No One Left to Lie To, Part Two

When Christopher Hitchens published his grim appraisal of Bill Clinton (“No One Left to Lie To”) in 1999 I was having a bit of a bad time. When you’re disabled even the best moments can be demoralizing. I’d my own first memoir on the stands and while I’d tried to be nuanced and reflective about blindness both as I’d experienced it and as a larger circumstance I found myself on tabloid television where the nuance that disability requires went out the window. I missed reading “No One Left to Lie To” as I was busy dealing with the likes of Oprah Winfrey whose interview had nothing to do with my book. I appeared on the Leeza Gibbons Show with a drugged little girl, fresh from surgery, who’d had a third leg removed.

I was seeing first hand how the TV industry craves emotion over substance. I knew Bill Clinton had lied to the nation about reforming welfare by co-opting the GOP and emoting like a used car salesman looking into the camera and saying the poor would be lifted up. While the 80’s were built in part on fiscal lies the 90’s were about something worse. Clinton might have said: “a red herring in every pot” and few in mainstream journalism would have flinched.

Me? I’d written a book about disablement pre-ADA. Much like my friend Lucy Grealy’s memoir “Autobiography of a Face” which contended with physical deformity in public “Planet of the Blind” spoke to the self-to-self dichotomies of blindness and contempt in the civic sphere. Sitting in those TV interviews I saw that Oprah’s mantra “the truth will set you free” was false at least where disability was concerned. Her true motto should have been: “customary feelings only.” Several years ago I wrote about the Oprah experience. You can find the post here.

Tabloid television and its ugly child, “reality TV” were steamrolling by the end of Bill Clinton ‘s second term. I wish I’d read “No One Left to Lie To” back then. I certainly wish more people would read it now. In his lively introduction Douglas Brinkley writes:

“Hemingway famously wrote that real writers have a built-in bullshit detector—no one has ever accused Hitchens of not reading faces. What goaded him the most was that Clinton, the so-called New Democrat, with the help of his Machiavellian-Svengali consultant Dick Morris, decided the way to hold political power was by making promises to the Left while delivering to the Right. This rotten strategy was called Triangulation. All Clinton gave a damn about, Hitchens maintains, was holding on to power.”

I’m tempted to quote Brinkley’s entire intro but I’ll just add this, while noting the unsound and racist scalping metaphor:

“To Hitchens, there were no sacred cows in Clintonland. With tomahawk flying, he scalps Clinton for the welfare bill (“more hasty, callous, short-term, and ill-considered than anything the Republicans could have hoped to carry on their own”), the escalated war on drugs, the willy-nilly bombing of a suspected Osama bin Laden chemical plant in Sudan on the day of the president’s testimony in his perjury trial, and the bombing of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the eve of the House of Representatives’ vote on his impeachment.”

**

Do not forget that when running for the presidency in 1992 Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton signed off on the execution of a mentally disabled man named Ricky Ray Rector. This was death as a political stunt. It was also the exploitation of disablement as human sacrifice. How does a man of decency and conscience do such a thing? He doesn’t of course. Good men (and women) abjure the taking of human life for political theater. It’s permissible to argue about the ethics and merits of the death penalty but whatever your stance (I’m against it) you should know that politics is not only about who’s paying for your lunch (as Gore Vidal famously put it) but it also concerns public spectacle and performance. Democratic countries have always put people to death to make a point. Jim Crow. Sacco and Vanzetti. The Rosenbergs. Henry Ford and striking workers.

bell hooks wrote in her book “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love” “Men need feminist thinking. It is the theory that supports their spiritual evolution and their shift away from the patriarchal model. Patriarchy is destroying the well-being of men, taking their lives daily.”

If you’re a disabled writer you have to want spiritual evolution. You have to recognize that the cynical politics of tough talk and any public performance that devalues life will eventually kill innocent women, children and men. Back to Clinton via Hitchens who quotes Robert Reich’s recollection about “ending welfare as we know it”–

“When, during his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton vowed to “end welfare as we know it” by moving people “from welfare to work,” he presumably did not have in mind the legislation that he signed into law in August 1996. The original idea had been to smooth the passage from welfare to work with guaranteed health care, child care, job training and a job paying enough to live on. The 1996 legislation contained none of these supports—no health care or child care for people coming off welfare, no job training, no assurance of a job paying a living wage, nor, for that matter, of a job at any wage. In effect, what was dubbed welfare “reform” merely ended the promise of help to the indigent and their children which Franklin D. Roosevelt had initiated more than sixty years before.”

A good man would not have ditched the supports Reich lists but a man who’d hang a mentally impaired prisoner would do it in a heartbeat. The point was “triangulation”–the pitting of the left and right against each other not for productive advancement but solely for personal success. Hitchens:

“Two full terms of Clintonism and of “triangulation,” and of loveless but dogged bipartisanship, reduced the American scene to the point where politicians had become to politics what lawyers had become to the law: professionalized parasites battening on an exhausted system that had lost any relationship to its original purpose (democracy or popular sovereignty in the first instance; justice or equity in the second).”

I say it all begins with the execution of a disabled man who was serving a life sentence. Good citizens beware.

**

America was built on an idea, Jefferson’s, equality at its core. Illusion was necessary if greed and the suborning of rights was to succeed. Civic rhetorics must be tuned for the increase of division. But only politicians who most desire power over all else will overtly “batten an exhausted system” with overt disdain for the poor or the cripples.

Rick Perlstein writes in “The Invisible Bridge” about the singular moment when during Nixon’s first term American housewives protested a beef scarcity. Nixon trotted out his top consumer advisor, Virginia Knauer:

“President Nixon’s consumer advisor, Virginia Knauer, made a presentation for the press, suggesting “liver, kidney, brains, and heart can be made into gourmet meals with seasoning, imagination, and more cooking time.” She then trilled, “From my own experience I have found a shopper can generally trim as much as ten percent off her food budget.” An aide demonstrated a cost-per-serving slide rule for the cameras. On NBC that night, Knauer’s lesson in home economy was the lead story. It was followed by a field report on a schoolteacher’s wife who surreptitiously slipped horse meat into her husband’s sandwiches (a similar story made it onto an episode that fall of All in the Family).”

Talk about battening the exhausted!

Disability as lived experience is all about the lack of things. Inadequate public transportation; insufficient medical care; inaccessible doctor’s offices; lack of jobs and job training; the daily difficulty of acquiring necessary accommodations whether you’re in a boardroom or a ball park. There may be no greater experts in exhaustion battening that the cripples.

If you want to forestall equality there’s nothing like promoting ingesting bleach or shining a light inside the body during during a pandemic. If you want want power alone–without any irritable reminder of America’s foundational social ideals you push horse meat, execute Ricky Rector, defund any social programthat will help the poor during the greatest health crisis in global history. You tell people there’s nothing to see. You tell people they need more seasoning and imagination.

This was Reaganism at its core. Clinton understood it better than George H. W. Bush. Poppy Bush actually believed in “compassionate conservatism.”

In 1999 I discovered that tabloid TV which was by then, really, all TV, was only concerned with the exhaustion batten complex.
Oprah wanted to know if I could see anything at all, a variant of “how many fingers am I holding up?” Leeza wanted to know if my life was sad. Dateline wanted to know if my effort in youth to seem more sighted than I was meant “I was living a lie.” That disability is a devastating social construction was off the table. I was the singular lurid talisman of something they couldn’t figure out.

Reagan and Clinton put us firmly on the road to Trump. George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, launched accountably to seize non-existing weapons of mass destruction destroyed the last remaining optics of American idealism. Obama did his best to staunch the bleeding of public confidence but he wasn’t much of a liar and while he served two terms he never could put the batten back in the box. A country that’s disinterested in the least of its citizens and disdainful of nuance is next to ungovernable.

Back to the beef. Reagan was Governor of California while the price of meat was skyrocketing. He became the subject of an inquiry. Perlstein writes:

“In 1971, a student-operated radio station at Sacramento State College reported that Reagan’s 1970 tax return claimed he owed precisely zero dollars and zero cents. Reagan was befuddled when confronted with the news at a press conference; then he offered a recollection that he might have got a refund on his federal taxes. The governor’s office released a statement saying the reason was unspecified “business reverses.” He refused to say anything more—with a vengeance: “We fought a war about that! I say all men have a right to be safe in their books and records. That’s what the Revolution was about.”

Can you think of anything more Trumpian or Clintonian than that?

But wait! There’s more! Perlstein:

“One month later, the Sacramento Bee broke the story of what these “business reverses” entailed, and it was a doozy: the governor had contracted with a company that advertised to clients with a net worth of at least $500,000 that “tax laws favor cattle. . . . When you buy them, you become a farmer and can keep your books on a cash basis. You put in dollars that depreciate or are deductible. You take out capital gains.” Voilà: newly minted cowboys, whose ranks included Jack Benny, Alfred Hitchcock, and Arnold Palmer, “lose” enough money, in the company’s boast, “to avoid or postpone payment of any income tax.” ”

Can you think of anything more Trumpian or Clintonian than that?

**

Bill Clinton signed a much ballyhooed law in 1999, “H.R. 1180, the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act” which was trumpeted as a progressive effort to help the disabled receiving social security disability benefits by allowing them to participate in job training and vocational rehabilitation programs and still receive stipends. The problem? There was no effort to create jobs. Money for the VR programs came from social security. It was in effect a double tax without a true employment program.

Trump now says the states should pay the ongoing unemployment benefits that nearly 60 million Americans desperately need.

Voila indeed! To avoid or postpone payment of benefits as well as taxes!

The disabled are in the cross hairs of the exhaustion batten and tabloid TV won’t cover it.

MSNBC won’t cover it.

CNN?

Anyone out there?

**

In a devastating article over at CBS we learn that over 100,000 disabled Americans have died while waiting for social security benefits, which is to say, died after being denied those benefits, died while they were being further reviewed:

“The Social Security program, known for its retirement benefits, also provides disability payments to people of all ages who can’t work because of a physical or mental condition. But the process required get those benefits can be a bureaucratic nightmare, with applicants — who tend to be older and poorer than most Americans — sometimes waiting years to start collecting.

One measure of just how arduous that process can be: From 2008 to 2019, almost 110,000 people died as they awaited an appeal after initially being denied Social Security disability benefits, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal agency. Between 2014 and 2019, 50,000 people filed for bankruptcy waiting for their cases to be resolved.”

Stories about the health crises faced by the disabled are still few and far between in the mainstream news. Even the “progressive” platforms like “The Nation” and “Mother Jones” largely avoid the subject though at least The Nation has been giving space to the activist and disability journalist Sarah Luterman .

Instead the media reports on disability as scandal. The inestimable Ira Glass of “This American Life” broadcast a hatchet job about disability and social security but with lots of help from NPR and The Washington Post. Here I’ll quote from my blog in 2017:

“The Washington Post has published an article that purports to examine a steady increase in disability Social Security claims by poor families. Under the heading “Disabled America” the headline bellows: “One Family, Four generations of disability benefits. Will it continue?” If you’re disabled like me and you’ve a sense of disability history you have to shudder since the half-rhetorical question evokes an edict by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who infamously wrote: “three generations of imbeciles are enough” in Buck vs. Bell, a 1927 ruling that upheld the right of Virginia to sterilize “mental defectives” without their consent. (You can read more about the case here.) In short, the Post’s headline raises the specter of eugenics whether the writer or editor knows it or not. Either way its fair to say “shame on them.”

Shame also for committing the journalistic equivalent of what I call “Betsyism” for Betsy DeVos who presides loudly over our education system without experience, knowledge, or curiosity. Only Betsyism, the willful extrusion of facts for ideological purposes explains the Post’s perfervid and ill informed article. Why is it ill informed? Because like other mainstream media forays into the subject of disability and Social Security there’s only a singular narrative: the US is filled with fake cripples who are stealing from good old you and me–a story that received considerable traction two years ago when the redoubtable radio hipster Ira Glass rebroadcast (without journalistic fact checking) a spurious story from Planet Money asserting phony social security disability claims are officially out of control in America. The provenance of the story hardly mattered to Glass, who, when confronted with its falsehoods simply declared himself a journalist and shrugged. It mattered not at all to the doyen of “This American Life” that the tale was largely the dream child of a notorious rightwing think tank, or that the outright falsehoods contained in the broadcast might do tremendous damage to the disabled. Falsehoods about the powerless play well.”

Remember what we’re talking about? Batten exhaustion as tabloid meat.

**

There are people, disabled, black, brown, indigenous, white, old, young, students, seniors, health care workers, activists of all kinds who are talking back to the Batten Exhaustion Complex.
Some of the best writing comes from the folks over at The Disability Visibility Project .

In her essay “The Future Liberation of Disability Movements” Valerie Novack, a black disable woman, writes:

“I realized that my disabled peers weren’t fighting for my inclusion, my access, my liberation. My peers were fighting to be part of the status quo, to be part of the norm. To have access to all the privilege they felt denied as white disabled people. Largely, they didn’t want to fight for something new, better, and just, they wanted to fight for access to the systems we have and know were built on the bodies of our ancestors and that these systems thrive on continued oppression of BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). I learned that the disability rights movement wasn’t a push for equity, but for equality in the hierarchy of structures offered to other people. ”

Bingo!

Disableism, ableism, disability discrimination–is profoundly encoded, encircled by racism. Reading Valerie Novack I thought: “How many times have I been among privileged disabled people, all of whom were white, who applauded Bill Clinton?”

The white disabled community has been slow to recognize poverty and structural racism as coefficients in furthering disability rights. I remember disabled people applauding Clinton’s Social Security gambit. I also remember saying “there’s something fishy about this.”

I love Novack’s phrase “equality in the hierarchy of structures offered to other people” since it denotes how the comparatively well off white disabled often want their own level playing field but not much else. One sees it.

I remind you: Good men (and women) abjure the taking of human life for political theater.

Political theater can be less dramatic than the execution of Ricky Rector, it can be the calculated indifference to suffering on either a small or vast scale–but always delivered with that moue of contempt, the one that says “they deserved it.”

**

With Reagan’s election in 1980 the nation largely shrugged and accepted an imperial presidency, the chief executive whose method acting would be always about the consolidation of power, a consolidation built around the demolition of social programs favored by the old liberals. Reagan was a great story teller. Bill Clinton studied him closely. Triangulation for both these men meant never solving poverty but pitching the idea that the “other” party was solely responsible for the nation’s increasing squalor.

Black Lives Matter is presently upending this forty year narrative.

It’s a deeply embedded narrative. According to Dick Morris, Hillary Clinton said of “welfare reform” in 1995:

“Our liberal friends are just going to understand that we have to go for welfare reform—for eliminating the welfare entitlement. They are just going to have to get used to it. I’m not going to listen to them or be sympathetic to them.”

Excerpt From: “No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton.” Apple Books.

Old White Finn’s Homage to Black Disabled Lives Matter

Some of the most important intersectional human rights work being done in the United States comes from Black Disabled Lives Matter. This work doesn’t have analogies. Strictly speaking it’s not a slogan, only the meretricious and ill conceived parodies (Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter) are slogans, for DBLM is proleptic, it materializes objections to disabled black human rights by stating what should be true but isn’t. Blue lives already have the money and power; “all lives” means white able bodied life and we know it has the bacon.

I’m a 65 year old Finnish-American blind writer and activist. I don’t know what it’s like to be black and disabled. As a guide dog user I’ve been prevented from entering public accommodations. I’ve been denied cab rides. When I was unemployed a social worker told me I’d never find another job and I should be content to collect social security disability. I’ve been treated badly by airlines, academics, bus drivers, weirdos on the streets and even once in a church. But no one is generally out to shoot me. And because of my cheerful whiteness I’ve even been approached by cops who wanted to help me. (They thought I was lost. You know all blind people are permanently lost.)

If you’re disabled and black you’re pre-judged by systemic racism and ableism. Disability is cheating. Blackness is nascent criminality. Illness is a civic burden. Added together: the black disabled must be locked away. In public they can be tased, shot, whatever, and before you say, “why is this different from non-disabled people of color” let me add that it isn’t but disabled people of color are imagined by racist and ableist society as not ever belonging in public. They are rolling, tapping, ventilating reminders of all civil rights history. Hence they make even some black people uncomfortable. Kudos to Rev. Al Sharpton for mentioning black disabled lives at George Floyd’s funeral.

One of the best things happening is that Black Lives Matter means black disabled lives matter. BLM is amplifying the voices of black disability activists who have critically important stories to tell. Check out the Black Lives Matter page “Black, Disabled and Proud : College Students with Disabilities: https://www.blackdisabledandproud.org/black-lives-matter.html

There you can read Darnelle Moore’s excellent piece on racism as a mental health trigger. Moore writes about the horror and exhaustion of systemic racism.

Check out the Black Lives Matter Washington Disability Rights page: https://www.disabilityrightswa.org/2020/06/01/black-lives-matter/
Here you can read about BLM and disability rights where policing is concerned:

https://www.disabilityrightspa.org/newsroom/black-lives-matter-justice-in-policing/

**

If you know your history you’ll remember that the Black Panther Party was a significant promoter of disability rights and inclusion. If you know your history you know that Brown vs. Board of Education opened the doors of public schools for disabled kids like me. The intersections are tight between civil rights movements. But if there’s a moment beyond history—whatever we mean by history in the making—black disabled activists are pushing for true universal rights. They speak for veterans, the elderly, those who steer their chairs with breathing tubes, the guide dog teams, the mentally ill, the homeless, the unemployed, the deaf and non-speaking.

Now being blind I’m terrible at posting videos and I even struggle with pasting links but please check out the work of Vilissa Thompson, LeRoy Moore, and this terrific article published just two days ago at The Guardian; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/09/sandra-bland-eric-garner-freddie-gray-the-toll-of-police-violence-on-disabled-americans

In creative writing circles we’re asked, all of us, the old question, “who are you writing for?” I’ve never known how to answer this. I don’t think I write for blind people only. Certainly not cis gendered white men; not ableist or racist or homophobic types. I think though that today I’m writing for an old friend who is black and trans and has a guide dog.

And yes, nothing here is exhaustive, there’s so much more to be read and said. And yes I’m in total awe of disability activists everywhere.

Learning to Be Afraid, A Manuel for Outlier Bodies

In her latest novel The Burning Girl Claire Messud has her protagonist, a young woman named Julia observe the following: “Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid,” Julia says. “You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.”

Julia’s words passed through me like a scalpel. Talk about intersectionality! This fits disability, the actual living of it, to a T. All disabled people know this story—the crawling inner sense of contingency, the stares of appraisal, the shrugs, the outright dismissals that happen at any moment. One can add to this “early or late”—my first dismissal came when I was four years old. Here’s how I describe it in my forthcoming memoir about life with guide dogs:

When I was very small I didn’t know I’d meet people who wouldn’t like me until one afternoon, climbing stairs with my father, my hand in his, we met an elderly Swedish woman who lived just below us and who said, “Tsk, Tsk” because I was blind. I was only four and it was winter in Helsinki. This had been a foundational moment for me as such moments are for all sensitive children–it’s the very second we sense we’re not who we’ve met in the mirror, or having no mirror, we’re not who our parents say we are. Cruelty is one way we arrive. It comes without warning like branches tapping a window. “She’s a fool,” my father said as if that solved the riddle of human embarrassment.  

The body I inhabited was vulnerable.

“Imperfectly fortified.” Black bodies, trans bodies, diminutive bodies, let’s be democratic about the matter. So great is the stranglehold of tacit agreement about embodied value, anyone who’s not white, male, at least of average stature, lacks the automatic agency that opposes the vulnerability Julia describes.

When Trayvon Martin, the American teenager who was murdered while minding his own business, who was shot to death for being black in a gated community, I wrote about the tragedy from a disability perspective. I said, among other things:

I know something about being “marked” as disability is always a performance. I am on the street in a conditional way: allowed or not allowed, accepted or not accepted according to the prejudices and educational attainments of others. And because I’ve been disabled since childhood I’ve lived with this dance of provisional life ever since I was small. In effect, if you have a disability, every neighborhood is a gated community. 

Last week the Rev. Al Sharpton counseled Trayvon’s parents that the engines of disparagement would start soon–that Trayvon’s character would be run through the gutter. He was right. And he was properly forecasting what happens whenever a member of a historically marginalized community speaks up for “blaming the victim” is a handy way of sidestepping issues of cultural responsibility. In a way, isn’t that what “gated communities” are all about? Aren’t they simply the architectural result of cultural exceptionalism? Of course. But as a person who travels everywhere accompanied by a guide dog I know something about the architectures and the cultural languages of “the gate” –doormen, security officers, functionaries of all kinds have sized me up in the new “quasi public” spaces that constitute our contemporary town square. I too have been observed, followed, pointed at, and ultimately told I don’t belong by people who are ill informed and marginally empowered. Like Trayvon I am seldom in the right place. Where precisely would that place be? Would it be back in the institution for the blind, circa 1900? Would it be staying at home always? 

Now the forces of revision are saying that Trayvon was a violent pot smoker. Forget that pot smokers are generally not violent and that the vast majority of teens in America have tried it–forget that it’s not a gateway drug. Forget that having been suspended from high school for minor marijuana possession isn’t an advertisement for criminal psychosis. (Didn’t we dismiss that stupid idea along with the film “Reefer Madness” some thirty years ago?) The reality here is that Trayvon is being predictably transformed from an ordinary kid into an aggressor. The evidence doesn’t support this. He was stalked and threatened and the efforts in recent days to recast him as a crazed gangsta are predictable and laughable. But I’m not laughing. I too was an “outsider” teenager. My place in every social and public environment was always conditional. Hell, I even smoked marijuana as a form of self medication. I’m not ashamed of the kid I used to be. I’m not ashamed to count Trayvon Martin as my soul mate. 

There’s a war against black men and boys in this country. There’s also a backlash against women and people with disabilities and the elderly. The forces in all these outrages are the same. The aim is to make all of the United States into a gated community. On the one side are the prisons and warehousing institutions; on the other side, the sanitized neighborhood resorts. I hear the voice: “Sorry, Sir, you can’t come in here.” In my case it’s always a security guard who doesn’t know a guide dog from an elephant. In Trayvon’s case it was a souped up self important member of a neighborhood watch who had no idea what a neighborhood really means. I think all people with disabilities know a great deal about this. I grieve for Trayvon’s family. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him and will never forget.  

Learning to be afraid, to sense your vulnerability, is to recognize, in whatever neighborhood or room your very immanence is bothersome at best—and really that’s the best you can count on. From bothersome you descend quickly to the status of a foreign problem, and then to mild or medium hot threat or worse. Consider the tragedy of Keith Lamont Scott; consider Charleena Lyles; Brian Claunch; Robert Ethan Saylor; consider that half of the people killed by police in the United States are disabled.

One wish of mine is that Americans will pay attention to the fact that all outlier bodies have been essentially criminalized—that is, the foreign body is now imagined to be illegal.