Daily Archives: November 22, 2005

Defining torture

Over at ProteinWisdom, Jeff disagrees with me and Matt Welch on the subject of torture.

Jeff writes:

For my part, I have no trouble whatsoever with techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, disorientation, extreme temperature change, etc—primarily because I don’t think promoting discomfort or fear constitute “torture.” But then this is precisely the point: when the definition of torture hinges on abstractions like “anguish” and “distress,” and on qualifications to those abstractions like “severe,” then the problem of defining torture effectively—and distinguishing it from other
techniques of active interrogation—becomes context and ethos-specific.

Cathy states her claim clearly: she is opposed to interrogation techniques that cause physical suffering. But as I’ve argued before, “suffering” is going to prove specific to the individual undergoing the interrogation, and if that is the benchmark for torture, then just about anything can come to count as torture, given the proper circumstances, and depending on the prevailing cultural attitudes …

It seems to me that Jeff and some of his commenters are blurring the line between “physical discomfort” and “physical suffering” (the term I used). The use of the term “discomfort” to refer to such techniques as immersion in freezing water, exposure to extreme heat or extreme cold, or even being keept in stress positions for prolonged periods of time — let alone inducing a sensation of drowning (waterboarding).

One of Jeff’s commenters, Chris, may be on to something when he says that the definition of torutre is a bit like “the old, ‘I can’t tell you what obscenity is, but I know it when I see it’ kinda thing.” Chris himself defines torture as “the attempt to extract information through the direct infliction of physical pain to break down barriers of resistance.”

But here’s a question: is there a clear line between “pain” and “discomfort”? I have memories of several occasions when a doctor or nurse told me just before a medical test, “You’re not really going to feel any pain, just some discomfort,” and a few moments later I found myself mentally assessing the accuracy of that statement in language that I generally prefer to avoid using on my blog.

Several of Jeff’s commenters suggest this standard, with which I understand Jeff agrees as well:

Any form of physical or mental stress or abuse we routinely use on our own people going through boot camp, SEAL BUDS training, pilot S/E/R/E training, etc. shall be heretofore known as “not torture.”

First of all: do we know that these techniques (i.e. immersion in cold water) are used on prisoners in degrees no more extreme than they are used on our own trainees?

Second: if we use these techniques on our own trainees with the specific purpose of training them to withstand torture, does that mean it’s not torture if we do it to prisoners?

Third: If the standard is “anything to which some people in our society are subjected with their consent is not torture,” then why draw the line at military training? Not to be crude, but tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans every year are subjected to a medical procedure that involves having a plastic tube inserted in their rectum. Would that be an acceptable thing to do to a prisoner?

Another poster writes:

I believe that the treshold of torture would be the threat or follow-thru of PERMENANT (sic) PHYSICAL HARM or the threat or follow-thru of DEATH. Any use of electricity is off the table.

Well, waterboarding does, in my opinion, involve the threat of death. Furthermore, “permanent physical harm” as a standard leaves room for a lot of things that would be considered torture even by most advocates of “coercive interrogation.” If you apply a piece of red-hot metal to someone’s skin, the burn will heal — no permanent physical harm done. If you beat a man on the testicles with a rubber hose, no permanent physical harm there either. I’m sure one could think of many other examples.

A few more points:

As I said in my first post on the topic, legitimizing torture “creates the very real danger that at least some of the torturers will enjoy it, particularly if they have been primed to see the one being tortured as an evil person getting his just deserts.” It seems to me that at least a couple of Jeff’s posters clearly enjoy the prospect of terrorists being made to suffer. Call it “moral preening” or whatever you like, but I believe that this is a sentiment we simply can’t condone. What are the chances that a U.S. soldier or special agent authorized to engage in “coercive interrogation” will take pleasure in the prisoner’s suffering, and perhaps amp the “coercion” up a little beyond what is (supposedly) needed to extract the information? And when does this degrade us to a level most of us would find unacceptable?

Also: let’s not forget that not all the prisoners are “terrorists.” We could be inflicting this “discomfort” on an innocent person.

And finally, one of Jeff’s posters asks:

Why take prisoners? If they cannot be squeezed for information they are not worth the effort to keep them. Just humanely shoot them at the front and save all the trouble.

I think it’s a misconception that information can be extracted from prisoners only through interrogation techniques that include the infliction of physical suffering. Psychological manipulation can be quite effective in this regard.


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The war on terror, fighting dirty, and lessons from a certain campy TV show

Once in a while, gentle reader, I’m going to inflict a dose of Xena fandom upon you. But bear with me. It’s actually quite relevant to the discussion we’ve been having about torture, the war on terror, and the dilemma of whether one can win and keep one’s hands clean. (See my earlier posts here and here.)

A second-season Xena: Warrior Princess episode, “The Price” — made in 1996 — deals with an almost uncanny prescience with a lot of the issues involved in the War on Terror today.

Xena, a reformed warlord with a dark past, and her young idealistic companion Gabrielle find themselves in an Athenian fort besieged by a mysterious tribe of nomadic warriors, the Horde. The general who commanded the fort has been killed, and Xena takes command (since this is a fantasy version of the ancient world, her gender is never an issue). Things do not look good: the Athenians are running out of soldiers, weapons, and supplies, reinforcements are not expected, and the Horde — with whom Xena had a run-in years ago — are a vicious bunch known for skinning their captives alive. In a desperate situation, Xena resorts to desperate measures. She orders Gabrielle, who has taken over the infirmary, to withhold food and water from wounded men who won’t be able to fight. She also kills a fleeing enemy with an axe in the back because he has been inside the Athenian battlements and has seen their defenses.

When Gabrielle is horrified, Xena retorts, “This is war! What did you expect, glamor? There are no good choices — only lesser degrees of evil.” Gabrielle begs her to stop fighting and try to find another way. “They are not like us,” says Xena. “There is nothing about them that we can or should understand.”

Finally, after Xena tortures a captured Horde warrior by using pressure points to cut off his air supply in order to get him to disclose the location of the Horde camp, Gabrielle confronts her again.

XENA: We didn’t ask for this. If they want a fight to the death, they’re going to get it. What part of that didn’t you understand?

GABRIELLE: You! Who are you, Xena? What happened to the Xena that I know?

XENA: That Xena can’t help us now. If losing her is the price for saving us all, I’ll pay it.

Gabrielle has other ideas. Deciding that she would rather “die my way” than lose her humanity and watch Xena lose hers, she gives water to the Horde prisoner and then sneaks out of the fort to give water to the Horde wounded dying outside the gates. Unexpectedly, Gabrielle’s actions lead to a truce that allows Xena to step back and take a deep breath; and then, Xena establishes enough communication with the Horde prisoner to figure out that he has his own code: He will not fight an opponent of superior rank but will reaction with deference and submission. Armed with this knowledge of the Horde’s peculiar ideas about rank and honor, Xena comes up with a strategy to defeat them: She challenges their leader to single combat and beats him (whereupon his own men kill him to avoid loss of face, and vanish as mysteriously as they appeared).

Some conservative Xena fans dislike “The Price,” which they consider squishy. I don’t think it is. Yes, a part of the episode’s message is that it’s important to try to understand the enemy and to see them as human; but this understanding is used to defeat the enemy in the most effective way possible, not join them in a group hug. Xena’s arguments for realism in the face of war are actually quite compelling, while Gabrielle’s idealism may be less compassionate than selfish and self-righteous (she’d rather see all the people in the fort die than compromise her moral purity). But the point is that by itself, Xena’s harsh realism can’t win the war any more than Gabrielle’s stubborn idealism: the two must complement and temper each other.

Could there be a parallel in this to the War on Terror, in which we have our own Xenas and Gabrielles? The realists need to be in charge if we’re to survive; the idealists must have a voice in the matter if we’re to keep from losing our soul.

But there’s a caveat; more than one, actually.

At the end of the episode, Xena tells Gabrielle that the Horde will be back; their defeat is only temporary, and ultimately, they can be stopped only by peacemakers — Gabrielles — in their own midst. That’s not very encouraging, if analogized to the War on Terror (though perhaps the analogy is that radical Islamic terrorism can only be vanquished when the majority of the Muslim population turns decisively against it).

The other, more important caveat is that, on Xena, “The Price” is not the last word. In later story arcs, Gabrielle has to confront the fact that she cannot fight for the greater good as she wants to without getting her hands dirty. In the third season, she chooses to allow a man to be executed in a case of mistaken identity, knowing that if he is freed, he will not only get away with the numerous crimes he has committed (as a Roman commander) but will likely commit more atrocities. By the end of the series, having shed much of her idealism, Gabrielle must lead a tribe of Amazons on a suicide mission in an episode that consciously echoes “The Price,” and has to make some harrowing decisions — for instance, to order one of her soldiers to a certain death to create a distraction that will allow the others to get past the enemy.

There is no way to fight for a good cause witout getting one’s hands dirty. But there are still lines that shouldn’t be crossed. There are times in war when a morally shocking tactic that seems necessary isn’t — and may even be counterproductive. And sometimes, it’s the pesky idealists with their moralizing who help us realize that.


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What Murtha meant; what Krugman says

So, did Rep. John Murtha call for a quick withdrawal from Iraq or not?

In Slate, Fred Kaplan makes a pretty good case that he did not:

Take a close look at Murtha’s now-infamous statement of Nov. 17. You will not find the words “withdrawal,” “pullout,” or their myriad synonyms. Instead, he calls for a “redeployment” of U.S. troops—which may seem like a euphemism for withdrawal but in fact is very different. Toward the end of his statement, Murtha lays out the elements of what he calls his “plan”:

To immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces.
To create a quick reaction force in the region.
To create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines.
To diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq.

He doesn’t elaborate on any of these ideas, but it’s clear they don’t add up to “cut and run.” True, his final line reads, “It is time to bring them home,” but his plan suggests he wants to bring, at most, only some of them home. The others are to be “redeployed” in the quick-reaction forces hovering just offshore.

Murtha stressed this point Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, saying he wanted to “redeploy the troops to the periphery.” He used that phrase—”to the periphery,” meaning just offshore or across the border from Iraq, not all the way home—three times during the interview.

Kaplan also points out that, interestingly enough, Murtha’s proposal looks like a Cliff’s Notes version of a recent report, Strategic Redeployment: A Progressive Plan for Iraq and the Struggle Against Violent Extremists, published by the Center for American Progress and co-authored by Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, and Brian Katulis.

The Truth Laid Bear disagrees (hat tip: Instapundit), stressing the words “immediately redeploy” and also pointing to the conclusion of Murtha’s speech as posted on his website:

Our military has done everything that has been asked of them, the U.S. can not accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. IT IS TIME TO BRING THEM HOME.

(All caps in the original.)

So, which is it? “Cut and run” or phased redeployment?

It’s pretty clear that Murtha’s plan envisions a continuing role for the U.S. military in the region. Yet his concluding line seems to contradict that. Could it be that he let his rhetoric run away with him, and sacrificed a credible plan to a good slogan?

I don’t think Murtha is a “cut and run” guy, though I do think that his proposal is in some ways naive. For instance, he says that ending the occupation “will send a signal to the Sunnis to join the political process for the good of a ‘free’ Iraq.” From everything we know, I’d say that the Sunni Arabs in Iraq are at least as nervous and resentful about getting shafted by the Shiites and the Kurds as they are about the presence of the American troops. (Most of their violence is directed at the Shiites, not the Americans.) I’m also not sure why Murtha thinks it’s so important that we announce our withdrawal before the election scheduled for mid-December. I would say that, on the contrary, it would be a good idea to wait and see if the election results in some stabilization before annoucing any drastic moves.

In sum, on Murtha, I agree with Andrew Sullivan: Murtha is wrong, but so are the attempts to smear and belittle him.

Meanwhile, in yesterday’s New York Times, Paul Krugman heaps praise on Murtha — “a much-decorated veteran who cares deeply about America’s fighting men and women” — in a column bluntly titled, “Time to Leave.” Since Krugman is now trapped behind the solid walls of TimesSelect, some excerpts:

[D]efenders of our current policy have had to make a substantive argument: we can’t leave Iraq now, because a civil war will break out after we’re gone. One is tempted to say that they should have thought about that possibility back when they were cheerleading us into this war. But the real question is this: When, exactly, would be a good time to leave Iraq?

The fact is that we’re not going to stay in Iraq until we achieve victory, whatever that means in this context. At most, we’ll stay until the American military can take no more.

… And time is running out. With some military units on their third tour of duty in Iraq, the superb volunteer army that Mr. Bush inherited is in increasing danger of facing a collapse in quality and morale similar to the collapse of the officer corps in the early 1970’s.

So the question isn’t whether things will be ugly after American forces leave Iraq. They probably will. The question, instead, is whether it makes sense to keep the war going for another year or two, which is all the time we realistically have.

Pessimists think that Iraq will fall into chaos whenever we leave. If so, we’re better off leaving sooner rather than later. As a Marine officer quoted by James Fallows in the current Atlantic Monthly puts it, “We can lose in Iraq and destroy our Army, or we can just lose.”

And there’s a good case to be made that our departure will actually improve matters. As Mr. Murtha pointed out in his speech, the insurgency derives much of its support from the perception that it’s resisting a foreign occupier. Once we’re gone, the odds are that Iraqis, who don’t have a tradition of religious extremism, will turn on fanatical foreigners like Zarqawi.

The only way to justify staying in Iraq is to make the case that stretching the U.S. army to its breaking point will buy time for something good to happen. I don’t think you can make that case convincingly. So Mr. Murtha is right: it’s time to leave.

Note that Krugman may be endorsing a more radical plan than Murtha is proposing. And note how Krugman simultaneously marshals two contradictory arguments to bolster his case: things in Iraq are likely “turn ugly” after our departure in any case, so we’d better leave soon; our departure is likely to make things better.

Is the state of the military as grim as Krugman suggests? There is no doubt that the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan are a major strain on our armed forces. But the reports on recruitment and reenlistment are somewhat contradictory. Furthermore, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, military officers (admittedly a fairly small sample) are considerably more likely than members of the news media, academics, and foreign affairs experts to believe that the effort to establish a stable democracy in Iraq will succeed.

And there is something else. Krugman quotes the marine from James Fallows’s article in The Atlantic Monthly; but he does not say that Fallows’ long essay (available to subscribers only) takes the opposite of a “cut and run” approach. An excerpt:

Let me suggest a standard for judging endgame strategies in Iraq, given the commitment the United States has already made. It begins with the recognition that even if it were possible to rebuild and fully democratize Iraq, as a matter of political reality the United States will not stay to see it through. … But perhaps we could stay long enough to meet a more modest standard.

What is needed for an honorable departure is, at a minimum, a country that will not go to war with itself, and citizens who will not turn to large-scale murder. This requires Iraqi security forces that are working on a couple of levels: a national army strong enough to deter militias from any region and loyal enough to the new Iraq to resist becoming the tool of any faction; policemen who are sufficiently competent, brave, and honest to keep civilians safe. If the United States leaves Iraq knowing that non-American forces are sufficient to keep order, it can leave with a clear conscience—no matter what might happen a year or two later.

In the end the United States may not be able to leave honorably. The pressure to get out could become too great. But if we were serious about reconstituting an Iraqi military as quickly as possible, what would we do? Based on these interviews, I have come to this sobering conclusion: the United States can best train Iraqis, and therefore best help itself leave Iraq, only by making certain very long-term commitments to stay.

Fallows, it should be noted, is highly critical of the way the U.S. has handled the training of the Iraqi military so far, and he makes a number of specific suggestions for what we should do. “Leave now” is definitely not one of them. Is it, perhaps, a tad disingenuous for Krugman to enlist Fallows to his side without disclosing that Fallows’s position differs so dramatically from his own?

Krugman, I think, is the kind of war critic who truly gives war critics a bad name, and who gives weight to the notion that opposition to the war is driven mainly by hatred for Bush. Remember, Krugman is the guy who once managed to blame Bush for the rise of virulent anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.

We need a debate about an exit strategy in Iraq, and about the best way to ensure that the sacrifices made so far are not in vain without sacrificing thousands more lives. As I have argued here over the past few days, rhetoric demonizing war dissent is not helpful in this debate. But when it comes to Krugman — not to echo the White House, but the word ‘irresponsible” does come to mind.


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Torture, again

On my thread about torture and the issue of “keeping our hands clean” while fighting wars, “anonymous” writes:

Let me clarify: getting our hands dirty in terms of forming alliances with brutal tyrants or fanatical kooks has indeed paid off. In WWII, in Korea, in Afghanistan, and so on.

But getting our hands dirty in terms of torturing people has not paid off. The intel that is gained that way is not reliable.

Now, Matt Welch addresses this issue at Hit & Run:

[W]ater boarding elicited the “vital” information from Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi that “Iraq trained al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons.” As a CIA-sourced ABC News investigation reports, “al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.”

The administration’s position is now crystal clear. “We do not torture,” we water board; we do not use Soviet-style imprisonment/interrogation tactics, we just secretly use former Soviet facilities and Red Army false-confession techniques. And if some detainees die in the process, well, bad apples and all that.

It’s easy to get distracted by the semantics and immorality of it all, but the ABC News story suggests a very pragmatic rebuttal to the administration: By whatever name or euphemism, water boarding seems like one of the worst methods possible of obtaining quality information. And treating water-boarded data either as a strong basis for policy, or as a prop to make a political argument, seems unwise at best.

The argument against torture (and, pace The Wall Street Journal, any interrogation techniques that rely on physical suffering are torture) seems devastating, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. One can argue that when fighting a war for survival, we should not be afraid to “get our hands dirty” if that’s the only way we can win. But in this case, it looks like we’ve got a lot of dirt on our hands, and we’re none the safer for it.


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More wonders from Women’s Studies

Still perusing the past week’s archives of the Women’s Studies List.

Janelle Hobson, assistant professor of Women’s Studies at SUNY-Albany, posts this inquiry on “teaching [about] Afghan women”:

In keeping with the listserv’s guidelines about focusing our discussion to issues of teaching and research, I would like to tie this issue concerning “feminist rhetoric” and Westernized constructions of the Afghani woman (especially in her burqua) back to strategies for feminist teaching.

In the aftermath of September 11, I made the wise decision to clear my syllabus and place current events at the center of our studies in an undergraduate Feminist Theory class. Teaching in New York state and dealing with the presence of students directly impacted by the tragedy, I had to find a way to encourage students’ development of feminist thinking and, at that point in time, help them create a more nuanced global consciousness.

No sooner did the War in Afghanistan start than images of burqua-covered Afghan women started dominating our TV screens. It was oh-so-easy for my students to fall into a “The West is Liberated” /”The East is Barbaric” and “Western Women are Liberated”/”Eastern (especially in their burquas) Women are Oppressed” view of the world. …

So, I created a Media Watch assignment: I titled it “Where are the Women?” I asked students to pay attention to various media coverage of the 9-11 and War in Afghanistan events and the ways in which gender intersects with race, class, and nationality. As a result, students discovered the heightened objectification of women’s subjugation in the Middle East but also right here in the U.S. They discovered the ways in which American women were silenced in similar ways that Afghani women were and that national/patriotic rhetoric advanced deeply entrenched, white compulsory heterosexuality which encouraged an uneven view of the world that literally told “bikini-clad beauty queens” (yes, I remember this one newspaper clipping from a student project) that baring their flesh for patriotism’s sake was far more “liberating” than covering up in a burqua!

I am grateful that students, during a moment when they were encouraged by everyone to check their brains at the door, did the necessary work in recognizing parallel, cross-cultural objectification efforts occurring in war rhetoric rather than collapse into some sense of “we’re more liberated,” or “they’re more oppressed.”

Had I not assigned this particular project, I imagine I would’ve had a terrible time, descending into arguments over the “appropriateness” of antiracist, anti-imperialist feminist discourse in a time of war (and having spoken with different colleagues who did face these struggles in the post-9/11 aftermath, I have no doubt that I would have had a very different class).

The point in sharing this: we can have a fruitful conversation that recognizes transnational feminist struggles for a just world that does not descend into feelings of personal attacks. It seems to me that we are all being asked (as I had asked my students, or rather, had assigned them the task of doing) to think critically, from a non-ethnocentric feminist perspective, about how to effectively build coalition with Afghan feminists that does not subordinate them or unwittingly join forces with an imperialist agenda that does nothing to improve their lives.

No, of course we wouldn’t want students thinking that American women are more liberated than Afghan women, or that Western involvement can improve the lives of Third World women, or that bikini-clad beauty contestants (whom no one forces to parade around in bikinis) are not quite as oppressed as women who are beaten if they let a bit of their feet or hair show from under the mandatory covering. Perish the thought. “Nuanced global consciousness” requires spouting nonsense about how women’s “subjugation” in the United States is essentially no different than in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Predictably and depressingly, this nonsense gets a few sympathetic replies, followed by a bit of mild heresy from Hannah Miyamoto, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, who writes that the 1986 book The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner examines the history of “veiling” as “a symbol of male control over female sexuality”:

In particular, she relies upon ancient Middle Assyrian law that not only required women and girls considered under the control of patriarchs to be veiled, but expressly required “harlots” and other sexually-available women to be unveiled, and providing dire punishments for either group of women.

I suspect that few non-experts in the Islamic world–particularly the proverbial “man on the Arab street”–knows that the modern practices that he considers a matter of devout faith are but an extension of practices that pre-date present Islamic practice by thousands of years, practices that now do not really achieve the original function of veiling/non-veiling laws in Assyria or elsewhere.

Here is another example of how western viewpoints are actually superior, in certain aspects, to indigenous viewpoints, principally due to the cultural distance of western scholars.

Needless to say, the heretic is promptly slapped down. Tamara Agha-Jaffar, Professor of English Kansas City Kansas Community College, writes:

I find your statements below to be culturally insensitive. First of all, while the majority of Arabs are Muslims, the majority of Muslims are not Arab. Furthermore, are you suggesting that this “man on the Arab street” is incapable of knowing that while the practice of veiling pre-dates Islam, it was also adopted by the wives of the Prophet and later Muslim women as a means of distinguishing them from non-Muslim women? If so, this “man on the Arab street” must indeed be in desperate need of Western enlightenment and its “superior” viewpoint.

In her next post, Miyamoto defends herself, explaining that veiling is about male control of women of female sexuality. Somewhat amusingly, however, she feels compelled to preface this with a discussion of an Ellen Goodman column which equates the American religious right’s opposition to a new vaccine that prevents cervical cancer caused by a sexually transmitted virus to the Taliban’s stoning of women who have extramarital sex. And she adds this qualifier:

I’m not picking on Islam; although it provides a very dramatic example, most world religions–especially Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant sects) and Judaism–expressly reinforce sexism. If you want proof, just try to argue that sexism is contrary to God and Jesus; when was the last female Pope? Right! Furthermore, due to monogamy and marriage, heterosexism is a key element in the maintenance of male control over female sexuality.

In other words: we can’t criticize the Taliban without giving equal time to criticism of the all-male Catholic priesthood and of monogamy and marriage.

As a sane feminist friend of mine quipped upon reading this: “Groupthink is restored. All’s right with the world.”

Am I focusing too much on a marginal phenomenon? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. The resistance to acknowledging that compared to the rest of the world, the West holds the moral high ground when it comes to women’s rights is deeply entrenched in academic feminism — which means that a lot of students get pushed in this direction, not just in women’s studies but in English and other disciplines. As a result, some are alienated from feminism, and others are successfully brainwashed into knee-jerk anti-Westernism. What’s more, as I have previously discussed, this attitude spills over into more mainstream feminism as well.

Update: Can’t recall if I’ve shared this anecdote before, but I’ll never forget a comment made by Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University and one of the leading lights of feminist jurisprudence, at a feminist conference I attended at Radcliffe College in 1992. I don’t remember the exact context, but Rhode said (to appreciative laughter from the audience), “Only 8% of the world’s population are white males. I find that to be a very encouraging fact.” Because, of course, all those non-white males around the world are such great friends of feminism and women’s rights, dont’cha know.


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