INTRO Winter 2021
Recently while listening to a Jordan Peterson podcast I heard the bestselling author say this: “Those who formulate the best arguments win. They win everything.” Well then, I thought, why haven’t we won? Why hasn’t the movement for life turned back the movement for death? This journal’s archive bulges with best arguments—some formulated by our senior editor William Murchison, who recently retired his syndicated column after fifty years of newspapering. In “How to Assess the 2020 Election,” Murchison, like me, asks why Roe v. Wade remains “legally, constitutionally, in place after nearly a half century.” His answer? “Hearts and minds have been changed. Just not enough of them.” And the way to change enough of them, he insists, isn’t through elections. “What the society at large believes, and believes strongly is what the political class will attend to. Can’t be otherwise in a democracy.” What “made possible Roe v. Wade,” Murchison argues, “was the withdrawal of hearts and minds from affection for and attachment to the principle of life. It wasn’t the politics,” which at the time, he recalls, “was light and loose.” There was resistance to the “chance” the Supremes took with Roe, to be sure, “just not enough to procure an overturn at the political-judicial level.” And there still isn’t.
Politics—specifically, in the time of Covid—is of keen interest to National Review editor Nicholas Frankovich, who penned the following essay, and to George McKenna, professor emeritus of political science at City College of New York, whom we asked to comment on it. “Overnight,” Frankovich writes in “Our Freedom, Their Life: What We Owe the Unborn and the Infirm Elderly,” the “public-health crisis was politicized.” Donald Trump could have used “the presidential bully pulpit to declare a public-health equivalent of war,” he says, but “efforts to reduce the spread of the virus would depress the economy and thereby harm Trump’s reelection campaign.” To which McKenna replies: “That’s no doubt true, but was that the only conceivable motive Trump could have had? What about guarding the country against excessive and unnecessary regulations that damage the economy and make people’s lives miserable? . . . In a democracy, politicians are supposed to pay some attention to public opinion.”
But Frankovich doesn’t have Trump in his sights so much as the Trump-supporting pro-life movement: “In their single-minded commitment to the tactical imperative of reelecting a man they trusted to deliver anti-abortion policies and judges,” he contends, prolifers were “cornered into affirming an economic assumption underpinning a longstanding pragmatic argument for abortion”— that is, they “emphasized the common sense that life, though precious, wasn’t priceless.” By backing “a president who discounted the severity” of a lethal virus killing thousands of nursing-home residents, pro-life leaders and voters “adopted the perspective from which many people sensitive to the plight of women with unwanted pregnancies in difficult circumstances defend abortion rights.” Frankovich “has written a very thoughtful [and] provocative” essay, McKenna observes at the outset of “Of Physical and Moral Plagues,” one that “deserves a respectful response.” Which is exactly what he gives it.
The much-admired journalist John Leo has been watching over American democracy for as long as William Murchison. In her beautifully rendered appreciation “John Leo: Principle and Prescience” (inspired by Leo’s retirement last year as editor-in-chief of Minding the Campus and originally published by Academic Questions), Maureen Mullarkey, painter, critic, and senior contributor to The Federalist, considers the man whose “writing was at the center of much that had stamped my wits and my interests over decades.” Turning to her “much-thumbed hard-cover edition of Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police,” a collection of Leo’s work that “has kept me company since it appeared in 1994,” she proceeds to show how, “out of the starting gate,” the former U.S. News and World Report columnist “took aim at bureaucratic tyranny, those totalitarian impulses that seep like salt into our institutions and our lives.” (Several of Leo’s columns were reprinted in these pages over the years.) “It unnerves me to realize,” she goes on, “the degree to which his cautions are still needed.”
Bureaucratic tyranny and totalitarian impulses are on Wesley J. Smith’s mind here as well. In “Defeating Technocracy Is Crucial to Life,” our longtime contributor warns of an increasingly empowered “expert” class that seeks to “impose substantial control over most important aspects of life” and exert “ironclad enforcement of cultural orthodoxies and policies, not only in law, but voluntarily via powerful segments of the private sector.” (Like Mullarkey, Smith wrote well before the Amazon/Google/Twitter brigade answered the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol with a coordinated counterattack on Parler and other conservative social-media platforms.) From the World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset Initiative,” which aims to combat climate change by “transforming” every industry on the planet, to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s “stunningly hubristic” plan to combat dangerous infectious disease by, in his words, “rebuilding the infrastructures of human existence,” radical reformers, says Smith, envision “nothing less than an international technocratic authoritarian supra-governing system—with the power to direct how we interact with each other as family, friends, and in community.”
Ireland was late to join the Euro-American consensus, but as David Quinn observes, his country “helped to set down a new template for how a more liberal abortion regime should be greeted.” When exterminating the unborn became legal in 2018, “ecstatic” crowds, “gathered in the courtyard of Dublin Castle, . . . shouted and roared and literally wept with delight.” For these merrymakers, “it was a simple matter of good triumphing over evil.” Quinn, founding director of Dublin’s Iona Institute, reports in “Is Euthanasia Next for Ireland?” that the same argument used to sell abortion to the Irish people—everyone should have “the right to choose to do whatever you want with your own body”— is now being used to push legislative action on assisted suicide. But, he observes, “the topic has not made it to the top of the news bulletins or the front pages of the newspaper in the way it deserves . . . Instead, it is almost as though the media have ordained that the less attention they give it, the less likely there is to be much opposition.”
Mary Kenny, Catholic Herald columnist and author of Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, follows Quinn’s report on present-day politicking with an article inspired by “the retrospective glance,” which, she says, “is one of the blessings of the senior years.” In “Reclaiming Feminism’s Christian Roots,” Kenny recounts how she “first became a feminist as a rebellious young woman at an Irish Catholic convent school . . . back in the 1950s, just edging into the early 1960s.” And while she and her adolescent mates thought the nuns “very old-fashioned,” and in need of “updating,” she now sees them as part of a long line of religious sisters who established “the first staging post” of women’s emancipation by “pioneering” women’s education, and so “practiced a form of feminism by example.” Historically nuns were “free to study and to research in a way that wasn’t often available to lay women,” Kenny reminds us, and in reality, were “following in a tradition of what we would now call women’s empowerment.”
How to describe our final essay? In “On-screen Characters/Off-screen Life,” senior editor Ellen Wilson Fielding finds herself “pondering the destinies of . . . sitcom characters being streamed into my household by members of my family during this Covid-19 year of limited entertainment options.” She focuses on the cast of Friends, whose “pleasantly pacifying format” showcases recent generations’ “replacement of the hierarchical family [with] peers as primary supports and guides.” But “what would happen,” she wonders, if one of these “winsome” figures—their choices and behavior so predictable in sitcom-land—“had a true epiphany . . . a life-changing illumination like, ‘Why am I sleeping with everyone I date?’” Alas, we won’t find out. Because sitcom writers and producers, even and maybe especially those who believe their product is “edgy,” are “chiefly collaborating in an echo chamber of accepted opinion,” the one that exists “on our side of the screen.” In her inimitable way, Fielding invites us to ponder an ordinary pastime—and discover, along with her, extraordinary meaning there.
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In this edition of Booknotes John Grondelski reviews Broken Bonds: Surrogate Mothers Speak Out, the first-hand “accounts of sixteen women from nine countries [whose] stories show the multifaceted invidious face of gestational surrogacy.” Maria Maffucci pronounces O. Carter Snead’s What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics “an engaging dive into the history and philosophical undergirding of . . . America’s contemporary bioethics,” which is “consistently putting vulnerable human lives in peril.” Our editor in chief also heads up From the Website with a remembrance of her brother Robert McFadden: a passionate defender of vulnerable lives who died young but wise, as you will see in passages she quotes from his work. Other contributors here are Rev. W. Ross Blackburn, Joe Bissonnette, and Diane Moriarty, whose excellent work continues to enhance the Review’s online presence. Finally, we’re pleased to have room for a full complement of appendices—articles and columns we think it important to share. “Scheidler’s Supreme Victory,” reprinted from our own archive, recalls a late pro-life hero’s signature fight for justice. Following that is an eye-opening report on “How Aborted Children Are Used in Medical Research.” Then “A Lesson from Argentina: How Abortion Disappears Children,” followed by a look at Poland, “Where the Disabled Have a Right to Be Born.” People, for instance, like “Magdalena,” a young girl who has Down syndrome. And ending this section is a bracing answer to the question, “Why We Catholics Are So ‘Hung Up’ on Abortion.” An answer, actually, as to why all prolifers are hung up on abortion.