The Press's Silence on VAWA Is Deafening
“Don’t use that picture of me,” said my mother about one of my recent articles, “I look like I’m right off the reservation.” Her statement was rattled off unthinkingly, but it’s action-packed with issues.
My Italian heritage was rampant in my childhood. My grandmother made homemade pasta. My mother translated the Italian parts of The Godfather. She regaled us with tales about how upset her great-grandfather was when Mussolini was executed. When your ancestors said “Those sons-a-bitches” about the people who shot one of the world’s biggest fascist dictators, it’s hard to ignore.
Conversely, my Native American heritage has just been understood: a short explanation for where I got certain facial features or why I never sun-burned. As I got older, I realized the quiet places it showed up in my childhood: My parents’ fierce sense of loyalty, a bright ribbon in the braid of any family that comes from a “tribe” culture; my family’s obsessive sense of community and co-operation above all things; the insistence that you can’t trust the government to help people—politicians come and go but your blood never does.
“The Family Crest goes Family, then Work, and then God, beneath the first two, in very small letters,” I often joke.
But it’s not funny. It’s a very different from how so many American systems operate. Suddenly I’m very much “Other” in ways I never expected. And at the end of 2012, this became impossible for me to ignore.
The press has been quiet on the failure of the 112th Congress of the United States to renew the Violence Against Women Act. The slender coverage has been overwhelmed by talk of the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling.
The reasoning is simple: the press doesn’t care.
They’re not maliciously apathetic, they just know the failure is temporary. VAWA will be passed, in one form or another, in the new 113th Congress. No one really believes that the Native American, immigrant, and LGBT provisions of VAWA—such a small sliver of an enormous package—will kill the bill that has revolutionized how we talk about domestic violence in America.
So we’re left with the carefully orchestrated death-throws of the 112th Republican majority, their final sound-and-fury monologue, the last act on the Congressional floor. The audience is only half paying attention; they’re tired, they’re shuffling to gather their belongings, their minds already trying to remember where they parked the car.
Apathy is understandable, but also a mistake. We should be concerned, not just Americans but as members of humanity, that this was the final monologue, and it was gruesome.
A year ago, the innocuously named advocacy group SAVE (Stop Abusive and Violent Environments), financially managed by the founder of a mail-order bride service, began lobbying Congress to kill VAWA. They claimed VAWA provides a black hole for immigration fraud. They argue that immigrant women married to American men should have two options concerning domestic abuse: be deported, or return to their abusive husbands.
GOP leaders in the form of the House Judiciary Committee were quick to take up this battle-cry, and happy to accept SAVE’s campaign donations.
Meditate on that: VAWA is problematic because it is not an objectively pro-human trafficking bill.
The notoriously misogynist National Coalition for Men’s lobbying arm has also added lean-and-hungry voices to VAWA’s opposition. This organization existentially does not believe rape can exist, and Republican representatives are bobbing their heads in agreement.
And finally, we have the opposition to the Native American provisions of VAWA, categorized as a mere poker chip without examining what it means: requiring a Native woman to file in U.S. District Court because her abuser is “white” translates to “Yes, white men should be allowed to go onto reservations and rape women as they please.” In this triple knockout punch, VAWA opponents have crafted a specific narrative: rape and abuse don’t exist, but if they do, they can only be perpetrated against white, heterosexual, American citizens.
Our mere eye-rolling is misplaced.
The provisions being called “controversial” are so specific that we can’t ignore the monstrous nature required to oppose them. Not only have Republican mouthpieces enthusiastically agreed, but they’ve gone to the mat over it.
They have proudly waved banners of rape culture and xenophobia, and expect to be congratulated for their bravery in the face of beaten populations. Frankly? Many of them came to Washington to ban abortion and make English the official language, and they’re all out of abortion bans.
The lack of outrage about the VAWA lapse is not beyond me.
I understand it, because it’s hibernated in my own self.
Even as a Native American woman, it’s hibernated.
Even as someone who has been personally assisted by VAWA programs when I fled an abusive partner, it’s hibernated.
It’s easy to hibernate in the winter, in the constant spin coming off the Hill. It’s almost soothing, narcolepsy-inducing, this steady drum-beat of normalized fear and hatred of Other.
But spring is coming. It’s time to actualize where I come from, who I am, and what it is I know to be true.
I am a woman, and an American. More than that: I’m a patriot. And there are some things for which I simply can not stand.
Haley B. Elkins is a freelance writer and Texan transplant currently holding down the fort in the Midwest. She's been published on xoJane, The Good Men Project, Rue89, and The Frisky, and recently appeared on UP with Chris Hayes to discuss gun culture in America. Her writing can be followed at www.haleyelkins.com.