Archive for the ‘election 2008’ Category

In my previous post, I promised I’d deal with feminist ethical objections to delving into the veracity of Palin’s claimed pregnancy with Trig. Is it illegitimate to ask questions about a candidate’s reproductive history? Are we invading Palin’s privacy, down to her very uterus?

The arguments for backing off from the tale of Palin, Trig, and her alleged Wild Ride fall into two main categories. (Let me know if you can think of others.)

1) Palin and especially her children deserve at least a modicum of privacy.

2) It’s always anti-feminist to second-guess women’s choices in childbearing and mothering.

On 1) privacy: As I mentioned in my last post, it’s standard operating procedure for presidential and veep candidates to disclose their medical records. While I would object strenuously to laws and policies that demanded the same of grocery clerks and accountants and locksmiths and (yes) college professors, the presidency isn’t just any job. There’s a reasonable case to be made for the citizenry knowing whether a candidate has a condition that might render her or him incapable of serving or exercising good judgment. We should have known, for instance, that Ronald Reagan was experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

We expect this disclosure of all candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency. Why should Palin get a pass? Why should her records remain private? Is it justifiable simply because she has a uterus? That would be sexist in its own twisted way, wouldn’t it – throwing us back to the days when ladyparts were still “unmentionables”?

Now it’s rather late to demand medical records be released, since Palin is no longer a candidate. But I think it’s still fair to say that Palin would have set the record straight on Trig’s birth, one way or another, had she only behaved like other candidates back in October 2008. Instead, she substituted secrecy for transparency (which didn’t surprise many Alaskans). She was nominated without any real vetting by McCain’s people, and they built an opaque wall between her and the press. She guarded her secrets while piling up lies. It’s not surprising that quite apart from Trig’s birth, the contents of her medical records would become subject to speculation.

Concern for the privacy of the Palins’ minor children (which included Bristol in 2008) is a legitimate and noble cause, one that I’ve consistently espoused. Let’s be clear: None of the brouhaha around Trig’s birth is actually about Trig. It’s about Sarah Palin.

The Palin children’s privacy has been breached, all right, but this has been almost entirely Sarah Palin’s own doing, apart from Bristol’s own self-promotion as a (*cough*) abstinence advocate. Who chose to use Trig as a political prop? Who decided to out Bristol’s pregnancy to the world instead of directly laying to rest the rumors about Trig’s birth? (Let us be clear: Bristol’s pregnancy in fall 2008 did not prove Sarah gave birth to Trig; it only made Bristol an unlikely mother to Trig unless he had actually been born earlier in the winter of 2008.) Who carried on a public feud with Levi Johnston’s family (which ultimately involved Palin’s grandson Tripp)? Who signed her family up for a reality TV show?

Mind you, I disapprove of the Gosselins and Duggars, too, for televising their children’s childhood. It’s just that none of them are running for president.

On point 2) – reproductive choice and trusting women – Melissa McEwan writes:

Birtherism, in which both conservatives and liberals are engaging, is a terrible and intrinsically misogynist game to play, entirely dependent on a belief that policing women’s bodies and reproduction is an acceptable recreation.

Actually, what’s going on here is not policing Sarah Palin’s body. What’s truly at stake is not what or who came out of her uterus. It’s what came out of her mouth. It’s her self-contradicting statements and outright lies.

McEwan tosses out a straw man when she says mockingly that the only acceptable evidence for “Trig birthers” would be video of Trig emerging from Palin’s vagina. Of course that’s silly. On the other hand, medical records showing that Palin truly was pregnant, underwent amnio, and gave birth when she claimed – well, that would be pretty darn conclusive. The unreasonable few would continue to hatch conspiracy theories. The rest of us – people like me and Litbrit – would say great; case closed; let’s carrying on dissecting why Palin, Bachmann, Trump, Santorum, and Co. are a danger to the United States. Andrew Sullivan would back off it too and devote himself more fully to his irrational quest for fiscal austerity. (Hmm, that’s one good argument for keeping the mystery of the Wild Ride alive.)

As I’ve written before, if Palin’s account of the wild ride is true, it displays epically poor judgment. By her own account, she board not one but two long flights after her water broke, without even stopping for a check-up before she left Dallas.

The party-line feminist response is: trust women. And I agree, we have to do that. Generally, women are trustworthy. That presumption underlies any pro-choice position on reproductive rights.

But what happens when a woman (or a man!) is reckless? What happens if a mother (or father!) makes egregious choices? Are we obligated to suspend judgment?

The consensus at both Shakesville and Feministe is that you turn in your official Feminist card as soon as you question the wisdom of anyone’s parenting or reproductive choices, no matter how irresponsible they may be.


To take a more extreme case, do I have to agree that it’s hunky-dory for a woman addicted to heroin and meth to have one baby after another, only to have them taken by Child Protective Services? As a matter of fact, I think it’s a pretty terrible situation. What makes me pro-choice is that I don’t want that hypothetical – but all-too-real – woman to be thrown into jail (as South Carolina has done, repeatedly, with pregnant women of color who are addicts). I don’t want her to be forced or coerced into Depo-Provera shots or Norplant. I do want the people who provide her prenatal and birth care (assuming she gets any) to compassionately counsel her about treatment programs. I want drug treatment programs to be abundant and free, so that no barriers prevent pregnant women from using them – unlike the many programs that have historically refused to admit expectant mothers! I want her caregivers to kindly and non-coercively explain her birth control options, including the potential benefits of long-term contraceptive methods (both the IUD and hormonal methods). I want her to have free access to birth control. If her children must be placed for adoption, open adoption should be the default unless there are very compelling grounds to separate the children from their birth mother.

That is a pro-choice position. I do see a need to exercise judgment. I do assert that childbearing while in the grips of an addition is a Bad Idea. Abandoning judgment, in such cases, would be abandoning responsibility. What makes this position pro-choice isn’t a refusal to judge; it’s rejecting punitive and coercive measures.

Now, Sarah Palin obviously is not comparable to a poor drug addict (unless you want to call power an addiction). Palin lives in a realm of privilege that insulates her kids, to some degree. CPS is not about to seize them even if she and Todd serve them Lucky Charms with crystal meth sprinkles for breakfast.

But the basic question still stands: Must feminists withhold judgment when a woman – or man! – makes reproductive or parenting decisions that are grossly unwise? Does it make us anti-choice to say that even though a woman has the legal right to implant eight embryos into her womb, it’s nonetheless an über-crappy decision? Does it make us anti-choice to say that medical evidence unequivocally shows that smoking is worse than crack for a developing fetus, and so every effort must be made to help expectant parents (not just mothers!) stop smoking?

And is it really anti-choice to say that Palin’s decision to fly home after her water broke not only potentially endangered her and Trig, but also exposed the whole plane to the risks of an emergency landing? I’m not saying “There oughtta be a law,” just that it was a piss-poor decision.

Again, this is not policing Palin’s uterus. This is questioning what went on in her brain. And if she runs again for POTUS, her brain is the organ that ought to concern us.

The good mother/bad mother dichotomy is still used as a cudgel. It’s one that feminists should always regard with deep suspicion.

But sometimes, bad mothering – and importantly, bad parenting – is egregious. When it occurs in politicians who position themselves as paragons of family values, it’s reasonable to ask about their general judgment and scrutinize them for hypocrisy. So while I regard it as out-of-bounds to criticize Todd and Sarah Palin for the fact that Bristol became pregnant, I do think it’s fair to criticize how they handled it in the national spotlight. When the Palins announced Bristol’s pregnancy instead of debunking the Trig rumors head-on, both parents threw their eldest daughter under the bus. (It was Sarah and her political who made that decision, but the First Dude was part of that inner circle and I’ll bet he could have vetoed it.) Similarly, it’s understandable that Sarah Palin would have kept her pregnancy quiet until late in the game. Most women who work for pay realize that they may be seen as less competent and committed once their pregnancy becomes public, and that goes doubly for female politician. What’s not reasonable is boarding a plane without any idea how imminent labor might be after leaking amniotic fluid.

If wanting politicians to exhibit sound judgment not just in public life but as private individuals – and yes, as parents – makes me an anti-feminist, so be it. Just let me know where I should turn in my F-card.

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Did Sarah Palin really give birth to Trig Paxson Van Palin – and should we care?

The case for Trig’s birth being a hoax has been revived in a scholarly paper penned by a Northern Kentucky University professor, Brad Scharlott. Luckily for him, Kentucky is very far from Alaska – and he’s tenured – so he’s unlikely to lose his job over this. If he were a trash collector or librarian in Wasilla, he’d surely be toast. But in my opinion, he’s also unlikely to find a journal willing to publish his article, even though his main scholarly point – that the mainstream media failed to even investigate the rumors about Trig’s parentage, shutting it down in a “spiral of silence” –  accurately describes the media response. If you write about rumor, you own work gets tinged with its stigma, especially if you make the case, as Scharlott does, that a rumor is probably true. In a series of interviews with journalist-novelist-blogger Laura Novak, Scharlott comes off as a credible, intelligent, non-flaky guy. In my estimation, he deserves to be taken seriously.

But still – does the story matter at this late date? The most prominent blogger demanding answers, Andrew Sullivan, has argued repeatedly it does because he sees Palin as a viable Republican candidate whose entire political persona is based upon lies. I agree that she’s a pathological liar. I fear she’s running in 2012.

I’m not sure how much the truth matters politically, though.

Let’s say some enterprising reporter were to uncover proof that Palin is not Trig’s mother. Would that really sway her hardcore political base? I suspect not. They’ve embraced her despite Troopergate and a passel of other ethics violations in Alaska. They tolerated her quitting in the midst of her gubernatorial term, whether to damp down ethics allegations or simply to make truckloads of money as a Fox commentator. They don’t seem to mind her millenarian Pentecostal beliefs that suggest she might not be opposed to Armageddon in our time. They tuned in to her reality show, for god’s sake! Given all they’ve swallowed, why should her loyalists mind if she’d fabricated her fifth pregnancy from whole cloth? (Or from fake bumps and scarves?) She has already shown her contempt for the reality-based community. Why would one more lie – however spectacular – affect Palin’s political future? (It might sway some independents, but we have to hope they’ll be repelled by her overall deceptiveness. If they aren’t, then we really are in deep shit.)

For those of us on the left, there’s little political gain in pursuing this story at this late date. If we do, we risk being lumped in with the Obama Birthers. Plenty of lefty bloggers are already doing just that: Melissa McEwan at Shakesville, Jill at Feministe, and Atrios, just for a sampling. (There are also specifically feminist objections to demanding the truth about Trig’s birth; my next post deals with them.) Through some bizarre political calculus, it seems that the right can only win when it promotes Birtherism (see: Trump, Donald), while we on the left are marginalized by our own kind as soon as we question the oddities surrounding Trig’s birth.

And yet, I want to know the truth, despite the lack of political upside. Blame it on déformation professionnelle from my training as a historian. Maybe I just read too many Nancy Drew books as a girl. But I want to know. And since Sarah Palin remains a powerful politician even out of office (!) it’s in the public interest to know whether she’s a pathological liar or just a reckless narcissist. If she did lie about Trig’s birth, it’s surely not the most important lie she has told (Sully has catalogued dozens in his series “The Odd Lies of Sarah Palin”), but it’s a pretty spectacular one.

The truth matters, especially when it concerns someone who was a candidate for high office – and may be again. It matters even if it’s not politically expedient to pursue it. In fact, if we’re not just political hacks and shills, the truth matters especially when it’s politically inconvenient.

Litbrit has made one of the best cases I’ve seen for Palin having faked the whole thing. She argues that it’s improbable Palin would have risked going into labor on one of those long flights from Texas back to Alaska. She exposes the hypocrisy and sexism of giving Palin a pass on a story that’s a key part of her political persona and appeal just as military heroism is for John McCain.

I’m on record as saying that the more likely scenario is that Palin exercised awesomely bad judgment in traveling in traveling from Dallas all the way to Wasilla after her water broke (by her own account). A recent article by investigative reporter Geoffrey Dunn concurs. (He’s got a forthcoming book titled all-t00-appropriately The Lies of Sarah Palin.) Palingates has a handy compendium of the facts (such as they can be known) about Palin’s Wild Ride. Politicalgates offers a set of questions that would help ferret out the truth, assuming that reporters dared to pose them and the principals answered truthfully (unlikely in Sarah Palin’s case). Early on, before we had other examples of Palin’s recklessness, the Wild Ride placed Palin’s acceptance of the VP nomination – for which she was utterly unprepared and unqualified – into a context. It suggested that delusions of grandeur and invulnerability might be hard-wired traits.

But even though I lean toward believing Palin is narcisstic and unbalanced enough to have risked delivery at 35,000 feet, I’m not at all persuaded by the debunkers that have sprung up like mushrooms in response to Scharlott’s paper. At Slate, Rachael Larimore suggests Occam’s Razor undermines any scenario except Palin being Trig’s birth mother. That argument would be more convincing if Palin’s life weren’t already chockfull of elaborate plots and ruses (see: Troopergate) and erratic behavior (her early resignation). Her life is literally a reality show. Why should we leap to the conclusion that the simplest explanation – while prima facie more likely – is thus bound to be true?

At Salon, Steve Kornacki argues that the Trig rumors are irrelevant because McCain didn’t choose Palin on account of her motherhood, he picked Palin because she was an exciting young female unknown, and thus Palin had no reason to fake a pregnancy. I don’t think anyone has ever seriously argued that Palin’s choice to mother a child with Down syndrome swayed McCain’s choice. It is, however, a potent part of her appeal to her base. Her decision to continue the pregnancy remains a pivotal story in the speeches she delivers to her fans. Whatever else Palin may be, she’s opportunistic. If you postulate that her pregnancy was faked, she might have had completely apolitical motivations, yet seized on the chance to make political hay out of “choosing life.” (One of Sullivan’s readers lays out a scenario where a faked pregnancy would have evolved as an improvised solution – I’m not endorsing this theory, but I do think it has a certain logic .) Kornacki’s argument is thus beside the point. He assumes that any plot by Palin would have relied on rational calculation. She’s politically savvy, but we have plenty of reason to believe she’s not rational.

But the main debunker – who claims to have definitively laid the rumors to rest – is Justin Elliot, also at Salon. Elliot cites numerous eyewitnesses who claim they saw Palin’s pregnancy up close. Among them is Wesley Loy, a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News who questioned Palin on the authenticity of her pregnancy in February 2008, two months before Trig was reportedly born. In response, Loy says (also at Salon), Palin lifted up her outer garment to display her belly bump. Of course, if Palin really was aping the fake-pregnancy plot line from Desperate Housewives (which she referred to in her interview with Loy), a fabric-covered bump proves nothing. (And no, I’m not suggesting Palin had an obligation to bare her belly, just that this is far from conclusive evidence, especially when said witnesses were men.)

If Loy was so convinced, why didn’t he say so at the time (as Gryphen asks at the Immoral Minority)? (Scharlott tried contacting Loy in the course of his research but received no reply.) Joe McInnis points out the oddity of both Loy and another Alaska reporter, Steve Quinn (also cited in Salon), coming forward with nearly identical accounts three years later. McInnis, who is also soon to publish a tell-all Palinography, positions himself as a “Trignostic.” Still, he’s not convinced – and he reminds us that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Gryphen further notes that Quinn may not be an impartial observer, as he was having an affair with a Palin staffer at the time.

Moreover, the eyewitness accounts cited in Salon do not stand alone. They’re contradicted – ta-dah! – by other eyewitnesses. Here’s what Geoffrey Dunn found:

One close friend of Palin’s–a widely respected woman who had given birth to several children as well and who had close contact with Palin in Juneau up until the time of Trig’s birth–told me that “Palin did not look like she was pregnant. Ever. Even when she had the bulging belly, I never felt that the rest of her body, her face especially, looked like she was pregnant.” When I asked her point-blank if she was certain the baby was Palin’s, she said, “No. I don’t know what to believe.”

The news of Palin’s pregnancy came as a complete surprise to Palin’s State Trooper security detail Gary Wheeler … Only two weeks earlier, in late February of 2008, Wheeler had accompanied Palin back to Washington, D.C. for a Republican Governors Association Conference … Wheeler remembers that Palin had changed into jeans upon her arrival in Washington, with no apparent revelation of pregnancy.

Wheeler also said that his wife, Corky, actually made fun of him when the news came out because he was supposed to be a “trained observer.” Wheeler simply shakes his head: “I had nary an idea she was packin’.”

As Wesley Loy of the Anchorage Daily News reported it at the time, Governor Palin “shocked and awed just about everybody around the Capitol” with her announcement.

This is at seven months.

Yup, that’s the same Wesley Loy who now says Palin showed him her clothed belly.

This issue could be laid to rest if Palin had disclosed her medical records while she was running for the vice presidency. This isn’t an extraordinary request. It’s simply what every other candidate has done in recent memory – including Obama, Biden, and McCain in 2008. Medical records would settle the case definitively. Palin claims she has provided a birth certificate, but that’s yet another lie. Instead, she merely released a letter from her family physician, Cathy Baldwin-Johnson (on election eve, no less). The letter was written mostly in passive voice, which is normal doctor-speak but allows for evasion and circumlocution. This letter included no documentary verification, and none has been provided to date.

In the absence of this data – which, again, is provided by EVERY other candidate for our highest office – rumors will continue to flourish. At Immoral Minority, a commenter from Wasilla states categorically that Palin announced getting a tubal ligation after the birth of Piper. If true, it would certainly explain why candidate Palin refused to release her medical records. If false, well, then why not release those records? Or do they conceal some other secret that could damage Palin’s pro-life cred?

We should ask: cui bono? As Laura Novak writes, “Forget follow the money. The question is:  who benefits from this controversy continuing?” Does Palin gain something by allowing the rumor mill to churn – notoriety, sympathy, or some other intangible? Or is she trying to hide a secret – perhaps one only tangentially related to Trig’s birth? We really don’t know.

However this plays out, it confirms that Palin is a reckless egomaniac, a liar, or – most likely of all – both. And while I disagree with Amanda Marcotte’s contention that the Trig rumors have been wholly debunked, I think she’s right to say they resonate with many of us because we already know that Palin is a “phony.”

Update, 4/26/11, 10:50 p.m.: As this high-school girl demonstrated, it’s not too difficult to fake a pregnancy over six months with the help of just a few confederates. (“A few” is probably key, because if large numbers are in on the secret, it’s bound to spill.) Of course, it’s probably easier to pull off a faux pregnancy if people are predisposed to believe it due to your ethnicity. :-(

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I’m fond of saying I learn something new from my students each quarter. It’s happened again, though I half wish I were still ignorant.

For the second day of class, I asked my intro to WGS students to check out Jeff Fecke’s post on that appalling “political cartoon” depicting Obama as having raped Lady Liberty. (Go check out Jeff’s post and then come back; I will not have that “cartoon” befouling this blog.) I’ve taken to starting the term with a blog post or two along with a few canonical articles on gender and oppression. My hope is always that a few very current examples will upend the assumption that we’re all post-feminist and colorblind now. I was afraid this post could upset students badly because it was so vile. It did rile them up – but for all the wrong reasons.

For one thing, several students thought that calling the cartoon racist was “pulling the race card.” Lady Liberty was green, after all, not a white woman. And we do have a Black president, after all, so what color should they cartoonist paint him? One bright young woman brought up the myth of the black rapist. Yep, I said; what do you know about its history? After a few minutes of circling around Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movements, my students gave up. Lynchings, I said. Lynchings! They had no bloody idea that the history of lynching is largely history of black men being murdered on the pretext of allegedly raping white women. I guess this hasn’t trickled into the high-school curriculum. Maybe it’s not taught in Texas and thus not in the books? Or maybe teachers just don’t go there because sex and race are taboo enough on their own, god forbid they’d have to mix them? Or am I just encountering the same unflappable colorblindness that I saw last fall, too?

But while I was prepared for some resistance on the cartoon’s racism, I was sure someone would take umbrage at the rape metaphor. I asked if it didn’t trivialize actual victims of sexual assault. Forty faces looked at me blankly. Then one of the talkative men, who’s struck me as no dummy, said: “Well, it’s kinda like ‘fag.’ People use it all the time and don’t mean anything by it. It’s just slang.”

One of the women said, “Yeah. Like: ‘Wow, their soccer team totally raped us.’”

I picked my jaw up from the floor just long enough to ask if this was common. Forty heads nodded.

I wondered if this inflationary use of “rape” stems from the right wing’s frequent use of rape metaphors to protest Democratic policies and ideas. I tend to think not; Rushbo and his colleagues want their audience to be deeply outraged, which presumes that “rape” still holds some power to shock.

But my students are only rarely ideologues. Few of them listen to Rush or Glenn Beck; those guys are just too old. The young folks aren’t using rape as the ultimate metaphor for violation. They’re using it like my mom might say, “Oh, heck!”

So have any of you heard “rape” used as casual slang? “Fag” is problematic enough; as C.J. Pascoe shows in Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, it’s used to harshly police both boys and girls’ expression of their gender and sexuality.

But “rape”? As slang? I mean, I remember it from The Who’s Tommy (We’re not gonna take it!) but that’s about it.

An hour after class, one of the young women showed up at my office hours. “I just heard someone say ‘That test raped me.’ I wouldn’t have even noticed it before.”

What have you noticed? Is this a generational thing? Do I just live in a bubble? I’d be grateful for any clarifications and insights.

Update 4/13/10: Yesterday I spoke about all this with my neighbor, who’s a historian of 19th-century America. He said that he actually works with high-school teachers regularly and when he discusses lynching with them, they are very nervous about creating a local scandal if they were to include it in their curriculum. The intersection of racism, sex, and violence is just too explosive for many parents and school boards. I thought this helps clarify my students’ experiences (and confirms that they are not clued out – in fact, they’re a pretty sharp lot. And as Shinobi notes in comments, hearing about how rape allegations were employed in lynching later in life can lead to an potent “aha” moment.

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Someone please tell me why John Boehner has to be from Ohio? Weren’t we shamed enough back when convicted felon James Traficant was one of our congresscritters? (Now out of prison, Traficant is contemplating another run at the House. Yipes.)

Republican obstructionism: Boehner owns it!

(Via Skippy.)

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Historians are awfully fond of saying “It’s more complicated.” For better or worse, I’m a historian by training and inclination. Consider yourself warned: pedantry ahead!

Even though it’s a decade old, Amy Richards’ and Jennifer Baumgarden’s intro to Manifesta- a quick tour through women’s lives in 1970, the year both were born – is still a great read.  I use that chapter, “A Day without Feminism,” every quarter to kick off discussion in my intro class. Courtney Martin, writing in TAPPED, updates it for the millennial generation:

A tenth anniversary edition of Manifesta, updated and with a new preface added, has just been released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And in many ways, our last decade was also a baptismal moment of sorts for women (though it’s certainly been less covered by the mainstream media). To steal a page from Jen and Amy, consider the state of all things feminist in the year 2000: Birth politics is a niche issue. Gay celebrities are a scandal. Feminism is about women, not gender, and most U.S. feminists have never heard of child trafficking or female genital cutting. The notion of a woman, much less a black, president is still more pipe dream than actual possibility. There are no feminist blogs.

Courtney is wonderful. She spoke at my campus a couple of weeks ago, and the students really connected with her. Her youth is one asset in her ability to build rapport (though far from the only one; she’s just a really effective speaker). And it’s always a good idea to take stock of where we are in the flow of history. But here, I don’t think Courtney quite gives earlier waves of feminism their due. I’m not a partisan of any particular wave; generationally, I fall in the trough between the second and third waves. I just think it’s easier to move forward if we can avoid reinventing wheels.

And also, well, the past really is more complicated.

To start where Courtney ended: Yes, feminist blogs are very new, and they rock. The only blogs I knew of in the late 1990s were a few people’s personal online diaries. That was it. But by 2000, there were lots of online communities. For me, Salon’s Table Talk filled some of the needs that blogs now meet. I’d just become a mother, and I remember (for instance) lengthy discussions of Andrea Yates’ murder of her children that helped me place her act in a larger, political context of untreated postpartum depression and fundamentalist Christianity. Of course there were trolls on Table Talk, too, but it wasn’t the nightmare that Salon’s letter section is today. So, while blogs were the best invention since wine and cheese, they also built on existing forms of online community.

The prospect of a female president seemed pretty remote in 2000, but then again, democracy itself was under siege with Bush v. Gore and the foiled Florida recount. But if you rewind a little further, there was a moment way back in 1984 when we had reason to hope. I don’t know that Geraldine Ferraro would have been the right woman for the job, given her inexperience at the time and her racist comments on Obama in 2008. But her nomination did signal new possibilities. As for a black president, Colin Powell flirted with the idea in the late 1990, back before he disgraced himself by telling the UN we had hard proof of Iraq’s WMD. At the time, he certainly seemed a more plausible candidate than Obama did at the start of the 2008 campaign.

Child trafficking? This is an issue that feminists have taken up periodically for almost as long as feminism has existed. In the 1800s it was called the “white slave trade.” By the mid-1990s, there was lots of talk about sex tourism by men who wanted to exploit very young child prostitutes in Thailand. What’s new is that some of us are realizing that men, women, and children are trafficked for purposes other than sex, and that this is no less reprehensible.

Female genital cutting? In the mid-1980s, there was a huge flurry of attention when Alice Walker publicized the issue – and African feminists informed her that she should butt out. Ever since then, Western feminists have been upset about the practice but often unsure what, if anything, they can and should do to help.

“Gender” was a central part of academic feminism by 1990 at the very latest. Scholars like R.W. Connell and Michael Kimmel were studying masculinity. Historians of women were strongly influenced by Joan W. Scott’s 1986 article, “Gender: A Category of Historical Analysis,” which called for intersectional analysis along lines of race and class as well. Throughout the 1990s, most academic feminists continued to emphasize the study of women but also took a relational view, comparing women to men and examining femininity and masculinity. By the time a lot of us renamed our programs “Women’s and Gender Studies,” we were just formalizing a change that had been underway for many years.

As for the politics of birth, the main difference is that high-achieving women like Courtney who were college students in 2000 are now thirty-ish, with motherhood no longer such a distant possibility for themselves and their friends. But birth has been politicized ever since the Lamaze method was popularized in the early 1960s. When I first started studying the politics and culture of childbirth in the early 1990s, there was already a rich feminist literature. By then, hospitals had introduced birthing suites in an effort to compete with freestanding birth centers and midwives, which had gained strong support from feminist activism. Sure, Ricky Lake gave home birth a famous face, but the issues were already highly visible twenty years ago. With c-section rates skyrocketing past 30% and maternal and infant mortality a national disgrace, we’re arguably losing ground.

So what has really changed in the past decade? Well, homophobia has a much dimmer future than I would’ve imagined ten years ago. While it’s not quite true that “gay celebrities were a scandal” (Ellen had come out and was still loved), famous gay people were much more likely to remain closeted than they are today. But the biggest shift is in young people’s attitudes. Even my most conservative, religious students are apt to take a live-and-let-live approach, or at least they realize that homophobia is incredibly uncool.

Trans issues have also started to get the attention they deserve. Something similar is happening with issues of ability and disability. In both of these areas, blogs are helping render people and experiences visible. They’re still highly marginalized, but the winds of change are starting to shift.

Feminists are also more aware of intersectionality in general. We talked about it in the 1980s already (before the term “intersectionality” was even coined), but change has been slow in coming. Those of us with multiple privilege still fall short. It’s not just unexamined privilege that’s the problem, either. Analysis is a lot more complex when you’re looking at multiple dimension. Political alliances require more effort when you try to bridge and understand differences rather than just ignoring them. The resulting alliances and analyses are a lot richer, though, and I’m hopeful that those of us with relative privilege are increasingly catching onto that.

And yes, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton made history. So did Nancy Pelosi. Their victories might have seemed remote in 2000. But 1970 – Baumgardner and Richards’ benchmark year – they were completely unthinkable.

So yes, history is complicated, often more so than we think. It doesn’t neatly repeat itself or develop linearly. Nor is there any guarantee of progress toward peace and justice. (See, for example, most of the twentieth century, with its nuclear weapons and genocides.) Sometimes there’s cause for celebration anyway.

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John and Jackie Kennedy first brought the cult of the celebrity into the White House, but it’s hard to imagine a major national magazine would have published an exposé of them – or of any other politician – quite like the one on the Palin family that’s appearing in the latest Vanity Fair (via Feministing). You can’t access the whole article online; the Frisky has more excerpts than Vanity Fair actually provides. But basically the article consists of Levi Johnston talking trash about the family who very nearly became his in-laws. He portrays Sarah Palin as a neglectful mother and her marriage to Todd as a sham. After reading the excerpts, I headed straight for the shower. (Literally! I’d been doing the blogger-in-a-bathrobe routine.)

Even if Levi’s accusations are all accurate, they don’t have any bearing on Sarah Palin’s political credentials. She’s managed to totally discredit herself in that realm without his help. What this does signal, though, is a new nadir in conflating our politicians with our celebrities.

It’s bad enough that Jerry Spring fancies himself a politician. Now our politicians’ lives are grist for the Jerry Springer Show.

I don’t think that the Republicans have cornered the market on this, though Palin is the most egregious example of style and surface totally trumping substance. John Edwards had much better policy chops, but he also traded on his looks and made decisions that raised the National Enquirer’s credibility – no small feat.

Ironically, the same Republicans who brought us Palin tried to portray Barack Obama as a shallow celebrity in the summer of 2008. Yes, he has good looks, charisma, and a certain glamour. The big difference? He has dignity and an impressive intellect. I say this even though I’m pissed at him. He let the bankers dictate the financial bailout. Now he’s lost command of the health care debate, and to turn it around, he’d need to channel the  eloquence of his speech on race during the primaries. But even at his worst, Obama doesn’t provide fodder for the tabloids, unless you’re inclined to believe the birthers.

In the long run, I’m afraid we’re going to see many more Palins, male and female, white and black, Republican and Democrat. And I don’t have the slightest clue what to do about it. We can keep demanding better media. We can teach our children to look beyond superficial qualities. We can keep trying to educate the next generation to think critically, one young mind at a time. I’m afraid it won’t be enough.

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According to a Fox News Poll (via Salon’s War Room), a plurality of Americans think housewifery should, in fact, be Sarah Palin’s next job:

About a third of Americans think the best job for Palin is homemaker (32 percent), while nearly one in five see her as a television talk show host (17 percent). Vice president of the United States comes in third (14 percent), followed closely by college professor (10 percent), with president coming last (6 percent).

(More at Faux News.)

This is not just sexist but bizarre, given that Faux News has been one of Palin’s biggest cheerleaders. You’d think they’d want to build up her credentials instead of stereotyping her. As Alex Koppelman at War Room notes, the “housewife” option would never have been posed for a man. Seriously! Imagine asking whether Dick Cheney ought to become a househusband! Sure, lots of us would like to see him return to his underground cave – just as I fervently hope Palin will stay in Wasilla – but no one is suggesting Cheney ought to be baking cookies.

Also: WTF made Faux News offer the “college professor” option? And what makes 10 percent of American think Palin would be even remotely qualified? Attending five different colleges isn’t quite the equivalent of earning a Ph.D. What would she teach – public policy? She showed her policy chops in the Couric interview. Geography? History? Sports journalism?

Myself, I like the idea of the Palins starring in their own reality show, which Levi Johnston mentioned as a real possibility.

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I know I swore off Palinology, so can we book this post as Shatner blogging?

posted with vodpod

(via Alas and Mudflats)

Or, as Jerry used to sing: “The sky was yellow and the sun was blue.”

Also, I don’t think I’m too naive, but if you happen to know what Cheechakos are, would you please let me know?

Here’s the transcript as provided by Mudflats:

And getting up here I say it is the best road trip in America soaring through nature’s finest show.  Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun.  And then the extremes.  In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice fogged frigid beauty, the cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs?  And then in the summertime such extreme summertime about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than just some months ago, than just some months from now, with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving  and reminding us that here, Mother Nature wins.  It is as throughout all Alaska that big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future.  That is what we get to see every day.  Now what the rest of America gets to see along with us is in this last frontier there is hope and opportunity and there is country pride.

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One oddity in how Americans talk about class (or not) is that when liberals and lefties do it, we’re accused by the right of class warfare. When the right’s own culture warriors discuss class, they’re just sticking up for ordinary Americans. Or so it seems in Ross Douthat’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, which has already gotten more attention than it deserves.

I don’t want to hash over Sarah Palin’s demise one more time – I hope this post will address broader issues – but the section of Douthat’s column that irked me most unfortunately centers on her. (I also disagreed with his contention that Palin experienced an unprecedented amount of sexism – but others have already rebutted that claim with the travails of Hillary Clinton. ‘Nuff said.)

So here’s Douthat on class, meritocracy, and “democracy”:

Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

(More here, most of it annoying.)

Let me be a pedantic historian for a moment and peer into the educational background of some other recent political figures. The Bushies came to power via Yale, but as legacies. They embody the aristocratic ideal. Hillary Clinton was born comfortably middle-class; Bill Clinton was born poor. Both Clintons attended elite universities: Wellesley for her, Georgetown and Oxford for him, Yale Law for both. Score two more points for meritocracy. Ronald Reagan? He went to Eureka College in Illinois, but his political success rested on his film career. Let’s call this Hollywoodocracy. Jimmy Carter graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and became a peanut farmer (nuttocracy, maybe?).

As for VPs and also-rans: John Kerry’s aristocratic background rivals the Bushes, only with better grades at Yale than GWB’s. Similarly, Al Gore was the son of a senator and graduated Harvard cum laude. John Edwards was the son of a textile mill worker, and he attended Clemson and North Carolina State. He’s a meritocratic success, though a dicey one if you think litigation is out of control. Darth Cheney rose from humble beginnings only to flunk out of Yale; how ’bout we let him symbolize plutocracy and kleptocracy?

So. Each party has a mix of bluebloods and just plain folk. This isn’t a Republican/Democrat split.

Besides, humble beginnings don’t say much about a politician’s current class position. Palin started off with schoolteacher parents and a goofy Upper Plains accent, as I did. Her background is solidly lower-to-middle-middle-class, very much like my own. I went to fancier colleges (albeit only one per degree). Her family income is considerably higher than mine, and probably has been for most of the past quarter century. Who’s higher-class, me or her? I mean that in socioeconomic terms, of course. Palin wasn’t born to massive privilege, and I realize that matters, because I did study with some folks who were as privileged as Gore or Kerry or the Bushes. But she also didn’t have to overcome racism and serious poverty, as both Obamas had to do. If the Obama’s path to power is elitist, well, then, count me among the elitists.

It’s weird – and frankly disingenuous – to see meritocracy contrasted with democracy. In fact, a true democracy, unbiased by racism, sexism, classism, and all that other baggage, would be meritocratic. At least theoretically, the best folks would rise on their own talents and hard work.

I’d like to see our pundits take some swipes at aristocracy, for a change. That’s one real and serious counterweight to democracy. People like Al Gore who eventually prove themselves on their own merits are the exception that proves the rule. (GWB, of course, proves the rule, period.)

At the opposite end of the scale, what Palin practices isn’t democracy; it’s demagogy. Just think back to last fall’s Palin rallies, where frenzied crowds yelled racist slurs with impunity. Amanda Marcotte (another gal with modest roots) nails it when she says Palin’s folksiness is really about nursing resentments – against the blacks, the Mexicans, the wimmens, or all of the above.

Amanda’s disclosure of her own Texan background (complete with drinking Jack straight from the bottle) also makes a great case for transparency in pundits’ own backgrounds. That’s sadly lacking in Douthat’s column. Maybe you already knew that he went to private schools and then Harvard. I’d picked this up from the icky make-out scene that Brad DeLong picked up from Douthat’s book. It features Douthat as a young Harvard ingenue (if boys can be ingenues?) fighting off “a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon drunkenly masticating [his] neck and cheeks.” (And yes, it is perversely satisfying to link to the worst sex writing since Bill O’Reilly’s loofah/falafel.)

But for those who missed that chapter, a little disclosure of the columnist’s own privilege (minus the purple prose) might just be in order if he’s going to portray Obama’s rise as the opposite of democracy. His column reveals nothing of the sort. Final irony: the title of that book in which Douthat described the Reese lookalike and his shock that she was on the Pill? Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

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I admit to excessive glee at Palin’s departure. It’s not especially mature of me. I remember a similar feeling when Newt Gingrich dropped off the political scene (and I’d feel the same way if he disappeared again). I felt a similar schadenfreude when Bobby Jindal bobbled his big speech after Obama’s State of the Nation last winter. I feel relief spiked with a little spite whenever a particularly odious Republican sullies their chances for the presidency. (I’m looking at you, too, Mark Sanford.)

And yet, there’s an added layer of horror and fascination when it comes to Palin that is due, I’m afraid, to her being a woman. Like it or not, in a country where fewer than one in five congressional reps is female, she represents other political women. She has been construed as the alternative to Hillary Clinton’s style of politics. But while Clinton projects intelligence, wonkishness, and moderate feminism, Palin represents wingnuttery, no-nothing-ism, and the triumph of image over substance. As a model for female success in politics, this is downright scary. It does no favors to the women who might emulate Palin’s career in the future. It’s also frightening that someone so unqualified – irrespective of their sex – nearly attained the vice presidency.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that sexist attacks on Palin are okay because she’s somehow a traitor to womankind. I agreed with Octogalore’s post on the Letterman debacle in which she argued that we feminists should defend a woman against sexism on principle, not just because it protects our own interests. Problem is, such defenses suck up time, energy, and media attention, all of which are limited. At the end of the day, those battles will be more fruitful if the women we defend aren’t actively working to undermine other women. If Palin leaves the scene we can focus our energies elsewhere, and that’s clearly a win.

But isn’t Palin a feminist, herself? Well, yes, she calls herself one, and she seems to be sincere about claiming the label. I’m fine with her doing so; I see feminism as a big tent. But the irony is that her flavor of feminism – which I dubbed Palinofeminism last fall – turns out to be pretty exclusive, because it’s all about individual aggrandizement. It’s not much concerned with solidarity with other women. It’s overly focused on proving her exceptional toughness. It’s ultra-individualistic. It’s liberal feminism on steroids. Most women can’t succeed on those terms.

One example of Palinofeminism is her position – or lack thereof – on maternity leave. She scarcely interrupted her work for her last two babies. That’s just fine, as long as she felt up to it. But a feminist who cared about other women wouldn’t just uphold the supermom ideal, she’d also work toward guaranteed maternity leave. Palin has been in a position to lead on this issue. She hasn’t done it. And so we’re left only with her example, which implies that every woman ought to be able to do it all – and do it all at once.

I don’t think it’s sexist to call Palin out for failing to support mothers and families in her policies. Palin and the Republican Party used her motherhood and family to market her candidacy. Party heavyweights cheered her decision to carry Trig to term. Palin branded herself a “hockey mom.” But what, please, has she done politically to help parents and families? I’m still waiting for an accomplishment other than sending Bristol on her pro-abstinence media tour. Generally speaking, Palin is an updated version of Anita Bryant or Phyllis Schlafly, using her motherhood to curry popularity and claim authenticity on family issues while supporting policies (such as restrictions on abortion) that are bad for women as actual or potential mothers.

Nor do I think it’s sexist to question Palin’s intelligence. Sure, it would be sexist to suggest she’s stupid on account of her looks. It would be sexist to hold her to a higher intellectual standard than male politicians. Octogalore suggests that this has occurred. The tone of such attacks has often been sexist, yes. I agree that using “beauty queen” as an epithet is a lazy way to attack her intelligence.

Overall, though, I don’t think Palin has been held to a higher standard than male politicians. Instead, she has displayed her ignorance more openly than any other recent political figure except Joe the Plumber (and he wasn’t running for office – yet! – thank god). She has shown herself to be remarkably uninterested in the larger world, and this translates into stupidity on the issues. While she’s undeniably a savvy politician with a gift for appealing to the lowest common denominator in a crowd, she has shown a wafer-thin understanding of policy, especially when it comes to foreign affairs, or really anything beyond Alaska’s borders. No amount of coaching and cramming could close the gaps in her knowledge, because her deficits are the result of a lifetime of ignoring anything that didn’t impinge on her immediate world and career.

George W. Bush was similarly ignorant and incurious. The main difference? He covered it better. Condi coached him, and he absorbed just enough knowledge to prop up the facade of the presidential puppet theater – while Cheney pulled the strings. Should the media have focused more on Bush’s intellectual failings? Absolutely, yes. The media enabled him. That doesn’t mean subsequent no-nothings should get a pass.

Palin wasn’t even able to keep up a false front. She was the Wizardess of Oz, and you didn’t have to draw back a curtain to see it. In a way, that might have been our saving grace, because her obvious unreadiness for the job turned off some moderate women who might have otherwise voted for McCain and Palin.

Now, serious Republican women – with brains and hearts and real conservatism instead of radical wingnuttery – I respect and value. One of ‘em is my very own sister, who’s smart but fiscally conservative. Another is my deeply Republican grandma, now deceased, but for many years a force within North Dakotan Republican politics. (Yeah, I realize it was a mighty small pond.) I like the Senators from Maine. I respect Kay Bailey Hutchinson. These are all women of substance. They’re smart. I absolutely think feminists to their left can find common cause with them on some issues, and we should.

But that doesn’t require me to shed crocodile tears for Sarah Palin.

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So the Fourth of July is already somewhat surreal when you’re outside of the U.S. We’d hatched a scheme for viewing fireworks anyway at the German-French friendship fair, which is basically a carnival with good wine and Brie, but yet another thunderstorm washed out that plan.

The kids wept and railed. Me, I’m contenting myself with the fireworks that Sarah Palin’s resignation has touched off. Here are a few of my favorite gems:

At Alas, Jeff Fecke writes:

But it wasn’t just Palin’s phrasing that was odd. It was her whole manner. The speech sounds as if she gave it after consuming six Red Bulls and four pots of coffee …

I noticed the same effect, but my first thought was Ritalin or Adderall, thinking of Lynette’s addiction on Desperate Housewives. But enough Red Bull would do the trick, too.

While googling for the background on Palin’s resignation, my husband found a new-to-me Palin conspiracy site, Palin’s Deceptions. It was founded by a childbirth educator named Audrey who was as incredulous as I that Palin would board a plane after her water broke. It’s an amusing read – and pretty convincing, too:

I can accept – and always have – that someone in Palin’s position might try to give the speech. MIGHT, though the image of an amniotic fluid “leak” turning into a full-fledged rupture while on stage certainly would have dissuaded me personally. (If you wonder what I’m talking about, dump approximately one and a half quarts of yellowish pinkish kinda funky smelling liquid between YOUR legs all at once. Now picture this happening WHILE giving a speech to other governors. Hmmm. Sort of wrecks the professional aura, doesn’t it?)

But no one will ever convince me – ever! – that the image-conscious governor of Alaska risked having to lie down in public, spread her legs, and grunting and panting in a messy puddle of amniotic fluid, mucous, blood, urine and possibly either the baby’s excrement, her own, or both, push her baby out on the carpet in the aisle. Risked her own health and her baby’s. Risked the public criticism she would have come under for inconveniencing hundreds of other passengers. And taken this chance not once, but twice, on two separate four hour flights.

I’m mostly agnostic on whether Trig really is Palin’s baby (though quite sure he’s not Bristol’s). But darn it, why didn’t Palin just produce the birth certificate? Assuming her story is true, Audrey’s picturesque description show why flying back to Alaska was an exercise in hubris.

And speaking of fluids, here’s my favorite quote from Palin’s valedictory:

It would be apathetic to just hunker down and “go with the flow”.

Nah, only dead fish “go with the flow”.

And the most mathematically inexplicable section of her speech:

In fact, this decision comes after much consideration, and finally polling the most important people in my life – my children (where the count was unanimous… well, in response to asking: “Want me to make a positive difference and fight for ALL our children’s future from outside the Governor’s office?” It was four “yes’s” and one “hell yeah!” The “hell yeah” sealed it – and someday I’ll talk about the details of that…

Um, she’s got five kids, but Trig isn’t old enough to say yes. Even a typically developing 15-month-old wouldn’t be able to comprehend Palin’s question. So maybe his response was the “hell yeah”? That would indeed be a detail worth sharing. Or was the First Dude suddenly demoted to one of the children?

Shannyn Moore, the Alaskan blogger who’s long been dogging Palin, had the funniest take on her speech:

I have said Sarah Palin’s political ambition combined with her intellect is like putting a jet engine on a golf cart; lots of horse power and no steering capabilities. Today she proved it.

Finally, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one daydreaming that Palin could be tripped up by a sex scandalVirginia Rutter at Girl with Pen and the Political Cat both entertained similar fantasies. I actually think The Sex is the least likely scenario. Shannyn Moore says Palin is facing an “iceberg scandal” that’s apparently financial in nature, and I have faith in Moore based on her track record. I also think that Palin’s ambition is probably far larger than her libido. Still, a gal can dream.

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Look. I never thought Sarah Palin should get a free pass on 1) using motherhood as one of her chief qualifications for public office and then 2) telling America we had no right to know anything about her family. I sharply criticized Palin for getting on an airplane while leaking amniotic fluid. I thought it was reasonable for people to criticize her for marketing herself as a perfect mother when, clearly, she’s not.

But back in September, when Bristol Palin turned up pregnant, I also wrote that criticizing her was out of bounds:

There’s no room for schadenfreude. She shouldn’t be made the poster child for the failure of abstinence-only approaches to teenage sexuality; we have too many such poster children already. She’s going to face the difficulties of early motherhood with the added burden of publicity. She’ll also find deep joy in her baby, I’m sure – a point too rarely mentioned for all the moralizing about “teenage mothers.” She’s embarking on an amazing adventure in one of the hardest ways possible. I wish her well.

Now that Bristol has given an interview and basically said, yes, it’s hard but I love my baby, I don’t really have anything more to say about her – except that I really feel for her when she lets slip that she mourns a chance to just be herself, for herself.

But darn it, too many people that I otherwise like and respect are amplifying the Bristol interview and making her into, well, the poster girl for the bankruptcy of abstinence-only education. Sure, Bristol herself said it doesn’t work. That’s worth reporting. But Rebecca Traister at Salon goes on to comment:

Bristol went on to make more (perhaps unwitting) feminist points about what, exactly, the responsibilities and consequences are for young women who choose (or are forced down) the path she took.

At Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte quotes Traister’s article approvingly, adding:

For the rest of us [non-prolifers], of course, the whole thing is a horror show.

Both Rebecca and Amanda then go on to give Sarah Palin the drubbing she deserves. I’m all for that. I just wonder: Can’t we call out Palin on her hypocrisy and failed policies without dragging Bristol any deeper into it? I mean, Amanda sees the problem when it’s coming from the opposite direction:

Abstinence-only had been sold to the country as a teenage pregnancy prevention program, but the right wing reaction to Bristol made it clear that it was a teenage pregnancy inducement program, and Bristol was the poster child for its intended effects. [my emphasis]

Analytically, I agree with Amanda 100 percent on what the ‘wingers were up to. Yet I think we can make this argument without making Bristol the poster child for a feminist critique of wingnutty views on sexuality. Otherwise, we’re reversing the terms, not redefining them.

And we can certainly condemn the failures of abstinence-only without endorsing statements that hold Bristol up as a “perfect example ” and assume we know just what went down between Bristol and her mother. In fact, we don’t know whether Sarah Palin forbade Bristol to have an abortion.

Let’s not make Bristol pay for the sins of her mother.

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I watched the inaugural festivities in the university’s grand (i.e., scandalously expensive) new student center, surrounded by dozens of friends and colleagues and happy strangers. (Oh, and my husband, too.) We shared high-fives when Biden supplanted Darth Cheney. We cheered when the clock struck noon and made Barack Hussein Obama our 44th president. And I wasn’t the only one who spent most of the hour teary-eyed. I am, as the Germans say, “built close to the water,” but yesterday seemed to a high-water day for an awful lot of people.

My kids had a different take on it. The Bear thought the ceremony was “very cool,” but his class had to do math worksheets while the TV droned in the background. Aaargh! History in the making, and the kids are cramming for those damn standardized tests! I have sympathy for the third-grade teachers, who are evidently feeling the crunch from all the snow closures; we’ve had five days with two-hour delays, plus three actual snow days. But still!

The Tiger watched the inauguration in the cafeteria at lunchtime. His take? “It was not awesome.” (The Tiger currently divides his whole world into two categories: awesome and not awesome.) And why not? “There were only grow-mutts.” Only adults. He was only slightly mollified when I told him about Sasha being close to his age – and apparently about as bored as he was.

Aside from those few miniature dissenters, it was an awesomely awesome day. We kept the kids up way too late at a party, where it was also awesome to see a bunch of fellow campaign volunteers for the first time since November 4. Catching up on things today … well, that’s been not awesome. But oh, so very worth it.

With all due respect to my dear little Tiger, I loved Obama’s sober tone. I loved his call to collective responsibility. I loved his reference to “putting away childish things.” I happen to think it’s awesome that there’s a grow-mutt in charge of the White House again.

This, by the way, is the poster I won in the end-of-campaign raffle for all the local canvassers and phone bankers. Look closely and you’ll see where
Biden signed it during his stopover in Athens. (My winning it was undeserved; lots of people put in way more hours than I.) The pic below gives you a better view of Biden’s scrawl.

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I know that we’re all still supposed to be jubilant over the election. This is supposedly our honeymoon, these days between Obama’s victory and his inauguration, before he’s had a chance to start disappointing us in earnest. But elation hasn’t been my mood; not at all. Maybe I’m just too tired from the endless campaign, but I’ve felt cautious, depleted, reflective, even a little melancholy. The November days are short and bleak, and the thing with feathers threatens to fly south for the winter.

Photo by Flickr user tanakawho, used under a Creative Commons license. No birds were harmed in its making.

And so I find myself mulling over this business of “hope” and what it’s good for – what the “thing with feathers” might animate, beyond the sloganeering.

For one thing, I think hope is an effective antidote to fear. As such, it’s crucial to real democracy. Of all the laws and policies born of fear during the past eight years – the Patriot Act, the Abu Ghraib interrogations, the Guantanamo Bay internments, the rampant wiretapping – I can’t think of one that was wise (and many were plain unconstitutional). Fear turns off people’s critical faculties and turns citizens into subjects.

Uncritical hope can be exploited by demagogues, too, but not so easily. Hope is not self-sustaining: Reality has a way of intruding on hope while tending to reinforce people’s fears. Historically, dictatorships have rested far more on fear than on hope, and idealistic revolutions-gone-bad have always shifted from hope toward fear before spawning such atrocities as Stalinism or the Terror. Hope can move people to take to the streets, but fear is a far more potent motivator if you’re out for blood.

But even in times of threat and crisis – especially then – hope can lead us back to our core values. Hope can guide us toward a foreign policy aimed at strength through alliances rather than intimidation and militarism. Hope can inspire an economic rescue plan aimed at restructuring our economy – moving our automotive industry away from gas guzzlers and our energy infrastructure toward renewables – instead of just panicking and giving AIG and Citibank whatever they want.

Hope itself is a renewable energy source. We’re going to need that in the months and years ahead.

Hope is also a gift to our children. It’s an example of how to live, a precondition for making the world better for them, a source of joy. It can help them cope with their nascent awareness of injustice and violence; it can nurture their empathy and protect them against cynicism. It’s part of the very air I want them to imbibe. I just loved how Tim Wise captured this in a recent essay on Alternet:

[M]aybe it’s just that being a father, I have to temper my contempt for this system and its managers with hope. After all, as a dad (for me at least), it’s hard to look at my children every day and think, “Gee, it sucks that the world is so screwed up, and will probably end in a few years from resource exploitation…Oh well, I sure hope my daughters have a great day at school!”

Fatherhood hasn’t made me any less radical in my analysis or desire to see change. In fact, if anything, it has made me more so. I am as angry now as I’ve ever been about injustice, because I can see how it affects these children I helped to create, and for whom I am now responsible. But anger and cynicism do not make good dance partners. Anger without hope, without a certain faith in the capacity of we the people to change our world is a sickness unto death.

(Read the whole essay, “Enough of ‘Barbiturate’ Left Cynicism,” here.)

Paired with a sense of responsibility, hope is also a lot of work. (Maybe that, too, is why I feel so darn tired?) That’s where Emily Dickinson got it wrong. She wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

I actually think hope demands our all. It’s voracious. It will swallow us whole. And so technically, I guess, it won’t “ask a crumb of me” since it doesn’t settle for crumbs.

Hope is much like bell hooks’ notion of love as she describes it in her essay, “Romance: Sweet Love.” Unlike romance (which she equates with infatuation and putting up a false front), love requires a choice, hooks writes. Love demands that we commit to it over and over and over again, every day, for as long as we want it to endure. I think hope is like that too; anything easier isn’t hope, it’s mere romance and self-delusion.

In other words, hope is a whole lot like a longstanding marriage. It’s not always easy to sustain. It requires a body-and-soul commitment. It demands our energy.

But like love and marriage, hope can give energy, too. And when that alchemy of hope occurs, that’s when the thing with feathers takes wing. That’s when its chirps meld into full-fledged song. That’s when it keeps us warm.

Photo of a lovely befeathered kitty named Lynksys by Flickr user SuziJane, used under a Creative Commons license.

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The Bear turned nine today. We celebrated by going to a concert where his choir performed. (Audio is here for anyone who’s curious; if you’re plugged into a real speaker you can actually hear some decent music behind the audience’s rustling and coughing.)

Afterward, we got together with some dear friends and ate this cake:

Apart from the obvious model, the cake was patterned after some cookies at a post-election party that got devoured before the Bear had a chance to try them. This was my attempt to make amends for that little disappointment. (It was also a design that didn’t require any cutting, and since I’m still semi-debilitated, I wanted to keep things simple.)

Contrary to appearances, I’m totally not trying to indoctrinate my kids. I do think that being a parent means you get to try to pass on your values. Very, very high in my firmament of values – ranking just behind kindness and empathy – is critical, independent thinking.

So I’ve told the Bear he may well vote contrary to me someday. (Secretly I tend to think he probably won’t; if I teach him to ask tough questions, he’s virtually immunized against voting for the next G.W. Bush.) Way back during the primaries, I asked him why he thought Obama would be a good president. Ending the war in Iraq topped his list. Education was way up there, too.

The Tiger, for his part, just likes to jump up and down and say “Obama winnded! Obama winnded!” He still has a ways to go with both his political consciousness and his past-tense verbs.


Earlier today, I mentioned to the Tiger’s father that we’ve now been parents for nine years. His response? “Ha ha ha ha ha!” That captured my incredulity, too.

I laugh at all the moments of absurdity. Just yesterday, the Tiger turned up with ball-point ink crisscrossing his face, resembling a psycho Spiderman. He steadfastly denied applying any ink to himself.

I marvel at how the time could go so slowly and so swiftly all at once. Those near-sleepless nights and endless tantrums seemed to expand into eternity. And yet, looking back, I wonder what happened to the mini-Bear who’d throw his beloved stuffed animal, Mama Bear, out of his crib, and then bellow with fury that she was no longer snuggled up against him. Wasn’t that just a few weeks ago?

I still wonder why I thought I was qualified for this job. No one really is, are they? It’s all on-the-job learning, and if you screw up, there’s a whole world hanging in the balance. Hmmm … it’s not so unlike the presidency, in miniature, when you think about it.

The Bear has extremely keen hearing unless he’s being asked to clean his room. Predictably, he overheard my comment about nine years of parenthood. His response: “What does that have to do with anything?”

What, indeed, my darling little Bear? Nothing, of course, from the center of a world in which I’ve always been his mama, in which I’m as taken for granted as oxygen and his still-beloved Mama Bear.

And yet everything – more than he can possibly know unless he too someday becomes a parent.

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If any of us were truly naive enough to believe that Obama’s election would bring all Americans together, walking arm in arm, singing “We Shall Overcome,” the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Barack’s chief of staff doused any such delusions.

I’m not sure what I think of this pick. Maybe Obama needs a tough enforcer to keep Congress on board. Or maybe Emanuel will become a polarizing figure who creates additional tensions between the White House and Congress. Best case scenario, as Mike Madden puts it at Salon: Emanuel will be the bad cop to Obama’s good cop, allowing Obama to get stuff done without himself getting too bloodied in the fray.

What I hope: That even as he inevitably makes mistakes and betrays progressive principles, Obama will still be able to inspire our better angels. In return, we progressives will have to call on his better angels. We need to press him so that those betrayals are few and infrequent. In fact, as Digby argues eloquently, he can’t govern left-of-center, even where he wants to, unless we keep the heat on him. For perhaps the first time ever, progressive voices – from Rachel Maddow through to us itty bitty kitty blogs – are strong enough that we should be able exert real influence.

Here’s one crucial place to to begin: by mitigating the damage caused by Prop 8 in California, the harshest disappointment of this week. Glenn Greenwald notes that Obama can help to this by repealing at least the worst sections of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Obama is on record as having opposed DOMA from the get-go. During the primary campaign, Obama called for its full repeal. In the vice presidential debate, Joe Biden promised that gay and straight couples would have identical civil rights under an Obama-Biden administration.

Time to deliver, guys. It’s the least you owe to the countless LGBT voters whose votes were crucial to Obama’s victory. It’s the least you owe to basic human decency – not to mention the constitutional principle of equal protection.

Greenwald says that while repealing DOMA wouldn’t repair all the wreckage of Prop 8, simply revoking its provisions that bar the federal government from extending full rights to same-sex couples would transform many lives. He cites the case of binational couples who are forced to live apart or outside of the U.S.

That’s an example that really cuts close to home for me. I was able to “import” my husband from Germany because he has boy parts and I have girl parts. How arbitrary is that?

So, President-Elect Obama, I may not be an angel, much less a better one. Please hear us anyway. Please make repealing DOMA a priority for your first hundred days. The “fierce urgency of now”demands no less.

The angel in the photos is not a random one. It’s “Gold Else,” who perches atop the Siegessäule in Berlin. The same Siegessäule where Barack Obama gave his grand Berlin speech last July. The very same Siegessäule that is Berlin’s paramount symbol of gay rights. I took these photos just before Obama began to speak (moments before my camera batteries crapped out).

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Photo of multicolored potatoes by Flickr user libraryman, used under a Creative Commons license.

Dan Quayle was roundly mocked when he couldn’t spell potato without adding an E, but he had nothin’ on Sarah Palin. Via the HuffPost, Fox News is reporting that Palin was way more clueless than even the Katie Couric interview revealed. She thought Africa was a country!!!!

(I promise not to get in the habit of citing Fox News, but I bet they’ll offer a great view of the Republicans’ circular firing squad over the next few days. I’m not above a little schadenfreude.)

Not only was Palin unable to name the NAFTA countries when quizzed by her handlers. Worse, she didn’t even know which countries are on the North American continent!

What did she think: Alaska, Canada, and “pro-American areas of this great nation”? That makes three, all right.

Wow. This goes way beyond potato, potahto.

I’ve said before that Palin lacks curiosity but can’t be dumb as dirt. Otherwise she wouldn’t have come this far. Now I’m wondering if I overestimated her. Or if she learned her geography from the Alaska Independence Party.

Either way, I’m hoping she won’t slip into Washington on the criminal coattails of Ted Stevens, assuming Alaskans really were daft enough to re-elect him the day after his conviction on corruption charges. Sarah Palin does not need to replace Stevens in the U.S. Senate. She needs to rev up her snowmachine and do a little racin’, maybe some moose huntin’, and a lot of forgettin’ about another run in 2012.

Update, 11/13/08: Okay, so at least the “Africa” comment appears to be completely fake – confabulated by a certain Martin Eisenstadt – which the New York Times describes as the fictional creation of a couple of filmmakers, Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish. No word yet on whether Palin’s NAFTA comments were also cut from whole cloth. Go read the Times article anyway; it’s very, very funny.

This is my karmic punishment for having cited Fox News. Bill O’Reilly, no less. I deserve ten strokes with a loofah – or was it a falafel?

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My Blue Heaven

Who knew it could be such fun to feel so blue?

In the whole state of Ohio, only one county went more heavily than mine for Barack Obama: Cuyahoga County, at 68.5%. Athens County came in second, with 66.5% for Obama, and that despite our heavily white population. (The New York Times shows county results if you click on the states.) My friend and candidate for state representative, Debbie Phillips, also won, helping regain the Ohio State House for the Democrats after many years of Republican control. (I got to hug her at school pickup today; I’m still waiting for my hug from Obama.)

I was watching the returns at home last night when the networks called Ohio for Obama. I did the electoral math and realized the election was over. We hauled the Bear out of his bed and whooped and hollered and shed a few tears. We put the Bear back to bed and opened a bottle of white wine (I’d been too busy to even buy deodorant, never mind champagne). My sister, who’d supported John McCain, called from California to congratulate me on singlehandedly tipping Ohio for Obama. She was as gracious as McCain in his concession speech but a whole lot funnier. I do love my little sis.

Of course, my part in the campaign was minuscule. I didn’t stop out of school to work full-time for the campaign, like my former student Rence. Nor did I practically move into the local headquarters like my friend Vicky. I didn’t get a mere half hour of sleep on Election Eve, as did my student Meredith, who helped lead the on-campus campaign.

I’m stunned by the dedication and sacrifice that went into Obama’s victory. I’d love to know how many people volunteered for the campaign. It must be in the hundreds of thousands. It has been a thrill to bathe in the spirit of common purpose – to indulge in hope and make it real.

My part was small indeed. Okay, so I did face down a man with black teeth. I braved vicious dogs. (And by “braved” I mean “cowered before them.”) Everyone who’s heard about my adventures canvassing in Pine Aire Village thinks that Mr. Blacktooth was definitely a meth head and maybe had a lab of his own hidden in one of those decrepit trailers. I’m no expert on meth (and thank goodness for that), but I remember similar scenes from a Donna Tartt novel, The Little Friend, which featured a character with a serious meth habit and nasty teeth. Now I have a vivid visual to go with the book when I re-read it someday. The irony is that my encounter with Mr. Blacktooth did nothing to advance Obama’s win, since he was a non-voter and apparently a nasty racist to boot.

My impression is that most volunteers gave the time they could afford – and then a bunch more. Maybe that explains why so many of us are about to collapse today, even those of use whose contributions were modest; we’re almost too tired to feel the joy. Our families gave of their time, too. My husband ferried the four of us through the woods on Sunday, navigating ridges, hollows, and perilously steep driveways while I dropped literature. He tended the kids during most of my outings. But my boys also went out canvassing with me a couple of times, including the final round of get-out-the-vote door knocking yesterday evening.

I hope my sons look back on this someday and feel like I do now: privileged to have played a bit part in overcoming the scars of American history.

I hope they’ll look back and say, with pride and pleasure: Yes we did.

(Although I do have a few pansies blooming right now, this one is from a few months ago; it just happened to have the right color.)

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As I mentioned in my last post, I’m still worried about whether American racism – overt and latent – might be strong enough to tip this election to McCain? Frank Rich thinks it won’t, according to his last column in the New York Times:

Well, there are racists in western Pennsylvania, as there are in most pockets of our country. But despite the months-long drumbeat of punditry to the contrary, there are not and have never been enough racists in 2008 to flip this election. In the latest New York Times/CBS News and Pew national polls, Obama is now pulling even with McCain among white men, a feat accomplished by no Democratic presidential candidate in three decades, Bill Clinton included. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey finds age doing more damage to McCain than race to Obama.

But then the Columbus Dispatch thinks race could be enough to drag Obama to defeat in my neck of the woods. The Dispatch may be deluded enough to endorse McCain but it’s in close proximity to the various Ohio bellwethers. As am I, minus the delusion (or so I hope?).

Here’s my encounter with racism on the campaign trail. It’s enough to make me plenty nervous, even as it stokes my hope for slow, slow change.

The first day I went out knocking on doors for Obama, I met a frayed-looking middle-aged couple enjoying the mild sunny Sunday afternoon on their porch. They were the very first people I found at home as a freshly minted canvasser. They lived in a neighborhood of modest homes built in the 1950s. I wasn’t out in the impoverished countryside; I was among young families and retired professors.

The man said he was genuinely unsure who’d get his vote. And so I sat with them for a good half hour, asking what issues worried them.

It didn’t take long to unearth a major concern. The woman said she planned to vote for John McCain. But even if she didn’t …

“I have to tell you something,” she said. “I’m not racist.” Long, long pause. “But I’d have a problem voting for a black man for president.”

Before we were sent out to canvass, we’d been warned that we’d encounter open racism sooner or later. I still wasn’t prepared for it in my maiden experience as a canvasser.

And so I circumnavigated. I asked them how they felt about the economy, which had just begun its meltdown. I inquired how they felt about the current president. Once they’d expressed their deep dismay at the status quo, I wondered out loud if they might want to take a chance on the new guy, even if they had to go outside their comfort level.

I wasn’t trying to convince the wife, who’d made her allegiances clear. I was just trying to gently nudge the husband back into his self-declared role of canceling out his mate’s vote.

But she was the one who eventually moved – not into the Democratic column, but possibly into a different sort of self-awareness.

“You know,” she mused, “Maybe I am a little bit racist after all.”

I tell this story not to open her up to mockery. In the late September sunlight, the day before my birthday, I took her reluctant but unforced confession as a gift, the more precious for its fragility.

As I said a day ago, canvassing is very much like teaching. You plant a seed. You hope for gentle rains. You never know for sure what will sprout and grow and blossom.

And then there are people who dash your hope altogether. My younger son, the Tiger, is having some trouble with a kid in his kindergarten class who’s hitting and calling names. About half his classmates are also being bullied. The insults include “stinky black,” aimed at one of the Tiger’s friends who is half Latina, half African-American, coupled with taunts that “Obama is stinky.”

Kids don’t make this shit up on their own. I don’t know if he’s getting it from his parents – at least theoretically, it could come from other relatives – and I’d rather give the benefit of the doubt than judge them prematurely. Whatever the source, he’s sure not inventing racism out of thin air.

Here’s what we’re up against. The Columbus Dispatch reported on the ubiquity of such attitudes a few weeks back:

Like most other Democrats in southeastern Ohio, Hendrickson, a single mother of two struggling to support her family as a waitress, voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the primary.

With Clinton out, Hendrickson says she plans to vote for Republican John McCain. She doesn’t trust Democrat Barack Obama.

“I just don’t feel comfortable with him,” said Hendrickson, 36, of neighboring Portsmouth. “I don’t think he’s being honest about what he’s going to do.”

The political landscape of the 14-county southeastern region, a swing area of Ohio where chronic unemployment and poverty have left many feeling forgotten, would seem to favor Democrats.

But an uneasiness with Obama prevails in Appalachia, and for many it comes down to race.

“I’ll be voting for a Republican for the first time in my life,” Jeff Justice, a 46-year-old ironworker, said as he finished his lunch at Hickie’s.

Asked why, Justice, a white former Wheelersburg resident now living in Florida, didn’t hesitate.

“He’s black.”

But as the economy has tanked, people’s willingness to set aside their prejudices has seemingly grown. At Salon, James Hanrahan suggests that racists fear lots of thing even more than they fear black people. As Sean Quinn reported at FiveThirtyEight, a canvasser in Pennsylvania witnessed the following exchange:

So a canvasser goes to a woman’s door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she’s planning to vote for. She isn’t sure, has to ask her husband who she’s voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, “We’re votin’ for the n***er!”

Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: “We’re voting for the n***er.”

It may be cold comfort to those whose retirement savings have evaporated over the past few weeks. But if tomorrow’s vote is close, we can reasonably assume it will have been the economic meltdown that pushed bigots into voting for a black man. If Obama does well enough to claim a mandate, we can still assume “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Either way, these elemental fears of economic survival are surely multiplying the number of people who call themselves – with a dose of charming self-mockery, to be sure – “Rednecks for Obama.” I took this photo a couple of blocks from my house, but I’ve seen more than one similar sign since then, including one deep in the woods while canvassing yesterday.

By the way, I’m not at all suggesting that self-proclaimed “rednecks” are racists. Only that the current crises are inspiring them to vote for a candidate who – for reasons of race, yes, but a host of other reasons as well – doesn’t look like their typical guy.

I am suggesting that if “rednecks” are turning out for Obama, all of us who back him had better do the same.

A new, kinder chapter in American history just might begin today.

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About being the “bellwether” in this election: It’s wonderful and horrible. I’ve been grateful to be in a spot where – in some small way – I might possibly help tip the election toward Barack Obama. Now, on Election Eve, I’m nervous as hell.

Technically, Athens County, where I live, isn’t even the bellwetheriest part of Ohio. That has been variously identified as Chillicothe, west of here, or Perry County, which abuts Athens to the north, or maybe the entire southeast region of Ohio. The town of Athens itself is a little island that combines progressive politics with the kind of neighborliness that you thought went out of fashion after 1959. It’s dotted with nearly as many Obama yard signs as there are houses. Athens County voted 63% for John Kerry in 2004, which I believe only Cuyahoga County topped.

We aren’t at all typical of the region, though. Much of the surrounding county suffers from rural poverty (though generally not as bad as what I encountered this weekend). Our neighboring counties are even worse off; in August of this year, three of the state’s six counties with unemployment rates upward of 10 percent were adjacent to Athens County.

And so it’s not at all surprising that people in southeast Ohio often feel disenfranchised. This feeds into my three big fears for tomorrow:

  • Republicans will try to suppress the vote through challenges to voters at the polling places and various other tactics.
  • Democrats may stay home because they think Obama’s got it sewed up and their vote doesn’t matter anyway.
  • Racism may prove more durable than we’ve all hoped.

At school pickup today I heard a rumor that the GOP has been using robocalls to deceive some Athens voters into falsely thinking that their polling places have changed. Maybe this is just a rumor. If the vote is close, though, I expect that Republicans will comb through every last voter registration, hunting for the most minute or irregularities.

Based on my occasional canvassing work over the past month I’m pretty sure people aren’t too complacent. When asked if they planned to vote, people quite often said they’d already voted early. Of the rest, most said “I wouldn’t sit this one out for the world.” At least in and around Athens, the general sentiment is that this is a historic election and we’d be fools not to vote.

Apart from those who live in the most grinding poverty, even a lot of the less likely voters sound motivated. Yesterday, I dropped off literature at a trailer home where a dead deer lay in front of the steps. The residents were in the yard. They told me they were definitely going to vote on Tuesday.

As for my third worry, racism? Well, that’s a topic for my next post.

Update 11:15 p.m., November 3: In an all-too-apt illustrations of how rumors spread and morph, I botched the one above. I originally wrote that postcards were allegedly being used to deceive Athens voters about their polling places. At my local Obama campaign headquarters tonight, other volunteers set me straight on the actual allegation, which involved robocalls to do the same thing. Either way, it’s second-hand information. I’ve updated my post to reflect the most accurate gossip I could gather. :-)

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