Notes from Underground


Obama, abortion,
and the tyranny of consensus




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I have little to add to what has been said about the controversy surrounding Barack Obama's commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. Like many, I am dismayed that Obama was invited to speak there in the first place, given the egregious extent to which his convictions clash with the teachings of the Catholic faith. I strongly suspect that the president and board of regents of the nominally Catholic school care much more about courting worldly prestige than standing up for the rights of the unborn, but in asserting that I am merely echoing the views expressed by many other commentators.

I am heartened by the scale and intensity of the protests in the days leading up to the speech, though I fear that some of those who orchestrated the demonstrations were cynically partisan and opportunistic GOP operatives who care less about ending abortion than about putting heat on a Democratic president. As for the speech itself, I wasn't impressed, but then I tend to be unimpressed with political speeches. All politicians put on the faux-conciliatory act — "Can't we all just get along?" — when they know that many in their audience disagree with them. They are perfectly aware that coming across as civil and charitable to their opponents makes them look good and gives them a chance to claim the moral high ground.

I am quite sure that Obama still has every intention of ramming through his radically pro-abortion agenda, no matter how much he may claim to deplore partisan wrangling on the subject. Indeed, even his stated belief in the need for a "reasonable" conscience clause for doctors and other health-care workers who object to abortion is likely a disingenuous rhetorical sleight of hand. After all, what constitutes reasonableness, and who gets to define it? And if you don't think people should be forced to violate their conscience, why even complicate the matter by introducing the qualifier "reasonable" in the first place?

But I have little stomach for dissecting the speech. No doubt I could find many other examples of weaselly obfuscations and general bad faith on the part of the Mulatto Messiah (peace be upon him). To me, it's much more interesting to examine the rhetorical sallies that have been launched in the wake of the speech, and to observe how that rhetoric reflects the degree to which we are intellectually imprisoned by a concept that is as ubiquitous as it is spurious.

That concept is consensus. Many of us harbor an unstated and generally unrecognized belief that an issue accrues moral heft when people come around to being of one mind about it. We are confident that we are righteous when we reach a consensus with our fellow citizens about something, and we are intimidated when a strongly held conviction of ours fails to find such reassurance. If the mass of men join us in our belief, many of us think, somehow that makes our belief more correct; conversely, if our belief meets indifference or hostility, then we are haunted by the notion that however true our belief may seem to us, something must be wrong with it.

It's important to understand that this implicit faith has to do only with the contemporary consensus, the consensus Now. What most people believed years ago has no moral import; in fact, a consensus from the past can easily be dismissed. That bears itself out in the tack some pro-life commentators have taken toward Obama's call for civility and respect in the abortion controversy. What if, they ask, instead of calling for tolerance of different points of view on abortion, the president had come out against demonizing those who were pro-slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War? Would that plea for tolerance not be ridiculous, and rightly rejected and deplored by all right-thinking people?

In the mid 1800s, many did call for civility and moderation on the subject of slavery. Many were uncomfortable with the "peculiar institution" but equally put off by firebrand abolitionist activists (or terrorists) such as John Brown. Moreover, it's true that no one was forcing anyone to keep slaves, just as today no one is forcing anyone to have an abortion. "Moderates" could have characterized slave states as "pro-choice" in this regard. And slavery, like abortion, is an issue that divided a country between those who defended it as a necessary evil, if not a positive good, and those who deplored it as a wicked abomination.

Historical parallels indeed exist, and abound. Still, the comparison can go only so far and is ultimately untenable because it rests on this erroneous notion of the inherent moral heft of consensus. In fact, morality is not a popularity contest. Millions of people can, in fact, be wrong, even if they are the vast majority. The moral incorrectness of slavery is not proved by the fact that there today exists a strong consensus against it, nor is abortion a morally ambiguous or neutral practice just because the citizenry remains divided over it.

To be clear, I declare my belief that both slavery and abortion are great evils. I also think that, of the two, abortion is far worse. But my belief in both cases is based on certain first principles I hold regarding justice and the inherent value of human life. My first principles, which are identical to those of the Catholic church, of which I am a member, have nothing whatever to do with any consensus anywhere at any time. They are convictions that I would hold to be true, no matter what the vast majority believed, or had ever believed, about either subject.

Things are, of course, complicated. But they always have been. They are not more complicated today regarding abortion — which is evil (I hold) regardless of any contemporary consensus reflected in a Gallup poll — than they were in the 19th century, when slavery's common practice didn't mask the fact of its being a great evil as well.

Now, moral certainty doesn't give one license to paint the other side with the broadest of brushes. Many slaveowners in the South treated their slaves with kindness and compassion, and thought of them as a part of their own family. Many pro-choicers today are good people who focus more on the "choice" aspect than on the grisly truth about abortion. It would certainly be a mistake to associate proponents of legalized abortion exclusively with the slimy and heartless abortionist-for-profit, just as it would be irresponsible to associate slavery exclusively with a caricature out of Uncle Tom's Cabin. But such ambiguities and complications do not change the underlying fact of both slavery's and abortion's inherent wickedness. Nor do the shifting sands of public opinion, as reflected in the notion of consensus.

The citizenry of a nation is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, often conflicted within itself, and many times just plain indifferent. Only a very deluded person looks to the majority of a nation, or any majority anywhere, for guidance.

And that is why calling attention to the contemporary consensus over slavery as an antidote to the president's vacuous "unity and mutual respect" rhetoric on abortion ultimately fails. Convictions derive, or ought to derive, from timeless first principles, not foolish preoccupation with what "everyone else" thinks at a given, fleeting point in time, such as now.

May 25, 2009

© 2009 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mr. Nowicki's personal blog is Dyspeptic Myopic, at www.andynowicki.blogspot.com.

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