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I’m going back to writing about student stuff after this, I promise. Thanks for your patience.

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On Twitter last night, my buddy Malcolm Harris declared that

“The abortion rights argument for Obama is such a big red herring.”

He went on to say that Roe v. Wade is showing no signs of getting overturned in the Supreme Court, and that Obama isn’t doing anything to expand on-the-ground access to abortion in states where there are few providers.

I pretty much agree with Malcolm’s follow-up tweets. The Republicans have had plenty of chances to put together a Supreme Court majority against Roe, and their continuing failure to do so has long looked more like a decision than a fumble to me. And no, Obama hasn’t been anywhere near as aggressive in expanding abortion access as I’d like.

But reproductive freedom is one of those areas where presidents get to make a million small decisions, many of them invisible to the average voter, and those decisions add up to a lot. Let’s review Obama’s record.

  • In 2009 the president rescinded the Mexico City Policy, which restricted US government funding to overseas NGOs which provided abortion services. A 2011 Yale study found that the policy had had a devastating effect on access to reproductive health services in poor countries.
  • The administration has acted aggressively to punish states which have attempted to cut off Medicaid funding to abortion providers, and those which have attempted to eliminate Medicaid funding for abortion in pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
  • Obama supports expanding abortion access for women in the military under the Shaheen Amendment, which was blocked by House Republicans this summer.
  • The Obama HHS ended a grant to a Catholic organization working against human trafficking because of the group’s refusal to provide women with abortion referrals, directing the money to groups that would do so.
  • And although Roe is unlikely to be overturned, that doesn’t mean that new legislative or judicial restrictions on abortion are impossible. In 2003 Congress passed (and George W. Bush signed) the Partial Birth Abortion Act, and in 2007 the Supreme Court upheld it as constitutional. A second Obama term means a likely veto of similar legislation and likely confirmation of new Supreme Court justices who would vote to strike it down.

And of course reproductive freedom isn’t just about abortion. Around access to contraception, the Obama administration has also done good in all sorts of ways.

  • The administration rolled back a Bush-era expansion of the so-called “conscience clause,” which granted federal protection to healthcare providers who refused to supply women with birth control and family planning assistance.
  • Obamacare famously imposes new requirements that private insurance plans cover contraception.
  • Obama has cut funding for abstinence-only sex education programs by two thirds.
  • The Obama Department of Defense issued an order in 2010 mandating that all military healthcare facilities worldwide carry Plan B.
  • The Obama FDA approved Ella, a “morning-after” pill with a five-day window of effectiveness.
  • Obama supports, and has protected, federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Romney opposes it.

Now, Obama’s record on reproductive rights is far from perfect. There’s a lot more he could be doing, even given congressional Republicans’ opposition. But to say that it makes no difference to abortion rights whether he wins in November or not is just false. It’s just not supportable.

This is what I was getting at in my post office post last week. The deeper you dig into the specifics of policy, the more the differences between the players reveal themselves. They may not be huge differences, and they may not reflect the kinds of dramatic contrasts some of us would like to see being drawn, but they’re there. They matter. They have a real impact on real people’s lives, and a disproportionately powerful impact on the lives of those with the fewest resources.

There are some victories that I doubt we can win through electoral organizing. There are some ways — some excruciating ways — in which Obama and Romney are essentially identical. I don’t condemn anyone who refuses to participate in electoral politics — there’s plenty of vital work to be done outside the political system, and there are lots of crucial struggles that can’t be waged inside it.

But the decision to opt out can’t be made on the basis of the false premise that nothing of consequence will be lost if Mitt Romney wins this election. Make the strategic argument that the gains aren’t worth the price, if you like. Hell, make the argument that Obama is in some ways more dangerous. I can respect that.

But that cost-benefit analysis isn’t legitimate unless you also tally up the costs.

A big point of contention in the argument over Daniel Tosh’s rape jokes has been how to take his suggestion that it’d be funny if a group of guys in his audience raped the woman who’d just called him out for making rape jokes during his set. A lot of folks, myself included, said that statement opened up the woman to harassment and possible assault, while Tosh’s defenders mostly denied that made any sense. Comedy is comedy, they said, and bad acts are bad acts, and you can’t mix up the two.

But now there’s this.

As my friend Kevin pointed out this morning, Tosh did a bit on his Comedy Central show just three months ago in which he encouraged his male viewers to videotape themselves “sneaking up behind women” and “lightly touching” their belly fat. And a bunch of them did, sending the clips into him and posting them on YouTube.

Now, the whole point of this is that it’s non-consensual, invasive, and public. And though some of the women in the clips appear to be in on the gag, others are clearly pissed off. In several cases the women seem to be strangers to the guys doing the touching, and in one — hosted on the Comedy Central website, complete with a revenue-generating ad — a high school student is shown touching his teacher. (That clip, like many others, cuts out before we’re able to see the victim’s reaction.)

What this confirms is that the whole Tosh thing isn’t about jokes. Tosh isn’t just a guy who tells stories on stage. He’s a guy whose comedy includes actually physically assaulting women, and directing his fans to do the same. And this is the guy who, after a woman challenged his rape jokes, mused aloud about how funny it would be if she “got raped by like, five” of those same fans, right then and there.

“Right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?”


An independent report on Penn State’s handling of child sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky has been released, and it’s damning. The report, written by a team headed by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, finds that PSU’s top leaders engaged in a fourteen-year conspiracy to protect Sandusky from justice, a conspiracy that had beloved football coach Joe Paterno at its center.

Some excerpts from Louis Freeh’s remarks on the report, delivered just moments ago:

  • “Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized. “
  • “[Penn State President Graham] Spanier, [Vice President Gary] Schultz, [Coach Joe] Paterno and [Athletic Director Tim] Curley never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest.”
  • Penn State leaders considered reporting Sandusky in 2001 but “changed the plan … after Mr. Curley consulted with Mr. Paterno … and decided not to make a report to the authorities.”
  • “Their failure to protect the February 9, 2001 child victim, or make attempts to identify him, created a dangerous situation for other unknown, unsuspecting young boys who were lured to the Penn State campus and football games by Sandusky and victimized repeatedly by him.”
  • “Further, they exposed this child to additional harm by alerting Sandusky, who was the only one who knew the child’s identity.”
  • Freeh rejects the four administrators’ stated reasons for failing to act, declaring that “it is more reasonable to conclude” that they “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large … in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity.”
  • “Although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated, no such sentiments were ever expressed by them for Sandusky’s victims.”
  • Paterno was aware of an earlier “criminal investigation of Sandusky relating to suspected sexual misconduct with a young boy in a Penn State football locker room shower,” and indeed “followed it closely, but failed to take any action, even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years, and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno’s.”
  • “Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley also failed to alert the Board of Trustees about the 1998 investigation or take any further action against Mr. Sandusky. None of them even spoke to Sandusky about his conduct.”
  • “In short, nothing was done and Sandusky was allowed to continue with impunity.”

It goes on like this for another page and a half, detailing what Freeh calls the group’s “callous and shocking disregard for child victims” of sexual abuse by their friend and colleague.

Freeh also notes that the Penn State Board of Trustees “failed in its duty to make reasonable inquiry into these serious matters and to demand action by the President” after they became aware of them via media reports in March 2011. In doing so, the board “failed to create an environment which held the University’s most senior leaders accountable to it,” allowing President Spanier to continue to stonewall them even as Sandusky, Curley, and Schultz were arrested in November of last year.

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More details from the main body of the Freeh Report:

When Sandusky retired in 1999 — after top university officials were already aware of child sexual abuse allegations against him — he asked for and was granted a six-figure lump-sum payment above and beyond his substantial pension, a payment that several PSU officials said was unique in the recent history of the university. He was also granted emeritus status in violation of standard PSU policy on the awarding of that honor.

In addition to the unprecedented $168,000 payment and emeritus status, Sandusky requested while negotiating the terms of his retirement that he be given opportunities “to continue to work with young people through Penn State.” PSU granted this request, giving him and the youth group he worked with open access to the campus. In the next two years Sandusky would go on to sexually assault at least three more children on university property.

In 2001, following new evidence of child sexual abuse against Sandusky, PSU President Graham Spanier signed off on a proposal from his athletic director and head of campus police to “indicate” to Sandusky that “we feel there is a problem and we want to assist [him] to get professional help,” but not to provide their evidence to legal authorities. In a 2001 email, Spanier said that “the only downside for us” to this plan “is if the message isnʹt ‘heard’ and acted upon” — if Sandusky went on to sexually abuse other children — “and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it.” He called the decision not to inform police a “humane” and “reasonable” one.

The only action taken at the time was a March 2001 request that Sandusky no longer bring children to campus, a request he ignored — in August that year he committed another sexual assault on a child in the university’s showers.

“In the meantime, the Mobe held its own counter-inaugural event with a rally and speakers. Later that night they scheduled a counter-inaugural ball. One of the speakers was Marilyn Webb, representing the new women’s consciousness-raising groups. She had prepared a speech about the aspirations of women, demanding equality for women both in the movement and in the larger society. As Marilyn began her speech, dozens of men in the packed audience began to catcall and boo. When she continued, more men joined in and the din got louder. Some of them began to chant, ‘Take it off! Take it off!’ ‘Fuck her down a dark alley!’ Marilyn was stunned and hurt. Shulamith Firestone tried to continue with a second speech, but soon both women were forced to abandon the stage in the pandemonium…

“While the Mobe leadership — all men — were also upset by the attacks, they didn’t join Marilyn on the stage to back her up.”

—Cathy Wilkerson, SDS and Weather Underground activist, on the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam’s January 1969 protest of the Nixon inaugural.

Update | CK says he was unaware of the Tosh incident when he tweeted, a claim I find implausible. But he also says that the whole thing made him more aware of women’s experience of rape than he had been.

Louis CK is about a year older than me. He, like me, is a divorced joint-custody father of two. His daughters are each about a year older than mine, and like mine they go to pretty good New York City public schools. Like me he’s a bearded pasty Manhattanite who could stand to lose a few pounds. Like me he’s trying to be an anti-racist, anti-sexist, decent human being in the face of a hell of a lot of training to the contrary.

And he’s brilliant, so when he talks about his life and his worldview, he frequently says stuff I wish I’d said, or figured out before. Louis CK has stood on my television and told me true things about how I feel about being a parent that I didn’t know until he said them. He’s said serious things about serious things that I’ve repeated over and over.

And so I’m sad tonight, and pissed off.

If you don’t know the background, here it is:

Not long ago, on Tumblr, someone posted a note from a friend about how she’d inadvertently wandered into a Daniel Tosh standup show and how things got really creepy:

So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

Yeah. So she left, obviously, and asked for a refund which she didn’t get, and then told the story to the friend who posted it. And then folks found out about it and reblogged it (or whatever the hell they do on Tumblr, I don’t know), and it got traction and eventually Tosh himself responded on Twitter:

“all the out of context misquotes aside, i’d like to sincerely apologize

That’s a non-apology, of course, since it doesn’t include any specific acknowledgment of wrongdoing. And it’s a particularly churlish non-apology since it accuses his accuser of unspecified sins. It’s bullshit, in short. But whatever, it’s Daniel Tosh, who was always an asshole. Why should today be any different?

And then Louis CK stepped in. Damn it.

Now, I should say that as righteous as CK has often been, he’s stumbled sometimes, as do we all. He’s made some moves I wouldn’t have made, said some things I wish he hadn’t. And he’s also said some things that I wasn’t sure how to take.

Specifically, he’s told some rape jokes. In each case, if I squinted, I could read them as rape culture jokes, jokes about how screwed up our society is when it comes to rape, jokes about how screwed up men are when it comes to sex and power and control. As a white guy, I don’t want to say white guys can’t make weird uncomfortable jokes about race and gender. Sometimes, in some contexts, we can and do. Sometimes in doing so we speak to important truths.

I’m not going to defend any specific joke tonight, and I’m not going to defend the general principle either. Maybe I’ve been wrong when I’ve done it in the past. I don’t know. What I do know is that I gave Louis CK too much credit for navigating those questions thoughtfully and consciously, because what Louis tweeted after Tosh tweeted his non-apology is this:

@danieltosh your show makes me laugh every time I watch it. And you have pretty eyes.

Dude. Come on.

Come on.

What we know about that night is that a woman says Daniel Tosh joked, after she called him on making rape jokes, that it’d be funny if a bunch in the guys in the audience raped her. How on earth is that funny? How on earth is that not fucked up?

I’m not going to say that Tosh was giving the guys in the audience a green light to rape that woman. But you can’t not say he was giving them the green light to screw with her. You can’t say he wasn’t sending them the message he thought it’d be funny if they made a bunch of jokes to her face, in a dark parking lot, about how they ought to rape her right there. You can’t say that if they did that, they’d have any reason to believe he’d think it wasn’t cool.

You know about jokes. You know far more than me about jokes. And that joke just isn’t okay.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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