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Why Republicans keep talking about Amy Coney Barrett’s 7 kids

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Judge Amy Coney Barrett has seven children.

If you didn’t know that before the Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings on her Supreme Court nomination, you definitely do now, since her large family has been mentioned at least nine times as of Tuesday afternoon.

Republican Sen. Thom Tillis called her “a remarkable mother” on Monday, noting that “she has seven beautiful children.” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) called her “a tireless mother of seven.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) even seemed to give her two extra children at one point, saying, “She and her husband have seven children. Two adopted. Nine seems to be a good number.” (Barrett and her husband have seven children, two of whom happen to be adopted. Once again, the number is seven.)

It wasn’t just Republicans. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) also remarked on Barrett’s large family and praised her skills as a mother. But for politicians on the right, talking about the nominee’s kids has a twofold purpose. First, it’s meant to defuse criticisms of Barrett by making the case that, as a mom, she simply wouldn’t have the heart to do some of the things liberals are afraid of, like voting to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Second, it aims to paint liberal critics of the nominee as anti-child, anti-family, and anti-woman into the bargain.

“What your political opponents want to paint you as is a TV or cartoon version of a religious radical,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) said in her opening statement on Monday. “I’m struck by the irony of how demeaning to women their accusations really are, that you, a working mother of seven with a strong record of professional and academic accomplishment, couldn’t possibly respect the goals and desires of today’s women, that you, as a practicing Catholic with a detailed record of service, lack compassion. I know you to be compassionate.”

The message Ernst and others were sending was simple: By opposing the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, you’re opposing a mom. And what could be more anti-feminist than that?

Republicans are talking about Barrett’s kids to make her sound empathetic

Barrett’s children and family have been a core part of the public narrative of her confirmation since she was nominated, not quite three weeks ago. For some conservative women she’s a beacon, proof you can have a big family, a religious life, and a demanding job. Barrett “represents the fact that not all women need to think the same way about the raising of children and family planning,” Gabrielle Girgis, who is Catholic and recently finished a PhD while raising two young children, told the New York Times. Some have argued that Barrett’s success suggests women don’t need abortion, as Rebecca Onion reported at Slate. The Federalist, meanwhile, hailed the judge’s life as a rebuke to feminist orthodoxy, an example of “how strong women submit to their husbands with joy.”

In general, discourse around Barrett’s family life has assumed more knowledge about it than is publicly available (we do not know, for example, about the division of responsibilities in the Barrett home). The confirmation process has continued in that vein, with senators citing Barrett’s kids as proof of various nice things.

Grassley, for example, complained Monday that liberals were “suggesting Judge Barrett’s confirmation would be the demise of the ACA and the protection for preexisting conditions.”

“That’s outrageous,” he said, “As a mother of seven, Judge Barrett clearly understands the importance of health care.”

He seemed even more outraged on Tuesday, noting that “not only is Judge Barrett a mother of seven, she has children with preexisting medical challenges of their own.” (One of Barrett’s children has Down syndrome.)

“No one on this committee, or anyone, has any right to suggest that she doesn’t care about access to health care or protection for the vulnerable,” Grassley continued.

The goal of Grassley’s comments is clear: to make the case that Barrett, as a mother and a family member to someone with a disability, would never do something so heartless as to vote to take away health insurance for people with preexisting conditions. It’s an odd argument, as MSNBC’s Steve Benen notes — Grassley is essentially saying that “people who care about families understand the importance of health care, and those who understand the importance of health care wouldn’t dare be so callous as to destroy the nation’s existing system.”

But if that’s true, Benen asks, “Why is it, exactly, that Grassley’s party and president are enthusiastic supporters of the case that intends to tear down the ACA?” Don’t they care about families too?

Questions like this aside, it’s clear that part of the reason Grassley and other Republicans on the committee are bringing up Barrett’s kids so often is to make her seem warm and empathetic, and thus perhaps more palatable to the centrist voters in swing states these are the real audience for her confirmation hearings, since the senators present have likely already made their decisions about her.

They’re also trying to paint liberals as anti-feminist

But Republicans are also talking about Barrett’s kids as a way of arguing that it’s actually liberals who are being cruel and bigoted by opposing her nomination. Graham and others have been exceedingly careful to point out that two of those children became part of the Barrett family through adoption — they were born in Haiti. Some conservatives appear to see this fact as a kind of shield against Democratic criticism — “with two adopted children from Haiti, it’s going to be interesting to watch Democrats try to smear Amy Coney Barrett as racist,” Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin tweeted in September.

Of course, having Black children is not actually any kind of guarantee that someone will not uphold racist policies. As historian Ibram X. Kendi pointed out on Twitter, “some White colonizers ‘adopted’ Black children. They ‘civilized’ these ‘savage’ children in the ‘superior’ ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial.”

Kendi’s point was to challenge “a belief too many White people have: if they have or adopt a child of color, then they can’t be racist.” But conservatives have used his and others’ arguments as proof that liberals are being not just mean but downright unhinged for pushing back against the argument that Barrett can’t be racist because she has Black family members.

“I know that it hurts to be called a white colonialist,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said on Monday, “and I know it must hurt for someone of deep Christian faith like yourself to be called a religious bigot, and to have it implied that because you are a devout Christian, that you’re somehow unfit for public service. Before it’s over with, they may call you Rosemary’s baby for all I know.”

Meanwhile, some are using arguments about Barrett’s kids to make a more specific point about women and motherhood. Ernst encapsulated it best during her time on Monday, during which she decried Democratic opposition to Barrett. “Instead of entering into this nomination process with an open mind and a desire to understand this woman who has been nominated for the highest court in the land, the focus is on a plan or a strategy, a series of tactics to undermine, coerce, and confuse the American people,” the senator said.

“Women all over the world are painfully familiar with this strategy,” Ernst went on. “We are all too often perceived and judged based on who someone else needs or wants us to be, not on who we actually are. I cannot speak for those that would attempt to undermine your nomination, but as a fellow woman, a fellow mom, a fellow Midwesterner, I see you for who you are, and I’m glad the American people have the opportunity to get to know Amy Coney Barrett.”

The message was clear: opposing Barrett’s nomination isn’t just wrongheaded, it’s actively misogynistic.

Indeed, conservatives have applauded Barrett as the apotheosis of a new form of feminism. This feminism “insists not just on the equal rights of men and women, but also on their common responsibilities, particularly in the realm of family life,” the conservative legal scholar Erika Bachiochi writes at Politico. “In this new feminism, sexual equality is found not in imitating men’s capacity to walk away from an unexpected pregnancy through abortion, but rather in asking men to meet women at a high standard of mutual responsibility, reciprocity and care.”

Once again, the American public does not actually know what standards Barrett and her husband set for one another, or how they divide up care and other labor in their home. But using similar arguments, Ernst and others are performing a sort of switcheroo on Democrats, who have questioned how a Barrett confirmation would impact abortion rights and other feminist priorities. By focusing on Barrett’s life as a mother — and a mother of many children with a demanding job, at that — Republicans are trying to turn the argument around and paint Democrats as the real sexists.

“The great freedom of being an American woman is that we can decide how to build our lives, whom to marry, what kind of person we are, and where we want to go,” Ernst said on Monday. “We don’t have to fit the narrow definition of womanhood. We create our own path.”

Barrett does seem to have created her own path. But as Onion and others have noted, she’ll likely soon have the legal authority to shape the paths of millions of other Americans of all genders, potentially deciding how we build our lives, whom we are allowed to marry, and if not what kind of people we are, then certainly where some of us are allowed to go.

Her family life tells us little or nothing about how she would decide such questions. But as many Republicans have taken pains to note, Barrett also has a high-profile career in which she has weighed in repeatedly on these important issues. And perhaps the most feminist thing to do would be to judge her by her work.


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Nine civilians killed in bomb attack on bus in Afghanistan

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Four policemen were also wounded, Ghazni police spokesman said, blaming the Taliban for the attack.

A roadside bomb tore through a passenger bus east of the Afghan capital, killing nine civilians.

The blast took place about 10:30am (05:30 GMT) on Saturday when the bus was going from Kabul to the eastern city of Ghazni, Waheedullah Jumazada, spokesman for Ghazni governor, told AFP news agency.

“Nine civilians, including three women, were killed in the explosion,” he said.

Four policemen were also wounded, Ghazni police spokesman Adam Khan Seerat said, blaming the Taliban for the attack.

There was no comment from the Taliban on the incident.

Violence on the ground has spiked in recent weeks despite the Taliban and the Afghan government holding peace talks in Qatar to end the country’s grinding war.

The top US envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said earlier this week that fighting is threatening the peace process.

On Friday, rights group Amnesty International said at least 50 people had been killed in attacks just in the preceding week, accusing the warring sides of failing to protect civilians.

“The world must sit up and take notice. Afghan civilians are being slaughtered on a daily basis,” said the rights group’s Omar Waraich.

“The international community must make the protection of civilians a core demand for their ongoing support of the peace process.”

Afghan authorities also faced criticism this week after 11 children were killed in an air attack by the military that hit a mosque in the northeastern province of Takhar on Wednesday.

The authorities in Kabul insist that those killed were Taliban fighters operating in that area.

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Clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh after Washington talks

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Azerbaijan reported fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh despite Pompeo holding talks with both sides in Washington, DC.

Clashes have broken out between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces over Nagorno-Karabakh a day after talks in Washington, DC to try to end the deadliest fighting in the mountain enclave in more than a quarter of a century.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence reported on Friday that there was fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a part of Azerbaijan that is populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.

On October 23 and 24, operations continued in the Aghdere, Khojavend, Fizuli, Hadrut, and Gubadli directions, the ministry was quoted as saying by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

Local officials accused Azerbaijan’s forces of shelling buildings in Stepanakert, the largest city in the region, which Baku denied.

Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Goris in Armenia, said there was an Azeri attack on Stepanakert late on Friday night.

“Sirens went off at approximately 9pm [17:00 GMT] in the city and a short while later, volleys of rockets or missiles came raining down,” he said. “Because of the sirens, people hid in shelters. There was no report of causalities.”

On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met separately foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia in a new attempt to end nearly a month of bloodshed that Russian President Vladimir Putin said may have killed 5,000 people.

The collapse of two Russia-brokered truces had already dimmed the prospect of a quick end to fighting that broke out on September 27.

Azeri forces say they have made territorial gains, including full control over the border with Iran, which Armenia denies.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian administration says its forces have repulsed attacks.

President Ilham Aliyev told French newspaper Le Figaro that Azerbaijan was ready to sit down for negotiations but blamed Armenia’s actions for the continued hostilities.

“We are ready to stop even today,” Aliyev was quoted as saying. “But, unfortunately, Armenia grossly violated the ceasefire … if they don’t stop, we will go to the end with the aim of liberating all the occupied territories.”

Both sides accuse each other of targeting civilians during the conflict [File: AP]

‘Good progress’

US President Donald Trump said “good progress” was made on the issue but did not elaborate and declined to say if he had spoken with the leaders of either country.

Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan told reporters talks with Pompeo were “very good”, adding that work on a ceasefire would continue.

World powers want to prevent a wider war that draws in Turkey, which has voiced strong support for Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia.

Shortly before the Washington talks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul that he hoped Moscow and Ankara could work together on resolving the conflict.

Differences over the conflict have further strained relations between Ankara and its NATO allies, with Pompeo accusing Turkey of stoking the conflict by arming the Azeri side. Ankara denies it has inflamed the conflict.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said he saw no diplomatic resolution of the conflict at this stage, and Aliyev has described the prospects of a peace settlement as “very remote”.

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‘Libya deserves better’: Hope, doubts follow ceasefire deal

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Libyans have reacted with a mix of hope and doubts after the signing of a nationwide ceasefire deal intended to pave the way towards a political solution to the country’s conflict.

While observers have welcomed the United Nations-backed deal, few are under any illusions about the difficulties of turning it into lasting peace on the ground.

“We’ve seen a lot of deals in the past,” said Hassan Mahmud al-Obeydi, a 40-year-old secondary school teacher from the eastern city of Benghazi. “What’s important is the implementation.”

Friday’s deal was signed in Geneva by military delegates from the two main warring parties in the North African country, which plunged into violence in 2011 with the NATO-backed revolt that toppled former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and rival forces led by renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar agreed to withdraw from the front lines, start demobilising armed groups and set about integrating them into the state.

Crucially, the deal also calls for the departure of all foreign forces from Libyan soil within three months.

“It’s good that the two sides have been prepared to compromise, but the devil is in the detail,” said Peter Millett, a former British ambassador to Libya. “There are an awful lot of questions. A key one is – will countries that have been sponsors of military forces in Libya support this compromise?”

Both camps in Libya’s complex war have received extensive backing from foreign powers.

Friday’s deal comes four months after Haftar’s Russian- and Emirati-backed forces gave up their yearlong attempt to seize the capital, Tripoli, a battle that killed hundreds of people and displaced tens of thousands.

In June, Haftar withdrew from western Libya in the face of a blistering counterattack by forces supporting the GNA which is backed by Turkey.

The battle had further deepened the bitter mistrust between the rival political camps and their military allies, as well as common Libyans.

“The war caused terrible social divisions,” said Obeydi. “Work is needed immediately, right now, to rebuild and to heal the deep wounds in Libyan society.”

The deal calls for the departure of all foreign forces from Libyan soil within three months [AFP]

‘Ready to react’

“We have experience with a previous agreement, which was five days before Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, during which he destroyed the capital’s infrastructure and killed many people,” pro-GNA fighter Salim Atouch said, voicing doubts the ceasefire would hold.

“I hope this won’t be like previous agreements, meaning we go back to war again. We will abide by it, but we are ready to react at any moment if it’s violated.”

The Geneva talks were the military part of a process led by the UN’s Libya mission UNSMIL.

Separate political talks that start on Monday aim to create a new governing body and prepare for elections.

Mohamed Dorda, co-founder and consulting director of geopolitical risk consultancy Libya Desk, said the ceasefire was a positive step that “creates a basis for the political talks”.

“Libya needs a security arrangement to allow a government to be set up. If we don’t deal with the security crisis, we will find ourselves in same situation in a few years.”

Massoud al-Fotmani, a 57-year-old from Benghazi who runs a group of food stores, said he hoped the ceasefire would hold.

“The war has caused a terrible economic downturn,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of money because of the cutting of commercial ties between east and west due to the roads being closed.”

English teacher Mayssoon Khalifa, who works at a private school in Tripoli, echoed his call for lasting peace.

“Many are hopeful, but not optimistic,” she said. “I sincerely wish that this deal will hold. Libya deserves better.”

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