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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

October 14, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 25

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

We're being gaslighted
Where is Joseph Cotton when we need him?

By Joan Chittister, OSB

I always thought that the 1939 Hollywood thriller, "Gaslight," was a piece of fiction. Now I'm beginning to think it's real and I'm living in it.

You remember the plot: Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer are married, but he wants to control her and her money. She is sane, but, to get control of her property, he wants her to think she's not. To undermine her emotional stability, he makes noises in the attic at night and causes the lights around the house to flicker on and off, all the while pretending to be a loving, doting husband. If it weren't for Joseph Cotton, the concerned detective from Scotland Yard who unmasks Boyer's real personality and motives, the plot might never have been exposed and Bergman's character, Allie, might never have been saved.

The film went a long way in those days to making the then-unknown relationship between personal stress and mental breakdown. We like to think we know that now.

In fact, a good number of movies over the years have made memorable social statements -- "To Kill A Mockingbird," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "Sophie's Choice," for instance -- but few became part of the language like this one did. To "gaslight" someone means to play with a person's mind in such a way that he comes to the point where he can no longer trust his own perceptions or rely on his own judgments.

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In the last couple weeks, I've begun to worry that the film is being released again -- this time by the government and under a new title: Patriotism. The results are about the same, however. I'm beginning to feel gaslighted.

There was a time, for instance, when we taught children that to think things through carefully before making decisions. Thoughtfulness was an intellectual virtue. We told them to get as much information as possible before choosing a course of action.

We went so far as to tell them that they had to stay open to new data, even after they thought they'd reached an unimpeachable conclusion. After all, we told them, at the beginning of the 20th century the common belief was that there was one galaxy and we were its glory, its center, its apex. By the end of the 20th century, we knew that there were millions of galaxies and we were only a dot in the universe.

Now, it seems -- at least in the political universe in which we live -- openness to new information is no longer "reasonable." It is now called "flip-flopping." Stubborn commitment to old and partial information is called "strong leadership." As long as the leader is sure he's right, I guess, it is acceptable to be wrong. Even when thousands die as a result of it.

I can hear the noises in the attic even as I write.

I remember the day that John Kerry in a stump speech dealing with foreign policy questioned the conduct of the war in Iraq. He concluded, he said, that it was "the wrong war at the wrong time for the wrong reason." The president, rather than answer the criticism directly, simply lampooned Kerry for "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." If I remember correctly, they indicted Tokyo Rose for that at the end of the Second World War.

See the lights flickering.

Since when did it become treason for a candidate for the presidency to doubt that one of the most universally unpopular wars in modern history might not have been a good idea for a country that is now almost totally isolated in the world community for waging it? Or as Teddy Roosevelt put it, "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, it is morally treasonable to the American public."

Most of all, the smokescreen called "pro-life" is being used to confuse the real life issues of war and peace, health care and sickness, jobs and welfare, debt and pensions, stability and poverty, education and unemployment.

Editor's Note
         A new series, called Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories has begun on NCR's Web colum Global Perspective. Over the next six weeks, you'll hear women's voices from Asia, Africa and Latin America.
After all, it's easy to be "pro-life" when all you have to do is to talk about the unborn. It doesn't cost a penny. When a government is really pro-life, on the other hand, they commit themselves to honor, preserve, feed, house, protect, maintain and sustain life ecologically after it's born, too. Whatever good things can be said of this administration, the figures simply do not support its being called "pro-life."

Now I see that, in the face of an official report excoriating the administration for "pre-emptively" invading a country that had none of the weapons we say we went there to save ourselves from, the president and vice president argue that that's exactly the reason we did it: They didn't have them but they wanted them and they might get them. Heaven save half the nations on the face of the earth from us if that's the criteria for invading them.

Reason, criticism, commitment and solid proof in the interests of good government, high office and world leadership seem to have gone by the wayside. Instead, we are being expected to be happy with obstinance, inference, empty pietisms and by-guess-and-by-golly.

From where I stand, we're being gaslighted. We're being led to believe that things are what other people say they are rather than what we know to be obvious. We're being encouraged to let others do our thinking for us even when their thinking is wrong. We're being told not to question what someone else says is good for us for their own sakes.

It's a dangerous moment. Where is Joseph Cotton when we need him?

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