That text, on a direct mail ad by an anti-Obama group, accompanies a photo of a baby carriage sitting on the railroad tracks.
This is why I can't take these people seriously.
Let's play along, shall we? Let's try, for the sake of argument, to accept the premise of this ad: Abortion is indistinguishable from killing babies and politicians who support abortion rights are the kind of people who would do nothing and pass by if they saw a baby — a poor, adorably helpless baby — abandoned in the path of an oncoming train.
The people who composed, prepared, funded and shipped this mailer do not believe any of that.
They're not lying, exactly. They like the idea that something like this might be true. They want the world to be like this. They want the world to be easily divided between heroes and villains, and they want to be able to count themselves on the heroic side of that divide. And if you really, really want something to be true — if you really, really, deep in your heart, wish you deserved to be able to think of yourself as the heroic rescuer of imperiled babies — then declaring it to be true isn't really lying, is it?
But however much they want to believe this, they don't. They can't.
I realize I'm not painting a very flattering picture of these folks. I've described them here as, at best, self-righteousness junkies inebriated by self-congratulatory delusions. Or at worst as the cynical, partisan manipulators of this intoxicating fantasy — duplicitous seekers of power who exploit this moralistic pose for their own ends.
But this is neither a hasty nor an uninformed portrait. I've known, and loved, these folks for a long time. I've been one of them.
And in any case, if this unflattering portrayal is not true, then we'd be forced to conclude something even worse. If these people really did wholeheartedly believe the thing they are here claiming to believe, then their response to that poor baby on the railroad tracks is woefully inadequate and irresponsible. It is that response — the urgency, proportionality and tone of it — that gives the lie to their claim to believe what it is they say they do. The claim and the response — or rather lack of response — cannot be reconciled.So, as I said, let's play along. There is a baby on the railroad tracks and there is an approaching train. We are witnesses to this impending tragedy. What are we obliged to do? How ought we to respond?
Princeton law professor Robert George has thought long and hard about this. That baby on the railroad tracks, George says, ought "… to be the central issue in the consideration of any voter."
Apparently there's no immediate urgency. No need to rush onto the tracks and whisk the baby away to safety before the train arrives. We just need to remember that the baby and the train are there and, every two or four years, make the abstract acknowledgement of that fact the "central issue" when we vote. If enough of us do this, the theory goes, we may, over time, establish a substantial Republican majority in our national and state legislatures. And that Republican majority may, over time, produce judicial appointments which might, in turn, over time, lead to a reinterpretation of the law and the Constitution in a way that might, over time, save that poor, innocent baby on the railroad tracks.
Seriously, can you imagine any human responding so dispassionately and abstractly and irresponsibly languidly to an actual baby-on-the-railroad-tracks scenario? Anyone who suggested such a response would be regarded, rightly, as a fool or a monster. It's almost too absurd to imagine such a response:
YOU: Ohmygod! There's a baby on the tracks!
THEM: Yes. Yes there is. And next November, we need to be sure that we
make this horrible situation the central — nay, the single — issue
that determines how we cast our votes.
YOU: But the train's coming! Shouldn't we —
THEM: Vote straight-ticket Republican? Yes we should. Yes we must. And, next November, yes we will.
Anyone who talked like that couldn't really believe that there was really a baby on the railroad tracks. And they don't really believe it.
I don't agree with the anti-abortion zealots who blockade the entrances to clinics and spend their every spare hour protesting at Planned Parenthood, but I appreciate that their actions are commensurate with the beliefs they claim. That's what makes it possible to disagree with them.
The tepid, abstract Republican operatives who sent out this mailer can neither be agreed nor disagreed with. The possibility of engaging their purported ideas collapses down the chasm between those ideas and their own actions.