The rules of public discourse have changed in our postmodern times. If truth is relative, the only way anyone can argue is ad hominem.
If everybody has his own truth and one belief is as good as another, any disagreement is considered a personal attack. And the only way to refute an idea is to discredit or ruin the person holding it.
Today, any attempt at religious or moral persuasion-that abortion is wrong or that Christianity is true-often meets with the furious response: "You don't have the right to impose your beliefs on anyone else!" Postmodernists, whether they are academics or the neighbors down the street, really believe that the truth and moral structures of a culture are constructions of the people in power. Therefore, every attempt at persuasion really is an act of power, an effort to "impose" belief.
This explains why postmodernists take everything so personally and react as if they had been violated when they sense that someone is trying to evangelize them. Conversely, people who think in these terms will use power themselves to impose their version of reality.
President Clinton, for example, is accused of things he vehemently denies. Traditionally, a person accused falsely will want all the facts to come out, confident that they will vindicate one's innocence. Instead, the approach is to attack the accusers.
The White House has hired private-eye Terry Lenzner-a gumshoe notorious for his sleazy tactics even by the easy-going standards of his profession-to dig up, or in some cases manufacture, damaging information about Kenneth Starr, his prosecution team, and other critics of the president. This information was then leaked to his cronies in the press by media adviser Sidney Blumenthal, a prominent east coast journalist who made the easy transition to a staff position at the White House as Clinton apologist.
Officials in Mr. Starr's office reported that they received close to a hundred calls from journalists inquiring about the personal lives of members of the staff. One key prosecutor, fearful lest embarrassing information about his earlier life would be published, tried to resign on the spot.
Since blackmail is illegal-as is trying to intimidate law enforcement officials from doing their job-Mr. Starr slapped a subpoena on Mr. Blumenthal. The result, after journalists rallied behind their ex-colleague? Mr. Starr's reputation plummeted and the president's popularity soared.
The general public obediently goes along with the new constructions of reality, blaming the investigator while minimizing what he is investigating. The virtuoso spin-doctoring is reminiscent of Ben Jonson's Volpone, in the play of that name, who is caught in the act of an attempted rape, but so manipulates the legal system and public opinion that the victim and her champion are the ones who get thrown into jail.
There is now a much broader and more far-reaching attempt to squelch dissent by force. The National Organization for Women (NOW) has invoked the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act in an effort to put pro-life organizations out of business. The law, designed to fight organized crime, allows those who claim injury by racketeering to file civil suits against "corrupt organizations," which face payment of triple damages to winning plaintiffs.
The suit, filed in Chicago, argues that Operation Rescue, the Pro-Life Action League, and activists Joseph Scheidler, Timothy Murphy, and Andrew Scholberg conspired to break the law in their abortion-clinic protests, which qualified them as constituting a "corrupt organization." Their efforts financially injured abortion clinics in Milwaukee and Wilmington, Del., to the tune of $86,500. Tripled, this would come to just over a quarter of a million dollars. If the class-action suit is victorious, other clinics could also claim the same settlement, bringing financial ruin to the organizations and the individuals who run them.
(Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, already owes $169,000 from two similar lawsuits. Since he settled with NOW in January, he was dropped from the suit. NOW is currently trying to confiscate his frequent-flyer miles.)
One of the authors of the RICO statutes, Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, is protesting that his bill was only intended to fight organized crime and drug cartels, certainly not groups that never profited financially from their activities. But NOW sees no difference between drug lords and pro-life protesters. "If the anti-abortion thugs won't obey the law," said NOW president Patricia Ireland, "we'll go after them where it hurts-their wallets."
"Anti-abortion thugs" are fair game, no matter the means. Another name for punishing people you disagree with is persecution.
It may seem out of balance for American Christians, in our relative freedom and prosperity, to speak of persecution, when Christians in Africa, the Middle East, still-Communist China, and other parts of the world are actually suffering enslavement, prison, and the death penalty for their faith. Surely that could never happen here. But Christians might steel themselves for the possibility.