21 August 2012

The Todd Akin controversy and the relevance of gaffes

The clock is ticking for Rep. Todd Akin and the Republicans of Missouri. There is pressure on Akin to quit his campaign for the U.S. Senate before 5:00 p.m. today, which is supposedly the latest point at which the GOP can run an alternate in Akin's place and get Akin's name off the November ballot. His campaign is mortally wounded in many observers' opinion because of the comment he made last Sunday about rape and pregnancy. For those not following the story, Akin attempted to downplay the frequency of rape-induced pregnancies to justify his opposition to post-rape abortion. In doing so, he asserted a dubious medical premise: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down." Akin here draws upon folk "knowledge" dating back to the Middle Ages and still popular, the New York Times claims, among Republican politicians. I'd be greatly surprised if not a single registered Democrat believed the same thing, however. Possibly the most offensive idea in that sentence is the insinuation that pregnancy disproves the occurrence of "legitimate rape," the word "legitimate" in this context meaning "actual." With that comes a corollary insinuation that women seeking abortions on the basis of "rape," are probably lying about their sexual encounters. So this is a pretty spectacular and offensive gaffe by modern standards, but let's step back for a second to ask a relevant question: does any person's ignorance of reproductive science disqualify him for political office?

Further exploration of Akin's background and political record reveal a person I'd probably never vote for. If not an all-out Religious Rightist, he has gotten into trouble in the past for appearing to say that American liberals hate God. He backpedaled from that claim to make his stand against a perceived desire by liberals to eliminate religion from public life. None of this follows automatically from Akin's notions about reproduction under duress. A person could be a secular humanist or militant atheist and still show profound ignorance about such matters, and as far as I know this bit of folklore has no religious source. Meanwhile, reproductive issues are a small fraction of a U.S. Senator's responsibilities. Fair-minded people should not assume that proven ignorance in one field of knowledge proves general ignorance in all fields of knowledge. However, that's the logic of the politics, or the spectator sport of gaffe-watching. Ever since the Ford-Carter presidential race of 1976, when I first heard the word "gaffe" in a political context, the news media more than any other group has dreamed of bringing down candidates by reporting some supposedly revelatory misstatement. The quest for the killer gaffe may date back to 1884 when a supporter of the Republican presidential candidate allegedly ruined his man's chances by calling the Democrats the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," costing the GOP the Catholic vote. But no one statement can possibly define a political candidate or determine his worthiness for office, except perhaps if he or she utters a universally-deplored slur against another's race, religion or gender. None of this is meant as a defense of anything Rep. Akin said. Missourians may find that one sentence reason enough to vote against him in November. But unless Akin's fellow Republicans are absolutely convinced of that themselves, that sentence is no reason for them to bum-rush Akin out of the Senatorial race. A reason not to vote for someone is not automatically a reason to disqualify that person from running for office unless you claim the same sense of certitude about people's fitness for office that an Iranian ayatollah enjoys. Missouri's Republicans would be within their rights to repudiate Akin, but it would be a rush to judgment that says more about the trivialization of politics than it does about one man's mistake.

Update: Mitt Romney has joined the Republicans (and some powerful conservative PACs) urging Akin to drop out but with less than an hour to go before the presumed practical deadline for his withdrawal, Akin has grown defiant, telling longtime supporter Mike Huckabee that there's been a big overreaction to his "get[ting] a word in the wrong place." Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh appears to be using the Akin issue to distinguish himself from Huckabee, a new rival in the radio-talker trade. On his show, Limbaugh notes dispassionately that Akin's position is "the kind of thing that people who do nothing but talk amongst themselves will conjure up, a belief system like that, and they’ll grab on to anything they can to support what their empirical [sic?] belief is." While insisting that he doesn't mean to criticize passionate pro-lifers like Akin, Limbaugh adds that Akin's idea that "a woman's body shuts down in rape" is "just absurd. It's not intelligent." Akin's distinction between "legitimate rape" and whatever else he had in mind is also lost on Rush. When he emerges as the voice of reason in the Republican camp, you know it's not a good week for anyone in the party.

1 comment:

Aaron Christiansen said...

I think Mr. Akin should be dragged in to a prison cell and let nature take it's course. Then, I do believe, Mr. Akin will finally have an understanding of what "rape" is.