Thursday, October 30, 2014

"I don't see race" and "Not all men." - That Street Harassment Video

Yesterday, a video on catcalling went viral. Today, Hanna Rosin at Slate wrote a piece on how the editor edited out the white guys, making it a long string of black and Latino men harassing a white woman.
The video is a collaboration between Hollaback!, an anti-street harassment organization, and the marketing agency Rob Bliss Creative. At the end they claim the woman experienced 100 plus incidents of harassment “involving people of all backgrounds.” Since that obviously doesn’t show up in the video, Bliss addressed it in a post. He wrote, “we got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera” or was ruined by a siren or other noise. The final product, he writes, “is not a perfect representation of everything that happened.” 
I see this a lot. I hear it from the "Oh, I'm a humanist, not a feminist crowd." I hear it from the "I don't see race, just humans, crowd." I hear it from the "We need equality, not special treatment or affirmative action, just equality" crowd.

Such positions deny the inherent power dynamics at play in society.  Only those who are dominant can afford to be blind to them. Only those who are dominant can afford to shrug off editing out all the white guys and saying - well, what matters is the message about street harassment.

This video enables all the men who harass women in other ways to look at this and to feel smugly superior. It enables the cry, "Not all men," when the answer is Yes, all men.

All men. I am a feminist. I define feminism as a critique of the gendered power dynamics that govern our societies and then commitment to actions based on that critique. But I am not perfect. I am raised in a sexist culture. I am steeped in sexist media and messages. And sometimes, I do something sexist. Maybe I turn to look at a woman walking by. Maybe I don't intervene when "the guys" are chatting about a woman in a social space. Maybe I act in sexist ways in which I am not even aware.

I try to own it, to think hard about my actions, and to apologize if appropriate (often, the apology becomes another form of microaggression). I try to be intentional and aware and to do better, acknowledging the problems and the challenges.

That's why this video, though effective, may do more harm than good. Through editing, surely not intentionally, it suggests that street harassment is not a white-guy problem. Intentional doesn't matter. Only results count.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Police and Psychiatrically Disabled Individuals with Weapons

And then followed a lively Twitter conversation.

I follow Lowery due to his great work in Ferguson, and am glad someone @mentioned me in the conversation to draw me in. The case in question is about the Justice Department not finding anyone culpable in the 2012 shooting death of a man with a penknife who didn't comply. Regular readers will know my phrase - "the cult of compliance" - which comes into such striking clarity in events like this.

What's interesting, and tragic, to me, is that when someone gets beaten or killed in a situation like this, the emphasis is always on the final moment. Police surround or approach an armed individual with mental illness, demand the person comply, they don't comply, and then they kill him or her. The officers are then usually exonerated by the justice system, because at that final moment, there was a real threat to the officers.

But it's possible to re-imagine a strategic approach to such situations to make that threat less likely to occur.

1. Is there a threat? I contend that a man with a knife standing nowhere close to other people is not an imminent threat. Officers who are aware of the mental illness component have to respond differently than they might in other circumstances. For example, here's a video/reports of a drunk white guy with a rifle - police are very careful not to push it to an aggressive confrontation and the situation gradually de-escalates.

Compare that to this case, in which police swarm (warning, video is disturbing) to try and take control, resulting in death.

Part of this is, surely, racial.
Part of this, too, is the knife vs gun. It's less threatening but also seems to mandate a fast response.

I'll be interested to hear what my police readers (yes, I have police readers, smart folks who really want to build better police procedures) say.

2. If there is a threat, what is the least violent way of dealing with it? I am no fan of TASERS, but they exist precisely for situations like this. Police are, however, legally authorized to use their firearms when confronted with a threat to themselves, and a person close by with a knife is a threat.

The 2012 story in Michigan keeps playing out. I talked about it in this CNN piece on 4 police killings in August.  It's the story of Kajieme Powell, who had a small knife. Michelle Cusseaux, who had a hammer. It's the story of every mentally ill (I prefer the term psychiatric disability, for reasons I spell out in the article) individual, especially people of color, who are holding a weapon, are not an imminent threat, but who get killed.

I argue that once police engage and create a dynamic in which the person with the disability has to drop their weapon and comply, or be shot, being shot is inevitable. I wrote, "In each case, police demanded that a disabled person choose between not being disabled or getting shot. Now four more people are dead." And more people will die.

Looking at the whole, I conclude:
The stories follow a similar pattern. The victim had a weapon and did not respond to police commands to drop it, and so they died. Of course, a person struggling with his or her disability is not likely to follow verbal police commands in a moment of stress. Once the equation reached drop or die, death was inevitable.
The only solution is for the police to avoid getting into that situation if at all possible. Unfortunately, this runs directly against police training. Police are trained to display command presence in the face of uncertainly, seizing control of a situation by issuing orders, demanding compliance and using force on those who won't obey. Protect and serve has become command and control.
There are other models. Seattle police now teach their recruits to be "guardians." Others emphasize patience. When Cusseaux frustrated the police by opening and closing the door repeatedly, why not just wait her out? Moreover, where were the Tasers? Taser-overuse is a major problem, but if they have a place in modern policing, surely it's when confronted by an armed psychiatrically disabled person at close range.
I'm increasingly sure that while CIT - AKA the "memphis model" -  provides training and resources for LEOs who take the classes, this particular set of training doesn't save the life of armed mentally ill individuals. Instead, the police have to decide that shooting is the genuinely last resort and avoid creating the "comply or die" or rather "be not disabled or die" situations.

When shooting is genuinely the last resort, and no one is at risk, you don't charge in to take command of the situation, but rather keep maximum space between you and the individual. You deploy maximum patience. This goes significantly against standard police training, but ... it's possible.

And here's the final piece - all of these procedures that might save the lives of people with psychiatric disabilities, they could save your life too. They should become standard.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Seeking a pro-choice and anti-eugenic rhetoric

I often say that the world of prenatal testing for Down syndrome is a test run for the future of human procreation, and that it's a test we are generally failing.

It seems to me that as our access to pre-natal information gets better and better, cheaper and cheaper, more and more accurate, we slide inexorably towards what I call the GATTACA future. The rhetorics, laws and best medical practices we develop around testing for Down syndrome, the first common condition (more or less) detectable non-invasively and early in pregnancy, will shape the way we handle the next wave of advances. Already, individuals with certain genetic risk factors for fatal conditions can get in-vitro fetuses screened before implantation. I am sure that wealthy individuals are also already traveling abroad to create designer babies, a technology that is only accelerating.

Slippery-slope arguments are always tricky, but this slope looks pretty clear to me. In the world of Down syndrome, two technologies are racing each other. One - testing - enables early abortion. The other - medicine intended to improve cognitive function - not only might ameliorate some of the hardships generally associated with Down syndrome, but might also transform societal impression of the disability.

Meanwhile, the pro-life side increasingly radicalizes, turns violent (rhetorically and actually), and successfully restricts access to abortion across the country - and uses Down syndrome as a wedge issue - it becomes harder for a pro-choice voice like me to raise concerns about the way decisions are made.

I believe, without equivocation, that access to abortion should be universal, affordable, protected by law, and solely the choice of the woman.  But I also believe that in making such choices we reveal all kinds of underlying principles about what is valued, what is good, and what is normal. In general, disability is perceived as none of these things. I am trying, and mostly flailing about, to develop a pro-choice and anti-eugenic rhetoric.

I am writing this because Katha Pollitt has a new book out called Pro, which I haven't read yet, and did an interview in the New York Times. She, too, is interested in the rhetorics of abortion and is trying to change the conversation from "safe, legal, and rare" to "safe, legal, and available." Rare places a moral weight on abortion so that even if it's legal, that legality is grudging, and there's an idea that there's a right amount of abortion. She's working against the right-wing fanaticism, and good for her.

But then she wrote:
Q: Are there any arguments on the other side of the debate that either give you pause or that you respect on a purely intellectual (if not practical) level?
A: Someone (actually, a pro-choicer at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser) said to me, it’s okay to say you’re not going to have a baby now, but it’s wrong to say you’re not going to have this baby now. I struggle with abortion for, say, Down syndrome. At the same time I ask myself: if Down syndrome could be prevented, that would be a good thing, so why does abortion feel different, since it’s not yet a person? I don’t find the anti-choice perspective intellectually persuasive at all — the personhood of the fertilized egg, sex as a kind of contract to have a baby. But emotionally there is something appealing about accepting life with all its imperfections and difficulties and even sorrow, rising to the occasion and making something good out of it.
The problem is they want to force this view on others, and by others I mean women, because they have no more interest than the culture at large in demanding real sacrifice by men who get women pregnant.
Pollitt and I are roughly on the same page in all but one phrase. She says - there's something appealing about accepting life in all its forms. I agree. Not just appealing, in fact, but important. If a diverse society is important, if a diverse society is a better society, than neuro-diversity and physical diversity and chromosomal diversity has to be part of that. I suspect Pollitt would agree (we chatted briefly on twitter and I sent her an email at her invitation).

Furthermore, I share Pollitt's deep anger at the right-wing for trying to force such views on women, especially because too many "pro-life" people also don't want to pay for better schools, medical access, accessible buildings, integrated work opportunities, and all the other things. Disability is expensive. Pro-life people should demand the state pay for such expenses to the extent necessary.

But I'm not here to talk about the right-wing's endless hypocrisy, but rather to focus on just this line: "If Down syndrome could be prevented, that would be a good thing."

Would it be? What does prevented mean?

  • Injecting magic stem cells into a fetus with Down syndrome and have the fetus develop without chromosomal abnormalities? (proposed, unlikely)
  • Aborting every fetus with Down syndrome? (not happening, but happening plenty)
  • Finding a drug combination that works against the general cognitive delays associated with Down syndrome (in clinical trials now)
  • Building a more inclusive society to help bear the weight when things get hard, as they do? (depends where and who you are. Pretty good in the suburbs).
What is a cure? 

I'm not the first to talk about this. I like Michael Bérubé on the subject and the "race for the reasonable accommodation." 

I would like my son's life to be easier. I'd like to have more tools to counter the ways in which Down syndrome makes it hard for him to learn. I'd like to be able to function in public without feeling shame and isolation when Nico's behavior collapses. These things are, in fact, happening.

On the pro-choice side, we need a new rhetoric. We need to proudly embrace a rhetoric of diversity and disability. Not because it's glorious to accept hardship and we can make something good out of it, as Pollitt says, but because often our perceptions our flawed. The things we were sure we know about Down syndrome 30 years ago turned out to be wrong. 

We think we know what normal is. We think we know what a good life is. We're often wrong. 

This ... is a work in progress. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The NEH and Jeff Sessions

I'm still waiting on documents to arrive for the NEH as I'd like a much clearer assessment of who is making decisions over there.

I'm angry, as well, that they aren't more forthcoming. The NEH belongs to us. It belongs to everyone who has participated in an NEH program or applied for one. It belongs to every citizen that works in the humanities at any level. It belongs to the taxpayers. And that's why FOIA exists, to force transparency when craven bureaucrats hide their process and make statements that seem untrue. I'm not famous. I'm not important. And I can't get answers by simply asking reasonable questions. And so I wait for documents.

In the meantime, my attention on Jeff Sessions is intensifying. I think a lot of people dismiss him as an anti-intellectual crank, but he's quite sophisticated at speaking to people who are, at the first, suspicious of the humanities, and who are suspicious of federal support for research of any kind except for the most pragmatic (and military).

Sessions is the ranking GOP member of the Senate Budget Committee. In a few days, he could be the incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee. At which point, every budget emerging from his committee will include little to no funding for basic research of all kinds. The NEH and NEA are obvious targets, but the NIH is going to be in trouble too. It's all bad for knowledge.

So if there's a GOP Senate, that's not going to be fun. In such an environment, though, targeted groups cannot respond to pressure through this behind-the-scenes fait accompli kind of a decision making. They have to gather stakeholders in, make us feel part of the process, make us feel like the NEH is something worth fighting for.

And right now, when Sessions says cut the NEH, my emotional response (not rational response) is to shrug and say, "whatever." Because it's pretty clear, right now, that the big fancy folks at Washington don't care about my voice. Or your voice. It's not our NEH, so why not just let Sessions gut it.

I will try to resist such emotional responses, but none of this was necessary. The NEH could have contacted its program Directors (and through them past participants) and said - "we have this series of bad choices and are trying to figure out what's the least bad response. One thought was to cancel foreign programs for the following reasons..."

In such a circumstance, they build community and sympathy for making hard budget choices. But they also then have to be transparent about what those choices actually are and I fundamentally don't believe they have been.

  • To my knowledge, they aren't really saving much money (and possibly not any money) by cutting the program. 
  • To my knowledge, the foreign seminars attract more applicants than the domestic ones, so the NEH's suggestion that this is about access doesn't stand up. 
  • To my knowledge, the NEH foreign seminars consistently produce books, conference sessions, and career-changing/sparking moments in ways that they would have not have without their on-site location.
I continue to believe this decision is part of a defensive crouch in the face of the coming GOP storm. To duck and cover while ridding yourself of allies seems like a poor choice strategically. 

Our next moves will also have to be political.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Roundup: Material Culture

The last few days I've been at a conference on Medieval Materiality. For those not familiar, there's a lot of talk in my field of the "material turn," in which questions about material culture and object-related analyses (of many sorts) are becoming more central, where once they were quite peripheral.

Among the many things that interested me, though, was the divide between people working on discrete pieces of material culture - i.e. stuff - and those working more abstractly on ideas about materiality - i.e. how people thought about stuff. This is an overly simplified dichotomy, of course, as there are many fine gradations, but it did seem evident to me, and I'm curious about the ways we might ease that gap.

Is there, in fact, any real connection between the literary scholar looking at a metaphor as object, or the art historian thinking about light as object (both fun talks) and the historian looking at textile production or donations to a church (both fun talks!)? Does the shared interest in stuff actually make us think there's a connection when none exists?

These are just musings at the end of a very long weekend, head too packed with ideas to be articulate, but noted so I can return to them at a later date.

FWIW, my piece was on a monk who depicted "wisdom" as a material commodity that merchants should pursue as if it were gold.

As I finish my book proofs, I still wrote a few blogs:
Lessons from Swimming Lessons; or, How Not to Work with Kids with Disabilities.
 "Scrounger" On the (vilification of disability in the UK)
And a brief comment on a piece about design, given that All Tech is Assistive Tech
Light writing week next week too. Working line by line through my book, looking for errors (so it's mostly dogs that aren't barking).

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Swimming Lessons; or, How Not to Work with Kids with Special Needs

Nico in a swimming pool, holding onto a tube, swimming and laughing.

This is my son swimming at a party this summer. He's never happier than when he's in the pool, using his body, feeling the water, playing and filled with joy. So, finally, my wife and I signed him up for swimming lessons with a special needs recreational association in our community. It's been going great, until last night. But there are some lessons to learn here.

Here's the letter I wrote to the program director last night.
Dear _______,

I am writing to express my deep frustration and anger at today's swim lessons for Nico. I will first explain what transpired, then the problems, then my request for some solutions.

Nico has been working with L. L and Nico established instant rapport and have been going back and forth - stomach, then back, stomach, then back, since the first lesson. I was really happy about the way they worked together, but I did ask about progress towards getting the back of his head in the water and getting him to blow bubbles. The woman from SEASPAR who observes the lessons got in the pool at the end of the last session to offer some suggestions, they didn't really work, but Nico was happy to work with L. a little at the end of last session.

Today when I arrived L went to work with another boy, and E took Nico. Nico was baffled, upset, and frightened. It took a few minutes to get him in the water and he complained. I also asked E to concentrate on Nico's stomach - he does better with consistent effort rather than swapping back and forth. E replied that he needed to do both sides for safety, and I suggested maybe 3/4ths stomach - we would really like Nico to swim.

It didn't go well. Nico did a little kicking on his stomach and a few bubbles, then after a few minutes, she switched him to his back. And kept him on his back for about 20 minutes without a break. She never took him to a wall to rest. Meanwhile, Nico screamed. He screamed the scream he gives out when he's getting his blood drawn. It's his absolute fright and unhappy scream. She would ask him to do something and he would say, "no." She ignored him. Then he'd go back to screaming. At the end, she let him be on his stomach for a few more minutes and he calmed down.

1. A child with severe communication delays cannot be surprised like this. I spent the previous 30 minutes talking about L, preparing him for L, and he was ready for L. If the swimming staff feels the need to make a switch, it is reasonable to expect that they will communicate that with the parents. If they do not understand the complexities of working with children with communication delays, kids who often rely heavily on patterns and consistency to make their way through the world, it is reasonable to expect that they become educated in best practices.

2. If L, or anyone, would like more or less engagement with the parents (L had previously said my engagement was fine), I expect them to contact me and talk about the issues. As a parent, my job is to advocate for my child - but I am always interested in dialogue. I just need to know there's a plan.

3. Nico loves swimming. His love for swimming provides a pathway to teach him to swim, with gentle and creative pressure to get him to learn to swim properly and safely. More lessons like this will turn it into something terrifying. I will not allow that to happen.

I eagerly await your communication explaining first what happened yesterday and second what's going to be done differently. I'd like to know what experience the instructors have with children with Down syndrome and what strategies they plan to use to help him swim. I know that they are not specialists for children with special needs, but something has to change.

Terrifying him and forcing him is NOT an acceptable strategy. And it's totally not necessary.

So the special rec group contracts with a swimming lessons firm to provide one-on-one instruction. They are not experts in special needs. But the special rec group is, and I hold them responsible  for hiring people who can do the job, and educating people to do the job if they aren't prepared already.

Nico was having a good time with L, but I really wanted a sense of what the plan was, and perhaps somehow this bothered L. She's youngish, as parents we can get uptight, and if I bothered her (or if the special need recreational association rep who jumped in the pool and tried to help Nico learn to put the back of his head in the water bothered her), then I regret that. But L is an adult and can say so, either directly to me or through her supervisor.

Here's the big thing. Children with special needs often CLING to consistency. Sometimes we have to shake them out of that, always we need to prep for something new, What we can't do is spring changes on them. Nico could see L right there in the pool, working with someone new. He does not have the communication ability to understand why this is happening. Moreover, no one made any attempt to explain to him or to me why this was happening.

During the lesson, I tried to engage at various points, when I wasn't shaking with rage at being so ignored (but it's not about me, so I mostly just walked away). E went out of her way to avoid eye contact. I almost stopped the lesson, but I didn't. This can happen once. It just can't happen repeatedly.

I am furious. Nico is fine. He came out of the pool pretty happy and I expect him to go back in happily next week. But if this happens repeatedly, it could easily become something scary, rather than joyous.

And I Will. Not. Let. That. Happen.

Update: Apparently "E" is the head of the whole program that my special ed rec folks contract with.

Update: 55 minute conversation with the head of the special rec organization about building dialogue among all parties in the future. I am optimistic that there will be both patience and creativity applied to working with Nico.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Scrounger (vilification of disability in the UK)

There's a new piece up in The Guardian on the vilification of people with disabilities as "scroungers" in the current conservative UK speech and beyond. The author, Aditya Chakrabortty, argues that this discursive move not only helps justify cuts in services, but also leads to violence.
The coalition has so thoroughly vilified “scroungers” that hate crimes against people with disabilities are rising year on year: up 13% since 2011. Forty per cent of incidents are violent. Take the visually impaired man walking in Brighton last year, who was asked by a stranger what it was like to be blind – before being set on fire. Campaigner Paula Peters tells me she’s been spat at in the street, while friends in wheelchairs have been shoved into oncoming traffic.
Austerity is the incompetent treatment of the symptoms of a dysfunctional economy rather than its cause. Housing benefit bill too high? Don’t build more council houses, cut welfare! Paying too much in tax credits? Don’t get employers to pay more, cut benefits! Rather than help create decent jobs, Cameron and Freud prefer to drive Britons off welfare into cut-price employment. That logic is at its most naked and futile in the treatment of disabled people. They are being beaten harder than anyone else; yet no amount of guff about shirking will suddenly make them less disabled.
For me, this conversation invokes the hubbub around Kanye West and our general, broad, suspicion that people with disabilities are getting away with something.  These extreme cases cited by Chakrabortty are not the products of a few extremists, but rather extreme acts of violence emerge from the constant chatter, the structural ableism informs murder and torture.

"Scrounger" dehumanizes, pushing the idea that people with disabilities are burdens on society, less than human, less valuable. We've seen it in the US, too, as right-wing discourse seeks to divide and conquer on state benefits. First, right-wing politicians separate "good" recipients of benefits - old people and people with disabilities - from "bad" ones (black and brown people on welfare). Then, the same politicians separate people who are "not really that disabled" from the "good" disabled (people in wheelchairs).

So there's a contiuum from the low-key "scrounger," the "faker," the "worthless" (or to be worth less) to the target of violence. But it's all of a piece.

Monday, October 20, 2014

All Tech is Assistive Tech

I've written about Sara Hendren and her mantra - "All Technology is Assistive Technology" before - both in my review of John Scalzi's recent book (which is basically about assistive tech) and on the blog.

Hendren has a new piece over on Medium's Backchannel exploring her mantra with 6 rules on design and assistive tech. Please go read it. The piece says so much about definitions of disability, representation, inclusion, and so much more, too much to summarize. I'm thrilled to have Hendren working in such thoughtful ways on the design side. GO READ IT!

The rules are:

  1. Invisibility is overrated (it's ok to show the hearing aid)
  2. Rethink the default bodily experience (don't try to build of an abled model)
  3. Consider fine gradations of qualitative change. (small cheap little shifts can matter)
  4. Uncouple medical technologies from their diagnostic contexts. (this one is complex and hard to summarize in a little phrase. It's to take tech and remove it from the problem-solving of medical issues, I think, and consider affect).
  5. Design for one. (approach design for individual cases, though broader applications may emerge)
  6. And this is perhaps the most important: Let the tools you make ask questions, not just solve problems.
She finishes:
Let’s hope for objects that raise and suspend questions, and employ them alongside objects designed to solve problems. Then we can have a complex public conversation about needs and desires for interdependence. And about tools that provide assistance to every human body.
Every human body. Shoes are assistive tech. Shirts are assistive tech. Doorknobs are assistive tech. The work Hendren and her colleagues are doing to re-think our definitions is vital to our strange and unpredictable future that will be even more densely packed with human-technology interaction.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Roundup - 4 articles, 5 blog posts, and Book Proofs

It's been busy.

I got book proofs on Thursday for Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. That means that my writing will not so much stop, but will become erratic and not as predictable daily until proofs are done. Unless, you know, I get really pissed off about something.

In the meantime, I wrote/had published a lot over the last 10 days or so.

Two Friday's ago, CNN published an essay on Columbus. On Monday morning, for awhile, it was getting 1000 views a minute and my email, as a result, as been lively. So many people want to tell me about the Vikings, or wish I spent more time talking about rape and mutilation (this essay is for kids!), or attacked me for slandering the great hero of the Age of Discovery!

Then, for Monday, I had an essay about two novels published by the Chronicle. Both novels are set in the Middle Ages and were written by active medieval professors. This is actually pretty unusual, and, as I elaborated in my blog post, tells us something about public engagement.

On Tuesday, I wrote about a Jewish professor at Fordham who found himself accused of religious discrimination for threatening to fight and destroy the American Studies Department if it supported the BDS movement. While not wholly analogous to Salaita (because he didn't lose his job and had a process, if not so much due process), I emphasize that principles to academic freedom must apply to people with whom we disagree ... or we have no principles.

On Wednesday, Al Jazeera America published an essay on the discourse of cute and sweet in the world of Down Syndrome, a context that applies more broadly to other kinds of sweet-i-fiction (a word I just made up) of marginalized or minority groups.  I also wrote a blog post about my hypothesis of emotional intensification as a communication tool for some people with Down syndrome. I was taken to task, correctly, for over-generalizing from small amounts of data (mostly my son and my observation of people with DS locally). Still, I think the hypothesis is worth considering.

On Thursday, Chronicle Vitae published "Save the Overseas Seminar," on the disaster that is the new NEH policy. I also wrote a quick blog post summarizing my arguments. Much more to come on this.

Finally, the Lawsuit Against The Deputies who killed Ethan Saylor is proceeding. The judge explicitly talked about rapid force-escalation, a phenomenon I link to the Cult of Compliance.

I also hosted and ran the Midwest Medieval History Conference. It seems to have gone very well.

Have a great Sunday. Blogs will be erratic but I'll be around social media, perhaps doing more sharing of links than writing commentary.

Friday, October 17, 2014

#JusticeForEthan - Lawsuit Against Deputies Proceeds

In January 2012, three off-duty deputies killed a man with Down syndrome over the price of a movie ticket. Now, a civil lawsuit over Ethan Saylor's death is allowed to continue, as ruled by Judge William Nickerson, and reported here in the Washington Post.

If you are new to #JusticeForEthan, I have a few links to offer, culled quickly from my own record. There are lots of other pieces out there by many wonderful writers, and please go read them!
The judge's ruling, as quoted in the Post, basically asks the question - why did the deputies get violent so fast? There was no threat, just a non-compliant individual.

Regular readers of this blog will know my answer - these police are steeped in the cult of compliance.

It is, of course, more complicated than that. Ableism links to compliance. It's clear that the officers had no idea what to do with a non-compliant individual with Down syndrome, no sense that communication was possible, so they went physical, even when they were warned not to do so by Ethan's aide.

Ableism plays in the response, too. Ethan, a grown man wanting to watch a violent movie, was not cute. It took a long time to generate wide-spread response, as he didn't fit the semiotic pattern of what Down syndrome is supposed to be (i.e. cute, sweet, angelic).

Here are some key paragraphs about the judge's ruling from the article, all emphases mine.
The judge said the deputies could have waited for his caregiver or mother to coax him out of his seat or allow them to buy a ticket for the next show and let him stay.
“When the deputies were presented with these various alternatives, there was no emergent situation requiring any rapid response on their part,” Nickerson wrote.
Later in the piece:
Nickerson said the theater manager was correct to call security. But he questioned the deputies’ response. The judge said that Saylor did resist attempts to remove him but “responded in precisely the way” his aide “informed the deputies he would respond.”
The judge found it reasonable that Saylor would suffer “significant injury” when “the decision was made to drag an obese individual with a mental disability out of his chair and down a ramp.”
The judge noted the deputies’ defense: that they followed training in steadily escalating force to remove Saylor from his seat.
Once he refused their orders, it was reasonable to arrest him, and that made it reasonable for them to use force to handcuff him behind his back, he added. Saylor ended up on the floor, under the three deputies, and suffered a fractured larynx. His death was ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.
Nickerson said that “perhaps the most significant unsettled question is the reason for the escalation in the deputies’ use of force.” He said that escalation “increased dramatically.”
To my reading, the reason for escalation in the use of force is that Saylor said, "fuck you," and then didn't comply, and so then the deputies did exactly was they had been taught and responded to non-compliance with escalating force.

It's wrong when the victim has Down syndrome.
It's also wrong to escalate at any time for anyone unless there is a threat. There was no threat here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Save the NEH ... from itself.

At the end of September I wrote a post about the arbitrary decision to end the NEH overseas summer seminars and institutes. It's packed with comments from people whose lives and careers were transformed by such programs.

Now I have a piece at Chronicle Vitae on my findings. They are:

  1. The NEH denies political pressure.
  2. The NEH cites budget issues but does not have any numbers. My research shows that the foreign seminars do not cost more than the domestic ones.
  3. The NEH cites maximum impact but has not done a study on impact. My research shows that the ability to access sites, artifacts, and documents has tremendous impact on careers, far more than domestic seminars (which are also REALLY GOOD PROGRAMS!).
  4. The NEH claims it still has programs that send scholars abroad. They mean flagship high profile scholarly fellowships which typically go only to the most elite professors. NEH Seminars included grad students, adjuncts, community college profs, teaching-school profs, and really everyone. 
I'm staying on this. I have FOIA documents coming in soon. Write them. Demand change. 

Write to William Rice - Director of Education Programs - 

He made this change arbitrarily. He can unmake it arbitrarily.

You could write:

"Dear Dr. Rice,

I am writing to register my objection to your decision to stop supporting overseas Summer Seminars and Institutes.  The overseas programs have transformed the careers of educators in both secondary and higher education, from all types of institutions. They represented the best of what the NEH can do and I urge you to reconsider."

You could also write your Congressional Representatives. The oversee the NEH. Time to put on the pressure.

Because what will they arbitrarily cut next?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Empathy as Communication Strategy for People with Down Syndrome

My son is cute. Sometimes painfully so. He also has a kind of intensity to his love. Here's a story from my newest piece at Al Jazeera America (please read it and share it so they publish more pieces on disability!).
At the end of every day, Nico walks into the kitchen, wraps his arms around his chest, then says and signs the word “love.” He calls us — “Mommy!” “Daddy!” “Ellie!” We all come, he leans on a parental shoulder, and the four of us embrace for an intense daily moment of connection. His love is the glue that holds our family together. We are intensely lucky and happy.
This is complete true and, more important, it is Nico's ritual, not ours. He decided that he wants a group hug to complete his day, before snack and brushing his teeth. We, joyously, comply.

My piece today is against the notion of cute, or even "cuteness porn." I've written similar pieces on the "long game" (which cute doesn't really help, I think) and the word "angel," but this piece, I hope, fleshes out the ideas more fully. It was really sparked by seeing the community response to Richard Dawkins' statements about abortion (linked to in the Al Jazeera piece) and Down syndrome, in which so many parents responded by showing cute pictures, as if cute would refute Dawkins' eugenic principles. All it really does is, at most, slide the eugenic line to less cute people.

I'm not interested in cute. I'm not interested in physical appearance. I am, however, deeply interested in the intense emotional interactions that many people with Down syndrome bring to their everyday encounters.

Often this gets labeled sweet, innocent, or angelic. In fact, that's totally missing what typically happens. People with Down syndrome often - and my son Nico does this par excellence - intensify the emotions in a space around him. Happiness or sadness, funny or anger. This isn't passive, the intensification is deliberate and person. It's not an accident, either, as it's not reflection, but a taking of emotion and re-directing it.

I see it as a form of communication, one especially useful for people whose disability often results in a much greater ability for passive understanding than active speech.

This is, in general, the kind of shift I'd like us to see - from passive "he's so sweet" to active, "he uses his facility with emotion as a means of communicating." It's vital, because Nico can't consistently speak for himself, and I don't want to put words in his mouth. Instead, I'll watch, think hard, try to understand, and share what I perceive.

Now please, PLEASE, read and share my Al Jazeera piece. As a freelancer, I depend on you to help move my pieces to a wider audience, and am always grateful.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Civility Wars - What We Learn From Fordham

Throughout the intense debates on Steven Salaita, I clung to one message:

If you do not stand on principle for people with whom you disagree, you have no principles.

It was no problem generating support for Salaita's case (note, not Salaita, the case) for people who agreed with his critique of Israel, the challenge was insisting that people critical of his language must also stand with him, for the sake of academic freedom, due process, and the American university.

So I wrote, "Don't Speak Out," on public engagement in the aftermath of Salaita.

I wrote, "Fix the Hiring Calendar," on reshaping the timing of Board intervention in hiring.

I wrote blog posts about principle and the dual nature of Israel as both a haven for an oppressed minority and a regional superpower and how that complicates the discourse of public criticism of the state.

Today, I offer this story on a Jewish professor at Fordham who came under attack for his position in support of the Israeli government. And so I once again reiterate that the principles of academic freedom must be extended to all, even those with whom we disagree, or we have no principles. Because the pressures brought to bear on pro-Palestinians such as Salaita today can be brought on pro-Israel voices tomorrow. Fight for the principle, not the individual.

Here's the newest story, as I understand it.

The American Studies Department at Fordham voted to support the broader decision by the American Studies Association to endorse the Boycott-Divestment-Sanction movement intended to pressure Israel (in this case via its universities) to end the occupation. Six Jewish members of the department at Fordham, including the historian Doron Ben-Atar, left the program as a result. Then Ben-Atar got accused of religious discrimination and summoned before a hearing.

In The Tablet, Ben-Atar narrates:
During an emotional meeting convened to discuss the appropriate response to the measure, I stated that should Fordham’s program fail to distance itself from the boycott, I will resign from the program and fight against it until it took a firm stand against bigotry. The program’s director, Michelle McGee, in turn filed a complaint against me with the Title IX office, charging that I threatened to destroy the program. This spurious complaint (the meeting’s minutes demonstrated that I did not make such a threat) ushered me into a bruising summer that taught me much about my colleagues, the university, and the price I must be willing to pay for taking on the rising tide of anti-Zionism on American campuses.
After, the Title IX coordinator at Fordham, Coleman, asked to meet with him on an ill-defined question of a Title IX violation. Ben-Atar got an attorney, allegedly offered to meet with Coleman, but that never happened. In the end:
In late July, however, I received Coleman’s report in which she cleared me of the charge of religious discrimination. It was the first time that I learned what I was actually accused of doing, so I’m still not sure how opposing anti-Semitism amounts to religious discrimination. But Coleman was not satisfied to leave things at that. She went on to write that I refused to cooperate in the investigation (even though my attorney informed DeJulio weeks earlier of my willingness to meet her), and concluded that my decision to use an attorney was an indication of guilt. Coleman determined that in declaring I would quit the American Studies program should it not distance itself from anti-Semitism, I violated the university’s code of civility.
So let's parse some of this. This is not, to be sure, Kafka. Kafka speaks of secret courts with overwhelming power and secret charges; Ben-Atar had a single officer with limited power who ultimately decided he didn't do anything wrong. Still, the process was clearly flawed and Fordham should revisit these procedures. When being investigated, we all deserve to know what we're accused of doing.

I don't know what happened at that meeting of the Fordham American Studies department. I don't what words were said, but I'm sure they were angry in tone on all sides. I don't know what the consequences would have been for Ben-Atar had the officer found him to have violated Title IX, if then it would have moved into a more transparent phase. It's definitely all troubling.

Importantly, compared to Salaita, Ben-Atar remains employed, did have a process (if not perhaps due process), and seems to have been protected by the rules of tenure and rank. I'm sure it was troubling to him to be accused of religious discrimination.

Here's the key takeaway - The "next Salaita" could well be an ardent anti-Palestinian voice who lacks the protections of rank and tenure enjoyed by Ben-Atar. Ben-Atar cannot now move universities safely, lest he find himself in the liminal space in which Salaita became vulnerable. An ardent anti-Palestinian writer who lacks tenure could easily find themselves mired in a Salaita-like situation in which a risk-adverse administration decided not hire/tenure someone in the future.

Salaita needs to support Ben-Atar. More crucially, because Ben-Atar still has a job, Ben-Atar needs to support Salaita.

It is the only way to protect academic freedom.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Public Engagement - The Novelists

I write a mostly monthly column for the Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm interested in the way that both individual academics and institutions engage with issues and spread their expertise in the public sphere. My columns look at what people do and how it works within an academic career.

Recent columns are:
Today's column takes a different approach. I am writing about two novels, both set in the Middle Ages, both written by active medieval scholars. You should read both books!

Holsinger - A Burnable Book
Lucy Pick - Pigrimage

Here's my key review part of the essay, as opposed to the broader discussion of being an academic and a novelist:
Each of the two novels offers a distinct vision of medieval life. Both authors carefully deploy both invention and fact to erode myths about medieval people and society.
Pick describes the Middle Ages as "modernity’s closet," an imagined past from which we distance ourselves. For her, too many depictions of the period rely on horror and savagery or else depict a simplistic golden age of pure faith and chivalry. In Pilgrimage, she presents a textured view of medieval religion, explores the opportunities and limitations for women in that era, and filters it all through the experience of a character who is blind. Gebirga, the main character, leads the reader through the sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations of the medieval world. Pick’s novel dabbles in magical realism, letting the miraculous and sacred pierce through to the mundane and political. It isn’t fantasy, but an attempt to describe the whole of the medieval world, especially for pilgrims, as they would have believed it to be.
In contrast, Holsinger believes in grit. His London is a city of blood, semen, and savage realpolitik, with crowded bureaucracies and an angry church. In the halls of power, those who aren’t corrupt are compromised. It all seems terribly modern, and that is Holsinger’s point. We believe that complex political infighting, lawyers, and bureaucracy are aspects of the modern—or at least Renaissance—world. That’s a perception based on myth rather than historical truth. He gives us killers, lawyers, and manipulative bastards all shaped by their historical period, but who are also fully complex humans. He wants to break down the centuries of mythmaking about the Dark Ages. If those ages were dark, the novel suggests, so is today, and so is every era in which humans murder and betray for profit and power.
So read, review, share, and otherwise enjoy! Writing this piece was one of the most enjoyable tasks I've had as a journalist, as I got to read two wonderful novels and talk to their smart authors.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Roundup - Columbus, Football, and Other American Myths

I started the week with a piece on the academic hiring process. It didn't get as much social media sharing as I think it deserves, not out of any ego, but because this lens displays a problem we can fix. It's not a big fix. It's not an answer to the huge power inequities in higher ed, but it's real. If you're in academic, please read it and consider sharing.

But the main business of the week was on American Myths.

I wrote a piece for CNN on Columbus. I actually first started drafting it a year ago for this blog post, then realized I had an essay here and could get it published if the timing was right.

Also, I didn't say this - I'd be happy to just end the holiday. My piece is about how to talk about it to my children until such time as it's off the calendar.

For CNN, I wrote:
In October 2013, my daughter came home from school excited about Christopher Columbus. He had come to visit her class! During his visit, he told the children that he had figured out the world was round and then bravely led his crew to discover America. Then they all made telescopes.
As a father and history professor, I was caught off-guard. Columbus actually didn't figure out the world was round. He didn't really discover America, either. And telescopes weren't around until about a century after Columbus died. But what do you tell a 5-year-old who has bought into a myth? And how do you do it without constructing an anti-myth, pegging the explorer as one of the most evil people to walk the Earth? What should we tell our children about Columbus?
In the piece, I try to write a nuanced explanation of the basics, which is always challenging in a sub-800-word piece. One of the elements I left out, coming from LeAnne Howe (who was wonderful to talk to on the subject), was the way that Europeans had no system for incorporating new peoples into their cosmology. For Europeans, the post-Flood diaspora of peoples, descending from Noah, provided a structure to account for the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Europe. It offered nothing to make sense of the Americas.

The indigenous peoples in the Americas, on the other hand, were very comfortable with the concept of new encounters and new peoples. The whole, "white man is a god" myth comes from later, post-conquest, discourse. At the time - they were just new, they had things to trade, and trade came naturally.

Otherwise, I'm satisfied with the piece and its reception, including the shouting, "COLUMBUS WAS A HERO" trolls and white supremacists yelling at me. That's a sign I've walked the line reasonably well.

Thanks to all who read and shared.

In other pieces on American myth:

I talked more about the ethical implications of watching Football.

I wrote about Disney's Racist and Orientalist Middle Ages, and the way that all the good guys are Americanized.

And finally, the History Wars: The American Right Will Not Surrender Their Myths.

All of these pieces, including Columbus, link up for me as examinations of American culture.

Meanwhile, too many police continue to kill and beat and abuse, mostly black people, mostly with impunity.

Next week:

A critique of "cute" in the Down syndrome world and reviews of two wonderful novels.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Are You Ready for some Football?

Last Sunday, my wife said to me, "I miss football." We miss the sound of it in the background on Sunday, checking in to watch games of meaning, chatting about it. I miss reading long weekly articles about each game and what to watch for. I miss playing, and winning sometimes, fantasy football. Watching football was a part of the rhythm of my week in the fall and winter, and I miss it.

But for me, watching football carries an ethical weight that is too heavy to bear. It means that my entertainment, and it really is just entertainment, is worth a game that by design slowly destroys the brains of its players. By design.

It also means that entertainment is worth supporting a corrupt business, a business that tries to conceal criminality from its employees while basking in jingoism. Here's the latest:

Former Bears Exec Jerry Angelo says he covered up "hundreds and hundreds" of domestic violence incidents during his thirty years in the league. Perhaps he's exaggerating. Perhaps he only means 150, or 75, or 230. We don't know yet.
Angelo, who was general manager of the Chicago Bears from 2001 to 2011 and has been out of the league since, said his typical approach after learning of a player's involvement in a domestic violence case was to inquire, "OK, is everybody OK? Yeah. How are they doing? Good. And then we'd just move on. We'd move on.''
"We knew it was wrong,'' Angelo said. "…For whatever reason, it just kind of got glossed over. I'm no psychiatrist, so I can't really get into what that part of it is. I'm just telling you how I was. I've got to look at myself first. And I was part of that, but I didn't stand alone.''
Later, though, he tells us what the reason was (hint: winning):
During Angelo's tenure as general manager with the Bears, the team won four division titles and reached the Super Bowl after the 2006 season. He was fired after the Bears finished 8-8 in 2011, a year after the team reached the NFC championship game.
Angelo said he did not report to the league cases of domestic violences involving players because disciplinary action would have put his team at a competitive disadvantage.
"Our business is to win games," Angelo said. "We've got to win games, and the commissioner's job is to make sure the credibility of the National Football League is held in the highest esteem. But to start with that, you have to know who's representing the shield.''
"We got our priorities a little out of order,'' he said.
The Bears have denied any knowledge.

This is the thing - if you watch football, there is an ethical consequence for you. It's a choice that you make. We make ethical tradeoffs all the time (I make bad ethical choices in my food consumption, for example).

What I want is for people watching football to say to themselves - in watching this game, I am being entertained by a sport that destroys brains and profits by protecting abusers. And then do whatever they want, conscious of the choices they are making.

Are you ready for some football?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Police Violence Roundup

Here are some stories I've been following. f the argument must call for strict enforcement of accountability.

This is a story about the warrior cop and the rise of SWAT - There's been no indictment in the case of a police officer who threw a flash-bang grenade into a house, where it landed on a 1 year old, disfiguring him. I'd like to say I don't understand how a jury could not find wrongdoing here, but I totally understand it. Civilians give the police wide latitude to do pretty much whatever they want unless a prosecutor leads the grand jury to an indictment.

Of course, getting an indictment is no sure thing. A manslaughter charge was dropped due to a technicality. The case involves a 7-year-old girl being shot and killed by an officer during a 2010 police raid in Detroit.

Meanwhile, an NYPD officer beat a man for holding a cigarette. “Do you wanna get fucked up?” the officer says. “Yeah, get it on film,” he tells the boy’s friends. That's the power of relative impunity from consequences.

Film has led to two police being suspended without pay for beating a man in the face, but as we've seen above, even if they file criminal charges, there's no guarantee it will lead to anything even with absolute unimpeachable evidence. In court, the men will argue that they perceived a possible threat and that the victim didn't comply, so they had no choice but to hit him. That argument often works.

Here's the big picture - if these are just bad apples, bad cops, bad lapses in judgement, bad luck - if it's not a structural problem, but bad individuals, then we have to hold these bad individuals to an absolutely rigid standard of accountability. They each must lose their jobs. Lose their badges. And go to jail. 

What happens instead is that the bad-actor argument protects police structures generally, while respect-for-cops protects the bad actors individually.

Meanwhile, in Ferguson, police shot a man. Was he holding a gun or a sandwich?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Disney's Racist and Orientalist Middle Ages

I am teaching an independent study this semester in which we are discussing medievalism. Today, my student and I worked through some chapters from the Disney Middle Ages.

One of the interesting findings is the way that Disney tries to clean up, sanitize, and Americanize the Middle Ages, often erasing the grimmer stories that support their fantasies. Good essays all around (especially the one by Susan Aronstein on pilgrimage and theme parks).

This last Saturday, my kids watched most of Aladdin for the first time. I haven't watched it in years. Here's the opening:

So that's pretty racist, right? And it gets worse. Only Aladdin - excuse me, Al - and the other nice characters get American accents, whereas everyone else has a "mysterious" "exotic" "eastern" accent.  The culture is associated with savagery, cruelty, decadence, sexy half-dressed but veiled women (hint - people in bikinis usually don't wear veils).

I am not the first person to notice this. In 1993, the Islamic Human Rights Commission came out with a critique.

I wonder if Aladdin, in time, will go the way of Song of the South. I sort of hope so, because it will mean these kinds of racist portrayals will have passed into the realm of unacceptable. Today, I am not optimistic.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The History Wars: The American Right Will Not Surrender Their Myths

As a historian, I study myth and narrative, not events or actions. I believe truth exists - in that I believe people did things and said things and even thought things and that sometimes those things are knowable. I just don't especially find that interesting.

What interests me is how individuals and groups tell stories about themselves, their pasts, and their hopes for the future, and what these narratives and their reception reveal to us about those individuals and groups.

And now, protests and debate over AP History standards in  Colorado:
The College Board, which administers exams to students upon the completion of AP courses, has revised the history curriculum in ways that have angered conservatives, who say it paints a darker picture of the country’s heritage and undervalues concepts such as “American exceptionalism.”
This is a good article, working through the issues well. The question is what is the purpose of American history. The conservative voice, represented by a board member here, have one take:
The school board plans to set up a new committee to review the curriculum with the goal of assuring that courses — in the words of board member Julie Williams — “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.”
She's not wrong. Ok, she's wrong. But historically speaking, she's right that this has often and continues to be the function of nationalist history around the world. The emphasis on unearthing silenced voices, on writing counter narratives, even on (the now discredited) mid-century focus on objective truth - these are all very modern. Throughout most of the human past and honestly still today in almost every part of the world including here, people shape their historical narratives in ways that serve their agendas, often their religious, cultural, national agendas. That's what I study in medieval Venice. And that's what's going on here.

For the American Right, a certain view of US history is essential to sustain their ideology. It's not accurate. It's highly biased in favor of certain constituencies (also the groups that vote right-wing). Here are more voices.
On Sept. 19, the Texas State Board of Education went on record against allowing the new AP curriculum framework in state classrooms. Legislators and activists in South Carolina and Tennessee are discussing similar moves. And at its summer meeting in August, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution branding the curriculum “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”
The new framework also came up at last month’s Value Voters Summit in Washington, a conservative meeting that drew a number of possible 2016 GOP presidential contenders. Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who is considering a White House bid, told the gathering that the new AP history framework is so anti-American that “I think most people, when they finish that course, they’d be ready to sign up for ISIS,” the Middle Eastern terrorist group also known as the Islamic State.
So that last is just nonsensical fearmongering.

This is important. As an educator, it's upsetting to see politicians and ideologues trying to control historical discourse.

But it's also totally normal. Myths have power.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fix the Academic Hiring Process: Governing Boards

Today in Vitae I have a new piece on the role of governing boards in the academic hiring process. My basic premise is this:

If boards are not just applying rubber stamps to hiring decisions made by appropriate academic officers (departments, committees, deans, provost, etc.), then they have do their work in a timely manner.

I propose the following new norm:

  • All approvals must be complete 3 months before the first working day for a new faculty appointment. That includes tenure decisions.
  • No one has to resign their position more than 2 months before the first day of a new semester.
This would protect the fiscal year (July 1 resignation for September 1 appt). It would protect individuals needing to move across country, sell homes, find schools, find work for spouses, plan courses, order books, etc. 

There's a much bigger context here about the appropriate role of governing boards at universities in the years and decades to come. We need to have that fight. But first, let's fix this fixable thing.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday Roundup - NEH summer seminars update and more.

This week I wrote about a lot of things, and I'll cover them below, but I want to focus on the NEH Summer Seminars. I generally see the NEH as unobtainable for me as a scholar (not as a teacher. They actually have good teaching-related programs. I am not talking about them).

As a scholar, I'm not famous enough. I don't work for a famous institution. I didn't get my PhD at a fancy enough place. I didn't get fancy grants as a grad student or junior scholar. In academia, you get tracked, and if you're not on the fancy track, it's very hard to move up. Yes, there are exceptions, but we're a prestige-laden bunch and it's hard to make these kinds of jumps.

One exception, though, is the summer seminar and institute program. They are designed to bring together scholars from all kinds of levels, from grad students to community colleges to teaching 4-years to branch campuses to the most elite schools in the country. Other programs link college professors and K-12 teachers, transforming teaching practices across America. 

Until a few weeks ago, some of these programs were hosted abroad. They had the same costs as any other seminar in terms of stipends and salaries, with at most marginal other costs around the edges. And yet, for "budget reasons," allegedly, the NEH has cancelled them. They did it without discussion. They did it without warning.

One other data point - right-wing Senator Jeff Sessions lampooned these programs as "vacations" last April. The NEH is claiming that's just a coincidence.

I will have a piece on this coming out via Chronicle Vitae in a few weeks (it's filed and in the queue). But there's more to do here. Stay tuned. Most all, here's my post where I am collecting testimony on how these seminars have changed careers and teaching practices. Please read it. Please share it.

Other writing this week:

I got pissed off at comic merchandising aimed at girls

Lydia Brown was asked to give an accessibility workshop at Georgetown. No one came. She articulated what it means, beautifully.

Saudi Arabia is destroying the historical landscape of Mecca. I see it as linked to other forms of extremism.

Finally, a bigoted group in Minnesota buys a whole page in the major paper there.

Friday, October 3, 2014

History and Memory - The Destruction of Mecca

From the Travels of Ibn Battuta.
That night, while I was sleeping on the roof of the cell, I dreamed that I was on the wing of a great bird which was flying with me towards Mecca, then to Yemen, then eastwards and thereafter going towards the south, then flying far eastwards and finally landing in a dark and green country, where it left me. I was astonished at this dream and said to myself "If the shaykh can interpret my dream for me, he is all that they say he is." Next morning, after all the other visitors had gone, he called me and when I had related my dream interpreted it to me saying: "You will make the pilgrimage [to Mecca] and visit [the Tomb of] the Prophet, and you will travel through Yemen, Iraq, the country of the Turks, and India. You will stay there for a long time and meet there my brother Dilshad the Indian, who will rescue you from a danger into which you will fall." Then he gave me a travelling-provision of small cakes and money, and I bade him farewell and departed. Never since parting from him have I met on my journeys aught but good fortune, and his blessings have stood me in good stead.
 Here's a new narrative:
WHEN Malcolm X visited Mecca in 1964, he was enchanted. He found the city “as ancient as time itself,” and wrote that the partly constructed extension to the Sacred Mosque “will surpass the architectural beauty of India’s Taj Mahal.”
Fifty years on, no one could possibly describe Mecca as ancient, or associate beauty with Islam’s holiest city. Pilgrims performing the hajj this week will search in vain for Mecca’s history.
The dominant architectural site in the city is not the Sacred Mosque, where the Kaaba, the symbolic focus of Muslims everywhere, is. It is the obnoxious Makkah Royal Clock Tower hotel, which, at 1,972 feet, is among the world’s tallest buildings.
This opinion piece from the New York Times describes the complete destruction of the historical landscape and architecture of Mecca and its consequences for the hajj. It emerges out of a form of iconoclasm, the fear that sacred images usually - but in this case sacred places too - encourage veneration of the human, the tangible, the thing, rather than God.

Mecca in 1850
It's also a new phenomenon, this kind of erasure of a sacred past, at least in Islam. One hears, all the time, about the Muslim dislike of figural images, especially the controversy about images of the Prophet. In fact, Muslims have produced thousands of images (probably more) of the prophet over the centuries (click here for a big archive) as well as many other figural images. Other Muslims have destroyed such images, have demanded only geometric art, and so forth.

These are questions of debate and interpretation and they have a long history. But there's a reason that the Buddhas in Afghanistan stood for 1700 years, much of it in Islamic hands, before being destroyed by the Taliban. There are reasons that ISIS has defaced many ancient landmarks, though they are also quite happy to sell pre-Islamic artifacts on the black market. And Saudi Arabia's leaders are destroying Mecca's past, in the interest of extremism, profit, and control. [my emphasis in the following]:
The only other building of religious significance in the city is the house where the Prophet Muhammad lived. During most of the Saudi era it was used first as a cattle market, then turned into a library, which is not open to the people. But even this is too much for the radical Saudi clerics who have repeatedly called for its demolition. The clerics fear that, once inside, pilgrims would pray to the prophet, rather than to God — an unpardonable sin. It is only a matter of time before it is razed and turned, probably, into a parking lot.
The cultural devastation of Mecca has radically transformed the city. Unlike Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, Mecca was never a great intellectual and cultural center of Islam. But it was always a pluralistic city where debate among different Muslim sects and schools of thought was not unusual. Now it has been reduced to a monolithic religious entity where only one, ahistoric, literal interpretation of Islam is permitted, and where all other sects, outside of the Salafist brand of Saudi Islam, are regarded as false. Indeed, zealots frequently threaten pilgrims of different sects. Last year, a group of Shiite pilgrims from Michigan were attacked with knives by extremists, and in August, a coalition of American Muslim groups wrote to the State Department asking for protection during this year’s hajj.
The erasure of Meccan history has had a tremendous impact on the hajj itself. The word “hajj” means effort. It is through the effort of traveling to Mecca, walking from one ritual site to another, finding and engaging with people from different cultures and sects, and soaking in the history of Islam that the pilgrims acquired knowledge as well as spiritual fulfillment. Today, hajj is a packaged tour, where you move, tied to your group, from hotel to hotel, and seldom encounter people of different cultures and ethnicities. Drained of history and religious and cultural plurality, hajj is no longer a transforming, once-in-a-lifetime spiritual experience. It has been reduced to a mundane exercise in rituals and shopping.
I want to note that I put the Taliban, ISIS, and the Saudi Salafis in a single paragraph above. I am doing it again here. The Saudi government has long struck a deal with their extremists - they give them a safe place to live, they give them money, they give them power over religious expression, and in exchange Saudi doesn't face the kind of extremist pressure seen in other Sunni countries. It's been a good deal for the government; it's been bad for the world, it's been worse for Islam, and now it's destroying Mecca.

There have been long period in Islamic history were pluralism was the default - not just strains of Islam, but many other religions as well. This is the prime target of extremists - not really "The West," or Israel, or Christianity, but other forms of Islam.

I am struggling to find any analogy from history to the utter destruction of the historical landscape of Mecca. Even in the great moments of iconoclasm, when images were destroyed, whole landscapes remained intact, in part because technology didn't exist to erase them. The particular relationship with sacred space - the urge to turn it into shopping malls and packaged tours - is riveting and terrifying.

It's also inexorable. Mecca, the holy city, will be Mecca the Mall, gleaming and modern, air conditioned, effortless for the rich, unobtainable for the poor.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The "Retard Olympics" - Torture Alleged in a PA Jail


This is what happens when the prison becomes the default first-line of care for people with serious mental health issues. This is what happens with prison guards grow up in a culture demeaning people with disabilities. This is what happens when you feed the cult of compliance. This is what happens when you crowd the prisons to overflowing in the name of the war on drugs.

You get guards inventing the sadistic "retard olympics" for their amusement, as alleged in the following lawsuit from a former prisoner with bipolar disorder. Here's the gist:
 [Hicks] claims that jail guards staged the "Retard Olympics" on several occasions at the York County Prison from 2008 through 2013.
     He claims that he and other inmates were subjected to "events" that included:
     being choked to the point of unconsciousness before pressure was released;
     being punched in the arms and legs until their limbs were numb;
     being punched repeatedly in the legs with the goal of inflicting a "dead leg," which had no sensation and prevented walking;
     being punched in the shoulders to see if prisoners could take the blow without falling;
     having inmates wrestle each other until an officer decided there was a winner;
     forced consumption of food to make prisoners sick and vomit, including drinking a gallon of milk in one hour, eating an entire spoonful of cinnamon, snorting spicy ramen noodle flavoring powder, snorting crushed hard candy, eating entire pieces of fruit, skin and all, drinking a bottle of water containing pepper spray foam from prison security supplies, and drinking a concoction known as "Mystery Soup" containing olives that had been left unrefrigerated for several weeks, mixed with Windex or similar cleaning supplies.
This is obviously an extreme case, but I contend that other kinds of casual ableist depictions of people with disabilities as objects for amusement feeds into this model of torture.

This is obviously an extreme case, but I contend that other kinds of casual ableist depictions of people with disabilities as objects for amusement feeds into this model of torture.
Welcome to Down syndrome awareness month.
Next week is Mental Illness awareness week
October 10 is World Mental Health day

Are you feeling more aware now? This is what happens when people with disabilities are objectified.

Police Killings in San Francisco - #CultofCompliance

Yesterday, KQED - NPR in San Francisco - published a long piece on police killings and psychiatric disability in San Francisco. 58% of all police killings involve forms of disability such as schizophrenia, many of them include weapons, and yet there may be ways to rethink strategies that could save some of the lives.

The piece is very thoughtful about the "Memphis Model," a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training that has been widely reported on over the last few months and which is being implemented across the country, with some success. In a piece for CNN (that I wish had found a bigger audience), I argued the following:
In cases like these, we need to stop talking about mental illness and start thinking through the implications of psychiatric disabilities. We also need police whose first instinct is to de-escalate tense situations whenever and however possible, and, when necessary, solve confrontations with the absolute minimum amount of force.

"Psychiatric disability" refers to mental illness that "significantly interferes with the performance of major life activities," a category that clearly applies to people whose "erratic behavior" got them killed by police.
The distinction matters. In America, being disabled comes with certain civil rights protections. While we generally try to eradicate illness, we are required to accommodate disability. So how does a police officer accommodate someone behaving erratically and holding a knife?
That's very much the same question being asked by KQED staff who reported on the piece. Their examples also link to my broader work on the Cult of Compliance. Police come into situations in which they have been called to help with a person exhibiting signs of mental distress. They are trained in CIT, but they still create confrontational situations, then respond with deadly force.

Each of these stories in the SF piece are complicated. Individually, perhaps, they can be understood and excused and justified. Collectively, though, the message is much bigger.
Often it starts with a call for help. A family member, a caretaker or even a stranger dials 911 seeking paramedics to treat someone in a psychiatric crisis. But when there’s a threat of violence, the first responders are usually police, and what started as a call for help can quickly turn deadly for a person with a treatable illness.
The first case is Errol Chang, whose family needed help getting him to the hospital as he turned increasingly paranoid, so they called the police. CIT-trained officers responded.
A series of escalations led Chang to barricade himself inside the house. The Daly City SWAT team arrived with assault rifles and an armored car.
According to the DA review, police were worried Chang might find a .22-caliber rifle and ammunition hidden separately in the house. The SWAT team held their assault rifles trained on the house and took cover behind the armored car.
So there we have the key fact - there's a chance, however slim, that a man (who ultimately had a knife) might have a rifle, so they operate as if he does have the rifle. They breach the house eventually, Chang stabs an officer in the arm, and gets shot 8 times.

Yanira Serrano-Garcia wasn't taking her medication for schizophrenia. Teresa Sheehan had stopped taking her medication too (she survived being shot). The piece then moves into looking at this question:
Here’s the question before the court: If police know they are dealing with a person with mental illness, and they use confrontational tactics that can agitate the person, are they violating the Americans with Disabilities Act?
I urge you to go read the whole report, look at the long chart of police shootings, and their discussion of the Memphis Model and its deployment in San Francisco. This is a great piece of reporting and needs a wide audience.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Comic Merchandising and Raising Supergirl (actually she prefers Thor)

The new Thor is coming out, in which Thor's hammer goes to a woman, and she become Thor. My daughter, who is 5, is excited. Stay tuned for Halloween costumes later this month, in which she raises her hammer into the air, and shouts, THOR!

I'm not a comics expert, but Marvel seems to have done a better job with racial and gender diversity in their comic lines. Their movies also include some strong female characters, though tend to put them to the side a bit in marketing (where's Gamora? Where's Black Widow too in the products)? I also noticed that Gamora's big fight was with another woman, a hackneyed approach, but whatever. Marvel's doing a good job compared to this ...

This is an actual shirt, sold to Tweens, in Walmart, licensed by DC. Now that's the same thing as DC putting out this product, they were just happy to cash the check when someone licensed it.

The shirt has been well covered in the media, with the Mary Sue making a positive case for female heroes being badasses merchandise.

My daughter loves superheroes and so has, as a result, a lot of superhero underwear. She has superhero underwear that is all pinkified. Similarly, we bought her minion underwear, and it's covered with hearts.

The thing is, this isn't necessary. Here's a set of underwear showing superheroes being superheroes, and awesome.

See, that's not so hard. It sells well. It pleases my daughter even though it turns out it's hard to read the comic on your own underpants while you are wearing them.

In the meantime, DC is saying they will re-examine their licensing practices. I'll believe it when I see it. 

P.S. The history of Wonder Woman is entirely wrapped up in the invention of birth control, Planned Parenthood, sexual experimentation in the early 20th century, and all sorts of other fascinating things, as described here by Jill Lepore.