The Folly of Legislation without Consensus

The ease at which President Obama has undone pro-life legislative gains shows us just how fragile and fleeting legal protections of the unborn are without the support of consensus on the life issues. Among other factors, effective campaigning and the poor approval rating of the former president ushered in this ardently pro-choice presidency. Didn’t take much, really. The waves of the political sea pulverized our legislation, which we unfortunately built out of sand. We needed stone, but we didn’t have it. Only when strengthened by consensus will pro-life laws maintain permanency.

To build that consensus, we need to reach out to people where they are by using clear and accurate language and also sound and persuasive arguments. Now is a fine time to cultivate meaningful and personal relationships with people who do not share our political philosophy regarding the life issues. We may in 2012 find in authority politicians who are friendlier to our cause, but unless we fashion future legislation on the foundation of consensus, those laws will quickly disappear with the changing of the tide.

Pro-lifers therefore cannot afford to look foolish or over-the-top. We cannot afford to present poor arguments or alienate those we need to persuade. We have to be very careful, for example, in how we depict our president and other pro-choice leaders. President Obama is an incredibly strong advocate for abortion rights. That shouldn’t be downplayed, but every time a pro-life leader goes overboard in his description of Obama, the pro-life case is weakened.

Fallaciously attributing to Obama the worst motives and otherwise demonizing him fails to reach most people, whose sense of Obama isn’t shaped predominantly by his stances on the life issues. As soon as Obama is called Moloch, a baby-killer or even a pro-abortion extremist, the dialogue ends, the bridge is burned. Even if we think Obama’s words and deeds justify demonizing rhetoric, such demeaning language doesn’t persuade. It doesn’t build consensus, at least in our favor. It alienates others and makes us look ridiculous.

Tragically, too many of our pro-life leaders use language that damages the bridges toward consensus. Rev. Thomas Euteneuer of Human Life International writes of Obama’s “abortion jihad against the poor” and abortion providers offering “ritual blood sacrifice to the ancient abortion demon.” Such language might resonate with some pro-lifers, but it otherwise sounds ludicrous and unhinged. Euteneuer recently described Melanne Verveer, Obama’s new ambassador for global women’s issues, as someone with the responsibility “to see to it that [unborn children] never sees the light of day. ” What, is she going to murder them personally if their mothers choose life?

Gianna Jessen, an abortion survivor and in many ways an ideal spokeswoman for the pro-life movement, starred in an advertisement during the election which claimed that if Obama had his way, she would be dead. The ad was meant to raise awareness of Obama's votes against the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, but her implication that Obama's "way" is that abortion survivors like her die gives abortion rights advocates something easy to attack and an excuse to ignore her compelling story.

How others perceive the pro-life movement matters. We cannot build consensus on the life issues if those who disagree with us turn a deaf ear because they see us as a joke or unreasonable. They won’t listen to us if what we say doesn’t make sense to them from where they are. We should therefore consider how what we say plays in pro-choice circles. Does depicting them as abortion enthusiasts compel them to take us seriously? Of course not. They don’t see themselves that way, and we appear dishonest and uncharitable.

Whether we build consensus will determine whether we are culturally and politically relevant or irrelevant, whether we succeed or fail. We may not succeed, but rest assured, failure is an option.

Known by our Actions

What defines the identity of the pro-life movement more: its reactions of outrage or its efforts of outreach?

When Policy Imitates Art

I tend to take the side of the artist in cases where responses to a work of art result in unintended and even terrible consequences. For example, I don’t fault J.K. Rowling because some children check out the occult after reading Harry Potter.

The television show 24 has tested this tendency, despite the fact that I'm not in any position to comment on the show informatively. I remember seeing a few episodes of the first season on television, but I’ve shied away from checking out the DVDs, due mainly to what I hear is the show’s favorable treatment of torture and its documented affect upon actual U.S. interrogation practices.

In an interview with Philippe Sands, Diane Beaver, the Staff Judge Advocate at GITMO who signed off on the request for interrogation techniques that went beyond those allowed by the Army Field manual (e.g., nudity, use of phobias, humiliation, threats of immanent death of detainee or his family, water-boarding), said 24 was very popular among interrogators and contributed to an environment in which interrogators went further than they otherwise might have. Indeed, the show was one source of ideas for new techniques!

I expressed my concerns to Greene Exundham, who recently finished watching the first season. He pointed me to an interview with Kiefer Sutherland in which the topic of torture and the ambiguity of the hero were discussed. Sutherland acknowledged the show's parallels with real life, but emphasized that the show presents a fantastical idea. Probably so, if what I've heard of its scenarios is true. Still, the show has not only mirrored real world issues, but also influenced real world thinking, policy, and practice. Sutherland speaks with pride about the show's success in getting people to talk, but then what we're talking about is really using torture. I imagine I would have likewise been troubled by an influential show in 1973 in which the hero performs abortions as a good thing, and I wouldn't have found reassuring an interview with the lead actor in which he speaks about the show's success as getting people to talk. We're now at a place in the abortion conflict where talking is precisely what needs to happen. I hope we don't reach the same place in the matter of torture.

I'm not sure I can blame 24 for the acceptance of torture in our culture, but what I've heard about the show troubles me. I suppose I might watch it at some point to see exactly how it deals with torture, but I wonder if I could do so objectively at this time. The show would probably infuriate me, even if it dealt with torture ambiguously. Usually I'm all for ambiguity in art, but we're at a time right now where ambiguity regarding torture is part of the problem, so I'm less than welcoming of it. Then again, we are having a debate about torture, and the practice has its defenders among those truly interested in national security. Should a story teller today present torture only as a terrible thing?

Mixed Metaphors, Lovely Sung

Missy Higgins - The Sound of White

President Obama's Symbolic Solidarity

Add me to the list of those generally impressed by President Obama's message to the Iranian people in honor of Nowruz. While we can't expect our foreign policy to live up to the ideals expressed by our president, Obama's words set a framework for approaching Iran that's much improved from the demonizing and alienating language popular in the "post-9/11 world." His talk of shared humanity, constructive ties, and commitment to diplomacy brought to mind the words of Pope John Paul II:
For world peace is inconceivable unless the world's leaders come to recognize that interdependence in itself demands the abandonment of the politics of blocs, the sacrifice of all forms of economic, military or political imperialism, and the transformation of mutual distrust into collaboration. This is precisely the act proper to solidarity among individuals and nations.


The goal of peace, so desired by everyone, will certainly be achieved through the putting into effect of social and international justice, but also through the practice of the virtues which favor togetherness, and which teach us to live in unity, so as to build in unity, by giving and receiving, a new society and a better world.
Here is the video:

It's a start.

Choices Now

It is a seemingly dismal time for those of us who seek to secure the unborn protection under the law. As expected, the past weeks have seen bans removed and policies implemented that undo the progress made in the past decade toward outlawing the destruction of unborn life. The pendulum has only begun to swing.

Still, we have choices for how we will respond to the Obama presidency. We can oppose him and other pro-choice leaders as enemies, or we can work with them as allies. We can react to them as if they were demons intent on making sure the unborn never see the light of day, or we can respond to them as human persons advocating immoral solutions to their legitimate moral concerns.

Given the vastness of important moral and social issues, there are many opportunities for us to work with President Obama, his administration, and our senators and representatives in Congress. Cooperating with them on matters of shared concern shouldn’t prevent us from critiquing and opposing where appropriate, but it should mean that antagonism is not the basis of our relationship. Culture war-making will only keep the pendulum swinging.


Cross posted.

Doubt, Discovery and Sadness

Missy Higgins - Where I Stood

Contra Manipulative Movies

A friend lent me The Emperor’s Club, which he described appealingly as the anti-Dead Poet’s Society. That description alone interested me in the film. I once liked Dead Poet’s Society a great deal, but then came over time to dislike it with a vengeance.

Two reasons, mainly.

First is Robin Williams’ character John Keating, who, despite his success at inspiring his students to seize the day, is in my opinion a poor teacher presented as a great one. Yes, he helps them love poetry and express their individuality, but the thrust of his instruction is aimed at imparting habits of non-conformity. Non-conformity isn’t a terrible thing, but I don't think it should be the focus or foundation of high school education. Keating also subtly encourages some of his students to violate school rules. Of course, the school is simplistically authoritarian, so there’s little danger that we will condemn Keating for encouraging the rule breaking.

This authoritarianism brings me to my second and greater complaint: the film is manipulative to the extreme. The climax and resolution involve a very messy and difficult situation, or what would be one in real life. Director Peter Weir wants us to take a particular side in what should be an ambiguous conflict. The final scene, with its rousing music, tells us exactly how we should feel about the whole thing.

The filmmakers wanted a certain emotional response to their movie, and they weren’t going to get it as easily if the audience was left to feel conflicted when all was said and done. An effective way to prevent an audience from feeling conflicted is to present conflicts with little or no ambiguity. We see the same technique applied in films where the audience is meant to root for the hero. We may be more prone to cheer William Wallace if all the English are presented as villainous or Queen Elizabeth if all the Catholics are depicted as conspiratorial. Demonizing the antagonists removes the ambiguity and manipulates the movements of the heart.

The Emperor’s Club, while not a great film, lives up to my friend’s description. Kevin Kline stars as a teacher of ancient Greek and Roman history who seeks to teach his students virtue, principles, and character. He wants to mold his students into virtuous men who will contribute to society. His classroom is bathed in natural light and decorated with huge fine art paintings. His curriculum, aimed at high school freshman, puts today’s graduate courses to shame. And he doesn’t command his students to tear out pages of a book he disagrees with.

Kline’s William Hundert pursues virtue himself, but he fails in significant ways, knows that he fails, and has to live with the sadness and consequences his failures bring. The Emperor’s Club presents several morally ambiguous scenes and maintains the ambiguity. There are moments where we don’t know if Hundert is being cowardly or prudent, corrupt or compassionate. Director Michael Hoffman and writer Neil Tolkin respect us enough to let us make up our own minds and respond emotionally to uncertain and unanswerable conflicts.

Journeys in Conformity

I've joined Twitter. You can follow this blog and any additional tweets of mine here.

Walking in Darkness

Central to Henry Karlson's criticism of Watchmen is the film's imbalanced presentation. The film focuses on the dark and mostly ignores the light. It depicts among its heroes a lot of evil, but very little good. In Henry's words, it deconstructs the superhero myth without ever reconstructing it. He thinks the film suffers from lack of light.

Unlike Henry, I'm not sure that Watchmen would have been improved had its creators balanced the depictions of darkness and sin with moments of light and grace. The work gets its particular aesthetic edge from its imbalanced view. I suspect the work as a whole subverts the superhero myth better because of the way it portrays heroes and heroics. Watchmen heightens the horror because vice, failure, and ruin are its themes. Mason Slidell summarizes the reasons for its one-sided view:

It’s all a joke. Absolutely! Salvation of the world by power, murder, elitism and manipulation is very much a joke. This is the redeeming value I find in Watchmen. It is not nihilistic, but bleak and rightly so. It is an examination of our inability to save ourselves and a meditation on our willingness to accept the vilest of horrors in order to gain a little temporary safety.
Now there is no doubt a tendency of some people to wallow in the morbid and disturbing. We see this in some readers of Dante's Inferno who delight in the horrors of hell, but who have no desire to ascend to the glories of his Paradiso. There is an important difference, though, between someone who exposes himself only to dark artworks and an individual artwork depicting only the dark.

Sometimes the artist needs to go deep into the dark, to the point where the light is seemingly forgotten. Sometimes we do well to follow. Paul Thomas Anderson made such a journey in There Will Be Blood, a distinctly dark film. Why didn't Anderson balance the dark with the light in this film as he did in Magnolia? Well, for one thing, because Blood was about contrapasso, whereas Magnolia was about atonement. The films revealed different aspects of the human condition, and while one theme may be better than another, it doesn't follow that, everything else being equal, the film about the better theme is therefore a better film.

Additions and Measurements

If all goes well, come September, the Cupp family will legally be a quart! Please pray that all goes well with the little half-pint's wayfaring into the world, which will be quite the journey into alterity.

Watchmen and the Absurdity of Salvation

Watchmen subverts the superhero mythology, depriving the world of selfless heroes striving to live lives of virtue. Its costumed crime fighters don’t struggle with wielding power responsibly or grapple with their own weaknesses in the hope of overcoming them. The Watchmen include a brutal sociopath hell-bent on punishing criminals, a national hero who revels in the absurdity of his and everyone’s crime-busting, a sanctimonious and self-worshiping genius who’s profited on selling action figures of himself, and a physicist turned godlike blue being indifferent to the distinction between life and death.

Zack Snyder’s film version opened the weekend. I saw it yesterday. The movie proved a well-cast and faithful adaptation. The director cut scenes from the graphic novel that I would have were I in his shoes. My main complaint was the loss of dramatic punch due to the compression of detailed scenes, in particular the origin stories of Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan. The middle of the film didn’t play nearly as well as the end and the beginning. I also found the love story between Laurie and Dan and the graphic violence rather dull and ineffective.

The film has been called nihilistic and described as having a very poor morality, but I don’t see those charges as being entirely accurate. Some of the characters qualify as nihilists, and just about every “hero” is morally perverse, but the philosophies and moralities in Watchmen vary with each character. This is not to say that story has no overarching themes. It clearly depicts the absurdity of trying to save the world.

An important point: in Watchmen, the efforts to save the world rely on killing, not on loving self-sacrifice or divine intervention. Dr. Manhattan’s “saving” act didn’t involve using his superhuman powers to prevent nuclear war; he murdered a watchman to prevent him from undoing the good accomplished by the antagonist’s evil. Killing, of course, never fully saves. Destroying lots of human lives doesn't change human nature. Governments and individuals kill their enemies only to discover new enemies the next day. The Comedian understood this reality, but fought anyway, seeing it all as a big joke. Dr. Manhattan also saw the unending cycle of violence, although he seemed to think the temporary hiatus brought about by murder to be better than nothing.

Even the villain in Watchmen sincerely wants to save the world. His desire may be stronger than that of his fellow costumed warriors. His mistake, aside from the millions of people he kills to bring peace, is his believing that he can save the world. The unintended consequence of an unforeseen act undermined his master plan to usher in an age of world peace.

Had the story denied salvation itself, I might agree with the the charge of nihilism, but neither the novel nor the film asks what can save if deathly violence cannot. That question resides outside the focus of the Watchmen. They are not very good watchers.


Here are my initial thoughts after first reading the graphic novel.

Dangerous Interpretations

The chief function of the Constitution of the United States is to define, and therefore limit, the powers of the U.S. government. It is in the context of this function that I consider the Office of Legal Council memo, "Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities Within the U.S.," written by John Yoo and Robert Delahunty in October 2001, withdrawn by Stephen Bradbury in October 2008, and released to the public March 2, 2009 by the Justice Department.

The authors of the memo interpreted the Constitution as granting to the president “the independent, non-statutory power to take military actions, domestic as well as foreign.” They claimed that “the Fourth Amendment does not apply to domestic military operations designed to deter and prevent further terrorist attacks” and that, given certain circumstances, “Federal Armed Forces must be free to use force” against even known United States citizens “without being constrained by the Fourth Amendment.” Furthermore, they wrote, “First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully.”

Whereas the Constitution imposes limits on what our leaders can legally do, the memorandum attributes powers to the government that reside explicitly beyond the limits of authority established by the Constitution. It presents a legal argument for usurpation and tyranny, claiming powers for the government outside of those that came from the consent of the governed. Glenn Greenwald’s description of “secret laws” is apt.

The authors of the memo justified suspending Constitution amendments not only on the grounds of keeping us safe, itself a basis for much mischief, but also on “the need to wage war successfully.” Successful war making overrides the freedom of speech and press rights in the minds of these OLC lawyers. Fighting victoriously matters more than fighting justly. In this line of thought, those who question or criticize the war effort must be silenced when they hinder waging the war successfully.

We don’t yet know exactly what influence this memo had upon domestic military operations, but as Scott Horton remarks, we need to know how it was used. Assurances that it wasn’t relied upon shouldn’t put the matter to rest. The freedom of the American people will be measured by what answers and evidence we receive about what our government has secretly done in our name.

Notes from the Underdark

R.A. Salvatore’s fantasy novels about his character Drizzt Do’Urden paint a horrifying world filled with dark and disturbing depictions that would make Michael O’Brien’s skin crawl. Indeed, my parents’ vocal concerns about explicit descriptions of infant sacrifice, among other evils, prompted me to trash my copies over a decade ago. While I got rid of the books willingly and without resentment, I never lost the suspicion that the books were not as creepy or dangerous as we feared. So when a friend of mine mentioned recently that he was reading and thoroughly enjoying The Dark Elf Trilogy and asked if I’d read them, I figured now was as good a time as any to revisit and reassess the novels.

I think we were wrong.

Salvatore created the character Drizzt Do’Urden in his popular Icewind Dale series. Drizzt is a drow, a dark elf, a creature rarely seen in the surface world and reasonably assumed by most everyone to be utterly evil and incapable of virtue. The surprise of Drizzt is that he is virtuous, exceptionally so. The Dark Elf Trilogy, which I’m rereading now, tells Drizzt’s back-story before he came to live on the surface among races that feared and distrusted him for what he was.

The drow society in Salvatore’s descriptions is unquestionably evil. The author makes no attempt to blur the lines between good and evil through relativistic or postmodern ambiguity. Both good and evil exist, and the distinction between the two is usually clear to characters like Drizzt with the eyes to see. The underground drow society values station and power-seeking and celebrates murder – even the murder of children, siblings, and parents – as acceptable means to achieving a higher rank in the family or the city hierarchy – as long as the murderer isn’t caught.

Drizzt’s birth coincides with his family’s war against another family of higher station. If a family is successful in its war, if it slays all the other family’s nobles and leaves no witnesses to the attack, then the attack is accepted by the city. However, if even one witness escapes, then the city rises to annihilate the attacking family. Drizzt happens to be the third-born male, and in the drow world every third male is sacrificed to the dark elves’ unholy deity, Lloth, the Spider Queen. Fortunately for Drizzt, during the battle, the second-born son of house Do’Urden murders his older brother so as to become the eldest son in the Do’Urden family. Drizzt becomes the second son, and is spared the spider-shaped knife that would have cut out his heart.

The drow culture is clearly a culture of death, chaotically united by a web of lies, lust for power, a religion of evil, and conformity to sinister doctrines. Friendship is a foreign concept. Drow children never experience parental love. Years go by without their even seeing their mothers. From their earliest moments they are taught, often through torture, to accept their dark culture and follow its wicked ways. They learn to blame their ills on other families, or races, all of which they are taught to hate. The dark elves value their children only in so far as their children bring their families power and place them in the favor of Lloth. They reproduce little, though, and seem fittingly not to be a very fertile race. Despite their lifespan of centuries, death is common for them, even in their homes and in their city schools, which teach all the children to be killers with weapons, magic, or unholy rituals to the Spider Queen.

In this darkness Drizzt is born, and because of a murder he is allowed to live. Drizzt seems different, though. He doesn’t feel at home in the drow society. He questions its doctrines and later learns of their deceptiveness, putting him not only at odds with his family but his family out of the favor of Lloth. He is an alien in his own family and a threat to its station.

The first book in The Dark Elf Trilogy chronicles the time from Drizzt’s birth to his flight from the city into the Underdark, a the monster-filled underworld below the earth’s surface where no one can long survive alone. We learn that the dangers of the Underdark had kept Drizzt’s father, the Do’Urden family’s weapons-master, from fleeing the ways of the drow himself. Zaknafein is the only other dark elf we meet who rejects the lies of the drow, but he has despaired of finding alternatives and resigned himself to living its murderous ways, believing that each drow he kills is spared the darkness of life in the drow society. The central dramatic narrative in this book revolves around Drizzt’s hopeful suspicions of Zaknafein and Zaknafein’s fear that, after witnessing Drizzt’s obvious virtue, the drow society will transform young Drizzt into an unquestioning and unholy drow warrior.

The irony of Drizzt is that he likely the most proficient warrior in the drow city. He is its most effective killing machine, yet he ultimately rejects the killing of drow and blasphemes the deity in whose name the killing is done. He could have brought his Matron great esteem in the eyes of the Spider Queen, but his continual sacrilege seals their doom unless his mother offers his life in sacrifice, a task she is more than eager to accomplish.

Drizzt represents an impossible hope for the dark elves; he shows that they are not by nature an evil people. They have become evil over centuries of worshiping an evil goddess and following her around every stalagmite and stalactite of their society. The drow, however, give the other races something to fear beyond death; the drow show that a free people can collectively embrace evil and weave evil so completely throughout their society that public instances of virtue are rare to non-existent. Or, perhaps, quickly covered up. At one point in the story, Drizzt wonders if any others of his kin see the light, even dimly. He suspects there may be others, but he knows that they have no road toward the light other than death. They are trapped in Lloth’s web.

Drizzt escapes.