Gosnell or The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer — a police and legal drama about the pursuit, trial, and conviction of a Philadelphia abortionist for three murders and thousands of related offenses — is a film full of powerful moments. But the most powerful moment is also the most unexpected. It comes at the end of the cross-examination of a “good abortionist” with high standards of hygiene and post-operative care by a skillful defense attorney for Dr. Kermit Gosnell. She had earlier been an effective witness for the prosecution because she drew a clear distinction between how a good hospital or clinic would carry out an abortion and the slipshod, unhygienic, and fatal practices of the defendant, which, among other methods, included plunging a pair of scissors into the child’s neck.
Gosnell’s attorney then asks her to describe how she has carried out some of the 30,000 abortions she listed doing at the start of her testimony. He patiently takes her through the different actions she has to perform in late or difficult abortions — piercing the baby’s skull, inserting a catheter into the wound, removing the brain with suction, causing the skull to collapse, removing the baby through the birth canal, and using a surgical instrument to scrape any remaining tissue from the womb. It is all very cold and technical until the defense attorney ends the cross-examination with an apparently throwaway line, noting that, compared with this grim surgical lethality, Gosnell’s methods seem comparatively humane.
The camera focusses on the good abortionist’s face. It changes only very slightly. Her stare becomes more pronounced. But it is as if she is seeing what she has been doing for the first time and simultaneously staring into the abyss. It’s a phenomenal performance by the actress Janine Turner, herself pro-life, and if there were an Academy Award for a single moment of truth in film, she would be hard to beat. I would also add that it was a triumph of Andrew Klavan’s very fine script — if I had not been told by Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, the authors of the book on which Gosnell is based, that Andrew took this passage from the trial transcript nearly verbatim. Such authorial humility is the mark of a real artist. It recognizes that real life packs a real punch, and that in such cases, selection can be the better part of creativity.
My memory of this scene was jolted when, watching the State of the Union, I saw most in the serried ranks of Democrats remain seated and still when President Trump arrived at the following passage:
Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth. These are living, feeling, beautiful babies who will never get the chance to share their love and dreams with the world. And then, we had the case of the Governor of Virginia where he basically stated he would execute a baby after birth. . . . To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb. Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life.
The words alone are a significant moment in America’s public life. Trump may not be the perfect mail-carrier for this message, but he delivered it. And he did it firmly, clearly, and without apology, when so many others — not excluding bishops — conceal it inside larger packages of welfare and budgetary policies designed to keep the conscience of the nation asleep. Powerful though Trump’s words were, however, they made less of an impact than the reaction of the Democrats.
Trump’s words were topical. Most of those watching at home had seen the New York Democrats cheering the state legislation that allows partial-birth abortion, and they knew about the Virginia governor’s endorsement of similar legislation before “racism” swallowed him up. They knew, therefore, that Trump wasn’t making it up or even exaggerating. He was telling it like it is. That’s important because, as regular readers of my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru know well, one of the reasons for the survival of such an extraordinarily permissive legal abortion regime as the U.S. has enjoyed since Roe v. Wade is that most people have no idea of just how permissive it is. Much effort on the Democratic side goes into keeping the public ignorant on that point, because, as the “pro-choice party,” they benefit from the voters’ unawareness of what exactly it is that they support.
So when the Democrats sat on their hands and made plain their wish to be somewhere else as Trump condemned late-birth abortion, they were not suffering the horror of the good abortionist as she woke up to the realities of dilation, extraction, and curettage. They had moved on from that. What rendered them nervously silent was the fear that others were waking up to those same realities at the very moment when the “pro-choice” cause had won to the point of being their party’s unquestionable orthodoxy. The voters might no longer stand behind the veil of progressive ignorance. And to make matters worse, the decision of the Democratic women in Congress to appear clothed in heavenly white gave the picture of their evasive silence an eerie and photogenic significance. It was like the moment in a C. S. Lewis novel just before all hell breaks loose.
It was, I thought, great television — though not all the networks agreed with my judgment since some of them cut quickly away from the ranks of sullen white progressiveness or stuck firmly to safer scenes of Republicans applauding. All the same, the millions watching from Middle America had just had a vision not dissimilar to that experienced by the good abortionist. They had looked into the abyss, and the abyss desperately wanted to change the subject. They had never realized that being on the wrong side of life might mean being on the wrong side of History too. But as C. S. Lewis could have told them, the problem with putting your trust in evolving moral standards is that other people will decide what those standards are. And they may not agree with you. History, you see, rides off furiously in all directions.
Incident in a Tom Wolfe Novel
Status anxiety is a constant theme in the novels of Tom Wolfe and also in real life, where it crops up in the oddest ways. Take airlines, for instance, especially low-price airlines. In order to stay afloat and even make money while keeping fares low, they have to find ways of increasing their revenue from incidental services, charging for luggage, airlines snacks and drinks, greater leg room, and (ingeniously) for grants of high status. These grants of status naturally have to be attached in some way to other desirable things for which you have to pay — such as getting on the plane ahead of other passengers in order to unpack one’s cabin luggage in peace and quiet.
Someone thought about this, and, hey presto, “priority boarding” (a.k.a. “speedy boarding”) was born.
For a modest sum, a passenger can buy this positional good. He then joins a special “priority” line at the gate, which is invited to board first. Others are in the line on seemingly “compassionate” grounds — mothers with children, servicemen, the disabled — which soothes any guilt he may feel for this modestly priced “privilege.” He is stretched comfortably in his seat, idly thumbing through the airline magazine, feeling perhaps like a Nobel prize winner or a retired philanthropist, almost a business-class passenger in fact, while the unwashed masses surge past him to their seats.
What is he buying? The convenience or the status? Both on some occasions, I reckon. But what if he could be asked to choose between the two, as in one of Charles Murray’s celebrated “thought experiments?”
Well, yesterday I was a player in one such experiment. I was one of the speedy boarders who, on this occasion, were invited to board not the plane but a bus taking us to the plane. That throws the priority system into chaos because the bus doesn’t leave until all the different classes are on it. That means that when the bus arrives at the plane, both the privileged and the masses all scramble together up the stairs in democratic confusion.
On this occasion I had bought the speedy boarding ticket to privilege, but when I boarded the bus, I simply sat in the nearest of the few available seats. That can be a real convenience because a bus can be kept waiting by late passengers for ten or so minutes. There was a lady seated next to me who seemed mildly anxious about something. Eventually she asked me what was the reason for a section of the bus being cordoned off. I explained that behind the cordon was an area for people who had priority boarding.
“I’ve got that,” she said.
“Maybe so,” I replied, “But you’ve also got a seat whereas the priority boarding section is pretty full. I should stick it out here if I were you. We’re not so bad.”
But she didn’t seem completely satisfied, and after fretting for a while, she got up from her seat and moved into the ranks of privilege. There she stood for the next ten minutes until the bus moved off to the plane. Where she had been seated a youngish English guy took her place. You see a lot of guys like him in European airports — contractors, technicians, upper-blue-collar types, with a general air of common sense and competence. He sat down, congratulating himself on finding an empty seat.
“You can thank priority boarding,” I said. “The lady who was here didn’t want to spend her money without getting something for it. She moved to the other side of the barrier.”
He was puzzled.
“There used to be some point in that when the cheapo airlines didn’t allocate seats at check-in. Now that they do so, we don’t gain much advantage from getting on the plane first. Of course, some of those status things allow you to take more luggage on board, but I travel light anyway.”
He could have added that in recent years, even the mainstream airlines seem to have been making the cheapest seats less and less appealing in order to sell the little advantages that, mixed with status therapy, persuade us we are living high and fancy.
At that point in our chat, however, the bus then took us to the plane and to the unseemly scrum as people surged up its steps. The lady looked up from her airlines magazine and smiled a light smile of triumph at me as, almost the last passenger to board, I passed down the aisle past the seat where she had ensconced herself ahead of me.
Yes, I was very late to board. It was raining hard outside, and I waited in my seat in the bus until almost everyone else had boarded and I could run quickly up the stairs without getting wet.
On Kicks and Chicks
Some years ago, the late Kingsley Amis, then Britain’s leading novelist, gave a memorably savage review to a largely inoffensive book. It opened by reciting and correcting an interminable list of the book’s inaccuracies and howlers and then concluded drily: “That brings us to the bottom of the first page.” I knew the author who, though wounded, rose above it, partly comforted by the thought that everyone was talking about his book and that his enemies might be buying it, too.
The same financial comfort is not available to the author and editors of the U.K. Telegraph magazine’s recent portrait of Melania Trump, which resulted in the paper paying a large undisclosed sum into a charity of the first lady’s choosing, as well as admitting to an interminable list of errors. Here’s some of them extracted from the apology:
Mrs Trump’s father was not a fearsome presence and did not control the family. Mrs Trump did not leave her design and architecture course at university relating to the completion of an exam, as alleged in the article, but rather because she wanted to pursue a successful career as a professional model. Mrs Trump was not struggling in her modelling career before she met Mr Trump, and she did not advance in her career due to the assistance of Mr Trump. . . . Mrs Trump met Mr Trump in 1998, not in 1996 as stated in the article. The article also wrongly claimed that Mrs Trump’s mother, father and sister relocated to New York in 2005 to live in buildings owned by Mr Trump. They did not. The claim that Mrs Trump cried on election night is also false.
Nina Burleigh of Newsweek, from whose book on the first lady the Telegraph article was extracted, is having none of this apology. She retracts nothing and points out that much of what she wrote had already been reported elsewhere without legal penalty. But one possible explanation for this discrepancy between apologies is the discrepancy between American and British libel law. U.K. libel law is often criticized, I think rightly, for its bias toward libel plaintiffs. A recent U.K. court judgment prohibited newspapers from even reporting that an injunction had been granted against reporting a particular story. But the problem with the more relaxed American libel law is that makes it very difficult for a public figure such as Melania Trump to sue for libel successfully. So the absence of libel writs is no guarantee of journalistic accuracy. (I should add that these rules don’t seem to apply when the defendants are National Review and Mark Steyn, where the costly, long-drawn-out legal process is itself the punishment for disagreeing with progressive-minded scientists.)
Women’s fashion magazines in the U.S. have meanwhile hit upon a very clever strategy for “dissing” Mrs. Trump with no legal risks at all. Though she is one of the most stylish and beautiful first ladies since Martha Washington, the leading fashion magazines never put her picture on their covers. It’s a remarkable triumph of ideology over professionalism and makes the case for a conservative fashion magazine to give readers an alternative to the Madison Avenue Trotskyism that otherwise predominates. It’s not a high priority for me, but conservative women I know get very angry about it.
To give my old paper due credit, the Telegraph’s coverage of Melania Trump as a fashion icon has been generous and (making allowance for the usual feminist obsessions) quite lively. The paper is given to “decoding Melania’s Egypt trouser suit” (my italics). Male readers can ignore the decoding and enjoy the pictures.
To end this item on a lighter note than fashion and feminism, the Telegraph’s apology has added another impressive entry to the list of wonderfully comic media corrections. Not all the corrections are correct, of course. That comes from the stress of writing literature in a hurry. My favorite correction (and that of the late Christopher Hitchens) used to be the British local paper that apologized for a misprint describing a local general as “a bottle-scarred veteran” when what it really meant to write, as it later clarified, was “a battle-scared veteran.”
That triumph of the journalistic arts was overtaken 24 years ago, however, when The New Yorker had to run the following apology:
A mistake made by a transcription service mangled a quotation from William Bennett in Michael Kelly’s July 17th Letter from Washington. In criticizing the political views of Patrick Buchanan, Mr. Bennett said “it’s a real us-and-them kind of thing,” not, as we reported, “it’s a real S & M kind of thing.
Was it really the fault of the transcription service? My suspicion is that from the standpoint of New Yorker editors, the original error was in the old phrase: “too good to check.”