Todd Akin, “Legitimate Rape,” And Conservative Subjectivity: A Tragedy In One Act

by evanmcmurry

Post-Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, I was all ready this morning to read the now-standard conservative response any time someone on the right says something stupid about women, sex, and health: the Democrats are trying to distract from the economy by ginning up false culture wars! Remember that by the end of the whole contraception debate, it was somehow a Democratic plot that Rush Limbaugh was calling women sluts on the radio.

And while I still think Akin’s comment will be the Dem’s doing within a few days, nobody’s going there yet. Even Jonah Goldberg—Jonah Goldberg! This guy!—took to the interwebs to excoriate Akin for his comment:

Todd Akin mess is fair game (though that doesn’t necessarily justify days of feeding frenzy — or this nonsense — either). First of all, good grief. It’s a repugnant formulation as I think everyone can appreciate. Are we going to treat women who get pregnant as a result of rape as if they were somehow asking for it? That they were less than “legitimately” raped?…I want the GOP to win this Senate race as much as anyone. But Akin’s statement is the sort of idiotic and offensive self-inflicted wound that can’t be blamed on anybody but Akin himself.

There’s a bit of damage control in that—note he still manages to get in a dig at TPM, and note the last line, which attempts to isolate Akin from the GOP—but Goldberg’s post overall reads as an honest denouncement, rather than the ideological reflex I expected. So good on him.

But there’s a deeper problem with Goldberg’s reasoning that resonates more with Akin’s comment than even he probably suspects:

I had not heard that people thought this about rape before. It certainly runs counter to everything I’ve read or heard about the subject, particularly about prehistoric and ancient societies where rape was a spoil of war.

So, if Goldberg had heard that, he’d be fine with it? If the arguments of the (probably conservative) histories Goldberg had read better supported Akin’s claim, Goldberg would be for it?

Romney said essentially the same thing:

Congressman’s Akin comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong. Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive…I have an entirely different view. What he said is entirely without merit and he should correct it.

And both those comments are in the same key as Akin’s original comment:

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy from rape) is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in a clip posted to YouTube by the Democratic super PAC American Bridge. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

What all three of these comments have in common is the first person singular. Moral of the story: knowledge only gains substance when it comes within the limited sphere of conservative subjectivity. The measure of legitimate views on rape and/or abortion are whether Mitt Romney, Jonah Goldberg, and Todd Akin were previously aware of it; and given that none of these men have demonstrated any desire to proactively find out anything about these issues—short of Goldberg reading about ancient society, which doesn’t exactly count—what they know about is simply what limps into their view. This is exactly the complaint of pro-choice voters: that women’s health legislation is being written by lawmakers who don’t know what they’re talking about, have made no effort to gain any information, and nonetheless consider themselves to be the arbiters of what counts as knowledge. Akin’s defense is that he misspoke, but it was not even so much the noxious idea he expressed as the exact way he and Romney and Goldberg literally spoke: the “I” in each of their comments says as much about their worldview as the opinions that follow that I.

Good for Goldberg and Romney for denouncing Akin’s comment, but their responses show that their thinking is not fundamentally different than Akin’s.

(Same argument with more detail here.)