Tags: rampant consumerism

2 Mar 2007, Comments Off on The Quick Brown Fox

The Quick Brown Fox

Author: Helen

Image from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?o=5&f=/c/a/2006/01/22/BAG5QGRAKC1.DTL

A while back, under “asshattery”, I quoted two LP commenters whose opinion was that feminism is the concern of overprivileged white chicks, so truly progressive people shouldn’t bother with it, as it’s only making selfish elites even more selfish.

Russell Arben Fox, while somewhat religious, is no asshat. He is a thoughtful writer, the civility of whose responses to his commenters, even the ones who disagree with them, is a model for us all. He’s also fighting the good fight against neoliberal ideas (as far as I can tell). So, it was sad to see him make a similar claim about people who are on the pro-choice side on abortion.

Fox is a moderate, not a wingnut. On balance, he comes down against “…abortion restrictions [such as…parental notification laws, mandated counseling and waiting periods, etc.” On the other hand, he feels that (what he sees as) unlimited access to abortion is just making

…one’s sexual choices … indistinguishable from any other set other commodified choices, ideally having no ramifications on one’s living arrangements, extended family, position in society, obligation to future generations, unacknowledged dependence upon unwritten moral standards, involvement in collective goals, etc.

He doesn’t support legislative banning of abortion, because he recognises that will cause suffering, which is commendable. Before we go any further, what positive recommendation does Fox have for the how we should conduct our reproductive lives? His position is fairly complex, but in general he’s in favour of

… Deterring abortion, discouraging abortion, not outright banning it as a criminal act.
…the creation of an environment where abortions [are] formally discouraged…a more restricted and less present abortion culture, with concomitant consequences for how people interact with and assume responsibilities for one another both sexually and socially.

I’m not a libertarian. I’m no apologist for rampant consumerism and social fragmentation. But Fox’s post is offensive to me in several ways. First, it conflates the idea of “choice”, in the context of reproductive rights, with “consumerism”. Therefore, limiting abortion (by some not-too-specific non-legislative method; I don’t know, shaming? shunning?) equals taking responsibility and promotes social cohesion, but access to abortion makes the decision to abort no more mentally taxing – or meaningful – than shopping for a new pair of Jimmy Choo shoes.

You have to hand it to advocates of abortion rights: the rhetoric of choice is perfect for advancing their cause in the modern world. Who doesn’t want more choices, after all? … Abortion as a supremely individualistic, personal, private, even affirmative act makes perfect sense–you control your own body, you determine your own sex life, you weigh your own feelings, you chart your own future…it all fits together.
…Choice, as an ideological priority, is rather commercial: it is about managing one’s options, about taking care of business.

I think that Fox is defining the word choice in an overly specific way which fits his chosen thesis. Humans make choices in every facet of their daily lives; whether or not to go to university, to finish school, to vote for this or that party, to eat this or not eat that, to live here or to live there. Why trivialise this process? There’s another word for it, especially in serious matters like getting married or divorced or having an abortion: Decision. Like it or not, we need to make decisions. The inability to make a decision for oneself is a sign of poverty or powerlessness or both, not necessarily of social cohesion. The ability and desire to make a decision by and for oneself can just as well be a sign of responsibility rather than libertarian selfishness. He seems to be saying that the inability of an Exclusive Brethren woman to make crucial decisions in her own life, because the community has made such decisions for her, is somehow more dignified. I can’t see why.

There’s another theme at work in Fox’s post. He subscribes to the idea that I mentioned above, that abortion activism (like feminism) is by privileged women, for privileged women, and as such is lacking in worth (like, it’s implied, privileged women themselves, by which he means middle class women. And who are they? I’ll get onto that later).

it’s about allowing people–almost always white, middle- and upper-class, secular people–more and freer sexual choices than previous generations enjoyed.

He quotes two other academics, both male, to support this view. Harry Brighouse:

I hated being in a demonstration in which the police were on our side; I hated being in a demonstration in which my side was visibly composed of wealthier more privileged people than the other side; and I hated the fact that I knew that, my socialist contingent excepted, the people on my side were less committed to my ideals of social justice than many of the leaders of the other side; who were often leading lay Catholics and Catholic priests whom I’d seen at meetings and demonstrations in support of our Central America work and helping to organise community support for strikes of low paid workers…

And Bill Martin:

Most people in the anti-abortion movement associate the pro-choice movement with the middle class. This is not entirely accurate, but I think that the dominant rhetoric of the pro-choice movement is very much a product of the middle-class point of view.

(He then goes on to describe an anecdotal example of a woman at a rally with a really badly worded placard. Which is supposed to reveal the triviality of the entire pro-choice movement… or something.)

This saddens me. If you read Crooked Timber you’ll know Harry Brighouse is a generally pro-feminist academic who writes good stuff about gender equality in parenting, so the message here is a surprise. Go home, honky chicks, because The Left has better things to fight for than your selfish abortions.

Lawyers, Guns and Money has already addressed Fox’s post. Read the whole thing, because they say a lot of the things I’d like to say on this topic, and so might keep this post under 2,000 words. My take: The idea that the things feminists want to fight for, such as reproductive rights (including contraception and emergency contraception as well as abortion), subsidised parental leave, high quality and affordable childcare, and the opposition to exploitative culture in general, to name a few: to claim that that’s all by and for middle- to upper- class women with no thought for or positive impact on poorer women, is just wrong. It doesn’t make sense.

If a woman with an unwanted pregancy also has a low income and/or other disadvantages, how is she helped by outlawing abortion and emergency contraception? If we make abortion illegal, or more restricted, what class of person is still going to get a safe hospital abortion, and has always done so? That’s right – a privileged rich woman.

If a public good like subsidised child care, for instance, is fought for by “privileged” women, does that make that service useless to working class women who need child care, as long as the matter of pricing and access is properly addressed? Commenters like Fox and others seem to throw the “middle class” thing (and how broad a category that is these days, and how precarious a description that is, especially in the US where so many workers are on short term contracts and are one bankruptcy away from serious poverty) around to make it seem as though middle-class feminists don’t care about anyone but themselves and others like them. I’m sure that’s true for a minority, but for the feminists I am reading nothing could be further than the truth. Feminist bloggers (The writers at ‘Alas’ are a worthy example) often stop to unpack their own privilege and think about how it could be affecting their outlook on the problems they write about. “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” comes to mind, as well as the recent thoughtful writings on poverty.

Some left-wing academics, writers and bloggers may be quite well-off, but others, like Lauren and others, are struggling. Many people who might contribute to activism – young academics especially spring to mind – are employed in very insecure short term contracts with few of the trappings that we might think of as “middle-class” and “privileged”. It might benefit Fox, Brighouse and Martin to read BitingBeaver’s account of her unwanted pregnancy and take note of the fact that her “choices” were not those of some daughter of privilege deciding on a whim to “choose” abortion, and financial pressure was indeed front and centre throughout. The same drama is being played out over the world. Freedom from unwanted pregnancy is one of the key freedoms (a “freedom from”) which can help women in poverty escape that poverty. Not a magic bullet, sure, but to me, a necessary condition.

(Note, too, that BitingBeaver was adamant that not having a further, unwanted child, which she and her partner couldn’t afford, was in the best interests of the children she already had. Hardly socially irresponsible, or heedless of family circumstances, as Fox would like you to think.)

And as for this “I didn’t see you with the Janitors at the minimum wage rally” stuff– please. This is a variant of the “you failed to condemn Muslim treatment of women back in 2003, therefore I’ll dismiss your criticism of {insert topic here}”. Everyone does what they can, and the writer’s claim that pro-abortion women don’t attend rallies against poverty and if they don’t, they don’t care, is simply an opinion thrown out as fact. For one thing, self-identified feminists like me do attend rallies for other causes (Actually, you would have seen me rallying with the janitors, that is, their Oz equivalent – the ASU – at the Your Rights at Work rally). But I have a job and a family, and I can’t attend every rally in town. For another, if I don’t, I object to their insulting inference that it’s because I simply don’t care. (Someone should have told Barbara Ehrenreich that her middle-classness made it impossible for her to care, or advance the cause of, the less well off.)

Moving away from class and back to gender: I’m not going to go too far into the “abortion makes sex devoid of consequence which will lead to the hollowing out of society as a whole” idea, which I think is dealt with better than I could by some of the commenters in Fox’s thread. But I’d like to address the corollary to this which is implied throughout:Although he finds the imposition of restrictions on women repugnant and discriminatory, he can’t get away from the idea that if legalised, abortion would just run rampant – and there’s something missing here. There’s an absence of trust in the ability of women to make this decision themselves.

Steve laBonne, a commenter on Fox’s post puts a more extreme version of this position quite horribly – and this seems to be what a lot of people really think, unfortunately:

I think reducing the number of abortions is potentially a reasonable goal (even for purely medical reasons, routine use of abortion as a substitute for contraception would be undesirable).

See, this is what they think of us. People really do believe women are so stupid, so useless at making decisions in their own interests, that they’d use abortion routinely as a substitute for contraception. Just step back and think about that for a minute. So, what would that entail? Suppose you were fairly fertile, you’d have to go through a surgical procedure several times a year, with all the expense and time off work and recovery times that would involve, instead of using a pill or a condom or a diaphragm. Abortions replacing contraception? Just… not… going… to happen.

But then, we’re so stupid, we need the added “protection” of patriarchal disapproval to deflect us from lurching down this disastrous course. Yes, of course there are a few hopeless cases who seem to make accidental pregnancy their life’s work, but these are not the cases on which legislation (Or some byzantine system of non-judicial social punishment) should be based.

BitchPHD is right: It comes down to not trusting women. And even honky middle-class women are worthy of respect.