Daily Archives: September 3, 2006

Malcolm feels queasy …

Malcolm has had a huge tome in front of him for much of the weekend: David J. Garrow, Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade (University of California, 1998). The Preface says the book:

… tells three sequential stories. First it relates … the forty-year struggle to overturn Connecticut’s criminalization of even married couples’ use of contraceptives …
Second … details recognition of a fundamental right of privacy …
Third … describes … the twenty-five years of abortion litigation and congressional debates … since Roe v. Wade.

Despite the first three words of its title, this is not a stimulating bedside reader. To be absolutely truthful (and Malcolm is all of that), he has only reached the fourth chapter, and is just 31% of the way through the text (and there’s a further 300+ pages of critical apparatus, bibliography and index after that). In effect, he has read only the first of Garrow’s ‘sequential stories’.

‘This is not a book to be taken lightly …’ — and thank you, Dorothy Parker. Malcolm did, indeed nearly get to the ‘but to be hurled with great force’ point, except that he has too much respect for the interior decoration. Two things raised his blood pressure.

The first was the pedantic and, quite frankly, disorienting writing. Garrow conflates a huge amount of detail: any typical paragraph requires a double-figure helping of references for its sources. That means the reader is required to sit up and pay acute attention. A name, or event, will be mentioned; and the reader is expected still to be aware of the context of who or what it was a score of pages and innumerable other facts later. This is value-for-money, heavy history: count the citations for value. Malcolm admits he has the same problem with three-decker Russian novels, particularly when a single character can be going under four or more names (forename, patronymic, nickname and surname) depending on the circumstances. Just as the Penguin edition of War and Peace used to print up-front a ‘helpful hints’ page listing the main characters, so Malcolm needed repetitive fingerings of the index as a kind of ‘Who’s Who?’ Several times Malcolm found himself totally bewildered by a piece of inconsistent narrative which may or may not have been previously given a context.

The second, and the one that kept him going, was the sheer bloody-minded stupidity of so many of the characters and their expressed views, together with the misuse of power in forcing those views on the lives of others. The focus of the early chapters of Garrow’s book is the run-up to the case of Griswold v. Connecticut.

Estelle Griswold was the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut who, in 1961, opened a clinic in New Haven. Within the week she and Dr Lee Buxton were arrested and charged with breaching the Connecticut ban on the use of contraceptives. They were found guilty and fined $100 each. Whoopy-doo, you are saying. Griswold and Buxton had been machinating to this end, looking for grounds to involve the US Supreme Court in overthrowing the Connecticut law. The Supreme Court, blessings on them, did the decent thing and found, 7 to 2, for Griswold and Buxton. The majority opinion was written by that saintly old lecher, Justice William Orville Douglas. In doing so, he eschewed the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and invented a new doctrine of privacy.

The serial stupidity of the legislators of the State of Connecticut is truly staggering. This festering midden was started by Phineas T. Barnum. Malcolm knew of Barnum only as the great nineteenth-century showman, the man who paid $10,000 dollars to buy Jumbo from the London Zoo, only for Jumbo to die under a Canadian locomotive. Malcolm had not realised that Barnum was also a member of the Connecticut legislature throught the 1870s. In 1879 Barnum was the chief mover in a souped-up version of the Comstock Law (the Comstock and Barnum families were Connecticut old-stagers, neighbours, and seemingly somehow even related). The Connecticut prohibition of contraceptives was the toughest in the US:

Any person who shall use any drug, medical article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception shall be fined not less than fifty dollars or imprisoned not less than sixty days nor more than one year or be both fined and imprisoned.

This was backed up by an catch-all ‘aiding and abetting’ clause. Malcolm finds it hard to think generously of anyone who could concoct such oppression, except that — apparently — Barnum was also an opponent of capital punishment.

Every biennial session, except one, between 1923 and the early 196os, the Connecticut legislature was presented with a measure to reform this 1879 Act. Every session, by bigotry and chicanery, the reform was blocked. Nothing, no matter what the voting was in the lower house, no opinion poll, no hardship even to the point of maternal death, would soften the blinkered obtuseness of the Roman Catholic majority among the Connecticut state senators. There are even walk-on parts for a couple of old friends, one a goody, one so-so. The most prominent Connecticut women who made her opinions, in support of contraceptive liberalisation, very well known over many years was Katharine Hepburn. The other was Prescott Bush (father and grandfather of …) who persuaded the Connecticut campaigners to moderate their approach lest it damage his 1950 US Senate campaign. It has been subsequently opined that Bush lost that campaign because he was believed to support liberalisation: Malcolm is currently casting through his book-shelves to see if that canard is indeed mentioned, as he half-recalls, in Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud.

Malcolm struggles to think of Republicans as the ‘liberal’ party: frothing-at-the-mouth, yes. Yet, they come out smelling of violets, compared to the neanderthalers of the mid-century Connecticut Democrats, who were definitively ‘Dagenham’ — several stops beyond Barking (a London Underground map helps with that reference).

And so to bed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized