Bad Pundit, Bad

November 12, 2003


Sebastian Holsclaw just voted himself off my blogroll with this post.

Edit - see comments. I retract my aspersions of malice. I still think Holdsclaw needs to work on presenting other people's positions fairly and completely rather than making up ideal types about them. Ted K.

I keep two blogrolls, one public and one private. The public blogroll on the left there is for people I read regularly and who, even when I disagree with them, make me think and leave me smarter than I was before I clicked the link. The public blogroll is a vote of confidence. The private blogroll is where I store sites that I want to look at but am not yet sure that I will praise. About half the sites on the private blogroll go public, half get deleted within the week.

What is so wrong with Sebastian's little rant. It is not that he and I disagree on abortion politics. I disagree with many people on abortion politics. What bothers me is the sheer and total intellectual dishonesty of the piece. He posits a perfect set of ideal types, either abortion always and everywhere or abortion never and nowhere. He assumes that all people who are for any form of abortion rights must therefore be for all forms of abortion rights - because you can see some situations in which abortion is a good alternative then you must be a heartless monster in all situations. Holsclaw, in other words, is acting within the modern norms of hyper-political and hyper competitive politics. He is arguing from extremes, painting his opponent into a corner, and - just like George Will - he is doing it by pretending that he does not know what he is doing.

In some ways Holsclaw is arguing like an adolescent: there are no shades of grey, there is only absolute truth, you must be on the side of the angels or the side of the devils. My response to this is, I fear, equally adolescent: by framing the argument in those terms you have either proved that you are too ignorant of the world around you for you to be trusted or you have proved that you would rather willfully misrepresent your opponents than challenge their arguments. Either you are a fool or you are a liar.

Now, that was satisfying but not very useful. I must confess that falsely disingenuous rhetoric will always push my buttons.

What I think Holsclaw is missing here, and what many people who debate abortion are missing, is that rather than abortion being a case where there is a clear and simple choice between two absolute and over-ruling rights, it is a case where two sets of rights conflict. And, to make it difficult, the two sets of rights conflict in a way that is always crucial to the life of one party and sometimes crucial to the life of the other.

We do not legislate other situations where medicine must make us choose between the lives of two people - there are no laws forbidding doctors to separate conjoined twins because the operation may kill one or both. Instead it is handled on a case by case basis, and people make those decisions very seriously because they know that lives do depend on their choices.

The gut sense used in English and American social practice and common law for centuries is the same rough approximation upheld in the original Roe decision. The old rule was that a fetus does not gain rights or protection until quickening - that moment at about the end of the first trimester when the mother can feel motion. Roe codified that, ruling in effect that the competing rights of mother and child should be presumed towards the mother in the first trimester, the child in the third trimester, and roughly equally in the second trimester. We only ended up with fully legal abortion up to the moment the baby is born as a reaction to laws limiting this right. When the decision was politicized, we ended up with law that tastes bad.

Furthermore, while some abortion rights activists take the hardline position that Holsclaw ascribes to all of them, most of them, like most Americans, feel that abortion is a bad thing that is sometimes the best decision. Rather than feigning surprise when people who generally support pro-life positions worry about technology that will lead to more abortions to select for more perfect babies, he needs to realize that even the people who provide abortions see the procedure as the last, worst choice. It is not in the least bit inconsistent to be pro abortion rights and at the same time pursue social and cultural policies that will reduce the demand for abortion.

I guess what bothers me enough that I am writing this and not working on chapter three, is that Holsclaw has taken a policy position and wrapped it in a lie. And lies are contagious. Because he lied, he encourages other people to assume that everyone lies. If we assume that everyone lies, then we spend our time looking at motives and not words. If we look at motives and not words, we project our fears onto our opponents and reduce the chance to create a meaningful compromise. It is because of rhetoric like Holsclaw's that abortion rights advocates are presuming that there is an organized conspiracy to use the recent abortion law as a prybar to take apart the current structure of abortion rights and make the procedure illegal everywhere and at all stages of pregnancy.

I am jumping on Holsclaw because I am chewing on another rant about the politics of lies. It makes me sensitive to lies, and he was there. But he still goes off the blogroll.

Posted by Red Ted at November 12, 2003 04:45 AM | TrackBack