Sunday, April 3, 2016

Sunday Reading

Penalty Phase — According to Zoë Carpenter in The Nation, women are already being punished for getting an abortion.

So much for Donald Trump’s relative moderation on reproductive health. During a Republican debate back in February, he offered what for today’s GOP counted as a heretical defense of Planned Parenthood. “Millions of women are helped” by the group, he said, though he also argued that it should be cut off from federal funding.

But during an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday, Trump swung himself to the outer fringes of the anti-abortion movement. “There has to be some form of punishment” for a woman who chooses to end a pregnancy, Trump said, though he didn’t specify what that might entail. What about consequences for the man who got her pregnant? That’s different, said Trump.

There are a few other conservatives who share this view—notably, National Review’s Kevin Williamson, who believes the proper punishment is hanging; and the co-chair of Ted Cruz’s pro-life committee, Troy Newman, who supports some sort of unspecified punishment for women, along with execution of abortion providers. But in general the anti-choice movement sticks to a careful public message that describes women as victims in need of protection from profit-hungry doctors. And indeed, facing criticism from his rivals, Trump backed down, and issued a statement clarifying his position to be that if abortion were to be criminalized, doctors—not women—should be prosecuted.

Obviously, criminalizing women who end their pregnancies in a country where one in every three women will do so has grotesque implications for public health and the criminal-justice system. Since at least 1500 BC women have risked imprisonment, pain, illness, and death in order to end pregnancies. There’s plenty of evidence in the historical record that criminalizing abortion makes it more dangerous, but none suggesting it will end the practice.

In fact, many states already criminalize women who end pregnancies themselves. Thirty-eight states have some sort of fetal homicide law, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Some exempt pregnant women, specifically, but many don’t. At least 17 people have been arrested or convicted for self-induced abortions in the United States, including Purvi Patel, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison last year for feticide. In 1990, a Florida teen who couldn’t afford an abortion shot herself in the abdomen, and was charged with third-degree murder. In 2009, a teenager in Utah paid a man $150 to beat her up, hoping it would cause a miscarriage; she was charged with solicitation to commit murder.

Meanwhile, pushed by the same activists who claim women shouldn’t be punished, states have been making legal abortion less and less accessible. Nearly 300 new restrictions on abortion services passed between 2011 and 2015. Texas lost half of its clinics in two years; only one remains open in Mississippi, and two in Louisiana. There are indicators that the closures are prompting more women to think about self-inducing. In 2011, when states enacted more than 90 restrictions, Google searches related to at-home abortions jumped by 40 percent, according toThe New York Times. The states with the highest rates for searches about how to a pregnancy happen to be those that restrict abortion the most.

Laws that restrict access to legal abortion services and those that criminalize self-induced abortion are on a collision course, and it’s women who are caught in the middle. As Dani McClain reported recently, the problem is big enough that legal experts have formed a new coalition to help women who are prosecuted for taking medication or otherwise trying to end their own pregnancies—which, the group says, has become “the only available or acceptable method of abortion to growing numbers of people.”

Feel The Math — Paul Krugman on Bernie Sanders’ tough road ahead.

The Sanders campaign has come much further than almost anyone expected, to the point where Sanders can have a lot of influence on the shape of the race. But with influence comes responsibility, and it’s time to lay out some guidelines for good and bad behavior.

The first thing to say is that it’s still very unlikely that Sanders can win the nomination. Don’t tell me about national polls (and cherry-pick the polls that show your guy getting close); at this point it’s all about delegate counts, where Clinton has a substantial lead with the voting more than half over. The Times’s Upshot has a nice calculator that takes account of what we know about demographic factors – Sanders does well in very white states and in caucuses, not so much elsewhere – and lets you experiment with various overall leads in what remains of the race. To overtake Clinton in pledged delegates, Sanders would need to win by about a 13 point margin from here on in…

[…]

Now, as the bumper stickers don’t quite say, stuff happens. But at this point it’s something like a 90 percent probability that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. Anyone denying that arithmetic is basically pulling a con job on Sanders supporters.

So what does that say about appropriate behavior on the part of her rival? Two things, I’d argue.

First, the Sanders campaign needs to stop feeding the right-wing disinformation machine. Engaging in innuendo suggesting, without evidence, that Clinton is corrupt is, at this point, basically campaigning on behalf of the RNC. If Sanders really believes, as he says, that it’s all-important to keep the White House out of Republican hands, he should stop all that – and tell his staff to stop it too.

Second, it’s time for Sanders to engage in some citizenship. The presidency isn’t the only office on the line; down-ballot races for the Senate and even the House are going to be crucial. Clinton has been raising money for other races; Sanders hasn’t, and is still being evasive on whether he will ever do so. Not acceptable.

Oh, and the Sanders campaign is saying that it will try to flip superdelegates even if it loses the unpledged delegates and the popular vote. Remember when evil Hillary was going to use superdelegates to steal the nomination? Double standards aside, what makes the campaign think that he will get any backing from a party he refuses to lift a finger to help?

It’s important to realize that there are some real conflicts of interest here. For Sanders campaign staff, and also for anyone who has been backing his insurgency, it’s been one heck of a ride, and they would understandably like it to go on as long as possible. But we’ve now reached the point where what’s fun for the campaign isn’t at all the same as what’s good for America.

Sanders doesn’t need to drop out, but he needs to start acting responsibly.

Aretha — David Remnick in The New Yorker on the Queen of Soul.

Late on a winter night, Aretha Franklin sat in the dressing room of Caesars Windsor Hotel and Casino, in Ontario. She did not wear the expression of someone who has just brought boundless joy to a few thousand souls.

“What was with the sound?” she said, in a tone somewhere between perplexity and irritation. Feedback had pierced a verse of “My Funny Valentine,” and before she sat down at the piano to play “Inseparable,” a tribute to the late Natalie Cole, she narrowed her gaze and called on a “Mr. Lowery” to fix the levels once and for all. Miss Franklin, as nearly everyone in her circle tends to call her, was distinctly, if politely, displeased. “For a time up there, I just couldn’t hear myself right,” she said.

On the counter in front of her, next to her makeup mirror and hairbrush, were small stacks of hundred-dollar bills. She collects on the spot or she does not sing. The cash goes into her handbag and the handbag either stays with her security team or goes out onstage and resides, within eyeshot, on the piano. “It’s the era she grew up in—she saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off,” a close friend, the television host and author Tavis Smiley, told me. “There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her.”

Franklin has won eighteen Grammy awards, sold tens of millions of records, and is generally acknowledged to be the greatest singer in the history of postwar popular music. James Brown, Sam Cooke, Etta James, Otis Redding, Ray Charles: even they cannot match her power, her range from gospel to jazz, R. & B., and pop. At the 1998 Grammys, Luciano Pavarotti called in sick with a sore throat and Aretha, with twenty minutes’ notice, sang “Nessun dorma” for him. What distinguishes her is not merely the breadth of her catalogue or the cataract force of her vocal instrument; it’s her musical intelligence, her way of singing behind the beat, of spraying a wash of notes over a single word or syllable, of constructing, moment by moment, the emotional power of a three-minute song. “Respect” is as precise an artifact as a Ming vase.

“There are certain women singers who possess, beyond all the boundaries of our admiration for their art, an uncanny power to evoke our love,” Ralph Ellison wrote in a 1958 essay on Mahalia Jackson. “Indeed, we feel that if the idea of aristocracy is more than mere class conceit, then these surely are our natural queens.” In 1967, at the Regal Theatre, in Chicago, the d.j. Pervis Spann presided over a coronation in which he placed a crown on Franklin’s head and pronounced her the Queen of Soul.

The Queen does not rehearse the band—not for a casino gig in Windsor, Ontario. She leaves it to her longtime musical director, a seventy-nine-year-old former child actor and doo-wop singer named H. B. Barnum, to assemble her usual rhythm section and backup singers and pair them with some local union horn and string players, and run them through a three-hour scan of anything Franklin might choose to sing: the hits from the late sixties and early seventies—“Chain of Fools,” “Spirit in the Dark,” “Think”—along with more recent recordings. Sometimes, Franklin will switch things up and pull out a jazz tune—“Cherokee” or “Skylark”—but that is rare. Her greatest concern is husbanding her voice and her energies. When she wears a fur coat onstage, it’s partly to keep warm and prevent her voice from closing up. But it’s also because that’s what the old I’ve-earned-it-now-I’m-gonna-wear-it gospel stars often did: they wore the mink. Midway through her set, she makes what she calls a “false exit,” and slips backstage and lets the band noodle while she rests. “It’s a fifteen-round fight, and so she paces herself,” Barnum says. “Aretha is not thirty years old.” She is seventy-four.

Franklin doesn’t get around much anymore. For the past thirty-four years, she has refused to fly, which means that she hasn’t been able to perform in favorite haunts from the late sixties, like the Olympia, in Paris, or the Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam. When she does travel, it’s by bus. Not a Greyhound, exactly, but, still, it’s exhausting. A trip not long ago from her house, outside Detroit, to Los Angeles proved too much to contemplate again. “That one just wore me out,” she said. “It’s a nice bus, but it took days! ” She has attended anxious-flyer classes and said that she’s determined to get on a plane again soon. “I’m thinking about making the flight from Detroit to Chicago,” she said. “Baby steps.”

Even if the concert in Windsor was a shadow of her stage work a generation ago, there were intermittent moments of sublimity. Naturally, she has lost range and stamina, but she is miles better than Sinatra at a similar age. And she has survived longer than nearly any contemporary. In Windsor, she lagged for a while and then ripped up the B. B. King twelve-bar blues “Sweet Sixteen.” Performing “Chain of Fools,” a replica of the Reverend Elijah Fair’s gospel tune “Pains of Life,” she managed to make it just as greasy as when she recorded it, in 1968.

Before the show, I was talking with people in the aisles. More than a few said they hadn’t seen Franklin or paid much attention to her recordings for years. It was an older crowd, but they hadn’t come to see an oldies show. What reawakened them, they said, was precisely what had reawakened me: a video, gone viral, of Franklin singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at last December’s Kennedy Center Honors. Watch it if you haven’t: in under five minutes, your life will improve by a minimum of forty-seven per cent.

Aretha comes out onstage looking like the fanciest church lady in Christendom: fierce red lipstick, floor-length mink, a brocaded pink-and-gold dress that Bessie Smith would have worn if she’d sold tens of millions of records. Aretha sits down at the piano. She adjusts the mike. Then she proceeds to punch out a series of gospel chords in 12/8 time, and, if you have an ounce of sap left in you, you are overcome. A huge orchestra wells up beneath her, and four crack backup singers sliver their perfectly timed accents (“Ah-hoo!”) in front of her lines. Aretha is singing with a power that rivals her own self of three or four decades ago.

Up in the first tier, sitting next to the Obamas, Carole King is about to fall over the rail. She is an honoree, and wrote “A Natural Woman” with her first husband, Gerry Goffin. From the moment Franklin starts the first verse—“Looking out on the morning rain, / I used to feel . . . so uninspired”—King is rolling her eyes back in her head and waving on the music as if in a kind of ecstatic possession. She soon spots Obama wiping a tear from his cheek. (“The cool cat wept!” King told me later. “I loved that.”)

King hadn’t seen Franklin in a long time, and when she had Franklin was not performing at this level of intensity. “Seeing her sit down to play the piano put me rungs higher on the levels of joy,” King says. And when Franklin gets up from the piano bench to finish off the song—“That’s a piece of theatre, and she’s a diva in the best sense, so, of course, she had to do that at the perfect moment”—the joy deepens.

King recalls how the song came about. It was 1967, and she and Goffin were in Manhattan, walking along Broadway, and Jerry Wexler, of Atlantic Records, pulled up beside them in a limousine, rolled down the window, and said, “I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha. How about writing a song called ‘A Natural Woman.’ ” He rolled up the window and the car drove off. King and Goffin went home to Jersey. That night, after tucking their kids into bed, they sat down and wrote the music and the lyrics. By the next morning, they had a hit.

“I hear these things in my head, where they might go, how they might sound,” King says. “But I don’t have the chops to do it myself. So it was like witnessing a dream realized.”

Beyond the music itself, the moment everyone talked about after Franklin’s performance at the Kennedy Center was the way, just before the final chorus, as she was reaching the all-out crescendo, she stripped off her mink and let it fall to the floor. Whoosh! Dropping the fur—it’s an old gospel move, a gesture of emotional abandon, of letting loose. At Mahalia Jackson’s wake, Clara Ward, one of Aretha’s greatest influences, threw her mink stole at the open casket after she sang “Beams of Heaven.” The fur is part of the drama, the royal persona. When Franklin went to see Diahann Carroll in a production of “Sunset Boulevard,” in Toronto, she had two seats: one for her, one for the mink.

Backstage in Windsor, I asked Franklin about that night in D.C. Her mood brightened. “One of the three or four greatest nights of my life,” she said.

Doonesbury — Bully-bros.