The steep, sloping path down from here
Some thoughts on the post-Roe America that the Supreme Court majority is creating
I’m just gonna write some things that are true. Not because it’s useful, but because I don’t really know what else to do today.
Instead of reading this, please donate to an abortion fund. That’s much more valuable than anything I have to say here.
But if you don’t really know what to do today either, then read on…
Last night I saw the news of the leaked opinion while I was getting my daughter ready for bed. I checked Twitter while I was filling the tub and she was putting her dolls to bed. She’s four. Her younger sister is almost two.
I’m thankful she’s young enough not to have any concept of this yet. I don’t know how to explain this world to her, and am glad on a personal level that I’ll have some time to figure it out.
I’m also thankful that last week was the final week of classes. My students would have expected me to speak with them about this. They would have expected analysis and insight and just-a-tiny-glimmer-of-hope. And I don’t know how I would have given that to them. I’m full of rage and despair.
I feel like everyone must realize where this leads. No one wants to say it, because no one wants to be the person who is saying it. I don’t want to be that person either. But here it is: this is the steep, sloping path towards violence. It’s becoming a choice between Gilead or guillotines. And it’s not going to be Gilead.
Not long from now, some white lady — upper-middle class, everything going basically right in her life — is going to die because common medical procedures for her ectopic pregnancy were denied through judicial fiat. Her husband is going to be shattered by this. He’s not going to be able to reconcile the divergence between the comfortable, normal life he had lived and the preventable hellscape he is left with. And he is going to have five specific people to blame. So he will decide he has nothing left, and he will buy a gun, and he will shoot a Justice. That won’t make the world any better. It will get so much worse at that point. Recriminations will follow. We’ll end up in a lopsided war of all against all.
Let me be abundantly clear that I’m not saying this should happen. I’m saying we are headed toward the point where it becomes a statistical near-certainty.
Democracy is a system whereby the ruling class obtains the consent of the governed. Our Democracy is failing. When the governed withdraw their consent, the result is violence against the ruling class.
There’s a passage in Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals that I think about a lot. (I kind of have to. I teach it twice a year). Alinsky is discussing Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence and argues that it is best understood not as moral philosophy, but as a strategic consideration. “Of course Gandhi chose nonviolence,” Alinsky remarks, “the other side had all the guns!” (I’m paraphrasing here)
When society breaks down, it will go poorly for people like me. The police and the military — the people with formal authority, access to weaponry, and significant training — are stacked with right-wing ideologues. Gun fanatics are, for the most part, right-wing extremists. People like me will be left bringing witty retorts to a literal gun fight. It will be terrible, and bloody, and so much worse than the awful world we inhabit today. And, from where I sit today, I don’t see how we stop it.
A precondition of public trust in political institutions is that we have political institutions that are deserving of public trust. Five unelected, unaccountable members of the Supreme Court have decided that they can take away fundamental rights and expect a docile public to do nothing more than grumble and adapt.
We’ve known this was coming for a while. The biggest warning flare was in September, when the Court used the shadow docket to let the Texas 6-week abortion ban stand.
I was watching Ted Lasso when it happened.
Ted Lasso is a good show. Lighthearted and funny. A nice distraction from, well, <gestures wildly at everything>. I try to stay off Twitter when I watch a show like this. The idea is to unplug from the streams and relax a bit.
I checked Twitter before bed. People were talking about the Supreme Court’s Shadow Docket. Women were furious. Lawyers were furious. Women-who-were lawyers were furious-squared. Men who should know better were pointing out that this could have been prevented had Ruth Bader Ginsburg retired a decade ago. (Read the room, fellas… even if you’re right, you can save that take for another time.) If I hadn’t checked my social feeds, or if I followed different people on social media, I wouldn’t have even known.
This is how the collapse happens: quietly, amidst distractions. It’s why the ruling class fundamentally assumes they need fear no public reprisal. Orwell warned in 1984 that we would live under the watchful eye of a controlling state. Resistance would be futile because of the sheer scale of surveillance. Huxley warned in Brave New World that we would be furnished with such wonderful distractions that we would not bother to resist. America in 2022 is a mix of their two warnings, but ultimately I find Huxley offers the more compelling insights. I am outraged at the fall of Roe. On Friday, I will still be outraged. But on Friday, I will also look into tickets for the new Dr. Strange movie.
Politics and governance is boring and frustrating and hopeless and disappointing. It is also vital and it matters. It is the method by which we construct a society where we can live together. Entertainment is fun and surprising and delightful and engaging. And it does not matter. It is the stories we tell each other about how the world ought to be. Those stories are only given force and form if we engage in the grinding work of making the world that way.
I did talk with my students about this last month, though. It was in our opening activity, where we discuss current events and relate it to themes from the course. I raised the strong likelihood that this decision would come down this way this summer. I wanted to know what they thought would happen if it did.
The class is mostly women, and mostly liberal. (We do have outspoken centrists and conservatives in my department, but we get fewer of them since Trump took office. That’s not a “cancel culture” thing. GWU attracts institutionalist-types, and when the leader of your party is a reality-tv authoritarian who burns all institutions to the ground on a whim, the institutionalist-types recoil.)
I was a little surprised by their sense of resigned hopelessness. They thought Roe would be overturned. They thought there would be protests. Then the protests would die down. Then Republicans would win in November anyway. And then everything would just get worse. It was surprising to me not because I think they are necessarily wrong, but because of the visceral reaction that I’ve seen from women of my generation. This is fucking ROE! It’s the 50-year-old bedrock statement recognizing womens’ bodily autonomy. It has been chipped away at for my entire adult life, and the looming possibility that conservatives might actually mean what they say and overturn it entirely has been such a fixture that you get used to it forever looming, never arriving.
I sense this might be a generational disconnect. I came of age in the 90s, when our system of government was just beginning to fall truly to shit (thanks, Newt!). I debated with Nader-supporters in 2000 about the importance of the Court. I insisted that political institutions are fragile and Roe was at risk. They insisted I was being overly dramatic and that, if Bush were to somehow win, it would finally wake people up to demand real change en masse. My students came of age during the Trump years. The assumption that things won’t just keep getting worse isn’t really supported by anything they’ve seen in their adult lives.
One of my students emailed this morning, asking what I thought about it all. She mentioned that she wished we had class this week, and wondered if I could share with her what I would have said.
Here was my reply:
It all looks pretty bleak to me, to be honest. It is a long way from now until November, and between gerrymandering and geographic biases of the Senate map, it is doubtful that Republican elites will feel like they paid a cost for overturning Roe.
And if they don't feel they paid a high cost, then they will become even more brazen. It'll be gay marriage next. And they'll also keep making it harder for elections to have consequences. And they'll also crack down on protest. We've been on a long slide to authoritarianism. This is one of the critical moments along the way.
We'll need mass, sustained protest that carries electoral consequences. I am skeptical that it will be enough. I hope to be wrong.
It’s that last bit I’m dwelling on right now. “I hope to be wrong.”
My working knowledge of politics comes out of the environmental movement. Environmentalists have historically not been known as a cheerful bunch. We are worriers. We see the signs of things going wrong. We try to articulate what is happening and what is at stake. We advocate for a different path, a better world.
There’s an old saying that has stuck with me from my youth. I think it comes from David Brower, though I’ve had trouble tracking it down. “Environmentalists are the only people predicting the future who want to be wrong.”
The reason I study the intersection of technology and politics, incidentally, is because I’m such a fatalist. If the world works the way I understand it to work, then we are basically doomed. But I’m often wrong. My hope comes from all the ways that I’m routinely, and sometimes spectacularly, wrong about things. And I have most often been wrong in areas that involve emerging sociotechnical systems and behaviors. So I study those, hoping to understand them. Hoping to be wrong.
Striking down Roe is an act of judicial extremism. It signals that the conservative court majority has decided that there are no meaningful checks on their power — that they no longer need to operate incrementally or worry about the appearance of legitimacy.
I worry in the near-term they will be vindicated, and in the medium-term it will hasten our slide into a cycle of violent recriminations, chaos, and upheaval. (And lest you are tempted to think “from the ashes a better world will rise,” let me remind you that there is no guarantee that a post-democratic-transition government will be an improvement on what we have now. It could so easily be worse.)
I do so hope that I’m wrong.
[edit: 3:57pm to fix a typo]