Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cult of Compliance - Psychiatric Disability with Weapons

"They reacted based upon the training that they've been given from the academy. We were thankful that no officer was injured from protecting themselves from risk of great bodily harm."
I have a new piece on CNN today about police killings of people with psychatric disabilities. I argue that we need to view these cases through the lens of disability, a word that carries with it certain rights, the principle of accommodation, and a different cultural response than "illness" (let alone crazy).

This is not like the case of Ezell Ford, where the man was unarmed. Each of these five featured a person with known psychiatric issues holding a weapon or seemingly holding a weapon. Each ended with in police gunfire. In only one case was there a highly dangerous weapon - a combat knife.

In my CNN piece, I describe the four most recent cases, four killings in two weeks. 2 in California, 1 in Arizona, and of course Kajieme Powell in St. Louis. I filed on Friday.

On Saturday, there was another killing, this one in Ottawa, Kansas.

Joseph Jennings was struggling with depression and anxiety. He left a suicide note on facebook and swallowed pills, but he survived, in part thanks to two officers who showed up at the house in response to emergency calls. A few hours after leaving the hospital, though, Jennings seems to have gone to a Walmart, puchased a BB gun or water gun, and then got the cops called in order to commit suicide by cop.

The parents arrived in time to try and deescalate the situation, but were ordered back (warned they would get shot if they didn't comply). "Bag him," the officers said, and they started shooting. First beanbag rounds, then real bullets (at least 16 shots by report). Jennings died.

There are three stories here that I want to emphasize.

1) Jennings had just survived a suicide attempt and then was released from the hospital. We need better mental health care that is accessible and affordable for all.

2) I believe that quote with which I started this piece is true. Police followed their training. It is time to demand new training. CIT training alone isn't going to cut it, and I hope to have a piece on its limitations (Lawrence Carter-Long and I are working on something) within a week or two, but it's a start. We need to totally rethink the way that police engage with people who have disabilities of every sort.

And then we will all be safer, disabled and abled alike.

3) In the video (linked here) of the police chief, he says a slightly different version of the quote that everyone is running. He says, "We were thankful that no police officers or sheriff's deputies was injured while defending themselves from the potential threat of serious bodily harm.”

Look at that justifying language. There was a potential threat of serious bodily harm, the boy didn't comply, and so the police were justified in their actions. Except there wasn't really a threat, since he had a BB gun, his parents were there (the dad was about to tackle him to take him down, he was in arms reach).

According to this police officer, just a potential threat justifies deadly force, and surviving a non-existent but potential threat is something to be thankful about. 

We are all in danger. When the police think we are dangerous, whether we are or not, they believe themselves to be justified in using lethal force.

Now I am a middle class white guy. I'm not likely to be seen as dangerous, unless my behavior turns erratic due to any number of factors - alcohol, illness, confusion. So my personal stake is pretty low. As we've seen in Missouri, any black body, especially male, is regarded as a threat by police. The potential threat is always there, so they can always use lethal force and justify it.

A known-disabled-mind, in a way that is similar, though not tied to centuries of institutional racism, when acting in an "erratic" (that's a cop incident-report word) fashion, also raises the "potential threat" level.

And when, like Kajieme Powell, you have a black body with a psychiatric disability, there's basically no hope.

Monday, August 25, 2014

I've got a crush on your dissertation

Today in Vitae I have a piece that runs a bit against the grain of my other writing, at least on the surface. I believe we need to do a lot of things differently in terms of graduate education. I believe in change because the status quo - long graduate trainings, little professional experience, the enduring belief in the meritocracy - these things enable adjunctification and the damaging aspects of the academic prestige economy.

But I love scholarship.

I wrote the first draft of today's essay in mid-June. I was neck-deep in copy-edits, going through my 90000 word book (a pretty standard length, for those readers not in higher ed), line by line, working closely with a smart and meticulous copy editor from Penn State Press.

A few days before, I had spoken to my mother, also an academic (yes, I'm one of those kids). She was just trying to get the shape of a new project, thinking about how to craft the book.

And just before that, I had read a chapter draft from a friend. The chapter was packed with new information to me, but it still needed some conceptual shaping. It was a gorgeous work-in-progress, with the work so visible to the reader, but with plenty left to do.

And I thought, I love research.

As you'll see from the essay my road through graduate school was never smooth. What I leave out from my narrative is a year of writers block. I had a first marriage and she left me on Friday and I mostly lost the ability to write. I found it again while in the archives. But even before that my road was rocky and my current position as a working professor was never assured - because it's not assured for anybody. But for all the things I might change in graduate school, the process of the dissertation, no matter how hard it was (and it was very hard), is not really one of them.

Having recently read the MLA Report, I thought - yes, we might be able to make a stripped down degree and award PhDs - but right now, the way we train scholars is through the dissertation process. There might be a better way. We could definitely build new patterns of collaboration, new ways to publish, all sorts of different kinds of approaches to respond to the shifting nature of the publication economy and academic hiring practices, and so forth. The dissertation could be shorter, maybe, or more of a draft towards a book and less of a finished project.

I just want to see other models work before we test them out on the most vulnerable.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Roundup - Disability and Compliance

It's been quite a week. Since the publication of my Al Jazeera America piece on the cult of compliance, I've done a bunch of press, written a few new essays, prepped for the start of classes (tomorrow!), and pitched some long-term projects. More news on that when there's news.

I was so swarmed with topics that I never even blogged about my latest from the Chronicle of Higher Education - "Don't Speak Out, the message of the Salaita Affair." For those not following, Steven Salaita is a professor who tweeted many angry things about Israel this summer, right when he was moving to Illinois. The Chancellor invoked a rarely (or never) used clause in his contract to void the hire. A huge amount of legal and rhetorical wrangling has followed, and I do think this case reveals conflicting visions for the future of the university. Or, perhaps, the Chancellor is lying, and it's just about Israel. I wrote:
I come to this topic not as a partisan in the specifics of Salaita’s situation but as an advocate for faculty engagement with the public. Over the last year, I have written periodic columns for The Chronicle about the ways that academics can and should write for general audiences. Recently, I even suggested that "sustained public engagement" of any sort should count for hiring, tenure, and promotion.
When I write about this topic, I often get told that the real problem is that academics are snobs. We like living in an ivory tower, goes the argument, and we look with disdain on getting our hands dirty in the public sphere. There’s plenty of snobbery to go around, it’s true, but the Salaita affair shows a different, and I think more powerful, force that keeps many academics from commenting on important contemporary issues: fear.
For more on this topic, I recommend Corey Robin's blog, where he's been active in collecting arguments and organizing action.  I will likely have more to say on the topic as we go forward, as it relates to corporatization and public engagement, two of my "beats."

Now here's the blog:

  • I wrote 2500 words or so on This American Life and their practices of using (or not) trigger warnings. As near as I can tell, they warn for racism or the existence of sex, and sometimes violence. Never disability issues.
  • I had a couple of pieces on the #cultofcompliance (hey look, a hashtag. You could use it on twitter!) - Two reactions to my writing from New York writers, a comparison of the police in Chicago during the NATO riots and those in Ferguson, and then a blog on Kajieme Powell. I wrote - it's possible that police needed to kill Powell, but I have some questions. As I've learned more in the days that followed, it's more and more clear that the police put themselves in a position in which killing Powell was the only option. I will have a CNN piece on this tomorrow (probably).
  • I mentioned that Dawkins is trolling families like mine, by linking to a piece on him by Amanda Marcotte.
  • I talk about Nico escaping from the house, or seeming to, and my babysitter calling the police. As I write about police violence, these are the stakes for me and my family on a personal level. We need the police to be better on disability issues.
  • Finally, I wrote a post on "The pencil test" for disability, in which I talk about Takei, Bieber, and Tampa Police throwing a quadriplegic out of his wheelchair to see how disabled he really was.
Have a great Sunday. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The "Pencil Test" For Folks in a Wheelchair

The apartheid government of South Africa had a problem (well, it had a lot of them, but bear with me). It wanted to discriminate by race, but how does one deal with mixed-race people? It came up with the infamous "pencil test," in which a pencil is pushed through a person's hair, and how easily it emerges determines the classification. The pencil test is penetrative, with overtones of the state's control over black bodies medically, sexually, and in so many other ways. For me, it's always been a symbol of the whole evil apartheid construct.

It's been on my mind lately because of a broad discussion about disability and fakery. How disabled must a person be to qualify as "disabled" under the law? Being disabled comes with certain civil rights protections. Being disabled to a certain degree entitles one to a check from Social Security every month. Being disabled, as Justin Bieber knows, can enable one to skip lines at Disneyworld (instead of linking to Gawker or TMZ, why not read the great Emily Ladau on Bieber). Being disabled, in the eyes of the abled world anyway, comes with advantages (great parking!), sympathy (oh, your son is cute), and money.

This is, of course, nonsense and tracks to the ways that other privileged groups envy the perceived benefits of those who experience discrimination. In the disability world, this often tracks to "how disabled are you really?"

We saw it recently with George Takei's ill-conceived posting of a picture showing a woman standing on her wheelchair to get down a bottle of alcohol in the grocery store. The caption, "There's been a miracle in the alcohol isle," suggested that this woman wasn't /really/ that disabled if she could stand on the wheelchair to get some booze. Disability advocates protested and Takei initially told them to lighten up, which is the first response of so many comedians when called on humor that replicates stereotypes. I was first alerted to it by a friend who can walk about 100 feet before using her wheelchair, and she told me that she lives in fear of being accused of faking and having to defend her disabled state.

There were a /lot/ of articles about the meme and Takei. I thought this one from Scott Jordan Harris at Slate was especially good when he offered an alaternative read of the scene. He wrote:
"Someone with the Twitter handle @Andy00778. wrote that the picture shows how “much fraud there is today,” adding “Hope insurance company see it!”

The picture does not show fraud. What it shows is a disabled person using a tool—her wheelchair—to live independently. If any judgement is to be made about the photo at all, it should be celebrated for showing that independence."
Eventually, Takei apologized, at length and sincerely, and the story faded.

I'm writing about this because a 2008 story just made its way to my feeds. I've been working hard on the issue of disability and police violence, but I don't claim to have a master database or anything like a total set of examples. In 2008, my son was one and I was just beginning to apply my training as an academic to disability issues. I wasn't even on Facebook yet.

Here's the story and the post. In it, a cop doesn't believe that someone arrested on a traffic violation is /really/ disabled, so he decides to conduct his own test, dumping him on the floor (and breaking some ribs). This is the extreme case, but it's the same as the Takei meme in its origins (eventually there was an apology and probably a lawsuit).
Our language and our actions around disability and fraud matter. They ripple through the culture, shaping behaviors and ideas beyond. Language - comedy memes - have power. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Slouching Towards Soft Authoritarianism - Cult of Compliance in New York and Brooklyn (magazines)

As most of you know, last week Al Jazeera America published my essay on the "cult of compliance," something I've been working on for a long time. Thanks to everyone who read it and shared it. The response has been thoughtful and wide-ranging, just as I would have hoped.

Today I am sharing two pieces by other journalists who use my concept to draw connections for their own subject.

First, Matt Zoller Seitz, at New York Magazine, writes "Watching Ferguson in the Stream." It's a piece that's really about the consequences of watching violence, real violence, rather than the fictionalized violence that already dominates our airwaves. He writes [my emphasis]::
As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes... put it last night, “You end up expecting drama from these situations, because everything is always heading toward a heightening point.” Al Jazeera America’s David M. Perry described the clashes between police and citizens in Ferguson as an example of “the cult of compliance” that has normalized state violence against unarmed U.S. citizens. “The significance of the events in Missouri extends beyond the very real and terrible pattern of police killings of African-American men. It is an intensification of years of cultural shift in which law enforcement and other authority figures have increasingly treated noncompliance as a reason to initiate violence.”
Noncompliance can mean anything from a young man resisting a policeman’s order to move from the street to the sidewalk — the inciting incident that, we’re told, might have ended in the shooting death of Michael Brown — to a reporter understandably chafing at police edicts to stay penned into a particular area or turn off his lights and cameras. The cult of compliance was on display during the Occupy protestsremember the UC Davis pepper-spray incident? — but there’s something singularly unsettling about watching it rumble through the flat streets of a small Missouri town, its streetlights and signage blurred by tear gas.
Obviously, I agree with Seitz' analysis (read the whole thing!). He talks about the disjunction when there's a cutesy internet meme on feed right next to the picture of someone having milk poured in their eyes because of gas. He notes that we're a culture screaming about First Amendment rights every time someone calls for a boycott of a rude website, but that now we're seeing what real state media control feels like. A reporter was overheard saying, "An officer put his weapon in my face and threatened to shoot me if I didn’t quote-unquote get the fuck out of here." Compliance runs deep and wide, and it's on display in every aspect of the Ferguson story.

Meanwhile, over at Brooklyn Magazine, Phillip Pantuso has linked the Ferguson to Rikers using the cult of compliance as one of his analytical tools. I'm pleased to see this, because one of the essays I couldn't get published in July did exactly the same thing. It took Ferguson to make my "cult of compliance" framework seem true to mainstream media editors, I suppose.

He writes:
If recent events in Ferguson are any indication, something like a culture of violence has permeated some of America’s local police departments, too. Cops and prison guards occupy different places on the hierarchy of corrections enforcement, but the primary interactions of both groups are with similar populations: the poor, the mentally-ill, and the non-white. In Ferguson, the majority-white police force has mishandled not only an encounter with a young black man but with the scores of majority-African-American protestors who’ve demonstrated in the aftermath of that man’s murder.
He then quotes a key line from my piece, and continues:
The consequences of this are not felt equally. The cops have weapons of war and the psychological empowerment that comes with them; the prison guards have a code of silence and institutional advantage, a tacit reinforcement of power and privilege that serves to Other the inmates under their keep. The people of Ferguson have tweets, photos, video, and rapidly-eroding Constitutional rights.
The note that this is not felt equally is very important. The cult of compliance coordinates events, it's a way of seeing links and trying to identify root causes (always plural), rather than focusing on symptoms. But the consequences fall heavily on, as he says, "the poor, the mentally-ill, the non-white."

A week after my piece went live, I am more sure than ever that the cult of compliance provides a useful conceptual tool to unpack the ways in which we are slouching towards soft authoritarianism. We can stop this slide.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dawkins and Down Syndrome - He's trolling us. Don't feed him.

Today, the disability social webs are packed with irate tweets, posts, essays, and diatribes against Richard Dawkins. I'm not linking to his twitter account or the reports, but he said that the only moral decision was to abort foetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome, that such wasn't eugenics, and otherwise ranted on for hours.

I'm glad you all are on the case and pushing back. There's nothing with that. I am not criticizing anyone for tweeting, writing, or posting about him. I'm just not going to engage with the content of his tweets, because basically, he's trolling us.

I don't want to talk about it. What I want you to do is to read this Amanda Marcotte essay on Dawkins' recent comments on rape. Dawkins is saying, "I'm just explaining a principle," and the interweb goes crazy. Here's what she wrote [my emphasis]:
This is bad writing, if Dawkins was setting out to create clear-cut examples of the principle he’s trying to illustrate. When explaining a principle, it’s unwise to go straight for examples that the public is legitimately confused about because other people are trying to muddy the waters. A concise, clear writer would do what I did, which is use clear examples to illuminate, instead of clawing at something that is actually contentious in our culture.
Of course, Dawkins is not actually a bad writer. This was not a mistake. Dawkins picked rape and pedophilia not because he’s trying to clarify a principle, but because he is needling his feminist critics who were angry with him for statements where he seemed to imply that there’s a “correct” amount of hurt to suffer from a specific incident of sexual abuse, which could easily be read as the suggestion that people who had serious trauma reactions to what he considers “mild” incidents are somehow wrong to feel how they feel.
This is the analogy that I think is useful to understand Dawkins. He takes an idea and promotes in the way that will generate the most noise. He is fully aware that by saying these comments about Down syndrome, he will spark mass controversy. Parents, self-advocates, disability writers will go nuts, pitch op-eds, post pictures of their beautiful kids, and say, "this life is worth living!." And damn right, it is.

But we don't need to engage someone who is basically trolling us. Block, mute, ignore and make the argument about life with disability for its own sake, not in the context of Dawkins. This is not a troll that I, at any rate, want to feed.

And now, a picture of my happy son, ready to head off to school.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Stakes: Parents need Police

At about 9:30 AM yesterday I got a series of texts from my babysitter. She had been tidying toys with my daughter in one of the rooms, and suddenly Nico, my son, was gone. She and Ellie searched the house, looked outside, and gradually panicked. They called the cops. They ran around. They shouted. They found Nico sitting inside the back door with dirty feet. The police showed up and everything was fine.

I did three things. I reassured my babysitter that it was ok, that it had happened to me, and that I would take steps. I called a handyman to install door chains so we can better secure our home .

Later, I called the police to talk about registering my son with them. I need to send them a picture, some ideas about where he might go if he were lost, ways of interacting with him, and so forth. I felt re-assured.

There's some irony here. I've been writing for a year about police violence and disability, usually in tones highly critical of police actions. In the meantime, I'm relying on the police to help take care of my son in case he wanders.

And that's the point. I write about police violence and disability BECAUSE my son is vulnerable to all kinds of dangers, and I need them to be there for him. 

Those are the stakes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cult of Compliance - St. Louis Police Shoot and Kill Black Man With Mental Disability

Today St. Louis police shot a man with a knife. He had been acting erratically, police showed up, he raised the knife and said shoot me now, so they did. Read more about it here.
The officers ordered the man to get down, according to Dotson. The man, 23, became more agitated and walked toward them, reaching for his waistband. Witnesses told police the man was yelling "Shoot me, kill me now," during the encounter.

The officers drew their weapons and ordered the man to stop. He did stop, but then pulled out a knife and came at the officers with it held up high, Dotson said. They ordered him to stop and drop the knife. When he got within two or three feet of the officers, they fired, killing the man.
“This is a lethal range for a knife,” Dotson said.
Several in the crowd asked why police did not use tasers to bring down the subject. Dotson said police officers have the right to defend themselves when an agitated man is coming at them with a knife. Said the chief, “Officers have a reasonable expectation to go home at the end of their shift.”
Here are some early thoughts. This is another case of police shooting a black man in St. Louis. The intersection with disability, though, is where I want to focus now.

Could a real journalist on the ground ask Dotson about Crisis Intervention Team training (CIT) in St. Louis. Did these officers have it? Do any officers in the area have it. Do the officers understand that there are techniques for addressing mental illness-related situations that do not involve shooting. I wrote about some of them with Lawrence Carter-Long here.

A man at close range with a knife justifies the use of lethal force. These officers will quickly get off paid leave and go back to work. But note the situation. The officers say, "Stop." Man with psychatric disability hoping to get killed by police does not stop. So the officers say, "Stop." The only way out is death. The only path to life is not to draw your weapons and advance.

I don't know all the details, yet, but I'd very much like to know about the disability aspects here. Because here's a tweet from a USAToday journalist:

The officers have the right not to be stabbed and to use lethal force. What they also have the right to do, if no one else was in jeopardy, is to take a different approach to a known mental health situation.

NATO "Riots" vs Ferguson

I am on a deadline but I don't want to let the morning slip away without these images.

During the recent NATO meeting in Chicago, there was plenty of violence. Google NATO POLICE CHICAGO and you will see truncheons, blood, arrests, and angry statements about police states. Here's a typical picture.

There are no semi-automatic rifles pointed at protestors. It's not nearly as terrifying as what we're seeing in Ferguson, MO.

Once these rifles are out, everything changes. 

That's not an excuse for the Chicago PD, which has certainly had its problems dealing with peaceful protests (as well as its own history of police brutality). But I'm struck by the ways in which this is a suburban 

Watch these 60 seconds or so from Jake Tapper @CNN. He looks at the protestors, peaceful, calm. He looks at the massive police presence. "It doesn't make any sense!" he says. And that's right, it doesn't ... unless you understand that the goal here is about enforcing compliance. Then it makes lots of sense.

CNN's Jake Tapper Going In by 3030fm

I just want to show you this, Don. I just want to show you this, okay? This is just give you an idea of what's going on. The protesters—here's this main intersection—the protesters have moved all the way down there. They're about half a block down. Here, Don, watch with me. They're all the way down there. Okay? Nobodies threatening anything, nobodies doing anything, none of the stores here that I can see are being looted. There's no violence. Now I want you to look at what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri, in downtown America. Okay? These are armed police. With machine, not machine guns, with semi-automatic rifles, with batons, with shields, many of them dressed for combat. Now why they're doing this, I don't know because there is no threat going on here, none [pointing to protesters] that merits this [pointing to police line]. There is none. Okay? Absolutely there has been looters, absolutely over the last nine days there has been violence, but there is nothing going on, on this street right now, that merits this scene out of Bagram. Nothing. So if people wonder why the people of Ferguson, Missouri, are so upset, this is part of the reason. What is this? [gesturing to police line] This doesn't make any sense. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rethinking Trigger Warnings - David Sedaris and This American Life

[Content Note: Ableist Speech including use of the "r-word." Later, I quote a passage from Huckleberry Finn that contains the n-word.]

This post works with a 1996 piece from David Sedaris and This American Life that contains terrible depictions of the intellectually disabled. It was re-broadcast in 2013. I'd like to see content notes on this episode. Here are my questions.

Can the trigger warning open up conversation, preserve texts that contain prejudicial language, and be a pathway to communication? When something from the past contains speech that now is widely deemed offensive, what do we do? I argue that the content note or trigger warning is a pathway towards preserving dialogue, preserving material, as it offers a middle ground between banning and shrugging.

The post is long, but you can just go read the storify of about 12 tweets that summarized the whole thing, with my conversation partner David quoted with permission.

For those just joining me ...

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for CNN about an episode of This American Life featuring Wyatt Cenac. He compared a drug episode to having adult-onset Down syndrome, which I didn't like for reasons I explain. To my surprise, we connected over Twitter, then talked for a long time on the phone (summarized at link). I came away thinking that he's an enormously thoughtful person about comedy, discourse, prejudice, and representation. He's now, actually, a guy I hope I could go to first to ask for smart thoughts about the complexities of humor. I hope he still takes my emails when this kind of thing comes up again (as it will).

One of the things I argued in the piece is that perhaps we, in the disability community, focus too much on the r-word over the issues of representation that such language reflects. I'm calling for a broader engagement on such questions beyond the single word. So, naturally, here's a piece about the r-word.

The next day, another father wrote me about his experience in 2013 hearing a re-broadcast of the 1996 "The Santaland Diaries," the enormously successful radio adaption of David Sedaris' tale of being an elf at Santa-land. It's a story of loathing for others and self, and includes this section:
At noon, a large group of retarded people came to visit Santa and passed me on my little island. These people were profoundly retarded. They were rolling their eyes and wagging their tongues and staggering towards Santa. It was a large group of retarded people and, after seeing them for 15 minutes, I could not begin to guess where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began. Everyone looks retarded once you've set your mind to it.
Here are a few opening points.

First: this is MUCH WORSE than Cenac's joke. Cenac knew his story required explanation, tried to provide it in a way that explained he knew there was no such thing as adult-onset Down syndrome. He wanted to be true to his experience with pot, the actual words he thought at the time, without offending ... well ... me and those like me. What was interesting to me was that, as a listener and parent of a child with Down syndrome, the explanation failed to change the meaning of the bit. I wrote about it because I think these gray areas, these complexities, are exactly where we need to explore. If he had just made a lot of r-word jokes, there would have been no story there other than: Comedian offends to try and get a laugh. And that's not a story.

My question for the CNN piece was how Gervais' "it's not about disability" or Cenac's "I know this is not how Down syndrome works" play into the world of disability and representation. Although I regret that Cenac got a lot of grief on twitter over it (and called for it to stop), and I wish we had been able to speak before hand, I stand by my experience as a listener to the bit. I also accept Cenac's articulation of his intentions and find them reasonable. I think just a shade more context, a few more minutes of time, something, might have really changed the nature of that story.

But in Santaland, Sedaris is deliberately using this kind of language in order to say, ultimately, that New Yorkers at Santaland all seem retarded to him. He is using the most stereotypical descriptions possible in order to get that laugh. Rolling eyes. Wagging tongues.

Second: This was recorded in 1996 and written some time before. The word "retard" was already objectionable then, but had not achieved the kind of wide-spread cultural rejection as it had by 2013. We have made progress. In 1996, it was not reasonable for a parent to expect to avoid the r-word altogether. Here, though, I don't expect to hear someone saying it directly at my son, but rather as the casual self-or-other insult that teens use. And even that is fading generationally. So far, I have only heard it used to describe people with intellectual disabilities directly when voiced by an older person who learned to say "mentally retarded" as the correct, polite, non-insulting language. I rarely correct such cases.

So Sedaris was, to my reading, deliberately mocking the disabled in order to mock New Yorkers. He used a term that had not become a universal pejorative at the time, but I think he recognized the cruelty of the humor because his comedy depends on loathing. Principally, he claims the rhetoric of self-loathing; given that, he can loathe all others with impunity. It's obviously worked very well for him as a writing strategy.

But let's give him and Ira Glass the full benefit of the doubt and say that in 1996, no reasonable media personality would have thought this was objectionable. Maybe a little mean, but totally fair game. I hope everyone will agree that in 2013 (or now), no reasonable person would NOT think this is objectionable and offensive. The offense is now evident.

Third: As I recounted in my blog, here's what the father who heard the re-broadcast in 2013 wrote:
I cannot explain my reaction to hearing this in any other way than to say that I felt like I was punched in the gut. I suddenly could not breathe, I had to pull over the side of the road, I turned off the radio, and then I cried. I cried so hard because I have been waiting for this moment for 6 years. I have been waiting for someone to overtly make a discriminatory comment that shook me to my core.

Moreover, that someone would be triggered like this was predictable. I'm glad I didn't hear it without warning.

What I asked Ira Glass, in an email that was not answered (I'm a nobody; and since he wouldn't comment for the CNN piece, he's certainly not going to spend any time on me for my blog. Busy man, I know), was what obligations the radio host had when presenting material from the past. I wanted to know what kinds of conversations and decisions they made. Whether they would just broadcast a show like this forever, or would it expire someday? How do they make those decisions?

I went back and looked at other issues in the This American Life catalog, which is of course both vast and available online. I just did a search for the word "warning." I do not claim this is

Here are some interesting sentences:
  • Episode 458 - "Play the Part" - "A warning to listeners that this is a story that's partly about race, and a racial slur gets used."
  • Episode 341 - "How to Talk to Kids" - "A warning to listeners, we don't get very explicit in this discussion, but we do acknowledge that people, and teenagers, have sex."
  • Episode 404 - "Enemy Camp 2010" - "A quick warning for listeners before we begin. This story acknowledges the existence of sex."
  • Episode 457 - "What I did for Love" - "A warning, I should say, before we go any further in this story. We're going to acknowledge the existence of sex between adults. Nothing explicit."
  • From a Facebook post of theirs last August 11, on pedophilia: "Warning: the article includes some graphic descriptions of abuse."
  • Episode 119 - "Lockup" -  "A warning before we start. This reading contains material that may not be appropriate for some younger listeners. There is no explicit language or graphic depictions of anything, but it does acknowledge the existence of certain sex acts."
  • And most interestingly, Episode 531, from just last July (a few weeks ago). First, this intro from Glass on the website:
Hey there, podcast listeners, Ira here. So there's some cursing in this week's show, and we're not going to beep it here on the podcast and internet version of the show. If you prefer a beeped version of our program, like we do on the radio, that's great. Go to our website, thisamericanlife.org, and you can download it from there.
This thing about not beeping the words is something we've tried a few times here on the internet. And we're not sure how often we should do it, or if we should keep doing it. We would love to hear what you think. If you have an opinion about this, email us at web@thislife.org, and it would help us a lot to sort these emails out if you put in the subject header, Beep Yes, or Beep No, in the subject line. OK, Beep Yes or Beep No. I think that's pretty simple. I think you understand which one goes with which one you feel. I'm not going to say anything more about that. OK. Here is today's show.
Then Glass says [my emphasis]:
A quick trigger warning, for anybody who needs a trigger warning, that this story does include descriptions of incidents of violence against women. 
That's a fascinating aside, right? At least if you've been apart of the whole trigger warning debate (too many links to even start. Just go google it. Here's something I wrote in which I am opposed to TW policies but say that good teaching requires informing students about content.), this kind of aside shows that the folks at This American Life are, right now, trying to figure out what to do about the triggering material of their show.

Let me go on record again to say, basically, that I am a fan of the show. I don't listen to all of every episode. But when they get a great story, they do it right - funny, sad, thoughtful, etc. They can be great.

There is no trigger warning on The Santaland Diaries. I'd like to hear from Ira Glass and the other producers whether that might change. What is the process for deciding these things?

One argument against trigger warnings, one I've in fact made, is that trauma is so specific that you never can tell what might trigger one person or another. Content notes, therefore, are a better model. You say - here is the content, as best you can, and let people decide as they might. I think, though, that in 2013 it is impossible to listen to that David Sedaris passage and not think - whoa, something is wrong here, maybe we need to warn people.

This is not a new problem. Here's Huckleberry Finn, chapter 6, the voice of "Pap."
Here was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awful- est old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. (6.11)
So that's pretty complicated to read. But it's in a great work of literature, it reflects a voice of the time, and anyone who argues that Huck Finn should be banned is, well, wrong. But no one should just have it handed to them without some contextualization, right?

The Santaland Diaries is not Huck Finn. It's also not a minstrel show, though, in which the premise of the material relies on racism. We don't broadcast "Little Black Sambo." We don't show Disney's "Song of the South." We don't show overtly racist material - material that is about projecting racism - without very good reason in highly specific contexts. We do read Mark Twain.

So where does this leave us?

I do not believe that in 2013 you can broadcast a show with Sedaris' brand of speech there without a content warning. The trigger was predictable. The problem with such speech is widely known across American culture (and of course beyond). I don't think you have to cut it - though I would, as the joke is fundamentally, rather than incidentally, demeaning to the disabled.

The trigger warning, therefore, emerges as a pathway towards preserving content, preserving material as its language ages our of the mainstream into the widely and wildly offensive. Because without the trigger warning, well, then I have to advocate that this never be aired again.

Surely more on this to come.