Jeb Bush, speaking to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, based the “conservative” argument for immigration on the fact that “immigrants are more fertile.”
Oddly enough, Jeb Bush was right, at least about conservatism. A rigid biological determinism undergirds conservative ideology and politics. From this extraordinarily revealing remark by Bush that immigration reform should be about the (presumed) fertility of certain groups over others, to women’s rights, to reproductive freedom, and, of course, to marriage equality for LGBT people, biology for conservatives is, in fact, destiny.
Sarah Palin objected to Jeb Bush’s conservative fertility rationale for immigration, noting that Bush had gone into “touchy territory” by talking about “one race’s fertility rate over another.” Good point, but Palin could not stay away from biology completely, undercutting her own argument by adding, “I say this as someone who is kind of fertile herself.” Why, given her previous statement, would that be relevant?
Biological determinism is the connector; the conservative view is, in fact, that your biology defines your role in the social and political and, of course, domestic spheres. It is not that conservative women like Palin have no power, but that they believe they need to leverage their biology to get and maintain power. Thus they stay within the biologically determinist sphere.
Democracy, by contrast, is based on the idea that human beings are not determined by biology, but “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” This is both a political and a religious argument for a profound and transcendent equality governed by rights. As human beings, we have rights that cannot be reduced or eliminated regardless of our individual physical characteristics. Every advance in human rights in this country, from ending slavery, to extending voting rights, to the Civil Rights struggles, to reproductive freedom, and now to the struggle for full equality for LGBT people, equal justice, not biology, has been the crucial argument.
A friend of mine is a High School English teacher. She had her students read Victor Hugo’s classic text,
. “What was the motto of the French Revolution?” she asked on the final exam about that turbulent century in French history. One student wrote, “Liberty, Fertility or Death.”
No, fertility is not on any revolution’s list of reasons why human beings have the right to liberty, and why some may fight to the death to secure those rights.
This confused student’s response may be funny, and my friend and I certainly laughed together when she called me to tell me about it, but it also shows the ridiculousness of including fertility in any argument for immigration reform. To bring up “fertility” as an argument for immigration reform reveals a profound misunderstanding of the fundamental basis of democracy as human equality under the law.
This month, the Supreme Court will likely decide on “two of the weightiest civil rights cases in years,” “Proposition 8,” a California initiative that banned marriage equality in that state, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law enacted in 1996 that bars the federal government from offering benefits to LGBT couples, even if they are legally married in their own home state. Both of these unjust laws are partly, if not wholly, rooted in biological determinism, that is, the assumption that marriage should be limited to those who are “procreative.” As many have pointed out, that is absurd since heterosexual marriage is not so limited.
For a democracy, a rights argument for equal human dignity and freedom must be primary over any (often wholly misguided) ideas about human biology.
Conservative ideology, however, based as it is in biological determinism, is designed that way to consolidate and perpetuate the political, social and religious power of small group of elites defined by their biology in terms of gender, sexual orientation and, in the U.S., by race. It uses presumed biological differences to advance and maintain political and economic power, and it has for a very long time.
This interpretation of biology as destiny is designed to preserve the status quo and prevent reform.
But when people sing for freedom and equality, as recently happened in Istanbul, they don’t sing about their biology. Young people, protesting the authoritarian rule of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, poignantly sang a song from the 1980 musical adaptation of Hugo’s novel. From 1832 in Paris, to 2013 in Istanbul, in the coming weeks in the U.S. Congress on immigration reform, and in the Supreme Court on LGBT marriage equality, the rights arguments are always the compelling case.
Justice “is the music of the people, who will not be slaves again.” Biology is not our human destiny, freedom is.
Thistlethwaite is author, most recently, of “#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.”