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.

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