What about the children in Africa?

What about the children in Africa? October 28, 2010

This was the coup de grace for a while of those that wanted to argue about the political choices we made in Africa.  Anyone who opposed giving further food aid or other assistance to African governments was met with this rejoinder.  The rejoinder was offered so often that it became a parody of itself.  We are now at the point when someone offers this rejoinder, we assume they are doing so sarcastically, because it is pretty well understood that for all the best wishes of our policy and immediate good our policies offered, in the long run African children were made worse off by our policies.  Through our food aid, we have managed to destroy the agricultural sectors in many African countries resulting in greater needs.  It has taken a long time for us to even consider the consequences of our choices because to evaluate consequences other than the immediate ones was seen as heartless.

I’m reminded of this upon reading another soon to be Cardinal Burke interview excerpted at Commonweal’s blog.  In it Burke makes the claim:

You can never vote for someone who favors absolutely the right to choice of a woman to destroy a human life in her womb or the right to a procured abortion. … But you could never justify voting for a candidate who not only does not want to limit abortion but believes that it should be available to everyone.

The inescapable conclusion is that a Catholic can place no other political interest before abortion.  In a different time and place, this would be the equivalent of claiming that buying bread from the Lutheran baker is an explicit act of disunity with your Catholic brethren.  Of course this analogous situation isn’t imaginary.  While I don’t think anyone was ever threatened over communion for doing such a thing, it was taboo and often had social consequences.  We deem ourselves more enlightened now, and don’t consider bread buying to be an expression of solidarity.  Quite frankly I’m not sure how much more enlightened we are, but that is for another day.

But lives are being lost in abortion is a fair objection, and one I will address.  In the case of bread buying, the only thing lost is the livelihood of our wonderful – I’ve grown quite attached to him over the ensuing sentences – Catholic baker.  If you look around you don’t see too many Catholic bakeries anymore.  You don’t see many Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, etc. bakeries either.  It is very easy to say that if only we had faithful Catholics then we would still have Catholic bakeries.  That answer might make us feel content in our righteousness, but it evades the central truth that the reason we don’t have ethnic bakeries is because bread baking became industrialized.  While we can certainly conceive of a frame of reference where solidarity would have saved the Catholic bakeries, by posing it is an issue of solidarity we are failing to understand the issue as it is.

It was very easy for supporters of our government giving food aid to Africa to claim we only needed more organization, more money, and more faithfulness to the job at hand in order to rid African children of hunger.  I can very easily construct a frame where global organization eradicates child hunger in Africa.  Doing this however does not deal with the issue as it actually is.  The reason children in Africa were dying of hunger was not fundamentally because the US was offering too little food aid.  The problem was one of political and economic organization within Africa itself, to over generalize the situation.  Advocates rightly pointed out that our ability to solve those problems were limited and at the end of the day there were children dying in Africa, and you could either do something or have their deaths on your conscience.  Faced with that we unconsciously at first but consciously now proceeded to destroy much of the African agricultural sector by dumping food there.  In short, we made the problem worse which is why “What about the children in Africa?” is seen as a poor retort today.

At some point, we are going to have to accept that the reason we have legalized abortion in this country is not Nancy Pelosi, Supreme Court justices, or lack of faithfulness.  Like many political outcomes in democratic countries, we have legalized abortion in this country because the people in this country want legalized abortion.  Keep in mind that this is a country where pro-life advocates consider the following a trick question: “What penalty would you propose for mothers found to have had an abortion?”  Surveys over whether people are pro-life or pro-choice are little more than questions asking people whether they find the idea of abortion to be tasteful.  When we get results indicating that close to or over half the country finds it distasteful, pro-life advocates jump for joy thinking the prospect of making abortion illegal is just around the corner.  This dissonance is reassured with stories about how countries have never really enforced abortion prohibitions.

So we are fighting to get a law that won’t have any real enforcement provisions and were it to get any wouldn’t be enforced anyway.  In fact that isn’t fair, because I forgot to include the step of appointing Supreme Court justices that will allow us to offer such a law.   As with the starving African children, the idea of them no longer being hungry wasn’t the issue.  The issue in the end was that we were no longer convinced that what we were doing was doing any good.  Patronizing Catholic bakeries wasn’t going to keep them in business longer either.  Voting for Republicans isn’t ending abortion.  I wish I had the luxury of frittering my vote away so I could maintain the illusion that my doing so was bringing justice to the unborn.  I truly wish there were answers to ending the atrocity of abortion.  Voting for Republicans or against Democrats, whatever parlance you choose, isn’t one of them.  I’m not going to pretend that it is so you can feel validated in your choice.

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