Sunday, February 5, 2012

Komen, Or How To Napalm A Brand Name Without Really Trying

If you were out on errands, don’t follow the news, or spend most of your day hiding under a rock, you might have missed how the Susan B Komen Breast Cancer Foundation turned one of the great NGO brand names into ashes. It was “interesting” to watch. In one short week Komen went went from pretty in Pink, to black and blue without really trying.

The mess began on December when Komen’s board decided to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood because Congress was “investigating” the reproductive health organization. “Investigation” in this context meant a crank, misogynist, fetus-worshiping, Congressman from the toxic Republican swamps of Dixie bloviating on evil sluts and the abortions they have.

The sex-phobes of anti-abortion movement had managed to move some fifth columnists into Komen organization while others were not paying attention and managed to get the deed done.

The news managed to stay under wraps until the second of February when the PR storm came roaring through like F-5 tornado though a trailer park. To say that Komen had not considered the possible blow-back from their cave to the anti-abortion zealots is to understate the case. The fury unleashed at the Komen cave was immediate and white-hot. A day later Komen was furiously backpedaling.

But the damage was done. With feminist’s antenna furiously waving about for even the slightest possibility of subterfuge, Komen’s mealy-mouthed, we’re not nearly as contrite as we are pretending to be, missive transformed acute fire-breathing rage at the organization, to chronic cold fury.

Komen’s success was always problematic. That little pink ribbon got around a bit too much.  When your brand gets tangled in with fat-pill deluxe (and known carcinogenic agent) Kentucky Fried Chicken, it is time to reevaluate what you are doing. Too much of Komen was tossing its feel good vibes to brands that perhaps should have not been up for consideration. Too much of Komen was the Pink-washing of product. Seriously, what does noted tool watch maker Swiss Army Watch have to do with breast cancer? What does a rather plain, rather ordinary, rather unremarkable, rather blocky, quartz watch have to do with women’s health?

But Komen was a way for many products to link themselves up with women’s health, or to at least be seen as pro-women. Komen was a cheep way (when all things are considered) to pump a little estrogen into the corporate image. And it was this linking with the corporate big-whigs that undermined the organization.

This is not to say that Komen has not done yeoman work in destigmatizing breast cancer, it has. It is to say that by in this laser focus on just one body part, it forgot the person that part happened to be attached to. It forgot that women’s health and women’s bodies are still a battle ground.

That battle ground is fiercely joined below the area of Komen’s concern, below the belt as it were. Women’s control of their sexual agency always bleeds into discussions of women’s health. The minute sex enters the picture, a committed minority of bible-thumping, sex-hating, patriarchal, misogynist, prudes enters the picture; and they are always on the war path.

And because this contingent is always pushing their “no fun allowed” agenda, is always trying to outlaw sex for pleasure, is always looking for sluts to shame, it never stops in its attempts to return women to the state of chattel.  The cover argument is about abortion, that much is true, but don’t be fooled; it’s about sex.

That means that Komen’s attempt to compromise, to cave into anti-sex zealots was bound to fail. Politically it was bound to fail, even if the general public had bought their weasel-worded explanation about Planned Parenthood. The right-wing sex phobes would have demanded a further pound of flesh.

But the cave was transparent, it made zero sense to defund the right-wing’s favorite bug-a-boo, Planned Parenthood. If you want to reach working-class, and other low-income women, you have to go to Planned Parenthood, full stop. To cut out Planned Parenthood is to deny a cohort of women access to screening. It is to condemn them to a painful disfigurement and possible death. It is to violate your very raison d'etre as a women’s health organization. To reach certain women, it’s Planned Parenthood-- or nothing.

People outside Komen understood this. They understood the concession to right-wing zealotry that Komen made. They understood the moral cowardice of the move. They understood the organizational rot that underlaid the decision. They understood how Komen tried to hedge its bets after the push-back from feminists far and wide. The question is does Komen understand? Does it understand how it vaporized the only real thing that matters to an organization like itself--trust?

Without trust, with out the do-good halo, Komen is nothing. It has no value. It has no value as charity, as a way to find a cure for breast cancer. It has no value as a brand; no more pink-washing for you KFC. It has no trust as an organization doing due diligence. It has no trust in its leadership. It has no trust with the Christianist Crazies to stay bought out. No one trusts Komen; its reputation lies in ashes.

What caused this loss of trust is fairly easy to point out: it is the trap of false moderation. That trap is one built by the Neo-Liberals, but operated by the political right. It is the assumption that “truth always lies in the middle.” It is the foolish notion that you can always find a middle ground between self-defined “extremes.” It is the assumption that everything is negotiable, that men and women will always find the correct middle ground via an exchange of ideas. It is as much of an false ideology as the any other. It fails to understand that some things, like unalienable rights, are not up for negotiation. It fails to grasp the notion that once you surrender the right of half the population to control their own bodies; all other bets are off. To put it crassly, there is no way to separate baby making and boobies.

As a organization dedicated to women’s health, and to a specific cancer that ravages only women, Komen has an obligation not only to brutally push-back against anti-abortion zealotry, but also the concomitant Gardicil freak-out by the same people. Komen should also pin the anti-abortion folks to the wall for their outrageous lies about the connection between abortion and cancer. Komen is an education outfit--educate, put out the facts.

Whether Komen likes it not, there is no escaping politics in the highly partisan and politically charged landscape we live in. There is no neutral zone, no safe harbor, there is only the mission; there is only the women they serve.

In the end, to stand for any aspect of women’s health is to stand for women as people of value. It is to say, or at least imply, that women have a right to live happy, healthy lives; that they need not die because a disease afflicts some “shameful” part of their bodies. There are no shameful parts of the body. There is no disease that should be allowed to ravage any women’s body because you have a problem with her having sexual agency. Women’s health should not be held hostage by a small minority of religious fundamentalists, and their foolish obsessions. It’s the cancer stupid.
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