Friday, August 24, 2012

Parsing the Palaver of Todd Akin

Todd Akin, the Missouri Representative and Senatorial candidate, is an idiot. This is not news to, well, anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to the news for the past few days. Congressman Akin would come in third place in a battle of wits with a corn dog and an anvil. Whereas it’s true that his face-meltingly stupid remarks about “legitimate rape” are probably no more inane than the drivel spewed by Steve King or Louis Gohmert or Michelle Bachmann on a daily basis, his comments did have the special bonus of being remarkably offensive to anyone with a vagina and to a goodly number of those of us without one.
This gaffe could, of course, have very significant consequences in political terms: Akin has no doubt reduced his chances of unseating Claire McCaskill, considered by many to be the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent seeking re-election to the Senate this November. It is not out of the realm of plausibility that McCaskill could hold on, and that her victory would keep the Senate in Democratic hands. Polls which had shown a slight lead for Akin now show a more substantial but not insurmountable lead for McCaskill. By energizing the state’s progressives, moreover, Akin may even have put Missouri into play at the Presidential level, although Nate Silver, whose analysis of the 2008 election was essentially spot on, still says there’s a 79% chance that Mitt Romney will win the state.

But I’d like to concentrate on four (or possibly five) ways, only a couple of which have received much attention, in which Akin’s comments really run up the points on the stupidometer. Let’s start with the Congressman’s exact words:
Well, you know, people always want to make that as one of those things where how do you… how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. It seems to be [“me”?], first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist, and not attacking the child.
There’s a lot there to chew on, but most of it will make you gag.

Let’s start with what isn’t offensive: his final answer to the question asked of him. I disagree with his conclusion, but I respect it: when, after all, does a collection of cells become human, and therefore to be granted rights? At birth? (What about Macduff, who was “from [his] mother’s womb untimely ripp’d”? [That’s Macbeth, Act V, scene viii, for those of you playing along at home.]) At viability? (And how can even the most skilled of doctors determine that with precision?) At conception? (Are we concerned that this de-legitimizes certain standard forms of birth control?) Or do we just believe that ”Every Sperm Is Sacred”?) The fact that Representative Akin comes down in a different place on this philosophical spectrum than I do isn’t the problem: it’s how he gets there.

Let’s start with the term “legitimate rape.” No, I’m not going to get all snippy about contrasting the term with “illegitimate rape.” That’s a red herring that distracts too many of Akin’s critics from the real jackassery of what he said. People misspeak. I know what he meant, and none of us will ever be able to say anything if we are in constant fear of stumbling over words even a little bit, even when the intention is clear (“you didn’t build that,” “I like to be able to fire people,” etc.). No, I don’t think Congressman Akin believes that rape is ever “legitimate” in the sense of “appropriate.” Even he isn’t that moronic. He meant that calling it rape is legitimate.

But this raises not one, but two problems. First, as I’m by no means the first to say, rape is rape. There may be a difference between forcible rape, statutory rape, and rape when a victim is unable to consent (under the influence of drugs, for example). Indeed, the legal definition of rape is different in different jurisdictions: sometimes not requiring penetration, for example. But if Mr. Akin shouldn’t be criticized for something he clearly didn’t mean, neither can he get off the hook for something else he didn’t mean: he wasn’t parsing the term, but suggesting that only forcible rape somehow ought to qualify for the exception he won’t grant, anyway.

Secondly, please allow me to go Grammar Nazi on you, Gentle Reader. What Representative Akin meant to say was “legitimately rape.” In this construction, the adverb “legitimately” modifies the implied verb “termed,” and the meaning is clear. “Legitimate,” however, is an adjective, and can modify only a noun or pronoun: hence the confusion. In other words, Mr. Akin doesn’t know what I routinely demand of first semester freshmen: a comprehension of the basics of English grammar and syntax.

I confess that as soon as I read the transcript of the remarks, I Googled Akin to see if he was a proponent of one of those English as official language bills that come around with dreary inevitability. Someone unable to tell an adjective from an adverb is, of course, more likely than someone with basic language skills to demand that the language he really doesn’t understand should be concretized as “official.” In other words, Akin just seemed to me like the type to be holding a sign reading “Your in America, speak are language.” Sure enough, he’s a co-sponsor of something called the English Language Unity Act. You know, I wouldn’t be so cynical if the idiots weren’t so predictable.

Point 2 isn’t necessarily true, which is fitting, because it’s that Akin may well have been lying. I don’t mean that his “science” is so much bat guano—that’s for another paragraph. No, I’m talking about the phrase “from what I understand from doctors.” Now, I do recognize that there’s a built-in escape hatch here: what a certifiable imbecile like Todd Akin understands is, of course, quite likely a considerable distance from reality. But I want to concentrate on the word “doctors.” It’s plural.

So far, I’ve seen only one member of the medical profession who is on the record supporting Akin. One. Out of some 850,000 licensed physicians in the country (not counting the ones who can still claim to be doctors but have left the profession), that’s not a remarkably high percentage. The one is Jack C. Willke, the founder of the International Right to Life Federation. Willke is one of two doctors (the other is Fred Mecklenburg) generally cited as the progenitors of the notion that forcible rape generates what the Dredd Blog rightly mocks as “Magic Teflon Vagina Juice,” which presumably… erm… “[shuts] that whole thing down.” That no other doctor than the guy who thought up the silliness a few decades ago will support Akin’s claim—as opposed to his conclusion—is, or at least sure ought to be, telling. Willke, after all, is not exactly a spring chicken. Curmie is old enough to have had a draft card in the Vietnam era. Willke graduated from med school over seven years before I was born. He appears to have been batshit crazy for most of the interim.

All of which leads us to #3, the actual evidence, of which Akin has precisely zero. The official statement of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a group of folks I personally would trust a little more than I would the average Congresscritter on this matter, describes Akin’s comments as “medically inaccurate, offensive, and dangerous.” The statement continues, “There is absolutely no veracity to the claim that ‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.’” Indeed, Drs. Swati Schroff and Tiffany Chao report on ABC News that research published in the 1990s in the Journal of American Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests that there are over 32,000 rape-related pregnancies in this country every year. By contrast, Willke says 225-370. Guess which set of statistics anyone with an IQ over room temperature thinks is more persuasive?

Next up, #4: the beginnings of an assertion that goes too far, even for Willke. Even if we accept the lowest of Willke’s lowball numbers, there are still a couple hundred women getting pregnant as a direct result of being rape victims. Still, it looked for a moment as if Akin was going to suggest that those women didn’t count, somehow. Ah, but there’s the possibility that the rape-avenging spermicidal secretion won’t work, and… it doesn’t make any difference. So Representative Akin’s argument in this particular aspect is not fallacious, merely rhetorically incompetent.

Finally, #5, there’s the apology. Faced with a fecal whirlwind, Akin released an ad with the following message:
Rape is an evil act. I used the wrong words in the wrong way and for that I apologize. As the father of two daughters, I want tough justice for predators. I have a compassionate heart for the victims of sexual assault. I pray for them. The fact is, rape can lead to pregnancy. The truth is, rape has many victims. The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold. I ask for your forgiveness.
What’s notable here is the this member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology didn’t apologize for propagating crap science. No, his mea culpa was limited to the most easily excused of his transgressions, bad phrasing. It was apparently all a big misunderstanding, you see: he really doesn’t like rape, and he’s just a peachy kind of guy. So everything is all better now, right? Well, no; no it isn’t. You want me to take you seriously, sir? Stand up on your hind legs and proclaim that the idea of “shutting that thing down” is as medically fallacious as it is interpersonally offensive. You’re welcome to maintain your opposition to abortion, regardless of the circumstances, but you need to drop the pseudo-science and admit that the only reason for your political stance is that you want to impose your religio-political views on the rest of us.

GOP Representative Peter Roskam of Illinois is on record as declaring, “There’s nobody who is saying Todd Akin is unworthy to serve. There is no one saying he is immoral or incapable. He’s not; he made a poor decision. The question is: Can he win in November?” Roskam is (predictably) wrong. Well, #1, I am somebody, even if I’m not a Republican shill, and I am indeed saying that Todd Akin is unworthy to serve. He may or may not be immoral. He is certainly incapable: incapable of handling the English language, incapable of recognizing that theories long discredited ought to be discarded, incapable of even understanding the nature of his own error. Can he win in November? Probably. People are stupid, and a lot of them will vote for one of their own. But whether Claire McCaskill deserves re-election or not, Todd Akin is demonstrably worse in about every conceivable way. Moreover, that electability is the only apparent criterion in Roskam’s world is a sad but no doubt accurate commentary on contemporary politics, GOP style.

But Akin just won’t go away, and that will hurt the Romney/Ryan ticket. It’s not just energizing the Democratic base. There’s the problem of losing momentum heading into GOP convention (assuming it happens, which now appears likely again). But there’s also the fact that Akin’s position on abortion is discredited by his inept defense of it… and it’s precisely the same conclusion as that of Paul Ryan, with whom he co-sponsored the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill which in its original form limited federal funding for abortions to victims of forcible rape. There’s the fact that Mitt Romney slobbered all over Jack Willke, described by the Los Angeles Times as a “Romney surrogate,” in 2008 and was preparing to do so again.

In short, the Romney/Ryan ticket can be as righteously indignant as they want, and it will be just as disingenuous as the rest of their campaign. They’re not really mad at Akin for what he said. They’re not mad that he spewed forth copious quantities of unmitigated hogwash with faux sincerity. They’re not even mad that he egregiously misrepresented reality: they do that a dozen times before breakfast. No, they’re pissed off that he got busted: that his assertions weren’t simply inane but downright moronic, that his anti-intellectual tirade could be perceived as such not simply by thinking people, but by the other 80% of the population, too. They don’t like being associated with people whose intellectual gifts are suspect and whose every political position matches their own.

Well, except for the Tea Party, of course.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Putin and the Pussy Rioters


The American media loves its “rising star” narratives. They loved Barack Obama; they love Paul Ryan. And, in the late 1990s, they loved Vladimir Putin. Here, they trumpeted, is a serious-minded politician, not an unsteady, often inebriated buffoon like Boris Yeltsin. I remember talking with my friend and mentor Masha Kipp, who had grown up in what was then called Leningrad. Somehow the conversation turned to contemporary Russian politics in general and to Putin in particular. Her comment was succinct and cogent: “once KGB, always KGB.” She was right, of course. Masha is like that.

I encountered an online petition (you’re more than welcome to sign it, by the way) a day or two ago that linked together three discrete events which nonetheless all link to Putin and his Machiavellian antics: the inane decision to outlaw Pride marches in Moscow for 100 years (upheld by the city court this week), the $10 million lawsuit against Madonna for “moral damage suffered by St. Petersburg residents” (i.e., suggesting that gay people are, indeed, people), and the conviction and two-year penal colony sentence for three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

The linkage is apt: all suggest a manifestation of Putin’s power to influence decisions that are technically but not pragmatically out of his purview. And Putin is certainly both a repressive homophobe and an amoral tactician. But this sentence also hints at fairly profound differences between the two gay rights-related events and the Pussy Riot fiasco. First off, whereas the silliness—or, rather, what would be silliness if not for the profound consequences to civil liberties—of the Pride march ban and the Madonna lawsuit are clearly a threat to free expression, they may at least grounded in an apparently honest if misguided homophobia. Moreover, while Putin’s political clout is considerable, and he undoubtedly created a climate wherein barbarities can occur in the name of law and order, he cannot be linked directly to the autocratic imbecility of the Moscow city government, nor to the mercenary acquisitiveness of a gaggle of Petersburgian shysters and their falsely pious clients.

The Pussy Riot case is different. For one thing, homosexuality is actually legal in Russia: it’s just talking about it that has somehow become criminalized. The kind of protest mounted by Pussy Riot, however, was intended to cause turmoil. Perhaps the three women involved did not go to Moscow Christ the Savior Cathedral with the intention of being arrested, but surely they’re not stupid enough not to have considered the possibility, perhaps even likelihood, of such an eventuality. There is a level at which arrests generate publicity, and that is often precisely what they seek. We see this phenomenon manifested in the band’s own YouTube release, which joins what was actually essentially a mime show at the cathedral with a musical overlay to make the event seem more disruptive than it actually was (and which, of course, required a videographer who knew what was going to happen). What caught the interest of the Western world was not the arrest per se, although that certainly caused ripples, but the frankly ridiculous nature of the specific charge. Had they been charged with simple trespass, or some variation on the theme, it is extremely unlikely that you and I, Gentle Reader, would ever have heard of the case.

Of course, what Pussy Riot (or, rather, some of them—there are a dozen or so members) did is completely in line with what musicians and other artists have been doing for a very long time. John Lennon. Pete Seeger. Joan Baez. Woody Guthrie. Johnny Clegg. Or, in my field, the Living Theatre, Athol Fugard, Václav Havel, and a host of others dating all the way back to Euripides (at least). Using art to make a point, risking or even encouraging arrest: this is in a very real sense what it is to be engaged in the life of a society, which is, after all, a reasonable prerequisite to making art about it.

This would be a good time, too, to rebut the drivel by one Vadim Nikitin, published by the New York Times. Nikitin’s argument seems to be that we shouldn’t support Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin display if we aren’t equally willing to support their “incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics”: to do otherwise is “pure opportunism” that “is not only hypocritical but also does a great disservice to their cause.” After all, these women are “not liberals looking for self-expression. They are self-confessed [!] descendants of the surrealists and the Russian futurists, determined to radically, even violently, change society.” Doesn’t that sound erudite? Too bad it’s crap. Nikitin would have us believe that a self-consciously feminist organization is the demon spawn of two artistic/cultural movements very much in opposition to each other, both of which were misogynistic, one of them virulently so. See how that works? Neither do I.

Nikitin’s argument is utter nonsense for a variety of reasons, not least of which being that it is entirely reasonable to support the notion of free speech without supporting the content of that speech. Indeed, it is the only reasonable application of the principle. In other words, I don’t support Pussy Riot per se; I support their right to protest without being charged with a crime they clearly didn’t commit. It is not opportunism to say so, even if we dislike Vladimir Putin, nor is it incumbent on me or anyone else to qualify our antagonism for the verdict in their case with diffident mumbles about how Pussy Riot really is, you know, kind of unladylike. It doesn’t matter whether they are or not.

I don’t care if they’re liberals or anarchists or suburban Republicans. They were convicted of “religious hatred” when they clearly hold no grudge against the religious belief system of the Orthodox Church itself or its parishioners. What they object to is the unholy alliance between Putin and the Church hierarchy, as manifested by Putin’s government throwing two billion rubles (about $100 million) at the Church while seeking also to restrict activities by evangelical Christians. In return, not to say as quid pro quo (necessarily), Orthodox Patriarch Kirill described the twelve years of Putin’s reign as “a miracle of God.” There is no question that the Church’s areligious promotion of Putin as both man and politician has been and continues to be central to his political success.

This conflation of Church and state under the leadership of a man who once sought to enforce the very atheism that now so repels him may be hypocritical in ethical terms, but it absolutely understandable pragmatically: Putin is nothing if not pragmatic. Pussy Riot’s antagonism to this linkage is, in short, completely comprehensible. They claim that they meant no disrespect to practitioners, only to the elites of Church and State. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity in this regard. Neither did the judge at their trial, who nonetheless sentenced them to a couple of years in Siberia, basically because Putin said to.

Or at least that’s the charge being leveled by a lot of people who know more about the Russian judicial system than you or I do, Gentle Reader. Here are four such statements:

Here’s Alexey Kudrin, a former finance minister who, according to Miriam Elder of The Guardian remains a close ally of Putin:
The verdict in the case against the Pussy Riot punk band isn't only a fact in the lives of three young women; it is also yet another blow to the justice system and, above all, Russian citizens' belief in it.
Here’s Nikolay Petrov, a former Soviet government analyst in the 1990s who is now chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Society and Regions Program:
It looks like [Putin] feels personally humiliated and personally involved and the rumour is that it was his personal order to put them in jail…. There's only one and the same branch of power in Russia; it's executive power led by Putin.
Here’s Boris Akunin, a popular Russian author:
Putin has doomed himself to another year and a half of international shame and humiliation. The whole thing is bad because it's yet another step toward the escalation of tensions within society. And the government is absolutely to blame.
.And finally, here’s Michelle Ringuette, chief of campaigns and programs for Amnesty International USA:
The decision to find guilty Maria [Alekhina], Ekaterina [Samutsevich] and Nadezhda [Tolokonnikova] amid global outrage shows that the Russian authorities will stop at no end to suppress dissent and stifle civil society…. From the initial unjustified arrest, to the questionable trial, to this outrageous verdict and sentencing, each step in the case has been an affront to human rights…. It's a bitter blow to freedom in Russia. Amnesty International will not allow these women to be silenced. They will not be forgotten…. President Putin took office in May as hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens demanded an open and participatory society. Rather than heed their call, Putin has further entrenched his already tight fist on freedom of expression.
What is interesting here is the unanimity of opinion that seems to point in a single direction: that righteous indignation about attacks on the Orthodox Church masks the real source of the outrage, namely criticism of Putin.

Musicians and other artists around the world have also rallied to the cause. Some, like Vratislav Brabenec of The Plastic People of the Universe, Mark Knopfler, Yoko Ono, and Patti Smith might be considered predictable. But I personally wouldn’t have expected Paul McCartney, Sting, or Pete Townshend. Maybe that’s my blind spot.

It’s important to remember two things, however. First, the events that precipitated this contretemps were planned by the people who now are cast in the role of victims. Their actions would have resulted in arrest anywhere in the world. It’s the over-reaction of the authorities, not their legitimate desire to maintain law and order, that is in question here. Secondly, PR (Pussy Riot) has good PR (public relations). These women are important not because they’re special, but because they’re not.

They’re not fighting solitary and lonely battles for the sake of a higher mission. They’re exploiting their notoriety. The result is that we, especially those of us in the West, who don’t necessarily understand the cultural differences between our perceived universe and theirs, risk missing the forest for the trees. That is, as Joshua Foust of The Atlantic argues, what happened to the Pussy Riot trio is not what happens to female punk bands. It’s what happens to those who make Vladimir Putin look bad. We need to remember that there are many other dissidents whose plights are no less harrowing and whose deeds are no less heroic for the fact that we haven’t heard about them.

While the Democracy Index now describes Russia as an “authoritarian regime,” ranking it below the likes of Nicaragua, Mozambique, and Haiti, all of which are classified as “hybrid regimes” (the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia are all a step higher still, “flawed democracies”), Vladimir Putin nonetheless retains considerable popularity in his homeland, based in large part on nothing but personal charisma. He cynically embraces the largest religious denomination in his country although he feels no real affinity for it. He sees oil wealth and nuclear energy as the path forward. He brutally suppresses dissent. He cultivates an image as a macho badass. The WikiLeaks documents reveal, in the words of Luke Harding of The Guardian, that “Russia is a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centred on the leadership of Vladimir Putin, in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime are bound together to create a “virtual mafia state.”

That’s what this is all about. If Pussy Riot are the good guys in this case, it’s primarily because they’re presented in contradistinction to Vladimir Putin. Their right to protest would remain whether they were “right” or not, but it does really matter that absurd and probably flagitious sentence imposed on them has as much to do with the object of their attention as much as with the manner and location of their demonstration. They were convicted of showing too little respect for one half of the perverse symbiosis between the Orthodox Church and the Putin administration. The truth is, though, it was the other half of the equation that really mattered.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Ryan Nomination, Part I: Deflating the Myth

I realize that I’m late to this party, but I wanted to spend a little time discussing the imminent nomination of Paul Ryan as Vice President. The main reason for this, apart from the writing process itself and the accompanying necessity of organizing one’s thoughts, is to argue that yet again the corporate media is too lazy to do its collective job. Instead, we get warmed-over platitudes first uttered over cocktails by a “source.” Actual analysis? Forget it. Facts? Are you kidding? Anyway, today’s piece is on Ryan as man and myth.

True, much of what I’m about to say has already been written or spoken by the independent press and/or left-leaning commentators, but the folks at the networks, the news magazines, and the major newspapers haven’t necessarily caught on. The standard mantra was, à la CBS, “Romney surprises with Ryan as VP nominee.” There are also literally dozens of variations on the theme of “Mitt Romney Goes Bold” (Boston Globe). Charlie Mahtesian of Politico parrots with apparent approbation Representative Ted Poe’s remark that “The vice presidential debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden will be like Einstein debating Forrest Gump.” (That would be Biden as Forrest Gump, a role he apparently usurped from the last GOP veep nominee.) Even the Daily Kos credit Ryan with “conviction and raw intelligence.” He’s a “deficit warrior” (The Hill). Romney even earned “Ethics Hero” status from the usually astute Jack Marshall for the Ryan selection “because it makes an unequivocal statement about the priorities in the election and the years ahead: close the deficit, reduce the debt, and take the United States off the road to Greece and inevitable insolvency.”

OK, I’m saying this once. BULLSHIT.

Anyone really surprised by selection of Ryan should be required to STFU until after the election. Plutocrats stick together. My money was on Ryan all along. Nor was this anything like a bold choice. Any other potential candidate—I mean among the legitimate contenders, not the Michelle Bachmann types—would have brought an equivalent though not identical package of assets and weaknesses. Yes, selecting Ryan foregrounds the economy as the central issue for the Romney/Ryan campaign, but where else were they going to look? The trajectory of the economy may be a whole lot better than it was when President Obama took office, but both unemployment and substantial deficit spending remain serious problems.

Remember, too, that the announcement followed closely on Governor Romney’s disastrous foreign tour in which he managed to piss off the English, the Palestinians, and a fair number of Israelis (he didn’t, however, alienate the Poles; an aide did that). And there’s not a lot to run against: there are some legitimate questions about Mr. Obama’s prosecution of the War Powers Act, but those aren’t likely to be raised by a Republican without sounding shrill and partisan. Beyond that, the Iraq War is winding down, there has been a steady and relatively uncontroversial (whether it should be so or not) policy with respect to Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and—whether he deserves the credit or not—Mr. Obama oversaw the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Moreover, whereas the Bush administration did considerable chest-thumping about how there were no terrorist attacks on the United States (except, you know, that one) the Obama administration has no need of the qualifier: there have been no successful attacks, period. So, there’s not a lot of room for Mr. Romney—not a specialist in foreign policy—to mount a campaign in those terms. It’s much easier to complain about the deficits that no Republican cared a whit about while George W. Bush was in the White House.

Paul Ryan is a corrupt, prevaricating, hypocrite. He thinks rules are made for other people, and he smirks about his self-perceived superiority. In this way, of course, he is essentially indistinguishable from virtually any politician of either party, especially his own. But Ryan has a reputation: as an intellectual, a policy wonk, a deficit hawk. He is, of course, none of these things. He is, to use a term that has apparently been trotted out by Senator Chuck Schumer since I started working on this piece (Schumer wasn’t the first, of course), a fraud.

I’m not saying that Ryan is an idiot. He isn’t. He’s certainly got a lot more on the ball than Sarah Palin, and let’s be real: Joe Biden isn’t exactly a genius. Ryan is smart enough and amoral enough (he learned those Ayn Rand lessons well) to be scary. But he’s no intellectual giant, either, even if he has long been touted as such by the right-wing punditocracy. I was reading a blog piece the other day by Dan Bauer, the managing editor of the school newspaper at Allegheny College. In analyzing the methodology employed by Newsweek to determine its list of “most rigorous schools,” Bauer points out that the “rigor” in question amounts to a ratio of self-perceived workload to student aptitude. In other words, “The ranking isn’t saying that Allegheny is rigorous because it’s difficult; it’s rigorous because the Daily Beast thinks it’s too much for your low test scores to handle. In short, according to Newsweek, we’re nothing but whiners of average intelligence.”

Does that description sound like Paul Ryan to anyone but me? Did he go to Allegheny? (Actually, he went to Miami of Ohio, considerably larger than Allegheny, but very much like it in history, orientation, and—dare I say—academic rigor.) There is, in fact, nothing in Ryan record that suggests extraordinary intellect. Even the thoroughness with which he is routinely credited is an illusion, as I’ll discuss in a moment. For now, let’s just admit that if you spend your time surrounded by the likes of Jon Kyl and Louis Gohmert, the average guy on a barstool is going to look pretty smart by comparison. Hell, my money’s on the stool itself in a battle of wits against those guys.

Let’s face it: there are few really smart Republican elected officials. ‘Twas not always thus: in my youth there were Everett Dirksen, Barry Goldwater, John Lindsay, Jacob Javits, Mark Hatfield, and James Buckley. Lamar Alexander, John Sununu and John McCain qualified before they, to quote the sage political guru Charles Barkley, “lost their damned minds.” I didn’t agree with those guys all the time (or, even often), but you knew you were dealing with a grownup with some savvy that extended beyond the merely political. Who’s left? Dick Lugar, who was defeated in a primary run this year. And… um… uh… Seriously, I have trouble naming another Republican currently in office (and Lugar is about to not be) whom I’d describe as both sane and intelligent. Maybe Marco Rubio? Chris Christie?

Importantly, Ryan’s budget, his signature piece of work, is deeply flawed. I’m not talking about its priorities, which I think are dead wrong (even Fox News admits it would result in a tax increase for the poor and a huge windfall for the rich), but which for the moment are beside the point. I’m not even talking about the fact that it doesn’t actually cut the deficit: Howard Gleckman of Forbes (Forbes!) writes that “CBO’s March, 2012 baseline projects a deficit in 2022 of about 1.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Ryan’s ‘Path to Prosperity,’ which became the framework for the House budget, brought the 2022 deficit down to exactly the same 1.2 percent.” (Note also that Ryan himself “hasn’t run the numbers” to predict when there might be a balanced budget.)
.
No, I’m really talking about the Ryan plan’s gaps, its assumptions, its unspecified new revenues totaling $5 trillion (!), its projections based on the wildest of speculation. I’m no economist, but I do know something about methodology, and to say that this document is grounded in fairy dust is probably to give it too much credit. Paul Krugman is an economist. Here’s his analysis: “None of this has any basis in reality; Ryan’s much-touted plan, far from being a real solution, relies crucially on stuff that is just pulled out of thin air — huge revenue increases from closing unspecified loopholes, huge spending cuts achieved in ways not mentioned.” In short, I suspect the famous cartoon by Sidney Harris (at left) may well have been drawn with the Paul Ryan budget in mind.

There’s the reduction of non-Social Security and non-Medicare spending as a percentage of GDP to a point below that of current military spending, which Ryan pledges to actually increase. There’s the projection of ridiculously low unemployment: 2.8%! For his numbers to work at all, in other words, Ryan must assume an unemployment rate lower than it’s been in half a century… lower, indeed, than the 3% “optimal” rate I learned about in Economics 1. But, hey, that wasn’t Ryan’s personal number: Rachel Maddow reported when the budget was first released that the unemployment projection came from the Heritage Foundation, the fun folks who projected enormous job growth as a result of the Bush tax cuts. Yeah, that worked out great. The projection, of course, suggests two fabulous if illusory advantages: more workers means more taxable income, fewer unemployed means fewer expenditures on unemployment compensation, welfare, etc. Maddow derisively but, alas, accurately, described the Ryan plan 18 months ago as “this magic Republican budget” founded on one essential principle: “belieeeeeeeeve.” She added that:
I doubt that actual numerically-based, fact-based information will penetrate the smoochie-smoochie love bubble surrounding Paul Ryan right now. He has done a remarkable job of romancing the Beltway media. There’s this little cult of him being brave and bold, and doing a very difficult workout every morning. But what Paul Ryan has just introduced is not a feature on “Grit vs. Glamor” in today’s GOP. It’s the official Republican Party Budget for 2012. And the numbers in it are so wrong they are occasionally funny. The Beltway media says Paul Ryan should be taken very seriously. Since this is the official Republican Party budget for 2012, taking him seriously should also include taking seriously his numbers, which in many cases make no sense.
I hate it when she’s right.

There’s another myth that Representative Ryan is, unlike the guy at the top of the ticket, consistent. That may be true, but not in the way the fawning Beltway types mean. He is indeed consistent: not in terms of real fiscal conservatism, balanced budgets and such, but in terms of advocating for the corporatocracy. It’s not just the Ryan budget that’s as phony as a three-dollar bill: it’s the pretense that he gives a damn about the deficit. He does not. A charitable description would be to say that he became a born-again deficit hawk on January 20, 2009. A more cynical one would be to suggest that his personal chance for advancement is predicated on the gimmick of debt control. This is the guy, remember, who voted for unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, voted for the prescription drug mandate, voted against allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire. His proposal to privatize Social Security would have cost $2.4 trillion over ten years, and even the Bush administration called it “irresponsible.”

Ryan’s goal isn’t a balanced budget. His “holy grail,” as Gleckman describes it, is “low taxes and small government, not fiscal balance.” That is, of course, an intellectually honest position—one with which I disagree, but it’s honest—or, rather, it would be if Ryan believed in even that. He doesn’t. It’s not “small government” to increase military spending. (This is the guy, you may recall, Gentle Reader, who accused the military brass of lying when they agreed that their budget could be cut by a little less than half a trillion dollars over ten years.) It’s not “small government” to intrude into personal, legal, medical decisions, as he has often advocated. It’s not “small government” to increase taxes on those who can afford it least without concomitant increases on the more well-to-do.

Paul Ryan is, in short, neither a deficit hawk nor a libertarian. He is, as Nate Silver’s analysis points out, a partisan hack, plain and simple. He is, by Silver’s calculus, the single most ideological vice presidential nominee of either party since (at least) the beginning of the 20th century: he’s more conservative than Dick Cheney or Dan Quayle, far more conservative than the most left-leaning Democratic nominee, John Garner, was liberal. By contrast, Joe Biden is only the 11th most liberal candidate of the 18 Democrats on the list, and the 17th most ideological of the 31 candidates. (Not all candidates are listed for either party, by the way. My suspicion is that those listed served in the House or Senate, those not listed were governors, mayors, etc., but I’m not sure of that explanation.) The DW-Nominate scale puts Ryan well into the conservative wing, even relative to other Republicans: more conservative, in other words, than Louis Gohmert, Darrell Issa, and Eric Cantor, and in the same general ideological position as Michelle Bachmann.

Having a budget is an accomplishment. Having one that doesn’t make sense is not. Again, I’m not arguing its priorities; I’m arguing its math. If Paul Ryan were an academic, there’d be a word for him: sloppy. His positions are so abstracted by a presumed faith in unsupported (if not unsupportable) hypotheses that his conclusions are meaningless at best. He is the pseudo-scholar, the one who starts with a conclusion and searches frantically for supporting evidence. He’s the guy whose infomercial shows up on the cable stations at 2:00 a.m. (or perhaps on public television during pledge week). To say that he is all smoke and mirrors is to give him too much credit.

The choice of Paul Ryan as vice presidential candidate, in other words, is crass, cynical, and absolutely what we would expect from a supercilious jackass like Mitt Romney. The pretense of a solution is far worse than no solution at all, whether we’re talking about cyber-bullying or the ballooning national debt. Ryan may, however, be the best available Republican for the job. That tells you all you need to know about today’s GOP.

Next up (well, maybe not next, but soon): how the Ryan candidacy will affect the election. Hint: not much.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Thoughts on the Ethics of Performativity

There’s a song by Tom Robinson from [mumble mumble] years ago called “You’d Better Decide Which Side You’re On.” The lyrics leading into the title phrase are “if left is right, then right is wrong.” Catchy enough. More importantly, the lyrics point out the dual antonyms for the word “right.” I need hardly say that this blog leans a little left, but I try very hard, no doubt not always successfully, to ensure that it leads away from wrong.

This is not an ethics blog per se. If you’re looking for one of those, you’d be a lot better off checking out Ethics Alarms or Ethics Bob. But I’m always intrigued by issues of fairness, and I’d rather the idiots would agree with the other guy so my side doesn’t look stupid. Moreover, ethical questions within my own field are of course particularly interesting to me.

Here’s a dilemma occasioned by the conference I just attended. Regular Curmiphiles, whether they know me personally or not, will have discerned by now that I teach theatre at a university; some will have ascertained that I have been for well over two decades a member of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. The organization just had its annual meeting in Washington, DC. What follows comes from a conversation at that conference with a long-time friend. Since I am relating the gist of a private conversation and since his identity is irrelevant to the issues under consideration, I won’t identify him further.

Here’s the deal. The keynote address at the conference was delivered by Dael Oerlandersmith (right), the Obie-winning and Pulitzer-nominated playwright/actress. She was engaging and entertaining, certainly one of the more interesting keynotes we’ve had, and I’ve seen at least 20 of them. But there was something about her presentation that troubled my friend and something else that bothered me. Both of us acknowledged that the other might well have a point while at the same time professing ourselves undisturbed by what upset the other.

I’m not going to say here (I will at the end) which of us was disturbed for which of the following reasons. Let me just spell out the problems… if, indeed, problems they be.

Ms. Oerlandersmith started her talk in character, playing two of the roles from her show, Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men. This is a solo performance in which a single actor (Oerlandersmith herself, in this case) plays a variety of characters of different ages, races, and genders in a series of monologues. The script is specifically designed to allow performances by actors whose demographic profiles are radically different from her own.

The performance piece in question deals with child sexual abuse—certainly a hot topic today in the light of various scandals involving the Catholic Church, plus, of course, l’affaire Sandusky. The first character Oerlandersmith portrayed was a young man who had been sexually assaulted by his mother; the second character was an uncle describing his own molestation of his young nephew. It’s difficult, even dangerous fare, and Oerlandersmith negotiates (successfully, I think) a treacherous path as both playwright and performer. The writing is taut, realistic, and often funny (yes, funny); Oerlandersmith’s compelling acting relies on an outstanding vocal range, nuanced characterization, and powerful choices in physicality.

Anyway, after these two monologues, Oerlandersmith talked to the audience in her own voice (literally and figuratively), took questions, and in short behaved like virtually every other keynote speaker I’ve ever seen. So what’s the problem?

Charge #1. As an African-American woman who both writes and performs using the monologue as her medium, Oerlandersmith follows in the footsteps of the better-known Anna Deavere Smith, who employed the same techniques—including playing all the roles, regardless of race, gender, and age—to great effect in such works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles. There is one fundamental difference, however: whereas Smith conducts interviews which she then transcribes, Oerlandersmith creates her work on her own. In other words, Smith employs and edits the words of others, and Oerlandersmith writes fictional characters based on reality but without a clear and specific correlative in real life.

Given the audience—one almost certain to know Smith’s work but considerably less likely to know Oerlandersmith’s—this can be problematic. That is, people who think they know the form (as practiced by Smith) are essentially being misled by an implicit claim to authenticity. Oerlandersmith is neither transcribing the actual words of assault victims nor even describing actual people. She creates fictive personae, but her work is structurally suggestive that the characters she presents are in fact real, which makes her work sensationalist.

The defense: Oerlandersmith never says that her characters are biographical, only that they are inspired by real life. Any artist would say the same. That a crowd of theatre educators would expect an artist to subscribe to the stylistic choices of another performer is very strange indeed. It is particularly troubling that the comparisons to Smith can be shorthanded to suggest that all female African-American monologists follow (or ought to follow) the same strategies. There is no assumption that the characters created by a playwright are “real.” In fact, quite the contrary is true: it is a reasonable surmise that we are watching a fiction that reveals the truth, not an attempt to re-create quotidian existence.

Charge #2: There was no introduction to the material itself, and people in the audience had no opportunity to remove themselves from the space before the monologues began. In a group of two or three hundred people, the chances are extremely high that someone in the group has been a sexual abuse victim, and that more than a few are dealing with real-life issues right now, if not in their own lives, then in those of loved ones. I saw two spectators bolt for the door when the content of the monologues became clear: both looked stricken.

A couple of points need to be made. First, there is no legitimate argument about the content of the monologues themselves. The sexual abuse of children is, alas, a very real part of our world, and as such is a perfectly reasonable topic about which to make one’s art. That said, the objection here is not to the portrayals themselves, but to the recklessness with which fresh wounds were opened.

As a sometime teacher of acting and not infrequent director, I use emotional memory and sense memory exercises with some regularity. I learned very early on how dangerous such strategies can be, however, and I am now scrupulous about making sure that any actors engaging in these activities take care of themselves. Yes, tapping into a moment of sadness in the past can help an actor find the appropriate emotions on stage, but doing so with an incident that is too recent or that the actor has not yet worked through can lead only to the inability to control one’s feelings—the worst possible fate for an actor. That is, I’m ready to deal with discussions of cancer and Parkinson’s although those diseases killed my parents, but I’m not quite ready to think about fatal motorcycle accidents of the kind that claimed the life of a 25-year-old former student less than a fortnight ago.

The point here is that under normal circumstances, theatre audiences are self-selecting. The “let’s go see what’s playing” mentality of some movie-goers doesn’t really apply as much to theatre. Yes, I go to everything—some 30 productions a year—my department presents. Sometimes I don’t know exactly what a play is about (that’s going to be less true from now on, but it’s not relevant to this discussion), but the publicity is always clear about making sure that what happened last week in Washington, DC doesn’t happen on our campus. In other words, if I were grieving for a child killed in an accident, I’d likely have skipped last fall’s production of Rabbit Hole and my colleagues and students would have understood.

The defense. Art gets its power from its ability to touch us. I used to have a t-shirt that read “Art can’t hurt you.” I know what it intended to say, but I finally threw the shirt away, because the best art can hurt you. It makes you feel: feel joy, feel sadness, feel pain. It is no linguistic fluke that, etymologically, “aesthetic” and “anesthetic” are antonyms.

Moreover, surprise is very much a part of the effectiveness of any artwork, especially those—like plays, poems, and musical compositions—which play out over time. An artist can’t control what part of a sculpture catches a spectator’s eye first, but the second five minutes of a monologue always follows the first five. It does indeed heighten the experience of watching those monologues from Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men to be led skillfully into a position of developing a fondness, for example, for the pederastic uncle before we realize that he is, indeed, a pederastic uncle.

A warning takes that away. I know the part of promoting a production I hate most is writing a “content advisory.” I doubt that this will astound you, Gentle Reader, but Curmie is not easily shocked. He’s witnessed real violence as well as the staged kind, heard all manner of verbs of Anglo-Saxon origin, and seen the complete array of body parts of both sexes. But, for better or worse, we issue a warning (or perhaps an enticement?), explaining to prospective audiences not merely that they might be offended or disturbed, but why.

Some of these rationales make sense. For example, whereas some plays absolutely require cigarette smoking, telling the audience that there will be smoking on stage is unlikely to give away a crucial plot device: it’s simply a kindness to tell prospective patrons with a severe aversion or allergy to smoke that this might be a good show to miss. The same goes for warnings about the use of a strobe light, which can trigger epileptic seizures among those susceptible.

But think of, say, “Master Harold”… and the boys, the brilliant three-hander by Athol Fugard which I was fortunate enough to get to direct a few years ago. There is a moment in which the sole white character, a teenaged boy, literally spits in the face of the man who had essentially raised him. The black man responds in an angry outburst that includes dropping his pants to show his “nigger’s arse.” Disturbing? It had damned well better be. It grieved me to write up an “advisory” about the ending of this play. I did it, but I wouldn’t have done so if I were in charge of my own company (at least until the angry letters started pouring in and the subscription base dried up). Rather, I’d have issued a general statement to be included in all our publicity:
We don’t do shock for its own sake, but that’s sometimes the result. We’re not going to tell you what happens in these plays except in the cases of smoking, extremely loud noises, and strobe lights. Some plays will have nudity. Some will have realistic-looking violence. Some will use language you might consider “obscene” or “profane.” Some will have drinking, or sexual situations, or homosexual characters, or any of a hundred other things that are part of life but might discomfit someone in the audience. Some of our plays will have several of these things; some won’t have any. If you ask specific questions about content, we’ll try to answer them as honestly as possible, but we’re not volunteering any information. If you choose not to attend because of this policy, we respect your choice, but we humbly suggest that you’re short-changing yourself.
It is impossible to predict with much accuracy what might offend or disturb an individual audience member, and in this sense, at least, that’s what we’re talking about: a collection of individuals. Issuing a content warning to protect the sensibilities of the few at the expense of the aesthetic experience of the many is not a trade-off worth making.

The verdict. So, which part bothered Curmie and which his friend? Curmie levels Charge #2. That theatre audiences would need to be told that characters are fictive strikes me as silly. (Indeed, I hear the voice of a former mentor insisting that all characters are fictive, even in cases when an actor is literally “playing himself.”) But whereas there is a slight cost to warning an audience about what they’re about to see, I’d suggest the circumstances dictated that a quick acknowledgment of the subject matter would be appropriate. Whereas in Oerlandersmith’s regular experience, audiences would come to see a specific show, presumably having at least a general idea of what they were about to experience, ATHE members came to hear a keynote, not expecting a performance at all. True, few spectators were disturbed, but it strikes me that this is more a qualitative than a quantitative problem: it will be a long time before I forget the face of one woman as she headed hastily for the exit.

I hasten to add that I accuse neither Ms. Oerlandersmith nor her introducer of any ill will. It’s quite clear from her subsequent remarks that the former is one of the “good guys”; I’ve known the latter for a decade or more, and I have the highest regard for him. Perhaps there was a breakdown in communication. Perhaps neither of them anticipated a situation which under normal circumstances (a performance advertised as a performance) wouldn’t have posed a problem at all. Perhaps they underestimated the power of the medium: talking about molestation is different from hearing the words of (even fictive) abusers and victims enacted.

I freely grant, of course, that in the grand scheme of things this is pretty unimportant stuff. The people who were taken aback will, I am quite confident, be fine. But even seemingly minor events give us an opportunity to wrestle with larger concepts. And that’s a good thing.

I am, by the way, particularly interested in readers’ commentary on this one—either here on the blog or on the link from the Facebook page.