What Abortion Selfies Tell Us About American Community

Published May 10, 2014

You have by this point likely heard about the story of New Jersey abortion counselor Emily Letts’ decision to film her surgical abortion, which this week met with the kind of reaction you could expect from online communities. If you have not watched the video, I encourage you to do so, or to at least read her piece for Cosmopolitan explaining her decision and walking readers through the social media reaction to it.

There’s a reason Letts wrote that “every time I watch the video, I love it. I love how positive it is. I think that there are just no positive abortion stories on video for everyone to see. But mine is.” The video is an intentional effort to create a “positive” story. She talks about how similar the experience was to birth (she has no children). “I feel in awe of the fact that I can make a baby,” she says. “I can make a life.” And she can destroy it, too.

For me, the striking thing about the video is how alone Letts is in nearly all of it. Her Cosmopolitan piece emphasizes the opposite – how she felt enveloped by support. But the depiction comes across as one running direct to camera reality show, with an abortion in the middle. In the video, clearly in pain and focused on her breathing, she grips the hand of a clinic attendant, who offers brief words of support. Letts describes herself as a struggling actress, and she has enough ability to manage a wan smile before she’s wheeled out – but it comes across less as triumph than as “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.” She keeps the sonogram, smoothes her hair with automatic hand, and puts a record on the gramophone.

The concept of the abortion selfie is in some ways an inevitable consequence of an increasingly atomized culture. Consider instead the lure that would motivate one to seek to share this moment, and then to share in the reaction to this moment from social media, and then to share again in the reaction to that reaction in the pages of Cosmo. This is an individual seeking out the affirmation and attention of others – for good or ill, it is an attempt to find a community, a grasping for a sense of belonging.

Set aside Emily Letts for a moment, and consider these comments from someone on the other side of the culture wars: Rick Santorum, who is out once again in his green paisley van hunting for the ghosts of Reagan Democrats. Santorum’s latest bookincludes a call for Republicans to reject free trade, raise the minimum wage, and rediscover protectionism to defend traditional blue collar industries. As an economic message, Santorum is as disappointing as always (on the trade issue, for example, his longtime support for the protectionist status quo lines the pockets of well-connected cronies at the expense of everyone else). But on the issue of family and community, Santorum’s comments about individualism are worth noting:

“A blithe attitude about economic disruption and the decline of traditional industries goes along with what Santorum sees as a philosophical overemphasis on individualism. Conservatives, he argues, have neglected an important strand of political thought in which the family is the fundamental unit of the polis. “The basic unit of the society is the family,” he writes, not “the individual.” …  Santorum explicitly blames libertarians for the rise of individualism, but it’s hard not to feel as if he’s taking issue with most of his party.”

Santorum is a terrible messenger on this subject, in part because he – like too many conservative politicians – have spent their careers not talking about the family for its positives, but on the negative social consequences for those who don’t have one. If you spent the bulk of the past two decades using the family as a political cudgel, it’s very difficult to pivot to a message of uplift. But this doesn’t mean that Santorum’s all wrong about what’s happening: a redefinition of the pursuit of happiness – and in this case, it is having all sorts of ramifications to the way individuals think of themselves and think of the community they inhabit.

For Santorum and his fellow social conservatives, the family is the basis for community. The American dream is straightforward: you grow up, you go to college, you meet someone and get married, you settle down and buy a house and have kids. When you have children, you tend to go back to church; you are more careful about the condition of the neighborhood you inhabit and the people in it; you suddenly care more about what’s on television and about what they are being taught at public schools. You become more budget-minded and cost-conscious, more attuned to things like property taxes, and more sensitive to gas and grocery bills. All of which, in Santorum’s view, lead to one tending toward a small-c conservatism of a communitarian variety: a life connected to others via the children you raise.

What happens if this pattern of life behavior is delayed, disrupted, or deferred entirely? The Pew report on “Millennials in adulthood” was subtitled “Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends”, and that’s an apt description. As the definition of the pursuit of happiness changes, so does the definition of community. Today’s communities cut across traditional boundaries in ways that, at their best, empower like-minded individuals to organize together – and at worst resemble an angry mob.

So what does this redefinition of community mean for the nation? Stella Morabito wrote the other day here at The Federalist about how personal relationships threaten the power of the state – and they do, because in their absence, the state inevitably seizes more power. We have a good example of this from the experience of Mexican society, as described in Jorge Castañeda’s book “Mañana Forever”:

“In the United States, there are approximately 2 million civil society organizations, or one for every 150 inhabitants; in Chile there are 35,000, or one for every 428 Chileans; in Mexico there are only 8,500, or one for every 12,000, according to Mexican public intellectual Federico Reyes Heroles. Eighty-five percent of all Americans belong to five or more organizations; in Mexico 85% belong to no organization and, according to Reyes Heroles, the largest type, by far, is religious. In the United States, one out of every ten jobs is located in the so-called third sector (or civil society); in Mexico the equivalent figure is one out of every 210 jobs.10 In polls taken in 2001, 2003, and 2005 on political culture in Mexico, a constant 82% of those surveyed stated they had never worked formally or informally with others to address their community’s problems.”

Castañeda is describing a nation with nothing resembling the “little platoons” of Burke or the network of free associations that de Tocqueville credited with American democracy’s vitality. It is a nation which lacks lateral social bonds. Instead, it encourages a patronage society where the force of government surges in response to the clamor of the masses. Santorum seems to think that is the American destiny in the wake of the current societal shifts, or barring some series of the enactment of pro-family policies. But that’s not necessarily the case, in part because American individualism in the modern sense is not what Santorum thinks it is.

The number of true individualists is still relatively small – they are the people who spend holidays staring vacantly into space. If you buy or sell things, consume popular culture, or have anyone in your life you say “I love you” to, you’re not a true individualist. Emily Letts is the furthest thing from an individualist – her confused expression of the destruction of the life growing inside her comes across as something between a struggling actress craving an audience and a human being craving someone to hold her hand through a difficult time.

A key defect of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” was that it overemphasized the slim connections of community bowling leagues over stronger communities (like churches) with “negative externalities”. We’ve mostly seen technology to this point as a representation of the “bowling league” variety of collaboration – Facebook posts and YouTube comments and Twitter favorites which offer momentary but oh-so-fleeting senses that we are not alone. Emily Letts’ experience isn’t the exemplification of where this disruptive redefinition of community is headed. Her plea for attention for her “positive” abortion story amounts to little more than a one-woman show with a broader audience. But real communities don’t just amount to extended selfie-love – they do things, they create things, they make things happen which never would’ve come close otherwise.

It’s as big as the difference between clicking a mouse and helping you move. Consider the case of the Gosnell Movie, Ann and Phelim McAleer’s movie project, which is on the cusp of raising 2 million to create their own film about the ignored story of the Hannibal Lecter of abortion. Letts’ supporters left YouTube comments – the McAleer’s are making a movie. We’ll see which makes a bigger mark.

The point is this: Mexico’s past is not necessarily America’s destiny. Relationships are power, and those who favor the unmitigated expansion of the state are right to be discomforted by them. (It’s telling that the current backlash against Common Core, for instance, all has to do with the frustrations of parents like Louis C.K. who want to help their kids learn math – don’t they know that’s the job of the state?) Technology is fueling expanded opportunities for individuals to collaborate and customize, via sharing economies, and mobile devices and apps which adapt to your needs and allow for the marketing of previously invisible assets.

The state’s reaction to this is a natural one for any entity afraid of disruption: fear, animus, and a push for regulation. See the growing anxiety in world capitals for internet regulation, and the overall frustration of government here in America as it seeks to tax and regulate and control the direction of human and social capital.

What we are seeing here is a new model of communitarianism, driven by technology, which functions as a force for empowerment, rather than stability. Those who value stability above all are right to be nervous about this. But for those who believe in freedom of association and reject the encroachment of the state, this should not be a frightening situation, but one full of possibilities for the increase of human liberty. And there is hope for the cultural warriors like Santorum, too.

As I’ve noted before, if you’re confident that marriage and childrearing and the traditional definition of the American dream is better for most people – that it isn’t just necessary for the country, but is good for individuals – then people will choose them because they want to have them, not because they’re browbeat into having them. Getting government out of the way and letting the market work allows people to vote with their feet and pursue happiness their own way – as individuals, as consumers, and as members of communities.

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[First published at The Federalist.]