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Katha Pollitt | The Nation

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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

Komen's Ambiguous Apology

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation must have been totally unprepared for the firestorm provoked by its announcement that it was severing its long relationship with Planned Parenthood, which for at least five years had been receiving grants to provide low-income women with breast exams and mammogram referrals. Komen showed itself to be both dishonest and ridiculous: there was its initial long silence over the decision, followed by a flurry of flimsy and inconsistent explanations—first it was that Planned Parenthood was being investigated by Representative Cliff Stearns; then it was a change in criteria for funding. And what PR genius advised it to childishly delete negative comments on its Facebook page? Result: Planned Parenthood was deluged with donations to keep its breast care services going, including a $250,000 matching grant from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; twenty-two senators signed a critical statement; there were resignations among staffers and open rebellion among volunteers. Andrea Mitchell’s interview with Nancy Brinker on MSNBC was as close to open distaste as that very polite journalist ever gets. Mitchell is herself a breast cancer survivor, and the expression on her face as she questioned Brinker was as if she were steeling herself to pick up a dead mouse.

The massive show of prochoice strength worked. Friday morning Komen released a statement apologizing for its decision and acknowledging the unfairness of cutting off PP because of the Stearns investigation: “We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.” (Forget for the moment that Brinker denied the investigation had anything to do with the ban on PP). This is excellent news: Komen has in essence admitted that the Stearns probe is politically motivated, which must sting recently hired senior VP for public policy Karen Handel, who publicly favored defunding PP when she ran as a Palin-endorsed candidate in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary.

But the rest of the statement is less clear. It continues:

We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.

This has widely been taken to mean Komen has backed down completely, i.e., will return to making grants to PP. But look more closely: that is not what it says. Komen says only that it will fund “existing grants”—that means, it will fund grants it has already formally agreed to make. Well, it is legally required to do that, isn’t it? It can’t rescind a grant on the basis of a rule made after the grant was offered. The original banning always referred to the future, and as to that, Komen says only that PP can apply for funding, not that Komen will continue to make grants to it as it has for many years. Nothing prevents Komen from altering its criteria in ways designed to exclude PP—for example, as Brinker suggested to Mitchell, deciding against funding breast care outside of mammogram centers.

And what about the bit about allowing affiliates “to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities?” Does that mean affiliates will be free to refuse to support PP, setting the stage for state and local anti-choice takeover efforts? It’s all rather unclear, and much too soon to declare victory and go home. It could mean a lesson well learned—but it could be just spin. After all, Handel, whoever hired her and whoever approved the original ban on PP are still there.

Nonetheless, this is a real win for pro-choicers. We hear so much anti-choice propaganda, we may not always remember that, actually, Planned Parenthood is not sketchy and controversial out there in mainstream America. It is beloved. Beloved. Note the relief- and gratitude-saturated testimonies like the ones collected practically overnight by the social media activist Deanna Zandt at the Tumblr site Planned Parenthood Saved Me. And it is beloved most of all by women who care a lot about women’s health—among whom Komen volunteers figure prominently. Breast cancer activism began as a feminist cause, after all: the initial impetus, back when Komen was founded in 1982, was the silence and shame surrounding the disease, the lack of research funding and the general sexism pervading treatment. Those are all feminist issues, and were structured as such in public discourse at the time. It was like Our Bodies, Ourselves in action.

Komen miscalculated by thinking its base cares only about breast cancer: in fact, those women in pink t-shirts and sneakers, raising their thousands upon thousands of dollars a year for breast cancer research, understand quite well that women’s health means more than tumor-free breasts. If Komen understood that but thought—and maybe still thinks—it can deceive those activists, or gradually shed them and acquire a whole other, equally dedicated, base of anti-choicers, it will dwindle and die. Anti-choicers are not interested in breast cancer activism; they’re interested in stopping abortion. They proved that by their eagerness to deprive of breast care women for whom PP was the only available option.

How things now stand: by Friday afternoon, PP was reporting that it has raised $3,000,000 since the Komen story broke. Meanwhile, just in time for February, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Komen is partnering with Discount Gun Sales, a Seattle distributor, to market a pink handgun. Because nothing says “pro-life” like a Walther P-22 Hope Edition.

The Komen Foundation Pinkwashes Anti-choicers, Punks Planned Parenthood

Remember when anti-choicers got LifeWay Christian Resources to pull its pink-covered Here’s Hope Breast Cancer Bibles from Walmart and other stores because one dollar of every sale went to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation? The antis were upset that the wealthy and influential breast-cancer charity made grants to Planned Parenthood for breast exams and mammograms for low-income women. And remember when Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, told his flock to stop raising money for Komen because someday in the future it might endorse stem cell research? Crazy, right?

The anti-choice movement can be so clumsy, and so weird, we forget that it is also smart and strategic and busy busy busy. Because while you were shaking your head over pink Bibles and stem-cell futurology, Komen was hiring Karen Handel as senior vice president for public policy. Handel is not your typical philanthropy administrator. She is a Republican pol, a former Georgia secretary of state, who ran in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, with endorsements from Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and anti-immigrant finger-pointing Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. At that time she described herself as “staunchly and unequivocally pro-life,” opposed to stem cell research and a fan of crisis pregnancy centers—places that have repeatedly been shown to use scare tactics and misinformation to dissuade women from seeking abortions. She vowed to eliminate from the state budget pass-through grants to Planned Parenthood for breast and cervical cancer screenings. Interestingly, she had previously supported these grants, using the exact arguments defenders of Komen’s PP grants are making now: PP is the only organization capable of doing the work—reaching low-income women, for whom the PP clinic is often the only medical care the get—and the grant money does not fund abortions. Handel’s turnaround shows you how quickly the anti-choicers have claimed formerly neutral turf: in only a few years a relationship deemed normal and good—in Georgia!—and the only existing way of providing needed services was branded with the mark of the beast.

Planned Parenthood says Komen grants totaled around $680,000 in 2011 and $580,000 the year before, accounting for around 170,000 of the 4 million breast exams it has given in the last five years. It’s pretty shocking that Komen would deprive of services women it has itself admitted have no other way of getting them. As Jodi Jacobson reports on RH Reality Check, in 2011 Komen itself acknowledged PP’s essential role in breast care:

While Komen Affiliates provide funds to pay for screening, education and treatment programs in dozens of communities, in some areas, the only place that poor, uninsured or under-insured women can receive these services are through programs run by Planned Parenthood.”

The statement continued:

These facilities serve rural women, poor women, Native American women, women of color, and the un- and under-insured. As part of our financial arrangements, we monitor our grantees twice a year to be sure they are spending the money in line with our agreements, and we are assured that Planned Parenthood uses these funds only for breast health education, screening and treatment programs.

As long as there is a need for health care for these women, Komen Affiliates will continue to fund the facilities that meet that need.

Komen claims that the defunding is due to a new rule it has adopted that no funds be given to an organization under investigation by state, local or federal authorities. And why make such a rule just now? As it just so happens, Planned Parenthood is currently the subject of a trumped-up investigation by Representative Cliff Stearns (R-Fla) at the behest of Americans United for Life: Stearns has demanded over a decade’s worth of documents in an attempt to determine whether federal dollars were used for abortion services. The very thing that Komen, only two years ago, denied was the case—and that Karen Handel herself said was not an issue in the Georgia funds she approved.

Komen may not have bargained for the extraordinary storm of protest its decision has evoked. There is much misery among its affiliates: at least one, Komen Connecticut, has posted its unhappiness on its Facebook page. On Twitter and Facebook longtime supporters are vowing never to donate or volunteer. A Credo Action petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures within hours. And in a classic example of unintended consequences, Sarah Kliff reports in the Washington Post that Planned Parenthood has already received $400,000 in donations in just twenty-four hours.

How you can take action:

Donate to Planned Parenthood for breast care and cancer screenings. Even a small gift at this moment makes a powerful statement of solidarity and resistance.

Check out Nona Willis Aronowitz in GOOD magazine for ways to support women’s health that don’t involve buying pink items you don’t need.

Sign these petitions:
Susan G. Komen for the Cure: Put Women’s Lives Before Politics
Tell the board of Susan G. Komen for a Cure: Don’t throw Planned Parenthood under the bus!

Sign the “I stand with Planned Parenthood” open letter.

Let Komen know how you feel online or call them at 972-701-2168.

Your reward? Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic essay, “Cancerland,” on Komen, pinkwashing and the “breast cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me” industry.

Regarding Christopher

Christopher Hitchens outside his hotel in New York, June 7, 2010.  REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Christopher Hitchens, my colleague for twenty years, was clever, hilarious, generous to his friends, combative, prodigiously energetic and fantastically productive. He could write with equal ease about Philip Larkin, capital punishment, Henry Kissinger and having his balls waxed. I used to wonder, enviously, how he could write so much, especially given his drinking, his travels, his public appearances and his demanding social life. He told me once that a writer should be able to write with no difficulty, anytime, anywhere—but actually, not many writers can do that. I think part of the reason why he was so prolific—and the reason he had such an outsize career and such an outsize effect on his readers—is that he was possibly the least troubled with self-doubt of all the writers on earth. For a man who started out as an International Socialist and ended up banging the drum for the war in Iraq and accusing Michelle Obama of fealty to African dictators on the basis of a stray remark in her undergraduate thesis, he seems to have spent little time wondering how he got from one place to another, much less if he’d lost anything on the way. After he left The Nation he said he had a “libertarian gene.” It’s a rum sort of libertarianism, and a rum sort of gene, that expresses itself first as membership in a Trotskyist sect, and then as support for the signal deed of an administration that stood for everything he had spent his life fighting, from economic inequality to government promotion of religion.

So many people have praised Christopher so effusively, I want to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish. His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league—elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns). Drinking didn’t make him a better writer either—that’s another myth. Christopher was such a practiced hand, with a style that was so patented, so integrally an expression of his personality, he was so sure he was right about whatever the subject, he could meet his deadlines even when he was totally sozzled. But those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting? The arguments that don’t track if you look beneath the bravura phrasing? Forgive the cliché: that was the booze talking. And so, I’m betting, were the cruder manifestations of his famously pugilistic nature: as F Scott Fitzgerald said of his own alcoholism: “When drunk I make them all pay and pay and pay.” It makes me sad to see young writers cherishing their drinking bouts with him, and even his alcohol-fuelled displays of contempt for them (see Dave Zirin’s fond reminiscence of having Christopher spit at him) as if drink is what makes a great writer, and what makes a great writer a real man.

So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren’t funny. Women shouldn’t need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were “fucking fat slags” (not “sluts,” as he misremembered later). And then of course there was his 1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as “possessive individualism.” I don’t suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that.

It wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write. “Anyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows” that pro-life women are on to something when they recoil at the idea of the “disposable fetus.” Hmmmm… that must be why most OB-GYNs are pro-choice and why most women who have abortions are mothers. Those doctors just need to spend an hour with a medical textbook; those mothers must never have seen a sonogram. Interestingly, although he promised to address the counterarguments made by the many women who wrote in to the magazine, including those on the staff, he never did. For a man with a reputation for courage, it certainly failed him then. (Years later, when he took up the question of abortion again in Vanity Fair, he said basically the exact same things, using the same straw-women arguments. Time taught him nothing, because he didn’t want to learn.)

That was the bad side of Christopher—the moral bully and black-and-white thinker posing as daring truth-teller. It was the side that reveled in 9/11, because now everyone would see how evil the jihadis were, and that rejoiced in the thought that the Korans of Muslim fighters would not protect them from American bullets. Some eulogists have praised him for moral consistency, but I don’t see that: he wrote tens of thousands of words attacking Clinton for executing Ricky Ray Rector, but seemed untroubled about George W Bush’s execution of 152 people—at the time a historical record—as governor of Texas. He was so fuelled by his own certainty he claimed that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq only proved they were there.

I don’t know how long Christopher will be read. Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm. But as a vivid presence Christopher will be long remembered. A lot of writers, especially political writers, are rather boring as people, and some of the best writers are the most boring of all—they’re saving themselves for the desk. Christopher was the opposite—an adventurer, a talker, a bon vivant, a tireless burner of both ends of the candle. He made a lot of enemies, but probably more friends. He made life more interesting for thousands and thousands of people and posed big questions for them—about justice, politics, religion, human folly. Of how many journalists can that be said? 

HHS: Let's Treat ALL Women Like Children

Did you assume the politicization of science was gone with the Bush administration and the reality-based community was back in charge? Think again. In a surprise move that has outraged women’s rights activists, HHS head Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA’s proposal to make Plan B One-Step, a single-pill form of emergency contraception, available over the counter. According to the New York Times, this is the first time in our history that a health secretary has overruled the FDA.

Sebelius claims that her reason is that the FDA didn’t show that 11-year-old girls, some 10 percent of whom are fertile, understand how to follow the EC directions. Here are the instructions, courtesy of an alert commenter at www.nytimes.com:

“Plan B One-Step dosage consists of a single tablet taken once. A second tablet or dose is not required. The Plan B One-Step tablet should be taken as soon as possible and not more than 72 hours (3 days) after unprotected intercourse or contraceptive failure."

If a sixth grader can’t understand those elementary, crystal-clear instructions, we should just move back to the caves, because civilization is finished. As has been pointed out, we assume middle-schoolers can handle Tylenol, which is not only easy to overdose on but has been used in suicides. If Sebelius is really worried about what kids can purchase at Duane Reade, she should start with products that actually can be used dangerously.

Barack Obama says that as the father of two daughters, he wants the government to “apply common sense” to rules about over the counter medications. Well, I too have a daughter, and so many many pro-choice women. Who died and made Barack Obama daddy in charge of teenage girls? Would he really rather that Sasha and Malia get pregnant rather than buy Plan B One-Step at CVS? And excuse me, Mr. President, thanks to your HHS, acquiring Plan B is prescription-only not just for 11-year-olds but for the 30 percent of teenage girls between 15 and 17 who are sexually active, and is a cumbersome process for all women, who have to ask a pharmacist for it and, as many news stories have reported, be subjected to fundamentalist harangues and objections. Apparently, it’s okay with you if Michelle is treated like a sixth-grader. I’m trying to think if there are any laws or regulations affecting only men in which unfounded fears about middle-school boys deny all men normal adult privileges. Needless to say, no one suggests that underage boys get a prescription if they want to use condoms, or that grown men have to ask the pharmacist for them and maybe get a lecture about the evils of birth control and promiscuity.

This is politics. Pure politics. The Obama administration values the Catholic bishops, the Family Research Council, Rush Limbaugh and the swing voters of Ohio more than the pro-choice Democratic women who make up way more than their share of his base—women who campaigned for him, donated to him, knocked on doors for him, left Hillary Clinton for him. He must be assuming that we are captive voters—we have no place to go. That may be true, but there’s trudging to the polls and there’s passion. Obama is never going to get passion from anti-choicers and swing voters. And it looks increasingly likely that he won’t get it from pro-choice women either.

DSK: He Said, She Said

The prosecutors did what they had to do when they dropped the charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. As they wrote in their motion to dismiss, Nafissatou Diallo had told too many untruths, and told them too persuasively. Supporters have put forward explanations for her shifting stories—rape trauma, mistranslation, distrust of the DA’s office, fear of job loss and even deportation—but what comes through the motion to dismiss is that the prosecutors just got fed up. It wasn’t just that they didn’t think they could get a conviction with such a flawed complainant. It was that they themselves had lost confidence in her: “The nature and number of the complainant’s falsehoods leave us unable to credit her version of events beyond a reasonable doubt, whatever the truth may be about the encounter between the complainant and the defendant. If we do not believe her beyond a reasonable doubt, we cannot ask a jury to do so.”

I still think it is more likely that DSK attacked Diallo than that, as his lawyers claimed, they had consensual spur-of-the-moment sex after which, or even in the course of which, she instantly and brilliantly fabricated a rape. After all, DSK’s credibility in the coerced sex department is not very high either. But if I were on the jury, based on what we know so far, I would have voted to acquit. “More likely” just isn’t enough to send someone to prison.

Does dropping the charges mean rape victims can’t get justice? My editor reminded me that I said when this started that even though she was then reported to be a pious and upright Muslim widow, there would be things in her life and her past that would make her look bad: a shady boyfriend, a brush with crime, a legal fiddle. Nobody’s perfect, and no one is less likely to be found perfect than a female—even a child—who claims rape, especially when the alleged perpetrator is more socially powerful. In May, a New York City jury found it harder to believe that a cop raped a drunken half-clad woman in her apartment, leaving the door unlocked and returning three times while his partner played lookout, than that he made all those visits in order to counsel her about her drinking. Jury members seemed shocked at their own decision—but with no DNA, what could they do? It was just “he said, she said.”

The real credibility problems with Diallo shouldn’t make us forget how many women lose out in the justice system because behind them lurks the suspicion that they are lying, or crazy, or slutty or fair game, or a woman scorned, or out for money, fame or “attention.” The onus is always on her to disprove these powerful cultural myths, and it’s remarkable how hard it can be. Something. There’s usually something.

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No, Erica Jong, Sex Is Not Passé

Will somebody please make older women stop fussing about young women and sex? Usually older women worry that the girls are seeing too much action. Now comes Erica Jong, editor of Sugar in My Bowl, a new anthology of personal essays by women about sex, who complains in the New York Times (“Is Sex Passé?”) that young women are rejecting sex, have a “nostalgia for ‘50s-era attitudes toward sexuality” and a “lust for propriety” instead of seeking zipless fucks like Isadora Wing in Jong’s iconic 1973 novel Fear of Flying. Imagine, wanting to be monogamous! What will the young get up to next? (Full disclosure: Erica invited me to contribute to Sugar in My Bowl when it was going to be an anthology of pieces about one’s best sexual experience. I said no thanks.)

What is Jong’s evidence for this supposed outbreak of chastity? Well, there’s her daughter, who’s in her mid-thirties and contributed an essay called “They Had Sex So I Didn’t Have To,” about her parents’ child-embarrassing shenanigans, and a handful of other anthology participants. Oh, and cybersex (quick someone, tell Anthony Weiner’s pen pals they should claim they were driven by a “lust for propriety” rather than, well, lust). And babies—“our current orgy of multiple maternity” with family beds and breastfeeding “at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him.” (Well, they don’t belong to him, do they? I thought Isadora Wing’s revolutionary point was that a woman’s breasts, and all the rest of her, belong to herself. )

Even for a trend story, “Is Sex Passé?” is pretty shaky. Molly Jong-Fast is just one person. A handful of New York writers is just one handful. In fact, there is really no evidence that young women, of whatever class, educational level or ethnicity, married or single, mothers or not, are less interested in sex than comparable women were in 1973, let alone in the 1950s. There is only the evidence that Erica Jong and Molly Jong-Fast see things differently and Jong is not happy about that. I could easily write a my-friends-are-a-trend story from the opposite direction: I know plenty of young women now who are far more sexually experienced, experimental, and curious than anyone I knew in 1973, including myself. So there.

I myself resist the notion that sexual freedom is the same as promiscuity. What about the kind of sexual freedom that can grow within a monogamous relationship with a partner you really know and trust? Be that as it may, you can make a good case that young women today are busier in bed than their 1973 counterparts. Isadora Wing’s “zipless fuck” is today's hookup culture—utterly routine on a thousand campuses. I’d argue sex is better now, too: better birth control and legal abortion means less fear of pregnancy, there’s more information out there, more men give oral sex, people have fewer inhibitions about masturbation, sex toys and other pleasure-enhancers (half of US women own vibrators, so at least they know what an orgasm is and are not too guilty to go after them), women are better able to ask for what they want. Since they are marrying later—26.1 was the median age for women at first marriage in 2010 versus a cradle-robbing 20.8 in 1970—they come to marriage with more experience, including, for a growing number, lesbian experience. Jong worries that young women are too stuck on monogamy, but not to worry: There’s plenty of infidelity, and rising rates of it among younger women. Cheating on your spouse is one thing that is never going out of style.

As for babies, the birthrate was higher in 1973, and almost twice as many women in their 40s today than in 1973—almost one in five—have had no children at all. That doesn’t tell us anything about women’s sex lives—no kids because no partner? No interest? No working-order plumbing?—but it does make one wonder where this “current orgy of maternity” is taking place outside of Park Slope and the Quiverfull movement.

One final point: I really doubt married couples with small children were having tons of hot spontaneous sex in 1973,1950, or indeed ever.

 

The Budget Stalemate Is Not About Abortion

Planned Parenthood gets no federal money for abortion, a procedure which constitutes some 3 percent of their work. None! (Neither, by the way, does the United Nations Population Fund, which Republicans also want to defund. In fact, it has been banned from funding abortions since its founding in the 1970s, and by several bouts of US legislation since.)

So why does the media keep claiming the looming government shutdown is about “abortion”? The New York Times is typical: “Abortion dispute complicates budget negotiations.” “Mr. Reid said that Republicans had “drawn a line in the sand” on issues of abortion financing and changes to the Clean Air Act.” The NPR top-of-the-hour news briefs this morning referred to “abortion funding” as the big obstacle. Even Talking Points Memo has fallen into the habit: “Abortion, spending cuts hamper deal to avoid government shutdown.“ And so has the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who writes, confusingly, “So though the fight over Planned Parenthood might be about abortion, Planned Parenthood itself isn’t about abortion.” How can the fight be about abortion, when, as Klein acknowledges, no federal monies are spent on abortions at Planned Parenthood? The fight is about Planned Parenthood. Period.

In adopting this lazy shorthand, media outlets tacitly accept the Republican frame: PP’s main business is performing abortions, and the federal government—you, the taxpayer!—pays for them. None of this is true. Ninety-seven percent of PP’s business is providing birth control, basic gynecological care, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and the like. Its abortion services are not funded with taxpayer dollars. Thanks to the Hyde amendment, there has been virtually no federal funding of abortion since 1976.

Next time, so-called liberal media, try these handy phrases: “Birth control blocks budget agreement.” “Government shut down looms over Pap smears” “Republicans to women: can’t afford cancer screening? Tough luck.”

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This Just In: Women Are Not All Pacifists

It’s been a long time since anyone seriously maintained that women in power, simply by virtue of their gender, are reliably less warlike than men—how could they be, given that men set up and control the system through which those women must rise? But apparently Nation blogger Robert Dreyfuss has just noticed this fact.

In a post entitled “Obama’s Women Advisers Pushed War Against Libya" (originally titled “Obama’s Women” tout court) he’s shocked-shocked-shocked that UN Ambassador Susan Rice, human-rights adviser Samantha Power and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were keen on intervening militarily in Libya. The piece is dotted with arch and sexist language—the advisers are a “troika,” a “trio” who “rode roughshod over the realists in the administration” (all men) and “pushed Obama to war.” Now it’s up to the henpecked president to “reign (sic) in his warrior women.” Interestingly, the same trope—ballbreaking women ganging up on a weak president—is all over the right-wing blogosphere.

Whatever you think of the action against Qaddafi—count me as extremely apprehensive—it might just be that someone, even a woman, could support it for a reason other than sheer viciousness. The Clinton administration’s inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide was a formative experience for Power and Rice, and possibly for Hillary Clinton as well, given that President Clinton said his biggest regret was failing to prevent the genocide. Military action against Qaddafi may be a bad idea—another Iraq-like “cakewalk”—but people of good will can still see it as preferable to standing by as Qaddafi butchers the rebels, as he promised to do.

In any case, the fact that three women argued for it skillfully and won their point is not very interesting. So why stress it, except that it mobilizes a raft of misogynist tropes about castrating females, the dangers of petticoat government and the folly of expecting anything good to come out of gender equality? After all, can you imagine a piece in The Nation titled “Black President Opts for Bombs” or “Qaddafi, a Man, Threatens to Massacre Rebels, Most of Whom Are Also Men”?

Misogyny—it’s the last acceptable prejudice of the left.

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Mayor to Judge: Drop Dead

New York State Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman is used to raising hackles. In her long and distinguished career on the bench she’s ruled in favor of homeless people with AIDS, rent-stabilized tenants, protestors at the 2004 Republican national convention and many other ordinary people in a city where the rich and powerful seem to grow richer and more powerful with every passing day. (I should mention before going on that Goodman is a friend.) The latest attacks, though, aren’t limited to Daily News editorialists or the famously irate Andrea Peyser of the New York Post.  They’re also coming from city officials and Mayor Bloomberg himself. And that makes all the difference.

It started last month, when Judge Goodman issued a temporary restraining order preventing the city from laying off or demoting a dozen deputy sheriffs. The Mayor swung into action, inveighing against Goodman in his regular slot on the John Gambling radio show, where he called upon Jonathan Lippman, the state's chief judge, to “make these judges follow the law, not get involved where they have no legal standing and if they do have legal standing, do what the law says."  Goodman’s ruling, he claimed, would cost the city “a million dollars a year just because this judge decides to step in and say ‘Oh, I feel sorry for these people.’” City officials made absurd accusations to force her off the case – among them that she exchanged pleasantries with the plaintiff’s attorney, that her daughter has been laid off from her job (presumably making the judge too sympathetic toward the plaintiffs) and that an article she wrote for the Gotham Gazette about parking tickets presented a conflict of interest because the sheriff’s deputies' job involves parking violations. Corporation counsel Michael Cardozo even bashed her because on one occasion no one answered her phone in chambers.

Fortunately, the mayor seems to have outraged the legal profession. "It is one thing for an elected official to disagree with a court ruling, but it is unworthy of the Mayor to demean an individual judge with a personal attack, and equally unworthy of him to mischaracterize what happened in court," said James B. Kobak Jr., president of the prestigious New York county lawyers association. The NYCLA has issued a strongly worded statement critiquing the mayor, as has the president of the New York State Bar Association.

“It’s gratifying that two major legal organizations have spoken out,” Goodman told me, “but all lawyers, judges and the public must be concerned about interference with judicial independence. History has shown us the dangers of governmental intrusions into the judicial process. This isn’t just about me.”

Meanwhile, the appellate division has upheld Judge Goodman’s ruling.

 

Naomi Wolf: Wrong Again on Rape

Should the press reveal the names of complainants in rape cases? In the Guardian, Naomi Wolf says yes—beginning (but you knew this was coming) with the two women who've accused Julian Assange of forcing his attentions—his condomless attentions—on them. The same women she previously mocked on HuffPo as jealous whiners, and on Democracy Now!, accused of giving mixed messages to an ardent bedmate. No "let's wait until the trial," for her.

Anonymity, Wolf argues, is a relic of the Victorian era, when raped women were seen as damaged goods; permits stereotypes about rape victims to flourish, since people don't see that "ordinary women" get raped; harms women by treating them as children rather than moral agents; and impedes law enforcement. This last point is a little bizarre: doesn't Wolf realize that anonymity applies only to the media? Everyone in the justice system knows who the complainants are. Wolf also, as she often does, gets her facts wrong: Anita Hill, whom she cites as bravely volunteering her name and thereby spurring a great wave of "equal opportunity law," was not a complainant in a legal case. She was subpoenaed as a witness in the Senate hearings. Anonymity was never an option for her. Furthermore, Hill's allegations against Clarence Thomas had nothing to do with rape, so why is Wolf even talking about her? Hill is in fact, the only real-life modern woman Wolf mentions in a piece that name checks Virginia Woolf, Coventry Patmore and Oscar Wilde.

Call me cynical, but I don't think Wolf would be taking this line, either about anonymity or date rape, if the accused were, say, George W. Bush, or, for that matter, Joe Sixpack. This is all about protecting Assange from what she believes are politically motivated charges. In other contexts, Wolf seems aware enough of the risks of exposure for women who accuse men of even minor acts of sexual aggression. After all, in 2004 she confessed in New York magazine that for twenty years she had not "been brave enough" to mention to any living soul that Harold Bloom had "sexually encroached upon" her by groping her thigh when he was her professor at Yale. Does she think she would have been more courageous if going to the dean would have meant seeing her name on the front page of the Yale Daily News, the New Haven Register and maybe even, given Bloom's celebrity, the New York Times? In fact, Wolf waited decades to make a peep and is furious at Yale, all these years later, for not acting on her non-complaint.

In defending her attacks on the women in the Assange case, Wolf often mentions her experience as a counselor and reporter on rape (she's reported on rape "more than any journalist I know," as she modestly put it on Democracy Now!). Does she really think rape victims (including of course male rape victims) would side with her on this? Yes, Naomi, I would like my extremely conservative extended family to know all about how I came not to be the virgin they think I am! Oh, Naomi, please, it's so important that everyone I meet knows I was raped at a frat party, because otherwise how will they know how to set up a group on Facebook calling for me to be sodomized unto death? The trouble with declaring anonymity an outworn custom is that the Victorian code that shamed rape victims is with us today, it's just that to the stereotypes of the sullied virgin and chaste wife have been added the crazy lying slut, the cocktease and the repressed frump who secretly "wants it." If Wolf has really spent as much time with rape victims as she claims, I can't believe she doesn't know how ready people are to attack the credibility of just about anyone who brings a charge of rape, including, often, the accuser's own friends and family. Disproving her own thesis, Wolf is quite willing to assume the worst about the Assange accusers, based on Internet rumors, early misreportings and spin from Assange and his lawyer.

I'm the first to admit that anonymity in this particular case is a close call at this point, since, although I've always supported anonymity for sex-crimes complainants, at the last minute I decided to name "Miss A" in my column two weeks ago. My thinking was that she had no real privacy left: her name is all over the Internet (some 113,000 Google hits); "Miss A" just looked so silly on the page. (I was also under the mistaken impression that, post-outing, the women had accepted a public role; in fact, they've been attacked so viciously, that Miss W has gone into hiding and Miss A has moved to the West Bank.) A number of people objected when the piece came online, and that night my editor and I changed it back to "Miss A." Better look a little prim than help the pack baying for their hides. (The original version still exists in the print magazine.)

Rape victims already face formidable obstacles in getting justice, which is a big reason why so many don't go to the police. (In the US, only about 13 percent of reported rapes result in a conviction; in the UK, it's about 6 percent.) Wolf argues that victims of other crimes don't get anonymity, but in no other crime do complainants face anything like the skepticism and hostility widely meted out to those who report sex crimes, especially when the accused is famous, respectable, admired, important or even just good-looking. Never mind what publicizing names would do for "women," the theoretical construct. What about the actual human beings who have been the victims of sex crimes? Why does Wolf want to increase their suffering? Isn't it bad enough that the police may well not take them seriously, their rape kits may not be processed, their credibility will be attacked in court in a way that would never happen if the crime were burglary or mugging and, if the defendant looks like one of their own—their son, their brother—at least some members of the jury will be looking for reasons to acquit?

Watch out for people who want to make life harder for real-life women on the grounds that it'll help "women." There is no end of ways in which increasing the odds against already victimized people can be portrayed as good for them—look at the debates around welfare and affirmative action. The best way to help real life rape victims is to make it easier for them to report attacks against them, so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice and prevented from harming others. If what women see all around them is that those who come forward have their lives shredded and their reputations, thanks to the Internet, forever linked to their most traumatic experience, they will decide, in even greater numbers than now, that coming forward just isn't worth it.

Right now, nothing prevents rape complainants from outing themselves, and some have done so. More power to them. But extraordinary heroism should not be forced on people, especially if the result is more silence for victims, more impunity for perpetrators. Naomi Wolf, who kept her own secret until the time was right for her, regardless of the effect on other women, should be the first to understand that.

 

 
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