Our junior Oklahoma U.S. Senator James Lankford spoke on the Senate floor last Thursday about a sting video showing a Planned Parenthood executive supposedly talking rather bluntly about using aborted fetuses for medical research.
Obviously, Lankford, a Southern Baptist who is a social conservative in red-state Oklahoma, opposes abortion and gave a rather dramatic speech on the issue, mentioning proudly in a news release, “At the time of the speech, Lankford was the only Senator to speak on the floor about the Planned Parenthood video.”
But the video itself has come under fire for distortion with cherry-picked editing and slicing, though the organization has now released the entire video. No matter what you might think about the use of fetal tissue for research, it’s simply not right for a politically oriented organization to send undercover operatives to produce a video or story that obviously aims to support their agenda. This is unethical at worst, and at the very least, it’s not valuable for presenting an unbiased view of any political issue.
Let me present a quick overview of what happened, and then parse through a couple of Lankford’s statements in his speech that ignore how the video was produced and the agenda behind it.
In 2014, the group Center for Medical Progress sent people who have been called “actors” to have lunch with a Planned Parenthood executive in charge of medical research. This month they released a video showing the executive talking about selling fetal tissue for important stem cell research. Apparently, the Center for Medical Progress is linked to the anti-abortion group Live Action, according to media reports, and may have misled the public and the Internal Revenue Service about their agenda.
In addition, the supposedly smoking-gun video is really just a rehash of what’s been going on for years in medical research. The video has been in the news for a while, and it follows a familiar right-wing and corporate media pattern. The right-wing releases a sting video or makes an outrageous claim with scant evidence or condemns someone or some political position with a distorted take on some information. The media reports it in breathless, sensational fashion, ignoring the political context at first. Right-wing outrage ensues. The claim is then discredited or placed into appropriate context, but no one remembers the credibility problem and most right-wingers intentionally just accept the deception for what they might perceive as larger reasons.
Here’s a short rundown of links on the “hitjob,” which has raised the usual questions about veracity and intent. The mainstream media has begun to pick up on the credibility issue.
The two main points here are that (1) Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization, is definitely NOT “selling” fetal body parts, which seems to be the initial video’s point, but is merely recovering minor costs for preserving and transporting tissue to medical research facilities, and (2) as a NBC report on the issue points out, “Cells from embryos and very early fetuses have properties that fully developed cells do not. What most researchers are after if they use fetal tissue are the stem cells.”
Again, stem cell research has raised questions of medical ethics, which should be constantly debated in our culture, but that doesn’t make it a Planned Parenthood issue. It’s a larger issue. Abortion is legal in this country. Stem cells from fetal tissue and embryos can be used to develop medical treatments that save and extend lives. The issues scrutinized through the lens of medical ethics are ever-changing because of scientific advancements. The initial anti-abortion sting video, as far as I can tell, doesn’t engage these obvious points in any meaningful, unbiased way. It only sensationalizes stem cell research to stir up emotional reaction.
But the video was enough for Lankford to go on the Senate floor and deliver a speech condemning Planned Parenthood, which is often a target of religious fundamentalists and their political supporters. It’s no surprise that Lankford did this, but it lacks the type of basic leadership for which he gets lauded on The Oklahoman editorial page. Here’s what the newspaper recently had to say about Lankford:
Oklahomans can rest assured that their freshman U.S. senator is staying on top of it and, where possible, working to make a positive difference.
One could argue that Lankford’s position on abortion is shared by many of his constituents, but it’s hardly a “positive difference” to waste time on the Senate floor on information produced under suspect circumstances by a group with a political agenda. That’s not “staying on top of it . . .”. That’s simply crass politics.
Here’s a transcript of the speech posted on Lankford’s Senate site. I will look at two paragraphs in the speech. The first one argues the “bodies” of “aborted children” are “sometimes for sale.” Here it is:
We learned that this week an organization called Planned Parenthood is using children that are aborted and sending the bodies of those aborted children to research facilities, sometimes for sale, different body parts, to be used in research. These are not mice, these are not lab rats, these are children. Children that have gone through the process of a horrific abortion.
Everyone knows about Planned Parenthood. To say, “ . . . an organization called Planned Parenthood,” is to imply it’s new or not credible in a historical sense, and, as he goes on, doing something very sinister. Planned Parenthood dates back to 1916. He says “the bodies” and “different body parts” without mentioning once that it’s really about tissue for stem cell research. He argues these “bodies” are “sometimes for sale,” but that’s a distortion. Medical research costs money in terms of preservation of specimens and transportation. Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit organization, is merely recovering costs. His entire language in the paragraph is to elicit an emotional reaction, which riles up his angry base of voters but isn’t a truthful and thoughtful expression on the issue.
Here’s another paragraph I found especially misleading:
Why this Congress would spend time today debating horse slaughter and debating orca whales, but yet we've become so numb to children that the other debate doesn't seem to come up. Maybe we need to start again as a nation, asking a basic question. If that's a child, and in our Declaration [of Independence] we said every person that we believe is endowed by our Creator to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, maybe we need to ask as a nation again, do we really believe that?
There are two major fallacies here. One is changing the argument from the issue of stem cell research and even the video itself to the ethics of animal treatment. Does anyone reading this think this country and its politicians haven’t debated the abortion issue, which is what this is about? A person can be against abortion and also support animal rights and the environment. The second one is using a tired overarching trope of a founding national document that has absolutely nothing to do with the issue under discussion. It’s crass political rhetoric.
In the end, the sting video and Lankford’s speech don’t add up to much. They’re both simply tricks trying to sway people to be against reproductive rights for women. There’s more at stake here than just a woman’s right to choose. It’s about the continued Republican agenda to control women’s bodies.
The historical disconnect between Oklahoma as a legal entity granted statehood in 1907 and the Civil War makes waving the Confederate flag here as part of the state’s heritage almost as inane as the ugly racist overtones.
Note I use the word “almost.” Waving the Confederate flag in the face of the first black American president, which happened here this week, is an ugly and intentional act of racism and hatred. The Confederacy, under its flag, sent thousands of its people to their deaths in the nineteenth century to sustain the sordid and inhumane institution of slavery, which remains a blight on the nation’s historical record. American slavery still remains foundational to any discussion about racism in this country.
Let me be clear: Waving the Confederate flag in honor is a blatant act of racism or might represent a lack of basic historical knowledge. Waving it in the face of an African American in a taunting manner might even rise to the status of a crime given specific circumstances.
President Barack Obama visited Oklahoma on Wednesday and Thursday, speaking in Durant about expanding rural Internet access and then about corrections reform at the federal prison in El Reno. He stayed overnight at an Oklahoma City hotel. In Durant and Oklahoma City, he was met with extremely small groups of people waving Confederate flags, which made world news and embarrassed or should have embarrassed people in the state.
Even some Oklahoma Republicans were actually shocked. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, for example, condemned the flag wavers in no uncertain terms. A statement by Cole on the issue begins like this:
I was shocked and disappointed by those who showed up to wave Confederate flags soon after President Obama arrived in Oklahoma. Their actions were not only disappointing but incredibly disrespectful, insensitive and embarrassing to the entire state.
The Confederate flag has been in the news recently following the shooting death of nine people at a historic African American church in Charleston, South Carolina. The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, has been associated with the flag in images and media stories. South Carolina just recently removed a Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds.
The flag wavers in Oklahoma were miniscule, but they were there, and they received broad, worldwide coverage. Yet it should be simply noted that Oklahoma didn’t even become a state until 1907, more than 40 years after the South lost the Civil War. Of course, people live here who might have grown up in the seven initial Confederate states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, but it’s a reach in terms of symbolism to directly connect “Oklahoma” (note the quotes) to what gets called “the old South.”
My point here is any historical or heritage argument made in favor of waving the Confederate flag in Oklahoma just doesn’t fit neatly with the state’s history. It’s a skewed and complicated connection. Ironically, “Oklahoma,” the legal entity, got some really bad press out of a historical symbol it really has no right to claim in the first place. There IS the fact that some members of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole nations primarily fought with the Confederates in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, but some members of these nations were pro-Union. Again, it’s complicated, and worth studying, but it’s obvious Oklahoma doesn’t have an old-South plantation heritage, say, like Mississippi or Georgia. Again, Oklahoma wasn’t a federally recognized state during a war between federally recognized states.
This doesn’t mean Oklahoma doesn’t have its own history of racism and hatred in which a predominately white power structure limits the civil rights of people belonging to minority groups, but as much as linking this to the Confederate flag might make perfect sense the state just wasn’t a state when the plantation owners sent their sons to die for a lost and dishonorable cause.
To re-paraphrase an old Donovan song, it “must be the season of the gaffe,” and it’s growing as old as the song itself locally and nationally.
I’m not the first to point this out. Matthew Pulver recently wrote about the media’s obsession with gaffes in Salon.com. But the reporting of so-called verbal gaffes committed by politicians often misses the point. Are they miscommunications corrected by a simple apology or, more likely, are they statements of belief and value systems?
Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Gov. Mary Fallin and the Oklahoma Republican Party, all have made the news recently for supposedly miscommunicating ideas, and the local and national media has seized on them voraciously.
Here’s how it works: A politician says something controversial. The media reports it. The politician’s opponents demand an apology or ridicule what the politician said. The media reports it. The initial politician then issues some type of clarification or apology. The politician’s opponents claim that it isn’t enough. The media reports it. Then another politician gaffes it up, and the cycle repeats itself.
The next presidential election doesn’t happen until 2016 so I will go out on a limb and forecast a lot of gaffe reporting awaits us in the future. Must be the season of the gaffe.
On the local level recently, Fallin made news when she appeared in front of reporters to not know the three branches of government. That was followed by an Oklahoma Republican Party Facebook post that compared people on food stamps to animals, which created a tremendous amount of controversy. Both made national news. Fallin, to my knowledge never clarified her statement. The chair of the Oklahoma GOP, Randy Brogdon, apologized after a storm of criticism.
In each case, however, the main issue seemed to get lost in the reporting.
As I argued earlier, Fallin most likely knows the three branches of government include the executive, judicial and legislative. Here’s what she said that caused the media firestorm:
You know, there are three branches of our government. You have the Supreme Court, the legislative branch and the people, the people and their ability to vote. So I’m hoping that we can address this issue in the legislative session and let the people of Oklahoma decide.
The media, of course, focused on how she clumsily described the branches of government. But it was her main point that deserved more discussion. Her point basically was that Oklahoma voters, not a court, should be allowed to decide the fate of the Ten Commandments monument on state Capitol grounds. As you know, the Oklahoma Supreme Court recently ruled 7 to 2 the monument must be removed from the Capitol because it violates the state’s constitution.
But the very purpose of the judicial branch of government is to uphold laws and constitutions while protecting those people with minority viewpoints from tyranny and mob rule. Fallin is expressing a deep-seated philosophical viewpoint about the rule of law, and her refusal to remove the monument and her basis for it should be the focus of scrutiny.
The media also seized on a cruel Facebook post by the Oklahoma Republican Party. Here’s the text of that post, which has since been removed:
The Food Stamp Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is proud to be distributing this year the greatest amount of free Meals and Food Stamps ever, to 46 million people.
Meanwhile, the National Park Service, administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, asks us "Please Do Not Feed the Animals." Their stated reason for the policy is because "The animals will grow dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves."
Thus ends today's lesson in irony ?#OKGOP
Another gaffe? Well, Brogdon sort of apologized and the post was removed, but the point is that there are many, many people in Oklahoma that possess misinformation about people who receive food stamps. They close their minds to studies and basic financial information that prove the vast majority of people who receive assistance are actually in dire need of help.
Should we let voters decide every issue, even if it’s discriminatory against another group of people? Should we allow children to go hungry or even starve to death in this country because they “will grow dependent on handouts . . .”? The answer to both questions is a resounding NO. Who cares if Fallin knows the three branches of government or whether Brogdon is truly apologetic? What matters is the substance (or lack thereof) of their narrow viewpoints.