Sunday, May 19, 2019

Book Reviews: Nonfiction by Amis, Malcolm, and Yang

Capsule reviews of three nonfiction books

Martin Amis, The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994–2017. A less learned collection than Amis's The War Against Cliché, but on average more fun. Had the book been half as long, it would have been twice as good. Some of the features on pop-culture were weak, and some of the literary essays went over my head. But in the middle zone were a number excellent pieces and many great sentences. One that I'll remember was this opening sentence in a reported piece on poker: "If for some reason you were confined to a single adjective to describe Las Vegas, then you would have to settle for the following: un-Islamic." Although some of the pieces are over twenty years old, the collection still feels current because it takes up questions that have only become more lively today, such as what to make of great art made by flawed men.

Janet Malcolm, Nobody's Looking at You: Essays. I recommend this book, especially if you haven't read most of it before. While browsing in a bookstore I bought it on impulse, on the strength of the author's name alone, because I've so enjoyed reading her in the past—and was disappointed to discover when I got home and opened the book that I'd already read almost everything in it. Still, the pieces were worth rereading and I'm glad to have the book in my library. I do wish the book had included more essays; too much of it consists of magazine profiles. The profiles are first-rate examples of the genre, but they aren't essays. From this writer especially, I'd hoped for more examples of her analysis, argument, and insight.

Wesley Yang, The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays. The five essays here are worth reading, but unfortunately they make up less than a third of the book. About two-thirds of it consists of profiles, feature articles, and book reviewing. All of that is good reading, too—but when I bought this book, I thought I was getting, you know, essays.

If the part of the title that comes after the colon is misleading, the part that comes before the colon is a troll. Yang is an incisive thinker, and he may be the best writer about the Asian (male) experience in America; but a collection of articles is just a collection of articles. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois took up its questions. Echoing DuBois's title was not only tasteless but also unwise: it made a very worthwhile book look trifling by comparison. I look forward to what Yang does next.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Where Is The Abortion Debate Heading?

I think the pro-life movement is about to make some major gains. This is due to some smart strategy by conservatives—but it's also due to the underlying fact that the pro-choice movement hasn't shifted public opinion far enough during the forty-six years since Roe was decided. Have a look at this graph showing the past eighteen years of polling data about what we might call basic team affiliation:

Pro-choice affiliation is flat over two decades, and even the youngest cohort barely cracks 50%.

For a deeper dive into 2018 views, this graph of Gallup data is illuminating:

The bottom category is the most telling. Fewer than half of Americans today want abortion on demand to be legal during the first trimester.

All of this comes as a surprise to me. I guess I've been in a bubble on the abortion issue. I used to wonder how the pro-choice movement could stand by and allow conservatives to pass increasingly tight restrictions on abortion even for pregnancies in the earliest stages. Now I think I understand why the pro-choice movement has strategically avoided calling the question. The reserves of popular support are too low to cash in.

Today I did a google search on "abortion amendment." Setting aside the news of the day (Alabama, etc.), I found that the vast majority of the resulting webpages described proposed constitutional amendments to outlaw abortion (or to recognize fetuses as persons, etc.). Almost none of the webpages described constitutional amendments about guaranteeing a woman's right to choose.

It's illuminating to try to draft such an amendment. Here's a first attempt, call it Version A:

Section 1. The right of an adult woman to abort her pregnancy for any reason during the first trimester shall not be denied or infringed by the United States or by any State.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

This merely codifies the key holding of Roe, and yet the 45% data point from the 2018 graphic suggests that such an amendment could never pass. (I do know that about two-thirds of Americans want Roe v. Wade to stand; that isn't enough to make a new constitutional amendment feasible however, because amending the Constitution requires three-fourths of the states.)

What would a constitutional amendment look like that could pass? Maybe this, call it Version B:

Section 1. The right of an adult woman to abort her pregnancy for reasons of rape, incest, or endangerment to her life, during the first trimester, shall not be denied or infringed by the United States or by any State.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The data suggest that this amendment could pass; see in particular the 77% and 83% data points from the 2018 graphic. But you can see how far this text retreats from the goals of the pro-choice movement, which include at least the right to abortion on demand during the first trimester (as first guaranteed by Roe). It's understandable, then, why the amendment strategy never emerged. 

It's conceivable to me that in its next major abortion case, the Supreme Court could effectively establish Version B as the meaning of the Constitution regarding abortion. However, that's assuming they uphold stare decisis to any extent at all. If not, I could imagine the Court reading abortion out of the Constitution entirely. 

However the Court decides, or even if the Court doesn't take up a major abortion case, we're likely to see red states and blue states sorting themselves on abortion policy even more than they do now. Then Alabamians and Vermonters, Californians and Floridians, plus everybody in between, will get no more freedoms than those which they vote for and demand.