Friday, June 24, 2022

On the end of Roe, and the 'culture of life'

Roe v. Wade ended today, and I'm more torn about this than someone with my politics should be.

Oh, on the whole I think the decision is bad. I'm pro-choice -- ultimately, carefully and sometimes by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin -- because I believe that women's health and freedom really are implicated in the abortion debate.


I grew up among pro-life Christians. I know them, know their hearts. I know -- though I disagree, ultimately -- that many of them truly believe they are saving babies from murder, and if you thought you were saving babies from being murdered, wouldn't you be rejoicing today?

My old friends are rejoicing.

I am not.

Some of this is self-preservation, I suppose. I am married to an ardently pro-choice woman who -- in the brief moments we had to visit earlier today -- vowed resistance. And I'd be lying if I said my marriage didn't influence my politics on this issue. I don't think that's a bad thing. What's the point of joining your life to someone else's if you're not willing to let their perspective nudge and maybe even enlarge your own?

So here's the thing: I don't expect today's decision to actually produce a "culture of life."

That's the kind of thing I've seen some well-meaning conservative folks talk about today. It's not good enough to merely outlaw abortion, they say. The next step -- using all the tools at their disposal -- is to create a nation where every pregnant woman welcomes every act of conception and, ultimately, every child into a world ready to support them in thriving and surviving.

It's noble, I'll grant that. And maybe impossibly utopian. I doubt (for instance) you'll ever completely rid the world of demand for abortions.

But also: I'll believe it when I see it.

The pro-life movement has had 50 years to build a culture of life, to prepare for this moment and to entice women into making different choices. And they ... haven't. Maternal death rates have risen in America in recent decades. Black maternal death rates are even worse. And the states that have fought most vigorously to outlaw abortion are also often the states that have managed to avoid or delay the Medicaid expansion that would help the poorest would-be mothers immeasurably. 

Maybe that will change now.

I doubt it.

And if I'm wrong, I'll still have a few horse-and-cart questions about why they waited so long.

The committed pro-life people I respect most liken abortion to the Holocaust, and Roe v. Wade to Plessy v. Ferguson. The possibility sometimes haunts me. Am I the baddie? There's a possibility that I -- and millions of people like me -- will one day be judged moral monsters. That's distressing.

For now, though, I know that many if not most Americans opt -- in their hearts, and sometimes even at the polls --  for the impossible middle ground on this topic: Finding abortion unsettling, and yet fearful of losing the option entirely. That's where I'm at. Which satisfies almost none of my friends on either side of the issue.

The end result is this: I can't join my pro-life friends in rejoicing, even if I understand why they do so. I suspect today's decision will increase the sum of human misery in America. I hope I am wrong.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

A realization about memory, courtesy of a trip to a small Kansas town where I did some of my growing up

My memories are not sepia-toned, or black and white. They're living color, and feel very much a part of my still here and kicking life -- not present, exactly, but not so distant, either. They're high-def, even if they didn't occur in the high-def era. But for young people who didn't experience the stuff I experienced when I was young, it's impossibly ancient. And someday -- sooner than I'd like to think -- all that will be left is the sepia-toned representations. 

Friday, May 27, 2022

Donald Trump's plan to secretly bomb Mexico wasn't so weird, after all

 This revelation came and went just a few weeks ago:

Former President Donald Trump mused aloud about conducting secret missile strikes on illegal drug labs in Mexico, according to former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

In an upcoming book titled, A Sacred Oath, Esper states Trump asked him on at least two occasions if the United States military could “shoot missiles into Mexico to destroy the drug labs.”

As such, Trump reportedly said that “we could just shoot some Patriot missiles and take out the labs, quietly.” He also allegedly claimed that “no one would know it was us” and that the U.S. could simply deny it was behind any such strikes.
Seemed silly at the time. But Phil Klay this morning tells me something I'd missed:
Starting in 2007 we helped kill dozens of guerrilla commanders in Colombia’s long-running civil war. The C.I.A. trained Colombian close air support teams to use lasers to guide smart bombs to their targets, and trained interrogators to more effectively question subjects so that their information could be fed into an evolving database of information. The National Security Agency worked round the clock feeding data intercepts to ground forces.

In one instance, the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration helped trace a satellite phone call between Hugo Ch├ívez and a senior guerrilla leader. This intelligence was checked against information from a Colombian informant. The leader was located in a camp inside Ecuador. U.S. national security lawyers ruled the strike permissible as an act of self-defense. The U.S. provided the Colombians with smart bombs and the Colombians flew three light attack aircraft loaded with those smart bombs, followed by five planes loaded with conventional bombs. The bombs’ guidance system was turned on once they closed in on their target, and Colombians dropped first the smart bombs, and then the conventional bombs to cover their tracks. The decision to provide U.S. support, made and justified by officials and lawyers whose names we still don’t know, in a complex conflict most Americans have no idea the United States has been heavily involved in, set off a diplomatic crisis between Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia.

Trump has always had a thing for "saying the quiet part out loud." Sometimes, that means -- perhaps accidentally -- telling us something real about how American power really works in the world. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

On Buffalo

It's going to get worse.

It's bad enough already. Today, a young man walked into a grocery store in Buffalo -- in one of the city's blackest neighborhoods -- and started killing people. He live-streamed the massacre. Police say it was "straight up racially motivated."

Assuming this bears out, we can add Buffalo to the list of racist massacres in recent years. Charleston. Pittsburgh. El Paso. Christchurch. Etc, etc, etc. The blood of black and brown people keeps being spilled by white people who somehow delude themselves into thinking they're acting in defense of something. They do this because they believe lies -- that white people are being "replaced" by immigrants and minorities, that white people's lives have more value (or that black and brown ones have less, take your pick), that these poor people who were grocery shopping were the tools of their oppression.

God help us. God damn this evil.

It's hard not to sense that we're closer to the beginning of whatever this racist evil is than to the end. It’s going to get worse. And that’s terrifying.

And here’s the thing: I don’t trust myself to write with any sort of wisdom when I’m filled with rage and sorrow and fear. I don’t trust myself to act, because the 21st century — not to mention all the other centuries — is filled with some fairly obvious examples of people and nations lashing out in rage and sorrow and fear in ways that created so much more harm, and so much more evil.

But it’s impossible to call a timeout. History keeps moving.

For the last few years, I’ve been asking myself if we’ll know when democracy ends. I don’t think so. We’ll still have some of the forms of democracy, elections, even if the substance looks less and less like what we’ve known until one day it just won’t be what we’ve known.

Now, another question. It’s one I hate to ask or say in print, because I’m afraid of being shrill, afraid that by putting the words down in digital ink and then putting them out there for the world to see, I’ll inadvertently help summon the awful thing. But I’m going to ask it anyway, because I don’t think it can be avoided.

Will we know if a civil war has arrived?

I don’t know. I don’t want it to happen, and I suspect most people reading this don’t want it to happen either. And yet. It may be that we’ll have the forms of civil peace, even if the substance looks less and less like what we’ve known until one day it just won’t be what we’ve known.

I think about what my friend Damon Linker wrote after Jan. 6:

I think it's an error to assume that any civil war that might arise would need to resemble the one that tore the country apart from 1861 to 1865… Another model of civil violence is The Troubles that rocked Northern Ireland for 30 years beginning in the late 1960s, with factions aligned with the (Catholic) Irish Republican Army, which sought unification with Ireland, squaring off against those allied with the (Protestant) Unionists (backed by English troops), who wanted the territory to remain part of the United Kingdom. There were some conflagrations in this conflict that resembled traditional military battles. But most of the time the republican side waged its side of the war through acts of terrorism at home and abroad, while their opponents used brute force to crack down on the roiling insurrection.

“Acts of terrorism at home and abroad.”

What does that sound like, if not Buffalo? Or Pittsburgh? Or Charleston? Or El Paso? Or Christchurch?

What if — and God, I pray this is not true, but I am terrified that it is — our civil war has already started? The young man who shot up a Buffalo grocery store seems to think it’s true, at the very least.

It feels like a sin, honestly, to type that. Because maybe it hasn’t, or maybe it has and will peter out on its own, but maybe either way just talking about it adds to the momentum of it. Maybe the best way to deny the power of the gunman’s beliefs is to not let him draw us into war? Or perhaps that’s just a form of sticking our heads into the sand. I don’t know. God, I do not know.

What I do know (and forgive me for repeating myself) is that I do not want this. You don’t either. Civil war of this sort — if it happens, if it’s happening — will be enacted by a very few people. Most of us, I truly believe, just want to live peacefully with our neighbors, and let them do likewise. It only takes a few dark-hearted men to upend that script however.

If it happens — if it’s happening — we and our children and their children will feel it for generations. There will be more deaths, and more suffering. And as we know all too well, civil wars don’t necessarily, truly end. Their legacies drift through the ages, hardening the survivors against each other in an endless cycle of blame and recrimination.

What we do now will reverberate.

God help us.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

3 things about: Greg Abbott's anti-immigrant baby formula proclamation

 This is something: 

Three thoughts:

*  “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"

* It is not wrong to set priorities when there is a shortage of a critical resource. And that's a difficult, even ugly task. But it is wrong to do what Abbott has done here.

* I was formed, to a large degree, by pro-lifers. I've come down on the other side of the issue. But while I disagree with my old friends and loved-ones, I don't generally think of them as being the callous tyrants that so many of my left-of-center friends believe them to be. I know there's a sincere concern for the welfare of unborn babies -- or fetuses, or whatever you want to call them, I'm not going to argue about terminology here -- and that oppressing women, well, let's just say it's not always or even usually the intent. 


Pro-lifers often get accused of caring about babies only when they're in the womb. I know a few folks who have a bit more extensive "ethic of life" than that, so I generally resist giving into such rhetoric. But right now the political avatars of the pro-life movement -- the people who use their power to advance that agenda in government -- are people like Greg Abbott. Who seems more than willing to sacrifice immigrant babies in order to score some political points. And it's not inconceivable that this will work for him.

Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned soon. Almost certainly. If depriving babies of care because they have the wrong parents is what the GOP has to offer, if this is what "pro-life" looks like at the moment of its long-sought triumph, then it is worthless. And it is every bit as mean-spirited as its detractors say.

Unlike most folks of my political persuasions, I've never entirely believed that. But it looks like I might be proven wrong.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

The fight is the thing

A couple of interesting pieces in the last day or so, one from David French and Liz Bruenig. They're both writers I admire - though, perhaps, I don't always fully agree with them - because they're more interested in staying true to their principles than in relentlessly defending their respective tribes. Which means that it often seems that they don't really have tribes - at least not on Politics Twitter.

Anyway, let's start with French. He's talking about a recent First Things essay that criticizes evangelist Tim Keller's "winsome" approach to public discourse as outdated and suggests a more, uh, muscular approach is needed because secular culture has become so hostile to Christianity.

Here's French:

Yet even if the desperate times narrative were true, the desperate measures rationalization suffers from profound moral defects. The biblical call to Christians to love your enemies, to bless those who curse you, and to exhibit the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—does not represent a set of tactics to be abandoned when times are tough but rather a set of eternal moral principles to be applied even in the face of extreme adversity.

And here's Bruenig, talking about how parenting is increasingly just another culture war prop. 

America is a much harder place to be a child than it has any excuse to be, and a much harder place to have and raise a child than it has any possible reason to be: It’s hard to find a politician who’ll disagree with either proposition, and harder yet to find one with any intention of doing anything about it. When it comes to the crucial business of caring for children and families, our country is an international embarrassment.

Politics is downstream of culture, and this is perhaps the greatest defeat of all: Having and raising children itself now seems poised to become a culture-war issue, daily losing its discursive resemblance to an ordinary life event and gaining all the markers of a personal consumption choice that makes a statement about who you are and which side you’re on. The GOP seems all too happy to nudge the process along with caricatures of childless libs and the specter of armies of “groomers,” broadly labeling scores of left-wing educators, activists, and parents as pedophiles. The fact that Republicans are up two-to-one versus Democrats among households with kids in Marist’s latest pre-midterm survey suggests that they’re enjoying some success in this push to become the Party of Parents, and on it goes.

What a terrible thing to witness, and how distant from anything like a victory. Nothing beautiful survives the culture war.

These are different pieces from different writers on different topics. But they share a theme. For many participants, across the political spectrum, the fight has become the thing. Politics becomes not a way to pursue one's principles in the public sphere, but an excuse for battle -- and one that eventually subordinates the ostensible principles to the urgency of the fight. And as Bruenig suggests, making the fight the thing often does little to create the better world we supposedly want. It just leaves us angry. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

Some personal news...

Some personal news: Today is my last opinion column for The website is pivoting away from opinion toward the newsier style of its UK sister site.

I’m sticking around (at least for now) to write some of that stuff — I’m a freelancer with bills to pay — but it will obviously be a very different endeavor. I will miss the old version of, and I will miss writing for it. This has been one of my favorite gigs ever, an incredible privilege to work and write alongside some really smart people. My imposter syndrome has raged endlessly. 

Not sure if I’ll try to stick somehow in the opinion-slinging business. I’ve been blessed to do that in one form or another for 14 years. (Longer, if you include my first “Cup O’Joel” blog at nearly — Good God! — 20 years ago.) I love doing it. But I’m also aware the world might not need a middle-aged white guy to keep grinding out takes. 

Punditry often involves the appearance of certainty. Sometimes that’s warranted. Sometimes not. And sometimes it means putting an elbow to other people’s real concerns and feelings about the issues of the day. I’ve tried to be humane and humble as a writer, to see the world beyond my own limited perspective while still advocating for what I think is right and criticizing what I think is wrong. I know I have often failed. But I still believe the aspiration is worthy. And I’m beyond grateful to have had the opportunity.

Thanks to all my editors: Ben Frumin, Nico Lauricella, Bonnie Kristian, Jessica Hullinger, Bryan Maygers, Jeva Lange and Jason Fields. 

Thanks also to Damon Linker, who a few years ago suggested that I get in touch with Ben Frumin to try out for the site. It changed my life, and let me do my dream job for a few years.  

Thanks to my wife and son, who often adjusted our family life around my odd work schedule. (I’ll finally have Sundays off!) I love you both tremendously. 

And thanks, of course, to all of you who’ve read me, responded to me and shared my work. 

I have been so blessed.