Thursday, January 31, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

Cinema these days seems to be obsessed with movies about issues. How else to explain the glut of films that have come out about war, terrorism, third-world poverty, and now, to my great surprise, abortion. Previously, this was practically untouchable as a theme. Now I can barely count on one hand films that have been released in the last few years dealing with this subject. These include Citizen Ruth, Lake of Fire, Bella, Juno, and now most recently, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Each of these takes a different tact. All of them deserve watching: Citizen Ruth for its comedy and for showing up much that has been ridiculous throughout the years concerning this issue; Lake of Fire as the best documentary chronicling in a fairly unbiased way the passion and argumentation on both sides; Bella as a good indie film whose dialogue was kind of wooden for which, however, the camera work made up; and Juno, a film I loved and thought did a great job of telling the Baby Boomers that our generation would no longer deal with abortion the way they did. We are beyond the modernist rhetoric of Cartesian autonomy and Lockian "rights" language, at least in this film, and prefer to situate the issue of teen pregnancy and abortion in a wholly different context. Props to them for making that film.

And now 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Remember that scene at the end of Children of Men when Clive Owen, the young mother, and the child walk between the long line of soldiers during a spontaneous cease fire? The evocation of the Holy Family was clear, and all I could think of during that powerful scene (the rest of the movie was mediocre) was of the experience of Eucharistic adoration. For those who have ever experienced such a moment during worship, the reverence and awe on the faces of the soldiers as all sound ceased was breathtaking. They were looking at the salvation of their race.

4 Months has such a scene. Yet it is by far a better movie. When the New York Times review explained that it was a pro-abortion film showing how bad illegal abortion was in communist Russia in order to point out the benefits of our "freedoms" in the United States, I knew I had to see it. What was confirmed for me when I saw it (it was released simultaneously in select theatres and On Demand) was a lot that post-modern reception and interpretation theory have said about the "death of the author." A text is not complete on its own. It remains open to those for whom it was written, but not just for them, but for the open-ended future along with whoever may one day see or read it. Their interpretations, regardless of authorial intent, make up part of the text. The fusion of the textual horizon and the readers horizon make up the interpretative content of texts. However, genuine receptivity on the part of the reader is required. The reviewer for the Times went in with his or her own presuppositions, and he or she found what was looked for. I went in with those same expectations: to see a pro-choice film.

When I was young, I can remember one time when my mom miscarried. I remember at our little funeral looking down on my 5 month old sister in a little box made out of plywood that my dad had made. She was just bigger than the size of my hand, lying so beautiful and quiet on the bottom. I went over against the wall and cried my first true tears of sadness, experiencing my first sense of loss. I have never forgotten that vision. In 4 Months, there is a scene at the end where the main protagonist, the friend of the girl who she helps procure an abortion, goes to the bathroom of the hotel room. Her friend has discharged the 5 month old fetus killed with a saline injection, and it is lying on the floor of the bathroom, she says. So her friend, who made up what was lacking in the abortion fee by sleeping with the abortionist, walks slowly toward the bathroom. The camera shot is positioned from within the bathroom, and all light is on the door and her face as she comes in. She slowly sinks to her knees, her face inexpressible in its sorrow and pain. She is experiencing the reversal of Bethlehem, a little helpless child in a meek and lowly place, except it is dead. The camera slowly pans down to the mess of head and hands and feet on the floor, lying in a pool of blood. She stuffs it in her purse and goes to dispose of it. That scene alone for me made the movie. It also convinced me that this is truly a pro-life film. Decide for yourself. I will be watching it again.

Markel, SJ

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My Friends...

I argued in November of last year that the Republican candidate who would pull away from the pack would be the one to make some sort of stand publicly against Dubya. The first candidate to do so was Mike Huckabee, who wrote that the Bush foreign policy advocated a "bunker mentality." He was attacked by his opponents (namely Mitt Romney) but this distinction did give him some traction and he ended up winning Iowa.

But, of course, Huckabee fizzled. John McCain, however, soon adopted a very similar tactic around the new year. He harped on the point that he opposed the "Rumsfeld strategy" from the beginning and that since Bush adopted the "Petraeus strategy," which McCain advocated, Iraq has become a safer and more manageable place.

Now let's start with some straight talk: McCain is no progressive or moderate. Of the core ideals that make up the conservative base, I can only find two discrepancies: his support of embryonic stem cell research and his opposition to the Bush tax cuts of 2001.

Now for his conservative credentials:
  • He supported the Reagan tax cuts of 1982 and 1986
  • He has voted to curtail abortion rights (he voted for the Partial Born Abortion Act of 1995, 1997 and 2003, he has voted each year since he has been in Congress to ban abortion at federal health facilities and has supported the Mexico City Policy)
  • He is a deficit hawk and voted for the Gramm-Rudman Act of 1985 (which mandated cuts in non-Defense spending)
  • He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 and the Welfare Reform Act of 1995
  • He voted to confirm Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court
  • He supported the dramatic increase in Defense spending in the 1980s and supported the first neo-con war, the Persian Gulf Conflict of 1991
That is a sound conservative record that can be stacked up against any other conservative Senator. But, presto! John McCain has become some sort of progressive! The most curious factor in this equation is that he is not trying to discourage it.

If we take a look at the Florida exit polls for the GOP, McCain has banked on an oddly successful strategy. He won the Florida primary among men and those over 60 (both traditionally conservative groups), but he also won among 18-29 year olds, Hispanics, pro-abortion Republicans and Catholics (groups that are more evenly divided between conservatives and moderates)

This seems just crazy enough to work. No candidate can really challenge McCain on his conservative credentials, since he can prove them with votes. So he is winning at least half of that conservative vote. But he is also winning the moderate groups in the GOP and winning them big with 60-70%.

I predicted Romney as the nominee, but this year has been unpredictable in many ways. McCain has tapped into a really strange demographic on the Republican side, but somehow its working.

As Pat Buchanan said on MSNBC last night: "I don't get how McCain is winning. His entire platform consists of three unappealing things: 1) industrial and manufacturing jobs are done for good, 2) illegal immigrants are here to stay and 3) we will have seven more wars!"

True it is.

Mason Slidell

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Photo of the Moment

The Meeting of the "Popes." I am curious, will Fr. Nicolas wear that blue sweater vest everywhere?

Mason Slidell

Yes We Can! - Defeat Clintonism

The Obama victory in South Carolina last night was not unexpected. Even after all the smearing of Hillary Clinton through her hubby, nothing seemed to really stop Obama in the pre-election polling after his victory in Iowa. Much is credited to the largely African-American Democratic electorate in South Carolina, but Obama was also able to pick up a quarter of the white Democratic vote, which is pretty impressive in a place like South Carolina and bodes well for his ability to draw white Southerners in a general election.

What I found really fascinating last night was Obama’s victory speech. It was a beautiful piece of speechmaking, which is what we have come to expect from Obama, but it was also his first real rhetorical attack inside one of his victory speeches. As you read this quote, think iron fist in velvet glove:
But there are real differences between the candidates. We are looking for more than just a change of party in the White House. We’re looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington – a status quo that extends beyond any particular party. And right now, that status quo is fighting back with everything it’s got; with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face, whether those problems are health care they can’t afford or a mortgage they cannot pay.

We are up against the belief that it’s OK for lobbyists to dominate our government – that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we’re not going to let them stand in our way anymore.

We are up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as President comes from longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House. But we know that real leadership is about candor, and judgment, and the ability to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose – a higher purpose.

The choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It’s not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white.

It’s about the past versus the future.
Can you hear what I hear? The Obama campaign is now challenging what was before unchallengeable in the Democratic Party: the political legacy of Bill and Hillary Clinton. It is clear that Obama has learned a valuable lesson from the South Carolina campaign. He is retuning his message of hope and change to be directed not only against the rule of Republicans, but also against Clintonism as the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party. Make no mistake about it: this is a really bold move!

Take this and couple it with the endorsement of Caroline Kennedy and the coming endorsement of Ted Kennedy and boom! The official combination of the Kennedy mystique with the audaciousness of hope.

What will this mean looking forward to Florida and Super Tuesday? I’m not sure, but the Democratic battle is now defined as the Clinton machine against the Democratic grassroots. Whether this is a fair characterization is not the point. As the victor in South Carolina, Obama gets to set the tone going into the next contests and that is what he as decided on as the definition. This should keep it interesting.

Mason Slidell

Friday, January 25, 2008


The Yale Daily News pulled this article after it received a sufficient amount of criticism, deservedly I think:
In commemoration of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, the 35th anniversary of which is this month, the Reproductive Rights Action League at Yale (RALY), in conjunction with Yale Medical Students for Choice, demonstrated different abortion methods and techniques, answered questions students had about the procedures and encouraged students to be active in abortion-rights groups during last night’s presentation. The presentation was part of a week-long celebration of the 35th anniversary of the landmark decision.

“I’m here to talk about what happens after you get past the picket lines,” Merritt Evans MED ’09, a member of Yale Medical Students for Choice, told the assembled crowd of about 15 students.

The presenters began by showing the students different surgical tools used during different stages of a pregnancy and ticking off statistics about the safety and number of abortions performed in the United States. Eighty-five percent of counties in America do not have any abortion providers, Evans said.

Evans and Rasha Khoury MED ’08, another member of Medical Students for Choice, who said she plans to become a gynecologist and expects to perform abortions, went on to describe one of the most common abortion procedures, manual vacuum aspiration, which “creates suction to evacuate pregnancy,” Evans said. The technique is a good option because the device involved is reusable and relatively cheap, she said.

“It’s not as scary as it seems. It’s just blood and mucus,” Khoury said, referring to the fetus remains in the device. She added, “You’ll be able to see arms and stuff, but still just miniscule.”

Evans and Khoury also explained the finer points of abortion-clinic etiquette, including some potentially sensitive terminology. Khoury said physicians performing abortions generally refer to the aborted fetus remains as “POC,” an acronym for “product of conception,” and refer to fetus’ hearts as “FH.”

The most complicated part of the procedure can be the emotional fallout some patients experience, she said.

“Often times, women are crying and cursing and saying they’re going to hell,” Khoury said. “It may be a quick and easy medical procedure, but it definitely is a very involved social-medical procedure.”

The presenters also urged the crowd to become involved in the abortion-rights movement by joining Reproductive Health Externships, a campaign in which volunteers are taught how to conduct abortions.

“It’s fun because you meet people from all over the country who do them,” Khoury said. “It’s pretty inspiring.”
Wow, it's hard to know what to say to that. Fortunately, there has been fairly good treatment about the abortion issue in the world of the arts lately. I particularly liked Juno, specifically for its avoidance of the use of "choice" language. I felt that is was a film finally telling the baby boomers that we are going to deal with this question our own way, without all the baggage that they bring from their past. The writer of the script, a young girl herself and pro-choice - and purportedly a pole dancer - didn't feel that overwhelming need to make the movie about the right to do what one likes with one's body. I appreciated that decision.

I'm looking forward to seeing "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" opening tonight in New York City. the NY Times gave it a good review, though slanting it a bit as a pro-abortion movie. I'll withhold judgment until I see it.

Markel, SJ

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Right from the Beginning

I am just going to say it: the Clintons have some wickedly brilliant political skills. As an observer of politics foreign and domestic, I am constantly impressed by their ability to read the signs of the times.

Sure, the media doesn’t like their sense of entitlement, so what! OK, old-school Democrats hate their moderate triangulations in order to have the broadest appeal without really standing for anything, who cares! Yeah, political historians are concerned that Bill is tarnishing what little dignity he has left by so overtly engaging in political campaigns as a former president, screw you!

While it is quite true that various political elites seem dog tired of the Clintons and their brand of political showmanship, it really doesn’t matter. They still have the touch. The two of them have an uncanny ability of discovering the pulse of the current political mood. They know when to dust off their McGovernite roots and play the uber-progressives still fighting the battles for women, hippies and Stokely Carmichael. They sense when to shift and morph into the bland centrists of the 90s, running on their joint opposition to rap music and baggy pants in schools. And few other politicos know how to be both pro-war and pro-imperialism without anyone seeming to notice.

And they’ve been doing this for years. It sure makes all the little rough hairs stand up on the back of my neck, but you got to give them their due. They are brilliant…and evil.

Mason Slidell

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Father General's Asian Perspective

Those attempting to plug the new superior general of the Society of Jesus into an old 16th century mold may have a little trouble doing so. After all, he fairly clearly contradicted the famous letter on obedience that Ignatius wrote, saying that "obedience can be very creative and very helpful when it is open, when there is inner freedom... blind obedience, I think, as a norm would be a disaster, for the Society or anybody." This before a Congregation that will be dealing specifically with the meaning of Ignatian obedience.

A little background search on his theology raises I think some interesting observations about what can be expected from him as a leader and writer. He appears to evoke MacIntyre in an article in Concilium - a journal that may already raise some eyebrows due to its intellectual history and current left wing tendencies - entitled "Christianity in Crisis: Asia. Which Asia? Which Christianity? Which Crisis?" A rather audacious title, like MacIntyre's book it asks the difficult question as to the "concrete Christianities that we have here." When speaking of a possible "crisis" in Asian Christianity, one should not, it appears, speak as if Christianity is a univocal phrase without many referents which language only serves to veil, not reveal.

Nicolas defines crisis: "Every time we open ourselves to the 'others' and let our minds, hearts and imaginations be affected (enriched) by them." There is a strong tone from contemporary phenomenological personalism in these words, as well as a genuine contact with the East which should be expected. Nicolas doesn't think that Christianity has done such a great job facing this crisis. He argues in the article that "concepts like 'pre-evangelization', 'adaptation', 'inculturation', 'tranculturation' or other such words... were theoretical, mostly theological, with some timid and seldom fully satisfying liturgical experiments." My limited experience would have to agree, insofar as the theoretical paradigms that have been erected in the past thirty years in the name of evangelization have appeared to be largely unsuccessful. Instead of allowing the Other to judge us, says Nicolas, we have become fixated on saving our own lives as a Christian group. The judgment of the Other has very concrete criteria for Adolfo: do they or do they not listen to our message and confirm its depth and power? That is the criteria, the criteria erected by St. Paul from the beginning. If there is no power in the message, then it is probably not the saving word of God.

Nicolas sees Asian Faiths, and especially Buddhism, as ongoing challenges to theology. "Because it is a clarity without transparency that explains better concepts and definitions than life with all its pains and joys," theology turns to language to explain itself. This, however, is not the Asian way. In what may be interesting to many, Nicolas quotes the (then) Cardinal Ratzinger, explaining that "'all theological statements have only an approximate value' or something of the sort." While western theology throws language around verbosely and, to the mind of an Asian, rather casually, the actual referential meaning of this language in the context of human living and exigency for salvation is meaningless. He explains: "The kind of theology that has become normal currency in our seminaries has remained distant from the life of people in East and West; it takes a double distance when used in Asia as if it were 'Catholic common sense.'" As in philosophy, I always get uncomfortable when use of the idea of "common sense" is thrown around as if it were something actually common to all. There is no more useless term in the realm of epistemology as far as I am concerned than this one. Much more so for an Asian culture that knows nothing of the accumulations of western Christianity which then presumes it in its evangelical mission. Nicolas' point I think is well taken.

Where the critical questions must be asked to Nicolas are when he sums up his article. He remarks that masters of all ages are keener on teaching ways to God than in answering questions about him. One remembers the story of Marius Victorinus in order to recall that Christianity is precisely this, a "way" more than anything else. Nicolas observes that "Asia has produced an incredible wealth of such 'ways.'" The challenge of meeting these other rich ways must challenge Christianity to continually re-examine what is exactly its own "way." What are the necessities and what is the true core of this following of Christ? "The gospel is more than words, and the sacraments more than rituals. Asia is asking us why these practices have not become part of the Christian way through the daily struggles of people."

The strong point that Nicolas makes from his Asian perspective is this: "Asia can never understand how a 'humble' Church can so easily dismiss 'other ways of salvation' or put them down as 'lesser than ours.' Asia, with its saints and mystics, its witnesses and heroic faithful, will never comprehend how a Church born out of the Gospel and led by the Spirit of Jesus Christ can practically ignore the religious wealth of other faiths and the real and actual salvation they have brought to a thousand generations."

The exact meaning of the "actual salvation" of these "other faiths" remains the crux of the issue. The question is a good and serious one. The answer that the current Father General of the Jesuits may give will be a critical one for the future of the Catholic missions. With the current Pope's definite ideas in regards to evangelization and other faiths (see Dominus Jesu), it will be interesting to watch what is to come.

Markel, SJ