Wednesday, February 6, 2019
As I write this, the Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, is struggling to keep his job as his own top political party leaders, backed by a vast army of bien pensants with Twitter accounts, are demanding his resignation from office. His alleged offense, no small one even when it was committed some decades ago, was to engage in some stupid high jinks now regarded as so hateful to God and man as to render their perpetrator unfit for elective public office, utterly and in perpetuity. I am not a Virginian, and until recently I could not have recognized this man’s name if it were on a multiple-choice quiz. Nor did I ever suppose that medical students assemble yearbooks, let alone ones that would embarrass your average Alabama high school. Yet as it happens, by the time the story of the appalling photograph was surfacing, I had actually seen Gov. Northam in a television clip responding to questions about an abortion rights bill under consideration by the State Legislature. He was saying that he approved of the measure, and that it would indeed allow, under certain circumstances, infanticide. He didn’t use that word, and I don’t think he actually meant what he did say. I doubt that he actually accepts the necessity of infanticide. But that is what he said, and the only likely reason he said it was that he wanted to demonstrate his progressive bona fides to his party allies. Not that I believe that infanticide is progressive or that people who call themselves progressives generally do either. But the two episodes—abortion interview and the flap about the photograph—are not unrelated. It now appears that Northam was “outed” with regard to the now infamous photograph by somebody outraged by his extraordinary remarks about the abortion bill.
Ordinarily I would avoid such a dispiriting subject as the abortion question. It is a topic that invites passion and outrage and nearly guarantees the exacerbation of ill will with only the slimmest chance of advancing comity and ethical clarification. It will continue to do so as long as we continue to act as though “Pro Life” and “Pro Choice” are not inadequate slogans but definitive adversarial categories like skins and shirts or Guelfs and Ghibellines, tribes or teams to one of which each of us gives our unqualified support. There actually is an American consensus on the issue, but one unsatisfying to the righteous appetite for certainty. Most Americans are “against” abortion. Most Americans are “against” the criminalization of abortion. This means that most Americans are ambivalent about an issue concerning which strident voices are demanding certainty.
What is progressive in the development of civilization is the abandonment of barbarity, not its continuity. Some brutal practices of Antiquity are rarely remembered, but they do show up in myth, legend, and literary texts. The motives for infanticide were many, but their common denominator was the social or economic inconvenience or potential long-term military or political threat posed by the child to living adults. The “exposure” of unwanted infants—dumping them to die in some desolate place—was not uncommon in the Greco-Roman world. You don’t come to be raised by wolves, even if you are Romulus and Remus, under ordinary circumstances. The voice of the Hebrew exile in the beautiful psalm Super flumina anticipates with pleasure the prospect of dashing the skulls of Edomite children against the stone walls of the city. C’est la guerre. In medieval penitential texts there is frequent mention of something called “overlying”. In peasant households several people might sleep in the same bed. Babies were not infrequently stifled in the night, asphyxiated by the weight of heavy adult bodies, leaving moralists suspicious that many such mishaps were not in fact accidents at all, but acts of postnatal birth control. Unless we wish to imagine widespread depravity, and deny any natural bond of love between parent and child, such episodes were evidences of a terrible desperation.
In fact our literature, which is after all supposedly an “imitation of life,” has been on the whole perhaps more truly enlightening than street demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. Among modern writers few are grimmer than Hardy, and Hardy’s grimmest moment is probably in Jude the Obscure, in which a child, believing that his father’s life chances have been blasted by his need to support a family, murders his two junior siblings and hangs himself, leaving the chilling note: “Done because we are too many”. It is impossible to absorb the horror of the deed without considering the horror of its motivation. Hardy was not the first to believe in a malign biological trap in which the sexual instinct was and forever would be a generator of tragedy for large swaths of the human race. Dreiser actually put that word in the title of one of the great novels of the last century, An American Tragedy, closely based, of course, on a “real life” criminal case. One of my recent posts concerned Farrell’s Studs Lonigan. In it the “biological trap” is but one factor in a world that seems expressly designed for the destruction of its pathetic anti-hero. But surely you don’t need to “shout your abortion” or acquiesce, as Governor Northam did, in the idea of “abortion” on the delivery table to avoid returning to that world.