2016 in Review: Writing for LARB

I wrote two pieces for Los Angeles Review of Books this year, one on sexual ableism and the Anna Stubblefield case, the other on Michel Bérubé’s recent book on narrative deployments of developmental disability in literature

The latter was sheer joy to write. Bérubé’s was engaging to read, providing me (a non-literature specialist) with a welcome pathway into diverse works, academic debates, and all delivered with his typical panache. I was able to write in a combination of journalist and academic voice that I rarely reach, and I confess myself satisfied with the results.

Professor Bérubé appears as a kind of character in The Secret Life of Stories, revealing that the index provides meta-textual commentary enlivening a text with which students otherwise find difficult to connect. Pale Fire, he explains, “deploys intellectual disability as an invitation to the kind of hyperattentiveness […] to every personal and textual encounter.” If you don’t pay attention, the narrative professor warns his students, you might miss something. In the same section, naturally, Bérubé breaks to give us a little anecdote about the seminar in which he met his wife, then adds a footnote, revealing he’s lied to us in the main-text, warping the truth to make a better story. Like so many of the self-aware characters he discusses, Michael Bérubé is an untrustworthy narrator.

It also gets serious about our lives as academics and fathers of sons with Down syndrome.

In the state of Texas, Bérubé reminds us, a disabled individual can be sentenced to death if their “mental capacity […] exceeds Lennie’s.” Suddenly, how we interpret literary representations of intellectual disability becomes a literal matter of life and death. Bérubé writes, “the interpretive stakes are always high when the subject is intellectual disability, because the stakes are ultimately about who is and who is not determined to be ‘fully human,’ and what is to be done with those who (purportedly) fail to meet the prevailing performance criteria.” I can’t prove that Bérubé was thinking about his son when he wrote that sentence; I can only tell you that as I read, I was thinking about mine.

I like the ending a lot, too, for pure emotional writing. It makes me a little teary to read, but you’ll have to click over to see it (did I do the clickbait right?).

Sexual Ableism, in contrast, was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written. I sat with the story for four months, talking to experts, listening to debates, reading the many long pieces that came out trying to parse truth from fictions. The case of Anna Stubblefield raised an intense cascade of issues around disability, communication, competence, sex, race, gender, class, and more. It involves an older, white, female, disability studies professor accused, and then convicted, of raping a non-verbal, younger, black man with cerebral palsy. Stubblefield maintained the relationship was consensual. The family of the victim (DJ) maintained that he could not communicate at all, so could not consent.

A lot of the writing on the case tried, perhaps reasonably, to ascertain what happened. My early drafts tried to talk about the “what happened” too, then I gave up and instead wrote about stories and possibilities. There are multiple possible stories that could be true, but I was struck by the way that the trial only presented one. The judge refused to allow the possibility that DJ might be a competent, sexual, man. I don’t know the truth, but I know that the shutting down of the multiple possibilities has broad consequences. I wrote:

Understanding the Stubblefield case requires simultaneously holding two possible mutually exclusive stories in our minds: both terrible. In the first, Stubblefield used FC to help D.J. communicate with the world for the first time in his life. He and she became close. She helped him enter school and collaborated on an academic publication. Then they became lovers. When they told his family, though, they accused her of sexual assault and took away D.J.’s communication device. In the second, D.J. was never able to communicate, and Stubblefield unknowingly manipulated his communications, deluded herself into believing they were in love, and raped him. In the first, she is going to jail and he is trapped without the power to communicate. In the second, she abused a defenseless individual.

For the judge, only the second story was possible…The refusal to consider even the possibility that D.J. might be a person, able to move, to communicate, to desire, to consent, solidified the single story of the worst-case scenario. The jury accepted this narrative, grafting their own ideas about the undesirability of disability onto D.J.’s body. Reporter Bill Wichert interviewed a juror who “couldn’t understand” the relationship between Stubblefield and D.J. once she saw D.J. in court. “I was like … ‘You’re going to leave your husband and your kids for someone like this?’”

No answers, but if we don’t at least consider the possibility of possibilities, people with disabilities becomes more dehumanized, not better protected.

2016 in Review: Disabled People Need Not Apply

I’m going to post a bit about some of my favorite pieces from 2016, starting with Al Jazeera America, which sadly shut down in April of this year.

Last February, though, I became aware of an ad for The Arc – TX, which had anti-disability clauses written into the requirements. I blogged about it, called for comment, and they quickly changed course. But when I posted, a philosophy friend on Facebook said that she had seen similar clauses mandating walking, sitting, standing, seeing, hearing, and carrying heavy weight in professorial jobs.

I was baffled, but dug into higher education job sites, and found that Human Resource Departments around the country, especially in public systems (most of New Mexico, all of Arkansas, some of Texas, some of MA), had stuck these boilerplate clauses into all their ads.

If you’re not disabled, you probably never noticed. Believe me, though – or better yet believe the people I quoted – if you are in a wheelchair and the job says, “you have to walk,” or even “climb stairs and ladders,” – you don’t apply.

So I wrote:

Unintentional discrimination is still discrimination. Boilerplate clauses keep disabled people from even applying for jobs. “Requirement creep,” likely put in place by HR professionals eager to avoid trouble, exacerbates discrimination and could, if someone had the time and money, lead to legal trouble. Without deliberate change, unemployment will continue to be the biggest problem facing Americans with disabilities. It’s time for employers to take a hard look at their hiring practices.

Here are the pieces:

The first was in particular extremely widely read. More importantly, for the next month, I received email after email from universities telling me that they were changing their policies. 
I’m blogging this today to ask you to keep an eye on these requirements. I’m happy to do the work contacting HR departments if you see more ableist requirements. We change this institution by institution.

Declaring Dominican University a Sanctuary Campus

My university, Dominican University, has declared itself a sanctuary campus. We have a long history as a national leader in supporting the rights of undocumented students to access higher education, including regular fund-raising to make that possible. In 2014 I wrote:

Over the last few years at my Roman Catholic university, we have begun to act, both admitting and financially supporting undocumented students. It may seem risky, but as Donna Carroll, our president at Dominican University, always says, “It’s the right thing to do.”

I saw our position around these issues as the strength of both being small (so a single act of leadership can really change course) and mission driven. I wrote:

Catholic colleges must commit to a core and challenging set of beliefs, but they do get to choose what to emphasize and where to concentrate resources. At their best, faced with the same financial pressures as all other institutions, Catholic colleges and universities have a mission that allows them to make arguments about justice, even ones that might risk alienating donors of particular political ideologies or even running counter to ideas held by some within the church. Dominican University provided health care to domestic partners for same-sex couples years ago because the universal right to health care, part of the dignity of the person, trumped other concerns. As Donna Carroll notes, “As the infrastructure of higher education become more and more like a business, it’s harder to take a stand that may compromise the business.” Commitment to mission allows you to take such stands because they are right, not because they are wise.

Of course, such a position is also fiscally wise. We are a majority Latinx institution. We need to listen to and serve our core community.

Here’s a link to the full statement of declaring Dominican a Sanctuary Campus.

Key passages:

BE IT RESOLVED, that Dominican University commits to a campus climate and an academic experience that promote the security and well-being of all persons, especially those who are underrepresented and struggling for voice and opportunity. To that end, as directed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the university will not provide access to student information, including any records that identify immigration status, except as required by federal, state or local laws, and only in the presence of formal documentation.
FURTHER, we affirm and will advance, to the extent possible, the 2011 Ruling by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which notes that law enforcement and ICE officials should enter the campus for law enforcement purposes without the permission of the university only under the most exigent and compelling circumstances.
FURTHER STILL, the university will continue to support undocumented students — to promote academic access and success, provide financial aid, as possible, and ensure that Dominican University is a welcoming and safe environment for all, regardless of background.

I don’t know if such declarations make a difference (though the money obviously does). What I do know is that it’s the right thing to do and we all need to practice taking moral public positions, as the next few years will test us in that regard.

The GOP Theocracy: Xmas vs Hanukkah Statements.

The RNC puts out messages on holidays. Here’s the text for Hanukkah:

“As our Jewish friends and family around the country gather to light the first candle, we hope they will enjoy a special time of closeness and joy this Hanukkah season. These eight nights serve as a reminder of how the Maccabees never gave up hope amidst danger and uncertainty, and each year the Festival of Lights is a time to reflect on the power of faith and perseverance. We wish a Happy Hanukkah to all who are gathering around the menorah, and pray this year’s festivities will be a time of celebration and blessings for our Jewish communities.”

And here’s part of that they say for Christmas:

“Merry Christmas to all! Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King. We hope Americans celebrating Christmas today will enjoy a day of festivities and a renewed closeness with family and friends.

Some people have read the “this Christmas … a new king” as referring to Trump. That’s not how I read it, but I understand why others do. Still, it’s not an uncommon way of writing in that circle. Just as every Easter, “He is risen,” the present tense reflects a fairly standard American Evangelical phrasing that has now extended to anglophone Christianity everywhere.

It’s still a revealing statement.

  • Notice the “As our Jewish friends” vs “We.”
  • Notice the simple statement of theological belief as fact for the Christian statement.

I want you to imagine for a moment, as hard as it is, that a major USA political party put out a statement just casually affirming the belief that the Jews, and only the Jews, are God’s chosen people? Even harder, imagine a statement affirming that Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the last true prophet of God. That’s the equivalent here — a basic presumption that everyone believes in Christian theology and there’s no reason not to affirm that in a political party’s messaging.

We should realize, once more, that the GOP believes only Christians are real Americans, that it represents the wishes only of Christians, that it wishes to make Christianity even more dominant (legally dominant, rather than merely culturally dominant), and is complicit in the outpouring of hate against non-Christians.

The message of most Jewish holidays is often jokingly summarized as: They tried to kill us, but they didn’t kill (all of) us. Let’s eat. The roast is in the oven. Remember to #Resist.

Breitbart and Fox News Save [A] Christmas [Carol]!

A few days ago, would-be theocrat Todd Starnes, a Fox News Christianist pundit, published and performed an inflammatory segment about a school district canceling A Christmas Carol due to complaints from local families over its reference to God. He picked it up from local news alleging the family was responsible, something the principal has denied. Although Starnes noted that the principal blamed time away from curriculum (thus allowing a dig at Common Core too) late in the article, he led with “Parents told local reporters the play was canceled because two parents complained about a line in the Charles Dickens holiday classic.”

Breitbart picked up the story and intensified the violence by putting up a picture of a Nativity Play in a church for a story about A Christmas Carol. Their article further projects this story as an attack on Christianity by two intolerant parents and a wimpy school official.

Neither the Fox News nor Breitbart story identifies the parents or speculates as to their religion. Both, however, clearly intended to target their two parents, while remaining within the realm of legally defensible journalism. The art accompanying the Breitbart story is particularly offensive.

The local online paper, Lancaster Online, ran a story about the family – who turn out to be a Jewish couple – “fleeing” town after reading comments in Breitbart demanding they be identified. Here’s the key direct quote:

The Jewish student’s parents say some of the reactions to the stories frightened them.

After seeing reader comments like “It would be nice if we had the addresses of those concerned citizens and, I bet, this info is known to people living in the area” on the Breitbart story, the parents pulled their child out of school and headed out of the area for a bit.

“There’s no way we’re going to take a chance after the pizza incident,” they said, referencing the man who fired an assault rifle in a Washington D.C area pizzeria after reading a fake-news story that said Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of there.

UPDATE: See below for Lancaster Online‘s response to the ADL’s statement.

That quote flew wildly around the internet. It was a direct quote from a reporter on the ground, which is pretty much what journalists take as truth. Then later, the Anti-Defamation League issued this statement, calling the allegations of a family fleeing untrue and damaging.

“News reports alleging that a Jewish family has ‘fled’ Lancaster County are untrue and damaging,” said Nancy Baron-Baer, ADL Regional Director. “We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously-planned vacation for the holidays. Stories like this can sow fear in the Jewish community and beyond, and it is important to stop the spread of misinformation.

It is striking that the ADL does not reference the Fox or Breitbart stories. The statement comes across as angry at the idea that Jews might flee, while ignoring the inciting incidents. Moreover, there is a clear conflict between the direct quotes from the family and the indirect quotes here.

So what happened? 
Here’s what I do know.
  1. The news stories were inflammatory, and deliberately so.
  2. The family left town.
  3. The local reporter has a direct quote.
  4. The ADL has an indirect quote.
  5. Anyone who takes the ADL’s statement as simple truth, ignoring points 1-4, is making a mistake.
UPDATED 12/24 7:00 AM – Confirmed the family left town one day early over concerns about local harassmentIs that “fleeing?” We are in a semantic debate here, but the ADL statement had such power, generating all kinds of FAKE NEWS headlines and tweets from major reporters, that forever this incident is going to be about motivations for leaving town – were they just worried or afraid – and not about the harassment. 

The premise of the story is that the family became aware of increasingly hostile comments on Breitbart, so yesterday I spent a few hours reading the 1200 comments or so on the story. I tweeted, with screenshots, a tiny fraction of what I found, mostly under the hashtag #BreitbartComments. They were super interesting. Hundreds of anti-Muslim comments before the focus intensifies on Jews. Whole strings of debates about the Crusades, about how feminists are ugly, about whether God exists (there’s an atheist, and not a nice one, trolling in there). Hundreds of comments wondering why the rights of minorities should be protected over the will of the majority. And a distinct set of comments demanding the complainers be identified, with some direct and indirect threats of violence.

Here is a key example:

Would I have fled my home in the face of such comments? Probably not. Would I have been glad to be leaving town were such a story trending about me? Yes, definitely. 

Next month, I’ll say more about Breitbart’s decision to use the Nativity picture, in a long piece for Pacific Standard on blood libel and modern anti-semitism. One of my fears is that I’ll have to cut the paragraph on this story and replace it with whatever new horror unfolds.

UPDATE 12/23 12:00 CST – Lancaster Online stands by their reporting.

Editor’s Note: This story has been amended to reflect further comments from the parents of a Centerville Elementary School student who removed their child from class over concerns for their and their child’s safety. The parents told the Anti-Defamation League Thursday they were traveling on a previously planned vacation. The family told LNP and LancasterOnline their child was being harassed and blamed for the cancellation of “A Christmas Carol,” and that they were concerned for their and their child’s safety. LNP and LancasterOnline stand by the original reporting on this story.

Books are Awesome (Returned Citizens go to Berkeley)

The New Yorker has a piece on formerly incarcerated people going to UC Berkeley. It’s long and interesting, with many good tidbits about life in prison, life in college, structural obstacles, but also genuine opportunities. 

But I want to quote a few bits on how awesome books are. This is Murillo.

At first, he read the kind of genre fiction that was available in the shu: Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dan Brown. But one day when he was out in the yard—in solitary, the “yard” was a small concrete enclosure that had high walls but was open to the sky—a man on the other side of a wall told him that he should stop reading crap and get some good books from the prison library. After that, Murillo had many conversations with the man about books, although he never saw his face.

The man told him to start with Voltaire’s “Candide.” Murillo read it, and was amazed at how resonant it was—its depiction of the slave sounded very similar to what he’d heard about sweatshops. He came across a list of American novels with social-justice themes, and he read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He read “Don Quixote” and “Les Misérables.” He read about the Zapatistas, and about how the Spanish had pillaged Latin America.

Candide! Voltaire changed this man’s life.

Here’s Czifra:

The one good thing about solitary in Y.A. was a big box there containing hundreds of books. He read until all that was left was a volume of Shakespeare, with four plays in it. At first, he found the language nearly impossible to understand, but he had nothing else to do, so he kept at it. He gradually realized that it was better than anything he’d read before, and he looked for more. He decided that his favorite play was “Richard II,” because of the way it forced you to confront a disagreeable man-child who ruined his life and killed people, and yet, by the end, made you feel compassion for him. When he finished with the Shakespeare, he wrote to a librarian, who sent him ancient-Greek literature in translation. He read Milton and Wordsworth and Dickens.

Also interesting, if less happy, is the white supremacist read of Shakespeare.

Czifra started reading Shakespeare because it happened to be in the Y.A. book box, but adults in prison tended to read Shakespeare for a different reason. Shakespeare plays were handed around by white inmates to bolster racial pride, being a testament to European culture. “Julius Caesar” was a favorite—Caesar had many lines that they felt expressed their code, such as “I love the name of honor more than I fear death” and “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” White inmates tended to think of themselves as imprisoned warriors, like modern-day Vikings, and they particularly liked violent epic sagas, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Beowulf.

There’s a lot here on reading, on self-reflection, on the examined life. I am struck, as I so often am in these narratives of class, race, and literature, how we’re designing higher education to make sure that if you want to read Candide, you either have to be rich (and go to a rich liberal arts school), or be in jail and have nothing but time.

You shouldn’t have to be in solitary to encounter Richard II. But also, for those who are in solitary, let’s make sure that we keep funding educational opportunities even as we try to decarcerate America.

Missouri: The School-to-Prison Pipeline Needs Some Grease

The State of Missouri has passed a new statute that will treat school fights as a felony. With credit to the journalist Sarah Kendzior (see the tweet above), here’s how a local school district is interpreting it:

Dear Parents/Guardians:
We want to make you aware of a few new State Statutes that will go into effect on January 1, 2017, which may have a drastic impact on how incidents are handled in area school districts.
The way the new statue reads, if a person commits the offense of an assault in the third degree this will now be classified as a Class E Felony, rather than a misdemeanor. If he or she knowingly causes physical injury to another person (hits someone or has a fight with another individual and an injury occurs) – one or both participants may be charged with a Felony.
What does this mean for students?
For example, if two students are fighting and one child is injured, the student who caused the injury may be charged with a felony. Student(s) who are caught fighting in school, bus or on school grounds may now be charged with a felony (no matter the age or grade level), if this assault is witnessed by one of the School Resource Officers/police officers (SRO) or if the SRO/local law enforcement officials have to intervene.

Hazelwood is a St. Louis suburb just northwest of  Ferguson, for reference. It’s majority white, but with a substantial (35% or so) non-white population.

This law will be enforced unequally. Yes, the law is the law, but enforcement of the law – what behaviors are or are not criminalized – will be refracted through all the individual and systemic biases of American society.

A few key phrases:

  • “No matter the age or grade level” – 5 year olds will be charged for fighting.
  • “If the assault is witnessed” – The presence of SROs in the school intensifies the likelihood of criminalization, rather than peace.

The law will result in children of color, disabled children, and especially disabled children of color being criminalized, incarcerated, and otherwise removed from society. That is the intention of such laws. The school-to-prison pipeline is not an accident or side-effect. It’s working as designed.

Smiling parents and administrators will counter, “just don’t fight!” And then when kids fight, “You shouldn’t have fought! You should have complied with rules.” And thus the #cultofcompliance will help grease the school to prison pipeline for marginalized children.

Disability and Media: Inspiration Matters

Here’s a nice story about Craig Blackburn, a man with Down syndrome who plays Santa. It could so easily veer fully onto the Inspiration Porn side of the disability news spectrum (it’s not an either/or), and the title does go that way. “Metairie man with Down syndrome spreads cheer now and throughout the year” suggests that the story will be about how people feel about the man, rather than centering him.
But that’s not what we get:
  •  Blackburn gets to speak for himself. The whole story is not about how others feel about him. “Blackburn said his goals are simple: “To impact the lives of others by advocating for issues that will result in better lives for individuals with special needs. Success is not measured by competing with others, but by each individual living life to their greatest potential.”
  • He speaks about his achievements: “I met all the requirements, never failed a class nor did I have to repeat a grade,” Blackburn said. Now Blackburn volunteers a good portion of time doing work for the community, making it a full circle of sorts.”
  • The article talks about his broader life: “He has served as a motivational speaker since 2004. He travels independently throughout the United States delivering the messages of inclusion, ability and full participation in life for all individuals. In 2009, He delivered his first international speaking message in the Middle East in Doha, Qatar.”
As I wrote about Alice Wong, the disability community needs inspiration. We need to be inspired by people doing inspiring things, not by disabled people just doing things at all. I’m especially interested in seeing norms shift in local news like this, for all the big national outlets do matter. This article is, in my estimation, a win.

Tell Me Your Stories – My New Column at Pacific Standard

I am pleased to announce that I will be joining Pacific Standard as a regular internet columnist on politics and culture, starting in January. I will be producing reported features, opinion columns, interviews, and other pieces, focusing around history and disability rights, both construed as broadly as possible. Here’s my editor:

Two main points.

Pacific Standard is a publication with a mission to tell stories, “across print and digital platforms about society’s biggest problems, both established and emerging, and the people attempting to solve them.” I’ve been working them since I saw a tweet from Ted in 2015 calling for Halloween pieces. I wrote about my son and his dislike of Halloween, the social model of disability, and my need to at once respect his desires while exposing him to new things. I followed with essays (largely collected here) on school abuse, sexual violence, food culture, speculative fiction, crowdfunding, murder, and politics.

I’m especially excited about the different kinds of pieces I’ll get to produce for Pacific Standard, encapsulating many components of the idiosyncratic body of work I’ve produced over the past four years. Reported pieces, reactions to breaking news, interviews with people trying to make a difference in this world, analysis of new studies and findings, and cultural criticism of all sorts. Disability rights, higher education, the ways that history infuse contemporary subjects.

I am, of course, especially worried about the human impact of our new government. I’ll be watching carefully. I want to hear your stories, your ideas, your questions, to be intentional in the voices I highlight and to hold myself accountable for the essays I write.

This blog will continue in 2017, but more as a place for links and quick ideas that I may later expand into full pieces. I’ve never had a writing home, so this may take some getting used to, but I am grateful to Pacific Standard for this opportunity. I don’t plan to waste it.

And I’m grateful to you for reading.

Buzzfeed: Psych Wards Lie

Like many good pieces of journalism lately, I think this one slipped out of notice for far too many people. BuzzFeed reporter Rosalind Adams has put together an excellent expose of the way that psych wards trap individuals in order to maximize profits.

Summary: Healthcare for profit is good for profit and bad for health. Which we knew, but it’s good to have details as we head into Trump’s “for-profit presidency.”

A yearlong BuzzFeed News investigation — based on interviews with 175 current and former UHS staff, including 18 executives who ran UHS hospitals; more than 120 additional interviews with patients, government investigators, and other experts; and a cache of internal documents — raises grave questions about the extent to which those profits were achieved at the expense of patients.

Current and former employees from at least 10 UHS hospitals in nine states said they were under pressure to fill beds by almost any method — which sometimes meant exaggerating people’s symptoms or twisting their words to make them seem suicidal — and to hold them until their insurance payments ran out.

A state-funded 2011 report on one Chicago hospital found “woefully inadequate” staffing levels, a “repeated and willful failure by UHS officials to ensure that their staff were properly trained,” and a pattern of admitting more patients than it had room for “in an effort to maximize financial profit.” Investigators also flagged broader concerns, citing “troubling reports suggesting a pattern of quality of care issues, harm to patients, or major healthcare fraud charges involving UHS-operating facilities in a dozen other states.”

It’s a long-read, filled with upsetting personal narratives. Read THE WHOLE THING if you can.