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Wednesday, July 3, 2002

The Pledge and the Fourth

Click on this link, turn up your speakers, and listen to the late and dearly missed Red Skelton explain the meaning of the words in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Have a happy Fourth of July, and remember your freedom was bought with somebody's blood. It always is.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

"Ethics Without Human Beings"

I came across this essay (via Curmudgeonry) by New York Times columnist Bill Keller, explaining the decision he and his wife made two years ago to abort their malformed child. It is thoughtful, and clearly painful for Keller to have written. It is also profoundly wrongheaded.

Keller directs an obligatory slap at pro-life advocates (what he calls the "anti-abortion lobby", i.e., not real people), calling them shameless exploiters of the "illusion" that "tadpole-sized fetuses" are "full-grown infants." Of course it wasn't a tadpole that was extracted -- kicking, by his wife's account -- from her womb at 20+ weeks, neither in size or substance. It wasn't a tadpole they thought of as their son, and whom they named Charlie. But in reducing pro-life activists to hardhearted defenders of miniscule fetal abstractions, Keller can sidestep their claims.

He next attempts to bring God into the matter, in the fashion of those who acknowledge His existence but prefer to treat Him as an inscrutable abstraction. So he explains that his wife, who "clings more firmly to her faith" than he, turned in desperation to the hospital's Catholic chaplain. The chaplain never returned her calls, so she resorted to a nun of her acquaintance, who advised her to "think about what God would want, not what the church would want."

What God would want. The God who said "You shall not kill." The God about whom the psalmist wrote, "You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb." The God who said "Deliver those who are being taken away to death." The God who keeps the psalmist's promise, "My father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me up." The God who said in anger, "You slaughtered My children and offered them up to idols."

Of course that is the God of the Bible, and perhaps I should no longer be surprised that a nun would be unfamiliar with him. Barring personal revelation or reference to Scripture, her advice amounted to: "follow your conscience," which Keller freely admits sublimating to his "reason" on this topic, such that he calls himself and his wife sentimental fools for thinking of the fetus as their child.

And so they aborted the baby, after agonizing over their decision, and with the best of intentions: to prevent suffering, to protect the mother's health. I've never faced that choice; I can't claim greater strength. But I do claim greater clarity, which is precisely what Keller says this experience has made him suspicious of -- the moral clarity of those who "seem to offer a kind of ethics without human beings."

It's all so fuzzy, you see; it has to be, because clarity raises the horrible possibility that well-meaning people, like the Kellers, like thousands of other families who face similar decisions, may well choose what is evil. We can, after all, do evil without intending it, and harm others without wanting to. I have. So have you.

What's curious is Keller's contention that pro-life people who claim moral clarity on this issue practice "ethics without human beings." This is precisely the point of dispute: abortion rights advocates argue that there is one less human being in the equation than do pro-life advocates. This isn't ethics without human beings, it is quite the opposite -- an ethics that demands we recognize as human what abortion advocates label "fetus", a clinical term intended to dehumanize, to convince a woman that she is not a mother, and that the heartbeat in her womb is not that of her child.

I suspect what Keller means by "ethics without human beings" is a well-justified feeling that many pro-life advocates don't sufficiently account for the suffering and fear attending parents who face delivery of a dead or deformed child, or which confronts a single woman who considers raising a child on her own. The same opinion is equally justified, as he implies, of abortion rights advocates who resist evidence that abortion is physically and psychologically harmful to women. Empathy is what's needed, and it is short supply on both sides of this issue.

In this Keller is strongest; it is encouraging to hear an abortion advocate challenge Planned Parenthood to "live up to its name" by counseling parents who may want to keep their children. Though he doesn't acknowledge it, pro-life ministries have made great strides in the same direction, offering medical, financial, and spiritual help to women who twenty years ago could not have expected such compassion. The more people on both sides offer loving guidance and assistance to these women in need, the fewer abortions will occur. This is one reason, unfortunately, why I don't expect Planned Parenthood, or the legions of full-time abortionists with which it is allied, to take up Keller's challenge.

All told, Keller's article reflects considerable evolution for an abortion rights advocate, as he indicates: "I've often wondered what we'd have done if the decision had been less stark -- if the doctor had said 50-50 [chance of survival for the baby], or if the gamble had been on something known, on Down syndrome or one of the severe crippling diseases. Would we have had the strength to ride it out? The fact that I think of this as something to aspire to is itself a change of heart."

Sadly true, and I would credit Keller with courage for admitting it, if I believed he might confront opprobrium for confessing that at one time he did not see this as worthy of aspiration. I doubt, at least in the circles of Times writers, that such opprobrium is forthcoming. This is a topic about which clever people reason away their instincts. But in Keller's words: "no amount of reasoning about the status of this creature can quite counteract the portrait that begins to form in your heart with the poetry of the first heartbeats."

The reasoning can only take effect, it seems, once the heart has stopped beating, and after the sting of what was done has dulled with time. Then one can write an article asserting that there really are no moral absolutes. But in Keller's article even this facade crumbles. It is demolished in the heartbreaking words of his wife, who wishes that they hadn't known of their baby's defect:

"We would have lost that baby, but we would not have killed that baby."

posted by Woodlief | link | (16) comments

Monday, July 1, 2002

Excerpts From Life

Since my last business trip was going to be so l-o-n-g, I decided to bring along my little darlings. Although the first two days of a trip by myself tend to be blissful, what with reading uninterrupted and taking nice warm bubble baths and painting my nails and all, by the third day I start to get kind of sad, and by the fourth I feel sick to my stomach from wife and baby and little chunky boy withdrawal.

So I loaded up the whole fam damily on an airplane and schlepped them cross country. What fun we had. Sure, there was the inappropriate screaming and inopportune pants-pooping, but my doctor has prescribed a sedative that he promises will help me control myself a little better next time. Some tidbits from our journey:

Day One

Me: "Caleb, what would you like to eat for breakfast?"

Caleb: "Uh, chicken salad."

Me: "How about some yogurt?"

Caleb: "Nope. Chicken salad."

Me: "Sweety, I don't have any chicken salad. How about a banana?"

Caleb: "No, I want chicken salad."

Me: "Here, eat some cereal."

Caleb: "No, I want..."

Me: (Making a sound much like Dr. Evil to his son in the first Austin Powers movie) "Cht."

Caleb: "...chicken..."

Me: "Cht."

Caleb: "...saladdddd..."

Me: "Cccchhhhhhhhhtttttt."

Hours later:

Me: "Caleb, what would you like for lunch?"

Caleb: "Chicken salad."

Me: "How about peanut butter and jelly?"

Caleb: "Nope. Chicken salad."

Repeat morning scene. Repeat again for dinner. Chicken salad. Chicken salad. Chicken freaking salad.

Day Two

Me: "Caleb, guess what I have for you!"

Caleb: "For you!"

Me: "Yummy chicken salad!"


Me: "Want a bite?"

Caleb: "Nope, I want macanoneys (translation: macaroni)."


While driving through godless heathen country (the D.C. metro area) on Sunday morning, we pass numerous people jogging and/or going to the local version of church: Starbucks. I threaten to do what my grandfather used to do, which was to roll down his window and shout "Y'all ought to be in church!"

For some reason just the mention of this mortifies my wife. We stop at a streetlight, and a man and woman jog past. The woman is talking rapidly.

Me: "She sure has got a lot to say."

Wife: "Only a woman would talk and run at the same time."

We drive in silence for a moment.

Me: "Sometimes I forget how cool you are."


In a moment of married couple serendipity, while discussing the rudeness of city folk, my wife and I simultaneously declare that said rudeness in Washington, D.C. is largely confined to white men. Upon further reflection we narrow this class of rude people to white men in business suits. To be sure, there are plenty of courteous white men in D.C. (99% of them Southerners, I'll wager), plenty of rude white women, and the occasional rude non-white. But the examples that stick in my mind, and in my craw, include either stubby little balding sweaty white men in their overly tight suits, or shabby, bearded academic types, or slick young attorneys and staffers who glance at themselves in every shiny window they pass on the sidewalk.

They don't observe social etiquette, and I doubt many of them create anything valuable. Shame on all of them, and for the rest of us men for not slapping them square on their mealy mouths whenever they break into a line, or fail to yield their seats to the elderly, or yap on their cell phones in that effete overeducated voice that was equally ubiquitous, I am certain, in the upper circles of Louis XIV's France.


Had a chance to visit Monticello. Observed a lack of quality control in the tour guides. My group drew a middle-aged Southern woman whose voice and bearing commanded respect. We all listened obediently as she explained the interesting history associated with each room.

Well, almost all -- I found myself distracted by the tour guide who was leading a group behind us. While our guide explained how Thomas Jefferson used to keep meticulous weather records, and wrote over 20,000 pieces of correspondence during his lifetime, I kept catching snippets from the next room like this:

"...women weren't allowed..."
"...slaves didn't have..."
"...only white men could..."

I doubt the guide in the next room said anything untruthful. But I wonder what her charges were left with, other than an impression that Thomas Jefferson was a typical patriarchal old white dude whose slaves built him a nice house on a hill. It seems that political correctness increasingly demands that we not only ritually denounce, as a form of false penitence, all who owned slaves (except African tribal leaders, of course), but that we also obliterate from memory the good and noble things they created (or worse, perpetuate the myth that these things were really mostly the result of African ingenuity).

As a Presbyterian I'm all for communal guilt, but -- not to put too fine an academic point on it -- give me a freaking break already.



To: Management, Hardee's Restaurants
From: T.W.
Subject: Stench

My years in management consulting tell me that a reek resembling a slaughteryard outhouse is not conducive to sustainable customer volume.


My son Caleb is a little ham. Older chicks dig him. Strange women have been known to give him money just for being cute. We are in a near-empty restaurant, after a messy meal, getting our things ready to leave. He's kung-fu-ing me, which consists of standing about three feet away (so I can't tickle him) and shooting his little hand out in my direction while making a "foosh" sound. Every time he does it, I lurch back in my seat, he giggles, and the waitresses all laugh in that cute way eighteen year-old girls have.

Eventually one, then another, then another ends up near him; he is surrounded by chicks, and he doesn't have the good sense to be anything but annoyed that they are inhibiting his judo chops. I take his hand, thank our waitress, and we head for the door. He turns around and, waving with his free hand, says "Bye, ladies!"

The ladies, of course, fall all over themselves at how cute this is, which is why I taught him to say it. One day, son, you'll thank me.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments