Two Trials

Top Stories of the Year: #5

This is the time when I traditionally count down the top five stories of the year, as covered in The Tracinski Letter. This time, I’ll also be drawing on some of what I have written for my RealClearPolitics newsletter, where I have spent more time covering day-to-day politics. In the meantime, I’ve got some new articles I’ve been planning to finish by the end of the year, which I will be sending out separately this week.

Let’s start with #5, a story of two trials: the Kermit Gosnell trial and the George Zimmerman trial. What made these cases interesting is that they both connected to key philosophical issues behind our political battles.

The Gosnell case, by exposing the horrific practices of a Philadelphia abortion doctor who delivered live babies and killed them, fulfilled all of the dire warnings of “pro-life” conservatives who have argued that abortion will naturally lead to infanticide. As I warned back in 2011, when the case first came to light, “the anti-abortionists will probably never find a better concrete example to support their argument…. So this ongoing case—the indictment has just been issued, and the trial is still to come—will put some sustained new life into the anti-abortion wing of the right.”

It happened in a way that did the least credit to the defenders of abortion rights on the left.

The Gosnell case posed a challenge to the left, requiring them to go back to philosophical fundamentals and provide a strong intellectual defense of their position. Instead, they chose simply to ignore the case, declaring it a “local crime” story (in the words of one Washington Post reporter) and pretending it never happened.

The result is that, when the case finally did make it into the headlines, it was not just a horror story about an abortion clinic gone wrong, but also a story about the intellectual evasiveness of the left. As I pointed out:

When the left-leaning mainstream media tries to bury the story, they implicitly concede that they are afraid to look at the facts and can’t come up with a good answer the conservatives’ argument.

It has long been observed that a friendly ‘media bubble’ which promotes positive stories and ignores negative ones can be harmful to Democratic politicians, because it shields them from having to field tough questions early on. In this case, the same factor has done some harm to one of the left’s causes.

Elsewhere, I made a wider observation about the media’s attempts to avoid discussion of difficult issues.

The abortion debate is America’s great testing ground for the theory that you can win an argument, not on its actual merits, but merely by manipulating the language to “frame” the issue in your favor. So the defenders of abortion don’t call themselves anything so crude as defenders of abortion. They call themselves “pro-choice,” because who wants to be against choice? And the opponents of abortion call themselves “pro-life,” because who wants to be against life?

The abortion debate is also a definitive refutation of this whole theory about “framing,” because it has been framed like all get-out, and neither side seems to be any closer to winning.

I concluded that the left had become intellectual lazy on this issue (as on many others).

Decades of being able to point to Roe v. Wade and declare the matter settled has made the left ideologically complacent and unable to defend the philosophical basis of their stand on abortion, which is one of the reasons they want to avoid confronting the Gosnell case in all its horrors.

But it’s not just the left. The Gosnell case put both sides on weak ground.

The usual players in the political debate have found themselves ill equipped to confront the Gosnell case because abortion is an issue that uniquely calls upon a deep philosophical perspective. That’s why it is particularly vexing for those of us within the broad coalition of the right, because on most issues, most of us can agree on the value of freedom and on the idea that individuals have rights. But the abortion issue won’t let you get away with vague invocations of ‘freedom.’ It requires that you have a specific philosophical view on what is the source of individual rights, and it is precisely on this issue that the right is divided between its more religious and more secular wings.

I offered my own examination of the philosophical issues, specifically focusing on this issue of the source of rights.

[I]f you think rights are granted by society, as the left does, that leads to one particular view of abortion. If you think that rights are given to us by God, that tends to support a different view. And if you believe that rights have a secular, non-collectivist foundation, as I do, that leads to yet another approach to the question.

Read the whole thing to see where I go from there.

The upshot of the media coverage on the Gosnell case was to revive, for a time, the public debate over abortion. As I noted, “The Gosnell case may not change the national politics of abortion. But it might change the politics of press coverage of the abortion issue.” Yet the effect was largely temporary.

I suspect the Gosnell case will end up having much the same political impact as Newtown. It will result in some new regulations in states which are more sympathetic to the anti-abortion argument, but the pro-abortion lobby will have too much public support for any federal-level action—and the primary result will be simply to revive the debate on an issue which had been put on the back burner in recent years.

I’ll have more to say about gun control at a later stage of our countdown, but the gun issue was relevant to the other big trial of the year: the prosecution of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

As many of us expected, Zimmerman was acquitted. If you were following the case closely and without bias, it was clear that there was more than enough “reasonable doubt.” But as with Gosnell, the mainstream media was not unbiased. They were rooting for a specific outcome. As I put it:

In cases involving the use of deadly force, it is often very difficult for even the participants themselves to untangle exactly what happened, who was the aggressor and who was the victim, and how everything spun so quickly out of control. Which is to say that there is a lot of room for reasonable doubt, not just in the courtroom but in the newsroom….

I don’t know exactly what happened with Zimmerman and Martin. It is possible that Zimmerman was an overzealous crime-fighter who initiated the conflict by acting in a way that was threatening to Martin. It’s possible that he didn’t mean harm but made a few bad decisions which set off the conflict; I consider this the most likely interpretation. And it’s possible that he was just a guy doing his best to protect his neighborhood from rising crime, and that it was Martin who, out of fear, resentment, or his own racial animus, sought out the conflict.

Not having been there, going only from what could actually be proven, I can’t say for certain which one it is. But I can say for certain that I have a reasonable amount of doubt about it. I suspect that those who can’t say so have been so eager to validate their narrative that they have pre-judged the case—even as they lecture the rest of us about prejudice.

By the way, given Zimmerman’s subsequent behavior—his life is clearly falling apart, and he has been accused several times of threatening his wife and girlfriend with guns—we can probably strike off the most charitable interpretation of his confrontation with Martin. But that doesn’t alter what was, and wasn’t, proven in the courtroom.

The point of the whole furor was supposedly to show that America is still racist by arguing that a parallel case in which a black man shot a white man would have ended differently. Except that a parallel case was found, and it did end exactly the same way.

What this case accomplished was to put a final end to any talk about President Obama somehow healing the nation’s racial divide, which the president basically acknowledged in his remarks on the case. As I summed it up:

[T]here is a whole load of crushing disappointment carried in this line: “I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

Shorter version: this is never going away. The racial politics laid bare in the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case is never going to be healed. At least, not by him.

More ominous is the fact that deep down, one of our major political parties doesn’t want racial politics to go away. In fact, they’re depending on it.

I noted this “Southern Strategy in Reverse.”

Because it hitches the Democratic Party’s future to voting based on racial and ethnic loyalties, it is basically a strategy that consists of playing the race card from now until the end of time. Or to put it in terms that will hit home right now, the Democrats have to hope for one Trayvon Martin case after another to keep voters aligned by race.

Does that sound like fun? I didn’t think so.

My most pungent formulation of this strategy was my conclusion—in the context of a Supreme Court ruling on federal oversight of state voting rules—that the left are “Jim Crow Re-Enactors.”

[T]he left is compelled—out of its own political and electoral self-interest—to keep the memory of American racism active as “living history.” If Southern whites have their Civil War re-enactments, Northern white liberals have developed a new hobby of Jim Crow re-enactments.

When I wrote this, by the way, I didn’t know that there were actual Jim Crow re-enactors.

I continued:

There is one difference, I suppose, between the Civil War re-enactments and the Jim Crow re-enactments. The participants in Civil War events generally aren’t under any illusion that the causes behind the war are still live issues. That’s why these re-enactments are largely a post-Civil Rights era phenomenon: we can safely re-enact the Civil War because the outcome has been definitively settled, now that the losing side has finally accepted that it lost.

Perhaps we need a little more time, as Jim Crow fades from 50 years in the past closer to 150 years, so that the winning side can finally accept that it won.

Both of these trials, as well as the Newtown shooting (which happened last December but was exploited politically early this year) temporarily revived some of the “social issues” about abortion, guns, and racism. Another such issue, which I covered very lightly, is gay marriage, which was basically embraced and federalized by the Supreme Court.

It’s an issue I can’t get too worked up over simply based on the demographics. The actual number of homosexuals is a very small portion of the population, despite being routinely and vastly overestimated. Which means that the number of gay marriages is likely to be less than 1% of all marriages—too small, on its own, to make much of a difference in the culture one way or another. The prominence of gay characters in movies and television, which is the main reason for the overestimates, is a much greater cultural force. Which is to say that gay marriage is an effect of cultural change rather than a cause. So I’m pretty much willing to swim with the current on this issue. All that’s left is to make a plea for tolerance on behalf of those who still oppose gay marriage and whose religious freedom should not be violated. And it is being violated.

But these revived social issues are only #5 in our countdown because the revivals were largely temporary, and those issues were overshadowed by bigger issues in foreign policy and economics, which will have much longer-lasting implications. Those are the issues we will turn to tomorrow with #4 in our countdown.

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