What connects the Ralph Northam story, the Covington story, and the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation story? Is it the dark side of social media? The perils of high-school? Catholicism in America today? It is all that. More than anything, however, it is abortion. Abortion is and arguably always has been the nuclear core of the culture war, yet these days it hides itself. The pitched media scraps between progressives and conservatives are often still about Roe v. Wade, we just pretend that they are not.
We act as if the Ralph Northam story is about racism. It isn’t. It’s about what he said about fetuses, and the tasteless whooping for late-term abortions. We make out that the Brett Kavanaugh nomination saga was about rape and whether women ‘should be believed’. But was it? Or was it really about the fear that the Supreme Court was about to have a pro-life majority?
The Covington boys imbroglio has become a story about media bias, MAGA hats and Twitter-users rushing to judgment, and that’s all relevant. But those boys were in Washington, DC for the March for Life. They weren’t there for Trump. They were there for unborn children.
Americans chose not to talk about abortion because the debate seems stale. The terms —‘life’ versus ‘choice’ — sound redundant. And what’s the point of regurgitating the same ethical dilemmas we’ve been chewing over since the 1960s?
But the importance of the issue doesn’t just go away. Ross Douthat has just written another insightful essay about how the decline of Catholicism has led to increased tribalism and polarization over abortion. ‘The Catholic Church — in New York, especially — used to be an effective pro-life political force straddling partisan divides, instead of an institution devastated by attrition, internal division and the sex abuse disaster,’ he writes. He’s on to something. Yet what’s most extraordinary is how the abortion fight is now fought through the simulacra of arguments about race, politics, or sex. It’s as if American society has become so ashamed of or depressed by abortion cannot talk about the issue in a straightforward way.
Never mind polarized, the two sides don’t inhabit the same universe. They fight each other through cruelty and shaming and dirty internet tricks. If you can stop a pro-abortionist by making him out to be a racist with a high-school photo, then woo hoo! All’s fair when babies are at stake. If you can stop an anti-abortionist by insisting he is a rapist, then wahey! All’s fair when a woman’s body is at stake. It’s a twisted form of intersectionality, or morality top trumps. But the effect on society is maddening: we’re living in an time of covert culture wars, where sensational stories are not about what they seem to be about. This leads to more and more paranoia and loathing. The internet has made everyone a journalist, they say. It’s also making everyone a dark arts-PR operative. That is not a healthy development.