Mike Huckabee’s “Short Bus” joke: Apology Not Accepted

On Fox News, yesterday, Mike Huckabee said this about incoming Chief of Staff John Kelly:

“If you have four stars on your shoulder, you’re not a slow learner, you didn’t ride the short bus. He will be fine.”

“Short bus” in this instance, is saying that Kelly is not intellectually disabled. In other words, it’s an “r-word” type slur, delivered here in the negative (Kelly is not a …). Huckabee then apologized over twitter.

I find the cultural space occupied by “r-word” type slurs revealing. So many people so casually resort to ableist slurs without even thinking, as Huckabee did here. It’s no worse, though, than Obama’s “special olympics” joke or Rahm’s “r-word” slurs. Both of those men apologized too, of course. Slurs about intellectual disability, then, occupy an unusual cultural space in which widely diverse people use them constantly and quickly recognize that they are in the wrong (Ann Coulter being the notable exception that proves the rule).

Huckabee has also made numerous racist, sexist, anti-homosexual, anti-Islamic, remarks over the years. He thinks of himself as a kind of insult comic (he’s not funny), richly sure he’s hilarious (he’s really not), and richly rewarded in cash from right-wing media. He’s having a nice post-government career going on air and insulting people. It’s what he does.

I’m glad Huckabee apologized. Ableism often escapes notice. It must be called out. But too often, especially among white parents of people with intellectual disabilities, our work against ableism starts and ends with the “r-word” and related slurs. We don’t look for the ways that ableism intersects with other forms of hate, satisfied to know that we’ve drawn the line around the r-word. That’s not good enough.

Huckabee is unfit for airtime. He is a vehicle of hate and division. If you’ve just noticed now with the “short bus” comment, go back and see his body of work. It’s vile.

Apology not accepted.

Joy Policing. Don’t do it for a few minutes ok?

No victories are ever total. Today I’m happy we saved Medicaid. It’s ok to be happy. It’s a meaningful if incremental win. Ignore the temptation to immediately point out all the battles yet to come, at least for five minutes.

In response to this thread, twitter user @feministlib shared a piece on “joy policing” that I found extremely apt.

We celebrate incremental wins, because it energizes us to keep moving toward the next win. Celebrating doesn’t mean we think we’re done; it means our efforts resulted in change in the right direction. 

Let’s see what new facts we can help folks learn and politicize today!

Eugenics in Tennessee

In my latest piece, I write for The Marshall Project about the history of incarceration and sterilization, of course just scratching the surface in the short commentary.

Under no circumstances should the courts use their power to shape the reproductive decisions of individuals. But sadly, for over a century, attitudes about individuals convicted of crimes have made incarcerated men and women targets of such efforts.

Whether Benningfield knows it or not, his policy follows a long history of eugenic practices in this country. Eugenics is a pseudo-science which holds that the quality of humanity can be improved over generations through practices that encourage individuals with “desirable traits” to reproduce and discourage the “unfit” from doing so. There’s a sense that eugenics is confined to a long-ago history, but coercive eugenic practices crop up constantly in the American criminal legal system.


Academic Freedom: Dr. Jonathan Higgins

Yesterday, I wrote about the adjunct prof fired by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for alleged homophobia. I wrote that we have to pay attention when people with less power are punished for speech, even if their views might be objectionable.

Today, I turn to the case of Dr. Jonathan Higgins, the director of Claremont Colleges’ Queer Resource Center. He was fired for tweeting about white supremacy after a right-wing website latched on to three of his tweets and started campaigning for him to get fired. The college caved.

  1. Colleges need to realize that they cannot appease right-wing media by firing individuals.
  2. Professional staff (I’m about to be one) should be afforded the same rights for “extramural utterances” (i.e. Twitter) as faculty. We want our professional staff engaged in public conversations, not terrified of being fired.
  3. College PR depts should learn to write this statement: “We do not let right-wing media influence our hiring or firing decisions. That will be our only comment on the matter.” 
There is an industry dedicated to finding people in higher education saying liberal things on social media and concentrating attention on them until they lose their jobs. As Tressie McMillan Cottom was quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education the other day – “If there’s an organized outrage machine, we need an organized response.”
Part of that response must involve the high profile Free Speech Warriors shifting their attention away from leftwing protests of rightwing speakers, and working collaboratively with us to protect people like Bonesteel and Higgins. 

Academic Freedom: Michael Bonesteel

Michael Bonesteel was contingent faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). I don’t know the details of his appointment, but it seems he taught sufficient hours to have healthcare through SAIC and had been teaching about contemporary art and comics for a long time. According to Inside Higher Education, he has “resigned” after some of his classes were taken from him due to student complaints about course content and alleged homophobia. I have no information on the veracity of the accusations. They should be taken seriously. But I need to say a few things about the academic freedom issues.

We need to be clear: Taking away classes from adjuncts is firing them.

My position is this (as I wrote about at the Chronicle in a case of an adjunct making horrifically homophobic statements, but in an extramural context, rather than in class) is that the bar for dismissal of any faculty member based on speech exists, but that it is extremely high. Academic freedom does not mean one can literally say anything in any context with no professional consequences, but that the burden for proving it is impossible for a professor to move forward as faculty falls on the institution. The process should be clear, transparent, and aimed at restoring community if at all possible.

That doesn’t seem to be what’s happened here. Again, I don’t know. What I do know is that I am infinitely more concerned about Bonesteel’s rights than I am about Richard Dawkins’ recent canceled speech, anything that’s happened to Milo, Coulter, Charles Murray, or Peter Singer, or any other fancy featured lecture.

The fight over academic freedom includes defending speech that is repellant to us.

But it takes place in defense of vulnerable faculty, not millionaire right-wing speakers.

I have never (as I’ve been accused) claimed that only left-wing speech should be defended. I argue that when thinking about free speech and academic freedom, we should pay attention to power and prioritize the rights of the most vulnerable. Hence, I am more concerned with student groups than elite speakers. I am more concerned with politicians demanding profs be censored or fired than profs acting badly (i.e. the case of Melissa Click in Missouri or the whole state of Wisconsin). I am more concerned about adjunct profs being fired than tenured profs feeling unhappy that people don’t like them. This case in Chicago is a good example of where people need to work for the principle of academic freedom.

So to all those folks currently polishing their scoldings of a Berkeley radio station for choosing not to host Dawkins, maybe instead you could expend some of your media platform worrying about adjunct rights?

Ozyfest 2017!!!!

I am pleased to announce that I will be appearing with Maysoon Zayid, Victor Pineda, Sinéad Burke at OZYFEST tomorrow in Central Park, New York City. I’m honored to share the stage with these three.

We will be talking about disability rights, and I will focus on parenting and formal journalism, but will hope to talk a bit about universal design, the cult of compliance and the modern expansion of eugenics. Here’s the schedule for the afternoon.

Description: The schedule for Ozyfest’s “Town Square.”
Accessible version at link – http://www.ozy.com/ozyfest

Hope to see some New Yorkers there! Because my co-panelists are amazing, and, well, Biden, Gillibrand, and Bush (who has a strong disability rights record overall) are surely worth your time. And over on the main stage, Samantha Bee is on at 4:20. So that’s where I’ll be.

Modern Knights Templar Prepare for Race War in Europe

There’s an ongoing debate about the extent to which medieval scholars need to be concerned about explicitly fighting racism as medieval scholars. I haven’t quite figured out how to write about the issues coherently. But the stakes, to me, are clear. 

Meet the Knights Templar International. Their FAQ wants you to know that they aren’t racists.

But there’s a coming civil war, says the “Hidden Templar” in the black hoodie.

Description: A screenshot from the KTI page, showing a black hooded figure in the front, ranks of knights in back
Headline – Britain’s Coming Civil War 

Other stories include Islamic attacks on Children, the need to defend Syria’s Christians. Other details:

Western civilisation is entering a period of existential crisis. A convergence of external and internal catastrophes is leading inexorably to a time when the survival of Christendom will only be secured by dedicated militancy in the teeth of demonic evil.

Demonic evil.

Accordingly, while we are not a ‘secret’ organisation, our collective leadership is discrete and so safeguarded as far as is possible from the hostile attention of the atheist, globalist and Islamist enemies of our sacred Cause.

Globalists means “Jews.”

Other pages talk about the threat to white families in Europe.

I learned about them because I was reading the Twitter of a Holocaust denier, and came across this tweet talking about efforts from Italian fascists and others to arm militias against refugees (he’s working to make sure boats don’t save refugees off Sicily).

At any rate, we have a lot of work to do as medievalists. We have to go into our classrooms knowing this discourse is out there, and at least some people signing up will be partaking of it.

Humanities Majors GET JOBS!

So part of my new job at the University of Minnesota is to convince students – and their families – that they can major in History and still be gainfully employed.

The good news is that it’s true, they can. Even the Harvard Business Review says so.

According to three new books, the answer is “Quite a lot.” From Silicon Valley to the Pentagon, people are beginning to realize that to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically about their human context—something humanities graduates happen to be well trained to do. Call it the revenge of the film, history, and philosophy nerds.

We know this. But it’s good to have more narratives.

Philosophy, Disability, and The Stone (New York Times)

I have a few requests

ONE: I would like The Stone, the New York Times philosophy column, to sometimes publish philosophers who are disabled and write about the intersections of philosophy and disability rights from that perspective. 

At current time, they have published two essays on disability and philosophy, one advocating that perhaps developmentally disabled people who cannot consent can also not be raped, so long as they enjoy it. 

The other, more recently, came from a grieving father arguing that he should have been able to have his infant disabled son put to death more quickly, with less suffering. More on this latter one below.
Given these two pieces, it’s reasonable to suggest that a broader spectrum of philosophy and disability studies might be given some time in this highly public venue. 

TWO: I would like philosophers who want to write about disability to know more about disability. 
This will be long and not entirely organized. It’s why it’s on my blog and not submitted somewhere formal.

PART ONE: Comstock
Gary Comstock, a philosophy professor at North Carolina State, wrote a searingly painful second-person essay about the need to be able to euthanize suffering babies. It takes you, the reader, step by step through the process of discovering that your baby has trisomy-18 and coming to the decision to disconnect him from the ventilator. Here’s a key paragraph.

Some parents choose to use all possible means of continuing their child’s life in the hope that their child will beat the odds and eventually overcome problems. Others choose to let the children die to spare the babies the pain of the ordeal.

Forget the statistics and what others do or don’t do. We would like to know what our Sam’s chances are for reaching the point where his life is valuable to him. But there is no answer to that question. No one can tell you whether your son’s life is worth living from his perspective, or yours. We cannot say whether your son will ever breathe on his own or look at you. We can say only that the literature suggests the odds are stacked heavily against him.

At the end, Sam – the baby –  suffers in his final 20 minutes in this narrative, and the author years later realizes that instead of letting the baby die, it would have been kinder to kill him quickly. He writes:

This thought occurs to you years later, thinking about the gruesome struggle of his last 20 minutes. You are not sure whether it makes sense to talk about his life, because he never seemed to have the things that make a life: thoughts, wants, desires, interests, memories, a future. But supposing that he had thoughts, his strongest thought during those last minutes certainly appeared to be: “This hurts. Can’t someone help it stop?” He didn’t know your name, but if he had, he would have said: “Daddy? Please. Now.”

It seems the medical community has few options to offer parents of newborns likely to die. We can leave our babies on respirators and hope for the best. Or remove the hose and watch the child die a tortured death. Shouldn’t we have another choice? Shouldn’t we be allowed the swift humane option afforded the owners of dogs, a lethal dose of a painkiller?

I find these quoted paragraphs very troubling. The decision that the parents made, faced by suffering and a potentially lethal condition, is not simple. We – the disability community – should not pretend that their decision to let their child die is simple or that we know what we would have done in their place. I, anyway, do know not what I would have done.

But that pathos doesn’t mean ignoring the implications of this essay. I am struck by the ease with which agency is given to Sam and then removed within this piece. In the first quote, probabilities govern the decision. In the second quote, the author – again, a grieving father for whom I feel enormous empathy – provides Sam with enough agency to ask to die.

The piece was written in second person, following the rhetoric of the “thought exercise.” That’s how I reacted to it at first on twitter as I watched disabled friends reel in shock, pain, and horror at seeing their lives compared to that of animals needing to be put down. I’ve since been “checked” by an ethicist who told me that it’s Comstock’s real story. I am, it must be said, filled with pain at my mistake. I think back to my son’s first minutes and hours after he was diagnosed, just a few minutes after delivery, and imagine that the words were Trisomy 18, not Trisomy 21. I understand why he needs to use his training as a theologian and philosopher to work through the difficult choice he and his wife made. I’m not even going to say that it was the wrong choice. We need, however, to consider for whom else we might want to have empathy.

I feel for Comstock. The question of how to ease death is important and needs good discussion and surely better policy. In America, we tend to die very badly.

I also feel empathy for the child. I feel empathy for disabled people who read this piece. Here’s a storify from Alice Wong, featuring Ari Ne’eman’s careful disassembly of the piece and its core assumptions. In the efforts to “check me,” I haven’t seen a response to this. Where is the empathy for the disabled reader who encounters this essay as “Comstock wants to make it easier for me to be killed?” 

What happens in this piece is that the author uses a single story – written as thought exercise, but actually true – in order to abstract generalized principles about making euthanasia more available in cases of trisomy-18 and other potentially lethal or severely disabling natal conditions. It is not, to my reading, based on research into palliative care techniques for suffering infants, but rather the philosophical method of thinking through the ethical and moral implications of the incident. It is rational, except for when it’s emotional.

I see this willingness to dismiss the agency, indeed, the humanity, of disabled people as a too frequent consequence of certain strains of ethical and philosophical discourse. We can … we must … critique this tendency even as we feel empathy for the author struggling with his past.

PART TWO: Singer

The Comstock essay was published at “The Stone,” the philosophy opinion column at the New York Times. It is, to my knowledge, only the second disability piece ever published in “The Stone,” the philosophy section of the New York Times op-ed page. The other was, shockingly, by Peter Singer and a co-author, on the case of Anna StubblefieldAs I discussed last April, that essay suggested that if in fact the a person can’t consent due to disability, they can’t really be raped so long as they enjoy it (no, really, go read the essay). Again, agency is granted only in ways that serve the broader argument about the lack of agency for disabled people.

Shelley Lynn Tremain has written at Disability and Discrimination about her experience pitching “The Stone.” She was told that the editor did not want to publish on disability and philosophy, “In part due to my belief that there is not an appropriate platform for writers with disabilities, and writing about disability, I am planning a separate series devoted to it.” That separate series has been amazing and important, yet here we still have a “philosophy” site from which disability is excluded … except when it isn’t.

I’ve received pushback for tweeting that the Comstock essay is indicative of a problem with how philosophy, as a discipline, discusses disability. If I’m wrong, it’s due to the intense veneration that Peter Singer still receives. Too many people are willing to regard eugenics and the core humanity of disabled people as a subject for abstract debate, often one isolated from the realities and complexities of real life.

For example, in a link provided me by Tremain (who comments in the post), is Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at South Carolina, writing about what an excellent public philosopher Peter Singer is:

“Philosophy always causes offense—perhaps it should cause offense,” says philosopher Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, in a recent interview, below.
Singer is one of the world’s most well-known living philosophers. Some philosophers are clearly bothered by Singer’s renown, in part because he holds philosophical views that many philosophers disagree with. But, of course, that is something he has in common with every other philosopher.
I think that Singer makes for an excellent famous public philosopher.

But it’s not just about the “right to offend.” Singer has long based his arguments about disability based on ignorance about disability. He assumes a lack of happiness in situations linked to disability, whether imagining it for himself or his child. Yet every time he encounters real people (see this amazing essay by Harriet McBryde Johnson), he admits maybe disabled people are happy and his assumptions are wrong … before quickly reverting back to his earlier assumptions. Today, decades after disabled people first engaged him in the spirit of rich philosophical debate, his positions have not especially changed. The assumption that “offensive speech” must be doing something right is.

I am deeply troubled by what I see happening in public philosophy when it comes to disability narratives. I am sure there is much more than what I see, in part because I listen to disabled philosophers. I hope The Stone, and other public spaces, do likewise.

Hamilton Chicago and Assistive Technology

Tonight my family goes to Hamilton in Chicago. Hamilton is super important to my son, as I wrote for the Washington Post. We’ve been moved up to seats with easy access to exits. It’s apparently very loud. Also it’s late. We’re nervous, but ready to walk out and go home at any point if needed and count it as a win no matter what.

We do, however, have a $12 investment in assistive technology.

More to come!