Friday, March 25, 2011

So where is the center, anyway?

A recent exchange on the Kent State library school listserv helped me realize something about myself and the current political situation.  I have long thought of myself as a centrist, a firm believer in moderation, compromise and the middle way.  I've been pretty proud of it, actually.  It feels like I'm in solidarity with one of my heroes, St. Thomas Aquinas.  And it's bothered me a lot lately that on many subjects, I seem to be liberal, left-wing, not center.  Am I betraying my hero?  Am I being sucked into the extremist, left-wing, socialist Dark Side?  Quelle idee!  God forbid! 

It helped considerably when a responder to one of my listserv posts said that the center changes over time.  He pointed out that while the right-wing is still advocating the same extreme libertarianism, this country has no left advocating, for example, government ownership of anything.  (Well, there are a few, but they have no real influence on anything.)  The positions which, thirty years ago or so, were centrist are now supported by liberals.  So I am not turning liberal, liberals are becoming centrists.  I had been deceived by the fright-wing propaganda calling anything that they don't like "socialism".  I've tried to tell my ditto-head friends that they have no idea what socialism is, but they don't seem to care. 

Not that I'll ever call myself "liberal".  The biggest problem with centrism is that on a few subjects, there is no center.  The most important such subject is abortion: the unborn are people, or else they are not.  No middle ground there.  I've often said, though perhaps not in this blog, that the worst thing to happen to the unborn was not Roe v. Wade, but the co-opting of the issue by the right wing.  As a result, few people actually think about the problem.  Everyone is either "I'm conservative, I'm against it" or else "I'm liberal, I'm for it."  And the slaughter goes on. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Abortion and Society

I ran across an absolutely fascinating article in the Huffington Post, by David P. Gushee, an evangelical Christian academic (yes, there is such an animal!) on abortion, law and morality. Here is the link: though I don’t know if it will be still there when you access it. Here is the author’s HuffPo bio page and blog list: since the article may be available there later. This one is near the top of the “I wish I’d said that” file.

Dr Gushee makes the case that three trends in Western culture make the legal battle over abortion, while not irrelevant, unlikely to solve the basic problem in Western cultures. The trends are:

1) “The collapse of any cultural assumption that sex is to be reserved for marriage and that marriage is the best context in which to conceive and raise children.”

2) “The devolution of male-female relationships from a striving for a mutual lifetime covenant to short-term use of one another for individual sexual and emotional needs.”

3) “The overall transition from a focus on doing what is right to an emphasis on my rights.”

I hate to have to say it, but this article deepened even further my fear and hopelessness for American society. I can see what he points out, especially since in my misguided youth I helped the growth of these trends. Sigh, more guilt. Having seen and lived a better way since then, I greatly regret my early embrace of ideas 1 and 2. But 3 is arguably the most critical, and as Dr. Gushee points out, has been growing for much longer.

The idea of liberty, that everyone should be free to live a life of their own choosing, goes back to at least the eighteenth century Enlightenment movement. It’s pretty hard to argue with, especially considering the thought prevailing before then: that everyone was either free or slave. A lot of Western thought, at least, taught or implied that one’s estate was divinely ordained. You don’t like being a slave? Hard cheese, property. Think you know better than God? Dr. Gushee expressed it this way:

"My claim here is that the western intellectual heritage -- I speak especially of historic Christianity and Judaism -- trained people for a very long time to orient their lives around living rightly, as right living was prescribed by their faith. There was a given moral framework to the universe and our responsibility was to fit our lives to that framework, which, of course, these faith traditions believed came from God. "

When the Enlightenment intellectuals began to question this attitude towards life, Liberty became the prime value: if God is not defining my life, then I should be. At least, I want to be. But this makes a real problem: how do people live together? What do we do when my freedom conflicts with yours? And conflict it will.

This, I think, inescapably results in a system of radical selfishness. Whether the “enlightened self-interest” of the secular humanist or a naked sociopathic “me-first”, anyone else’s interest must be secondary to mine. After all, it’s my “right!” I’m only seeking justice! This strikes me as a terrible, ultimately suicidal way to run a society. Dr. Gushee describes it thus: “Society becomes a chaotic collision of rights-claims, with everything ending up in court.” This cannot be a stable situation; as the famous Mr. Dooley said “the supreme court follows the election returns.” I know judges greatly respect precedent, but they’re only human. They make mistakes, which either higher judges or subsequent judges must correct. And they have personality conflicts, like any group of people. Mr. Dooley again: “An appeal is asking one court to show its contempt for another court.”

The only solution, I believe as a Christian, is love. God was exactly correct in commanding that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In love, the other’s happiness is what makes our own happiness possible. When I act in love, I ignore my rights. My concern is for the rights of the ones I love. No one needs a court; we strive to make our lovers happy. And if this works against our own interests, so be it. It’s worth it to make them happy. But even among Christians who believe in an afterlife, in heaven, this requires trust. It requires trust that the ones we love also love us, and have the same care for our happiness that we have for theirs. And trust is a very fragile commodity.

In this world of Original Sin (as we Catholics call it), where we cannot count on love, we have no clear and obvious way to run a stable society. Probably the best human-only system is something like capitalism, where competing selfishnesses balance against each other. But capitalism is not ultimately stable; it is a balance which can be lost if one actor becomes too strong. The current economic times demonstrate that pretty clearly.

And on the original topic, abortion, who would be the Lorax for the unborn? If justice, and even existence, can only be secured by screaming for “My Rights!”, how can the voiceless survive?