Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Fifth Stage: My Thoughts at the Thirty-Ninth Annual March For Life, January 23rd, 2012

(I wrote this post in the immediate aftermath of my experiences at the March For Life, and have revised it since. I was going to sit on it, and wait for inspiration in expanding my piece into essay-length. However, the recent decision of the Susan G. Komen Foundation to rescind funding for Planned Parenthood - which would undercut the organization’s ability to provide breast cancer screening to the economically disadvantaged - spurred to me to post this, as is, with the possibility of future journalism on an issue that I feel is very necessary to discuss: the radicalization of children.)

The sky pressed downwards on Washington D.C., swallowing its formidable landmarks in fog and rain. Clouds obscured the Washington Monument and the Capitol Rotunda and licked the roof of the tower at the Old Post Office. The remnants of the prior weekend's snowfall was crisp and slushy, an elemental flux that the Chesapeake seems fond of this time of year, and the mud is found in cakes and streaks across the pavement. While this weather is foreboding, the general consensus of the several-thousand strong1 pro-life 39th Annual March For Life held today at the National Mall seemed to favor it as a kind of divine trial of their will.

I had never seen an anti-choice2 rally of any real magnitude before. My university, a mid-sized state school in Pennsylvania, featured the type of radical folks with the sandwich boards and banner-sized images of mutilated fetuses about twice a year. Not like exceptionally large blots of menses on cloth, but dismembered and oddly burnt-looking pseudobabies that could have been found in premature wards in clear plastic boxes.

The March For Life is an annual and extremely well-funded rally held yearly at the National Mall in support of, well, not necessarily life but the end of abortion. While it does involve the titular march it's actually a three-day series of events including exhibits, film screenings, and mass, culminating in the rally and march, concluding with the $100 a ticket Rose Dinner, who this year features Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Other politicos this year include Mike Huckabee officiating a 'mini-rally' at the White House, and the lachrymose Speaker of the House John Boehner3, who delivered the keynote address at the March For Life rally.

I wasn’t planning on going, but I was on my way into the city to run some errands and I had learned at the last minute the event was that very day, so my interest was piqued.

These errands took me to the Brookland-CUA stop on the Red Line in Washington D.C., where Catholic University of America is. I descended the escalator to see the station brimming with people and signs, predominantly clustered around the farecard stations and turnstyles. The station manager, a paragon of patience, was explaining to successive groups of ten-or-so souls at a time how the farecard machines worked. These groups would then buy their farecards, and then have to educate themselves on the process of working the turnstyles. The four Metro cops standing sentinel to the affair seemed amused at the confusion.

I then spotted a wall of green, a group of male students in matching green t-shirts advertising their participation in the march for life. Based on some of their other clothing items I believe that they were part of the same fraternity. They then broke in two divisions, lining the gated entrances to the station. As individual people trickled through their guard, the guys would break into applause if they were spotted to be overtly pro-life4 in nature. Soon the rest of the people waiting in the station would be joining in the applause.

I completed my errands, and took the train downtown, stepping off at Gallery Place and being greeted immediately by teenagers, in their gawky and awkward ways, massed on the corner and apparently lost here in Chinatown. They all wore blue t-shirts, identifying them as a part of the March For Life. Aside from that, they were unremarkable: zits and athletic wear, Angry Birds hats, giggles and teasing comprising much of their interactions. These weren't radicals, necessarily. The bits and pieces I heard were not on the ramifications of Roe V. Wade (the anniversary of which occasioned the annual March) nor were they about strategizing. In fact, it was on things as innocuous as sports and gossip, the usual for the high-school crowd.

An adult from a local shop, and pointed them in the direction of the mall. I chose not to follow, but to make a survey of the area whilst on a meandering path there. It didn't take long before I found another group of teens – these ones in green t-shirts (possibly the CUA kids?), and carrying anti-choice signs. The signs were black with white type, one side advertising the March For Life and the other, provocatively, proclaiming these marchers as the “Pro-Life Generation.”

When I was in high school there was an older girl whose backpack had a patch in 'punk rock' style lettering (think spray painted stencil letters) advertising something called 'Rock For Life,' decreeing that among other things 'you' (italics mine) will 'STOP killing my generation.' (capitals theirs) It all seemed positive but bewildering (Was there a kind of millenial genocide that I was not privy to?) until I realized it was anti-choice polemic, a kind of Christian Rock thing.

The Christian Rock thing was big among certain circles of people I knew in high school. It may come across as a goofy coƶptation of punk rock, but this adoption of that poise gives edge to those whose politics are closer to Ronald Reagan than to Ian MacKaye. The very foundations of punk, specifically hardcore, is the rejection of hegemony and the creation of a counteractive society. This narrative is appealing, especially to teenagers in their aforementioned transition to truly social creatures, as it establishes that counter-culture is an idealogical authenticity forged in opposition to norms and values held by hegemony.

What this meant for the Rock For Life girl was that she could feel that truly principled spirit of rebellion, even when campaigning for something as baldly conservative and status quo as being anti-abortion. What mattered was the revolutionary posture and the punk rock attitude, a feeling that you're truly a part of something that sets you apart from the 'normals'.

Back in the present, more pods of teenagers appeared, nearly running me off of the sidewalk in the way only rambunctious teens can do. A team of Catholic priests appeared, collars and all, and made genial chatter with me at a crosswalk, as we watched a lone police officer direct traffic and marchers through D.C.'s urban paradox of logical and chaotic streets. I could hear the tell-tale reverberations of amplified speech as I neared the mall, and what were once pods became a wall of marchers that was practically spackled into Madison Drive.

Here the March adopted a demographic closer to what you would expect. Many of the Marchers were older white people, swaddled in plastic ponchos and holding signs aloft that identified themselves as Pro-Life. Many had the cheer, fitness, and timeless fashion that suggested suburban, white-collar living; there were those who wore camoflage everything and had the heavier, more worn look of physical living. While the constitution of the March did little to dissuade me of the perception of anti-choice folks as predominantly white, there were marchers from a variety of racial backgrounds.

A speaker, presumably Boehner, was on stage delivering some such hoo hah about defending liberty, and life, and defending babies with all the aplomb of a rock star hitting every exact note of a thirty year old guitar solo. The sidewalks were a thicket of ponchos, signs, more teenagers (Now in red and yellow and purple shirts!), some with parents but mostly roving in packs. Something soon became apparent: that these were not just kids pulled from school by political parents. Many were enthusiastic; they chanted, some shouted randomly to no one in particular to “Stop killing babies!” and others held signs clearly made by teenagers. A lot of them wore their politics on their sleeves. Shirts proclaimed “END ABORTION” or advertised the wearers as “FORMER FETUS(es).” These were believers.

This revelation unfolded as I noted the abundance of banners stretching across walkways and the very street itself, denoting origin from a variety of groups. Many of the people identified with various archdiocese. The Knights of Columbus had an impressively designed banner that cordoned off an entrance to the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art. Orthodox Jews, without any ostentatious banners, were visible purely on their particular style of dress and appearance.

Yet most immediate to my notice were the high schools. Places like Notre Dame High School from Missouri, and St. Johns from Massachusetts. Many schools from Pennsylvania, West and Standard Virginia, Maryland. Ohio had a delegation. I estimated that of the people I encountered (admittedly I stayed on the outskirts – fighting to be part of the crowd viewing stage didn't appeal to me) roughly 45% were between the ages of 10-18, which was disarming. My experience, again, has been with individual families of rather disaffected and disheveled types, waving pictures of fetuses resembling over-microwaved buffalo wings in the faces of bored co-eds on the way to their Safety Sciences midterms.

It was at this point I knew, I had to talk to some of these kids.

My first approach was sidling up to a group of kids, fairly mixed as far as gender goes, huddling along a streetcorner. They all held the “Pro-Life Generation” signs. I pegged them at about JV age, and was confirmed in my assessment with my (brief) conversation with them. Next to them was a truck that in passing glance looked to be identically the numerous food carts of DC. Until I recognized the face of infamous Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui-Cho, staring out from a poster-sized replication of a frame swiped from one of his filmed manifestos, arms akimbo with pistols outwards. The banner underneath declared (emphasis theirs) “END THE VIOLENCE IN AMERICA.” I was confused by the sign, and had asked if they knew anything about it. “No,” said a girl with electric blue eyeshadow and a Vera Bradley backpack, “It's been there since we got here.”

“So this is like a school thing?” I asked, to some tentative nods, “Do you get credit or anything?” One girl, the type who was effortlessly cool despite being into nerd subcultures, dismissed that idea. “No, this is just something the school does. We all went last year too.” She was apprehensive, although not defeated in way that would suggest this was a trip against anyone's will. A guy, who wasn't a football player but definitely could have been if he shook the obvious self-awareness that he carried, assented, “It's like a field trip, I guess, but it's for a cause.” This elicited more intense nodding from the group. But then they were chaperoned off across the now-clear street, the adult in charge sending me a skeptical look.

I was aware of myself quite keenly throughout this experience. Whether or not anyone was aware of me was generally lost on me, though. Occasionally you'd see other people not involved in the protest; museum employees looking harried at having to push through a throngs of protestors, poor tourists who picked the wrong day to see El Greco. A paucity of purpose, and the flicker of obvious annoyance on their faces made me self-conscious. My own general discomfort and friction with the anti-choice platform was possibly evident in my physical situation vis-a-vis stalking under umbrellas and signs, cursing a bit under my breath every time an errant adolescent knocked me into the expanse of mud separating sidewalk and street around the National Mall. I wondered if anti-choicers feared agent provocateurs5, a COINTELPRO sponsored by the illusory Abortion Complex that these folks pillory as the prime mover behind the decay of American morality.

This notion, a kind of Abortion Industry, is one that frequents the rhetoric of the anti-choice people. For these folks abortion is not a medical procedure, but an illicit practice a la witchcraft or alchemy, one that egregiously defies nature (as all medical procedures do, if you think about it) and more specifically their particular Scripture. It is propagated by the 'abortionists' and the liberal elite, and willingly embraced by the morally bereft and sociopathic. This was the party line of a troop of older gentlemen wearing VFW regalia from their lodge, possibly lodges, of origin that I overheard while taking a quick respite from doing parkour around the protestors.

“You know, these abortionists are as bad as the communists. It's eugenics and population control, and plus they get all that money.”

“You bet. It's Obama, and it isn't right that he's trying to give all this money to these doctors”, another man added, placing a sarcastic twist on the last word.

If this sounds paranoid, that's because it is. When you consider that people literally believe that Planned Parenthood, individual abortion clinics and their doctors, and pro-choice individuals are all tendrils of an anti-fetus Bohemian Grove, then the mindsets of people like Scott Roeder come into into legible relief.

Another strong element in the anti-choice belief is persecution. Many of the signs I saw proclaimed the holders as giving 'Voices to the Voiceless' and 'Standing Up For The Unborn,” in accordance to the idea that to be pro-life is to be fighting a dire battle against oppression. It's an idea that those on the pro-abortion ticket find laughable, and then harrowing. The current push to defund Planned Parenthood, a great Arch-Fiend of Baby Killing, would leave millions of women without access to general reproductive health, sexual health, access to cancer screening for breast and cervical cancer, and perhaps most importantly, an education. The truth of the matter is that education, contraception, and screening make up the bulk of Planned Parenthood's services, as in the vast majority, as in roughly equaling an elephantine 97% of their services. This isn't a party line or an exaggeration, this is the kind of thing documented by necessity for tax and funding purposes. Grant allocations and funding sources are open information, and not hidden. The elimination of Planned Parenthood would set back sexual health service by decades.

I happened upon a young woman, Jane, wearing a very new jacket indicating allegiance to a Division I athletic program (“I just got accepted,” she beamed). She was a midwestern girl, athletic and charismatic, undaunted by strangers nor crowds and clearly committed to being pro-life. Planned Parenthood, as she explained, was an abortion mill that peddled baby-killing without regard. This was delivered without venom or the facile cheer of evangelism, but as simple matter-of-factness. From ten feet away, an older man I surmised to be Jane's parental unit nodded approvingly.

I opined that Planned Parenthood offered a bevy of other services, as listed above. She shook her head, you poor sap she seemed to convey. “That may be, I guess, I don't know. But they provide abortions. A lot of them. That's wrong.” Her passion was evident. The back of my neck heated, I was aware that I was suddenly afraid of being ganged-upon. Could Jane smell the pro-choice on me? Was she going to turn and, unhinging her jaw, issue forth a warning screech that would beckon others to rend me apart? Or did she just see me as a waffler, someone on the fence, an equivocator of sorts? I opened the forum to a guard of young men (one of whom, also an athlete, was Jane's boyfriend) and sought their views on the matter, also.

They were more sporty kids, all white and midwestern (save for one kid who I surmised from the name on his jacket to be at least partially Latino) and dedicated to proving to me that they were here in support of what they saw was the civil rights struggle of their generation. I became aware at this point that there wasn't a real disparity in gender, here, regarding the passions ablaze at this rally. Young men and young women were equally emphatic in their views.

One guy, possibly a linebacker judging on his relative heft, insisted that the murder needed to end. “What they're doing, what Obama is doing,” he said with emphasis, “is murder. A lot of it, too.” The guys enthusiastically cheered him. Across the street a cheer started, it went “we love babies yes we do / we love babies, how 'bout you?” Jane and her group applauded. One of the guys said with surety that the cheerers were cheerleaders. The Linebacker-Orator smiled, “I love cheerleaders. Especially when they have a cause.” Another fellow, this one with the Tim Tebow/John 3:16 glare paint on his cheeks, wondered aloud if they were from school local to them, possibly a rival, as one looked familiar. This soon became a discussion on the finer points of their football rivalries, and I excused myself from them.

Jane's father stopped me with a gentle palm laid into my path. Dave was a hefty guy, fit, handsome in that George Clooney way where the physical signifiers of age only enhance and strengthen his genetic predisposition to beauty. He cast an eye to his daughter and said with obvious appreciation, “she sure is smart, yeah?” I agreed, not entirely out of mere social grace. Dave turned to me, “It's just great to see these kids out here supporting an important cause. Crucial. Just crucial, you know?” I agreed, this time entirely out of social grace. Emboldened by his midwestern ability to find rapport with anything that breathed, I had to ask him, “But do you think they get it?”

“Get what?”

“Get abortion. Get what it means to people, the implications, so forth.”

“You know what,” Dave, speaking in a grand speech between lecture and invocation, said, “It's getting these kids out here and into the issues that's important. This is one of the biggest problems of our times, and if we can't fix this, we can't fix anything.”

The pro-life agenda is naked in its religious morality6. It is a movement that's rhetoric is steeped in scripture, that's membership is composed of parishes, congregations, and believers. It views abortion as murder and genocide, and in more pointed language, as a spiritually bereft form of birth control. The general tone of their community is that the United States of America is on a moral decline, with sin and debauchery fore-fronted and broadcast with abandon, typically directed at the young and impressionable. The doctrine eschews any reasonable arguments for abortion access, from practical (preventing life-threatening pregnancies) to the philosophical (the right to claim ownership to a woman's organs). Extenuating circumstances, unequal access to contraception and sexual education, medical crises, and the sheer reality of poverty are middling in the face the big, bold moral truth: that abortion is murder, and it is the sin of a nation that has lost its way.

After these talks I could see why this march, this movement, appeals to the youth. I tend to agree with the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson that, in the fifth stage of our psychosocial development, between the ages of 13 and 21, people primarily tend to focus on social relationships in their emotional and intellectual development. With an ego fully formed, teenagers are thrust into a world where reputation precedes, and will make-or-break you amongst certain groups of peers. It is a confusing time, and teenagers lack the wisdom and developmental ability to see shade and nuance in people and their reasoning. Society will seem harsh and unforgiving, and people seemingly will do bad things for no good reason.

If this sounds condescending or narrow or prosaic, think back to your teenage years, with all the anxiety of growing sexually and socially. Grappling with your feelings amongst the perceived expectations of others, armed only with the rudimentary empathy to help in understanding the actions of others. Parents are not flawed human beings with whom you share genetic material, but an entity whose roles swiftly shift between punisher, protector, teacher, idol, embarrassment, provider, and so on. What is important on one day will become toxic the next; people, places, and things fluctuate in value and acceptability with the slightest change of the wind.

For teens, pro-life can make sense. There are good people and bad people. It can be seen as the unequivocal holocaust of the unborn, and must be stopped. It is a cut-and-dry, no bones about it perspective that rewards passion and dedication, rather than insight or critique. It is a movement of people that are not seemingly preoccupied with the machinations of patriarchy, race, and class, or the nuances of medical practice. It is a moral system that is clear and accessible, with villains and heroes.

Watching the teenagers at the March as they alternated between sloganeering and the usual hijinks of teenagers was disquieting They were flirting and teasing, clumsy and mischievous, given to boldness and then shame often in the same expression. Then they would hoist their signs and call to the heavens for an end to abortion. It made me uncomfortable less on account of my own principles, and entirely on the sheer ethical concern I had of radicalizing teenagers. When does it become appropriate to impress the impressionable into the rank-and-file? That's not to suggest these kids were merely parroting liturgy or beliefs, quite the contrary, the passion was evident. Yet I felt that they had been led to this path of self-righteousness by parents, parishioners, and teachers whose own views have been secured and settled for a long time. They were believers, but the beliefs were less theirs to find and more theirs to inherent.

I wondered, then, surrounded in a conservative miasma, if it's ever appropriate to radicalize the youth. I thought back to that woman in Canada who refuses to ascribe gender to her child, and parents who buy Marxist coloring books, and pull their young children from home to live in tents on public property. Those sorts of things feel self-evidently positive given my politics, but on an ethical level I fear it could rob children of their development, and send them on the path to eventual burn-out and reactionism. When people are still young enough to reason that magic tricks are real distortions of reality, is it fair to being molding them?7

However, this is what parents do, isn't it? Parents instill their moral views on their offspring. They hold them to certain standards and are their primary socializers in how the world works. It is the role of parents, primarily, to prop their wards upon their knees and set them forward with the skills to cull the good from the bad, to make right, and to be fair and honest. So be it, then, if part of that moral view is political and social engagement, right? If parents want to bring children to a protest, and involve them in radicalized strategy and thought, then who am I to judge them? After all, would they not sit in judgment of someone who believes civic engagement thrives solely in the voting booth? They would surely judge the lukewarm, who dare not involve themselves in politics for fear of reprisal, hardship, or introspection.

I found myself then wishing that more parents could radicalize their children, to give them the skills and confidence to travel the long road on issues that press their most important buttons. Would our country not be more truly democratic if the youth were raised to organize and agitate? Imagine the kind of world there could be, if from a young age our citizens were raised with self-efficacy and patience, with the fortitude of spirit to really commit in improving their world in even the most casual of ways (be the change you wish to see, the personal is political, etc.). Regardless of political orientation, wouldn't an engaged populace generate more representative democracy?

It was a hard choice to make, not to at least witness the actual March For Life. Yet the rain would not abate, and the fog would not lift. I was achey, and wanted to grab some tea. The magnitude of the event was making me anxious. I started to make my way out of the crowds. While waiting at a crosswalk a group of teens were being handed signs by who I assumed to have been their priest, based on the collar. The waiting teens were clustered around the box, save for a few, who hung on in a listless line as they glanced around at nothing in particular. They didn't wear school-issued shirts or ones they made themselves. No Rock For Life patches or Livestrong-style bracelets that said 'abolish abortion.'

In an empty stretch of lawn on the National Mall a girl, possibly thirteen, had a blanket of some kind and was swooping up and down the field like some great bird, to the mirth of her friends. If it weren't for the installation about five yards behind her I would have thought it was another field trip to the nation's capital. The installation was like a carnival booth set up with images of babies and cloying messages such as, “I Hope Mommy is Pro-Life” and “Ever Notice That Everyone Who is Pro-Choice … Has Been Born?” It was stationed by some dour, older people in slickers, who didn't talk to anyone who approached and had the steely look of brimstone and condemnation. The flying girl flashed across my vision again, her face contorted in whimsy. An adult hurried after the girl and blocked her path. They exchanged assumedly terse words, and the adult snatched the blanket back over to whence it came. The girl was clearly incensed, and rejoined her then-perambulate group of friends. Under their arms they all carried signs, “WE ARE THE PRO-LIFE GENERATION.”

1. [Estimates from the March For Life organizers put yearly attendance at around 250,000, with 2011's March featuring 400,000 people.]

2. [I favor this term in describing people who believe, fundamentally, that there should be legal restrictions on the things a woman can do with her body. It is a politically charged term, to be sure, but no more politically charged than pro-life, which is brazen agitprop in its very construct, as I will eventually discuss. ]

3. [Of S.P.E.C.T.R.E]

4. [As I said previously I favor the term anti-choice in describing this particular political stance. However I felt uneasy about labeling their own politics as such, because these people see the dichotomy as life-death, not choice-oppression. In their minds they weren't taking to the streets to deny women the choice of abortion, they saw themselves as people campaigning for the high moral truths our nation allegedly has forgone. The question as to whether or not women fundamentally have the right to choose what to do with their own bodies was irrelevant to their held truth, that women who seek abortions are murderers as are the doctors who perform them. For this reason I will occasionally use “pro-life” as a descriptor of their politics when I am framing propositions and attitudes from the perspectives of the protestors, rather than my own voice, so that their opinions can be more clear.]

5. [It is a common fear in radical organizing, as seen in the recent Occupy Wall Street actions, that the police or FBI or hired thugs will ingratiate themselves into their movement or body in order to incite violent or illegal activities for the purposes of entrapment. Often they'll appear as lone wolves, with cursory knowledge on organizing or radical politics, and will focus pointedly on disturbance and violence as methods of protest, often to the consistent behest of the actual members' consensus. ]

6. [There are people who have created arguments against abortion based along lines including evolution (it will weaken the species), social (we need people), racial justice (it is disproportionately cutting down the black population), and men's rights (it deprives men of the children to which they apparently entitled, following situations involving their inability or outright refusal to use appropriate contraception.)]

7. [To be fair, there are teenagers out there who become radical and political early on, purely of their own volition. I offer that this is more a personality feature rather than inculcation of attitudes via parents. ]

Special Thanks to Cassidy Schenley for extensive revision help, and to Nikki Murray as a sounding board for my ideas.

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