On Disability and Smokey the Bear

planet of the blind

Remember Smokey the Bear? “Only you can prevent forest fires!” Cartoon bear wearing a forest ranger’s hat and a pair of dungarees. I think he had a shovel in one paw. I could look it up but I don’t feel like it.

Smokey’s tag line was an imprecation as much as a public service announcement. If forest fires happen you probably caused them. You didn’t do your job. For it was always “only” you who could save the trees.

I’m in mind of this today because I think Smokey was a cruel ironist. He knew I couldn’t stop all the forest fires. He knew and didn’t care. He was a liar. But you see he was a particularly American type. A spokes bear pushing a social lie.

The poet Kenneth Rexroth describes the American version of the social lie this way:

“Since all society is organized in the interest of exploiting classes and since if men knew this they would cease to work and society would fall apart, it has always been necessary, at least since the urban revolutions, for societies to be governed ideologically by a system of fraud.”

Yes and then there’s this:

“There is an unending series of sayings which are taught at your mother’s knee and in school, and they simply are not true. And all sensible men know this, of course.”

Smokey you stinker! You knew a little boy couldn’t stop the forest from burning down.

Now I’m in mind of him because I now realize I’ve a bad case of “Smokey the Bear Syndrome.”

I think I’m supposed to fix everything that proves problematic and is somehow contiguous with my daily life.

Old Smoke really messed me up.

When I fly its my thoughts that hold the plane aloft.

Its only me can fix the horrid rococo inefficiencies of my university.

Only I can save blind people from being unemployed.

On and on.

This is what we mean by liberal guilt. Smokey did it to me.

He didn’t say “only we together can prevent forest fires.”

Nope. Only I can do this.

This is especially bad when you’ve a disability.

Only you can make able bodied people respect the disabled.

Only you can defuse able bodied tension about disablement.

Only. Only.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Barnes and Noble

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

3 thoughts on “On Disability and Smokey the Bear”

  1. And it gets worse. The assumption behind Smokey’s warning is that all forest fires can be prevented. Nope — lightning cannot be stopped in its tracks, by anybody or even all of us working together. And there is a similar “we can fix this” attitude among us progressives, too. We think we can (and must) fix everyone’s needs in life. To that end, we agitate for programs and policies and funding for almost every need or lack we succeed in identifying. If we focused our efforts on those things which actually can be fixed, we would be more successful.


  2. I had a Smokey doll and coloring book as a child. My sister had Woodsy Owl, whose motto was “Give a hoot, don’t pollute”– with the distinct message that small children dropping their candy wrappers are the primary cause of our pollution problems.


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