In Utero

Upon reading the essay by Geneseo alumni Davina Ward who proposed that violence sometimes can be a form of care, one line especially kept circling back to me:

 The implications of what has been learned are far more important than what is learned by itself. There is always a moment of introspection when one learns something, a moment of questioning  “Well what do I do with this.” That is the most important part, knowledge affects our actions, and our actions have more consequences than just our thoughts. 

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement because it gets to the heart of why upper level critical thinking should exist (and why teachers teach!) This connection of knowledge to action, explains why humans do violence against humans. A person or people group acts upon a belief they think is true.

In the literary work, Cities of the dead: Circum Atlantic Performance Joseph Roach wrote on how origins tend to dictate worth. The “Echo in the Bones” chapter closely exclaimed the Europeaon slave trade in the 18th-Century. The rational being that a person’s origins from the continent of Africa or Caribbean Islands made them expendable. Spike Lee’s documentary of ”When the Levees Broke” maneuvered away in  Act III from the devastation of a natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the lack of federal government response to an intentional look at a class of citizens whose zip code origins carried the label “lower ninth ward”.  The violence done in letting ruined homes, debris and even dead bodies go unattended, Lee suggests pretty strongly, is evidence of motive that the delay would discourage homeowners from returning to their origins, so wealthy business owners would be free to buy up the land for financial gain. This is violence done on the sly. Yet, some could make the case that the practices of capitalism increases wealth, and wealth increases opportunities, which in turn, improves personal lives, because increased wealth gives way to more freedom.  I recently watched Adam McCay’s satire ”Don’t Look Up”, a film released in 2021. In one pivotal scene the Midwest working class parent of the college student (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who discovered a comet hurtling toward our planet and will certainly destroy all life, not just human, meets her daughter at the their locked porch screen door and says, before she will let her daughter enter her home that, “We don’t want to discuss politics. We are for jobs that the comet will bring”. The backstory is this: The CEO of a massive  corporation has discovered that this comet, projected by scientists to destroy all life on the planet, has rich deposits of minerals that, if harvested successfully by his corporation, will make billions of dollars. So, the White House has decided to not attempt to strike out the threat that will destroy life on our planet, but capitalize on it first, then deal with the problem of the comet. Many are incredulous and outraged that life on our planet would not first be put into consideration; making money is the first choice..  The film does a great job of showing how the power of social media shapes how people think, drawing on their emotions, instead of “ moment of introspection when one learns something, a moment of question, a ‘well what do I do with this’ “ as stated by Divina Ward above.  The implications to Climate Change are obvious in “Don’t Look Up”. Viewers are left shaken by the foolish callousness towards life, which ended in violent death for all living things.  

Moving away from the racial violence done in the European slave trade, and the more subtle social-economic violence incurred on the citizens of New Orleans, and McCay’s satire film, the remainder of the essay will take a critical look at the laws involved in the legal practice of abortion in the United States. A practice legalized nation-wide in the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court case that was overturned in June of 2022 from the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.  According to that has an editorial section explaining current and relevant court issues the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision leaned heavily on the 14th Amendment. In particular the fundamental, yet not directly stated rights, that so heavily peppers our U.S. Constitution, that grants “substantive due process”.  What that meant at the time of Roe v. Wade  is that “The majority in Roe held that any constitutional right to privacy ‘is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.’ ”.

What Justice Alito wrote in his ruling on the case Dobbs v. Jackson  Women’s Health is this:  “any such [substantive due process] right must be deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition . . . [t]he right to an abortion does not fall within this category.” He added that  “In interpreting what is meant by the 14th Amendment’s reference to liberty we must guard against the natural human tendency to confuse what that Amendment protects with our own ardent views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy.” It is his phraseology of:

“We must guard against the natural human tendency to confuse what that Amendment protects with our own ardent views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy.”

that catches my attention the same way Ms. Ward wrote, “There is always a moment of introspection when one learns something, a moment of questioning , ‘Well what do I do with this’ ”. The emotions that the issue of abortion elicit in people on both sides of the issue, my own included, are so strong, are so firmly trenched in preconceived notions of who is vilely wrong: They want to kill babies! v. They are pushing women backwards!  The real issue of the right to abort is what is life and what is its value? What is an unborn child? It is a question of origins. If a parent cannot legally terminate their two year old child, their two week old infant, despite the inconvenience, personal cost, and extreme inconvenience of having the care of said toddler,  infant, then where exactly is the line of demarcation of In Utero v. Born?  Personally I love the institution of law because of its symbol/ effigy: the blindfolded lady standing between the scales of justice. It harkens to the standard that preconceived notions and ideals are not permitted. A hard look at reality and precedents (which all law is based) is. 

 In the book Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas the co-authors Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker attempt to meticulously show the shape, history, and uniqueness of New Orleans.  Chapter Four opens with these sentences:

“Just as New Orleans is a place of unclear boundaries between land and water, so it is a place where the boundaries of life and death are thin, in the most spiritual and brutal ways. It is a place of visions, of devout faith, of mystics and spirits, of the remembrance of ancestors, of family visits to the graves of the gone-before on All Saints’ Day-as well as a place punctured over and over by murder”. 

An essay is contained within chapter four of this book written by Nathaniel Rich that opens with these two sentences: “In most parts of New Orleans, if you plunge your arm into the ground to the depths of your elbow, your fingertips will touch water. Your fingertips might also touch other fingertips”.  Because of the murky land/water which is New Orleans the dead do not stay politely buried and out of view. They resurrect because the ground is more water sac than hard earth.  Later he writes, “This soft, shifting landscape poses a specifically cartographic problem, because mapmakers ordinarily draw clear lines and delineate coherent bodies: this is land, this is water”.…”the lines blur and melt”.

 New Orleans is so unique in its semi-permanence.

Likewise, the real problem that exists with the abortion question in the United States is a critical look at viability. Viability is very close in meaning expendable.  Is it a life or not?( Is it land or water?)  The slave trade thrived in the United States despite our eloquent Bill of Rights saying all men are created equal because of its own clever clause in the Constitution;  Article one, section two of the Constitution of the United States declared ”that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual”. In other words, the origin of Black African American descent was not quite human, and therefore not as viable as the rest of us, meaning of course, White Europeans.  In terms of abortion does this murky blur of in utero humans justify violence? For abortion is a violent medical procedure. It is absolute violence of a class of human that is expendable. As the poet Anne Sexton wrote in rhetorical form in her candid poem “The Abortion”, someone who should have been born is gone. Written sometime in the 1960s. Can violence be self-care? Anne Sexton suffered acutely from mental breakdowns after the birth of both of her children, because of severe postpartum depression. So, some would say “yes”.  Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974, despite fame and literary success. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.  Can violence that ends life, produce anything good, even when it seems that it  can lead to more health and freedom for some? Because the womb is murky, shrouded in the darkness of blood and water and unformed bodies, do those multiplying cells not matter?  Should a fetus in utero be likened to a toxic appendix that needs to go? Human biology says a fetus in utero is distinctively different from the mother’s internal organs. 

Lastly, keep in mind, some Planned Parenthood doctors, before the severed fetuses get crammed into garbage bags to be carted to the dump, harvest those cells and body parts to be sold, for medical purposes.  It is more profitable if this is performed outside the womb, thus making the fetus not in utero, but born, which is illegal. In this case it is not murky water, it is clearly a born child. The undercover journalism work of David Daleiden confirmed this on July 14, 2015 with his investigative piece titled “Human Capital Project”. The storm that followed, including a push for defunding Planned Parenthood of Title IX money, around 60 million dollars of taxpayer money, saw a surge of Planned Parenthood mission statements across the country: CARE NO MATTER WHAT. Its bold black font against a bright pink square sprouted like mushrooms on t-shirts, laptops, and hydro flasks, in a matter of days. It is their rallying cry. It seems good and reasonable. However, from the critical thinking asked of me in this class I am questioning the “no matter what” of their rallying cry. What is the what? The What is violence for money.  A lot of money. The Circum Atlantic Slave trade made a lot of money because humans of African/Caribbean origins were in the murky waters of not being as viable as European Whites. In the Untied States the new republic prospered, which helped other struggling financial families, because of the slave trade. History glances back and calls it what it was, anyway; violence that was wrong.  The families who lost their homes in the 9th ward of New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina were unjustly served because of their zip code origins, by letting their homes and in some cases actually dead bodies rot, in the open, in hopes that what belonged to them, their pride and identity, could eventually make a lot of money. I am sure it would create a lot of jobs too. “We are for the comet because of the jobs it will create”, said a mother to her child in Adam McCay’s satire ”Don’t Look Up”; and that decision led to the destruction of life on the whole planet.  The decision to not carry out a pregnancy, because children are expensive, carry a huge emotional toll, seems like life-affirming health care. I suffered from severe postpartum depression after my children were born, so I understand. I was very sick the entire nine months. My teeth started to rot because of the amount of acid that washed over them from all nine months of throwing up. We did not have much money either, sometimes we had to borrow money from family to pay our electric bill.  But those reasons gloss over the real issue: the violence done to a living human, primarily by an industry that makes an enormous amount of money off of it. History and our conscience implore us to think critically about the ethics of abortion.  “…knowledge affects our actions, and our actions have more consequences than just our thoughts”.  Violence in the form of ending a life for the sake of self care will never shift a culture for the common good. We are finally learning this lesson with the care of the planet, and I think it is reasonable to critically think about it in the care of in utero humans. 

Communal Atonement: ancient rituals in modern injustices

Communal Atonement: ancient rituals in modern injustices

          The essayist Joseph Roach writes extensively on his observations regarding “Eurocentrists call memory (‘what’s done is done’) [and this] incites emotions that turn toward the future in aspiration no less than dread (‘God’s will be done’). The choreography of catastrophic closure” (Echoes in the Bone, pg.33).*  Roach builds on this very abstract idea by bridging it to the specific literary work of Rene Girard’s, In Violence and the Sacred, published in 1972.  From Girard’s research this term has been coined: “the monstrous double”. What is this? A communal rite whereas, “ ‘the sacrificial victim must be neither divisive nor trivial neither fully part of the community for fully outside of it; rather, he or she must be distanced by a special identity that specialized isolation while simultaneously allowing a plausible surrogation for a member of the community’ ” (Roach quoting Girand,pg.40).

          Indeed, both Roach and Girard examine the rituals of ancient people groups with particular attention of the actual decided action to make a person a scapegoat. defines scapegoat at this:
a person or group made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place. This term epitomizes the outer figure and actual practice of “violence is the performance of waste” (Roach, pg,41). A quick check on presents articles on how chronologically the Hebrew, then Grecian and Roman, and then the accounts of the Christian Gospels, practiced scapegoating. First in the Torah as law for the Hebrews, acted out not on a human being, but on livestock, thus the term “goat”. Then practiced in various rituals for specifics needs in a community with the Greeks and Roman, but not always to the point of death. Finally, a graphic demonstration of capital punishment upon Christ as atonement for humanity. Drawing on this, Roach interjects there must be the presence of three, concrete, observable, results of these ancient practices and philosophies to constitute that a type of scapegoat (noun) or scapegoating (verb) is being carried out indirectly in modern times. They are as followed:

“First, that violence is never senseless but always meaningful, because     violence in human culture always serves one way or the other, to a make a point. Second, that all violence is excessive, because to be fully demonstrative, to its point, it must spend things-material, objects, blood, environments in acts of Batalillan ‘unproductive expenditure’. Third, that all violence is performative, for the reason that it must have an audience even if the audience is only the victim, even if the audience is only God”   (Roach,pg,41)   

Roach’s three deductions seem to bear out in modern times in the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, and the response of the U.S. Federal Government to not take suitable steps to prevent it, and non-reacting to the hurricane’s destruction on both citizens and property. In particular, as pertaining to citizens and property residing in the New Orleanian lower-ninth ward. The United States does have a history of using its technology and money and federal power to safeguard vulnerable communities from severe weather catastrophes. In Kathryn Miles’s book, Superstorm, she notes that in 1970 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was formed under President Nixon. In his speech outlying the need to streamline weather technology and marry it with government strength he said this, “We face immediate and compelling needs for a better protection of life and property from natural hazards…which will enable us more effective to monitor and predicts its actions” (Miles,pg.22 ). Therefore, a three-decade precedent of federal policy had existed by the time of Hurricane Katrina.

          In Act III of Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke documentary a New Orleans resident makes this statement, “This was a work of humans, not God”. Another statement in the same act, this time a British engineer when referring to the levees erected around the city as “the biggest failure of civil engineering in U.S. history”. Lastly this, “Listen, this a very wealthy country. And in wealthy countries we always find the money. It is a matter of priorities”. The three persons interviewed by Spike Lee and quotes above are a collection of testimonials of one thing: the federal government did not do what it promised in building the levees to protect the most vulnerable people and property of New Orleans. And so, the question must be asked: why did our very wealthy nation of vast means and technology not protect its vulnerable citizens? To help us think about one proposed answer let’s look at the evidence argument number one, of what constitutes as a scapegoat, according to Joseph Roach. “Violence is never senseless, but always meaningful…to make a point”. First we must understand that willful neglect is a form of violence. The laws in our country imprison parents who cause harm to their children through neglect. So, if negligence is violence, then, according to Roach’s definition, it was meaningful, or better stated, calculated loss.

Roach’s evidence argument number two points out scapegoating “violence is excessive…it must spend things in acts of unproductive expenditure”. The excessive non-reacting, non-aide, non-compensation in the wake of Katrina in New Orleans points to excessiveness in loss of human life and property and environment. It was fully demonstrative towards basically, the unwanted and the have-nots. A simpler way to say “unproductive expenditure”. Why were the people of the lower ninth ward considered this? That is very complex and multi-layered answer that this paper could not do justice. What I can do is simply give an excerpt from a favorite book and teacher. The book is titled, Radical: Taking our Faith Back from the American Dream. The author is David Platt. The scene is set of a young Pastor being invited to a home of another well-respected Pastor with several of the church’s deacons present and the young pastor, David Platt, is asked to speak about his ministry work in New Orleans (where he and his wife lived for years and lost their home and possessions to Katrina) and in several other third world countries. Platt spoke enthusiastically about the good being done, about how exciting it is that the people whom he is serving are open and accepting to the teachings of Christ, which he considers as life-giving.  After what he explains as an “awkward pause, the Pastor of whose home I was invited said ‘I was just as soon have God annihilate those people and send them to hell.’ I was shocked speechless” (Platt, pg.63). This incident became one of several catalysts for David Platt writing his book Radical: Taking our Faith Back From the American Dream. The callous materialism of the American Evangelical Church, that is so ignorant of the central teaching of Christ and the New Testament that few even realize how an extreme American influence of racism and wealth obsession goes against the central ancient teachings of Christianity. This book had a profound effect on my personal and thinking life. And this scene I think, in particular, demonstrates a core belief that certain undesirables in society are “unproductive expenditures”.

          This brings us to Roach’s third concrete presence of scapegoating. “All violence is performative…it must have an audience”. So, who was the audience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans? Again, Spike Lee’s careful research and interviews seem to point to one thing: not building the levees correctly, not responding to the disaster, and then not compensating for losses from the insurance companies, set the stage for building corporations to come into the ghost town districts and rebuild without any trace of the old neighborhood. Time and time again, in many scenes of When the Levees Broke, the interviewed natives of New Orleans expressed a feeling, almost pointedly directed from their own government that, “we are not wanted”.

          In closing, I think Rene Girard’s  cultural observations within his work, In Violence and the Sacred, written thirty three years prior to Hurricane Katrina that states “ the sacrificial victim neither fully a part of the community nor fully outside of it…but must be distanced by a special identity that specifies isolation while simultaneously allowing plausible surrogation for a member of the community” fits the bill nicely for the poorest and most disadvantaged and therefore the most unlike those with power, in the very singular city known as New Orleans. The book Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas does a great job explaining to outsiders, outsiders who know nothing about New Orleans besides it being the city of Mardi Gras, what the city is really like. In the first chapter Rebecca Snedeker writes, “New Orleans is set apart from the rest of the country, perhaps the world. Every place has its own place has its own body of knowledge, its own history, its own cultures. But what you find in New Orleans is rich, deep, strange (pg.8). Both authors build on this uniqueness in regards to its physical topography being such a sponge of water and land, that is impossible, in places, to distinguish between the two. Belonging to one element, and belonging to another, thus not belonging anywhere. She likens it to “the organ of the human liver, and its primary function to filter poisons” (pg.2). This is of course a natural consequence of living below sea level; a paradox of living conditions. This paradox of making your dwelling in a location, that by definition is not a dwelling, cycles its way to the very people of the community. Its diversity cannot hope to be explained in simple terms of white or black, rich or poor; it’s too layered.  The author continues with her descriptions: “New Orleans is a city Incognita, unknown city, because even those who live here tend to know our own fragments” (pg.11). This “strange”, “uniqueness”, the “Incognita”, and “fragments” are all perfect conditions for a scapegoat. The not quite like the rest of us, therefore expendable, and undesirable, that are of little consequence for the powerful. This modern injustice, done by those in power, does have an ancient feel to it. The oldest stories almost always revolve the strong taking advantage of the weak. However, another element present in nearly all stories, since the beginning of storytelling, is that of a hero, making things right. I believe Spike Lee, in making this documentary wanted to expose the villain, and root for the hero.

*All quotes citing Roach will draw directly from his Echoes in the Bones essay.