March 25, 2008
Dan McCarthy’s article on the relationship between pro-life conservatives and the GOP is simply excellent, especially in his framing of the question around the “new fusionism” envisioned by Bottum (which I have critiqued before) and the Hitchcock attack on antiwar pro-life conservatives (critiqued by Scott Richert here). It provides a good beginning to discuss the parallel predicaments of pro-life and non-interventionist voters. Just as pro-lifers have learned to tolerate GOP failures, lip service and inaction because the alternative would appear to be worse, non-interventionists find themselves confronted with the same single-issue dilemma in an election that pits a pro-war Republican against a Democrat who is against the war in Iraq. As pro-lifers have “nowhere to go,” except to cast protest votes for small third parties on the right, so non-interventionists are trapped into choosing between two interventionists whom we would regard as almost equally hawkish and unacceptable except for Iraq. What judges were for some of us in 2004, Iraq has become for others in 2008: the one issue that overrides everything. But does one issue alone ever really override everything else? Outside of a relatively small number of activists, it seems not to be the case. It is worth bearing in mind that following the single-issue path has not yielded much for pro-life conservatives to date, and indeed Dan’s entire article is a detailed description of how pro-life concerns are being consistently marginalized and set aside for the sake of war and empire, and that becoming a reliable single-issue voter on any issue can actually reduce whatever small leverage you and likeminded voters might conceivably have.
The predicament is compounded for non-interventionists who are also pro-life, and who may be non-interventionist at least partly because they are pro-life and therefore extremely wary of government policies that will almost inevitably lead to the loss of innocent life abroad. They are also seriously concerned about abortion enough that the prospect of electing an antiwar but pro-abortion Democrat, such as Obama, worries them immensely for reasons that have nothing to do with doubts about his other foreign policy views. For these voters a realistic assessment of American interests is coupled and intensified by the understanding that all wars, especially those driven by ideology or over-ambitious definitions of the national interest, also possess a serious moral dimension with respect to the lives and welfare of the civilian population of the other country. That makes it all the more imperative that America go to war only for its just interests, and only when there is no other alternative and when that war can be justified morally. As Dan explains well, when pro-life conservatives embrace policies of aggressive and illegal warfare, they strike at the very core of their respect for human life that lends their convictions about abortion such gravity, importance and coherence. This is the fundamental contradiction of “new fusionism,” which Bottum has appallingly defined as an alliance based on shared “moral clarity,” and it represents the main problem for pro-life conservatives who remain trapped in a bad, fruitless marriage with the Republican Party.
Dan correctly identifies the connection between the abstract universalist tendency among some pro-life conservatives and the tendency of these same conservatives to embrace a foreign policy defined by support for the “defense” of abstract universal rights, and the connection is more than theoretical. Interventionists and their pro-life allies frequently use the same rhetoric and historical references: just as interventionists routinely invoke Lincoln and FDR as model Presidents who waged war for the sake of liberation, many pro-life conservatives acquiesce in the same conventional historical pieties, likening their movement to antislavery forces and comparing the far worse, ongoing mass murder of legal abortion to the Holocaust to represent themselves implicitly as part of a tradition of liberal activism. I regard the tendency towards abstraction to be a basic philosophical blunder for pro-life conservatives, when it is the fiction of individual autonomy (a fiction that could not be more dramatically exposed as false by the dependency of a child on his mother) at the heart of all “rights” talk and the idolatry of choice that this autonomy implies that continue to make an atrocious practice seem remotely justifiable. However, as Dan argues very effectively, even according to the terms of this universalist pro-life position it is impossible to square the circle of respect for human rights, particularly the right to life, and support for virtually every military action proposed by the government. Even when pro-lifers are reduced to a utilitarian numbers game (“we” killed fewer civilians than the dictator!), it is difficult to evade the injustice of a war of aggression. Even if no one speaks of it, conscience cannot ignore it forever.
In fact, the respect for “human dignity” that Bottum makes the foundation of the “new fusionist” project falls apart rapidly when you consider how readily some, such as the awful Dean Barnett (a secular, pro-war pro-lifer), declare their support for torture and the mass bombing of civilian centers if Necessity requires it. Of course, at the core of every pro-abortion argument is an appeal to the dread and dark lord Necessity. Just as you will hear how no one wants to torture, you will hear that no one wants to have an abortion, but circumstances sometimes make both necessary. As for indiscriminately bombing civilian centers, there is always the argument from war crimes to justify any injustice committed today. For Barnett, and unfortunately for all together too many others, if necessity dictates something it cannot really be a crime or unjust. According to this view, whatever may have happened during a given campaign, it wasn’t really intentional, and even if it was “we” did it in Dresden and Nagasaki and that was just fine. (This is one of the “controversial” things Obama’s pastor said that is not only uncontroversial, but was repeated regularly by putatively conservative columnists during the war in Lebanon as it has been repeated during almost every American or allied military engagement for the last thirty years—what mattered in Wright’s case was the critical tone in which it was expressed.)