I never hear anyone call certain men Male Chauvinist Pigs anymore. But after watching the latest assault in the War on Women launched by Michigan Republicans the past two weeks, I wonder why.
Shutting out women’s voices
The battle was joined when the GOP fast-tracked the so-called Abortion Super Bill, comprised of HB 5711, 5712 and 5713. The package is a catchall of pro-life obsessions: Making it a felony for parents (or anyone else) to “coerce” a young woman into having an abortion. Sending doctors who fail to grill patients about possible coercion to jail. Pretending to make facilities safer while regulating them out of business.
A particularly troublesome provision would prohibit any abortion after 20 weeks, a time when various life-threatening birth defects often begin to emerge. The ban would also scare doctors away from providing women who miscarry a medically necessary D&C (and thereby scare doctors away from Michigan in general).
The first public salvo occurred at the House Health Policy committee. The video I captured shows a distraught woman trying to shout at the committee after she was prevented from speaking, one of many women kept from the microphone.
Committee Chair Gail Haines (R-Lake Angelus) hand-picked the speakers and made sure the only three who were allowed to speak in opposition were male. Not only was this designed to blunt memories of the all-male panel Republicans put together in February when Sandra Fluke was denied the chance to speak before Congress, but it prevented the female representatives of Planned Parenthood of Michigan and Michigan NOW from making their case to the public.
The YouTube was picked up by Rachel Maddow’s blog and went viral overnight. Outraged members of women’s groups staged an impromptu protest at the Capitol on Tuesday, the first day that the bills were likely to move. As I stood on the House floor press section waiting, I could see the surprise on the faces of the boys’ club when Planned Parenthood’s pink-shirted activists flooded the gallery. Eyebrows raised even further when we heard a thunderous roar erupt from the women chanting under the dome. Women? En masse? Whazzup?
When the bills finally came to the floor late Wednesday, they sailed through the House as expected, though Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) and Rep. Barb Byrum (D-Onondaga) tried to slow them down. Their passion triggered an uproar from the GOP leadership, apparently for using v-words like “vagina” and “vasectomy” in what Rep. Mike Callton (R-Nashville) characterized as “mixed company.” (The real mixed company, of course, occurs anytime Democrats mature enough to handle such words interact with Republicans who freak out anytime someone mentions sex.)
Republican floor leader Rep. Jim Stamas (R-Midland) kept ignoring pleas for amendments and issued an immediate censure of the two women. The next morning they learned they were banned from speaking on the House floor until further notice.
Speaker of the House Jase Bolger’s press secretary Ari Adler issued a succession of misogynistic press releases that turned a state story into a national (Huffington Post) and international (The Guardian) embarrassment. First, he accused Byrum of acting like a “child throwing a temper tantrum.” Then he denied Brown was banned for using vagina, arguing that her “no means no” closer was a rape reference and thereby unacceptable.
What’s next, Ari? A press release suggesting Rep. Brown should just lie back and enjoy it?
MLive columnist Susan Demas, who had previously described Adler as “almost neurotic,” noted that his public pronouncements during Vagina-gate were likely to drive educated suburban women into the arms of the Dems in the fall election.
Why drive off this cliff?
What’s going on here? Don’t Michigan Republicans care that they are pouring gasoline on a fire back-drafting toward them? Their actions have prompted Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) to call for a Lysistrata-type sex strike, though why any Michigan woman would still be having sex with any Republican, male or female, escapes me.
I would argue that there are two reasons for this seemingly suicidal GOP escalation of the War on Women: (1) they can’t help themselves and (2) the firestorm draws heat away from other insidious legislation aimed at keeping state government in GOP hands forever.
The first thing to understand is that the Michigan Republican Party is now firmly in the grip of the hateful and hate-filled Tea Party. Even Governor Rick Snyder, who wants everyone to think he’s a non-ideological nerd, has so far refused to use his veto to tame this new breed of hard-right activists. And the thing you need to know about the fundamentalist Christian white guys in power and their distaff counterparts is that they don’t like or even respect anyone who doesn’t look or think like them.
For a firsthand look at the arrogance and contempt displayed toward people who are different, watch Neil Munro of The Daily Caller repeatedly interrupt President Obama on Friday, as if he were just some guy at the end of the bar Munro wanted to pick a fight with.
If the president of the United States cannot command the respect from Tea Partiers, what chance do two Michigan women legislators have?
And if there is one thing that trumps race as a trigger for right-wing animus toward “the other,” it is gender (and sexual orientation) – that sex thing. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, became the first black person and the first woman to make a serious bid to be nominated for president by one of our two major parties. “I’ve always met more discrimination being a woman than being black,” she said. “Of my two ‘handicaps,’ being female always put more obstacles in my way than being black.”
Uncomfortable as it is to discuss, researchers who have studied the so-called “authoritarian mind” suggest that arch conservatives who just don’t think the way the rest of us do. Science writer Chris Mooney’s new book “The Republican Brain” argues that hard-liners are unmoved by facts which makes it virtually impossible to change their minds by citing “proof.” Indeed, Rush Limbaugh tells his listeners to ignore anything that comes from the “four corners of deceit” – government, academia, science and the media.
Back in 2006, when many people thought the GOP had been permanently discredited by President George Bush’s disastrous reign, Canadian psychologist Dr. Bob Altemeyer predicted that the authoritarians within the Republic party were not likely to go away quietly. As he wrote in the introduction to his book “The Authoritarian Mind” (click here to download a free copy):
But even if their leaders cannot find an acceptable presidential candidate for 2008, even if authoritarians play a much diminished role in the next election, even if they temporarily fade from view, they will still be there, aching for a dictatorship that will force their views on everyone. And they will surely be energized again, as they were in 1994, if a new administration infuriates them while carrying out its mandate.
His comments seem particularly prescient since it was the 2010 mid-term elections that transformed Michigan into a one-party state. The true-believer GOP dominates the governor’s office, the Michigan legislature, the attorney general’s office and the Michigan Supreme Court.
It is the unwillingness to let others live life as they choose that characterized the lack of debate on the Abortion Super Bill. Remember the old bumper sticker: Don’t Like Abortion? Don’t Have One. The prudish and Puritanical Republicans have no qualms about minding your business, and they have been waiting almost 40 years since Roe v Wade for their chance to do so.
Yet the fundamental issue isn’t really abortion as much as it is maintaining the power to control women and their fertility. Part of the GOP’s male response to issues like contraception and abortion stems from the desire to control women as child-bearers. Authoritarians love control, and there is nothing more disconcerting than the thought a woman has the power to deceive men into raising children not their own. In Henry IV, Shakespeare has Falstaff mimic the King to say to Prince Hal, “That thou art my son, I have partly thy mother’s word, partly my own opinion.” (A GOP-sponsored paternity bill coming down the pike would change decades of family law by absolving men from the legal requirement to support children born while they are married to their mothers if tests prove they are not the biological father.)
Adding to the scorn heaped on women (and gays) is the paranoid fear of the feminine on the part of conservative males, though it may say more about them than they would like. The video quotes psychology professor Dr. Richard saying, “Whenever anyone has an intense feeling against any out-group . . . we should ask ourselves, Why am I so concerned about that? Why am I so threatened?” I remember decades ago when UCLA drug policy analyst Dr. Mark A. R. Kleiman explained that one reason conservative fathers were enraged by widespread marijuana use in the Sixties was because the drug was perceived as “feminizing” their sons by encouraging them to grow their hair long (like a girl’s) and wear androgynous clothing.
Even lefties like Jon Stewart don’t think twice about using “douchebag” as the ultimate pejorative, as if anything related to female genitalia is always a bad thing.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that fundamentalist Protestants and traditional Catholics have joined forces to enshrine male dominance by rejecting all abortion, since it is the ultimate expression of female power. Abortion is an issue where staunch Tea Party Right-to-Lifers adopt a one-size fits all “abortion is murder” position, even if that means a girl raped by her father is forced to reward him by carrying his grandchild to term.
In “The Political Brain,” Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen says that the conservative’s embrace of black-and-white moral certitude puts thoughtful liberals with nuanced views at a disadvantage. All week long, I heard various conservatives quote former Democratic President Clinton about making abortion “safe, legal and rare” as proof that their views reflect the mainstream.
The reality, of course, is that the intent of these GOP bills is to move us back toward back-alley abortions. The bills sparked such intense outrage among women because they are so extreme, without any exemptions for rape and incest or the health of the mother.
Building a permanent GOP majority?
Remember that magicians pull their tricks on the audience by doing something flashy with one hand to divert attention from what the other hand is doing. In Midwest states like Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio that now have Republican governors, we see Tea Party-dominated legislatures pulling all sorts of rabbits out of their hats. Their goal is to enshrine a permanent Republican majority, not by the force of their ideas but through deception.
The day before the GOP-dominated Michigan House approved the Abortion Super Bills, Republican representatives sneaked through the “Secure and Fair Elections” package comprised of Senate bills 751, 754 and 803, which the League of Women Voters labels as voter suppression. These bills purport to prevent voter fraud, though what they really do is dramatically reduce participation among groups most likely to reject the Republican agenda – minorities, the poor and students.
Earlier efforts to put a heavy Republican thumb on the scale here in Michigan included ramming through new laws aimed at gutting the union movement in this state. The cookie-cutter anti-union/right-to-work bills pushed in states with new Republican governors came from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council funded in large part by billionaires who want to break unions nationwide.
In an era when the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gives corporations and members of the 1% the chance to spend as much as they want to influence the election this fall, unions find themselves short-changed. Not only did unions in GOP-dominated Midwest states find the spate of new laws reduce reduce the amount of money they can spend on Democratic candidates as a counterweight to almost unlimited corporate funding, but they are forced to spend money defending themselves from the relentless assault on their rights. Sounds familiar?
Citizens United decided that money is speech. If so, then the staggering amounts of money that billionaires like the Koch Brothers and Sherman Adelson are spending this year will drown out the voices of working families and the poor, the core constituencies of the Democratic party. And they will take pro-choice women down with them.
I am old enough to remember an earlier era when Michigan Republicans were not in thrall to the hard right. I once met the late N. Lorraine Beebe, a Republican elected to the Michigan Senate in 1966. Not only did she push for sex education in the schools and put abortion on the ballot, but she stood on the Senate floor and talked about the abortion she had in 1948.
Doing so not only cost her re-election, but her home was fire-bombed. Her impressive example reminds us that courageous women have always paid a price for their willingness to take a stand. It also shows that the forces of regression and repression must always be resisted.
It also highlights the need to reject the false equivalence that this is just a healthy debate between two equivalent points of view. It is instead part of the relentless chipping away of women’s Constitutionally protected right to choose until there’s nothing left.
If we had a strong left in this country, we would be demanding the rollback of the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding of abortion. After all, I have a moral objection to our endless wars, but I still have to pay my federal taxes for them. So why do we allow hard-right Republicans to block legislation that would pay for legal abortions for women soldiers raped by their peers, especially since they routinely downplay the problem?
Instead of discussing progressive alternatives, the Michigan Senate held a hearing last Thursday on the so-called “religious freedom” bill (SB 975 first introduced last February by Sen. John Moolenaar after President Obama announced Obamacare will require insurance coverage for contraception). It would allow individuals, medical facilities and insurance companies to deny contraception and any other services their male-dominated church hierarchies don’t like (even if the majority of their female parishioners do).
Though a progressive male commentator emailed me to say I was engaging in “hyperbole” with my video, I would argue that women are becoming aware of the danger of a complete take-over by a well-funded and well-organized theocratic minority. The right is relentless, while the left remains disorganized and the center is busy enjoying the summer sun. I would urge women and men who value real freedom to band together to join Rep. Brown in saying NO MEANS NO before it’s too late to say anything at all.
NOTE: Eve Ensler of “Vagina Monologues” fame will be joined by our two pro-vagina Reps. Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum on the Capitol steps Monday night at 5 p.m.. Lansing Area NOW also invites women to join us Sunday at 4 p.m. at Gone Wired, to talk about what happened and discuss next steps.