Of Ableism and Spite on Campus

In his new book Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side” Dublin psychologist Simon McCarthy-Jones starts off with the obvious though entertaining point that spite ye will always have with ye:

“Spite runs deep. We find it in our oldest stories. It is there in the myths of ancient Greece. Medea kills her children, just to spite her unfaithful husband, Jason. Achilles refuses to help his Greek comrades fight because one of them has stolen his slave. Folklore tells of spite. A magical being offers to grant a man one wish. Naturally, there is a catch. Whatever he gets, his hated neighbor will get double. The man wishes to be blind in one eye.1 Such stories, although buried in time, still speak of an instantly recognizable behavior.”

This is a bouncy opening and its certainly un-blinkable. Who’s got spite? We’ve got spite! (Apologies to Hoagy Carmichael.)
If you work in higher education you know a shit load about spiteful faculty and administrators and if you’re at all like me you have a collection of ice bags in your freezer.

Spite in the faculty ranks is a sport.

For my money the best passage about the matter is in Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”:

“It’s a curious thing that the mental life seems to flourish with its roots in spite, ineffable and fathomless spite. Always has been so! Look at Socrates, in Plato, and his bunch round him! The sheer spite of it all, just sheer joy in pulling somebody else to bits…Protagoras, or whoever it was! And Alcibiades, and all the other little disciple dogs joining in the fray! I must say it makes one prefer Buddha, quietly sitting under a bo-tree, or Jesus, telling his disciples little Sunday stories, peacefully, and without any mental fireworks. No, there’s something wrong with the mental life, radically. It’s rooted in spite and envy, envy and spite. Ye shall know the tree by its fruit.”

**

Now if you’re disabled and work in higher education you know that spite is the twin of ableism.

Ableism, the experience of it, requires the French adjective écœurante —for disability discrimination is simultaneously heartless and sickening. I recall the professor of English at the University of Iowa who told me my blindness would preclude me from being in his “famous” graduate class on Charles Olson. Another professor snickered when I said I was reading books on tape. When I protested the chairman of the English department told said I was a whiner and complainer. I wept alone in the Men’s room. My path forward to a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa was stymied. This was a full six years before the ADA was signed into law. Who was I to imagine a place at the agora’s marble stump?

I had an MFA degree from the creative writing program at that same university and I just went ahead and wrote books and sometimes appeared on radio and television and I wrote for big magazines and over time I received tenure at The Ohio State University. Later I went back to teach at Iowa despite my earlier experience and these days I’m at Syracuse. I’m a survivor of sorts. I’m a blind professor. The odds were never in my favor. Somewhere along the way I began thinking of Moliere in my private moments and I laughed because after all, every human occasion is comical and Moliere recognized the comedic types one encounters in closed societies better than anyone before or since.

It doesn’t really matter what institution of higher education you’re at, if you’re disabled you’ll meet the following Moliere-esque figures. The heartless and sickening ye will always have with ye if you trek onto a college campus. You’re more likely to spot them first if you hail from a historically marginalized background however, the ecoeurantists are more prone to blab at you if you’re disabled, especially behind closed doors. Ableists love closed doors. All bigots love closed doors.

The “Tartuffe” is an administrator, usually a dean or provost who will tell you with affected gestures that he, she, they, what have you, cares a great deal about disability and then, despite the fact a disabled person has outlined a genuine problem, never helps out.

The “Harpagon” is also an administrator, but he, she, they, can also be a faculty member. The Harpagon is driven by rhetorics of cheapness. It will cost too much to retrofit this bathroom, classroom, syllabus, website, etc. If the Harpagon is a professor he, she, they, generally drives a nice car.

Statue du Commandeur: a rigid, punctilious, puritanical college president—“this is the way we’ve always done it. If we changed things for you, we’d have to change things for everybody. Yes, it certainly must be hard…” See:

The Geronte: when his son is kidnapped he says: “Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?” (What in the deuce did he want to go on that galley for?” In other words, he brought this upon himself. “Really, shouldn’t you try something easier? I could have told you.”

These are the principle types of ableists. I invite you to add your own.

The one thing they have in common besides a privileged and thoroughly unexamined attachment to the idea that education is a race requiring stamina and deprivation, is that they all genuinely believe that accommodations are a kind of vanity which is of course a spiteful idea.

In the Way of Poets I Was Sad All Day

For each person is a world
Peopled by blind creatures in revolt
As Ekelof said—though
I know a horse without eyes
Who’s gentle and who
I’m certain has a thousand souls.
Of sadness I know so little
Though I just read about
A scientist who makes music
From the strands
Of spider webs
And cold voices
Rise and fall there
And tonight in my absentmindedness
I listen to the wind
Which is a way
Of sensing things
I’ll never hold—
That audible cemetery.
Whenever I say peace I mean something different.

Of Disability and Gratitude

The disabled are supposed to feel gratitude. Not once in awhile as when, without asking, someone who’s short is helped by a taller human in a supermarket, but always, especially when we’re in public. This is the thick of it.

I do not speak for all the disabled. I can’t speak for “the blind” whoever they are. I won’t tackle vast and abstract gratitudes or their opposites. But let’s imagine that you, a man or woman going about your business are told by word and gesture you’re lucky to be among others and this is a daily matter.

Of luck I know little like most Americans. I tend to think it concerns others and conceive of my fortunes as the consequences of sloth or industry but either way I’m a rootin’ tootin’ pull up his own bootstraps fantasist until I find myself in a foxhole. This is an excellent description of white privilege. It’s also a perfect example of what the disabled call “the super crip”–a deluded but addictive mindset that says you’re better than those other disabled. Super Crip says: “look I wrote a book!”; ‘I’m in a movie!”; “I’m a Washington insider!”; “I climbed a mountain, and you can too!”

Never mind that only one in four college students with a disability actually graduates or that 70 per cent of the disabled remain unemployed and are living in poverty in the US. Certainly you shouldn’t think too much about the dreadful ableism in education, employment, transportation, social services, medicine and health insurance.

This is the problem: if you succeed as a disabled citizen you’re likely going to stand out and the matter becomes central for strangers who think its novel and inspiriting that a man or woman with a guide dog has come to their business meeting. You stand for the possibility of disability inclusion even if the latter is still a dream. In your boxy little noggin you’re thinking “I made it here just like the rest of you even if the deck was stacked against me! Can’t you see? I pulled myself up by my Tony Lama bootstraps!” And they don’t see it because you’re lucky to be among them and aren’t they liberal for having you and someone leans close and says loudly so the others can hear: “We’re so fortunate to have you with us!”

You? Feel the gratitude! Slurp it down. Dribble some down your chin.

The gratitude mechanism is sentimental ableism and you’re supposed to think of your specialness.

Forget all those others out in the street.

Morning- Dream After-burn in the Kitchen

It was a high mountainous land and I was alone save for my horsie. So it was a boyhood dream. I was in the customary dark. All my dreams occur sometime before the age of electric light. I breathe deeply there. And here I am sorting spoons. “Let us break out of this circle and turn away from reality” I tell my hands but they’re busy with short outbursts of joy as they touch cold metal. The Milky Way revolves and the horse moves down below in slow autumn rain.

Kyrie

The poet Charles Simic has a line: “the dictionary said you were a sign indicative of omission” which I’ve always liked. I say this because I’m blind and the recipient of other’s declarative omissions—I disappear as soon as I’m seen, and why not? If I can’t see things then of course there’s nothing for others to see. The blind body is a husk.

When I sit under the wild apple tree we are two husks getting to know one another. I tell the tree that’s how it is. I tell the tree the Corybants will be here soon. I share a story with my favorite tree about the shadows of men who wander forever. You see of course because you’re a swift reader that I take back the omission indicative.

So I take back the entire night. Take back the chances sleeping in cards. Take labors never finished and press them under fallen leaves with my toes. Take back cloud pedestals and the labor of moving forward. Right here. On the far side of the lake. In a small reddish square.

Lines in Spring

When I say I’m “of or pertaining” to sadness
It’s a joke—as are men
And women, as are the trees
The holdouts amid
Houses their orchard
Gone fifty years.

Mortal humor
Old man stands
Under branches
“How sad are you?”
April vaudeville
Resting blind face
Against bark
Says: apples
Coming
Soon everyone
Will have a myth.

Hang it All, Robert Browning

Hang it All, Robert Browning

There can be but one sourdough. Inside poetry joke.

**

There were two Hopalong Cassidys.

**

Talking to the apple trees this morning.

**

I have read a good deal “in” the Frankfurt School. I still believe in defending us against storming passions and a terrible fate.

**

Great dream last night: tent, forest, island, believed dead “back” from where they’d been. Excellent camp fire.

**

I hope in my next dream I can eat a baked apple with Max Horkheimer.

When the Numbers Start Screaming

More gun deaths in America. More Black people murdered by cops. More virus deaths. I want to go outside and pound the lawn with my fists. I swear I’ve never felt so helpless and enraged. And then I remember I’ve felt this all my life. As a youngster I watched with horror the vast cruelty of the Viet Nam War and the assassinations of every brave leader Black and white. I was thirteen years old in 1968. I woke up early. Like you and you I’ve lived in suspended horror and this means living with numbness and lowered expectations. And if one has energy to spare it goes into raising hope. Yes, Emily Hope is the thing with feathers. Look at me waving these quills. Just look at me.

They Say How Did You Go Blind

They Say How Did You Go Blind?

I tell them about dropping from a cloud
A sober cloud
In the Gulf of Finland
Tight as a mother’s wish
And how this falling
Was my only sight
I’m a hit at cocktail parties

**

They Say How Did You Go Blind? Part Two

Masturbation
Licking poisonous stamps
Eating pine bark
Reading the novels of Robbes-Grillet
Standing up for innocence
Kissing urchin spines
Keeping airplanes aloft with my thoughts

Rain on the Roof

This is a story about how strange being disabled really is. It’s not inspirational. I swear it isn’t gloomy either. Being blind has taught me that the world is just what it is and not what I think about it. I have no idea if you’ll understand me. I get things wrong. I think those sighted people in the airport lounge are staring at me. I imagine they’re thinking how lucky they are to not be blind. But I have it wrong. They’re grieving the loss of their dog and now they come over and ask if they can pet my guide dog, a yellow Labrador named Caitlyn. They know this isn’t ordinarily permitted. Their dog has died. And I understand that I had their story all wrong, that I was foregrounding my own sensitivities. The world is just what it is.

As I get older I find this is the hardest lesson I’ve learned. Hard because I’ve learned this badly, often after great pain or having made serious mistakes. I have misunderstood people. Have imputed bad motives to others when they didn’t have them. I’ve worn my sense of alienation on my sleeve. And so this is the trick: avoiding the brittle insertions of ego and fantasy; the self absorption of it; keeping clear; forgiving myself and others when I have the chance.

If you’re disabled you know there’s a lot of ableism and discrimination. You learn to stick up for yourself and others. You lick your wounds. You’ll face problems in the future. You know you’ve got to be prepared for them. And yet, and yet I don’t want to be broken in spirit. I don’t want this.

It’s raining today. A cold rain. I can hear it on the roof. The world is just what it is. My story doesn’t change this. I’m learning to take comfort in this.