Hentoff’s slippery slope

Nat Hentoff, great free speech defender and civil libertarian, died last week. I remember my grandmother reading and praising Hentoff’s incisive and provocative writing when I was growing up. I’m sharing an excerpt from Hentoff’s 1986 Chicago talk on The Indivisible Fight for Life:

I’ll begin by indicating how I became aware, very belatedly, of the “indivisibility of life.” I mention this fragment of autobiography only be cause I think it may be useful to those who are interested in bringing others like me – some people are not interested in making the ranks more heterogeneous, but others are, as I’ve been finding out – to a realization that the “slippery slope” is far more than a metaphor.

When I say “like me,” I suppose in some respects I’m regarded as a “liberal,” although I often stray from that category, and certainly a civil libertarian – though the ACLU and I are in profound disagreement on the matters of abortion, handicapped infants and euthanasia, because I think they have forsaken basic civil liberties in dealing with these issues. I’m considered a liberal except for that unaccountable heresy of recent years that has to do with pro-life matters.

It’s all the more unaccountable to a lot of people because I remain an atheist, a Jewish atheist. (That’s a special branch of the division.) I think the question I’m most often asked from both sides is, “How do you presume to have this kind of moral conception without a belief in God?” And the answer is, “It’s harder.” But it’s not impossible.

For me, this transformation started with the reporting I did on the Babies Doe. While covering the story, I came across a number of physicians, medical writers, staff people in Congress and some members of the House and Senate who were convinced that making it possible for a spina bifida or a Down syndrome infant to die was the equivalent of what they called a “late abortion.” And surely, they felt, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Now, I had not been thinking about abortion at all. I had not thought about it for years. I had what W. H. Auden called in another context a “rehearsed response.” You mentioned abortion and I would say, “Oh yeah, that’s a fundamental part of women’s liberation,” and that was the end of it.

But then I started hearing about “late abortion.” The simple “fact” that the infant had been born, proponents suggest, should not get in the way of mercifully saving him or her from a life hardly worth living. At the same time, the parents are saved from the financial and emotional burden of caring for an imperfect child.

And then I heard the head of the Reproductive Freedom Rights unit of the ACLU saying – this was at the same time as the Baby Jane Doe story was developing on Long Island – at a forum, “I don’t know what all this fuss is about. Dealing with these handicapped infants is really an extension of women’s reproductive freedom rights, women’s right to control their own bodies.”

That stopped me. It seemed to me we were not talking about Roe v. Wade. These infants were born. And having been born, as persons under the Constitution, they were entitled to at least the same rights as people on death row – due process, equal protection of the law. So for the first time, I began to pay attention to the “slippery slope” warnings of pro-lifers I read about or had seen on television. Because abortion had become legal and easily available, that argument ran – as you well know – infanticide would eventually become openly permissible, to be followed by euthanasia for infirm, expensive senior citizens.

And then in the New York Review of Books , I saw the respected, though not by me, Australian bio-ethicist Peter Singer boldly assert that the slope was not slippery at all, but rather a logical throughway once you got on to it. This is what he said – and I’ve heard this in variant forms from many, many people who consider themselves compassionate, concerned with the pow erless and all that.

Singer: “The pro-life groups were right about one thing, the location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make much of a moral differ ence. We cannot coherently hold it is alright to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born everything must be done to keep it alive. The solution, however,” said Singer, “is not to accept the pro-life view that the fetus is a human being with the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the very opposite, to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth.” Which, of course, the majority of the Court had already done in Roe v. Wade.

The heart of pro-life philosophy can be approached through two questions:

  1. Do we believe that all life is created equal and deserving of equal protection of its inalienable rights?
  2. Do we believe that life exists prior to birth?

Marketing specific people

Marc writes:

You cannot take a picture of a general “mother” or “child.” You cannot photograph the idea of “pregnancy,” “family,” or “abortion” — only this pregnancy, this family, and this abortion. A photograph of a child is always of a real, particular child, who stood at a particular place and a particular time and had his photo taken. Photography is always photography of the real.

The difficulty for the pro-life movement is that, as it works for the abolition of abortion, it uses pictures of children, not as pictures of this or that real, particular child, but as stand-ins for “the child in general.” When a stock-photo of Mitchell, a beautiful baby, forms the background of a sign that reads “Protect Life,” no one imagines it is demanding that we protect Mitchell’s life. Mitchell has since grown up into a pimply, 19-year old communist working at a 7-11. We do not see him in the image. We see the general idea of “the child.” He has become a symbol. The rhetorical success of the baby-sign depends on us seeing “through” Mitchell and towards the general idea of “baby,” “child,” “person.” The image presents the person anonymously — and anonymous images can inspire apathy in the gaze that sees them.

I think it’s time that pro-life marketers turn to featuring survivors of abortion, and testimonies of mothers and fathers who chose to bear their children—rather than essentially stock photos of cradled babies. We need to understand the human stories that led to, resulted in, and benefited from the choice for life.

Soliciting audio, memories, items, etc.

At the start of the new year I’m writing to alumni and supporters of Penn State student radio broadcasting with an appeal to share your experiences.

In life we measure generations in roughly twenty year spans, but on the college campus every generation can almost be measured by the year—each with its own distinctive character and flavor.

Since Penn Staters first began broadcasting through experimental shortwave radio around 1908, through the establishment of WPSC in the 1920s as the first recognizably modern radio station, so many generations have come and gone. Each writes its own chapter in the unfolding history of student radio, but rarely have those chapters been conserved, let alone assembled into a coherent story.

I’m not proposing that we literally write a book, but I am asking that you consider spending a few minutes to email me with any memories, reminiscences, anecdotes, or experiences from your time with Penn State student radio, whether that was with WDFM, WPSU, one of the dorm stations like WEHR or WHR, or The LION 90.7fm.

Even a hundred words of memories is appreciated! Whatever you’re willing to share will be something that can be shared with each new year’s students to better understand who came before them. We’ll eventually print and donate these recollections to the Penn State Libraries for their permanent archives. For perspective, check out two examples of things alums have shared with us in the past from Steve Warren and Steven M. Weisberg. Rodger Curnow even shared late 1960s WDFM audio.

(Last year, we wrote a roughly ~2,000 word history called The Penn State Student Broadcasting Story, which now hangs in the HUB facilities of The LION 90.7fm on campus. It tells the story from 1912 through today. We were able to write this mostly thanks to The Daily Collegian’s archives, and you should check it out if you haven’t seen it. But we need your more personal stories, too.)


Finally, if you have audio from your time on the radio station, I would be incredible grateful if you could send it my way. It, too, will go to the libraries and will be added to our budding Audio Archives. We’ve got virtually no WDFM audio, and relatively little of everything else, frankly.

That’s it for now. We’ll probably do a small open house in the HUB over Blue/White weekend in April. I’ll write more when we have specifics.

Rose Bowl

The Rose Bowl last night was a shootout. Watching Penn State trade fire with USC was just downright fun. It’s was a great example of why I love college football. And in light of the garbage decision by the College Football Playoff selectors to elevate Ohio State over Penn State in the playoffs, it’s further evidence for me that this playoff system needs reform. Namely, the playoffs should be the division victors. Revisiting what I wrote a few weeks ago:

The value of division champions is what, exactly, in a world where selectors pick the final semifinalists for playoffs anyway? I saw Paul Clifford, Penn State Alumni Association CEO, share Urban Meyer’s 2006 comment: “If you don’t win your conference, you shouldn’t be playing for a national championship.” I think that’s right—and not just because it would mean Penn State would compete for the national championship this year, but because the current system devalues the division championships.

We’re moving toward a playoff model. In a playoff model, overall wins matter less than performance at key points in the season. The playoff model should allow for the rise of magical and unexpected teams like Penn State has proven to be this year, and who knows who’ll be next year.

An allegedly better team based on feelings rather than on-field play, Ohio State scored no points against Clemson in this year’s playoffs. Zero points. How did Ohio State get into these playoffs? By losing to rival Penn State during the regular season. By losing even its chance to play for the Big Ten Championship. Explain the logic.

When Ohio State won the national championship two years ago I wrote:

I’ve been pro-playoff system since I started paying attention to Joe Paterno’s advocacy for it years ago. I think the last time he spoke out for the playoff system was in 2008, saying “philosophically I think you ought to win it on the field” rather than through an opaque voting system.

So while I loved every minute of last night’s Rose Bowl, I also grew increasingly outraged that such great teams were denied the chance to go any further.


Education as escape

Paul Beston writes on the experience of a young man:

He had been a talented but utterly indifferent student, and it is only after he leaves college that he understands what an education really means: “To escape from the little island of the living. To know what thinking men and women have felt and seen and imagined though all the ages of the world. To meet my natural companions among the mighty dead. To walk with them in conversation. To know myself in them, through them. Because they are what we’ve become.”

This young man named Andrew Klavan came to these realizations after coming of age:

Klavan’s is a story of a thoroughly secular man, one who attends college just as postmodernism is coming fully into academic vogue and who knows the world of flesh and money and temptation better than most. He spends his life immersed in secular culture; his touchstones are not obscure. They range from Carole King songs to Raymond Chandler novels, from Faulkner to Shakespeare, Dostoevsky to the Bible, Bar Mitzvahs to baptisms; they include the hunger for experience that puts young men on the American road and the uncanny capacity of baseball to throw out metaphors to those same men, older now, when they need them most.

Don’t we all want to meet our “natural companions among the mighty dead,” so that we might understand our own place better among the living?


New American revolutionaries

Leaving San Francisco today, and returning to Andrew Bacevich’s 1998 reflection on “the irony of American power”. It’s worthwhile reading since many are still trying to detox from an incredibly contentious election cycle. Bacevich paints a portrait of American power that is probably at odds with our traditional history:

A nation born of the first great anti-imperial revolution, the United States finds itself today wielding authority and influence in every corner of the globe. A state that once spurned interference by outsiders has acquired a well-documented reputation for instructing others on how to conduct themselves on matters ranging from human rights to environmental regulation. A people once profoundly suspicious of militarism tacitly embrace military power as a central element of national identity. How are we to account for the paradoxes to which America’s emergence as the world’s foremost power has given rise?

The traditional narrative of American history dodges that question, suggesting that the outcome was not of our doing: greatness was thrust upon us. This orthodox view of history asserts that the United States did not advance purposefully to center stage in world affairs; it was drawn there reluctantly, contrary to its traditions and the preferences of its people.

According to this interpretation, America’s transformation from unassuming republic to global superpower was unforeseen and unintended. The United States assumed a paramount role in world affairs only under duress, prodded by malevolent forces that became in the end too monstrous to ignore.

Thus, evil has provided warrant for action. The all-but-forgotten war with Spain now a hundred years past set the pattern. For years, Americans had watched as Cubans suffered abuse at the hands of a decadent and incompetent imperial regime. Finally, in 1898, further Spanish control of Cuba became intolerable. When the smoke of the ensuing conflict cleared, the United States had indeed ejected Spain from Cuba, but had acquired in the process an insular empire of its own, stretching from the Caribbean across the Pacific. In the decades to follow, the recurrence of wickedness in various guises—the militarism of Imperial Germany and Japan, the totalitarian ideologies of Hitler and Stalin, more lately the tinhorn depredations of Saddam Hussein—would offer impetus and justification for the further expansion of American power.

William Graham Sumner’s 1899 speech on this history is The Conquest of the United States by Spain. It’s essential for understanding the genealogy of global American military power.

This interpretation of the nation’s rise to globalism—the United States reacting to peace disrupted, rights defiled, and freedom jeopardized—is one that most Americans have found persuasive. It is reassuringly familiar and morally satisfying. For the average citizen, the standard historical narrative has provided a convenient map for navigating through the perilous and deceptive terrain of twentieth-century politics. But a map only approximates reality. Sketched in response to the press of events, the historical map charting the progress of the Reluctant Superpower has never been completely accurate. Of late, it has become increasingly misleading. Most of all, with the end of the Cold War, it is no longer useful. Indeed, to cling to that map is to misapprehend the hazards that lie just ahead.

If Americans have vigorously defended their way of life against external threat, it is also true that they have sought to imprint that way of life on others. No people on earth have been more eager to see the world remade in their own image. The whole trajectory of Western history, pointing toward an expansion of freedom, equality, and opportunity, only served to validate this belief in American mission, even fostering the notion that the United States possessed a providential mandate to spread the blessings of liberty.

The international institutions that America created with other Western powers after World War II probably still derive their power from American power. If it’s true that our international institutions require a globally dominant America (certainly a debatable if) then it means that those international institutions might be as much a brilliant and subtle new means of empire as much as forums for international cooperation. A charitable view might be that our international institutions are a means of universal democratic governance.

Thus, even before leading the nation into war to make the world safe for democracy, Woodrow Wilson could declare with certainty that “God [had] planted in us the vision of liberty” and that the United States had been “chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”

Wilson’s purpose was not simply to defend American principles, but to secure their extension on a universal basis, a breathtakingly radical proposition. Nor did that proposition die with Wilson. Once revived by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the spirit and grandeur of the Wilsonian project animated the policies and the rhetoric of subsequent administrations as dissimilar as those of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. “If we judge events by their consequences,” John Lukacs has observed, “the great world revolutionary was Wilson rather than Lenin.” Indeed, if we judge the age of revolutions by its outcome, the United States has been the most successful revolutionary power of them all.

“Wilson’s purpose was not simply to defend American principles, but to secure their extension on a universal basis, a breathtakingly radical proposition.” This vision (potentially still being attempted) is incredibly important to understand for context in human politics of the last few hundred years—if not the last few thousand years.

Connecting alumni

A side project of mine for years now has been support and fundraising for Penn State students involved with The LION 90.7fm, the campus radio station.

I’m not the most prolific fundraiser by any means, but I’ve been happy to help spur more than $50,000 in gifts in the past five years, and expect to reach ~$100,000 in gifts by 2020. At that point if not sooner, I’m hoping that Penn State’s professional fundraisers will make endowing the campus station a priority. If nothing else, I’ll have done about as much volunteer fundraising for campus radio as I’m likely to want to do. But as I get older I’m placing more value in relationships with students and alumni than the gifts they make.

On Monday I emailed a new prospect list that Penn State gave me containing nearly 2,000 graduates who had some involvement with campus media and those likely connected to campus radio. It was a very light email and I wrote it in friendly tone, asking if they wanted to hear from me again and acknowledging that it might be strange/annoying that a stranger was emailing them like this. I asked them to write back and let me know if they wanted to stay in touch. I estimated that somewhere between 100-300 people would subscribe to receive future emails, and so far 127 have subscribed. A little on the low end of what I had hoped, but still encouraging.

Encouraging because more than a dozen of those who subscribed for future emails from me also wrote with personal memories of their time on campus dating as early as the 1960s. About a dozen gave me their numbers and I worked my way through phone calls with many of them this week, getting to know them. I’m not ready to share anything from those conversations yet, but I hope to keep getting to know a lot of these people.

I’ll be writing to them 5-6 times per year (and only asking for money 1-2 times per year), and those writings will appear here, too.