Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Why They Help Them Lie

George McKenna

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The lies that pro-abortions forces employ to forward their agenda.

When I was a child I was told that only bad people lie.

The message was reinforced when I went to college in the 1950s, but with a particular cultural inflection. I was taught by "vital centrist" professors-- professors a little bit to the left of center--that people who lied a lot were social lowlifes: Mafia wiseguys, clubhouse politicians, red-baiters, those types of people. Their opponents, the good guys, were not liars. They could be mistaken. Their opinions could be wrong. But they were honest.

So there were liars and there were people who sought to tell the truth, and the liars were sleazy characters. And they looked it. The '50s brought America to dizzying new heights in the graphic revolution. Television, Madison Avenue, Hollywood, glossy magazines, all fetched up a great stock of images and visual cues. People who were dishonest were supposed to look and sound thuggish, and so of course they did. Joe McCarthy, the red-baiter, had an ugly jaw and an ugly nasal whine, wore his double-breasted suitcoats open, and even slugged one of his critics. (McCarthy himself was in the image business, playing "the tough Marine," but by the '50s that was quite out of date.) When the Mafia guys appeared at televised congressional hearings we looked for sharkskin suits and pinkie rings, and sometimes we actually saw them. But it didn't matter, the pictures were already in our heads. Richard Nixon, who was only an entry or two below McCarthy on my professors' Most Notorious list, had a problem with facial hair, and Herblock, the Washington Post's cartoonist, was one of those graphic specialists who helped us see that Nixon's five o'clock shadow was a metaphor for dishonesty.

On the other side of the moral divide, the children of light also looked and talked the way we wanted them to. Attorney Joseph Welch, who fatally shamed McCarthy at the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 ("Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?") dressed in proper Boston tweeds; Adlai Stevenson, twice a Democratic presidential candidate and a frequent victim of McCarthy's jibes, looked like a kindly, slightly absent-minded professor. (When Stevenson tried to get nominated for the third time in 1960, his supporters displayed the photo of him with a hole in his shoe, which is what you'd expect a slightly absent-minded professor to have.) Some of the good guys, like Stevenson and Welch, were witty and convivial; others, like CBS's Edward R. Murrow, were solemn, but they all had about them a certain way of acting and talking, a carriage. Television, Marshall McLuhan later wrote, is a "cool" medium, and these were people perfectly suited to the television age because they were cool. Not aloof, but quiet, thoughtful, almost hesitant about letting us know their views. Theirs was the style of the seminar room, not the noisy convention hall. It worked very well in the cool medium of television.

Fast-forward now to the '90s, and here I am again in front of my TV, watching the congressional hearings on partial-birth abortion. A woman from Planned Parenthood is testifying, and she looks very attractive: tasteful hair-styling, a modest bit of jewelry, a dark, tailored dress. And she is speaking quietly, softly, in a measured way, the way Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch and Adlai Stevenson used to speak. But she is saying things that are not true and that she has reason to know are not true. She is telling lies.

Now here is a case of cognitive dissonance: the information I get from my observation of her manner and style is sharply at odds with what she is saying. My observation of her exterior tells me that she is an honest woman, but because I know that what she is saying is not true and that she must know that it is not true, my brain tells me that she is a liar. Still, I can't believe it, because she is so earnest and sincere. So I can't even bring myself to shout at the TV, "You're a liar!" And imagine the reception if by magic I were suddenly transported into the hearing room and one of the congressmen asked me for my opinion and I said, "We're not talking about opinions, we're talking about facts, and this woman has just lied." That's the kind of rudeness you'd expect from Joe McCarthy. Maybe one of the congressmen would even say, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

Yet I would be telling the truth. In fact, I'd be understating the truth. The truth is that it was not just that woman, on that day, who was lying, but that from its inception the "pro-choice" movement has used lies to advance its cause. I could fill the rest of this article with examples, but a few may be enough.

  • In making its case for abortion legalization prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, NARAL consistently lied about the number of deaths resulting from illegal abortions. In his memoir of the period, Aborting America, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the former chairman of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL--now called the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League), who has since turned around and become a pro-life spokesman, recalled that he and the other NARAL leaders always cited the figure of "5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year." The actual total for 1972 listed by the federal government was 39 deaths. "I confess that I knew the figures were totally false," Nathanson wrote, "and I suppose that the others did too if they stopped to think about it. But in the 'morality' of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?"
  • Roe itself was brought to the Court by lies. Norma McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" of the case, falsely claimed that she had been a victim of rape. According to her later account, she hastily made this up after the lawyers began "frowning" when she told them she was a lesbian. She had come to the two attorneys, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, because she thought they could find her an abortionist. They could have, since, unknown to McCorvey, Weddington herself had recently obtained an abortion in Mexico. Instead, they lied to her, telling her that her only recourse was to become a plaintiff in their lawsuit. (Afterwards, McCorvey went home and looked up the word "plaintiff" in the dictionary.) They assured her that after the Supreme Court's decision, there would still be time to get an abortion. They knew of course that there wasn't--lawyers know how long it takes to get a case even before the Supreme Court--but they lied to her to get her cooperation. (McCorvey had the baby and put it up for adoption.) And they passed on her lie about the gang-rape.
  • Another lie was used to bring Doe v. Bolton, the companion case to Roe, before the Supreme Court. (In Doe, the Court ruled that states could not ban even a third-trimester abortion if the mother-to-be could prove that she needed the abortion for reasons of "health," which was was defined to include physical, emotional, and "societal" considerations.) In a sworn affidavit submitted last year, the woman designated as "Mary Doe" stated that she did not want an abortion and in fact strenuously resisted pressure from a number of people, including her attorney, to get one. In 1970 she had gone to attorney Margie Pitt Hames, seeking not an abortion but a divorce and legal custody of her three already-born children. What Hames did was to turn the woman's marital plight into a case for a late-term abortion. When Hames and the others tried to pressure her into the abortion, she fled to Oklahoma and remained there until assured that the pressure would stop. When she returned, Hames asked her to appear in a courtroom with other expectant mothers but to say nothing. Three years later "I saw my lawyer, Margie, on television. The story reported on television was that the United States Supreme Court had made abortion legal. I did not fully comprehend what my role was in the Court's decision in Doe v. Bolton."
  • The Becky Bell Story: Here is a lie that continues to be repeated by pro-abortion groups, especially when hearings are held on parental-notification bills. In 1990, Becky Bell, a 17-year-old Indiana girl, supposedly died from an illegal abortion that she'd gotten rather than to have to notify her parents of her intention to get an abortion, as required by Indiana's parental-notification law. Conflicting versions of the Becky Bell story have been carried by CNN, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and other major media. But there has never been any credible evidence that Becky Bell died from an abortion. What she apparently died from was toxic pneumonia, of the kind that killed Muppeteer Jim Henson. She was pregnant at the time, and during her last hours she apparently suffered a miscarriage (the doctor treating her said at one point that he would not be able to save the baby), but the coroner's report showed no evidence of an abortion.
  • Serial lying was used to deny the grisly reality of partial-birth abortion. When the National Right To Life Organization first reported it in 1994, the Planned Parenthood Federation denied that it existed. But when Right to Life produced a paper describing the procedure by the doctor who invented it, the story suddenly changed: yes, it was used, said Planned Parenthood, but "only in rare cases, fewer than 500 per year," and "only in cases when the woman's life is in danger or in cases of extreme fetal abnormality." That story continued until 1996, when Ruth Padawar, a reporter for the Record, a New Jersey newspaper, made a few phone calls and discovered that in a single New Jersey clinic at least 1,500 partial-birth abortions were performed every year, the vast majority of them to healthy babies of healthy mothers. This was vehemently denied by Kate Michelman of NARAL, who claimed that Padawar "completely got it wrong," and called the 1,500 figure "a lie." Then, when more stories appeared about the frequency of partial-birth abortions, in the Washington Post and elsewhere, the National Organization for Women said that they were "planted by abortion opponents." Even after Ron Fitzsimmons, head of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, admitted that he had previously lied in saying that the procedure was rare, they still stuck to the lie. ("If he thinks he lied, that's his problem," Michelman said.) But eventually most of them backed off.
  • A connected lie was that the baby doesn't die from the violent procedure itself but from the anesthesia administered to the mother before the operation. This was immediately and indignantly denied by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, which called it "entirely inaccurate." Yet Planned Parenthood continued to repeat the lie, causing needless concern among pregnant women that epidurals during labor would kill their babies.

These are not just lies blurted out on the spur of the moment. They are premeditated lies, lies worked out and rehearsed well in advance, then ceremoniously introduced to the public. This is not ordinary lying, it is organized lying, carried on now for more than a generation by the abortion industry and its supporters. Why do they lie? I suppose because they have to. The truth about what they are doing and defending is very unpleasant. Some years ago I wrote an article on abortion in the Atlantic Monthly, one that sought to spell out a moderate position on the issue; it argued that pro-lifers should rely more on persuasion than on legislation and should try to limit abortion rather than seek a total ban on it. To my surprise it caused a terrible ruckus. More than five hundred letters were sent to the editor, most of them opposed, many demanding a cancellation of their subscription. One of the things that really got to a lot of Atlantic readers was that I called abortion "a killing process." Correspondents denounced this as inflammatory, then went on to insist that fetuses are not really humans, are not persons, and are so small that you can hardly see them--as if those assertions somehow proved that there was no killing involved. The fact, of course, is that even if all these assertions were correct, abortion would still be a killing process. Something is being killed. That was very hard for many people to take. In the piece I had quoted a counsellor at an abortion clinic who said she hated the term "abortion clinic," because her clinic was not really involved in killing but in "healing and care." She wrote a letter in response to my article insisting again that the term "abortion clinic" is "reductive and inadequate" (though she finally did allow that abortion involves "stilling a heartbeat," which surely isn't healing and caring).

The abortion insiders, the people who do it and people who promote it, have to be especially careful when they talk about partial-birth abortion. Stabbing an about-to-be-born baby in the back of the head, suctioning out its brains and crushing its skull, that is strong stuff. Dr. Warren Hern, the Colorado abortionist who specializes in it and has written a handbook on it, has a section in the book entitled "Dealing With the News Media." He advises physicians and administrators to "provide as much factual information as possible," but to make sure that the information is "appropriate for public consumption." In discussing it, Hern advises, the practitioners should focus on issues such as "freedom of choice," not on "the specific details of the abortion procedures." Diverting attention from "specific details," including the detail that a baby gets mutilated and killed, is the heart of the strategy. If reference is made to the baby at all, the baby is to be characterized as "deformed." (I heard Betty Friedan, founding mother of the National Organization for Women, actually use the term "monster.") This is another lie, as Ruth Padawer of the Record discovered when doctors who did the procedure told her that the vast majority were performed on healthy fetuses. Then there was the lie that the mother needed a partial-birth abortion to save her life or her "health" (the latter term being almost infinitely expandable). At an especially theatrical press conference in 1996, President Clinton brought with him five women who had had partial-birth abortions, and he claimed that if they hadn't, their bodies would have been "eviscerated," "ripped to shreds," and they "could never have another baby." Not a word of this was true. As even the usually "pro-choice" American Medical Association stated, the procedure "is never medically necessary." A baby's excessive head size (hydrocephaly) can be corrected by draining fluid from its brain, or else the woman could give birth by caesarian. It is partial-birth abortion, a group of obstetricians later testified, that poses health risks to the mother, including "immediate and massive bleeding and the threat of shock or even death." It can also lead to an "incompetent cervix," the leading cause of premature deliveries.

So that is why the abortion people tell lies. The truth about our nation's abortion clinics--about who owns them, who runs them, and what happens there--is so dangerous that if it were ever given the kind of sustained coverage that the press gives to scandals, it would shake the foundations of the industry and threaten the careers of its lobbyists. So the abortion insiders have to lie.

What is puzzling is why so many people on the outside have gone along with the lies. I mean people in the news media, in the arts community, in politics, law, and the university. It took two years before a reporter even picked up a phone to check on Planned Parenthood's claim that partial birth abortion is used "only in rare cases," and "only in cases when the woman's life is in danger or in cases of extreme fetal abnormality." The New York Times printed these claims as facts, with no attribution and no quotation marks, and other media did the same. Nor did any reporter ever challenge President Clinton's claim that the women who had had partial-birth abortions would otherwise have had their uteruses "ripped to shreds." Lies like that are put into the media echo-chamber and are transformed into established "facts." Why do newspeople do that? Why are they so gullible? These are people who pride themselves on their skepticism, on not accepting the claims of public officials at face value. They like to catch them fibbing, and if one of the fibs turns out to be part of a larger network of deception--well, isn't that the way Pulitzers are earned? And what of the arts community and academic community--aren't these people dedicated to scholarly and artistic truth? There are great scholarly and artistic projects going in America, yet there is this blind spot on abortion. Consider this example. In 1999, Ken Burns, famous for his prize-winning film series on the Civil War, produced a documentary on the lives of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, leaders of the nineteenth-century struggle for women's rights. Now here is the odd thing: nowhere in Burns' rich narrative was it once mentioned that Stanton and Anthony were outspoken opponents of abortion. Surely this is noteworthy: the founders of American feminism were fiercely opposed to "abortion rights," the centerpiece of mainstream feminism. Elizabeth Cady Stanton classed abortion with the killing of newborns as "infanticide" and Susan B. Anthony called it "child-murder." When columnist Nat Hentoff, who contributed to Burns's later documentary on the history of jazz, asked him why he omitted this part of their social and moral philosophy, Burns replied that he didn't want his documentary to be "burdened by present and past differing views on choice."

Note Burns' language: "choice." As Hentoff later remarked, it indicates "where he's coming from on the subject of abortion." But beyond that, what Burns did, what he tried to brush away with an evasive reply to Hentoff's question, was to censor his own documentary. He removed an inconvenient fact from his history of feminism. Was this any different from what the editors of the Soviet Encyclopedia did when they purged from the history of the U.S.S.R. all references to a man named Leon Trotsky?

Why would Burns do a thing like that? From his use of words we can gather, as did Hentoff, that he takes the "pro-choice" position on abortion. That might explain a certain slant, or a certain way of interpreting facts, but it doesn't explain why he would participate in a cover-up. Burns doesn't make his living from abortion, so he has no economic reason to do it. What risks would he have taken by letting viewers know that the founders of American feminism were pro-life? One would think that his reputation as a producer of honest documentaries would be more important to him than his standing with the "pro-choice" crowd. As with Burns, so with others in the arts community and the university and the media. Why would any of them be tempted to suppress information or uncritically repeat the claims of the abortion industry? They may be "pro-choice," but they don't have to be complicit in lying. So why are they?

I can't answer this definitively, because I can't read other people's minds. But what I can do, to some extent, is to read my mind and heart. I labor in the same vineyard as many of these people, and I share some of their thoughts and emotions, so I will offer my own witness.

Would it be fair to say that most people in the arts and the media and university are liberals? I think that is about right; the polling data that we have tend at least to show that there are far more liberals in those fields than among the public at large. But what is a "liberal"?

Philosophically the term has become almost impossible to define, but that was not always so. Originally and etymologically the term once had the general meaning of "liberty from oppressive government," but by the time of the New Deal in the 1930s the term had undergone a major revision. British and continental liberals had started the process in the middle of the nineteenth century, and in the last century thinkers like Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and many in Franklin Roosevelt's "brain trust" adapted it to the American experience. In the end they came up with this formulation: Yes, liberalism means liberation from oppression. But oppression comes in many forms. It can come from government, but it can also come from giant corporations, which exploit workers and limit competition. It can come from poverty, which narrows people's opportunities and mental horizons; from crime, which forces people to live in fear; from totalitarian enemies abroad and subversive forces at home, which would plunge the nation into tyranny. In all of these instances, government can emerge not as an enemy but an ally of liberty. A vigorous government is especially necessary to protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society from harm.

While sharing the devotion that the older,"classical" strain of liberalism had for individual freedom, New Deal liberalism was more communitarian, admitting a positive role for the state and "intermediate" social institutions, such as churches and charitable institutions. It was a coherent, well-considered revision of an older form of liberalism, though of course not above challenge. There are still plenty of classical liberals who contest the revised version, some of them with formidable arguments. Nevertheless, there was grist and substance in New Deal liberalism; it possessed a solid doctrinal core.

Then something happened. Very gradually, liberalism began to develop a dual identity. It became not just a philosophy but a fashion. It started happening in the '50s, when I was in college, and I suppose it was connected with the graphic revolution referred to earlier. It was about then that we started expecting liberals to look and sound like liberals. In 1960 Republican Senator Barry Goldwater wrote a book called Conscience of a Conservative, and I remember watching a cabaret spoof called "Conscience of a Liberal." The stage manager came out at the beginning and said, "Can't you see I'm a liberal? Haven't you noticed my drip-dry suit?" The audience laughed knowingly because they knew that the drip-dry suit (you could wash it and put it on a hanger to dry) was fashionable just then in liberal circles.

By the '60s, then, liberals had become recognizable by the way they looked--and the way they talked. Liberals had become an ethnic group. Like other ethnic groups, they dressed and carried themselves in certain ways, they shared collective memories of good times and bad times (from the triumph of F.D.R.'s First Hundred Days to the tragedy of the McCarthy investigations). And they had a common langauge. Shortly after I married, my wife and I lived in a neighborhood of immigrant and first-generation Italians. One day, while I was speaking to the butcher, the man smiled mysteriously and said, "you talk education." He meant, I think, that I spoke English like an educated person, a person somehow involved in higher education. I spoke the way they do in the academic community, in the arts community, the publishing community, the news community. We all "talk education."

Speech is an important ethnic marker. The ancient Greeks divided the world between themselves and the "barbarians." The barbarians were the strangers, the outsiders, because they had no experience of the freedom Greeks enjoyed in their beloved polis. But the reason Greeks used the term barbarian was that the Greeks couldn't make out their language; these outsiders all seemed to be saying "bar, bar." So the language became a kind of shortcut definition: barbarians are people who say, "bar, bar." A rationally defensible distinction (barbarians do not possess the Greek concept of political freedom) and an ethnic prejudice (barbarians talk funny) got mixed up together. Closer to our own time and place, in seventeenth-century New England the Puritans hated and persecuted the Quakers not because Quaker theology was particularly "heretical," but because, as the sociologist Kai Erikson observed in a famous study, the Quakers looked and spoke so differently: They refused to tip their hats to the leaders of the colony or remove them in court, and they insisted on addressing colony officials in the familiar "thee" and "thou."

But there is something even more interesting in Erikson's study. Applying a thesis he derived from Emile Durkheim, he argued that in a certain sense the Puritans needed the Quakers and other deviants, because they served to mark out the borders of the permissible; this helped to define and reinforce the identity of the orthodox. The doctrinal differences between the Puritans and Quakers were not that great, so the Puritans seized upon and exaggerated certain differences in speech and manner. "It was exactly because the New England Puritans shared so many features in common with the Quakers that they had to publicize the few crucial differences as noisily as they could." Something of that sort, I believe, started happening within liberalism during the late1960s.

During that period American liberalism as a public philosophy started to dissolve. The new developments, especially civil rights and the Vietnam war, were pounding and pummeling the internal structure of liberalism. Liberal intellectuals were having a hard time containing them. Vietnam was spawning all kinds of protests, including ones that were violent, intolerant, illiberal; and civil rights was curdling into black nationalism. Politically the '60s was a very creative decade but its public philosophy was less than rigorous. Logical coherence seemed less important than noble statements and demonstrations of "authenticity." Liberalism thus suffered a watering-down of the doctrine that had been so carefully developed during the early decades of the century. But that posed a deep threat to the social identity of liberalism. Liberalism's very existence was jeopardized by the formlessness of its doctrine. The solution to this crisis, I believe, ran along the same lines that Kai Erikson found among the New England Puritans: liberals began to use their enemies as boundary-markers. Their enemies, identified as "the radical right," helped to shore up the orthodoxy of the group and serve as a warning to those who might stray: "I don't know whether you realize it or not, but you're starting to sound like the radical right."

It was during this period, roughly 1965--75, that "abortion rights" were added to the liberal agenda. Abortion was not added as the culmination of a long public dialogue, as was the case with New Deal liberalism in the 1930s. It was simply glommed on. Arguments against doing so were not very welcome; and, if the arguer persisted, warnings were posted.

ME: If liberalism means that government should protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society, surely that includes the unborn child?

FELLOW-LIBERAL: A woman has a right to her own body.

ME: A woman has a right to her own body, but this is not a part of her body, like a gall-bladder or appendix. It is a separate human being.

FELLOW-LIBERAL: So then it's a tenant within her own body, but she doesn't want the tenant there. By her lights it is a parasite, so she has the right to evict it.

ME: Since when do we New Dealers think that a landlord has an absolute right to evict undesired tenants--especially if the result is their death?

FELLOW-LIBERAL: So you don't believe in the right of a woman to make decisions about what goes on in her own body, her own property?

ME: A person's property rights have to be balanced against the human rights of other people, especially their right to live.

FELLOW-LIBERAL: Do you realize that you're starting to sound like Jesse Helms? (End of dialogue.)

This is not to say that there can't be liberal arguments for abortion. A liberal argument could focus on the "hard cases," the cases that raise painful human concerns and dilemmas. Maybe abortion is justified in such cases--or maybe not. There could have been arguments, and replies, and replies to the replies, which is the way dialogues are conducted. But that wasn't the way abortion got attached to the liberal agenda. It was just, "abortion is a woman's right and if you disagree you're a right-winger."

The surprising thing is that many liberals did disagree, at least at first. In 1971 Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy was writing constituents that "the legalization of abortion is not in accordance with the values which our civilization places on human life." "Wanted or unwanted", Kennedy wrote, "human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized--the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old." Even in 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade, Kennedy was insisting that abortion "is not a legitimate or acceptable response to any problem of society," adding that "unwanted as well as wanted children must be unfailingly protected." As late as 1977 the Rev. Jesse Jackson was demanding that funding for abortion be cut and the money be spent on "human needs" instead of a "federal policy of killing." And, closer to present memories, Al Gore and Bill Clinton were firmly pro-life in the early 1980s. None of these politicians has ever offered an explanation for why he changed his views, beyond saying that his views "evolved." This is rare for converts. Usually they are only too anxious to tell us what led up to their change of heart. Dr. Nathanson, for example, has written and spoken at length about the ultrasound pictures of life in the womb that turned him around. But the reverse-converts say nothing about any experience, thought, or revelation that turned them around. So what made them convert? I suppose that if we gave truth serum to the Democratic politicians I just quoted, their answer would be that they worried about challenges in primary elections (which bring out liberal ideologues) and a drying-up of campaign funds (which come from wealthy ideological liberals). But that still would not answer the question of why they, the ideologically liberal voters and Democratic contributors, are so angrily determined to link liberalism with "abortion rights." The real answer, I think, is that, whatever the philosophical merits of the pro-life position, whatever its doctrinal compatibility with liberalism, pro-life has become identified with the "outsiders"--the strangers, the barbarians, the people who talk funny.

When my Atlantic Monthly article appeared and all the angry letters started pouring in, I thought, oh boy, I'm going to be in for it when I get back to school (the article appeared at the end of the summer break). But to my surprise, my academic colleagues seemed more embarrassed than angry. It was as if I had done something slightly shameful, something it was better not to talk about. But there was one exception: a newer, younger colleague did confront me, and we had quite a tart exchange. At one point in the conversation he let me know that after reading it, his wife, with whom I had once chatted at a faculty party, exclaimed, "My God! And I thought he was a nice guy!" Don't you see? She thought I was one of them. I had passed because I had "talked education," as my old neighborhood butcher might have said. But I was not really one of them. I was a member of the "radical right." The poor woman had suffered her own spell of cognitive dissonance.

The reason that so many liberals are ready to believe and disseminate the lies of the abortion industry is not that abortion has any inherent connection to liberalism but because liberals and abortion advocates belong to the same ethnic group. One day, after hearing on the radio some pretty long excerpts from a speech by a NARAL official, I listened for an opposing view. Hearing none, I called the station manager and asked why he didn't put on a differing opinion, one from the pro-life side. His reply was that "we don't have these people on our Rolodex." There are these people out there, the people not on the Rolodex, and they mark the boundary between the normal and the deviant. And the boundary is patrolled, and liberals are warned if they get too close to it. Critics call this "political correctness," a mock-Leninist allusion, but that is not really accurate. It implies a deviation from some kind of highly structured doctrine. But what passes for liberalism today is not a doctrine anymore but an ethnic identity. Today there are not just liberal ways of talking and dressing, there is liberal cuisine and there are liberal jokes, liberal courtship rituals, liberal wedding ceremonies, liberal neighborhoods. But no one really knows what liberalism is, unless we define it circularly as "what liberals believe." And even that keeps changing. Forty years ago "color-blindness" was good, and now it is bad. Racial gerrymandering and other kinds of balkanization were once regarded with suspicion; today they are signs of healthy diversity. So the doctrines come and go, but liberal ethnic traits remain. The dress has become a little more raffish since I was in college, and it is cool now to sprinkle some Yiddishisms and black argot into the conversation, as long as it isn't overdone. Some liberals don't much like to call themselves liberal anymore, preferring the term "progressive." But these are matters of small consequence. Across generations or across the room, liberals never have any trouble recognizing each other. Or recognizing their useful enemy, "the radical right," except now it's "the religious right."

So we go back now to the televised hearings on partial-birth abortion and the woman from Planned Parenthood who is quietly telling us that partial-birth abortions are extremely rare, that they are performed only because the baby is horribly deformed or because mother's life is in danger, and anyway the baby is dead beforehand because of the anesthesia. And the congressmen are listening respectfully and the press is taking it all down and it will be in tomorrow's newspaper. Sure, there will be room in the paper, room on the evening news, for the opposition--for the others. Of course. That's only fair. They have their opinions too. But we all know, because our eyes and ears tell us, that the woman with the tasteful dress and the modest bit of jewelry and the quiet voice is the one we trust, because she is one of us. She could be mistaken. We all make mistakes. But that she could be deliberately lying, playing us all for suckers--us, her fellow liberals . . . why, that's, that's . . . just not the way we act. That's barbarous!

This article can be found on the Human Life Review website. Reprinted with permission

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Copyright 2001-2018 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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