Life Watch: The Dance of Our Time

Surely it was a fetching story, bound to grip the listeners of National Public Radio: a woman of middle years, in Washington, D.C., had developed serious “rotor” problems of the shoulder. She had built a rather lucrative career for herself in the field of sado-masochism by wielding a whip every day, mostly on men who were professionals, and mostly on lawyers. It appeared that they were willing to pay handsomely for this service, and the woman was booked thoroughly with reservations—which accounted for the onset of her muscular strains. One could imagine the conversation over martinis at the end of a long day at the office: “You may think it’s easy, whipping lawyers every day. But this takes, you know, a certain professionalism and training. Not everyone can just pick up a whip and start banging away, with no plan, no design. Where is the art in that? And these people! They want you there all the time. They drain your energy and leave you, at the end of the day, spent.”

There was a lament in that vein by Heinrich Himmler, put in charge of the Final Solution by Hitler: Will people, in later generations, understand that we were decent people, attending steadily, with devotion and discipline, to a thankless task that had to be done? One could readily imagine the way in which this lament was picked up by the many functionaries and workmen who were drawn into the enterprise: the secretaries, working long hours, the architects and engineers, the drivers and deliverymen carrying heavy canisters of gas. In fact, one could imagine a dinner that might have been given, sometime in the ’40s, to lift morale. What might it have been called? Nothing so crass, of course, or as direct, as the Genocide Ball. It might have been the National Providers of Labor Camp Services Dance, or with more lilt in the German, the Nationaldienstmitabeiterstabtanz. In tone, or content, or in its style of euphemism, it could not have been far from the gathering that took place in Washington in January: the first ever black-tie dinner of the The National Coalition of Abortion Providers. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. As the executive director of this new group remarked, “Everyone else has dinner dances—why not us? … It was almost as if we weren’t allowed to celebrate.” And as Mel Brooks had one of his characters lament in The Producers: “They never tell you that the Führer vass a good dancer.”

But had these master sloganeers forgotten their own slogans, or were they willing, at least for an evening, to wink at their own pretenses?: Hasn’t the “line” been, after all, that we are dealing with a tragic, regrettable “choice”? Abortion is not to be celebrated, for it is a sad thing. It is a matter mainly of preserving for women the “freedom to choose.” And yet, could they have broken out the tuxedos, struck up the band, on behalf of a “regrettable, tragic choice”? There is a dissonance, a dramatic incongruity, between the dance and the slogans. But there is the clearest, most honest, fit between the dance and real soul of the pro-abortion movement. The dance reveals, more clearly, the understanding that dares not be spoken: namely, that abortion is regarded as a positive good; something to be encouraged and

promoted, even with public funds. Even in its bloodiness, and its cold killing, it is something to be prized as an intrinsic good, because it marks a world of freedom. Or as Camille Paglia would have it, that freedom marks, for women, a liberation from the constraints of nature.

Paglia treats with contempt the euphemisms cast up by the partisans of abortion as they try to glide around the central, inescapable fact that the freedom they seek is the freedom to kill. But over the last couple of years, journalists have forced themselves ever more deeply into layers of euphemism and evasion as they have been compelled, every other day, to report something about partial birth abortion—and every other day find another means of not telling their readers just what they are reporting. If they were reporting on a fire or a burglary, they would say, at least, that there was a fire or burglary. There might be flames and smoke, or a break-in, with the theft of something that might even be named. But what would a stranger, new to the country, make of this report in the Washington Post?: The meeting of the Republican National Committee was about to heat up over a proposal “that would cut off campaign funds to Republicans who oppose banning a controversial late term abortion procedure, called partial birth abortion by its opponents.”

This formula has been picked up widely in the press and on television, and it contains at least two layers of evasion. In the first place, it neatly avoids the obligation of the journalist to give even a minimal description of the events, or the procedures, that are provoking the controversy. The journalists are reluctant to say anything, even minimally, about the poking of scissors into the head of an unborn child, the sucking out of the contents of the skull, and the collapse of the head. The journalists understand, as well as anyone else, that even to describe the procedure is to set forth the terms that resonate morally with the public. They no doubt tell themselves that if they played it straight in that way they would make themselves tools of the pro-life movement. They would confirm the cleverness of the people who have sought to frame the debate on abortion by focusing on this one kind of abortion, which begins to unravel the whole argument. But the journalists can evade the problem only by becoming partisans on the other side. At the same time, they default on the most elementary obligations of their own profession, holding back from giving even the most minimally honest, straightforward account of the abortions that Congress has sought now to forbid.

That is only the first layer of deception. In the second, the journalists suggest, in the style of postmodernism, that there is something of doubtful standing about the “facts” themselves. As the writer in the Post had it, these procedure was “called partial birth abortion by its opponents.” That is, there are no stable or reliable facts, but only the manipulation of language. But what is covered once again in this maneuver is the most serious malpractice on the part of a journalist. Let us say that we do not use the label supplied by the opponents of the procedure; the question may be put to the journalist: “Describe the kind of abortion carried out here. You describe it yourself, in simple, accurate terms, and that would be good enough for us.” For, of course, they do not do even that.

The comparison is, again, irresistible: There was a natural strain of skepticism in the face of the first reports of the gassing of the Jews. How would the reports have read if they were written in the style adopted by the journalists of the Washington Post and the New York Times?: “There have been emotional contentions of late over some unpleasantness, or some rather emphatic happenings, said to be taking place in Poland. According to people connected to Jewish agencies, Jews have been collected or concentrated in camps. Under the regimen of forced labor and diminished rations, many have evidently died. But it is claimed that many others have been killed systematically with methods that have been denied, and which are, in any event, quite controversial.”

A journalism that distanced itself in this way from the substance of the story, and from the moral core of what it had to report, would be considered today, at best, as laughable, and at worst, as corrupt. But for the major press today, this is the norm when it comes to abortion. And with the lens adopted by the press, the journalists can no longer apparently see what is laughable or corrupt in themselves.

All of that had to make a difference when the movement arose to make an issue out of partial birth abortions in the Republican National Committee. In the current climate of journalism, this move was bound to be portrayed as a group of extremists demanding moral purity. And yet, it was quite the other way around: The party had managed to encompass a wide range of opinion on abortion and its regulation. It had taken up the strategy of moving with modest first steps, and beginning simply by saving children at the point of birth. When some of us proposed a strategy of this kind years ago, we rather assumed that the Christie Whitmans of the world would not walk out if the party began merely by saving children at the point of birth. If they did, we thought that the party could say, without much strain, that whatever else we are—and however various we are—we are not open to infanticide. And if we cannot say at least that, why should we claim even minimal coherence as a political party?

After all, anyone involved in politics must be involved in the making of laws. Even the most minimal regime of laws must protect against homicide, and the laws of homicide protect the innocent from the unjustified taking of life. How then could anyone who has taken up the vocation of politics profess to be undecided on the question of protecting the lives of infants? Anyone who is undecided on that question should probably look for some other line of work, or take up some other hobby.

Still, with a sense of the current climate in journalism, I might have been inclined to follow the path of Henry Hyde and simply decline, in prudence, to bring forth abortion as a litmus. For this was a project that was bound to be misrepresented and misunderstood. And yet, once the argument was brought forward, every attempt to repel it, or to back away from the issue, fell into a kind of mumbling, with reasoning that could never explain itself. The editors of The Wall Street Journal, who have been solid on partial birth abortions, registered a certain uneasiness about the move into litmus tests. But then they fell into a misconstrual of Lincoln as they tried to offer him as an example of moderation. Lincoln, they said, was willing to make an accommodation with slavery for the sake of putting that institution in the course of extinction and avoiding a civil war. True enough, but Lincoln’s policy still depended at the core on a decision to reject slavery in principle; and that understanding marked the hard limits of tolerance in the new Republican party. The pro-lifers have not demanded anything comparable in regard to abortion. They have asked their colleagues whether they cannot share at least an opposition in principle to infanticide. If not, they truly do not belong in the same room, let alone the same party. But if they do, the rest of the argument can be unfolded, step by step, in a continuing conversation.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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