Clayton Williams was running for governor of Texas 22 years ago when he made a remark about rape which the New York Times described as “off-the-cuff” when they reported on his subsequent apology. What he said was, “If it’s inevitable,” meaning the rape, “just relax and enjoy it.” Given what has transpired with Rep. Todd Akin in the last two days, I’m sure you now get why I’m bringing this up now.
What’s clear from Williams’ mea culpa is that he understood the effect of his remarks on his campaign, but not on people. He gave one of the classic “if anyone was offended” non-apology, and went on to offer the setting as an excuse for that ”That’s not a Republican women’s club that we were having this morning…It’s a working cow camp, a tough world where you can get kicked in the testicles if you’re not careful.” But the comment that struck me in the Times recap was the rather black-and-white defense from Williams’ wife, Modesta:
If the word rape was in a joke, if sex was in a joke, it was just a joke,” Mrs. Williams said. ”He’s about as much of a gentleman, a caring person, as there is.”
Several weeks ago, Melissa took an extensive look on the show at the Daniel Tosh controversy, in which the Comedy Central host responded to a woman heckling him by joking about her being gang-raped. We had a lively debate about the merits of joking about things that, by and large, offend a lot of folks. One of the things that emerged from that discussion, and that controversy, for me was simply a reminder of a simple truth: a joke not something simply that the comedian utters from a position of power, but also something which the audience receives.
I’ve been thinking about the Tosh situation in relation to Akin’s for a few reasons. First time it popped in my head, obviously, is when Akin made his “legitimate rape” remark and I thought back to all the other stupid things said about rape in recent memory. But when I came across my friend Irin Carmon’s column yesterday at Salon, begging for Akin to stay in the race because it might actually cause Republicans to be held to account, I thought of Tosh again:
Let’s carry these views on women’s bodies to their ultimate conclusion. A few starting questions: If Todd Akin has his way and the morning after pill is banned for everyone, what happens with all those unintended pregnancies? More to the point, how should women be punished when abortion is banned on the logic that it’s murder? And how will we pay for the massive prison expansion that will entail? Let Akin and his ideological comrades — much of the House GOP — answer for it.
Part of this has to do with how we operate in our American media culture: one person says or does something, and we seize upon that to create a larger National Conversation™ about the topic. That tendency is a positive one in a lot of ways, but I get why both politicians and comedians would hate it. It pressures them to be on their p’s and q’s about every potentially offensive word they say, for fear it blows up into something they can’t contain, and distracts from their intended message.
This isn’t to say that Tosh and Akin should shut up, or that they deserve a pass; no, they’re free to say whatever really sexist, stupid stuff they like, and we have the freedom to criticize it. Only people drunk on privilege might have an issue with having to be accountable for what they say that is offensive to others.
But Tosh, being a comedian, wasn’t accountable to anyone but his sizable fanbase, Comedy Central, and their corporate overlords. Moreover, Tosh didn’t represent the view of all or even most comedians on this. For Republicans, there is no laughing off what Akin said, or burying him under the bus, no matter how hard they try. They know that unlike the Tosh controversy, this isn’t a news-cycle distraction that will go away – because Akin is one of them. They know he’s more Clayton Williams to McCaskill’s Ann Richards, poised to lose a race in which he had a built-in advantage.
Two days after Akin’s remarks and after dissing him twice previously, Presidential nominee-to-be Mitt Romney courageously followed the massive anti-Akin wave in his party by finally calling for his departure from the Missouri Senate race. Of course, this came hours after Akin had already released the apology ad you see above, and reaffirmed to conservative radio host Mike Huckabee in a rather defiant interview that he is indeed staying in the race. (It also came after reports revealed that a doctor whose still pushes the pseudo-science Akin cites endorsed Romney for president back in 2007 – and Romney was geeked about it).
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus threw Akin overboard (again) and making a poor attempt at damage control on our own “Jansing & Co.”, attempting to shield his almost-official presidential ticket from Akin’s stink by repeating “we’re a pro-life party” several times and insisting that most women voters actually prefer that. While our Lean Forward blog debunked that last assertion, the first thing he said is somewhat true. (An aside: the term is “anti-abortion,” Chairman Priebus.)
Evidence that it’s true is found in the Republican Party platform they’ll unveil at their upcoming convention in Tampa. CNN offered a peek:
Republicans drafting their party’s official policy platform on Tuesday ratified a call for a Constitutional ban on abortion that makes no exceptions for rape or incest. The vote to endorse the party’s long-standing opposition to abortion and support for a “human life amendment” took place at a meeting of the GOP’s official platform committee in Tampa, the site of next week’s Republican National Convention.
This is less news than it is color to the Akin story, given that this language has been in past editions of the platform – one that also will include an abstinence-only amendment. (They were in the 21st century long enough yesterday to strike language comparing illegal immigrants to “cattle.”) There’s yesterday’s example of Rep. Steve King saying something else stupid about rape-induced pregancies, but he’s always an outlier in my book. When the no-exceptions abortion language is in the party platform, along with the standard call for a Constitutional amendment to make it so, this isn’t about Republicans like Steve King, or even Todd Akin. It’s about the whole lot of them.
Republicans were already about to nominate a vice-presidential nominee who shares Akin’s views on abortion and redefining rape well before they kept a Constitutional no-exceptions abortion amendment in their party platform. And I noted yesterday and last year, on The Maddow Blog, Republicans have been proud to attempt to redefine rape with H.R. 3, their third bill in their newly Republican House. Considering that, and the fact that they’d like to see abortion done away with, why should they get away with scapegoating Akin because he phrased their own positions inarticulately?
At least Akin phrased them at all – our own Andrea Mitchell concluded her conversation yesterday with EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock by noting that they’d love to have had a Romney campaign viewpoint, but that the campaign felt “they don’t have an appropriate spokesperson” to address the issues. I wish I was kidding. It will be a marvel to see what Romney does when a moderator does his or her job and asks him about this during a debate with President Obama, with no spokesperson lifeline to call.
And the thing Republicans are forgetting is that once you’ve burned a guy, he doesn’t owe anything to you. Akin is, as we often say in the #nerdland offices, going pure honey badger right now – doing a ton of morning TV today and revealing that vice-presidential hopeful Paul Ryan did call him to ask him to withdraw.
Do you think Akin cares that he has put women’s issues and reproductive freedoms back on the front page, even though it’s clear that a Romney campaign that can’t even talk about them? It’s clear Akin the honey badger doesn’t care what Romney, Priebus, or any other Republican thinks, or wants. (He apparently cares about the voters of Missouri, which is hilarious for another reason I’ll explore a little bit later today.)
Carmon joined The Guardian’s Ana Marie Cox last night on “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” to discuss the meaning behind “legitimate rape.” See the video below, and the Lean Forward write-up here.