Is Progress Guaranteed? Rethinking the Liberal View of History after Dobbs
Yesterday morning, Mama took her seat in the living room at five minutes to seven. I brought her coffee – dark, strong and unsweetened – in a mug with a photograph of her grandchildren upon it.
We often spend late Junes at the ranch. The children are out of school; the weather is not yet beastly hot. The plums and blackberries are reaching their ideal ripeness, and the former will be collected for jam. The young ones sleep late, but I rise at dawn even on vacation, and my mother follows soon after. This is our quiet time together: to talk about the family, to remember what was and plan what will be.
Late June is also when the Supreme Court reshapes our lives, dispensing joy and despair in turn.
I sat with mama 30 years ago this week when CNN announced the Casey decision that meant that Roe had survived. We didn’t have the Internet in the summer of ‘92, but the next day, I went to town and brought home a copy of the newspaper. I read Anthony Kennedy’s soaring words from the majority in Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
My grandmother, who had supported Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control League before it changed its name to Planned Parenthood, declared that Kennedy’s was a very sensible way to see the world. Casey did permit some restrictions on abortion, but it not only left Roe in place, it made a compelling argument for individual autonomy. What was so striking to us when we first read Kennedy’s words was that the court had recognized – at last – that human beings will never agree on what constitutes the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and that the wisest course was to allow each of us to define those things for ourselves. Abortion, my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother believed, was about the right of each woman to decide for herself when and how to bring that “mystery of life” into this world.
It was comforting to live in a world where liberty seemed to be on an unstoppable advance. The period between the court’s ruling in Casey and its ruling in Bush v Gore eight and a half years later now seems like a dream: the liberal vision of individual freedom ascendant; enemies like Communism on the left, and religious fundamentalism on the right, were both in disarray and retreat. Bill Clinton, our roguish, inconstant, erudite, charming, and undisciplined president was one of us – for all his failings, he seemed to believe very much in the vision of letting people flourish without state interference; his private behavior an indicator that he would cast an indulgent and understanding eye on human frailties.
It was all a conceit. The right-wing regrouped, and took advantage of the president’s unregulated appetites. The scandal and horror of Rwanda and Srebrenica made it clear that the rest of the world was as entrenched in ancient ethnic hatreds as ever. The Taliban took over Afghanistan. One would have to be very myopic indeed to see the 1990s as halcyon days, but to one degree or another we are all myopic. My family thrived in the last decade of the 20th century, and I was a golden boy on the ascent. In my personal and professional life, I was doing my best to live in to Justice Kennedy’s vision of liberty.
One day in the spring of 1999, I had then Assemblywoman Sheila James Kuehl – the first openly gay person elected to the California legislature – speak to my women’s studies class. She spoke of the long sweep of history, and declared that “Rights, once given, are not taken away. The battle may be long, but no group that asks for its freedom ever fails to achieve it in the end.” It was a stirring speech, and in 1999, it was possible to believe this Whiggish view of liberalism and individual freedom on an unstoppable advance, sweeping away the forces of reaction, ignorance and prudishness. After a long and bloody century, we were ending on the highest of high notes.
1999 was a very, very long time ago. Last century’s overconfidence was misplaced, if not outright delusional.
I am a very online person, the sort who refreshes Twitter every few seconds when there’s breaking news, so yesterday, my phone told me that Roe had been reversed about three minutes before CNN announced the news. As mama watched the 7:00 AM newscast, I told her gently, “They’ve overturned Roe. Either 6-3 or 5-4.”
My mother nodded. She had wept on election night in 2016, filled with fear for what she knew with terrible certainty was coming. She had wept with disappointment because she had so hoped to not only see a woman president in her lifetime, but to see the particular woman for whom we had all voted ascend to that high office. She had wept for Heloise, and for Sophia (my brother’s girl), and a world which had suddenly grown darker for her granddaughters. She didn’t know it would be five years, seven months, and 16 days from Trump’s election to the Dobbs decision, but she knew the grimness of yesterday would come as sure as sunset following even the longest and most brilliant of days.
Yesterday morning, mama didn’t cry. The grief had come at the horrible shock of the sowing; once the seeds were in the ground, the reaping had only been a matter of time. We listened to the coverage, and I asked mama if we should make a donation to Planned Parenthood. She agreed, and by the time Dobbs was ten minutes old, we’d each given a little something to an organization my family has supported since its inception.
When Heloise emerged, having slept late like the teen she is, she shrugged at the news. She remembers that when she was seven, I had taken her into the voting booth with me, and had her make the mark next to Hillary’s name. I posted a (possibly illegal) photo on Instagram: “My daughter just voted for our first woman president.” We had promised our first-born a victory, and instead; Heloise saw every adult she knew shattered and dismayed. Six years on, after pandemics and disasters and lockdowns and bitternesses galore, my daughter is not surprised by the crumbling of the world. All she has known is adults who love her, cherish her, and tell her that they are so sorry she has to come of age in times such as these. She finds joy and hope in many things, but takes for granted that those who would conspire against her freedom and her happiness are in the ascendant.
And yet. As the old saying goes, after the mourning, the organizing. We fight on. To believe in the liberal ideal of human progress is to accept that not only will the young find their own tools with which to fight, but that they will almost certainly fight in ways that their elders do not understand. We had hoped to give them a world of prosperity, stability, possibility, tolerance and unchecked individual freedom. We were overconfident, self-congratulatory, and all too often lazy about our victories. That doesn’t mean the causes we fought for were wrong, it just means we took our inevitable triumphs for granted. We overestimated the certainty of our victory and underestimated the passion, patience, and power of our foes.
History may be a hiker ascending a mountain, but the path is not straight, and at times, the hiker tumbles off the trail and into a crevasse. Sometimes a fierce storm comes from which she must take temporary shelter, waiting for better weather to continue the ascent. Sometimes, she must spend a lifetime just crawling back to the spot where she fell. For those of us committed to body autonomy as the highest good, we have sustained a series of hard tumbles. But climb on we will, and climb on we must, the gleaming summit still in our sights, pressing our best tools into the hands of our children, promising them that no matter what, we will not stop, and when we are gone, we will join the cloud of witnesses, singing praise and, if we can, sustaining their steps. All the hymns run together: we will overcome; we will not be moved; we will tell it on the mountain; and we will dare to climb on and make our children free.
(I had this on repeat yesterday.)
Should you wish to join me in supporting the fight for abortion access, please consider donating here. A friend particularly recommends The Brigid Alliance.
If you don’t want to donate to an organization that supports abortion, consider the work of the good folks at Braver Angels, who fight to promote dialogue and responsible citizenship across the partisan divide.
Thank you Hugo. Well said.
Forwarded to family.
When I was an undergrad at SUNY Stony Brook, one of the residence halls was named Sanger. While reading your post, I checked to see if Sanger College was still there. Lo and behold, there's a current petition to rename Sanger due to, among other things, Margaret Sanger's advocacy of sterilization of the disabled and "genetically unfit", and her eugenics views, linked to forced sterilization of thousands of mostly women of color. (The most recent news I could find on this is from May 2022). At best, it feels to me like an inappropriate time to do this.