September 5, 2021
This issue's contents Current issue My Back Pages Search The Ethical Spectacle

Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

The Texas Abortion Law

The biggest ethical spectacle we have going today is the new Texas law ending abortion for any fetus which has a detectable heartbeat, which means that many women who did not even know they were pregnant will be ineligible the day they find out. Front and center in all this chaos is the newly hard right Supreme Court, refusing to stay the new law pending its own deliberations.

I have said here that the right to terminate a pregnancy is a cornerstone of a woman's autonomy. There is no consistent way to imagine a world in which women have a right to work, serve in the military, and hold political office but not to control their own bodies-- and let us never forget that the "purest" anti-abortion vision contains no exception for pregnancies caused by rape (as the Texas law does not). The hypocrisy of elevating a fetus' rights ' over a woman's is heavily underscored by the contradiction that the same right wing philosophy also incorporates without any sense of contradiction the right to take the lives of people who trespass on property and also (at the ultimate, absurd and murderous end of the American Second Amendment spectrum) the "right" to take the life of neighbors like Trayvon Martin, on the grounds that they somehow "trespassed" on your sense of self, your autonomy, your right to live without fear of them (which becomes a right to violently exclude them from the neighborhood). There is no qualitative way to reconcile "stand your ground" laws with laws that don't allow a woman to stand her ground against a rapist's fetus, except to admit that women are second class citizens sub specie their reproductive capabilities.

As a mere side-light to this, the Roe v. Wade court itself helped sow the seeds being reaped today, as we careen towards a reversal of that decision, by basing a right to abortion on a shadowy and vague concept of privacy, when it should have been proclaimed as based on the 5th and 14th amendment equal protection clauses.

Receiving much less attention is a spectacle-within-the-spectacle, which is the Texas legislature's willingness to trash its own legal system by permitting any citizen, without any of the usual requirements of standing or damage, to bring a lawsuit against anyone else who supposedly aided a now illegal abortion. Standing and damage are time-venerated common law concepts that ensure that the courts will not be flooded and overwhelmed with empty, silly, frivolous, vengeful lawsuits. The possibilities are endless: how about a law which says that anyone can sue anyone for wearing a mask, for not wearing one, for failing to display an American flag or for displaying one at any event at which someone punched someone. I would fully expect, at least hope, that if this all stands up some Texas judges will resign, or at least refuse to handle these cases. The obvious next step in Texas is simply to suspend a court system which is no longer envisioned as a neutral forum for justice, and return to the code duello or trial by combat. I would say Texas is working on being a Third World country, except that there are many of these which have more of an idea of how to govern people, to worry about disease, famine and public health, than Texas does right now.

The silly season

I propose Lindsey Graham as a case study in today's political disease, as a relatively intelligent and formerly somewhat centrist and pragmatic figure who, in weakness and desperate ambition, has endorsed a world view incapable of governance. I experienced a Click years ago, before the Trump era, when I read someone's essay or op ed pointing out the phenomenon of Republicans in control of states who were increasingly spending all their time settling scores or "owning the libs" instead of governing. Paradoxically, the electorate's good sense in electing Biden may now be transforming into a forgetfulness, a tendency to hold him responsible for outcomes Trump orchestrated, like the Afghanistan end game. A political pendulum which will give us Trump back in 2024, or more likely a Josh Hawley Trumpist type, suggests democracy in paroxysms and dying (Biden as the last president of a new Weimar). But an electorate that Can't Remember Shit can hardly sustain a democracy.

The Myth of Rescue

As a child I was completely attentive to, and a three-fifths believer in, the Myth of Rescue. If there was danger, the cops came. If there was a fire, the firefighters arrived. Similar government forces worked to ameliorate the impacts of earthquake, flood, hurricane, drought, famine, and other types of natural disaster. The goal, I understood, was to leave no one behind. It sealed the myth that, on television dramas, there was no kind of disaster that could not be fully addressed and healed within 48 minutes. What I now understand to be the Iconic "Star Trek plague episode" ended with every one of the continuing characters, whose faces had been unrecognizable under a mass of pustules only minutes before, restored to a flawless complexion. Only a couple of unmemorable Red Jackets ever died.

As I wrote here at the time, Hurricane Katrina provided a Huge Epiphany, if we needed one, that Rescue is a Myth. There are places which take hits which will never fully recover; and then, as they take more hits, will become ghost towns and then be abandoned, and then possibly be underwater. When you look at the backdrop, that so-called "Acts of God" are actually human-caused or influenced, then you have a rather tragic but ridiculous Blues Progression in which we are actively ending ourselves, increasing the number of storms we face every year with heavy rainfall, while doing less and less to repair and ameliorate it.

I see three stages of this Progression (but there are Three Stages of Everything): 1. We rescue as many as possible (the American philosophy at least through the Kennedy and Johnson years); 2. we rescue ourselves, and the rest (other races, the poor, city dwellers, the "libs") can go fuck themselves (Nixon, Reagan, first Bush); 3. we can no longer even save ourselves (second Bush and the defiant but obvious subtext of the Trump years).