Monday, August 10, 2015

Those Gotcha Planned Parenthood Videos Again: Where There's No Novum, There's No Spirit — On the Dead Thinking, Rhetoric, and Tactics of the Anti-Abortion Movement

Three days ago, Colleen left a powerful comment here. She writes, 

I spent the day up on Bear Tooth Pass, elevation 11,000 feet. It feels like you can see the whole world from there. It gives one a different perspective. It is indeed sour and ugly right now, but it will not last. Old energy and thinking dies a very hard death and will fight back to retain its place in the universe and it always loses. Change is coming, change is coming, change is coming. 
If there was one lesson driven home to me as I looked over mountain valleys to majestic mountain peaks, it was the certain knowledge that all that I was seeing could never have happened without change. Humanity is no different from mountains and valleys and rivers. When the winds of change blow nothing stands in the way.

Part of me doesn't want to blog any further about the recent Planned Parenthood gotcha videos and the extremely disappointing response of leading Catholic centrists (I've named, in particular, Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter and Margaret O'Brien Steinfels of Commonweal in previous postings about this topic) to those videos. I think Fred Clarkson is correct to lament Christopher Hale's centrist response, too, and to note, as I have done regarding the response of the other prominent centrist Catholics I've named, that it's designed to enable and facilitate the anti-abortion (and bogus "pro-life") rhetoric of the hard right, including the U.S. Catholic bishops.

As an openly gay Catholic theologian who is married to another openly gay Catholic theologian, I feel boxed in, when I write about the topic of abortion. The Catholic right, and the enablers of the Catholic right in the Catholic "center," love to depict both pro-choice people and gay people as anti-life. They love to speak of both sets of people as threats to a strong ethic of respect for life who deserve to be run out of Catholic conversations and even out of the church because, it's insinuated or stated outright, we are part of the "culture of death" against which faithful Catholics have resolutely to stand today if they expect to be accorded the right to identify themselves as Catholic.

I feel boxed in when I talk about the abortion issue, because everything I might say about it will already have been judged and dismissed by defenders of the approach of the U.S. Catholic bishops, solely because I am gay. I frequently feel inclined to make tactical political choices to talk about "my" issues and not about issues like abortion, though as a Catholic theologian whose professional training at the graduate level included a healthy component of ethics (that was my minor field of Ph.D. study), I certainly consider myself qualified to talk about the topic of abortion — and obliged to do so, because of the centrality of this topic in current Catholic ethical discourse, and because, in my view, what is presented as an ethic of life by most Catholic pro-lifers is anything but a consistent or compelling ethic of life. It is, in key respects, anti-life and not pro-life.

After I wrote recently about the Planned Parenthood videos, I found myself excoriated at the blog of at least one fellow Catholic blogger whom I had considered an online friend of sorts. As well as I can follow his logic, it runs something like this: abortion is a life-or-death issue, and no matter who brings us the bad news about the fact that abortion is a bloody business, it behooves us to focus on that bad news and not on the integrity (or lack thereof) of the message bearer. No matter who speaks to us the horrible news that abortion is bloody business, the bottom line is that babies are being murdered, and it's callous in the extreme not to listen attentively to this news.

I myself doubt that the realm of ethics works in quite that simplistic way. It seems to me that the messenger is at least a part of the message she conveys — in fact, she may well be a significant part of the message she brings us. And so if the messenger lacks credibility and is an ethical countersign to the ethical message he wants to bring us (Respect life, for instance), then the message itself will be more than a little flawed due to this lack of credibility and to the messenger's counter-witness to the ethical good news he wants to proclaim. 

With all those provisos in place, here's my bottom-line assessment of the current campaign of the political and religious right to attack Planned Parenthood, and of the collusion of not only Catholics of the hard right, but also of the center, in that attack: this attack betrays an astonishing lack of awareness on the part of those mounting it, of Catholic centrists in particular, that their "pro-life" movement has failed to move the needle of cultural thinking about the abortion issue in any significant way. The very fact that the political and religious right and their centrist Catholic enablers think that their current attack on Planned Parenthood may still move this cultural needle in an anti-abortion direction demonstrates to us how deeply impoverished the thinking, the rhetoric, and the political tactics of the "pro-life" movement have become.

They are dead thinking, dead rhetoric, and dead tactics, not ones full of life. By their very nature, they undercut the claim of the "pro-life" movement to be celebrating life. There is, quite simply, no novum in the thinking, rhetoric, and tactics of the pro-life movement. And where there is no novum, there is no Spirit.

I think this fact deserves critical attention as the "pro-life" movement seeks yet again to recyle lifeless attacks on Planned Parenthood that have failed to carry the day in the past: the "pro-life" movement has nothing new to offer us. It has made its point, and it has not won American culture to its anti-abortion position. 

And so now, after it has sought for years to bludgeon and coerce rather than to persuade and witness, it is willing to rely on the grossest kind of trickery to make its "ethical" point? And those of us who deplore the trickery should expect to be told that we lack ethical awareness, since babies are being murdered and we are not up in arms about that fact — and not willing to try any trick we can possibly employ to force the American public to wake up (and to accept the position we intend to ram down the throate of the culture, after we have adamantly refused to engage in respectful dialogue with the very people we want to coerce)?

The fact that so many Catholics today, not only of the hard right but also of the center, are willing to invest everything in the anti-abortion movement, as if there is no other ethical center for Catholic thought to consider at this point in our history — as if there is no new way to witness to the value of life, beyond bludgeoning, coercion, and trickery — is in and of itself a damning indictment of Catholic "pro-life" thought today. It is a damning indictment of the so-called "pro-life" ethic that it has nothing at all new to offer, but continues to rely on recycled, dysfunctional, unproductive junk like the recent spate of anti-Planned Parenthood gotcha videos to get its "moral" message across to the culture at large.

A viable movement to raise the moral awareness of a culture does not need to resort to the same failed tricks over and over again. A viable movement to raise moral awareness learns from its failures and implements new tactics after its initial attempts at witness have failed.

Above all, a viable movement to raise moral awareness does not rely on reading out of its movement people who do not toe its hard-and-fast tribalistic boundary line. It does not insist on defining questioning or critical others as heretics who may not validly call themselves Christian or Catholic. It finds ways to dialogue with those critical others.

The U.S. pro-life movement, with its more or less exclusive fixation on the belief systems of right-wing evangelicals and of the Catholic bishops — both overweeningly patriarchal, insensitive and even hostile to women's rights and the rights of LGBT people, both overwhelmingly white and deeply insensitive to the needs of people of color — has failed to make its moral point to the culture at large. It has failed to give compelling witness to the values of life it professes to proclaim.

And it's a deeply damining indictment that Catholics of the center with strong ties to the Catholic academy, to Catholic journalism, to Catholic-themed think tanks, cannot see this fact that is so glaringly obvious to many other people who refuse to be pulled into yet another meaningless, going-nowhere frenzy about the issue of abortion by the doctored Planned Parenthood videos. Since we've long since thought through the topic of abortion and have come to our own ethical conclusions without requiring shock videos made by shady, politically partisan, ethically challenged operatives to help us form our conscience.

Catholics of the center who are intent on enabling the rhetoric of the political and religious hard right apparently cannot see these glaringly obvious facts because they have worked so hard for so long now to weed out of their "Catholic" conversations many of the voices within their own church to which they most need to listen, if they expect to engage the culture in a critical, productive, evangelistically fruitful way.

Instead, they continue, long after these tactics have a shred of viability left in them, to rely on shameful gotcha tricks that have been tried before, and have failed to move the cultural conversation in any new direction. Leaving the rest of us with the question of where the Spirit can possibly be in our church, insofar as it defines itself according to the politics of the anti-abortion crusade, when there is no novum at all in that crusade.

I find the photo at a number of websites, with no indication of its original source or ownership.

No comments: