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gold fish & red herrings

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Aug 06, 2007

Busted Halo's Bill McGarvey interviews Melinda Henneberger, who, as is her wont, pin-balls all over the theological map as her feelings flip her. I found the following question put by McGarvey particularly discouraging.

Despite their rhetoric, I often wonder whether some Republican strategists' greatest fear is that Roe v. Wade gets overturned? It would take away an enormous red herring that they get to throw out to distract people every election.

In the 1940s, the Nazis decreed that a disfavored class of human beings were not fully "persons" and turned eleven million of them into ash -- with the passive consent of the enlightened. In the 1970s, our Supreme Court decreed that a disfavored class of human beings were not fully "persons," and in the meantime we have turned more than 40 million of them into surgical waste -- with the passive consent of the enlightened. Those committed to overturning Roe v. Wade see themselves as combatting the same order of abomination that the Nazis had launched, and they see the stakes as just as momentous. McGarvey is certainly right about the GOP's cynical courtship of pro-lifers -- no argument there -- what's mind-boggling is that, six decades after the Holocaust, he can dismiss Roe v. Wade as a red herring.

We're told that a goldfish has a memory so brief that at the conclusion of each circuit of its bowl it forgets everything it knew at the beginning. I think of liberals as moral goldfish, blissfully free of moral memory, who swim about in a ceaselessly changing bath of sentimentalisms. They are often full of moral indignation, but this indignation doesn't derive from moral principles -- from the kind of reasoning that can tell you that this embryo is an intact human being even though it doesn't look like one -- rather their resentments are triggered by emotionally freighted images they take in from the stream of ephemeral pop culture: music, films, videos, and especially television. Historical precedent and philosophical consistency are simply not important. Hence the very same persons who blame the bystanders of 1940 for not taking more risks to derail the Holocaust often oppose (and abusively oppose) those who blockade abortion clinics, even though the latter are responding to the moral reasoning that makes it urgent to rescue the innocent from unjust death. Or again, how often have sentimentalists shown us the famous picture of that Vietnamese girl running naked and screaming from her napalm burns? Yet when pro-lifers attempt to display photos of aborted fetuses, they're blacked-out or shouted down. Different moral principle? No, wrong sentimentalism, wrong yuck-factor.

Both McGarvey and Henneberger stress the importance of "listening" -- in particular, listening to the other side. In order to conduct a profitable dialogue, suggests McGarvey. "you really need to be able to say, 'I want to hear what you have to say, rather than listen to myself tell you what I think.'" When it comes to brokering the political compromises on which the concrete situation will be stabilized -- after the main point at dispute is conceded -- this is entirely reasonable. But where the conflict still involves non-negotiable moral absolutes, what is there to listen for? Not even the squishiest of liberals has criticized Germany's Jews for not listening attentively enough to Aryan supremicists, or blamed abolitionists for failing to be open to the needs and feelings of slave-owners. Doubtless there were Virginians in 1860 and Bavarians in 1940 who shrugged off the supreme moral conflict of the day as a "red herring" and pleaded for dialogue. Do we want to make common cause with them?

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