[For those who benefit from trigger warnings, this note will include discussion of the concept of rape.]
Today, I'm holding myself to account for following one of Timothy Snyder's lessons in his book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century. I thought today's note would be an exercise in being "kind to our language" (#9). Instead, I had to confront the next lesson, believing in truth (#10). This shift reflects something important, too.
When we avoid words that make us uncomfortable or retreat from challenging the use of words in misleading ways, we make it easier for the truth to slip from our grasp.
The idea of "legitimate rape" is one of the clearest examples, but it isn't new. There is, however, a long history to this idea that trauma prevents conception. I often ignored these media-hyped moments, assuming these statements reflected motivated reasoning and willful ignorance. I never sat with the proposition long enough to realize that it relies on a belief that pregnancy is sufficient proof that a woman enjoyed the assault. The condition means the encounter can no longer be considered rape.
Most famously, Todd Akin, U.S. Representative from Missouri, made headlines with the claim in 2015. The Week published a concise history of the bogus idea, citing Dan Turner at the Los Angeles Times that described it as "reproductive biology for scholarship dating back to King John and Magna Carta." I read references to other beliefs in vogue at the time, including that witches would float.
I wish this were nothing but a story of old news. But unfortunately, these habits of science-free thinking are gaining ground again in a "post-Roe" America.
This summer, a GOP candidate for Congress in Virginia suggested it was rare for rape victims to become pregnant because "it's not happening organically." She is the mother of two; this is the proof she offered for knowing how women get pregnant.
At a Judiciary Committee hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives last week, Catherine Glenn Foster, president of American for Life, suggested that an abortion sought by a 10-year-old victim would not be considered an abortion. She rationalized this with an assumption that the 10-year-old's life would be at stake. An abortion is, of course, a medical procedure and neither age nor circumstance changes that fact.
We have kept ourselves busy debating the issue as though "for or against" is all there is to know. In doing so, we have neglected the democratic habit of deliberation. Euphemisms protects us from saying words we want to avoid while the details of public policy get murkier and murkier.
With Roe overturned, attorneys stand on call to make life-or-death decisions for people seeking emergency treatment at our hospitals. Americans suffering from autoimmune disease are losing access to medication that previously provided some relief. One-half of the American population is now either pregnant or potentially pregnant, and this condition limits what they may freely do.
In support of the lesson to believe in the truth, Timothy Snyder introduces that chapter with a simple idea, "To abandon facts is to abandon freedom." He cites the work of Victor Klemperer, whom he describes as an observer of totalitarianism. Klemperer observed that "truth dies in four modes."
Those modes are:
- Presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts
- Using "endless repetition" to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable
- Relying on magical thinking, "the open embrace of contradiction"
- Accepting a "misplaced faith" that "descends from heaven" and leaves no room for "individual discernment"
Snyder adds that this "renunciation of reality" leads to the "collapse of any political system that depends on individualism." The consequences of allowing strategic thinking to masquerade as public deliberation could not be any more significant. We are all at risk of losing something important, whether we can become pregnant or not.
Paul Woodruff included another important reminder in his book, First Democracy. He explained that Athenians understood freedom in opposition to tyranny. They knew they wanted to be free from tyranny and believed it offered two different types of protection:
On the one hand, freedom protects the people from abuse; on the other, it protects their leaders from the worst kind of bad judgment.
Unprotected politics is a story of abuse and bad judgment that will continue to limit what we can claim on behalf of individual freedom. Positions are no substitutes for policies.
We promote deliberation and good judgment by holding tight to our belief in the truth. Euphemisms and magical thinking both make tyranny too easy.
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From the headlines this week, you might think the 2024 race for the presidency has already been decided. Recent poll results show that President Biden has "historically low" approval ratings. The consensus is that this makes winning re-election impossible.
I'm not as interested in why Biden's numbers are so low. I think we could all offer a reasonable explanation for the situation. So instead, I'm interested in knowing:
Do favorability ratings really have that kind of predictive power?
**They might be just another measure of our ever increasing polarization. **
In April 2021, Philip Bump published an article with great graphics that show how 2009 was the last year in which "presidential approval ratings worked the way they had historically." Biden's numbers have changed since the analysis, but it's worth looking at the historical trends presented in "Measuring approval used to be like taking temperature. Now it's like calculating the height of Everest"
They might be best understood as a reflection of economic uncertainty.
In a more recent analysis featured in the Monkey Cage column, John Sides and Robert Griffin suggest these numbers are a return to normalcy when "higher levels of consumer sentiment were associated with higher levels of presidential approval." This standard of political science failed to hold true during the presidencies of Barack Obama and President Trump.
That still adds up to bad news for Democrats and President Biden. Many of the forces at work in the U.S. economy today are anything but ordinary. This July 11th update discusses how a strong job market icontradicts several other indicators of recession.
To dive even deeper into the mixed bag of economic news, read "Mixed messages on economy raises questions on recession risks." That analysis focuses on the mismatch between rising retail sales and decreasing consumer sentiment.
This is just how mid-terms work.
Andrew Prokop published "The Presidential Penalty" on Vox in March in an attempt to explain "why voters so often punish the president in midterm elections." Again, President Biden's numbers are worse now. Still, the article shows how the president's party faces difficult odds in November, and favorability ratings rarely make a difference.
For Believing in Democracy
A Historic First: Black America now represented in the National Statuary Hall at U.S. Capitol
As the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune takes its place, the collection also now includes the work of a Hispanic female master sculptor, Nilda Comas. That's another first. Both women represent Florida, a state who voted to honor Bethune in 2016, creating this statue to replace that of a Confederate General.
On this point, U.S. Representative Frederica S. Wilson (D-FL) said her state was "replacing a remnant of hatred and division with a symbol of hope and inspiration." Bethune takes her place, draped in a cap and gown that reflects her role as an educator. The Editorial Board at The Washington Post marked the occasion with the headline, "[A new and much-needed source of inspiration arrives in the Capitol.](Mary McLeod Bethune)" Their article also marks all the comings and goings as states begin to replace "defenders of the Confederacy.”
When Bethune died of a heart attack in 1955, The Oklahoma City Black Dispatch referred to her life as "Exhibit No. 1 for all who have faith in American and the Democratic process." You can hear Bethune discuss those processes in this seven-minute clip from an interview in 1949. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt concludes that interview, she says:
None of us, certainly, can say that as yet we have perfect democracy nor even the democracy that Abraham Lincoln and other great men envisioned, but I, for one, am proud that our country could produce a Mrs. Bethune.
For an excellent rundown of Bethune's accomplishments and how they compare to the state of public affairs today, check out this video from PBS Newshour. They talked to Bethune's granddaughter, Evelyn.