Friday, 5 June 2009
Once upon a time there was a famous Wizard who made wishes come true. In the weird and wonderful land of Oz, the Wizard captured people's imaginations and creatures travelled far and wide just to ask him for a favour. Of course those of us who know the story, know that all said creatures already had what it is they were after and the journey to the Emerald City was one of self-discovery during which our heroes learned to accept themselves and others.
The story I am about to tell you now has many similarities to that tale but, as it's a true story, we are not holding our breath for the happy ending.
So, my story begins with the cowardly lion. Not the cute one in the movie but the man who shot a doctor dead a few days ago in the US of A, in church, no less, because they disagreed on the issue of abortion. Well, we sure are not in Kansas any more, if people who call themselves 'pro-life' kill a man to stop him from doing things they disagree with. Only, we are in Kansas, cos that's exactly where the crime took place: in a church foyer in Wichita Kansas.
And here's me thinking anti-abortionists were church-going folk who objected to a woman's right to choose on God grounds and would never desecrate a church.
As you would expect, anti-abortion groups in Wichita were fast to condemn the murder. They would never do that, they said. Harassment was their method of choice. Without a hint of embarrassment they relate to the press how they have spent money, time and effort to have Dr George Tiller investigated by the health authorities and prosecuted for 'his crimes'. Which are? Doing something that is perfectly legal but contrary to the moral code of some.
News flash, everyone: 'but I don't like it' stops being a valid argument roundabout the time you start kindergarten. Especially when the thing you are pouting at is a. legal b. none of your business.
Because abortion is legal and the people who are objecting to it are not being forced to have one, so what is their problem? Or, to put it more scientifically, whatever happened to that most glorious gift of American democracy: liberty? Was the gift a lie – smoke and mirrors, a bit like the Wizard of Oz himself? Is your liberty actually mitigated by who disagrees with you and how powerful they are? The short answer to this, I'm afraid, is yes.
And of course abortion is a very controversial subject for American politics. In fact, it is bordering on the obsessive. Election after election, the christian right will find a way to make abortion a debate topic somehow. Why? Because they care. But why they care quite so much, beats me.
Why is there a large chunk of the American public who cares so much about something that doesn't necessarily concern them?
Bear with me here:
Abortion is never compulsory even when it is advisable on medical grounds. So those who object to abortion don't need to have one. Surely that should be the end of the conversation, in a democracy, right? Right. Unless you are a neo-con, Christian rightist who believes that their morality is the straightjacket humanity has always needed.
Now I am not for a moment suggesting that all anti-abortionists would condone the killing of George Tiller, publicly or privately. And I don't think anyone would disagree that the man who shot him is a danger to society and should not have had access to a weapon. But – oh hold on, what do I see here? Do I see statistics suggesting that anti-abortionists are in their majority pro-guns? And, no, before you ask, they don't see the irony here.
I will not patronise you by saying I am pro-choice and anti-gun, it's dead obvious – no pun intended. But I will say that this is where we have a communication breakdown with 'The Other Side' – the Wicked Witch of the West and her ultra-right flying monkeys: when it comes to gun laws, they uphold every man's right to own a gun. To this, I say it is my right to not live in fear that some lunatic will buy a gun from Wal-Mart and wreak havoc just because. I fail to see how guns are useful items of everyday life and do seriously believe that my right to stay alive outweighs somebody's right to have a very dangerous toy. Go to the range and shoot all you like buster but don't take it to the mall. Where other people may suffer the consequences of your choices.
You see where I am going with this.
Abortion is different. It's personal and private. Doing or not doing it affects only the mother and the foetus. And although the entire controversy is, of course, around whether the foetus is a person that should be protected, the point remains that the debate is around a medical procedure that affects one body: that of the mother. And while the debate on whether a foetus is a person continues, how about a musical interlude during which the pro-lifers explain to us why, feeling as strong as they do on the subject of the foetus as a living being whose life is sacred, they remain in favour of free access to deadly weapons and the death penalty?
Dr Tiller's death will now reopen the debate on abortion – a debate that President Obama was rather keen to not have to deal with just yet as it never leads to anything other than bitter recriminations, value judgments and frothing at the mouth by some.
But debate they will now.
And what I want to know is this: what's there to debate?
A woman's right to choose is something to defend and fight for.
Dr Tiller's death is something to castigate and prevent from ever reoccurring.
But if you want a debate, how about discussing the harassment Dr Tiller dealt with in life (blockades and attacks outside his clinic, home and church; a series of legal challenges including two grand juries convened by citizen-led petition drives; and a previous non-lethal gun attack), how about discussing how all this can be stropped and a doctor administering a legal procedure protected from thugs and bullies?
Abortion is legal but there's nothing stopping pro-lifers from following the yellow brick road and seeking out the wonderful wizard of Oz with a plea to reverse the law and make abortion illegal. But while doing that they have to the stick to the yellow brick road and avoid breaking the law themselves (through harassment, murder or intimidation).
And you never know, the journey of self-discovery that helped the tinman realise he already had a heart may help pro-lifers too. They may realise that pro-choice stands for just that. Nobody is saying abortion is a good or pleasant thing. Nobody is saying it should replace contraception. Nobody is saying it is an easy choice. But it is a choice that must be available. Because women get raped, because pregnancy may present a danger to the mother's health, or because a woman is not emotionally and psychologically ready to cope with motherhood.
And while the pro-lifers will preach abstinence and threaten us with fire and brimstone and the pits of hell, I just hope that Glinda will glide in and reset terms, reminding everyone that while abortion remains legal, the state has a duty to protect practitioners from violence, intimidation, harassment. And a duty to protect the women who choose the exercise that right.
And failing that, maybe Obama should take some time to remind everyone – not what he thinks on the issue of abortion - but what the law prescribes and what the state will uphold, for as long as the law stands.
Then let the debate resume in these terms, while I rub my ruby slippers, willing a house to collapse on the thugs who have killed 4 doctors in the past ten years just for giving women the right to choose as the law prescribes.
Monday, 1 June 2009
A few days ago I read an article that winded me. It upset me. It angered me more than I can say. And my anger revealed a basic truth about myself: there are limits to my open-mindedness. I am not proud of this for, although I reject and resent those who attempt to silence me, there are people I would like silenced. So this is less of a polemic, for a change, and more of a confessional. Bear with me.
Beliefs are important.
But beliefs only come about on issues where more than one answer is possible. You don't believe in breathing because without it you die. There is only one way to deal with the issue and that is to breathe. You don't believe in what is given, natural and non-negotiable. Belief is about conscious espousal. Belief is about choice.
And here is where my trouble begins.
There are certain things where I don't believe choice exists. There are some issues on which I feel there is only one natural reaction. And when, on those issues, someone disagrees with me, I experience it as a violation of the laws of nature.
Take racism for instance.
I struggle with it. Not just because of its intrinsic injustice and irrational rejection of some human beings in favour of others. But because to my mind it is unnatural and therefore it should not exist. And this is not just a moral 'should'. It is physiological. It should not be possible for racism to exist. The equality of all human beings is not up for debate. It does not need to be believed to be true. Yet it does. In practice, it does. Because unless you act like it's true then it stops being true for many people.
And here is my problem. I do not accept the racist's right to their convictions. I think they deserve a thorough beating. I am ashamed to be saying this. But it is true and the urge to hit someone overwhelmed me when, a few days ago, I read an article in a back copy of the New York Times. Here is the issue: At Montgomery County High School in Georgia, USA, black and white students mingle freely in the classrooms and corridors but every year, without fail, they hold separate proms.
On the face of it, that's no big deal. Schools are no longer segregated and what's in a party? Well. Everything. Actually.
First of all I can hardly believe this occurs in the first place. And let me say that segregated proms are not a Montgomery County specialty but take place across the rural South of the US. Only last year, actor Morgan Freeman offered to pay for an integrated prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi, his home state. This was to be the first prom of its kind and students supported the idea but a group of white parents rejected the offer and held a rival prom for the 'white folk'. That then the white folk dully attended, perpetuating the problem.
The segregated proms are organised outside the schools by parents and student committees. While all students are welcome to the black prom, few if any white students turn up. The white prom on the other hand is governed by an unspoken rule that keeps black students at bay.
Omerta in the schoolyard.
Black students, the New York Times report, have put pressure on Montgomery County High to hold a single school-sponsored prom to no avail.
Students are quick to note that interracial friendships and couples are common at Montgomery County High School. White parents don't always approve but what they don't know, can't hurt them.
We are not like our parents, say the students.
Bullshit you are not. If you go to the white-only prom they throw for you, you are as much part of the problem as they are.
And the fact that the students interviewed discuss what is natural as a breakthrough in public morality ('we have black friends, we have black boyfriends') simply underlines the hypocrisy of it all.
Your friends are the people you want to spend the prom with. Your boyfriend or girlfriend is the person you want to go to the prom with. What fun is a prom that excludes the very people you are supposed to share it with? What good is a celebration that excludes and humiliates the people you want to share it with?
And how come, neither love, nor friendship, nor moral outrage stand in the way of hundreds of students attending such proms, year in year out?
We are not racist, say the students. It's just how it's always been. Our parents refuse to pay for mixed proms and having segregated ones is a tradition.
It's how it's always been.
To hell with that.
'It's how it's always been' was the argument used to defend slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, the criminalisation of homosexuality. 'It's how it's always been' has been the argument in favour of the continuation of all repressive practices in human history. And I have news for you: it is a lie. No social practice has always been. Every social practice is human made and can be unmade by humans. And few have been so lucky as to be able to affect social change of this magnitude by simply not going to a party.
Beliefs matter. But actions matter more.
These kids say they believe in one thing, but when it comes down to it, they do another. It's hard work, living up to your beliefs. Standing up to Dad. Missing parties and whatnot. Practicing what you preach is hard work.
I understand them, I know reading about their predicament has put me in the same position they are in, of believing in one thing and wanting to do another. You see, although I believe in everyone's right to hold and express any belief they choose, my action of choice in this particular isntance, if only distance permitted, would be to go over to that white-only prom and kick their righteous racist asses to hell and back.