Akin, Putin, and a Russian Punk Band

Last week I submitted my column—on the rather ho hum nature of this year’s presidential race—and  several hours later Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin’s dizzyingly ignorant remarks about rape, pregnancy, and abortion changed the political landscape. Now the establishment wing of the GOP wants him out; he’s repeatedly vowed to stay in; and Claire McCaskill just might eke out a victory in a state that a few weeks ago favored Akin by 5 percent. Democratic candidates across the nation seize on his comments to bolster their campaigns, while Republicans publicly denounce him in an effort to save their own skins. Akin’s remarks certainly deserve the attention, but it’s revealing that it took such absurd comments about women’s reproductive health to draw attention to the uncomfortably cozy relationship between religious convictions and political discourse in this country.

What an interesting convergence last week: members of the female Russian punk band, Pussy Riot, were sentenced to two years in a penal colony for their public rant/prayer against Vladimir Putin, and Representative Akin unwittingly started a mass uprising over female anatomy. One would think that Akin, who—like Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan—believes that all abortions should be banned, would also adhere to the “Let’s-get-those-Commies” shtick that has been a mainstay of American conservatism for decades. But there’s been a palpable shift lately as the more extreme wing of the Republican Party seems to feel some kinship with the autocrats. Putin’s use of the Russian Orthodox Church to prop up his oppressive oligarchy in Russia is not so very different from Congressman Akin’s attempt to use of his own narrow religious views to greatly restrict women’s reproductive rights.

According to a 2011 Gallup Poll, only 20% of Americans believe that all abortions should be illegal. Even a big chunk of those who identify as “Pro-Life” believe there are some circumstances in which it should be allowed. Yet Akin believes he represents a silent majority of Americans who would condone a police state to enforce an outright ban on all abortions. His views, taken to their logical conclusion, would lead to a society in which neighbors rat on neighbors; patients turn in health care providers; extremists target “rumored” abortion providers, and women die from botched, unsanitary procedures. Regardless of your personal views on abortion—and let’s admit the issue is both complex and highly emotional—most Americans do not wish to live in a country that resembles a KGB-like state. Sending patients and doctors to prison or fining them for making highly personal health care decisions—is neither a moderate nor measured response to “Safe, Legal and Rare.”

We tend to feel superior when we ponder the Russian electorate’s willingness to bring an autocrat like Putin back to power. Nick Cohen of London’s Observer argues that “Putin offers the Orthodox Church a partial restoration of it tsarist privileges” and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I “returns the favor by making support of the Kremlin…a quasi-religious duty.” But just as Putin looks to Kirill I, for continued support to legitimize his power, so too do ultra-conservative Republican candidates seek power and legitimacy from Christian leaders with their particular interpretations of Christian thought. There is no universal agreement among American churches and synagogues on the issue of abortion, but some political candidates talk like autocrats: theirs is the one legitimate view and they will impose it on everyone—despite federal law.

The American Right quickly condemned Pussy Riot’s punk prayer in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, calling it an example of blasphemy and nihilism. (Frankly, given that they’re part of a “twenty-something” punk art collective, it’s kind of their job to be nihilistic.) There has not been similar condemnation of Putin’s autocratic rule or a denunciation of the Orthodox Patriarch who calls the Russian President a “miracle of God.” (Talk about blasphemy!) Tom Bethell, senior editor at the conservative American Spectator, seemed rather envious of the Kremlin when he wrote in a piece entitled “Blasphemous Chic” that “the Russian leadership and the Russian Orthodox Church are moving closer together and won’t be entertaining the ‘separation of Church and state’ any time soon.” Further, Bethell’s defense of the Orthodox Patriarch is quite revealing in light of Kirill’s statement that the “human rights concept is used to cover up lies, falsehoods and insults against religion and national values.” Cohen highlights that in Kirill’s book, “Freedom and Responsibility: A Search for Harmony”, he vociferously denounces secular countries that allow women to control their own fertility; those who disagree with him are tools of the “puppet masters” who follow “Jewish philosophers.” The Patriarch’s anti-Semitic blame is eerily reminiscent of a sign I once saw at an abortion protest rally in the early 1990s: “Jewish doctors are butchering Christian babies.”

Some new-wave American Republicans seem fairly comfortable with more autocratic control over the lives of American citizens—as long as they’re the ones tailoring and enforcing the restrictions. Akin represents a highly energized movement of (mostly) male, paternalistic politicians who believe they must protect women from themselves. They inject religion into political debate effortlessly and without intended irony, and we continue to let them do it.

Several years ago a Russian friend of ours, who now teaches at an American university, remarked that Americans were entirely too smug about our freedoms. She argued that she saw plenty of Americans with latent fascist tendencies. I thought it was hyperbole at the time. Now I’m not so smug.

Political badminton

After several Asian badminton teams were booted from the Olympics for trying to lose, I wished presidential candidates would be eliminated early for simply not trying their best. No, I don’t mean a brokered convention. Republicans haven’t had a real one since Thomas Dewey’s in 1948; for Democrats it was Adlai Stevenson in 1952. We know how those candidates faired in the general election. What I have in mind is more immediate and satisfying: perhaps a trapdoor that jettisons candidates from the stage during a lame campaign appearance. This year’s presidential race has been singularly uninspiring.

To court right, we have team Romney. Mitt’s embarrassing performance at London’s Olympic Games established that the former governor lacks the finesse and political savvy to perform on the world stage. His critique of London’s readiness for hosting the big show was pompous and overstated. Even stalwart U.K conservatives found his comments offensive. Later, gaffes in Israel revealed that he doesn’t possess the self-knowledge that even George W. Bush had. Bush hired then Stanford political science professor—and former advisor to H.W. Bush on Soviet Affairs—Condoleezza Rice to coach him during his first run for the White House. Like Sarah Palin, Romney doesn’t know what he doesn’t know geo-politically, but his salt and pepper sideburns lend him a false gravitas that the former Alaskan governor couldn’t muster.

Romney’s comments about his wife—after the dust up over his intention to attend the Olympics to watch her multimillion dollar horse perform—indicate that he is also out of touch with the female voter closest to him. Romney’s initial stated reason for going to London was to watch his wife’s horse compete in dressage, although raising money from Barclays bank executives was clearly another goal. It’s likely his handlers pointed out that perhaps it wasn’t the best photo op for him to be seen watching million dollar horses while unemployed Americans watched on TV, so Romney did an about face, dismissing his wife in the process: “I have to tell you, this is Ann’s sport…I will not be watching the event.” Oh, Mitt. This will not help you reach out to crucial women swing voters.

Although Harry Reid’s “Swiftboating” of Romney—through his wholly unsubstantiated allegation that Romney did not pay any taxes for over a decade—was outrageous, Romney could easily dispel the nasty speculation.  James Stewart, business reporter at the New York Times, reported last week that it is highly unlikely that Romney could have avoided paying any taxes. But current tax loopholes and shelters mean that he likely paid very little. Romney’s foot-dragging—he appears to have a club foot on this issue—has become the story. And his secrecy indicates that Romney is unquestionably part of a special tax club that is decidedly not open to the general public.

On the other side of the net is President Obama—the aloof policy wonk. Now, I love policy wonks. But most Americans do not share my affection. They view them as the kids to beat up on the playground. If Obama wore glasses, some Tea Partiers might drop their racist “birther” accusations and just settle for “Four Eyes!” or “Nerd!” Mr. President, show the voters some charisma and boldness. For goodness sake, talk about what the new health care law means for average Americans: for the first time ever we can’t be denied coverage. Talk about the importance of Supreme Court nominations; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has signaled that she may step down during a second Obama term. Talk about the Citizens United decision; get folks fired up about the unprecedented torrent of big money in this election.

Work for it, Mr. President. Yes, you inherited most of the financial mess and malaise from your predecessor, and you can’t easily improve our economy in the midst of a world economic recession. But most unemployed Americans don’t care about the fragility of the Eurozone or the fact that even China’s export growth has stalled. You’re a competitive pick-up basketball player; put the wonk on the bench for a while.

So, why aren’t we seeing their best? In this election most voters don’t matter a great deal because of that peculiar institution, the Electoral College. I like to think of it as the Eclectical Collage—a random assortment of swing states that get to pick the president. According to Paul Begala of the Daily Beast and Newsweek, this election will come down to only a million voters scattered across the following states: Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado. The candidates will spend almost all their money and time courting this tiny sliver of the electorate; the rest of us are the wallflowers.

Everyone it seems—even Newt Gingrich—has recently recalled the Halcyon days of the Bill Clinton years. Sure, he was a lying philanderer who maddeningly parsed words at times, but the economy was in great shape, we weren’t racked by years of war, and we had a president who reminded us every day that he loved his job. Obama and Romney, take a nod from Bubba Clinton; make us feel like we’re the most important people in the room. And while you’re at it, channel Ronald “The Gipper” Reagan. Yes, he had extremely early-onset Alzheimer’s when it came to Iran-Contra, but he had a gift for convincing Americans that better days were ahead.

We deserve a more inspiring race, gentlemen. Politics should be more entertaining than badminton.



Macadam Mason—a 39 year old Thetford man who suffered from epilepsy and mental illness—died earlier this summer after being shot with a Taser by Vermont state police. Mason, recovering from a grand mal seizure the day before, threatened violence to himself and others when he contacted Dartmouth-Hitchcock MedicalCenterfor help; the hospital contacted state police. Troopers and Theresa Davidonis—Mason’s partner of seven years—have differing accounts of what happened in the minutes leading up to Mason being tased by Vermont State Police Trooper David Shaffer, but all affirm Shaffer lowered his assault rifle and then drew his Taser. After Shaffer discharged it into Mason’s chest, Mason was immediately unresponsive and died at his home while Davidonis watched.

I’ve thought a lot about this awful incident because, like Theresa Davidonis, someone I love dearly wrestles with serious mental illness. His disability is sometimes virtually hidden and other times it is painfully apparent. Regardless of where he is in the relentless cycle of his illness—in a high or a low or just trying to maintain some semblance of dignity and courage—I am always in the same place: Worried. It is this low-grade constant concern that colors my reaction whenever I hear of another mentally ill Vermonter who has been shot—either with a gun or a Taser—by our state or local police. Societally, we still don’t know how to handle mental illness, so citizens with mental health issues receive a level of intervention from law enforcement that often does not work for their situations. Many of our police officers lack appropriate training.

Taylor Dobbs, a journalist at vtdigger.org, reports that Trooper Shaffer did not have to complete 6.5 hours of mental health crisis training that is now required of all incoming state troopers. The training became mandatory in 2006 and started with the 82nd Basic Police Academy Class; Shaffer graduated in the 81st class. Officers who graduated without this mental health training were encouraged to receive it, but were not required to do so. A bill introduced in January in the Vermont House—“Interacting with People Experiencing a Mental Health Crisis”—would have required all troopers to receive additional mental health training before they could deploy a Taser, but it never made it out of committee.

A study published last year in the Oxford Journal Schizophrenia Bulletin supports the view that more mental health training for police officers can help defuse potentially deadly interactions involving mentally ill citizens. Two sets of police officers—one trained in crisis intervention involving the mentally ill and the other not—completed surveys that outlined several hypothetical scenarios involving a subject with psychosis.  Those officers specifically trained in dealing with the mentally ill were less likely to escalate a situation by using more force. They were also more likely to perceive the use of less force as being an effective means of dealing with a person suffering from mental illness. All police officers and state troopers inVermont must receive this training.

I have no idea what it feels like to knowingly and willingly enter a situation in which I may be killed or seriously hurt while doing my job. But I do know that the mentally ill sometimes appear dangerous to others when they are mainly a danger to themselves.  Coupled with additional mental health training, all police officers and state troopers should have mental help professionals on the scene to help them assess complex psychiatric issues. This is critical—both for their own protection and the safety of our mentally ill citizens. Many states have already implemented a mental health Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model, and it is past time for Vermont to do the same.

We must do all we can to ensure that our police do not use excessive force when dealing with people experiencing a mental health crisis, but this particular situation highlights a problem that is larger than Trooper Shaffer or the police department. An investigation will determine whether Shaffer followed police protocol in his interaction with Mason, but we must remember that he does his job in the context of a larger society in which people with mental health issues are still viewed as culpable for their own illnesses.

Mental illness is not a personal failing nor is it rare. According to the Vermont State Health Plan—published by the state’s department of health—each year one in four adult Vermonters “will have a diagnosable mental health condition or mental illness that has a negative effect on well-being and/or the ability to function in daily life.” The department also estimates that 28% of mentally ill Vermonters wrestle with substance abuse problems. Given national statistics reported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it’s likely that less than a third of those with diagnosable mental illnesses receive treatment. Regardless of your opinion about the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill—which began in earnest after the Community Health Care Act passed during the Kennedy administration—we can probably all agree that mentally ill citizens deserve to be treated with care and compassion.

We’ve come a long way from Ken Kesey’s depiction of deplorable mental health care in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it is still socially acceptable to mock “crazy” people, and schizophrenia jokes remain a favorite shorthand for feeling pulled in many directions. We can do better; we have done better. The Brattleboro Retreat’s own progressive history reminds us that we should be leading the nation on this issue, for the sake of both Macadam Mason and Trooper Shaffer.