Abortion Over The Atlantic

The first thing readers should know about Moira Weigel’s essay in The Atlantic is its original title. When the piece went live early Tuesday morning, that title was “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus Is a Person.” But by 1PM on the east coast, the article bore a new moniker: “How the Ultrasound Became Political.” The change wasn’t particularly poetic, but it was necessary; in the hours between the piece’s birth and rechristening, numerous readers and bloggers had pointed out that crucial claims in Weigel’s piece—including the idea that a six week-old fetus did not have an actual heart—was factually incorrect. Weigel’s original title had triumphantly presumed the crumbling of fetal personhood. The new title reflects the crumbling of her logic.

Of course, there’s a spot of irony in the essay’s new name. What Weigel wants the reader to believe is that pro-lifers have manipulated an inconclusive and imprecise technology to humanize the inhuman, and thus subjected the factual and scientific to the political. But isn’t that precisely what Weigel has done?

This irony exemplifies the relationship between the progressive left and science. In many ways liberals have styled themselves the party of scientific literacy ever since the Scopes trial. Whether the cause celebre was removing creationist literature from public schools, lending platforms to overpopulation worries, or climate change, progressives have, for what feels like the last half-century, presented themselves as the political ideology that welcomes scientific consensus and expertise.

Except, that is, when it comes to abortion. Despite manifold increases in medical technology and knowledge of prenatal development, pro-choice has hardly budged an inch from the judgment of fetal impersonality rendered by Roe v Wade. In some ways, this is simply by default; mainstream abortion rights activism is overwhelmingly centered on female autonomy rather than the question of the personhood of the unborn. #MyBodyMyChoice has always been surer footing for pro-choice than arguments over when a person really becomes a person. But the pro-choice uneasiness during discussions of fetal “viability” or ultrasound technology is unmistakable, and Ms. Weigel in particular offered an illustrative example.

Why didn’t the fact checkers at The Atlantic preemptively correct Weigel’s capricious and unsound argument?  It seems unlikely that a team of researchers would simply forget to verify whether a six week old fetus has begun to develop a heart—especially if such a question lay at the center of an argument, as it did for Weigel’s piece. The specific failures of an editorial process are difficult to identify, but it’s worth noting that this too reflects a greater categorical tension—namely, between the media and abortion.

One doesn’t need to look much further than the maddening summer of 2015, when major media outlets seemed to ignore, then downplay, then rally in response to a video sting of Planned Parenthood. Abortion workers’ declaring “It’s a boy” as they sift through severed anatomy in a petri dish certainly seems to have relevance for the conversation about fetal personhood. Why didn’t major journalism institutions think so? Could it be that abortion is sacrosanct even among those in our culture who are tasked with investigating its moral implications? Recall that editors for Vox once commissioned a piece from a professor as part of a rhetorical exercise called “the repugnant conclusion.” When the professor turned in an essay arguing (purely hypothetically) against abortion, Vox killed the piece, and explained to its frustrated author that the website didn’t even want to risk the appearance of criticizing abortion rights.

The embarrassments of Vox cannot, of course, be laid at the foot of The Atlantic. But that Moira Weigel’s deeply flawed, seriously ignorant essay could navigate the editorial machine of one of the country’s most influential publications is troubling. It raises again familiar issues of how the American abortion rights lobby relies not on facts and arguments, but on slogans, propaganda, and false dilemmas.

Media criticism is often too easy for conservatives, but I cannot help but now imagine an unexpectedly pregnant couple that perhaps read Weigel’s essay and believed it—because, of course, it is important that we believe reputable reporting. Perhaps these people had never considered themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” If they came away from reading Moira Weigel at 10:30AM Tuesday morning, they came away believing that this new life inside its mother had been misrepresented to them, that it was, contrary to all their instincts and all their technology, a lifeless, purposeless mass of tissue. Imagine their driving to the abortion clinic that morning, and coming back to find out that the essay which dawned new light on them now contained an update from its editors:

This article originally stated that there is “no heart to speak of” in a six-week-old fetus. By that point in a pregnancy, a heart has already begun to form. We regret the error.”

God help us.

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Safe, Legal, and Everywhere

Photo of the day:

Here’s what I wrote last year about the slow, underhanded, but very real disappearance of the center in the pro-choice camp.

What’s happening for the abortion lobby is that its political myths are falling apart. “Safe, legal, and rare” was a carefully crafted slogan, built to elicit both protective instincts from activists and empathy from those unsure about it all. But a fault line ran through the very heart of this kind of rhetoric: If abortion should be legal and safe, why should we want it to be rare? It sounded as if abortion were being compared to alcoholism and divorce—regrettable ailments of a society that nonetheless cannot be legislated out of it.

But this “lesser of two evils” ethic is not what the architects of legal abortion had in mind. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, certainly had more ambitious aims for her legacy when she said that her followers were “seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.” More recently, abortion activists like Katha Pollitt are acknowledging this, and calling their peers to drop a hypocritical façade of regret and proclaim that abortion is a “positive social good.”

Pro-abortion or pro-choice? The answer looks progressively clearer each day.

The Thrill Is Gone

Some scattered thoughts about that Sherlock finale….[warning: possible spoilers ahead]

  • To me, the whole of season 4 has been a scattered, hokey, delight-scarce mess. “The Final Problem” epitomized that characterization. Yes, it was interesting, in the same way that lots of lousy books get finished by virtue of sheer, morbid curiosity. But there was just too much that didn’t work.
  • Introducing Eurus feels like a desperation move by writers who killed off their best villain too soon and realized it too late. The explanation given for why Sherlock has no memory of her was not particularly compelling; the idea that the world’s greatest analytical mind could somehow miss the entire existence of a deeply psychotic sister (one who partnered with her brother’s greatest enemy!!) is silly. It kicks against the entire show’s narrative portrait of its hero.
  • Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft’s being tortured in a “game” setting was a good device and had a lot of potential. It was completely wasted. The low point was when the girl in trouble on the airplane turned out to be a split-personality Eurus, crumpled up in a Freudian heap on the floor of their family mansion. Sorry, but if you want Sean Maguire to put his arm on you and whisper, “It’s not your fault,” go do that instead of Sherlock.
  • Moriarty’s scenes are executed well. So well, in fact, that it’s impossible not to ask, “Why didn’t they just bring him back from the dead?”
  • Instead, they bring Mary back from the dead (sort of). Her closing monologue was fun and anthemic, but I still have no clue what the writers were doing with her character. Why did she need to die in the first place?
  • Throughout the entire finale, Sherlock is forced to choose one life over the other. This is a classic moral dilemma for heroes, and could have had a rich payoff. Inexplicably, once Eurus is arrested, the episode wraps up without ever addressing what happened during the game. There’s no moral development or struggle with what just happened. In fact, the characters seem to forget everything as soon as its over. What?
  • So Eurus murdered Sherlock’s childhood best friend because…they didn’t let her play along? Is this really what 4 years of brilliant teleplays have all led up to?
  • All I wanted for Christmas was for Sherlock to solve a great mystery. I think he does that once during season 4 (in episode 2). Can anyone understand this?
  • My fear right now is that Sherlock is not done as a show, but that Cumberbatch and Freeman are. It seems beyond the pale to “reboot” the show, but nostalgia without substance is the name of the game in show biz right now. If this is indeed the duo’s final episode, it was a massively disappointing way to leave.

Who Framed Christopher Hitchens?

One of my favorite books from 2016 was Larry Taunton’s The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, which I reviewed for Mere-O. I found it to be a gripping spiritual biography of an atheist. No, the words “spiritual biography of an atheist” are not self-contradictory. Atheists have spiritual lives, whether they cop to the fact or not. That’s a big part of what made Taunton’s book meaningful for me; it depicted the spiritual life of a brilliant man who, to all available evidence, died rejecting God, but who did so in a complex and conflicted way. It’s an enthralling and deeply compassionate book.

Unfortunately, many reviewers and pundits seem completely incapable of grasping the concept of an atheist with questions. Taunton’s book was repeatedly and egregiously misrepresented in the press, with critics–the vast majority of whom are atheists–blasting Taunton for claiming a “deathbed conversion” for Hitch. Taunton did nothing of the sort, but such factual trivia seemed not to matter to many who dismissed and ridiculed him.

Taunton tells his side of the story in an essay for the new issue of First Things. Access to the piece requires a subscription, which you really should do anyway. But I want to highlight one specific passage because it exemplifies the common and seriously troubling divide between media elites and the people they cover, or don’t cover.

Here’s Taunton:

After the publication of the book, Religion News Service tweeted this misleading headline: “A controversial new book claims a dying Christopher Hitchens accepted God.” RNS subsequently retracted the headline, but it was too late. Christopher Hitchens’s agent, Steve Wasserman, vociferously denounced the book. “But I really think it is a shabby business,” he said of the book that he acknowledged he had not read. Predictably, the atheist mafia crashed the book’s Amazon page—one commenter called the book “morally reprehensible”; another review bore the heading “I am ashamed to have given my money to this obvious money-grab”—and began venting their hatred there and on social media for its author and for any who had endorsed The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.

The angry response that Taunton documents–including Michael Shermer’s cowardly rescinding of his endorsement–was not directed at what Taunton had actually written. It could not have been, because Taunton never claimed what the social media team at Religion News Service said he claimed. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is explicit in disowning any idea that Hitchens converted to theism or Christianity. But that didn’t matter, because RNS, a journalism outlet, reported falsely to thousands of followers. The fact that the misleading tweet was deleted is almost irrelevant; the real question is, how could a journalism outlet manage to report that a book claims the exact opposite of what it actually says? And if this error was unintentional, that raises another question: Did the people behind the tweet and the reporting actually read the book or Taunton’s comments about it? If not, isn’t this a serious journalistic failure?

In the essay, Taunton argues that the main culprit behind this misrepresentation of his work is a  widespread presumption of atheistic immutability. I think there’s some truth to that. But I also think there’s an important story here about the (quite common) collision between media culture and the truth, between the all-powerful, all-justifying “Narrative” and the complicated details of reality, especially the reality of religion and religious people. The Narrative says that atheists are who they are because they are committed to the truth, and that religious folks are who they are because they need comfort, validation, or promise of cosmic comeuppance. The Narrative says that the road from faith to skepticism is one way, and that education and “real world” experience tend toward secularism, while ignorance and tribalism incubate faith.

For those who deny that such a Narrative drives media coverage, Taunton’s experience with his book is difficult to explain. After all, it is not a work of punditry or philosophizing. It is a memoir, written in first person, documenting not arguments and reasons but conversations and letters. In an age in which the only propositional truth statements that can’t be ignored are the ones beginning with “I feel,” the hostile and dogmatic response to Taunton’s portrait of his friend is notable.

There has been much talk lately about bridging the gap between the “two Americas,” bursting our ideological and existential bubbles, and straining toward genuine empathy. This is a worthwhile goal. But if it’s going to happen, then those who make a living telling others the news have to reckon with the mistrust they face from many people, and acknowledge that at least some of it is deserved. Until such a time as journalists and their employers feel genuine embarrassment at misleading millions of readers when it comes to people of faith, that mistrust isn’t going anywhere, and I’m not sure it should.

Flattery Politics

What’s the value of a populist policy platform if the campaign is obsessed with celebrity glitz and glamour? Why was the Democratic convention a parade of celebrities? Why are you turning over your social media accounts to Lena Dunham, to post things about how white men are finished, when you desperately need to shore up your “blue wall” in Michigan and Wisconsin? Why play to college educated liberals, in November, in that way? What do you want – a message that can motivate a large group of the undecided, or one that flatters the egos of people who would never vote Republican in the first place?

Freddie Deboer, who I’d very much like to hear give a speech at the Golden Globes.

Thoughts on Christian Publishing

On Twitter, Jared Wilson flagged this list of the bestselling Christian books of 2016. I’ve seen previous iterations of this list, and each one that I’ve seen looks frighteningly alike. The gentlest way to say it: the Christian publishing industry is utterly dominated by therapeutic self-help literature. What’s more, the sheer amount of non-literature on the list is staggering; adult coloring books and joke books are all over the top 20, and “Jesus Calling” appears nine times in the top 100, thanks to various editions.

Now it’s always easy to overreact to this kind of thing. The reality is that times are hard for serious, substantial writing, whether Christian or not. Social media technology’s assault on concentration and thoughtfulness does not discriminate on the basis of religion. And the list isn’t all bad; there are plenty of good writers and good books on it.

What I’m more interested in though is the gap between this list of bestselling Christian books, and the evangelical online writing economy. Put simply, the contrast between the work that outsells all other work in Christian bookstores and the work that drives traffic and conversation in the evangelical blogosphere is astonishing. The two worlds look nothing alike. When was the last time you saw an article on your social media written in the first person voice of Jesus, assuring readers of prosperity and emotional centeredness? Have you ever seen a viral relaxation exercise from Desiring God, Tim Challies, Focus on the Family, or even Patheos for that matter?

Sure, there’s some silliness out there. Yes, the lows of evangelical blogging can be really, really low (you’d be better off with a coloring book than some sites I know of). But as I think about it, it just seems to me that even the ridiculousness of evangelical blogosphere is almost always ridiculousness you have to think about. Can the same be said about many bestselling Christian books?

As I look out on the confessional evangelical writing scene, I see a lot of good, even in places where I’d find much to disagree with. There is quite a bit of thoughtful, meaningful commentary out there right now. So when I see a list like this, I can’t help but wonder: Where’s the disconnect? Why am I seeing such a stark difference between the content I inhabit on a daily basis and the content that the average Christian is consuming at bestselling rates? I don’t have an answer for that.

There are a few things I do know:

  • The space right now for creative Christian writers is enormous. There is a real material need in American Christian culture for literary talent. We can’t talk to teenage and twentysomething believers about using their gifts for the good of the body of Christ and only point them toward vocational ministry or the mission field. Christian art matters (it always has), and it requires Christian artists. They won’t grow out of the ground; they have to be cultivated, encouraged, identified, and supported.
  • The impulse in Christian literary circles to divide “theology” from “Christian living” is a terrible rip off. It results in verbose, stiff, academic theology, and shallow bubblegum devotional lit. The sad fact is that some of the best evangelical theology is being produced by people who can’t write, in books that will never be read, all because somewhere down the line we Reformed evangelical types decided the humanities were not relevant in training theologians. Adult coloring books are that mentality’s harvest. This has to be reversed, and it has to be reversed by people who can think deep thoughts about God AND say them in beautifully arresting way.
  • You get what you pay for. These trends in Christian publishing aren’t going to be thwarted by moaning bloggers like me. They’re going to be thwarted by churchgoers who use their income to purchase good books by good writers. And for that to happen, those who are already reading good books by good writers have to tell others about them–including pastors.

I actually believe Christian publishing is primed for a sustained season of excellence, for reasons already mentioned above. But perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way of such a season is the church’s own passivity. For years many evangelical churches labored under the illusion that spiritualized entertainment was going to rebuild American Christianity and fill the pews. It turns out though that not even the church can out-distract Buzzfeed and Facebook. So what now? Maybe we should give the whole teaching thing another go round.