If You Watch the Tape, You'll Still See What You Want To

The pro-life advocacy group Center for Medical Progress went undercover to expose Planned Parenthood's practice of (legal) fetal organ harvesting during (legal) abortions and the subsequent (generally legal) sale of those organs (if certain regulations are followed). That sounds like pretty neutral language to me, though I will concede that (at least) the words "pro-life", "expose" and "sale" are somewhat fraught, but I don't mean any of those words judgmentally. CMP is indisputably pro-life; they had a specific agenda of discrediting Planned Parenthood for engaging in acts they believe to be immoral and illegal; and Planned Parenthood was indisputably selling fetal tissue and organs, though whether how it did so was illegal or immoral is above my pay grade in both respects and not the point of this post.

The point of this post is how two ideological sides see the same video and not only have different emotional reactions to the video but also make wholly contradictory fact claims about what the video shows.

To wit, on September 16, at the second GOP debate, Carly Fiorina referenced those tapes. Imploring Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to watch the tapes, for the purpose of defunding Planned Parenthood, Fiorina said:

"Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’"

It's two weeks later and it is still hotly contested whether she was telling the truth or not. Where you stood on the truth of this statement, as always, depends on where you sit. Generally pro-choice media outlets (Vox, Slate, Slate again) said that it was a lie. Generally pro-life media (The Federalist, Commentary, National Review) said that it not only was it not a lie, it was self-evidently true, which you would know if you watched the tapes, and the only reason to call it a lie was as part of a liberal media scam to keep people from watching the tapes.

I'll put my biases up here, so it doesn't look like I'm hiding them: I'm pro-choice and not conflicted about it. I don't see abortion as something cavalier, but I also don't suspect that the women who have abortions do either. I don't pretend that there isn't something sad about the termination of potential human life but I also don't believe that the moment of conception grants the fetus rights at the expense of the pregnant woman's autonomy. Where that leaves me is, more or less, in the murky moral/legal sphere of Roe v. Wade, where the fetus's rights are in conflict with the rights of the woman and, in general, the autonomous, adult woman wins. If that means that you are going to stop reading now, so be it.

I didn't want to watch hours of tapes to see if what is, at best, 10 seconds of footage were accurately described by Fiorina, so I asked Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist, a twitter pal with whom I share very little in common ideologically and she's even a Cardinals fan (ugh) to send me a link of the specific clip. Someone else jumped in and offered one, which Mollie didn't object to, so I assume it was the right clip. I watched it.

You can watch it for yourself here but I suspect it won't be easy viewing for everyone. The moment Fiorina describes was at about 6 minutes, though I watched all 10 minutes, since I promised Mollie I would.

The full tape has basically three elements: (1) guerrilla interview clips of various officials from Planned Parenthood and Stem Express – PP's organ-sale middleman – discussing abortions, organ preservation and sale; (2) Holly O'Donnell, a woman who claims to be a former employee of Stem Express describing, specifically and emotionally, the time she was allegedly asked to help extract the intact brain of a recently aborted fetus and did so; and (3) generic footage from other sources of what are purported to be aborted fetuses.

The footage from category 3 was on screen – and you can see the fetus's leg twitch – while the former employee got to the part of her story where she discussed being asked to assist in cutting out the brain. So, if you read Fiorina's statement again, it is literally true. When Slate or Vox say that "the tape doesn't show that" they are dodging a little. There is a fully-formed fetus; there is evidence of nerve activity; someone is talking about extracting a brain. Calling Fiorina's description a "lie" doesn't fully capture what the tape shows. Arguably, by calling it an outright lie, you steer people away from watching the tape and judging for themselves.

But to say that means that Fiorina was telling the truth, or that Slate/Vox are lying themselves is not honest at all. What the left-wing "factcheckers" are saying is that Fiorina is being intentionally deceptive, carefully choosing words that literally describe the tape while misleading the listener into thinking other than what it is. I would argue that Fiorina is implying that the tape contains footage of an abortion, in progress, during which someone gives the instruction to cut out a fetus's brain. That it is a person recalling her experience over archival footage of an allegedly aborted fetus is not a small difference. Either the tape contains a violent surgery on a still-live fetus, or it contains a person reporting it secondhand. Fiorina told the truth in the incredibly circumscribed way a big brother on a road trip is telling the truth while he waves his finger a half-inch from the face of his agitated sister, as he chants "I'm not touching you" after his parents have admonished him to stop touching his sister.

Both sides more or less concede this. Buried in all the factchecker articles is a sentence something like this: "The third Human Capital video has stock footage of a fetus kicking on a table … It also has an interview with Holly O'Donnell,… [who] says that, in her former job, she was once instructed to procure the brain tissue from the remains of an aborted fetus.". Likewise, buried in all of the defenses of Fiorina is something like this: So: Fiorina may have misstated things a bit, since the relationship between the footage of the kicking baby and the horrific actions described in the interview is more one of video illustration rather than video documentation of the incident itself.

If I had to choose from the binary of true/false, I would say Fiorina's statement was false. If I'm being generous, I think one could argue that Fiorina's statement was truthy because, if you are passionately pro-life, an aborted fetus plus the testimony of someone who is wracked with guilt over having participated in abortions in the past isn't significantly different from actual footage of doctors discussing cutting out a brain as the fetus lies, exposed, before them. If I were being less generous, I'd say that if you find the contents of the tape sufficiently appalling that it would motivate people who see it to reject abortion or, at least reject funding for Planned Parenthood, it isn't a big deal to oversell what the tape actually shows with a delicately parsed description.

I understand why opponents of abortion want the videos shared widely. In the same way I, as an opponent of the death penalty, instinctively think video of a man drooling and convulsing as the execution drugs ravaged his body would motivate people to forbid execution by the state. After watching this video, and my own lack of reaction to the video, I'm no longer convinced that's true for either abortion or the death penalty.

Other drafts of this post had more detailed descriptions of the video, but you can watch the video. If you think abortion is akin to murder, a doctor describing fetal organ extraction the way a mechanic might talk about loosening a rusty bolt will be disquieting (if you are pro-choice you'll probably have my reaction, and it will sound like ordinary people talking shop). Despite my caveats above I don't think Ms. O'Donnell is lying; I believe she is emotionally devastated. The video is sad. But nobody at Slate or Vox or the Washington Post or anywhere else said that the videos weren't sad. What they said was that there wasn't video of an abortion in progress, in which doctors casually talked about brain extraction. That's what Fiorina was clearly implying at the debate. It is a specific, compelling image. And it isn't on the tape. So to me, to Vox, to Slate, Fiorina's statement was a calculated lie.

But I don't think I was the audience for Fiorina or the tapes at all. She said what she said during a primary for the Republican presidential nomination These tapes are meant for people who are already pro-life, to spur them to action, and that's the audience that candidates in a GOP primary debate are talking to. To that audience, the distinction between what Fiorina said was on the tapes and what they'd find if they actually watched is small beer. To them, Fiorina told the truth.

These worlds won't, and probably can't, be reconciled.

On Dying

My father-in-law passed away this weekend after a long struggle with Alzheimer's when his body (finally, one might say) caught up to his mind. Though I couldn't go to join my wife's family at his bedside, my wife did. She's a better writer than I am, so I'll get out of the way.

I used to think that dying of old age was like falling asleep. You lose all your strength, close your eyes, wait a while, then… done. It's not like that at all. Just like the cliches of birth — where moms are rushed to the hospital upon the first signs of labor and babies come out resembling perfectly formed 3 month olds — what we see and tell ourselves about death has little connection to reality.

My parents died of different causes. My mom, from cancer or chemo (as with any cancer patient, it's impossible to say which), my dad from Alzheimer's. But what struck me when I first saw my dad after he slipped into unconsciousness was how closely he resembled my mom on her last day: his body was bony and colorless; mouth agape and twisted; breaths shallow and forced. You could hear him gasp over the oxygen tank, which is saying something. It was noisy, with plodding, arrhymic but no less robotic bursts. After my mom passed and they took the oxygen mask off, we could see that her mouth was caked with blood. She looked like a skeleton. I didn't recognize her.

One of the hospice workers the night I arrived told us he bet Dad would die within an hour, maybe two. (None of the other hospice workers, who were unbelievably kind, would have said anything nearly so blunt.) Everyone was offended but I secretly appreciated his candor. Having been through this last year with my mom I wasn't sure how long I could hold out watching my father's tortured breaths. My brothers, their wives, and I stayed all through the night holding my dad's hands, watching him breathe, and waiting for him to die.

No one would ever admit it but you end up hoping that each violent contraction will be the last. That this excruciating fight will end. After it's over, we cover this lie with another lie, telling people that he died peacefully so that we don't have to talk about it. But when one suffers from Alzheimer's, "peacefully" means merely "unconscious." I don't have to worry about coming to visit my dad at his nursing home and finding him slumped over a wheelchair or soaking in his urine, his skin so dry it's cracked and bleeding in places.

The idea that anyone would have to go through this for a child is unthinkable. But I couldn't help but think of my son during this process: if losing a parent is so difficult, what must it be like to lose a child? Will my son one day have to go through this for my husband and I? He has no siblings. Would he be alone? Would I want to have him staring at me, this horrific image seared in his brain? My instinct is to spare us all from it, securing some kind of "kill pill" to take when the time comes. I took an epidural when my son was born and have no romance for pure pain or suffering. Is a kill pill similar? Is it cowardly? Or consumerist?

The truth is that if I live as long as my parents with my family intact, I'll be lucky if I need to answer this question.

Not All Layers of An Onion Are Equally Worth Peeling Back

Let's start with the tweet and get it right out there. Last night, The Onion tweeted this:


That, needless to say, was not a good idea. It was not a good idea for a lot of reasons. The simplistic version is "you don't call a 9 year old a cunt." That's pretty close to my more nuanced version too, but it helps to show your work to get to that conclusion because it is unfair to The Onion – to their intent and real target – to reduce the tweet to "The Onion called an amazing young girl a horrible word." [Read more…]

Did someone mention consistency?

Recently, Clark posted a short thought about how our political outrage tends to wax and wane with the power our preferred party is holding at the time we access our emotions.

On that thought, as the resident liberal around here and a generally pro-Obama guy as these things go, I am outraged and disgusted by the legal analysis in the Justice Department white paper that is believed to be close to, if not the actual analysis, the Obama administration uses to justify extrajudicial killing of American citizens believed to be enemy combatants.

Take a look at that memo. Let your eyes adjust to the NBC News watermark, which might take a while, much of which will be spent trying to wrap your mind around NBC News breaking a story. Then read the memo. It is as broad a claim of executive power as you are likely to see. It is garbage. It claims virtually unlimited power while shedding crocodile tears for the cherished principles it dismantles in making the claim.

One ambiguous phrase is stacked on top of another until the inescapable conclusion is that extrajudicial killing is justified whenever the United States wants to use it. The threat matrix is basically an Excel spreadsheet where every cell says "Well, what do you WANT to do?"

The memo carefully cites prior case law as a prelude to stretching any leeway given to the Executive Branch well beyond reason. It is permissible to respond to imminent danger? Excellent. Imminent threat now means… threat. Seriously. The opinion literally reads the word 'imminent' out of the limitation on the grounds that imminence is complicated. "Senior operational officer" and "associated forces" – theoretically limitations – are not defined at all, so "what do you WANT to do" is the de facto standard. The "feasibility of capture" limitation is no limitation at all, since it justifies any scenario short of "you can not kill an Al Qaeda official who accidentally walks, unarmed, into a military prison." The less said about the wave of the hand the opinion gives to the need to limit collateral damage, the better, since the number and lethality of drone strikes in the last year should have embarrassed anyone out of citing that principle here.

Some pages follow about the Constitutional rights unique to Americans caught in the sights of the War on Terror but, honestly, who gives a shit? After you get through reading the broad authority given to assassinate, the idea that the 4th Amendment might somehow give pause is a joke. The power claimed to drop bombs in civilian areas to kill enemy combatants of ambiguous operational importance is the real moral horrorshow here. The Constitutional rights stuff is picayune academic jerking off.

There is probably a well-reasoned analysis of the appropriate circumstances for using drone strikes to kill enemy combatants. The analysis would genuinely grapple with what it means for a threat to be 'imminent'; for capture to be 'unfeasible'; for collateral damage to be 'humane.' This memo is not it, though it desperately pretends to be.

This document is David Addington's unitary executive wet dream, so we'll see how consistent the right stays. I'm predicting a surge in demand for fainting couches. Consistency is not for the faint of heart.

UPDATE: Might as well give credit where credit for something appalling is due: Republicans are lining up to agree with the broad executive power to kill on a hunch in the white paper. Consistent. Disgusting, but consistent.

Is That A Mote In Your Dog's Eye?

This is a story about when stupid jokes stop getting stupid and start getting real. If you think I've used the word stupid too many times already, get used to it because I'm just getting started.

I'm not a Mitt Romney fan for all the reasons a liberal would not be a Mitt Romney fan. Accordingly, I've had a great deal of fun with the Saga of Seamus, the Romney family dog who was strapped to the roof of the car for a family trip. It has everything you want in a profoundly stupid story: it fits certain useful narratives (a robotic candidate acting soulless and the vulture capitalist who is even mean to his dog), the candidate can't respond to the story without sounding stupid (Mitt said that he wouldn't put a dog on the roof if he knew people would get upset, which is exactly the wrong answer, and just what you'd expect from a flip-flopper) and it prominently features diarrhea. For all of these reasons it has had remarkable staying power in the public imagination, via sites like Dogs Against Romney, for example, even if it rarely makes it into the mainstream media by anyone not named Gail Collins.

But, like I said, it is a really stupid story. Ann Romney finally went on the offensive, claiming that Seamus loved riding on the car roof and that he loved going on vacation with the family because it beats being in the kennel. And you know what? I've assumed that all along. A trip on a car roof is no different from a ride in the back of a pickup truck and every time I get a few miles outside of the city limits, that's what I see. And when I see a dog in a car in the city… he's sticking his head out of the window. The Seamus meme generally maintains that the dog got diarrhea because he was terrified during the ride; Ann says no, that he ate turkey off the counter and… well, that's probably too specific but I'm willing to accept that Seamus got the shits because finding the worst possible time to have gastrointenstinal difficulties is basically what dogs do. Hell, taking a long family trip in a station wagon with five kids and a dog is literally the only human behavior I've ever seen attributed to Romney.

(This whole line of attack is more like the Swift Boating of Kerry than anything else with the caveats that (a) nobody is lying about whether Seamus was on the roof whereas there is no real evidence that Kerry lied about his injuries and (b) it would have been a huge, non-stupid deal if Kerry had lied about his injuries, so basically it is like Swift Boat in that it is pure political nonsense that is impossible to respond to without having the principal effect of prolonging the story.)

Alas, every stupid story attacking one side has to have an equally stupid story in response. Today, the Daily Caller found the perfect one: on page 37 of Dreams From My Father, President Obama offhandedly noted eating dog as a child in Indonesia. If strapping a dog to your roof is bad, eating dog is worse. And, though there are obvious reasons why this is silly (he was six; he didn't choose his diet; if your culture doesn't keep dogs as pets, meat is meat (we'll get back to this one)) kudos to Jim Treacher for sussing out a great joke and really hammering it home. On his post, Treacher keeps jabbing at Obama, implying that Bo is not safe with Obama around. This led to a million jokes about Obama eating dogs on Twitter none of which bothered me. It is a stupid joke playing out the string. Obama ate dog; if we can't joke about that why bother telling jokes.

Sadly, here's where the record scratch comes and I stop sounding like someone who has a sense of humor. That I have let the word "diarrhea" do most of the heavy lifting so far, humor-wise, isn't making much of a case for me either, I admit.

It didn't take much time for the joke to get out of hand. #Obamadogrecipes was, to me, the death of the Obama-ate-a-dog joke. The brainchild of Iowahawk, the Obama Dog Recipes hashtag exploded. But, seriously, this is gross and kinda racist. Not racist against Obama but once you've hit the realm of "dog recipes" the joke isn't really about Obama anymore. It is about weird cultural practices that other people have and we don't. Substitute "Obama" with "Korean" or "Indonesian" in the hashtag and see if that doesn't make you a little uncomfortable. Even Iowahawk admitted that he was a little uncomfortable about it.

As stupid as the Seamus story is, the joke never turned into something about Mormons or even vulture capitalists. It was just a joke about a guy who hosed off a dog that was shitting itself on the roof and then stuck him back on the roof and kept driving. When Obama eating a dog jokes are about Obama, I have to admit that all is fair in politics. When the joke shifts to everyone taking an old racist standby about foreigners for a few laps around the track… ick.

Stop it. That's the entirety of my point, despite how long it took to get here. Stop it.

I can't believe this is what I came back to the blog for. I'm going to go pet my cat.

Everyone Follows Instructions, Right?

Earlier today, Doug Mataconis got frustrated with the Casey Anthony trial analysis on CNN. This is understandable since most TV trial analysis is bad – wrong and dangerous, even. This time, though, I couldn't see what was wrong at all. Here was his tweet:

This was, to him, a head-slapping bit of analysis because, as he tweeted when I wondered what was surprising about the talking head's analysis, the Constitution says, and the jury instructions will make clear, that "no conclusion is to be drawn from someone exercising their rights." When pressed on whether that would really keep juries from drawing their own conclusions, Doug got all philosophical on me and replied "One never knows what a jury thinks, of course".

But are juries really that inscrutable? Are people really that unpredictable? No, I don't think so. I don't care what the law is, I don't care what the jury instructions are, I don't care how it works on TV shows, when a person doesn't testify in their own defense, the jury wonders what they are hiding. Aside from viscerally knowing that this is true, I've served on a jury. While most of what I learned on jury duty isn't germane to this post, the one thing I learned with absolute certainty is that if a juror is aware that a party is keeping information from them, she is going to assume that it isn't helpful to that party's case. And when the judge gives a stern look and says "The jury will disregard counsel's question…" what the juror thinks is "But I want to hear the answer to that question!"

And if that's how the jury reacts to an individual question in a whiplash case, how do you think they react to a trial where one witness after another comes up and calls the defendant a murderer and she doesn't even respond?

This does not mean that the defendant should always testify; in fact, I think the standard belief is similar to keep the defendant off the stand. As bad as it looks to have the defendant say nothing in their own defense, there are worse things than having the jury think "hey, why didn't she speak." There's a saying in football about the forward pass: "There are three things that can happen and two of them are bad." While it is possible that the jury may decide that your client doesn't sound like a murderer, as soon as the cross-examination starts a lot can go wrong in a hurry. The testimony may open the door to the admission of inculpatory evidence that had been previously precluded or the client may come off like a lying asshole to name two big risks.

So what we have is a delicate balance: is the definite, but semi-quantifiable harm from not testifying worse than the possible, but impossible-to-quantify harm that can come from a bad cross-examination? The ability to weigh these options correctly is why good trial lawyers get paid the big bucks.

I don't think there is a single lawyer who would tell you that no balancing is required. Juries aren't that unknowable.

To Catch a Predator

Yesterday, Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio posted an expose on Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez's rape consensual sex with an underage a 17 year old.

So the story here is … an NFL quarterback had consensual sex? A woman had sex with an NFL quarterback? And this story is worth publishing because … the young woman very briefly thought it was a good idea to brag about it? Deadspin doesn't name the woman but they include all but her name. The NY Post steps in to connect the dots laid out so cheekily by Deadspin (her initials, hometown and a facebook screencap). Of course.

Deadspin is a site about sports but this story isn't within their jurisdiction. It isn't a story about Mark Sanchez. It isn't a story about the Jets. It is a story about how teenagers make decisions that they regret and about adults who take advantage of them.

The noteworthy adult in this story isn't Mark Sanchez; it is A.J. Daulerio.

What this is about more than anything else, it is that if you are a woman and willingly have sex, there is an asshole out there who will try to make you feel like shit about it.

You could say that E.K. asked for it when she dressed provocatively threatened to sue Deadspin to stop publication but that is just blaming the victim. Daulerio had already told her what he was going to do. And he told a 17 year old that she had to shut up and take it.

The War on the War on the War on Christmas Just Got a Little Harder

Ken already ably demonstrated everything that is wrong with fundie caterwauling about the non-existent War on Christmas. It is for that reason that I will do no more than engage in some cathartic name-calling about those idiots before getting to my main point.

The War on Christmas does not exist. It exists only in the minds of pathetic people who wish to substitute themselves for Jesus on the cross and loudly proclaim the martyrdom that they suffer when anyone dares be considerate of people who aren't exactly like them. It isn't enough that their religion represents an overwhelming majority of Americans. It isn't enough that their religion has led them to support profoundly dumb curricula in both history and science. It apparently does not matter at all that the people waging this so-called war are themselves largely Christian. The main difference between the two camps is that only the alleged warriors are living their Christian values.

And yet…

Under the guise of enforcing a non-discrimination provision in federal banking regulations, examiners for the Federal Reserve ordered a bank in Oklahoma to remove "Merry Christmas" buttons, teller's crosses and a bible verse that was on display. And now we have a problem.

As James Joyner at Outside the Beltway notes, this was a bad decision by a low-level official that was quickly reversed in the face of criticism. As such, I would not think it is a very big deal. But I fear that it will be a big deal because someone, someday – and probably soon – will decide it is a big deal. When the next round of War on Christmas moaning breaks out, this dumb incident will become "evidence" that "the federal government" is "trying to eradicate Christianity" or some such bullshit. And the fact that a gigantic fucking cross is sitting on wink-wink-private-land based on an act of Congress or that the Texas Speaker of the House is facing serious opposition from Christian conservatives merely because he is Jewish will do nothing to dispel that notion.

So… thanks for nothing, Federal Reserve regulators. You've reignited a flame that sane believers in the separation of church and state keep trying to put out.

Fine, I'm a Sheep

Yes, all of the security theater bothers me. No, I do not think it useful and I am thankful that I don't have any plans to fly in the near future. That said, I don't think I'd do what Matt from No Blasters! did to avoid the indignities of the backscatter machine or the enhanced rubdown to reenter the United States when returning from an international flight.

By asserting his constitutional rights (whatever those may be, and I doubt that the courts will agree that he has the rights he thinks he has) and calmly asking for supervisor after supervisor like he was complaining at a Waldbaum's that refused to accept a coupon, he was eventually escorted out of the airport without any more than a trip through the metal detector. The story is worth reading in its entirety to see what you have to endure to convince the TSA to give up on you but here is the conclusion:

In order to enter the USA, I was never touched, I was never “Backscatted,” and I was never metal detected. In the end, it took 2.5 hours, but I proved that it is possible. I’m looking forward to my next flight on Wednesday.

Two and a half hours? I'd let a government worker cup my balls without gloves to save that much time at the DMV.