Earlier this month, I was chastened by a reader’s emailed thoughts about my May 3 column, “My short reaction to Roe.” I think the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court opinion that protects abortion access, may very well mark the end of the court’s legitimacy in the minds of many Americans.
It’s a scary prospect and resonates beyond abortion to virtually every area of American jurisprudence, because if a country of laws doesn’t believe in the highest legal court in the land, we’re pretty much screwed. I said as much in that column.
My column seemed to be an “intellectual exercise” on the Court’s credibility, the reader said. No issue taken with that, per se, she added. But another piece “on the real life impact of that legal action” might be possible, she wrote.
I try to steer away from writing for applause. My goal in writing is material. I don’t consider it a performance, but a means to an end. That’s why a critique like that one, which describes my writing as an “intellectual exercise,” cuts so deeply. And I thank the reader for the gash. I really do. It keeps me honest and helps me avoid a tendency to abstract unnecessarily.
I do believe that the Supreme Court, along with most American institutions (the Press included), is currently in an existential crisis. I think most Americans at this point know this intuitively and probably don’t need me to remind them, hence, I believe, the reader’s reaction.
My problem is that I just keep encountering these instances of what Ira Glass, on a recent episode of This American Life, calls “apocalypse creep.”
Glass starts the episode talking about the experiences of Dondo Darue, a radio show host in northern California whose friendly talk show, the Fishing Report, turned last year into a report on absurdly low water levels that prevent fishing and encroaching wildfires that can end life.
“This apocalyptic feeling that so many of us have, it’s not the kind of apocalypse that happens in an instant, like nuclear bombs going off or, I don’t know, aliens invading,” Glass narrates.
“It’s climate change, so it’s slow. Dondo says, in previous years, he definitely noticed summers getting hotter, longer stretches without rain or snow. And then finally, it feels like we’re past a tipping point. Or maybe we’re not. It’s hard to be sure. It’s like apocalypse creep, the end of the world that we know oozing up around us, one hot day at a time.”
Or one leaked SCOTUS decision at a time. Or one restrictive voting law at a time. Or one dead armadillo at a time (as the Tribune reports, their population is growing in downstate Illinois and the shelled desert dwellers are slowly heading north as climate changes). Or one mass shooting after another after another after another. Sometimes, the apocalypse creep is not so creeping.
It’s hard for me to think about these things in a way that, say, Thomas Paine thought about British imperialism or George Orwell thought about totalitarianism. One of the scariest features of 21st century life is the seemingly complete loss of linearity. Everything, it seems, is discombobulated.
So when I think about one existential crisis, I think about the imminent collapse of the whole, such that the potential loss of Roe v. Wade becomes, in my mind, the loss of SCOTUS legitimacy, which becomes the loss of the rule of law, which becomes the loss of the basis of our society as we know it. I cannot help but continue down the rabbit hole of possible world-as-we-know-it-ending scenarios.
On top of the crises themselves, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and Google dish out yet another layer of discombobulation and distraction and non-linearity, further frustrating our collective attempts to focus on one apocalyptic crisis at a time.
But what that reader’s email helped me realize is that this inertia by way of confusion is what authoritarians want. They want to leverage our discombobulation and distraction to their advantage. We are playing into their hands when we lose focus. We have to pick a target, even if it’s moving and even if temporarily.
Last week, I saw some of this focus on display at a press conference where Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched her Justice for All Pledge — an initiative that, among other things, puts $500,000 into efforts by local organizations to ease access to abortions for women, including those coming into Illinois from other states.
If Roe is overturned, a range of impassioned experts (all women) flanking the mayor during the May 9 news conference told reporters, existing reproductive health services will be overwhelmed.
Qudsiyyah Shariyf, deputy director at Chicago Abortion Fund, which provides “financial, logistical and emotional support to people seeking abortion services,” according its website, said that last year about 77 percent of people calling the organization for assistance were outside of Illinois “and that number has only increased this year.”
Diana Parker, executive director of Midwest Access Coalition, an organization that provides accommodation and support for women in the Midwest seeking legal abortions, said the need for the coalition’s services will grow if Roe is overturned, estimating that 100,000 people across the country will be unable to get abortions next year.
Jennifer Welch, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Illinois, said her organization is preparing “to see double to five times the number of patients that we currently see for abortion care.”
One state representative at the news conference described these people as “medical refugees” uprooted by a small, privileged class that is mostly cruel, uncaring, cisgendered, and so-called Christian white men. As these medical refugees stream into the state, poor, marginalized people who rely on reproductive health services in Illinois will be crowded out, essentially, and pushed even closer to the margins.
If you are relatively well-off, think about these ever-marginalized people and their needs. There are concrete things you can do, such as donate to organizations like Chicago Abortion Fund and Planned Parenthood, so they can expand their capacity.
Lobby your elected officials to create laws allocating even more funding for reproductive health services. Ahead of the midterm elections, campaign for a politician (preferably a woman) who understands the immediacy of the threat a white, male, Christian, cisgendered, property- and capital-hoarding political faction poses to this country.
I have to admit, though, these suggestions are tepid and feeble when you think about the scale of the challenges we’re up against. Democracy and human civilization are imperiled. America really can become Gilead.
But most of us just don’t know how to act like existential threats are real. It’s hard to wrap our minds around these multifold crises because we don’t have sufficient intellectual and cultural frameworks to process them. We don’t know political alternatives. We’ve forgotten how power works. We don’t know how to get to the root of things — definition of radical. Our social and political imaginations, like our boring suburbanized, monotonous and corporatized landscapes, are barren.
Liberals and progressives, in particular, don’t know how to fight authoritarianism because we don’t know how to effectively think about it. In this sense, we need more, not less, intellectual exercising — and not the LA Fitness kind. We need to expose our minds to the wilderness diversity of other systems of thought beyond our liberal democratic market-based myopia.
This kind of thoughtfulness and raw grappling with the root of our systemic issues may do us some good. But, to the alert reader’s point, it has to be focused, disciplined and actionable without ignoring real-life implications. If you sense my opinions straying from that purpose, please let me know.
I don’t want to be David Brooks.