Republicans. Confidently Leading America into the 17th Century
Everyone has been talking about Rep. Todd Akin’s inane and offensive assertion that a woman cannot become pregnant when forced to have sex against her will, because, “If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Well, what more can one possibly say? Gosh, it’s hard to know. Instead of something new, then, perhaps something old: a bit of history.
This week, Germany’s Spiegel ran a piece decrying the Republican platform as the most conservative one in years, taking America “back into the fifties.” I immediately thought of a piece of subversive commentary by leftist montage artist Klaus Staeck from more than a generation ago, as the German conservatives, like their American counterparts today, sought to return to power. It depicted the CDU’s Helmut Kohl sitting in an antiquated Mercedes with no wheels, with his even more conservative ally Franz-Josef Strauss of the CSU standing at the ready as chauffeur. The caption: “Safely into the Fifties.”
As I prepared to retweet the Spiegel’s tweet, I thought I’d give the point an extra emphasis by adding: ”yeah, of the”—well, I wondered: which?—“century!”
I had to choose carefully.
I was not about to pick one from the early or high Middle Ages, which, popular misconceptions notwithstanding, were in many ways periods of considerable rationality and openness. In the end, the seventeenth century seemed about right: the bloody Thirty Years’ War, witch hunts, and struggle of the new science and rationalism to triumph over old ways.
Well, as it happened, I had lent my daughter Iain Pears’s wonderful An Instance of the Fingerpost. Set in seventeenth-century England, this immensely complicated story, in the opinion of the Boston Globe, “may well be the best ‘historical mystery’ ever written”
The next day, she with great pleasure informed me that she had found in it an episode that perfectly replicated Akin’s thinking. The narrator of the first section of the book, a visiting Italian scholar, accompanies an English colleague to an execution in order to observe the death process—and get hold of the corpse:
I did not attend, taking little pleasure in such spectacles, but Lower did: the girl, he said, made a wretched speech and quite lost the sympathy of the crowd. It had been a complicated case and the town was by no means convinced of her guilt. She had killed a man whom she said had raped her, but the jury judged this a lie because she had fallen pregnant, which cannot occur without the woman taking pleasure in the act. Normally her condition would have spared her the gallows, but she had lost the child and also any defense against the hangman. An unfortunate outcome, which those who believed in her guilt considered divine providence. (p. 146)
Yup, it’s all there, from the Akin’s scientific views to the degree of empathy for the victim.
According to the Classical medical theory of Galen (129-210), desire on the part of both man and woman was essential to reproduction, for only thus could each body produce the requisite “heat” to generate its respective “seed” and enable it to meld with that of the other. Among other things, this helps to account for the traditional view of the female as possessed of a necessary but dangerous sexual appetite. By the nineteenth century, the view of the female as sexually passive replaced it, and female desire was regarded as dangerous because abnormal. (Another case of damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.)
I had somehow forgotten that passage in Pears, though I well remembered others on science.
In one, the Italian narrator, a devotee of modern learning, encounters a distinguished English physician who suffers in agony from an eye infection but assures him that he is receiving the best treatment.
I introduced myself. ‘Naturally, I hesitate to contradict a physician, sir, but it doesn’t look that way to me. I can see from here that there is a coalescence of a brown putridity around the eyelid, which requires medicine.”
“That is the medicine, idiot,” he said. “I mixed the ingredients myself.”
“What ingredients were they?”
“Dried dog excrement,” he said.
“I had it from my doctor, Bate. The king’s physician, you know, and a man of good family. It is an infallible cure, tested through the ages. A pedigree dog, as well. It belongs to the warden.”
[. . . .]
“And how long have you been treating it in this way?”
“About a week.”
“And in that time, has your eye become better or worse?”
“It has not improved,” he conceded. “But it may be that without the treatment it would have got worse.”
“And it may also be that with another treatment it would have become better,” I said. “Now, if I gave you another treatment, and your eye improved, that would demonstrate . . .”
“That would demonstrate that my original treatment has at last begun to be effective and that your treatment was of no significance.” (66-67)
It’s more or less how I imagine the exchanges of our modern scientists with the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, on which on which Rep. Akin sits, as some of us just learned to our dismay. It all makes perfect sense now. The Republican members dismiss global warming as “baloney,” “some scheme,” and “one of the greatest hoaxes” perpetrated by a dishonest scientific community. As science reporter Brandon Keim relates, Chair Ralph Hall of Texas denies that human action can affect climate on the grounds: “I don’t think we can control what God controls.” Well, there you have it. His philosophy: “I’m not anti-science, I’m pro-science. But we ought to have some believable science.”
Indeed. But we’re sure as hell not going to get it from these guys.
God help us.
Jim Wald is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.