Here’s a blast from the past, a word you probably thought you’d never need to look up again: “borking.” After conservative journalist Mona Charen published an article yesterday in the National Review suggesting that liberals are borking poor Herman Cain, the word is now plastered once again all over American media websites. Mind you, though Charen has impeccable right-wing credentials (she was, after all, a speechwriter for Nancy Reagan), her essay concludes that Cain may be playing the unfair character-assassination angle to avoid telling the truth about what went on between him and former employees who claim Cain sexually harassed them.
Even so, borking: it’s back. Back in the news. Big-time. And the context in which it’s appearing in the news is fascinating to me because of its cultural implications. There are already reports that the breaking of the story about Cain’s troubles due to alleged sexual harassment has actually benefited his campaign financially. Donations began pouring in immediately after the sexual harassment story hit the news, and as Evan McMorris-Santoro and Jillian Rayfield report at Talking Points Memo today, right-wing commentators are using the Cain story as an occasion to dust off old charges that good men are under attack by bad women in a culture of feminism gone mad.
They’re even–amazingly–reviving the Clarence Thomas story as an illustration of how bad women try to bork good men. Just because. Because that’s what bad women do. And so Cain is evidently now benefiting from his claim that he’s being unfairly pilloried by the press because there’s considerable sympathy among many American males for any man, particularly a powerful one, who appears to be under attack from any nasty feminist-type woman and the “liberal” media that give such women voices.
Given this very recent cultural backdrop to the revival of interest in the term “borking,” and given the heavy macho-heterosexist overtones of the term, I’m intrigued to see Commonweal editor Matthew Boudway and Commonweal regular Deacon Jim Pauwels trying to argue in this current thread at the Commonweal blog site that poor Father Thomas Weinandy of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference’s Committee on Doctrine is being borked. The Committee on Doctrine is the USCCB body that has raised grave questions about the theological integrity of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is (and, implicitly, about Johnson’s own personal and academic integrity, since attacks on the scholarship of a bona fide scholar inevitably impinge on the character of the scholar whose work is being attacked).
As the posting by Grant Gallicho to which the discussion of Weinandy-borking is appended notes, the chair of the Committee on Doctrine, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, under whom Weinandy serves, has just released a statement saying that Sr. Elizabeth Johnson refused to meet with the Committee on Doctrine after it apprised her of the errors of her book. That claim appears to be, to put it mildly, untrue. As Joshua McElwee reports at National Catholic Reporter, Johnson flatly refutes the cardinal’s claim that she refused to meet with his committee, and has a detailed timeline showing precisely how and when she and the committee communicated with each other–a claim substantiated by the documentary timeline that accompanies Gallicho’s posting.
And so I’m interested in the claim that poor Fr. Weinandy is now being borked–and, by implication, that his USCCB superior Wuerl is also being treated unfairly in the ongoing exchange at various Catholic websites about what’s been done to Sr. Elizabeth Johnson. The OED defines borking as “to defame or vilify (a person) systematically, esp. in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way.”
And as I read that definition and think about it in light of Boudway and Pauwels’ claim that Weinandy is being borked, the following questions occur to me:
1. On the face of it, isn’t it far more accurate to call what the USCCB has done to Sr. Elizabeth Johnson a borking? If to bork someone is to defame or vilify her systematically in a highly public way, with the aim of obstructing and thwarting that person’s career and influence, it seems to me, prima facie, that it’s far easier to make a strong case for the borking of Elizabeth Johnson than for the borking of Thomas Weinandy (or Donald Wuerl).
2. And as long as we’re going to dust off this antiquated term, what about what Wuerl and his penultimate predecessor in the see of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Hickey, did to their fellow bishop Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen right around the same time Robert Bork was being borked? Remember that blast from the past? Hunthausen made pastoral overtures to the gay and lesbian community (though his really grievous sin may have been his public resistance to the arms race and his resistance to paying taxes to build nuclear warheads), and Rome pounced. Cardinal Ratzinger sent Hickey to do an investigation of Hunthausen akin to the one Archbishop Chaput was just commissioned to do of Bishop William Morris in Australia.
And the upshot was that Wuerl was placed in Hunthausen’s diocese as an auxiliary bishop given the right to usurp Hunthausen’s own episcopal power in his own diocese–an unheard-of slap in the face in the Catholic system, which normally jealously safeguards the absolute right of a bishop to be a little king in his own diocesan domain.
The ultimate effects of all this behavior on Hunthausen, his reputation, and his career, certainly look to me like what happens when someone is borked. Public, official vilification, character assassination, and defamation designed to besmirch the image of someone in power, so that he never wields power again . . . . Hunthausen was eventually more or less roughly shunted into the shadows, where he has lived ever since. While Wuerl has gone on to a brilliant career as the cardinal archbishop of a major American see, where he exerts great power in the nation’s political center and spends what time he has left over from the tiring demands of powermongering commissioning investigations of the incorrect teachings of theologians like Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.
3. And come to think of it, have you ever actually heard claims that a woman is being borked? Robert Bork, the original borkee, was a powerful man. Herman Cain, we’re now being told, was borked. Do a google search linking the terms “Clarence Thomas” and “bork,” and you’ll come up with a wealth of hits claiming that poor Clarence Thomas has been borked over and over again.
But I’m not aware of similar cases in which there’s a large hue and cry about the borking of women. Of Elizabeth Johnson, for instance. Or of Anita Hill, whose testimony against Thomas convinced many of us that she was speaking the truth and Thomas was spectacularly evading the truth–though he got himself confirmed as a Supreme Court justice despite this borking.
There’s not a verb for what was done to Anita Hill in those hearings, is there? Robert Bork (and Thomas and Cain and now Weinandy/Wuerl) were borked. But Anita Hill wasn’t hilled. We don’t seem to have any pithy, testosterone-laden, one-syllable verbs to describe the public, ritual humiliation of a woman, designed to ruin her reputation forever, and drive her decisively from the circles of power.
4. And so whose interests, specifically, are Boudway and Pauwels defending in arguing that poor Thomas Weinandy is being borked in the case of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson? Charges about borking seem to arise quite specifically from a heterosexist-male social location, and to be pitched very strongly in the direction of defending heterosexual males from accusations made against them by women. These charges presuppose a heterosexist-male social location even when women make them. There are scores of women in conservative political and religious circles who actively promote a macho-heterosexist worldview premised on heterosexual male entitlement.
Charges about borking are pitched in the direction of defending heterosexual males from accusations made against them by women. Or by gay men, since the Commonweal thread in which Boudway and Pauwels maintain that poor Fr. Weinandy is being borked begins with a contribution by Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic ministry that calls for pastoral outreach to those who are gay and lesbian. And, in fact, DeBarnardo tells a story very similar to that now being told by Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, about his group’s dealings with Weinandy.
And so it’s doubly interesting that Boudway and Pauwels choose to leap to Weinandy’s defense in a thread that begins with the testimony of a man who heads a Catholic ministry of compassionate outreach to those who are gay. It’s almost as if some of the key folks who power the Commonweal enterprise want to make the testimony of gay Catholics and those in solidarity with gay Catholics appear completely beside the point–to bork that testimony so that it has no hearing in any circles of power that shape the agenda of American Catholicism, and so that it’s as if the walls have spoken when an openly gay voice speaks in these circles. As usually happens when the walls speak, those of us doing power business simply carry on with our power business as if no one has spoken at all.
While never avowing the heterosexual male power and privilege we’re defending as we bork our brothers and sisters who happen to be gay by pretending that their testimony is not worth hearing, since it proceeds from a polluted source. Or as if they haven’t spoken at all, once they’ve provided their testimony . . . .
Am I right? That’s how it appears to me, and these are some questions I feel inclined to ask on this day of All Souls, which always strikes me as a powerful salient liturgical reminder of the importance of every voice in the enterprise called Catholicism, which is, I have always understood, about inviting everyone inside.
Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 2 November 2011.