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Against "extremism"

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"the biggest donor to the Federalist Society," Fargo (2024)

LUCKY ME, MY BIRTHDAY is easy for a certain kind of crowd to always remember, because until 2022, I shared it with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Honestly I'm fine with relinquishing that. We always needed more.

Here's what I've been writing and thinking about since last time.

IF YOU ARE FOLLOWING THINGS ROE, HOWEVER, you may have also noted that a presidential re-election campaign debuted this week all wrapped up in Roe. Or at least, the idea of Roe. More the story of the loss of Roe than Roe itself.

(The New Republic, January 25, 2024)

“It’s simple,” Joe Biden tweeted. “Restore the Protections of Roe v. Wade Once and For All,” read the image below the tweet. Biden’s communications team posted this on Monday, the fifty-first anniversary of the day the Supreme Court issued its landmark abortion opinion that made its plaintiff’s pseudonym synonymous with reproductive rights. But Roe was never the bottom line on abortion, and it was never simple. The Biden 2024 campaign’s narrative about it is simple: Biden this time is running on abortion. Or more precisely, he is running on Roe.

If Joe Biden wants to run on abortion, he ought to try using the word sometimes, to start. His vice president, former prosecutor and Senator Kamala Harris, has used it more often, referring interchangeably to “Roe,” “abortion,” and “reproductive freedom”—a term with roots in activist movements, and one you will find in the opening lines of media coverage of the Biden-Harris 2024 campaign. These activist movements have long pushed the Democratic Party, mainstream reproductive rights groups, and “pro-choice” groups to expand their professed support for what was too often shorthanded as “a woman’s right to choose.” They knew for decades that Roe was in peril, in part because some of its most influential defenders failed to take on a full spectrum of political and legal issues concerning abortion, far beyond Roe. So now that Roe has been overturned, we ought to ask: When Democrats like Biden run on abortion, what precisely about abortion do they intend to defend? 

Relatedly, Ohio this week became (I think, this number is in flux, unfortunately) the 23rd state to ban gender-affirming care for minors, when the state legislature overrode a veto from the state's governor. That veto was celebrated just weeks ago, a rare Republican unwilling to go along with the go-to scapegoating. But what came with the veto was even worse:

(The New Republic, January 11, 2024)

... DeWine’s veto wasn’t what it seemed. In the same press release that announced the veto, the governor said he was directing government agencies to adopt new “administrative rules” on gender-affirming care that would put care out of reach for many trans Ohioans—minors and adults. On January 5, he affirmed this plan via executive order: new mandates that providers submit detailed data on care provision to the state every six months and new requirements that anyone seeking care get the approval of a team including a psychiatrist, an endocrinologist, and a bioethicist. While getting credit for vetoing one ban, DeWine is proposing another ban in all but name...

The attempt to “soften” or “compromise” on a ban on gender-affirming care by instead proposing strict guidelines that could make care impossible to access may seem familiar. It’s the same playbook conservatives followed with onerous administrative rules around abortion during the Roe years: If you cannot ban abortion outright, then you attempt to administrate clinics out of existence. Such regulations have little (if not nothing) to do with health, safety, and medical ethics and everything to do with creating unnecessary risks for those providing health care. They also give those who oppose this care a way of couching their opposition in other terms: Rather than a “ban,” they say they support gender-affirming care with more data collection and oversight; care that is more “comprehensive.” In other words, they say they want more control over the process. In this case, as the ACLU said in a recent statement, these restrictions “could amount to a de facto ban on care for transgender youth and adults.”

This kind of thing may seem familiar to you from decades of attacks on abortion access.

How do these similar, if not coordinated, strategies proliferate? Looking at who Leonard Leo is moving money to is a good start—for just one slice of that, thanks to Accountable.US, I was able to get a glimpse into how the same dark money-fueled networks Leo has cultivated to attack abortion can be extended (The New Republic, January 18, 2024) from the judiciary to the legislature, from abortion to bodily autonomy generally.

It really is the same guys sometimes.

This letter
from me to you

will always be free.
But you can also pay for it,
if you want to:


I WISH I COULD REMEMBER WHEN it became just another part of my political reality that the far right was a political force to reckon with in a day-in/day-out way. The longer it goes on that I have to find ways to describe them, the more the language that has mainstreamed to describe them feels inadequate.

For example—"extremism." I am worried that it sometimes operates as a kind of containment field drawn around certain right-wing political actors when liberal or liberal-identifying, white, middle-class people and mainstream political institutions become fearful that the order of things is disordered, threatening their way of life as they perceived it. "Extremism" may be accurate, but it can also put some distance between the fact that violence and intimidation can also be a common, if not normative, state of affairs for people who are unlike them. Are the police extremists? (I mean, yes, and yes.) I find it increasingly more disorienting to hear people exceptionalize violence and intimidation in our politics as either a) something "we" have moved beyond or b) something imposed on "us" by outliers and outsiders. It no longer feels like it's in the past and it is of course also us.

If the violence of January 6 felt like it came out of nowhere to some people, maybe they weren't navigating threats to clinics, sometimes from the exact same guys. If the prospect of facing armed militia types at the polls feels uniquely terrifying as we approach this election, this is a good moment to ask why.

Two examples (maybe-related, maybe-not) I am still working through (this is what this space is for):

Accompanying the attacks on trans kids has been this forgetting, that even though there have long been trans kids, they have only recently got this access in a systematic way. (It's not like the story of how we got here is easily accessible; that's precisely why it was so easy for conspiracy theories about "teachers transing kids!" to spread.) In some of the language people are using to push back on the bills, it seems to take for granted that the extremists don't have too far to drag us back to.

I'm looking at the way Kamala Harris uses the language of extremism when talking about the people who killed Roe, and it's such a relief, right, to think that the people who did this are really outliers, rather than, say, members of your own party who oppose abortion. Members of your own party who stood by for decades and did nothing.

It's a gift for them, I worry, to ascribe the degradation of our rights to "extremists." It takes heat off our own role and responsibility in this. It pretends it's not so near.

Thanks to Jess Pishko and Leah Sottile for occasioning these thoughts.