There I was, sitting at the brass-railed open bar with a posh knot of gents in blazers and bowties, jawboning the culture wars. By the third Tanqueray and tonic, a warm haze of nostalgia had swept me away. Drinking top-shelf gin on somebody else’s dime and discussing the Great Ideas stripped off ten years and twenty pounds… I felt like an undergrad again. I’d met these fine fellows through a highbrow conservative journal, and for hours felt right at home, telling school tales of tweedy old Commies and multiculturalists in dashikis. But as we emptied the seventh priceless round, the conversation turned; it left the smooth black asphalt road with its bright yellow lines, and plowed me right into the woods. I should have known better, I guess, than to mention abortion.
The topic was Teddy Kennedy, and I cited his abandonment of the unborn as one more glittering facet of his gem-like moral squalor. At that, the blondest guy present — a crew jock, gone slightly to seed — gave a little harrumph. Another gent nodded knowingly. The third just looked away. A better-bred man would have taken the silent hint, and changed the subject to Hilary Clinton, but I am a mailman’s son from Queens. So I barreled ahead.
At length, the sandy-haired guy in the J. Press jacket turned his narrowed eyes on me and just flat out said: “We need to keep abortion legal to cull the welfare rolls.”
For the first time in many, many years, I was struck speechless, long enough for another new friend to add, “And the crime rate. Have you read Freakonomics? Roe v. Wade is the reason New York City is liveable again.” The third defender of Kultur just waved at the barmaid for another free glass of Laphroig.
I had read the detailed critique of Freakonomics that blew the authors’ thesis into thousands of tiny, sophomoric pieces. I had memorized a string of Margaret Sanger’s useful, proto-Nazi quotes. But none of that seemed to the point. And instead of that surge of adrenaline that warms me to any fight, I felt in my gut a cold and sour numbness, a preternatural dread. All I could manage was, “Well, if that’s how you feel, why don’t you just napalm the ghettos?”
The crew jock smiled thinly. “Not as politically palatable.”
I put on my coat as soon as I decently could, and fled the reek of brimstone for some fresh Manhattan air. The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend.
As superior as it makes me feel to tell that story, I know deep down that it shouldn’t. My empathy muscles are only a little less atrophied than most folks’. That lesson was driven home for me by a heartrending new movie that stars some of Hollywood’s hottest young stars (Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson) and features Brendan Fraser and James Earl Jones. The film, Gimme Shelter, is a stark and honest look at the “throwaway girls” who bear the brunt of our modern sexual mores, who look for love under all the wrong rocks, and end up pregnant and desperate. This is the real face of the life issue in America, and it’s one marked by tattoos, bruises, piercings, and the scars of a hundred “bitch-slaps.” The men in these young women’s lives are pathetically unready for fatherhood, and the welfare system we’ve set up to serve as a surrogate seems almost designed to perpetuate their helplessness.
The protagonist, Apple Bailey (Hudgens), is a young teenager who flees the tenement of her abusive addict mother (Dawson), but refuses to plunge back into the “system” of foster care where she was shunted back and forth like a lump of radioactive waste. Instead, Apple pulls out a soiled letter she’d received while still a small child from the father she never knew. She tracks the man (Fraser) down and barges into his lavish suburban home — to the understandable horror of his fit trophy wife (Stephanie Szostak) and perfectly coiffed children.