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A Question of Legitimacy

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Despite being publicly unwelcome at the convention, Todd Akin still refuses to quit as Missouri's Republican Senate nominee. As long as he is in the race, those words he said will--and should--continue to haunt him. I, for one, hope with all my heart that he stays on the ticket all the way through November.

No, I'm not at all certain that he'll lose. But I would be pleased with either outcome. If he loses, then his mentality and attitude will suffer the public defeat it so richly deserves. If he wins, it will be the height of comedy to watch the Republican leadership embrace him in a blatant show of public hypocrisy. After all, in the 2004 campaign now-Senator Tom Coburn said that the gay agenda "is the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today." This was after 9/11, after Oklahoma City in his own state. Today, Tom Coburn is a Tea Party leader.

The Republican leaders have made a very public show of distancing themselves from Akin for now. They have cut off his funding and called for him to drop out. They say they've done all they can. They can't force someone off the ballot, and frankly that's a good thing. And traditionally and historically, a senator was a representative of their state -- the opinions of other states shouldn't really matter. I'm not a Federalist, but I can understand the argument. Let's assume for a moment that that's all true.

What I want to know is: how the hell is this man still on the Congressional Science Committee, a position he holds at the sole discretion of the House leadership? Clearly, John Boehner and Eric Cantor have more of a problem with him costing them political points (and a possible Senate seat) than in what he said. The Republican leadership talk about firing Bernanke, and firing Eric Holder, and firing Janet Napolitano, and firing Tim Geithner. But when they are in the position to fire someone who doesn't even understand anatomy and is in a position to dictate law on the subject... silence.

Ignorance about anatomy is fine in certain contexts. Like everyone else, I first learned about sex on the street. I believed in Spanish Fly, the magic substance that got women hot if you slipped it into their drink. I was under the impression that they would go blind if they gave them too much. I also genuinely thought you couldn't get a girl pregnant a few days from her period. Three kids later, I'm beginning to suspect that my hypothesis might be flawed -- but I'm not a Congressman. Todd Akin's comments aren't only a problem because they're offensive. They're also a problem because they reflect the mindset of someone who hasn't even taken a high school health class.

I have no problem with someone who is sincerely pro-life. My wife spends more time in church than a pew. There are also many religious organizations which provide the expecting mother with care, help her set up an adoption, give her counseling, and generally do their best to make a tough decision easier. Their loyalty might be to the unborn, but their empathy is with the mother as well. They don't castigate someone who has made a mistake; they don't regard a developing baby as a nine-month punishment for the sin of having sex. Like good sincere Christians, they hate the sin but love the sinner.

What I do have a problem with is someone who is insincerely pro-life, someone for whom this is an abstract concept with no relation to the reality. One of the hardest things for me to recount in my recent book was a sexual assault I witnessed when I was a kid:

I came by the school one summer day to see what was going on. There was this older cat I knew, high school age, and he called me over. "Hey man," he told me, "we're running a train on this girl."

[...]

I followed my friend and he took me out back where his partner had this girl. I don't know how old she was, probably their age, but I didn't recognize her and so I knew she wasn't from my neighborhood.

"Oh, man!" my buddy said. "We doin' it!"

Like I said, I had never had sex before. Yet I still knew what it looked like when someone was upset--and this girl was not happy. Whatever was going on, she didn't dig it. The two dudes were acting like it's just a thing, and were about to go at her.

"This is not cool," I said to them. "She's not with this."

I'm not going to pretend that I'm some sort of superhero who bravely came in to save the day. Those two guys were older than me and bigger than me; on some level I was afraid. I didn't step in because I was trying to be an upstanding moral member of my community. I stepped in because on a visceral level it just felt wrong to see a female like that.

"Fuck that, man," my buddy said. "She knows she's with it."

I didn't start arguing or explaining because I didn't need to say anything else. I knew they were mad, but I knew they were also ashamed on some level. They knew what they were doing wasn't right, and that stopped them from doing anything to me. (Or maybe they didn't know, and that would have been sad.)

I grabbed the girl by the hand and gave her her pants and her top. After she got dressed, I walked her out of the school.

I will never forget the way that girl looked. I will never forget the way that girl smelled. I will never forget the way she walked--and I will never be OK with any of these memories. Every time I think about it, which is as infrequently as possible, I get upset.

That's why I say people like Congressman Akin are insincerely pro-life. No witness to the consequences of a sexual assault -- let alone the victim of one -- would ever think to parse it into terms like "legitimate". No one would categorize it into different types. I didn't know what the word "rape" was, but I knew that what was happening to that girl was wrong.

But for people like Todd Akin, it's an abstraction. It's something that doesn't happen to people he knows -- and I hope with every fiber of my being that it doesn't. I hope it never happens to anyone. But if it does happen, having to discuss the legitimacy of the assault to someone like Todd Akin is something that I find obscene.

Todd Akin insists he's a fighter, that's he's not going to quit the race over a mistake. But the only "mistake" Todd Akin used was being candid with his thoughts. So Mr. Akin, I say this to you: leaving the race or leaving Congress is not about "quitting". All it is, is a matter of knowing the appropriate time to pull out.