Please Mister, Stop Appropriating the Poor Cripples, Or, “The Blind Girl’s Sponge”


A new novel appears; gets lots of praise; about a man who suffers a facial deformity and whatever passes for his inner life is destroyed. You guessed it: the author isn’t disabled. But he’s used a tried and true formula: deform a character and you can cover up your own literary deficiencies. Or nearly. Kafka understood this but his grotesqueries were about capitalism and not about individuals.


In the airports, train stations, public byways, strangers approach and say unbidden things to me owing to my blindness. “I had a dog once,” they’ll say. Or: “I knew a blind girl once.” When I”m feeling charitable I think of their loneliness and let the intrusive moment go. When I’m more vituperative I’ll say anything to get out of the situation. “What dog?” I’ll say. Or: “I don’t like blind people.”


You can only appropriate people you don’t understand. Notice I didn’t say, “insufficiently understand” because even maladroit and speculative thinking is better than incurious meddling. And that’s what ableist appropriation of disability is. Anthony Doerr has written a wholly fraudulent disabled character in his award winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” (a title so stupid “that” alone should have killed it.) His charming blind girl can’t bathe herself though she’s something like fourteen. Her father (who is the author of course) has to help her. I think Doerr should have called the novel “The Blind Girl’s Sponge.”


Now women writers do their own incurious meddling. There’s currently a very popular woman poet who writes of “grotesques” with enough whimsey to satisfy the ableist appetites of the creative writing academy. While I”m at it, let’s be clear that writers who hail from every kind of background write ableist junk. Feeling unimaginative? Just throw in a cripple or two. Two cripples will always be better than one. Beckett understood.


“What’s the problem?” you say? “They’re just books.” You’re right. And Philip Larkin was right: “books are a load of crap.” And there’s more than one problem anyway. But Robinson Crusoe and Friday represent the unassailable comfort of appropriative culture. Novels are seldom progressivist. If you can get away with it, have three cripples in your coffee table book.


In her new book “Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing” Claire McEachern writes: “Even among person, plot, and place there exist differing expectations with respect to believability.” Her premise is that believing in characters is essentially a sacramental act. Read her book. It’s excellent. She writes:

“Persons are also found in nature as well as art; we can believe in each other, as well as in literary characters, the former suggesting the trust we confer on another ’ s purpose, the latter trust in an author ’ s conjuration. Sociobiology, anthropomorphism, and the sciences of empathy all suggest that humans are especially susceptible to each other; as philanthropic organizations know, a cause with a face is more difficult to shrug off than one without. 3 Prosopopoeia has long been the rhetorical figure employed to supernatural or political abstractions, endowing them with human-sized motive properties. Stories whose ultimate concern may be systemic or institutional identities or corporate fortunes (e.g., the fate of a nation, a race, or a culture) typically phrase their exempla in the unit of the individual. There is something particular about the person. Perhaps it is easier to believe in a literary person because less belief is required. People are people persons.”


Prosopopoeia is just the thing, the ingredient you need if you want to turn real people into cartoons. Where disability is concerned Shakespeare was also a cultural appropriator. Caliban’s deformities come from Montaigne’s imagined ugly cannibals but no matter, you’ve got stock characters who will obediently and without controversy represent whatever imperial disdain you need to employ.

It has always been my contention that the first fully realized disabled character in Western literature is Melville’s Ahab. And though he’s not likable, he’s complex and understandable.

Which brings me back to my original point: the average ableist writer doesn’t need to know Ahab at all. He or she watches the cartoons.

Grievance in America, 24-7, No Matter Who You Think You Are

Americans are uncomfortable with their bodies which means they become militant when they claim the body as a marker of identity. I have done this. I’m blind. I’ve written extensively about the joys of being who I am. The body is not receptive to what I may say about it. That’s a sad fact. Society is only conditionally receptive to what I may say about it.

I identify as disabled. I have to. I’m not going to navigate the world with safety if I don’t use the proper accommodations for vision loss. Then I say, “I have no loss.” I claim my utility and Jeffersonian right to pursue happiness. I’m not lost. I don’t need to be found. I don’t need salvation.

When you claim your body in America you enter a honeycomb of some complexity. How many billions of dollars are spent on advertising that urges people to feel more than passing disdain for their very physicality? No, I don’t want to look it up.

I’m for all the body rights movements but I’m never tricked into thinking that by hugging my body I’m free of the contempt mechanism. It tends to have the last laugh.

If you claim to love your body but spend all your time hating the compulsory normative complex—you shouldn’t be gay; fat; a wheelchair user; blind; deaf; get a cure or purgative—you know the drill, you will spend your life railing against the dominant culture to such an extent you’ll become, quite possibly, a victim of your own identity rage and to such an extent you may not be able to function outside of a small colony.

Which leads me to the problem I’m struggling with. The small colony habituation of Americans who struggle with self-contempt, which is never overcome with slogans or cultural theories alone, lends itself to unhappy clusters of victimhood. This is fully democratized which means Trump voters, Bernie voters, civil rights activists of every calling, can all be classified as either potentially or fully against civics.

You’re not supposed to like your body. You’re encouraged to prefer happiness to the daily grind. Americans are conditioned to feel deprived of easy joy. Someone else is always getting happy. If you believe advertising, you’ve a big and weak superego. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who pointed out that Americans have so much self contempt that when they jumped out of airplanes in WW II they shouted: “Well, here goes nohin’!” He also noted that the chief expression of interpersonal disdain in the USA is: “If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?”

Enter Trump voters. Vonnegut would understand them. Trump both deflects and extends their self-contempt. They’re not happy because others are stealing their joy potential. They’re not rich and Trump tells them over and over it’s not their fault it’s because of foreigners or elites or people of color or you name it. “If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?” becomes a license to bitch, rage, be violent, taunt anyone who you believe is in your way.

These ghosted body-contempt dynamics are equally true across the proverbial aisle. Bernie Sanders voters believe others are stealing their wealth, their autonomy, their hopes and dreams. Again it’s others who are doing this—and again there’s the license to bitch, rage, and taunt anyone you believe is in your way.

One sees this on the contemporary college campus where progressive students rage against multiple systems they believe are stealing their joy potential. Capitalism, classist society, patriarchy, big pharma, polluters—all of which are very real mind you—are given undue positions in the honeycombed privacies of the mind (to borrow from Melville) until, yes, one has a license to bitch, rage, be violent, and taunt anyone who you believe is in your way. I’ll argue that these reactions are deleterious to students for it gives them the false assurance that aggrieved identity is all anyone needs in the village square.

Body claiming is crucial as a first line of defense against racism, homophobia, ableism, misogyny, and all other commodified disdain for our physical lives.
But it can become amber to the fly. Grievance is in the glue. The best thinkers acknowledge oppressive systems and live beyond mere victimhood.

In a recent review of some new books about the opioid epidemic in the USA Emily Witt quotes a writer who goes by the moniker “Anxious Dope Fiend” who writes of the joys of oxycodone:

The oxycodone experience is difficult to describe to an opiate virgin. Personally, I feel as if I have suddenly gained all that I want in life and no longer have anything to fear. I am perfectly content both mentally and emotionally. All the tension slips from my body and I feel warm and utterly comfortable, as if I were sitting beside a roaring fire, wrapped in a delicate cashmere blanket, rocking gently back and forth. Communication is pleasant but unnecessary. Under the influence of oxycodone, no companionship is needed. I accept myself and the world just as we are, not begrudgingly, but eagerly, ecstatically even.

Is it just me or do any of my readers also wonder if this passage represents the perfect synthesis of grievance culture?

George Washington, the Onondaga Nation, and Robert Bly

Its Presidents Day or it was, I can’t remember. The television is trying to sell me a couch by raising a photo of George Washington above a love seat. Because I teach at Syracuse University which stands on land that belongs to the Onondaga Nation I wince. It was Washington who ordered the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans in the Finger Lakes. Our principle “founding father” was responsible for a vast human rights crime–what we would now call genocide. I do not make polemical pronouncements. This butchery is a matter of history. Washington called for a “scorched earth” policy which left no village standing and very few survivors. I live among their descendants. I know full well what was done to their ancestors. When I change the channel the TV is trying to sell me a car. Again there’s Washington. I hold my head.

I’ve been reading the newly published “Collected Poems” of Robert Bly. Here are some lines that come to mind:

“Hatred of Men With Black Hair”

“I hear voices praising Tshombe, and the Portuguese
In Angola, these are the men who skinned Little Crow!
We are all their sons, skulking
In back rooms, selling nails with trembling hands!

We distrust every person on earth with black hair;
We send teams to overthrow Chief Joseph’s government;
We train natives to kill Presidents with blowdarts;
We have men loosening the nails on Noah’s Ark.

The State Department floats in the heavy jellies near the bottom
Like exhausted crustaceans, like squids who are confused,
Sending out beams of black light to the open sea,
Fighting their fraternal feeling for the great landlords.

We have violet rays that light up the jungles at night, showing
The friendly populations; we are teaching the children of ritual
To overcome their longing for life, and we send
Sparks of black light that fit the holes in the generals’ eyes.

Underneath all the cement of the Pentagon
There is a drop of Indian blood preserved in snow:
Preserved from the trail of blood that once led away
From the stockade, over the snow, the trail now lost.

Excerpt From: Robert Bly. “Collected Poems.” Apple Books.


From Washington’s slaughter of the five nations to Trump’s wall…Bly’s poem still reverberates.

Now Washington is trying to sell me a set of home appliances.

On Being the Only Cripple at the Arts Colony

Over a number of years I’ve had the fortune to be housed and fed at places that are devoted to promoting the arts and one should acknowledge fortune is a neutral word for anything that occurs is a matter of luck for good or ill. I’m not the bite the hand that feeds me type. My work has been assisted greatly by residencies at arts colonies both well known and up and coming places. This past summer I spent four and a half weeks at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a beautiful and legendary place for artists of all kinds. It was my fourth visit to the colony and I will never say a bad thing about the work of MacDowell or its extraordinary-staff.

But something happened to me while I was housed at MacDowell that’s left me pondering what it means to be a disabled artist. Frankly I felt more and more alone. I was the blind guy with the lovely dog. The important conversations were about diversity and while these dinner dialogues were good, I found whenever I suggested the disabled are intersectional figures where issues of identity and human rights are concerned I was treated as a quaint and colorful tinker who makes quirky shoes.

Now being lonesome at an arts colony is an interesting thing. After all you’re not there to be a gadfly and getting your work done in a quiet and nurturing space is what the whole thing is about. I got work done. I wrote in my woodland cabin. I took thoughtful walks with my dog.

I felt like a curiosity rather than a figure of acceptance. I was the only disabled artist there. I’m often the only disabled person in a whole variety of settings. Why was this summer at MacDowell different?

The casual ableism of the other artists was part of the problem. Blindness and deafness and intellectual disability turned up frequently as pejorative terms in casual conversations. I lost my temper one evening explaining to a young writer that the “r” word isn’t acceptable when talking about people with intellectual disabilities.

What was different is my age. I’m too old for ableist nonsense and too tired to care that I’m the outlier.

But wouldn’t it be nice of the best arts colonies actually had disability months? Frankly I could use dome creative and progressive conversation about embodiment and imagination.

And yes, a few ripping good laughs.

Eric Hobsbawm, the Welsh, Brexit, and Donald Trump

In his excellent memoir “Interesting Times” the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm says of the Welsh, circa 1960: “For most of the mountain people the Welsh language was chiefly a Noah’s Ark in which they could survive the flood as a community. They did not so much want to convert and converse: people looked down on visiting South Walians with their ‘school Welsh’. Unlike Noah, they did not expect the flood to end. ”

Excerpt From: “Interesting Times: A Twentieth-century Life.” Apple Books.

There is a practical sense though a dark one to be found in provincial communities, a noir pragmatism that the flood (whatever it stands for) will never end. In rural Wales the English built summer houses and despoiled the landscape. Enterprising locals burned those houses down rather frequently. The constabulary never caught a single arsonist and yet the flood kept coming. Ironic then that Brexit is among other things a response to the post-colonial flood of foreigners and their influences on Britain, and a simultaneous self-induced house burning. Unable to stand the flood the English are burning their house down.

In the United States the flood is largely a fiction which Donald Trump has borrowed from the language of white nationalists and because of this he knows in whatever it is that passes for his heart that he must burn the government down rather than negotiate the terms of his wall. If the wall—the need of a wall—which is really a dyke against the flood of foreigners—is based on fictive presumptions than any negotiation about it will quickly fall apart. Better to burn the houses of government.

This is made all the easier because the Republicans have campaigned against government for decades. Their rhetoric has devolved from Reagan’s call for smaller government to Trump who scarcely knows what governing is and like most real estate criminals imagines the governance of a nation to be a blight on his own ambitions. That’s a view he inherited from his racist father who was fined for discriminating against people of color in his public housing projects. Government t will make you do the right thing. All hail the collapse of the government.

I suspect there was never a Noah. I do like the idea of him. Lord knows he was an optimist. He preserved life in a dark time. There’s no evidence he burned houses. He didn’t arrive on dry land and slaughter the locals like Columbus. I have no idea what he thought about governance but the birds liked him.

Able-splaining 101

If you’re disabled you know all about it. The apparently “normal” person who tells you what you need to know is legion. BTW this figure can be anyone. Despite feminism, women can be able-splainers just as often as men. I recall distinctly the associate provost at my university who told me that a software package was “robust” when it comes to accessibility when in fact it was junk. Able-splainers have no shame. All they need is a cocksure belief that the disabled are deficient which means of course we’re dismissible and voila!

But did you know that silence is also a form of able-splaining? When the disabled say something is unusable silence is often the best able-splaining of all. And so economical!
Nothing says “that’s the way it is little dude” better than a good old fashioned round of silence.

The other day I got able-splained in a new way which trust me is a remarkable thing as I’ve pretty much heard or not heard it all. An elderly professor accused me of being antisocial because he saw me scoop my guide dog’s waste into a plastic bag and then gently place the bag in a snow drift.

I was carrying a harness, a briefcase, holding a leash, and having a conversation with another faculty member all at the same time.

And there I was. Busted. Imperfect. A hater of humanity.

What he was really saying was I don’t belong on his campus.

You know, us cripples with our animals, breathing tubes, mechanical devices galore, our irregular invisible needs—how polluting we are.

Ableism likes the world clean.

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

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 

Greeks, Spears, and Disability in Higher Ed

When Greeks (ancient) went to the theater they knew they were going to see a tragedy. Though comedy was sometimes performed it was rare. One can imagine a good old Greek saying, “I must get my fair share of abuse.”

To be abused was a matter of citizenship. With nuance and scruple one was reminded what being a good Greek (or a bad one) was all about.

In its pantheistic way the Hellenic world was engaged with suffering.

Disabled I’m eternally catching spears thrown by the able bodied. These spears have writing on them. On the arrow head it says, “I’m not like you.” On the shaft: “As God is my witness.” And if the spear has a ribbon it says: “Make them go away.”

Usually I catch the spears but sometimes they pierce me.

Because I remember the Greeks I know there’s no such thing as “me.”

I’m just one of the insistent ones at my university who says the materials distributed by the committee aren’t accessible; the websites and software packages used by the university are not accessible; the provision of equal opportunity for disabled students and staff is not readily apparent.

I catch spears for a living.

The difference between today’s disabled and any ancient Greek is we’re not afflicted by staid and superstitious ideas of fate.

We weren’t misshapen because of the gods.
We aren’t incapable of reason.
We don’t stand for anything other than embodied diversity.
Bodies don’t stand for anything other than the rich tableaux of human kind.
We do not represent the decline of society.
We don’t suggest the erosion of academic competence by our very presence.

Why is this so hard to absorb in higher education?

Jay Dolmage, author of several important books on disability and how we talk about it tells us that colleges and universities have always been built on the exclusion of certain kinds of bodies. In fact the university has functioned throughout history as an exclusionary gate to society. Dolmage writes:

“Disability has always been constructed as the inverse or opposite of higher education. Or, let me put it differently: higher education has needed to create a series of versions of “lower education” to justify its work and to ground its exceptionalism, and the physical gates and steps trace a long history of exclusion.”

Excerpt From: Jay Dolmage. “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.” Apple Books.

Creating versions of lower education and lowered expectations is in no small measure what universities have been about. Eugenics, the organized pseudo-science of social Darwinism had a strong foothold in American universities including Stanford, Harvard, and yes, Syracuse. Faculty at Syracuse engaged in a study with the infamous Cold Spring Harbor eugenics institute, a study which sought to prove Syracuse University coeds were deficient as bearers of offspring.

Exclusion and deficiency have long been manufactured by post-secondary education. Small wonder then that almost thirty years after the adoption of the ADA colleges and universities are so far behind when it comes to supporting and celebrating disability inclusion and disability rights.

Jay Dolmage again:

“…the alternative to planning for diversity is pretty dire, leaving access as an afterthought, situating it as something nice to be done out of a spirit of charity, or as something people with disabilities are being unfairly given. Without Universal Design, the alternatives are the “steep steps” that are set out in front of many people with disabilities, or the “retrofits” that might remove barriers or provide access for disabled people, but do so in ways that physically and ideologically locate disability as either deserving exclusion or as an afterthought.”

Excerpt From: Jay Dolmage. “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.” Apple Books.

The Greeks understood dire.

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

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 

Lyric, Crippled Anger

Two nights ago I over drinks and dinner with poets and writers at the University of Cincinnati I let my disability freak flag fly. Sometimes (though I aim to be circumspect and polite, especially with new found friends) I feel the distress of disablement–the peninsula effect of the matter—my people are the last people to be surveyed, especially in academic circles. While some American universities have disability studies programs or courses the majority of colleges do not. Moreover, while diversity gets discussed in neoliberal circles within higher education these discussions usually leave the disabled out. I admitted the following things to the poet Rebecca Lindenberg one of my hosts:

I’m 63 years old and still fighting for disability inclusion everywhere. The fight often seems to be going badly, or backward.

As I age I feel the pull of the soul—really, those roads of the guitar as Lorca might say. I don’t want to die angry. While I don’t expect to vanish tomorrow, I could. I cross the streets with a guide dog. I navigate on faith. The unseen is very present in my daly thoughts.

I’m tired of the academic creative writing industry with its conferences that are often hostile to disabled participants. With academic literature programs that foreground the notion of intersectionality but still leave disability out of discussions of hegemony and oppression.

I told Rebecca how disheartened many of us are in the disability community (which is hardly monolithic) by the steep struggle we still face to be recognized by feminist scholars, LGBTQ scholars, African-American scholars, and so forth.

Such things aren’t on my mind as exercises. This summer at the famous MacDowell Colony for the Arts I heard a famous novelist tell a huge crowd that the MacDowell Colony would no longer be blind and poor when it comes to recognizing comic novels as an art form. He then repeated the phrase because he thought it was so apt. And there I was, sitting on a folding chair with my guide dog. Disability as metaphor is used by artists and progressives all the time. This hurts. No wonder the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference remains indifferent and even rude to disabled writers. Everyone knows there’s something wrong with us beyond the obvious.

I talked about the war on disability that’s underway because of genetic research and the movement to eliminate disabled bodies which comes from both the scientific community—eugenics 2.0—and political persuasions—Iceland has eliminated people with Down syndrome for example. Hitler called the disabled “useless eaters” and we’re still imagined that way by the political state, even European states.

I rattled on and on, letting out my frustrations. I talked about academic creative writers who have disabilities and pretend they don’t and how much this disturbs me.
I know I was venting in good company for Rebecca Lindenberg has her own disability and struggles with it hourly.

And there’s the specter of Trumpism, being triggered, feeling a neurological highjacking going on all the time, a fight or flee distress because deviant bodies are under attack.

And so it occurred to me Rebecca snd I might start a very informal back and forth dialogue to which we can invite others here on this blog. What is just anger for writers? How do we build bridges? Or as the poet James Tate once said, “start a fire with our identification papers.?

—Stephen Kuusisto

Rebecca Lindenberg responds:

Thank you so much for sharing the note above with me. I think it captures the breadth of our conversation aptly, though I think it’s worth mentioning (in the spirit of candor) how emotionally charged such conversation can be, though I think of that as a positive thing. Sometimes I wonder how much of the American conversation would be different if we were all a little more willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of someone else, to push our own envelopes more. To wrestle with the difficult. Because for me, part of the defining characteristic of living with chronic disease and disability is learning to persist with difficulty, to muddle through what you cannot get “over” or around, to sit with uncomfortable realities, and also, learn to problem-solve them. Problems, I find, are easier to solve in collaboration than alone, pretty much every time. But you can’t solve a problem that one of your collaborative group does not acknowledge or understand. The bravery to be candid, and also the courage to hear what is candidly spoken, are two kinds of strength that the world requires of us if we’re to make it any better.
I’ve thought about this a great deal. I remember one evening, many years ago, after a sort of semi-official writerly function where my late partner Craig had been (it seemed to me at the time) somewhat bracingly frank with our hosts, I sort of wearily admonished him for acting like kind of a jerk. And I’ll never forget his response, because it was: “Do you want me to be Good, or do you want me to be Nice?” I remember my initial thought was, Why can’t you be both? But years on, I think more and more every day that it is too often difficult to be both. And while I very much want people to like me, as I think most socialized humans do, when push comes to shove, I’d rather be Good. By “good” in this context, I mean just. I mean compassionate and humane, but also unafraid to advocate for myself, for my trans daughter, for my students, and so forth. I also mean fair, and mindful of others, and cognizant of complexities, and insofar as I am able, conscious of my own positions of privilege and my own gaps of knowledge and understanding. As we were talking about together the other night, I do not think candor is opposed to kindness, and I do not think “politeness” is particularly healthy – in fact I think it’s a coercive and often insidious way of keeping people “in line” who might otherwise disrupt the status quo from which the mighty (pretty much singularly) benefit. And politeness insists that those in charge not be made uncomfortable. But if they (or in some cases, we) do not feel uncomfortable, how can they (or we) come to know that something is very, very wrong? And along those lines, I believe that anger is a very important emotion, and a healthy one. (I was joking about this on social media the other day, actually, a beloved friend of mine responded to one of my posts with “Anger is healthy,” and I replied in all caps, “THEN I AM FULL OF HEALTH,” which is especially ironic for me, and for the sources of my anger.) But it’s true – anger is a source of energy, of activity, and of agency. Anger empowers. But anger should never, ever be confused with abuse. Abuse does not empower, it silences, it paralyzes. And it is designed to silence and paralyze. And it can come from any of us, at any time. Anger is interested in getting things going the right way, abuse is only interested in getting its own way. And at almost any cost. But because anger – and I almost feel Blakean about its “infernal energy” – has so much to offer, we do sometimes have to put politeness away in its favor. Because the one thing politeness is designed to avoid, really, is anger. Here’s a joke to show you what I mean:
Two Southern Belles are sitting on a porch, rocking in their rocking chairs, fanning themselves with their fans. Southern Belle #1 turns to Southern Belle #2 and says (you have to imagine your best high-falutin’ Southern drawl here):

Do you see that horse out there? My daddy bought me that horse because he loves me so much.

Southern Belle #2 says: That’s nice.
Southern Belle #1 says: Do you see that grand house over yonder? My daddy bought
me that house because he loves me soooo very much.
Southern Belle #2 says: That’s nice.
Southern Belle #1 says: See that there shiny auto-mobile? My daddy bought me that auto-mobile because he loves me so much.
Southern Belle #2 says: That’s nice.
Southern Belle #1 says: What’s your daddy done for you lately?
Southern Belle #2 says: He sent me to a finishing school in Switzerland.
Southern Belle #1 says: What’s finishing school?

Southern Belle #2 sighs, folds her fan in her lap and says: It’s a boarding school for young ladies, where you learn such things as proper deportment, and elocution, and which spoon to serve with which kind of soup, and how – when you really, really want to say Go Fuck Yourself – you say, ‘That’s Nice’.

It’s funny, that joke, but it kind of gets at the point I’m trying to make, nonetheless. “Politeness” is – by its very design – repressive. And that joke is funny because, as they say, nobody died. But it’s not always so amusing.
Now, to clarify a little, I’m all in favor of being considerate of those around you, their feelings and experiences. I think it was Lucille Clifton who once said (not wrote, she just came out and said it), “Walk into any given room, and every single person in that room is going through something you could not even begin to comprehend.” And I think I try to walk into every room mindful of that truth – a truth I have found bears out again and again and again. But “politeness” as we have socially constructed it (a system of “do’s” and “don’ts” like “never talk about sex, politics, or religion,” a nearly-invisible way of propping up a social hierarchy that rewards conformity and punishes difference) isn’t really about being kind or compassionate to people, actually. It’s about asking people, often the most vulnerable people in any given setting, to suffer their own discomfort for the sake of the comfort of whomever in that setting is perceived to have the power or the authority. A man might make a move on a woman, which might make her uncomfortable. Rather than react appropriately (that is, angrily) she will very often downplay the situation, or try to laugh it off and smooth it over, or feel compelled to “let him down easy” so as to “not make a scene,” but that’s more about preserving his dignity than it is about protecting her own. (I should know, I’ve been there, and beaten myself up about it afterwards.) A person of color might find themselves on the receiving end of a rude, racist remark, and instead of calling out the person who made the remark, they might just ignore it, or change the subject, or find a way to gently excuse themselves from the situation. It might be because to correct someone requires more emotional labor than they wish to do at that moment, but one of the reasons it IS emotional labor in the first place is because they’re trying to respond within a code of conversation and behavior that requires certain niceties be observed and maintained, the offending party not be too embarassed, lest (among other things) they somehow retaliate. The implicit threat in coercive politeness is that the person in a position of privilege or power will escalate the situation, if the more vulnerable party does not tow the line. Therefore, being “polite” in a discomforting situation just reminds the individual striving not to “make a scene” or whatever that we don’t really feel safe. Our safety is as fragile as this pretense, which we are primarily called upon to maintain. And people with disabilities are frequently – no, constantly – coerced by this unspoken, culturally-ubiquitous code of “politeness” and asked to hide, downplay, apologize for, or try to compensate for our disabilities. I’m diabetic and I have some of the unfortunate visual complications of my disease (in part because for so long I had no access to meaningful health care, but that’s a whole other story). I have been diabetic for 30 years, or three-quarters of my life, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sneaked off into bathrooms to test my blood sugar secretly in the stall rather than at a table in a restaurant where I might make someone uncomfortable, or the number of times I’ve apologized for having to interrrupt a conversation or shared experience with someone in order to treat a low blood sugar (a situation which, untreated, can be fatal). At some point I caught myself out. Why, I wondered, am I apologizing to this person for trying to keep myself alive? When for a time I couldn’t drive because of hemorrhaging in my eyes, I found myself being excessively obsequious to my Uber drivers, conscious as I was that without them my mobility around a city with really crappy public transportation was very, very limited. So even when I found myself appalled by an assertion about American politics, or a story about a drunk female passenger, or rudeness offered to me personally, I was meek, ameliorating, polite. And it hurt more than I cared to admit to myself, as I became increasingly aware that I was pandering to people I knew were in the wrong, because I also knew that in that situation, I was somewhat frighteningly dependent upon them. Because I felt vulnerable, I tacitly agreed to stroke the egos and protect the dignities of the people who were making me feel my own vulnerability even more. A wound, the salt.
But beyond that, my real beef with coercive politeness is that it inhibits open, honest conversation. Like this one! Like the ones we got a chance to share in Cincinnati. Open, honest conversation can be bracing – for everyone. But I think of that feeling I get from such a conversation – which is a little like being together in a tiny boat at sea – seems to me to represent the feeling of going-through-something with someone else, its own kind of solidarity. It is for me, too, the feeling of growing as a person and a thinker, of pushing my own envelope a little, placing myself in a scenario that would feel, if not for the good intentions of my interlocutor, precarious. It’s work, for sure. But I’d rather do that work than the work of self-censoring, beating myself up, coping endlessly with feelings of awkwardness and discomfort – my own, or yours.
I would be so interested in hearing your further thoughts on these things, and I would be so, so very interested in hearing the thoughts of others, which I expect might be very different from my own, and I would welcome that. It’s my experience that I have had plenty of occasions in my life to think about the things that make my life very, very hard to live sometimes. I know that someone whose life is made hard to live by a different set of circumstances would almost certainly have a different take on things – perhaps expanding upon this conversation, or problematizing some of what I’ve offered. For me, my obsession with literature stems in no small part from my infinite fascination in hearing from others about experiences and points of view that differ from (and also re-contextualize for me) my own.
I wonder who else we could invite to join our conversation? Should we just reach out an invite people? Run it up the flagpole, as it were?
I look forward to our continued correspondence. And I totally forgot to have you sign your book for me so: Next time?

Very warmly,


Dear readers, especially poets and writers (though you needn’t hail from this territory alone) please feel welcome to chime in.

You can send me your thoughts and I will post them.

Stephen Kuusisto

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

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 

Stop With Your Ableist Lazy Rage

Over the course of the last two years (post election and the year prior) I’ve watched people throw ableist insults. From the right the favored term is “libtard” and from the left one hears “moron” “idiot” and “imbecile” all echoing eugenics both in Germany and the United States when the disabled were marked for elimination.

When disability must be employed to register rage then its nothing more than lazy rage. Rather than call a Trump supporter an imbecile why not say: “there’s a person who doesn’t understand his shadow.” Not so much fun as ableizing him or calling him a pig or weasel.

Lazy rage is fun rage. Even in their discontent Americans like to have fun. Trump knows this. Its perhaps the only thing he knows.

We’re got rape culture to worry about; children in cages; wholesale destruction of the environment at hand; black men in the school to prison pipeline; eroding medical services for veterans and the poor; unending American involvement in ruinous wars; the collapse of public education; big Pharma slinging opioids in every corner of the nation; religious extremism attacking science; an outright war on the Americans with Disabilities Act—I’m just getting started.

And all I see on facebook is callow name calling with an especially able bodied smugness.

As John Lennon might say: here’s another clue for you all. You are as much the problem as the problem.

Read Carl Jung on “the shadow” and know your own deep despairs before saying someone else is “lame” and for god’s sake join a volunteer organization of some kind.

More About Hating Smokey the Bear

I don’t like Smokey the Bear. I’ve already written about it. He’s a slick defier of logic. Children are powerless to prevent forest fires and telling kids they’ve a singular moral responsibility fo forestall contagion is the kind of cartoon horse shit Americans are forced to grow up with.

Meanwhile the forests are being systematically cut down by Weyerhaeuser and fried by acid rain from “clean coal”—a phrase I’m sure Smokey the Bear would approve.

Now you will say: “But Kuusisto, is it Smokey the Bear you don’t like, or is it the fatuous, bloated, running dogs of the bourgeoisie who created him who you dislike?”

Of course I dislike Madison Avenue. But it’s the cartoon Bear I hate. He’s the kind of anthropomorphic dungaree wearing shovel toting ranger hat wearing dingus who will pick your pockets if you’re not careful. He’s out to mess with your conscience. He wants you to feel responsible when bad things happen in nature.

Only you can prevent hurricanes.

Only you can prevent global warming.

He’s anti-democratic and the purveyor of superstition.

Thomas Jefferson would have despised Smokey the Bear.

Why am I “on” about this?

Because when you make a woman who’s survived sexual abuse stand alone before a room fool of smug, pink, hostile men on Capitol Hill, you’re saying, “only you can prevent sexual assault”—the American social lie…the idea that the culture isn’t responsible, only you, only you.

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

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 

This is the Smokey the Bear Social Lie Complex.

The corridors of power depend on this.