OPED: Power to the people
Let me just say that as one who marched in protest in the 1970s, the idea of doing so in a bubblegum-pink knit cap with ear-like tabs and calling it a “pussy hat” would have been unthinkable. But that hat was the closest thing to a uniform at women’s marches across the world Saturday.
So, how did a vulgar slur originally employed to objectify and shame women become the preferred term for the largest worldwide women’s rights action in most of our lifetimes? Time has changed some things. Donald Trump has changed others. But reclaiming language from shaming or demeaning usage is an old civil rights tactic.
When America’s newest president was heard on old video that surfaced during the election campaign boasting he couldn’t resist grabbing beautiful women “by the pussy,” many of us responded viscerally. What we heard was that’s what women are to him: Stripped of brains, emotions or intentions of our own, we’re a bunch of body parts free for the taking.
So some women decided to take the word back. Much like “bitch” and “queer” are used to empower, this word was stripped of its power to shame and degrade. Some savvy women even decided to use it to help turn the conversation to reproductive rights now in jeopardy under Trump.
But normalizing offensive language to make an ironic statement of empowerment is different from normalizing aberrant behavior because you think you’re above the rules. That’s the sort of normalization the Trump administration has been doing in its first few days. A particularly disturbing iteration of that has been redefining falsehoods as “alternative facts” and using them as if they were true.
The president decided to go to war with the media soon after his swearing in over aerial photographs appearing side by side in some reports and tweets. The pictures showed Barack Obama’s first swearing-in in 2009 to be better attended than Trump’s. The president’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, called it “shameful and wrong” for reporters to try to lessen enthusiasm for the occasion, insisting Trump’s was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”
Asked about that on Sunday’s “Meet The Press,” presidential senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told moderator Chuck Todd that Spicer was offering “alternative facts.” Translation: If the actual facts don’t make the president look good, we will substitute lies that do, and call them “alternative facts.”
When Todd drilled down on the evidence and said Spicer had told a “provable falsehood,” Conway seemed to threaten Todd with loss of access to administration officials. “If we’re going to keep referring to the press secretary in those terms,” she said, “we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here.”
Blatantly sacrificing the truth to support a different narrative is a hallmark not of democracy but of totalitarianism. And the petty peevishness and vanity that would drive it in this case is something we’d associate with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, not the democratically elected leader of the free world.
As journalist Michael Oreskes told a CNN panel, it reflects a belief that “If you can create a different understanding of reality, you can actually change (it).” The problem, Oreskes continued, is that “When society needs to make real decisions about real issues, life and death issues about war and peace, about climate, about economy, you have to deal with the actual reality.”
A free press in a democracy exists to push back on such occasions and insist on verifiable facts from leaders. And if this is what they’re up against, America’s press will have its work cut out separating fact from fiction. The question is will they do so with the support of the American public, including Trump’s supporters? Or will people buy the administration’s defense that the press has an anti-Trump bias and jump on the bandwagon to restrict its access to the president?
I’ve been seeing that contention in some of my emails. Reader Charles Newton did not appreciate my column calling Trump’s inauguration speech more divisive than unifying. He’s welcome to disagree. But he went on to use that opinion piece as evidence that “The American press during the next four years will attempt to undermine and destroy the presidency of Donald Trump.”
When I wrote back suggesting Newton was normalizing Trump’s behavior, he replied that he wasn’t, but that “Americans are finally tired of the normal candidates the parties have served up election after election.” Then he accused the left of being out to trash the president because its type of candidate was defeated.
Here’s my plea to the public, Trump supporters and all: Please understand that when reporters push back for the truth, they are not acting out of some pro-Hillary agenda but in defense of transparency. It should be important to everyone, whether or not we agree with certain policies, that decisions taken are based on real facts. In fact, if Trump’s supporters insist he tell the truth, then journalists wouldn’t feel as obligated to do that clean-up work.
Surely, Americans can come together over honesty, at least. After all, marchers came together, whether Democrat or Republican, pro-choice or anti-abortion, black, white or brown, queer or straight, with or without papers. Even people who never would have used the p-word came together under those pink hats — whether they called them by that name or not.
— Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register