Saturday, August 31, 2013

Watered-down, uncritical, privileged, feminism (reactions to Scalzi in a dess)

Ok, let's talk about it. I don't know Shanley, but she does have 6000 more twitter followers than I do, which is a pretty solid following.  More importantly, she writes well about feminism (and other issues), often pointing out the ways that men seize control of issues.

First - it's TOTALLY true. Privileged, white, liberal men discover oppression. They gasp. They write breathlessly about the oppression they've discovered. They own the issue. They genuinely want to help. Sometimes they forget to link back to the people who have been doing work on an issue for years. When questioned on this, they defensively say, "I just want to help," then pout, "there's no room for men to even TALK about gender." And then they take their toys and go home and make themselves the victim.

Later this month, I have an essay coming out on "five rules for male feminist discourse." Rule #1 is - it's not about you. Rule #3 is - It is about them (them = the female feminists in the trenches), and I talk about making sure you link back to them and support writers like Shanley (or for me, Jessica Valenti, Amanda Marcotte, and the Crunk Feminist Collective - three writers/blogs I often find compelling). More on that in a few weeks.

"Shanley" was writing in response to this post from John Scalzi, a famous Sci-Fi author with a HUGE social media following. His blog gets around 45,000 visitors a day (and yes, my blog is commenting on a blog which it commenting on a blog and it's turtles all the way down). Scalzi once posed in a dress to raise money, he was mocked by a "dudebro," as he calls it, and he returned the favor my mocking the dudebro and owning the label feminist.  It's not a perfect post. It works with the assumption that men wearing dresses is transgressive, and my transgender and cross-dressing friends got kind of annoyed. It embraces notions of male privilege (big yard, lots of money), that are annoying. But it's a good way to respond to the "dudebro" clan, I guess. The internet, in its infinite wisdom, liked it.

But while I find Shanley's comment a little harsh and possibly infused by the broader backlash to Shwyzer and his ilk, she does point to that real problem. In fact, it's a problem that Scalzi recognized in his  "Quick Notes on his Feminism." He wrote:

5. However, there are also a number of people, including a fair number of women, who are frustrated that when I write about topics relating to women that I often have a farther reach online then women often do. They are frustrated, I suspect, not only just because it’s a classic example of a guy being paid attention to, but also because, per points one through three above, the filter through which my own thoughts and opinions go is a male, not-entirely-on-point-to-feminism one.
I worry about this all the time. Not that I have a huge social media reach, but as a straight white man, I operate out of a position of enormous privilege in several ways.  First, to assert my status as a feminist doesn't really threaten me. I might have to endure some pretty modest taunting and accusations of being queer, but nothing like the repeated and well-documented world of cyber-stalking and rape-threats for feminists online. These threats are intended to silence women, to drive them out of the conversation, and cannot be tolerated, but also can't be stopped so easily. Shanley writes quite a bit about this kind of harassment (to call it trolling is too mild), as do many of the other feminists I follow, and it's a real problem. Men get off easy.

As an aside - I once asked Scalzi if his sexuality got questioned (this was in the wake of my CNN article about my daughter, in which I got called queer a lot). He replied that he didn't, because evidence of his heterosexuality was so clear - he talks about his wife a little and his daughter a lot in his writing. I thought that this was fair, but also a good example of his, "filter through which [his] own thoughts and opinions go is a male, not-entirely-on-point-to-feminism one." This is fine with me - I like Scalzi and his writing. His demand that all conventions at which he attends has an explicit, ENFORCED, harassment policy is to me an unambiguous good. If people are annoyed that it's a man who helped bring the harassment issue to a higher plane of visibility, well, I guess I don't care (and I think everyone has worked hard to credit our friend Elise, who got harassed by someone who worked for a major sci-fi/fantasy press and went public, with starting this conversation. So good job Elise.). At any rate, I'm not so bothered by Scalzi not writing about feminist issues quite the way that I would want, or that Shanley would want.

So I get Shanley's critique and I worry a lot about entering the male feminist world as I don't want to present watered-down, uncritical, privileged, feminism. I may not have Scalzi's readership, but since I started writing publicly about gender from a male feminist perspective, I've gotten interview requests, writing requests, and speaking gigs. My writing about gender receives more hits than any other topic on which I write, in general. Were I a woman, I think I'd blend into the throng.

But I can't let my worry about this stop me from advocating for causes that matter to me. I want to assert my status as a feminist and write about patriarchy, especially the ways patriarchy hurts men. I cannot help if people respond to my writing differently, because I'm a man.

But I can remember my rules - it's not about me. It is about them. Always, always, point back to the writers in the trenches, the sophisticated, critical, deep, threatened feminism of the best writers I can find.

Does that seem to work?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Radio - Talk 910: The Ethan Saylor Primer

In a few minutes I will be on Talk 910 with Gil Gross. I've been on AM 910, a San Francisco station, twice before, once to talk about gender with Gil and once to talk about Jenny McCarthy with Frosty.

If you are coming to this post from the Talk 910 listener area, here is a quick primer.

  • The petition at Please sign it. All we want is for Governor O'Malley is to have an independent investigation. And remember, West Coast, O'Malley may run for president and has a darn good chance of being the Democratic VP candidate (I think. I claim no political expertise). He'll be a national figure, so why not start pushing him now!
  • My writing on Saylor: From CNN (we are all temporarily able bodied) and from The Nation (Ethan's case is not an isolated event, but part of a bigger problem).
 Facts of the case:

CNN) -- One day last January, Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, went to see the movie "Zero Dark Thirty." When it was over, Saylor briefly left the theater, then decided to return and see it again. The manager called security because Saylor didn't pay, and three off-duty deputies, moonlighting at the mall, came in to confront him.
According to Frederick County, Maryland, police statements, he swore at them and refused to leave. The deputies tried to remove him, despite Saylor's caretaker's warnings and pleas for them to wait and let her take care of it. What happened next is a little unclear, but witnesses say the deputies put Saylor on the floor, held him down and handcuffed him. Saylor, called Ethan by his family, suffered a fracture in his throat cartilage. He died of asphyxiation.
The death was ruled a homicide, but a grand jury failed to indict the deputies and they returned to work without charges.
You'll see in my other postings on the topic links to lots of great blog posts from other bloggers, some blog posts of mine, journalism from Washington Post, WUSA-9 (a DC station), and some pieces from ABC, Yahoo!, and CBS. All of these come from August, but the story obviously stretches back to January and a lot of journalism and activism - great journalism and activism - that failed to capture the attention of the public.

Thanks for reading.

CNN: Five reactions to my Ethan Saylor essay

Yesterday, CNN published an essay of mine on the Ethan Saylor case. Following the advice of some friends, I emphasized a classic point from disability studies: We are all, at best, temporarily able bodied. This hook seems to have worked as the piece is receiving a good readership.

For new readers, twitter followers, facebook friends. I also wrote an essay about Saylor for The Nation, in which I talked about other disabled people who ran afoul of the police, and what lessons we might draw from that. I actually have a large file now of cases like this. I've also written about what I'm calling the "cult of compliance." I think disability cases serve as warnings for a general erosion of our civil liberties.

Here are several points that emerged from emails, comments, and just me re-thinking the issue as I re-read the essay over the day.

First - "People-First Language" - I don't write my titles. Editors write titles that they think will drive clicks, because it's all about getting people to start reading. If no one reads the essay, it doesn't matter what it says. My editor (who I love, in case she reads this!) chose - "Justice for Down syndrome man who died in movie theater," and that didn't please a number of commentators focused on language. I'm glad people are talking about this, as I think it does matter when we begin by emphasizing on our shared humanity, and then raise the conditions that make us more or less distinct. That said, we use qualifiers before nouns all the time, "Tall boy," "smart girl," "blond walrus" "sick child." The question, for me, is whether "downs" is an appropriate adjective. I don't think so, but I've been having trouble articulating why Downs is different than other adjectives - even other diagnostic adjectives. Any thoughts?

P.S.: If you want to get people to change their speech, ALL-CAPS emails is a poor way to convince people of anything. Be nice out there.

Second - Blaming the aide: In the comments, a lot of people, ignorant of the case, blamed the aide. Of course other people, ignorant of the case, blamed the parents or the theater manager or the police. There's a lot of blaming. People argue that she should have stopped Ethan from going back in the theater, she should have handled it different, she should have just paid for the movie. Related, people suggest that Ethan should never have been allowed out into "normal" society if he was so dangerous.

Actually, one of the points that Dennis Debbault made to me, in my interview, is that the family should have had a safety plan written out, and that the aide could have given it to the officers when they arrived on the scene. In fact, all families should have safety plans developed, as an aside, though if communication skills are good maybe you don't need it written out.  I don't have a good safety plan and I'm thinking of how to fix that. But to argue that the aide must be able to physically stop Ethan from going anywhere, that it's her job to restrain him, that it's the mother's job for thinking Ethan could handle "normal" society and should have just got Ethan a DVD .... well, that kind of talk needs to be stopped. The aide may have made mistakes, and no doubt regrets them, but she was advocating patience, she called Ethan's mom for help, she was trying to do the right things.  When the deputies arrived, she was trying to get Ethan to cool off and then was going to try again. She was young and perhaps inexperienced (I don't know many details about her), but she didn't cause Ethan's death. People with disabilities need to find ways to fit into typical society, even when it's hard, even when it's disruptive.

Third -  Blaming the deputies: Well, I do blame the deputies. But if you read the report, there's no sign that this was a case of deliberate police brutality. There's no sign that the police decided to teach Ethan a lesson, or got mad and violent, or otherwise did something glaringly wrong. Every witness says they stayed calm and professional. In some ways, it makes the case worse. If a deputy lost his or her temper and threw Ethan to the ground in anger, we could easily identify the culprit, the wrong action, and hold them accountable. But if, in the full calmness of reason, the deputies decided the best course of action was to throw Ethan to the ground, forcibly get his arms behind his back, perhaps put a knee on his back (that is contested by witnesses), and in that process asphyxiate him ... it's scarier. They thought they were doing the right thing.  .

What does seem likely is that they either weren't trained or ignored their training, which leads me to ...

Fourth - Training: If the deputies were trained (my evidence suggests that training was offered in 2012) and ignored it, that raises a serious question about the remedy that most advocates in this case are proposing. Training is good, but training has to infuse an organization's culture in order to have an effect. Training is really just the start. I'm hoping we'll figure out more as the story goes forward.

Fifth - Media Narrative - At 8:00 P.M CST yesterday, the essay has 1200 Facebook shares. As I write this morning, it has over 11,000. (Facebook shares start at about 10 clicks on the essay to 1 share, with that ratio getting smaller as time goes on and people are referred by like-minded readers. Today will be closer to 5:1 is my guess, but CNN doesn't release reader numbers). Last night, WUSA-9 ran another piece on the case on local news. More Maryland politicians have signed on, asking the governor for an investigation. In this era of 24-hour news cycles, for a story that so many of us despaired of ever making matter to a wide swathe of people, it's exciting to see this story take hold over the course of August. A group of us have been fighting for months to make this story spread, and now it's in the public consciousness. I'm going to speak on AM radio tonight and NPR next week.

And if Martin O'Malley really wants to be president, he'll call for an investigation I think, as the ball is in his court.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Alexander the Great - Anti-gay Icon

I am endlessly fascinated by the ways that people shape and appropriate historical memory. One common thread, as common in the 13th century as now, is to assume that historical examples support one's own agenda, regardless of the facts.

Here's a doozy (originally from Talking Points Memo).

A New Mexico lawmaker took to his blog to defend marriage via history. Let's look at my favorite part of his argument.
Humanities very foundation of ‘being’ is rooted with the bond between man and woman.
Why is it so hard to get possessives and plurals right? Wait, no, that's not my favorite part of the blog. And it's not Pocahontas, or Confucius, it's ...

Alexander the Great as a defender of marriage (Image: Alexander and his "friend" Hephaestion, from the Getty). The lawmaker writes:
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) married a Bactrian woman – modern day Afghanistan.  Alexander may have engaged in homosexual activity, but he married a woman.

He directed his officers to stop “whoring” around and find a local woman to marry.



“It is only through blood relations that hatred and war will end”.  In other words, Alexander the Great thought that marriage was about creating and raising the next generation.  
Leaving aside whether Alexander is someone whose actions ought to fuel our decision-making (note to people seeking war with Iran - No!), this is crazy. First, he's advocating for homosexually-active men to enter fake marriages. This is defending marriage? But even better, let's take a quick look at Alexander's marriage policies, from Arrian.

Then he also celebrated weddings at Susa, both his own and those of his Companions. He himself married Barsine [1], the eldest of Darius' daughters, and, according to Aristobulus, another girl as well, Parysatis, the youngest of the daughters of Ochus [2]. He had already married previously Roxane, the daughter of Oxyartes of Bactria.
One could say much about the ways that Alexander tried to use marriage as part of his "Persian Policies." The weddings at Susa are a particularly important moment for Alexander's attempts at empire building, I've always thought.

But through the lens of this lawmaker - I wonder if he noticed that Alexander respected marriage so much that he married three women at the same time.

At any rate, congrats to Mike and Gary, my friends in New Mexico who just got married. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Voices of Justice for Ethan - nearly 300,000 strong.

#JusticeForEthan has a petition. If you read my blog, you have probably either signed it or chosen not to do so, so that's not news. What's amazing is that it is only 1200 from 300,000. Once, just getting to 1200 would have been an accomplishment, as petitions withered and died.

Some of this is because (I believe) of the algorithm - once petitions reach a critical mass, the site is likely to show it to people who sign similar petitions about disability or police violence or whatever else the tagging system shows.

But think about that - almost 300,000 individual people choosing to fill out a form. It's a huge number, and while it pales in comparison to kitten videos (did you see the new Brookfield Zoo baby snow tiger! I want one!) for popularity, it's exciting to see the petition hit critical mass. Martin O'Malley, the Governor of Maryland, wants to run for president. Public pressure will have an impact, and the petition is just calling for an outside investigation and better training, not demanding that the investigation determines any particular result.

Walkersvillemom, a blogger deeply invested in this case, put up a post yesterday that brought home the depth of support that is finally emerging for this case. She read through the many different comments that people put up to show their support and categorized them by geography, rationale, relationship, etc.

If you've already signed the petition, go read her post. If you haven't signed the petition, read her post and see if any of those reasons for signing resonate.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Conservative Arts

I haven't done as much writing about the humanities as I intended during the summer, as other topics moved to the fore. It was one of the sub-themes in my piece on public writing for the Chronicle.

Yesterday, a good friend of mine, a libertarian medieval historian, linked to the "Imaginative Conservative." There are essays here that I am pleased to see exist. Anti-intellectual forces exist on both the left and the right, but only on the right do we see such profound and public distrust of knowledge by party leaders (I cite Rick Santorum's comments on higher ed as exhibit A). I believe that only people from within a movement can operate significant persuasive force, so I'm glad conservatives are arguing for education, and are particularly arguing for the humanities. I read this essay, from November 2011, on Classical Education and the Founders with interest, just to see how the argument was made.

The author's bio is:

Dr. E. Christian Kopff teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he also serves as Associate Director of the Honors Program and as Director of the Center for Western Civilization. This essay was first presented as an address to the 35th Annual Founder’s Day Breakfast of the Free Enterprise Institute (Houston TX Nov 3 2011).
I am assuming he is conservative, but I don't know. He talks about the way that classical educations builds good brains, good character, and has a long track record of producing great people.

A few quotes:
"Earlier generations had rejected calls to repudiate traditional classical Christian education, and America had enjoyed 200 years of prosperity, creativity, and freedom."
I wonder which Americans, exactly, found the 200 years peaceful and free? Also note how classical becomes Christian here.
"Classical Greek texts were still studied in the Eastern Roman Empire, what we call the Byzantine Empire, and in lands conquered by militant Islam, with important results for medicine and science."
I wonder if the Byzantines and Muslims ever wrote anything we should read here, or if we should just study classical Greek texts. The author is not, I think, advocating adding Ibn Khaldun (to pick a favorite of mine) to the canon.

"The goal of classical education and its two-fold canon of Great Books was the cultivation of religion, morality and knowledge, words joined in the Third Article of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” If we were to re-write the Northwest Ordinance today, we would begin the Third Article differently. “Science, technology and engineering, being necessary to human happiness, public schools taught by unionized education school graduates shall forever be mandated.” That’s more like it!"
This is sarcastic, just to be clear, running counter to the author's argument. Now I know unions are seen as the enemy for the right, and I don't want to get into that, but Kopff is totally derailing here.  He's just spent some thousand+ words arguing for other forces of causation behind the reification of science, but here he throws in unions, presumably because any piece on education has to trash unions as the problem.


"People like Shakespeare and Michelangelo, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Jefferson and Adams, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Galileo and Newton, Linnaeus and Darwin."
I notice something similar about these people. In fact, it's the same thing that's true of every named individual mentioned in the piece, except Dinesh D'Souza, who he argues with, and perhaps folks like St. Augustine (and Jesus, who is present but unnamed).

I actually have no doubt that a focus on classical education would work. I often make that argument about Catholic education - it works ... when, I continue, placed into conversation with broader traditions. Reading a lot of dead white men in Latin and Greek is good for a mind's development, but perhaps if one is not a white male, might feel a bit dis-empowering after awhile. Perhaps that's the idea.

P.S. If you read, "Literature and the Foundations of the West,"  you'll find a different retired professor writing the following:

The courses they generate do not seek to transmit Western culture at its best, but rather to insult it, expose it, and – fancifully – destroy it. In the 1950s, widely thought to have been boring, we young professors competed with one another in a usually friendly contest to know as much as possible. The professors today who were formed by the sixties and do much to set the tone of the universities, compete in generic suffering. That is, they talk about themselves as much as possible, even if only as suffering witnesses to the presumed suffering of others. If you are a woman, black, or sexually unusual, the university is Valhalla. This really is pretty boring.
I've been working hard lately at articulating the usefulness of studying Western culture, and studying lots of it, as it's what I teach. I did not find good answers at the Imaginative Conservative.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Masculinity and Monday Morning

Today is the first day of the new semester and my wife is out of town (she left at 4 AM). I rose at 6, woke up both my kids, snuggled them for a few minutes in my son's bed, then went to the kitchen. I assembled breakfast for each, got my daughter onto the potty and had her brush her teeth. Nico went into the living room and listened to Nova Scotian folk music for a song or two, then I steered both him and his sister into the kitchen.

My daughter demanded chocolate milk and told me, "Mommy says I can have chocolate milk for breakfast if I want." We debated this for a bit and agreed on dinner (I think she meant this kid nutrition drink). My son wanted to jump on our bouncy-house, which was in its bag in the mud room. In fact, he was sitting on the bag bouncing. I suggested breakfast instead, brought him to the table with tickling, and put a spoonful of cereal with his morning pills into his mouth. Then I made tea and ate some coffee cake.

After breakfast, I got Nico to the potty, dressed him (we had a dispute about which pair of shorts he would wear), made his lunch, my lunch, led a wild hunt for the blue polka-dot blanket my daughter wanted for school, got my daughter dressed, her hair brushed and in a pony tail, and put everyone into their shoes. At some point, I remembered to get dressed, but I honestly can't tell you when that happened.

At 7:30, the three of us left the house and walked to the far corner to wait for the bus. Nico's aide was there and, as the neighbor children arrived, my daughter played with one of her friends for a few minutes, before coming back to cling to me. Nico stood in line with his aide, and, mostly without help, climbed aboard the bus and walked to a seat, where he sat down next to the neighbor girl, H. Ellie and I waved, then walked back to the house.

Inside, we grabbed bags and a stuffed bunny, to snuggle, headed to the garage, and drove to pre-school. I dropped my suddenly shy daughter off (she's in a new class today), kissed her, and headed off to work. After my day, I shall fold laundry, make dinner, clean the kitchen, bathe my children, and then try to get some writing done after they go to bed.

This quotidian litany is in no way spectacular. But somehow we still live in a society in which men cleaning, parenting, cooking, etc. is not quite masculine. It's odd. I get a lot of praise for it, often couched in the terms of "my husband never ..." or "I wish my husband would ..."

This is what masculinity looks like. For me, anyway, on this Monday. Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

How to fail at Pork Roast without really trying

I often cook with a little more attention to detail on Tuesday, then post about it on social media. I've decided to bring some of those posts over here, especially on Sundays when news is lighter.

Last Tuesday, I failed to cook pork shoulder in a roasted tomatillo sauce. Here are my directions for you to fail as well.

1. Take out pork shoulder. Open package. Think, "huh, that smells funny." Rinse to make sure it's not cryovac stink. It's not. Put pork in fridge to return to store tomorrow.
2. Take out chicken breast. Dice. Coat with a cumin-salt-pepper-flour mix. Brown then remove.
3. Sautee onions and garlic on low in the pan. Keep it low. No, you're not done yet. Keep the heat low. Wait. Wait some more. Add thyme or something else delicious from my herb garden. Or better yet, your herb garden.
4. Roast tomatillos (mine were from my garden. No, you can't have the ones from my garden. I can give away one, well, maybe half, a tomato though) and peppers. I used poblanos because my wife likes a tiny tang of heat, but no more. Remove seeds from poblanos and put them in the blender with the tomatillos. Blend.
5. Decide you need more color, so put in some sweet red and orange peppers too. There, that looks right.
6. Open a beer. You might need to deglaze the pan with it.
7. Drink beer.
8. Open another beer. You might need to deglaze the pan with it.
9. Deglaze pan with beer. Add tomatillo-pepper mix. Wait a minute thinking, "Wow, that's going to be good."
10. Add a little more liquid. Maybe there's more beer in the house somewhere, this bottle seems to be empty. Squeeze a little lime on it. Test for heat, salt, etc.
11. Add chicken back in. Cover and wait 20-60 minutes. The chicken is done, but if you cook it on low, it won't dry out. Well, mine didn't dry out. Are you saying I make dry chicken?
12. Fail to make sofrito-infused rice by cooking the rice in oil for a minute or three, then opening the jar of sofrito - and no, that's not cheating, its delicious - and discovering it has mold on it. So just make rice in stock. Don't worry, there's lots of sauce with the chicken.
14. Prepare/make sides: Guacamole, picked red onions, black beans, cilantro, green onions, sour cream.
15. Serve chicken on rice with sides.
16. Wonder where all the beer went.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

#JusticeForEthan and the Media Narrative continued

Something is happening to the media narrative.

Since Saylor died in January, the only people to cover the story were local reporters, especially the people for Washington Post Local (this op-ed from July has a wrap-up of links). This is part of why I tried to write about the story in a way that would nationalize it, to show that this is not an aberration. I didn't especially succeed based on my readership numbers.

But with the new petition, with the reporting by WUSA*9 in D.C., MD lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur pushing for answers (this may be the catalyst) and .. well, who really knows, the story is spreading. CBS picked up the story, and Yahoo!, and now ABC. It may be that the petition, which now has over 200,000 signatures, is driving the story. Hey, maybe you could go sign it.

It's heartening to see. Last May, when I wrote my first blog post about Saylor, no petition had more than about 1000 signatures, because the issue had gained no traction outside of the disability community. Now things are moving.

So what are the questions we still have about the case?

1. If you read the 98-page report and all the witness statements, the chain of events from the moment the police put their hands on Ethan until he was dead on the floor remains a little unclear. Did they take him out of sight of people for a moment? Did they put their knee on his back? What is the exact chain of events that happened here. I'm still not sure we totally know and I'd feel a lot more confident if the MD Gov's office investigated, rather than the Tea Party Sheriff of Frederick County Maryland. The more I learn about him and his supervisors (the more I learn about Blaine Young, the chair of the country board, the less I think he's likely sensitive to disability rights), the less confidence I have in their desire to do anything but cover their liabilities. So that's one - have an outside party establish the chain of events.

2. To what extent did this have to do with disability and lack of training (that's the Mizeur argument, and it's a fine argument), and to what extent is this about the cult of compliance that increasingly (I argue) shapes police response to non-compliant individuals. I keep making this case and am getting no traction. Either I'm wrong or continued evidence will bear me out. But people like me, who are angry, have to remember that it's possible the police followed all their procedures exactly correctly and this was a freak accident. That's part of why I am arguing that the mistake was responding to swearing and non-compliance with physical contact, rather than patience.

3. Who is to blame? The movie theater manager? The police? The aide? Ethan himself? His parents for letting him go out without more supervision? I'm very concerned that this last will be the lesson many take away from the case, that to let someone with DS into their business is to court trouble. You can see that in other writing about disability, where the person with disability becomes rendered into a permanent child, incapable of making their own decisions. I don't want Justice for Ethan to reinforce ableism, and I can see a clear pathway to that happening.

What else? What else do we need to know?

Friday, August 23, 2013


A few weeks ago, after writing about Ethan Saylor for The Nation, I received a number of questions about why President Obama didn't speak out about Saylor's death the way he did for Trayvon Martin.

I argued that these questions were misguided. People get murdered every day, the president weighed in because it became a national question about race, violence, and the miscarriage of justice: Zimmerman wasn't even charged initially before public pressure moved the prosecutor to act (with the results we all know). But people inclined to see the president as a racist, which is one of the dumb things that Fox News and other conservative media outlets say constantly, of course view Obama's engagement with the Martin case as a sign that he only cares about black people.

The key issue with Martin is that his death became the symbol for a much wider phenomenon - the racial profiling of young black men as criminals - therefore it caught much of the national imagination and became something of a Rorschach test. Ethan Saylor is not seen as a pattern, just a local tragedy, and so it remains a story only for those who live in the area and for those, like me, who argue differently. This is why in my writing I've been arguing both that police often treat people with disabilities particularly badly and for the broader cult of compliance.

So now Fox News and The Daily Caller and the like (no links provided intentionally) are arguing that Obama and Sharpton and all their other favorite black people must speak out on the murder of  Christopher Lane, the Australian baseball player in Oklahoma, or prove their racism.

Well, I'm ready to speak out about Lane's death: He was murdered. His killers were identified, apprehended, and questioned. At least two have confessed. They will go to jail for a long time. If OK has the death penalty, they may even get executed, but I hope not. In any event, this is what a justice system looks like.

I'll leave the comparisons between the justice system's outcomes for Martin and Saylor as opposed to Lane, to the reader.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Isolation and Inclusion continued

Today began much the same as yesterday, except we walked out to the bus. Nico has always had a special needs bus, a "short bus," pick him up, and for the last year it was right in front of our house. We'd watch the neighbor kids gather at the bus stop from our porch, but Nico took the special bus.

I knew that had to change, because riding happily on a bus with other kids is in fact one of Nico's skills, but let it play out over the first year. Still, I saw the opportunity for inclusion and our special ed director agreed. The plan was for Nico's aide to meet us at the bus stop and ride the bus back to her car at the end of the school day for as long as necessary.

I really don't think it's going to be necessary for long.

We walked towards the stop with a little resistance. Nico really just wanted to go for a walk somewhere, or maybe walk to his old school down the block (it's a middle school where they also held early childhood). But we arrived on the corner and Nico walked quickly by the other kids, did recognize his aide (but didn't say hi), and from a few feet away crouched down and waited. Isolated again.

Until the neighbor girl, H., who knows Nico got to the stop. She walked right over to him and hugged him, and asked if he wanted to come meet her friends. Nico crouched down again and H. ran back to her friends to say hello and pose for pictures. So, that was nice, I thought, but he still doesn't want to go.

But then H. came back to Nico again and kept talking to him, leaning out to point out the bus as it arrived, then taking his hand and getting Nico in to line. Nico briefly held his aide's hand too, then got onto the bus, walked to the middle, climbed into a chair, and H. sat down next to him. The bus goes around the block then drives past again, so a few minutes later H.'s mother and I saw them sitting together, waving, as they headed off towards school.

This is going to work. By next week, it will become normal. By the week after that, I bet we can ditch the aide. It's not a long bus ride anyway.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Isolation and Inclusion

Today my son started first grade. There was no busing today, just hundreds of parents and kids in their various spots along the school. Nico was happy to walk from the car to school (it was a longish walk due to parking hundreds of parents) and was willing to leave the playground alone, but got very upset when we approached the line. He yelled. He resisted. I was carrying his backpack and some extra bags, so picking him up (when resistant) was difficult. I felt eyes turn to me and Nico - as happens because when someone shouts wordlessly and loudly, you turn to look - then slide away. There was no way he was going into the scrum/lines of kids and parents waiting to go into class, so we eventually found a spot at the edge and sat down, bending in the middle to hide his face.

I sat with him on the asphalt for a few minutes as around me parents and children chatted happily. He was quiet, so no one was looking at us, and gradually the special ed teacher and his aide came and found us. As the second graders went inside, Nico stood up and took my hand and told his aide, "Bye." After a few false starts and some re-collapses to the ground, but no more shouting, He finally took his aide's hand and walked inside with her, though not especially joyfully.

Eventually, his actual class followed.

This is hard. Shame and embarrassment, mixed with defiance (how DARE you look at me kind of thing) are normal responses for parents of kids with disabilities. I generally reject these emotions, but am allowed to feel them when everyone stares at my child. I get over that quickly.

The real issue is that Nico chooses to sit apart, isolated on the asphalt, waiting to go in, making no contact with other parents and children. I don't know a single name of a single parent of any of Nico's classmates. They all seem to know each other. I don't know the kids' names, though many seem to know Nico. Somehow I need to make these connections, I need to help Nico make these connections to the extent possible.

Of course, in the end, he took his aide's hand and walked inside to the first day of class, where right now everything is hopefully going pretty well. 

I sometimes get angry when people deny the disability aspect of Down syndrome - the "just different" rah rah rah cheery folks, because it can make you feel ashamed when things get really hard. We need to own the challenging stuff too - recognize it, discuss it, ameliorate it, empathize, and avoid twee sympathy and platitudes. Things get to be hard. We get to be tired. We get to cry. We get to complain. Doing these things does not make us bad parents, ableists, or somehow devalue our children's existence. We get to look straight at the hard thing, agree that it was challenging, then try to find our way through or around it. That's my goal anyway.

And this morning was hard.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

No evidence for Stop-and-frisk reducing crime

There's a long piece in the Washington Post (Wonkblog) today about claims that stop-and-risk reduce crime. I'm now becoming obsessed not with police brutality, per se, but with the discourse of police explanations. 
“No question about it, violent crime will go up,” New York police commissioner Ray Kelly declared on Meet the Press on Sunday, when asked if a recent ruling striking down the city’s “stop and frisk” policy would cost lives. “What we’re doing — and what we’re trying to do — is save lives,” he added on This Week.
Actually, there are some questions about it. The research is clear: Stop and frisk is applied racially unevenly. But there’s precious little evidence that it has worked to reduce crime. And then there’s the question of whether it could actually be undermining effective policing by alienating the very communities it’s meant to help.
What I like about the piece is the way the author then moves through social science research, the claims it makes, the claims it can make, and the limitations of available data. He concludes:
Ultimately, Weisburd argues that this is the kind of question that you need a true experiment to resolve. “Let’s say they did a randomized experiment, with 500 control blocks and 500 treatment blocks, where you measure the number of minorities who live on each block,” Weisburd says. “They would have answers to the questions being asked.” Until then, Kelly is operating on the basis of precious little evidence, and in the face of serious drawbacks to the approach he’s chosen.
Also this lead poisoning thing - that violent crime is down because we are not being poisoned by lead - seems to have legs.

Monday, August 19, 2013

On the phrase, "Retard Barbie"

An online conservative on Twitter called Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator, "retard Barbie." The leading Republican candidate for governor thanked him. Thirty hours later, that candidate noted that he thanks his supporter, but to "stay positive."

This language stops ONLY when people inside a movement stops. I know some of you are Republicans. I know that some of you are social conservatives. You have to call this out. And next time Rahm Emmanuel uses similar language, I'll be delighted to do likewise.

Not that I find much common cause with Mayor Emmanuel, but don't get me started there.

America and the Middle East

Today, word has come that Hosni Mubarak will be released, cleared of his corruption charge, and surely this government will not hold him accountable for the killing of protesters, given the blood that flows in Egypt's streets.

The turmoil in Egypt is matched by this story, in which the CIA admitted what we all knew - it was behind the 1953 Iranian coup that put the Shah onto the throne. I don't feel like that really worked out well for U.S. interests.

It's enough to make one become an isolationist. Instead, I think about universal human rights and their defense, not as a doctrine when "if X happens then we must invade," but as a set of principles that must always guide our actions and shape our engagement with other nations.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Violence in America - A historical look

A friend and historian asked me, in the wake of yesterday's post, to think about the ways that compliance might track against overall reduction in crime in the last few decades. This is important. Ray Kelly defended stop and frisk by saying it's lowered crime rates. TASER notes the 110,000+ lives saved thanks to their products. These arguments are complicated - exactly how many people should TASER CEWs (conducted electrical weapons) save in order to justify each death? How much do we need crime to go down to justify racial profiling and the abandonment of our Fourth Amendment rights?

Two articles on crime over time caught my eye of late, both from Talking Points Memo.

The first, "Humility and History," makes the argument that it is very hard to track causality while living in a moment of change, but that this is part of the role of the history. It's a particularly good piece for people looking for ways that liberal learning matters.

Marshall, the writer, then follows up with "Was Lead the Killer?", which looks at the decline in lead poisoning and violent crime. He considers a number of possible reasons for the decline in crime, then concludes:

Lead on the other hand has two big evidentiary chains behind it. One is the abundant evidence that lead poisoning early causes decreased IQs, diminished impulse control and various sorts of sociopathic behavior. It seems to take the ‘natural’ aggressive impulses of young men and put them into overdrive. Second is the very granular correlation between rising and falling rates of lead poisoning and rates of violent crime - offset by about 23 years. This doesn’t seem to apply just broadly in the USA but in other countries and even state by state in the USA.

That’s serious evidentiary backing. And I’d call it a solid theory. I just don’t believe it’s case closed. I think we need more research and also we’ll need to see what happens over the next ten to twenty years. More candidly, I think there’s part of me - perhaps the historian part of me - that’s inherently resistant to such monocausal explanations. But that may be bias more than clear thinking.

So that’s where I come down on this. Lead’s the only theory with solid evidentiary backing. But I don’t think it’s case closed.
I really like the "inherently resistant to such monocausal explanations" phrase, as I think that's exactly how historians ought to operate - open to understanding causality, resistant to single explanations (see 10,000 pieces on the "Fall of Rome" for another good case).

To me, I'm increasingly convinced by the argument that police have always acted this way (the cult of compliance) but are now being recorded by camera-phones and car-cameras (which police shout NOT be able to turn off), so have to make up explanations for their brutality. Hence, we end up with "non-compliance" as the catch-all. I am also increasingly convince that there has been a fundamental shift in police culture, the "Rise of the Warrior Cop," in a society increasingly tolerant of violating civil liberties in the name of security. This places the change into the post-9/11 change in American culture.

I am aware that these two explanations may lightly contradict each other. At the moment, I'm comfortable with that.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Cult of Compliance

I've been trying to write about non-compliance and police violence to no avail, so far. I'm not sure what's not catching editors' eyes about my various essays (and soon I'll just start posting them here), as I think there's a very big story happening before us, but we get distracted by tasers, by drones, by tanks, by SWAT, by racial profiling, by guns, by all the VERY REAL and very troubling symptoms of deep problems in American police culture. I call it the Cult of Compliance, in which police demand instant compliance or feel free (and unaccountable) to respond with force.

We only hear about it in the news, in fact, when something goes horribly wrong, such as recently in Indiana. In Evansville, IN, a firefighter waved at some police officers. They thought he flicked them off and charged him, put a taser in his face, made him drop his phone (he was calling the chief of police, a buddy of his), cuffed him, and then found out the mistake they made.

The story made the news (links below) because the firefighter had connections and we fundamentally know he was wronged here. I'm not worried about the firefighter. I'm worried about the stories that aren't making the news because they happen to poor people, to people of color, and to people who just don't have connections, to people who the police successfully blame, etc.

Digby, who writes about police violence (especially tasers), blogged about the incident (here's the original link) and went on to talk about the way that the cult of compliance has permeated every aspect of our law enforcement, from police to the TSA and beyond. Digby writes:

This is creeping authoritarianism. We've got millions of people in America wearing uniforms and carrying some kind of government authority and we're all going to have to learn that they will not be disrespected, even if they are delusional idiots. No, it's not the end of the world and we're not being rounded up and sent to the gulag. But it's not exactly freedom and liberty either.
 My good friend Bruce Schneier always says the following: "I tell people that if it's in the news, don't worry about it. The very definition of "news" is "something that hardly ever happens." It's when something isn't in the news, when it's so common that it's no longer news -- car crashes, domestic violence -- that you should start worrying."

The cult of compliance is in danger of slipping out of the news and into the normal. We can't let it happen.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Contested History and Public Sculpture

The Atlantic Cities had a great piece on Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. It explores the re-writing of Macedonian history and the ways in which public sculpture plays a role.

Skopje 2014 wants to settle Macedonian history once and for all: to root an ethnically-diverse, 21-year-old modern state in a unifying and uncomplicated vision of the past. Whether it succeeds or not, the attempt has left a deep mark on an already-dizzying cityscape.
My scholarly work on Venice focuses on the use of images, texts, and rituals to shape and re-shape Venetian identity, so this is right my alley. Much of the battle is over Alexander the Great, but it's so much bigger. This is well worth reading (and looking at the pictures), for all of you interested in the ways that historical memory infuses contemporary issues.

Loring Danforth, a professor of anthropology at Bates College and author of a book on the Greece-Macedonia dispute, says that claims on the region's ancient history get at sensitivities that are unexpectedly contemporary.
"If you grew up going to Greek or Macedonian schools, it would be as if somebody claimed that George Washington was British, or if the British claimed that he was one of their national heroes," Danforth says of the controversy over which country Alexander the Great rightfully belongs to. In controversies over national symbols—the name included—both sides believe that the other is claiming some indelible aspect of their national being. And neither is secure enough in its national self-definition to cede any ground to the other.

One possible and deeply problematic way out of this is to double down—to glorify a single, straightforward, and unapologetically nationalist narrative in marble and bronze, and at a scale meant to eliminate any and all doubt. It’s a narrative of historic accomplishments, from St. Cyril’s invention of the Cyrilic alphabet to Czar Samuel’s conquests, and of heroic resistance against centuries of outside rule—against Ottoman occupation, Bulgarian and Greek conspiracies, and the total indifference of the great powers. Like any good national myth, it ends in victory and revival, with the glories of the past fueling an equally glorious present.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

#JusticeForEthan - Who is the Villain?

Every story needs a villain or two. One reason the Trayvon Martin story caught on so powerfully is that the dramatic cast was set from the start, with the rogue vigilante versus the innocent teenager on a snack run. One reason that Zimmerman was set free is that his lawyers successfully convinced the jury of 6 white women that Martin might have been the actual villain here, the thug, and Zimmerman was a law-abiding protector of the community. As humans, we interpret our lives in part based on the stories we consume, and every story needs a villain.

Ethan Saylor's story has no clear villain. The deputies who broke the cartilage in his neck have been identified, but so far no specific pattern of violent behavior has been ascribed to any one of them. They were just doing what cops do - when someone is non-compliant, you get physical (more on this later if I can find someone to take an essay on the topic).  The theater manager might make a good scapegoat - he made a terrible decision to call the cops, one not justified by Maryland law (where the aide didn't have to buy a ticket, but did anyway, so the theater had its extra 12$). Saylor attended this movie theater often, so he was known, and probably the manager had seen stubborn behavior before. So I'd be happy to see if the press can get a better read on this guy and see what words he uses to describe people with Down syndrome. But in the end, he didn't touch Saylor.

The sheriff isn't my favorite kind of guy - tea partier, anti-immigrant, believes that the problem is the "redistribution of wealth" - and was my candidate for villain. His whining that the press is only telling one side of the story while refusing to talk to the press (on camera) is classic, and there's plenty of room for bad actors here, but he's recently been eclipsed by the president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners Blaine Young.

Saylor isn't the only person killed by deputies in Frederick County lately - another man was killed after they set off a flash-bang in his apartment and shot him 18 times. He allegedly had a shotgun and I do not know the details of the case, but there is a lawsuit involved. In response to both killings, Blaine Young said the following:
 “If people get in trouble and would just do what the officers say, we wouldn’t have any incidents.”
This is blaming the victim. It's classic. And when it applies to Saylor, we can immediately wipe it away as nonsense. Yes, it's true, if Saylor had just done what he was ordered to do, then he'd still be alive today. But the reasons he did not are complex, involve both context and his disability, and we know he is not to blame for what happened. But here's the point I keep trying and trying to make:

No one, disabled or abled, male or female, black or white, gay or straight, no one ... needs to be handcuffed and dragged out of a movie theater. Write them a ticket. Take their ID. Call their mother. Talk to them. Be patient.

And just in case you aren't convinced, last week Young got the five commissioners together to write a letter thank the deputies for all their hard work in light of the "recent controversies." In the minutes, he claimed he wanted to "separate the men from the boys," referring to the one commissioner who declined to sign the letter. So this is using Saylor's death as an internal political stunt to isolate Commissioner Gray (though Young claimed, innocently, that this wasn't the case).

Blaine Young - Right now, you are my official villain.

But stay tuned, there's lots of room at the bottom.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

#JusticeForEthan - Film at 11

Yesterday I was briefly interviewed by Debra Alfarone, a reporter for WUSA-9 in D.C. She, and her station, have been pursuing the Ethan story with considerable diligence lately. The video clip is here.

I am really grateful to Alfarone's willingness to pursue this story - not just for one clip or one quick hit of outrage, but to really dig and understand what's going on. This is what journalism looks like.

At the end of the clip (I appear very briefly in the middle, making the argument that everyone should be concerned about this, not just people with disabilities), Alfarone notes that blame is beginning to be cast on the theater manager for not allowing Ethan to stay in without a ticket. This is surely true. If the manager just said, "Oh, you have Down syndrome, you can see the movie again," then none of this would have happened. But every choice here has deep implications for how people with disabilities interact with the world. Is the manager responsible for waving the rules in the face of disability? I'm not sure.

Ultimately, as I read the report, the deputies made the decision to put their hands on Ethan as the aide pleaded for patience. This is where I place the pivot point when multiple possible outcomes to the situation coalesced into one grim reality, Ethan's death.

And here's one final point, a point that no one else seems to be making - Ethan's death is not an isolated incident and it's not just about disability (although it's also about disability). Across America, police have decided that non-compliance demands a physical response, a taser shot, or pepper spray.  Ethan's story is just as much a part of the growing erosion of our civil liberties as many more highly publicized events in the last few years.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Jenny Hatch

I haven't followed every twist and turn of Jenny Hatch's case, now decided in her favor, but here's the quick summary.

Hatch, a 29-year-old woman with Down syndrome, wanted to live with two friends, Kelly Morris and Jim Talbert, and work in their thrift store. Hatch's verbal skills are great and she expressed this as clearly as anyone could.

Hatch's mother, for reasons I have not quite untangled, had removed her from living with Morris and Talbert, had placed in her a group home, and was trying to impose a highly restrictive guardianship order on her daughter (including limiting with whom she could come in contact and her movements).

It's easy to side with Jenny and her friends against her mother, so let's assume for a moment that all the principles here are people of goodwill who are trying to do the right thing for Hatch. Let's even assume that Morris and Talbert are bad influences, driving a wedge between Jenny and her family, taking advantage of Jenny's naivete, or even trying to get Jenny's social security check! Let's assume the mother in fact is right that living in a group home would be the best thing for Jenny in both the short and long term.


Imagine, especially other parents of people with Down syndrome, that this is your child, your child with whom you have played, laughed, cried, and worked worked worked through so many thousands of hours of therapy. Now she can talk. Now she can work. Now she's healthy. And now she wants to leave. And you know it's the wrong thing for her.

But our children grow up.

So much of my focus is on agency, how to help Nico in particular be his own advocate, express his desires, and be active, not passive, in his engagement with the world.

Hatch (note, not Jenny) is a high-functioning 29-year-old woman with Down syndrome. She gets to make her choices, even if they're the wrong ones.

And in this case, I and the courts both think, Hatch was right in her decision making. It's also a precedent, and a powerful one, that helps shift more agency towards people with disabilities, something both our culture and our legal system badly needs. Here's what the essay says:

Legally, Hatch’s case came down to two questions: Was she an incapacitated adult in need of a guardian, and, if so, who would best serve in that role — her mother and stepfather, or Morris and Talbert?

But for national experts on the rights of people with disabilities, several of whom testified on Hatch’s behalf, the case was about much more. It was about an individual’s right to choose how to live and the government’s progress in providing the help needed to integrate even those with the most profound needs into the community.

In the end, Newport News Circuit Court Judge David F. Pugh said he believed that Hatch, who has an IQ of about 50, needed a guardian to help her make decisions but that he had also taken into account her preferences. He designated Morris and Talbert her temporary guardians for the next year, with the goal of ultimately helping her achieve more independence.

So this is good news.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Our Children Grow Up

This week, I'm going be writing about adults with disabilities, especially (of course) Down syndrome. A number of stories have been circulating lately and I have thoughts!

I think I was onto something yesterday when I wrote that Ethan Saylor doesn't fit the media narrative, and that's part of why his story hasn't "caught" in the national media the way that other stories of police abuse do. It's not clear how to write about a 26-year-old, 300 lb, swearing, man with Down syndrome who wants to see "Zero Dark Thirty" again. Now if it was Muppets on Ice, that would make sense. We often see adults with disabilities as perpetual children, which makes it hard to process things like enjoying violent movies or their sex drives. And it's a fair thing - because I am DEEPLY uncomfortable with the idea of a 26-year-old with Down syndrome seeing Zero Dark Thirty (let alone, say, pornography). I think yesterday I responded a little defensively, because I know that reaction is both wrong and right. Lots of adults with DS in their 20s might have trouble distinguishing between fiction and reality, especially for a film like that (filmed to be realistic) - how do you decide when they are ready?

But our children do not stay children. They grow up. The world gets more complex the minute our children pass out of school age, but lots of people are working on this situation, some better than others. So this week I'm going to write about David Effgen, an Oak Park resident who died recently, and his son Andrew. I'm going to write about Jenny Hatch. I'm going to write about Goodwill. And I'm going to write about Nico and Ellie.

But not right now, because none of my children are wearing pants yet, and it's almost 9:30.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

#JusticeForEthan and the Media Narrative

Two new essays on Ethan Saylor caught my eye this morning:

First - Debra Alfarone, a reporter for W-USA 9 News in D.C., wrote a good short piece on the state of the Ethan Saylor case. The best reporting on the case has all come out of the D.C. area, even as the story has struggled to reach beyond the local area.

Speaking of that struggle, Nick Cull - like me an academic and father of a boy with Down syndrome, applied his expertise (he's in a Communication department) to think about the lack of coverage. He writes that he is particularly "troubled that so many people seem not to have heard about the case more than six months after Saylor’s death."

I'm troubled by that too. When I submitted my essay on the case to The Nation, it was championed (to the extent I understand these things) by an editor (Liliana Segura) who writes more broadly on police brutality and prison culture. She knew about the case, but told me that others had missed it. If some of the staff at The Nation missed it, some of the smartest and most plugged in people around after all, then Cull is definitely right that the absence of focus on Saylor's case is odd. Cull writes:

Part of the problem is the fragmentation that has come with social media. In our wired world, some stories stay within closed loops of people directly concerned with an issue by virtue of shared race, location or other marker of identity. That is understandable. Yet Saylor’s story has been reported in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Huffington Post. It’s also attracted notice on some right-wing websites and the libertarian Cato Institute’s blog that keep an eye out for violations of individual liberty. But the trail of mainstream media commentary soon runs cold. WTOP news in Washington, D.C., did a story on the case, but NPR has not mentioned it and neither, it would seem, have its local affiliates. There has been nothing in The Daily Beast. Sources with a track record of sound coverage in the civil rights domain such as Mother Jones and Truthdig (until this piece) have also passed over the story. Some parents in the Down syndrome community began an email campaign to try to get journalist George Will, whose son Jon has the genetic condition, to say something about Saylor in a column but he hasn’t done so.
He concludes:
One thing that those who have been following the story detect is an underlying lack of empathy for someone with special needs, on the part of the management and the deputies who seem to have exacerbated the situation and perhaps on behalf of the wider society. The Down syndrome support community is well aware that other categories of people who have been mistreated by the police have attracted national coverage; other names have become causes célèbres. One of the troubling things about Saylor’s case is the nagging fear that the silence is not a response to careful consideration of the available evidence but a symptom that in the last analysis in the America of 2013, people with an intellectual disability simply do not count.
I'm not sure, as I ponder the subject, about "not counting." At least I don't want that to be true.

I think the issue is that people with disabilities don't fit neatly into narrative categories that drive media attention, except as "inspiration porn" (a category worth exploring here and here, for starters). It's unclear how to write about a 300-lb man with Down syndrome who was swearing at police and watching a movie about torture and assassination ("Zero Dark Thirty"). How does that fit our models? He doesn't tie into the stories of race and class that permeate our national discourse about urban violence and police brutality. He wasn't tased, or I think the anti-taser movement would have picked up on it (I have another essay on tasers out for consideration right now). And without an obvious hook or fit, why should readers in other parts of the country worry about Ethan Saylor?

That's part of why my essay in The Nation tried to link Saylor into a bigger pattern and to provide a framework for analysis going forward. Because while I'm focused on Justice for Ethan (this is the Facebook group), I also fear that there are going to be more Ethan's in the future, and I don't want their stories to be buried.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Male Feminism Considered

My good friend K. sent me these links yesterday on male feminism. I'm increasingly interested in articulating my thoughts as a male feminist (as opposed to just being one), now that I've personally experienced how threatening such an idea is to so many men (see the comment section here).

In The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland argues that men have to be part of the struggle against misogyny.

That there is a battle to be fought is surely beyond doubt. Whether it's a prosecuting barrister branding a 13-year-old female victim of sexual abuse "predatory", or the ongoing death and rape threats against women who speak out on social media, all those who care about even basic notions of fairness or justice can see there is a momentous struggle to be joined. Yet men hesitate. Register the voices who rise up to object to these or any of the other instances, constant and ubiquitous, of sexism and misogyny and they overwhelmingly belong to women.

Perhaps that's inevitable. An attack on any group will be felt first and most keenly by that group: it usually falls to Jews, for example, to sound the alarm over antisemitism. But that rule is not universal. The backlash against the Home Office's "Go Home" vans, a hateful scheme now under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority, has not been the exclusive preserve of immigrants, legal or illegal, or the descendants of immigrants. Even Nigel Farage denounced it.

But somehow men leave the heavy lifting against gender bias and gender hatred to women. The most charitable explanation is that men worry they cannot speak about this subject authentically, that their perspective is of less value than a woman's. Others fret they'll get it wrong, that they'll inadvertently say something that is itself sexist, thereby revealing that they too don't "get it" – so it's safer to say nothing. The diffidence of the men who took part in last week's #twittersilence was striking, several indicating that they were only "sort of" taking part.
He finishes strong:
That means a change in men, but also perhaps in the struggle itself. For there is not just a gender gap on this issue. Wary as I am of pointing it out, there does seem to be a gulf separating the feminist conversation currently aired loudest in the public sphere and the kind of monotonous, grinding experience recorded by @EverydaySexism. It is the culture wars that grab media interest – a run of pop videos featuring topless women; proposed "modesty" wrappings to hide the covers of lads' mags; Jane Austen on bank notes; horrors on Twitter – yet it is the stubborn problems of unequal pay, low conviction rates for rape, workplace discrimination against mothers and, say, the need for statutory carer's leave, which probably speak more directly to the lives of women outside the media bubble.

For now, though, the challenge is for men to find their place – and to be welcomed – in a struggle that may be led by the women's movement but which is surely a human cause. We've tried sitting in silence – and it hasn't worked.
 I really like the contrast between the big issues (on which men often speak up) and the "grinding experience" of Everyday Sexism. I tried to get at that in my writing on the subject, emphasizing that while sometimes patriarchy and its effects are overt (Wendy Davis/Texas/etc.), in many ways the covert is just as important to recognize and fight (McDonald's, "Best Dressed" awards, etc.)

Which brings me to the second piece, from South Africa. The young author explores his growing awareness of sexism and the feminist response to it, and focuses on the question of attraction. How can a man express attraction without being sexist?

The first source of my confusion is chivalry. Part of my village’s training related to giving women precedence. A woman must have your seat, you must carry her bags, you must open the door etc. I learned later that westerners call these teachings “chivalry”. It has occurred to me that I can’t reject my village’s teachings without also rejecting chivalry.

The second source of my confusion is physical attraction to women. While I distaste misogyny, objectification or any other notion that equates a woman’s value to her looks, I still am attracted to women. In moments of honesty, I do admit that my attraction to a woman is influenced by my prejudice on looks. It has then occurred to me that proclaiming myself a feminist, while still placing some kind of value on looks, is revolting hypocrisy.
Attraction and chivalry may seem like trivial issues, but they lie at the heart of many male questions about how to be a feminist or how to be an ally. How do you hit on a woman without being a sexist? I see this question asked again and again. It's good to read a young South African man working through these issues.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ender's Olympic Games

When I was an early teenager, I read many marvelous books. Life was complicated in that privileged way upper middle glass over-educated way. My social skills and self-confidence were poor. I talked too much. I talked too much about the wrong things. I was teased and sometimes bullied in school. All of this is to say that like many nerdy kids, I took solace in games and reading. Ender's Game has no particular place in my personal iconography of books, it's not like Lord of the Rings or Narnia, which I read and re-read so many times before I was 10. But Ender's Game was a good book, one I liked and re-read, and part of the many worlds into which I escaped. It wasn't a /nice/ world, but it was one in which nerdy kids got to fight in zero-G and then defeat the aliens. I could identify. In fact, I read everything that Orson Scott Card wrote, buying some and borrowing others from friends and libraries. I loved his story-telling.

Ender's Game is now a "major motion picture," starring Harrison Ford, coming out in November. I will not be going to see it.

For those who don't know - and I certainly didn't know until about five years ago - Orson Scott Card is a bigot with a history of making incendiary statements against homosexuals. He's also put his money where his mouth is, contributing to anti-marriage-equality groups. Here are some well-circulated examples his statements.

Card writing in 1990: “Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society's regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.”
So that's not good, right?  Keep sodomy illegal so that every so often someone can be publicly pilloried, in order to keep everyone in line. It gets more specific. In 2008, he wrote a piece for the Mormon Times, quoted at length here, in which he called for rebellion in the event of the legalization of gay marriage.

Because when government is the enemy of marriage, then the people who are actually creating successful marriages have no choice but to change governments, by whatever means is made possible or necessary.
If America becomes a place where our children are taken from us by law and forced to attend schools where they are taught that cohabitation is as good as marriage, that motherhood doesn’t require a husband or father, and that homosexuality is as valid a choice as heterosexuality for their future lives, then why in the world should married people continue to accept the authority of such a government?

What these dictator-judges do not seem to understand is that their authority extends only as far as people choose to obey them.

How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.
So that's pretty incendiary. 

But, suggest many well-intentioned liberal gay-marriage-supporting friends, we can separate art from the views of the artist. Lots of artists have had offensive views - that doesn't mean they don't make good art, and to enjoy the art doesn't make one complicit in their view. I think that's absolutely true. I don't want to narrow myself to a world in which I can only enjoy the creations of people with whom I politically agree, and I won't. But Card's insertion of his voice into a contemporary political debate is more that just disagreement, it's active, he's taking a principled stand in an attempt to make the world less just.

And we know the consequences of Card's positions when given power, because right now we are seeing them unfold in Russia. It's not just the new law that bans any discussion of homosexuality as anything but an abomination, though that's bad enough. The law seems to have enabled wide-spread violence against homosexuals. Here's a selection of further stories about violence, rape, and the state's cheerful complicity. Behind these acts of violence, one finds the same epistemology as Card's - homosexuality is unnatural and should be criminalized. In fact, other American anti-equality groups have explicitly endorsed Russia's position, calling for us to learn from them (while claiming the violence is over-rated).

Stephen Fry wrote a beautiful letter linking the Berlin Olympics to the Sochi Olympics, noting (and here's the "How Did We Get Into This Mess" moment) a similarity between Nazi discourse about the Jews and Russian discourse about homosexuals. It's where my decision to skip Card's movie really crystallized. Because if I believe that Card and the anti-homosexual movement in Russia share an epistemology, then how can I do otherwise?

There are bigger fish to fry than Ender's Game. I don't make it to a lot of movies as it is. I expect Ender's Game to make tons of money, especially as conservatives rally to go see it (the Chik Fil-A effect), and I'm sure it will have a great Russian release.

But to those who think Card is just a crank with objectionable views, but one who is harmless. I think Russia, in all its hyperbolic violence, suggests otherwise.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Trayvon and Ethan

So I published an essay on Ethan Saylor today, placing his death in the context of other episodes of police violence against people with disabilities. It's at The Nation, my first publication there, and I'm pleased with it, though social media sharing has been a bit light (not a direct indication of readership, but suggestive of lower than I'd prefer).

Both in finishing the essay and today, I've been aware of an ugly racial undercurrent among white people responding to the lack of national outcry over Ethan's death. The argument goes as follows - people everywhere cared about a black boy's death (Trayvon), but didn't care about a person with Down syndrome's death; ergo - black lives are valued more heavily than DS lives.

A twitter follower asked me of Obama had weighed in for Saylor like he did for Martin. I replied no, but he also doesn't respond to every black person killed by police every 28 hours or so (according to this study. No idea how accurate it is).

A commentator on the essay at The Nation wrote:
However, our nationals decided to use this as an opportunity to push for training (thus strengthening the sheriff's blame of his death being because he had Ds) and the majority of its members aren't even aware of the case.  Think this might have been different had he been black or gay?  Absolutely - without a doubt.
This feeds into a discussion that's very much inside the DS community. Angry people (including me) feel that the call for more training emphasizes that Ethan died because of his disability (and the police ignorance about it), not because of police mistakes or brutality. That's part of why I want to emphasize the broader context of police responding to any non-compliance with physical violence. Yes, had the police been more savvy about DS they might have responded differently. But had Ethan just been some 300-pound guy swearing, he still didn't deserve to have his larynx crushed.

But the question of race - no one who studied police and racial violence in this country could argue, based on Trayvon, that somehow violence against black men (or gay men) gets massive media play. The Ethan case is an outlier, a tragic outlier to which I have tried to call attention for its own sake, and to point at broader issues of police conduct in the face of non-compliance.

Here's an essay from Oregon that compares Trayvon and Ethan. It calls for training and is a fine essay, if not my take. But a commentator writes:

There is a good reason why this Ethan Saylor case will go nowhere in the media. That is simply because Ethan is white. Nobody cares if a white person is killed, even if it is a black person that does it. That is not newsworthy, since the media cannot called it race related. But now if Ethan were gay, THAT would make headlines all over the country as a hate crime. This is a perfect example of how screwed up this country is.
He's right. His post is a perfect example of how screwed up it is that white people believe their whiteness makes them victims. The conflation of black violence at the hands of police (or Zimmerman) with gay violence (which is largely not at the hands of police anymore), and then setting that in opposition to Saylor, so that his death is about his whiteness - well, this is not a new delusion.

But that's no reason not to call it out as a delusion.

Ethan's death was unusual. It doesn't conform to simple media narratives in some ways, but does in others. People with Down syndrome tend to be portrayed as either victims or inspirational heroes, and rarely as complex people. Ethan was complex, highly functional in some ways, but also vulnerable. And his diagnosis surely enabled this story to descend from public view, kept alive by two local Washington Post reporters and the outrage of the disability community. Because when the deputies and sheriff said that it was just a tragic mistake and blamed the disability, enough people believed them.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Disability and Dinosaurs - with thoughts from Jane Yolen

Here's the conversation between me and my son, Nico, last night, as he headed to use the toilet.

Me: Nico, do you need a book?
Nico: Di-no
Me: Dino?
Nico: Okay!

So I handed him our shiny new copy of How do Dinosaurs Go to School.

Nico has Down syndrome. More relevant: he has speech apraxia, and every word represents hours and hours and hours of work from him, his therapists, his teachers, his parents, and especially the aforementioned him. One of my  experiences of disability involves the intense joy and pride that each tiny accomplishment brings, a joy directly related to the amount of work that went into it. 

The comparison I like to make involves my kids learning to walk. I was proud of both them for when they walked. Nico stood up for the first time at 12 months, learned to take two steps between objects (say a chair and a table) about six months later, started walking on a treadmill with hands held that year, and became a real walker at 2 and a half - so there was an 18-month period in which we worked. And worked. And worked. Ellie stood up for the first time at around 4:00 when she was 11 months old. She had learned to walk by 7:00 that night. I was proud of her, and I worry a lot about making sure we celebrate her accomplishments sufficiently (the subject for another post). But 3 hrs vs 18 months; easy natural development vs intensive work. This matters.

So now we focus a lot of our attention on language, carve out words, and then try to reinforce them (as words come and go with apraxia) and make them part of his regular pattern of communication. 

In sharing Nico's "Di-no" locution, Jane Yolen, the author of the book series (her son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids are friends of ours), chimed in to say that she had heard from many parents of kids with disabilities to say that the Dino books were special favorites and useful in helping the kids through their day. I wondered if it was visual, that the images of giant dinos making their way through a tiny world somehow echoed cognitively for kids who often feel out of place in the world. She replied (quoted with permission):
"I think it begins with the dinos having a lack of control over themselves, and how they slowly (after the NO. . .) get that control. And so the readers/listener by becoming like the dino can see themselves getting a measure of control. But also, even when the dinos are at their most misbehaving, the message is (as much as I ever put messages in my books) that mommy and daddy always love them. But as it's all done with humor, it doesn't feel like a lesson. I hear over and over the children say to their parents, "I'm a good dinosaur.""
So that's beautiful.  The /children/ say to their parents, "I'm a good dinosaur," even though in the books it's the parents/author speaking to the kids.

Now if only I could Nico to eat some vegetables.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Public Engagement - Go Speed Racer

Yesterday, I received an email from Rebecca Sharpless, Associate Professor of History at Texas Christian University.  It began (shared with permission):
Dear David Perry,

Thanks to you, I have now published in the New York Times.  Last Thursday, when I was debating on whether to weigh in on the Paula Deen flap with her cook, my best friend sent me the link to your piece in the COHE.  So when I wrote to the editor and he asked when I could have 850 words to him, I took a deep breath and said, "Tomorrow morning."  
Here's her essay. It sets the current Paula Deen story in a historical context of southern white women exploiting African-American food culture. Sharpless has a book, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960, which gives her the kind of deep knowledge of the subject that only a scholar can have. That she found a way to share that knowledge more broadly, to explore "how we got into this mess," as I like to put it, is exactly the kind of engagement for which I am advocating most strongly.

As my story illustrates, getting published has required some luck, good timing, and learning how to write more quickly. The speed required is particularly challenging.
Like many academics, I like to linger over my writing, but that's not how the journalistic world works. I have had to submit essays on breaking news that were "good enough" rather than perfect.
- See more at:
In my Chronicle essay on public writing, I stressed speed, writing, "As my story illustrates, getting published has required some luck, good timing, and learning how to write more quickly. The speed required is particularly challenging. Like many academics, I like to linger over my writing, but that's not how the journalistic world works. I have had to submit essays on breaking news that were "good enough" rather than perfect." In fact, I felt my own piece on Paula Deen from when the story on her alleged racism first broke wasn't quite written fast enough to find a home on a major site, so I just put it on the blog.

So this is an exciting concrete outcome. But speed isn't always necessary. On Monday, I've had confirmed, The Nation will publish an essay of mine on disability and police violence. I researched this one more deeply than others, sent it to them in May, tried to get it into the magazine, but finally we've decided to put it online. It's not hitting a news cycle, but trying to shape awareness of a buried issue. My piece on the Ottoman legacy at stake in the Turkish uprisings was rejected 4 times, the last time by CNN, as being off-cycle. Then the violence swelled up again (regrettably), and CNN quickly asked for it back.

At any rate, congrats to Rebecca Sharpless for the terrific essay and I'm honored to have played any part in inspiring you to write fast and send it in.