Category Archives: Hyde Park

The Political Ghosts of 1991– Part 1 of 3

Since last fall, the rise of Drumpf and the discussion surrounding it have recalled to me the scene in Louisiana in 1991. I wrote the piece below circa 1993 and, at a friend’s request, revised it as a dramatic monologue in 1997. I don’t know if it was ever used in the staged reading for which it took this form. The only change I have made in 1997 version is naming the coffee shop in the basement of Swift Hall at the University of Chicago. I want to let that ’90s voice speak for itself, and undertake comment on our current situation in a follow-up post.

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Expatriate

            A woman in her early twenties is sitting on the porch of her grandmother’s shotgun double in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. She is dressed like a student, but is wearing clothes that are too warm for the deep south. The time is late December, after Christmas, in 1991.

I remember the first time I saw them. Last year, I happened to be home on St. Patrick’s Day. Dad was in that parade, the one that goes by Parasol’s. Grandma was catching vegetables, and I tried to count the little blue Duke stickers in that sea of green shirts, the stickers on the float guys, in the crowd, in the bar, at the Dixie truck. In the green beer line with me. When did this happen?

So I went digging in Grandma’s bag, behind her back. She’d caught lots of little red potatoes, and I picked out a few of those to throw at the blue stickers on the float guys. Target practice, disguised as part of the game. You can throw things back at floats, right? Then she turned around and saw me with both hands full of potatoes.

“Where you goin’ with those potatoes?”

“I’m going to throw them at the floats.”

“No you not. I’m going to cook those. Put them back, and you catch your own potatoes.”

All I caught was a green onion. I needed a better way of dealing with this.

 

I left New Orleans when I was 18, and I vowed then that I would never vote in a Louisiana election. “So you moved to Chicago?” people say. Yes. And voted there, once. Chicago politics is as hard to learn as our own. If you don’t know who was doing what to whom thirty years ago, you’ll be lost in the present. For an outsider, it does offer a certain innocence of the evil you inevitably choose. On the other hand, in Louisiana, the blue stickers multiplied like mosquitoes in August. I had just moved from one campus to another, and since Chicago erases you from the rolls if you move and don’t send notice, I wasn’t registered to vote anywhere. The race back home was everything I had hoped to avoid with that vow, kept six years now. I made up my mind before I got on the train.

On the day when I intended to break the vow, Mom asked me to pick up this new bed frame at the Maison Blanche on the West Bank.

“I don’t know where that place is,” I tell her.

“Go get Grandma. She’ll tell you where it is. But you drive.”

So I go by Grandma’s, tell her that I’m going to register to vote in Jefferson Parish, and then we’re going to pick up this bed frame at the Maison Blanche on the West Bank.

“You drive,” she says. Yes, I’ll drive.

It didn’t seem like much when I did it, breaking the vow. The hardest part was political affiliation, picking one out of four little boxes: Democrat, Republican, Other, and None. I couldn’t decide between Other and None, and now I don’t even remember which one I picked. I cast an absentee ballot for the primary, got back in the car, and headed for the Mississippi River bridge and the bed frame while Grandma told me about the latest car accident one of my cousins had had. “I’m a Louisiana voter, I’m a Louisiana voter,” I kept saying to myself, and waiting for my IQ to drop 60 points. Then I would slap myself and say, “You’ve been in the north too long.”

 

Soon I was back in Chicago, reading what the national newspapers had to say about Those People in Louisiana. Answering that question students inevitable ask each other, “Where are you from?” I would wake up in the morning with those lines playing in my head, “Oh, mothers tell your babies not to do what I have done . . . “ But what have I done? Then I’d get out of bed, drink that thin northern coffee, snap out of it, and study ancient history.

On the night of the primary, I went to the basement to find an open TV. Some guys were playing pool & drinking beer. I asked if they’d mind if I changed the channel to CNN. They didn’t, but one of them gave me this long strange look. He was thinking, the Gulf War’s over, what’s this chick doing watching CNN at 1 o’clock on Saturday night?

“I’m from Louisiana. There’s a gubernatorial primary . . .”

The guy squints at me and swirls his beer.

“It’s the one with the former Klan grand wizard running . . .”

“Oh, yeah.” Now he leans back to his shot, sights it, and looks back up at me.

“Isn’t Jimmy Swaggart also from Louisiana?”

“Yes!”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

 

The Monday after the runoff, I sat in Swift Kick, drinking thin coffee and reading a copy of the New York Times that someone had left on the table. Pages and pages about Us. Them. It. Him. They had two pages of statistical analyses and pie charts: Louisiana voters broken down by sex, age, race, income, education, religion, parish, and political party affiliation (they had Other but not None). Before I thought much about it, I was looking for my own socioeconomic profile. Why? I knew how I voted, didn’t I? Or was I looking for the People Like Me, to see if they did what I did?

I didn’t ship back out here until Christmas. That’s when I started looking at people I had known all my life, and wondering. Some talk about it. Most don’t.

There was the uncle, sitting at our bar with his belly hanging out, as he has for decades of Christmases. But this time he’s saying to his wife, “Did you vote for who I told you to?” And she’s being coy, “Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t.” “You better have. Because They’re taking over.” I want to yell: “Which one? Which They? Who’s taking over what from whom? And are we We or Them?” Did he vote for Duke, and if he did, do I want to pour him another beer for the rest of my life? I said nothing.

Or there’s Grandma, who told me that she voted for Edwards, for the first time in her life, and she has hated him for twenty years. She tells me that she was worried that Duke would win, because all of her friends were voting for him. “Grandma,” I said (consulting the New York Times pie charts burned into my mind’s retina), “your friends are all old white people. That’s Duke’s demographic.” “But I told them not to!”

And then there was my brother, who didn’t vote for Duke, but still looked at me and said, “You’re not from here anymore because you won’t come back.”

Six out of ten white Louisiana voters, voted for Duke, according to the New York Times pie charts. But which ones, the oracle does not say.

 

That’s what it’s been about along, who We are, who gets to decide who counts as We. But in the national press, We, Louisiana, were a Them: Those People in Louisiana, I read over and over again, in the economic and social etiologies of our collective disease, with its symptom named David Duke. But Duke’s money was coming in from New York to California. No one mentioned that little symptom, or ventured to diagnose a national disease. Was it too small a clue, too easily hidden by an illusion that the disease was confined to the borders of one stray state? One day, the rest of you will see. You will have some symptom thrust upon you, something you can’t look away from, and can’t explain away by one state’s shady swamp of a history. Then you will look at your neighbors and wonder who’s their Us, and who’s their Them.

See, I thought I could leave Louisiana, but it’s everywhere. We’re all in this. And me, I know I’m one.

 

Baffle Me This

To the Editors, The Baffler

I write to express my disappointment at the choice to run June Thunderstorm’s “Abled-Bodied Till it Kills Us” in Baffler No. 26. The argument of this article is that a few people in one workplace a decade ago believed that they had disabilities, that Thunderstorm does not think they had, and that therefore the concept of “ableism” is merely a means by which the rich perpetuate their power. Even the last part of the article that makes a slight concession to the concept of “disability” shows no awareness of the significant role that class analysis has always played in the disability rights movement and in scholarship. As a whole, however, the article’s main rhetorical effect is to mock disability, ableism, and those who experience them. Evidently, to the author and the editors, reinforcing anti-disabled bias was acceptable for the sake of ridiculing some former co-workers.

With some trepidation – because I have so often experienced bias on this issue, even from people who view themselves as otherwise free of biases – I shall try to explain the basics of disability critique, why I expected better from The Baffler, and what The Baffler might have done on this topic.

“Ableism” is a clunky term, and I wish we had a better one. However, our society does allocate economic value and power based on physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities. Rosemarie Garland Thomson proposed the term “normate” for the ideologically constructed non-disabled body. This is the body for which the social world is built, the one it assumes, and the one whose absence it punishes with exclusions. Disability itself isn’t simply a property of bodies. It’s a bodily difference on which social practices them impose additional and unnecessary exclusions.

Some examples. Decades ago, many people who use wheelchairs could not get jobs because few buildings had ramps and accessible toilets. Ability to use steps was, in effect, a job qualification, for no good reason in most cases. Thus a difference in physical ability became a difference in employability, when there was no relevance.  A person who is colorblind has a physical impairment, but our society doesn’t rely on color perception for many social goods. Color blindness is mildly disabling, at most, at least under the conditions of 21st Century America. It’s never just about the body per se, but also about the assumptions about bodies that we build into the parts of the environment we control.

Access and accommodation mean adapting the environment or social practices to differences in ability. The widespread perception that this is somehow “special” treatment is incorrect. For instance, I am sighted; I need lights to do my job. My sightedness and need for lights is already accommodated by light fixtures and the expectation that an electric bill must be paid. I have never had to ask my employer to provide me with light so that I can do my job. When a disabled person asks for an accommodation, it’s not different. Only ideology makes it appear different.

Abled privilege, infelicitous term that it is, is living in an environment that is already build to accommodate you. If you don’t believe me, let me know when you need to enter a building with doors 25 feet off the ground because the designers assumed bodies that could flap their wings and fly in.

I use these examples because I think they’re easy to understand. But let me mention the context to which the article refers – higher ed. It’s my context too. I first discovered The Baffler as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. My first Baffler was No. 5, which I discovered in 57th Street Books and quickly devoured. I rounded up every back issue I could lay hands on – all but the first – and bought every new edition as long as I lived in Hyde Park. That issue and subsequent ones from that period resonated with my disaffection with literary theory and with the generational rhetoric surrounding my cohort, Gen X. I have assigned Thomas Frank’s “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” essay from No. 6 to students into the current decade. That’s The Baffler I remembered and loved.

I was profoundly deaf by that time, too. Born with “normal” hearing, I began to lose it slowly in early adolescence. At the time, many universities didn’t have disability services for students. In college, I had several classes where I could not hear the professor at all, and where other students refused my request to share their notes with me. By grad school, I had learned not to ask for any kind of – accommodation, but I didn’t know that sense of the word at the time. Let’s say, any variation in practice that would have let me obtain the same information that my fellow-students had by means of their functional ears. Thus, I had at best fragmentary comprehension of what was said in my classes. That means every damn one. For eight years. And I went out on the notorious academic job market in my naturally late-deafened state.

I’m going to skimp on details here, because I keep imagining the editors taking the snide tone of this article. Suffice to say that I discovered disability criticism, including its class analysis; undertook a bodily alteration; and through a highly unlikely chain of events, managed to remain in academe. Now I regularly have disabled students who will not ask for accommodations they really need, because they don’t want to be stigmatized for having “special” extras – and in the process, they get less out of their educations than they might. There are not rick kids, so let’s think a little before slamming all of higher ed for being too accommodating, and thus feeding the attitudes that make things even harder for these students.

So please listen up.

Yes, there is such a thing as abled privilege.

People get enormous social power just because they can hear – and enormous social detriment when they can’t. Going to college and teaching in colleges is radically different for those of us who lack a major sense, or have major neurological differences, or major differences in mobility. The details of the experiences differ, depending on the physical-mental differences, but the exclusionary structures operate pretty much the same way. Here’s how they operate: nobody is aware of how the environment and practices already accommodate their normate bodies; disabled bodies are blamed for the detriments that are actually socially imposed; and whether or not we even have a disability is questioned. Meanwhile, our numbers in the student body and professoriate remain very low. And the non-disabled think this is fine and the natural order of things.

There is such a thing as fucking abled privilege.

It’s as real as white privilege and male gender privilege. And The Baffler saw fit to snark at that. I can’t imagine this magazine publishing an article that took a comparable tone to sexism and racism. Then again, I’ve missed recent issues, so maybe this is your thing now.

Here’s what I imagine instead. One of the things I loved about The Baffler of the early ‘90s was its analysis of how post-modern theory enabled the image-driven culture of late capitalism. The rejection of ontological realism in much theory leaves us only with a discourse body, something entirely a fabrication of images and speech. By suppressing the reality of our actual bodies, theory abets late capitalism’s manufactured desires. It rigs curtains so that we don’t see that all of our bodies are commodified fuel for the economic machine. If we have bodies that won’t serve as this fuel, we are disabled and excluded from what most people experience as their main source of value, their ability to produce profit. (For whom?) If we start with “normal” fuel-bodies, when we became disabled by the machine, it spits us out as waste product. Our bodily needs are then seen as “costs” and “burdens,” while other bodies somehow don’t have “costs” or aren’t “burdens.” Maybe the difference between a body that isn’t a “cost” and “burden” and one that is, is whether it’s currently function as fuel. Or not. What or whom does it serve to embed this ideology in so many people? Cui bono?

Disability critique can be, in some ways, more traditional than the faux radicalism of theory, and far more radical than even Marxism, in its potential to undo the human being as seller of his/her labor. That’s where The Baffler could have gone with disability.

But no, you had to punch down. You had to mock the terms that generations of activists have created to construct a language for expressing our lives.

I’m sorry this is so long.  I have never written such a long letter to a periodical. In fact, I have never before used profanity in correspondence with a periodical. But dammit, you’re not Fox News, you’re The Baffler.

Or you used to be.