Thursday, July 30, 2009

Drink it Dowwwwwn Zulu Warrior, Drink it Dowwwwwn Commander-in-Chief! Chief! Chief!

beerObama Tonight, President Obama hosts Pint Night at the White House, where Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Sergeant James Crowley, and he will sit down over some beers and talk. The idea for pint night is Crowley’s, who answered President Obama’s telephone call in a Boston-area bar and suggested that all the parties in Gates-gate  should just have a beer to seal the end of their personal investments in the controversy.

While these men will presumably reconcile their differences, the media ramping it back up, this time by recasting the entire event in ostensible less racialized terms and one that is, in fact, much more palatable to the dominant white majority. The new hypothesis goes like this: Gates is to blame because he is a classist liberal elite.

Consider the comments of Lennard J. Davis1, a Marxist literary critic and disability-studies scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago, Obama’s home turf2:

If we make the assumption that racism was in play in this event, but that Crowley was not necessarily a racist, we might also assume that class and social status were at play as well. Professor Gates is probably one of the highest paid academics in the world. He is a superstar famous not only among scholars but known by the general public as well. As a black man, he might well be upset at his treatment [by Sgt. Crowley], but as a member of the power elite (Barack counts him as a friend, as does Oprah, Cornell West, and a host of other powerful people), he might well have been outraged to be treated just like another American citizen facing the indignity and affront of a police questioning.

Likewise, consider two op-ed pieces, the first from today’s Washington Post and syndicated nationwide:

In the conflict between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and police Sgt. James Crowley over Gates' arrest at his own home, all parties in the national conversation believe they should be the teachers. The theme is, "No, you listen to me!"

Everybody seems to want to teach the need for respect: the respect owed by white police officers to black men, and the respect Harvard professors ought to show to cops doing their jobs.

Since everybody seems to turn autobiographical during these "teachable moments," I will exercise my right to do so, too. From the time I was in college in the late 1960s and early '70s, I have been incensed at the elitism so often shown by privileged liberals toward the white working class. And I felt this as someone on the left. (E.J. Dionne)

and the second from the Denver Post:

As the story unfolded, it became clear to fair-minded observers that Gates, not Crowley, was the antagonist in this affair.

Sure, Crowley could have stoically sucked up Gates' verbal abuse rather than arrest him for disorderly conduct. That's a discretionary call by an officer at the scene when an out- of-control citizen is acting in "contempt of cop." But Crowley's role was dwarfed by Gates' performance. And I do mean "performance." His reaction to Crowley from the outset ranged from irrational to hysterical to bizarre, including his childish slur about Crowley's mother. (Mike Rosen)

Consider Dionne. First, Dionne is very much a part of the class he reviles—a Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar, he teaches at Georgetown and writes for The Washington Post. Second, he decontextualizes the event in order to make his argument. Much has been made about a history of allegedly racist acts committed by members of the Cambridge PD who are white; therefore, in that context, Gates was not responding to an isolated incident but to another node in what is presumed to be a system of oppression.Third, well, I’ll get to the third point in a minute because it is what binds Davis, Dionne, and Rosen together so completely, and it is what is so dangerous in the current cultural imaginary that their pieces acknowledge, support, and disseminate.

Consider Rosen. Rosen is an “"advocate for generally right-center, mainstream conservative ideas” on the Denver-based 850 KOA talk-radio station. To give you an idea of how he imagines “right-center,” you might be interested to know that Rosen has filled Limbaugh’s seat on The Rush Limbaugh Show. Prior to lighting up your radio dial, this army veteran used his MBA as a corporate finance executive for Samsonite and Beatrice Foods.

Rosen’s op-ed piece should be of great use to composition and rhetoric teachers throughout the land, as it relies on fallacious argument throughout in order to try to make his points. First, it is not clear at all who was the antagonist in the Gates-Crowley situation—being verbally abusive is aggressive, but so is repeatedly demanding information from someone who has done nothing wrong even after he has provided identification. Moreover, Rosen suggests that anyone who does not see the situation in the same light he does is not “fair-minded,” which is right-wing radiospeak for “reverse racist” or simply “irrational,” a word that the right uses like Westmoreland used napalm3. What also strikes me is the default setting of the analysis: reconstruct the scene as a narrative with narratalogical conventions, meaning there must be a clearly defined protagonist, antagonist, conflict, etc. But what is most compelling about this incident are the clear-cut failures in certain aspects but the sweeping ambiguities in others.4 As Rosen argues that “Crowley could have stoically sucked up Gates' verbal abuse rather than arrest him for disorderly conduct,” he is already passing a judgment and making claims—a police officer is never the cause of the verbal outrage, that someone who bears a weapon in front of you should not be perceived as a threat or a possible form of abuse, and (most terrifying of all) that a citizen cannot exercise his or her rights of free speech. Granted, I wish the world (especially the United States) observed more decorous speech and treated its members with dignity, but in America you have the inalienable right to be distasteful, hateful, bigoted, and crass. U-S-A! U-S-A! Had Gates been any of those things, he would have, I believe, been within his rights.5 As far as Rosen’s sneering mention of “contempt of cop,” one should remember that Rosen is white, and as a white male he has never been the object of institutional racism or sexism. Therefore, his personal experiences with authority figures has never been negatively-impacted by them.

What ties these three figures together—the Marxist, the left-center journalist, and the conservative radio talk show host—is this: placing the yoke of classist elitism squarely on the shoulders of the left-leaning intellectuals. As if right-leaning intellectuals and professors—yes, they exist and in greater numbers than the right would have you believe, because if you knew then the “liberal universities” straw-man fallacy wouldn’t work anymore—aren’t as capable of elitism as anyone else. I know something about this. I am a left-leaning professor, and I, too, have shaken my head at colleagues who laugh at my Pittsburgh Steelers fanaticism even as they go glossy-eyed over obscure early-modern manuscripts. The difference is, I go glossy-eyed over that stuff, too. And many of my colleagues love sports. And we drink beer. And when we recreate, we get dirty. But sometimes we also go to the theater or attend a symphony because the theater is pretty cool and symphonic music can be beautiful—if you don’t believe me, just ask Metallica.

What all three of these articles miss is that class (i.e. money) trumps variable x, no matter what the profession, ideology, or any other consideration. If you are a classist, it doesn’t matter if you swing a hammer for a living or type a blog or teach a college class or run a conservative think tank—what matters is that you use your socio-economic status to devalue those who earn less, you valorize your aesthetic choices while you diminish theirs, and you look to those who earn more with desire that you often articulate outwardly as scorn because you need to validate where you’re at now.

Moreover, have we forgotten how closely connected racism and classism are?6 That ethnic and racial minorities are often considered to be lower-class, that a conventionally “successful” person who is a minority is often considered an anomaly and that he or she can still be—even in “post-racial America”—reduced to the color of his or her skin by a bigoted police officer, politician, bus driver, or anyone else in a position of authority? (Sorry, Rosen, but power does matter in these formulations, and if you’re black or white and unarmed while an armed police officer stands before you in your home, you do not have power and the line between “duty” and “oppression” becomes razor thin, which makes a police officer’s job extremely difficult.)

Before we turn Gates into the villain, here, let’s acknowledge that he cussed out Crowley’s “mama,” which is very unprofessional and rude, but let’s also acknowledge that Crowley’s arrest had so little justification that the CPD dropped the charges.7 Yeah, both actions are “bad,” but which one is worse, and by “worse” I mean “probably unconstitutional”?

So, when the triumvirate belly up to the White House picnic table with their families, they are inadvertently bringing all this with them. Cheers.

Please enjoy this hilarious excerpt from The Root responsibly, and check out the entire article:

The Recap

If Crowley has a sense of humor, he’ll bring Gates a six pack of Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale with a bow tied around it. Crowley doesn’t sound like much of a racist, but he at least has to ‘fess up: The real beef against Gates was “contempt of cop,” not the made-up “disorderly conduct.”

The Takeaway

If Gates has a sense of humor, he’ll bring a six pack of Rogue Brutal Bitter Ale in honor of his favorite “rogue” policeman. Sure, he had every right to fuss Crowley out in his own home, but Skip might also want to be that dude—every crew has one—the guy you hate to roll with to the club because you know you might have to throw fists on a humbug.

The Guest List

Gates reportedly drinks Beck’s—professor-speak for “Garçon, bring me a Cabernet, immediately.” Crowley likes Blue Moon—a girl beer. And Obama drinks Budweiser—the beer equivalent of wearing a flag pin. It’s apparent that these guys aren’t actually beer drinkers, so if Obama doesn’t want this to be a limp sausage fest, he needs some tapas, a lady DJ, a later start, a keg of Dogfish Head Raison D'êtres and a few more guests….

[Ed. Note: How “working class” is a beer that is served with an orange slice? Even my far-left-leaning-professorial-self rejects fruit in my beer.]

1Full disclosure: I find Davis’ scholarship compelling. His studies on the history of the novel, the conventions of characterization, geographic description, and plot are tremendous tools to help think about the ideological work of the novel, and his term “dismodernism” may be a useful one for describing a system of thought that accepts bodily difference into its concept of normativity. Davis, though, is consistently strategic in his opinion making—whatever is dominant is to be refuted. Now, there is validity in doing what Michel Foucault called “negative work” when confronted with received wisdom; however, many scholars know that a fast track to publication is to be both intelligent and openly contrary. Contrariness, then, has become an intellectual gimmick (maybe it always has been), and Davis is a master of the strategy.

2Sorry, birthers.

3Gratuitous rhetorical flourish. See how annoying it is?

4Like life. Which is glossed over as we busily tag some as “evildoers” and others as “heroes.”

5These are the same laws that keep the Limbaugh’s and Rosen’s on the airwaves instead of being arrested for hate speech some of the time.

6It wasn’t that long ago that television pundits marveled that then-Senator Obama was “articulate,” even though every other candidate for nomination was also articulate.

7For those of you saying, the CPD didn’t have the time or resources to fight the legal battle, I’d like to remind you that you’re, in effect, justifying the police NOT enforcing the law, thereby arguing that the enforcement of law is subjective, not absolute, and therefore making your opposition’s argument w/r/t Crowley’s actions toward Gates in the first place.

Special thanks to my rugby-playing friends for teaching me the “Drink it Down” song lyric used and abused in the title, and another special thanks to a good friend in law enforcement who keeps this issue interesting in new ways in our correspondence.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cambridge Police Provide PSA on Racism: It’s Still Alive

gates072009 I’m sure you feel the same way: I’m still proudly wearing my “American Racism Is Over because We Elected a President who Is Black” t-shirt, and I’m not ready to take it off just yet, especially during this period of American ecstasy as we win the space race again, albeit retrospectively.

But, thankfully, the Cambridge Police Department has gone out of its way to remind us that we still live in a country that harbors a large amount of institutional racism by arresting Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr on his front porch.

“Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation's pre-eminent African-American scholars, was arrested Thursday afternoon at his home by Cambridge police investigating a possible break-in. The incident raised concerns among some Harvard faculty that Gates was a victim of racial profiling.

Police arrived at Gates' Ware Street home near Harvard Square at 12:44 p.m. to question him. Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, had trouble unlocking his door after it became jammed.

He was booked for disorderly conduct after “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior,” according to a police report. Gates accused the investigating officer of being a racist and told him he had "no idea who he was messing with,'' the report said” (

The details are various, still emerging, and (as you’d expect) often contradictory. (Gate’s attorney’s account here, on

Truly, this story foregrounds the tentative position even the most-successful African-American citizens occupies in this country—always one step away from being reduced simply to the color of one’s skin and subject to the prejudices and beliefs that have been attached to that single characteristic.

You may or may not be familiar with Gates beyond his reputation or name, so here is an excerpt from “African American Studies in the 21st Century”:

Within the academy, I believe, we must seek to explore the hyphen in African American, on both sides of the Atlantic, by charting the porous relations between an "American" culture that officially, even today, pretents [sic] that an Anglo-American regional culture is the true, universal culture, and that African-American culture is, at best, a subset to it or a substandard and subservient deviant of it. (We hear the complaints, of course. Allan Bloom, for example, laments that "just at the moment when everyone else has become 'a person,' blacks have become blacks . . ." Unfortunately, "everyone else" can become a person precisely when the category person comes to be defined in contradistinction to black.)

We must chart both the moments of continuity and discontinuity between African cultures and African American cultures. Only a fool would try to deny continuities between the Old World and the New World African cultures. But equally misguided, needless to say, is any attempt to chart those continuities on the basis of a mystified and dubious biological or so-called "racial-science." Above all else, we are a people who were constructed as members of a new Pan-African ethnicity. We cannot -- and should not -- deny historical contingencies of this construction, lay claim to the ideal of "blackness" as an ideology or a quasi-religion, totalized and essentialized into a proto-fascist battering ram supervised by official thought police. (I remember as a student at Cambridge, I was about to have my first supervision with Wole Soyinka, then in exile from Nigeria, on African literature . . . though I was only twenty-two, I was certain I had a deep understanding of African culture. I had read Jahnheinz Jahn's Muntu, you see, and was fired up with the inspirational doxa of "nommo," which was the master concept, the distilled essence, of all African culture. "I hope you know something about Africa," Soyinka told me as I came for my supervision, viewing my Afro balefully. "Absolutely," I said, having just memorized the principles of nommo in preparation for our meeting. "Because the fact is," Soyinka added, "the only reason I accepted you as a student was that at least you didn't talk about that nommo nonsense." "Nommo?" I said. "Never heard of it.")


We are scholars. For our field to grow, we need to encourage a true proliferation of ideologies and methodologies, rather than to seek uniformity or conformity. An ideal department of African-American Studies would have several of these approaches represented, rather than merely one officially sanctioned approach to a very complex subject. African-American Studies should be the home of free inquiry into the very complexity of being of African descent in the world, rather than a place where we seek to essentialize our cultural selves into stasis, and drown out critical inquiry.

And while I for one wish that all persons of color would pursue our discipline on one level or another during their undergraduate careers, our subject is open to all -- whether to study or to teach. After all, the fundamental premise of the academy is that all things ultimately are knowable; all are therefore teachable. What would we say to a person who said that we couldn't teach Milton because we are not Anglo-Saxon or male, or heterosexual -- or blind!

UPDATE: Apparently the charges are being dropped, but then the fallout will really begin.

1 Incorrect usage of quotation marks to offset this text being embedded into other web pages that obscure the whole block-quote thing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

This Article Is Not about Disability

wheelchair_fdr This morning’s Denver Post runs the following headline: Lakewood cop helps boy get wheelchair.

When the owners of the [stolen] car, Joel Hidalgo, 31, and his wife, Esmeralda Torres, 29, arrived, Fairbanks greeted them and noticed they had left their young son in the car.

"The mother started crying that the wheelchair had been stolen from the car," Fairbanks recalled. "While she was crying, I looked over at the little boy and it just hit me that he was just the sweetest little kid."

Lt. Fairbanks went out of his way to find someone (Peter Kopp, Kids' Mobility Network) to donate a wheelchair to the family, helping the son to have greater access and mobility again. Fairbanks is a hero, but not exactly for the reasons the article implies.

While Mike McPhee, the author, uses pathos (or emotional appeal, for the non-rhetorically minded) to capture the reader (in the second sentence we learn that Jesus Hidalgo has cerebral palsy; he is described, on sight, as being “the sweetest little kid), the real ugliness of the situation is not that a young wheelchair-user had his wheelchair stolen, but that the cost of a wheelchair is a barrier to many who would otherwise use them to navigate our built environment.

Thus, this story is not exactly about disability, but about the market. Lt. Fairbanks knew the right thing to do was to restore Jesus’ independence and autonomy, so he found someone who would buck the market and give away a wheelchair. Although Jesus is only seven, his situation suggests some realities for the community of people with disabilities.

In 2000, the unemployment rate for adults with disabilities who wanted to work was 9.5 percent (the same rate across the U.S. in July 2009, the very same apoplexy-inducing number) compared to 3.4% for the entire U.S. population, and over 30% of those who did work did so at or below the poverty line1. Now, combine those numbers with the fact that in order to receive any federal benefits, a person with a disability must be unemployed, and you begin to see how the employment gap further disables the disability community.  What do I mean? If a particular wheelchair costs $5,000, and you (an adult PWD (person with a disability)) work yet live at the poverty line, which for a single-person household is (buckle up) $10,400, and your job prevents you from collecting benefits under current federal regulations, you can see spending 50% of your annual income on the device that helps you go from the car or bus to the front door of your place of employment just does not seem tenable.

Ultimately, McPhee builds this story around the concept of charity (which strikes me as a wicked phonetic pun), too long the position dominant culture takes toward people with impairments, and suggests that the lesson to be learned is that we should be charitable to those less fortunate, when in fact we should be trying to insure access, access to spaces and to the tools that enable mobility. In fact, this story is about socio-economic status.

Truly, the Denver Post has told a good story for many reasons—too often we only hear about the bad cops; too often we do not hear about the life experiences of people with disabilities—but when we read these kinds of stories, so often laden with uni-focal pathos, we might read them as instances of overdetermination, situations or identities that are not reducible to one term (disability) but are articulations of many causes that together give rise to the situation presented before us.

1Work in America: M-Z. Carl E. Van Horn, Herbert A. Schaffner.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Kettle. “Pot.” Black.

160px-Jeff_Sessions_official_portrait Amid the uproar over the nomination of Honorable Sonia Sotomayor—the “reverse racist” and “hack,” at least to Rush Limbaugh, a deejay who should know about qualifications for the bench (I believe they taught that lesson during one of the two semesters he attended Southeast Missouri State University before dropping out1)—Republican critics have been unable to assail her on her record: it is impeccable. Instead, they have attacked her for one sentence in one speech and for one court decision.

The sentence: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life” (Berkeley Law lecture, 2001).

The case: Ricci v. DeStefano.

But these two criticisms are not the point of this post.2 Senator Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions III (R-Alabama and new ranking member of the Judiciary Committee) is.

In a recent interview with CBS’ Bob Schieffer, Sessions said:

"[Sotomayor] criticized the idea that a woman and a man would reach the same result," something he said is "philosophically incompatible with the American system."

"I am really flabbergasted by the depth and consistency of her philosophical critique of the ideal of impartial justice," he said.

Aside from misrepresenting (or simply not understanding) her positions (see the footnotes), Sen. Sessions knows first hand the trials and tribulations of being nominated to the federal bench. His was an unsuccessful appointment to the U.S. District Court in Alabama by President Reagan in 1986. As Sarah Wildman reported in The Atlantic:

Senate Democrats tracked down a career Justice Department employee named J. Gerald Hebert, who testified, albeit reluctantly, that in a conversation between the two men Sessions had labeled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) "un-American" and "Communist-inspired." Hebert said Sessions had claimed these groups "forced civil rights down the throats of people." In his confirmation hearings, Sessions sealed his own fate by saying such groups could be construed as "un-American" when "they involve themselves in promoting un-American positions" in foreign policy. Hebert testified that the young lawyer tended to "pop off" on such topics regularly, noting that Sessions had called a white civil rights lawyer a "disgrace to his race" for litigating voting rights cases. Sessions acknowledged making many of the statements attributed to him but claimed that most of the time he had been joking, saying he was sometimes "loose with [his] tongue." He further admitted to calling the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a "piece of intrusive legislation," a phrase he stood behind even in his confirmation hearings.

It got worse. Another damaging witness--a black former assistant U.S. Attorney in Alabama named Thomas Figures--testified that, during a 1981 murder investigation involving the Ku Klux Klan, Sessions was heard by several colleagues commenting that he "used to think they [the Klan] were OK" until he found out some of them were "pot smokers." Sessions claimed the comment was clearly said in jest. Figures didn't see it that way. Sessions, he said, had called him "boy" and, after overhearing him chastise a secretary, warned him to "be careful what you say to white folks."3

The entire article contains many more examples that demonstrate why Sessions is an authority on racism, although they simultaneously argue his inability to know it when he sees it.

For a party in crisis, Sessions seems like a curious choice for standard-bearer especially on this issue.

Especially when, for Justice Samuel Alito, making decisions based upon ethnicity is cool (source Glenn Greenwald).

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Sam Alito used his opening statement to emphasize how his experience as an Italian-American influences his judicial decision-making (video is here):

But when I look at those cases, I have to say to myself, and I do say to myself, "You know, this could be your grandfather, this could be your grandmother. They were not citizens at one time, and they were people who came to this country" . . . .

When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.

Two weeks ago, Alito cast the deciding vote in Ricci v. DeStefano, an intensely contested affirmative action case. He did so by ruling in favor of the Italian-American firefighters, finding that they were unlawfully discriminated against, even though the district court judge who heard all the evidence and the three-judge appellate panel ruled against them and dismissed their case. Notably, the majority Supreme Court opinion Alito joined (.pdf) began by highlighting not the relevant legal doctrine, but rather, the emotional factors that made the Italian-American-plaintiffs empathetic.

Did Alito's Italian-American ethnic background cause him to cast his vote in favor of the Italian-American plaintiffs? Has anyone raised that question? Given that he himself said that he "do[es] take that into account" -- and given that Sonia Sotomayor spent 6 straight hours today being accused by GOP Senators and Fox News commentators of allowing her Puerto Rican heritage to lead her to discriminate against white litigants -- why isn't that question being asked about Alito's vote in Ricci?

Two words, Glenn: Rocky. Balboa.

1He may feel he is an expert, though, because his family is loaded with Reagan-appointed judges (cousins, uncles, etc.), part of the 200+ judicial appointment juggernaut that conservatives tend to forget when a Democratic president appoints, say, anyone.

2With respect to her statement about a “wise Latina woman,” over 30 years of feminist scholarship has amply demonstrated the importance of standpoint with respect to issues of discrimination—marked as Other by dominant culture, any person whose identity has been constructed as beyond-the-pale by dominant culture has a unique ability to interrogate that culture’s dominant ideology in a way those whom the ideology validates simply do not. Why? Those who are valorized by dominant culture rarely if ever see that ideology work against them. The ideology—and this is the nature of hegemonic ideology, a la Antonio Gramsci—makes itself seem natural, common-sense based, and most of the people who the ideology favors do not consciously participate in the marginalization of and discrimination against others. Such unconscious participation is a product of institutional racism, sexism, ableism, and so on. For most of us—who institutionally marginalize one or more groups without meaning to—the worst part of the issue is the denial that such institutional discrimination exists and the reluctance to acknowledge one’s own complicity with that ideology (let alone changing one’s behavior).

In short, to really breakdown these institutionalized, hegemonic ideologies of oppression, we all have to do what Michel Foucault calls “negative work,” meaning we must question the validity of our own beliefs, disrupt the seemingly-causal narrative of history, and imagine how, in our given historical moment, a given belief, action, or utterance is made possible.

Ricci v DeStefano, however, is fascinating, and not just for the reasons the mainstream media has been touting. Consider this, from Media dis&dat:

People for the American Way, a liberal group, noted July 13 that Ricci got his firefighting job in New Haven "by claiming discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects Americans from discrimination over disabilities." Ricci has dyslexia, a learning disability that impairs the ability to read.

First, dyslexia and the people who have it are routinely disserviced by this oversimplification of it. Second, the perspective of this article (and rightly so, to a point) is to suggest that Ricci is being represented by this “liberal group” as an emblem of all people with disabilities, in that he is self-focused and narcissistic (meaning, he is so wrapped up in his own narrative and suffering that he does not or cannot see the issues of others without disabilities around him). Agreed.

However, and here’s what the article does not really account for, from all accounts and details of the case, he IS self-focused. Discriminated against because of deficits attributed to his dyslexia, Ricci was able to use the ADA of 1990 to get his job in the first place. However, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (under which Sotomayor ruled on the case before it went to the U.S. Supreme Court) upheld the New Haven' Fire Department’s decision to abandon the results of the written and oral examinations (as designed by I/O Solutions ("IOS")) for Captain and Lieutenant positions.

Most accounts explain the NHFD’s motivations thusly (and here comes a general paraphrase of most spokesholes): The NHFD was afraid, because none of the top scorers who would receive promotion for the results were minority candidates, that they would be sued. This sentiment prestructures the reader or listener (i.e. you, me, and Joe the Plumber) to the idea that candidates who are minorities will sue your business or government agency for discrimination and win no matter the validity of the claim, now doesn’t it? What if, though, the tests were designed (inadvertently or otherwise) on standards that seem “natural” due to institutional racism? If so, aren’t certain candidates being discriminated against? Admittedly, the NHFD seems to have acted out of hysteria, not interest in making sure their firefighters were being treated equally, and examples like this are what conservatives always cite when speaking ill of affirmative action (Ricci v DeStefano will be with us for awhile, folks).

But back to Ricci. As a person who at first was denied his job because of a perceived lack of ability due to a biological characteristic, he might be expected to be sensitive to other minority groups’ oppression at the hands of a dominant majority. He might be expected to believe that there could be merit to the claims that the test was an unfair measure because it did not account for deficits that could be attributed to culture, not biology. Moreover, Ricci exemplifies the problem with disability identity group formation—the tendency to see one’s problems as different and individual, not part of a large social bloc of the oppressed.

3 Like Stevens, I have often been disappointed by Caucasian Americans for their pot-smoking, but mainly when it interferes with my ability to navigate quickly out of a parking spot at Red Rocks Amphitheater or to purchase stamps at the local post office.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ballad of the Amputee: The Song Remains the Same

lobster_box_smallYou might know this photograph. The object of this photograph is what Mike Simpson calls, “The Lobster Box,” meaning a shoebox that holds two prosthetic arms. The Arm on Top connects to the Terminal Device in Middle; the Cosmetic Hand below can also attach to the Arm on Top; and the Arm at Bottom is fully-assembled, the first prosthetic I had when I was an infant. If you do know this photograph, you probably know it from The Dismodern Bodcast (which is, coincidentally, up and running again after a late-spring hiatus).

The Lobster Box holds my earliest and most recent prosthetic limbs—the Arm on Top dates to sixth grade, approximately 1985, and I think I wore it about four times. I never wanted to use a prosthetic limb, and I felt that they got in the way.

Flash-forward: July 10, 2009, to Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, 38th Avenue, Denver, Colorado.

I am sitting in a strip-mall storefront, a prosthetics and orthotics office with an adjoining shop for orthopedic footwear. (It is incidental that the man being fitted for new shoes tells his wife and the fitter that if he has more trouble with “that toe” he will “cut it right off,” although through the power of retrospection, it creates an odd foreshadowing. let’s just say it isn’t incidental, and let’s agree that it is foreshadowing.)

Hanger is a nationwide company that creates many types of prosthetic devices, and it is the company that famously provided the base limb for Aron Ralston’s “bag of tricks.” In the past year, I’ve met Ralston, read his book, wrote about him1, and in general had him rub off on me a little bit, specifically his stories about paddling and mountain biking. Using a special terminal device designed by TRS, people with upper-extremity amputations can hold onto a kayak paddle, something I now cannot do but sincerely wish I could.

So, at the age of 35, I made this appointment with Barry (not his real name), the prosthetic fitter.

An evaluation for a prosthetic is mind-bending for the person with the amputation. In daily life, people stare at you, and their looking is rude, no matter their intentions, upbringing, etc. In the evaluation room, though, Barry stares, judges, photographs, measures, feels, and determines, all while you sit there fighting your basic human feelings about being measured in such a way. You are objectified, fragmented, atomized—you become estranged from a body you know better than anyone else.

If you know me, you know my left arm (which has a just-below-elbow congenital amputation) also has a hand. Five fingers, a palm. The hand is small, has no bones, and I cannot use it to grip anything. What it does have: Nerves, which I suspect are more highly-concentrated there than almost anywhere else on my body. Although it does not look like a normative hand or have normative functions, it is my hand.

As you can imagine, a prosthetic arm is a value-added product of an industrial process. Meaning, to make the highest return on the sale, the prosthetic manufacturer standardizes many of the parts that go into the artificial limb. According to Barry, amputations that result from medical operations tend toward a uniformity—there are standard shapes and positions on the limb that the surgeon attempts to meet. Thus, while creating the abject, the abject is normed.

However, my left hand (which I called “my little hand” growing up) is not typical of either a medical or congenital amputation, nor is it similar to the bodily differences attributed to phocomelia or thalidomide. Contrary to Tyler Durden’s opinion, I am a unique snowflake.

Within the first five minutes of the evaluation, Barry had taken my left hand into his fingertips and asked, “Have you ever thought of removing this?”

For the third time in my life, I’d been asked that question (or, more accurately, that question had been asked of me). At birth (btw, the physical condition of my left arm was a surprise to everyone at that moment), the doctors advised my mother to have my left hand removed. When she asked why, they could not provide her a practical, medically-sound answer other than convention. She declined, forcefully.

When I was being fitted for Arm on Top, the prosthetic maker (at Hershey Medical Center) asked the question near me, but directed it mainly to my mother. Other than that question, the prosthetic maker was exceptionally kind an considerate.

Now, an adult, I was being asked this question seriously. Here is a snapshot of my internal responses:

  • Anger: I had a hard time believing that a professional prosthetic maker did not have more tact (to ask a question based upon function or design, etc.) or awareness than to ask this.
  • Fear: With that question, all the weight of ableist ideology settled on my shoulders—medical discourse wanted me to be a different extraordinary body, and I wondered how many people kind of shrugged when asked that question and later, post-op, wished they had not trusted the experts so fully.
  • Sickness: My limb is just material to an industry. I am just matter. (Truthfully, I thought of Yossarian in Catch-22: “Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.” Yossarian realizes his body is just material and materiel for the war effort; what is my body, in this industry, material for?)
  • Confusion: I am “healthy.” In our culture, “healthy” people are considered sick or ill if they have apotemnophilia, yet Barry, as a mouthpiece for the prosthetics industry, seems to suggest that the desire to electively amputate is normal or healthy for someone who is already stigmatized.

I had so many acerbic almost-said’s on my lips that I cannot believe I did not utter one of them, but instead said, “Why?”

When he explained the obvious (the sockets of prosthetic arms do not come with room for a hand like mine), I said “in the past, I’ve had prosthetic arms like the one I’m interested in now, and I still have this hand. The socket needs to be bored out with a drill.”

Then Barry told me I should meet with the “specialist” (I thought Barry was a specialist) who comes up from Arizona once a week. So now I’m on the books for an appointment with the same person who helped Ralston design his prostheses, and I am feeling marginally better about things.  Still, after 30 years of strident disability-rights efforts, those trained to work with people with disabilities still use dehumanizing language without a second thought—coincidentally, a student who will be beginning the prosthetics program at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti this fall was shadowing Barry, and I plan to keep in touch with him to see what, if any, training about interacting in mixed contacts the students receive. From my spot in Ann Arbor, maybe I can help out somehow.

Insurance and cost, however, is the subject of another post. And on this process, I’ll keep you posted.

1No matter how deranged my senses at a given point, I would never write the headline “Amputee Aron Ralston Lives to the Fullest after Self-Amputation.” It is offensive on several levels—first, it foregrounds his physicality, not his humanity; second, it is conventionally triumphal. The original was “Catching up with Aron Ralston,” which (while sounding like a Depeche Mode greatest hits) suggests that Ralston, the human, is on the move (you can see it in the full URL).  Apparently, sometime recently, the editors have decided to rename the article.  Awful.