Andrew Sullivan: Shutting Down Discourse

If there is one thing I hate more than watching journalists cook up weak or phony examples of left wing wrong doing to “balance” their stories, its when those journalists use that nonsense to attempt to shut down discourse. Andrew Sullivan is a choice exemplar. He gives his Moore award to Sara Robinson for her insightful post about possible reactions to the prop8 ruling.  Sullivan was attempting to dismiss this particular section (emphasis mine):

In the worst case, this decision could become the catalyst for a new round of large-scale domestic terrorism from the right. As I’ve noted, everything I’m seeing points to a subculture that is gearing up for this kind of heroic last stand in defense of a lost cause. And this time, it’s not going to be just a few white supremacist/militia/patriot/anti-choice wackos. The new crop of right wing militants is better connected, better trained, better armed, and absolutely determined to go down fighting. And, as the SPLC keeps telling us, there may considerably more people motivated to support them than there have been in the past. It’s not unthinkable that between 15 and 20% of the country could be inclined to start — or at least support — a civil war over this,

As Sara sharply notes, Andrew had trouble understanding those first 4 words.  Sara explains them for him gently.

What I take issue with is not Andrew Sullivan’s base need to “tsk tsk” a leftwing blogger.  Its that the effect is to de-legitimize extremely useful analysis and criticism.  Prop8 was upheld, but we have every reason to believe it will be crushed when Californian’s return to the polls.  Voters will be resentful of being a hate state, mindful of the dollars a gay-unfriendly public stance could cost them, and angrily aware of massive amounts of out of state financial and religious influence directed their state laws and rights.  Homophobes and theocrats are going down come 2010.

Which is why Mr Sullivan ought to be paying attention to Sara Robinson’s advice:

Most of yesterday’s piece focused on some very specific, well-supported reasons that I think the gay community should question their complacency. It also included a most-likely scenario (assuming the court rules against Prop 8, which is in itself not a most-likely scenario), which is that a few far-right whack jobs around the country would use the event as an excuse for a fresh round of gay-bashing. We might see another Matthew Shepherd, or another Knoxville. Or two or three. And wise people should at least prepare themselves for that possibility.
There’s nothing particularly outrageous or over-the-top about this claim: this stuff happens fairly regularly in America, as I think even Sully would agree. There’s always been that 2-3% of the population who are implacably and militantly on the political extremes, who aren’t burdened by the same social braking systems the rest of us came equipped with, and who are prepared to act out violently if provoked.  I simply pointed out that overturning Prop 8 is the most perfect imaginable example of the kind of event that might provoke them.

Homophobia is on the way out, and some among the pathetic, the ignorant, the fearful and the violent may lash out.  It is essential that we allow ourselves to be aware of this, and develop strategies for stopping potential violence.  We need to make clear in no uncertain terms that whatever heaven the crazies think they are protecting, when they stoop to violence they are only inviting hell.  We need to reach out to religious communities – who in no way would want to be associated with that violence – and ask them to take active steps to ensure their worshippers understand the difference between peaceful and violent opposition.  That starts with taking the potential for violence seriously and not downplaying the people who are skilled and intelligent enough to see the warning signs and sound a wake up call.

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Its Hard to Say Rape

Its hard to say rape, nevermind talk about it.  Yet talking about rape is the surest way to fight it.  Leaving rape as an unspeakable part of our discourse leaves victims and criminals out of the public consciousness, and only serves to aide rapists and rape-apologists.  The more we talk about rape, the less they have to stand on.

I’d like to talk about the date rape scene in Observe and Report, as well as Lil Wayne’s interview on Jimmy Kimmel.  They both provide an opportunity to discuss one of the more problematic and persistent aspects of rape apologetics: the notion that the victim deserves or wants the rape to occur.  (Trigger Warning).

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Theocrats: Don’t Tread on Me

I’ve got a post over at Revolutionary Act on Republicans, Gay Marriage, Palin, and Theocracy.  You are all warmly encouraged to drop by and share your voice.

Discourse and Assassination: McCain/Clinton vs Obama

Hillary Clinton’s assassination quote is far more problematic than I originally thought.

Frankly I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt in the light of what I felt where more serious offenses, but I think I was wrong to do so. Kevin noticed some interesting trends in terms of how people responded to her quote:

At the primarily white blogs, there is much debate over whether or not what she has said is offensive (I won’t bother repeating it here since it’s been posted everywhere) and yet when you look at black bloggers, and other bloggers of color, there is an almost unanimous agreement that her remarks were reprehensible. I also noticed that in the links being provided by blog authors and commentators at the primarily white blogs, to support their agreement or disagreement with the offensiveness of Sen. Clinton’s statements, all are to other primarily white blogs and white bloggers. I find this problematic because I’ve seen a lot of comments on these blogs to the effect of “anyone who thinks that her statement was truly offensive is paranoid, a nut case, delusional, incapable of rational thought, etc,” and this leads me to think that a lot of people just aren’t taking into consideration, let alone even reading and listening to the black and other bloggers of color that Clinton’s statement has affected not only on a political level, but on a deeply personal level.

As I was writing a comment, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. In spite of whether or not her quote had ill intention behind it, or whether she was referring to herself or Obama as RFK, her comment has helped push the idea of assassination further into mainstream discourse. Fox is apparently making cracks along the same lines (although they are decidedly more “fringe” in terms of content, in terms of reach they are effectively mainstream).

The other problem with Clinton’s remark is that it shares something reprehensible in common with John McCain’s jabs about who he imagines Hamas would like to see elected. The one thing that was utterly clear and unmistakable about Hillary Clinton’s comment was that she was saying we should structure our primaries based on the possible actions of violent racists. That we should be moved to action by fear, that is the lowest sort of pandering. It is the lowest sort of pandering because it debases us. It reduces us to animals, to prey, scrambling to avoid the predators without any care for who we scratch, bite, or leave behind in the process. It appeals to our feral nature.

When it comes down to it Barack Obama began as a candidate of convenience for me, the person I judged least likely to utterly betray Democratic ideals (and given his past support (with Clinton) of Lieberman during his primary, I was quite wary). But the man is doing what he can to elevate the national discourse. What Hillary ignores and McCain *sometimes* pretends to do, Barack Obama accomplishes.

When I think of the notions of liberty, and what it means to be an American, I think of bravery and an unwavering commitment to human rights and ethical principles. I don’t ascribe to the “what it should mean to be an American” school on this. This is what it has always meant to be an American, even if only a relative few people throughout history have seen it and lived it. If ever anything was un-American, it is an appeal to be ruled by fear. It is that appeal, in both McCain’s Bush-like “the terrorists want you to vote Democrat” and Clinton’s “we should have a backup candidate in case one is shot”, that is offensive on a visceral level.

We can do far better than that. We can appeal to hope and raise up our spirits and our innate courage. And we can win.

[Edit: Oops, the post was written by guest blogger Kevin, not Nezua.]

Sex with Sandwiches and Other Choice Bits of Discourse

As an Nth tier candidate for President, Senator Brownback has to do something to separate himself out from the pack. Why not attack established scientific theory in favor of a Bible-based approach? Of course this sends more conservative blogs into a tizzy of support. Joe of Yet Another Lame Blog tears apart Brownback’s arguments:


There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today. Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.

Here Brownback uses a great rhetorical tactic. First he discusses the fact that there are legitimate scientific disputes about how evolution occurs, but then (seemingly without a breath) he mentions the creationists problem with evolution: “like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations” as if these were comparable debates. There is no debate on the latter among those that actually understand the theory of evolution.

At the same time in the above quote he reduces evolution to “merely the chance product of random mutations” thus showing is own ignorance of the subject by completely ignoring the most important aspect of evolution: natural selection. (Remember, natural selection was Darwin’s breakthrough.)

Sisyphus finishes his own congratulatory post on Brownback with a very interesting statement:

The 2008 election is about more than freedom, democracy, or security from terror, or even the end of American infanticide. It is about truth. We have it, the Democrats want to pretend they have it, and next year the American people will decide they prefer the real thing to the alternative.

The 2008 election is increasingly going to be about truth. The Democrats have an unusually strong advantage in this regard. When it comes to matters like the lies leading up to the war, the conduct of the administration regarding wiretapping, the US Attorney firings, or efforts to aggressively propagandize US citizens, Dems hold the cards. But on two issues near and dear to the fundamentalists, they are exquisitely prepared. The first is the “debate” over evolution. The problem with pretending to have a clear case against is it is fundamentalists wear their motivation so obviously on their sleeve that they cannot fake any hint of the intellectual impartiality real science requires. No matter what scientists prove or argue, fundamentalists will find a way to twist a paltry few facts to support their idea of creation. It is the same line of thought the Catholic Church once pursued with zeal. Identify some rhetorical (not substantial) holes in a competing cosmology, and stuff your beliefs into them furiously. The stars are fixed in a sphere? Oh, then heaven must exist just outside of that sphere. The fundamentalists are playing that same tired rhetorical game.

Gay marriage is another weak point, and in the comments section of the post Sisyphus gives us pure comedic gold:

“It is a simple step to go from man-on-man sex to man-on-sandwich sex. That’s the real agenda of the “gay” rights movement. If we’re not careful, before you know it we’ll have a race of mutant gay sandwich creatures on our hands, all under the control of Hillary and demanding special treatment.”

This sounds plausible to me, except that I’m not sure men and sandwiches can breed. But the act of letting people have sex with sandwiches in public is definitely a part of the homosexual agenda. The treefrogs want to have sex with everyone and everything in public- sandwiches, lamp posts, mailboxes, trees, dogs. You name it, and the Democrats want to let you have sex with it. I don’t think that’s right.

Again, this is a worn-out tactic. But it is also a very revealing one. There simply is no rational argument for restricting marriage to straight couples. It comes right down to “the Bible says so”, and that is a clear violation of the separation of Church and State.

The fundamentalist right, left without rational arguments to make their case for a Bible based America, have to resort to lame attempts to shovel nonsense into a pile resembling a compelling case.

I don’t think there is any danger of Brownback getting the nod, but a vote for Brownback and his vision for America is a vote for the Dark Ages.

Rape and Discourse

I went to high school in Framingham, Massachusetts. It was senior year, and I had managed to get myself into the closest class to philosophy offered, political theory. My teacher was a woman of rare substance, who managed to challenge and eke out strands of logic and thought many of us hadn’t previously met. I could go on about her teaching methods or her character in a post all its own, and perhaps someday I will. Today I’d like to focus on one particular story from her classroom. Earlier in the week, a student had been raped. A freshman girl had been forced into oral sex by an upperclassman (and member of some sports team). Those in the know had been expressly forbidden from discussing the matter. This wasn’t something that went into the papers, nor something which spread around campus quickly, like when we had our Columbine scare (which fortunately turned out to be a false alarm). What still sticks with me is Ms. F starting the class by closing the door stating this was a topic she was not allowed to bring up, but one we needed to talk about. The chairs were in a circle, and we started to talk. About the rape being covered up. About what we would do if it was us being forced. If it had been a friend in either position. About what rape itself was.

In that moment when Ms. F closed the door, she was trusting us. Trusting her students with her career. She saw the clamp down on discourse as antithetical to the schools mission to educate us, and to our own health as citizens. To discuss the rape was to discuss the culture it occurred in, and its failings. It was to discuss the fear of rape, and the fear that always accompanies incidents of rape, the fear of false accusation. I would like to discuss how the fear that surrounds rape relates to discourse as my contribution to Take Back the Blog.

In discussing rape, there are a few points I want to touch on:

  • How our culture influences and is influenced by rape
  • How the fear of rape affects us
  • How discourse can allow us to fight back

The first thing to realize is how our culture is one of rape. I’m not saying you see billboards advertising “Rape, Yay!”. What I am saying is that a few very important and in some cases formative aspects of our culture create victims and rapists, and create the perspectives we view the victims and rapists through. Nezua of The Unapologetic Mexican has written eloquently as a father about how we create rape victims (emphasis mine):

In this particular example, it teaches the little girl that her feelings and her personal boundaries are secondary to the feelings and wants of the person who wants to get some lovin’ from her. Years of this, and how easy will it be to say “no” to some guy with a boner who gets her alone after the prom? You know all the lines he’ll drop on her, and I bet they won’t sound too different than her parent’s. She’ll be inculcated from years of forced affection (“Give your grandpa a kiss…don’t be rude,” “Tell me you love me, now” “You’re hurting my feelings by not saying you love me”) and the idea that her own body and feelings are inconsequential in the face of someone else’s desires and wants. And then god forbid, should a day ever come when a man forces himself on her, or even coerces her when she’d rather say NO but doesn’t feel empowered to

It seems like such an innocent thing at first. “Say I love you”. “Say yes”. I’m sure many readers can remember those unwanted hugs and kisses at family get togethers. Where some large adult figure suddenly was squeezing you in an embrace that made you vow never to use that much perfume or cologne. The rasping kiss that made you realize even lips wrinkle and dry out with age. And when you pull away and make a face, admonishment comes. Perhaps not from your enlightened parents, but perhaps from a relative who had previously been watching the display of affection with a sighing approval. I remember seeing my little sister apprehended by perhaps the worst of the offenders, the cheek pincher. “Oh how young you are! How big you’ve gotten!”. So being the odd kid that I was, I walked right up to said relative, pinched her cheeks and remarked in my most emotional voice “Oh how old you’ve gotten!”. The look of surprise on her face was an amusement my sister and I shared the rest of the day. We weren’t bothered again. But that kind of reaction was so clearly out of bounds. It simply wasn’t socially acceptable. The idea that not all displays of affection are welcome, and that it is ok to want to avoid them is does not come up frequently in public discourse. I have no idea if it is in any books or articles on parenting. Honestly when I read Nezua’s post, it was quite startling.

Another startling point is that I think we create a culture that values rape.

Jessica at Feministing has a post up on pornography that centers around the humiliation of the woman:

And perhaps her most important point:

The realest thing about humilitainment porn is the way it buttresses long-held assumptions of women’s inherent inferiority, even if that’s not foremost on the minds of those who get off on it.

If we start wandering from porn into more mainstream culture, we can see this is a little more prevalent. There is a very pernicious idea that if you reverse the roles, sexual violence is funny. Take the trailer for My Super Ex-Girlfriend for instance. When the guy tries to break up with the woman, she slams him against a wall, destroys his car, attacks the woman he is with, and mentions at the end she knew he’d come back, which is why she didn’t kill him. Now imagine this movie with Superman and Lois. Lois decides she wants to date someone new. Superman slams her against a wall. He trashes her car. He tries to kill the new guy she is dating. He uses violence to get her back, and the threat of violence to keep her. How the hell is that a funny movie? Yet that is just what “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” was marketed as.

The problem is this normalizes violence centered around sex and relationships. It makes the reaction of the person being denied love/sex/relationship understandable. Suddenly Toby Keith’s very disturbing music video makes more sense. We expect people to get violent around a break up. This is essentially expected violence to result from being denied access to another person. This is mainstream. The unacknowledged side of this is a recent rise in humiliation porn. The idea that when you are with a person that their lack of enjoyment is a part of yours. Specifically sex is framed as being about a man enjoying himself, and a woman actively suffering in some way.  And if she denies herself to the man, violence is an expected result.

If we look at media coverage of rape itself, the results are even more telling. From a FAIR article on rape coverage in the media:

Few facts are given about the survivors of the assaults in these stories, except the victim-blaming detail that the women were reportedly drunk at the time of their assaults. (This is mentioned twice in the Times‘ story.)While there are conventions protecting the identity of rape victims, there is nothing to prevent them from being “humanized” at least as fully as their assailants. In neither of these stories was that even attempted.

In a special report on rape on campus (New York Times, 1/2/91), Celes suggests why the Times might show equal or greater sympathy for rapists than for the women they assault. “Sexual activity that goes too far and becomes abhorrent to the woman is not new among college students,” writes Celes. “But calling it date rape is,…defining sex between dates or acquaintances without the woman’s consent as a form of male assault rather than a form of female error.”

The idea of blaming the victim is nothing new, but the media in some cases actively excuses the perpetrator.

But helpful reporting on rape is the exception, not the norm. Instead of hearing the cries of survivors, the press is hearing the complaints of apologists; instead of condemning cruelty, the press promotes excuses.

When you hear bullshit about biological drives, or what the woman is wearing, you are seeing an attempt to frame rape as a natural occurrence. Perhaps it is a crime, but it is hardly anything to get worked up about.  Sexual violence is expected. What is left unspoken is that sexual violence is valued. It is a fantasy for some men, and at least an understandable urge to the rest of our culture. But above all it creates fear. It creates a fear that stops words and actions. That is why rape is valuable: because the fear of rape is valuable.

A little less than a year later I started attending UMass, Amherst. I almost immediately heard about the rapes that had occurred in recent years. The girl who had been raped by the campus pond in broad daylight. I heard for the first time that the trail connecting the Sylvan and Orchard Hill living areas was called “the rape trail”. It probably still is. College was a time when we were free to discuss, and acknowledge, but our words and actions still carried the scent of childhood. When we held “take back the night”, the campus would fix the broken callboxes and lights, and maybe add some more lighting, but for the most part things remained the same. Of course during orientation we were told to be careful. Women were advised on where to go and where not to go. Callboxes were pointed out, as was the escort service.

In all of this was an element of fear. Bitch Ph.D. has very illuminating words about fear:

And again: why would women fear this more than men? Random internet person develops some weird obsessive fixation on another random internet person, stalks and threatens him/her. I’ve seen this happen to both women and men. But guys don’t seem to fear it the way women do.

And what hit me suddenly–duh!–is that the only reason women fear this shit is because we are trained to fear it. And of course, underneath all that training is the fear of rape.

From the moment you walk on campus you are hit with a few facts: The prevalence of rape, and the need to take precautions to avoid it. You already walk onto campus knowing that you need to show affection even when you’d prefer not to, and that if you are raped it is likely your own fault for being drunk or dressing the wrong way. All of these thoughts create fear, and the result of fear is ice. Your words and actions become frozen. Fear doesn’t always produce fight or flight, it produces “oh shit, headlights!” and then roadkill.

So how do we combat this fear? One way to do it is through discourse. One obvious benefit is being exposed to new ideas, such as Nezua’s and Bitch Ph.D.’s respective posts. Another is that the act of discussing rape and the culture that surrounds it is itself of great benefit. The act of discussing rape and its implications allows us to go being the implicit and explicit notions of rape that pervade our culture. They also allow us to confront and move beyond the fears that surround sexual violence both personally and socially. When we had that discussion in high school, we covered how fear of violence itself was a form of violence. The fear that you or someone you know will be subject to sexual violence is partly one of our oldest fears, that of the unknown. Talking about rape is a direct way of diminishing its ability to frighten us.

Freedom from sexual violence is a basic human right, and a necessity in a democratic society. Fear of sexual violence is itself a form of sexual violence, and one we can start fighting right now. The more we talk about how we create victims, the less victims we will create. The more we discuss how we normalize sexual violence, the more we can recognize and call it out for what it is when we encounter it in popular culture. The more talk the more likely we are to find ways to promote safety without making everyone afraid to move, live, and be in our society.

Rape is a very violent, very personal, and downright terrifying topic. Don’t be afraid to bring it up more often.