Inconceivable differences: Battleground (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 9, 2022)

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41% of Americans believe Jesus will come back by 2050.

Rolling Stone journalist, from the 2022 documentary Battleground

If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.

-from Hannah and Her Sisters, screenplay by Woody Allen

When I switched on the news and saw a coterie of fresh-faced female activists literally cheering the Supreme Court’s reactionary ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, I reflexively yelled at my TV (imitating Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) …

“Who ARE you people?!”

Well…

The rollback of abortion rights has been received by many American women with a sense of shock and fear, and warnings about an ominous decline in women’s status as full citizens.

But for some women, the decision meant something different: a triumph of human rights, not an impediment to women’s rights.

“I just reject the idea that as a woman I need abortion to be successful or to be as thriving as a man in my career,” said Phoebe Purvey, a 26-year-old Texan. “I don’t think I need to sacrifice a life in order to do that.”

The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was a political victory, accomplished by lobbyists, strategists and campaign professionals over the course of decades. But it was also a cultural battle, fought by activists across the country including those in the exact demographic that abortion-rights advocates warn have the most to lose in the new American landscape: young women.

Often pointed to by anti-abortion leaders as the face of the movement, a new generation of activists say they are poised to continue the fight in a post-Roe nation. Many, but not all of them, are Christian conservatives, the demographic that has long formed the core of the anti-abortion movement. Others are secular and view their efforts against abortion as part of a progressive quest for human rights. All have grown up with once unthinkable access to images from inside the womb, which has helped convince them that a fetus is a full human being long before it is viable.

Many believe the procedure should be banned at conception — that even the earliest abortion is effectively murder. But they embrace the mainstream anti-abortion view that women are victims of the abortion “industry” and should not be prosecuted, putting them at odds with the rising “abolitionist” wing of the movement calling for women to be held legally responsible for their abortions. And overwhelmingly, these young women reject the notion that access to abortion is necessary to their own — or any woman’s — success.

That’s nice. So…who ARE you people?

In my 2013 review of the documentary Let The Fire Burn, which recounted what led up to a 1985-gun battle between Philadelphia police and members of the MOVE organization (resulting in the death of 11 of its members, including 5 children), I wrote:

Depending upon whom you might ask, MOVE was an “organization”, a “religious cult”, a “radical group”, or all the above. The biggest question in my mind (and one the film doesn’t necessarily delve into) is whether it was another example of psychotic entelechy. So, what is “psychotic entelechy”, exactly? Well, according to Stan A. Lindsay, the author of Psychotic Entelechy: The Dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology, “it” would be:

…the tendency of some individuals to be so desirous of fulfilling or bringing to perfection the implications of their terminologies that they engage in very hazardous or damaging actions.

In the context of Lindsay’s book, he is expanding on ideas laid down by literary theorist Kenneth Burke and applying them to possibly explain the self-destructive traits shared by the charismatic leaders of modern-day cults like The People’s Temple, Order of the Solar Tradition, Heaven’s Gate, and The Branch Davidians. He ponders whether all the tragic deaths that resulted should be labeled as “suicides, murders, or accidents”.

Now, I’m not drawing a direct comparison between the “new generation of [anti-abortion] activists” mentioned in the New York Times piece to members of The People’s Temple or the Branch Davidians; although the anti-abortion movement does share certain theological roots, and its history is not violence-free (clinics bombed, doctors murdered).

One thing apparent in Battleground, Cynthia Lowen’s timely portrait of three pro-life activists (Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, and self-described “atheist/liberal/pro-lifer” Terrisa Bukovinac, executive director of the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising) is her subjects’ evangelical fervor for their political cause. Put another way, these chirpily hell-bent Christian soldiers all appear to have supped deeply of the sacramental Flavor-Ade.

Lowen opens her documentary with chilling audio-only excerpts (that I’ve never heard before) from a closed-door meeting held 40 days before the 2016 elections between then-candidate Donald J. Trump, members of his inner circle and leaders of the religious right:

Male 1: We’ve all been paid handsomely by the Trump organization.

Male 2: I don’t know about you, but let me just tell you, I do what Mr. Trump says, right? [laughter]

Trump [entering the room]: Hello, everybody. [half-jokingly] This is real power! […]

Steve Bannon [addressing the religious leaders]: The key that picks the lock to this election…is you. Conservative Catholics and Evangelicals who have not voted, who have not been motivated to vote, have to come to the polls. If we don’t win on November 8th, it’s because Evangelical and Catholic leaders have not delivered. Your fate is in your own hands. […]

Pastor Robert Jeffress: There is only one candidate running in this election who is pro-life, pro religious liberty, pro-conservative Justices to the Supreme Court, and there is only one candidate who treats the views of conservative Christians with respect…and that candidate is Donald Trump. […]

Trump: And this president could choose, I mean it could be five. It’s probably going to be three. It could very well be four, but it could even be five Justices. So you get a Hillary Clinton in there, and it’s over. […]

There’s more, but if you were awake and cognizant during the 4 (endless) years of the Trump administration, you’ve already had a major spoiler as to whether that promise was kept.

The anti-abortion forces had another (arguably even more powerful) political ally—Senator Mitch McConnell, who is shown in the film addressing a Susan B. Anthony List meeting:

As Senate Majority Leader, one thing that I get to do that the other 99 [senators] don’t get to do is to decide what we’re going to do. [pauses for laughter] And obviously, that was on full display when I decided not to fill the Scalia vacancy. [cheers and applause].

Oh, that Mitch…he’s a caution, isn’t he?

McConnell may have been winking at the choir with his braggadocio, but the power that one man holds in context of America’s increasingly polarizing culture wars is frightening. As Lowen points out in her Director’s Statement, “Abortion is the low-hanging fruit that compels anti-choice voting blocks to the polls, and what’s at stake is a much broader agenda: the end of separation between church and state. Outlawing abortion is just the beginning.”

Battleground is a thought-provoking, well-made study, but it’s a bit of a dilemma as to whether I can “recommend” it…it’s almost too close to this week’s headlines for its own good (“Tell me something I don’t know.”) Political junkies likely will not find its lede revelatory; namely, that there has been a well-organized, highly motivated political machine laser-focused on overturning Roe v. Wade for decades.

That said, now that it appears anti-abortion activists are one step closer to their coveted “post-Roe nation”, it’s critical “someone” (in this case, a filmmaker) bears witness and documents that moment Reality caught up with the cautionary adage “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

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