The impending demise of Roe v. Wade is something like a waking nightmare. That it was predictable (and predicted) does little to blunt the emotional force. Access to safe and legal abortion is an elementary part of women’s health, and criminalizing the procedure will result in many women putting their lives on the line as they pursue shady illegal procedures. The pre-Roe period was a nightmare for those with unwanted pregnancies, and many died from the infamous “back alley” procedures that were commonplace. In a post-Roe world, inequality will deepen as affluent women will be able to travel to states where abortion is legal or out of the country to get the procedures they need. And the specific language used by Samuel Alito in his opinion seems likely to call other basic social rights into question.
I don’t want to bright side this, but I do think that we’re going to see an underground railroad for abortion deployed which will help get some women the access they need, extra-legally when necessary. I know several people who have been participating in building such an infrastructure for some time. That shouldn’t be necessary, and it’s no substitute for safe and legal access for everyone, but it’ll be very important. I also think that while conservatives certainly wanted this, Republicans didn’t, if that’s not too cute. The GOP appeared to have a stranglehold on the midterm elections this November, but there’s a chance that backlash to overturning Roe could help the Democrats a great deal. I don’t trust any sweeping pronouncements about whether abortion is popular or not - as with almost all issues, the American people are not particularly coherent on the subject - but at least half the country identifies as pro-choice in polls, at any rate, and most people appear to favor legal abortion with more restrictions than I would prefer.
The trouble, for me, is how quickly people have fallen into by-now-familiar patterns of tough talk and vague endorsements of radical response. We’ve now had greater than a half-decade of chest-beating from the American left-of-center about “resistance” and demanding change and taking the streets, and yet the consequences of all that posturing have been minimal. Since Donald Trump’s election, the notion that the American left has had enough and will be fighting tooth and nail has been inescapable. This take-no-prisoners attitude was presaged by Occupy Wall Street and the insistence that “shit is fucked up and bullshit,” the idea that business as usual could not continue. But what came of it? Trump was voted out of office, but it’s hard to see this as a victory for “the Resistance,” rather than a consequence of Covid fatigue, an uncertain economy, and the cyclicality of electoral politics. In fact, fairly quickly the Resistance became a punchline for the very left-leaning people who would be most likely to endorse it, thanks to the profiteering, inside dealing, “blue no matter who,” and chronic unseriousness of the whole affair. I’d prefer we skip the big talk and focus intently on specific strategies for mitigation, protest, organizing, and politics.
But the addiction to tough rhetoric is a hard one to break, and it’s seemingly indifferent to events. Today Kelsey McKinney and Laura Wagner write
People are furious right now. They have been furious before. They will be furious again. The direction they are given for that fury is sometimes useful. Donating to abortion funds that will help people get the care they need is a productive way to channel that rage. But more often, the people elected to protect our rights see our rage as an obstacle, something to be blunted and pacified. They tell us to vote, to donate to campaigns, to mostly wait. They tell us to be strategic, not cathartic.
What happens when the strategy fails? What is the reason exactly to have waited this long? What happens when we are faced with a complete erosion of our right to be whole in the eyes of the law, and the same politicians who have failed us again and again ask for our votes? When do we stop begging the people in power to listen to us, and force them to?
OK. Fair questions. But this is precisely the stance people were taking two years ago in response to George Floyd’s murder - that voting, donating, and waiting were no longer sufficient, taking the kind of stance that McKinney and Wagner later summarize as, “Either the police stop killing black people in the street, or we burn down a precinct.” But that exact thing happened in 2020 (burning precincts, literally and figuratively) and yet no positive change followed. No national legislation was passed, that which was proposed was seen as a watered-down compromise and then died on the vine, and the local and state changes that people point to have in large measure been quietly rolled back. There isn’t even a major piece of federal legislation tied to BlackLivesMatter currently making its way through the system; the movement never coalesced around any coherent demands and has mostly collapsed into naked grift. What’s bizarre is that Wagner and McKinney acknowledge all of this, and yet seem to think that simply piling on more “this time is different”s will actually make things different, when they never have before. You just told us that the people demanding real action made those demands and then, having achieved nothing, quietly went back to conventional lives. So what’s the point of fixating on the notion of going beyond the ballot box without expressing concrete examples of how to do so? That’s how we got in this position in the first place.
It’s a strange element of American left culture, this ineradicable belief that the problem is insufficient will, insufficient anger, insufficient refusal. We’ve had that, in spades. It hasn’t worked. What’s needed now is not more directionless anger and attachment to radical affect but a plan. I absolutely join Wagner and McKinney in recognizing that the “just vote” attitude has contributed to our current condition, as our system is too bent towards minority interests and Democrats too feckless and fearful for just voting to really protect women’s health. But without concrete plans for the best way to build grassroots power that looks beyond the short-term electoral advantages of Democrats, all of this rage will simply result in a lot of checks being written to do-nothing nonprofits that pass the money on to their administrative employees and achieve very little with whatever’s left over. That, and becoming just more yard sign fodder come election season this fall.
For what purpose, Chelsea, to what effect? This is being interpreted as a call for armed resistance to the state forces that would (among other things) enforce an abortion ban. But the state’s advantage in matters of organized violence is total, far greater than it was during historical periods of effective violent civil resistance. The technological advantage the state holds over us now is far greater than, to pick an example, the American advantage over the South Vietnamese. (And, anyway, you aren’t the VC.) The state has satellites that can read your t-shirt from space; we’re not going to defeat them with rocks and Molotov cocktails. I understand that Manning, who has never had particularly coherent politics, is an extreme case here. But it’s part and parcel with an overall attitude towards politics that go beyond electoralism that’s common to the American left, passion without purpose, anger without sense. Wagner and McKinney complain that “they tell us to be strategic, not cathartic.” But what is your alternative, exactly? To not be strategic? What has the utter directionlessness of the 21st century American left ever gotten us? Do you look around and see a surfeit of strategy in what we’re doing, right now?
I’m pro-protest. Conservatively speaking I’ve been to more than 200 protests in my life and have participated in the planning of a dozen or so. This draft opinion is a disgrace and people are right to be outraged; consequently, voicing that rage in the streets is right and proper. I say that while also acknowledging that it’s what happens after the streets are cleared that really matters, and it’s here that I see all of the same problems of the last decade reappearing. I think adopting no-bullshit black-and-white litmus tests for all Democrats on the abortion question is necessary, I think organizing the types of underground abortion services described above is necessary, I think a coordinated series of protests and actions that raise consciousness without kowtowing to Democratic niceties is necessary. A whole big campaign can and should and I believe will arise from this turning point in our history. Wagner and McKinney write
The resistance we are talking about is not wearing a knitted cap with cat ears, or tweeting at the president. Resistance is political action that isn’t contingent on the support of party leaders or the Constitution. Resistance cares about justice, about liberty, about the rights of people right now and in the future.
This is precisely the right attitude. But it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work, and yes, above and beyond anything else it’s going to take strategy and ruthless realism about the impotence of rage.