James Bowman shares his insights about America from the election

Over the centuries many art critics have provided trenchant insights into their culture.  Today such people are most often conservatives, perhaps because their viewpoint is so alien to the liberal or leftist ideologies dominant in the West’s artistic communities.  Two leading examples are the Canadian Mark Steyn and James Bowman.

Here is an excerpt which moves from its subject onto wider and even more interesting terrain (as his essay’s so often do).  I recommend clicking on the link to read it in full.

The Choice of Sarah Palin“, James Bowman, The New Criterion, 31 October 2008 — Excerpt:

faux Vogue Cover
faux Vogue Cover

It may seem odd, at first, that the unbending, hard-line “pro-choice” attitude to abortion adopted by so many feminists of a generation now deprived by nature of their “reproductive rights” came to its present position of political importance just when it did. For that was at the same moment in our cultural history, the early 1970s, when the only good reason for legalized abortion apart from mere personal preference — namely, the social stigma attaching to single motherhood — was on its way, very rapidly, out. Who could imagine such a cruel, unenlightened approach to female sexuality today as the one which was all-but universal up until the 1960s?

And yet some very enlightened people in the media and the Democratic party would have been happy for an ad hoc re-scandalizing of illegitimacy when it was revealed, the day after John McCain’s electrifying announcement of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his choice for the Republican vice-presidential nomination, that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant.

Of course it wouldn’t do for them to call this teenager a slut and a hussy, but they were pretty sure that there must be something in her interesting condition which would allow them to accuse her mother, a conservative evangelical Christian, of hypocrisy. Or something.

… For the most part, the left was forced to move on to its factitious outrage at the hopeful vice-president’s relatively brief experience in high office – though this might have been thought extremely shaky ground for the backers of a hopeful president who was a first-term senator with no executive experience at all. But at least one person, Carol Fowler, chairman of the Democratic party of South Carolina, tried with rather more wit than the Sullivanites to bring back sex by noting Senator McCain had chosen a running-mate “whose primary qualification seems to be that she hasn’t had an abortion.” Of course, poor Ms Fowler was forced to apologize – and for the same reason any Republican who had dared to complain of how Hillary Clinton’s chief qualification for the presidency was that she hasn’t divorced Bill Clinton would have been forced to apologize. Even the feminists, their noses put very considerably out of joint by the nomination of a conservative Republican to a national ticket ahead of their gal Hillary, would not stand for such a slight offered to a woman in power.

Yet, as is so often the case, the sayers of the unsayable had a point. I happen not to agree that not having an abortion was Governor Palin’s primary qualification, but who can doubt that it was a qualification – as was her basketball-playing, beauty-queening, moose-killing and hockey-momming. A man with her qualifications could have been no more eligible for the Republican nomination for vice president than a middle-class white man with Senator Obama’s qualifications could have been eligible for the Democratic nomination for president. But what, as I have said, is the point in trying to make a scandal out of that?

On all sides, this is proving to be even more of a symbolic election than the last one, just as the last one was more symbolic than the election before it. If you’re in the business of symbolism – as, willy-nilly, our politicians and their handlers are nowadays – you’d better get used to it and stop being outraged that the electorate aren’t paying attention to “the issues.” There are no issues to pay attention to anyway, since both candidates are, as the media now force them to be, utopians who believe that the job to which they aspire is to put all that’s wrong with the world – thank you, George W. Bush! – to rights again.

… If there’s one thing we can be sure that John McCain – or anybody else – won’t do and couldn’t do if he wanted to, even though he may indeed want to, it’s to make abortion illegal. Nothing would happen. Or almost nothing. There might be a few fetuses at the margins who are suffered to live and who otherwise wouldn’t be as more restrictions are placed on the availability of abortion in the most conservative states, but those will come with or without a McCain presidency.

In fact, given the inevitable fillip to local Republicans of an Obama victory, they are more likely to come without it than with it. At no time in the foreseeable future will a woman who is determined to have an abortion be unable to obtain one in the United States of America, and that is a legacy not of the Burger court but of an earlier sort of symbolism pioneered by the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s who found that the libertarian message of “choice” was far more effective with the electorate (and the judiciary!) than the neo-Marxist one, still preached by doctrinaire feminism, of women’s “oppression” by men.

For abortion became legal not only at the same time that illegitimacy and pre-marital sex learned to hold their heads up high but also at the same time that conscription was ended and the armed forces were instructed that henceforth they would have to be manned – and, increasingly, womanned – by volunteers. I think that the two developments are closely related. Child-bearing has traditionally been thought of as a defining act for women, just as military service has been for men. This way of looking at the world is built into all honor cultures we know of, wherever we find them. They regard men’s honor as flowing from bravery in battle and women’s from chastity before marriage and fertility (and fidelity) after it.

But America’s honor culture, like that of the Western world generally, had been under assault since the 1920s, and the catastrophic defeat of a conscript army in Vietnam finally finished it off. Roe v. Wade and the all-volunteer (i.e. pro-choice) army – both dating from 1973, the year of America’s withdrawal of her last combat troops from Vietnam – were therefore both symbolic repudiations of those traditional expectations of womanhood and manhood.

As a culture we remain strongly attached to this symbolism. So strongly indeed that, 35 years later, there remains as little prospect of a return to conscription as there is of a return to criminalized abortion, although every now and then the idea (of the former, not the latter) is brought out and dusted off again, as Time magazine did, under the guise of “national service,” the week after Governor Palin’s nomination.

FM posts about Gov Palin

Al Fin says in comment #7:

Sarah Palin is accustomed to being underestimated, and the leftist bleatings from this year’s campaign fit into the same mould. Watching the pseudo-intellectual boobs inventing fantasies about Palin and presenting them as fact was one of the most entertaining aspects of the entire season.

That’s one perspective, but it does not fit what we saw during the campaign:

  1. McCain believes we are stupid. Is he correct?, 30 August 2008 — What does choosing Palin say about McCain?  Esp note the intense discussion in the comments.
  2. Alaska is near Russia, and Gov Palin’s other foreign policy experience, 1 September 2008
  3. It’s is not just McCain who believes we’re dumb – it’s a crowd, 3 September 2008
  4. Governor Palin as an archetype for our time, 9 September 2008
  5. Before we reignite the cold war, what happened in Georgia?, 12 September 2008 — Notes from Palin’s first interview.
  6. Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008 — More from the ABC interview.
  7. Campaign Update – news from the front, 25 September 2008 — Includes part 1 of Couric’s interview of Palin.
  8. Gov Palin speaks about foreign policy, 26 September 2008 — Part 2 of Couric’s interview.
  9. Republican and conservative critics of Gov Palin, 2 November 2008 — see section 2.
  10. Comment about “turkey-gate”, 23 November 2008

Afterword

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8 thoughts on “James Bowman shares his insights about America from the election

  1. … If there’s one thing we can be sure that John McCain – or anybody else – won’t do and couldn’t do if he wanted to, even though he may indeed want to, it’s to make abortion illegal. Nothing would happen. Or almost nothing. There might be a few fetuses at the margins who are suffered to live and who otherwise wouldn’t be as more restrictions are placed on the availability of abortion in the most conservative states, but those will come with or without a McCain presidency.

    It is certainly true that if McCain had been elected president, and if he had attempted to make abortion illegal, he would have been going contrary to the prevailing US sentiment on the issue. This is shown, in my mind, by the recent defeat of several “pro-life” ballot initiatives. However, this argument seems somewhat naive to me. There is a great deal that a US government which was truly interested in rolling back reproductive rights could do, both obviously and secretively, to alter the parameters of the current laws, not the least of which is to appoint Supreme court justices. The admission that “There might be a few fetuses at the margins who are suffered to live” seems a bit odd to me, as that is pretty much the situation with reproductive rights today: certain states have have the rights in reality, while others have managed to effectively put up barriers to them. In many areas, women who want abortions need to travel to another state to get them. It seems to me that a US government which wanted to increase these barriers could probably do so, even if it did not make abortion illegal outright.

  2. Wow Fabius,

    That Vogue photo is the most inspiring political photo since the nude centerfold of Henry Kissinger the Harvard Lampoon put out some time ago.

  3. … and in THIS corner …

    First lady got back“, Erin Aubry Kaplan, Salon, 18 November 2008 — “I’m a black woman who never thought I’d see a powerful, beautiful female with a body like mine in the White House. Then I saw Michelle Obama — and her booty!”
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: It is amazing what American women can get away with writing that would get an American man condemned to eternal perdition by liberal-thinking people.

  4. Is it correct to say that “liberal or leftist ideologies (are) dominant in the West’s artistic communities”? I understand that much of Hollywood and the culture surrounding pop-punk might be seen as leftist (country music’s on the right), but most artists that I’m aware of are basically apolitical or have views that do not fit comfortably within the left/right, liberal/conservative paradigm. Real art and artistic culture is alien to those categorizations; or rather those categories cannot comfortably contain them.

    As for Bowman’s article- some of his characterizations of Palin are laughable: she’s “a woman of integrity”, “so attractive a candidate”, and “stands for a form of female honor”. She’s “electric”. Really? Bowman appears to himself fallen prey to the symbolism and advertising that he is attempting to analyze.

    Obviously Palin was chosen (as v.p. candidate) because she appeals to certain demographics. Well, so was Obama, and all other political candidates in our celebrity obsessed culture, Bowman argues. Sure, but how does Bowman’s gushing over Palin differ from the behavior of Obamamaniacs? How relevant is the left/right ‘divide’? I’m not sure everyone is even using the same criteria for what is liberal or conservative.

    One of Bowman’s overall points seems to be that the celebrity-driven political market of today compares unfavorably with the “honor culture” that he is obviously nostalgic about(and that Palin in some ways embodies). Did such a time ever exist, or is it myth?

    Bowman dishonors himself in referring to the early 1970s as a time “when the only good reason for legalized abortion apart from mere personal preference – namely the social stigma of attaching to single motherhood”. How does he/ how could he know? Presumably rape did not occur prior to 1973? He does go on to mention the cruel treatment of women in the 1960s, but this does not cause his prior statement to make sense. And, why does he put the word choice in quotes?

    Lastly, the “Vogue” cover is, uh, cute, though I’d rather have seen Palin’s head photoshopped onto a turkey body.

  5. Nice link to James Bowman, quite a thoughtful and balanced piece.
    I think most current social conservatives would sort of agree that “only good reason for legalized abortion [was] the social stigma attaching to single motherhood”, and I’ve read elsewhere (sorry no link) that one of the women’s advances has been, almost explicitly, the ‘conservative’ acceptance of single motherhood — as a better choice than abortion.

    I think this is correct analysis, and also reasonably good progress.

    Anybody who wants the fat cat bankers to suffer a bit more from their irresponsibility (mistakes), partly for justice and partly so as to not reward such behavior, should understand that social conservatives have similar feelings in desiring punishment/ suffering for individuals who are irresponsibly promiscuous.

    Increasingly, the anti-abortion folk will be pushing adoption rather than abortion, and, like Feminists for Life, changes to colleges and perhaps even workplaces to make life easier for the unwed mothers.
    All the while knowing, but not liking, that an easier life for unwed mothers means more of them, and especially means more irresponsible promiscuous sex (any sex with a non-spouse; all same sex).

    On the main point of the article, Palin was chosen for what she is (a pro-life woman governor) as much as Obama was chosen for what he is (a pro-choice black senator who goes to church).

    I hope, but doubt, that Affirmative Sexism and Affirmative Racism will soon disappear from US politics — but it seems realistic to believe that ideas and policies will, soon (years, not decades), again be far more important than identity politics.

  6. Sarah Palin is accustomed to being underestimated, and the leftist bleatings from this year’s campaign fit into the same mould. Watching the pseudo-intellectual boobs inventing fantasies about Palin and presenting them as fact was one of the most entertaining aspects of the entire season.

    Palin is not going away. On the national stage, she has barely begun. Tina Fey may be as fatuous as she appears on SNL. Sarah Palin wants her opponents to believe that she, Palin, is just as simple. Keep believing it.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s one perspective, but it does not fit what we saw during the campaign. As Senator Moynihan said, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts.”

    * McCain believes we are stupid. Is he correct?, 30 August 2008 — What does choosing Palin say about McCain?
    * Alaska is near Russia, and Gov Palin’s other foreign policy experience, 1 September 2008
    * It’s is not just McCain who believes we’re dumb – it’s a crowd, 3 September 2008
    * Governor Palin as an archetype for our time, 9 September 2008
    * Before we reignite the cold war, what happened in Georgia?, 12 September 2008 — Notes from Palin’s first interview.
    * Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008 — More from the ABC interview.
    * Campaign Update – news from the front, 25 September 2008 — Includes part 1 of Couric’s interview of Palin.
    * Gov Palin speaks about foreign policy, 26 September 2008 — Part 2 of Couric’s interview.
    * Republican and conservative critics of Gov Palin, 2 November 2008 — see section 2.
    * Comment about “turkey-gate”, 23 November 2008

  7. I believe what carried the day for the “choice” crowd back in the 70’s wasn’t a libertarian ethic so much as a fairness argument. What was a young girl who didn’t want the baby supposed to do? Die from bleeding out after a botched abortion or cough up the big bucks to induce a skilled doctor to commit a felony? This state of affairs was exemplified in film and literature of the time to great effect. Great piece though, reminds me of “Bobo’s in Paradise”, another book that points out we American’s endearing attribute that we want to do the right thing.

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