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What we talk about when we talk about how to talk about abortion.
I have this very bad habit whenever I write. I don't think I'm the only one who does this, but: whenever I read something I really like, everything I write for the next six months is just a very obvious imitation of the thing I liked reading. I did that with Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake, and also with Renata Adler's Speedboat, and also with Gerard Way's lyrics. Well, here we go again: I recently finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
Have you read Cloud Atlas? It came out like twenty years ago, but it's really great. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and I think the story is very moving and brilliant. But the first thing people talk about when they talk about Cloud Atlas is usually the structure, because as good as the story is, the structure is mind-blowing. It's written as a first-person diary of an 1850s Pacific voyage, but at a pivotal moment in the narrative about a hundred pages in, the story ends abruptly; it actually cuts off mid-sentence. And then you arrive in the epistolary second chapter, which is tonally and narratively very different from the first, with a completely different set of characters, set in 1930s Europe. Except that the narrator of Story 2, in one brief passage, discovers the text fragment that makes up Story 1 - the Pacific journal you just read earlier - comments on its incomplete-ness, and then continues with his unrelated story. And then that story ends abruptly as well, and then you arrive in Story 3, a paranoid thriller set in 1970s southern California, with a new story and new set of characters. Except that the narrator of Story 3, at one point, stumbles across the fragment of Story 2 and notices that it's incomplete. And then, of course, the pattern repeats itself again. Story 3 cuts off and we arrive in Story 4, a slapstick comedy set in 2000s England, where the narrator eventually stumbles across the incomplete Story 3. Story 4 cuts off and we enter Story 5, a dystopian nightmare set in Korea in the distant future, although the narrator will find the fragment of Story 4. And then Story 5 cuts off and we reach Story 6, set back in Hawaii, some unimaginable distance in the future. Each of the first five chapters is a found and fragmented document in the subsequent chapter.
Story 6 does not cut off; we see Story 6 play out fully, and at the very end, we are presented with the missing piece of Story 5. So you can probably guess what happens next: we resume Story 5 at the pivotal moment where we left, and see it play out to its conclusion, after which the narrator gets a hold of the missing piece of Story 4. And we see the end of Story 4, after which the narrator gets his hands on the rest of Story 3, and we keep moving backwards in time until the sweeping novel ends with the conclusion of Story 1. We move back through all the timelines in reverse order as the stories lock together and resolve. In the 2012 film adaptation of the novel, each of the six storylines were portrayed by the same set of actors, including Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, each made up differently as different characters for each timeline. And all of that is a really incredible structural gimmick, but not enough to make a good novel by itself. The story and the theme have to be good, too, and in this case, they are. Because what Cloud Atlas is ultimately, and very explicitly about, is
Unfortunately, my enjoyment of Cloud Atlas kept getting interrupted because while I was reading it, I was also reading another, significantly worse novel: When the Wood is Dry: An Edgy Catholic Thriller by Joseph Cillo Jr., published in 2019. I read this for a podcast about terrible books - I shared that episode earlier if you want to listen - but I had been sitting on Cillo's novel for years, debating to myself whether I should dedicate an essay to it. Cillo is an amateur author putting out e-books for free as a hobby, and ripping his novel apart might not really be fair, he's a person who doesn't really influence policy or thinking in the Catholic church (I mean, neither am I, but still, I like to pick my targets carefully) and you've likely never heard of him. You can go back and listen to the podcast episode if you want to hear me make fun of how bad the book is as a piece of writing.
But Cillo said in the afterword of When the Wood is Dry that he would be honored if his novel was remembered as "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the pro-life movement", and while Cillo does not seem to understand what historical period immediately followed the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, that's the main context in which I want to examine his novel today. This is a novel about abortion, that is very obviously trying to make a point about abortion. It is an instructive novel for understanding how some Catholics talk and think about abortion.
But all of that said, I do want to say one more time: this book is some of the worst shit I've ever read in my life. The main antagonist is Ralo, a machete-wielding Mexican gangster in Northern California whose dialogue is all written in a phonetic accent that reads like he’s the Cheech-Marin-voiced chihuahua in Disney’s Oliver and Company. The book is filled with savage and completely unnecessary violence, including an unbelievably poorly-written scene in which the seventeen-year-old protagonist is raped twice in a row. Every character in the novel is introduced with their race, unless the character is white (the normal race). No character is believable or subtle, so the novel isn’t a good work of realism, and the plot twists are unbelievably absurd, so the novel isn’t a good work of allegory, either: one key plot point involves the Mexican gang leader getting murdered by poisoned chili, another key plot point is when our protagonist is thrown off of a cliff, gets caught on a ledge, and is discovered by a grieving father who lost his daughter years ago on the same cliff this very night!
Throughout his novel, Cillo shares his points of view on - among other things - policing, public school, death and grief, racism, sexual assault, the Iraq war, post-traumatic stress, cable news, feminism, teen sex, birth control, immigration, the war on drugs, and of course abortion, all the while betraying a fundamental incuriosity about how any of those things work beyond something he heard while half-listening to conservative talk radio, and punctuating it throughout with actual lines of dialogue like "Ay, Dios mío, Kim! Just open the door! Ju no pregnant no more, so ju no have to act so needy!”
The protagonist of this very bad book is Lali Russo, a [sighs heavily] half-Mexican, half-Italian Catholic high school student in California who is perfect. She goes to Mass every morning before school, arrives at school and tells her principal that she’s praying for him, goes to pray the rosary at the abortion clinic after school, and then goes to volunteer at a shelter for single mothers after that. Through a series of bad coincidences, she runs into a young woman outside the clinic and unsuccessfully tries to dissuade her from getting an abortion. But the young woman gets the abortion done, because her boyfriend threatened to kill her if she didn’t, because her boyfriend is notorious gang leader Ralo. Ralo is pissed that this teenager tried to stop his girlfriend from getting an abortion, so he kidnaps Lali, rapes her, and then forces one of his capos to rape her as well, yelling “I say, rape her! If ju with me, ju rape her, and we kill her together. If just with her, ju die with her.” Lali is thrown off of the aforementioned cliff and is eventually discovered, but stays in a coma for six months, and hey guess what, she’s pregnant. Her dad knows that she wouldn’t want an abortion because she is a Perfect Catholic Girl, so he refuses to have her pregnancy terminated, but he also murders one of the gang members for revenge, a media circus descends on the town, I think you’re getting the idea that this book is not very good.
There are two problems with Cillo’s novel. There are also like ten thousand more problems, but there are only two I really want to zero in on here. The first problem is that Cillo has no idea what abortion is. He thinks that every abortion is performed by a doctor who loves killing babies and wants to kill every baby imaginable, that every abortion happens in a shady back-alley clinic, that every abortion happens after a doctor pressures a patient with a really hard sell for the abortion because it helps make the clinic money. Cillo had anti-abortion activist and G.O.T.H.S. Fan Favorite Abby Johnson review his manuscript and “provide some needed feedback on the events occurring within abortion clinics, and the issues facing abortion workers”. He thanked her in the acknowledgements but misspelled her name, which is very funny considering that her name is not especially difficult to spell.
Cillo depicts abortion as a vicious, sterile, alienating, dehumanizing procedure, one in which a character is pressured by a doctor into an abortion on her first visit, one in which the doctor is extremely-subtly referred to as “the serpent”, one that takes place in a room stinking of “the scent of alcohol and chemicals meant to control life and to permit it only where it was wanted, creating an environment where God and His creation were only welcome if they could be controlled and confined…the place seemed to demand a justification for anything that dared live.” And then, in his afterword, Cillo points out that all of the elements he included to drive home the horrors and high-pressure situation of abortion were invented:
"I took a bit of dramatic license in the circumstances around Kim’s abortion. Large abortion providers would have a separate counselor for the patient who would gain consent and arrange payment before a procedure, so the doctor would not be involved in this task. A large facility would also have a lot more security in place. Also, a normal surgical abortion procedure would likely involve a step to prepare the cervix, which would mean that it is not likely that an abortion would be performed on the first visit to the clinic. This reality could be addressed by changing the circumstances to make this Kim’s second visit, but having the event occur on the first visit adds to the dramatic feeling of coldness and alienation."
The second problem with the novel is how Cillo understands morality, which resembles nothing that you would find in Catholic moral theology. Bad things happen in this novel, and a lot of bad things happen because people are coerced into doing them. Kim gets her abortion because Ralo threatens her life as well as Lali's. Ralo’s right-hand man rapes Lali because he’s worried that Ralo will kill him and Lali if he doesn’t. From any legal or moral standpoint, including that of Catholic theology, these actions carry a different weight of culpability than they would if they were committed freely, without being literally held at gunpoint. But this is a view that Cillo rejects. Lali repeatedly tells people throughout the novel “don’t sin for me!” and at one point explicitly states that she would prefer death to doing the Wrong Thing. As Cillo puts it during his narration in chapter 11: “Theologians might argue that Kim’s culpability may be mitigated by the degree of coercion, but that was only of little comfort. Lali’s own welfare had been used to justify a terrible sin. A child had been sacrificed to save her.” Or as Lali herself puts it later in the novel: “Kim agreed to have an abortion because she thought it would save me from Ralo…but all it did was lose her soul! She damned herself for me!”
This is horrifying. This is more horrifying than the double-rape scene where one of the rapists talks like Speedy Gonzalez. This is a system of belief that can excuse any suffering and any misery just so long as we avoid abortion and advocate against it. It is a system of belief that says we can and must abandon the people we love to suffer and die just so we can stop these horny girls with their cholo thug boyfriends from going to the clinic. But this is what Cillo believes: ultimately, abortion is the Wrongest Thing imaginable, committed only by the Wrongest People, and any cost of stopping it can be excused. Don't let anyone try and tell you a different story.
In March of this year, Franciscan University in Steubenville - the revered Catholic institution whose official motto is "Over Six Months Since Our Last Sexual Assault Allegations" - hosted a conference titled "Journalism in a Post-Truth World", on Catholic journalism in the contemporary era. Obviously, I think that's a very interesting and relevant topic, especially given how the church's political engagement has changed in recent years, and the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories in the church that mirror similar trends in American politics. A conference like this could be a really cool opportunity to think through these issues carefully, but I think you already know where this is heading.
Steubenville already has - and, I would argue, encourages - a reputation as one of the last bastions of conservative, traditionalist, anti-modernist Catholicism, which has, in recent years, curdled into something much closer to white nationalism, just like conservative traditionalist anti-modernist Catholicism has done in many other places where it has been embraced and encouraged. A conference hosted by an institution soaked in this type of thinking was always going to be less "reporters are supposed to seek out the facts and report them accurately" and more "the evil anti-Catholic media is out to get us". And, to compound things further, Steubenville co-hosted the conference with Trumpist Catholic media empire EWTN. Brian Fraga of NCR collected the choice quotes from all of the keynote speeches, like the COO of the EWTN network bluntly stating, in words that definitely make you feel good that this network is going to practice responsible journalism, "The journalists for EWTN, they're not searching for the truth. They've found the truth, and they want to communicate it."
That particular speech might have been the most Orwellian from the conference, but it wasn't the most directly infuriating; that honor would go to Tim Graham of the right-wing Media Research Center discussing "bias in journalism" and explaining that newspapers reporting on diocesan abuse coverups in the early 2000s was just part of a long con to undermine the church and finally force through an agenda of gay marriage and abortion on demand. And the most interesting speech came from Mary Margaret Olohan of the conservative Daily Signal, who argued that "We live in a time when biological sex is disputed, when the protection of children's innocence is up in the air, when the dignity of human life is apparently up for debate, and when basic freedoms like the right to worship or just praying silently in our head are also disputed", and that the AP and Washington Post revealed their own biases in reporting on abortion rights by not explicitly stating that abortion "ends the life of a human child."
That last line, in particular, really struck me. Olohan basically believes that a newspaper is biased if it's not explicitly restating her understanding of Catholic teaching. Actually, I don't think that's what she believes, I think she believes that abortion ends the life of a human child and she wants newspapers to agree with her just 'cause, so she can have as much ammo as possible to win her ideological arguments. Her words, specifically, reminded me of the book by G.O.T.H.S. Fan Favorite Randall Terry, where Terry emphasized that Catholics should always explicitly refer to abortion as murder, because "the one word that they [abortion rights supporters] dread more than Dracula dreads a cruciﬁx is the word used by John Paul II – murder.”
Abortion is murder. You need to call it murder, that's very important, your opponents don't want you to call it murder because then you'll win the argument, which is the important thing.
Brandon Vogt has been making the rounds. He’s the senior publishing director at Bishop Barron’s Word On Fire, the revered online apostolate whose official slogan is “Over Six Months Since Our Last Sexual Harassment Allegations”. Back in March, he sent out a mass email to a Catholic merch mailing list that read, in part:
“Have you dealt with pro-choice family members or friends who wonder why you’re opposed to a “woman’s right to choose?” I have, especially since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. Many pro-choicers are angry at the Supreme Court and blame pro-lifers for taking away a constitutional right. You and I know that abortion ends the life of an innocent human person. But how do you help your pro-choice friends and loved ones see this?
I’ve just released a new book called “How to Discuss Abortion with Pro-Choice Friends and Family.” It will help you convincingly share your pro-life convictions and respond to the best pro-choice arguments.I want to get this book into as many people’s hands as possible because the debate over life is really heating up! That’s why I’m offering you this new book for FREE."
This isn’t the only forum in which Vogt is getting his message out. He also appeared on The Catholic Talk Show in March to discuss the same topic. The episode plug said that Vogt would cover “Why we should discuss abortion, responding to ‘my body my choice’?, pro-birth vs. pro-life?, things every pro-life person should be able to discuss, and much more.” The YouTube thumbnail - a real thumbnail, not a thing I made up as a joke, but a real thing that The Catholic Talk Show thought would be good to put on the internet - looks like this:
Which is about two flights down from the famous Rob Whisman joke about terrible YouTube thumbnails:
As Vogt explained in his email, he’s hitting this message hard because
his Uber driver sucked him off of the Dobbs decision from the Supreme Court last year, and I find that interesting. The anti-abortion movement had their big signature win a little less than a year ago, and now there’s a whole bunch of backlash. There’s already been very obvious political backlash in the election results we’ve seen over the past year, and there is also more personal backlash to which anti-abortion apologists like Vogt are now scrambling to craft a response. They may have got what they wanted from the Supreme Court, but they have not won over as many hearts and minds as they hoped. And the people who argue for abortion rights - who argue that the Dobbs decision will lead to draconian state-level restrictions on healthcare, who argue that pregnant people will suffer and die needlessly because of these changes, who argue that the fight to overturn Roe has destroyed far more lives than the ones that will be saved - sure seem to keep getting proven right, so now Vogt has to get something together for Catholics to explain that, yes, okay, it does seem like a lot of things have gotten very bad because of the specific stuff we’ve been doing over the past five decades, but please believe us, we’re right.
It's a weird bit of situational irony, but I don't think my little moment of "huh, that's interesting" is worth Roe getting overturned. I just want to call out that the arguments that anti-abortion Catholics used to try and convince others clearly aren't working in the same way as they used to, and they have to come up with something new. Now, don't get me wrong, I love listening to a podcast episode where three conservative Catholic men with nearly-identical voices talk about abortion for an hour, it's exactly as fun as it sounds. But I listened to all of this to answer a specific question: does Vogt have anything new here, or are his arguments a lazy rehash of everything you’ve already heard over the past several decades, presented in the most embarrassingly hamfisted ways imaginable? You’ll never guess what the answer is!
The kind-of crux of Vogt's arguments is to extend pro-abortion-rights arguments to toddlers, a rhetorical device he literally calls "trot out the toddler". Vogt's idea is that:
“What you want to do, is what I think very few pro-choice people have done themselves, is to reflect very carefully and logically on what abortion is, and the dissonance between being pro-abortion, but anti-...killing young, born, people. That’s the dissonance you want them to feel… ‘uh-oh, I’m supporting abortion for these reasons, but the same reasons would justify killing born children, something’s gotta change.’”
You’ll notice some big pieces missing from this “well, by YOUR logic” argument that we’ll get to in a minute. Vogt also came to this podcast episode - and to the writing of his book - with every imagined "snappy answer to stupid questions" that anti-abortion activists should have ready to go. What if your friend says "well, you care about abortion but you don't care about resources for children and families post-birth", a very real point that is laughably easy to prove if you look at American politics over the past several decades? Well, Vogt is ready for that: "yes, of course we care about children, but even if we didn't, that's not really relevant to the question of whether abortion is evil". Vogt, apparently, expects that opponents will be stunned into respectful silence by this response, even though he’s responding to what is pretty obviously a policy question with the rhetorical equivalent of “nuh-UH”. Vogt also says he has a ready response to "abortion is healthcare", which is to say "well what disease are you treating? Pregnancy isn't a disease!" Vogt shares this view with a sitting federal judge, which really isn't great, but he doesn't seem to understand that the immediate response to this would be "no, you also see a doctor when you have a healthy pregnancy, you dumbfuck."
I also have to touch on the response to "my body, my choice" that I was promised in this episode, because it is incredible. As one of the hostsarticulated:
“I can’t help but think of the mantra that pro-abortion people put out, which is ‘my body, my choice’. And I, you know, kind of using that same logic structure, you know…we’re told what to do with our bodies all the time! The government imposes penalties, jail time…if your body goes and steals something, that’s wrong, our society has acknowledged that’s wrong, so the government is telling you ‘don’t do it’.”
You heard it here first: we tell you to do other things, so we’re going to tell you to do this. Stealing is a thing you do with your body, and thus is subject to the same "my body, my choice" logic, it's definitely an analogous situation to getting an abortion. Vogt, who is slightly more polished than the hosts, has a slightly more polished response: "well, it’s not just your body", which presumably women everywhere love hearing from a disembodied man’s voice on a podcast. In this same vein, Vogt also gets a chance to practice his response to “what about victims of rape or incest”, which is exactly what you’d expect: a long and awkward ramble about how he thinks rape is very bad, followed by a very quick “but abortion is worse and you shouldn’t punish the baby just because you were raped” which is basically a less funny version of this tweet:
The most striking part of Vogt’s arguments, though, is what isn’t there, and what isn’t there is any sort of political questions or thought whatsoever. All of this, all of it all of it, is just Vogt trying to rhetorically out-logic this other imaginary person and not even really succeeding at that. Vogt doesn't address what he thinks an appropriate legislative ban on abortion would look like, or anything about the state of our health care system, or how long legal reviews should take in order to perform emergency medical procedures, or who should get to decide when a mother’s life is in danger, or what he thinks the appropriate criminal penalties would be for doctors who provide abortion care or mothers who receive it, or why we should legislate Catholic morality into a pluralistic society, or what the maternal mortality rates are in America, or anything beyond the question “is abortion morally wrong”? Putting all of those points another way - there’s no discussion whatsoever about how the church’s teachings on abortion are supposed to manifest politically.
Vogt has worked
very somewhat hard on the argument “abortion is bad”, but does not appear to have thought any further than that. He does not have an answer for “wait, but does that mean I really have to vote for white nationalist political candidates?”, or “are the results we’re seeing from the Dobbs decision right now, results that are affecting people I know and care about, really what we were trying to achieve?”, but he does take a few minutes to discuss the important rhetorical parry “well YOU wouldn’t want to be aborted would you?” Vogt saw the Dobbs decision as important enough to justify writing a book and distributing it for free
In an unbelievably revealing moment in the discussion - one that legitimately made me wonder how the hosts could have possibly already done all of my work for me - one of the hosts mentions that his wife had to have an ectopic pregnancy terminated, in order to save her own life. This isn’t a violation of Catholic moral teaching, since the pregnancy could never have been viable. But it appears to completely escape the host that states can pass laws banning that procedure now, and that if his wife had gotten pregnant in the wrong place at the wrong time, she would have just died, and it was specifically her rights as preserved in Roe and Casey that allowed her to get the care she needed to survive. Not only do Vogt and the hosts not have an answer for women worried about their access to care, it doesn’t occur to them that anyone could even be worried about that kind of thing, because to them, the only reason someone would get an abortion is out of selfishness.
So ultimately - and infuriatingly - Vogt has nothing new. None of the reasons why someone might care about the Dobbs decision have even occurred to him. The intellectual and rhetorical rigor of his arguments are on a par with a briefcase-carrying high school student keeping his Ethics class past the bell. Abortion is an argument held in a void against a person whose only motivation is selfishness. And apparently that argument has stayed static since at least like 2004.
Remember 2004? Parties everywhere were bumping My Chemical Romance's "Helena", a young Zach Braff was teaching us how to laugh but also how to love, and we had the first presidential election where I was old enough to actually kind of understand most of the things that were going on (although I was 17 and still couldn’t vote). And this was a really instructive election for understanding one of the most important things about the relationship between Catholicism and politics: to use some technical language from Saint Augustine's masterwork City of God, the relationship "sucks real bad”.
George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, and he won the Catholic vote in 2004, and he didn’t win the Catholic vote in 2000, so he successfully swung that part of the electorate over to his side. He had help in doing that. One of his unofficial advisors was Fr. Richard Neuhaus, founder of First Things magazine and general right-wing ghoul ("ghoul" is now meant literally as Neuhaus is deceased), who pioneered an approach to politics called “we’re just going to tell Catholics that they'll go to hell if they don't vote Republican”. For the 2004 election, where Bush was running against a Catholic candidate, bishops started adopting this strategy as well, with bishops like Charles Chaput of Denver or Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs not only condemning Kerry for his views on abortion policy and other issues of sexual ethics, but telling Catholics that voting for Kerry was sinful. Catholic Answers put out an infamous voter guide telling Catholics that there were five "non-negotiable" issues that would disqualify a candidate from consideration - Catholic Answers wasn't an official arm of the church and decided what was "non-negotiable" all by themselves - and wouldn't you know it they all happened to be issues that pushed readers toward the Republican candidate. Abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning and gay marriage. All of the other issues, those were all things you were apparently free to negotiate with other Catholics until you all figured out whether torture was bad.
Something about this didn’t smell right to 17-year-old me. Bush had started a war with the wrong country, he had set up prisons that tortured prisoners in that country, he had bragged about how many people he had executed as governor of Texas, and of all the presidents in American history, he had presided over the highest number of 9/11 attacks. Was this really the guy that Catholics were obligated to vote for because he was pro-life? I knew what the church taught on abortion, but I couldn't buy that the church was also teaching that this was supposed to guide the entirety of my political engagement.
So I wasn't thrilled with that election (or its results). In 2008, the first presidential election in which I could vote, we had two presidential candidates that were each a lot stronger than the 2004 batch, and abortion had also become a much less salient issue with the electorate, given that the election took place while the entire American banking system was falling apart. But abortion did come up in the third presidential debate, in which Barack Obama said this:
“This is an issue that — look, it divides us. And in some ways, it may be difficult to — to reconcile the two views. But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, 'We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.' Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that’s where we can find some common ground, because nobody’s pro-abortion. I think it’s always a tragic situation.”
I hadn’t heard a politician talk about abortion like this before, and I was immediately enamored with this point of view. It felt like a breath of fresh air. Nobody’s pro-abortion! Abortion is always a tragedy! There’s definitely common ground here that we can get both parties to support! And together we’re all going to reduce the number of abortions, these things that are always bad and that we have to try to reduce! Safe, legal, and rare! That’s the thing we can all agree on!
This specific moment in the debate would end up guiding my personal politics on abortion for almost a decade. This is how I defined abortion, as a tragedy, but as one that we could solve together without resorting to voting for Republicans. My definition, however, was still wrong.
I used to think that every Catholic had to, within the framework of their developed conscience, work out an answer to the question "what should be my political response to the problem of abortion?" I thought this for years before I realized that there was another question that we were supposed to answer first.
The first question was "what do you think abortion is?" And that may sound like an unbelievably stupid and basic question, but it seems to me that we haven’t been asking it enough, because I’ve just stepped you through some very different definitions of abortion that each call for very different responses. So it’s a question worth asking again, and worth asking every time you encounter a new point of view on abortion, especially in the Catholic church. As I started to interrogate the various definitions of abortion that I had come across during my past three years writing this newsletter, I started mentally arranging them in a sort-of ladder, laid out like below:
Cillo is at the bottom: abortion is something that evil brown people do so they can keep running their gang, La Hermandad, The Brotherhood. It is the Wrongest Thing done by the Wrongest People. Then, a step up from that, you have “Democratic Party child harvesting scheme”, which really picked up steam in the 2016 Republican primary and is still embraced by the larger right-wing Catholic media outlets like Church Militant and LifeSite News.
One rung above that is the more general, less conspiratorial “murder”, as embraced by the 2023 Steubenville conference. Maybe abortions aren’t being coordinated nationwide by George Soros and his political puppets, but doctors and clinic directors are still out to murder as many babies as possible because they love murdering babies. A rung above that is “girlboss shit”, the idea that abortion is something that those women’s lib freaks do so they can put off childrearing and selfishly climb the corporate ladder wearing a lady-pantsuit with “MY BODY MY CHOICE” spelled out in rhinestones on the back of the jacket. This is what Vogt is trying to argue against.
Every single one of these rungs has one thing in common: they would require punitive action by the state (or, possibly, violent revolution to depose abortion tyrant Joe Biden) to fully solve. Punitive action by the state, by definition, would be violent. It would involve arresting and jailing people. The USCCB’s entire strategy, as I’ve written about before, is pursuing bans and punitive action and nothing more. This is as high as they get on the ladder (although a few of them are on the lower rungs).
One rung higher than the USCCB, we get to “tragedy”, the first rung where I meet people that I feel I can actually reason with, because they’re going to take an interest in political approaches like allocating resources and strengthening the social safety net, instead of only pursuing bans and nothing else. I was one of these people, I was on this rung of the ladder, for a long time. Barack Obama had me convinced that I could be one of these people. Then I met some other people, and then, believe it or not, I moved on the ladder. I didn’t know that people could move on the ladder. I certainly couldn’t think of very many Catholics in public life who had moved; Abby Johnson is the first example I can think of, and she keeps moving down; she's somehow going to discover new rungs below "cartel shit".
Now, some of those new people that pushed me up the ladder were the various socialists and leftists that I started hanging out with in the second half of the 2010s, who had very different views on abortion rights that I had seen at my various Catholic alma maters. Not all of them were necessarily devout Catholics and they didn’t have thirty years of growing up Catholic to unwind as they looked at this issue, so they exposed me to a lot of perspectives that I hadn’t considered before. But then I also met some other people who were practicing Catholics, who also had grown up hearing the same definitions of abortion that I had, and who were still telling people that we all needed to start moving up the ladder very quickly. Most recently this was expressed in Faith In Public Life’s April 12th “Open Letter from Catholic Women: Reclaiming Public Debates About Abortion & Reproductive Justice”, a joint effort by various Catholic professors and theologians. The gist of the letter, which is very good and worth reading in full, is that the people who run and influence our church, and the people who run and influence our government, have all been using those definitions on the lower rungs of the ladder for the past fifty years, and it has been a disaster for our country and our church. The United States has the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world, and it's getting worse. The racial disparities in those rates are exactly what you'd expect. The disparities in those rates for states that have already banned abortion care are exactly what you'd expect. Forty percent of pregnancies get their care paid for through Medicaid, but the same organs of church and state that want to ban abortion have no interest in expanding Medicaid. Millions of potential parents live in areas with no access to obstetric care. Catholic institutions and state governments see child care and parental leave as ludicrous expenses that can somehow be treated entirely separately from the politics of abortion. The discussion of abortion politics has become viciously polarized in both our church and our government, which - and this may shock you - does not appear to be helping things. These are the things that happen when you define abortion as "murder" or "girlboss shit" or "Democratic party child harvesting scheme", or even "tragedy" where "nobody's pro-abortion". Or, to borrow a phrase from the open letter, this is what happens when “pregnancy, parenthood and the totality of women’s lives have been turned into simplistic slogans.”
There is a common thread between all of the signatories on this letter, and it happens to set them apart from all of the people whose definitions of abortion I shared with you earlier in the piece. It’s not that they all happen to be Catholic thinkers that I admire, although several of them are (I’ve written about work from Mollie O’Reilly and Kaya Oakes and Kate Ward before, all of whom I think are brilliant). The common thread is that they are all people who, you know, can or could or did reproduce. And the other guys can't and couldn't and didn't. The women who wrote the letter have been pregnant, have delivered children, have been in doctor’s appointments before, during, and after giving birth. They got wrung through our awful, soulless, for-profit health care system during pregnancies that sometimes ended in tragedy. And then some of them have also, technically, gotten abortions, for pregnancies that they very much wanted.
Shortly after it became clear that the Supreme Court was going to overturn Roe and that several Republican-led states were going to immediately start putting harsh restrictions on reproductive care, two of the people who would sign that letter, Commonweal editor Mollie O’Reilly and Manhattan College theologian Natalia Imperatori-Lee, talked about it on Commonweal’s podcast, an episode which is essential listening for any Catholic who identifies as "person in America in 2022 or later". Both of them remembered pregnancies that did not go well, where they needed reproductive care to protect their health and save their lives, reproductive care that would be illegal under current law in some states. Neither of them did anything morally wrong in the eyes of the Catholic church - in both cases, their pregnancies had already ended in miscarriage - but they needed care that, in a post-Dobbs world, could be illegal, and now is illegal in some states. O’Reilly put it as bluntly as she could:
“I realized that, if you could somehow - setting aside, for a moment, the question of whether law is the right instrument to impose a kind of moral ideal - if you could wave a magic wand and make everybody accept and adhere to the whole system of morality that the Catholic church sees as right and correct for everyone, such that there were no pregnancies conceived in any circumstances where they wouldn’t be warmly welcomed. Even if you could do that - which, of course, you can’t - you would still have people in a situation like mine where they followed all of those rules, and they ended up on the brink of death because of human frailty, because of physical frailty, which you can’t legislate away, and you can’t moralize away. It just exists…I still get people [who support overturning Roe] saying ‘well, that’s not what we’re doing, that doesn’t happen, that’s not what these laws would do.’ But it is. Unless women have access to reproductive care, they will die.”
Again: neither O’Reilly nor Imperatori-Lee did anything wrong from the standpoint of Catholic morality, but the health care procedures and treatments they received are, as you read this, currently being targeted by state legislatures and federal judges for bans regardless of circumstances. Had either of them been living in the wrong state at the wrong time, they would not have received the care they needed to survive. So it is ultimately my listening to people like O’Reilly and Imperatori-Lee that finally pushed me to the top rung of the ladder, which is this:
Abortion is health care, because it resides in our health care system. People who get abortions get them from health care providers in health care settings and bill their health care insurance. When legislators pass laws to ban abortion, they pass laws to restrict access to parts of the health care system. When you pass laws banning or restricting parts of the health care system, you insert the violent enforcement power of the state into that system. You have doctors delaying giving people care because they don’t know if they’re going to be arrested for doing their jobs. You have police investigating doctors doing difficult work and interrogating parents who just had the worst experiences of their lives. You have pregnant people going into shock and bleeding out because care that could save their lives has been deemed illegal by the state. And when you move to that last rung of the ladder, when you see abortion as health care and not as a tragedy and not as an oopsie of feminism and not as murder and not as a vast pedophile conspiracy and not as cartel shit, you fundamentally change what your response is, you change what you’re fighting for and how you fight for it. When you see abortion as health care, you don’t look for punitive solutions anymore, because you see health care inextricably tied to every other political issue, like how workers are compensated, and how people find stable housing, and what parts of what cities are over-policed and out to crush poor people, and whether long legacies of institutional racism might affect what medical care people seek out and even have access to in the first place. And you eventually land on the idea that health care is something to be defended and protected, because it saves lives. Reproductive care, just like all health care, needs to be available free, on demand, and without apology. That’s the top rung of the ladder.
You are more than welcome to reply to my email and tell me to fuck off; I don’t really care and I didn’t write this to persuade anyone or start a Discourse. You can tell me that I've ignored every important part of Catholic morality, and maybe I have. But I got here by listening to people who actually knew what they were talking about, and I got here by thinking long and hard about all of these definitions and everything that comes after each of them. Because you have to think about everything that comes after. The consequences of the definition I chose are better than the consequences of the definitions that the other guys chose. And if you don’t believe me, then we have to work our way back down the ladder.
Why was my definition wrong? Why couldn't I just be an "abortion is a tragedy" guy, a "let's keep the number of abortions as low as possible" guy, a “common ground” guy, a "safe, legal, and rare" guy? Well, I already wrote about Obama’s failure to convince anyone with the “common ground” argument, and a lot of that wasn’t directly his fault; his opponents were on a different rung of the ladder than he was. You can’t find common ground with people who think you’re part of a child harvesting scheme.
More importantly, though, this approach isolates a problem that can’t really be separated from other issues. It assumes that the only reason an abortion could happen is because a woman doesn’t want to raise a child at the end of her pregnancy, but that everything else related to the pregnancy is fine and healthy, and does not have any physical or financial costs associated with it. As we’ve already seen, this a stupid thing to assume. “Let’s try to make it easier for someone to want to have a child” is certainly not a bad thing to pursue, but it’s not nearly enough, it doesn’t address all of the risks and costs that happen before, during, and after giving birth, and people who want to ban abortion are still going to try to ban it. This approach leaves the door open for grotesque and oversimplified solutions like "well if she doesn’t want the baby, we'll just force her to be pregnant for nine months and maybe it won’t kill or bankrupt her, and then she can just dump the baby at a fire station when she's done." And that obviously sounds ridiculous, except that it's exactly what Supreme Court Justice and G.O.T.H.S. Fan Favorite Amy Coney Barrett said during oral arguments in Dobbs:
“I have a question about the safe haven laws. So Petitioner points out that in all 50 states, you can terminate parental rights by relinquishing a child…So it seems to me, seen in that light, both Roe and Casey emphasize the burdens of parenting, and insofar as you and many of your amici focus on the ways in which forced parenting, forced motherhood, would hinder women's access to the workplace and to equal opportunities, it's also focused on the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy. Why don't the safe haven laws take care of that problem? It seems to me that it focuses the burden much more narrowly. There is, without question, an infringement on bodily autonomy, you know, which we have in other contexts, like vaccines. However, it doesn't seem to me to follow that pregnancy and then parenthood are all part of the same burden. And so it seems to me that the choice more focused would be between, say, the ability to get an abortion at 23 weeks or the state requiring the woman to go 15, 16 weeks more and then terminate parental rights at the conclusion.”
Yeah, come on, what’s 15 or 16 more weeks where an incalculable number of things could go wrong that could require care that, depending on the state, could put you at risk of jail time, and then all of that would be followed by a literal forced childbirth where a different incalculable number of things could also go wrong? Seems like a good compromise, how can you argue with that?
But Brandon Vogt is not just writing arguments for his audience to take to abortion rights supporters. He is also writing arguments for his audience to take to atheists. From another mass email he sent in March, with the subject line "LIVE WEBINAR: 3 Proofs for Believing in God":
"Did you know the number of atheists in the United States as QUADRUPLED in the past 20 years? The chances that atheism has made its way into your circle of family and friends is extremely high. And if it hasn’t affected you yet, it probably will very soon. So, let me ask you something: What do you say when someone asks you why you believe in God? It’s not an easy question to answer. Most people love God very much, and they have a personal relationship with Him. But explaining it without relying on personal experience to someone who just wants “proof” gets tricky! This is exactly why I’m hosting this webinar!"
Even more recently, Vogt started plugging his books “Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church” and "Why I am Catholic (and You Should Be Too)" so he could “prepare you for their objections and give the best answers to touch their hearts”. Look, Vogt's career appears to be nothing more than rhetorical answers to theological - and often very emotionally charged - questions. Which, to me, looks a lot like he's misdiagnosing the problems and putting together solutions that can't solve them. There is not a wave of atheists in your friend group just because they haven't received sufficient proof of God's existence, and presenting an atheist with a geometric proof for the existence of God is not the missing piece that's going to convert the masses. When someone asks you why you believe in God - which I have never been asked in my life and I used to spend a lot of time around the kind of people that Vogt thinks would ask me- they are not necessarily asking you to prove that God exists. Also you can't create a geometric proof for the existence of God, which is kind of an important part of what having faith means in the first place.
When Vogt talks about his faith, including when he talks about abortion, he sees his job as winning the argument, and the other stuff - doing things, being kind to people, considering any of the consequences of the things you do and say - are secondary. Getting your faith right is about saying the right words and having the right comebacks. It is about being ready for every possible turn in the dialogue so you can “win” the conversation, like you’re Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal. And that's so important that you have to publish books with all the right arguments in them and work for Bishop Barron's website so you can help other people say the right words.
Hey, that Bishop Barron guy, do you think that this is how he sees Catholicism too, like it's just about saying the right words and winning the arguments but not actually thinking about anything else? I mean, I did write a big long piece once where I argued exactly that, but there are other things we could look at. For example, Barron recently had some sort of conference/debate with an atheist professor, and Mark Shea did a good write-up about the glaring blind spot that comes when you look at Catholicism the way Barron does:
"...what struck me about Bp. Barron's side of the conversation was how curiously abstract it was. I mean, I appreciate the point he was making (that God is not "a being" in competition with other beings whose power is exercised at the expense of our freedom, but rather that he is Being itself and therefore the ground of our freedom).
But, well, the whole time he was talking I was thinking, "And yet, you turned a deaf ear to brown people after George Floyd and mocked "vile wokism" and you seem to constantly platform weirdoes and bigots like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro while keeping the Holy Father and the entire social justice tradition of the Church at arms length and telling the NAPA Institute moneybags what they want to hear. It's very clear that the country club is welcome, but not the least of these. There is no threat to the MAGA cult in your approach, but clear avoidance of the just claims of their many, many victims.
Which brings me to this video. Very simply, I think the problem US conservative Christians face is not that people are clamoring to understand the concept of God as Being. It's that conservative Christians have, by the millions, associated themselves with sociopathic, selfish assholes…People seek love and loving people. If US conservative Christians are so wrapped up in their selfishness that they refuse that need or, worse, claim their abusive selfishness is "tough love" and blame their victims for not being grateful for it, they will just keep driving people to other place where people are not selfish sociopaths. It's really that simple."
That's good, but maybe I can put it even more simply. For example, say Barron picked his friends pretty much entirely based on whether they also prided themselves on their arguing ability, regardless of what those friends were arguing. Like, say he picked some absolute charlatans like Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson to be his friends because they were also people who branded themselves as good arguers. And then say he and those friends sat for a group photo and tried to look like they were posing for the cover of a U2 album. And then say that photo looked like this:
Would this, perhaps, tell you basically everything you need to know about this man and his skill at moral discernment? Does this give you the impression that this man, or his apostolate, is the resource we should turn to when we try to figure out how to talk about God, or abortion? Barron is allowed to choose his friends (I guess), but if you're going to talk about things like abortion and you're not picky about who your allies are, you'll be surprised how quickly things can get very bad.
Of course, the "post-truth" journalism conference wasn't the only Steubenville summit in the past year. October 2022 also saw the "Restoring A Nation: The Common Good in the American Tradition" conference on the same campus, organized in part by G.O.T.H.S. Fan Favorite, guy that Robert Barron admires, and university fellow Sohrab Ahmari. Ahmari's previous claims to fame including calling for the end of democracy because he once saw a drag queen, writing about that in a magazine that had separately called for the end of democracy because gay people were getting basic human rights, and then once fantasizing on Twitter about murdering Black Lives Matter "thugs" with his car. He was able to find some like-minded individuals to join him for the Steubenville conference. NCR's Brian Fraga was also at this conference collecting choice quotes, and while I appreciate Fraga’s ongoing work, I'm kind of worried about his well-being, since his beat is officially "listening to speeches from the worst people in the world". One of those people was Rachel Bovard, senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute think tank, railing that:
"If the last 30 years [presumably referring to a period when the Republican party had control of the federal government's elected branches for about half of this time and the Supreme Court for all 30 years] has taught us anything, it's that the left's fascist orgy is not somehow going to abate. No one knows what lunacy is coming next, but we all know what's eventually coming: normalized pederasty, forced euthanasia, postnatal abortion, persecuting dissident faiths, disqualifying religious traditionalists and political conservatives from banking, property rights and public benefits."
This was a common thread: evil leftism and wokeness (which Bovard said had fully infected, among other institutions, the Department of Defense) were coming for people of faith, and if they did not fight back, they were going to be postnatally aborted and possibly Holocaust-ed. Catholics needed to fight. The government needed to be enlisted in that fight, which meant the government needed to be made Catholic as well, and oriented towards retribution and punishment of those who would dare threaten the mother church. As Steubenville professor Scott Hahn put it during the conference:
"The idea that a civil society should be neutral between authentic sacraments and their parodies, between the life of grace and the life of vain self-reliance, is incoherent, amoral and ultimately self-defeating."
And as Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer put it, "The New Right recognizes the only viable force capable of withstanding and turning back the woke onslaught is religion, which in America means Christianity." The chance for a democratically-run or even pluralist society is gone; the only hope for survival is for the Catholic church to impose theocratic reign over the country and crush all who dare dissent. These guys are getting their wish: the final keynote at the conference was given by J.D. Vance, who, of course, is now a sitting United States Senator; you know, a person who makes laws that affect all of us. The people talking about the "woke onslaught" and "normalized pederasty" aren't just the columnists giving talks at Psychopath University, they’re also working in Congress.
But hey, if your enemies are this big of a threat, if they are murderers hell-bent on destroying the sacramental way of life and exterminating your rights, isn't it your responsibility to crush those enemies? If someone else, especially someone powerful, offers to help you crush those enemies, can you really turn those allies away? And how far are you all willing to go to crush those enemies? Isn't taking over the government and punishing the wicked an acceptable cost to stop the Wrongest People from doing the Wrongest Things?
So, with all of that in mind: the final chapter of When the Wood is Dry is set at the March for Life in Washington. Lali is a keynote speaker at the March; by this point in the novel, her father has murdered her boyfriend and has been imprisoned for life. Everyone else that Lali has tried to help has been murdered. Lali herself has survived two rapes, being beaten within an inch of her life, being thrown off of a cliff, and a six-month coma. Because her only parent is imprisoned for murder, Lali no longer has a home and lives at the Catholic shelter for unwed mothers, at which she once volunteered. Does Lali - and Cillo - think that this absurd, baroque misery was all worth it? Well, have you seen how cute her baby is?
"'…violence and sin are not weapons that can be wielded to protect the innocent. Rather, only love and faith are fitted for the task. You see, all the people who thought they could protect me through violence or sin, they are all either dead now – may God have mercy on their souls – or, in the case of my father, in jail. And as innocent as I was, who never raised a hand in violence to anyone and kept my trust always in the living God, I am free, and I have friends to help me, and I have this beautiful, innocent, baby girl.' Lali lifted her baby and the crowd erupted in applause."
Kim got an abortion because she was trying to protect herself and Lali, but that decision was sinful, so Kim got what she deserved: shot in the head. A gangster raped Lali because he didn't want her to get murdered in front of him and didn't want to die himself, but that decision was sinful, so he got what he deserved: shot in the head. Lali's dad loved his daughter but was blinded by his own grief, so he got what he deserved: imprisoned forever for shooting someone in the head. Abortion is the Wrongest Thing imaginable, committed only by the Wrongest People, and any cost of stopping it can be excused, and if you don't agree with that, you deserve to get shot in the head. This is the main message of a novel written by a man who thought he was making the Uncle Tom's Cabin of his generation, and all of that, very appropriately, leads to the March for Life, which is slowly just becoming a white supremacist meetup in real life.
Would you march alongside a Nazi if you thought it would lead to punitive abortion bans? Would you steal fetal remains and keep them in your fridge? Would you support an autocratic political party trying to hijack the federal judiciary? Would you let the leader of that party give the keynote at your March, as he did in 2020? Would you try to overthrow the government? Did I already write all of this a few months ago?
"Let's say you bought into all of it…You believed that every abortion was a deliberate murder, only done for unwanted pregnancies, in a world where every pregnancy and every birth goes perfectly, and that this murder was consciously committed by an adult who was just too selfish to want to give birth or raise a child, and enabled by providers and politicians whose motivation was a combination of "genocide" and "profit", and that this had been happening, for fifty years, on a scale that could rival the original Holocaust. As a side note, you shouldn't believe this, because it's not true, and we've talked about that before, but let's say you bought into it fully. Hell, let’s even said you read and believe something like LifeSiteNews, who was sharing QAnon theories with Catholic readers before the delusion went more mainstream, and now you also believe that the Democratic party is explicitly involved, with intent to both commit genocide and find a stream of kids to traffic and vivisect.
So what's the right response to that reality that you just bought into? What are you going to do as a person of faith who cannot abide this atrocity? It's a literal world-historical genocide, and you're just going to pray or donate money somewhere? Isn't the only proportionate response to go to war? Is desecrating a fetal corpse on the altar of a church really all that outlandish if you're stopping the second Holocaust? What about storing fetal remains in your fridge? I mean, come on, millions are dying here and it's your fridge. What about electing a game show host who brags about sexually assaulting women as president? Well, he’s saying he's going to finally get the job done. What about bringing a gun to the Capitol and trying to overthrow the government? Well, wouldn't you have hoped someone would have done the same thing in 1940s Germany? And if you go march for the rights of the unborn and the person marching next to you is a Nazi, well, isn't it worth kind of letting that happen if you’re both working to stop the true atrocity?...The reason that the anti-abortion movement has found itself entangled with violence and nationalism is because violence and nationalism is the logical endpoint of buying what the movement's leaders are selling, and what the movement's leaders have been selling for decades."
You can choose to see abortion as the Wrongest Thing imaginable, committed only by the Wrongest People, where any cost of stopping it can be excused. But you're not excusing something in the abstract, you're excusing things that are happening right now, things that are very clearly hurting people, things that have always been very obvious consequences of this sort of thinking, to this definition.
And maybe I'm excusing things, too, maybe I'm just as bad. I'm making tradeoffs, we all do. But I made tradeoffs because I chose to see abortion as part of health care that people needed and not a crime to be punished. I chose to look at it that way because I know what the consequences are of looking at it another way. I've thought about the consequences of how I choose to define abortion, and because of that, I'm pretty confident that compared to these guys, I'm the one that's a tiny bit closer to something like
civilization. Cloud Atlas is about civilization. Sorry, I got sidetracked for a minute.
The first half of Stories 1 through 5 in Cloud Atlas all focus on some type of cruelty between people. In “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”, an explorer is being deceived by his doctor, who is actually poisoning him slowly so the doctor can kill him and take his money. In “Letters From Zedelghem”, a young con artist is bilking a famous composer out of his money, fucking his wife, and fencing some of his rare books behind his back. In “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”, a nuclear energy corporation is poisoning the Earth and about to murder the reporter threatening to expose them. In “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, an old man gets committed to an institution by the brother who's tired of dealing with him. In “An Orison of Sonmi~451”, an entire underclass of genetically engineered human beings is bred for slave labor. Humanity is nothing more than tooth and claw, nothing more than the powerful keeping themselves powerful by crushing the idiots below them and taking a little more money, a little more food, and a little more attention.
Story 6, the only story that is not interrupted in the middle, is titled "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After", set long after the futuristic corporate dystopia of the previous chapter. Somehow - it's probably best if we don't think about how - humanity has returned to a pre-industrial state, living in small primitive colonies in the Pacific, skirmishing with each other for food and land, and practicing a rudimentary form of monotheistic religion. The narration by the protagonist, Zachry, is written phonetically in a warped Cockney-style pidgin language, which is significantly better-written and less racist than Cillo’s imagined Mexican accents. But the main storyline here is that a visitor, Meronym, has come to Zachry's colony from a group of "Prescients" elsewhere in the Pacific who keep an ancient, almost-forgotten way of life called being "Civ'lized" and are trying to spread their ways to the remaining tribes on Earth. And after a vicious battle with an invading tribe, Zachry and Meronym finally sit down and he asks her the big question [Mitchell presents Meronym’s dialogue in italics in this passage]:
“So is it better to be savage’n to be Civ’lized? What’s the naked meanin’ b’hind them two words? Savages ain’t got no laws, I said, but Civ’lizeds got laws. Deeper’n that it’s this. The savage sat’fies his needs now. He’s hungry, he’ll eat. He’s angry, he’ll knuckly. He’s swellin’, he’ll shoot up a woman. His master is his will, an’ if his will say-soes “Kill” he’ll kill. Like fangy animals…Now the Civ’lized got the same needs too, but he sees further. He’ll eat half his food now, yay, but plant half so he won’t go hungry ’morrow. He’s angry, he’ll stop’n’ think why so he won’t get angry next time. He’s swellin’, well, he’s got sisses an’ daughters what need respectin’ so he’ll respect his bros’ sisses an’ daughters. His will is his slave, an’ if his will say-soes, “Don’t!” he won’t, nay.”
There’s more than one way to define abortion. I have defined abortion in more than one way throughout my life. There are plenty of Catholics who have moved around on the ladder with me. But there is, in my opinion, only one way to define abortion that “sees further”. There is only one way that properly accounts for the material human consequences of the coalitions you form, and the policy changes you make, and the people you put in charge. My definition is not perfect, but it doesn't have to be; it just has to be better than the others, it has to think about the future more than the others, and those are not particularly high bars to clear. When it comes to abortion policy, the people who are able to impose their power on others are satisfying their needs now, but they don’t care about evrythin after. And that sure seems to be taking us further away from civilization.
As we finish “…Ev’rythin’ After” and work backward through the other five stories in Cloud Atlas, we see glimmers of hope that people are choosing civilization over savagery. And when we return to the Pacific in the 1850s, one act of kindness sparks a daring last-second rescue. Someone showed that it was possible to act like you could see further, and someone else was inspired by it and took one step higher on the ladder, one step higher in how he defined his relationship to other people. People can move up the ladder; it takes work, but it can happen. So I’m with those women who wrote that letter - and the protagonists of Cloud Atlas, for good measure - in their stubborn, stupid hope that things can be better than this, that we can actually show the world another way.
“So, I asked ’gain, is it better to be savage’n to be Civ’lized? List’n, savages an’ Civ’lizeds ain’t divvied by tribes or b’liefs or mountain ranges, nay, ev’ry human is both, yay. Old Uns’d got the Smart o’ gods but the savagery o’ jackals an’ that’s what tripped the Fall. Some savages what I knowed got a beautsome Civ’lized heart beatin’ in their ribs. Maybe some Kona [the rival tribe]. Not ’nuff to say-so their hole tribe, but who knows one day? One day. “One day” was only a flea o’ hope for us. Yay, I mem’ry Meronym sayin’, but fleas ain’t easy to rid.”
A very fun analysis of Cloud Atlas' structure can be found in the delightful book by UVA professor Jane Alison Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative.
Or, I don't know, maybe he just wants his novel to be Uncle Tom's Cabin in the sense that adorable Siamese children will adapt it into a ballet with their British governess.
[Bob Odenkirk voice] Hello Albuquerque. Have you or your loved ones been arrested for praying silently in your head? You may be entitled to a CASH settlement.
Randall Terry's book might be the only thing I've ever read for G.O.T.H.S. that is actually worse than When the Wood is Dry, but it is extremely close.
I did not bother to learn the hosts’ names for this piece.
At one point during the episode, Vogt says, without any apparent sense of irony, that the book is free and you only have to pay $6.95 for shipping and “I can’t think of anyone else giving away a free book for only $6.95.”
He also didn’t win the elect-[gets hit by bus].
If you didn’t know that la hermandad was Spanish for “the brotherhood”, don’t worry, Cillo writes it out in both languages every time.
Although I would not presume to say that any of them would agree with the substance or structure of this essay.
Who I also think is brilliant, I just haven’t had the chance to write about her work yet.
The primary reason I write any G.O.T.H.S. entry is, as always, to keep the screaming out of my head.
I won’t even touch Barrett’s “forced pregnancy is like getting a vaccine” in this piece, but Jesus Christ. Remember when everyone thought she was smart because she had a blank legal pad?
I get these emails because I bought my mom a chrism-scented candle after our daughter's baptism. I deeply regret buying the candle.
A show whose message was not “this process is a good way to interact with other people”.
Robert Barron, for those who don't remember, is the bishop shaped like a coffee stain on a city bus seat, and then the strength of his intellect is about on par with a coffee stain on a city bus seat.