Monday, June 01, 2009

Thanatos has the last word

The death of late-term abortion provider George Tiller exposes the lunacy of the true believer and the inconsistencies of American culture war politics. In the name of the “pro-life” movement, Dr. Tiller was shot down as he served as an usher in a Wichita, KS church. This was hardly the first time Tiller had faced violence from these self-described defenders of life. They had previously burned down his clinic and he has been shot once previously but recovered.

Years ago I read a seminal work by Eric Hoffer entitled The True Believer. Hoffer was attempting to describe how people could be attracted to mass movements such as fascism and Stalinism but his scope included fanaticism of all kinds including religious. Hoffer’s work “postulated that fanaticism and self-righteousness are rooted in self-hatred, self-doubt, and insecurity. As he describes in The True Believer, …a passionate obsession with the outside world or with the private lives of other people is merely a craven attempt to compensate for a lack of meaning in one's own life.” Hoffer observed that “[f]or the true believer the substance of the mass movement isn't so important as that he or she is part of that movement.” (Wikipedia)

Such an explanation provides insight into the so-called pro-life movement, many of whose exponents readily defend state killing and war. Or kill those they identify as enemies. So much for life.

The pro-life obsession with the private lives of others is readily apparent in the perceived need to require women to carry fetuses to term. What makes a true mockery of the term pro-life is that most people who describe themselves as such could really care less about the life of the child which potentially would come into being. They are completely disinterested in the concerns of those upon whom they would impose motherhood or those whose births they would mandate into a world disinterested in the quality of their lives. They are the same people who would condemn a child to a life of poverty, a consistent element in the development of criminality, and then condemn that same child now turned adult to death when that criminality manifests itself in crimes against people.

Another seminal work in understanding this subject comes from a Roman Catholic source, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, whose construct of the seamless garment of life is a badly needed corrective to what is essentially a pro-birth movement. Bernardin’s concern for life was broad. He insisted upon a consistent ethic of life that extended to state killing, economic injustice and euthanasia. Many consistent life ethic supporters would include war in its purview and some extend it as far as encompassing the rights of non-human animals.

What this ethic reflects is the realization that a concern for life is much deeper than the facile concern for birth that most so-called “pro-life” advocates hold. Indeed, given the ready willingness of such advocates to support state killing and war, one wonders if the insistence that pregnant women carry fetuses to term is not little more than simply one more expression of a vindictive moralism much along the lines of “you do the crime you do the time.” That’s certainly consistent with the presumption of a self-appointed right to judge with impunity which lives are innocent enough to be preserved and which are unworthy of preservation and in need of being terminated.

Bernardin’s approach also flies in the face of a society whose true religion is consumerism, to quote a colleague in the philosophy department where I teach. While I have always believed that access to abortions in some cases was a necessary evil an enlightened society had to insure was available to those who needed it, I am troubled by the notion that decisions about terminating pregnancies occur in the same cultural context of consumerism that preaches “It’s all about me” and “Just do it” as its central values. The decision about whether to terminate a pregnancy with its potential for human life (and the notion that life begins at conception is at best na├»ve if not disingenuous) is a serious decision with implications for others. It should not be made - or even debated - in the same context as whether one prefers chocolate or vanilla tofutti.

I have no doubt that the killer of this physician will prove to be a true believer who will attempt to legitimize his destructive actions with a divine imprimatur. Of course, such is not terribly original. Consider how many different attempted explanations Mr. Bush offered Americans to legitimate his costly and destructive invasion of Iraq. When people feel the need to legitimate their actions, they are revealing, perhaps inadvertently, that they recognize at heart their actions are not legitimate.

Killing an abortion provider to protect life is much like the infamous Vietnam era rationalization of destroying a village to save it,or, in its cruder version, “Fighting for peace is like f***ing for virginity.” Ultimately, the result is the same – death and destruction in which thanatos has the final word.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.