No, I am not Frederick Douglass

[updated]

Okay. Perhaps I stirred the pot a bit too vigorously. In any case, let me clarify a few things. Ta-Nehisi Coates – whose work I admire greatly, too!* – has quite a lot more to say about the abortion/slavery analogy. I described it as ‘bulky, awkward, creates more heat than light, etc.’ whilst still defending it as undeserving of a Malkin award.

Here’s Ta-Nehisi:

It is not bulky or awkward, it is just wrong. I thought about writing a long response to this detailing the problems with E.D.’s logic. But to point out the obvious fact that Africans were not "part" of the fight against slavery, but its authors, to again detail how enslaved Africans resisted slavery from the moment they were taken into baracoons, to again show how slaves, themselves, by their own actions, transformed the Civil War into a war of liberation, to argue against the implicitly racist notion that enslaved Africans are somehow the equals, not even of children, but of embryos, to even begin to "escaping" the womb does not make you Frederick Douglass is just too much. It is, to be blunt, beneath me.

This is not a matter of being pro-choice or pro-life. This is a matter of living in a country that is more fascinated with the machinations of Stonewall Jackson, than Sojourner Truth. One reason that black people grimace at invocations of their history to justify the struggle de jure, is because, very often, the invokers really don’t know what the fuck they are talking about. Put bluntly they have no deep knowledge of the black struggle, and are not seeking any. For them, black history is a rhetorical device, employed to pummel their ideological foes, and then promptly discarded for more appropriate instruments.

I would never argue that history is the property of specific groups. I would not even argue that history is the property of my allies.  But I would argue that those who invoke it should regard history–all history–as something more than a rhetorical device. If you’re going to claim that Susan B. Anthony was pro-life feminist, have your fucking facts straight. If you’re going to compare abortion and slavery, then, by God, understand that whereas mothers choose every day whether to bring children to term, no slave-master ever chose to have his slave escape. (To say nothing of comparing mothers with slave-masters!! Fuck, my brain is hurting.)

It is not a very good analogy. And I think E.D., whose work I greatly respect, knows it.

So let me just first say that yes – I agree it is not a very good analogy. It is a bad analogy, full of holes designed to inflame more than enlighten. To my knowledge, I have never used the analogy myself.

But. I can still see how someone who vehemently believes that an unborn baby is still a person could stumble into it. I can see this and I can believe in the sincerity of this belief (if not the sincerity of those who then use it to win political battles). This is the entirety of my argument.

I am not arguing that it is a good analogy, that it is one that people should employ, that it does the larger abortion debate any good, that it is at all fair to the legacy of slavery in this country, or that it doesn’t – in the wrong hands at least – cynically appropriate that legacy for political gain. As Ta-Nehisi notes, if anything once it reaches the political stage it twists black history into a ‘rhetorical device, employed to pummel their ideological foes, and then promptly discarded for more appropriate instruments.”

I agree with all of this.

Inevitably the debate – at least in the various comment threads – has spun into one questioning whether an embryo or a fetus is in fact a living being, a person, etc. On these matters, I don’t think we’ll ever reach consensus. I dislike the one side calling the other misogynistic and anti-woman because they consider a fetus a living human being; I don’t particularly like many of the methods the pro-life side uses either. I certainly don’t consider a woman who chooses to have an abortion a murderer any more than I consider a fetus the rough equivalent of a fingernail.

In the end, what I draw from all of this is that when we enter into these debates we should be careful of the language we use. More often than not, all we do is paint the other side in whatever way best caricaturizes them, whatever casts them in the most foolish or most villainous light possible and casts us in the light of truth and goodness and tolerance. And analogizing abortion to slavery is part of this rhetorical warfare. Best to find ways to ratchet down the culture wars rather than find new ways to ratchet up the arms race.

* Thanks to Ta-Nehisi for tossing that last line in. Made for a much softer landing….

I want to draw attention also to this comment from Nevertaken, which I think has some useful push-back in it against Ta-Nehisi and the Malkin award:

I think Ta-Nehisi protests too much.  An analogy, any analogy, is not meant to be a perfect equivalence.  There are parts of slavery which are analogous to abortion: should we accord certain rights to every human organism, or are there other considerations which justify withholding certain rights from certain classes of human organisms.

That is a question which is common to both slavery and abortion. It does not mean that the particular classes of human organism being dicussed are equivalent to each other. The only crude similarity is that slaves in pre-civil war America and unborn human organsims today are each less powerful than what their respective society’s regarded and regard as full citizens.

The fact that pre-birth human organisms are much less powerful, to the point that they are not capable of standing up for themselves in the way that slaves were is certainly true. But I don’t see how that makes the analogy any less apt.

As far as taking offence at the implied comparisons (mother = slaveholder!!), I think we need to separate the discussion of the acts from the culpability of those who are doing them.   I’m in no position to judge the mens rea of any slaveholder, but I can’t imagine that they could have seen what they were doing similarily to what women who have abortions see what they are doing in our society. These women are told by almost all of society that it is their ‘choice’ and that there is no other person involved.  Rationally determining what is going on requires the assistance of biological science, which tells us that a conceived embryo is an organism of the species homo sapiens, rather than the common sense that the must have informed the slaveowner that the guy he was having whipped was a person.

So while I agree that the analogy adds "more heat than light", I think that giving it a Malkin Award and Ta-Nehisi’s ranting that his ‘head hurts’, is also on the bad side of the heat to light ratio.

All very good points – especially the question of culpability and motive. I’ve been thinking of that as well, but didn’t know quite how to put it into words….

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

45 thoughts on “No, I am not Frederick Douglass

  1. TNC had a characteristicly kick ass response. It comes off as irredeemably pedantic to point out to people how poorly they use analogies and also that if you use an analogy you should specify how it applies and how is doesn’t’. I think you are right that people use the slavery analogy as a framing device to paint themselves as virtuous in culture war arguments ( at least that is what i want you to be saying). Too many people become captured by their own frames so they can’t listen or even understand persons arguments.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I’m a white male and not the greatest TNC fan. Just never found his writing all that terrific, although he’s a hell of a lot better than Megan McArdle and The Bibi Netanyahu’s Stenographer, Goldberg.

      Hey, I voted for Obama. Probably for the same reason I do not rush to TNC’s website: Quality.

      Obama was, and is, a better candidate and leader than John McCain, a man who has disappointed me to the greatest of ends with his disturbing lack of character and general poor sportsmanship and statesmanship. Always thought McCain was a better man than he’s shown since November 2008.

      Quality-wise, I never found much of a reason to read TNC’s work. He’s no Sharpton (thankfully) or Jackson (thank you again), but he just never caught my proverbial eye on a consistent basis.

      I tend to like E.D.’s work. Don’t always agree with it, but I favor his various pieces. E.D.’s no polemicist, often sticks to policy,and usually bases his arguments on things logical and cogent.

      But not this time. Have to side with TNC – and against E.D. – on this back-and-forth. Much to my surprise, I found E.D. rather sloppy in his argument and stretching much too far in a lame attempt to make a salient point.

      Never a big fan of F-bombs on blogs or in mags, I think TNC actually used the right means and measure – a good, solid slap upside the head – to convey to E.D. the message that this kind of trash is far, far, far beneath him and this often respectable website.

      E.D., you can do much better than this kind of crap. Much better. Not sure exactly what point, if any, you tried to make during this back-and-forth, but you failed. Don’t pull a Breitbart in a feeble attempt to “save” face. Instead, just admit you screwed up and move forward.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  2. TNC is a fine writer, but every now and then he’s off the mark. I agree that everything he wrote was – pretty much – right, but it doesn’t really address what you wrote. I still think you’re on solid ground.

    I also think it’s probably time to end this discussion, and move on to more important things, like George Clooney’s girlfriend!

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. I think Ta-Nehisi protests too much. An analogy, any analogy, is not meant to be a perfect equivalence. There are parts of slavery which are analogous to abortion: should we accord certain rights to every human organism, or are there other considerations which justify withholding certain rights from certain classes of human organisms.

    That is a question which is common to both slavery and abortion. It does not mean that the particular classes of human organism being dicussed are equivalent to each other. The only crude similarity is that slaves in pre-civil war America and unborn human organsims today are each less powerful than what their respective society’s regarded and regard as full citizens.
    The fact that pre-birth human organisms are much less powerful, to the point that they are not capable of standing up for themselves in the way that slaves were is certainly true. But I don’t see how that makes the analogy any less apt.

    As far as taking offence at the implied comparisons (mother = slaveholder!!), I think we need to separate the discussion of the acts from the culpability of those who are doing them. I’m in no position to judge the mens rea of any slaveholder, but I can’t imagine that they could have seen what they were doing similarily to what women who have abortions see what they are doing in our society. These women are told by almost all of society that it is their ‘choice’ and that there is no other person involved. Rationally determining what is going on requires the assistance of biological science, which tells us that a conceived embryo is an organism of the species homo sapiens, rather than the common sense that the must have informed the slaveowner that the guy he was having whipped was a person.
    So while I agree that the analogy adds “more heat than light”, I think that giving it a Malkin Award and Ta-Nehisi’s ranting that his ‘head hurts’, is also on the bad side of the heat to light ratio.

      Quote  Link

    Report

      • @ThatPirateGuy,

        Ok, the personhood part doesn’t matter. I’m happy to concede that. ‘Personhood’ is either a mystical status wrapped up in the notion of souls and such, or a social construct. In either case it is something which is essentially definable by each of us. However my own definition of personhood does not confer on me the power to kill other humans, no matter how narrowly I chose to define it.
        That’s why I use the term ‘human organism’. This is not a metaphysical or socially constructed term: it is a hard, cold scientific designation. The question is do some human organisms have the moral right to deny life to other human organisms because they have the power to do so and have chosen a definition of personhood which allows them to not feel too bad about doing it?

        Your other objection was answered in E.D.’s previous post, when he talked about the fist and the nose.

        (and thanks for the hat tip, E.D.!)

          Quote  Link

        Report

  4. One can make a rational case that embryos are not equivalent to already born humans; this follows a line of logic that most pro-life folks don’t agree with, but it is logical. There is no such case to be made as to why race ought to define whether or not someone is consigned to be property.

    As far as an embryo being a human; it’s not an inherently anti-woman concept, but it’s one that’s frequently employed to try and sicken women who don’t think that’s the case out of having an abortion — buses with images of dead fetuses; forcing women to view ultrasounds before abortions or informed as to whether the fetus will feel pain; etc. The debate, especially as it relates to contemporary abortion laws, revolves around whether or not women should be punished with mental anguish for even considering abortion.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. Hi E.D.,
    I more or less agree with what you say here, esp. when you note that “It is a bad analogy, full of holes designed to inflame more than enlighten.”

    BUT that’s kind of what the (Malkin Award) is for–“shrill, hyperbolic, divisive, and intemperate right-wing rhetoric.” An analogy that is designed to inflame rather than enlighten is rhetoric meant to burn bridges and increase divisions. Hence, you and Sully agree: making this analogy is worth a Malkin award nomination.

    Everything else that has been discussed here about whether or not an embryo is alive or about the sincerity of the argument may be useful, but is tangential to the first observation of this sort of rhetoric, which is that it’s not helpful to conversation.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. “More often than not, all we do is paint the other side in whatever way best caricaturizes them, whatever casts them in the most foolish or most villainous light possible and casts us in the light of truth and goodness and tolerance.”

    “any more than I consider a fetus the rough equivalent of a fingernail”

    Just saying. Abortion = murder is a mainstream view amongst pro-life people. Finding a fetus to be no different from any other part of one’s body is probably not the majority view amongst pro-choice activists. It’s no different from any other body part only in that the person carrying it gets to decide what happens to it.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  7. One always cute thing about the abortion question is how it inverts the philosophies of the respective sides of the debate. Pro-life conservatives suddenly discover the primacy of positive rights, the intrusion of the state into the personal sphere and the desirability of the government settling theological questions. Meanwhile pro-choice liberals suddenly embrace the mantle of individualism, limited government and freedom of choice.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  8. Coates clearly is of the opinion that embryos are not worthy of being compared to african-americans. Of course, many white supremacist felt it was absolutely degrading to whites to be compared to as equals with blacks.

    That’s the analogy folks, you can disagree with it, but it qualifies based on the definition of what an analogy is.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • @Nick, Coates is of the opinion that embryos are not worthy of being compared to African American slaves. There is such a thing as an African American embyro, you know. The analogy isn’t whites thought it was degrading to be compared to blacks just like blacks think it’s degrading to be compared to embryos, the analogy is that a fetuses experience is similar to that of a slave.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  9. Zach, I respectfully disagree that the majority of pro-lifers believe that abortion = murder. Most pro-life people are remarkably incoherent in their beliefs.

    Rape: Very few pro-lifers take the position that abortion should not be allowed in cases of rape. But under the law, a person may kill another only in self-defense and even then only under certain conditions (e.g., the killer reasonably must have fear of imminent serious harm). These conditions do not exist for an unwanted pregnancy.

    Miscarriage: If a fertilized egg acquires personhood and the protection of the law at the moment of fertilization, then the rate of spontaneous miscarriage is the single greatest tragedy facing mankind. Where is the outcry?

    Prevention of future harm: In general, you cannot be locked up simply because you may break a law sometime in the future. However, the law does not need to wait until you’ve killed in order to stop you; there are crimes like conspiracy and attempt that kick in well before you pull a trigger. So, how many pro-lifers are proposing that leaving the state (or, to federalize the issue, the country) for the purpose of obtaining an abortion should be a crime?

    In certain circumstances, the state can do what’s called “civil commitment.” A person is found incapable of taking care of herself (essentially insane), and is locked up until such time as she becomes well. How many pro-lifers are talking openly about using civil commitment laws to restrain the movement of pregnant women who have indicated that they are planning to seek an abortion?

    Prison terms: Murder is just about the most serious crime we have. (Treason is the only one that might be in the running; it’s the only one specifically listed in the Constitution.) Prison terms for murder are very long in most states, frequently 25 years or more. Just how many pro-lifers want to lock up every woman who has an abortion for that long?

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • @Francis,
      Let me try to bring some coherence to these points for you:

      Rape: continuing a pregnancy is not the same as not killing someone: it is a fairly onerous positive obligation. The law only imposes obligations like this in specific circumstances: parents must provide for their minor children, you must live up to the contracts you entered into, if you have caused a dangerous situation for another through your own choices, you have an obligation to mitigate that danger. In this context, there is nothing wrong with the position that a woman should only be obliged to remain pregnant if she willingly chose the course of action which foreseeably led to the situation.

      Miscarriage: 100% of humans die. Many of them die naturally before they are born. This is tragic, but it is no one’s fault and there is nothing we can do about it in many cases. Note that medical science advances and in the cases we can do something about it, we generally do: one of the medical areas where ‘heroic measures’ are most frequently taken is in the area of premature babies.

      Future harm: I’m not sure that I would agree with all proposals put for leaving the state, etc., but I’ve never heard of this proposal. Abortion is legal in all states, so it doesn’t even make sense to me.
      Most pro-lifers want to save the lives of the unborn, as opposed to punishing mothers for having abortions.
      Many of them use overblown political rhetoric ‘abortion is murder’, which, in the paralance of this thread ‘adds more heat than light’. But the general intention is to prevent the deaths of innocent human beings. Very few pro-lifers conclude that locking anyone up for decades will help this cause. Some do, but that’s a debate about ends and means, not about the merits of the ends in themselves.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • @Nevertaken,

        “continuing a pregnancy is not the same as not killing someone: it is a fairly onerous positive obligation”

        I can’t see how this is compatible with your earlier statements in the thread, particularly in regards to bodily autonomy. If pregnancy is an onerous obligation and ending it is not the same as killing someone, then opting to no longer use your body for the sustenance of another life becomes a legally and morally permissible choice.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • @Gorgias,

          You misquoted me when you repeated my statement in your response in a way which erased my meaning: I said continuing a pregnancy is not the same as not killing someone. You rephrased this as ending a pregnancy is not the same as killing someone. I stand by what I said, but I disagree with your statement. Ending a pregnacy by abortion is killing someone. Continuing a pregnancy to term is not the same as merely refraining from killing someone.

          An easier to understand example: I am a parent(of a post-birth human organism). My obligation to my daughter extends beyond refraining from killing her. I need to provide substantive resources to ensure her health and well being: or, at least I need to ensure that she is provided with the resources she needs. That is a positive obligation. If I decide to not fulfill that obligation and she dies because this, then what I have done is the same as killing her. However, if I (as I intend) give her all that she needs to grow up healthily, then I will have done more than merely not killing her.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • @Nevertaken, You could also call up children’s services, tell them you can’t get your shit together to take care of your little one and have someone take her off your hands. If you choose to parent, you have responsibilities. No one should be forced to parent or carry a fetus they don’t want or can’t handle.

            There are those in the community that are all too willing to adopt. The same should be true for fetuses. For those crying about the loss of life, they should scrape up their communal disposable incomes and invest in R/D on new preemie technology.

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • @Cascadian,
              Actually men routinely get forced to provide resources for children they never wanted to have. In my view, this is entirely right and appropriate, but it seems to against your stated principles here, so I’m curious as to whether you think child support payments by men who don’t want to be parents should be abolished, or if you have some fine, principled distinction as to why your expansive view of parental freedom should not extend to them?

                Quote  Link

              Report

            • @Nevertaken, Nope, You’ve got me there. Certainly, if someone is willing to take up the mantle, the man can get away from his responsibility… the mother’s new husband wants to adopt. Otherwise, the guy is stuck. Even this isn’t as I would want it. If you have some schmuck that doesn’t want to be a part of a child’s life, I would prefer that the state intervene and provide support, provided that the guy buggers off and leaves the children alone. Perhaps this is an unexplored avenue for families. Perhaps it could work like big brothers, where a woman agrees to let a family or individual adopt an interest in the child and the dead beat gets out of the picture. It could be a win win situation.

                Quote  Link

              Report

            • @Cascadian,
              You’re right, it doesn’t. However in the case of the unborn, if the mother reliquishes the burden before viability (23 or so weeks), the offspring will die, and there is no technology our society possesses which can change that.

              Obviously if you don’t think pre-viable humans have lives which are morally worth the imposition of a term of pregnancy on women who have chosen to at least take the risk of getting pregnant, then my analogy to child-neglect breaks down.

              But the point I was making is that it is not inconsitent to hold that an unborn baby is a human life, which should not be killed, but at the same time to not require that women who have been raped (and therefore have no responsibility for causing the unborn child to be in such a precarious and vulnerable position) continue their pregnancies.

                Quote  Link

              Report

            • @Cascadian, I think a pre-viable life could be worth saving, but not at the expense of someone else’s freedom. People die all over the world all the time. If I enslaved you (to keep with the spirit of the post) in order to save these poor souls, wouldn’t it be a moral trade off? You just lose your freedom. They are allowed to live.

              If the little tadpole is a comparable life then why make an exception to rape or incest? Maybe I don’t understand your argument.

                Quote  Link

              Report

            • @Cascadian,
              I suggest that that’s a false comparison.
              I agree that carrying a baby to term is a very significant burden. But I do not think that it is the same as the total loss of freedom that you are inferring here.

              The trade off I’m looking at is the impostion of (at most) 9 months of pregnacy, versus the whole life of the child. There is no question of anyone being ‘enslaved’ in anything like the sense that pre-civil war African Americans were (to keep with the theme of the thread).

              Also, as I have said elsewhere in this labyrinth of comments, I would say that trade-off should only be imposed in the case where the mother decided to at least take the chance that she would get pregnant, not in the case of rape where she had no say at all (and please find and read those other comments before you accuse me of the inconsitency inherent here). So only if she consents to this possibility should this burden be imposed on her.

              So yes, my position requires an infringement on the freedom that women enjoy now. I do not take that lightly. But I do not see any way to weigh the comparative ‘imposition’ or ‘infringement’ of rights between the mother and the child and come up with the conclusion that, although pregnacy is a hefty burden, that it compares to having a whole life erased.

                Quote  Link

              Report

            • @Cascadian,
              I guess I need to explain my ‘exception’ a bit more.

              I do not take lightly the imposition of requirments on free individuals: even to save the lives of others. That does not mean that I think that we should not set aside our own freedoms and hopes and dreams and expectations to save the lives of other: it means that this burden should not be imposed on us without our consent.

              Sex foreseeably leads to pregnancy: even if precautions are taken, everyone who is competent to consent to sexual intercourse, is competent to know this possible outcome.
              By choosing to have sex, we (men and women) are choosing to possibly cause a human life to start. The individual who’s life we’ve started had no say in the matter at all.

              Our society thinks nothing of holding men to this standard, and that is a good thing as far as I am concerned. Once a man decides to have sex, regardless of his intentions or any precautions he may have taken, if that sex results in a baby, we hold him accountable to support that baby. If he doesn’t do this the law imposes it on him and we call him things like “shmuck” and “deadbeat” ;) – and, as I said before, that is right and proper.

              We are less comfortable with holding women to this standard, and that is entirely understandable for two reasons.

              One because historically women have borne the burden of unwanted children, and it has been a heavy burden.

              And two, because biology imposes a much heavier physical burden upon women: pregnancy.

              I don’t think that such a serious physical burden should be imposed by law upon any of us free citizens without any form of consent. But, if such a burden is needed to prevent the death of an innocent (someone who has not had any say in any matter), then the law does and should impose burdens on people who knowingly and willing choose to take actions which forseeably led to the situation.

              So in essence, it is the weight of the burden of pregnancy which leads mean to conclude that it should not be imposed on a woman who had no say in the matter: i.e. a woman who was raped. Even if that means that an innocent child will die.

                Quote  Link

              Report

  10. I would be much more likely to believe the, “well, I’m just saying that given the premises it’s easy to see how someone would come to this otherwise absurd conclusion,” if you were willing to extend that to people for whom you have no sympathy. I’m about as pro-choice as you get and I’m willing to concede that the belief that a fetus is a human being is a philosophically defensible belief, and that once this is established the slavery analogy isn’t very far fetched. But your inability to extend the same courtesy to the animal rights activists, whose premise differs in plausibility from the one you’re defending only to the extent that you happen to disagree with it, proves that you’re being blinded by your bias. (For the record, I am both pro-choice and an omnivore, but I can at least understand where the other side is coming from).

      Quote  Link

    Report

  11. I first encountered the slavery analogy maybe a decade ago, and speaking as someone who remains pretty firmly in the pro-choice side, for me it generated more light than heat. In particular, a discussion with a pro-life activist who used that analogy helped me to much better understand the level of passion he felt for his cause.

    I contended then, and would still contend today, that the analogy is wrongheaded for many of the reasons TNC lists. And perhaps as an analogy its time has passed. But in its day, I think it probably contributed to a better understanding between the two sides than there used to be.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  12. Mr. Kane, you just soared in my estimation. Always before I thought you were merely a Cato puppy repeating the diatribes from the repugs, but now that I find that you are hated at Right Wing News I will have to pay more attention. Congratulations, anybody that is hated at that blog can’t be all bad.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  13. I think you stepped over a lot of bounds here, and I found the analogy pretty offensive and stupid, too. I’m with Ta-Nehisi on this, though – the effect matters more than the intentions of the people using it. Given where you’re coming from, you really should have known better, and I am glad that as usual you see that.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  14. Puh-lease don’t fall into the trap of believing that Ta-Nehisi and Andrew Sullivan really are offended by the use of a slavery analogy. They’re offended by something pro-life. The pro-choice side has been using slavery analogies for years- mothers forbidden to kill the unborn are “slaves” of the state, forced baby carriers, yadda yadda – yawns all around the Atlantic playpen. Similarly, Sullivan has repeatedly screamed that the merest idea that the centuries-long, all cultures-accepted, practice of describing the union of boy and girl as a marriage is the moral equivalent of Dred Scott. Basically, the rule is simple- if you wish to use the slavery analogy, use it only to describe any and every policy or position held by anyone who has ever voted Republican. Otherwise, and only otherwise, it’s an outrage.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *