Sunday, April 8, 2018


First issue, 1857, via Wikipedia.

OK, so one last moment of engagement with the saga of Kevin D. Williamson, because as it turns out the whole thing really was about one tweet, apparently, or Williamson's inability to give a satisfactory explanation of it to the Atlantic's editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg:
Specifically, the subject of one of Kevin’s most controversial tweets was also a centerpiece of a [2014] podcast discussion in which Kevin explained his views on the subject of the death penalty and abortion. The language he used in this podcast—and in my conversations with him in recent days—made it clear that the original tweet did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views. The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it. Furthermore, the language used in the podcast was callous and violent. This runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.
Kevin is a gifted writer, and he has been nothing but professional in all of our interactions. But I have come to the conclusion that The Atlantic is not the best fit for his talents, and so we are parting ways.
Which was the one issue I hadn't really given a lot of attention to, interested as I was in Williamson's general tendency to dehumanize whoever he doesn't like, from African American children in East St. Louis, Illinois to the Trump voters of Hardscrabble, New York and Childwhelp, Kentucky, and the success with which he masquerades (like William F. Buckley, Jr., or Mr. Bret Stephens) as the kind of writer somebody like Jeffrey Goldberg might refer to as "gifted".

Also, Monsignor Ross Douthat, apostolic nuncio to 42nd Street, has showed up with his own smoking hot take ("Among the Abortion Extremists"), in which he brings bothsiderism to what may be some kind of special peak by equating as extremists Kevin D. Williamson and his claim that women who end their pregnancies are guilty of murder, and should be punished like any other murderer, with the Washington Post's mild-mannered feminist Ruth Marcus, who asserts a woman's more or less absolute to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term—extremists on the scale where he himself, Monsignor Douthat, represents the wishy-washy middle:
When American laws restricted abortion they generally did not impose such penalties, and today’s pro-life movement likewise generally rejects the idea of prosecuting women. This position often gets cast as inconsistent by pro-choicers, but I think it represents the incorporation by pro-lifers of the points that my pro-choice friends actually get right — that pregnancy is unique in ways that mitigate culpability and make it unwise to treat abortion like a normal homicide, that the government can only go so far in restriction without becoming a reproductive police state.
Meaning that abortion in all cases should be condemned as murder but the criminals are always not guilty by reason of insanity, or justifiable in terms of self-defense or other mitigating circumstances? Not quite. He doesn't say exactly in the column, he really hates spelling it out, but he will acknowledge once in a while, as toward the end of this very long contribution to a 2015 debate with Katha Pollitt, that he is for: 
maintaining the distinctive approach to enforcement that largely prevailed prior to Roe v. Wade, in which the law targeted abortionists and almost never prosecuted women. And I don’t think pro-lifers should be afraid to say that a pregnant woman’s decision to take a first-trimester life is simply a different kind of murder than the murder of a five-year-old, and one where the law should err on the side of mercy toward the woman herself in a way that it shouldn’t in other cases, and reserve the force of prosecution for the abortionist, the man or woman who isn’t experiencing the pregnancy, instead.
Because nothing spells "moderate" like a demand that we should turn the clock back 45 years, or 145 years, to the period when the pre-Roe dispensation was established.

Although historically, in fact, that situation, where abortion was regarded as a kind of contract killing in which the hit man was punished but the person who paid for the crime always got off because she had the vapors at the time, didn't exist. It's true, as "Americans United for Life" (Ross's source) claims, that women were rarely prosecuted for getting abortions, from criminalization in the late 19th century through Roe in 1973. But what, I started wondering, about the abortionists?

And it turns out that they weren't prosecuted either. The abortion business was simply carried out in hiding, like alcohol sales under the Volstead Act, throughout the country; not just in those back alleys but also in the best hospitals, in a vast unexamined conspiracy, as revealed by Leslie J. Reagan's 1996 When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973, of which The Atlantic (as it happens) ran the opening chapter in 1997:
plenty of physicians provided abortions. This book points to the power of patients, even female patients, to influence and change medical practice. The widespread practice of abortion by physicians attests to both the ability of patients to communicate their needs to physicians and the ability of physicians to listen. Physicians' practices were shaped by the experiences and perspectives of private life, not only by professional antiabortion values. The physician-patient relationship was often more close than distant. This was particularly true in the early twentieth century, but became more class stratified as medicine became increasingly specialized and hospital oriented. Medicine was more of a negotiated terrain between physicians and patients than has been realized.
The peaks of the medical profession's public hostility to abortion have obscured the depth of medical involvement in abortion. The antiabortion stance of organized medicine should not be mistaken for an accurate representation of the views and practices of the entire profession....
The illegality of abortion has hidden the existence of an unarticulated, alternative, popular morality, which supported women who had abortions. This popular ethic contradicted the law, the official attitude of the medical profession, and the teachings of some religions. Private discussions among family and friends, conversations between women and doctors, and the behavior of women (and the people who aided them) suggest that traditional ideas that accepted early abortions endured into the twentieth century. Furthermore, through the 1920s at least, working-class women did not make a distinction between contraceptives and abortion. What I call a popular morality that accepted abortion was almost never publicly expressed but was rooted in people's daily lives. Americans have a long history of accepting abortion in certain situations as a necessity and as a decision that, implicitly, belongs to women to make. This popular attitude made itself felt in the courts and in doctors' offices: prosecutors found it difficult to convict abortionists because juries regularly nullified the law by acquitting abortionists, and few physicians escaped the pressure from women for abortions. Throughout the period of illegal abortion, women asserted their need for abortion and, in doing so, implicitly asserted their sense of having a right to control their own reproduction.
State laws allowed exceptions to save the mother's life, and physicians interpreted them very liberally, like lawyers of the time staging pantomimes of adultery to provide divorcing couples with the evidence they needed to give the court; or simply carried the procedure out in secret. Abortion was just as common before Roe as it was after, and much more common than it is now (thanks to the availability of safe and effective contraception, which really has changed everything).

The worst thing about the situation was the differential way it applied to women of different classes, well-off women being on close terms with their doctors and poor ones not having access to doctors at all, so that they really were driven into the deathly dangers of illegitimate practice or the coat hanger and the tub of gin (as were less poor women driven by shame to seek abortions outside their own social circle). Second worst was the pervasive dishonesty of the situation in which the apparatuses of power like the American Medical Association and all the state governments pretended it wasn't going on, while actual individuals lived with it.

But this is essentially what the Monsignor is asking us to go back to, in his character as a "moderate". The extremist Ruth Marcus isn't asking much more than that it should all be brought into the light and the dishonesty dispelled; the extremist Kevin Williamson is asking that it be driven further underground than it ever was, with the abortionist and the pregnant woman both in fear for their lives.

The other thing I've started thinking is that Monsignor Douthat really doesn't, in the end, think that abortion is murder, at all. Listen to him talking, for example, about his example of a pro-abortion extremist:
I know Marcus a little, having chatted with her amiably a few times many years ago. She seemed like a lovely person, like so many of my pro-choice friends; indeed, people who believe firmly in an absolute or near-absolute right to an abortion are effectively my people in a certain tribal way, given that I’m a Connecticut Yankee raised by Bill Clinton-voting boomers and educated in the modern meritocracy. I like these folks; I think they mean well; I try to listen to their arguments with the respect that the sincere and intelligent deserve. 
You couldn't talk that way about people you really believed were backers of the slaughter of babies. And he does. And I'm sure he realizes that Marcus might easily have had an abortion herself at some point in her life, as will something like one out of four American women by the time she reaches 45, and one out of four women Ross has amiable chats with. I'm not even calling him a hypocrite. I'm not even calling ex-Rep. Tim Murphy a hypocrite, the Pennsylvania pro-life Republican who got busted when his girlfriend thought she might be pregnant and he asked her to get one (I am calling him an adulterous swine, of course, and glad a Democrat won his seat). That's how men of my generation learned about our views on abortion, frankly, in the passage from abstraction to reality that happens very quickly when somebody's period is late. We could have been intellectually for or against before, but we were holistically clear on the subject afterwards, and a boy of Ross's class, maybe, in the age of contraception, hasn't had that experience.

I mostly think it's that divide between abstraction and reality, or perhaps it would be better to put it in terms of what Leslie Reagan discusses under the heading of private vs. public spheres:
The relationship between public and private is dynamic; it is not just that the public has invaded private life or that excluded, politically unrecognized groups, including women, have found ways to move into public life. Rather, during the period of this study, the private invaded the public. Abortion is an example of how private activities and conversations reshaped public policy. The words and needs of women had the power to change medicine, law, and public debate. The public sphere, moreover, was not the only place where crucial communication and spirited debate occurred. They occurred in "private" arenas such as the home and the medical office. Those conversations, generally designated "private" and thus irrelevant to public discourse, impacted debates in the public sphere and eventually changed public policy. For over a century, women challenged public policy and altered medical thinking and practice through their conversation and activity in private arenas. I use the termsprivateand public, but with a sense of their ambiguity and interaction.
Douthat's understanding of abortion is all in the public side, and colored by his public commitment to the Roman church, although there's been plenty of private-public ambiguity there too, for ordinary people, as Reagan points out:
Christian traditions had tabooed abortion since antiquity, but the acceptance of abortion in order to save the life of a pregnant woman had a long tradition as well. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic Church implicitly accepted early abortions prior to ensoulment [identified with the "quickening" from first to second trimester before which nearly all abortions take place]. Not until 1869, at about the same time that abortion became politicized in this country, did the church condemn abortion; in 1895, it condemned therapeutic abortion.
I can't approve of Douthat, with his intellectual pretensiousness and refusal to think things through (I especially hate his equation of all abortion with the gruesome "dismembering" operations he loves to describe without noting first that they constitute a tiny minority of abortions and second that they include some of the most serious life-of-the-mother cases), but I can imagine he's not fully conscious of how dishonest he is.

With Williamson, it's really another matter. I don't think he's truly opposed to abortion either, and that suggestion that women who have abortions should all be hanged proves it, because he knows very well that it's not a possibility. Nor, if capital punishment were abolished, would it be a possibility to give them all life without parole. It's not a proposal for any kind of social action; it's a pose, like the cape some online sources allege he has worn (I can find no evidence that this is true), which he adopts to make himself look grotesque and maudit. But he is conscious of it; he trades on it.

It's a ridiculous affectation, and it's bad style, like his prose. I was half inclined to agree with young Conor Friedersdorf that, while he obviously shouldn't have been hired, it was also a mistake to fire him, and it's certainly the case that Goldberg fucked this up badly, but the more I think about it, the more I think Williamson deserved it, because of the way Goldberg gave him chances to say he didn't really mean it and he rejected them all, sticking to his idiotic pose. That's the kind of thing you should allow an editor to save you from, and if he wouldn't, then he couldn't have worked at The Atlantic in any case.

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