No Waging It in My Name, Thanks
by Nancy Mattina
I filter the world’s doings through my inbox for several hours a day in the safety of my home office. When my eyes tire or my lower back starts to ache, I get up to stretch and make a cup of tea. The dog might signal that she needs a walk. If not, there’s the radio to turn on, tuned unwaveringly for years now to the nearest public radio station. Another stream of words, this time flavored by audible voices, pours in through my ears. I can turn the sound off with a flick of the remote. Even so the words and phrases I’ve let in through this typical morning toss in my mind like sneakers clunking in the dryer.
This week the thunk, thunk is the “Republican War on Women.” I’m a woman, so it catches my attention, as it’s meant to. Or maybe I hear it because I am what has lately become fashionable to call a “progressive,” the term “liberal” having long ago become ashamed of itself as a political label. I object to nearly everything the GOP stands for, especially its premises, and I’ve listened in vain for years to hear non-partisan, positive proposals issue from its representatives. I know, without dedicating much conscious attention to it, to that I am not supposed to have the same visceral response to chants of “war on women” as I have to acts of real war — women, children, men cut down and bleeding in the streets of Syria, families murdered in their sleep by soldiers, children orphaned and left to die in the Horn of Africa. If you really want to get a comfortable suburbanite’s attention off her tea kettle, use words like “massacre,” “killings,” “mass rape,” or “torture.” The last may have lost its bite for many during the Bush era, but for me, my jaw still tightens at the thought.
As a handmaiden to outrage, the word “war” has been declared or presumed in so many non-literal situations that it has almost lost its power to rouse me: the war on drugs, the war on cancer, the war on poverty, the war on the middle class, the war on obesity, the war on illegal immigration, the war on calories. The war on Christmas is right up there with Spain’s purported war on pigeons as far as the prize for false advertising goes. But when I receive daily requests from the Democratic Party to donate money to win the Republican War on Women, I wince.
There’s no question that legally redefining rape and personhood, restricting women’s access to contraception and preventive healthcare, requiring vaginal probes or sonograms prior to legal abortions, defunding Planned Parenthood, eliminating federal grants to women’s shelters, and forcing women to discuss their sex lives with their employers are part of a wave of bad legislative ideas that seek to change the role and rights of women in our society. Attempts at social engineering. Yes. Political chicanery. Yes. A persistent expression of deep-seated chauvinism in our culture. All too likely. The effects of war they are not. They are the product of our democracy — millions of votes cast by ordinary Americans to elect their representatives — which has been tacking to the right for quite some time now. Liberal ideals have receded so much in the last half century that we nearly lack a distinctive vocabulary that inspires people to act for the good of the whole. Democrats can’t declare the bad legislation working its way legally through state houses and Congress as “undemocratic.” Instead, they have resorted to the rhetoric of war.
To Democratic fundraisers I say, let the Republicans play at warmongering metaphors. War is evil and the metaphor of war is soaked with panic and blood. I won’t wage war for myself or other women and the Democratic Party diminishes itself by using this trope.
Unfortunately, the events Democrats are bundling as a “war” on women is more evidence that Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges is correct that liberals and their party strategists have surrendered to the “pornography of violence” peddled by the conservatives in the political arena. I find myself feeling the same frustration Hedges expresses in Death of the Liberal Class when he asks himself, “How do you explain that the very proposition of war as an instrument of virtue is absurd?” Adopting the metaphor of war to make a political argument is just as misguided. Democrats cannot denounce the rhetoric of “Second Amendment remedies” and gun sights on a political map if they characterize citizen-inspired legislative proposals as a war on anybody. How did the Democrats go from “Make love not war” to urging its base to fund the war-of-the-month?
Although American women, children, and men stand to lose a lot if Republicans ideas are supported by the majority of the voting public, there is no winning this spurious “war on women.” Not all women are on the same side of these issues, nor will any victories be permanent as long we continue to be a democracy. These bad Republican legislative ideas are signs of a political and social struggle that we can’t opt out of the way we can avoid serving in the military. Democrats with progressive ideals should sidestep the win-lose framing of this particular struggle and offer an alternative aspiration that doesn’t depend on bellicose imagery. Here’s a statement by John F. Kennedy that succinctly characterizes, I think, what we ought to be looking for in an elected official:
“…someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad…”
With these words, then candidate Kennedy was unapologetically, indeed proudly, declaring himself to be a liberal. His articulation of his “liberal faith” still stands in marked contrast to the paranoid, depraved impulse that leads to war and its soundtrack. He goes on:
“I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. It is, I believe, the faith in our fellow citizens as individuals and as people that lies at the heart of the liberal faith. For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man’s ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.”
Whatever the Republicans’ objectives are in proposing bills that look backward and not forward, that reject the duty to care for the welfare of all American people, that promote stalemate and suspicion in place of fairness and justice for all, there is a polite yet potent word that captures their spirit — and that word is “illiberal.” You won’t hear it on the radio or see it online much, but look it up. Its synonyms range from “ungenerous” to “ignoble” to “narrow-minded.” In the last few decades we let the word “liberal” get swallowed by negative connotations. Now “slut” and “prostitute” are being tested as derogatory political labels by the right. If the Democrats want to speak for me, a woman and a progressive, I recommend that they have the courage to take back the term “liberal” by reminding Americans what its opposite denotes, a political perspective that is “intolerant,” “uncharitable,” “ill-mannered,” “stingy,” and “disingenuous.” Illiberalism is the foe of liberals, progressives, and Democrats. Not Republicans, men or women.
I don’t hate Republicans or wish them dead. I do find their ideology and political actions to be almost always illiberal. Because I wish that fewer Americans would subscribe to their ideas, I intend to keep sending money to the Democratic Party to help educate voters and unseat illiberal legislators in any legislative body. So long as the solicitations don’t pretend to wage war in my name.
Nancy Mattina teaches expository writing and linguistics at Prescott College. She is presently working on a book on the life of Professor Gladys Reichard, a linguist and ethnographer best known for her studies on Navajo language, textiles, and religion.