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Whatever Happened to Occupy Madison?

By: UndisciplinedPhD Friday April 12, 2013 4:36 am

Back in November 2011, Kevin Gosztola visited Madison, Wisconsin as part of his tour distributing funds collected by FDL for various Occupy encampments. We took Kevin to Menards to buy tarps and large plastic bins with lids that the group said they needed. It was cold and rainy and the ragtag group was trying to figure out how to stay dry and survive the winter outside. Most of the General Assembly discussion that night focused on getting straw bales for insulation around their tents, whether there was a difference between straw and hay bales, and whether such insulation would attract rats. (There is a difference and you can count on hay attracting rats.)

Occupy Madison

It was a humble effort that received little attention as most activists in the aftermath of the historic protests in February and March of that year were focused on the attack on middle class workers and recalling various politicians. About a month or so after our November visit, I was observing the Solidarity Singers for the ACLU at the Capitol, and ran into a couple of the Occupy activists I’d met that night. I asked them how it was going and they expressed deep discouragement. The small group had largely become a camp for the homeless. Rather than planning a revolution, their time was mainly taken up with the issues of the homeless. Alcohol consumption and drunkenness was a particular problem for several people that affected the whole group.

Occupy Madison wasn’t the only group that attracted the homeless. Around the country, those ground down in the creaky gears of late stage capitalism and alienated from the rest of society – and often from each other – found homes in encampments dedicated to mutual aid and self-governance through direct democracy. More practically, it was a place to go during the day where you wouldn’t be turned away, you would be fed, and you could leave your belongings without fear of them being stolen. A major complaint about shelters in Madison was that while they offered a warm place to sleep at night, you and your belongings were kicked out during the day. Thus, the homeless spent their days toting what little they owned and getting pushed from place to place. Such a system also provides little opportunity for building community.

Often the influx of homeless individuals was viewed by Occupy activists in various locales as a problem and a distraction from the work at hand. But if a goal of the Occupy movement was to bring the 99% together to address social and economic inequality and develop a different way of living in the world and relating to one another, shouldn’t the plight of those at the very bottom of the social and economic hierarchy be a primary focus? Perhaps, even, the place to begin?

This week’s Isthmus, a local paper here in Madison, offers a terrific feature story by Joe Tarr about the evolution of Occupy Madison. They’ve been pushed around from place to place over the last couple of years, but have created a community and even dream of building tiny homes, planting a garden, and keeping chickens and bees. According to Tarr:

The idea is not new. Cities in the northwest have established or are attempting to set up similar projects. Residents in Portland, Ore., created Dignity Village in 2001. And projects are under way in Eugene, Ore., and Olympia, Wash.

“I like the idea of this tiny home village that economically allows people to have a small amount of space that meets the public expectation of what shelter is,” Wallbaum says. “There’s no appetite for people being in a tent, but maybe if there were small houses slightly bigger than a tent, it might be economically feasible.”

The village would not be limited to homeless people. To be successful, the group wants to pull people with more resources to create stability and support. The hope is that it will attract people who want a more sustainable, minimalist and cooperative lifestyle.

The Occupy movement has been branded a “failure” in many quarters, but, judging by this story in the Isthmus, it’s hard for me to see Occupy Madison as anything other than a success. No social movement changes society in a few months.  But planting seeds that grow and endure, as Occupy Madison has despite all they’ve been through, is a true achievement. At a time when we have fallen so low a Democratic president is set to cut Social Security and Medicare, Occupy Madison gives me hope.

 

I Am So Confused!

By: UndisciplinedPhD Thursday June 7, 2012 2:21 pm

Sorry to write a non-political post, but I need to get a message to FDLers.

Sorry to be dense about this, but what is the “friends” function for?? I’m not on Facebook or anything.

I’m very flattered that some individuals sent notifications that they wanted to be “friends.”  But I just saw those notifications today, and decided to check back on them after posting my diary.

Well, now the notifications are gone and I don’t know who the persons were!  I just want the individuals to know, I’m not snubbing anyone and didn’t intentionally “reject” any friend requests.

Best to all,

Katherine

Divide and Conquer in Wisconsin and Beyond

By: UndisciplinedPhD Thursday June 7, 2012 11:15 am

The post mortems on the disastrous recall defeat in Wisconsin have begun and many of them rightly focus on factors such as the role of money, the failure of Democrats and labor unions to get their message out, and the flawed strategy of channeling activist energy solely into electoral politics.  But I want to focus on a more fundamental problem, one that preceded Governor Scott Walker’s first election and the historic protests, and that extends beyond Wisconsin.  That problem is exemplified by this story from a Charles Pierce article in Esquire magazine.  Pierce was reporting on Monday night campaign rallies prior to Tuesday’s election.

A Star Wars-style 'Imperial Walker' costume at Walker Recall protests.

(Photo: Matt Baran)

Out in the parking lot, I fell into conversation with Phil Waseleski, who was wearing a T-shirt celebrating the U.S. Postal Service that was festooned with Scott Walker buttons. Phil was a letter carrier in the neighborhoods around the Serb Hall for nearly 40 years, but he retired last year when his days were cut back to three a week as part of the fiscal crisis forced upon the USPS by Republican legislators who would like to see it go away entirely.

“A friend once told me, ‘Well, we only need mail three or four days a week,’” Phil told me. “I politely told him, ‘Dave, we’re gonna have to agree to disagree.’ I could have told him, ‘Dave, you know, maybe at that engineering place where you work, they only need you three days a week, and then you could come help us.’

“The politicians, I think, it’s a tough call, because if you don’t keep the postal service in business — you and I will both agree that there’s nothing more personal than taking pen in hand to write to your mother, sister, or brother. Until June of last year, I gave my heart and soul to my job. I worked right through lunch most days.”

Eventually, I asked him why he was here, at the Serb Hall, supporting Scott Walker, whose politics were far more in tune with the people who are trying to strangle the postal service than they are with the people who still work there. Phil told me that it was about his sister-in-law. “The problem is that, when you start handing out free health care out to teachers, that annoys me to no end,” he said. “I never got free health care. My brother’s wife is a teacher and I once asked her, when I was getting my teeth worked on, what it cost her and she said, ‘Nothing.’ It should never get to that point where somebody’s getting free health care. Something’s way out of whack there.”

This story resonated with me because I can tell so many similar ones.  They’re stories of envy and resentment successfully exploited by a strategy of divide and conquer – a strategy that Walker explicitly told his wealthy funders during his first gubernatorial campaign he planned to use.  It’s a story of otherwise intelligent people ignoring some facts and choosing to take out their frustrations not on the distant elites that created the economic problems they’re experiencing, but rather on those near to them, neighbors, relatives, and friends.

In this story, Phil, whose work schedule was cut due to a fiscal “crisis” at the USPS concocted by those who would destroy it, doesn’t empathize with state workers who, before Walker’s first election, were also forced to take furlough days for two years running to help remedy state fiscal problems brought on in large part by our national economic crisis.  Instead, he focuses on his sister-in-law teacher who supposedly receives “free” health care.  Phil surely knows that her health care is not “free.”  But undoubtedly she has good health insurance benefits.

Wisconsin Recall Reveals the True DNC Agenda

By: UndisciplinedPhD Wednesday May 30, 2012 5:56 pm

Visiting with my dad last week, talk turned, as it inevitably does, to politics.  A retired electrician and proud member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Dad has been closely following the attack on labor in Wisconsin since the 2011 uprising.  He expressed amazement at the reluctance of the DNC to offer anything more than token support of the attempt to recall our notorious Republican governor.  “I just don’t understand it,” he marveled.  “What can they be thinking?”

Sign in Window: Here's Your Pink Slip, The People of Wisconsin

Photo by Matt Baran.

“Well,” I said, “clearly they don’t want to encourage mass mobilization against austerity measures.  They plan to work with the Republicans after the national election to implement austerity – cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and so on.  Remember, Obama and Boehner made a deal last July to do just that.  Ironically, it was the Tea Partiers that derailed the whole thing, and not because they care about social programs.  Outside money is supporting that kind of policy in Wisconsin.  It’s not just an attack on collective bargaining; it’s cuts to Badgercare, education – all kinds of things.”

Dad just kind of stared for a moment; then we went onto other topics.  Although he has only a high school education, he’s well-read and intelligent.  He senses I’m right; he just doesn’t want to believe it.  I don’t blame him.  Not so many years ago, I would have reacted similarly.

It’s obvious that if the DNC were truly interested in a progressive agenda, Wisconsin would be a high priority.  Massive funding from organizations such Freedomworks, Club for Growth, and ALEC, as well as from wealthy individuals such as Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who funded Newt Gringrich, Bob Perry (funder of the Swift boat ads), URL Pharma President Richard Roberts, and Christy Walton of the Wal-Mart Waltons, has poured into the state to support Governor Walker.  If their dollars can buy the implementation of their neoliberal and austerity agenda in a state where hundreds of thousands marched in the snow, week after week, to strenuously protest that agenda, then they can do it anywhere.  The DNC, Wasserman-Schulz, and Obama clearly understand this.  They know exactly what they’re doing.

Andrew Levine expands on this in an article in Counterpunch today:

Why the Civil Rights Model Will Not Work for Occupy

By: UndisciplinedPhD Thursday May 10, 2012 6:05 am

The black civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s is one of the most studied and analyzed social movements in American history – with good reason.  After centuries of slavery, followed by another 90 years or so of segregation, economic oppression, and political disenfranchisement, African Americans managed to reverse some of the most egregious denials of their civil rights in just a couple of decades.

By now, the movement has achieved near legendary status.  Who among us doesn’t recall the iconic images of courageous nonviolent protesters facing down the shocking violence that enforced the Southern caste system?  If we are not old enough to have seen the news reports back in the day, we surely saw the images in documentary films shown at school or on television.

Freedom Riders Lewis & Zwerg. Wikimedia Commons.

Freedom Riders Lewis & Zwerg. Wikimedia Commons.

For many Americans, the strategies and tactics of the early civil rights era have become the gold standard by which later movements, strategies, and tactics are judged.  However, the successful template of one social movement cannot be applied in assembly line fashion to every social movement that follows.  What worked for the black civil rights movement (in the South – the strategy was less successful in the North) will not work for Occupy.  This is due, in part, to a changed political and economic environment, and in part to differing goals and values of the two movements.

The strategy of the civil rights movement began with a legal agenda pursued by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), resulting in a number of Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s and 1950s affirming the civil rights of African Americans.  Activists then attempted to nonviolently assert those rights, knowing that segregationists would respond with violence.  The ensuing crisis would compel the federal government to enforce rights upheld by the courts.

So, for example, the Supreme Court decision, Brown vs the Board of Education (1954), which prohibited segregated public schools, prepared the way for the integration of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.  When the nine black students chosen to integrate Central High arrived on the first day of school, they were met by an angry crowd and denied entry by the Alabama National Guard under orders from Governor Orval Faubus.

You Can’t “Grow the Movement” by Dissing the Kids: On Chris Hedges and Occupy

By: UndisciplinedPhD Friday April 13, 2012 9:35 am

(image: opk/flickr)

Chris Hedges is on a mission.  That mission is to save the Occupy movement from anarchists who employ any tactic of which Hedges does not approve.  Apparently he never read, or gave credence to, anthropologist, anarchist, and sometime black bloc participant, David Graeber’s respectful and urgent open letter written in response to Hedges’ by now infamous article “The Cancer in Occupy.”   Despite Graeber’s patient explanation that black bloc is a tactic, not a movement, and that anarchists like himself were centrally involved in organizing the occupation of Zuccotti park, creating the General Assembly process, and originating the 99% slogan, Hedges continues to refer to black bloc as a group of people and to assert that their “cynicism” and “feral” acts of violence will destroy Occupy from within.

Nor does it seem to matter to Hedges that his pronouncements do not reflect the spirit of a movement he claims to value and hopes to “grow.”  That spirit is epitomized by the General Assembly, a remarkably democratic institution, where all voices are allowed a chance to be heard.  Instead, the Harvard educated master of divinity continues to pound the pulpit, fulminating against what he describes as “black bloc anarchists,” and calling for the expulsion from Occupy of those who do not adhere to his extreme version of nonviolence.

In a video posted at Truthdig this week, of a question and answer period following a panel discussion at the April 2nd Control the Corporation conference, a self-identified anarchist asks Hedges how much he actually knows about Occupy, noting that many of the movement’s processes were authored by anarchists. Hedges responds that he, too, is an anarchist, a Christian anarchist, and that in his article he was not criticizing anarchy, but instead “stupidity.” Consider for a moment how it must feel to have someone not only telling you how the movement you helped to create ought to be run, but also demanding your expulsion from that movement, and calling your tactics “stupid.”  I marveled, watching the video, at the restraint of the anarchists questioning Hedges.  There was shouting at the end that I couldn’t make out, so perhaps they did ultimately respond with insults, but by then, who could blame them?

Central to the dispute between Hedges and the anarchists who helped to found Occupy is the issue of violence versus nonviolence – and how those are defined.  In general terms, anarchism refers to the absence of rulers (hence, the “leaderless” Occupy movement).  The idea is not lawlessness or general chaos, but rather, freedom from hierarchical authority and ruling power enforced by violence.  Anarchism has a long history in the United States and many anarchists were involved in the early labor movement.  Then, as now, anarchists sought to push back against police brutality.  One contemporary method for doing so is the black bloc.

The black bloc tactic originated in Germany in the 1980s in response to police brutality against peaceful protesters.  Participants dress in black and cover their faces to avoid identification and more easily evade police.  American anarchist David Graeber describes the attire as:

Smooth Operator: Why President Obama is Likely to be Re-elected

By: UndisciplinedPhD Wednesday April 4, 2012 12:46 pm

Crossposted at Ted Rall’s blog.

Last week Ted Rall predicted that, despite assumptions to the contrary in the “corporate pundit class,” Mitt Romney will be elected president.  Rall observes that Obama is currently leading Romney in the polls by only 4-5 points – not enough to carry him through a long campaign season of pro-Romney attack ads – an aspect of campaigning at which Republicans excel.  Further, Rall asserts that the narrative this time around favors Romney rather than Obama.  People know the economy is getting worse, not better, and historically have been susceptible to the argument that we should run the country like a business.  Finally, Rall points out that Republicans have a huge fundraising advantage and that they are a “loyal bunch.”  For these reasons, his money is on Romney.

It’s risky to disagree with Rall, given his track record of being wrong only once in 17 years.  But what the heck; here goes!  First of all, I suspect the old narratives are not working as well as in the past.  They’re worn and frayed and more and more people, including conservatives, are suspicious of a businessman who inherited much of his wealth and made the rest by buying up companies, breaking them up, and laying off workers.  As for Republican loyalty, the Christian evangelicals, a crucial voting bloc for Republicans, will not be voting in large numbers for a Mormon.  I suspect that many progressives and young people who have soured on Obama, and Christians who can’t bring themselves to vote for a Mormon, will be sitting this one out and confounding the pollsters.

Finally, President Obama proved himself a champion fundraiser last time around and as of February 2012, had accumulated a war chest more than twice as big as Mitt Romney’s (though, as Rall says, once Romney is the nominee his fundraising will kick into high gear.)  And, Obama is the only presidential candidate ever to have won Advertising Age’s Marketer of the Year award for his campaign.  His ability to win an election should not be under-estimated.

However, those are not the primary reasons I believe Obama will be re-elected.  The main difference between my analysis and Rall’s is that Rall is focusing primarily on voter behavior, while my primary focus is on the goals of the oligarchy, the financial elite, if you will, that really run this country.  For that class, Obama is the best candidate to implement the austerity agenda that is going to be foisted on us after the election by whoever wins.  (Here I agree with Rall that “the D vs. R horserace is a parlor game with minor ramifications for our daily lives” and that whichever “corporate party” wins, we will continue to get widening economic inequality.)

Economist Michael Hudson pointed out last July, during the phony debt ceiling “crisis”, that just as it took a Republican president, Richard Nixon, to go to communist China, it will take a Democratic president to dismantle the social safety net and impose an austerity agenda.  Hudson wrote:

Wall Street knows that to get sufficient Congressional votes to roll back the New Deal, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, a Democratic president needs to be in office. A Democratic Congress would block any Republican president trying to make the kind of cuts that Mr. Obama is sponsoring. But Congressional Democratic opposition is paralyzed when President Obama himself – the liberal president par excellence, America’s Tony Blair – acts as cheerleader for cutting back entitlements and other social spending.

It’s the same in many western countries, Hudson observed, from France where the Socialist government supported the “privatization program dictated by European Central Bank,” to  Greece, where the Socialist party led “the fight for privatization and bank bailouts,” to Britain where involvement of the Labour party proved crucial in quelling popular opposition to privatization of the railways.

Hudson accurately anticipated last July that the playing field would be tilted by a clown car of Republican candidates, and that their extremism would allow Obama to fake left and move right.  He wrote:

The Republicans help by refraining from putting forth a credible alternative presidential candidate. The effect is to give Mr. Obama room to move far to the right wing of the political spectrum.

In addition to being the leader of the most effective political party for imposing an austerity agenda, Obama’s personal style is far superior to Romney’s for the task at hand.  Obama can be charming, gives the appearance of sincerity (unlike Romney, who is so obviously phony), and sounds like the reasonable guy in the room.  He is the perfect executive for the oligarchy, adept at pushing through their agenda while pretending to be one of us, even occasionally appropriating some of the language of the Occupy movement when it suits his purpose.  In sum, he is one smooth operator, highly skilled at “cooling out the mark” (that’s you and me).

Sociologist Erving Goffman used the analogy of a confidence game, and the role of “cooling out the mark,” to illustrate how individuals are persuaded to adjust to loss in various social situations. In a confidence game, potential marks are targeted and then convinced that they have a chance to win the game (actually rigged in favor of the confidence men).  Once relieved of their cash, marks are expected to depart, sadder, but wiser.  Some marks, however, are not prepared to accept their losses.  In these cases, an associate of those running the confidence game has the job of “cooling out the mark,” or getting him to accept his loss.

Goffman explains:

After the blowoff has occurred, one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team-mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home.

A classic example of a social situation where “cooling out the mark” – or persuading an individual to accept a loss of money and/or status – is required, occurs when someone is fired from a job.   In the film Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a character, Ryan Bingham, whose job it is to fly around the country firing employees whose companies are downsizing.  Clooney’s character functions as a “cooler,” by attempting to defuse the anger and hurt of individuals losing their jobs, and reframing the loss as a great opportunity.   Bingham begins every firing by telling the former employee:

Anybody who ever built an empire or changed the world, sat where you are now.  And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.

Whoever wins the presidential election will function as the Ryan Bingham for the 99%, charged with giving us the bad news that the money we have paid in all our working lives for Social Security has been borrowed by the Federal government and they’re not going to pay it back, that Medicare will be privatized, and that programs for low-income people such as Medicaid and food stamps will be eliminated because, sadly, “we’re broke.”  (Of course, we’re not broke – see this film – but that’s a subject for another post.)

Who do you imagine will be better at “cooling out the mark,” President Obama or Mitt Romney?   Who do you think the oligarchy will favor for the job?

Katherine M Acosta is freelance writer currently based in Madison, Wisconsin.  Contact her at kacosta at undisciplinedphd dot com.  Her blog is UndisciplinedPhD.

Challenging Religious Bigotry in the Birth Control Debate

By: UndisciplinedPhD Friday March 16, 2012 9:04 am

In 1975, country legend Loretta Lynn released a song with these lyrics:

All these years I’ve stayed at home
While you had all your fun
And every year that’s gone by
Another baby’s come
There’s gonna be some changes made
Right here on nursery hill
You’ve set this chicken your last time
‘Cause now I’ve got the pill.

She was denounced in pulpits throughout the country and the song was banned from many radio stations.   It wasn’t the first time a song of hers had been banned.  A few years earlier, her hit song, Rated X, about the double standard applied to divorced women, sparked similar outrage from the usual suspects, and was also banned.  Lynn didn’t set out to make big political statements.  She simply wrote from her life experience and the raw truths she expressed resonated with her many fans.  In a 2010 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Lynn remarked that she recorded a lot of songs that tell it like it is.  “I guess,” she mused, “we’re not to talk about the way it is.”

Lynn had her first child when she was just 14 years old, and four children by the time she was19. By the time she recorded “The Pill” she’d had six children, (including a set of twins), and three miscarriages.  She never took birth control pills, but would have, she told Terry Gross, had they been available to her. “It’s hard for a woman,” she said, “to have so many kids.”

I think of her now as I struggle to respond to the birth control issue.  I am an intensely private person, not one of those writers who regularly examine and analyze their personal lives for public consumption. But the attack on birth control and women who use it, (nearly all women, during their child-bearing years), is deeply personal.  The insults Rush Limbaugh, Patricia Heaton, and others have heaped on Sandra Fluke, hit me like blows to the stomach.  The attacks politicians make on insurance coverage of birth control for perceived political gain – (Who are the real prostitutes here?) – similarly hit me where I live.  Is there any better illustration of the maxim the personal is political?

I became a mother when I was just 19 years old.  Hospitalized as I reached my 8th month of pregnancy, (we didn’t measure it in weeks back then), doctors deliberated what to do as my symptoms – high blood pressure, protein in urine, severe edema, and other markers of pre-eclampsia – escalated.  I am small in stature – just 4’9” tall – and that combined with my naiveté and shyness gave the appearance of a younger person.  A friend who saw a photo of me back then remarked that I looked about 14 years old.  One of my nurses told me that other mothers on the floor were worried about me and had asked whether that “little girl” was going to be alright.

Within a few days, concerned about my deteriorating condition, my doctor decided to go ahead with an emergency c-section.  It was a deeply traumatic experience for me.  The first time I saw my tiny baby, he was in an incubator struggling to breathe with immature lungs.  I began to cry.  Be strong! I whispered.  I think I was talking to both of us.  So began, 35 years ago this week, one of the most profound, passionate, and ultimately enriching relationships of my life.  Happy Birthday, son!  I am a fortunate woman to have you in my life.

I am also fortunate to have lived at a time and place where safe, reliable, and humane methods of birth control are available.  (I say humane because human beings have always found ways to control the number of children in their families, through a variety of means, including risky abortifacients and infanticide.)  I can’t imagine the toll it would have taken on my health to go through as many pregnancies as Loretta Lynn did.

In 2007, pre-eclampsia and eclampsia accounted for 18% of maternal deaths in the United States (compared with 15% world-wide.)  The U.S. has a dismal record when it comes to maternal deaths generally (defined medically as death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of the pregnancy).  In 2010, our maternal death rate was three times the US government’s Healthy People 2010 goal.  Among Native Americans, the maternal death rate was 4 times the Healthy People 2010 goal; for African American women the rate was 8 times the Healthy People goal.  Women living in low-income areas are also vulnerable.  They were twice as likely in 2010 to experience maternal death as were women in high-income areas.  “Near misses,” or pregnancy-related complications that nearly cause death, have increased 25% since 1998.

In their 2010 report, Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA, Amnesty International called on President Barack Obama to address these problems, which Amnesty attributed largely to the “haphazard” approach to maternal care in this country – e.g. lack of health insurance, bureaucratic delays in Medicaid enrollment, and so on.  Insurance coverage of birth control in a country where maternal death rates are high for an industrialized country, and where  40-50% of pregnancies, (depending on geographical location), are unplanned, would seem to be an inexpensive and sensible place to start.

However, the main defense of insurance coverage for birth control in this debate that I have read is not maternal health, but rather dysmenorrhea and prevention of ovarian cancer.  Those are also good reasons to require birth control coverage.  But we can talk about women’s health issues until, to use one of my mother’s expressions, we are “blue in the face,” and it will not move the vocal – and powerful – minority  opposed to the birth control coverage mandate.  (The majority have already indicated they think contraceptive coverage is a health, rather than religious, issue.)  The reason is that they do not care about women’s health.  They are motivated instead by right-wing economic and/or religious ideology.

The economic ideologues are opposed to any government regulation of business.  The religious ideologues are opposed to sex divorced from potential childbearing.  The unholy alliance between the two was forged decades ago, when Republicans realized they could not win elections solely on platforms that benefited the rich and corporations.  It is not original or new to suggest that because right-wing economic policies are not supported by most Americans, (for example, a majority of Americans support single-payer health care) they have to cynically use social issues to gain power.  The result is that the issue of birth control coverage in our debased political culture manifests as slut-shaming.

One would think that Christians could be appealed to on humanitarian grounds; that they would care about women’s health and potential suffering.  Some of them do. The problem is that most of those aren’t speaking up.  I rolled my eyes when religion reporter Nicole Neroulias wondered in a Huffington Post article why religious journalists have not acknowledged or reported on the “myriad health issues, from ovarian cancer, menstrual problems, hormone imbalances and fertility treatments to cystic acne” for which birth control pills are commonly prescribed.  Where has she been?

Moderate Christians routinely remain silent while the extremists suck up all the political air.  It’s a reason atheist Sam Harris criticizes religious moderates.  “Because of the respect that moderates demand of faith-based talk,” he argues, we can’t “say the really critical things we must say about the abject stupidity of religious fundamentalism.”

Since it’s useless to counter these economic and religious fanatics on health grounds, we might as well take a page out of Karl Rove’s book.  By that I don’t mean unfounded smears, vicious attacks, lies, and so on.  I refer instead to his tactic of confronting opponents on their strengths rather than their weaknesses.  Recall, for example, that Rove successfully targeted John Kerry’s Vietnam-era military service, a factor that should have helped Kerry in an election against someone whose dad pulled strings to get him a slot in the National Guard.  Similarly, we need to directly confront the religious and economic ideologies behind these attacks on women.

We need to challenge their pretense that large powerful institutions like the Catholic Church are somehow persecuted and oppressed, and that the religious rights of institutions trump those of individual citizens.  We need to assert our right to religious beliefs that differ from theirs, and to every citizen’s right to freedom from religion entirely.

We need to point out forcefully and often that because we don’t have a public single-payer health insurance system, we must buy health insurance from private businesses.  If the owners of these businesses cannot respect religious differences and refrain from imposing their beliefs on their female employees, then they should either campaign for single-payer health care or give up their businesses entirely.  Clearly, they do not understand that employers do not own employees and must respect their civil rights, and are therefore unfit to run a business in a society that guarantees religious freedom.

We need to challenge religious leaders to elaborate their beliefs beyond the simple notion that sex is just for procreation.  We need press them to justify the potential consequences of proscribing birth control.  We should ask them, for example, whether they agree with Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, who asserted that:

If a woman grows weary and, at last, dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing; she is there to do it.

Or with St. Augustine who declared:

Any woman who acts in such a way that she cannot give birth to as many children as she is capable of, makes herself guilty of that many murders.

We need to ask them bluntly whether they think it’s god’s will that should women suffer, as traditional Christian writers asserted was women’s lot; whether they think ovarian cancer is just the price women should pay to ensure no one has the opportunity of sex without the risk of pregnancy.  And we should call them on the lie that birth control is cheaply and easily available elsewhere; that they just don’t think their businesses should pay for it.  If their only goal is to exempt themselves, why the attacks on Planned Parenthood?

Finally, we should stop evading the issue of sexual freedom, of sex for its own sake, rather than just for procreation.  We need to stop cowering behind ovarian cancer and debilitating menstrual symptoms as justifications for birth control usage. We need to insist instead that sexual activity is a natural and healthy human behavior.

In her 1975 song celebrating the pill, Loretta Lynn sings not only of ending her childbearing, but also of embracing her sexuality:

This old maternity dress I’ve got
Is goin’ in the garbage
The clothes I’m wearin’ from now on
Won’t take up so much yardage
Miniskirts, hot pants, and a few little fancy frills
Yeah, I’m makin’ up for all those years
Since I’ve got the pill…

Further, she sings of the pleasure she and her partner will enjoy, without the threat of pregnancy hanging over them:

The feelin’ good comes easy now
Since I’ve got the pill
It’s getting’ dark, it’s roostin’ time
Tonight’s too good to be real
Oh, but daddy don’t you worry none
‘Cause mama’s got the pill.

The Coal Miner’s daughter had the courage to speak honestly and directly about sexuality and motherhood and let the chips fall where they may.   We need to do the same if we hope to change the terms of the debate and protect women’s health and sexual freedom.