“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have s-x — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a pr-stitute. She wants to be paid to have s-x. She’s having so much s-x she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have s-x.”

That was Rush Limbaugh, quoted on CNN, the screen hovering over the waiting passengers at Philadelphia airport — yes, I hate airport lounge writing too, but blame US Airways not me, for turning a simple Cleveland hop into an eight-hour ordeal — reacting to testimony given to a Congressional hearing by a young woman Georgetown student, Sandra Fluke, about the cost of contraception. Fluke had told the hearing — an ad hoc one organised by Democrats after the student was refused permission to speak at the full subcommittee — that birth control would cost up to $3000 over a three-year period at law school.

The hearing was in response to the growing war over the Obama administration’s insistence that employers include birth control, etc, in their health plans. Conservatives initially believed themselves to be on a winner with the issue, and have only recently started to realise that it may be a disaster for them. They should have been at gate C15 this morning, watching a cast of pretty average Americans stiffen and suddenly become very interested in the magazine they were reading, as Limbaugh’s words floated over them.

Limbaugh’s radio show is broadcast as vision with a locked-off camera, so CNN could show the man — a morbidly obese former painkiller addict — in the full flight of frustrated s-xual aggression. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s a pretty accurate one, to capture the mood of the Right at the moment. The House Democrats have seized on the outburst, writing to speaker John Boehner (“that’s Bayner, not Bo- … oh never mind”) to demand that he distance himself from the comments, so we shall see how that plays out.

Limbaugh’s comments have been circulating around today, as the fight over contraception coverage went to the next level, with the — narrow — defeat of the well-named Blunt amendment, a measure that would have allowed employers providing health care to opt out of any part of it. Ostensibly this was meant to apply birth control and abortion, but could have covered anything — a Jehovah’s Witness boss could have ruled out blood transfusions for his employees, a follower of Louise Hay and others could have ruled out coverage altogether (because illness is a state of mind).

It would be a vile law even if it merely covered birth control in any case, but its manifold absurdities showed its hurried nature — it was, inevitably, attached to a federal roads funding bill in classic US fashion. The amendment was knocked back but only 51-48. Three “Blue Dog” Democrats — the name is appropriate — voted for the bill, and only the Democrats’ pocket majority knocked it back.

The Republicans are trying to make this issue into one turning on the first amendment, and they are losing. Why? Because in the abstract, it may be a matter of conscience. But the unique system of US healthcare, whereby it is overwhelmingly provided by the employer, has served to concentrate many people’s minds wonderfully, about just how exceptional they would like the US to be. This arrangement is quite possibly the source of more terror and heartache among middle America than any single feature of their lives, because it ensures that redundancy will not simply be a major blow to an individual and to a family, but will also swing them out and suspend them over the abyss, with only one major health disaster required to cut the cord altogether.

Indeed it wasn’t until the Obama “affordable care” act came in that there was any real flexibility in having an overlap — so millions of Americans did not change jobs for fear of a gap in their coverage. For many people health coverage is the most important part of their job.

So to wander into a fight over it, with portentous sounding phrases about freedom is to come up with the fact that many Americans do not have the constitutionolatry of the Right, however much they may mouth “rockets red glare” at baseball games. The whole employer-based health cover provision is absurd, but people learn to deal with it. To propose to give the employer carte blanche on grounds of “conscience” is to be genuinely disconnected from the real struggles of American life.

Currently, there is vigorous debate going on among the pundits as to whether this whole issue was a canny move by team Obama to smoke the Right out — as not merely obsessed with culture wars while the economy remains the key issue — but to split conservative religious communities along gender lines. For of course, 90% of Roman Catholic women in the US use birth control, and many would rely on their health plans to make it affordable — with no PBS system to control drug prices, companies can charge what they like.More importantly, many such couples practice a form of cognitive dissonance about the issue — the man doesn’t ask, the woman makes arrangements, and a threat to the affordability of such tends to impact one more than the other, and to sharpen the notion that something is at stake. It’s a feature of the gender gap that often appears in conservative polling — women will often poll 5-6% in support of a conservative candidate above the way they actually vote. Why? Because a) there is always a degree of self-delusion in polling answers, and b) couples are often polled in front of each other. The “woman gap” is a measure of the divergent interests, based on gender, that cannot be recuperated in a defined political position.

Those arguing that this is a deliberate strategy say that the innocuous process was a way of kick-starting some direct confrontation around such issues, and thus bringing into being some sort of mass activist movement that doesn’t seem to have sprung up yet — one that will thoroughly identify the republicans as anti-women. Those giving a contrary opinion say that this is a foolish and delusional belief in the smarts of team Obama, and that the opposite — that through wonkish application of legislative consistency they blundered into a winner — is, given their record, by far the more likely explanation of the situation.

Myself, I incline to the former belief — not I hope out of sheer barracking, though that’s part of it. But team Obama, in the past year, appear to have got their act together, completely, synchronising governmental and political initiatives in a far better way than hitherto. I would imagine that they looked out on the plethora of “personhood” amendments, and state laws mandating v-ginal ultrasounds for women seeking an abortion, and believed that, quite aside from the abhorrence of these proposals themselves, they represented a point of fundamental political division.

There is one simple reason for that, and that is because such issues are where the “cultural” and the “physical-material” i.e. the embodied, intersect. So what looks like a culture war is something else — it’s an existence war, a matter of the base conditions under which half the populations will live their embodied lives. They have perhaps been bewildered as many of us have been as to why these vile initiatives have not brought forth a unified and massive social movement from women who, it must be said, spend a lot of time debating about whether feminism exists, and what it is. But where’s the million-woman march on Washington, against these measures? Why does the Christian Right meet such partial and fragmented resistance and push-back, on an issue that would form the obvious material focus for a third wave feminism?

For it is difficult not to look at some of these state-based bills — in Texas, and recently defeated in Virginia — and not see that the religious Right are moving towards convergence with the Taliban. The bills after all, dictate not merely that doctors should read an approved script to women seeking a termination, but that they should “face them directly, and look them in the eyes”. This level of physical control of an encounter put into the law, is simply a mirror of extreme veiling — it is obsessive, totalitarian control of free bodily action, driven by an apocalyptic and misogynist creed that, confronted with women who speak openly of managing their own bodies and lives, can see them as nothing other than sl-ts and pr-stitutes. Other issues will supervene, but at gate C15, the bristling discomfort made it clear that it is the issue by which the Republicans are cosigning themselves further to the margins of the country they purport to be the essence of.

Peter Fray

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