Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What an anti-abortion activist thinks of women seeking abortions

In a piece about Donald Trump's controversial remarks on abortion (in an interview with Chris Matthews he said "there has to be some form of punishment ... for the woman" who has an abortion), the head of Concerned Women for America, Penny Nance, said that Trump
"doesn't understand pro-life people or the life issue. He instead became the caricature that the left tries to paint us to be. The reality is that pro-lifers are compassionate people who deeply care for broken women and their babies."
She didn't say "women and their babies", she said "broken women and their babies".

I don't jump on misstatements: anybody can commit a malapropism. This, however, wasn't a misstatement: it was her candid opinion of women who seek an abortion. Don't believe me? Here's a piece on an anti-abortion site covering the same Trump-instigated kerfuffle; it also quotes Nance.

Penny Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, agreed, "These are broken and wounded women being exploited by the abortion industry and Planned Parenthood."
So if you have an abortion, these people consider the act repugnant and you are a broken person in their eyes, too.

Why does this characterization bother me? Well, if you were shot or stabbed, I'd consider you "wounded". To call you "wounded" because you had a medical procedure is a gross distortion of the word's meaning. In fact, it suggests the very opposite of what a medical procedure does.

And "broken"? Even when you break a bone, nobody calls you "broken". "Broken" as applied to a person is only ever used to refer to his or her emotional state. It's pretty goddamned presumptuous for Penny Nance to brush every woman who has had an abortion with the broad brush of "broken". I don't doubt many, perhaps most women who seek an abortion are torn about their decision, but if they go through with the procedure it's only after a lot of soul-searching. To come to a decision after a lot of thought does not make you "broken".

And "the abortion industry and Planned Parenthood"? I suppose it's a (sadly limited) measure of progress that she doesn't consider the two synonymous, but otherwise — well, she's (again) demonizing without cause. "Industry" suggests massive scope, when the ugly reality is that Nance and her allies have done a remarkable job of limiting the availability of safe, legal abortions in dozens of states. It's too bad that spending on women's and family issues in so many of those states has also been sharply curbed out of an unsubtantiated concern with fraud and an obsession with cutting taxes.

Oh, and "exploited"? Planned Parenthood "exploiting" anyone would be laughable if the subject weren't so serious. Nance wants to conjure up an image of evil Planned Parenthood volunteers seducing women off the street to have spontaneous abortions. Talk about a grotesque perversion of abortion providers' actual role! They perform a needed service, one that no one loves but that is still sadly needed by too many. They don't hustle up work like a carnival barker.

It matters what you call people. Calling women who've had abortions "wounded" and "broken" and "exploited" stigmatizes them and they don't deserve that. Nance probably thinks her heart is in the right place, but she's just pissing on the women she supposedly wants to help.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Court and contraception, again

I warned about The Little Sisters of the Poor's objection to the Affordable Care Act's contraception-coverage provision a couple of years ago. Dahlia Lithwick's excellent Slate piece went into the deep philosophical issue at the heart of the nuns' objection to the provision: namely, that the nuns believe even signing the exemption paperwork the ACA requires of an objecting group would make them complicit in the provision of contraception. In a different post about Kim Davis' objections to Kentucky's same-sex marriage I explained the deep trouble that such an argument signifies:
Davis objects to standard legislative accommodations of objecting religious believers. She won't allow her deputies to do the physical work of issuing documents because they still require her signature, and even if the signature were imprinted by a machine it would, in her eyes, still reflect her endorsement of a sinful act. This level of belief can't be satisfied by legalistic fig leaves that exempt the believer from physically participating in the act: it considers standing aside and letting the action take place to be tantamount to complicity.


If you sincerely believe that the least little contact makes you complicit in a sin, I don't see how you can be virtuous in the modern world. I also don't see how you can believe in freedom of belief for anyone else if you're inclined to constrain what other people can do if their actions impinge on your "web" of possible complicity.

In a lament of the idiocy that was the Court's Hobby Lobby decision, I wrote:
How does it impermissibly burden Hobby Lobby's founder to pay an insurance premium for a policy that covers, but does not require, contraception? He's already paying his employees straight salaries that — gasp! — they might use to buy contraceptives at the drugstore. How do these situations differ from the founder's perspective?
  • In both cases, it's the employee's choice to purchase the contraception. Nobody is holding a gun to Hobby Lobby's founder's head to buy it.
  • In both cases, the employer is simply paying the employee; the only difference is the form of the compensation.
  • Since when has it been acceptable for your boss to dictate how you spend your pay? You are not an indentured servant and the boss is not a plantation owner.
Why are the boss's qualms more important than my legal rights? Hell, why are the boss's qualms more important than mine? Answer me that, O Justices in the majority.

They can't. This case should never have been accepted for adjudication by the High Court.

The same objections hold in the Little Sisters case. I'm afraid that the same prejudices will hold among the blinkered conservatives on the Court.

The Little Sisters' case finally made it to the Supreme Court and, according to The Atlantic's Garrett Epps, the conservative justices were typically hostile to contraception and sympathetic to the religious group.

Roberts, Kennedy, and Alito seemed utterly oblivious to the other side of the question. If the plan “belongs” to the employer (Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that it does not, by law), then the benefits surely “belong” to the employee. By definition, she has earned her lawful wages, which include government-required employee benefits.

The decision of how to use those benefits—of whether and when to conceive—is a profoundly personal one that involves sensitive issues of health as well as ethical issues that are hers, and not the employers’, to decide. ... Solicitor General Donald Verrilli tried to bring that question to the fore. What the challengers were asking, he said, was that “those rights or those employees who may not share [the] petitioners’ beliefs be extinguished.”

Alito wasn’t interested in employees or their consciences, however. Did Verrilli not understand that this provision offended the important, the traditional, the conservative American religious groups?

Not for the first time, I curse the sanctimonious twit Samuel Alito. But his conservative colleagues on the bench were just as sexist and revolting. As Epps concluded:
The conservatives’ hostility to government, and to government-regulated health care, formed a toxic smog when it combined with what seemed, to use a term I don’t use lightly, like good old-fashioned boys’-club sexism. Women and their concerns, the conservatives seem to think, should not intrude into serious areas like medicine and health.
The blind fealty to the supremacy of religion among the conservative Justices is sickening. It's also harmful in the extreme to pluralism, genuine religious tolerance, and even public health in this country.

If there's a genie out there who can grant me wishes, could you please bless Justices Roberts, Alito, Kennedy and Thomas each with a vagina? Then they might gain a dim understanding of the depth of their abysmal idiocy on women's health.

In the meantime, each of those gentlemen can make use of his existing genitals to fornicate himself.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"The Obama Doctrine", Jeffrey Goldberg

I've suspected for a while that Obama is the president most temperamentally similar to me, and this long, intimate look at Obama's foreign-policy doctrine confirms my suspicion (or my bias, perhaps).
“I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.”
It's quite possible his detached, hyper-logical, nuanced attitude toward international relations has failed to provide the right solutions in certain situations. He also seems to have misjudged other leaders, and/or how their nations would react to those leaders' actions.

All the same, I'm grateful to have had him in the Oval Office. To argue counterfactuals is a game one can never decisively win (or lose), of course, but I strongly suspect we've avoided more than a few quagmires because Obama kept his cool, and kept his eye on the long run.

I have to admit, more and more of the world is embracing irrationality. You can see it in the appeal of ISIS' nihilism to a surprisingly large number of well-educated and not-oppressed young people in the West; in the millions in this country who have embraced the emptiness of Donald Trump; in the hypernationalism of millions of Russians who think Putin is leading them toward a restoration of Soviet-era superpowerdom. I get why more and more people are turning away from established political and economic leaders: these people have no damned clue how to fix the wrenching dislocations of globalization and they have no answers for those disoriented by the pace of change. Yet to embrace a cult or a strongman instead is, well, insane to me.

Maybe Obama is Neville Chamberlain or Herbert Hoover, well-meaning but ill-suited to the time. I'd like to think not, but we won't know unless history produces a Churchill or FDR to follow him. At the moment that looks highly unlikely. (Well no, right now it looks impossible.) In the meantime, I prefer a thinker like Obama to have the reins rather than a self-described "decider" like W. The world isn't simple, no matter how many simplistic people insist it is.

Friday, March 11, 2016

No more late-night TV for me

Well, that's not entirely true: I might still tune into reruns of Good Eats, or catch up on primetime shows when it's more convenient to watch.

But I'm done with traditional late-night talk shows.

I've never watched Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel. Fallon I've heard enough about to be completely uninterested: he's the consummate nice guy whose show has no edges whatsoever. Kimmel I might like but I suspect that he doesn't venture outside the late-night formula, thus he isn't worth my time. Conan O'Brien's high-strung shtick rubs me the wrong way. James Corden's round-table format is different but not interesting enough to hold my attention. Seth Meyers apparently is doing some quality political satire but not enough of it to make his show compelling.

Now, the hosts I know a lot better.

Larry Wilmore: I like Wilmore. He's smart, he's invested in the stories he chooses and he brings a black man's perspective to the issues, which means that occasionally he discusses them in ways that don't occur to his white cohorts. The trouble is the format of his show. He has interesting things to say, and he occasionally elicits interesting remarks from his guests, but the half-hour (more like 22 minutes) he's allotted means his monologue (including correspondent bits, if any) and guest segment are both short. The result is that everything said is superficial and feels rushed. I'd really like for him either to have the show to himself, or to make the panel discussion the full show so that his guests have a chance to say more than a few words.

The other thing about Wilmore is, he can get a little whiny. Getting exasperated with stupidity is part of his shtick, of course, but when he looks at the camera with a sad and confused face and asks "Why????", or laments, "No, no, NO, [name of whoever he's talking about]!", it can grate. He can drop the hammer on his targets and be as cutting as anyone who has ever come out of The Daily Show, but for whatever reason he doesn't go there often. Maybe he needs a foil: he seemed to be more consistently funny when he interacted with Jon Stewart.

Wilmore is perhaps the only late-night host I'll continue to check out when I have a moment. I hope he'll find a way to make his show as concentrated a dose of satire as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report because that seems to be his aim.

Stephen Colbert: Colbert is a hell of a talented man, and a very nice one, too. The thing is, in The Late Show he seems to be perfectly happy to give us a typical network late-night talk show. It's primarily a stop for celebrities on promotional tours, while non-celebrity guests never get enough time to say much of interest. Moreover, interviews have always been the least interesting part of Colbert's shows. The Colbert Report was concentrated, deeply satisfying satire. It was also exhilarating performance art: we kept wondering, "How long can he keep up his character? Will he fall off the high wire tonight?" (He did fall a few times and it was hilarious as he invariably burst out laughing at himself, then improvised a hilarious self-deprecating aside.) On The Late Show the satire has been severely cut back and the little that remains is not worth enduring the rest of the show. And while the performance art of the Report was not for everyone, one underrated side effect was that his character gave him a distinct point of view that made interviews more entertaining. Lacking that strong POV, his Late Show interviews have been generally no better than workmanlike, and occasionally they've veered into sycophantic territory.

He said he ended the Report because he had done everything with the character that he could. He probably also felt, like Jon Stewart, that for his own mental health he needed to get out of the toxic business of turning the nation's political idiocies into humor. It was all the more necessary for him since unlike Stewart, he doesn't see himself as primarily a political comedian: politics is simply one source of grist for his daily grind. I get all that, and I wish him well. I just won't be watching the result of that grind any more: it isn't nutritious enough for me.

Craig Ferguson: I loved his quirky sense of humor on The Late Late Show so I had high hopes for Join or Die, his new show for the History Channel. In retrospect I should have known my hopes were misplaced: I liked best his monologues, but Join or Die is a panel discussion show he moderates. He's funny, his guests can be funny or informative (not both, at least in the first few episodes), but like The Nightly Show there's just not enough time for more than an unsatisfyingly superficial gloss of the subject. In the end it's neither funny enough nor informative enough to go out of my way to watch.

Samantha Bee: The first episode of Full Frontal was brilliant and I've heard nothing to make me think subsequent episodes are any less than that. Bee was never one of my favorite Daily Show correspondents: rightly or wrongly, I had the impression she relied too much on being goofy. Even when she was interacting with Jon Stewart, when a correspondent could be expected to bring the hammer down since Stewart generally played the clueless foil, she seldom did, in contrast to, say, Jessica Williams. On Full Frontal Bee still gulls unwary interviewees, but she also draws the morals in no uncertain terms. It's fantastic.

John Oliver: I can't add anything to the praise that has been heaped on Last Week Tonight. It and Oliver are absolutely the gold standard for satire and insightful comedy today. Oh, and crucially, the show is never less than hilarious. (At least, that's true for the episodes I've seen: I don't subscribe to HBO.)

Bee and Oliver (and their staffs) only have to produce one show a week, undoubtedly contributing to their higher quality. It might help, too, that they aren't truly part of "late night", since their shows air before 11 PM.

Like others, I was sorry that HBO snatched Oliver away before Jon Stewart stepped down. Oliver was Stewart's obvious successor and would have kept The Daily Show firing on all cylinders. As it happens, Last Week Tonight has broken new ground and is the show we didn't know we needed (very badly), so it's just as well Oliver didn't stay. But what about his old stomping grounds, The Daily Show?

Trevor Noah: I gave him the benefit of the doubt for his first few months. When I was disappointed with how he was handling the show, it was with the understanding that he was still relatively new at the job. Even later, when I mentioned how badly Jon Stewart upstaged him without even trying — and as a guest — I tried to cut Noah a break in my own mind.

I only realized in retrospect that by the time Stewart was a guest, I had already written Noah off. The evidence: I haven't watched The Daily Show since that early December episode.

Noah's a gracious and, I suppose, polished host. He keeps the show moving. But where Stewart was the show's engine, Noah is a hood ornament.

Being an outsider can give you a perspective insiders lack. It seems Comedy Central hoped Noah's "outsider" status would allow him to make smart, unique and funny critiques of the U.S. It often does, after all. To varying degrees, Larry Wilmore, Samantha Bee and John Oliver are outsiders who have brought fresh slants to their shows.

Admittedly, Bee, Wilmore, and Oliver are stylistically closer to one another (and to Stewart) than to Noah: they're highly expressive — some would say "histrionic" — while Noah is decidedly buttoned-down and soft-spoken. However, what makes the other three successful satirists is not that they sometimes yell at the camera, but that they put their insights in service of a strong sense of outrage. Like Stewart, they're passionate about their stories. Noah isn't.

If Noah wanted to steer the show in a different direction that would be one thing, but by all appearances he wants to keep it running as before. However, the show he was bequeathed needs a beating heart. Noah is not, and shows no sign of becoming, that heart. He is a bemused observer. He isn't impassioned about anything: quite the contrary, he's cool to a fault. His detachment is a very bad match for satire. Stewart's observations carried weight because the audience knew how much he cared. Delivering similar material, Noah's glib geniality makes him look superficial and smug. Far from trusting him, I don't even like him.

So that's that. (Oh, wait: does Carson Daly still have a show? Oops.)

Postscript: I had finished the foregoing by the time I found that The Hollywood Reporter's resident TV critics, Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg, had penned a back-and-forth on how late-night is handling the election.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Even minorities can get it wrong

I didn't watch the Oscar telecast so I missed out on Chris Rock's and Sacha Baron Cohen's routines. Both, apparently, included brain-dead Asian jokes, according to Lowen Liu in Slate. Worse, both tried to structure the jokes in a meta-context so as to deflect criticism.

Comedians aren't philosophers or sociologists or psychologists: I don't expect them to analyze their material for hidden bias. I hope, though, that Rock and Cohen pay attention to the Asian-American community's reaction. The two funny men need to learn from their mistakes, which those jokes were. You don't get to mock (and thereby to lecture) a white audience on its privilege and implicit bias, then turn around and indulge your own blind spot against another minority.