The Republican Party is eating itself

Conservatives have forgotten that Americans are pragmatists first, ideologues second.

We say we are pro-life and then say we want abortion to be legal. We say we're mostly economically conservative but then say we like Medicare and food stamps. We say we want affordable health care and then say that the law that makes it affordable is un-American. What gives?

Part of it is the media. It can badly distort reality. But part of the reason (I think the greater part) is that Americans are so often lied to. Europeans have no doubt heard of the impact of Citizens United, the US Supreme Court case that permits unlimited sums of money to be spent on elections. This is the ruling that allowed Newt Gingrich to survive the GOP nomination process for much longer than he would have under prior conditions, and it allowed Mitt Romney to take the GOP nomination without the political benefit of charm, charisma or likeability.

Europeans, however, may not have heard of the army of secretive front groups that stealthily spread corporate propaganda. Recently, one of those advocating for the coal industry paid people $50 each to attend a regulatory meeting in Chicago. The goal here was creating the illusion that coal enjoys mass grassroots support when in fact it does not. This same tactic prevailed in 2010 when billionaire-backed groups like the Center for Protect Patient's Rights created the false impression that the Tea Party was a bottom-up conservative "insurrection." It funneled more than $44.5 million in 2010, much of it provided by two people: Charles and David Koch.

"Grassroots" isn't the only way the power elite masks its unpopular and oligarchical agendas. So is "small business." Few things are more sacred in Washington than the entrepreneur and small-business owner. Carrying its mantle, a group called the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is challenging the constitutionality of Obama's health care reform law along with 26 states. The US Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in June. Meanwhile, a cursory look at the group's leadership suggests it has long-held ties not to small business but to Big Business Republicans. 

Its president is a former lobbyist for the steel industry who served in Ronald Reagan's White House. Its chief lobbyist served in the first Bush administration before working for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a think-tank financed by the Kochs. Citizens for a Sound Economy is now part of the brothers' Americans for Prosperity, which, along with FreedomWorks, underwrites much of the Tea Party. And the NFIB's communications director once worked for the American Legislative Exchange Council, which, as a service to state legislatures, writes "model legislation" that often undermines the right to collective bargaining. The Kochs are known for their anti-unionism.

But in politics, lies don't last forever. Eventually, there is a reckoning, and in the case of the president's health care law, a GOP reckoning may be on the horizon.

Consider Congressman Allen West of Florida. Over the weekend, he told a liberal blog that if the Supreme Court strikes down the law, it has to be replaced with something. That is, as a practical matter, something has to do done, and as a political matter, it's important to consider features of the law that Americans now like. Those, in West's words, would include: allowing children up age 26 to be covered by a parent's plan, outlawing discrimination based on "pre-existing conditions" and expanding drug coverage, aka closing the "donut hole."

For those paying attention, West's remarks amount to a tiny incendiary device going off beneath the skullcap, as West is one of the beneficiaries of the Tea Party "insurrection" and probably best known for saying that more than 80 Congressional Democrats are members of the Communist Party (they're progressives, but that's the same thing, right?). He and other Tea Party conservatives (libertarians mostly) won office by slamming "Obamacare" as evil socialism, and now, here he is, saying, well, some of that socialism is kinda sorta OK.

Unsurprisingly, West is up for re-election, as are many other Congressional Republicans (the House has two-year terms). And some of them, even among the GOP's leadership, are saying privately that Obamacare ain't all that bad. This has inspired worry among ideologues and swift reprimand from conservative groups like FreedomWorks, which demands that none of the law be re-packaged. Ever. FreedomWorks and others scare the bejesus out of Republicans because of the cyclical threat of primaries. They recently gave the boot to Indiana's Dick Lugar. He was the Senate's longest serving member.

This puts the entire party in a position that perhaps only presidential candidate Mitt Romney can fully appreciate. As he turns his attention to the general election and starts courting mainstream "swing" voters, Romney must constantly protect his right flank from trumped up charges of being a RINO (Republican in name only). Same for House Republicans. They must appeal to mainstream voters who are only now warming up to the health care law while ducking the ire of the conservative power elite.

The irony is that the power elite is hoping to elect candidates of dubious electability. The more ideological they are, the less likely Americans are to vote for him. Americans are pragmatists first, ideologues second. Fixing the problem is more important than who's right, and the problem is so clearly that health care costs too much (it grew at twice the general rate of inflation).

The other irony is that the power elite, by backing candidates of dubious electability who themselves parrot the power elite's missives of misinformation, are setting themselves up for failure. They have manufactured an entirely self-contained world of delusion and hysteria that has no application to real-world issues. That is, they aren't offering solutions unless you count preserving the status quo as a solution, and Americans, despite our abundant confusion, know that the status quo is not sustainable.

The next couple of months are going to be a doozy for the radicalised Republican Party. Either it navigates this political mine field, repudiates the propagandists or gives itself entirely to the theatre of the absurd, in which case we may really be witnessing a party eating itself. Fun!

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney smiles as he is introduced during a campaign rally at Somers Furniture on May 29, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Anorexia, breast binding and the legitimisation of body hatred

Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering.

In 1987 I underwent the first of three hospitalisations for anorexia. I was force-fed via a nasogastric tube. This led me to gain a significant amount of weight, which I hated. Furthermore, it made my overall psychological state not better, but worse.

Upon discharge I lost the weight again and in the years that followed I tried to play a game of keeping myself just thin enough to manage my anxiety, not so thin as to be coerced into further treatment. I was not always successful. I used to fantasise about the peace I would experience if only people were to leave me alone. The expectations they had for my life, my body, were not my own.

Decades later I have not come round to other people’s point of view. I still think force-feeding was violent, traumatising, if not downright abusive. I still reject the idea that one might somehow, by sheer force of will, learn to accept a body in which one does not feel at home. The portrayal of anorexia as some invading enemy, or a sly, toxic friend, is one I find wholly ridiculous. There was no battle between the “real” me and a manipulative, alien “Ana”. Every thought I thought, every feeling I felt, was mine.

Should this sound like the start of The Pro-Ana Manifesto, I would like to stress that anorexia robbed me of a great deal. It almost killed me. Perhaps, if I had been “left in peace”, I would not be around to write this today. Yet there was no simple cure, no demon to kill. There was, in the end, no Ana, no skinny mean-girl shadow stalking me, whispering in my ear. There was only me. There was only ever me and a world for which I desperately wanted – and still want – to be the right shape.

In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes how recovery from anorexia is seen by many as having been achieved “when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved”. It is not just a matter of “being healthy” or “looking normal”; gaining body fat means, for a woman, gaining hips and breasts and having to contend with the gendered expectations that accompany this. A female with hips and breasts has a job to do, a role to perform, both sexually and reproductively. I did not want this role. It was easier to change my body than to ask the world to accommodate my humanity.

There is a way in which I understand force-feeding and coercive eating disorder management as a form of conversion therapy, an attempt to impose gender conformity on an unwilling subject. The problem is not the anorexia sufferer’s refusal to eat; she is absolutely correct in assuming that by gaining weight, she will be expected to give up something very personal and meaningful to her. “I have gained weight, but lost myself,” writes Nancy Tucker of her own recovery. “How can I explain that inside I remain an anorexic, but trapped in a fat suit?” How can one be seen as human being while looking like a woman? The anorexic must struggle with this conundrum, at least if she wants to live, but it cannot be hers alone to solve.

I first became ill in 1987, aged 11. I’d been an early developer, already wearing a bra at primary school. I did not want to be that person, the fat girl, the slag, the one who got her breasts groped, her bra snapped, pushed into corners, the one who ended up playing that role anyhow, because it’s less shameful to be a slut in a slut’s body than it is to be a blushing eleven-year-old prude with tits. I tried it for a while, a good eight months, then I gave up and stopped eating. Such a pattern is not uncommon. Eating disorders are more prevalent in those of us who experience an early onset of puberty. I knew, absolutely and without question, that the body I had acquired was not the one I was supposed to have. I wanted to be one of the skinny, straight girls, the ones whose bodies were indistinguishable from those of the boys. Better still, I wanted to be a boy, to never have to gain hips and breasts, or to bleed, again.

Had I been born thirty years later, starvation may not have felt like my only option. By which I do not mean that the situation for pubescent girls has improved. My groping male classmates interpreted female bodies through the lens of Playboy and page three; the harder, faster, crueller world of online porn was yet to come. I mean I could have said I was not a girl. I did not feel like a girl. I was not a girl, not that girl, not that bleeding, stinking body I had become. It would not have been a lie. If I were going through what I went through thirty years ago today, perhaps I would not have needed to flee puberty all alone. I could have asked for help. Instead of having to face down my force-feeding adversaries, I could have found adults willing to support me in my efforts to sculpt a body more in keeping with my sense of self.

For instance, recent advice given to UK schools on how to accommodate the needs of transgender children includes information on chest-binding. According to Cornwall Council, binding can be “hot, uncomfortable and restrictive – but very important to [pupils’] psychological wellbeing”. Teachers are nonetheless told to remain aware of the risk of “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting”. Lancashire County Council offers the following advice:

“If you have young people who bind their chests, monitor them carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

I’m perfectly aware that one is not supposed to question guidance of this nature. But I think, just for one moment, we should be honest about what we are witnessing. Young people who hate their breasts, absolutely loathe them, would be willing to take a knife to them and slice them off, would be practically suicidal if someone told them that these breasts were with them for life. Young people who know without doubt that their inner selves, their very identities, are wholly incompatible with the ownership of breasts. Young people who, in other words, feel exactly as I did. And instead of challenging this self-hatred – instead of acknowledging the pain (which no one did for me), but also recognising that it is not caused by the body itself – grown adults are accepting this narrative without question. Because it’s easiest. Because yes, a child still suffers, but the ends (not looking female) are deemed to justify the means (physical pain and possible long-term damage).

Pink News recently described the drawing of comparisons between anorexia and certain narratives of transgender experience as “insulting”. It was not made clear who was being insulted, but I’m guessing it was not anorexia sufferers; after all, they’re the mentally ill ones. While I have no desire to get into a long discussion on the arbitrary nature of definitions of sanity, I think it is perfectly possible to acknowledge the cultural, political and gendered meanings of anorexia without going all-out pro-ana and suggesting it is not an illness at all. It is an illness that operates within particular social settings, in response to and interacting with particular cultural influences. “The world gets harder and harder,” writes Hilary Mantel on self-imposed starvation. “There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.”  

The female-to-trans narrative offers a different way of framing the same impossible dilemma. We know that there are countless individuals who have always had this sense of not-belonging. It is now being suggested that contemporary trans politics is granting them to access the language and treatments they have needed all along. But another way of putting it might be that a vocabulary and treatment protocol have been created precisely in order to accommodate rather than challenge the relationship between gender and hatred of one’s own sexed body. What we are seeing remains a symptom, not a cure.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes her partner Harry’s experiences of binding:

“Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak, your neck and back pulsing with pain all day, all night, from your torso (and hence, your lungs) having been constricted for almost thirty years. You tried to stay wrapped even while sleeping, but by morning the floor was always littered with doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric – “smashers” you called them.”

I can easily see myself, aged 14 or 15, reading words like this over and over again, every bit as reverently as I used to read every anorexia memoir I could get my hands on, absorbing every word, feeling ashamed of not being as hardcore, of not having proven myself yet. You still have breasts. You’re not bleeding. Do better. Do more. This is not to question the genuine pain that is being depicted here. At one point Nelson reports her partner’s response to her own lack of comprehension:

“Don’t you get it? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world. I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.”

I don’t know a single long-term anorexia sufferer who has not expressed similar sentiments. And there is no simple response, because it is, in all likelihood, the truth. It is heartbreaking, a tragedy. We can acknowledge the validity of an individual’s suffering without losing sight of the fundamental injustice of it.

It would be wonderful if there were a simple answer to all this. Every day young women are encouraged – berated, almost – to accept their bodies, love their curves, not give a fuck about what men think. It doesn’t work. If it were that easy – if feminism were self-help, little mantras you repeat in your head, one long, extended Dove advert – we’d all be laughing. It’s not. Body positivity messages do not help, even those that do not come with advice on how to get “beautiful underarms” or “age-positive skin”. To really, truly get to the heart of what is wrong with female flesh, why it feels so hateful and alien to so many of us, we need to relate our alienation to the uses and abuses to which this flesh is put. And even then we need to accept that doing so will not necessarily save us as individuals. But the idea that sexed bodies do not match identities due to some innate mismatch – as opposed to the deeply political meanings inscribed upon them – is not just absurd, it is harmful. It leads us to focus only on our bodies and it short-circuits efforts towards long-term political change.

We are reaching a point where even questioning body-hatred is seen as a cruel denial of an individual’s inner self.  I have even seen articles including statements such as “personally, I would feel more empowered in my body […] if I heard that hating your boobs is OK”. How is one supposed to respond to that? ”Well, then, hate away?” Then there is the assumption that women who “consent” to be women – who choose not to bind or change their pronouns – must be so insensitive, so dumb, so politically unengaged as to be pacified by a quick “love your curves” slogan. The truth is that very few female people can accept their bodies as long as ownership of a female body – failure to starve it away, or crush it, or have it surgically corrected – is taken as implicit consent to be treated as a member of the inferior class.

I am not saying “burn your binders”. Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering. There is no quick fix, perhaps not even a lifetime one. But we need to think hard and keep asking questions, even if these contradict other people’s interpretations of what is possible for them.

We need to accept that an individual’s experience of themselves and their body is an interaction with the world around them. We need to do what we can to create comfort and hope. For women, there is a cost to growing and a cost to staying small. There is pain either way. But please can we keep open the option that it doesn’t have to be like this for all of us, forever? No matter how much it hurts we must at least believe that.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.