so pervasive in human law (I’m inclined not to call it instinctive, though I’ve read people who do) that trying to imagine the world otherwise is a stretch.  When I look out my own office window, although there’s no line painted in the grass, I can “see” where the college’s property stops and the Pinnacle Bank’s begins.  I don’t have to do the reflective work that set up this system of what’s proper to college and what to bank branch; the law has already done the work before I arrived on the scene.

Many of my students are surprised, after Socrates attempts to legislate everything from the city’s family structures to the reading material that will be available to guardians in training, that when it comes to markets and religion, the Republic leaves the making of sacrifices to the priests and the making of money to the merchants.  Plato’s argument for leaving those spheres to the specialists is that, since they’ve been educated by the laws of the city regarding the good human life, there’s no good reason to extend those laws into every sphere of human activity–those shaped by the laws in important areas will, by extension, be able to self-regulate in regards to less-important areas.  What’s clear throughout the Republic, though, is that not everything is subject to consumers’ choice: some things are just too important.

Outlawing it Is not the Same as Ending it

Certainly, all else being equal, I would not argue with historical contingencies that lead to a bad thing’s happening less frequently than otherwise it would happen.  But the presence and absence of laws will not let things stand as equal.  For all of Plato’s flaws and blind spots, his central insight on this point is solid: the laws that govern people do in fact shape their souls.  Although I can imagine a situation in which there is no invisible “property line,” I can only do so with concerted effort, and when I let my guard down, the invisible line is right back where it was before.

I know that some liberal supporters of abortion have criticized comparisons of abortion with race-slavery on the grounds that a white person like me couldn’t possibly know anything about slavery, so although I think that argument lacks some rigor, I’ll honor his request that I “shut the f…” well, I’ll not write about slaves’ experiences.  Instead, I’ll write about the experience of a Midwestern white person.  (I hope I can be trusted to articulate that experience.)  I came to my teenage years somewhat of a historical optimist, a progressive in the truest sense.  I figured that those stories we read about white Southern slave-owners and white Midwestern racists were the properties of “the past” and that, since my own grandparents were the youngest people in my own family to call people “colored,” the world (or at least America) must be on its way to a society that didn’t care one way or another whether one’s ancestors hailed from Kenya or from the Caucuses–all that would matter in this soon-coming world would be humanity considered generally.

Then I got to Algebra II.

In general I’m a big advocate of mathematical education, but in my algebra class, as a high school sophomore, I sat next to Jim, who was a Klan member.  By this I do not mean that his grandparents or even his parents were hooded ones; I mean Jim went to rallies and protested the encroachment of black people into various parts of central Indiana, and he had a particular fluency with racial slurs.  He never stated directly that he had been part of intimidation-by-vandalism, but he never gave any indication that he never would burn a cross on someone’s yard.  In that math class I lost my faith: here was someone born not a year and a half before me who was entirely dedicated to racism as an ideology.  And please spare me the Indiana jokes: honest people know that such ideologies are not going anywhere any time soon, no matter where one lives.  If the decline of racism depended on people’s souls becoming gradually more enlightened, that wasn’t coming any time soon, at least not in the mid-nineties.  The worst thing, for me, was that I suddenly realized that going to school in the same system where I went to school wasn’t going to change minds: Jim’s education, I discovered, had come from somewhere other than official channels, and when I tried to imagine a system airtight enough to prevent that in future generations, already at that age I realized I was imagining totalitarianism.

On the other hand, I knew that, as soon as the Klan’s activity devolved into arson or other legally-defined kinds of intimidation, they became illegal, and that was something.  Making such acts of intimidation illegal obviously hadn’t stopped Jim from associating with the organization, but it had put him in a particular relationship to his slightly younger, disillusioned classmate: although he was perfectly capable of going out and burning crosses (we do not yet live in a totalitarian state), when he did so the Republic did not grant those actions legitimacy.  For all of his talk of protecting “law-abiding citizens” from differently-colored people, I knew that in fact the folks Jim thought inferior were precisely “law-abiding citizens” in ways that he and his crew would not be the moment they vandalized someone’s property.  I still did not like the human species very much, but at least I could say that we were capable of naming, through our laws, a certain class of actions that would not be part of the self-claimed American identity.

Imposing an Imagination of Choice

I could easily imagine an alternative history, one in which racial intimidation were not outlawed for fear of “limiting free speech” but in which various government initiatives attempted to reduce the number of cross-burnings through education or subsidies for suburban relocation.  Some might say (and perhaps they would be right) that just such a market-based constellation of solutions would do more than laws against racial intimidation never actually to reduce the number of incidents.  But for those who imagined themselves as American citizens and as Hoosiers, to burn a cross would still remain within the range of acceptable options, and to refrain from burning crosses would remain just one more “personal choice” among others.  One who burned crosses might be odious to me, but my disapproval would be merely a species of my own “personal choice” and incidental to being American rather than being part of the core of that identity. In other words, one could respond to my objections that, if I didn’t support burning crosses, I shouldn’t burn one.

I hope that, at this point, readers are already making arguments against this parallel.  My point here is not to suggest an absolute moral identity between burning a cross and aborting the unborn.  I’m not suggesting that every teenage girl who has an abortion is just like Jim.  And I’m certainly not denying that cross-burning as a form of intimidation should be illegal.  I am noting that the American court system has handed down a certain array of decisions that in historical fact give the two actions very different “feels” when we discuss them, that nobody would even have an impulse to object to the parallels unless that legal tradition were in place.  Even a white Midwesterner like myself, one who is encouraged to “shut the f…” when tempted to make historical parallels, knows that when a given act stands within the range of legally-approved “choices,” even if it does not happen often, then when someone performs said act, that person is just exercising “personal” peculiarity, whereas when someone performs an act outside of those bounds, I for one cannot deem such things merely “personal opinion” but must choose between regarding the perpetrators as criminals, as protesters in the mold of civil resistance, or as otherwise disruptive.

Such disruptions are often good things–I always say that anti-war protesters asked to remain within “free speech zones” should transgress those “zones” and make the system declare political speech illegal.  But I believe that not because political speech is one more legitimate “choice” that stands among others as parts of a well-oiled political machine but because such speech, when it ventures outside of the space set aside for public spectacles and enters into the places where people actually live, brings to public attention that a given moment has become something other than a politician’s opportunity to be a “decider” without regard for larger consequences.  My fear is that, as abortion has taken its place as one “political issue” among others, one of those things that comes up every four years and then gets forgotten, the imagination of Western nations (America has actually maintained the tension better than many European nations) has already stopped seeing the fates of the unborn as a public concern the way that the fates of five-year-olds or twenty-five-year-olds (or sometimes even dogs or horses) are.  Since the private individual gets to “choose” whether a given unborn entity is a human being or not, the same way that a private individual gets to choose whether to spend a five-dollar bill on fast food or on pens and pencils, the structure of our laws has had enough time to ingrain in the imaginations of all but the most philosophical that one stage of human life does not have any nature of its own but only that imposed upon it by the will of the more-powerful.

Resisting the Regime

To state this one more time, this is not a plea for more votes for the GOP.  To vote for a national Republican in hopes that abortion law will change is something akin to sending an exiled Nigerian aristocrat one’s bank information via email in hopes that one can make money on it.  I do not think that voting GOP will stop abortion any more than voting DNC will usher in an age of serious Just War discipline in foreign policy.  Both parties talk big about public morality every four years and then reign as the bought-and-paid-for employees of the arms manufacturers and other big corporations in between, and as long as the system persists in its current form, more and more of life will likely come to be governed by the categories of Consumerist choice.  As someone interested in the imagination of the Church, though, I would encourage Christian teachers to think long and hard about dismissing abortion as one “political issue” among many, something that stands as valid public law simply because it’s been decided by the courts and supported (actively or passively) by both big parties.

I won’t say that showing up in the voting booth is the same as actively supporting the system, but to pretend that there is not a profound contradiction at the heart of Western culture, spawned in the impulse of Capitalism to make all reality either productive or elective, is to ignore the truth of the matter, and to suspend suspicion because one side of the coin has a bit less dirt on it strikes me as dishonest.  The hypocritical combination of vocal opposition and passive negligence in one faction is neither better nor worse than the open preference to extend the murderous logic of Capitalism into choices of human life for the other faction.   Because “working within the system” seems to me more than mere complicity, I’m inclined to counsel the Church to imagine other ways of being political, of proclaiming the Kingdom and living as Church and thus setting up a critical distance that will allow for genuinely prophetic speech.

To speak prophetically against the particular practice of abortion rather than merely parroting the panders who run one side of the electoral machine in America, one must see clearly the context that makes it intelligible, an individualism that forces “choice” on anyone whose independent wealth and social capital of other sorts can’t support certain forms of family life and a residual refusal to offer hospitality to those wronged (and anyone abandoned by one’s mate as a child waits to be born has been wronged) in matters of sex and human connection.  And to speak prophetically against misogyny, to take seriously the real humanity of the mothers involved, one must realize that a “choice” to kill the unborn offered in a moment of desperation diminishes rather than enhances the genuine freedom of women.

Such a statement, if someone has read this far, might seem the most offensive thing I’ve just written, but to return to Jim, he knew that, even if he became extremely angry or became entirely convinced that a neighborhood was going to suffer from desegregation, he did not have the legal choice to burn a cross in somebody’s yard.  In order to perform the acts of vandalism that historically have happened when the Klan is in town, he had to alienate himself from the law, to make a disruptive public statement about biological origins and skin color that, in the system of laws that officially governed our political realm, would place his actions outside of the bounds of the legitimate actions of a citizen.  If Jim wanted to claim a morality higher than civic authority, he had to perform that defense rhetorically, appealing to a vision of the future in which white people chose without consequence which of their neighbors had the right to a peaceable civic existence.  And if he opted for the rhetoric of the burning cross as a device to make his case, he spoke from outside the bounds of the city, as an outlaw.  If, on the other hand, he wanted to maintain an existence as an American, as a “law-abiding citizen,” he was forced away from such acts.  I’ll admit that in the years after I left Indiana, I made no attempts at all to contact Jim, but I can say factually that, if he continued to harbor those sorts of thoughts, the laws of the land have kept any acts of legally-defined intimidation out of the realm of legal “choice” and thus inaccessible to someone who wanted to be a legitimate citizen. To deny a certain range of “choice” is the way that the law asserts that a range of options does exist but does not stand all-inclusive. To outlaw is not to prevent an act but to define it as outside of what this or that community can accept as good or even indifferent action.

I’ve noted before, in text and on the podcast, that I have a certain penchant for Anabaptist political theology, and I’ll admit outright that the American political system’s insidious perpetuation of abortion, the way that one party holds it up to outrage the population and gain votes and then ignores it and the way that the other party pretends that it’s merely an extension of consumerist ethics, has driven me this direction.  My own inclination is to show up every couple years to cast a vote (and so perform a largely meaningless gesture rather than to offend my friends who work the polling stations) but otherwise to do politics not as partisans of one or the other party or even as people whose primary polity is America.  The Church, I’ve found, is a polity with the resources to dedicate itself more to hospitality than to consumerism, a possibility I see less and less as a possible horizon for America considered as a polity.

Contrary to the accusations that folks of my persuasion are more concerned with “personal purity” more than “real world” concerns, I’ll suggest that mine is the political theology that takes the “real world” most seriously, that throwing one’s time and energy behind one of the factions that perpetuates this central and fatal contradiction is not “realism” but blindness.  Speaking truth to power means speaking truth to all of ’em, and while such a position leaves open a wide range of means by which one can work towards the shalom of the city, it doesn’t necessarily mean that signing up as a dedicated cheerleader for one side of the coin is going to be a morally uncomplicated life.  And in the end, no matter how statistics fluctuate, to leave the definition of human life to consumer choice is to set up a system that outright denies the Christian virtue of hospitality.

Just in case anybody missed it, I’ll admit once more (so that the first comment that notes that I’m not a lawyer will be doubly redundant) that my views of the law here are a citizen’s generally and not a lawyer’s.  I also don’t speak for the other two Christian Humanist bloggers, who are free, as are the rest of our readers, to point out my blind spots.  I’m looking for feedback here, not necessarily trying to close this debate once and for all.

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