Saturday, November 08, 2008

Watching the Conservative Crackup from the Left Side of the Colosseum

I pick on conservatives a lot here, and with voices out there like Michael Gerson and Bill Kristol, why not? But, in the spirit of President-elect Obama's new politics, I want to give credit to a conservative who wrote a great line as part of an exchange on Slate about the new direction of conservatism, the Conservative Crackup.

A bit of summary: Douglas Kmiec wrote a letter saying, among other things, that the Obama campaign had better ideas about abortion, avoiding the traditional pro-life tactic to talk about judges and talking about how to lower abortion rates. He proposed that anti-abortion activists seek legislation which would seek to establish that life begins at conception while prohibiting the criminalization of women's choice. Anyone, even a pro-choice believer like me, could see this was not only going to frustrate those who are pro-life, but it would also create a bizarre and illogical situation protecting the act of killing a person established as such in law. Weird.

Then Ross Douthat wrote a response attacked Kmeik for not offering enough to pro-life voters with these ideas, and for implying a bizarre attempt at compromise would offer nothing to the pro-lifers. He wrote, "I am sure that Kmiec is weary of being called a fool by opponents of abortion for his tireless pro-Obama advocacy during this election cycle, but if so, then the thing for him to do is to cease acting like the sort of person for whom the term 'useful idiot' was coined, rather than persisting in his folly." For those of us on the left interested in some schadenfreude, reading conservatives, famous for their unity, call each other names the way Democrats have during their time in the wilderness is like driving a Ferrari filled with adoring super-models to a fully functional amusement park made of candy.

But it gets better. Kmiec replies with a revolting letter that was probably written inside a card purchased at a particularly tacky Christian gift store with a picture on the front depicting Jesus juggling Anne Geddes babies dressed in assorted produce. "Genuine love and affection do not reside on the Internet, so I cannot extend it to you, but in my heart, I forgive your great unkindness." Wait, hold that vomit in your throat. "Ross, you are not ordinary in God's eyes; nor are the women facing abortion as a tragic answer to a dismal, impoverished, and near-hopeless existence. Ross, you and she are brother and sister made in God's image and are expected to be of help to one another. That is a lesson for the Republicans." Okay, you can let it tickle your uvula, but don't toss your cookies quite yet. "If I have offended you in some way, I ask your forgiveness. For we remember, in the reminder from Benedict XVI, St. Paul admonished Christians to be reconciled with their brothers before receiving Holy Communion..." Okay, aim carefully and let fly.

No here's where I want to give some props to a conservative. After a couple hours I can only imagine as an uncomfortable silence filled with grimacing and sideways glances, Tucker Carlson, the one who ties his disdain for liberals like me in a bow-tie and maintains his party orthodoxy with his Goldwater '64 souvenir stick-up-the-tookas, responded to Kmiec: "Hey, Doug. Toughen up. Seriously. I've read suicide notes that were less passive-aggressive than this." I love that last line. In a spirit of bipartisanship I plan on quoting it at every opportunity.

But Tucker can't stay on my good side for more than ten lines. He continues, "I understand it must have hurt when Ross accused you of shilling for Obama. On the other hand, he's right. You did shill for Obama. That's not Ross' fault. Don't blame him. But if you are going to blame him, do it directly, like a man, without all the encounter-group talk and Pope quotes. People often attack the religious right, sometimes with justification. But as you just reminded us, there is nothing in the world more annoying than the religious left."

But here's the thing: Kmieck is a conservative legal scholar who took over a position previously held by Antonin Scalia, and served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Bush I. Carlson wishes he had those kind of conservative bona fides. Kmieck did shill for Obama, but he's far from the religious left, and the religious left doesn't sound like that. Carlson is calling him left because "left" is Carlson's idea of a swear word, the same way we use "Coulter" in my household.

Chastened, Kmiec returns to a less WWJD tone, though he addresses himself to someone other than Douthat or Carlson. He concludes, "One needs a philosophy of governance in addition to honoring the constitutional structure. Barack Obama's philosophy of government provides service for needs unmet by the market. And the Republicans' philosophy?"

I would refer Kmiec to a passage from an earlier post by Jim Manzi: "Any real-world government requires taxes. The people who have a lot of money will end up paying a share of these taxes disproportionate to their numbers under any nontyrannical regime. Further, any just real-world government will have at least some poor relief, by whatever name, for those unable to care for themselves. Therefore, at least some mild redistribution will be an incidental byproduct of a just and well-functioning government. Accepting these practical realities is very different from actual advocacy of redistribution as good in and of itself." Now this is a kind of honesty that one hasn't found in conservatism for years. It's much easier to shout "Socialist!" than to explain this nuanced view of taxation. But this is far more persuasive, even to a liberal like me. I'm no Maoist. I just don't think a great country lets any of its people die in its streets. I certainly can't answer Kmiec's larger philosophical question for conservatives, but I can give him some helpful advice: Find somebody with the courage to stand up to the anti-intellectual wing of the Republican Party (a pro-intelligence maverick) who can explain this distinction between redistribution for the sake of social justice rather than redistribution as its own ideological imperative, and your party will do a lot better in 2012.

Of course, if you want to spend the next 4 years calling each other fools and useful idiots, then responding with the kind of passive-aggressive-ism found in suicide notes, those of us on the Christian left would just love it.

As Pope Sanctimonius the XXXVII said, "Bring me some lawyers, think-tank wonks, and a guy in a bow-tie. Throw 'em in a pit and tell 'em only one gets out alive. I like watching their slap-fights."


@bdul muHib said...

I actually liked what you quoted of Kmiec here.

But I am surprised that as a Quaker, you are pro-choice.

Benjamin Gorman said...

Really? To the best of my knowledge, Quakers are not particularly dogmatic on this point. On a personal level I would wrestle with this question if I were in a circumstance where my wife was considering an abortion and sought my opinion, but as a matter of law I couldn't support any legislation which would prevent her from making that difficult decision for herself, especially if her health were at stake. I also think any discussion of legal prohibitions without serious discussion of legal penalties is both vacuous and irresponsible. Imagine a real debate in which pro-lifers had to articulate just how much fines or jail time should be doled out to a rape victim with a possibly fatal tubal pregnancy who chose to get a dangerous back-alley abortion. Religious and moral convictions cannot be entirely separated from our discussion of law, but law is where the rubber meets the road. If pro-lifers are going to call abortion murder, they have to explain why it should carry the same legal penalties as murder, or why it should carry lesser penalties. Until they engage in that discussion, their pro-life position should hold as much legal sway as Obama's scolding of dudes who wear their pants too low. Personally, I don't want to live in a country where women are jailed for making the painful choices related to their own health and well-being, and I certainly wouldn't want to live in a country where those choices are determined based on some people's religious beliefs rather than an entirely separate argument about the state's vested interest.

@bdul muHib said...

I agree, for I don't find that we are particularly dogmatic on *anything*. :-)

But it is part of the Seamless Tapestry argument, and goes back to the beginning of our movement- killing people is wrong. Doesn't matter if it's war, capital punishment, from poverty, environmental destruction, or in the womb. Now, naturally, there are some Quakers who are pro-choice, just as there are some who think war is permissible; we aren't dogmatic. But I see that as an abberrent viewpoint from the mainstream that there is that of God in everyone, and therefore we should not damage the image of God.

All your legal points are good and well-taken. But they are beside the point of what the Spirit calls us to. Imo, Obama's plans to substantially reduce abortions by assisting women in poverty and women in general and increasing adoptions, is the best plan, and the best hope we've had in 30 years of removing this curse.

Benjamin Gorman said...

Agreed. I'm not a particular fan of the Clinton penchant for triangulation, but I think their fence-sitting position is also the best policy on abortion: It should be safe, legal, and rare.