op-ed


We have extensively covered the war on women’s health that has been waged by the Boehner House ever since the Republicans took office of the House of Representatives following the 2010 midterm election. Pandering to an extreme right wing Tea Party – despite their claims their organisation only focuses on job creation and deficit reduction – GOP representatives have done their hardest to cut the women’s health sections out of the Affordable Care Act. First chasing after a fictitious federal fund for abortion through Planned Parenthood, they decided they would financially dry them out entirely. Now, they are after birth control. 

Steve King (copyright Washington Post)

“Steve King (…) is failing to understand the very basic concepts of medicine, the reproductive system, (and) women’s health”

Beginning next year, the federal government will require, under current provisions of the Affordable Care Act, that insurance companies cover entirely the cost of birth control as a preventive treatment. As often in legislature, the wording is everything: no one raised an objection until Kathleen Sebelius publicly approved of the following recommendation by the Institute of Medicine. The moment Sebelius declared her enthusiasm as a scientifically endorsed lawmaking project that would curb the rise in unplanned pregnancies, Iowa’s Steve King took the floor to voice his discontent with an argument we can only qualify as paranoid, the way only a Philip K. Dick novel could fathom in such short notice.

“Well if you applied that preventative medicine universally what you end up with is you’ve prevented a generation. Preventing babies from being born is not medicine. That’s not — that’s not constructive to our culture and our civilization. If we let our birth rate get down below replacement rate we’re a dying civilization.”

Granted, 2011 has been the year of all sorts of apocalyptic predictions. From Harold Camping’s calculations leading to a Judgement Day on May 21 and the rising fear over the end of the Mayan Calendar planned for December 2012, we are not short of any sort of dying civilization stories. However, preventive health care for women was not in any of the theologists’ books. It was, however, a very recurrent nightmare for Steve King who is failing to understand the very basic concepts of medicine, the reproductive system, women’s health, and, on a bigger scale, his role as an elected representative to bring an all-encompassing piece of legislature that will help his own nation leap forward into modernism, equality, and the rising costs of living.

It seems to me that what triggered Steve King’s extreme paranoid reaction is the use of the word “preventive”, that birth control is exlusively made to stop something from happening. Which is true, in a way; it is also true that birth control methods, which is based on the release of certain hormones into the bloodstream at certain key moments of a woman’s reproductive cycle, also helps with a lot of symptoms associated with dysfunctioning ovaries or anormal hormone levels. This is a fundamental part of the “preventive” part of birth control use. Putting this point aside, Steve King is worried that easy and affordable access to birth control will annihilate America.

Let’s use numbers.

There are currently 312 million people living in the United States. A projected 439 million will be reached by 2050: this represents a steady 4.2% growth over 30 years, which is hardly what one would call extinction. (1) Out of those 312 million, 152 million are female, 74% of which have reportedly used birth control at some point in their lives – and that number has been steadily rising from 1995 to 2002. This is no shocker to anyone who has ever been in the vicinity of a woman. It is a complete and utter trauma for Steve King who believes that a constant rise in population and a constant rise in birth control means a constant rise in deaths not replaced by births. Granted, I have never been good at math. But King’s conclusion is completely mind-boggling.

“In short, he believes women on birth control (…) are selfish, individualistic, self-centered, small-minded, and more importantly, spoiled”

What Steve King wants is for us all potential baby-bearers to take the high road, to consider a bigger plan, to step outside of our own personal frame. He basically wants us to consider pregnancy as an outside willingness, to see ourselves as a temporary vessel, to place ourselves within a larger community. In short, he believes women on birth control – and by extension, obviously, the godless heathens who have or will book an abortion – are selfish, individualistic, self-centered, small-minded, and more importantly, spoiled; that birth control has given us the gift of choice, and that we are undeserving of it. This is no longer a question of opinion, or even of a question of sexism: this is mysogyny disguised under a thick coat of pseudo-concern and so-called political consciousness. It’s hypocrisy taken to the degree of rolling decades and decades backwards in preventive medicine, women’s health, and the very concept, more than necessary, paramount ideology of family planning.

The rape of the Sabines, by Pietro da Cortona

Four out of ten pregnancies are unplanned, which is a massive amount in a western, modern country that should educate its children in the matters of sex, relationships, and reproduction. An unplanned pregnancy may not necessarily result in a complicated one, a traumatic birth, or a psychologically disturbed upbringing. A planned pregnancy, however, massively helps bringing all those factors into the successful bringing of a new life into the world. Birth control can also be used to space several pregnancies over time, reducing the risk of complications, ensuring a proper communication within the existing family, and adding a new factor to the mix: the financial cost of pregnancy and child rearing. Lest we forget we are going through a recession.

It would be easy to dump Steve King’s inconsistencies to sheer ignorance. It is however hard to go through life without encountering a woman who is pregnant or has already had children. The faces of birth control are as varied as women themselves; and reducing them to a sole purpose, free from all the purposes, dreams, aspirations, and complexities of everyday life in one specific context is an atrocity that has plagued women up until birth control was made readily available. The next step forward that has been taken by the Affordable Care Act is one which importance should never be underestimated. The words and beliefs of Steve King should effectively cost him office. Beware of writing women off the map, Representative.

(1) all numbers are 2010 data, provided by the Census Bureau (census.gov)

Read more: Robert Walker’s excellent op-ed on The Huffington Post

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Recently invited to a book fair organized by a french association dealing with racism and identity issues, Albin Wagener attended the proceedings to present his book on national identity.  Little did he know everything which would surround him was a display of everything he thought he would be fighting against. 

“I became scared about how France is actually  dealing with intercultural dialogue, tolerance or diversity”

Tolerance is a fashionable feature for public policies and individual or collective initiatives. It remains much needed and, nowadays, the introduction of this very concept and its epistemological offspring (interculturality, recognition, diversity, etc.) is mostly backed by general sentences such as “in these times of globalization” or “today, international exchanges are more intense than ever” – strange truisms actually, if you only think of the history of mankind and its various momentums for discoveries, travels and trades. When observations start with such phrases, one may think that the following conclusions are simply meant to be limited in their interpretations and spheres of actions. This is, of course, not entirely true; sometimes, it is just worse than that.

A few weeks ago, on May 22nd, I had the chance and honor to attend the 4thBook Fair on Antiracism and Diversity organized by the

poster ad from the LICRA: "our skin color must not determine our future", with a dark-skinned baby wearing a janitor's uniform

happily lobbying LICRA, the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism. To be honest, this association is not that international; it is only fair to emphasize the fact that the LICRA is mostly Parisian and white, surely less focused on racism as a whole than anti-semitism as a specific. Being only one upon many authors invited at this book fair, I was struck by the fact that most of the present authors were indeed white. The thin crowd, loafing around in this cocky salon of the municipal building of the 6th arrondissement, was not more diverse either. The most diverse thing I noticed was a bumptious selection of Louis Vuitton handbags, golden necklaces and bourgeois hairdos. Not only were the attendees mostly Caucasian: they were also wealthy and willing to show it. So much about diversity and antiracism, I guess. One may argue that I feel frustrated with having sold only three copies of my book: fortunately I am not so misleadingly proud. I was indeed frustrated (and I still am), but with a more essential reason: I became scared about how France is actually  dealing with intercultural dialogue, tolerance or diversity.

Cover of french satirical cartoon magazine "Fluide Glacial"

The late debate on French national identity already taught us that much. Still the tradition of this country is bound to a faith in the actual regime – the French Republic. And this model is not made for a multicultural society, for the absolute Republic stands high above human differences. As it stands, cultural diversity is put forward when it comes to the worldwide preservation of the French language and culture. Yet on national territory, cultural homogeneity is promoted and encouraged, on the street and even within the home. This is probably why recently, representatives of Sarkozy’s party, UMP, tried to reignite an old recurrent issue: the threat of dual citizens, probably undermining the national future. To cut a long story short,  some politicians would argue that dual citizens should only be allowed to keep a single citizenship, preferably the french one, thus denying any right to recognition, diversity and – let’s not be afraid to state it – human complexity. To some extent, it is implying that you are legally french, or you are not; that french citizenship does not stand the challenge of sharing a burden with another country of citizenship. So what happens next? Should I choose to be only French, will I only be allowed to drink red wine, eat camembert and wear a Basque beret? The French no longer need stereotypes: they are producing them. Should I let go of the French citizenship, what is the next step? Will I be treated like a regular citizen? All these questions are taken to a higher level of incongruity, because diversity is seen, displayed and treated as a problem that has to be solved with simple solutions. In France, no one seems to want to live with complexity as a metaphysical condition of mankind: the national choice is political reductionism made for polls. I still do hope that we will fulfil our duty as citizens to be more informed, more educated, more pro-active in the understanding of our own identities.

“Options are not based on the need to include, integrate and share, but on the need to shut out, separate and exclude”

This manipulation of ideas such as diversity, tolerance and interculturalism is only possible because of three major phenomena: territoriality, exclusion and shallow processing.  If French history is an acceptable explanation for this conceptual blend, it is still not an excuse; different social choices could be made in order to make this model evolve. The problem is that French politicians are mostly focused on national self-references and are not easily inspired by foreign models. This confusion is made easier by a European crisis of identity, making nations question the social models of diversity and multiculturalism without looking at the original causes of collective turmoil – unemployment, an ever-growing poverty and the creeping conviction that the economic choice of international capitalism no longer fits. We would then need to ask the right questions by reinventing our social and political models, our system of consumerism and our relationships to others. This would require energy, time and serious means to tackle them: it is easier to believe that it is someone else’s fault, particularly when we do not share the same cultural values, social references or religious beliefs. Come to think about it, it becomes really convenient to define a delimited territory when borders are traced on the basis of self-imposed stereotypes of what should and should not be. Since France has always been reluctant to surrender to the European alarm calls for a collective policy of recognition, it now has the opportunity to spread this message around the world: “you see, we had it coming – we knew this would never work”. In this sense, the crisis of the European identity and its projects work well with the risk of a territorial fallback.

This brings us to a second point: exclusion as a solution. In recent political developments, I did not sense any notion of inclusion. In other words, the submitted options are not based on the need to include, integrate and share, but on the need to shut out, separate and exclude; if the territory has clear borders (in a national, social and cultural sense), then it is easier to leave people behind than to redefine said borders in order to allow a recognition of diversity. Even the LICRA applies this model, as an assembly of white Parisian bourgeois talking about diversity and racism without working activities in, for instance, Parisian suburbs, where high crime rates, massive immigration and a slow disintegration of the social fabric demand ground-breaking initiatives. Another discourse is mostly contained in sentences such as “it’s not that we want to exclude them – they just do not want to integrate”. Again, the blame is never on us and we should not have to make any effort: in fact, it is our country, isn’t it? Why bother thinking about opening minds, when they already knew they were closed before they were coming? Caricaturing may not be an option, yet it helps showing what this is about: when I let someone new in my social or individual space, it means that I will inevitably have to question elements that I took for granted. Living together requires a certain level of social intelligence that should probably be taught at school, yet the basic instinct of exclusion is often backed by political discourses and nationwide policies.

a man diving in shallow water

Still, these manipulations would not work without the steady support of regular citizens, basically you and me. This is made possible by specific cognitive trick named shallow processing. The concept of shallow processing means that your mind will focus on so-called concepts and connect them together in order to create a basic context for understanding the message. Our brain works like that; it always does. What it does not do, however, is perceive when these concepts are manipulated for the sake of a certain goal. We are thus trained to recognize concepts and link them together with things we already know. Shallow processing does not teach us how to question things: it tells us how to make basic connections in order to guarantee a relevant understanding of the message, regarding to a cohesive environment. In this sense, if anyone is already providing us with truncated information or orientated messages, it is our responsibility to recognize that these are actually incomplete and purposely built. We have to gather pieces of information and educate ourselves in order to build up a broader knowledge of the world we live in and therefore participate to maintain. If we reduce our intellectual skills to the cognitive necessity of shallow processing, we become party to the decisions that are made and sustained thanks to our inability to save a couple of minutes for hindsight.

This is, truly, what is most scary about the current decline in the collective disbelief in identity, recognition and the benefits of intercultural exchanges: we make this possible for we make it happen, each time we receive sneaky messages drowned in a communicational flood and each time we base our vote on partial, incomplete and slanted elements. We are responsible for not double-checking information and for taking our convictions for granted. If we do not let the benefits of complexity enter our lives, then there will never be enough room for a real and sustainable policy of diversity and recognition, and there will still be people mistaking Muslims for Islamists, immigration for crime and national borders for battlements against differences.

Albin Wagener is Dean of the Faculty of Modern Languages and Linguistics (IPLV) and Head of the LALIC project (Languages, Linguistic and Cultural Interactions) at the Université Catholique de l’Ouest, Angers, France. He is also the co-founder and president of the OISC.

It’s been almost a week since Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French president of the all-powerful International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been accused of raping a maid in his New York City hotel before boarding an Air France flight to Paris, where he was arrested by NYPD on sexual assault charges. Facing a sentence ranging from 20 to 74 years (the judge implied that other potential victims had come forward to testify), the man has been denied bail and is currently imprisoned at the legendary Rikers Island prison, in the Bronx. 

Coverage of the scandal is substantively different depending on which side of the Atlantic Ocean one is standing. The United States coverage has been somewhat unanimous in claiming another powerful man had abused his position to obtain sexual favours. France is mourning an extremely popular presidential hopeful for the ongoing presidential campaign, that would have penned “DSK” in a tight race against incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. A race so tight many claimed that the scandal itself was a set-up to clear the path for Sarkozy’s second term. Even DSK’s lawyer seems to have abandoned this line of defence.

More importantly, this scandal unfolds more than a debate on one’s alleged guilt: it uncovers a fundamental difference in judicial culture. Should powerful politicians benefit from a legal favours? How much information is too much information? Should DSK be trusted to follow legal constraints, or was the judge right in stating a risk of him leaving the United States territory? It seems the scandal goes far beyond a story of yet another politician’s mishap. It feels like France is losing hope in the only one it believed could save french politics, the one that had sought political asylum in the arms of the very country that is now prosecuting him. The end of a dream ? – Sarah K

Dominique Strauss-Kahn in court, three days ago


“… but what a beautiful example of justice, one that judges the anonymous the same as the powerful.”

I woke up on sunday with a news alert flashing on my phone. Seeing Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s name appear, I didn’t give it a second thought,  assuming he had finally, after a seemingly endless teasing campaign, officially announced his run in the 2012 presidential campaign. It was only later, switching on the television, that I realised the extent of the scandal.

Sunday was a particularly rich day. On television, of course, but even more so on Twitter, with this incredible flow of information, ranging from the most legit and serious to the most extravagant news. From facts to conspiracy theory. There was even a few puns and jokes (“he’s a womanizer, makes insane amounts of money and ends up in jail: DSK is your new hip-hop idol”). I am by no means a political journalist, I would even say I do not know much about politics. But everyone knew that whatever had happened in the country and out of it would change the deal as far as national representation was concerned. Even as far as the fate of the country itself (DSK was ahead in all the presidential polls).

It is obviously way too early to pen a radical speech on the story. Only a low-life like Bernard Debré (Representative for Paris, NdlR) thought it would be appropriate to dig DSK a watery grave on his blog. (1) If it is politically accepted not to blame DSK and never forget that in this story also lies an alleged victim, it could be a destructive affair of rape as well as it could be a major conspiracy aimed at destroying the man and his presidential aspirations. It wouldn’t be the first time.

I will not dive into theory or analysis; here is my personal point of view. The images and photos of the man being handcuffed and taken away by the police, then presented as such in front of the judge were hard to watch. He is not just any other man. He was a french citizen who was well on his way to become president. As far as a scandal goes, a man of his status being accused of rape and sent to Rikers Island is unheard of. The Clinton scandal, despite its many story lines and threats of impeachment, was nothing but a situation of adultery committed by two consenting adults, therefore was a private matter that shouldn’t have been addressed in the public sphere, let alone under a political angle. The DSK scandal is nothing short of sordid.

Those images of the man appearing in court and being handcuffed, in the box of the accused, should they have been released? My own curiosity, maybe misplaced, agrees. Granted, the story itself would have lost no weight nor importance without those specific images. Is he paying for what Polanski managed to escape? I believe he does, maybe a little bit. Rikers Island? I can’t help thinking this is not where he should be. But what a beautiful example of justice, the one that treats the anonymous the same as the powerful!

The next few days will be of tremendous importance. Regardless of the outcome, DSK will not be the new president in 2012. His political career is most definitely over. No way to say if his life can be salvaged.

(1) Why Does Bernard Debré Hates DSK? Rue89.com, May 17 (in french)

nicoNico Prat is a journalist from Paris, France and is a regular contributor to VoxPop, Technikart, and ThatMag. He also co-hosts a radio show on Le Mouv’. You can follow him on Twitter at @nicoprat and on Tumblr.