Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Once you get on a Scarlett Johansson kick, it’s hard to let go. Real, real hard.
Having just done a review of the godawfully dumb but Scarlett-Johansson-containing Lucy, I can’t overlook the impressively self-contained, intriguing, and record-breakingly-spectacularly Scarlett-Johansson-containing Under the Skin. This I liked. Oh, yes.
Under the Skin is a mesmerisingly slow, subtle, Nouvelle Vague-ish sci-fi film that only clearly identifies itself as such in the last few seconds. We know we’re watching something very strange; things are happening to people that can’t be explained, that shouldn’t be possible. But the explanation – fantasy?, horror? some sort of weird allegory? – doesn’t settle into anything understandable until the end. The viewer is left continually puzzled and unfulfilled until all the previous scenes suddenly come crashing together into a comprehensible narrative, all the dangling clauses closing, all the ambiguous scenes collapsing into a particular interpretation that makes it out to be sci-fi of a not-unfamiliar type, but assembled with such lapidary grace and knife-edge balance that its message, when it reveals itself, hits that much harder and more engagingly.
SPOILER ALERT [Spoilers After the Jump]
Normally, I’m up for a good Devil’s-advocate following-your-principles-off-the-cliff screed as much as anyone. But it’s hard to figure out what triggered John Sutter of CNN to become so overwrought on the subject of eating dogs as food that he devoted an editorial to it and managed to wind up on both sides of the issue. Yes, as he notes, it’s traditional practice, and apparently big business, in some Asian countries, but it’s not much of an issue in the English-speaking world and he seems to be uniquely exercised about it. He both condemns the practice as barbaric and also suggests it is as justifiable as eating other animals (which he does not explicitly condemn), then concludes weakly that “it’s the [question] all of us should further examine”. Thus, it remains puzzling exactly how he feels or what he wants us to do about it.
No doubt most readers are familiar with the old urban legend about how humans “only use 10% of our brains”. It’s embarrassingly dumb (the most vital organ in the body – and the one responsible for the extraordinarily high rate of death in childbirth, due to its large size, evolved to be 10x larger than it actually needs to be?; and how do we determine just what percentage is being used?), but it persists. (I once attended a lecture in which the speaker seriously insisted that “Albert Einstein used 20% of his brain.”) It returned last week in the form of Lucy, an undisciplined sci-fi action thriller directed by Luc Besson, starring Scarlett Johansson as an ordinary human who is fortuitously accelerated to using larger and larger percentages of her brain until she transcends reality itself.*
In a kind of manic defiance of science-fiction convention, Besson makes no attempt to make the basic factual premise of his movie even sound like it could be true, and fills much of the plot development with shootouts and a truly inspired extended car chase/crash scene. But he is so wedded to the notional groundwork of the film that he includes a numerical readout of the percentage of brain use Johansson achieves at each point in the plot, repeated House-style digital animations of synapses and molecules in action, and an honest-to-god full-length formal lecture from a scientist, complete with slides and a Q&A session. The result is a mess, with unnecessarily pretentious overtones, but still kind of fun.
SPOILER ALERT [Spoilers Below the Jump]
Jill Filipovic, at Feministe, has a great post up on objectification of women within liberal activist circles. It was prompted by the much-commented assholery of one Steven Greenstreet, who took video footage of female demonstrators at OWS protests and put it up on Tumblr, out of context and with no purpose other than inviting leering at the “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street”.
Jill righteously calls him out for it (as did many others):
The deflecting from legitimate concerns, and the fact that the OWS “public” includes a lot of men who think it’s ok to treat women at a protest like we’re there for their visual fulfillment, troubles me. No one is saying, “Don’t find women attractive.” . . . No one is objecting to the fact that straight men are attracted to some women (fun fact: straight women are also attracted to some men! So really, no one is pissed about attraction, I promise). What people are pissed about is what Rebecca Traister says:
“The larger, simpler argument, outside of consent or permission, is: This video is sexist. It’s an example of women participating in public life — political, professional, social — and having their participation reduced to sexual objectification. That’s what happened here, nothing more, nothing less.” . . .
Emphasis mine. . . . [C]reating a blog and a video dedicated to showing women at a protest with the sole purpose of reminding dudes that women at the protest are hot? That does reduce women to objects of male attention. It’s another reminder, for women, that how seriously we’re taken and how valuable we are depends on how sexually attractive we’re deemed.
Read the whole thing; she’s got good things to say. But the part that really triggered something for me was this:
Frankly, the kinds of dudes who would come to the OWS protests because they heard there are hot chicks there? Are not the kinds of dudes I want to be protesting with. I would hope they’re not the kinds of dudes that most progressives would want to be protesting with — but judging by the lefty-dude reaction to Steven Greenstreet (hi Matt Zoller Seitz, looking at you!), that’s not the case. It’s disappointing.
To say the least. And far too common, from way back. It’s no secret that supposedly “progressive” groups have always been rife with sexism and sexual pressuring, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. Progressives have never been immune to human failings, including stereotyping and bigotry of the kind that they supposedly abhor but sometimes don’t recognize in themselves; the long fight for acceptance in progressive movements of gays and transexuals is one case in point, and the difficulty many white (and especially male heterosexual) liberals have in recognizing and acknowledging their own privilege is another. But the LGBTQ community, people of color, and other marginalized groups, though still embattled, have by now to a considerable degree been granted by progressives the one thing many persist in denying to women: recognition of the fact that they have real interests, problems, and worth that must be taken seriously. The situation is far from perfect, and not everybody agrees on how the tensions between different progressive constituencies should be resolved, but in most cases they are acknowledged, and the human pain and human interests that lie at their heart are given due deference. Except in the case of women.
To be sure, progressives are not right-wingers. They don’t overtly hate women. They don’t gleefully consign them to death by deliberate neglect at the hands of sniffy sex-negative religious bigots. They don’t dishonestly and cynically strain moral concepts – often ones introduced and championed by progressives – such as “informed consent” to create barriers to the very autonomy they are intended to protect. They don’t penalize the fact of women’s having sexual natures – just the opposite! But in too many cases they don’t grant them the respect and freedom needed to act on their own natures and seek their own good. Just as with conservatives, women exist for far too many progressive men for the purpose of their gratification – an impersonal usage that erases those women as persons themselves.
Which leads me, finally, to the question that came up for me on surveying this latest stupid and distasteful incident: how, exactly, are these dipshit “progressive” men progressives? What goes through their heads, what process takes place in their heads, such that they wind up thinking things like “let’s go to the OWS protest and photograph women’s breasts!”? How, when they are called out for that, do they expend so much energy defending their childishness and sexism? Why do they not care about offending or humiliating their supposed fellow activists – about derailing or undermining the movement they claim to support – about embarrassing that movement by acting in a regressive manner and then elevating their own bad behavior into the limelight? More particularly, what is it that allows progressives to empathize with everyone but women, even women in their own movement? What allows them to hear everyone else’s protests at mistreatment, and dismiss those of women out of hand?
In a way, I suppose it has something in common with the denial and self-absorption that allowed Southern slave-holders to rationalize their own crimes. Patriarchy is its own form of slavery, more complex and less overt, but very real, and it is very hard to acknowledge you are doing wrong when your entire lifestyle, all its comforts and conveniences and pleasures, derives so much from others’ service to your needs. It is easy to protest obvious wrongs that don’t require you to change your own life to amend. But progressive men, in many cases, are no better than the privileged classes of the Confederacy, of apartheid South Africa, of Wall Street itself, at admitting that their own satisfaction depends on bending others to their desires, against their will and at the denial of their basic human personhood.
You can’t be progressive just for causes you aren’t invested in, at the expense of people you don’t like. Being progressive means wanting to live in a better world – not just wanting to take down the most guilty in this one and then carry on regardless. Being progressive means checking your privilege, living the dream you envision, being part of the solution – all slogans that have at their heart the basic truth that you have to be as critical of yourself as you are of others, or more so, since you can only really change yourself.
You aren’t a progressive if you mistreat women. You aren’t a progressive if you think progressivism is defined as rallies, protests, and events, rather than a mindset that is grounded on a world in which people are treated with respect, by everyone, starting with yourself. You aren’t a progressive if you go to events but don’t treat the people there with regard. You aren’t a progressive if you revel in your own privileges at the expense of the pain and diminishment of others, then feel hurt because you’ve decided that whatever superficial support you feel for “the cause” entitles you to use others for your pleasure and then resent it when they object.
If you’re not a progressive for any of these reasons, you’re little better than a reactionary even if you vote the right way. You’re pro-choice? Great. You don’t think being pro-choice encompasses the choice to control, and present, your own sexuality on your own terms? You’re not a progressive, and you’re a pain and an embarrassment to those who sincerely try to be.
Rick Santorum – humiliated in his last electoral bid, and trailing badly in the GOP primary polls – knows he needs to keep saying outrageous things to keep himself in the public eye. Plus which, he’s crazy, so saying outrageous things is never difficult for him.
He’s been in the news lately for making bizarre comparisons of gay marriage to beer, a cup of tea, and a paper napkin – all predicated upon the rather obvious but undeniable point that “it is what it is. Right? You can call it whatever you want, but it doesn’t change the character of what it is”. This is a claim on which Santorum congratulates himself by describing it as “sort of metaphysical”, but might otherwise be categorized as “sort of idiotic”. Apparently it means something to him, though, because he keeps saying it – most recently in a just-posted interview on the Iowa Independent Website: “It’s like going out and saying, ‘That tree is a car.’ Well, the tree’s not a car. A tree’s a tree. Marriage is marriage.” He goes on to spew a frothy mixture of crazy in a wide arc: gay marriage “minimizes what that bond means to society” (by letting people . . . form that bond . . .); “you’re gonna undermine religious liberty in this country” (his examples consist exclusively of the liberty to prevent other people from doing things); “we’ve created something that is not what it is” (so much for the tautological metaphysics).
But there’s a particular moment in the interview I want to highlight, because it captures so perfectly the ideological dishonesty, and complete divorce from reality, of the right-wing, and particularly the anti-choice movement.
If your position on abortion prevails and abortion is prohibited, Senator, what should the penalty be for a woman who obtains an abortion or a doctor who performs one?
Santorum: I don’t think there should be criminal penalties for a woman who obtains an abortion. I see women in this case as a victim. I see the person who is performing the abortion as doing the illegal act
Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) asks on Twitter:
Why oh why is our country in the grips of a sex panic? I just don’t get it.
My response was:
Obama backlash was greenlight for all wingnuts; every hate/fear is now OK, unhidden, synergistic.
I’d like to de-Twitterize and unpack that a bit.
I’m sorry to have to say it, but I’m not totally diggin’ this:
It’s from the Sierra Club’s new ad campaign “to remind our representatives who they are actually hurting when they attack the EPA.” I’m entirely in agreement with the goal of the campaign, and even with the message of this ad (“gutting emissions regulations results in greater release of toxins, which can do their worst damage during fetal development”). But I have reservations about its methods.
The obvious function of the ad, of course, is that it plays to the right-wing’s proclaimed concern for fetuses to the exclusion of all other health issues (including, of course, pre-natal care, gynecology, infant and child care, and other such irrelevancies). And the fact that the imagery plays so obviously and shamelessly off of the right wing’s fetish for pregnant bellies – in this case to prod them to do something to improve people’s health, rather than take away their rights to healthcare, is an amusing irony. But it’s just those points that leave me uncomfortable.
First, there’s something in a way defeatist, or at least pessimistic, about the focus of the campaign: because the GOP only cares about unborn fetuses, we have to couch every issue in terms of its impact on fetuses. (“Wear your seatbelt – so your fetus doesn’t get hurt!” “Support solar power – so your fetus will use less oil!” “Don’t spread deadly poisons in the environment – because it might hurt some of the fetuses of the less than 1% of the population that’s pregnant at any given time!”) But surrendering every issue to the religious right’s fetus-fetish takes everyone else in the population out of the picture. Mercury, dioxin, and other poisons in the environment hurt everyone. It matters that young children who have grown out of the right’s preferred age for adulation (i.e., they’ve been born already) are also vulnerable to developmental delays and all the other effects of environmental toxins; it matters that adults are crippled and killed by heavy metal poisoning; it matters that the women who are carrying these favored fetuses are also affected by the poisons they ingest – in addition to the fetuses that are the focus of concern in this campaign: these are the people who are hurt when the right wing attackes the EPA – why can’t the Sierra Club, of all people, say so? It may be true that the right only cares about fetuses (and then largely as tools for hurting women, who are their real obsession), but allowing them to forget everyone else is to forfeit the major part of the fight to them without contest. When progressives’ campaigns have the same focus, same tactics, and same blind spots as the reactionaries they are campaigning against, much is lost even if those campaigns succeed.
The second, and perhaps more striking, issue that arises for me from this ad is the imagery that is used. When I said it leaves everyone but the fetus out of the picture, I meant it literally. This ad replays in every detail one of the most common, and most offensive, tropes of anti-choice misogyny: the faceless pregnant woman reduced to nothing but her belly. (Can’t say “uterus“, you know!) You see it everywhere (and, as @ClinicEscort points out, particularly in stories about abortion): a woman’s body reduced to nothing but swollen boobs and swollen belly, or often just the belly – the face is always cut off, just out of the frame. The effect – and unquestionably the purpose – is to erase the woman from her own pregnancy. It’s fetus porn, with the woman dehumanized just as badly as, and in some ways even more fully than, in sexual porn (where at least you can often see the face). It’s the kind of misogynist metonymy that at least has come to be recognized (if not eliminated) in product advertising, but apparently still goes unremarked in issue or values advertising – even though its major function is to promote the value of dehumanizing women. That it does reflect and promote the right-wing vision of women goes without saying: women as pregnant vessels who are not even named or acknowledged, and certainly have no interests or needs that deserve to be addressed in their own right, could hardly be better illustrated than by photographs of them as exactly that, used in campaigns aimed at denigrating women’s interests in favor of the “interests” of an unborn fetus.
It’s infuriating to see progressive groups use such images and tactics. This goes beyond simply bowing to the reality of the right’s indifference to women by finding another “hook” for an issue; this actively embraces and endorses its dehumanizing methods in order to use them for that other issue – exactly what the right wants. What I want is something better than this from nominal allies.
The latest entry in the “creepy personified fetus” category: the “Feti” – weird/cutesy Christmas-tree ornaments shaped like tiny embryos at about the 6-8 week stage (bulbous head, no digits, visible tail). As is usual with this genre, they sport adult-appropriate personal characteristics, including clothes, personal possessions, and in one case a moustache. You can buy Santa fetuses, “happy” fetuses, candy-cane-carrying fetuses, and an “Adam Lambert” fetus displaying a punk hairdo and clutching a Star of David – a cultural mishmash that I refuse to attempt to understand.
The purveyor of the site insists that “Feti is just for fun, no political statements being made here.” I’m tempted to believe that in her case, but the thing still strikes me as weird, and indicative of a mindset that is worth noting.
The vendor suggests these are intended as gifts for expectant parents, as appropriate additions to the “Baby’s First _____” category of remembrances. (Exactly how, I’m not sure: “Baby’s First Disembodied Hanging on a Christmas Tree”?) In that vein, they play off the very common and understandable practice of many expectant parents in personifying their fetus as it develops – talking to it, playing music, naming it before it is born, and so on. They also seem to accept as a cultural commonplace the fetishizing – literally, in this case! – and personifying of the fetus that is a mainstay of anti-choice propaganda. (Anti-choicers often wear gold-plated fetal-footprint jewelry, and they are forever trying to force abortion patients to look at pictures or sonograms of the fetus.)
I don’t know if the anti-choice movement has so far succeeded in turning the fetus into a fetish object that you can now literally market them to the general public as holiday ornaments, or if the common desire to see fetuses as sort of reverse-extensions of babies simply makes this a natural marketing move, like Cabbage Patch dolls or those weird Anne Geddes photographs of babies in flower petals, and the right wing has merely piggybacked off that common emotional trope for their own purposes. The former would scare me a bit, the latter is merely infuriating. Either way, this sort of thing leaves me with a creepy feeling.
I’m happy for people to be happy about their pregnancies, and to embue their future offspring with emotional valence or even a somewhat overgrandiose sense of promise or accomplishment. In the same way that all parents think their kids are smart and talented, and I wouldn’t quarrel with that, expectant parents can and should go ga-ga over the cute little buns in their respective ovens. There is no point, in the case of people’s emotional experience of the events in their lives, to go around insisting to them “you know it has no functional higher nervous system, right?” . . . “that’s not a ‘person’ you’re carrying, in any meaningful sense of the term – just wanted to let you know” . . . “don’t get too close to it – there’s about a 1-in-12 chance you’ll lose the pregnancy”. But when it comes to law and policy-making, clear distinctions do have to be made – and at that point, the conflict between stark reality and parents’ expectations may be uncomfortable.
Regardless of parental beliefs, not all kids are smart or talented, and thus some won’t make it into selective academic or sports or art programs. And regardless of the fervent, desperately dishonest myth-making of the anti-choice right, the early fetus is not a person and does not make moral claims on a woman’s body and life sufficient to override her autonomy. It is unfortunate to have to disappoint people emotionally invested in believing otherwise, but it is far worse to make policy based on wishful thinking in defiance of the truth.
By all means, have yourself a merry little Christmas, and hang a smiling Adam Lambert Jewish punk fetus upon the highest bough. But let’s keep the “personified fetus” myth firmly in its place when we go to making important decisions about real issues in real people’s lives.
Penn Jillette – magician, activist, raconteur, and all-round interesting character – posts this YouTube video in which he passes on what he says is the best advice ever given for relating to your elderly or incapacitated parents.
(See here for a similar observation from an equally-surprising source.)
The AP reports that Scott Roeder, the terrorist who killed Dr. George Tiller, publicly and in cold blood, last May, has openly confessed to the crime and justified it with the usual religious-radical gibberish about “unborn children”. In the article, he explicitly equates fetuses with independently-living persons and claims that killing to prevent abortion is justified if at least one forced pregnancy results; he encourages others to perform similar terroristic murders, and states he intends to base his legal defense on an argument for a religious-political justification for murder. None of this is new, except possibly that he has stated all this on record now. It confirms what we knew about him, anyway.
The real question is whether those who are so agitated about real or imagined terrorism of other kinds (especially by Muslims), and who have been so complacently accepting of anti-woman terrorism in the US for decades, will condemn or even acknowledge an open statement of Christian religious-terrorist ideology in the case of yet another anti-choice fanatic.
Just this week we’ve seen a terrible mass murder committed by a Muslim military officer who was apparently distraught over the war in Afghanistan and his possible deployment. Literally before the bodies were cool, various right-wingers jumped in to denounce “Muslim terrorism” and to cite vague links between the suspect and Al Qaeda (he visited a mosque which was also visited by someone who knew someone who was connected with Al Qaeda); however, it is not clear that the apparent perpetrator’s motives were intended for a political end at all – as opposed to merely an outburst of personal anxiety – and there is little to suggest that it was terrorism in any reasonable sense. The murders of doctors by anti-choicers, beyond any question, are defined by the features of terrorism found in most of the commonly-used definitions: they are acts of violence committed against civilians for the purpose of inciting fear in other, third-party individuals, to promote a particular political end. We heard nothing of this at the time of Dr. Tiller’s death (nor of any of the previous murders and other acts of violence); will we hear it acknowledged now that the terrorist has so openly proclaimed his murderous religious ideology?
Anti-choice terrorism is intended to prevent women from exercising a legal and moral right involving their bodily health and autonomy, by terrorizing those women and their healthcare providers – it is violence intended not merely against its chosen (often random) targets, but to terrorize and thus paralyze a larger group, to further the religious and political ideology of the perpetrators and their vast army of supporters and admirers within the religious right. Yet it has never been acknowledged as such, and the large subculture on the right wing who have made a profession of terrorism scare-mongering have never acknowledged the persistent anti-choice terrorism ongoing in the US. (Nor has the FBI: fake anthrax attacks had been staged on almost 700 abortion clinics in the US in the days before 9/11 – not one of them resulted in an arrest, or any obvious urgency about the issue, and they were not treated as domestic terrorism. One person was charged with terrorism for fake anthrax attacks on clinics in the wake of 9/11 and the Congress anthrax mail attacks – the first and only such charge in the entire history of anti-choice terrorism. None of the anti-choice murderers, including Roeder, have been charged as terrorists.)
Now we have an admitted terrorist openly advocating further political killings to promote his religious obsessions. If Roeder were a Muslim and his targets were not women and their healthcare providers, the shrieking loons of the right would be off their heads screaming about his crime, his religious beliefs, his unrepentant stance, his advocacy and rationalization of violence, and his links to other extremists with similar religious and political beliefs. Will we see even the slightest acknowledgment of Christian anti-choice religious terrorism and its dangers in this blatant case?
At this moment, debate is proceeding on the House votes on the landmark healthcare bill. I haven’t blogged about it, because, frankly, it was overwhelming and I didn’t know what I could say that would help. (The Democrats’ stealth approach to bill-crafting, while possibly politically astute, made it hard to get a clear handle on the thing, too.) This will be, without question, one of the most important legislative events of my lifetime; if the bill passes the Senate and is finally voted into law in a reasonably intact form, it will be the most significant development in American history that I will see. More importantly, it will be – largely, though not entirely – an end to crippling insecurity and lifelong anxiety for hundreds of millions, and of irremediable pain and suffering for tens of millions who now live in the only affluent country that permits its business class to sell life itself for profit.
The bill on offer is far from optimal. It locks in the profiteering on death and misery that the vast majority of the country is burdened with, and is needlessly complicated and limited in what it offers to the rest. It deliberately cripples its own modest offering by restricting it only to those whom the profiteers have absolutely refused to serve at any price, prohibiting the rest of the country from accessing healthcare organized on any saner and more humane basis. But worst of all, the bill is being held hostage by the insane and vicious anti-choice army that infests the right wing and has wholly captured the Republican party. And, too predictably, the omnipresent contingent of grandstanding asshole Democrats is giving them exactly what they want, as they always do.
Right now, the “Stupak amendment” is being debated: an amendment that will prohibit any person enrolling in the government-backed “healthcare exchange” – which is to say, the poorest and most desperate, who are the only ones eligibel to enroll in that plan – from being offered a full range of healthcare services in cases of unwanted pregnancy. For those people, the “public options” will be forced pregnancy, death in childbirth, or an abortion that she likely can’t afford and the right-wing terrorists have likely made unavailable anyway. The Republican House caucus has already stated explicitly that they will refuse to vote for the healthcare bill in any form. But they – with their unconscionable Democratic allies – are holding up the bill to demand the anti-choice amendment in a bill they will not support even if they get it. And enough Democrats are equally indifferent to women’s lives and women’s needs to help them do it.
Democratic women are putting up a good fight – and their male allies deserve thanks, too. The Republicans have shrunk from merely legislative misogyny to outright thuggery, as they so commonly do. Michele Bachman led crowds of right wingers through the Congressional office buildings earlier today, invading offices and screaming at people to, in her words, “scare” them away from supporting women and healthcare for all. House Republicans staged an organized disruption on the floor today, systematically interrupting Democratic women as they spoke in favor of women’s interests and full healthcare coverage. The healthcare debate is being conducted the same way the Florida recount was in 2000: in the face of Republican assaults and intimidation, and without regard for the truth or significance of the actual substantive issue.
I have little to say about the whole thing. I feel helpless – particularly frustrating in the face of an issue so central to my personal and professional concerns – and am waiting as on election night for the outcome of votes that will – with great good luck – mean so much to so many, and move American one huge step closer to the decency and commitment to humanity that has been so sadly lacking in so much of our history. I can only wait and hope, like everyone else. In the meantime, there is an organized, vicious, and relentless minority that is fiercely dedicated to their own hostility to any notion of a decent regard for others, and to the freedom of others to live their own lives unconstrained by that minority’s backward and reactionary values. They are fighting – in the most literal sense – right now to keep tens of millions of people at the mercy of any illness they may suffer, to keep hundreds of millions at the mercy of an insurance system that rivals only those reactionaries themselves in its hostility to the needs of the people they nominally serve, and to keep every woman in America at the mercy of the nasty and bitter men who despise them and their bodies.
I can’t stand watching this unfold. And I can’t say, can’t express even fractionally, how much, how gut-wrenchingly much, I hate and revile these disgusting creeps.
UPDATE: Rayne at Firedoglake reports “Stupak Amendment Passes: 64 Dems Ask for Primary Opponents“. That’s exactly how I feel about it. I had already promised myself that I would contribute to the primary opponents of any misogynist Democrats; I’m saddened, and shocked, that there are so many of them. I will certainly target all that I can afford to. Read the rest of the post; it’s exactly right.
UPDATE: The final bill has passed, 220 – 215. Exactly one Republican voted in favor – 39 Democrats voted to withhold healthcare from over 40 million Americans. This is a great – but very partial – victory. There still remains the Senate bill – which will be a far tougher fight, with looser rules and a larger percentage of heartless and misogynist Democrats in the mix – followed by the conference committee and the final vote. The Republicans and reactionaries will do everything they can to destroy other people’s hopes for a decent life, and their control over their own bodies and life plans – the rioting, disruption, demagoguery and thuggery seen today are just a taste of what is coming. And this step, momentous as it is, comes bitterly. The discussion in the followup post at Firedoglake captures it perfectly; as one commenter put it: “It’s like winning a huge battle, but half of your friends were killed or wounded.”
UPDATE: I’ve added the reference to Democrats in the headline. I didn’t make it clear above that Bart Stupak, who led the charge to destroy healthcare reform for over 300 million Americans if they didn’t let him destroy autonomy for 150 million female Americans, is a Democrat. Along with 63 other misogynist traitors, he put the people’s party against 51% of the people, to indulge their personal medieval religious obsessions. Fuck him and all of them.
UPDATE: Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, and Money gets the power dynamic exactly right: “Certainly, there are many potential criticisms of how Democratic leadership has dealt with health care, although when you actually care about expanding access to health care it’s hard to negotiate with the Stupaks of the world who don’t, but want to use other people’s progressive impulses to attack women.”
There is a considerable component of right-wing blather, on healthcare and other topics, that is not seriously intended from the outset. To be sure, actual right-wing policy proposals are often offensive and addle-headed – withholding healthcare from women for religious reasons, or prohibiting factual information on contraception for teens are too-familiar examples – but often enough the most outrageous statements the wingnuts make are intended only to generate controversy. The ensuing agitation inflames the right-wing base constituency and feeds their self-aggrandizing notion of themselves as “under siege”, while the attention the controversy gins up raises the wingers’ profile and generates book sales and speaking fees. Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, and their cretinous ilk have made a profession of making factual claims that are indefensible in morals or truth, then evading responsibility by claiming they were joking; nominally more respectable right-wing pundits are not above the tactic, either. (George Will’s incompetent blundering into the issue of global warming continued long after his lack of knowledge had been thoroughly exposed in his own paper; the incident did him no harm among his target readership, for whom truth is an incidental feature of their reading material.)
For this reason, I felt less shock than merely tired recognition at this week’s reports from the right-wing “Value Voters” conference, in particular the much-remarked insanity of anti-choice provocateur Lila Rose’s demand that abortions be “done in the public square” (“maybe then we might hear angels singing as we ponder the glory of conception”*). Of course it’s idiotic, outrageous, and unhinged; of course it’s meaningless as a serious policy proposal. But it was never intended to be otherwise. It was intended to do exactly what it did – get more attention for a serial attention-seeker whose stock in trade is saying provocative things on video so she can enjoy the reaction, as well as create yet another controversy to make anti-choice theater seem important by generating press.
But it’s worth taking a moment, not to combat this nonsense as if it was to be taken seriously, nor even to condemn the continual offensiveness and provocation of the anti-choice movement (a singularly unlikely complaint, since without that the anti-choice movement wouldn’t even exist), but to note the ways in which anti-choicers choose to offend.
What does it mean to imagine – even if only to create offense – that women should be forced to have their abortions in public? As crazed as the suggestion is, it is not as extreme, from the right-wing perspective, as it would seem from any decent point of view. Mandatory public display of intimate gynecological procedures in order to diminish the legal availability of those procedures is nothing more than the literal instantiation of the basic presuppositions of the anti-choice movement in general:
As with so much anti-choice agitation, women simply disappear from this invasive and offensive scheme as persons to be taken seriously in their own right. Healthcare is granted near-sacrosanct status as regards privacy, discretion, and the centrality of the needs and interests of the patient, but a woman seeking abortion must expose herself, legs splayed in stirrups, vagina dilated, instruments inserted, “in the public square” – her needs and interests, in fact her basic humanity as a person deserving of consideration and dignity, carry no weight against the creepy, invasive perversions of the sex-obsessive misogynists. The abortion debate is structured, logically, as a conflict between women’s autonomy and the religious imperatives of the anti-choice right wing, but here there is no recognition of autonomy interests at play in any way – women not only may not control their bodies or reproductive options, but may even be forced into invasive and degrading displays deliberately intended to undermine their own autonomy, as a condition of (temporarily) accessing such options. As always, women simply don’t count. Whatever protections and privileges the typical moral person might command in undertaking their own purposes in their own life simply vanish if that person is a woman seeking control over her reproduction.
But this familiar moral blindness is not accidental, and it is not merely the hyperbolic implication of a deliberately provocative suggestion. Stupid, crazy, and nasty as they may be, the right wing is not completely incapable of recognizing moral humanity, even in those they despise. The right wing gradually learned not to use racial slurs; today it would unthinkable for them to suggest that people of color should be paraded “in the public square” even as a tactic to undermine their rights, and wingers fall over themselves denying the racism in their racist policies. The gay-rights movement, embattled as it was, made remarkable progress in the space of about 35 years; today, the conservative position on gay rights extols accommodations (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; civil unions) that would have been grand liberal victories just a few years previously. Yet after thousands of years of patriarchy, women command no such deference. Even as a joke or a provocation, there are things that are not said about minorities and gays – things the public would reject in disgust. There seems to be nothing the right wing won’t say about women – there seem to be no abuses or humiliations that are beyond the pale, no degradations or invasions that are unthinkable, whether or not they seem likely as policy.
Vacating medical confidentiality to publicize abortions for the explicit purpose of humiliating women by generating disgust at their bodies, healthcare, and reproductive choices? The only part of that scenario the right wing objects to is the abortion. All the rest is merely the rights, interests, and choices of women. Nothing at all, really.
* I am not making this up.
So there’s a lot of commentary, and no doubt there will be more, about the just-released Gallup poll showing that people self-identifying as “pro-life” outnumber those calling themselves “pro-choice”, for the first time on record, and by a considerable margin. No doubt the wingers will be beside themselves, given the moral significance they attach to slogans and labels. There are a few things to be said about this, however.
First off, it doesn’t matter who call themselves what – bodily autonomy is a fundamental part of women’s freedom and moral independence, and must be protected regardless of public opinion. Laws trampling women’s freedom are unjustified no matter how many people support them. To the extent that the political balance shifts – or is even seen to shift – the legislative practicalities of safeguarding women’s status as citizens and full moral persons becomes complicated, but that is only a measure of the misogyny of a political system that puts some citizens’ freedom at the hazard of other citizens’ whims and prejudices.
Second, it’s interesting to note that, while the supposed balance between self-identifying pro- and anti-choicers has shifted, the same poll of the very same respondents shows almost no change in opinion on the broad spectrum of options regarding the legality of abortion. (It does show that those holding the extreme anti-freedom position – no abortions ever for anyone – slightly outnumber those holding a full pro-freedom position – abortion legal under all circumstances – also for the first time, and that in general attitudes toward women’s freedom have harshened slightly across each category, but those shifts are only a few percentage points.) So, what has changed is the labels people apply to themselves, not so much what they actually think in practical terms.
Regarding that shift in labels, it strikes me as odd. Gallup is a reputable pollster, and this is a periodical survey they have been doing at intervals for some time. I would normally accept their findings, but this one is clearly anomalous. A shift from 50% pro-choice/44% anti-choice to a balance of 42/51 the other way is a relative shift of 16% in just one year (i.e., the pro-choice position went from up by 7% to down by 9%). It dwarfs the year-to-year shifts at any other point since at least 1995 (the range shown on their graph), and probably longer. That requires an explanation.
The situation becomes more intriguing when you note that, as Gallup discovered:
The percentage of Republicans (including independents who lean Republican) calling themselves “pro-life” rose by 10 points over the past year, from 60% to 70%, while there has been essentially no change in the views of Democrats and Democratic leaners. . . . [A]ll of the increase in pro-life sentiment is seen among self-identified conservatives and moderates; the abortion views of political liberals have not changed.
So: right-wingers have not greatly changed their views on abortion in practical terms, but have shifted considerably toward explicitly identifying themselves as anti-choice. Hmmm . . .
I’ll tentatively float two hypotheses:
First, this is part of the winger backlash. The same sort of thing that is driving gun nuts to stockpile firearms and ammunition so they’ll have something Obama can pry from their cold dead hands, and which is driving anti-government morons to protest the fact that Obama is giving them a tax cut, is also driving anti-sex misogynists to stake out seemingly more-extreme positions on women’s rights: they’re terrified that they’re about to lose the thing that defines them politically, and they are ratcheting up their rhetoric both out of fear and in order to remain relevant. With right-wing and religious groups in a panic over the Republicans’ loss of Congress and the White House, and responding with ever-more-extremist rhetoric on abortion, the public has become superficially polarized. (In a country where you can get thousands of low-tax advocates to join a protest against their own tax cut just by giving it an idiotic name, it’s not surprising you can get misogynists to call themselves “pro-life” if you scream it at them enough.)
Second, this is also part of long-standing winger hypocrisy on abortion. They want to be morally righteous hardliners, but they don’t want major changes in abortion rights because they also avail themselves of that service in considerable (for Catholics, greater than average) numbers. As with many other public policy issues, conservatives retain their far-right rhetoric while gradually accommodating themselves to modern reality. (Remember when “civil unions” was the progressive option for gay rights?*) Now, apparently, among the group that say they are anti-choice, more than half favor legal abortion “under certain circumstances”.
This is not to minimize the importance of these kinds of data, or of shifts, even if only nominal (in the literal sense), between the two broad categories of opinion on women’s freedom. It matters not only that women have a legal right to abortion, but also that it is not constantly under siege by disingenuous and insidious restrictions, and that women are supported in choosing and exercising the options that are right for them. Public opinion is important to all those issues. And this reported shift in opinion, even if it is more superficial than it seems, is evidence both of the continuing right-wing backlash and of the continuing negligible status of women and their moral and civil liberties. The “certain circumstances” the pro-choice misogynists deign to approve are likely only the most restrictive cases, and the ones they find politically untenable.
Continuing to engage the fight for women’s true freedom, and a reasonable understanding of moral personhood and the assignment of legal rights, is more vital than ever as the backlash grows. I remain optimistic in the long term – reality cannot be evaded forever – but this is not good news in the immediate term, there’s no question about that. Fundamentally, and especially given how thin the poll results are on practical issues, I think little has changed. Given where things stood already, though, that’s hardly reason to be satisfied.
* Obama certainly does!
NB: Crossposted to Lean Left, the politics blog I contribute to.
It could be almost any news story from the developing world, and any of many from the rest of the world, but this one will do:
Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, has signed a law which “legalises” rape, women’s groups and the United Nations warn. Critics claim the president helped rush the bill through parliament in a bid to appease Islamic fundamentalists ahead of elections in August.
In a massive blow for women’s rights, the new Shia Family Law negates the need for sexual consent between married couples, tacitly approves child marriage and restricts a woman’s right to leave the home, according to UN papers seen by The Independent. . . .
The most controversial parts of the law deal explicitly with sexual relations. Article 132 requires women to obey their husband’s sexual demands and stipulates that a man can expect to have sex with his wife at least “once every four nights” when travelling, unless they are ill. The law also gives men preferential inheritance rights, easier access to divorce, and priority in court. . . .
Even the law’s sponsors admit Mr Karzai rushed it through to win their votes. Ustad Mohammad Akbari, a prominent Shia political leader, said: “It’s electioneering. Most of the Hazara people are unhappy with Mr Karzai.”
The fault in this case lies squarely with the Afghani men, of course. (British officials, rushing to the defense of women, have “raised concerns at a senior level”. Thank God!) But it’s worth noting that this government is America’s “ally” – in the sense that if we don’t acquiesce in their doing these things, and pay them a lot of money besides, they’ll . . . be even less cooperative against Al Qaeda. One might also note that this sort of thing is once more on the rise in Iraq, where women had once had full legal equality under Sadam, now that de facto separatist governments under religious extremists have been established, with American approval, in parts of the country.
It has to be acknowledged how disastrous the situation has always been for women in most of the world, and how little leverage the nascent democracy movements in the most backward countries are. Except in places like Iraq and Iran, where modernist governments have been fully or partially replaced by theocracies, it’s not clear that, however horrendous conditions are, things are getting much worse for women, even in the worst countries. In a practical sense, the new Afghan law may not change anything, since the practices in question are widespread there anyway. The fact that there is even a tiny amount of freedom for women in the capital city is a – very depressing – step forward.
But those facts, inescapbable as they are, do not tell the real story. What’s most galling is not that conditions for women are so bad, but that that is regarded as a negligible problem. Women’s rights, and women’s freedom, are simply not issues worth caring about, to virtually any government or any influential group of (male) people.
We’ll go to war over oil, land, religion, vaguely-articulated political and economic beliefs, other countries’ refusals to do our bidding, or a soccer match. We’ll claim as justification for our wars other people’s freedom to vote for the candidates we approve, be Christian whether they want to or not, and buy American consumer goods. The one thing we’ll never fight for, or even claim as justification for fighting, is women’s freedom to live their own lives. It’s simply not an issue. The idea that we should invade Iraq to establish a quasi-democracy in some parts of the country while igniting an indigenous religious war and all but completely destroying the country’s economy and material infrastructure is somehow not seen as ludicrous. The idea that we would invade Afghanistan – or refrain from invading Afghanistan – because it’s women are subject to widespread, organized rape and open murder – legally – now that is seen as ludicrous. The idea that we would threaten preemptive nuclear war with Iran because they might someday have one warhead to our current 10,000 is not absurd; the idea that we would threaten any serious engagement of Iran because the women of that country have virtually no legal rights and are subject to arbitrary imprisonment, rape, abuse, and murder by the religious police, is beyond absurd – it is unthinkable.
The idea that women’s rights and women’s freedom is an issue that commands our involvement – that it is one of the things we must pursue and protect, among the many things we accept as justification for our adventures and misadventures around the globe – that it would constitute any kind of reason at all for any kind of action at all, let alone aggressive engagement or sacrifice on our part – is quit obviously a joke. Of all the places we’ve invaded, bombed, or threatened over the past few decades – Nicaragua, Grenada, North Korea, Panama, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Russia, and on and on and on . . . – and usually on the most ridiculous pretenses (Reagan invaded Grenada because they were building a runway, which he then continued building after occupying the island), in which of these is it even imaginable that the same things could have been done because the women of that country did not have full equality, or even basic rights?
Women’s interests are negligible. Whatever misery, oppression, or lack of freedom motivates political concern, in the US or anywhere else, it is not women’s misery or oppression that provides that motivation. The US courted Afghanistan for decades without any overt action on the basis of the grinding, indescribable misery and abuse of the women of that country, and we continue to tolerate those same conditions while occupying that country and propping up its government. But that occupation was prompted – on little notice and with little debate – by the fleeting presence there of a small group of terrorists we still haven’t managed to locate. That minor military problem was sufficient justification for occupying and remaking the country; the horrific abuse of its female population for all time up to that moment was not such a motivation, and its continuation during our presence there is not motivation for any proportional expenditure of energy on their behalf. Women are not a reason for doing anything, in Afghanistan, though smaller groups of people who catch our male leaders’ attentions are more than enough reason. The US invaded Iraq, twice, on the pretext of its supposed military ambitions; in the process we eliminated the freedom for women that existed there at the time, and returned them to the insecurities of religious politics, and for many of them outright partriarcal theocracy. The oppression of a small percentage of its population who were political opponents of its leader was justification for destroying that country and its government; that that government was the only source of liberty for more than half its population – the female half – was not justification for not doing so. Women simply didn’t count, in that equation. And they never do.
Until women count – until women in and of themselves are a reason for doing anything – until the oppression and misery of women is seen as human oppression and human misery, the sort of thing we say we care about and act on – there will be no progress. And until we powerful nations, nations who shake the world and make and unmake governments and laws and wars, do what we do because women matter at least as much as oil, or land, or religion, or markets, or men, women will not count where it counts.
Just once, I wish we could have a debate over an important political issue that wasn’t entirely shaped and determined by sheer stupidity and ignorance from the right wing. Today will not be that day.
The winger blogs are all a-twitter over a story noting that the Omnibus Budget bill that was (finally) just passed contains a provision – known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which the religious wingers have stuck in every budget since 1996 – prohibiting federal funding for research “in which human embryos are created, destroyed, discarded, or knowingly be subjected to risk of injury or death”. Setting some kind of a record for intellectual incompetence, the right-wing CNSNews mis-reported this as “Obama Signs Law Banning Federal Embryo Research Two Days After Signing Executive Order to OK It” – which, in one single sentence, misrepresents the event (he did not sign a law on embryo research, he signed the budget bill, which contained one small amemendment addressing embryonic research among its reported 3,500 pages of text and appendices), false as to fact (his executive order did not address embryo research), and completely wrong in its implication (the budget amendment does not undo the research policy Obama announced, as this headline implies). Despite this falsity and confusion, the event is viewed as some sort of humiliation for, or hypocrisy by, President Obama, since he had made a point of repealing the Bush ban on stem-cell research funding just two days before signing the budget with its unrelated embryo-research amendment. Much chortling and back-slapping is now underway, among people who know nothing about the issue and are apparently too dumb to read.
Yuval Levin was a staff manager of the Bush-era “President’s Council on Bioethics”, a body widely derided for its almost comically right-wing leanings and gross intellectual malfeasance. Today he steps in it trying to say something all clever and sophisticated about the new authorization for stem-cell research. I got as far as the second paragraph before the crankery blew me away:
Cardinal Egan, supremely obnoxious Catholic Archbishop of New York, has an essay up on some Web site, complete with the standard handwringing condescension and heart-tugging photos, declaiming how desperately we need to take control of women’s bodies and impose forced pregnancy as a matter of law and culture. Its contents are typical of this well-worn genre: a lame argument about whether a human fetus is a “human being”, willful elision of the difference between biological identity and moral status, sweeping moral declarations grounded on nothing but his unreflective certainty, and of course obligatory references to Hitler, Stalin, and Dred Scott.
The heart of this superficial and nonsensical (or perhaps it could be said: “a-sensical”) piece is a photograph of a 20-week fetus – a photograph which, Egan declares, proves by itself that abortion is wrong and it is utterly worthless to even consider the actual moral issues raised by the question.
Why, you might inquire, have I not delved into the opinion of philosophers and theologians about the matter? And even worse: Why have I not raised the usual questions about what a “human being” is, what a “person” is, what it means to be “living,” and such? People who write books and articles about abortion always concern themselves with these kinds of things. Even the justices of the Supreme Court who gave us “Roe v. Wade” address them. Why do I neglect philosophers and theologians? Why do I not get into defining “human being,” defining “person,” defining “living,” and the rest? Because, I respond, I am sound of mind and endowed with a fine set of eyes, into which I do not believe it is well to cast sand. I looked at the photograph, and I have no doubt about what I saw and what are the duties of a civilized society if what I saw is in danger of being killed by someone who wishes to kill it or, if you prefer, someone who “chooses” to kill it. In brief: I looked, and I know what I saw.
Why it is that the moral attack dogs of the right wing are always so eager to proclaim their own lack of comprehension I don’t know, but it is no longer surprising as a practical fact, and still less in light of the product of their “reasoning”. But ask yourself: who would take such idiocy seriously in any other context? On what moral issue would anyone seriously say “I saw a picture of an organism affected by this subject that moves me in some way, so I refuse to think about it carefully or read what the best thinkers on the subject have said, and that justifies both my unsupported, idiosyncratic religious beliefs about it and my intention to impose them on everyone else in the country!”? Who would seriously claim that not thinking about, reading about, or analyzing a serious problem could possibly produce a correct answer, or was a proper ground for imposing a solution to it as a matter of law and policy? Well, who but a religious right-winger?
tgirsch of Lean Left (and my own blogfather!) writes:
I’m interested in the issues surrounding animal testing. I’m certainly not a member of the PETA crowd or anything, but at the same time, I’d certainly think we should keep such testing to a minimum, using it only where it’s necessary, useful, and relevant. But I honestly don’t know what all the issues are.
But that can take many forms, one of which is mocking, in appropriately childish fashion, PETA’s own tactic for pressuring corporate chicken-torturers [sic]. They have a Web sign-generator site in which they encourage people to post comments about Kentucky Fried Chicken’s practice of, as they put it “tortur[ing] chickens for profit”. Whatever the hell that’s about, it interests me far less than the fact that PETA, as a group, is offensive and abusive to real people, whom I care about far more than the animal fetish-objects that are their sole obsession. So if we’re going to make little signs about cruelty and inappropriate moral priorities, well, let’s get our inappropriate priorities straight, first:
There has been a kind of mini-carnival developing across the blogs lately, on the subject of sexual violence in prisons. It began with a recent LA Times Op-Ed on the subject by high-profile blogger Ezra Klein. It’s good to see attention being paid to this issue; the number of bloggers getting involved is encouraging.
But, as important as the issue is, and as vital as it is to re-assess and reform our justice and prison systems overall, I think viewing this as merely an aspect of the mis-management of prisons is a mistake. Systemic sexual abuse occurs not merely in prisons but in the military, among the “contractors” of KBR in Iraq, between priests and congregants, in the workplace, and throughout society. As feminist critics of violence against women have long been saying, the problem is not one of sex in itself, but of the use and abuse of power in general. It is just one manifestation of an issue that pervades the authoritative control of human beings by other human beings.
Michael Gerson, Bush administration tool and terminal sufferer from Conservative Comprehension Disorder, continues his pattern of getting everything exactly backwards in his Washington Post-sponsored campaign of attacks on Barack Obama. The day after April Fool’s Day (he must have missed a deadline), Gerson published another misinformed screed, this one claiming that Obama is an “extremist” on abortion for opposing laws that would have sentenced women to death. As usual with Gerson and the forced-pregnancy crowd generally, almost everything he says is factually false, and a repetition of standard right-wing myths. The column consists of nothing more than Gerson and the Post carrying water for the organized anti-woman crowd by repeating their well-worn talking points verbatim, with no pretense of originality or reportorial integrity. (more…)
There is a terrible tension in healthcare – medicine, especially – between the use of expert knowledge to serve and heal those in need, and its use to aggrandize those with the knowledge and to control, mold, dictate to or torture those who fall into their hands. Knowing what can help another can easily be mistaken for “knowing what is best for them”, and historically has been so mistaken throughout the entire history of medicine as a profession. Today, it’s hard to hear the phrase “Doctor knows best” without an ironic smirk – the same smirk we conjure up for the parallel slogans of wrongheaded patriarchal oppression “Father knows best” and “Trust your government”. But it was not long ago that that slogan was the entirely literal creed of the most respected profession in Western society, and the work of challenging that creed and establishing the primacy of patient values and autonomy was lengthy and hard-fought. Its path was marked by the graves – quite literally the graves – of too many martyrs.
The most entrenched redoubt of medical power (though least well-grounded in research and knowledge) was psychiatry. Not only did the head-shrinkers lay claim to the most occult knowledge of human functioning and health, but they stood against a patient population that was inherently and societally almost unable to defend itself. Members of, possibly, the most severely and unsympathetically stigmatized stratum of society, mental patients were given no credence, and often had no recognized legal standing, to assert their own values and choices in treatment. And it is true that in many cases, patients with mental illness could not in fact act for their own interests or competently manage their own treatment and caretaking. But the presumption that no such patient could have a valid opinion about their own care, coupled with the prejudice that they were unfit for “normal” society, and likely dangerous, meant that virtually anything could be done to anyone, if advocated by a doctor armed with a diagnosis of mental illness. The things that were done were in many cases almost unthinkable.
Howard Dully spent over 40 years thinking about what was done to him. It took him a full life of hardship and failure to finally understand his own fate, and to come to terms with it. That anyone could have survived, let alone found peace and stability, after having lived his story, is an amazement in itself.
Dully is the author (with a professional co-writer) of My Lobotomy: A Memoir. The subject of the book is exactly what the title suggests. The story it contains is heartbreaking.
Dully’s life is difficult to summarize, except to say that it was unremittingly harsh almost from birth. Dully was born in California in 1948; his father was a hard and unemotional man who was driven to work excruciating hours, sometimes at as many as 4 or 5 low-skill physical labor jobs at the same time, partly by the need to support his family, partly by his own obsessive work ethic. Howard grew up a big kid (he’s now 6’7″, 350 lbs) who picked on his younger brother; when he was 4 his mother died after giving birth to a baby brother with a severe neurological deformation – the baby was placed with relatives and never spoken of again within the family. Howard and his family bounced around various friends’ and relatives’ homes as his father struggled to earn a living, and Howard suffered constantly both from missing his mother and from the severe discipline he suffered in some of these homes. Things really got bad when his father married again, to a woman with two sons of her own. Dully claims that she simply resented and hated him; from reading both his own stories of his home life, and some of his doctors’ notes, it is easy to believe he is correct. Howard, in the meantime, was legitimately a handful for any parent: he was apparently flightly and unreliable to an extreme degree, was aversive to school work, discipline, and hygiene, and often fought with his brothers, though they had a generally good relationship. As he got older he began doing stupid kid pranks – shoplifting and stealing items from cars, and playing hooky. As a huge and growing boy, he was constantly hungry, but was not allowed to eat between meals and was beaten for taking snacks. His step-mother also had some sort of obsession with her furniture and household trinkets, and would beat Howard for touching anything in the house, sitting on the parlor furniture, or using the front door. His step-mother would beat him for any infraction, and for things that weren’t infractions; later his brothers confirmed that she did indeed beat him for things she did not mind when done by her own sons, and would rave at him for no reason at all. When his father got home, he would get another beating – his father made him choose a piece of firewood to be beaten with, and Howard developed the skill of picking ones that were flexible enough to hurt less but strong enough not to break (which would encourage his father to continue the beating with his bare hand). Between his actual behavioral problems, his pre-adolescent awkwardness, the fact that his step-mother did seem to truly want him dead, and his father’s absence and emotionally and physically violent treatment, Howard seemed doomed to a life of misery no matter what might have happened. What actually did happen is unbelievable.
Howard’s step-mother apparently conceived the idea that she could get rid of Howard if she got the weight of professional opinion on her side. She began visiting a series of psychiatrists to complain about her son’s behavior, but none of them would agree he had to be institutionalized or removed from the home. Several wrote consulting notes to the effect that they were convinced her harsh treatment was the problem and that she should moderate her behavior toward the boy. She moved from doctor to doctor trying to find one that would agree with her. Finally she stumbled onto Dr. Walter Freeman.
Freeman was the pioneer, in the US, of the new treatment of psycho-surgery. He actually coined the word “lobotomy”, and popularized the use of that treatment in this country. He was the first US physician to see the procedure, after it was developed in Europe just before WWII; Freeman brought it back to the States and traveled the country in specially-modified vans or station wagons that he called his “Lobotomobiles”, giving demonstrations of both electro-convulsive therapy (using a machine he built himself; when it broke down, he simply held the bare wires against the patient’s head for as long as he felt was appropriate, with no mechanism for monitoring voltage or current) and lobotomy. According to the Dully, relating reports of academic researchers who studied Freeman’s career, Freeman was a constant self-promoter and showman: he would perform several lobotomies in a day, every day, in front of medical audiences, liked to demonstrate how easy it was by sometimes using ordinary household implements rather than surgical tools, and developed a signature two-handed bilateral technique in which he would insert “leucotomes” (the lobtomy knife) into both lobes of a patient’s brain and then simultaneously jerk them both through the tissue with a flourish. At times, his death rate ranged upward of 20%. Nobody seemed to think this was cause for alarm. Patients were operated on without their own knowledge or consent, and authorization was freely obtained from courts or patient guardians after reassurances from Freeman that the procedure would solve all the patients’ problems. Often, no precise psychiatric diagnosis was attempted before the lobotomy was performed; lobotomies were used for conditions ranging from headaches to schizophrenia. More than a few were performed on minors, even pre-teens; there were questions about such cases, but little organized opposition. Freeman was profiled in popular magazines, and sometimes hailed as a god, delivering sufferers from their misery. There were many detractors in the medical community, but the great benefit of lobotomy was that it often made patients docile enough to live with their families without monitoring, meaning they could be discharged from the large state mental institutions that were commonplace then. This made the procedure wildly popular with the managers of those institutions, whose patients had no effective representation to oppose the treatment plans made for them by others.
After a few years, Freeman heard about, and again pioneered, a variation of the lobotomy procedure called “trans-orbital lobotomy”, often referred to as “ice-pick lobotomy”. In that procedure, a long, sharp, thin instrument was pushed along the eyeball parallel to the nose, and through the back of the eye socket (“orbit”) into the skull, and into the frontal lobe of the brain. The instrument could then be levered back and forth, and up and down, to tear through the frontal lobes and disrupt their neural circuitry. There was no method for visualizing the exact placement of the instrument in the brain, or the location, depth, or extent of the lesions created; the method was simply to stick the metal rod in through the eye socket and wiggle it back and forth to tear the brain tissue randomly. The effect was almost as dramatic as an open-skull lobotomy, but there was no external wound, and it could be performed under mild anaesthesia. The procedure could be done in an ordinary doctor’s office, and took about ten minutes. In many cases, the surgical instrument used was, in fact, an ice pick. (Freeman’s personal lobotomy instrument was labled “Uline Ice Company”.) Patients were sometimes sent home afterward in a taxi cab.
Freeman began popularizing the trans-orbital lobotomy, sometimes performing as many as two dozen procedures a day on patients in mental institutions and hospitals. In some cases, patients were operated on against their consent; after the procedure, they lacked the drive and wherewithal to sue. After some years traveling the country in his Lobotomobile, he finally settled in the South San Francisco Bay Area, near where Howard Dully’s family were living. Eventually, Dully’s step-mother asked to see him.
Freeman met with her a number of times over a period of two months, duly recording her wild stories of Howard’s unmanageable behavior (some of which later turned out to be pure fabrications – such as the story that he had beaten his brain-damaged baby brother almost to death). From the beginning the step-mother openly solicited some kind of dramatic professional intervention. Freeman hesitated at first, insisting he would have to meet the patient and interview the other family members before coming to any conclusion. (What seems incredible is that he began formulating treatment plans with the mother for weeks before ever once meeting Howard.) He interviewed Howard’s father one time; the father gave a much more balanced report of Howard’s behavior, but Freeman didn’t pick up on the clue. He began to meet with Howard himself, and found him reasonably normal though somewhat uncommunicative (who wouldn’t be?). But he kept meeting with Howard’s step-mother, who still filled him with tales of how afraid she was of Howard, how her other sons were afraid of him and were constantly beaten up by him (they deny this), and finally how Howard had beaten up his baby brother in infancy (his entire family denies this – and note that the step-mother was not part of the family at that time). Freeman seems to have accepted everything she said, and viewed Howard’s truancy and other bad behavior through this fictionalized and delusional lens. After four meetings with the step-mother, only one meeting (ever) with Howard’s father, and four visits with Howard himself, Freeman recommended that they should attempt to “change his personality” with a trans-orbital lobotomy. Howard’s step-mother immediately agreed, and took the papers home for his father to sign, which he did without ever speaking to the doctor again. Freeman cautioned the parents not to tell Howard what would happen – only that he would be admitted to the hospital for “tests”. Howard excitedly looked forward to his night in the hospital, because he had heard they gave you Jell-O there. And they did. It was two weeks after his 12th birthday.
Freeman lobotomized Howard the next day. Howard has no memory of any of the events of that day. He contracted a fever and an apparent infection (Freeman was infamous for not sterilizing his instruments before surgery; you can see, in the actual photograph of Howard’s procedure, [see photo at end, below the jump] that he is not wearing gloves), but recovered soon enough.
The rest of his life was a disaster.
There’s an interesting article by Ron Rosenbaum, in Slate, regarding the fate of Vladmir Nabokov’s final, unfinished manuscript.
Nabokov left a manuscript on index cards, apparently totaling about 30 pages’ worth of text, for an unfinished book titled The Original of Laura. No one outside his family knows what is in the text, or what the title means. Nabokov left unambiguous instructions, at the time of his death, that the manuscript was to be destroyed without publication. This jibes with ideas he expressed elsewhere about refusing to publish imperfect works. His wife, the legendary (infamous?) Vera Nabokov, was his literary executor; she indicated she would follow his wishes but never got around to destroying the cards. When she died in 1991, the cards, and Nabokov’s imprecation, fell to his son Dimitri, who has otherwise actively defended his father’s literary legacy. Dimitri has indicated that he is ambivalent about destroying the work, but is apparently leaning in the direction of carrying out his father’s wishes. Rosenbaum has corresponded with Dimitri over the years, encouraging him to publish the material; in his Slate article, he broadcasts a call for input from readers, promising to forward the best responses to Dimitri, who is apparently finally nearing a decision.
Well. By itself all very interesting, no doubt, and arguably very thinly connected to bioethics by way of Nabokov’s background in biology. (Rosenbaum even tries to link Nabokov’s Laura to Petrarch’s Laura by way of a bird image in the latter and one of Nabokov’s ubiquitous butterfly images in Pale Fire; Dimitri scoffs at this.) But it really doesn’t seem to be an immediate issue in bioethics itself. Or is it?
Chris Muir is the bizarrely unfunny cartoonist behind “Day by Day” – a conservatively-themed Webtoon that is so consistently incomprehensible that it has spawned an entire cottage industry consisting of the reworking of his strips by liberal bloggers on a desperate quest to force them to make some sense. Adding to the through-the-looking-glass fun are Muir’s many signature artistic tics: utterly non-sequitur dialog, references to Muir’s personal political hotbuttons that are so obscure many of the cartoons appear to have no recognizable content, a cast of characters that consists of weirdly-drawn urban hipsters spouting conservative cliches while striking pointless poses, a female cast that consists exclusively of huge-breasted slim-waisted sexpots with low necklines and bare tummies, artistic skills so marginal that his human poses often simply leave out major body parts or appear deformed, and a strange penchant for showing dialog balloons emerging from implausible parts of the speaker’s body. Plenty of nutty goodness there for those who have the time and energy to wade through it, which I rarely do.
This week, however, Muir joined the creepy talking-fetus brigade of conservative ‘toonists. It’s been discussed before, but it’s apparently a growing meme on the right wing – fetal “personhood” taken to such a bizarrely literal extreme that they imagine fetuses as having fully-functional adult personalities, and sometimes adult bodies (and why not? – with all the retrograde scientific claptrap the right wing has latched onto, the homunculus theory is hardly out of place). This can’t be a coincidence. Literalizing the claim of fetal personhood distinctly changes the relationship between, and relative moral standing of, a woman and her fetus, to the detriment (need it be said?) of the woman. That this delusional characterization of pregnancy has become so common and so widespread of late signals another move in the ongoing assault on the effective moral personhood of women. Here is Muir’s contribution to the war:
Classic Muir. The first panel makes no sense. (Emphasizing the word “must” makes the second woman’s response seem like a logical deduction from the first woman’s statement – but it’s non-sequitur. As commentary on the immigration bill issue, it’s equally nonsensical: who is legal? why “must”? what the hell is he talking about?) He hits bottom in the second panel, when the woman’s fetus addresses her directly and declares itself to be an “illegal immigrant” in a voice loud enough to be heard by the woman next to her. This panel’s a three-fer: creepy fetus fetishization, self-contradiction (the fetus appears to be claiming solidarity with illegal aliens, which is against Muir’s own point of view [does he not actually read his own strip?]), plus nutjob rhapsodizing about marriage that is both false and idiotic (there’s nothing illegal about being conceived before your parents were married, as this fetus is said to have been; he’s somehow elevated a right-wing obsession with adult women’s sex lives to the level of a criminal act on the part of the fetus, which is impressive doing even for Muir). The third panel is just dumb. (What has late-night TV got to do with a talking fetus? Is she hallucinating the voice? That would undercut the fetus-fetish message, plus the other woman seems to hear it, too. Is the fetus watching TV? That’s even creepier.) It’s like he feels no responsibility to relate the content of one panel to another, let alone make his weird asides and personal in-jokes make any sense to anyone else.
The bottom line, though, is the talking fetus. No matter how dumb the rest is, talking fetuses are weird, scary, and implicitly misogynistic.
Which means, of course, that it’s time for another Chris Muir cartoon upgrade project. I’ve posted my weak efforts below the cut. Feel free to pile on. (Add your edited cartoon in comments, or just quote the dialog for the balloons.)
Making with the sorely overdue link-love: two months ago, Amanda Marcotte (of Pandagon, and the best thing that ever happened to John Edwards) linked my prior post on right-wing propaganda about Margaret Sanger (as a way of attacking Planned Parenthood). She points out the fact that, in Sanger’s day, PP was actually anti-abortion (largely for reasons of the relative safety of the procedure, much lower then than now), and that the wingers seem to have no conception of the irony of their slanders.
The article generated a fascinating discussion thread, however (with minimal, but nonzero, trollage) - one that I only stumbled across today by following a visitor link (thanks!). I’m sorry to be so late on this but I encourage everyone to run over there; the discussion is interesting and, collectively, it includes a fascinating list of resources on the history of abortion, abortion and race, and sexual autonomy as seen from a variety of times and places, and presented in a variety of media (the rock-opera version of a 19th-century German play about the link between lack of sex ed and unplanned pregnancy sounds . . . wild – and I had no idea there was a whole list of early silent movies on the same topic!). Now I’ve got a lot more reading to do! So do you.
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