Art Blaser answers ten objections to
political science at
He has a disability.
Here he responds to
objections made by leading
progressive activists to
identity politics of any
stripe. Many, among them
John Anner in Identity
Politics, have declared
that progressives must work
together to create a society
where there is welcome for
all who walk through the
door. Dividing off into
separate identities, Anner
says, defeats that purpose.
Responses to Blaser’s ideas
can be addressed to him at
PO Box 558, Topeka KS
66601. You can also fax
them to 785-272-7348.
We forward your responses
to writers and artists whose
work appears here.
DISABILITY is a social construct to start with.
Twins, people with allergies, and many others go back and forth from "disabled" to "nondisabled" simply by moving from one culture to another.
IDENTITY is something that we choose. Otherwise, it is chosen for us. POLITICS involves choice regarding public issues.
Current discussions in identity politics demonstrate that the most underused pair of words is "both-and" and the most overused is "either-or." All of us have multiple identities and claiming one doesn’t mean rejecting others. People are and will always be identified by overlapping categories of race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. You could be an African American transgendered Jewish disabled gal.
#1 The Kosovo Objection
Many people who don't know where the Balkans are (at the ballpark?) tell us that balkanization is bad. Some bemoan the replacement of Daffy Duck's "me, me, me" with appeals to the interest of "us, us, us."
Interests need not be thought of as win-loss, and advancements for the politics of disability identity are almost always advancements for the entire population, e.g., forced drugging of people with psychiatric histories can turn to forced drugging of any dissident.
In Kosovo we had a lot of identity, but not much politics. Even the identity was partly a manufactured illusion because the lines were not as rigid as they first appeared.
#2 The David Duke Objection
Years ago I saw a t-shirt that said, "Thank God I'm White." That's white identity politics. It could have read "Thank God I'm White, Male and Christian. I've got all the guns."
David Duke and his kind prey upon the dominant conception of self-interest. The pretense of a defense of white identity is a very bad joke. Rather than locating the source of their problems, which may be the economic or social system, people like David Duke create an enemy, based upon the enemy's color or kind.
#3 The Margaret Thatcher Objection
Physician Helen Caldicott was asked how she reconciled her feminism with the femininity of Margaret Thatcher. She replied that it was easy since "Margaret Thatcher is not a woman." Of course she is, and of course Clarence Thomas is an African American.
From fiction and reality we have Tiny Tim(s), Christopher Reeve(s), and others who may be cited by those who begin statements "They feel..." Such statements show that some members of minority groups are always co-opted by the majority. Disability identity politics is no exception. Medical and psychosocial authorities have had centuries to shape our various and splintered identities. It's not surprising that some folks resist this shaping and others don't.
#4 The Paltry Numbers Objection
The problem with disability identity politics is that there isn't any. Protesters complain of much larger numbers that should be there. This objection issues from the observation that the glass isn't full, to the conclusion that the glass must be empty. Reality is somewhere in between, and the glass becomes fuller with time, due in part to recognition that it is partly full.
If you don't do politics, politics is going to do you. Even passively, folks are doing politics whenever it is done to them. Encouraging signs are the assertion of disability identity in the press, in bookstores, on the net, and at political conventions. There could be more, and there will be more when we put our ideas out there ourselves.
#5 The Get Over It Objection
Life is more or less unfair in some times, places, and circumstances because groups have worked to change the circumstances. Although appeals are made to the larger human community, it's usually been identity groups who made the changes.
Cousins of this objection are protests that disability identity politics exemplifies the desire to change the world when you should “begin with your backyard” and "stop whining. It won't accomplish anything."
What's heard as whining, however, is the only thing that ever does. Social reformers don't stop “whining.” Today's disability activists don't either.
#6 The Hang Separately Objection
Identity politics, some say, is unnecessarily divisive. It may lead to disputes about who really represents the identity — perhaps the progressive faction of the progressive faction of the progressive faction?
Claims to identity can indeed promote division, but where they avoid learned helplessness and learned conformity they will make community possible.
Does identity politics exclude those who don't share the identity? Usually loss of privilege, e.g. for the non-disabled, is misapprehended as exclusion. Disability politics is unusual in that all individuals can potentially join our numbers. We're all friends, neighbors, parents, or children of disabled people. Claiming the identity asserts a common bond, it doesn't break it.
#7 The Not-It Objection
Many disabled people reject disability identity by proclaiming "I'm not disabled, they are." To admit to being disabled would seem to admit defeat since the person who rejects disability identity may be labeled "heroic" or "inspirational." There are increasingly fewer examples of this as disability identity is expressed, and people no longer regard it as bad to be considered disabled but come to accept or claim it.
Stockbroker Charles Schwab prefers to be called "learning different" rather than "learning disabled." That's like people who declare that they are not really Arab-, or Jewish-, or African-American. The implication is: take the truly disabled and let 'em have it. A problem with this logic is that next on the list would be fine, up-standing, merely "different" citizens like Schwab.
#8 The Who's Who Objection
People with disabilities may proclaim "I'm disabled. They (other PWDs) aren't."
Some disabilities are labeled severe; others are considered minor. A problem is that a less severe disability may have a greater effect than a more severe one. The effect may be partly determined by functional limitations, but also by when it arises, where you are, and how you feel.
This distinction leads to cleaving we, the truly disabled, from them, who are not. It erodes the social and political base of people who claim disability identity, and feeds the idea that re-sources are scarce and not to be taken by those who don't deserve them.
If this line of thought is followed, no one will deserve anything and disability activists will be seen as taking what they don't deserve. (“Hey, if they were so disabled, they couldn’t be activists.”)
#9 The Dinner Table Objection
"I've got to worry about eating; what do I need with disability identity politics?"
Polling data suggest that disabled people won't have jobs, won't get the best educations, and won't have money. The reasons for these “wont's” have to do with the present weaknesses of disability identity politics, not its future strengths. Social, economic, and political change will not only be consistent with, but will also be leveraged by, disability identity politics.
I first heard this slogan addressed to African-Americans for the 2000 census: "If we get missed, we'll get dissed." Missing and dissing occur in lots of ways, in media coverage and in social policy.
Many forms of dissing will bear directly on people having enough to eat. Even those who believe that the meek will inherit the earth also believe that the meek will have to die first. Disability identity politics is concerned with having enough to eat, with barriers to participation, and with an end to forced drugging and institutionalization. A politics that ignores basic human needs also ignores disability identity.
#10 The Big Picture Objection
The current buzz about identity politics says that it ignores the big picture. When progressives work together toward a society where there is welcome for all who walk through the door, dividing into separate identities defeats that purpose.
My response is that identity is politics. (Can't you see the non-disabled, straight white man behind the curtain?) Identity politics neither fences in nor fences others out. Recognizing elements of identity — like "Gee, people like me can’t get on the bus" — can’t help but foster recognition of others — like "Gee, people like me often don't get jobs, and if they do they don't get promoted."
The platitudes about creating a "human community for everyone who walks through the door" are printed on a program for a meeting held up a flight of stairs. Exposing that in public, we can go to the roots of real issues confronting real people. So yes, we will be required to confront our putative friends, the progressives.
Objection #10's contrarian cousin insists "I'm not a real radical. Besides, my partner/children/ parents wouldn't let me."
As with Marx's demands in the Communist Manifesto for public education and progressive taxation, most disability politics demands are simple human rights concepts that most Americans would agree with:
1. Killing people because they have a disability is wrong.
2. Modifications to the public attitude and environment are preferable to segregation.
3. Assistance with activities of daily life that costs less and allows for personal choice is prefer-able to more expensive assistance imposed by others.
4. People should be asked what they want rather than be expected submit to what experts determine they need.
My concluding response to objection #10 also concludes my argument. I believe that circumstances will make some of today's radical ideas conventional and some of today’s conventional ideas radical.
And we're the lucky ones who get to shape those circumstances. c