Saturday, February 28, 2015

Day of Mourning - 3/1/2015

Every year on March 1st, the disability community gathers to mourn people killed by their parents and caregivers. We mourn all untimely deaths, of course, and there are far too many deaths by accident, stranger violence, police violence, and more.

But there is something specific to the disability community in which caregivers kill and then are forgiven in the media. The media rhetoric explains away the violence by making disability itself the culprit.

We reject that narrative.

Here is a statement by Autistic Self-Advocacy Network president Ari Ne'eman
Memory is an important part of how we define our communities. When we think about the history of the disability rights movement, there are so many moments at which we stop and think to ourselves, “But for the actions of those who came before me, I might not be here with the chances and opportunities I have today.” From the heroes of the 504 Sit-In to the modern day struggles to free our people from institutions and nursing homes, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We are bound together by the memory of those who fought on our behalf.
But the memories that tie us together as a community aren’t just the happy moments, the victories where our cause takes a great step forward. We bond over our sorrows as well. Today, we are gathered together to remember members of our community who had their very lives taken from them, for no other reason than because they were one of us. Because they were disabled.
For George Hodgins, for Melissa Stoddard, for Daniel Corby, for Nancy Fitzmaurice, for London McCabe, for Katie McCarron and Tracy Latimer and Alex Spourdalakis and countless, countless others, there will be no opportunity to share in our community’s moments of celebration. There will be no chance to experience the sweet sense of belonging that we’ve each come to together after long years of fear in our time apart. There will be no chance even for the everyday joys of existence itself.
Here is a list of vigil sites for 2015. I do not know whether I will be able to attend the Chicago event, but I hope to do so.

I wrote an article on the death of London McCabe, quoting Ari, on this issue. My motto is that we should write victim-centered narratives, not killer-centered narratives. This was, I think, the hardest piece I've ever written in terms of its emotional effect on me. And I received criticism on it for not talking about the killer's mental health issues in an appropriately sympathetic way. It's not my goal to demonize the killer, it is my goal to remember London. This is the paragraph that gutted me.
London McCabe did not want to die. London liked big hats. He liked fuzzy stuffed animals. He made a wish on his cupcake for his sixth birthday. In September, his father wrote, "London is pleased as punch. He lays on our laps and puts our hands together. Last night he made the 'mmmwha!' sound and gave his Mommy a kiss. Then he made the same sound and pushed our faces together. He's all smiles."
Wherever your body is tomorrow, spend a few minutes remembering those we've lost. Vow to remember them. Try to tell their stories.

I will continue to use my blog and, to the extent I can land pieces, my contacts in journalism, to tell victim-centered stories and to call out those reporters who do otherwise. That's my promise.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates at Dominican University: Activism and Change

Last night I had the pleasure of watching one our nation's great writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, give a talk on the case for reparations at my university. The content of the talk was based on his recent major article for The Atlantic, which you should read. His thesis is that for 350 years, in an ongoing fashion, African-Americans can and are being plundered for their labor. Slavery is a major part of that story, the first 250 years, but he talks mostly housing and redlining and its consequences in the mid-20th century.

In the Q&A, he said something very interesting. A professor asked him what he would tell these "young people" in the crowd tonight, and he very important. He told them that none of them were all that likely to see real change, or at least they couldn't predicate their activism on that change.

He said that every time the African-American community had seen change, it had been because of a context that made the change useful to majority white society. Frederick Douglas was a great activist against slavery, but emancipation happened because it became useful to winning the Civil War. Ida B. Wells was a great activist against lynching, but the federal government did nothing. MLK was a great activist against discrimination, but civil rights legislation took place because the South was embarrassing America in the Cold War.

Now these historical statements are naturally reductive - Coates made them quickly and off-the-cuff - but they do speak to the difficulty of change. For 250 years, he said, slaves rebelled, slaves fled, slaves resisted. They brought no change, but they did say, in Coates' words, "Not in my name."

And then he talked about activism and, for him, writing, of telling true stories and trying to undermine myths of history that serve oppression. Speaking out. Rallying. Even implicitly, rebelling against unjust systems. He didn't promise change as a result of activism, but he promised that saying - not in my name - might help you sleep at night or live with yourself.

And to me, it's the telling of true of stories (which is what I try to do) and activism in all its forms, which has the potential to create the context in which change can take place. It's just not predictable and you cannot base your activism on whether or not you see change. You just have to act, however and in whatever ways you can, locally, globally, in art, in prose, on the streets, in the halls of power, in conversations in your local bar, with your fascist uncle at the holiday table, wherever.

And then you hope that you're lucky enough to be present when the context changes.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Christian Holy War - Next on FOX

All the news lately on Bill O'Reilly has focused on his chronic exaggeration of his records as a reporter on war. The short story is that while has has seen violent things here and there, he's not a war reporter, but it's not likely Fox News or their audience will care.

What I don't want is to let O'Reilly and his producers/writers off the hook for this.

After the Graeme Wood ISIS piece came out, O'Reilly used it to declare that we are in a Holy War. Now I know something about Holy Wars, and it's always possible for one side or another to decree that they are in a sanctified battle. Things get really nasty, though, when both sides adopt such rhetoric, and that's exactly what O'Reilly did here.
Fox News host Bill O'Reilly boosted his idea that the U.S. is in a holy war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), demanding the Obama administration "take the holy war seriously" and urging American clerics to lead the fight.
After the Islamic State's beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya, O'Reilly claimed that "the holy war is here" on the February 17 edition of his show. O'Reilly later called on "all Christians, Jews, and secularists who love their country" to call the White House and "say enough."
On the February 18 edition of his show, O'Reilly again claimed it is "appropriate to define the worldwide conflict between Muslim fanatics and nearly everybody else" as a "holy war" and demanded President Obama "take the holy war seriously." O'Reilly asserted that the West must come together to eliminate the Islamic State, adding that "if the politicians won't do it, the clergy must lead the way."
What's ironic is that for days before this the right-wing was insisting that Christianity was fundamentally peaceful, while Islam was fundamentally violent.  And yet here he calls on clergy to lead the way.

This is dangerous talk. It's going to lead to further intensification of anti-Islamic sentiment and activity among radical right-wing Christians, it's going to serve ISIS very well in their recruitment efforts, and it wouldn't surprise me if it creates more domestic violence against Muslims.

I care about this much more than whether O'Reilly invented a fantasy of himself as a war correspondent. The fantasy of salvific violence is much more dangerous.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

National Adjunct Walkout Day

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day. Around the country, adjuncts have organized walkouts and rallies and donation funds and many other efforts to bring people together and insist on fair wages.

And they are right to do so. As a tenured faculty member, I stand fully in support with this movement, I see their movement as my movement, and will continue do the following - write publicly on the issue, act privately within my university and department, be ready to stand in picket lines and participate in labor actions as they emerge.

I have written some adjunct-related pieces.
Here are a few additional thoughts, though nothing formal, and I welcome debate, dissent, and added thoughts.

The entire university system is now balanced on a tower of debt on the one hand and an exploited workforce on the other. It is unsustainable. I think part of the key moving forward is to link these two problems in the eyes of students and parents (and politicians), rather than the current method of short-changing teachers to keep tuition costs down (not that it's working).

What does the future of higher education look like?

1. The whole university system collapses except for the super elite. We're all adjuncts. It's just about workforce training.

2. Students rebel against the adjunct system, realizing they are going into debt and the money isn't going into instruction. Paradise returns!

3. We continue to stratify in sustainable if unjust ways, dividing the profession between research and teaching profs more explicitly. Both earning stable middle class wages, but tracked and hard for teaching profs to switch from one to the other. Adjuncts return to their original purpose as short-term offerings, ways to bring professionals into the school, and related functions.

I guess I'm working for #3, as I believe it's realistic and possible that we could to turn most adjunct jobs into stable teaching positions with benefits, professional development, and a decent wage. I think we serve the students best when we are teacher-scholars (and I am very critical of profs who, at the elite level, try to avoid the classroom), both contributing to our field and engaging learners in the classroom. So I dislike the split model, but it's better than what we have now.

How do we get there?

One way is for the accrediting bodies to demand that we meet certain thresholds.

A second is for students and parents to demand it. Adjuncts are usually terrific teachers (my basic premise is that everyone is brilliant), but part of what makes a great college prof is the ability to really engage with your students. Adjuncts don't have the time. They often take time though, and then their wages per hour plummet even lower.

A third is for adjuncts, themselves, through labor actions and the support of other faculty, to force change.

Can we combine these three? I'm not sure, but I'm going to continue to write in ways that talk to fellow tenured faculty and to prospective students and parents of students, while supporting labor actions as they come up.

My pledge: I will not cross a picket line of adjuncts.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Another Astounding Adventure of Space Pirate Pilot Ellie!

Pretty much everyone agrees that fostering creativity is one of the most important things you do for a child. Skills are all well and good, of course, but the ability to imagine and create matter so much to overall development. One way to foster, of course, is by reading to them and then with them, as books do wonders for a child's brain. Imagination play of any kind is fruitful.

When my daughter goes to bed, I usually have her pick between a book or a story, though sometimes she gets both. I tell her silly stories about made-up characters, including a recurring series of adventures of Space Pilot Pirate Ellie! and Space Engineer Nico (First Class). 

Last night, this happened:

Ellie: Will you tell me a Space Pirate Pilot Ellie story?
Me: No, I just read you a whole book!
Ellie: I could tell you one?
Me: Ok!
Ellie: Once upon a time there was a space pirate named Pilot Ellie, and what she really wanted was a cookie. But not just any cookie. She wanted the Cookie of Space! But it was guarded by the Cookie King. And if you ate the Cookie of Space you would become unstoppable and never die. So she blasted off to the Cookie Planet and met the Cookie King, and said, "I want the cookie of space, please!" And the Cookie King said, "No! Not unless we battle." So Space Pirate Pilot Ellie said, "Ok, we can do that." And then they battled. Pew Pew Pew Pew. And then the Cookie King said, "Ok, you win." And then they shared the Cookie of Space. And they became unstoppable. And the next people they battled is what I will tell you in the next story.

Then I kissed her goodnight. Maybe it's time to build another spaceship.

From October 2013. My daughter and I made a spaceship!

She's so serious!

#DontreHamilton - Milwaulkee Doesn't Follow Its Own Police Oversight Law

Wisconsin has good rules for independent review of police killings, at least partially as told through this story in Politico. The author tells the story of his son's death, the lawsuit, and then the campaign to get an independent review law passed. He concludes:
Finally we began to get some movement, helped by a friendly Republican legislator, Garey Bies, and a Democratic assemblyman named Chris Taylor, in August of 2012. In April of this year we passed a law that made Wisconsin the first state in the nation to mandate at legislative level that police-related deaths be reviewed by an outside agency. Ten days after it went into effect in May, local police shot a man sleeping on a park bench 15 times. It’s one of the first incidents to be investigated under the new law.
So, that's great and other states are looking to Wisconsin as a model for how to respond to officer-involved killings. But such models only work if they are followed. In the killing of Dontre Hamilton, a black man with psychiatric disabilities, they weren't.
A former state legislator who co-sponsored a law requiring independent investigation of those deaths says the Milwaukee Police Department and state Department of Justice didn't comply following the death of Dontre Hamilton.

"Milwaukee just thinks they're different from the rest of the state and they just do things their own way, and until somebody makes them accountable for their actions, they're going to continue," said Garey Bies, a Republican who represented Sister Bay in the Legislature for 13 years. "The citizens of Milwaukee should be insisting that they abide by the law the way the rest of the state has to."
The piece goes on to give background on the law, detail the way it wasn't followed in this case, and quote lawmakers and advocates on their hopes for the future. Here's the point I want to make, though. When we build new systems of police accountability, we also must build in consequences for not following through on those systems. Too often I see stories in which resources and oversight were available, not used, and there are no professional consequences. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Inspiration Porn Part 2 - Abled woman tells Disability Community that Inspiration Porn is Great!

This is one of the worst essays I have ever read on disability. An abled person informing the disability community that inspiration porn is a good thing. She even has the audacity to cite Stella Young. Here's the piece, then a commercial that I think does a better job.
There’s a debate raging on the internet right now about whether or not it’s cool to call disabled people ‘inspirational’ – and going beyond that, whether it’s a) a good thing or b) downright patronising to use them in advertising/promotional campaign - leaving aside the slightly unfortunate casting of Oscar Pistorius as the ‘face’ for a male designer fragrance a couple of years ago. Ooops.

Microsoft, for instance, has been showing off how its technology has helped a six-year-old boy with prosthetic legs. During the American Superbowl footiefest earlier this month, Paralympian Amy Purdy (who has two prosthetic legs) was enlisted to run, dance and even snowboard on behalf of Toyota.

And I say: more power to their elbows. Or possibly bionic knees. I am, I acknowledge, writing this from the standpoint of someone with two legs and two arms whose only (small) disability seems to be that the bit of my brain which can process instruction manuals appears to be entirely absent.
So much wrong. First, her little joke about instruction manuals betrays fundamental ignorance about disability. It's not a joke. We're not all "just a little bit disabled." The notion that we might move in and out of disability throughout our lives is a sophisticated and complex concept, layered with disability hierarchies and the complexities of our medically-guided society.

Furthermore, inspiration porn is not about being patronising, but about using disability to make abled people feel good/inspired.

She goes on:

But considering the prejudices and other challenges that most disabled people have had to encounter in their lifetime – appalling access to many buildings, being referred to in the third person, or, and I have this direct from a disabled friend, ‘being farted at’ right, left and centre (the wheelchair-bound being positioned at the exact height the rest of the population break wind), I don’t see how this can be anything but a positive thing.
The question is asked: should disabled people be positioned as ‘inspirational’? By suggesting that they somehow have additional, superhuman qualities for achieving great things, is this not offensive? Aussie comedian Stella Young has referred to the putting of disabled people on some kind of pedestal as ‘inspiration porn’.
If you don't know Stella Young, sadly recently passed away, go watch her TED talk and read her writings and interviews with her. You'll be glad you did. 

I believe this author that she doesn't "see how this can be anything but a positive thing." One person who might tell her why was, of course, Stella Young. She goes on to talk about her brother-in-law, in a wheelchair, an inspiration to all, with a "harem" (which makes me wonder about her sister).

She talks about the ways in which the disabled were generally invisible in the past, so more visibility is good, and this is true so far as it goes. But visibility does not necessarily lead to change, it leads to people thinking - hey, everything is ok now! I remember when a comedy group did a whole show making fun of disability because "they've got the ADA and we don't." Visibility can lead to complacency.
As for someone who is born with a disability? Whatever happens to each of us is our ‘normal’ – and we don’t know any different. But yes, I do still feel for anyone who is faced with a daily challenge like getting up kerbs in a wheelchair, or shopping in a supermarket (no pushing trolleys for the single disabled shopper), or who has to strap on a prosthetic limb to go to the loo in the middle of the night.  
She "feels" for you, disabled people. That's the end result of all of this - her feelings for you. She feels good about herself because she feels bad for you.

The problem with this article is not, in fact the article itself, but that it reflects the dominant mode of representation and discourse about disability in modern media and everyday life in western culture (and maybe elsewhere, I don't know).

Here's an ad that I like (and it's a real family, though one with a reality-TV background). A multi-ethnic and multi-ability family (remember, disability IS diversity) using "assistive technology," by which I mean an easily extendable mop. It went reasonably viral, with a 2 million + views on YouTube, but I think it deserves more attention. There's nothing inspirational here. There's nothing about making you feel good about yourself because the disabled person has overcome adversity. Rather, there's a tool that's pretty useful set within the context of everyday family life.


I actually some of the superbowl ads weren't that bad either, at least compared to some of the things from the past. And some of it is tone - The Microsoft ad had potential, but the voice-over wrecked it. The Toyota ad was worse - because it wasn't even about disability, it just used a great athlete with prosthetic legs, soaring music, and a powerful voiceover from Muhammad Ali about "how great I am" to inspire the viewer about Toyotas.

And hey, I'm glad Amy Purdy got the work for a major ad. But it's still inspiration porn. Here's an Elizabeth Heideman piece on the superbowl ads making that point.

Finally - and I know this post has been long - what is it with prosthetic legs right now and  marketing? Do they rest in some kind of "canny valley," in which they are just strange enough and new enough to be cool, but not so odd to fall into the "uncanny valley?" I'm not sure.

At any rate, here's the take away: Fellow abled people, please don't write more op-eds on how inspiration porn is progress.

Inspiration Porn - Part I of II: Theory of Everything Edition

Hey, so someone playing disabled won an Oscar last night. Later today I am going to write about the worst example of able-splaining I've seen in a long time, in which a non-disabled person tells everyone why inspiration porn is great. But first, here's a disability-related critique of Theory of Everything. Short version - it's about making albed people feel better.
The Theory of Everything is the embodiment of this idea. It is so keen to pander to able-bodied audience members’ disgust at disability, and to soothe the guilt they feel because of it, that it actually pauses to allow that “collective ‘Phew’ ” to occur during the film. James Marsh’s movie exists for two purposes: to make able-bodied people feel good about themselves and to win Oscars.
It's not just the representation of disability here, but also the common phenomenon of  "cripping up."

Like many other disabled people, I have often argued that disabled characters should, wherever possible, be played by disabled actors. When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors, disabled actors are robbed of the chance to work in their field, and the disabled community is robbed of the right to self-representation onscreen. Imagine what it would feel like to be a woman and for the only women you ever saw in films to be played by men. Imagine what it would feel like to be a member of an ethnic minority and for the only portrayals of your race you ever saw in films to be given by white people. That’s what it’s like being a disabled person at the movies.
Harris, one of my favorite film critics on such issues, notes that it's certainly possible that some disabled people must be played by abled people when the script calls for movement between states. And yet:
 Even if we accept that Redmayne should get a pass to play Hawking, we are still left with a film that excludes disabled people while pretending to speak for them. The Theory of Everything is based on a book by an able-bodied person, adapted by an able-bodied screenwriter, and directed by an able-bodied director, and it stars able-bodied actors.
This is the real problem. There's no authenticity to the disabled experience within this (Harris goes on to contrast with Selma), but it has claims to authenticity.

It therefore is a film by abled people about disability in order to make abled people feel good about themselves.

More later.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

CALL TO ACTION - New Jersey has a great new plan; Providers want to crush it.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has just alerted me to an ongoing issue in the state of New Jersey. Amazing, New Jersey has come up with a great new plan to move away from group homes and institutions and bring real support into the communities.

That model threatens providers' revenue streams, though, and they are fighting back. Here's what ASAN has to say.
Last month, the State of New Jersey did something important. For years, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been stuck in places where other people controlled every aspect of their lives. Now, the State is proposing a new plan to deliver community services in the community and require those providing housing supports to respect the rights of people with disabilities to make their own decisions. The rule also prevents providers from warehousing people with disabilities in segregated homes and facilities just for disabled residents.

Unfortunately, the provider lobby is fighting back. Provider organizations are attacking the new rule, with one prominent NJ housing provider calling it a “misguided social experiment”. Do you think the rights of people with disabilities are a misguided social experiment? We don’t - and we want your help telling the State the disability rights side of the story.

These new rules are out for public comment till February 26th - we would like you to help stand up for disability rights by e-mailing your feedback to To help, we’ve provided the following sample text to assist you. We hope you will customize it and make it your own by sharing why you believe inclusion matters for people with disabilities.
At the link, ASAN offers some language to help you write your letter. Every letter counts. You do not have to be a New Jersey resident to comment and we need your help. Usually, these kinds of calls to action are to protest a bad plan. Instead, here we have a chance to support the optimal model for the future.

Write  -

Tell them you support community-based care!

Thank you.

Sunday Roundup - Abortion, Compliance, Language, History

I've missed a few Sundays, mostly because so much has been going on that I can't stop writing long enough to breathe and assess. I'll try to do better. Here's the week.

Published - Facebook and Fear: The story of one woman's decision to keep her child with Down syndrome, facilitated through some quick Facebook messages.

My posts:
This week will involve a lot of Latin as I prepare an academic paper. That usually means either frenetic blogging on the side, or radio silence. The way things have been lately, I'd bet on the former.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Anti-Women, Anti-Information: Indiana abortion bill advances.

A few weeks ago I wrote about an anti-choice bill in Indiana that was designed to drive a wedge between disability rights and reproductive rights activists. I argued:

As we head into the 2015 legislative session, we need to be prepared for anti-choice filed a bill last week to prohibit abortions based on fetal determinations of sex or potential disability. The proposed Indiana bill is very similar to legislation that failed to pass in last year’s session and mirrors a North Dakota bill that did pass in 2013. Regardless of this bill’s progress, it should serve as a warning to pro-choice disability rights activists of the legislative maneuvers sure to take place in the coming months.
individuals and groups to use the issue of disability-selection abortions to try and widen the divide between disability rights activists and those working for reproductive rights. It’s already begun in Indiana.
Here's the bad news - The bill is, in fact, advancing. And here's the worse news - A similar bill has been proposed in Ohio.
A yet-to-be introduced bill would prohibit abortions sought because a pre-natal screening or diagnostic test showed the fetus could have Down syndrome, also known as trisomy 21. The genetic disorder causes developmental delays and intellectual disability of varying degrees. Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, said details such as how the law would be enforced are still being determined as the bill is drafted.
This language is being pushed by anti-choice organizations in collaboration with their favorite lawmakers. It is the a new front (there are so many) of the abortion wars, and pro-choice anti-eugenics pro-information advocates need to be ready.

What's more,  the anti-choice lawmakers are doing the usual deception that this is pro-woman. The co-author of the bill said:
Bill co-author Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, said physicians too often steer women toward decisions without giving them enough information.
"I think what we're seeing today is a rush to judgment," Brown said.
There is just enough truth here to be dangerous. In fact women do make the decision to terminate the pregnancies based on partial or erroneous information, as Mark Leach discusses here. However, if Brown is really concerned with information, then pass a pro-information bill mandating physicians and genetic counselors provide full and accurate information. Instead, Indiana is going another direction.

Other lawmakers in Indiana have introduced a faux-information bill, following Louisiana in an attempt to hijack the pro-information coalition and bend it to serve anti-choice needs. I wrote:
In my RHRC essay I stated that pro-choice disability rights advocates like myself must agree that disability-selection abortion should be legal AND agree that talking about eugenic principles at play in such abortions can be discussed without undermining choice.

With right-wing legislators using pro-information as a way to further restrict access to reproductive choice, I don't know that I can make that second statement in good faith. I don't know that I can advocate for pro-information bills anymore.

In general, conservative legislatures pass anti-choice bills while simultaneously removing social supports for poor families. Even when the bills explicitly deal with disability-selection abortions, as in the two Indiana bills, they are not disability rights legislation. They are attempts to divide and conquer.
The state has no right to control women's bodies. The state also has no right to mandate health care providers lie or conceal  information from pregnant women.

And other right-wing states are sure to follow, because the national anti-choice organizations are drafting legislation and passing it around. Be ready.

Friday, February 20, 2015

How Not to Report on Violence against Disabled Children

In Spokane, a woman stabbed her autistic son in the neck. Here is 100% of the information on the victim (link here):
Court documents say the 17-year-old son had several cut marks on his neck and throat, but officials say his wounds were not life threatening.
The rest of the piece is about how hard life must have been on the mother, building sympathy for her. It perpetuates the idea that autism is so terrible that it must be cured, eradicated, vanished. That violence against autistic people is reasonable. That (to cross news stories for a minute), it's better not to get vaccinated than to risk autism (NOTE: Vaccines do not cause autism. END NOTE). This kind of little news piece is part of the problem.

I wrote about this after the death of London McCabe.
London had autism. Media coverage of his death has widely focused on the stresses and challenges of raising a child with autism. In other words, the stories are about his mother and her problems finding help, not the dead boy.
This is a mistake. In all cases of violent crime, but especially those involving people with disabilities and their caregivers, we need to mourn the victims, rather than explain away their deaths. Unfortunately, whenever these terrible kinds of tragedies take place, which they do far too often, we do just the opposite.
Here, then, is a perfect example of what not to do.

And here's the thing, even if the mother's story is in fact tragic and filled with difficulty, even if she's struggling with all sorts of issues, even if she needed support that she didn't get, that's not the story we should be telling after an event like this. I want to tell stories about parents needing and getting more help, while advocating for policies that change lives. I tell these stories all the time, highlighting individuals and organizations, arguing for or against laws, and so forth.

But after an act of violence, we need to tell the boy's story. We tell about his life. We make sure that he's represented as a full person who didn't want to get stabbed in the neck. We must not blame the disability.

This story does exactly the opposite, going to a local parent at the Northwest Autism Center who ALSO talks about how hard her life is, not how meaningful her child's life is.

Disability community - we need to call this out, give better models to journalists, write to the NW Autism Center, and otherwise change this mode of journalism.

Internet Communities and Special Needs Parenting

I have a new piece up at CNN (here's the English language version. I've just never, to my knowledge, been translated before, so sharing this!). I try to make some big points, but at the core there's an amazing story.

I got a message about an expectant mother of twins, one of who had Down syndrome, who was thinking about leaving her child with Down syndrome at the hospital (under safe haven laws this is not a crime). Still, it's not the best answer, so I got in touch with a friend, Amy Allison, who then put me in touch with Stephanie Thompson, the head of the National Down Syndrome Adoption Society. Stephanie reached out to "Jane," the mother, and eventually Jane decided to keep both children. To my mind, contact with the community - information - helped ease the fear of the unknown.

Here are a few points I want to emphasize:

1. I did nothing much. This isn't a story of me saving the day, but just sending a couple emails. As a result, lives changed. That's astounding.

2. We don't know the end of the story. This is not a "happy ending," but a better beginning. I wish Jane, her spouse and her children the best, but I also don't want to pretend the challenges aren't real.

3. This argument applies to all kinds of niche groups. The link was dropped in edits, but I wanted to link to Seth Mnookin's New Yorker article on fighting rare diseases. I know many people in the Queer community feel similarly that internet contacts are amazing for people, especially kids, who are isolated. There's a dark side too - hate groups find these connection tools equally powerful.

4. I cannot imagine a more pro-life story than this one. It's about a family trying to stay together after receiving better information and good contacts. I am, as anyone who reads me knows, pro-choice and anti-eugenics. I want people to choose life. I want people NOT to choose to abort based on pre-natal diagnoses of disabilities. But it is NOT the job of the state to regulate women's bodies. It is not the job of the state to make abortion, of any kind, illegal. It is ALSO not the job of the state to practice eugenics itself. Pro-choice, pro-information, anti-eugenics.

Now that stance is going to upset some of you in the Down syndrome community, and I regret that. What I really regret, though, are the reactionary voices who, because they disagree with me on abortion, can't celebrate the story I'm sharing here.

The Jérôme Lejeune Foundation is a strongly pro-life Down syndrome group. We don't see eye-to-eye on many things. But in the end, both of us want better lives for people with Down syndrome and to help parents, children, adults with Down syndrome, and communities do better. So they shared my story. And then came the reactionary backlash.

Sullivan basically wants to exclude anyone from the Down syndrome community who doesn't cleave to his hardline on abortion. He enters threads and demands that every conversation be solely about abortion and banning abortion. He's not alone, but rather an egregious example of a type.

So let's be clear. I welcome collaboration to my pro-life colleagues to our ongoing efforts to make life better for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities. I will try to persuade you that state regulation of women's bodies is not an ethical OR practical solution (it will just made Down syndrome code for poor as, elites will continue to abort, for example). I expect you to try to persuade me that I'm wrong. I am ready for that debate.

We have to build coalitions. I'm here. Are you?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lavall Hall - The Cult of Compliance Claims a New Victim

It started, as it so often does, with a family member calling 911 for help for a loved one in mental

health crisis. Lavall Hall was outside, in Miami Gardens, when police arrived. He had a broomstick.
Miami Gardens police officers Peter Ehrlich and Eddo Trimino fired their Tasers at Lavall Hall after he struck them with the metal end of a broomstick. The Tasers had no effect. Then they chased Hall for about half a block before he turned and charged at them. As Hall neared, Trimino fired his gun five times, striking Hall twice, once in the arm, and the kill shot to his chest. Hall was still alive and “struggling” when the officers handcuffed him and placed him faced down on the street. He died moments later.

Note - He was running away and the police chased. Then when he turned, they were too close to maintain space. As I wrote about for the death of Kristiana Coignard and Kajieme Powell, the minute we enter a situation where the police have decided that the suspect must obey commands or be shot, shooting is inevitable. Here's Hall's death as described by the chief [my emphasis]:
That version of Sunday morning’s violent encounter between Lavall Hall, 25, and the two Miami Gardens cops came from Miami Gardens Police Chief Stephen Johnson, as he addressed the media at police headquarters Tuesday night.
Tremino encountered the subject and gave him several commands. He continued to be combative,” said Johnson. “They did the best they could.”
They may well have done the best they could. But they didn't do enough. 
As Hall headed east on Northwest 191st Street, Tremino gave chase. “Mr. Hall at that time began to physically attack the officer,” Johnson said.
After hitting Tremino in the head with the broomstick, Johnson said Tremino fired his Taser. It had no effect. Hall headed south on Northwest Second Court, about half a block from his home. Tremino continued to chase. As Hall turned and charged toward the officer, Johnson said Tremino fired his weapon five times.

“He gave him several commands,” said Johnson.

Ehrlich was treated at the scene. Tremino went to the hosptial and received stitches. Both officers are on paid administrative leave. Johnson said both officers are veterans who have received crisis intervention training.
CIT is useful, but it's not a panacea. Maintain distance, call backup, be ready to gang tackle even if it means being hit with a broom handle.

These officers will be found innocent of any wrong doing (let alone criminal charges), but once it became a comply-or-die situation, that's a death sentence for people with psychiatric disabilities who cannot comply.

And so Lavall Hall is dead. Last week it was a man throwing rocks in Pasco. The week before, Coignard.

Who will die next week because police insist that people in mental health crisis be normal or be killed?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Post 500: I wrote a book.

This is the 500th post on How Did We Get Into This Mess? I started the blog as a place to dump essays that I couldn't sell, as I was new to freelancing in May of 2013, and caught up in the rush of public writing. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and pitched and landed about 1 in 10, leaving me with a lot of extra prose lying around. And so, I started this blog. My rate of successful pitches is more like 3 of 5 now, because I have relationships with editors and I got better at knowing what kinds of pitches find homes. And yet, the blog continues and has become its own thing. About 1000 people a day come here, a number that though small compared to commercial sites, seems preposterously grand. Thank you for reading, commenting, sharing. I will continue to do my best to say interesting things in clear ways.

Yesterday, my book came out (this is the publisher's website). Below I offer a few thoughts about connections between my scholarly work and my public writing.

Book Selfie!
Here's the blurb:

In Sacred Plunder, David Perry argues that plundered relics, and narratives about them, played a central role in shaping the memorial legacy of the Fourth Crusade and the development of Venice’s civic identity in the thirteenth century. After the Fourth Crusade ended in 1204, the disputes over the memory and meaning of the conquest began. Many crusaders faced accusations of impiety, sacrilege, violence, and theft. In their own defense, they produced hagiographical narratives about the movement of relics—a medieval genre called translatiothat restated their own versions of events and shaped the memory of the crusade. The recipients of relics commissioned these unique texts in order to exempt both the objects and the people involved with their theft from broader scrutiny or criticism. Perry further demonstrates how these narratives became a focal point for cultural transformation and an argument for the creation of the new Venetian empire as the city moved from an era of mercantile expansion to one of imperial conquest in the thirteenth century.
Some of my public writing is, of course, about medieval history. Crusades, popes, saints, medieval-like rhetoric from Sarah Palin, Christopher Columbus - these are all topics about which I've written essays that emerge directly from my expertise in medieval history. I am honored to be a public medieval historian and try to represent my profession well.

But really all my writing is based on the habits of mind I've developed as a scholar and a teacher. I gather data, I organize it, I pick it apart, I generate a thesis, and I try to explicate it as clearly as possible given the word-count restrictions and the venue. Moreover, thanks to my academic training I know what it's like to build a body of knowledge and then work it hard. I have no background in disability, media criticism, or law enforcement - but several years into these beats, I'm beginning to feel pretty grounded in all of them. Most all, just like with my medieval history, I have a sense of what I don't know. As any scholar recognizes, knowing one's limitations is critical to growth, to collaboration, to direct future studies. My reading list is immense, and that's a good thing.

There's something more direct, too. I write about memory, narrative, and language. I'm interested in what people did and do, but equally engaged with how we remember the past, how we represent ourselves and our histories in image, word, and text, and I believe such questions of representation matter. That's what my book's about - a group of stories, all of which present meaningful fictions about a recent event, and their consequences. It's also why I write about language and disability, language and gender, and related issues. The words we use to shape our reality, and the ways in our reality is revealed by the words we use, both consume my interest.

So thank you for reading. My book is now a real thing in the world. You could use it as a coaster. You could use it to squash spiders. You could even read it. And, of course, I'd be grateful if you bought it or (for academics) asked your library to do so.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Boys and Girls - The Sexualization of Language

Open a new browser window and do an image search for boys. Here's what I got.

All but two images in the first four rows are, in fact, boys (there are two adult male actors in row three).

Now do the same thing for the word "girls."

It's breasts and butts and lace and sexualized poses. Around image 40 or 50 you start to get the occasional actual child (from girl clothing ads), but as far as I scroll down, it continues to be mostly sexualized images of adult women.

Now there are plenty of other issues here in terms of race and body type and so forth, but right now I just to focus on the gender and age issue. 

I spend a lot of time writing and being concerned by the constant sexualization of girls throughout their whole lives, in fact even before they are born. I call it cradle-to-grave sexism.  Every time someone makes a "better get a shotgun" to an expectant father of a girl, it reinforces the idea that the whole job of the father is to control his daughter's sexuality. Every flirty doll intended for children. Every shirt about dating or getting money from daddy or otherwise linking sexist perceptions of adult behavior to children. Every "sexy" Halloween costume for girls. It's endless. here's the word "girls" itself. There are no girls. There's no room for a girl to just be a child.

And here we see that even the word "girl" has been locked within this sexualized framework. Even the word!

And unlike when there's some sexist product we can fight or boycott or protest, I have no idea what to do here. This is not Google's fault, but rather the aggregation of use and links and imagery flung up on the page. I have no solutions today.

[Note: This post was inspired by a friend, J., who was talking about gender pronouns with her daughters, and thought Google might help. Google instead showed this].

Monday, February 16, 2015

Is Church Only for the Neurotypical?

In America, an English-language Jesuit magazine, Mary Berth Werdel (a prof at Fordham) has a powerful essay about church and her autistic son. She begins with diagnosis and all its complexities, a story I've heard many times from many parents (which doesn't make this story less important or well-written!), but I really want to focus on the church issues.
In times of stress one often turns to faith for guidance. But my connection to organized church was struggling. Peter could not handle the stimulation of church. When it came time for the bells to ring during Mass, Peter would cover his ears and scream. In an attempt to help Peter understand the bells, the pastoral associate let him touch them after Mass. But the next Sunday the fear response was the same. One thing was clear: The bells I heard in my ears were not the same sound Peter was hearing.

So we bought Peter a headset he could wear during Mass. It was not plugged into anything but something to dull the senses. We had many looks of disgust from parishioners who I can only assume thought Peter was listening to an iPhone. But I was not going to let other people’s unawareness keep my family from Mass; Peter’s fear, maybe. One Sunday we were in the car on the way to Mass when Peter started screaming, “Mommy do you have my headset?” On a scale of 1 to 100, his anxiety at that moment was a 99. I was forced to reflect. What was I doing? How is Mass helping Peter? What place of horror and fear is he associating with church? What was he learning about his parents and their ability to keep him safe? What was I really asking of him?
First, there's the headphones and the states.  I also noticed a similar situation in this piece on Judaism and special needs.
 My own family left the first synagogue we joined because we felt unwelcome bringing a baby to Shabbat services (we got narrow-eyed old-lady hissy faces if Josie so much as clucked) and no one welcomed us to the cliquey family service. I can only imagine how much less welcoming the shul would have felt to a family who had an older child with special needs. In our current shul, however, such families are welcome, and the general vibe is infinitely more inclusive. Embracing difference benefits all Jews, not just Jews with disabilities.
Notice how the headphone issue and here the description of the "clucking" are both about using hostile stares to reinforce social norms, norms to which these children cannot conform. That's the kind of microaggresion I wrote about for the New York Times. These little pains hurt, when stacked on each other.

Second, though, and back to Werdel, is the significant evolution of her thinking. She moves from trying to make it possible for her son to do the things she finds important, to trying to see the world through his eyes. This is vital and so hard.

Werdel ends with a plea for inclusion:
I no longer pray for normalcy. I am starting to believe that praying for and including that term sets up a system that by its nature demands exclusion. Instead I pray that Peter and I will grow more relational. I want Peter to feel love and express love. And I pray that one day Peter and others like him will be met by a living church that meets all with relational community and unconditional love.
I always like to talk about inclusion, not same-ness. That's the pathway forward for churches that want to do better, and of course there are many people in all faiths who are, in fact, trying to do better.

In the meantime, though, I leave you with this: If your church is not explicitly and pro-actively (not reactively) inclusive, it is betraying any claims to universality.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Jews and the Crusades (New York Times): We are not perfect.

There's a new piece in the New York Times, by Susan Jacoby, on the Jewish victims of the Crusades. It notes that a lot of the debate in public spaces has focused on Christians versus Muslims, but not the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland in the 1090s and, more broadly, Crusade-related persecutions elsewhere. That's fine, as far as it goes, but the ending offers a kind of dangerous a-historicity and smug presentism that we have to work against.
Thomas Asbridge, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West at the University of London, commented in this newspaper that “we have to be very careful about judging behavior in medieval times by current standards.”
This issue is better judged from the other side of the looking glass. What we actually see today is a standard of medieval behavior upheld by modern fanatics who, like the crusaders, seek both religious and political power through violent means. They offer a ghastly and ghostly reminder of what the Western world might look like had there never been religious reformations, the Enlightenment and, above all, the separation of church and state.
I think we do have to be careful about judging medieval people by modern standards, but perhaps not for the reasons Asbridge says. Implicit in both Asbridge and Jacoby is the notion that we are advanced, ethically. That the Reformation and Enlightenment were both progress, leading us towards becoming more, well, enlightened humans.

Against such an argument I offer the evidence of the 20th century and its horrific violence. I offer the world of 18th century slavery (post-Reformation, contemporary with Enlightenment). I offer the global cultural destruction of Colonization.

Moreover, ISIS is not medieval, as argued well here and here. Some ISIS fighters buy "Islam for Dummies" on Amazon before buying a plane ticket (presumably online). Yes, they may articulate an epistemology that explicitly draws on medieval language and their interpretation of medieval history, but they are not medieval. Obama once said that ISIS has no place in the 21st century, but they were made by it.

And so this is the problem with Jacoby's closer. She says that ISIS shows us what the world might look like had there never been the great leaps forward by white folks in the West, ignorant of the catastrophic violence those leaps brought to the west itself, the world, and indeed the very Jews she mourns in her essay.

The 21st century is a different world. A more connected world. A world with weapons and technologies unfathomable to our ancestors. But the belief that we are more advanced, and thus relegate people who are nasty to other eras, is something we say only to comfort ourselves. It's a lie.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Justified? - One death in which officers try to do everything right.

I write a lot about bad killings and ugly use-of-force incidents. I then get asked, "well what should the cops have done?" which is a fair question. One of the people I rely on is CIT and SWAT trained officer Louis Hayes, a member of the Virtus Group, a use-of-force trainer and one of the founders of the Illinois model. You can see his tweet above.

Here's a video of a police shooting, linked not embedded, in which police do initially show tactical restraint and back up out a house in which an encounter is deteriorating.

What's impressive about his is how hard the officers work to not shoot a drunk, armed (he picks up knives at various points during the video), mentally unstable (thanks to THC, alcohol, and perhaps other factors) individual. Like Hayes, I try to avoid rendering absolute judgment. Notice his "appears" in the tweet. But many other incidents I've watched would have ended with gunfire right away.

Instead, the officer keep backing up, backing up, calling for support, backing up, and trying to stabilize. It may be that at the end the officer makes a mistake by going back close to the house and allowing the suspect to re-engage (breaking a window, glass in the officer's face) and thus drawing fire, but if so it was within a context of trying to stabilize overall.

This time, the officers still shot and killed the individual. But if this is the standard for police conduct in dangerous situations, a lot of lives will be saved - including law enforcement lives.

My #AcademicValentine

More later. Writing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ideology and Chapel Hill

The problem isn't religion. The problem is ideology.

Every time I write about religion and violence, which is pretty often in general and regularly over the last week, I get a lot of bigoted anti-religion responses (and plenty of other hostile responses from believers, but let's put those to the side for now). To which I respond that it's not about religion per se, but the ways that religion serves to divide the world between dichotomies of good/evil, saved/damned, us/them. That division sparks violence, and in the 20th century we've seen plenty of examples of ways in which non-religious ideologies promote violence.

An avowed anti-religious atheist (so not just a non-believer, but someone who hates believers explicitly), has killed three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We lack a lot of information at this point, but here are a few opening thoughts.

1. This is very likely a hate crime.

2. This hate crime, like others, is linked to a huge array of anti-Islamic sentiment freely expressed by the right-wing in America. I've seen a lot of it in the last few days, writing about Christian violence, and the screaming back at me that only Islam is really violent, or that religious people are justified (still) in fighting defensive wars against other religions.

3. Is it terrorism? I work to define terrorism narrowly, not broadly, in all cases, as a tactic rather than a set of actions. We don't know enough yet.

4. I will be curious to know to what extent the right-wing fury at Obama's prayer breakfast comments fueled this man's violent rage. We don't know enough yet, so clearly this is just speculation. The timing, though, is striking.

5. Ideology, not religion. This was an atheist. The problem isn't religion. The problem is humanity and our need to divide the world into us and them.

More to come.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Leo Forrest, Samuel and Ruzan

I've been meaning to write about the story of Leo Forrest for a few days now.

The gist of the story ACCORDING TO THE FATHER is that his father (Samuel) got media attention based on the claim that Leo's mother (Ruzan) demanded Samuel choose between Leo and her. Leo has Down syndrome. Ruzan, according to the father, told Samuel that Leo would have to go to an institution - as is typical in Armenia - or she would divorce him. Instead, he is taking/has taken Leo to New Zealand, where Samuel is from. Ruzan served him divorce papers. Samuel has now raised about half a million dollars from Go Fund Me (no link provided. Google it if you want to).

Here's the dad's story, heartbreakingly written - Dad refuses to give up newborn son with Down syndrome!

Anne Grunsted wrote, quite quickly, a fantastic piece about the ways in which the internet loves a good "bad mother" story. If this was a father abandoning a child, she argued, it would get little media attention. I think she's right. Good mom and bad father stories are perceived as common, so they get little play. There's a fundamental misogyny at work in the viral condemnation of the mother.

Speaking of Ruzan, she disagrees. Her statement characterizes the choices in very different ways and casts Samuel as simply deciding, without consultation.

[Update - Also there's this story, which is that Samuel has ANOTHER family, four kids, one with Down syndrome. He divorced and then was excommunicated from his church and forbidden from seeing them (which is fine as a matter of church law, but I'm guessing not civil law?).]

So here's one conclusion: the internet is a thoroughly lousy place to figure out the intricacies of a relationship, especially one in crisis, from halfway around the world.

We are biased, flawed, creatures, too prone to leap to the heart-rending story and, in many cases, to lay our money down based on partial information.

Stephanie Hall Meredith, moreover, writes that our focus on fixing individual cases rather than structural norms, is a real problem. First she details all the structural work that she and others in various organizations are doing to help children with Down syndrome in Russia. Then she says:
Methodically shifting social paradigms with hard work is not as sexy as one gripping story, but it’s the most effective way to improve conditions internationally — by working collaboratively with individuals within these nations and empowering families there.
Alas, that's not really how our psyches work. We want to help just the one tangible case, we want to help Leo, and so that's where the attention flows, not to the slow fights for better understanding.

Leo's case, then, functions as "charity porn." We see a single family, we give them money, we feel better about ourselves, and we move on with life without examining the structural issues beneath the single case, whatever happened between Samuel and Ruzan.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Six Arguments about Crusade and Memory

A number of conservative Crusades scholars, some people I consider friends, have told me how wrong my Guardian piece is. They have not, though, really told me why. I thought I would boil my piece down to six core arguments and number them, in hopes of receiving better feedback. Maybe a real discussion could break out.

So which of these are untrue, and why do you think so?

1) Christianity can and has, like other religious and secular ideologies, sparked the creation of an "us versus them" epistemology which enables horrific acts of violence.

2) The Crusades featured some of those acts of violence, though historians debate how many and how often. [Note conservative historians - that second clause is for you. We debate these things, but there was some, right?]

3) There is a Crusades-reclamation project among conservative journalists and politicians, who, like liberal journalists and politicians, in fact often don't know very much about history. [that's citing Matt Gabriele's excellent work on this topic].

4) Quote - "There’s no question that crusaders were sometimes driven to slaughter non-Christian civilian populations both in Europe and in southwest Asia, all in the name of religion."

5) Quote - "Reminding the public about ugly moments in the history of Christianity does not make one anti-Christian."

6) Quote - "We need humility. We must recognize our fallibility, we must study the past to understand why things happen, and then we must try to do better."

So what I didn't address in my Guardian piece, but did in my blog post earlier today, was the whole question of defensive war. I'm actually not that interested in the question, except for how it does and doesn't manifest in medieval source material. So when conservatives in the comments come back to me and say, "defensive war! You're wrong! Check the facts!" (so many of these on twitter and in comment threads), that's fine and all, but it doesn't negate any of the above six points.

So I ask again - if you didn't like my essay, which of these six points do you think are wrong, and why? I'm always listening, and my mind is changeable.

Crusades and Religion - Who Decides What is "True" Crusading

In an earlier post, I talked about crusades and memory, linking to my Guardian piece and talking about the meaning of the violence linked to Crusading. I suggested that historians might debate whether a given battle or moment of violence happened, or whether it happened because of religious hatred for "the other," versus some other kind of motivation (as if there can be only one motivation for a given act), we would generally agree that the Crusades were Christian acts of violence.

I stand by that. One piece getting a lot of play is by my friend, medieval historian and some-time conservative commentator Tom Madden, written here at the National Review. Let's take a look:
According to the president, Christians should avoid mounting their “high horse” when it comes to “faith being twisted and distorted,” since “during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
Well, yes. That’s true. But people commit terrible deeds in the name of everything. The question isn’t whether humans can be evil, but whether those acts are consistent with their religious beliefs.
See, we agree it's true. People committed terrible deeds in the name of religion during the Crusades. So one strand of crusade-apologists can now be silent.

Let's work through the rest of the piece, though, as Madden and I seriously disagree with a number of other points. Before that, though, here are my biases as regards Madden, because I think you, dear reader, ought to know (feel free to skip the next few paragraphs if you don't care, and just want to hear my criticism of the piece).

Me and Tom Madden, my mentor.

I know Tom's work probably as well as anyone alive other than him, since Tom and I are just about the only two anglophone medieval historians (there are of course plenty of art historians) who focus on pre-1250 medieval Venice. It's no exaggeration to say that my book wouldn't exist if not for his scholarship and his support of mine - letters of rec for grants, help with the archives, publishing my first article, citing me in Speculum (the highest prestige medieval journal), and now blurbing my book. His scholarship on medieval Venice is impeccable - rooted in intensely careful readings of sources that have either been overlooked or misread, written in a style I find enormously appealing. I've read every article, usually multiple times, combed his footnotes, and have had many a very happy chat about Venice and the Middle Ages. We see Venice very similarly, in large part because his work shaped my entry into the field. My Venice is his Venice. He is one of my mentors.

On the other hand, his politics are conservative where mine are liberal. The great thing is that we have, I hope, a friendship and some similar scholarly agendas, though our public work diverges radically. If there's bias here, I am biased towards Tom.

Me and the Crusades

Moreover, my own scholarship and scholarship I admire has worked hard to resist the simplistic rhetoric of atrocity as applied to the crusades. Critical re-reading of sources is one of the things historians do, and it turns out that there's been a lot of hyperbole applied to the Crusades. So we have to be careful. For example, Jeremy Cohen, in Sanctifying the Name of God, re-examines the core Hebrew texts about the 1096 massacres, looking at the ways in which the authors worked with what surely were horrible events in order to serve contemporary purposes. Horrible massacres definitely took place, but the accounts themselves are written to intensify various agendas.

My work on the Fourth Crusade (buy my book!) in fact more so than Madden's work to date, similarly argues that our main sources about the terrible sack of Constantinople have functions OTHER than to relate what happened. So when Steven Runciman, a great historian who lived through World War II, writes, "There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade," as historians we simply have to reject such an assessment. The sack of Constantinople was not, based on my reading of the evidence, in fact more terrible than other sacks (which is still terrible, involving murder, rape, and destruction). The rhetoric making it sound like such a great sack is not an objective recounting of truth but rather a crafted narrative to serve various tasks. And now I've summarized the first half of chapter 1 of my book.

That's uncomfortable. It makes it sound like I'm excusing conquest, plunder, murder, and rape. I'm not. I'm reading the sources. I'm assessing them. I'm doing what historians are supposed to do. And I learned a lot of that, as regards the Fourth Crusade, from Tom Madden.

The National Review

Madden's piece troubles me for a number of reasons:

First - historical. Madden writes, "At some point Christianity as a faith and as a culture had to defend itself or else be subsumed by Islam."

That's the core statement that Madden and many other right-wing folks are arguing: That given Muslim aggression, the Crusades were a fully justifiable defensive action.

I don't believe this is correct. In the 1090s, Islam was fractured. In Spain, the Islamic forces were fractured and being pushed back by various Catholic forces. The western Italian city states were now raiding Islamic ports, rather than being pressured by Islamic pirates. The Normans had conquered southern Italy and were, in fact, threatening Byzantium at least as much as the Turks were (due to Norman naval superiority). The Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor were a threat, yes, but they hardly represented "Islam." They were a new regional power looking to expand, one of many in the fractured Islamic polities from Baghdad to Egypt to Anatolia. The notion of Islam around 1100 as an implacable force just doesn't hold up.

 Is it possible that the Turks could have conquered Constantinople in the 1100s rather than the 15th century? I suppose it is possible, because all counter-factuals are possible. But the Seljuks had issues of their own, such as battles with other Turks, and in fact were busy dealing with them as the Crusaders arrived. If you assess the relevant military, political, and economic assets at play in the Mediterranean world around 1090, it's not one in which Islam is going to roll over Christendom - if indeed either of those concepts exist - without Crusader intervention.

Here's my much more serious issue.

After agreeing that people did indeed do bad things in the name of religion, Madden asks whether the acts are consistent with their religious beliefs. He says they are. And then he says:
The work of the Crusader, who put his life at risk and underwent enormous expense, was to save Christian people and restore Christian lands. This was no perversion of Christianity. Christ had commanded his followers to be like the Good Samaritan, hurrying to bind up the wounds of their brother who had been robbed and beaten. This was the same Christ who said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” That is how Crusaders honestly saw themselves following their Christian faith.
I believe this is true, as far as it goes. Many crusaders did honestly see themselves as Good Samaritans following their Christian faith. Others saw themselves as purifying the land, like Joshua. Still others saw themselves as actors in the final stages of an apocalyptic drama. And others, no doubt, just wanted to fight and loot, or carve out a kingdom. Scholars spend endless amounts of time debating crusader motivation, but let's put that side for now, and just focus on those who "honestly saw themselves following their Christian faith."

For Madden (and Riley-Smith to some extent, before him), the idea that crusading reflects good, Christian, love for one's fellow Christian, seems to be an exculpatory fact.

For me, it's a terrible indictment. 

If we accept this as true, then the violence that ensued during the Crusades is one inherent outcome of the faith. I do, in fact, believe that ideologies defined by a Manichean worldview - us/them, same/other, good/damned - is among the most dangerous forces in world history. I know so many believers working hard to build a more pluralistic future, because they recognize this danger as well. Once you create an other. Once your ideology depends on defending the self from the other. Horrible things can follow.

Because I'm not excusing the atrocities of Muslims made in the name of Islam, whether historically or today, but simply not exempting Christianity from this criticism on the grounds that the crusaders believed themselves to be good people. The belief that one's violent acts are necessary to be good is what we should all fear.

I also note (as others do) that Madden's piece never mentions the anti-Jewish massacres linked to the Crusades. Perhaps he feels they do not reflect this true crusading sentiment he isolates here. I don't think that's sustainable - these acts emerge together, they are part of the fabric of medieval Christian life, as are the people who spoke out against the massacres, who spoke out against the martial aspects of crusading. Extend forward: Christianity served as a sanctifying ideology for those who would enslave the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Africans they transported there. It also provided sacred justification for those who spoke against mass enslavement.

So I'll say it again: The truth that many crusaders thought themselves to be doing good, serving their brother Christians in acts of love, is precisely what we need to fear from powerful ideologies. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Crusades and Memory

I have a new piece up at The Guardian on the recent right-wing fury over President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast (an event for which presidential involvement needs to be ended).
While relatively few contemporary Christians are calling for the crusades these days (although crusader iconography is not uncommon in the US military), it’s a mistake to believe in Christian exceptionalism – the idea that Christianity alone has solved its problems – while other religions are still “medieval”. One of history’s lessons is that any ideology, sacred or secular, that divides the world into ‘us versus them’ can and will be used to justify violence.
But when we talk about the past, we’re often really talking about ourselves. In myscholarship, for instance, I look at the ways in which medieval people developed stories about holy war as a response to contemporary problems – which often had little to do with the Crusades.
Later, I turn to the Crusades themselves:
The Crusades were pretty bad. Historians debate the precise extent and savagery of the violence, but we generally agree that the intensity of the religiously-motivated brutality was staggering. We argue, for example, whether there really was cannibalism during the First Crusade (probably), and whether blood really flowed up to the combatants’ ankles in the Temple of David in 1099 (probably not). But there’s no question that crusaders were sometimes driven to slaughter non-Christian civilian populations both in Europe and in southwest Asia, all in the name of religion.
So do we generally agree that "the intensity of the religiously-motivated brutality was staggering?" I think so, but I'd be interested in hearing from my colleagues. There are, however, all sorts of followup questions about how bad was it, relatively.

For example, there are anti-Jewish pogroms related to the Crusades and anti-Jewish pogroms not related to the Crusades. Does it matter if the ones not related to the Crusades are worse? Does it matter if three or five of the major outbreaks are related to the Crusades? I suggest not - when religiously motivated violence happened, it was terrible.

Moreover, a lot of commentators are throwing the work of my good friend, colleague, and mentor Tom Madden at me (and others Bernard Lewis, but I don't really care about Lewis). Tom writes about the Crusades as an explicitly defensive war, adopting the rhetoric of medieval people who wrote about it that way. I regard such a claim with considerable skepticism, as the articulation of aggressive wars as defensive is as old as writing about warfare (ok, well, the Greeks. I don't know anything about justifications for war before the Greeks). But here's the thing.

Even if we accept the defensive-war reading as 100% accurate, it still doesn't belie the fundamental point that they involved acts of great violence, that they were religiously motivated, and that the religion in question was Christianity. Christianity, like all religious, and like all ideologies, can be and has been used to justify or inspire violence. This is fundamental to the human condition.

I find it grim, but vital, to simply face up to the dangerous power of ideas.