It's been a tough year for feminist sensitivity in South Carolina's elected ranks. During a press conference last summer, Governor Mark Sanford declared, while occasionally shedding tears, that a woman other than his wife was his soulmate. For what it's worth, Jenny Sanford has since filed for divorce, upending the "stand by your man" stance of many political wives, and is working on a memoir.
But last Friday's comments by Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer take the proverbial cruelty cake for thoughtlessly conflating the suffering of people and animals, victim-blaming during the recession, threatening those on government assistance with unnecessary and unrelated stipulations to receiving their benefits, and using sexual shaming tactics and mocking decision-making abilities that he conflated with willpower, age and intelligence. You thought Sanford did a number on his whole family and his state with his public confession? He could learn a lesson in heartlessness from Bauer, who said, in part:
"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."
The entire audio from this appalling speech can be heard in the YouTube video below.
Bauer's comments came as part of his argument that government benefits should be taken from those who fail drug tests or don't attend parent-teacher conferences or PTA meetings. I'm all for parental involvement in the schools, but further penalizing people scraping by on government assistance because they don't have time to go wrangle with other PTA moms is absurd and wildly out of touch. He also equated low test scores with schools that provide free or reduced-fee lunches, which directs blame at all of the wrong institutions and systemic problems. Perhaps most problematically, he moves without irony from complaining about government assistance rewarding "bad behavior" to fretting about "babies having babies." Is he upset about welfare or teen pregnancy? Why so many judgment values? Why conflate personal choices with tough economic times?
[Aside: does Bauer think Gov. Sanford should have thought further than his own attempts at breeding? Or is Sanford off the hook for his sexual transgressions because he's a wealthy, well-educated white dude? Sanford's "bad behavior" arguably cost the state more in wasted time and resources than government assistance programs, but I digress.]
What does this have to do with ecofeminism? Predictably, some liberal and progressive blogs have seized on Bauer's statements in the same ways I have, but no one bothers to call out the most basic issue here: that comparing people to animals is a strange, inconsistent insult that devalues all living beings. Many people would argue that in fact we are all animals—human animals. Why assistance for necessities like food would be treated as a way to speak down to others is more confusing than anything—we all need help now and then—and no doubt the history of using animalistic insults towards people of color and low-income people is lost on Bauer.
The other problem I have with this argument is about the closeness of need and how we care for so-called "strays." What is it about getting too close to someone else's pain? Is it that you're afraid you'll end up caring too much, or is it that once you come within a certain proximity, you become (self-imposed or otherwise) "responsible" for others? As I see it, you do become responsible. You are charged with the knowledge of suffering, and the moral and ethical choices about how you will use this knowledge. Bauer contends that if you feed a stray, it will return. But why is a system of care and support so widely disparaged? So what if a stray animal or person returns? "Stray" implies impulsivity, rootlessness, lost. I'd argue a stray person or animal acts on perfectly rational instinct to go towards food, shelter, community.
Bauer, who has "a reputation for reckless and immature behavior" according to the Associated Press, issued a non-apology on Monday that included the sentiment: "I wish I'd used a different metaphor." I'll take it one step further. I think he oughta stick to talking about issues he understands and leave the metaphors out of it entirely until his level of awareness of intersecting issues catches up with his prominence in state politics.
Photo credit Brad Warthen's blog