Mr. President I’m One of Those Who Needs Reassurance

I’m disabled, Mr. President. I work with the disabled. We represent every ethnicity and nationality: we’re old, young, veterans, parents; we’re gay and straight, and yes, we have physical and other limitations that cause us to be medically and socially vulnerable. When yesterday you rebuked NBC reporter Peter Alexander for his “nasty” question about how you might reassure anxious Americans you essentially dismissed the 60 plus million Americans with Disabilities. I think you knew you were doing it.

Not once in any of your press conferences about the novel Coronavirus has the word disability been uttered. Not once. I know why. You think Americans who need “reassurance” are weak. Moreover you think without irony that life is unfair. When asked why star athletes are getting virus tests while ordinary Americans are waiting you told us this is how life in America operates. Reassurance is a pesky word isn’t it? It means to restore people to confidence. What about those of us who’ve never had it in the first place? While you berated Mr. Alexander you were essentially saying America is a cruel craps game and the losers can go to hell.

There was nothing nasty or corrupt about Alexander’s question, Mr. President. Where will the disabled get treatment when the majority of our hospitals and clinics are only conditionally accessible? Where will those who rely on Medicare get help when so many states have been cutting services prior to this health emergency? What is the VA doing to assist wounded warriors who may contract the virus, especially older veterans? I suppose you’d say these are nasty questions too.

When the Nazis came to power Hitler declared the disabled “useless eaters’ and insisted the only valuable citizens in Germany were those who were hail and hearty. That’s an extreme way of saying life is unfair. By showing no empathy toward the most vulnerable in society you’re essentially saying the same thing. No wonder the health experts who stood behind you yesterday looked stricken. No wonder they wanted very clearly to hide their faces. You thought you were demeaning NBC but you were stomping on those who need help the most.

No One Taught Me to Be Good, or: Thinking of Trump’s Last Speech

No one taught me how to be good. This is likely true for you as well. If anything I was taught the consequences of being bad. But where love’s concerned, I wasn’t given much. There was Jesus of course, but he was impossibly good and not much fun. There was Huck Finn who was conditionally good and that was OK by me. I first read Huckleberry Finn when I was eight. I listened to it on long playing records from the library for the blind.

In chapter 36, after they’ve freed Jim from jail, Tom Sawyer says to Huck: “Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.”

This is better than any Horatian chestnut. It should be on the entablatures of all our public buildings.

As for Horace, this should also go on our buildings: “The foolish are like ripples on water, For whatsoever they do is quickly effaced; But the righteous are like carvings upon stone, For their smallest act is durable.”

People will know if, indeed, you ain’t ignorant and you know better, and you behave badly.

The proper goodness, the one we should all strive for is the durable.

You don’t need God or organized religion but you do need personal irony. Conscience depends on it. If you ain’t ignorant and you know better, then don’t poison the water tables. Don’t gut the Environmental Protection Agency. Don’t eliminate scores of jobs in the Center for Disease Control. Don’t downplay science. Don’t yammer about global warming being a hoax.

Does Donald Trump truly not know better? Would Tom Sawyer look him over and judiciously say, “he does wrong because he’s ignorant and don’t know nothin’ different?”

This is of course the mystery of Trump: because he appears to be sufficiently educated he must know better. Therefore he must be doing wrong out of basic criminal advantage. Which brings us back to Tom Sawyer, for his comment comes as he and Huck commit a crime (as it would have been adjudged before the Civil War.) And these boys knew that right is right and wrong is wrong and there were some mighty ignorant adults in charge.

As for Trump, I wrote in a blog post some time back entitled Ubu Trump:

America is now fully a cartoon culture. We have cartoon families, cartoon immigrants, stick figure women, logos for cripples, cartoon news shows, and of course, the cartoon web.
In a cartoon society issues of oppression—the forces of oppression—no longer need to correct and punish deviants, for “these people” are fully written off like Goebbel’s schoolbook cartoony jews.

Everyone is a cartoon.

And because people know it, even the least literate, they suspect they are the victims of a joke.

This is Donald Trumps signature line. That America is a joke.

Skull Kissing in the Age of Twitter

In The Revenger’s Tragedy by Christopher Middleton, Vindice avenges the murder of Gloriana by the Duke who’s tricked into kissing Gloriana’s skull which has been treated with poison.

Jacobean theatrics offer an excellent example of what’s come to be called “cancel culture” since love, lust, advantage, politics, and poison are in plain view, center stage, and one fairly wonders if social media “posters” recognize tragic irony as it requires knowing everyone sins and understanding what love requires of citizens.

There is no such thing as an unpolitical cry. And we must cry. But to cry for justice requires love not skull kissing. Any Jacobean viewer would get the point. Try explaining this to the trolls for whom single issue politics and resentments are the tinctures de jour.

Anne Sexton wrote: “live or die, but don’t poison everything.” One can only imagine what she’d say about Twitter. I say its often the kissing of skulls.

I know disabled people who believe all non-disabled people are disability bigots or guilty of ableism. Since this cannot be true its just a poisoned prop. All poisoned props are falsehoods but they’re irresistible. Most people would rather believe in toxicity than see beyond it. In identity politics anyone who’s not like you must surely have bad motives.

Watching last night’s democratic debate I saw the variant toxicities on display. There was a lot of skull kissing going on. If you like Mayor Pete you’re a heartless shill for billionaires; if you like Bernie you have to believe that the rich are un-American. Each candidate has his or her variant of this. You can say this is politics as usual and yet the code switching and winks to singular toxicities is everywhere apparent which means the democrats will likely fail to unite. Skull kissing is never the art of winners.

Contrarianism in the Age of Cancel Culture

In his excellent book “Letters to a Young Contrarian” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote: 

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia, said Oscar Wilde, is not worth glancing at. A noble sentiment, and a good thrust at the Gradgrinds and utilitarians. Bear in mind, however, that Utopia itself was a tyranny and that much of the talk about the analgesic and conflict-free ideal is likewise more menacing than it may appear. These Ultimates and Absolutes are attempts at Perfection, which is—so to speak—a latently Absolutist idea. (You should scan Brian Victoria’s excellent book Zen at War, which, written as it is by a Buddhist priest, exposes the dire role played by Zen obedience and discipline in the formation of pre-war Japanese imperialism.)”

Excerpt From: Christopher Hitchens. “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” Apple Books.

If you want to cancel someone (a harrowing parlance) all you have to do is say he she or they is not up to the ideal of perfection. The Fascist or Stalinist doesn’t rest until the world is cleaned of imperfect people.

I’ve always been a problem because I trouble the public nerve of ableism—which for me means the industry of harming all marginalized people for the disabled are black, brown, Asian, Latino, white, old, queer, and owing to normative formations, (utilitarianism) wishes to eliminate all who are physically different.

Not liking what someone says is not sufficient reason to eliminate them though I may wish you’d shut up. I don’t believe in the language of cancel.

Nor do I believe academics should be fired for holding loathsome opinions. If the ideas are bad they’ll not stand the test of time. 

Hitchens again:

“If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.”

It’s hard to be a dissenter because you’ll not be much applauded. 

I’m a fan of Kwame Appiah’s book “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity—Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture” which troubles the incorporation of singular cultural positions. Identity is built around insider vs. outsider negotiations or worse, willful erasures.

Identities matter to people. They offer spiritual and juridical power and create the basis for critical solidarity and progress. As Appiah points out, identity gives us reasons to do things. They also give others reasons to do things “to you” and all human rights activists know it.

Appiah writes:

“In sum, identities come, first, with labels and ideas about why and to whom they should be applied. Second, your identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave; and, third, it affects the way other people treat you. Finally, all these dimensions of identity are contestable, always up for dispute: who’s in, what they’re like, how they should behave and be treated.”

Its the contestability of prefiguration I’m interested in. You shouldn’t subborn blackness or disability or gender to abstract, privileged philosophical thinking. But identity also creates hollow perfectionism as Hitchens knew.  I’ve seen blind people ridicule other blind people because they chose to walk with guide dogs as opposed to white canes. Cultural call out is aimed at canceling the contestable. It leads to public shaming and trolling. 

I’m also a big fan of the writer Roxanne Gay who writes about resisting the racialized and patriarchal oppression aimed at the diminishment of black women’s bodies.  No one should be able to diminish bodies. We defend our identities for excellent reasons. 

We have many things to do out there as Appiah says. Turning away from the humanitarian power of identity is not a good idea. Contesting the traps of identity rhetoric is important however. I have white privilege. I also can’t get into restaurants and taxi cabs because I have a service dog. I live in multiple identity traps. Appiah ends his book with a famous Latin quote:

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

On University Constructions of Shaming Environments

I should come clean and straight off: I regret having been a disabled professor. Regret follows me from room to room and there’s no help for it. I’m considered less capable, less collegial, more of a nuisance than any of my colleagues. There are too few like me in the faculty ranks to be of consequence. I’ve been tenured at three major universities and been accorded more misery than I care to relate for it gets soggy and yet, without a cadre of disabled faculty I can tell only you that talking back to dismissive and ableist faculty and administrators who don’t like your relentless call for accessible websites and buildings earns one the reputation for being a malcontent. What keeps me going?

Sheer stubbornness. I’m of Finnish. descent. My people are granitic and quite stoical. I’m not happy with suffering but I recognize it as one of the effects of gravity. This means despite the fact that I’m a poet I’m also discerning. Why should academics be more tolerant of the disabled than any other group? Higher education is predicated on the unspoken notion that everyone is for herself or himself and they’re in a race against others. Everyone knows the story of the graduate student who finds the important pages razored out of the books on reserve. This is the way of it.

Here’s to the colleagues who haven’t joined me in calling for visual presentations to be fully accessible to the blind as well as the deaf.

Here’s to deans who’ve treated my demands for access both for myself and others are a sign of my problematic identity.

Here’s to the construction of shaming environments where the disabled feel more than marginalized, they are made to feel the full weight of their presence.

Here’s to the merciless stampede toward AI and autonomous systems in lieu of an abiding and conscious understanding of diversity. The latter means recognizing that people of color, queer folks, the disabled have been medicalized, tracked, and demeaned for centuries. And not much welcomed.

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:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

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 

Of or Pertaining to Self Approval in the Age of Airlines

Mark Twain wrote: “We can secure other people’s approval, if we do right and try hard; but our own is worth a hundred of it, and no way has been found out of securing that.”

I like this quote but think Twain got it wrong. As a disabled man I know that I cannot secure other people’s approval so long as I insist on my rights or what we like to call “equal rights” and therefore the only way I can secure self-approval is by insistence. I insist that I belong at this meeting, in this room, on this airplane, in the voting booth, in your taxi, theater, hotel, swimming pool, university, library, railway, hell, even your amusement park.

I do not get customary approval for this entreaty and that is painful, at least on the inside where the barbs from others must go. I secure my affirmation from public resistance and I’ll take my public scorn with a twist of lemon thank you very much.

Last week I had two plane flights where—despite the laws of the land—the airline wouldn’t seat me and my guide dog or “seeing-eye dog” as they’re sometimes called in a place where we could fit. In each case I cited the applicable law (the Air Carrier Transportation Act) which makes it clear that they have to put me where we can fit. And in each case I was treated with absolute disdain and then hostility. The airline was Delta but it could be any one of them.

I was angry, humiliated, and yes, embarrassed for the flight attendants were not only inhospitable they made me the problem. We call that ableism in disability circles and like racism or homophobia it’s all about the knee jerk assumption that someone different is a lesser being and can be treated as such. This is why all bigotry hurts all others. If Chic Fil-A thinks it can object to queer people on a phony religious principle, then they can also object to me and my guide dog. Disdain carries a permission index that’s portable.

The Delta airlines flight attendants not only didn’t care that I couldn’t fit in their seat, they also didn’t care about the law—which says they have to move to a place where I can fit. They did not want to be bothered. The overheated cigar tube was being crammed with passengers, the public address system was smoking with imprecations to tag your bag because the overhead bins were full, please sit your ass down, we’ve got a schedule to keep, etc.

And there I was with a big assed guide dog who couldn’t fit under my feat. I crammed her head under the seat in front of me and sat with my own feet tucked under my ass like a chic woman on a divan. Try doing that for five hours.

The story is worse than this. A woman seated next to me was rude. She didn’t like sitting next to a dog. A flight attendant appeared, (remember, they didn’t try to reseat me) and in front of me asked her if she minded sitting where she was.

I can’t get the approval of strangers and I have no idea what Mark Twain meant. But I have my own satisfaction. I tell the truth. That’s what civil rights are for.

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:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

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 

On Being Expensive, Difficult, and Lonesome in Higher Education

I feel like opening up. Some days, owing to blindness, because of my internalized “super crip” expectations (all that rococo internalized ableism) I think my job is to make being a disabled professor look easy. Alright, most days. OK. Every day. Yes daily I saddle myself with the false and unachievable supposition I’m supposed to be absolutely flawless. After all, to admit a flaw would be to succumb to vision loss. The medical model of disability IS the academy as it’s currently established. Of course I know too much to live this way. Sure. Absolutely. But the academy doesn’t care what I know. Universities have almost no interest in unpacking their nascent ableism since this would require examining a thousand years of questionable institutional exceptionalism. Alright, maybe eight hundred years. The academy is constructed entirely around the idea of the elect, the promotable, the meritocracy, the lithe and nimble of mind and body. As a professor I too must be this way. If I have merit it must mean this business of researching, writing, teaching, and serving is natural. If it comes with hard work it’s only the difficulty of ideas, the speed of a required curriculum that stands in your way, not your body or your learning style. If these are impediments you shouldn’t be within a hundred yards of the ivory tower.

I’ve been a tenured professor (lucky me) at three American universities and I was a long time adjunct at a fourth. My blindness has been a problem at all of these places—sometimes an ugliness—and now I must admit at the age of sixty four and still likely a decade away from retirement that the career—mine—has been painful, clotted, steep, and wearisome. In the faculty ranks the disabled are not naturally linked with other academic diversity initiatives. While my historically marginalized colleagues have many many problems (which I do not dismiss) they also have (at least at the institutions where I’ve worked) something like society, something like a collective voice. I am the only blind professor at Syracuse University and have been the only blind professor wherever I’ve worked. My embodiment and my accessibility needs are lonely and exhausting things.

I remember the famous poetry professor at the University of Iowa who told me when I was a graduate student that I shouldn’t be in his class. In his view, if I couldn’t read as fast as other students I was uneducable. All disabled students who read differently or communicate differently know this story. Certainly autists who type or students with learning disabilities know their very presence in college is secretly or overtly questioned by faculty and administrators. Academic ableism is the norm. It’s been the norm throughout my forty plus year career as a student, grad student, and faculty member. Wherever I’ve worked or studied I try for consistency: calling out accessibility problems and ableist attitudes. Behind this though is the pressure to appear perfect and make the “life” look easy.

Nothing could be more unachievable or hopeless. I have faculty colleagues (some of whom teach disability related courses) who don’t care a whit about the inaccessibility of websites, academic research materials, PDF documents, HR surveys, adopted computer programs, online teaching and learning portals, PowerPoint presentations at department meetings or campus events, films or video presentations—the list is long when you’re blind. I’m the outlier asking for admission to all these things and after years in higher ed I feel no closer to inclusion or admittance today than I did years ago.

The only good thing is that computers have gotten better. Tablets and phones have become more blind friendly. Apple has made my life better. Microsoft is getting on board. The technology now exists to assure colleges and universities are fully accessible to the blind. But they’re not. The ableism of bureaucracy and meritocracy holds back the blind over and over again.

Meantime I’m supposed to be (as I said above) absolutely flawless. Despite the lack of good usable assistive technologies across campus I should be a superior teacher, graceful, kind, cheer up the normal people who find disability either consternating or distressing, publish as much as my colleagues, if not more, and be a “thought leader” whatever that means.

Not long ago during the same week when I was faced for the umpteenth time with a new university web portal that was inaccessible, I was asked to participate in a campus inclusion workshop. I declined. I said I couldn’t do any more emotional lifting for the university. This was a breakthrough for me.

“What’s that?” you say, “you can’t help the able bodied faculty anymore?”

That’s right.

I’m not going to pretend at easiness anymore.

My weekdays are clogged with inaccessible features.

The built environment is consistent. I don’t belong.

I’ve spoken about these things over and over for years and my spirit is patched. It has holes. The moths of ableism have eaten my beret.

In recent weeks I’ve called on Syracuse University to make films and videos accessible to the blind.

Some people have responded positively to this. Others not so much. One faculty member went out of her way to tell me how difficult and expensive this is.

Blindness is always “difficult and expensive” whether the subject is audible traffic signals, a Braille menu, or getting screen reading software for a PC.

I’m difficult and expensive and noisy and bothersome and mostly lonely in higher education.