Netroots Nation: The sex. Or lack of it. The glamour. Or at least the glamorous Mac laptops. The politics. The politicians showing up at parties and shaking everyone’s hand. The profanity. The whining about the profanity from those who have editors. The ridiculous confrontations with right wingers involved with counter-programming. And of course, the panels, featuring a roomful of people both listening to you speak and blogging your words for posterity’s sake. In other words, if you go to one conference any year, you could do worse than Netroots Nation.
This year was my second Netroots Nation, but my first coming not just to represent myself, but also on behalf of Rewire. We had the most fun wandering around the convention asking people to give their opinions about reproductive rights. One thing that you can always count on at Netroots Nation is that any random group of people there will have intelligent, opinionated things to say. I recommend that anyone looking for "man on the street" interviews stake out Netroots Nation. Most of the time, you have to chase people around with the camera to get much out of them. At Netroots Nation, we had people flagging us down and saying, "What are you doing a video of? Can I be in it?"
But I digress. This column is about the Rewire-sponsored panel "Breaking The Frame: Revitalizing and Redefining Reproductive Rights Media Coverage", which I participated in, alongside Andrea Camp, Marcela Howell, and Eesha Pandit, and our own Amie Newman moderating. The panel was organized around the rather unspectacular but still befuddled observation that the mainstream media tends to cover the reproductive rights debate inside the framework of the anti-choice movement. Unspectacular, because it’s obvious; the mainstream media prefers to let the right wing frame that it’s about the fetus dominate over the pro-choice frame that it’s about women’s rights. The mainstream media also tends to cover the issue as if it’s only about abortion, but we all know that the anti-choice movement is also gunning to ban comprehensive sex education, contraception, and STD protection. But befuddled, because it’s not that easy to see why the mainstream media goes this route in a nation that’s majority pro-choice on abortion rights, not to say other reproductive rights issues like the right to use contraception or the right to have a baby.
Before I get into the panel— you can watch a highlight reel here—I’d like to offer an intriguing possibility as to why the mainstream media kow-tows so often to anti-choice frames. Digby suggests that the mainstream media prefers right wing frames as a sort of cultural tourism that makes them feel magnimous towards "salt of the earth" types that they’ve defined as inherently right wing.
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It’s that phony Village provincialism running amok again spreading patronizing, anti-intellectual drivel that allows these elites to wallow in salt of the earth moral superiority that they do not personally possess but take credit for by writing glowing paeans to primitivism and barbarity that nobody but a few fundamentalist weirdos actually believe in.
I think that’s it. A lot of mainstream media types feel acutely aware of their urbane privilege, and they allow the right wing to guilt them into letting right wing frames dominate the conversation on the theory that it’s somehow more homespun that way.
What we panelists talked about was how we need to argue forcefully that anti-choicers not only don’t have a monopoly on American values, they actually oppose real American values. We speak from a genuinely decent and kind values system. We value women’s lives. We value families that thrive when the adults can exert some control over the number of children they have and when they have them. We value children, who should be wanted and cherished, not treated as anti-choicers do, like a punishment served out to sexual sinners.
More importantly, we’re the ones speaking from the place of heartland American values. Most people use contraception and support the right of women to participate in the public sphere, instead of be chained to the stove as a cooking-and-breeding machine. Most people don’t put the imaginary rights of a blastocyst or even of a sperm above the rights of living, breathing, feeling human women. Most people don’t think that some right wing nutbar high on misogyny and religious fundamentalism knows better than you what choices you need to make for yourself and your family.
On my part of the panel, I talked about how right wingers win by sentimentalizing the fetus and calling it a baby. They’ve made so many inroads against abortion by doing this that they’re looking for other things they can label as "babies" in order to make inroads against other behaviors besides abortion they’d like to legislate against. Now they want to claim that preventing ovulation is killing a baby, so they can take action against birth control pills.
On the panel, I suggested that they’re doing so well with the "baby-killing" frame that we can expect to see them try to redefine all sorts of activities as "baby-killing" outside of abortion, birth control pills, and IUDs. Perhaps next we’ll see arguments about how condoms kill babies. Maybe comprehensive sex ed kills babies. The argument could be that learning about various birth control options is too much for the tender female brain, and it sucks away energy that will make the uterus inhospitable. There is precedent — in the 19th century, it was argued that education could render women infertile through just this pseudo-scientific logic. And anti-choicers are nothing if not willing to idealize the era before women could vote.
Win the framing war, win the argument: It makes liberals squirmy to think about it, but it’s unfortunately true. We need to stay on-topic and continue to pressure the mainstream media to remember that women have rights, and the reproductive rights debate is about that, not about imaginary babies.