Best Pieces: Medieval, Cult of Compliance, Personal, Disability Rights

I had 93 essays published in 2017. Whew. I published 55 in 2016, so it’s fair to say that things have escalated dramatically. I am still developing as an essayist, but am grateful to my editors, collaborators, interlocutors, and especially the folks who read me. Thank you.

Here are a few pieces of which I am especially proud:

  • How to Teach a Cyborg (The Atlantic). I’m hoping this one helps change the laptop debate. Because even if you believe the studies are proof positive that laptops are bad, banning tech is a short-term solution. Let’s collaborate on long term ones.
  • Bodily Autonomy will Unite the Left (The Nation): Our issues, whatever they are, intersect around the principle of bodily autonomy.
  • How Florida Criminalizes Black and Autistic Children (Pacific Standard): My longest reported feature of the year on the ways Florida schools are threatening the future of two (and many more) disabled kids. 
  • Make Vinland Great Again (Washington Post): My intro primer to white supremacy and medievalism in the age of Trump.
  • Donald Trump ain’t no Henry II (CNN): This piece explores a core facet of the Trump administration. He’s got a court, not a bureaucratic modern government. 
  • Disability and Death Row (Pacific Standard): How many prisoners on death row are disabled? Pretty much all of them. Death penalty abolition is a disability rights issue.
  • Down syndrome and Storytelling (Pacific Standard): I made J.K. Rowling cry with this piece on how my son tells me stories and teaches me to presume competence. 
  • The New Blood Libel (Pacific Standard): On being Jewish, and a medievalist, in the age of Trump. 

Thanks y’all. See you at This Mess in 2018.

(Edit: 92 pieces, not 91. Had one go live today).

2017 in Review

The stats: 93 published columns.
66 at Pacific Standard
9 at CNN
5 at The Nation
4 at Washington Post
2 at The Ladders
1 at The Guardian
1 at The Atlantic
1 at Newsweek
1 at Eater
1 at The Establishment
Writing is very different as a column. I’m grateful to Pacific Standard for bringing me on board and already filing for January. Over the next days I’ll highlight a few pieces you might have missed.
Still writing a book, writing a little work-for-hire piece, and a thousand big projects after that.
  1. Yes, there were People of Color in Pre-modern Europe (Pacific Standard, 12/29/17)
  2. Wil Butler’s Disco Town Halls (Pacific Standard, 12/28/17)
  3. Feature: Disability and Disaster in the Age of Climate Change (Pacific Standard, 12/21/17) 
  4. Facebook won’t fight blood libel (Pacific Standard, 12/15/17)
  5. Al Franken has Resigned (Pacific Standard, 12/7/17)
  6. Here comes Austerity to Kill Us (Pacific Standard, 12/7/17)
  7. How to Teach A Cyborg (The Atlantic, 12/6/17)
  8. The CFPB Protects Davids from Goliaths (CNN, 11/29/17)
  9. The GOP Tax Bill Attacks Graduate Students (Pacific Standard, 11/21/17)
  10. Franken Should Resign (CNN, 11/20/17)
  11. States of Neglect (The Nation, 11/14/17)
  12. The GOP Tax on Disability (Pacific Standard, 11/7/17)
  13. It’s always been the guns (The Nation, 11/6/17)
  14. Indoctrination on Right-Wing Campuses (Pacific Standard, 11/3/17)
  15. Immigration Rights are Disability Rights (Washington Post, 10/28/17)
  16. Bump Stocks and Sandy Hook (Pacific Standard, 10/27/17)
  17. Betsy DeVos Attacks Special Ed (Pacific Standard, 10/24/17)
  18. Stop Using Cannibalism to Justify Columbus (Pacific Standard, 10/13/17)
  19. White Supremacy and Medieval Studies (Pacific Standard, 10/9/17)
  20. Paul Ryan Pretends to Care about Mental Health only after Mass Shootings (CNN, 10/5/17)
  21. There are no Natural Disasters (Pacific Standard, 10/4/17)
  22. Ohio Politicizes Down Syndrome to Attack Abortion (Pacific Standard, 10/3/17)
  23. The ADA is not Optional. (Washington Post, 9/26/17. With Lennard Davis)
  24. Headphones and Hamilton (Pacific Standard, 9/25/17)
  25. A Week in Policing and Disability (The Nation, 9/22/17)
  26. Milo’s Phony Rally (Pacific Standard, 9/22/17)
  27. 5 Ways for Liberal Arts Majors to Get Jobs (The Ladders, 9/21/17)
  28. Do Not Involuntarily Commit The Homeless During Hurricanes (Pacific Standard, 9/15/17)
  29. Bodily Autonomy and the Left (The Nation, 9/13/17)
  30. Nazis Love Medieval Studies. What Now? (Pacific Standard, 9/6/17)
  31. We’re Failing Our Test for the Age of CRISPR (The Nation, 8/29/17)
  32. Portlight Fights to Save Disabled People After Harvey (Pacific Standard, 8/29/17)
  33. Florida Demands Parents Call Their Kids Limited (Pacific Standard, 8/28/17)
  34. Google Bros and Medieval Beer Bros (Pacific Standard, 8/22/17)
  35. Why We Need to Name Nazis (Pacific Standard, 8/17/17)
  36. Are Internet Standards Hurting Accessibility? (Pacific Standard, 8/3/17)
  37. 5 Ways to Talk about Disability on the Job Hunt (TheLadders.com, 8/2/17)
  38. Sterilizing People with Disabilities in Prison (The Marshall Project, 7/26/17)
  39. Feature: The Internet of Restaurants is Coming for your Data (Pacific Standard, 7/25/17)
  40. The History of Dyslexia (Pacific Standard, 7/21/17)
  41. The GOP Plan for Healthcare is Obamacare (7/19/17)
  42. Racist Misinformation about Medicaid (Pacific Standard, 7/14/17)
  43. Why I won’t raise my son in Illinois (Pacific Standard, 7/6/17)
  44. Support Lisa Durden (Pacific Standard, 6/27/17)
  45. Block Grants: A History (Washington Post, 6/26/17)
  46. ADAPT takes the Senate (Pacific Standard, 6/22/17)
  47. Feature: Police Killings: Being Black and Disabled in America (The Guardian, 6/22/17)
  48. Can Trump’s Disability Commissioner Be Trusted? (Pacific Standard, 6/22/17)
  49. The Worst Juice Commercial Ever (Pacific Standard, 6/21/17)
  50. Medicaid Works. (CNN 6/20/17)
  51. Interview: Seanan McGuire (Pacific Standard, 6/15/17)
  52. Feature: Seraph Jones and Ashton Gelfand – Criminalization of Autistic Kids (Pacific Standard, 6/12/17)
  53. Donald Trump: You Ain’t No Henry II (CNN, 6/9/17)
  54. Restaurants Haven’t Lived Up to the Promise of the American Disabilities Act (Eater, 5/31/17)
  55. Make Vinland Great Again (Washington Post, 5/31/17)
  56. Lower Ed vs Betsy DeVos: What’s So Great About Being a Customer? (Pacific Standard, 5/30/17)
  57. Colorado ADAPT: Saving Medicaid through Direct Action (Pacific Standard, 5/25/17)
  58. Jim Hines: Funny and Serious about Gender in Sci-Fi (Pacific Standard, 5/24/17)
  59. Uber’s Deregulated Business Violates Disability Rights Law (Newsweek, 5/17/17)
  60. Why Read a Utopian Novel in 2017? (Pacific Standard, 5/16/17)
  61. ACLU sues New Hampshire for Disenfranchising Disabled Voters (Pacific Standard, 5/16/17)
  62. Disability Misunderstood as Bad Behavior (Pacific Standard, 5/10/17)
  63. How Many Death Row Prisoners Are Disabled? All of them (Pacific Standard, 5/9/17)
  64. In Autism Arrest, Only Thing New was Video (CNN, 4/22/17)
  65. Disability Rights on Death Row (Pacific Standard, 4/21/17)
  66. “I thought I understood America.” Talking American Gods with Gaiman (Pacific Standard, 4/20/17)
  67. What should you do when your favorite celebrity gets autism wrong? (Pacific Standard, 4/19/17)
  68. Stop Sucking: Environmentalism vs Accessibility (Pacific Standard, 4/11/17)
  69. After San Bernardino, We need Fewer Guns, More Empathy (April 10, 2017. CNN)
  70. How to Break Ground for Deaf Actors in Hollywood (April 2017, Pacific Standard)
  71. Day of the Dead Languages (March 2017, Pacific Standard)
  72. The Supreme Court Sets a New Precedent on the Death Penalty and Disability (March 2017, Pacific Standard)
  73. Can Disability Rights Stay Bipartisan? (March 2017, Pacific Standard)
  74. Disabled Americans: Stop Murdering Us (March 2017, Pacific Standard)
  75. Stop Calling Some Needs ‘Special’ (March 2017, The Establishment)
  76. Feature: Meet the Radical Disabled Americans Fighting the GOP Health Care Bill (March 2017, Pacific Standard)
  77. How Disabled Americans Are Fighting the GOP Health-Care Bill (March 2017, Pacific Standard)
  78. The Shows Shaking Up Disability Representation on Television (March 2017, Pacific Standard)
  79. Wonder the Goldendoodle and SCOTUS (Pacific Standard, 2/24/17)
  80. How to Debunk Myths About Autism (Pacific Standard, 3/6/17)  
  81. Academic Jobs Screen out Disabled Candidates (Pacific Standard, 2/14/17)
  82. Don’t Turn my son’s Dancing into Inspiration Porn (The Establishment, 2/8/17)
  83. The Wisdom of Science-Fiction in the Age of Trump (Pacific Standard, 2/8/17)
  84. Milo and Right-Wing Attacks on Free Speech (Pacific Standard, 2/2/17)
  85. Advocacy Groups Confront Trump Dilemma (Pacific Standard, 1/30/17)
  86. Interview: Maria Town (Pacific Standard, 1/26/17)
  87. Betsy DeVos and Special Education (Pacific Standard, 1/18/17)
  88. Down Syndrome and Stories (Pacific Standard, 1/13/17)
  89. The Obama Era is Over (Pacific Standard, 1/10/17)
  90. How a Prosecutor used Disability to Claim Sexual Assault was just Bullying (Pacific Standard, 1/10/17)
  91. Use Streep to Get Real on Disability (CNN, 1/9/17)
  92. The New Blood Libel (Pacific Standard, 1/7/17)
  93. Facebook Live Attack and Violence against Disabled Americans (CNN, 1/6/17)

Will Butler: A Rock Star Organizes Local Politics

New interview at Pacific Standard with Will Butler, one of the stars of Arcade Fire. Highlights:

What have you found so far?

I’m trying to preach to the choir and radicalize them a little bit, not push them farther left, but make them a little harder. Part of it is a community-building exercise. You came to the show, and now you’re here, and now we’re talking about something important. I try to introduce a little bit of flour, a little bit of thickening, to the music-goers in that city. I will never be more influential than having just gotten off a stage with a show that people liked.

How do you organize these local events? Do you just call up and say: “Hi! I’m a famous rock star and want to put something together!”

Some of it is cold-calling! I live in New York. I wanted to do the the afterparty for the campaign to close Rikers Island jail. I like to have activists and politicians together. I literally just cold-emailed my city councillor: “Dear Mr. Lander. I am a constituent. I play in a band called Arcade Fire. We’re playing Madison Square Garden. Would you like to talk at the show after?”

Universally, every assistant in a progressive politician’s office knows our band. That’s our constituency.

Read the whole thing!

Google: MORE HUMANITIES PLEASE!

Google did a big study to see what teams worked well and which ones didn’t.

Turns out, STEM skills (by which they mean Technology and Engineering, not basic science or abstract math) are the LEAST important for success. Here’s the post:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it? After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.

Project Aristotle, a study released by Google this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.

Or, maybe the “best scientists” are necessarily equivalent to “smartest.”

More on this to come.

Disability and Disaster

I wrote a long feature for Pacific Standard about disability and disaster response:

There are four basic different types of needs related to disability that emerge in the aftermath of disasters: health maintenance (medicine, electricity, medical care), ability to move in and through physical areas, effective communication access, and what the experts call “program access.” Some of these needs are obvious: People who depend on dialysis or oxygen need power. Diabetics need insulin. Chemotherapy patients need hospitals that work, and so forth. A wheelchair user might well not be able to cross flooded areas, climb stairs to escape rising water, or access a shelter. Shelter space might also be inaccessible because messages about locations aren’t communicated in sign language or Braille. Such spaces might be too loud or chaotic for people with sensory integration needs (as would be true for my son, who has Down syndrome, many autistic individuals, and many others).

Needs can overlap. Many people fall into more than one of these categories, and access to the resources required to meet these needs is never distributed evenly. The consequences of a natural disaster for any individual will be intensified not only by specifics of the disability, but also by other forms of inequality and marginalization such as race, class, gender or sexual identity, and legal status. Disabilities can also be temporary or changing, especially when disasters bring injury or new health risks. Disability disaster response therefore requires understanding all the varieties of disabilities and the inequities of our society—and too often requires fighting against governmental structures built without disability in mind.

PLEASE READ THE WHOLE THING.

Gene Therapy to Cure Blindness – Only For the Rich

There’s a new super fancy gene-therapy that can cure a certain kind of blindness. It’s super cool science. It’s also going to cost a million dollars or so.

It’s part of what I call “Our GATTACA future,” in which many kinds of disability code even more intensely for poverty and lack of access to modern medicine, enhancing stigma and divide. To be clear, this is already the case with many kinds of disabilities today. It’s just going to get worse and worse, thanks to capitalist medicine for profit.

Sister Clemente Davlin (March 6, 1929-December 19, 2017)

I just heard the sad news that Sr. Clemente Davlin, OP, my friend and former colleague, died today. She was not a young woman and the news is not unexpected, but it’s hitting me hard.

I met Clem in 2007 when I started teaching at Dominican. She was technically retired, but so Present in the campus community in both formal (teaching, showing up to meetings, mentoring) and informal ways. She was a brilliant medievalist. She knew Piers Plowman like no one else I’ve ever met, regarding it not only as a literary text to study, but as a devotional text for a modern Catholic. I heard her give many scholarly talks, but she also wrote Journey into Love, a collection of meditations for the modern devout on the poem.  I have, of course, known other good colleagues and friends, wise people (many of faith), dedicated teachers, and great scholars. Still, Clem was unique.

The word I have always used to describe her is this: holy. Clem was holy. It’s not a word I use lightly. I study holiness and sanctity in other periods, always taking it seriously as a phenomenon despite (or perhaps because) being a secular Jew. Clem had a kind of depth to her holiness, her clarity of vision, and her patience with us lesser beings as we stumbled along. She knew we needed to find our own paths, but was willing to take whatever time she had and help us along the way.

Holiness doesn’t mean reserved or ascetic, either. My favorite memory of Clem, bar none, is the day she walked into my backyard for a Memorial Day bbq. My daughter and her friends were throwing around a beach ball and it went flying towards the octogenarian nun’s face. She caught it, beamed, and tossed it back, before coming over to the party.

These few paragraphs do no justice to the person we’ve lost, as words never really do. She blessed my children. She told me to work hard in the classroom. She wanted to make sure every student had every opportunity. She had no pretension about her but never concealed her light.

I miss my Dominican family. I miss Clem. The world is a lesser place without her.

Online Hate

I wrote about Facebook, Twitter, Google, and ISPs for Pacific Standard. Hate proliferates and they claim they can do nothing.

But they can do something. If these accounts somehow game a system to avoid violating Community Standards, you have no community.  Read the whole thing.

Bad Historical Metaphors: Galileo

I am tired of powerful men worrying about “due process” by comparing great historical iniquities such as lynching, witch hunts, the Inquisition, Internment, and the death penalty to the social scorn and professional consequences of men being outed as bigots and abusers.

It happens constantly and I’m going to start blogging them. Here’s todays.

One:  Sam Altman, bigshot Silicon Valley dude, has a  recent whine about free speech in Silicon Valley (see Anil Dash take it apart here). In the piece, he makes a very mixed up historical metaphor. Follow along with these quotes:

One:

 It seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year. Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95% agree with the consensus side, seems ill-advised.

This will be very bad for startups in the Bay Area.

Two:

It is bad for all of us when people can’t say that the world is a sphere, that evolution is real, or that the sun is at the center of the solar system.

Note that the world is a sphere, evolution is real, and the sun is the center of solar system.

Three:

This is uncomfortable, but it’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics. [1] Of course we can and should say that ideas are mistaken, but we can’t just call the person a heretic. We need to debate the actual idea.

Heretic. Heresy implies the existence of an empowered orthodoxy.

I don’t know who Satoshi is, but I’m skeptical that he, she, or they would have been able to come up with the idea for bitcoin immersed in the current culture of San Francisco—it would have seemed too crazy and too dangerous, with too many ways to go wrong. If SpaceX started in San Francisco in 2017, I assume they would have been attacked for focusing on problems of the 1%, or for doing something the government had already decided was too hard. I can picture Galileo looking up at the sky and whispering “E pur si muove” here today.

Note that 1) Galileo didn’t actually say this. 2) Galileo was on trial. 3) Neither Satoshi nor Musk are in danger of being put on trial for hating gay people also they don’t hate gay people (do they?) and hating gay people has nothing to do with whether their projects are viable.

This easy conflation of historical persecution of knowledge by religious authorities with social scorn by rich liberals against other rich liberals in San Francisco is breathlessly bad, historically illiterate, and a gorgeous defense for a hugely wealthy caste that wants to imagine themselves victims.

More to come.