Friday, January 28, 2011

Just the facts, ma'am

During the second Bush regime, the regime's mouthpieces declared that they could create reality from scratch by ignoring facts they found inconvenient. Similarly, certain allies of the regime insisted on "faith-based" (rather than fact-based) "science." Opponents of the regime then began using the expression "reality-based." Facts, after all, were all they (we) had. Facts can be stubborn things that while easily ignored often make themselves felt in uncomfortable ways.

Sadly, as the continued thriving of Fox News attests, in the US the replacement of the Bush Administration with the Obama Administration hasn't really led to facts making a successful comeback in the public sphere. Today, browsing the news, it struck me that facts are as endangered as ever. One of the key techniques for undermining facts is imposing arbitrary definitions on the key words through which facts are expressed, and today I was seeing it everywhere. Here are a few examples:

--Nick Bauman reports in Mother Jones today that Republicans in the US House of Representatives are working on a plan to redefine "rape":
The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to "forcible rape." This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion. (Smith's spokesman did not respond to a call and an email requesting comment.)

Given that the bill also would forbid the use of tax benefits to pay for abortions, that 13-year-old's parents wouldn't be allowed to use money from a tax-exempt health savings account (HSA) to pay for the procedure. They also wouldn't be able to deduct the cost of the abortion or the cost of any insurance that paid for it as a medical expense.


"This bill takes us back to a time when just saying 'no' wasn't enough to qualify as rape," says Steph Sterling, a lawyer and senior adviser to the National Women's Law Center. Laurie Levenson, a former assistant US attorney and expert on criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, notes that the new bill's authors are "using language that's not particularly clear, and some people are going to lose protection." Other types of rapes that would no longer be covered by the exemption include rapes in which the woman was drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol, rapes of women with limited mental capacity, and many date rapes. "There are a lot of aspects of rape that are not included," Levenson says.

As for the incest exception, the bill would only allow federally funded abortions if the woman is under 18.

The bill hasn't been carefully constructed, Levenson notes. The term "forcible rape" is not defined in the federal criminal code, and the bill's authors don't offer their own definition. In some states, there is no legal definition of "forcible rape," making it unclear whether any abortions would be covered by the rape exemption in those jurisdictions.

The main abortion-rights groups despise the Smith bill as a whole, but they are particularly outraged by its rape provisions. Tait Sye, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, calls the proposed changes "unacceptable." Donna Crane, the policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, says that making the "already narrow exceptions for public funding of abortion care for rape and incest survivors even more restrictive" is "unbelievably cruel and heartless."

"This bill goes far beyond current law," says Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a co-chair of the congressional pro-choice caucus. The "re-definition" of the rape exception "is only one element" of an "extreme" bill, she adds, citing other provisions in the law that pro-abortion rights groups believe would lead to the end of private health insurance coverage for abortion.

"Somebody needs to look closely at this," Levenson says. "This is a bill that could have a dramatic effect on women, and language is important. It sure sounds like somebody didn't want [the exception to cover] all the different types of rape that are recognized under the law."

--A three-inch section of a small plastic toy is redefined as a "gun": Security personnel at Gatwick Airport insisted on removing a three inch section of plastic from a figurine of a soldier because the plastic depicted a gun. (Yes, the British are doing it too.) Here's USA Today:
The Sun of London reports "Canadian Julie Lloyd was carrying the 9 inch-tall replica of a British soldier in his hand luggage. But the £135 ($215) model triggered an alarm as it passed through a scanner at Gatwick Airport. Security officials took one look at the SA80 rifle held by the figurine and ruled it was a firearm."

Husband Ken tells London's Daily Express: "My wife asked for a reality check, explaining that the molded and painted rifle is part of the figure. But the supervisor was confident within the surety of the regulations that a firearm is a firearm and could not pass."

Personnel did allow the toy soldier on the flight, but only without its 3-inch gun. For that, Lloyd was forced to return to a concession area and bought an envelope to mail home the gun. It arrived in Canada five days later.

The story appears to have been a long-time in the making.

The National Post of Toronto writes "Ms. Lloyd purchased the figuring during an April, 2009, trip, but the story is making news now because the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford Camp …, where she bought the souvenir, went public with the story after learning about it from Ms. Lloyd this past autumn. She says she's already been interviewed by several newspapers in the U.K., and has been invited on a popular breakfast talk show."
Can we now expect that paintings, drawings, and videos of firearms will also be redefined as "guns"? Where does such representational madness end? The "reality check" "Husband Ken" mentions apparently left the security personnel unmoved. The facts, in that case, were apparently inconsequential.

--And then we have US Vice President Joe Biden asserting yesterday on PBS's Newhour that Hosni Mubarak, the man who took office via a coup and has oppressed and repressed the people of Egypt, and brutally suppressed all forms of political expression, for twenty-nine years, "is not a dictator." The Christian Science Monitor reports:
Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

He also appeared to make one of the famous Biden gaffes, in comments that could be interpreted as questioning the legitimacy of protesters' demands. Monitor Cairo correspondent Kristen Chick, other reporters in the country, and activists have generally characterized the main calls of demonstrators as focused on freedom, democracy, an end to police torture, and a more committed government effort to address the poverty that aflicts millions of Egyptians.

Biden urged non-violence from both protesters and the government and said: "We’re encouraging the protesters to – as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we’re encouraging the government to act responsibly and – and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out." He also said: "I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable... accommodation and discussion to try to resolve peacefully and amicably the concerns and claims made by those who have taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt."

Egypt's protesters, if they're paying attention to Biden at all, will certainly be wondering which of their demands thus far have been illegitimate.
Thanks to Wikileaks' release of more cables today, we know that Biden knows that "police brutality in Egypt is routine and pervasive and the use of torture so widespread that the Egyptian government has stopped denying it exists." The Guardian reports:

The batch of US embassy cables paint a despairing portrait of a police force and security service in Egypt wholly out of control. They suggest torture is routinely used against ordinary criminals, Islamist detainees, opposition activists and bloggers.

"The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders. One human rights lawyer told us there is evidence of torture in Egypt dating back to the time of the pharoahs. NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone," one cable said.

Under Hosni Mubarak's presidency there had been "no serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution", it said. The police's ubiquitous use of force had pervaded Egyptian culture to such an extent that one popular TV soap opera recently featured a police detective hero who beat up suspects to collect evidence.

Some middle-class Egyptians did not report thefts from their apartment blocks because they knew the police would immediately go and torture "all of the doormen", the cable added. It cited one source who said the police would use routinely electric shocks against suspected criminals, and would beat up human rights lawyers who enter police stations to defend their clients. Women detainees allegedly faced sexual abuse. Demoralised officers felt solving crimes justified brutal interrogation methods, with some believing that Islamic law also sanctioned torture, the cable said.

Another cable, from March 2009, said Egypt's bloggers were playing an "increasingly important role" in society and "in broadening the scope of acceptable political and social discourse". There had been a significant change over the past five years, it said, with bloggers able to discuss sensitive issues such as sexual harassment, sectarian tensions, the military and even abortion.

At the same time, a clampdown by the Egyptian government and other repressive measures meant bloggers were no longer a "cohesive activist movement". In 2009, an estimated 160,000 bloggers were active in Egypt, writing in Arabic and sometimes English. Most were 20-35 years old.

--And then we have a "former US Ambassador to Morroco, talking "domino theory" trash at the Huffington Post. While he acknowledges the justness of the "unorganized demonstrators'" demands for reform, he also views it as a threat to the US's imperial aspirations. His take is not quite as whacky as Fox News's summation of the rebellion in Egypt (i.e., that the forces of Al Quaeda are behind it all) but is certainly as perverse in its use of language:

Sadly, despite all the United States has done for Egypt, It may not matter what we say or do in the long run. Events are running at warp speed... too fast for Washington, and virtually out of sight at the "asleep at the switch" CIA, which likely failed to anticipate the rapidly deteriorating events.

Despite all the US has done for Egypt? For Egypt???? Who does he think he's kidding (besides, possibly) himself? The US's "support" for the regime has done terrible things to Egypt. Support for the regime (and its tiny wealthy elite) can never by any means be considered support for "Egypt." As any Egyptian on the street (especially at this moment) would be happy to inform the Former Ambassador to Morroco. And second, just what does he think the CIA would/should/could have done had they not been "asleep at the switch"? Dug out another creepy piece of shit to place in the wings, to take over should Mubarak be forced out? (Will he be forced out? It's actually, truly, up in the air. Alexandria is now reportedly entirely in the hands of demonstrators and without a functioning police department.)


Josh said...

Maybe the name of a country is a metonym for its ruler, like in Hamlet. That's how these people think.

Timmi Duchamp said...

But you know, back in early modern times, the name of a country and the name of a ruler were often used interchangeably because people actually believed that the ruler embodied the sovereignty of the country. The grounds for doing so were religious. (There are all sorts of things most people today don't understand about the religious wars of the 16th & 17th centuries because the underlying assumptions about what we now consider mere "institutions" are so foreign to modern thinking.)

I tend to think that the culture of the US State Dept is considerably more cynical than that. The ongoing release of cables by Wikileaks pretty much backs up my assumption that ex-ambassadors have no illusions about who benefits from the vast sums of military "aid" the US has been bestowing on the Mubarak regime (& certain favored US contracts) for lo these many years.

By the bye, have you noticed that the words being scrawled all over Cairo are "Mubarak must fall"? Now in this case, I'm certain "Mubarak" in this case stands for not only the man himself, but also includes all his henchmen, cronies, & co-kleptocrats. Mubarak seems to be preparing to leave Suleiman-- a Sedgewick figure, if there ever was one-- running the show: presumably to kill as many people as it takes to crush the rebellion, since the army is holding back. (Can Al Jazeera be correct when it claims that the Saudis refused Mubarak but the Israelis have okayed his spending his exile in Israel? It's plausible, but rumors tend to fly at times like these, & it could be a canard.)

Josh said...

It's still informed by (or analogous to) the norm, when one attributes agency to a country, of using that country's name when referring to actions of its power elite. My habit of saying "Israeli policy" or "Israel's leaders" rather than "Israel" (or even "the Israelis") just comes of political timidity: one doesn't want to end up like Finkelstein or Petersen-Overton. I try to set an example for students by using "our government" rather than "we" so that they don't feel so invested in (or culpable for) U.S. policies; but you can't easily stop saying "the United States [did this or that]." I wish it were possible: I've seen that kind of metonymy lead to formulations like "Cuba is an oppressive country: we should nuke it" (IIRC, they brought Susan Eisenhower to the White House in the mid-Eighties to explain to Reagan the difference between the Soviet gov't and the Soviet people).

Kristin said...

Biden's comment was carefully worded: "I would not refer to him as a dictator."

That doesn't mean that Mubarek is or isn't, just that Biden won't say he is - after all, Mubarek is an ally.

Oh, these politicians.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Kristin, that's an important point. I certainly was wrong to use the word "asserted." What he was doing, on second thought, was prevaricating, in the way politicians do. The word, really, is disavowed. Which opens a whole other can of worms...