Opinion | History Can Close in on Us Awfully Fast

Gail Collins: Bret, I’ve been thinking a lot about the new Texas abortion law. Which basically — bans abortions. Given the way the current Supreme Court is operating, I’m pretty sure we’re headed for a pre-1973 world where most women facing unwelcome pregnancy had to choose between raising money for a trip to an abortion-tolerant state or risking a visit to a black-market service at home.

Or, of course, just having a baby they didn’t want and very probably couldn’t afford to raise. We’ve got so many 21st-century problems, like global warming — the idea of recreating one of the big ones from the 20th just fills me with despair.

What’s your reaction?

Bret Stephens: Not despair, but definitely disgust. As my former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal put it in an editorial last week, “the law sets an awful precedent that conservatives should hate.” If Texas can authorize vigilante justice when it comes to abortion, then a blue state could conceivably do likewise with, say, gun rights. My suspicion is that at least one of the Supreme Court’s conservatives, probably Justice Neil Gorsuch, will join Chief Justice John Roberts and the three liberal justices to overturn the law once an actual suit is brought before it.

Gail: Hope you’re right. I don’t have a ton of confidence in the current court, thanks to those Trump additions. Three-fifths of the majority that didn’t block the implementation of the law were his appointees. Yet another fact in the category of Hillary Warned Us.

Bret: Of course the law is appalling, most of all for any woman in Texas in need of an abortion. My glimmer of optimism is that the ruling may finally remind people that our judicial philosopher kings should never have been in charge of the abortion issue in the first place. And that people should care a whole lot more about the politics of abortion, not just the jurisprudence. We need pro-choice legislation at the national level, like the Women’s Health Protection Act, which should pass the House immediately. And we need to fight choice battles in state houses, especially red states where Roe v. Wade had, paradoxically, rendered the abortion issue basically moot for many years. Your thoughts?

Gail: Bret, if you’re asking me whether I think the House should follow Nancy Pelosi’s lead and pass a bill guaranteeing the right to choice — well, gee. Yeah. We have once again fallen into agreement. Let’s proceed to a more promising topic. How about the economy? To me, it seems to be going pretty well, all Covid considered.

Bret: Terrifying! Unless all of your money is in the stock market, which is up more than 20 percent from a year ago. I’m no Warren Buffett, but I’m afraid this kind of bull market feels about as sustainable as a Zsa Zsa Gabor marriage, a Zoolander sequel, or a coked-up monkey.

Gail: Another fascinating Bret list.

Bret: But for people on fixed incomes or those who depend on paychecks, inflation is scary, and I’m afraid it’s not just a passing phase because of supply-chain issues. For the fiscal year that ended in June, home prices rose by almost 19 percent, the biggest yearly increase measured in more than 30 years.

Home-price increases are also a leading indicator for rent increases. And right now the job numbers aren’t looking too good either, though that might be a function of the Delta variant taking a bite out of the service economy.

Gail: Well, I’m looking on the bright side. The value of labor rises when there are more jobs available and people are going to be wanting them once the fear of the pandemic subsides a bit more, and services like child care come back.

Bret: That is, if the pandemic subsides. I fear it never will, since after delta comes lambda, and then mu, and then maybe another 12 variants before we exhaust the Greek alphabet. We might be living with this thing the way our grandparents lived with polio or tuberculosis, or the way so many people today live with malaria. Sorry. I’m being … morbid.

Gail: Think positive. New York’s economy was hit particularly hard because it depends so much on tourism. But when I was out over the weekend there were tons of people out shopping and it felt like — maybe — the hoped-for rebirth.

Bret: From your mouth to God’s ear.

Gail: Of course, it was partly the good weather, which was particularly wondrous for us, after an unending heat wave followed by tornadoes.

Bret: Which was awful. The horror of people drowning in flooded basement apartments is something I can’t get out of my mind. This is me going on record to say that, for the first and probably last time, I applaud Bill de Blasio — for taking steps to prevent these kinds of tragedies.

Gail: A heavenly stenographer takes note …

Bret: Meantime, Joe Manchin, your favorite Democrat, just wrote an op-ed saying that he won’t be voting for the $3.5 trillion social spending package, partly out of his concerns for inflation and deficit spending. Which gives me the feeling that, between this and the Afghan debacle, Joe Biden’s presidency may be running out of gas already. He needs a new start.

Gail: I refuse to have a conversation about Joe Biden’s future that begins with Senator Manchin. Right now Congress is celebrating its Labor Day weekend, which for the Senate lasts until Sept. 13. Let’s see how things stack up when everybody’s back.

Bret: Our elected representatives are hard at work! And you wonder why only 12 percent of Americans claim to have much confidence in Congress, according to Gallup. You know they’re in trouble when they come in behind the media.

Gail: Well to be fair, most of them aren’t just sitting on the beach. A lot of their down time gets eaten up by their constituents. You can just regard that as campaigning for the next election, but those moments of personal contact are also something said constituents really like. Plus, you don’t want to be represented by people who only talk with lobbyists and other lawmakers.

On a completely different topic, this week marks the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11. Any memories of that ungodly day?

Bret: Three days before the attacks I wanted to take an out-of-town friend for a drink at Windows on the World, which was on the top two floors of the north tower. We arrived just a few minutes too late to catch the last elevator; I remember saying to her, “Next time.”

Then I flew to Israel for an assignment, learned of the attacks at Ben Gurion Airport, and watched the towers come down on TV. I was terrified because the offices of The Wall Street Journal, where I worked at the time, were right across the street, in the World Financial Center. We all immediately went to work from wherever we were and succeeded in publishing a newspaper the next day, which was enough to win the paper a Pulitzer for breaking-news reporting. I spent the whole night wandering around Jerusalem, which felt as if it stood directly atop the geopolitical equivalent of the San Andreas Fault. I moved there a few months later.

Gail: I was able to go down to the site a few days after the attack. It was nighttime. The catastrophic pile of what used to be the World Trade Center was still smoldering. And covered with little dotted red lights, which were rescuers still in hopes of finding survivors.

Walking around Manhattan in the weeks after, you kept coming across people singing and playing music in every park, open space or negotiable sidewalk corner. They were from all over the country and they just wanted to do — something — so they brought their songs to New York’s residents.

Those are the two things that stay in my mind. The little red lights and the guitar players from Ohio and Vermont and Missouri.

Bret: In so many ways, 9/11 brought out the best in New York — the courage, decency, resilience and sheer joie de vivre. It’s why the one and only time I actually cheered Donald Trump was when he crushed pandering, priggish, pontificating, poltroonish Ted Cruz in a 2016 G.O.P. primary debate on the subject of “New York values.” Ted did his thing about New Yorkers being “pro-gay marriage” and “pro-abortion” and Donald performed the rhetorical equivalent of disemboweling him with a rusty hatchet.

It was beautiful.

Twenty years later, though, 9/11 seems different to me. Less like an unimaginable tragedy, and more like a harbinger of a bad century to come.

Gail: Let’s not give up on the entire 21st century yet. It’s easy to be pessimistic about the future, maybe partly because awful is easier to imagine — and kinda more exciting. You probably never saw “Death Race 2000,” a 1975 film starring the pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone, in which dictators ruled the whole world in our era, and entertained the common folk with cross-country races in which the driver who ran over the most pedestrians won.

Or “Soylent Green,” from 1973, in which New York has a population of 40 million in 2022, unemployment is 50 percent, three cans of food cost $279 and dead folks are recycled into crackers. Or, as Charlton Heston bemoans, “Soylent green is people!”

In other words, things can turn out a lot better than you imagine. Just try not to think of those crackers.

Bret: Hey, at least they’re gluten free.

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