So the other night, I was reading a book of essay by Ellen Willis called No More Nice Girls, and I bookmarked a page because the sentence on it really jumped out at me as the most succinct description of why the social conservatives merge so seamlessly with “economic” conservatives (who I would call class warriors, as that explanation predicts their behavior better than self-flattered ideological explanations about “small government”). The essay was a 1989 one about the drug war, and the way that it wasn’t about stopping the crack epidemic or slowing down crime or any of the other, more liberal explanations, but how it was strictly about authoritarian control, which explains why relatively harmless drugs like marijuana and psychedelics were being grouped in with harder drugs like speed and heroin. But this part touched on the much larger issue at hand:
Easily available chemical highs are the moral equivalent of welfare—they undercut the official culture’s control of who gets rewarded for what.
Let me make it clear: Willis was not applauding shooting heroin and becoming a drop out from life. She was saying drug use is more complex than society will admit, and describing the very Soviet way that everyone in the country agrees to this official truth of tut-tutting drug use, an official truth belied by the widespread use of drugs and alcohol. But I thought this insight went far beyond mere chemical highs. It really sums up the culture wars in many ways, which are all about the war over “who gets rewarded for what”. I would also add that “what” is usually more about what you are, and less about what you do. Of course conservatives deny this, but their overwhelming anger at people who work hard and achieve despite being non-white or female (if they’re liberal, at least) belies this argument.
Certainly, the discussion of welfare has always been bogged down by moralistic hand-wringing over the idea that the poor might scratch out some pleasure they don’t “deserve”, because it’s supposed to be reserved for what Sarah Palin likes to call Real Americans—white, middle class, politically conservative. A long time ago, I read an essay by a woman on food stamps that really opened my eyes to how much this is true. She was describing how she got glares from people in the supermarket for having items as innocuous as strawberries in her cart. I’m sure if those people were confronted, they would say that they don’t want to pay for someone who is wasteful and that strawberries are just too expensive and don’t go far enough. But this argument is bullshit, because strawberries are nutrient dense compared even to most fruits. You get a lot of bang for your strawberry buck in terms of fiber and vitamin C. I think they even have more calories than most fruit. Clearly, the objection to strawberries is that they’re so pleasurable, and someone on food stamps is viewed as someone who doesn’t deserve even the smallest pleasures.
It certainly goes a long way to explain why abortion became such a central point in the health care debate. A lot of us are blown away by the fact that it’s not even discussed that tax dollars go to a lot of things that voters disapprove of, so why on earth is abortion the one and only thing that gets treated as so awful that government subsidies can’t go towards it. Part of the reason is that there was never even a chance of government money subsidizing abortion in this bill—and the fight has been over whether or not the bill will get used to restrict people’s ability to pay privately for abortion—but I think there’s more to it. Which is why groups like NARAL were skittish about even addressing the Hyde Amendment. It’s because in a culture where even buying strawberries with food stamps is suspect because it undermines “the official culture’s control of who gets rewarded for what”, sex offers a real threat to the social order. Paying for abortion is, in conservative eyes, tantamount to agreeing that the underclasses deserve sexual pleasure. And remember, sexual pleasure is the kind that all other pleasures get compared to.
To make it worse for conservatives, sex is free. And it goes on behind closed doors, and so you can’t know who is taking this pleasure, which makes it that much harder to stop the people they’ve determined are undeserving from touching it. Oh, they try. Sodomy laws are all about selective enforcement, sending the signal that certain pleasures are to be cordoned off for the wealthy.* But sodomy laws have been killed off by the Supreme Court, and even before, they were hard to enforce. So what’s left are “consequences”, the main one being that if you get pregnant on accident, you have to have the baby and expose your “sin” to the world. At least, if you don’t have the money for a discreet abortion.
If you haven’t noticed, anti-choicers tend to describe abortion in terms of hiding, as if the main purpose of abortion is not to avoid having a baby at this point in time, but to avoid everyone finding out that you fucked when you weren’t supposed to, because you’re not a member of the elite who have permission. Read Pam’s post about Chuck Norris—he clearly chalks up abortion to this urge. Subsequently, a lot of anti-choice energy goes towards the project of outing women who have abortions, or are just sexual in general. You have Phill Kline of Kansas trying to get Planned Parenthood’s records released. You have this law in Oklahoma (that’s been held) that is is basically aimed at releasing so much information about women who have abortions that people in their community can figure it out. You have anti-choicers staking out clinics so they can see with their own eyes who has abortions, and get in that last minute shaming that they feel should be government enforced.
Watching Ben Nelson defend his nasty amendment on TV, he was dripping with this mix of prurience and class warrior mentality. He was delighted at his creative new way to make the sluts admit what dirty sluts they were, by having them write a separate check to pay for an abortion rider. It couldn’t be more obvious what the idea is—to create a paper trail of you sluttitude that would be seen by the banks and the insurance companies. Some of us don’t give a shit, of course, but obviously Nelson hopes the dirty sluts feel the pain of their dirtiness every time they write that check. If you can’t arrest them in public, you can do this much at least. Or, to put it another way, if you’re going to buy those strawberries, you should be forced to do it in front of people that will sneer at you for thinking you have a right.
*While it’s true that all these politicians caught up in sex scandals are public hypocrites, in a sense they are morally consistent with what they actually believe. If you see illicit sex mainly as an assault on the social order, then you believe the rich do get to live by different rules.