The Well Actually
We Can’t Tell People in Red States to “Just Move”
It's hubristic for blue-state liberals to implore people living in red states with horrific bans against abortion and trans health care to uproot their lives and move. So what can we do to help those who don't have access?
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Blue-state liberals have long been telling us Texans to “just move” whenever our asshole politicians ramp up attacks on abortion. But they’ve really escalated the condescension in the wake of the Dobbs ruling decimating abortion access across the country. “Why are there any women left in Texas?” they ask, as if we can just dip into the Smug Lefty Relocation Fund for the Rehabilitation of Rednecks. (Weirdly, patronizing tweets don’t cover moving costs to Brooklyn!) Of course, “just move” is only a smidge better than “Why doesn’t Texas secede already?” the moldiest and oldiest chestnut, a favorite complaint of the hashtag-resisters and their forebears, the #VoteBlue brigade.
Gaining steam lately is the idea that abortion supporters have a moral obligation to boycott states that heavily restrict or ban abortion. To stick it once and for all to Texas … and, well, almost the entire South, much of the Midwest, and a fair few Western states. It’s faster to name the places it’s okay not to boycott: Oregon, for sure. And it’s probably okay to do capitalism with the ten other states that do more than others to protect abortion access. It’s like when Ina Garten tells you “store bought is fine”—you know she means you really should make your own chicken stock, but if you’re in a time crunch, New Jersey will do.
It’s one thing to rag on Texas. I get it. Governor. Greg Abbott and Senator. Ted Cruz have more or less stuffed the state into a clown suit and shoved us into the spotlight wearing tap shoes. But if we must boycott one or two dozen states (our own states? Ourselves?) depending on our individual abortion-ban indignation level, I don’t see that doing much more than making smug, comfortable people feel more smug and comfortable. I promise that no one with an abortion provider on their block is more indignant about abortion bans than those of us with no abortion providers for many thousands of miles.
Are the 21 million people who’ve already lost access to abortion care supposed to just stay tuned until someone from the liberal bastion of Upstate New York follows up with next steps? According to Guttmacher, over two dozen states have “restrictive,” “very restrictive,” or “most restrictive” abortion laws on the books. We’re not talking about getting Wendy’s instead of Chick-Fil-A here. (And I have bad news about Wendy’s!)
It’s unclear what blue-state boycott proponents ultimately have in mind. Some, such as feminist writer Jessica Valenti, who lives in Brooklyn, have suggested that the “right thing” is for conference and festival organizers to “not give business to places where women aren’t free.” (N.B.: It’s not just women. Trans men and nonbinary folks need abortion access.) And okay, if it makes organizers feel better and makes more sense to host a conference in Chicago instead of New Orleans, that’s totally reasonable—nobody is obligated to spend money in conflict with their values. I make those kinds of calculations all the time, right here in Texas; I’m probably even a little bit obnoxious about it. Certainly no one should have to spend time where they are unsafe if they can avoid it. But millions of us can’t avoid it, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily the “right thing,” sine qua non, to withhold organizing and community-building opportunities from people who either can’t “just move,” or who are working at home to make positive change.
Do we have to fly to New York for our abortions and our book festivals now? Cultural events are incredibly important community spaces, not to mention drivers of economic support for local businesses, artists, activists, and creators. Especially in places where it can be difficult or even dangerous to have progressive political beliefs, let alone hold identities and experiences that challenge white supremacy, Christian religious hegemony, and heterosexual normativity (just to name a few). Erasing these opportunities—or, ironically, making them as hard to access as abortion—is just another form of silencing already marginalized voices. It’s hard to see how declining to host an event in Memphis or San Antonio (heavily Democratic cities, both) in favor of Portland or Boston helps people get abortions, or register to vote, or meet other like-minded folks in our communities with whom we might organize or simply find emotional and social support during this nationwide crisis.
Because it is a nationwide crisis. Setting up this us-versus-them dichotomy flattens tens of millions of people in huge swaths of the United States into hopeless causes, red-state robots programmed by right-wing groupthink. It’s not abortion-hostile versus abortion-friendly states; it’s abortion bans versus everyone else. I know blue-state liberals understand this, because they’re perfectly capable of deflecting responsibility for the makeup of an abortion-hostile Supreme Court, or the Trump presidency, or a GOP-dominated Congress, when it suits them. They’re well able to hold the tension between their own values and the fact that they are often governed at the federal level by people who don’t share those values. And yet they can’t seem to extend that logic. Somehow, all 30 million Texans are responsible for Greg Abbott, but all 330 million Americans are not responsible for Donald Trump.
The vast majority of urban centers in “red” states lean heavily Democratic and are bluer than most rural areas in “blue” states. What can these boycott proposals achieve, then, besides creating moral comfort for people who don’t live under abortion bans and hardship for people who do, while doing little to change the material circumstances of anti-abortion politicians and the flush PACs who back them? I rebuke any boycott that does not take as a fundamental organizing principle a means of mitigating the collateral damage to people who are already fighting for their lives.
Boycotts organized at communities, rather than with and from communities, are extremely suspect. In Ms. magazine, Fordham University professor John Davenport invokes—with a straight face—the Montgomery Bus Boycott in his call for a “Boycott for Choice,” entirely misunderstanding the means and motivation behind historic Civil Rights efforts in the South to desegregate city buses. Boycotts organized by people directly affected, and which operate with harm reduction measures that enable those people to continue living their lives amid such actions, could not be further from the boycott daydreams of the comfortably situated. Davenport offers no such plan, and instead asserts that “everyone in the worst 13 states still shares a collective responsibility for their laws” while excusing his own choice to spend his career working for anti-abortion Catholic universities. That is pretty rich!
And speaking of rich: I’m noodling on all of this in light of news that, earlier this month, journalists uncovered what is likely the largest-ever individual donation to a political group in American history, a $1.6 billion gift to a new uber-conservative organization helmed by the co-chair of the hyper-right but increasingly mainstream Federalist Society, a man ProPublica described as “one of the prime architects of conservatives’ efforts to reshape the American judicial system, including the Supreme Court.”
This man, Leonard A. Leo, already had enough money and clout to buy himself a Supreme Court. Now Leo has enough money and clout to buy himself a Supreme Court, plus $1.6 billion. That’s buy-yourself-ten-more-Supreme-Courts money, put directly in the hands of a man who has already funded successful “battles over abortion rights, voting rules, and climate change policy.” This is money meant to be more than spent—it will be weaponized.
I would fucking love it if universities and industrial manufacturers and business associations and oil companies and retail behemoths felt so threatened by the possibility of ruin that, even if only out of sheer self-preservation, they leveraged their economic and political power in favor of abortion rights. If I thought boycotts had a snowball’s chance, I would beg would-be allies in blue states to share in making meaningful sacrifices to improve conditions in the long term for those of us living under abortion bans.
Unfortunately, I am not convinced many of these boycott fantasists are proposing meaningful sacrifices so much as looking to shore up their own moral self-righteousness, but for the sake of argument, I’ll agree that shopping at Target instead of Walmart is a real hassle. But what critical mass is needed to reverse the political orientation of the likes of ExxonMobil or Halliburton, as Davenport suggests in his Ms. proposal? Even the most enthusiastic consumer boycott wouldn’t leverage the kind of economic pressure that could produce a viable path to change when abortion opponents are funded to the tune of billions by some of the biggest corporations on Earth, spread out across dozens of gerrymandered, voter-suppressed states.
Business-to-business boycotts seem more promising, and blue-state enticements to corporate relocation may persuade a few, but we know that public-facing corporate support for abortion rights is more likely a play for good press than a commitment to relinquishing powerful political connections and risking the bottom line. There is simply very little economic harm that a boycott of Southern or Midwestern states can do to any of these heavy-hitters that is likely to be greater than the benefit offered by their cooperation with, and motivation to maintain, Republican governments.
Economics and optics work together when it comes to boycotts. Republicans have already weaponized their own us-versus-them mentality as a fully fledged political identity. You know what Greg Abbott would be absolutely thrilled about? The opportunity to fund-raise off of a bunch of ~ coastal elites ~ refusing to attend, say, South By Southwest—an annual festival hosted in Austin, a city which has spearheaded municipal efforts to decriminalize abortion and created models so that others can follow suit. Abbott can’t stand Austin, and Texas Republicans love it when he goes after the city. A blue-state boycott would be cash in the bank for him. One can imagine things going similarly for, say, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
I can imagine, if a person’s world is so limited that they don’t have meaningful connections to people in places with abortion bans, it might feel reassuring, in a time of deep anger and helplessness, to blame and even seek to punish those people, whoever and wherever they are. But there is an essential smallness in the blue-state boycott fantasy. It’s worse than us-versus-them or blue-versus-red. It’s a scarcity mindset predicated on withholding economic and social support, rather than seeing the abundant potential in sharing resources, opportunities, and intellectual and political work.
Resource-sharing will become particularly important when the Leonard A. Leos and zombified Federalist Society offshoots of this country really get rolling; billionaire-backed conservative groups are not going to stop at the Mason-Dixon line when it comes to packing the courts with right-wing activist judges ready to legitimize state-sanctioned bigotry, shore up vote suppression, and terrorize marginalized folks. Abortion bans—and attacks on LGBTQ kids, and everything else in the right-wing zeitgeist—are moving fast. And the blue-versus-red distinction doesn’t reflect reality anyway; the entire country turns pretty dang purple when you remember that land doesn’t vote.
I’m not saying that the American right is an unbeatable force to which we should all capitulate. But hoarding resources is not the move. The way through is together. Progressives and liberals absolutely have people power and deep experience on our side. If you’ve got money to withhold, you’ve got money to redistribute. People fighting abortion bans need deeper investments in our communities—especially local, BIPOC-owned businesses and grassroots organizations—that will have a longer lasting impact than moving a wedding from St. Louis to Seattle. Alternatives are plentiful: folks moving events out of abortion-hostile geographies—a perfectly reasonable decision that can be rooted in keeping attendees safe—can give what they would have otherwise spent in “red” states and offer it to grassroots organizations, voting rights groups, and political candidates working for change on the ground. Social media is a great place to find folks who need financial help relocating to safer geographies. If CashApping a stranger seems sketchy, many neighborhood mutual-aid groups offer assistance for newly relocated folks who could use help with rent or bills.
And if it’s still a bridge too far to support work in “red” states, folks can simply mind their own business and work in their own geographies to improve abortion access so that people who do have to travel for care can access it safely and with fewer delays. Self-education is also important; not all “blue” states are abortion havens, thanks to forced parental involvement laws and other barriers to abortion access that fall short of outright bans. Folks can discover what grassroots and local organizations are improving conditions for people in the less progressive parts of “blue” states, and offer up their time, money, and resources if they’re looking for support.
There is a great deal of “red state” knowledge about how to survive and thrive in hostile political climates if “blue state” folks are willing to listen and invest, rather than snark and stockpile. But whatever you’re doing, make sure it’s part of a call to action, not an excuse for inaction.
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