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Friday, January 17, 2003

Time Outside the Walls

Reading the raging debate on abortion at Megan's site got me thinking about time I've spent in front of an abortion clinic. Having been in favor of abortion rights, and now against them, I know the arguments, and they are tiresome. How can we conclude that a mass of blastocysts is human. How can we pretend that the fetus, which has arms and legs and fingers by the time it is large enough to extract, isn't human. How can we assign women to back alleys. How can we sanction murder.

And so on. Most of these arguments dissipate when one stands on a street corner of an abortion clinic that contains its own incinerator, and watches the smoke drift lazily from a pipe atop the roof.

The facility belongs to George Tiller, who for a brief time was at the center of the famous "Summer of Mercy" over a decade ago, in Wichita, Kansas. Someone eventually shot him, and now he wears a bullet-proof vest. He provides partial-birth abortions for a significant fee; he is one of the few remaining abortionists who does so, and women from surrounding states flock to him. His facility takes up a good portion of a city block, nestled right on the edge of small homes on a highway access road. Across the street is a car dealership, and sometimes they wash the ash off their vehicles. I wonder if it occurs to them what they are doing.

The contingents are fairly small, other than during a small attempt to revive the Summer of Mercy a few years ago. Although there are plenty of people on both side of the debate, with different claims about faith and non-faith, at the abortion facility most of that disappears. The people in the fenced parking lot, who are there to make sure nobody trespasses, and to usher in cars carrying mothers, despise God. The people on the outside believe they are called by God to this place.

I can say this about the people on both sides because in the many days I spent there, I talked with most of them, or heard their conversations. The people inside the fence call themselves escorts, and they wear bright orange vests or shirts labeled such. They scream at the Christians who step up to the arriving cars in an effort to give the occupants literature, or to talk them out of entering.

The people outside the fence do three things. Some of the women have the job of approaching the cars, always on the mother's side, to make eye contact and to talk to them. Their job is to be gentle, never to cajole. They operate under the assumption that many mothers don't want to do this. Next door to Tiller's facility is a Christian medical clinic -- they offer free ultrasounds, counseling, medical help, and adoption support. The goal of the women is to convince the mothers to go next door. Sometimes they are successful, which infuriates the escorts. I cannot reconcile this fury with their aspiration to the title "pro-choice."

Others, including the men, take various places along the sidewalk beside the building and pray, or sing. A few walk back and forth on the sidewalk, timing their walks so that the entering cars have to wait the few seconds that give the women time to get the mothers' attention.

The last function entails a significant amount of verbal abuse and threats, but little real danger; only once was I nearly harmed while doing it, and that by Tiller, who purposely cut his Jeep sharply to clip me with his side mirror. He is a hero to those on one side, a demon to most on the other. He is at various times both to at least some of the women who have paid for his services.

I've never spoken a word with him, but I've been close enough to look into his eyes. I don't think many people realize how much you can tell about someone in those few unguarded seconds of visual confrontation. There are a handful of his escorts who have the same expression, which is of deep, abiding hatred. Occasionally there are people outside the fence who have the same expression. Each side has people, I suspect, who will be surprised to find themselves in Hell.

Some of Tiller's escorts have been active in this fight for years, migrating from facility to facility across the country, to wherever the opposition seems greatest. Likewise for some of the Christians on the outside. A few of them have known each other for years, and have relationships of odd familiarity.

The long-time servers on the escort side are also, at Tiller's, the most hateful, and so sometimes they dredge up bits of knowledge they have collected over the years about their opponents ("Hey Donna, too bad you couldn't hold down that job"). The long-time servers on the Christian side interact with the opponents they've known for years as high school teachers do with well-known juvenile delinquents ("Now, Susan, you know better than that").

It is too easy to get sucked into arguments there, and it took me a while to learn that some of the people inside the fence want exactly that. I learned simply not to talk to them unless necessary. Most of the people outside the fence have the same attitude, though occasionally someone new arrives, and feels compelled to convince the escorts that what they are doing is evil. Most of the escorts have heard all the arguments before, and they can usually make mincemeat out of someone like that.

What they hate is for the Bible to be read. So, we took to reading the Bible. I'll never forget the day I first saw this done -- dozens of people in unison read the same passages of Scripture.

Behold, the LORD'S hand is not so short That it cannot save; Nor is His ear so dull That it cannot hear.

But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.

For your hands are defiled with blood . . .

The response was like something out of a vampire movie, the most hateful escorts literally writhed with fury. The rest made a few attempts to shout down the crowd, then to joke among themselves, and then they simply fell quiet.

It is appropriate for Christians who oppose abortion to simply rely on God's word. If they are right, then it is his word that persuades -- not logic, or even data, and certainly not recrimination, especially towards the mothers. They are the victims that live ("For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me up," goes the psalm). The clinic next door to Tiller's also offers post-abortion counseling, which keeps its staff busy. This is not a service Tiller provides. It is not a need, in fact, that the self-anointed women's groups even recognize. But it exists, and to it, again, it is the Christians who are called.

I was by no means one of the stalwarts at Tiller's. My involvement was heavy for a time, then lighter and lighter. It is heartbreaking to be there, and I often felt the deepest sense of fear and foreboding while walking that sidewalk. Those who believe in the existence of God believe in the existence of spiritual warfare, and it is at its strongest in this place. It is a fearful place to be, mostly for the mothers.

I'm sure people reading this who favor abortion rights are thinking that this fear is a result of the activities of the Christians outside the gates. Having someone gently ask you not to harm your own child only creates fear if you know in your heart that this is exactly what you intend to do. Hearing someone read the Bible only creates fear if you suspect in your innermost being that the words are true. So in speaking truth, I suppose that the Christians do create fear.

Nothing I write here will convince anyone that his views are wrong. Much of it runs counter to the accounts of people on the other side, who portray abortion opponents as violent, argumentative, threatening. Some of them are. I can only speak to what I saw in one place, a place where I believe evil is done. And that is why the Christian opposes abortion, because he believes that it is evil. It is a version of passing one's children through fire in service of the modern idols -- career, convenience, sexual freedom.

There are Christians, to be sure, who believe that abortion is not evil. The pastor of a local church offered the service, upon request of the parents, of baptizing the corpses of infants killed via partial birth abortion inside Tiller's facility. He was a strong supporter of Tiller for years, and remains one, though his church has since defrocked him, not for sanctioning murder, but for committing adultery. Some taboos still remain, it seems, even in the Methodist church.

Likewise, there are a handful of liberal pastors who support Tiller. Their theology is that of liberation, not the risen Christ. Those words make the irreligious uncomfortable, which is fine. One need not accept the doctrine of Christianity to recognize that calling oneself a Christian is not equivalent to holding to the tenets of Christianity. So while there is a minority of self-professed Christian leaders who support what happens behind Tiller's walls, the majority, presumably, does not.

I say "presumably" because the majority of Christian leaders remains shamefully and wickedly silent. Their own reading of Scriptures makes clear that Tiller commits murder, yet they remain silent, for fear of drawing the ire from their country club parishioners. Who wants to organize prayer at the abortion facility when there is a youth soccer league to be organized? And so goes the bulk of modern Christian institutions into irrelevance.

But there are the steadfast few, God bless them. They go to that place every day, with their Bibles and their water bottles. They stand or kneel and pray outside those gates, faithful that one day God will eliminate that blight from their city. I am a pessimist by nature, so I believe they are wrong to expect this. But I have seen them rescue some children and their mothers from that place, and I have seen their faithfulness in the face of verbal abuse and police harassment and general disdain from fellow Christians who prefer not to soil themselves by associating with fanatics.

More important, God has seen it too, just as he sees what goes on inside those walls, and those of us who do and say nothing.

posted by Woodlief | link | (35) comments

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Sports Idol

The ESPN advertisement on the wall inside the Metro car reads as follows:

Without sports, who would we follow?

There is much to take note of here, but most only in passing. There is the poor grammar -- but it is unfair to hold modern advertisers to a standard that their government-school audiences can't meet. There is too the irony of an advertisement extolling sports in order to convince people to sit in front of their televisions. This is not uncommon; John Miller noted some months ago in National Review, for example, that a popular children's magazine was chock full of inducements to watch the company's television channel, i.e., to convince the children not to read.

There is also the picture featured in the advertisement: two female professional basketball players, both resembling moderately attractive men, in poses suggesting that they can hold their own in the professional sports world -- presumably so long as they are provided a large subsidy from lawsuit-conscious corporations and protected from competing with players of the opposite sex. There is the spectacle of the WNBA itself, and the ridiculous gender-equity notions that spawned it, and the massive campaign embarked upon by public and private entities designed to induce the public to share those notions, or at least to stop snickering at them.

The most interesting element to me, however, is the astounding honesty in the advertisement's question. Without sports, whom would we follow?

I had the profound pleasure of hearing Dr. Benjamin Carson, product of mean streets, pediatric neurosurgeon, miracle worker, devout Christian, speak last year. He has a foundation that provides scholarships to needy children. He also does a number of charity events for poor children each year, and speaks to schools across the country. In his spare time he performs life-saving surgeries that other surgeons won't do. He has little time for sports. When he announced to the audience that he does not encourage student athletes, the silence as his words faded stood in stark contrast to the applause that nearly all of his other words had garnered.

We have been taught that sports are an important part of the formative experience, that they build physical health and moral character. Both of these claims are false. There is no question that exercise and many kinds of physical exertion build better physical health. But these should be distinguished from sports, and held up to counter the belief that participation in sports is the only way to increase physical health, or the best way, or even a good way.

Almost none of the sports that attract a following produce all-around good physical health. Football, for example, involves a great deal of running into other people at great speed. Those who want to excel at it must add much more body mass than the human frame was designed to hold. America is littered with men who have sustained permanent damage or who are overweight as a consequence of football. Indeed, an economist specializing in costs and benefits might well ask: which is more threatening to the health of children -- football, or smoking?

Basketball is a bit better, but the investment of time necessary to be competitive even at the high school level is well beyond any physical benefit it might produce. A student would be better off dancing, or working chores on a farm, or any other number of activities that are both physically challenging and which produce a more beautiful and meangingful outcome than proving that one can get a ball through a net more times than another team. The same critique could be applied in one way or another to many other sports -- soccer, baseball, volleyball, field hockey, etc. They either are drastically sub-optimal (in terms of time investment and overall contribution to health), or absolutely harmful to those who want to excel in them.

Then there is the claim that sports build moral character, which I have heard from people who I know to be moral, and who earnestly seek to raise their children properly, and some of whom do a very good job at it. They have made the fundamental mistake of assuming that because they effectively build character in the context of their children's sports, that sports therefore have inherent character-building qualities. A survey of the behaviors of professional -- or even high school -- athletes belies this claim. On some major college campuses, the athletes are responsible for a quarter or more of the crimes committed, if a criminological study I read years ago is to be believed. (Getting colleges to accurately report crimes committed within their borders, by the way, has been difficult for years, and has only been done in recent years by dint of legal force.)

To believe that any aspect of character can be more effectively built through the sports experience than through any of a vast array of childhood activities is to be intentionally blind. Character is built through example, through successes and failures and setbacks and a myriad of life's lessons, and through exposure to a moral framework. In no way does the modern sports experience provide these to great degree -- in most cases it inhibits them.

There are precious few sports players, coaches, or even fans who behave in ways that clearly provide positive moral example to children (and this extends all the way from the professional to the high school to the grade school level). Success becomes exaltation, defeat a cause for shame and bitterness. The moral framework, meanwhile, is simply the scoreboard -- you are good if your number is higher, a loser if your number is lower. Fans love you if you win, they hate you if you lose. This is not an arena in which character is built, it is an arena in which narcissism takes root.

So, without sports, whom would we follow? It is a difficult question, which I think was ESPN's point. Contrary to their advertisers' intention, however, I think we should try to find out.

posted by Woodlief | link | (12) comments

Monday, January 13, 2003

The Witness

I mentioned some time ago that I embarked on reading Whittaker Chambers' Witness after seeing a silly jab at it in "The Marathon Man." I'm nearing the end (it's an 800-page book), and the sections describing his early efforts to alert the Roosevelt administration about Communists and Soviet agents in their highest ranks stays with me. Some excerpts (from the Regnery edition -- I doubt there are others, for while powerful, it's not like Chambers' book could ever equal in the eyes of today's publishers, say, Cornell West's ruminations on the racism inherent in Starbucks coffee labeling):

"I saw that the New Deal was only superficially a reform movement. I had to acknowledge the truth of what its more forthright protagonists, sometimes unwarily, sometimes defiantly, averred: the New Deal was a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social, and, above all, the power relationships within the nation. It was not a revolution by violence. It was a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking . . .

Now I thought that I understood much better something that in the past had vaguely nibbled at my mind, but never nibbled to a conclusion -- namely, how it happened that so many concealed Communists were clustered in Government, and how it was possible for them to operate so freely with so little fear of detection. For as between revolutionists who only half know what they are doing and revolutionists who know exactly what they are doing the latter are in a superb maneuvering position.

At the basic point of the revolution -- the shift of power from business to government -- the two kinds of revolutionists were at one; and they shared many other views and hopes. Thus men who sincerely abhorred the word Communism, in the pursuit of common ends found that they were unable to distinguish Communists from themselves . . . For men who could not see that what they firmly believed was liberalism added up to socialism could scarcely be expected to see what added up to Communism. Any charge of Communism enraged them precisely because they could not grasp the differences between themselves and those against whom it was made." [emphasis mine].

This to me captured exactly what I observed on a much smaller scale, and with much less than Chambers had at stake (for the Truman administration was moving to imprison him, in order to protect Alger Hiss, and thereby itself), during my years of undergraduate and graduate schooling. The people on the left with whom I tangled were generally in one of two camps: those who sincerely felt for the poor and sick, and who had no understanding of how free markets are not in general a cause of such conditions; and those who were motivated by hatred and envy of the wealthy (or white, or both).

The latter are the executioners of Stalin's era -- they know little of the system they advocate, but support it because it enables them to put bullets in the brains of enemies, the list of which ever grows. The former are the busy worker bees of Socialism, many of whom, in the countries where Communists came to power, eventually found themselves at the mercy of the executioners, precisely because their strong sympathy for the downtrodden rendered them incapable of silence when it dawned on them that they served monsters rather than saviors.

Arguing with either class was generally fruitless, because neither was very interested in either the morality or the long-term physical consequences of what they advocated -- one did so to assuage guilt or pain over the plight of others, while the other did so to settle grievances. Chambers has a nice encapsulation that I'm sure will resonate with many of you who have fought the good fight:

". . . as we left the meeting, one of the non-Communist girls, a young socialite of an old and good family, and an M.A. or a Ph.D., marched upon me. She was ultra smartly gowned and booted. But her studiedly cool and intelligent face was working in lines of most unintelligent anger. 'How dare you,' she asked with the voice of Bryn Mawr but the snarl of a fishwife, 'how dare you call us Communists?' It was no use to explain to her that what I had said was, not that she and others like her were Communists, but that they were non-Communists who were letting the Communists lead them by the nose. . . Scores of her kind, just as impeccably pedigreed, socially and culturally poised, also staggering under M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s, and just exactly as witless, were to howl for my head in the Hiss Case."

Some of what Chambers wrote about the fellow travelers of his age applies with striking perspicacity to the fellow travelers of our age, namely those who make common cause with the various flaks and grievance artists who are front groups for Muslim terrorists, their suppliers, and other murderous totalitarian thugs. An excerpt:

"They were people who believed a number of things. Foremost among them was the belief that peace could be preserved, World War III could be averted only by conciliating the Soviet Union. For this no price was too high to pay, including the price of willful historical self-delusion. . . Hence like most people who have substituted the habit of delusion for reality, they became hysterical whenever the root of their delusion was touched, and reacted with a violence that completely belied the openness of mind which they prescribed for others. Let me call their peculiar condition which, sometimes had unconsciously deep, and sometimes very conscious, political motives that it would perhaps be unmannerly to pry into here -- the Popular Front mind."

Chambers, of course, wrote in an age where it was impolite to dub these folks with the title that many on the non-mainstream Internet have now aptly given them -- idiotarians. I like his term "Popular Fronters" because it captures their collectivist mentality. The term "idiotarian" is individualistic, and doesn't in itself explain what we now see, like the spectacle of Greens and liberal Manhattan Jews and the anti-Semitic French making common cause with one another to excuse Muslims strapping on shrapnel bombs to climb aboard Israeli schoolbuses. This is not merely a collection of Simpletons, but a coalition of Simpletons steeped in the very deep error that they are in fact quite thoughtful. They have merely embraced an amalgam of grievances and inconsistent rebuttals and told themselves they have a philosophy. Individually, of course, they are idiots. But collectively they are very much the Popular Front about which Chambers wrote years ago. Fortunately, we have more avenues by which to attack them, while the profound wrongheadedness of their forebears leaves their positions -- in the media, in the academy, in Hollywood -- eroded and themselves less credible.

At the same time, I think we are missing something. As Chambers observed, one cannot be a witness against something alone; one must be a witness for something. We are good at showing that the idiotarians well deserve the moniker, and we champion liberty and markets as valuable means to human ends, but I wonder if these ultimately satisfy. We still face a yawning spiritual void that was the essence of the totalitarian project from the beginning. Chambers believed that this was the real battle -- it was not between Communists and anti-Communists, but between Communists and Christians, for the soul and passion and hope of mankind. Would he put faith in himself, or in God? It is an interesting and pertinent question, I think, regardless of which one chooses.

I, of course, side with Chambers:

"The idea that man is sinful and needs redemption has been subtly changed into the idea that man is by nature good, and hence capable of indefinite perfectibility. This perfectibility is being achieved through technology, science, politics, social reform, education. Man is essentially good, says 20th-century liberalism, because he is rational, and his rationality is (if the speaker happens to be a liberal Protestant) divine, or (if he happens to be religiously unattached) at least benign. . .

Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world."

posted by Woodlief | link | (32) comments