Amy Coney Barrett and the Feminist Contradiction

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I was on an airplane somewhere between Des Moines and Manchester when the Americans learned of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s demise. They had expected her death for the past two years, at least, and many of them privately hoped for it; certainly, the right-wing conservatives who voted for Donald Trump in the wake of Antonin Scalia’s death wanted to see the president put one of their preferred ideologues on the Supreme Court, but we ought not to forget the pessimists and nihilists who were looking forward to the political turmoil that would follow the news that Ginsburg was dead. They must be disappointed with the reaction hitherto, as we haven’t heard any of the caterwauling, nor have we witnessed any of the scuffling, that defined Brett Kavanaugh’s infamous appointment to the Court. On the contrary, the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett have been downright dull, laden in their sense of inevitability. Even the Democrat Senators, whose mawkish gestures in the Kavanaugh affair almost equaled the plangency of the protesters, seem to be struggling to stay awake as they ask Barrett the same pointless questions again and again.

Perhaps they exhausted themselves in their relentless attack on Kavanaugh, an assault that did not appeal to the public nearly as much as the corporate media would like us to believe. Joe Manchin, a Democrat Senator representing West Virginia, received permission from his party bosses to vote for Kavanaugh, as this was expected to benefit him in his re-election campaign—and so it did, as he defeated his opponent by the thinnest of margins. In other words, the political operatives in the Democratic Party believed, correctly, that voting for Kavanaugh was the “moderate” position, that the “moderate” or “centrist” position rejected the Democrats’ mass of allegations that Kavanaugh had raped dozens, if not hundreds, of women. That is a remarkable discordance for a political party that has claimed the exclusive right of representation, as well as the only right to speak, for every American woman.

The deliberate conflation of American women and the Democratic Party has been an effort several years in the making and accelerated quite conspicuously in the Trumpish Age. It failed to win the Democrats the presidency in 2016, and it did not prevent Kavanaugh from reaching the bench, but it did propel several congressional races in 2018, and it looks as though it will push Joe Biden into the White House in just a few weeks. Such should be enough—more than enough, really—to make us forget the surreal sight of women in the Democratic Party castigating Barrett for her refusal to adhere to “the feminist standard”. They have reached this conclusion because Barrett will support some future overturning of Roe v. Wade and thereby jeopardize the legality of elective abortion in the United States. Undeniably, this is blasphemous to modern feminists, but here we must pause, for we have ceased to speak of women and have begun to speak of feminism—and the distinction is as critical as the distinction between women and the Democratic Party.

One who knew nothing of America, save for its depiction in the corporate press, would necessarily conclude that every American woman identifies as a feminist and, more importantly, votes for the Democrats. If this were the case, then it would raise some puzzling questions, chief among them: “How do the Republicans ever manage to win an election anywhere?” Much can be blamed on the undemocratic nature of the electoral college, but this particular incongruity cannot, and the effort to deny it, to dishonestly ignore the fifty percent of women who vote Republican, raises unsettling questions about the motivations of the people who are trying to construct the official narrative. Are they attempting to claim for themselves an undeserved moral superiority by pretending that quite literally all American women are on their side? Are they using this as a shield with which to deflect criticism of the Democratic Party? Are they unwilling to enter a factual debate?

We shall limit ourselves to the most obvious example of their intellectual timidity: the seemingly interminable debate on the right to abortion. It is true that the majority of American women—sixty percent, according to the Pew Research Center—support this right “in most or all cases”, but that number is strikingly slighter than one should expect, if one were to trust in the portrait painted by the mainstream media. That portrait depicts the controversy as a rigidly gendered dispute, with no men in support and, more importantly, with no women in opposition; the BBC, whose audience is mostly non-American, has been especially active in the proliferation of this stereotype. It is all part of a standard propaganda campaign, the purpose of which is to demonize everyone who has ethical concerns about abortion. We might say, “every man who has ethical concerns”, as the forty percent of women who share in this unease have been shunned from the public perception, reduced to the preternatural status of African-Americans who support the right to slavery.

This unwillingness to debate abortion is gradually becoming a reluctance to discuss or even define it. Democrats are beginning to speak seldom of “abortion rights” and frequently of “reproductive rights” or, even more preferably, “women’s health care decisions”. While they may be squeamish in a time of advancing medical science to examine the details of this procedure—and here we are, making our own euphemism—it is just as likely that they are attempting to assert the a priori virtue of abortion. At the very least, such a strategy would be consistent with their denial of demographic reality—a reality that confronts them in the person of Barrett, a figure who furnishes inconvenient proof that womanhood, feminism, and the Democratic Party are not synonymous.

Perhaps their evasion has been a defensive reaction to the conservatives’ untimely encroachments upon abortion rights. When the Republicans exploited our economic uncertainty to take control of the House of Representatives in 2010, they did nothing to address unemployment, stagnant wages, or the cost of living; instead, they mounted a bizarre and unbecoming “culture war”, not just against abortion rights, but against LGBT rights, as well. This inexplicable fixation on an issue that, as the polling by the Pew Research Center proves, lacks comprehensive public support failed to generate sufficient interest in the presidential primaries—hence Rick Santorum’s unsuccessful outing—and in the general election—hence Todd Akin’s infamous downfall—of 2012. It is doubtful that many of the feminists who became politically active only in the Trumpish Age recall any of this recent history, but it has afforded them sufficient justification to complain of their opponents’ misplaced priorities.

Our collective obsession with abortion probably does betray such a lack of focus, but the so-called feminists who defend it without understanding it share the guilt with the right-wing conservatives who condemn injustice selectively. American culture is notoriously inhospitable to life, sometimes through a reckless disregard, at other times through an active antipathy, and until we commence a serious analysis of our moral incoherence, any legislative or judicial activity pertaining to abortion will be a cosmetic solution, at best. Alas, superficiality is fundamental to American character, and our indignant disdain for the opportunity that Barrett’s nomination presents, the opportunity for a sobering reflection on our practiced political ignorance, is entirely in keeping with our mien.

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