Austin at Large: Asymmetrical Info Warfare

Scorched-earth polarization makes us see our foes’ weaknesses as strengths

Austin at Large: Asymmetrical Info Warfare

On Monday night at the Austin Film Society theater at the Linc, I had the honor of moderating a post-screening panel discussion of Happening, the harrowing and unexpectedly timely film documenting a college student's quest for a then-illegal abortion in provincial France in 1963. (See our review.) Our conversation naturally reflected upon the film's narrative in the context of the current moment, when it appears inevitable that the human right of reproductive freedom is no longer to be guaranteed by our Constitution.

Gratefully, at least from my perspective, we and the audience were able to land in a place where the heavy weight of fear, pain, and isolation that Happening so skillfully depicts could be leavened with hope. As unwelcome as the reversal of Roe v. Wade will be, it will not turn the clock back all the way to 1963 – not only because abortion is safer now, not only because blue states will still safeguard their residents' human rights, but because the validity of those rights is broadly accepted now in a way that it wasn't 60 years ago. In Happening, there is no sympathy for the heroine's cause among her friends and loved ones, or the doctors she sees, and certainly not from the dude who got her pregnant. While that is obviously true on an individual level for some people who need abortions now, it is not what our society as a whole actually believes or feels, as public opinion polling has shown us consistently for decades.

Anamaria Vartolomeias and Sandrine Bonnaireas in Audrey Diwan’s <i>Happening</i>
Anamaria Vartolomeias and Sandrine Bonnaireas in Audrey Diwan’s Happening (Courtesy of IFC Films / An IFC Films Release)

Inside the Big Red Bubble

That's why the leaked draft of Samuel Alito's opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the case brought to the Supreme Court specifically to overturn Roe, is so shocking – it's rooted in a worldview that simply does not exist outside the most extreme right-wing forces in American public life. (Even prominent pro-life Catholic thinkers who support the outcome are embarrassed by how Alito got there.) Because Alito, Clarence Thomas, and perhaps Amy Coney Barrett are basically just horrified by modern life, they're happy to destroy decades of SCOTUS jurisprudence regarding "substantive due process" to make it possible for red states to ban what they find icky. That's why we now have to worry about marriage equality and contraception and whether being queer is a sex crime, despite Alito's pretending that those things aren't really at risk here. I kinda doubt, seriously, that Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh are on board with this; they had to agree to wipe out Roe as their price of admission to SCOTUS, but I can see them and John Roberts coming up with a middle-way controlling opinion that would uphold something like same-sex marriage rights, the way that their predecessors upheld Roe in the subsequent Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling in 1992.

There are other ways to use what our Con­stitution clearly protects and guarantees in order to defend and justify reproductive freedom (in the Fourth, Eighth, 13th, and 14th Amendments, for starters), and it should be the job of the Supreme Court to give those considerations their fair due. Instead, we have Fox News Nation writing our court rulings from inside the big red bubble, barely tarted up in judicial language. Nobody's mind is being changed by this ruling, even if it changes the reality of our laws.

“The Ties That Blind”

This week, I also got tipped off (via Crooked Media) to a draft research paper from scholars in Ontario and Alabama titled "The Ties That Blind: Misperceptions of the Opponent Fringe and the Miscalibration of Political Contempt." It's fascinating stuff, bearing out a lot of what I write about here, now and again. Basically, people who identify as being firmly on the left or the right (that is, not "centrists" or "independents") characterize the median opinion on their own side in reasonable terms, but the median opinion on the other side as being freakish and extreme. We're normal, they're weird. Or more academically, quoting from the abstract: "Americans' hostility toward political opponents has intensified to a degree not fully explained by actual ideological polarization. We propose that political animosity may be based particularly on partisans' overestimation of the prevalence of extreme, egregious views held by only a minority of opponents but imagined to be widespread." They test this with a survey of 1,200 respondents and regression analysis that bears out that hypothesis.

Which brings us back to causes for hope rather than fear. The scorched earth left behind by Alito's Dobbs ruling is meant to thwart the growth and flourishing of the heathen sluts and murderous abortionists that he imagines most of us who don't agree with his views on this subject to be. He is wrong about that, but the cult of the "pre-born" that has flourished since Roe within the big red bubble cannot abide that dissonance. But on the progressive side, we likewise buy into stupid framing about how abortion is "deeply divisive" when in reality there is greater consensus in favor of reproductive freedom than there is for current spending on national defense or Social Sec­urity. (Roe v. Wade has significantly more support, according to the polls, than does the current SCOTUS, even before this news broke.) We believe that the intensity of the shrieking harpies of Fox News Nation and the Texas Legislature represents strength in numbers, when in reality it is evidence of their weakness and hollowness.

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