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Put an Aspirin Between Your Knees and Call Me in the Morning: Rick Santorum, Birth Control and the Rhetoric of Indirection

February 20, 2012

Image by Kate Holterhoff, for The Silver Tongue

When is a joke more than a joke? I’ve been asking myself this question since last week, when Foster Friess, Rick Santorum’s mega-rich super PAC patron, made this joke in front of unfortunate soul Andrea Mitchell: “You know, back in my days, they’d use Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”

The joke was made in response to the ongoing controversy over birth control and the new health care law. If you don’t get the punch line, let me explain it to you: If a woman is holding an aspirin between her knees, her legs are likely to remain tightly closed, thus preventing any stray penises from wandering in. (If that phrasing makes you shudder, blame Foster Friess for making the joke, not me for explaining it.)

We know that it’s a tasteless and stupid joke; both Friess and Santorum have said so. We also know that people are upset and outraged about it, especially Planned Parenthood. But what else is there to learn from Friess’ joke? Is there a way to go beyond saying things like “that Friess guy is a jerk,” “Santorum hates women,” or “women’s rights advocates sure are touchy” and ask something interesting? Yes, yes, there is. There are two questions we should be asking.

1. When is a joke more than a joke? If this joke is meaningful, what might it mean?

If a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, then surely a joke can just be a joke, right? I am not an expert in discursive psychology, but have long believed that jokes often have some small truth hidden in them. If I hear someone joke about wanting to murder their spouse, I can’t help but think that there is—somewhere deep down—a part of them that desires to do just that. When I hear someone making a self-conscious, don’t-get-offended-because-I’m-being-cute-and-ironic racist remark, I often get the sense that—somewhere deep down—that person is struggling with racist feelings.

This ought not to be taken as my expert stance on the connection between language and cognition, but rather an amusingly old-fashioned Freudian belief (of which I hold precisely four—see below). I call my view Freudian because I tend to look at jokes, especially “bad” or “tasteless” ones, as something akin to a Freudian slip. From this perspective, people often reveal their unconscious thoughts and desires accidentally, through speech errors and other mistakes or slips of the tongue. Telling a joke is an awfully long thing to do on accident, but it’s easier to disavow a joke than a straightforward proposition. It’s easier to say “I was just kidding; you take everything too seriously!” than to say “I was just saying something offensive I didn’t really mean; you shouldn’t listen to the words that are coming out of my mouth!”

Friess’ joke might also be an example of the rhetoric of indirection. The rhetoric of indirection is a broad term that describes the means by which we say indirectly what we cannot say directly. Back in the days when a poorly chosen remark could lose you your head (or in places where it still can), it pays to know how to say controversial things indirectly. From this perspective, Friess was trying to say that women ought to just shut up and buy the pill because it’s cheap, which is, of course, not a nice thing to say at all.

2. Is Santorum at all responsible for Friess’ remark? Is it fair to criticize Santorum’s campaign because of what one of his donors said?

It should be pointed out, first of all, that Friess is not simply another one of Santorum’s donors. He is, in fact, the top donor to the super PAC that is supporting Santorum’s candidacy. However, I’m going to try to leave this question more open-ended because I think it is worth considering further.

On the one hand, we need to contextualize Friess’ remark by connecting it to massive changes underway in our political system. The rising influence of the super PAC, which thanks to Citizens United and another case can raise massive amounts money under much looser rules than ever before, is significant here. These court decisions—and, remember, I’m not an expert—rely partly on the idea that money is a form of speech and therefore is entitled to free speech protection. If speech and money are comparable, then the sheer size of Friess’ financial contributions are the equivalent of him declaring, in a voice far louder than anyone else’s, that we should all vote Santorum. Would it not also make sense, then, to consider carefully Friess’ other views as we make our decision?

On the other hand, one might also argue that to condemn Santorum on the basis of Friess’ joke would be guilt by association, or an association fallacy. This reasoning requires us to assume that, because Friess holds a particular view and endorses Santorum, Santorum must also hold that view. On the other other hand, Santorum’s views on women and birth control have attracted controversy without any help from Friess.

If you want to know more:

  • I took a course on the rhetoric of indirection a few years back with Dr. Claudia Carlos. I recall that she suggested, as a starting point for understanding this phenomenon, Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In the speech, Antony keeps saying over and over again that “Brutus is an honorable man” and yet he clearly means to convey the opposite. I have for years now yearned to write a hilarious parody of the birther controversy, in which a birther makes a speech with the line “But Barack Obama was born in America” peppered generously throughout.
  • Given the almost obsessive quest on the part of journalists and commentators to come up with newer and more obnoxious portmanteaus, I am shocked—shocked—that I cannot find any journalists or commentators trying to combine the words “contraception” and “controversy” into some awful word like “contraceptoversy.”
  • Some, including Rick Santorum, have called the incident “gotcha journalism,” a phrase I detest but willingly admit is a powerful way to re-frame humiliation in the mass media. I’m not sure that coverage of Friess’ joke is an example of “gotcha journalism,” however. I don’t think Michell’s line-of-questioning included anything like, “Hey, Mr. Friess, do you know any incredibly off-color, century-old jokes about women and contraception?” Also, notice that she changed the subject right away, as soon as she had a moment to “recover” from his remark. One could argue that the subsequent coverage and criticism of Santorum bring in a “gotcha” element, but, as I mentioned, Santorum’s largest political donor making a joke on national television sure seems like fair game to me.
  • My other hilariously Freudian beliefs include: overbearing mothers cause homosexuality (sorry, mom), depression is caused by anger turned inward, and Fight Club is the most homoerotic film ever produced (Matt Zebrowski and I are in firm agreement on this last point). Those close to me will know, however, that I’m much more of a Jungian.
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