The Magazine

Honor Killing, American-Style

What science and Roe v. Wade made possible has become virtually mandatory among our self-anointed elites.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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When I associate abortion and honor killing, I am focusing not on the crime of honor killing, but on the honor code that motivates it. Just as abortion and even infanticide have no shortage of indignant and morally vain apologists among the most high-minded of us--the aforementioned Dawn Johnsen, for example, or Professor Peter Singer of Princeton--honor killing is defended as vital to the faith (in Islam) or to the caste system (in certain Hindu and Sikh communities) by some among the most religiously zealous and politically powerful classes where it thrives. In our world, our most admired, socially prestigious, and politically active churches--Unitarians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Quakers, Reform Jews--express their allegiance to abortion rights in their most solemn declarations. But even for mainline Protestants, it is hard to be enthusiastic in a positive way about abortion. This hesitation is just as true for honor killing in Muslim and Hindu communities. In India, most police authorities and government prosecutors pursue and jail honor killers. But often honor killing is simply explained away. American Muslim leaders tend to insist that honor killing does not exist. The New York Times seems to forbid the use of the term without both scare quotes and a qualifying "so-called." American anti-American feminists (who tend to believe that Americans as a race are profoundly "Islamophobic") argue that honor killers are merely patriarchs in a hurry.

It is truer to say that abortion is not so much celebrated by our WASP elites, as its conscientious opponents are despised. The Unitarian Church conventionally hails the right to abortion. But the Unitarians become truly Unitarian when they formally condemn anyone who dares to exercise his political right to oppose abortion. Since the Clinton years, it has become fashionable to say that abortion is a grave event that ought to be less frequent--the president often says so himself. But to say this marks the limit of what can honorably be done. Woe to anyone who regards abortion as even more grave than the president does. Worse lies in store for those who observe that abortion becomes actually less frequent when certain regulations are imposed. Their pragmatism will be regarded as having hidden motives--motives that reveal religious bias, misogyny, and social inferiority.

In nice families there are certain affronts to family dignity that cannot be tolerated. Our notion of family honor demands that nothing interfere with the stately progression of our children from high school to a gap year of social service to a decent college to a respectable career. Various accidents of our biology, such as a high-school pregnancy or a prenatal test that reveals a birth defect are matters that can be handled discreetly and conveniently. What science and Roe v. Wade made possible has become mandatory. Ironically, our abortion fundamentalism has made our burgeoning upper middle class not more advanced and tolerant but more conventional and old-fashioned. In fact, the ability of our WASP-emulating elites to tolerate deviance from the norm has nearly withered away. We do not accuse our abortion refuseniks of heresy or tell their neighbors that they are secretly controlled by Israel--crimes of which the unfortunate Muslims who protest against honor killings are often accused--but we do believe that such people have committed gross social errors that make them unfit for decent society or high office.

Consider the reaction of horror--visceral, immediate, and continuing--to the Sarah Palin phenomenon of last fall. Educated women, conservative or liberal, young or old, couldn't get over her. A certain kind of finicky male conservative was even more scandalized--creating a reaction so intense that it struck them with the force of a religious conversion. Last October, I found this reaction, on the part of all, intelligent women and male feinschmeckers alike, hilarious and incomprehensible.

But I was wrong. We can understand it if we think of one particular affront that Palin presented to the best among us: flamboyant nubility. Sarah Palin decided to carry her Down syndrome baby to term. Bristol Palin not only decided to give birth to her illegitimate baby, but may have been encouraged to do so by her mother. Babies are born in these circumstances every day. But in the judgment of our most worldly women and of our most persnickety men, these births, however commonplace, offend propriety. To have one such baby may be regarded as a misfortune; to have both seems like carelessness.

The unapologetic fertility of this ordinary Alaska family became an obstacle that prevented many from thinking clearly about anything that Sarah Palin might have touched--John McCain, free trade, low taxes, the war on terror. A kind of honor-rage descended, and those whom it touched ran amok. And why not? In the language of honor, the fertility of the Palin women, mother and daughter, was shameless, but Palin didn't have the decency to be ashamed. And for our nicest women and our most carefully shielded conservative pundits, Palin's shamelessness was as gross a violation of the standard of honor as they ever had to face.

The Palin family saga holds the mirror up to our troubled assumptions about abortion. In 1949, Preston Sturges could have made a tender, sophisticated movie in which a sharp-shooting lady state governor (Rosalind Russell) and her ditzy unmarried-mom daughter (Betty Hutton) outwitted the snooty, sexually repressed columnist who disapproved of them (Loretta Young playing Sally Quinn). But 50 years later, the lower middle class has lost the power to show up the snobs. The sheer déclassé nature of the Palin story makes an aristocrat like Michael Wolff reel: "We see Palin for what she is. There are no hurdles for her to get over. The ordinariness, and randomness, and, even, perfidiousness, of small-town American life is the Palin story--and, as well, the publicity opportunity." Because it offended our sense of family honor, the unremarkable decision to have these babies seemed to unhinge those who speak for us, and the enormous quantity of bad writing on the subject--column after column--was a compensation for our inability to utter a deeply felt and widely shared sentiment: Bristol should not have had that baby--her mother should have marched her to the abortion clinic as she marched her to the orthodontist. And Sarah should have terminated that pregnancy.

Of course, based on the evidence that I, Sally, Peggy, Maureen, and Andrew have seen, we can only judge Sarah Palin's fecundity, not her competence as a mother. People magazine has asked us to look upon this picture and upon that: upon Bristol's baby bump and upon the Obama girls, so delightfully bien élevées by their mama. We are to conclude that Sarah Palin would not have made it as a mom at Lab, Sidwell, National Cathedral, or Hockaday. But we can't really be sure. Thank goodness, no one in public life is required to release the gynecological records of teenaged daughters in order to prove that they have not been pregnant. Bristol's failure to maintain her virtue proves only that her mother is unburdened by a sense of upper-middle-class honor. Ironically, even in their engagingly kooky and free-wheeling church, the Palins had more freedom to do what they pleased--or what they thought was right--than did the mainstream Protestant families whose daughters spared them the same ordeals. Still, we should recognize that the Park Avenue lawyer who worships at Brick Church (in the hope his children might be admitted to its superb nursery school) and despises the Palins is defending his family honor. So, in a different sense, are the Palins, when they accept the manifold features of the family with which their God has seen fit to bless them.

When we contemplate Palin's treatment at the hands of the respectable, it's evident that the Enlightenment, the Constitution, the Rights of Man, the Emancipation Proclamation, Darwin, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Friedan, and Richard Dawkins have not, after all, freed us from the burden of family honor. It still lives and bedevils the elites whom we elect as our leaders, whose manners we imitate and whose consciences we admire. Educated women in our society still have to observe a topsy-turvy code of honor that is every bit as stringent--and falls just as heavily upon their shoulders--as that which demanded sexual purity and modesty of any woman who wished to be respectable. And even in the world that the Obama administration deems respectable, the price of honor is paid by the woman, not the man. James Bowman writes that our best and brightest nowadays "regard themselves as being above the demand of honor." But they are not. Honor still demands violence against the individual for the sake of the family. These discreet medical procedures--shall we call them domestic contingency operations?--maintain the prestige, security, and respectability of the families we most admire.

Honor demands a life. If the challenge comes from outside ourselves--from a robber, a murderer, a nation that attacks our nation--then the challenger must die. But challengers and enemies to our social and familial arrangements can come from within our midst. To the traditional family where honor killing still takes place, a disobedient daughter or an unfaithful wife is a greater threat to honor than he who seduces her: A traitor is more culpable than an enemy. And here in liberal America, unwanted pregnancy is now considered a matter of honor so serious that it demands a life. It is the sign that women as a sex have obtained autonomy--and their ultimate ability to attain this rank is sustained by this ability to kill, just as a human being of either sex can use deadly force in self-defense or a nation can wage war to defend its citizens.

But abortion is also a tool to maintain upper-middle class family honor against a small, weak traitor in its midst--the fetus which reveals a daughter's errancy, a mother's failure to keep her daughter up to private-school standards, and most of all the failure of nature to fulfill our expectations in some way.

Whatever we think about the abortion issue, whatever heresy we may privately be committing, the president intends us to feel that our freedom to think as we do has been justly curtailed. When Obama defines the new heresy on abortion as strictly as he does, even though his manner is more WASPy than Wahhabi, he unintentionally undermines our ability to believe we can change one another's minds on the subject. This belief--which is quite justified by shifts in opinion since 1973--has made our political life relatively civil, compared to European norms. Obama forgets that the public are not members of his cabinet--we need to disagree with one another. But if we lose our WASP civility, now that will cause a fuss.

Sam Schulman, a writer in Virginia, was publishing director of the American and publisher of  Wigwag.