A Review of Lake of Fire (or Abortion, Here’s what I Think)

If you want to have an interesting night in, gather a group of five or more friends in your living room and watch the DVD Lake of Fire. Tony Kaye’s 2006 documentary portrays both sides of the abortion debate in the US, with footage from the last twenty years or so. In the film, through interviews or film recordings, many are given a chance to voice their opinions, from Noam Chomsky to Randall Terry to abortionist killers Paul Hill and Michael F. Griffin to Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) herself, who, under the guidance of Christian Minister Philip “Flip” Benham, has become a pro-life evangelical Christian. The film will have you and your fellow viewers running hot and cold throughout, as Kaye alternates conflicting positions on the debate.

The first thing Lake of Fire brings to light, and what came as a surprise to me, is how very alive and well this debate is raging in the today’s political arenas on either side of the battle line. Take, for example, the recent referendum in South Dakota on whether or not to make abortion illegal in all situations except to save the pregnant woman’s life. In Alberta, Canada there has been the tabling of a private members bill designed to give partial rights to the unborn fetus, which some pro-choicers feel, if it becomes law, could also criminalize pregnant women for behaviours perceived to harm their foetuses. On March sixth of this year, it passed the second reading in Alberta Parliament, to very little media attention.

The complete lack of controversy surrounding this bill is indicative of the average Canadian’s wariness about discussing the issue of abortion. We might broach the topic over coffee, but as soon as the discussion begins to escalate into a debate we change topics to the weather or sports. Americans, as portrayed in Lake of Fire, appear to be far more enthusiastic in the debate. A scene best representative of this assertion is a confrontation at a demonstration between religious activist Randall Terry and a group of pro-choice drag queens. Randal desperately tries to ignore the drag queens and appeals to the women in the crowd while the queens berate him with catcalls and chants. The scene not only demonstrates the allowable extremes in American society, but also the fact that neither side of the abortion debate has come any closer to some kind of middle ground.

Canada, though more subdued on the issue, houses a good example of this eternal divide. Here, there are no legal restrictions on abortion, and pro-choice advocates fight to keep it that way. This of course, has those of the pro-life movement gnashing their teeth, since in their view, the fetus is a living baby whose life must be protected at all costs. And what I am sure sends pro-lifers up the wall is the idea of a late-term abortion, which many of them believe is a good part of all abortions (actually only about 3% occur after 16 weeks in Canada). On the other hand, since the majority of pro-lifers are religious, not only are they against abortion, but most forms of contraception (rhythm method excluded). Now, though I am pro-choice, I do have a limit when it comes to a late-term abortion of a potentially viable fetus. However, from pro-choice perspective, when the people on the other side of this debate can’t even concede to the idea of someone using a condom, a time-tested preventer of a possible abortion, I can understand why pro-choices don’t want to open the door to a concession of any kind.

The second thing that Lake of Fire brings to light is the horrible reality of what an abortion is. To myself and most of the people I know, the abortion debate is strictly on a philosophical level. Despite what some people might claim, not everyone is having abortions left, right, and centre. But Tony Kaye steers the argument from the abstract to the concrete by showing footage of actual abortions. These sequences are spliced between the verbal salvos of both camps. In one, the cameraman follows a woman from being picked up in the morning by her boyfriend, through the waiting room, the preliminary interviews, and then finally, the actual abortion. No detail is spared. It is very upsetting to watch. One of Tony Kaye’s objectives here is to ensure the viewer understands that this argument is over of flesh and blood. Another objective, I believe, is to dispel the myth that many women have abortions while on route to the shopping mall. As the sequences ends with the woman almost being carried out the clinic door by her boyfriend, there is no room to doubt that for her, this was an agonizing decision and truly awful ordeal.

It is precisely because of this intimacy that the abortion debate is so very subjective, and this subjective line is drawn along who or what is to be considered more important, the woman or the fetus growing inside of her. The attitude of the pro-choices falls obviously on the side of the woman, and that any woman who is pro-life has been brainwashed by the dogma of religion and is being used as a political tool for televangelists.

Now, the attitude of pro-lifers is difficult in getting out of them. Outwardly, from my experience, their response is that they care for both the woman and child equally, and it is simply a matter of putting their child up for adoption if they don’t want it afterwards. However, this way of thinking demonstrates that the pro-lifers priority is solely with keeping the fetus alive. Once the baby is born, concern over the quality of life of the baby and its mother diminishes, if not vanishes all together. The fact that there are half a million children in American orphanages today should dispel the myth of anyone’s willingness to tow the pro-life line and adopt. To be fair, however, those of the pro-life movement also claim that women “on the other side” have been brainwashed, not by televangelists, but by feminists and liberals and the men who are sleeping with them.

How do you convince someone to change their mind and care more about one than the other? Well, you can cover the countryside with billboards depicting dead fetuses. You can host and televise rallies to gather support. You can upload expert opinions to YouTube. But really, if there is to be a change, it comes when you are actually put in the situation you are fighting for or against. I used to be pro-life, and religious. At the time, my attitude was: here are the rules from above, break them and it’s you’re problem, not the baby’s. And this was all fine and dandy, until I got a girlfriend, and it suddenly dawned on me how easy it had been to hold up a placard and say: these are the standards, take them or leave them. Even worse, I wasn’t simply offering up these standards, I had been passively part of an old mechanism that forces these standards onto others. I then realized, in face of someone I cared for deeply, these values, which would seek to criminalize her and diminish her as human being, were not based in reality. Since then, all the billboards in the world haven’t been able to change my mind.

Where’s the baby in my line of reasoning? Where is the child that would be murdered? Even when I was pro-life, deep down inside, I was never really convinced that an abortion is murder. Are the 40 million women in North America who’ve had abortion murderers? If abortion was to become illegal tomorrow, should they all go to jail? The murder of 40 million people is essentially a holocaust. And what’s to become of the women who seek illegal abortions? Should they and their accomplice doctors go to prison as well? Again, for me, the values of the pro-life movement just don’t jive with reality.

Well, look at me. See what this issue does to a person? I’ve taken a movie review and made it personal. I’ve even forgotten the third thing I was going to mention about Lake of Fire.

Oh yeah, great movie.

No Country for Grumpy Old Men

I was depressed for two days after reading Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, No Country for Old Men. I kid you not. Luckily, I didn’t have to work on the Monday following my weekend read. I spent the day moping around in briefs and a dirty tee-shirt, and by the time I shuffled into work on Tuesday, I was unshaven and heavy-browed, mumbling to myself What’s the point? Earth is a bad place. What’s the point? By Wednesday, I had moved on to Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which helped lift my mood. Needless to say, Cormac McCarthy makes his point in this modern-day western. In fact, he drives it home with a cattle gun.

I’ll admit that McCarthy is no word-mincer; he lets nothing stand in the way of his narrative. Even when I realized that the light at the end of No Country ‘s long dark tunnel was that of an oncoming train, I couldn’t put the darned book down. Make no mistake, as the majority of the critics will tell you, No Country is a bare-boned, shoot-from-the-hip page-turner.

They will also tell you that it’s a classic God vs. Satan, Good vs. Evil struggle. Problem is, No Country contains no aspects of God or Good, and if there is a semblance of either, the struggle is about as lopsided as a wrestling match between Nelle Carter and the kid from Webster. An example of the insubstantial “foils” in No Country is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. The book is peppered with his short, first-person commentaries, which at first seem an appropriate way to break the pace of the main narrative and provide back story. They are quaint and evoke Ed Tom Bell’s wise-old-man-of-the-hills character. However by the last ten pages of the novel I found myself muttering under my breath that Sheriff Tom Bell should quit reminiscing about the old days and actually do his job. In the end, of course, the story leaves him where it finds him: old, crusty and defeated.

There are two other characters which McCarthy sets up as possible foils for the relentless antagonist, Anton Chigurh, but the “struggles” which ensue are for the most part non-existent. All-in-all, rather than a God vs. Satan storyline which the critics are claiming, we simply have a series of well-paced anecdotes starring the Devil, who strides through the novel virtually unopposed. In fact, Anton Chigurh faces such little resistance, that after the climax of the book he even kills off an inconsequential, secondary character. While some might say that this emphasizes the malevolence of the Anton Chigurh, I believe this demonstrates that McCarthy, like a child who has scared the other kids from the sandbox, has run out of plausible things to do with his character.

But this is reality, is how my many friends have responded my criticism about the book. Well, No Country for Old Men isn’t reality, it’s fiction. And when reading fiction we allow a suspension of disbelief to make room for such things as possible impossibilities and to entertain the idea that a man like Anton Chigurh, who walks around flipping quarters and waxing philosophy before killing his victims with a cattle gun, can exist. On the surface, Anton is as Hollywood as they come, and if McCarthy is going to borrow a bad guy from Hollywood, he is going to have to leave reality behind, which means he has to drop any serious social commentary and provide the reader with a Hollywood good guy as a counterpart.

We don’t always need a good guy, is another response I’ve heard from my friends. If that’s the case, then the antagonist or anti-hero should be a compelling character. Turns out, Anton Chigurh is as compelling as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator robot from the original movie, minus the robot bit. He is, as one critic claims “soulless”. In other words, there is nothing in him, no conflict or depth with which the reader can engage. With his quarters and philosophy, Anton has the potential for complexity but in the end, he is a tool to spur the plot along, a blunt malevolent force to be reckoned with. Except in the case of No Country, there is no reckoning.

What’s it going to be, then? A grim, realistic social commentary, or a gritty modern-day western? Philosophical quarters or cattle guns? This is where Cormac undoes himself, by trying to walk the impossible line between solemn reality and entertainment value. What he ends up with are the uninteresting aspects of either side: bland evil and uninspiring good.

But this is Cormac’s point, I believe; his perspective on the world today. And looking at the reviews for No Country for Old Men it seems that many either share that perspective or have fallen under the misconception that anything dark and disquieting must be prophetic. Myself, I was just looking for a good novel to read, and now I find myself asking: Mr. McCarthy, I suspended my disbelief for you, why have you wasted my time?

Obama And This Thing Called Hope

By Guest J ‘Ocean’ Dennie

Maybe I am just getting older, the anarchy of youth settling into mid-age slumber, but democracy does not seem as bad as it once had. Granted, I still bitch and complain about the holes in the system like anyone else with half a brain these days, but there was a time not too long ago when I was ready, along with many others to throw the whole thing to the curb and start again. The angst derived in large measure from the incessant ineptitude of the leadership of not only our country, but the juggernaut to the south. And of course, all of that intensified with the advent of the Bush administration and even more so after his dubious second term victory.

It’s not that I feel any more secure or comfortable with the unprecedented level of corruption that plagues all levels now, rivaling that which is found in absolutist regimes the world over. No, the softening of attitude stems from an aspiration that the dark ages of American politics may soon be coming to an end. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and though it may just be another derailing train headed straight for us, there is renewed hope in the leadership hopefuls, particularly in the Democratic camp. Among the first woman candidate, and the first Hispanic candidate we have Barack Obama, the first African American candidate. Even the spectre of another four year Republican term does not seem so bad under the likes of a likable Rudy Guiliani and a fellow who acted on Law and Order.

It goes without saying that the upcoming elections in the US are important to Canadians and other planetary inhabitants because the days of US isolationism are over and whenever the Americans sneeze, the snot lands everywhere. In recognition of this, I just finished Barack Obama’s recently released book entitled “The Audacity of Hope”. Admittedly, it is the first book I have ever read from a politician. I have never read anything by Michael Ignatieff and I wouldn’t even think of anything penned by embarrassments like Harper or Dion. After reading Obama’s tome, however, I stand convinced the man is in a class far above any of the leaders currently in the control booths.

So why was the hope that bled from those pages so infectious? Did I get suckered into the doublespeak? Not exactly. I was initially attracted to the book in the first place because I found it impossible to envision someone like Bush writing such a thing, outlining his platform in an erudite fashion, as a true intellectual. I was also intrigued with Obama’s past as a ‘community organizer’. Though I am not yet sure exactly what that entailed, it seems to me to be a good thing. It sounded like he must have tried to mend a lot of fences and probably took a lot of crap for it. His years as a constitutional law professor were also intriguing, for here is a man who devotes an entire chapter in his book to an analysis of the US Constitution, writing with such erudition that once again it is difficult to even imagine Bush spelling ‘constitution’ correctly. Barack’s childhood in Indonesia poses great promise for a golden age of cross cultural peace. In any case, if that approach fails and he is elected president, we could then call the war on terrorism ‘Obama vs. Osama’.

What impressed me first and foremost with the book, and in extension, the man, is the degree of authenticity in it, knowing full well how hard it is to hide behind oblique rhetoric when what you think and believe is printed there on the page for all to see, with your name attached to it. Obama seems to have a strong understanding of how the average American views politics these days – as something that “speaks so little to what they are going through” causing many to “turn inward”. Lord knows that is exactly what happened to me. He bemoans the ‘ethic of greed’ that has ‘driven the debate’ for so long now, and he recognizes the ‘absolutism’ of the Republicans and the reactionary nature of his own party, seemingly adrift, directionless. When he writes of ‘national renewal’, I got warm and fuzzy feelings I haven’t had in quite awhile.

He recognizes how the political culture is geared toward and benefits those who “have been trained either as lawyers or as political operatives, professions that tend to place a premium on winning arguments rather than solving problems”. He also notices how tempting it becomes to “assume that those who disagree with you have fundamentally different values, that they are motivated by bad faith, and perhaps are bad people”. This is where Bush got it wrong, in his oft-repeated “with us or against us” axiom.

His discussion of ‘values’ really stood out, since for me, the word has become synonymous with the myopia of the religious right as in the case of ‘family values’. Instead, Obama seems to reclaim the word through recognition that we all possess values that are worthy of respect, and within that respect is the key to bridging divisions. I like it when he wrote, “no one is exempt from the call to find common ground” and I just about fell out of my seat when I read, “I hope that I can always go to my union friends and explain why my position makes sense, how its consistent with both my values and their long term interests”. Mere mention of the left like this brought a smile to my face.

No real mention is made of his potential opponents in the run-up to the election including his leading rival, Ms. Clinton, which is perhaps a strategic thing but would have made for juicy reading. He does speak of an interesting meeting with Warren Buffett and his first encounter with the current President.

There is, unfortunately, only one reference to Canada in the book (our single payer national health care plan). The African country of Togo gets as much ink as we do, so we can surmise how important Canada will be to him, but perhaps it is just an oversight and hopefully not an act of neglect.

The book includes chapters on ‘opportunity’, ‘faith’, ‘family’, ‘race’, and the ‘world beyond our borders’. The latter is a bit of a disappointment since it almost completely neglects the bogus ‘war on terrorism’ and does not come out unequivocally and point fingers, though he does understand to some point how the Americans have played into the hands of the terrorists with all their chest-thumping rhetoric. The chapter also provides cursory lip service to his country’s addiction to fossil fuels and the perils of climate change, something that he will have no choice but to contend with, if and when he is President. No mention is made either of the robber barons of our age including ‘big pharma’ predators. The book chooses not to rustle too many feathers at this point but plants some captivating seeds of hope. It is a fascinating sneak preview into the mind of the man who could become the next emperor of the empire.

Americans should be asking themselves what they really want from a president. Let’s face it: they need someone with a new vision, anything different, anything at all to hoist up on the mantle. Who cares what it is – peanuts, broccoli, saxophones – as long as it ain’t the cocksure Texan bravado of a militarism gone absolutely bonkers. The Presidency could again someday allow citizens to dream about the possibilities.

What does the future hold for our neighbours to the south? Only time will tell and of course none of it is set in stone. We can only hope that common sense and decency will prevail. And if Obama’s words can be accepted at face value and the principles underlying them are adhered to, well, we all may be able to see this thing through.