Paul Krugman makes some excellent points in his column "A Tale of Two Moralities," like, for instance:
[T]he truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let's listen to each other more carefully; but what we'll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are. For the great divide in our politics isn't really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it's about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.Yes. Absolutely. Spot-on. It can't be said how truly thrilled I am to see that point made by a widely-read commentator.
And the real challenge we face is not how to resolve our differences — something that won't happen any time soon — but how to keep the expression of those differences within bounds.
But I really take issue with his example here:
In a way, politics as a whole now resembles the longstanding politics of abortion — a subject that puts fundamental values at odds, in which each side believes that the other side is morally in the wrong. Almost 38 years have passed since Roe v. Wade, and this dispute is no closer to resolution.Maybe this appears to be true from where Mr. Krugman, a progressive but not a reproductive rights activist, is sitting, but it is, in fact, dangerously wrong.
Yet we have, for the most part, managed to agree on certain ground rules in the abortion controversy: it's acceptable to express your opinion and to criticize the other side, but it's not acceptable either to engage in violence or to encourage others to do so.
The only reason it appears that we have achieved civility in the abortion debate is because the Democrats and other prominent liberals have abdicated their role as public champions of choice, standing by idly as anti-choice activists chip away at Roe on the state level. When, for example, the anti-choice Attorney General for the state of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, circumvented the state's general assembly by issuing a legal opinion that redefined abortion clinics in a way that created significant barriers for small clinics to stay open, neither of the two (male) Democratic Senators from that state even bothered issuing a perfunctory press release.
Abortion opponents hardly need to resort to violent rhetoric when the alleged defenders of choice can't actually be arsed to defend it.
And on the frontlines of the abortion fight, things look very different. When Angie Jackson live-blogged her abortion last year to demystify the process, the response was not universally civil, to put it politely. Clinics get bomb threats, which aren't exactly civil. Women seeking abortions at those clinics frequently need escorts to navigate screaming picketers, who aren't inclined toward civility. I am hardly a full-time reproductive justice advocate, yet my inbox—and, I imagine, the inboxes of most writers and activists who dedicate any time at all to reproductive issues—receives missives that I will also charitably describe as less than civil, not that I don't appreciate pictures of bloody fetuses as much as the next steampunk abortion robot. The murder of Dr. George Tiller was not civil; it was an act of terrorism committed by a terrorist as part of one of the most brazen, unapologetic terrorist campaigns in America, its co-ordination and orchestration frequently done right out in the open—at meetings, on websites, in email alerts.
And, I know I'm just an exhaustingly tedious feminist hysteric and all, but I actually find the anti-choice position inherently violent, no matter how politely it is stated. If anyone else suggested that I should be forced to submit my body against my will to nine months of potential discomfort and pain, followed by an act that might include the skin and muscle between my vagina and anus being torn open, I don't think we'd mince words about whether they were using violent rhetoric. But because we can couch it in the bullshit terminology of "a pro-life position," that's supposed to be evidence of civility.
Krugman might well note that he did stipulate it is only "for the most part" that the abortion debate is free from violent rhetoric. But I fear that's only true because we've largely ceased to have that debate in public square on a national scale. The Democrats have left it to the choice orgs and activists, and the Republicans have left it to the anti-abortion extremists.
It's the Democrats' dereliction of duty, and the mendacious nature of the debate which masks its inherent violence, that enables the Republicans to appear civil about abortion. I wouldn't exactly hold that up as a model for achieving better public discourse.