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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

Who's the Victim in the Case of Michael Vick?

Michael Vick has a 10-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons for $130 million. His skill at running, kicking and throwing a football has won him the admiration of millions -- until now. As you probably know, Vick has been charged with involvement in the cruel and illegal "sport" of dog fighting. Americans may not care if an athlete beats his wife, but we love our pets. Breeding and training dogs to fight and kill, disposing of the losers by hanging, electrocution, slamming them repeatedly onto the floor -- this is definitely taking machismo too far.

In his recent piece for The Nation's website, Dave Zirin makes some valid points. Yes, Vick deserves some semblance of the presumption of innocence in the media. (Vick claims others ran the dog fight business from his Virginia house without his knowledge when he wasn't present.) And yes, there's racism in some of the virulent attacks on him on sports and news websites. References to lynching, the n-word and OJ do suggest something besides love of animals.

But I was appalled by Zirin's attempt to shift focus away from Vick to "the self-righteousness of the media" and the hypocrisy of "American culture" which "celebrates violent sports -- especially football -- and is insensitive to the consequences that the weekly scrum has on the bodies and minds of its players" like Earl Campbell and Andre Waters and other middle-aged ex-footballers who suffered long-term damage from old injuries. Like the accusations of racism, this sounds like a rather desperate bid to change the subject. Why should one concern displace the other? Can't one both feel revulsion at animal torture and want the game to be safer? At least the the players were volunteers, richly rewarded for the risks they took. Nobody asked the dogs if they wanted to have their throats ripped out.

There's probably a sense in which Michael Vick is a victim. But it's the same sense in which everyone , from Alberto Gonzales to Paris Hilton, is shaped by social forces outside their control. If you take that view, though, everyone should get amnesty: the racist cop, the Enron executive, the porn-loving tormenters of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and all the other people we love to attack at The Nation. Why do I think we are not going to recommend our readers lighten up on, say, Scooter Libby, on the grounds that working for Dick Cheney would warp anyone's moral fibre? We only deploy the blame-society argument on behalf of people we already sympathize with.

As human beings go, Michael Vick had more freedom of action than most. Nobody claims he electrocuted dogs to put food on the table. If -- note I said if -- he's found guilty, he should get the same sentence other people get who are convicted of the same crimes. Increased sensitivity to animal welfare may have its annoying pieties and hypocrisies but it marks a true contemporary moral advance and it's not as if we humans have so many of those to show for ourselves. It's good that dog fighting is banned. And if football is really as morally destructive as Zirin claims -- if it really turns ordinary men into sadists through a culture of "trickle-down violence" -- then maybe we should ban it too.

ADDENDUM: I thought I would enjoy having a comments section on this blog, but as you can see I've turned it off. For some reason, the website's comment sections have been colonized by a small group of trolls--mostly men, mostly conservative -- who post obsessively, rudely, inanely and irrelevantly. I just got tired of hosting their sandbox.

The Democrats Increased Funding for WHAT?

I'm way late on this, so I hope you've already squawked to your congressperson about a particularly nasty bit of gristle buried in the big fat bratwurst that is the 125-page Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill. Passed by the House on July 19 by a comfy 276-140 vote, HR 3043 increases federal funding for abstinence-only education by $27.8 million -- $4 million more than Bush asked for. That brings to a whopping $141 million the amount of your taxes the feds will spend annually on religion-ridden error-strewn information-denying propagandistic-boondogglish school programs that--as a Congressionally mandated 10-year evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research showed back in April -- do not even work.

These are the same programs that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) blasted in a report last December for spreading such falsehoods as : condoms don't protect against pregnancy, half of gay male teens are HIV positive, a 43-day old embryo is a "thinking person," 10% of women who have abortions become sterile, and the HIV virus can be transmitted through sweat and tears. My personal favorite, as described by The Washington Post:

"Some course materials cited in Waxman's report present as scientific fact notions about a man's need for ‘admiration' and ‘sexual fulfillment' compared with a woman's need for ‘financial support.' One book in the ‘Choosing Best' series tells the story of a knight who married a village maiden instead of the princess because the princess offered so many tips on slaying the local dragon. ‘Moral of the story,' notes the popular text: ‘Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess.' "

So who voted to keep filling young people's minds with sexist fairy tales and potentially fatal falsehoods? Henry Waxman! Along with Nation favorites Maxine Waters, Jan Schakowsky, Dennis Kucinich, and indeed every other House Dem present (Nancy Pelosi, although present, by tradition as Speaker, didn't vote). Practical explanation: throwing Republicans this trivial bone would build a veto-proof majority for a bill Bush has promised to reject-- a $152 billion bill crammed with good things, from more funding for Pell grants and for math and science education to $27.8 million more for Title X, the family planning program for low-income people. $27.8 million for claptrap, $27.8 million for reproductive health care. That's only fair.

Well, okay, that's how it goes in the sausage business ( For background on the politicking, read Lindsay Beyerstein's excellent report at www.inthesetimes.com. ) Still, I expect a little more backbone from the men and women who claim to represent the reality-based community. The Dems spent the last six and half years bashing the Republicans for supporting abstinence-only. They raised a ton of money and extracted hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours from people--feminists, gays, seculars, ordinary normal middle-of-the-roaders--who have just had it with the Christian right and their craziness. The Bush Administration's flagrant politicization of science--especially reproductive science -- was one of the Democrats' strongest cards. They might be dazed and confused about Iraq, but at least they know the government shouldn't tell young people condoms don't prevent pregnancy and STDs when, in fact, most of the time they do.

Did the strategy at least succeed? Apparently not. Republicans did not provide that veto-proof majority. Instead, the reality-based community has been demoralized, while the Purity Ballers whirl happily round the dance floor. And just to put the cherry of masochism atop the sundae of cynicism (yes, I know, what happened to that sausage?) federal abstinence dollars, as Michael Reynolds reported in The Nation , have a way of morphing into huge slush funds for Republican candidates. Even if David Obey, Nita Lowey and the other members of the HHS Appropriations committee who ground this sausage don't care about young people, you'd think they'd balk at funding their own opposition.

After all, they're doing such a good job of discouraging their supporters on their own.

Hillary Clinton Wears V-Neck Top! Details at 11.

Of all the silly, breathless, overthinky pieces about Hillary Clinton's appearance, I mean campaign, this labored bit of style-section psychobabble by Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan has to be the most inane. It seems that on Wednesday Senator Clinton was shown on C-Span giving a speech on the Senate floor about oh, whatever, and under her rose-colored jacket she wore a black top that's a millimeter lower than the ones she usually wears. OMIGOD! The Senator has breasts! Two of them! "The cleavage registered after only a quick glance," Givhan, um, reports. "No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn't an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable."

Cue mini-essay about the semiotic significance of various ballgowns worn by the Senator as First Lady, her subsequent move as Senator into a "desexualized uniform" of black pantsuits, and more gasping OMIGOD! about Wednesday's venture into something a bit less staid. "It's tempting to say that the cleavage stirs the same kind of discomfort that might be churned up after spotting Rudy Giuliani with his shirt unbuttoned just a smidge too far. No one wants to see that. But really, it was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!" Tops like the one Clinton wore offer a "teasing display," they're "unnerving," a "provocation." Why? "To show cleavage requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style. Any hint of ambivalence makes everyone uncomfortable. And in matters of style, Clinton is as noncommittal as ever."

The Senator's blouse is like an unzipped fly? That's the sort of brutal vulgarity I'd expect from Don Imus and other misogynistic Hillary-haters. I don't have Givhan's mind-reading abilities, so I can't say whether Clinton felt ambivalent or noncomittal about her neckline or how that would reveal itself ("Um, Dianne, Barbara, do you think this blouse is too, um, you know?"). But I spent some moments in "scrunch-faced scrutiny" of the C-Span video (thoughtfully provided by the Post) and I just don't get what Givhan is so worked up about. Granted I'm using dialup and the picture is kind of blurry, but I don't even see anything I would call cleavage.

I see a good-looking energetic middle-aged woman in a stylish summery outfit such that thousands of professional women would be thrilled to wear to an important meeting -- say, an edit meeting at the Washington Post to discuss further ways of trivializing women in politics. Like, maybe the Post can follow up with an article about Senator Clinton's choice of bathing suits (OMIGOD ! Is that a bellybutton? Gross! ). Or perhaps a two-page pictorial spread: Hillary's fashion do's and don'ts. Only, make that don'ts and don'ts. As in, Don't wear pantsuits -- too desexualizing! Don't wear a rose-colored jacket and a v-neck top -- too sexy!

Message to women: You can't win. You can't win. You can't win.

2,4,6,8! This Beheading is Really Great!

Why is the anti-war movement so lacklustre when 70% of Americans want to bring the troops home by spring and George W. Bush is the least popular president in history?

Some reasons are obvious: lack of a draft, low casualties, not much TV coverage, perceived futility of big rallies and marches. My fellow columnist Alexander Cockburn has a different idea. In his current Nation column, Alex argues that the anti-war movement is weak because it fails to show "international political solidarity" with "Iraqi resistance fighters."

Where's the love that US leftists felt for the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran FMLN--the sister cities, the links between unions, the love affairs between the "demure sisters in the struggle from Vermont or the Pacific Northwest" and "some valiant son of Sandino or downtrodden Nica sister, liberated by North American inversion from the oppressions of Latin patriarchy"?

True, he acknowledges, the "the contours of the Iraqi resistance are murky and in some aspects unappetizing to secular progressives in the West, or so they virtuously proclaim." ( Note the sarcasm --because nobody who disagrees with Alex could possibly have honorable motives.) But by cutting ourselves off from the Iraqis killling US soldiers, the US left is failing to learn "its internationalist ABCs."

Where to begin? Let's start with those murky contours and secular objections. With whom, exactly, are we supposed to be showing solidarity? Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia? Shiites massacring their Sunni neighbors? Sunnis killing Shiites? Religious reactionaries who have murdered doctors, professors, working women, Christians, students, hand-holding couples? "Ignorance about the Iraqi resistance is somewhat forgivable," Alex concedes, given the lack of first-hand sympathetic reporting--not that he deigns to enlighten the reader.

So, okay, call me ignorant: The Iraqi resistance isn't dominated by theocrats, ethnic nationalists, die-hard Baathists, jihadis, kidnappers, beheaders and thugs? Who haven't tortured and killed trade union leaders, feminists, aid workers, schoolteachers and such? We would like to live--Iraqis would like to live -- in the society they want to create?

The Sandinistas and the FMLN were far from perfect, but they were leftists. They stood for health care, education, land distribution, modernization--not burning down liquor stores and music shops, beating up unveiled women, suicide-bombing ordinary civilians, bringing back sharia law. They had support from all over the left end of the spectrum--labor,churches, feminists, socialists, human rights activists, peace activists--not just because they opposed US imperialism, but because they shared the goals of the American, and global, left.

If the Central American revolutionaries had resisted American intervention in the name of the Spanish Inquisition and spent a lot of time ethnically cleansing their neighborhoods, American leftists probably wouldn't have been so eager to hold potluck suppers for them.

Why Alex thinks embracing the Iraqi resistance would strengthen the US antiwar movement is beyond me. On the contrary, the nature of the resistance is a major reason why the antiwar movement is so weak. No matter how intensely you oppose the war, it is hard to feel good about an Iraq in which the resistance calls the shots. That was not how anti-war Americans saw Central America, or even Vietnam. It's not just that the iraqi insurgents are killing our soldiers--which, let's remember, was not an issue in Central America. It's that they're killing each other.

UPDATE: Alexander Cockburn's column is posted in full at Counterpunch.

Women's Rights are Human Rights, Iranian Edition

Via Feministing comes awful news from Iran. For participating in a banned rally for women's rights in June,2006, twenty-four year old Delaram Ali has been sentenced to 34 months in prison and ten lashes. The demonstrators--around 100 women and a number of men -- were peacefully protesting flagrantly biassed Sharia-based laws, including those governing divorce, inheritance and the courts, in which a woman's testimony is worth half of a man's. Police violently attacked the rally and arrested 70 demonstrators; Ali is the seventh to be convicted. Her lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, offers a defiantly hopeful interpretation of this cruel and unjust verdict: "The women's movement is expanding and this worries the government."

More details hereand here.

Weird Religion, Anglican Edition

According to two senior Church of England bishops, recent terrible floods in the UK are expressions of God's wrath at excess consumption -- or possibly excess gayfriendliness. "We have a responsibility in this and God is exposing us to the truth of what we have done," the Rt. Rev .James Jones, bishop of Liverpool, told The Telegraph .

"We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused." said the Rt. Rev. Graham Dow, bishop of Carlisle. "The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God's judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance." According to the Telegraph, Dow " expressed his sympathy for those who have been hit by the weather, but said that the problem with ‘environmental judgment is that it is indiscriminate.'"

Now just hold on a minute here. God left thousands of innocent Britons homeless-- to say nothing of other recent flood victims from Texas to Pakistan -- to make a point about something those people had nothing to do with? A point no one, except a handful of clergymen, seemed to get? If God is powerful enough to cause floods, why isn't he powerful enough to target his smitings to, say, the annual meeting of Exxon shareholders or Friends of the Incandescent Light Bulb? Surely God is aware that environmental catastrophes hit the most vulnerable hardest. The CEOs and superconsumers in their 4000-square-foot mansions have insurance, to say nothing of Hummers in which to make a quick escape to their condo in the city.

As for the gay thing, if a human being somehow managed to flood whole neighborhoods, destroying the lives of multitudes, and when asked why replied that he was furious, just furious, at growing tolerance for homosexuality, we would think he was insane. And he would be.

So maybe God exists, but is clinically mad. That would explain just about everything.

Not Quite Knocked Out by Knocked Up

Last night I finally saw Knocked Up, Judd Apatow's hilarious new movie, a raunchfest with a family-values core --- carrying on with accidental pregnancies, marriage as responsible adulthood, staying together for the sake of the kids. I'm not going to get into that here, except to second Dana Stevens' great piece in Slate on Hollywood and TV's cowardice about abortion (referred to in Knocked Up by the hero's slacker roommate as "rhymes with shmashmortion" and, by the heroine's ice-cold mother, as "taking care of it").

As she points out, legions of single women in their twenties who get pregnant accidentally like Alison (Katherine Heigl) or Jenna (Keri Russell) in Waitress, have abortions; on the big or small screen, they have miscarriages or babies. In the movies, I might add, accidental babies solve the very issues (men, work, money, dreams) that, in real life, they often worsen. Jenna gives birth, dumps her abusive ox of a husband, wins the baking contest he'd barred her from entering and opens her own pie diner. Alison falls in love with Ben (Seth Rogen), her one-night drunken stand, and, after spending the whole movie hiding her pregnancy to keep her celebrity-reporting job at E!, gets outed -- and promoted. Pregnancy polls really well-- who knew?

Actually, though, the real subject of Knocked Up is the immaturity of men: only under the most desperate circumstances will they put aside their bongs, or their porn, or their even more idiotic friends. If a woman had made this movie she'd be labelled a total man-hater: there isn't one man in it who isn't basically a teenager. But a woman never would have made this movie, because women don't have the fantasy in which willowy creamy world-class beauties like Alison, with brains, great clothes, and tons of self-confidence in bed and out of it, go for men like Ben (Seth Rogen), who is not only an unemployed and underbathed stoner with no ambitions and no visible means of support, but physically unattractive to an alarming degree. A real-life Alison wouldn't have spent one night in his filthy teenage-boy lair of a bedroom, or hung out for one evening with his uber-slacker friends . I'll give you that she might have called him when she discovered she was pregnant-- but offer to entwine herself in coparenting for life with a one-night stand she couldn't even get through breakfast with the next morning? Invite this virtual stranger to all her prenatal checkups? I didn't even invite my husband!

No, this is a male rescue fantasy, like Sideways, in which Paul Giamatti, an bitter, mean, alcoholic, very unattractive failed writer is saved by Virginia Madsen, a gorgeous kindhearted waitress. And like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow's previous movie, in which Steve Carell, the nerdy obsessive-compulsive loner, is saved by the delightfully easy-going hottie Catherine Keener. The family-values morality of Knocked Up is just window dressing, in my view. It isn't marriage, per se, that makes Ben grow up and get real -- it's Allison, who besides being lovely, is warm, good-hearted, down-to-earth, mature, doesn't ask for marriage or money, and -- this is important -- laughs at his jokes, which are indeed funny.

I'm trying to think of a romantic comedy where these roles are reversed. A clever, screwed up, ugly woman gets the gorgeous hunk who sees her inner beauty. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the closest I can think of (made by a woman, naturally), but Nia Vardalos's character is actually great looking once she gets out from under her father's thumb--her mousiness in the early scenes is just a reflection of her downtroddenness. By the end of the movie she looks like, well, a movie star. A Greek movie star. Mostly in films the supposedly ugly-duckling heroine is actually pretty and in great shape, she just needs a makeover and a social life, like Cinderella.

The guys, though, remain their unprepossessing selves. Instead, they grow up just enough to make it to the altar with a hot babe. After that? It's clear that their wives will be the sergeants in the boot camp of married life. They'll be versions of Allison's married sister, who spends her life mourning her declining hotness and reminding her husband of errands and chores he denies having promised to do. This man is so childish that he sneaks out of the house on pretext of work not to have an affair, as his wife fears -- but to play fantasy baseball with the guys.

That's marriage in today's family-values Hollywood-- dysfunctional schlub meets hottie with a heart of gold. Boy meets Mom.

Of Groceries, Abortions, and Nice, Classic Handbags

I was planning to start this blog by writing about The New York Times Sunday Magazine's special issue on income inequality -- Larry Summers (him again!), John Edwards, class conflict on Fisher Island and much more. But a practical instance of what true poverty means was waiting for me in my inbox this morning, in the form of an email from Heather Robertson of the Equal Access Fund of Tennessee, which helps poor women pay for their abortions. Heather writes:

"I just received a very desperate plea from a local clinic for funding for a patient that I will be unable to help. Our fund has assisted 5 women this month and after giving this woman $200, we have depleted our funds without completely helping her at all. Please read further:

"We need $400 more in order to pay the fee $850 fee of a 2nd trimester patient who HAS to be seen tomorrow, or she'll be too far along to be seen in the state of Tennessee. In that case, her fee will increase even more and have to pay the traveling expenses, as well.

"She's raised $250 and we have given the clinic $200 on her behalf thus far.

"She's a single mom with a 19 month old; co-conceiver skipped town; no child support because that dude skipped town; she is clinically very depressed and extremely desperate. She makes less than $800 a month working fulltime. She makes too much to get any state aid and definitely not covered by TNCare. She becamse pregnant after her birth control failed to prevent her pregnancy. Can you help by sending a paypal donation to equalaccessfund@gmail.com asap?

" "She has an appointment at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow morning. "

What a world of hurt is packed into this brief communication! And what a lesson in practical economics. This woman's wages of around $800 a month after taxes put her over the limit for TennCare, the state's medical program-- while leaving her not even close to being able to pay for her abortion herself. (Tenncare doesn't pay for abortion, but it would pay for some of the associated costs included in the fee.) Yet this same $800-- a month's expenses for this woman and her child, or the price of her reproductive freedom -- is less than the amount Gabby, one of the Los Angeles teenagers whose views on money are featured in the Times, thinks is reasonable to spend on a purse (‘If you want a really nice, classic bag, it's definitely appropriate to spend, like, four digits, because that's something that's really nice").

$800 is also about what the Equal Access Fund has to give out each month to women in need-- money raised dollar by dollar through donations, eBay garage sales and fundraisers. Fortunately, as I've been writing this, Heather e mailed me to say that the $400 this woman still needs has been raised thanks to donations that came in through her e mail. But what about the next woman and the ones after that? $800 doesn't go very far -- it won't even let Gabby accessorize her outfit.

How wonderful it would be if everyone reading this story sent the Fund a donation. Just go to Paypal, and send equalaccessfund@gmail.com whatever you can spare: the price of a latte or a copy of the Sunday Times or a (big) bag of chips or a beer or a movie ticket (Or, of course, for you lucky loaded few, a handbag!). I should mention that the Fund is an all-volunteer organization, so every dollar you send will go to patient care. And it's affiliated with the National Network of Abortion Funds, so it's tax-deductible and you know it's well-run.

You can write Heather Robinson at equalaccessfund@gmail.com.

Check out the fund at its myspace page

Find out more at their NNAF member page

And while you're there, browse the NNAF site and see if there's a local fund in your area. Chances are, they definitely could use your help.

Go Christine!

I was never wild about the Band of Brothers idea, as Ari notes, and not just because it is such a male (and white) bunch of tired and dreary no-idea candidates. It's a gimmick. A militaristic gimmick. It says Daddy's back and he hates those commie pinko peaceniks just as much as you, patriotic red-blooded red-state America! What's next, Band of Preachers?

Tammy Duckworth is a great human-interest story, but that's not a reason to support her candidacy. Running her is an act of considerable cynicism-- but it seems to be working. Ari, I'm guessing you'd barely heard of her before a few weeks ago, and you're practically ready to support her. The centrist mantra is working it's magic: Already you're having trouble telling the difference between the candidate who walks the walk and has grassroots support, and the candidate who is basically a photo-op. Who says Duckworth is the more electable of the two, besides the pols who recruited her to run?

Duckworth wants to stay in Iraq, she's allied with the more conservative wing of the party, and she seems to have very little substantive to say about most issues. She' s trying to push out of the way a candidate who has a lot of support, more local roots, who ran an incredible race last time, and who has much better politics. I would trust Cegelis a thousand times over Duckworth to take progressive stands once elected, including on women's rights and abortion rights. Duckworth told the Washington Post she thinks abortion shouldn't be a federal issue. That's not exactly a ringing defense of abortion rights, since unfortunately it IS a federal issue.

If it's all the same to you whether the US stays in Iraq or not, if you think women candidates are fungible and it makes no difference that one has been part of progressive politics in the district for years while the other was trying to get into active combat because (according to the WashPost) she thought flying helicopters was cool, by all means, support Duckworth.

Iranian Teenager to Hang for Self-Defense

Just relax and take it if a rapist attacks you in Iran. If you fight back, you may find yourself sentenced to death, like 18-year-old Nazanin. Oh, but wait, I forgot, if you do get raped and don't have four male witnesses to the actual physical act, you can be imprisoned, flogged or stoned for having sex outside of marriage. Here's the shocking story, from Iran Focus via Feministing:

Tehran, Iran, Jan. 07 – An Iranian court has sentenced a teenage rape victim to death by hanging after she weepingly confessed that she had unintentionally killed a man who had tried to rape both her and her niece.

The state-run daily Etemaad reported on Saturday that 18-year-old Nazanin confessed to stabbing one of three men who had attacked the pair along with their boyfriends while they were spending some time in a park west of the Iranian capital in March 2005.

Nazanin, who was 17 years old at the time of the incident, said that after the three men started to throw stones at them, the two girls' boyfriends quickly escaped on their motorbikes leaving the pair helpless.

She described how the three men pushed her and her 16-year-old niece Somayeh onto the ground and tried to rape them, and said that she took out a knife from her pocket and stabbed one of the men in the hand.

As the girls tried to escape, the men once again attacked them, and at this point, Nazanin said, she stabbed one of the men in the chest. The teenage girl, however, broke down in tears in court as she explained that she had no intention of killing the man but was merely defending herself and her younger niece from rape, the report said.

The court, however, issued on Tuesday a sentence for Nazanin to be hanged to death.

I'm trying to get an update on the case, and will report back if I find out more, but meanwhile, take action.

Write the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Louise Arbour and ask for the UN to raise the case of Nazanin with Iran.

Sign the petition to Kofi Annan and Arbour.

And check out Amnesty International's page on underage executions in Iran-- Nazarin is far from alone. (I know this is just their bureaucratic language, but it bothered me that AI refers to Nazarin as a "child offender," when, in fact, she not only committed no crime in protecting herself and her niece but behaved with great courage.)

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