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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Rockbridge Delegate Ronnie Campbell is co-sponsoring four House bills designed to prevent absentee voting in Virginia:

  • HB 34 would eliminate drop-off locations for the return of absentee ballots.
  • HB 35 would require a registered voter to provide a reason for being unable to vote at their polling place on election day in order to receive an absentee ballot.
  • HB 36 would prevent registered voters from receiving absentee ballots for all elections.
  • HB 39 would limit absentee voting in person to the two weeks immediately preceding an election.

Why does Virginia need these new laws? Is there any evidence that absentee voting, whether submitted by mail, placed in drop-boxes, or delivered in person, is prone to fraud? If there is evidence of such past fraud, then, yes, preventing more future fraud would be a reasonable goal. But if evidence is scant or non-existent, if absentee voting has been shown to be no more prone to fraud than any other form of voting, then these laws are not about reducing voter fraud. They are about reducing voting.

Ask Delegate Wren Williams. His name is on those four bills too, and I suspect he, not Campbell, is the driving force behind them. When Williams primaried a twelve-year incumbent Republican last summer, he made “Securing our Elections” one of his top talking points. His website brags:

“Our elections are the most sacred part of American democracy. In 2020, Wren volunteered his time to aid President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) election integrity efforts in Wisconsin. Virginia Democrats have pushed voting without any form of ID, and will continue to push liberal policies that harm the fabric of our voting system. Wren believes election integrity and trusting our elections is one of the most important issues facing the Commonwealth. In Richmond, he will bring his national courtroom experience on this issue and will be a fierce fighter for integrity in our elections.”

So what exactly happened to “election integrity” in Wisconsin?

According to a court brief filed on behalf of Trump: “in Wisconsin, the largest cities all deployed hundreds of unmanned, unsecured absentee ballot drop boxes that were all invalid means of returning absentee votes under state law.” The drop-off boxes were anchored to the ground, sealed against tampering, and subjected to 24-hour video surveillance, so, no, they were not “unsecured.” Trump’s legal team, which apparently included Williams, tried to invalidate over 200,000 Wisconsin votes on these and other false grounds, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected their arguments. That’s the “national courtroom experience” Williams brings to Richmond.

But the evidence disproving the false fraud claims goes much deeper. Last month, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty completed their 10-month investigation, finding “no evidence of fraudulent ballots or widespread voter fraud.” That includes absentee voting: “The number of absentee ballots counted on election night in Milwaukee is consistent with what was reported to be outstanding. Put simply, there was no unexplained ‘ballot dump.’”

The same is true for Virginia. Last March: “A statewide audit of Virginia’s 2020 election results verified President Joe Biden’s victory in the state, finding only a 0.00000065117 percent chance the state’s voting system could have produced an inaccurate outcome.”

That “voting system” included 1,202,087 absentee ballots.

And what about the November 2021 election that Republican Gov. Youngkin won? Days before the election, conservative radio host John Fredericks claimed : “We’ve got all kinds of irregularities right now going on.” Epoch Times commentator John Mills warned that “people can walk in and out” of Virginia’s unsecure ballot-counting facilities. Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase claimed “Democrats are cheating” in the early absentee voting (Business Insider). And yet after the election, these and other Republicans showed no concern about or evidence of any “irregularies” or poor “security” or “cheating” of any kind.

So why now that he’s in office does Williams claim absentee voting “harms the fabric of our voting system”? And why is Campbell co-sponsoring legislation attacking a form of voting that allows more Virginians to vote with no increased risk of fraud?

Keep in mind that Wren Williams is the same delegate who was widely mocked earlier this month for introducing a bill that would require Virginian students to study “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.” Lincoln debated pro-slavery Senator Steven Douglas. Frederick Douglass and Lincoln both opposed slavery. The same Williams bill would also prevent history from hurting students’ feelings by prohibiting the “divisive concept” that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race, religion, ethnicity, or sex.” I think anyone who reads the history of slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S. “should” feel a great deal of “discomfort” and probably even some “psychological distress,” but that would be on account of their being human, whatever their particular “race, religion, ethnicity, or sex.”

Meanwhile, Ronnie Campbell is the same delegate who was stripped of his committee positions last January after he and two other Republican delegates wrote a letter to Vice President Pence asking him to “nullify the Certificate of Ascertainment of Presidential Electors issued by the governor of our state.” The other 42 Republican delegates and the 18 Republican state senators did not join in the effort to disenfranchise all of Virginia’s voters based on false claims.

Speaker Filler-Corn responded: “By seeking to disenfranchise millions of Virginians and undercut faith in our democratic institutions, Delegate Dave LaRock, Delegate Mark Cole and Delegate Ronnie Campbell showed exceedingly poor judgement and conducted themselves in a manner unbecoming of their office. Their attempt to cast doubt on our elections process in order to impede the peaceful transfer of power between one President to another is an affront to our democracy and violates the public trust.”

In Campbell’s defense, LaRock was the author of the letter. Campbell was just foolish enough to co-sign it. The same may be true of these new anti-voting bills that Williams got Campbell to co-sign too. Does either Republican actually believe they are safeguarding democracy—or do they know that the baseless claims about non-existent voter fraud are just an excuse to try to reduce voter turnout? I have no idea. I don’t care either, because whether these Republicans are merely deluded or knowingly placing party interest above the most sacred part of American democracy, their legislation will harm the fabric of our voting system.

“Virginia must renew its commitment to teaching our children the value of freedom of thought and diversity of ideas,” declared Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in his first executive order on January 15. He even included conservatives’ favorite cherry-picked MLK quote: “Only then will we realize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that our children ‘will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.'”

But how do Virginia Republicans renew a commitment to teaching children the value of freedom of thought and diversity of ideas? By trying to ban ideas they dislike. No more “divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny.” Or rather no more “inherently divisive concepts.” The adverb is apparently important. It appears eighteen times in Executive Order Number One. To his schizophrenic credit though, Youngkin does at least acknowledge the following:

“We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history – both good and bad. From the horrors of American slavery and segregation, and our country’s treatment of Native Americans, to the triumph of America’s Greatest Generation against the Nazi Empire, the heroic efforts of Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, and our country’s defeat of the Soviet Union and the ills of Communism, we must provide our students with the facts and context necessary to understand these important events.”

Agreed.

In fact, I agree with the vast majority of the executive order, because the vast majority of the executive order bans things that already do not exist. The adjective “divisive” is subjective, so the final section provides a much-needed definition of “inherently divisive concepts,” which for the purpose of the order “means advancing any ideas in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Title IV ended segregation in public schools, and Title VI states:

“No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

So Youngkin has come out against segregation and that no student should be prohibited from attending public school. And he has done this by redundantly banning ideas that would violate a law passed six decades ago—whether those ideas actually exist or not. Such theoretical ideas include but are “not limited” to a list of seven provided in the order:  

  • (i) one race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith is inherently superior to another race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith;
  • (ii) an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously,
  • (iii) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith,
  • (iv) members of one race, ethnicity, sex or faith cannot and should not attempt to treat others as individuals without respect to race, sex or faith,
  • (v) an individual’s moral character is inherently determined by his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith,
  • (vi) an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, ethnicity, sex or faith,
  • (vii) meritocracy or traits, such as a hard work ethic, are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.

The first and fifth include the above-mentioned adverb “inherently,” which means naturally or necessarily. To believe that someone is “inherently superior” is to believe they were born that way. The same is true with any “inherently determined” moral character—with the exception of a moral character determined by a person’s “faith,” since people are not born with religious beliefs. Though some religious beliefs do oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (many Christians believed the Bible justified slavery), membership in a religion does not necessarily require such beliefs.

So I agree with Youngkin’s (i) and (v).

The second and sixth ideas do not include “inherently” but instead an equivalent phrase: “by virtue of.” Racism and sexism are not inheritable traits, so no one can be racist or sexist simply by being born of any race, skin color, ethnicity, or sex. Faith repeats the same categorical problem, but as long as your faith does not require you to adopt racist or sexist beliefs, you are not racist or sexist “by virtue of” your faith. Whether such racist or sexist qualities would be “consciously or subconsciously” is moot since none necessarily exist “by virtue of” anything listed. Similarly, “by virtue of” being born into a group does not make an individual responsible “for actions committed in the past by other members of the same” group. Responsibility does not follow simply from the existence of historical events, but would have to include some additional contemporary element and so would not be “by virtue of” belonging to a group but by something more.

So I agree with Youngkin’s (ii) and (vi) too.

The third and fourth ideas are uncontroversial too. Of course no one should be discriminated against because of their race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith—that’s the whole point of the Civil Rights Act. I’ll be honest and admit that the phrasing of (iv) confuses me, but I think it’s arguing that members of a group should treat people not in their group as individuals and not just as non-members. If I’m reading that correctly, then absolutely.

That leaves (vii). To the very best of my knowledge, “meritocracy” and “hard work ethic” were not created “to oppress” anyone. Whether after being created they later resulted in some kind of oppression is a separate question not addressed in Executive Order Number One.

So Youngkin and I agree on seven out of seven of his anti-Civil Rights concepts. Of course these “inherently divisive concepts” don’t belong in schools. According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they don’t belong anywhere. And the rest of Executive Order Number One details how exactly they should be prohibited, ended, and removed from policies, guidelines, websites, best practices, and instruction.

Meanwhile, so-called “Critical Race Theory” goes undefined and is mentioned only once and only in the opening “Importance of the Initiative” section before the actual “Directive.” According to Youngkin:

“Inherently divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny, instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.”

I’d be happy to debate any of that, but Executive Order Number One makes it moot because that sentence is not part of the “pursuant to the authority vested in me as the Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth, and pursuant to Article V of the Constitution and the laws of Virginia, I hereby order” section. They’re just words.

Since the legally binding “Directive” section does not mention “Critical Race Theory” and applies only to things made illegal sixty years ago, it’s just words too.

Bottom line: Executive Order Number One is inherently meaningless.

According to Justice Kavanaugh: “The Constitution’s neither pro-life or pro-choice on the question of abortion, but leaves the issue for the people of the states or perhaps Congress to resolve in the democratic process.”

The first half of that sentence is true in the literal sense: abortion is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution.

However, since the determining question is whether zygotes, embryos, and fetuses have rights under the U.S. legal system, the Constitution does speak on the issue.

Article 1, Section 2 establishes the national census: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

So, for the purposes of determining population, the authors counted free people and indentured servants equally, and enslaved people unequally. Since enslaved people were considered the property of their owners, it might seem illogical that they would be counted at all, but without the Three-Fifths Compromise, the 1787 Constitutional Convention would likely not have produced a constitution.

Note what is missing from the state’s “respective Numbers”: zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. Any of the Convention delegates, either northern or southern, could have stipulated that pregnant women be counted twice—or perhaps one and three-fifths or some other additional fraction. No one suggested that. All agreed on the implicit minimum requirement of being counted as a “Number”: you must be born.

“Numbers,” however, do include undocumented immigrants, people who conservatives often dehumanize with the noun “illegals.” The U.S. Census Bureau is explicit: “all people (citizens and noncitizens) with a usual residence in the United States are included in the resident population for the census.” The Trump administration attempted to alter that standard for the first time in U.S. history, but a panel of judges blocked the executive order, and the Supreme Court refused the appeal. Yet as far as I’m aware, no one has ever argued that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses of undocumented immigrants should be counted in the census.

Next consider the Fourteenth Amendment. It begins: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States ….” Conservatives call that “birthright citizenship,” and they want to rescind it. Senator Lindsey Graham said in 2010: “We should change our Constitution and say if you come here illegally and you have a child, that child’s automatically not a citizen.” In a 2016 Federalist Society essay, Gerald Walpin argues that birthright citizenship misconstrues the intent of the Amendment, citing two non-binding Supreme Court opinions that draw the same conclusion.

No one, as far as I’m aware, has ever taken issue with the word “born.” No one has suggested that the Amendment includes or should be amended to include zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. If life begins at conception, then zygotes are people, and if a zygote is conceived in the U.S., it would also therefore be an American. If “life” begis at conception, then citizenship must begin at conception too. The pro-life argument requires either reinterpreting or amending the Fourteenth Amendment to include “conceptionright citizenship.”

Alternatively and more logically, the Fourteenth Amendment’s use of “born” intentionally excludes zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. Since Article 1, Section 2 also intentionally excludes zygotes, embryos, and fetuses, the Constitution has a great deal to say about abortion.

Constitutionally, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are not “unborn people” because they are categorically not people. They are not born and so are not residents, let alone citizens of the U.S. They are not even “temporary visitors” or “foreign nationals,” and so none of Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs’ policies apply either. Zygotes, embryos, and fetuses do not receive visas, but: “All travelers, including children, need a visa to travel to the United States … There must be a separate visa for the child, even if they are traveling on their parent’s passport.”

Because zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are not citizens or residents or foreign travelers, they have no rights. They are not entities: things with distinct and independent existence. Yet pro-life advocates argue that the non-existent rights of legally non-existent so-called “unborn” non-entities outweigh the actual rights of actual people who reside in and are citizens of the U.S.

The core of the pro-life claim is unconstitutional.

This is Italian painter Cesare Laurent’s A Parable (or Bridge of Life), which I saw in the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia, while vacationing with my family after Christmas. My son was solving chess puzzles on his phone in the park outside the museum at the time, but when my daughter saw me taking a picture of the diptych, she knew why:

It’s a comic.

Or maybe it’s not. Folks have surprisingly strong opinions about that word, so instead of asking whether something is or is not a comic, I prefer three slightly less annoying questions:

  • Is the work in the comics medium?
  • Is the work in the comics form?
  • Is the work in both the comics medium and the comics form?

Short answers: no, yes, no.

Long answers:

Laurent painted A Parable around 1895, shortly after the word ‘comic’ emerged to mean multi-image cartoons published in humor magazines. Despite coincidentally fitting the time constraint, the work is not in the comics medium. Though such works can but tend not to be painted, they are paradigmatically viewed and distributed as multiple reproductions, not as a single object mounted in a single location. If the painting is reproduced (on a Telfair Museum book or pamphlet for instance), the multiple reproductions are still likely not in the comics medium because they are not identified as ‘comics’ by their producer (the Telfair Museum) or by consumers (patrons of the museum gift shop). The artist also did not identify the painting as a ‘comic.’

Laurent, however, did paint A Parable in the comics form, which can be defined in two words: ‘sequenced images.’ Working in the comics form does not require an artist to use the term ‘comic’ or even for the term to exist at that time. Caravaggio and Rembrandt are known for their use of chiaroscuro, even though the name of the technique was coined after their deaths. A Parable is in the comics form only because it consists of more than two images, and the images create a sequence. The precise meaning of ‘sequence’ is debatable because it is sometimes used synonymously with ‘series’ and so may or may not require a definite order. However, in the case of A Parable, the two images are not only juxtaposed but the movement of the figures within the images suggest left-to-right viewing and so a definite order.

Scott McCloud applied the unfortunate term ‘closure’ to certain effects produced by juxtaposed images. ‘Closure’ was already a Gestalt psychology term for the tendency to perceive parts as a complete whole by closing visual gaps (a dotted line is a line and not simply dots). McCloud’s closure is conceptual rather than directly visual, and so his list of transition types does not account for the effect in A Parable in which the two balconies align as though continuous across the center gutter.

When Leigh Ann Beavers and I published our article “Clarifying Closure” in 2018, I termed that ‘gestalt closure,’ because the effect is the same as the original psychological meaning. We used the same term in our textbook 2021 Creating Comics. I’ve since decided that ‘closure’ it too confusing a term to keep using in comics scholarship, and that the meaning of ‘gestalt’ is far from self-evident. So in my forthcoming The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, I call the juxtapositional effect simply a ‘continuous inference.’

But Laurent’s effect is more complex. The illusion of a continuous balcony across the center gutter is only partial because the two image’s settings are otherwise unrelated. Rather than producing the illusion of viewing a single location briefly interrupted by an ellipsis-like gap, the alignment of the two balconies seems coincidental or contrived because the implied position of viewing changes. A viewer is somehow standing in two places at one. In “Clarifying Closure” and Creating Comics, I called that ‘pseudo-gestalt.’ While accurate, I doubt it clarifies much to anyone not already familiar with the background concepts. So in The Comics Form, I instead use ‘semi-continuous.’ The result isn’t exactly jargon-free, but I do think it’s an improvement:

Laurent’s juxtaposed images produce a semi-continuous visual inference.

A Parable also produces other type of visual effects common to the comics form: recurrent and embedded inferences. Or it possibly does. First read Laurent’s own description of the work’s two parts:

“I have determined to develop the first part of my Parabola with a lively feast in which two young men invite the gay crowd of girls to participate in songs and smiles of joy.”

“I imagined the second part at the door of a church because inside the poor suffering souls seek relief.”

From that description, the first image features a “crowd” and the second several “souls.” But when I look at the work I instead perceive a single individual depicted at different moments as she moves up, across, and then down her decades-spanning life. For me there is one recurrent figure or “soul” painted as though she were a “crowd.” Each painting then contains more than one embedded image. Though he does not mention it in the above letter that the Telfair curators excerpted in the museum plaque, I strongly suspect Laurent intended that effect or one very much like it. Admittedly, it requires a good deal of erasure to perceive the various figures as fully recurrent rather than only thematically recurrent.

Though none is necessary for a work to be in the comics form, I discuss recurrence, erasure, and continuous, semi-continuous, and embedded inferences in The Comics Form because they are common effects of sequenced images. They are also common in the comics medium, but that’s because many works in the comics form are in the comics medium. Laurent’s A Parable, however, is only in the form. By consistently differentiating the two, I’m really hoping to make analysis both more logical and easier.

I learned the term “tronie” from Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earing. It likely comes from the French word “trogne,” which rougly means a grotesque or comic face. When applied to Vermeer and other 16th and 17th century Dutch artists, the term is a way of distinguishing the depicted figure from a portrait of a specific person. Which is how I’m using it. The images below also continue my “textured” series because they all include text from the last chapter of my next book, The Comics Form: The Art Sequenced Images (I submitted final copyedits the last week of the semester). Sometimes the text is obvious and (almost) legible; sometimes I layer and manipulate it until it devolves into a thick gray (and sometimes unexpectedly purple and blue) pattern. As usual, all of the marks originate in the technologically obsolete yet creatively inspiring MS Paint. I completed a couple of them while quarantening after Thanksgiving with Covid. It was a long semester. I’m hoping for a better 2022.

According to a May 2021 Pew poll, 59% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while only 39% think it should be illegal. A June 2021 Gallup poll asked a more specific question, but found almost the same results: 58% of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, while 32% support. Gallup has been asking that question for over thirty years, and a majority, from 52% to 58%, has always opposed overturning.

And yet the Supreme Court is currently hearing a case challenging Roe v. Wade, and the lopsidedly conservative majority seems poised to strike down or severely weaken the 1972 precedent.

What exactly does that mean?

Roe v. Wade established the following system for state laws:

  • First trimester: no restrictions.
  • Second trimester: reasonable health regulations.
  • Third trimester: any restrictions (unless a woman is endangered).

In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey replaced that system with a similar one:

  • Pre-viability: no restrictions.
  • Post-viability: any restrictions (unless a woman is endangered).

Current infant viability is roughly week 24 and so in the second half of the second trimester. Infants born at 28 weeks or earlier are “extremely preterm.” A 2015 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that even with major technological interventions:

  • Infants born at week, 22: 5% survived (3% without severe impairment).
  • Infants born at week, 26: 81% survived (76% without severe impairment).

Fetuses delivered before week 22 do not survive.

The Roe decision was also based on viability, adopting the assumption that, while variable, it most often began at the start of the third trimester (between week 24 and 28). That was fifty years ago, and despite major technological advances, viability has barely shifted.

Now look at the CDC’s statistics for percentages of abortions performed at various weeks. In 2016:

  • Week 8 or earlier: 65%
  • Week 13 or earlier: 91%
  • Week 21 or later: 1%

In 2018:

  • Week 9 or earlier: 78%
  • Week 13 or earlier: 92%

In 2019, Kevin Drum compiled the CDC statistics into a chart: “Using state data, it’s possible to roughly estimate the percentage of abortions performed in weeks 21-30. Above that, no records are kept, but the numbers are so tiny that they register as 0.00 percent.”

This clarifies what the abortion debate is about, and what both the 1972 and 1992 decisions protect. Pro-birth advocates often disregard the above facts to argue falsely that restrictions are necessary to prevent late-term abortions–even though over 99% of abortions are performed on non-viable fetuses incapable of sustaining life even with the most extraordinary technological interventions.

When the House or Representatives passed the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021, pro-birth advocates responded: “This bill would impose abortion on demand nationwide at any stage of pregnancy through federal statute … Congress should not advance a radical ‘abortion on demand until birth’ policy that is completely out of step with our country’s principles.”

Would the bill allow “abortion on demand until birth”? No. The bill reinforces the viability rule created by the Supreme Court in 1992, and with the same single and explicitly stated exception: “A prohibition on abortion after fetal viability when, in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.”

The law also would not require doctors to perform abortions “on demand.” It states: “A health care provider has a statutory right under this Act to provide abortion services.” It’s the doctor’s choice, but not the state’s. 

Why lie about abortions?

Ask Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. In 2006, she signed a newspaper ad opposing so-called “abortion on demand.” There’s no such thing. Barrett either knows that or she doesn’t. Either possibility is disturbing.

The Mississippi law that the Supreme Court is currently evaluating bans abortion after week 15, prompting Chief Justice Roberts to ask an opposing lawyer: “If you think that the issue is one of choice, that women should have a choice to terminate their pregnancy, that supposes that there is a point at which they’ve had the fair choice — opportunity to choose — and why would 15 weeks be an inappropriate line?” 

Because 15 weeks would be arbitrary. Planned Parenthood v. Casey’s viability standard is the only meaningful and long-tested standard for regulating abortions.

Judging by Kevin Drum’s CDC chart, a national 15-week abortion cut-off would affect fewer than 5% of cases. Except with the 1972 and 1992 precedents eliminated, the constitutional right for an abortion would also be eliminated, allowing all restrictions. Texas has already enacted a ban on abortions after 6 weeks (with an especially disturbing enforcement system of paying private citizens to take offenders to court). According to Drum’s chart, if the Texas law were enacted nationally, it would block 66% of abortions. Total bans are even likelier. Twelve states have already passed laws that will automatically take effect if the Supreme Court overthrows Roe v. Wade, and another ten would likely follow. Only fifteen states have laws that would protect abortions in the absence of Roe v. Wade. 

The Court’s decision is due in June—just in time for mid-terms and so control of both the House and the Senate. The Supreme Court’s current conservative supermajority was manufactured by Senator McConnell preventing Obama from replacing Justice Scalia after his death on February 13, 2016, nine months before the presidential election, and then allowing Trump to replace Justice Ginsburg after her death on September 18, 2020, six weeks before the presidential election. As a result, two-term President Obama selected no Justices and one-term President Trump selected three—with the explicitly stated intent of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Though in 1999 Trump said, “I am very pro-choice,” during a 2016 debate he declared the opposite: “If we put another two or perhaps three justices on, [overturning Roe v. Wade] will happen. And that will happen automatically, in my opinion, because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.” Though that radical campaign promise is completely out-of-step with our country, six years later the McConnell-packed Court is working to make it true.

I became comics editor of Shenandoah in fall 2018, and except for happily stepping back for a guest editor last spring, I’ve had the privilege of selecting works for what is now six issues. The first couple of issues were all solicited, but the journal has garnered enough of a reputation for publishing literary comics that I find my job is more about being introduced to new names from our increasingly impressive submissions than seeking out names I already know. That’s a happy change. Better, the range of styles and narrative approaches I keep meeting are eclectically eccentric. One of the works in our new issue (which went live Friday!) was originally a poetry submission (you’ll have to guess which one), so ‘narrative’ isn’t even the right word. I spend an improbable amount of my scholarly life debating the definitions of ‘comics’ (at least two definitions are necessary, one for form, one for medium), but ‘literary comics’ (and its sibling ‘poetry comics’) poses an even greater riddle. But here’s the simplest approach: when defined by medium, a literary comic is a comic published by a literary journal or press, and since Shenandoah is most definitely a literary journal (we just entered our 71st year), the six news works linked below are most definitely literary comics. Though the category ‘Shenandoah literary comics’ is self-explanatory, I also wonder if that category is developing its own recognizable aesthetic. I both hope so and hope not. You can judge for yourself:

Aidan Daniel’s “How to Do the Scorpion”

Maggie Queeney’s “A Ghost Story (Women)”

Coyote Shook’s “The Gospel According to Opal Foxx”

Kristen Emanuel’s “Mothra x Godzilla”

Taku Ward’s “A Cheeseburger Sushi’s Experience”

G.H. Yamauchi’s “Decoding”

I thought I had coined the term “outrage machine,” but then I read a 2019 Atlantic article by Jonathan Haidt describing how the 2009 social media innovations of “Like” and “Retweet” transformed what appears in user feeds. One of the inventers felt instant regret: “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”

I also thought I coined the term “outrage porn,” but no, C. Thi Nguyen and Bekka Williams described it in a 2019 New York Times article:

“When you read your Facebook newsfeed and soak in all the reports of morally outrageous events, and you do it just for the satisfaction of feeling outraged, then Facebook has become your porn stash. You’re not trying to fix problems or make morally balanced judgments. You’re just after the pleasures of moral outrage: the smugness, the self-satisfaction, the delightfully hot feeling of righteous indignation.”

Dictionary.com blogged on the topic the same year:

“When not talking about sexual content, porn can be used to mean content that’s meant to ‘cater to an excessive, irresistible desire for or interest in something’ …. There’s moral outrage porn, which is when people seek out and view content that makes them angry.”

Both articles also note the same problem. Dictionary.com concludes:

“At the heart of how we use the word porn in the generic sense is gratification without investing in what it takes to obtain or upkeep what’s being described. It allows people to interact with an object or idea without any of the struggle that it takes to do things…”

Nguyen and Williams go further:

“The pleasures of moral outrage are maximized when morality is simple and the world is starkly divided into good and evil. So the consumers of moral outrage porn will seek out the most cartoonish depictions of the enemy. They will want a newsfeed full of unambiguous stories of the other side’s wickedness. Over time, they may even develop a less nuanced and more easily inflamed sense of right and wrong, to increase their moral outrage. … its consumers, having simplified their moral systems for the sake of self-righteous pleasure, will take that cartoon morality with them when they engage with the real world. We may already be seeing the results.”

Ah, yeah, I definitely think we might be seeing some results here.

QAnon Shaman' Jacob Chansley, face of pro-Trump Capitol riot, pleads guilty  | The Seattle Times

And the outrage porn machine is hardly limited to social media. Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote last week:

“It will come as no thunderbolt to even casual TV viewers that when you consider all the news and commentary the cable networks serve, they regularly give it a political spin. … The networks often behave more like political players — emphasizing one side while disparaging the ‘enemy’ — than they do independent news organizations. By flattering the perceived political prejudices of their audiences and avoiding a story when the news becomes inconvenient to their agenda, the networks behave like vendors of political entertainment.”

Shafer also identifies the same porn effects on viewers:

“A riled viewer is a devoted viewer. … This devotion to serving the political passions of viewers may increase ratings, but it’s a hell of a way to run a news organization. When the networks ignore or overplay a story to appeal to their viewers’ prejudices, they give them little info-silos in which they can safely cocoon from the real world.”

I don’t look at liberal porn. I don’t watch MSNBC or CNN. I don’t read Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Daily Beast, or Daily Kos. I stopped my online subscription to the Washington Post a while ago, but I keep renewing New York Times—though I ignore the op-eds and I balance it with the Wall Street Journal. Those are the extremes of my centrist swath: slight left lean to slight right lean. Reuters and Associated Press are consistently ranked least biased, and so I look at them too. TheHill, another most-centrist, is my favorite.

I don’t look at conservative porn either: Fox News, Newsmax, OAN, Epoch Times, Washington Examiner, Drudge Report, Breitbart, Daily Caller, etc. I certainly don’t listen to Carlson, Hannity, Beck, Limbaugh, etc.

I started and have moderated (with occasional breaks) a Facebook page called Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society (I didn’t name it) for over three years. It’s designed for conservatives and progressives to talk. I’m currently on one of my breaks (unannounced), because I am (once again) exhausted by the Republican outrage porn machine.

I spent the first couple of years trying to convince everyone that it matters where they get their news and that having real political conversations requires committing to non-partisan sources. That didn’t work. And it keeps not working. In exchange for modeling self-moderation news intake, I get conservatives openly and wantonly addicted to their partisan porn. And the results are exactly what Shafer, Haidt, Nguyen and Williams, and Dictionary.com predict.

Here’s a recent example. When I began a post about the increase in violent rhetoric (specifically death threats targeting election workers), another member responded:

“We have created an environment where we feel required to ‘fight’ for our identified group’s perceived piece of the pie. Heck, we now see infighting inside the same party. Disappointment that the ‘wrong’ minority color was the first female mayor of Boston. That’s *crazy*! That came from supposedly ‘centrist’ NPR.”

So, two things: 1) I know this individual doesn’t listen to NPR, and so 2) their reference is almost certainly to a conservative pundit who spun the content for their consumption. I had no idea what they were talking about, so I googled and found a November 16 Morning Edition article that begins:

“For the first time in its history, Boston is inaugurating a newly-elected mayor on Tuesday who is not a white man. Michelle Wu – who’s Asian American — is the first woman and first person of color elected to lead the city. While many are hailing it as a major turning point, others see it as more of a disappointment that the three Black candidates in the race couldn’t even come close.”

The five-minute article interviews a range of Boston residents, including Black community leader Rev. Eugene Rivers who said: “We can only play race card for so many occasions. I mean Black leadership failed to produce success even with an incumbent. We failed. Now that’s not on white people.” Imari Paris Jeffries, who leads an MLK memorial organization said that “a candidate’s race should not be the determinant in any race”: “In this anti-racist discourse, I don’t think we’re going to find identical twins of our experience in order for [candidates] to empathize. I think we have to start creating a larger tent and find common ground together.”

Does the page member really think that’s “*crazy*!”? We’ll never know because they’ll never read it. They continued:

“Along the same lines, the absurd over the top allegations that vast swaths of Americans are racists is adding fuel to the fire. It takes a lot of discipline to not get emotionally energized when you are accused of being a bigot when you know full well that you aren’t. This last Virginia election is a prime example. National media telling the entire country that the reason I voted Republican was because I’m a racist is quite aggravating.”

I responded: “When you say ‘national media’ is calling you a racist, do you know that because you’re coming across examples yourself, or are you following conservative pundits who have cherrypicked individual examples for their audience?”

They responded: “You seriously didn’t hear anyone suggest that the Virginia results were an expression of racism?” They included a link to an article titled “Racism alive and well in Virginia election” from an Australian website (which after multiple google searches I can’t now find).

I responded: “I read a lot of ‘national media’ and much less frequently I look at some further left sources. I’ve literally never heard of Green Left. Your preferred sources are literally banking on this fact: ‘It takes a lot of discipline to not get emotionally energized when you are accused of being a bigot when you know full well that you aren’t.’”

(I did not respond: That’s like watching actual porn and then bragging about your self-control for not masturbating.)

Their response: “If I understand you correctly, it’s not the liberals’ fault for originally saying it, it’s the conservative’s fault?”

I gave up.

Maybe I should have said: yes, sometimes people say things that outrage you. If you come across such a thing in your normal course of life, you are certainly permitted to express outrage in response. However, if you frequent places that search for and amass all-things-outrageous and deliver them to you for the partisan pleasure of your self-righteous indignation and continued patronage, then it’s become something else.

This was hardly the only exchange like this. The same week when someone else cited the Department of Homeland Security’s recent assessment (“the most significant terror-related threat facing the US today comes from violent extremists who are motivated by white supremacy and other far-right ideological causes”), the above member responded:

“The same group now says moms at school board meetings are domestic terrorists.”

There is no part of that sentence that’s true. For evidence, they linked to a Christopher Rufo tweet that quoted a sentence from a letter written by the National School Boards Association to the Attorney General urging the Department of Justice to treat threats of violence made against school board members as a form of terrorism.

I won’t bother quoting the rest of our exchange.

I could provide other examples, but unlike porn, this blog isn’t about gratuitous excess.

Unfortunately, like actual porn, the Republican outrage porn machine is not about to stop. Their addicts certainly aren’t. I actually like the page member I quote above. They are one of the most intelligent and considerate people in the group. Which only adds to my exhaustion and horror.

I used to wear a Confederate flag on the back of a concert t-shirt when I was in high school. Lynyrd Skynyrd was on the front. I never saw them in concert; the lead singer died a couple of years before I started listening. I owned (almost) every album though. I was big into Molly Hatchet too—though, to be honest, I never really got over the change in lead singers on their third album. ZZ Top was up there too, and not their mid-80s synthesizers, just the 70s albums. I also knew “Whipping Post” and the Molly Hatchet cover of “Dreams,” but I’m afraid I just wasn’t cool enough for the Allman Brothers in my teens.

So that Confederate flag on my back meant one and only one thing to me: Southern Rock. As implausible as it sounds, it never occurred to me that it might mean something else.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, a no man’s land of overlapping northern, southern, and mid-western culture. My classic rock station kept Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on heavy rotation, while most stations above the Mason-Dixon wouldn’t touch it. My suburb had maybe a 10% Black population, but illegal yet never-challenged redlining policies by local real estate agents kept those families sequestered in one corner of the town map. When a Black family did move in down my street in our otherwise all-white neighborhood, someone threw a burning cross in their yard. I’m not sure how long after that they moved out.

My parents helped desegregate the local police force by taking them to court and winning. That’s why our house kept getting egged and someone wrote “NIGER LOVERS” on the side of the garage. Racists can’t spell, my mother joked.

I wasn’t the brightest student either. I must have had some vague knowledge of the Civil War, but it was no more present in my mind than any other ancient history-book event I skimmed for a quiz and instantly forgot. This was decades before the KKK left Confederate flag flyers on my Lexington lawn or I saw that flag waved in unison with Nazi swastikas in Charlottesville. A part of me would like to go back to my high school ignorance. The world doesn’t seem half as ugly when you’re not required to pay attention.

I can’t erase my adolescent love for southern rock, but to preserve it, and anything else good about the South, requires disconnecting it from the symbols used by slave owners, Reconstruction-era vigilantes, Jim Crow-era bigots, Civil Rights-era segregationists, and modern-day neo-Nazis.

I think I get why that outrages some folks born here. If you grew up understanding a symbol to mean one thing and one thing only, family pride, who has the right to say you’re wrong? My continuing nostalgia for southern rock is nothing compared to a family identity passed down through generations.

I deeply respect that love of family. It’s why I reject the Confederate flag.

Slavery was the greatest anti-family force in the history of our country. Couples, parents, children, siblings, they were legally torn apart for the financial convenience of owners. I can’t imagine never seeing my children or wife again. I can’t imagine persevering through forced labor, forced poverty, and the constant threat of physical violence against myself and my loved ones. I can’t imagine my wife and daughter being legally raped and their offspring sold. Slavery is beyond anything I can imagine.

Although the Confederate flag means different things to different people, it obviously means slavery to many people, and I can’t stomach that association. But that’s easy for me. I didn’t grow up cherishing it. The greater feat of compassion would be to understand the flag as a personal symbol of pride and to still let go of it out of love for others who aren’t part of your own family.

All lives matter, but the Confederacy waged a war under the belief that Black lives don’t. Virginia has been around over four hundred years, but it was a part of the Confederacy only four. Southern pride can’t be identified with symbols linked to slavery and the century of violent bigotry that followed it.

Loving the South means letting go of the Confederacy.

First, let’s correct a common but false impression: The First Amendment’s protection of free speech does not apply to students wearing Confederate flags.

There are many legal precedents; here are four:

In 1972, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Tennessee high school’s suspending a student for wearing a jacket that featured a Confederate flag was “a legitimate exercise of the school officials’ inherent authority to curtail disruption of the educational process.”

In 2008, the Sixth Circuit Court again upheld another decision from another Tennessee high school that banned Confederate flags for the same reason. Black students made up roughly 3% of the school, nearly identical to the Black population of Rockbridge County.

In 2009, the Eighth Circuit Court upheld a Missouri high school’s decision to suspend a student for violating the dress code prohibiting Confederate flags.

In 2013, the Fourth Circuit Court upheld a ruling that a South Carolina middle school was allowed to prohibit a student from wearing a “Southern Chicks” t-shirt that featured Confederate flags because “the school officials could reasonably forecast that [it] would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”

In each case when the ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court rejected to hear it, establishing the lower court’s ruling as the final outcome and the legal precedent for future cases.

Here in Virginia, Montgomery County has prohibited the Confederate flags since 2002, because students cannot wear material that is “racially divisive,” listing the Confederate flag as an example. More than twenty high school students were suspended in 2015 for the violation.

In 2020, the Franklin County school board voted 6-0 to ban Confederate flags. A board member explained that the policy change was necessary because “it became apparent that students were offended by the Confederate symbol and found it disruptive.”

Bedford County Schools banned Confederate flags last year too. Its high school dress code reads: “Attire that has language or images that are offensive, profane, vulgar, discriminatory, or racially/culturally divisive. This would include Confederate flags, swastikas, KKK references, or any other images that might reasonably be considered hurtful or intimidating to others.”

Schools routinely ban Confederate flags and the courts routinely uphold those bans because the Confederate flag is overtly linked to slavery, the most extraordinarily racist institution in our nation’s history.

Mississippi’s statements of succession declared: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”

The Confederate Constitution is identical to the U.S. Constitution, except for one repeated phrase: “Negro slavery.”

Its vice-president declared that the Confederacy “rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

The Confederacy kept four million Americans enslaved and, had they won the war, would have kept their uncalculatable offspring enslaved too. White supremacists know that historical fact and have repeatedly brandished the Confederate flag as a symbol of racial hatred in defiance of American values.

In 1951, Georgia politician Roy Harris declared that the Confederate flag “is becoming … the symbol of the white race and the cause of the white people.”

In 1956, white supremacists waved Confederate flags while throwing rocks at the first black student to attend the University of Alabama. They waved them in Little Rock, New Orleans, Austin, and Birmingham too.

In 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace waved the Confederate flag in opposition to integration, promising to fight for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

South Carolina began flying the Confederate flag from its capital in opposition to Civil Rights too. It was only removed in 2015 after a white supremacist murdered nine Black church members at a Bible study meeting in Charleston.

White supremacists waved the Confederate flag next to the Nazi flag at Charlottesville in 2017. The two flags are known internationally as symbols of racial hatred. The Anti-Defamation League classifies the Confederate flag “as a potent symbol of slavery and white supremacy, which has caused it to be very popular among white supremacists in the 20th and 21st centuries. This popularity extends to white supremacists beyond the borders of the United States.”

When a Confederate flag was displayed in a Canadian cemetery last March, the Calgary police hate crimes unit investigated, and the city council declared: the Confederate flag “is hateful, and it is not welcome in our community.”

And right here in Rockbridge, the KKK has left leaflets decorated with Confederate flags on the lawns of local residents.

Though many identify the Confederate flag as a symbol of family and regional pride, that identification does not outweigh the flag’s larger and internationally recognized meaning as a symbol of racial hatred inextricably linked to its white supremacist history. The South and the Confederacy are not the same. Virginia has existed for over 400 years, and it was a member of the Confederacy for only four of those years. Pride in Southern heritage cannot be linked to an institution that legalized forced labor, torture, murder, rape, human breeding, and the permanent division of families.

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