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The always-entertaining Most Backward State in the Union contest took an interesting bounce last week.

With Kansas having gone three or four whole days without trying to teach creationism in science classes and Florida having neglected to botch an election lately, plucky little South Carolina shot to the head of the pack. Amazingly, it achieved this feat without even mentioning the Confederate rag. Sorry, flag.

No, South Carolina's leadership in backwardness comes courtesy of a bizarre and revealing debate about domestic violence. It seems a state legislative committee passed a bill making cockfighting a felony, while at the same time tabling one that would have extended the same status to a second conviction for domestic violence. The domestic violence measure was, we are told, flawed, and lawmakers promised to revisit soon.

Maybe it is and maybe they will. Still, the unfortunate juxtaposition of the two bills left the impression that here was a state with its priorities out of whack -- protecting chickens while leaving women to fend for themselves. It's an appearance a smart lawmaker could have easily finessed.

And then there's Republican Rep. John Graham Altman. Already infamous in his state for idiotic pronouncements about blacks and gays, he was in fine fettle when WIS-TV came calling. Altman told reporter Kara Gormley she was "not very bright" for asking about the failure to toughen penalties for domestic violence. He also questioned why women stay with men who abuse them. "I mean, you women want it one way and not another."

Which proves definitively that one need not be a Democrat to be a jackass.

There's also the matter of a reported audiotape of legislators discussing the bill's name: Protect Our Women in Every Relationship, or POWER. On the tape, someone asks why it isn't called Protect Our People In Every Relationship, or POPER. A voice pronounces it, "Pop her." Another voice -- WIS sources identify it as Altman's -- says, "Pop her again."

Altman has denied it. I couldn't get him on the phone.

Having grown up in a violent household, I'd love to have answered his question about why women stay with bad men. I'd have told him about the time my mom put my dad out. He kicked a window in on her.

There are all kinds of reasons women stay with abusive men. There is lack of alternatives -- nowhere to go and no money to get there. There is that syndrome of worthlessness that says somehow you deserve what he's doing. There is that old-school belief that a marriage license is a certificate of ownership. There is a tendency to keep believing the sweet lie that begins, "Baby, I'm sorry." There is love. There is fear. And, there is that sense that maybe purpled eyes and split lips are just something you get used to, just the way life is.

For the record, first and second convictions for domestic violence are misdemeanors punishable by 30 days in jail and a $500 fine under current South Carolina law. There is, however, a higher category of domestic violence law involving the use of a deadly weapon or serious injury that is a felony requiring a maximum 10 years behind bars.

Meantime, the new cockfighting bill would make any conviction a felony with a penalty of five years and a $5,000 fine.

So you can see where women and those who love them might be a tad irked. Until and unless South Carolina lawmakers resolve to treat domestic violence with the seriousness it deserves, their state will continue to lead the backwardness derby.

But look on the bright side. At least the chickens have something to smile about.

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