Monday, January 5, 2009

Learning to Play a “Dangerous Game”

This just in from guest contributor Zach Czaia:

Aaron offered me the opportunity to post months ago. I’ve been enjoying the fruits of others’ wonderings and so figured I’d offer a wondering of my own (a wandering wondering at that) in the hopes that some of you all might offer your own insights on the subject.

In preparation for a graduate class at CUA called the “Eloquence of Lincoln,” I have been reading a good deal of Lincoln’s writings--consisting of letters and speeches mostly. I’ve been especially impressed and intrigued by his part in the debates with Stephen Douglas, when he ran for (and lost) the Illinois senate seat in 1858.

A cliff’s notes of the debaters’ key positions: Lincoln holds that slavery is a moral wrong, and that its being allowed to flourish in the new territories (Kansas and Nebraska) goes against the Founders’ initial vision of the institution as an inherited evil. (This position naturally puts him at odds with the Dred Scott decision equating slaves with “property.”) Douglas, meanwhile, refusing to ever publicly state whether or not slavery is “right” or “wrong,” campaigns on “the great principle of popular sovereignty”: what is important in this debate is that the people of a given state or a territory must have the right to decide for themselves whether slavery (or other institutions and laws) have binding power.

The introduction to my copy of the debates (ed. Robert Johannsen) warns that “it is a dangerous game to search for present day problems in past history; those who seek will generally find, regardless of the record.” This may be so. It may also be an interesting gloss on Lincoln and Douglas. (Lincoln’s assertion that the equality of all men--including slaves--is held by the “Founders”; and Douglas’ that the Founders’ always understood that declaration to exclude blacks, both seem to me to be an interpretations. In the case of Lincoln, the interpretation is revolutionary; in the case of Douglas, deeply conservative. The seeds for both positions, though, do seem to be present in the writings and actions of the “Founders.” Although I’d be happy to hear other arguments on this point.)

In any event the results of Lincoln’s presidency, which got its start in “searching for present day problems in past history” could certainly be described as “dangerous,” as well as salutary for the country. So, perhaps, might a thorough comparison between the case of slavery and the case of abortion.

My brother recently pointed me to the 2004 Illinois debates between now President-elect Obama and often-presidential nominee Alan Keyes. (I’m guessing you, Steve, have already had a pretty good taste of them.) The debates are spirited, certainly fascinating to consider in light of the historical moment we’re in now. Neither Keyes nor Obama (in my opinion) rises to anything close to what Lincoln and Douglas gave us in 1858. Keyes did, though, in his typically controversial manner, introduce the parallel I’m interested in, beginning his campaign in Illinois by dropping this bomb:

"I would still be picking cotton if the country's moral principles had not been shaped by the Declaration of Independence," Keyes said. He said Obama "has broken and rejected those principles — he has taken the slaveholder's position."

In the (many) YouTube clips I watched on the ‘04 debates, I didn’t hear this statement greatly fleshed out, which to me, is a shame. A “fleshing out” of this and other possible parallels is my goal here. Which comparisons are helpful to make from this moment, which ones are not? Why or why not?

(For example, I do not find Keyes’ comment about the “slaveholder’s position” helpful. Obama’s question about this view seems valid to me: if O. is supporting the slaveholder’s position by supporting the “woman’s right to choose,” wouldn’t that then make the woman the “slaveholder” and the unborn child the “slave”? If this is the case, it is difficult to see how the powerless position of many women who choose to abort their children is comparable to the powerful position of the slaveholders.)

In order that I don’t go on overlong, I end with an example of a distinction and reflection of the kind that (may) be fruitful in “fleshing out” this parallel:

For instance: The institution of slavery, as Lincoln points out, was a colonial inheritance of Britain and not something that was made or enacted by the new nation. (An evil that was tolerated.) This is different from abortion, a procedure that, while it may not be ‘new,’ is new insofar as it is legally protected. This difference suggests that a (not unprecedented) moral resurgence in its citizenry would be necessary for the institution of abortion to be abolished.

Any thoughts on this? Very rambling, I know. My first-ever blog post.

Steve, I was curious to know if you knew much about the legal history of Roe v. Wade and could comment on its relationship to the key legal cases on slavery.

One final thought: has anyone here seen Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire? Best (and only) documentary I’ve seen on the issue of abortion.
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