Finding (first person) ghosts in a stack of newspapers at Heathrow

heathrowSitting on my office desktop is a stack of British newspaper stories full of ghosts. Some easy to see and some a bit dodgy.

The problem is that the stories really are on my desktop — my wooden desktop, instead of my computer desktop. When you try to find the digital copies of these dead-tree-pulp stories, you end up caught in a maze of fees and registration forms. This prevents me from writing about these stories and then allowing you, with a few clicks of your mouse, to explore the texts yourself for context. This is, of course, the essence of blogging, the extra layer of content provided by this strange new medium.

I wanted to write about that special joy that comes when you have a chance to sit down with a stack of newspapers and then munch your way through them at your leisure. This is what happened with me yesterday as my wife and I had a long layover in London Heathrow as we connected between Athens and Miami. People leave newspapers lying around and cheap people like me pick them up and read them. So I just ripped some up and brought home the clips in my shoulder bag.

I wanted to share some of the results in a snapshot tour of those hours. But that’s hard to do without URLs. Right?

Take, for example, that screaming headline on the front of the Tuesday issue of the Daily Mail, the one that said, “At week 12 this foetus is walking. At 15, it’s yawning. The amazing pictures from inside the womb that shine new light on the abortion debate.” This lead into a pair of two-page tabloid layouts, leading off with that familiar dilemma in modern newspaper style — when does the word “baby” come in play?

He is making the most of having room to move.

A mere 12 weeks into a pregnancy, this unborn baby is wriggling his legs in the “stepping motion” characteristic of newborns.

The amazing images, taken by a revolutionary form of ultrasound scan, show the foetus “walking” in the womb at a much earlier stage than thought possible.

The article goes on to say that these images raise legal, political and ethical questions. (To see a BBC video of this, click here.)

But the Mail never really brings up the religious questions — until you turn to page 12 and hit an anguished op-ed by commentator Stephen Glover. In it, he quickly describes the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on unborn life and contrasts its clarity with the more muddled views of the British public, which, like the American public, is all over the map on this issue.

But at some point, stresses Glover, a “foetus” turns into a “baby.” The images seem to show “little human beings” for a simple reason. “They are little human beings,” he writes. It is hard to study the photographs and believe otherwise. Thus, it is hard to do journalism and pretend otherwise. Thus, it is hard to avoid the religious, ethical and moral implications of the words and photos that newspapers do and do not use. Glover concludes (and note the word “beliefs”) that:

History tells us that good people can hold beliefs which subsequent generations think are misguided. There is a movement gathering force — of men and women, liberals and conservatives, Christians and humanists. Its credo is not so revolutionary. Why can look at these pictures of tiny foetuses yawning and walking and jumping, and be certain that abortion is not wrong?

The question for journalists is not whether Glover is right or wrong. The question is how they can cover this story without digging into these religious and moral questions about the basic building blocks of journalism — words and images.

Let’s move on into that stack of clips.

* Similar questions show up in the Thursday Daily Express in an article about the roles that social class and education play in the lives of young women who become pregnant outside of wedlock. This was linked, again, to the new scientific images of the unborn. The moral questions come up. Religious issues do not, except that they are soaked into the spaces between the lines.

* Then, in The Independent, we find a magazine feature interview with Peter Singer, billed as the “world’s most influential philosopher.” Hey, I found that one online. So you get to read that one on your own. But the ghosts are dancing right out there in the open in this piece, by atheist Johann Hari. She notes the contempt that traditional theologians hold for Singer.” This is a long quote, so hang on.

So why do they hate him? He has a simple explanation. “We are living in an incredible time of transition,” he whispers. “In the West, we have been dominated by a single tradition for 2,000 years. Now that whole tradition, the whole edifice of Judaeo-Christian morality, is terminally ill. I am trying to formulate an alternative. Some of what I say seems obscene and evil if you are still looking at it through the prism of the old morality. That’s what happens when morality shifts: people get confused and angry and disgusted.”

Singer’s moral system is called preference utilitarianism, and evolved from the 19th-century philosophy of John Stuart Mill. It sounds convoluted, but many people in the post-religious societies of Europe take its central premise for granted. It has one basic idea: to be moral, you must do whatever will most satisfy the preferences of most living things. Morality doesn’t come from heaven or the stars; it comes from giving as many of us as possible what we want and need.

This isn’t some dry academic theory. It affects the most important decisions in every person’s life. Say you are old and sick and want to die. Under the old Judaeo-Christian ethic, you have an immortal soul given to you by God, and He will reclaim it from you when He’s good and ready. Under preference utilitarianism, your preference — which harms nobody else – should be met, with a lethal injection from a friendly doctor if necessary. The scale of Singer’s intellectual ambition is staggering. He is trying to lead an ethical revolution unparalleled since paganism was beaten and banished by the Judaeo-Christian ethic. “You can’t expect such a radical shift,” he says dryly, “without a few fights.”

* I could go on, writing about that story — which newspaper was that? — on a Muslim girl using mass transit to conduct a quick tour of the emerging world of Muslim Britain, where the parents have traditional faith and the children want to dance and party (but are mad about others misunderstanding their faith). Sorry, that one is not online. Then there are vandals who are attacking religious statues — in The Times and lots of other places.

And, in The Guardian, the U.S. keeps seeking sanctions against “Arab militias” in the Sudan. Why is this issue so important?

A diverse US constituency, combining the Christian right, African-Americans and Jews, has taken an interest in the wars in Sudan.

Well, that raises some interesting questions, doesn’t it? Sorry, the ghost slipped right back into hiding.

And the big question for me, after spending those hours in the airport, is this: Why do the religion ghosts come out in the open when journalists write in first person, but hide in the wire service reports? Can’t we find a way to quote people and write about these debates in factual language? Can’t we admit that the ghosts are real? Just asking. Back to looking for more ghosts in the clips — cyber and otherwise.

Please join the hunt.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ken

    “Now that whole tradition, the whole edifice of Judaeo-Christian morality, is terminally ill.”

    If Peter Singer says it, it must be true.

    “your preference — which harms nobody else – should be met, with a lethal injection from a friendly doctor if necessary”

    Until, of course, your preference is to remain alive and consume resources others need or want. See how quickly that lethal injection becomes necessary, first for those unable to object to it.

    “Some of what I say seems obscene and evil if you are still looking at it through the prism of the old morality.”

    On this, Professor Singer and I are in perfect agreement, although in place of “through the prism of the old morality”, I would say “as a human being.”

    Yes, I know a comment on this blog entry should reference the journalistic questions at hand, but Singer really frosts my cookies.


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