After a life spent in daily journalism, I am coming to believe that you have to watch the little stuff in daily life in order to acquire some intellectual hold on the big stuff. Add up a lot of little stuff, after appropriate sorting, and you may arrive at a depiction, or foreshadowing, of something Important. Or not—that’s true, too.
I observe all the same that the political/cultural ice floes imprisoning thought and activity in recent years are exhibiting fissures, giving off light popping noises.
Could a post-Roe world be on the way? How would any of us know such a thing? Could we have speculated about such a world two or three decades ago? It seems to me we can now. Indeed, ought to speculate, in a cheerier frame of mind than the moral deep freeze of the past five decades would have allowed, wherein it was usual to view respect for unborn life as an out-of-date obsession: not even worth the effort of discussing. So antique! So anti-woman!
I find, the longer I live, there is a human habit we should resist—that of believing that what goes on right now will keep going on, good or bad, just or unjust. That is not the nature of life as I understand it. I understand life as always on the move, never the same from day to day; sometimes better, sometimes worse. But always moving. We find there are pendulums and that those pendulums swing, according to their own momentum. We just have to wait.
I will try to walk through a few developments, taking in the scenery as we go. If the U.S. Supreme Court—a prospect no one can or should take for granted—backs away a few steps at least from its past certainties about the meaning or non-meaning of human lives . . . if that happens, other things should happen. What kinds of things?
The New York Times gives me a hint. Wow! There, you might say, is the stretch of stretches. The Times?! In mid-March, the Times editorialized in favor of free speech! I’m talking about the Times, whose newsroom and management are famous lately for promoting progressive ideologies—e.g., the so-called 1619 Project—never mind the stupefaction of folk accustomed to the Times’s irritating but modest liberalism.
Times staffers in recent months have actually procured the silencing or firing of people—e.g., their own editorial page editor James Bennet—sufficiently open-minded to see non-progressive views as warranting discussion, so that some kind of consensus might emerge.
“America Has a Free Speech Problem,” the Times’s editorial headline declared on the first day of spring 2022. And, boy, you’ve helped cause it, not a few readers likely muttered.
“People,” the editorial said, “should be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions and make mistakes and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through—all without fearing cancellation. At the individual level, human beings cannot flourish without the confidence to take risks, pursue ideas that others might reject . . . Free speech demands a greater willingness to engage with ideas we dislike and greater self-restraint in the face of words that challenge and even upset us.”
Take a deep breath and leave that one to simmer. I lay on an adjacent burner a related datum—the mostly manufactured anger at Texas over its “bounty hunter” legislation, which took effect in September 2021, enabling private people to sue whoever aids or abets an abortion carried out beyond six weeks’ gestation. The law, allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court to stand for a while at least, is driving the Texas abortion trade into other states. Says Chelsea Tejada of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project: “Individuals with the means to take time off work, find childcare, and pay for transportation have made long journeys to clinics in other states in order to access abortion.” They put their money where their mouths were, instead of insisting on a rule everybody had to follow?
This was before other states took notice: e.g., Georgia, Missouri, Arizona, Alabama, Washington, whose legislatures awoke to the possibility of actually narrowing—narrowing, get that—the availability of operations that cut off human life at the threshold. Idaho’s governor signed into law on March 23 a Texas-style bill. A little variety of thought and imagination could be returning, for a spell, to the American moral experience. The big rule of thumb—easy, cost-free abortion—no longer looks so good. How about that? Divergence of thought and action. We haven’t seen that one around the neighborhood in some time.
Then look across the big pond—to Ukraine, where divergence of thought and imagination is the very last thing the evil empire of Darth Putin wishes to allow. (Cue the John Williams score.) Lord Putin will gladly squander as many Russian and Ukrainian lives as it takes to gratify his ambition of pouring into a single mold, for purposes of melting together, all human qualities, however distinct, however ancient, however honorable or for that matter unlikeable.
What Lord Putin hadn’t reckoned on was the emergence of a human attribute he thought no longer existed—human generosity, human kindness, actuated by the human desire to think and act freely, non-dependent on the holders of power. Nor had he reckoned on the roars of encouragement Ukraine’s very, very moral stand would inspire around the world. “Shut up and smile,” as a moral argument, shows signs of serious deterioration. A lot of people, both in our country and elsewhere, aren’t taking this stuff anymore. They’ve had it. The surprise ascent of Volodymyr Zelensky to hero status hints at moral possibilities we have not hitherto glimpsed.
So. The three data sets I remark today—the little stuff of which I spoke at the start, though all the Russian war crimes committed against Ukraine can’t be called little—warrant some wondering. Are various citizens of our nation and our world coming to understand and, finally, to appreciate the dimensions of what they hardly paid attention to before?
I confess not to know. How could I? How could anyone? I make bold all the same to suggest there are suggestions out there on public display as to how the world can work when it decides to work. The diversity of human understandings, and ideas about what to do, as well as what not to do, about that diversity could be coming into better focus. We are learning about the sterility and cruelty of the top-down approach: everybody over here; line up, listen up, shut up.
I think Roe v. Wade is among the foremost instances of that mindset; which is why Roe v. Wade may go noisily away, now or later, regardless of what a top-down judicial approach may seem to direct. The directives that Americans have received since January 22, 1973, without anything like unanimous acceptance, and now find more and more egregious, have not worked. Nor, as I think the New York Times is saying, have all the contemporaneous—ever hotter, ever snippier—attempts to shut down free discussion worked, in the Times newsroom and elsewhere. Neither is Lord Putin’s attempt to make of Russian-Ukrainian culture a reflection pool for his dark, helmeted image working out so well.
I cannot but wonder. Is thought control, pursued by various means—a speaker shouted down, a bomb delivered to the roof of a maternity hospital, a court order imposed on doubters of its innate justice—starting to wear out its welcome as a means of ordering human life? Is it possible, somewhere down the line, though probably not without more shouting and roughness, that we might recover somewhat our lost gift for moral discourse, based on respect for fellow humans?
How do you achieve respect, of that variety so unfashionable in our coercive, arm-twisting time? I am starting to see wariness with arm-twisting as a way of life when it so plainly doesn’t work.
Take Texas and its “draconian,” “bounty-hunter” abortion statute, as critics of the law like to call it.
The statute seems to me to indicate several realities of life. We have not given due thought to these realities as real. But they are becoming more and more visible, as is only right.
First, the futility of top-down enactments like Roe. Not just their hostility to moral understandings inappropriate for courts to legislate out of existence—certainly not without full debate and some resulting approach to resolution of grievances on all sides. You can’t just cram great moral determinations down people’s throats, à la the evil empire. When you try, you rend the fabric of civic comity into numerous tattered shreds.
Second, orders from on high send dissenters scrambling for relief. There was opposition to Roe on the day it came down. That opposition has never ceased. That is how it goes with moral matters. They cannot long be turned loose.
Third, long-approved constitutional forms invite not so much evasion as legitimate techniques of modification. The principle of subsidiarity that Americans long celebrated, with Alexis de Tocqueville’s literary encouragement, and Burke’s image of “the little platoons to which we belong,” is the principle of local determination as to important matters. Those most intimately affected by great questions deserve a say in the way they are addressed. I would judge this as necessarily applying to those on both sides of the human life debate, for reasons I will shortly get to.
What Texas and California desire as to policy, whether on abortion, taxes, or fuel oil, may differ. That is not to say either of these governmental entities must be allowed to impose its viewpoint on the other. The genius of the federal system has always been, with important exceptions like war, to tolerate, if not encourage, varying approaches to problem-solution.
A post-Roe world might provide a federalist/subsidiarist approach to the annealing of differences over the sacredness of human life, defined by state boundaries. If the New York Times is picking nervously at its collar over the disappearance of respect for free speech, and if in Eastern Europe not even missiles can enforce the requirement of Correct Belief, an opportunity may be at hand. An opportunity for what? For the reawakening of what we used to call moral discourse, back when we had it.
Moral discourse went into hiding in the 20th century as the means of suppressing disagreement became more and more powerful. Shut up or we’ll shut you up! Shut up or we’ll kill you! These and like admonitions have contributed mightily to the moral poverty amid which we live. Moral poverty denies the very existence of differing or countervailing viewpoints. Its long suit isn’t Reason. It’s Power. I (and the all-knowing) can sweep away opposition! We can rig the game.
The protection of unborn life as a duty? Who says so? Not we, respond the men—and the women—who show up for discussion armed with the fine print of a judicial edict. What is there to discuss? What is there to prove? What is there to sow discomfort if seven jurists speaking for the U.S. Supreme Court have taken care of all the relevant points?
Roe v. Wade, it has always seemed to me, by shielding pro-choice advocates from the need to give an account of their moral thinking, has led by progression of action to the shielding of many, many other modern folk from the same obligation. Ours has become a culture of assertion. We assert. That’s it. No proof is necessary, just lung power and arrogance. Free speech in the Miltonian sense was never meant as a cover for ignorance and the desire to ram personal convictions down the throats of others, à la Putin.
A recent example: Some poseur of whom I had never heard before—a television personality, I gather—became moderately famous for calling the Constitution “trash” and, subsequently, accusing a U.S. senator of urging the murder of a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. You can still get away with this dangerous and subversive stuff in 2022, with the climate of coercion and cancellation covering us still.
And yet . . . and yet . . . consider those pop-up signs to which I allude— signs of possibly small reversals in the modern American way of doing moral business. May we not stare at them with, at the bare minimum, curiosity? Just a twinge of hope?
What this country needs isn’t the good 5-cent cigar that Woodrow Wilson’s vice president Tom Marshall so memorably suggested. What this country needs, a century after Wilson and Marshall and Cabot Lodge and William Borah, is an atmosphere friendly to civilized moral discourse, a thing out of style since the rise of the counterculture and its caterwaulings.
Moral discourse affords its participants equal rights. Let’s hear what you’ve got to say. Then I’ll tell you what I’ve got to say. And so on from there. We might discover—gasp!—that the matter we dispute has more corners and turnings, more puddles to be stepped over or valiantly waded through than ever we had supposed. Discoveries of this nature can sort of slow you down, make you allow degrees of latitude to the otherwise-minded, cause you to acknowledge it is a good thing rather than a bad to know others’ minds.
Much of the pain of living in the early 21st century is the pain of knowing it needful to scatter protective broken glass all around one’s ideas and ideals, lest the media or the politicians come raging around, declaring you a jackass for aligning yourself with jackasses.
I do not see a too-much-maligned Texas abortion statute as the broad exit ramp from our tribulations over unborn human life. I see it as an experiment in the discovery of ways Americans on both sides of the abortion question can accommodate each other’s expectations in the interest of, at the very least, civic peace. I see an experiment, however rough and untidy, as preferable to political guerrilla warfare: no one convincing anyone of anything. I see rough experimentation, if upheld practically and judicially, as the merest peek at a possible future in which the possibility of argument and conversion holds renewed place in our affairs.
“Conversion,” I said. The best, most convincing moral arguments wheeled up to the front lines. Shown for the good they represent, the power they wield in human affairs. Would the morally informed human life presence in America shrink from such a challenge? I cannot myself imagine it.
William Murchison, a former syndicated columnist, is a senior editor of the Human Life Review. He will soon finish his book on moral restoration in our time.