Tuesday the U.S. Senate Will Vote on Betsy DeVos… and the IDEA

29 Jan

 

Tuesday the U.S. Senate will vote on Donald Trump’s candidate Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. DeVos’ answers during her Senate confirmation hearings earlier this month galvanized disability rights groups, who were horrified by her seeming ignorance of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When the law was passed in 1975, only 20% of all disabled children in the U.S. had access to public education. Thirty organizations, ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, signed a letter sent to the Senate Committee on Tuesday, requesting a delay of the vote on DeVos until she has answered more specific questions regarding the federal law. DeVos sent a letter to the Committee chair on the same day, endeavoring to clarify her positions.

This all occurred the day after disability rights and issues disappeared from the White House website. Disability Scoop reports:

The outgoing administration’s site featured information on expanding education and employment opportunities for people with disabilities, enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a video tour of the White House in sign language, among other materials.

Now, however, links to the disability pages return an error… Searches for disabilities or disability on the new version of whitehouse.gov yield just nine results including two related to Grover Cleveland.

The American Association of People with Disabilities and other advocacy groups said DeVos’ letter failed to allay their concerns. DeVos has a long history of promoting school voucher systems, which use public funds to send children to private schools, while requiring families to waive rights and protections they are afforded by the IDEA. Because school voucher systems promote free enterprise for school administrators over adherence to federal guidelines, they have their roots in the states most famous for advocating on behalf of states’ rights. Florida has the oldest school voucher program for disabled students in the U.S. and in 2011 a Miami newspaper uncovered widespread corporal punishment. Corporal punishment was banned in schools in the counties in question, but teachers in the voucher system insisted they were not bound by any government law. Pro-voucher system sites insist the rate of corporal punishment is lower than in public schools in Florida, which does not ban corporal punishment statewide.

Independent disability advocacy organizations have generally argued that the voucher system has yet to prove helpful to those they represent. Disabled citizens, after all, are the first to be harmed by a system that encourages competition based on individual ability over universal civil rights protections. A study by the National Council on Disability concluded:

…it is not at all clear whether existing private schools want to serve students with disabilities or indeed can provide their specialized services and needed supports in the absence of the kind of critical mass enjoyed by school districts. IDEA, for example, recognizes the importance of family participation in the child’s educational plan, but also legitimizes the expertise of specialized staff and personnel who have specific knowledge and competencies for providing a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities. To place the burden on parents to seek out a private alternative to provide the kind of specialized educational program needed to serve their students with disabilities may be unreasonable. In Florida, the special education vouchers are apparently providing the stimulus for new schools to come into existence to serve only students with disabilities. This movement, however, could reverse the scientifically documented findings supporting the provision of educational services to students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment of inclusive opportunities. The end result of large-scale voucher extensions to students with disabilities could lead to a new kind of institutionalization at public expense.

To be fair, the parents of many students with disabilities in the United States advocate for voucher systems. American conservatives tend to show more support for voucher programs out of a preference for the free market over government regulation and/or for specific religious instruction over an unaffiliated curriculum. These preferences also motivated the primarily conservative opposition to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post argued earlier this week that criticism of the voucher system is bipartisan because both Democrats and Republicans are to blame for weakening public education as a civic institution over the past two decades, ultimately paving the way for candidates like DeVos.

 

 

From the Frontlines of the Women’s March in Berlin

22 Jan

berlin-00

 

German newspapers currently estimate 2.5 million people worldwide—on every continent, including Antarctica—took part in yesterday’s Women’s March.

Earlier this week there was a debate about the mention of disability in the official platform of the March on Washington. Disability advocate Emily Ladau wrote:

My heart sank when I read it.

The first time the word “disabilities” is mentioned, it shows zero recognition of disability as a social justice issue:

We recognize that women of color carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape, particularly in the care economy. We further affirm that all care work — caring for the elderly, caring for the chronically ill, caring for children and supporting independence for people with disabilities — is work, and that the burden of care falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, particularly women of color. We stand for the rights, dignity, and fair treatment of all unpaid and paid caregivers. We must repair and replace the systemic disparities that permeate caregiving at every level of society.

I also recognize that women of color disproportionately take on the caregiving as a job, that caregiving can be extremely demanding work, and that fair compensation is imperative. But you know what it says to me that this bullet point is one of only two places where disability is mentioned in the entire platform released by the Women’s March? It says that my existence as a disabled woman is a “burden.” My existence as a disabled woman is “work” for someone else. My existence as a disabled woman does not matter.

Disability is mentioned only one more time in the entire platform… And considering that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans have disabilities, disability rights deserve more than a cursory mention in the official Women’s March platform.

This touches on two problems: the vast swaths of feminism that ignore the discrimination burdening disabled women, and our macho culture’s fear of men taking on caregiving roles or any jobs done primarily by women. While feminists continue to fight for mandated paid maternity leave, mandated paid paternity leave is widely considered a bridge too far in the United States. Only 12% of American men offered it by their employers take it. Some economists have tried to explain away the election of Donald Trump by talking about the emasculated feelings of male workers facing a paucity of management opportunities in the American Rust Belt and that the only way to appeal to them is to give them jobs that make them the primary breadwinners in their homes once again.

While fair wages and economic inequality should be a paramount concern of any human rights movement, the insistence that men must be the primary breadwinners and will never be satisfied turning to “pink jobs” like caregiving is not highlighting an indisputable truth about all men – it is highlighting a problem in white male American culture.

Those who say the male ego simply cannot budge on the issue need only look to American black men, who pursue caregiving jobs at a rate 3 times higher than white American men do. Or look over here to Germany, where 1 in 5 students in caregiving programs are male. (Eighty percent of German men also took some form of paid parental leave—which is mandated by the government—in 2013.) Or look to the the Dulais Valley coal miners whose true, history-making story was the inspiration for in the 2014 film Pride. In that film, the problem of emasculation is recognized when one of the strike leaders argues against accepting donations from a gay and lesbian group: “Think of the men! It’s bad enough that their wives are financially supporting them, but now they’re relying on a bunch of gays and lesbians?!” Spoiler alert: By the end, the men they’re talking about open their minds. Or demonstrate that they were never concerned about it to begin with.

The Women’s March stated loud and clear that it’s on all of us to open minds about gender roles until our entire culture changes. We feed the denigration of women—not to mention all other forms of xenophobia—when we agree that white men should feel denigrated to do anything traditionally done by women. We need women who would be embarrassed to date a man in a traditionally feminine job to abandon such thoughts. We need men who are tempted to belittle a guy for going to nursing school to prove he is braver than that, until the man who does snicker is the one feeling out of place. And everyone needs to agree that caregiving is freakin’ hard and deserves to be compensated accordingly.

Yesterday’s Women’s March was a resounding success. Despite Ladau’s valid complaints—as well as earlier reports of friction among some white, middle-class feminists and feminists belonging to other minority groups—the day ended up awash in calls for combating injustice faced on the basis of disability, gender, race, sexuality, class, nationality, ethnicity/religion, immigration status, and appearance. In Washington, Gloria Steinem demanded a moment of silence for those who could not be at the March because they had to work in underpaid jobs. Tammy Duckworth got up out of her wheelchair and onto her crutches to demand unwavering defense of the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Angela Davis seemed determined in her speech to mention every single marginalized group in the United States and overseas. And when the crowd in Berlin began chanting, “Black lives matter!”, one black woman at the center began singing for joy with tears in her eyes.

There were many signs and songs that not every protestor immediately embraced. One marcher who identifies as queer told me he disliked the portrayals of Donald Trump in drag because being trans or feminine should never be a source of shame. Plenty of marchers of all political stripes expressed unease with blatantly owning the sexualized slurs so many women are the target of. Those of us who are fans of cyborg feminism cringed at gender essentialist references to “Mother Earth” or “natural” womanhood. Others winced at all the swear words. But democracy is hard work. And it was a victory for democracy that millions were willing to march together and engage in an international conversation that sometimes made them uncomfortable. A willingness to leave one’s comfort zone is the first step toward fully embracing and protecting universal human rights.

 

 

Happy Birthday, Dr. King

15 Jan

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial(Image by PBS Newshour used under CC 2.0 via)

  

Almost countless quotations by Martin Luther King, Jr. are as apt as ever today, but I have been most recently stirred by the following passage from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

 
 

On Terror, Danger & Perception

8 Jan


(Video by the notorious Jan Böhmermann, NSFW: strong language)

  

The results are in. After the government accepted just over 1 million refugees primarily from Syria over the past two years, there were six terrorist attacks here in Germany committed by suspected Muslim extremists (the Islamic State and the Salafi movement) in 2016. There were 857 attacks on refugee centers across the country committed by suspected German nationalist extremists for the same period.

Whenever we attempt to address cultural problems and discuss who needs to learn proper values, the answer should invariably be: everyone. The price of democracy is constant vigilance.

  

 

 

 

 

My Beloved Berlin

21 Dec

berlin-copyright-emily-sullivan-sanford

 

This morning I woke up and said:

Good morning, Berlin – my beloved home for 11 years now.

Where the police have asked the public to be alert and “do not spread rumors.”

Where the administration has refused to assign blame “before all the victims have even been identified.”

Where reason, rationality, modesty and a refusal to engage in hot-headed hate is the dominant mood.

Where 11 leaders of different religions and sects joined hands in solidarity and condolence to the victims’ families yesterday, standing just a few yards from the untouched rubble of the Gedächtniskirche, which has been preserved for 70 years as a reminder to Germany – and to all – of the dangers of nationalism.

 

Who’s Your Family?

27 Nov

Lady with Punk Grandson II(Image by Christ_i_ane used under CC 2.o via)

From the Archives

 “We don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.”

— Holly Hunter in Home for the Holidays

Whenever you set out to talk about minority rights, you end up crashing into the issue of identity. And this invariably swerves, again and again, into the issue of family. The poet Sharon Olds once said, “A family is a mystery,” and this is probably why I can’t get enough of it in novels, film, clinical trials, and yes, even in real life. Show me someone fascinating and I can’t wait to meet their parents.

In and outside of the holiday season, twenty- and thirtysomethings so often love to extoll the importance of friends over relatives, echoing Oscar Wilde: “Friends are God’s apology for family.” Our first true friendships usually begin in adolescence—the time when we start wanting to forge our identities independently from our families—and this sets the standard whereby friends are seen as a respite from all of our obligations: from parents and siblings, from school, from work, from the exhaustion of the holidays spent with the relatives. “My family drives me nuts, my friends get me,” pop culture says. “Sure I love my family, but I actually like my friends.”

And yet, friendships ultimately prove to be fleeting with age, as life partners and earning money and having children begin to take priority. A study at Oxford University found that taking on a romantic partner generally pushes two close friends out of your life. A serious boyfriend or girlfriend is, after all, a super-close friend and there are only so many hours in the day to fit people in. It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the addition of in-laws and children require us to quietly toss a few more buddies overboard. Or at least scratch them off the gift list.

Few of us like to face the harsh truth that the number one facilitator of friendship is convenience. How many people have we doused in superlative praise, spilled our hearts to, bragged with about our never-ending awesomeness, only to eventually lose touch because we live too far away, we’ve changed our habits since that new job/baby/boyfriend, we haven’t spoken in so long and wouldn’t know what to say? Sure, we’ll fling them a Facebook birthday greeting, but composing an entire email would require so much apologizing for having taken this long to write…

Maintaining a friendship requires effort, as author Julie Klam said in an interview with Linda Holmes on NPR two years ago:

She realized, too, that it wasn’t an area that was being written about very much in a way that spoke to her experiences. She found a lot of clichés, but not a lot of insight. “Everything that I had read about friendships was always … platitudes about, you know, ‘friends are like flowers and you have to water them’ or whatever. Or the T-shirts with the koala bear and the flower and the ‘Friends are…’.”

So… Why is there so much writing about so many aspects of our lives — love, sex, money, family, careers — and so little about the inner workings of friendships that are so central to so many people’s lives? Maybe, Klam theorizes, it’s because friendships seem disposable and interchangeable when you look at them like an efficiency expert. “There’s some sort of thing about, like, ‘Well, if you don’t like the friend, just don’t be friends with them.’ Rather than the idea of working things out.” Working things out, as you know if you read other kinds of relationship books, is the usual ideal outcome, rather than bolting when trouble strikes.

… And of course, that’s what makes keeping up with your friends complicated. When I ask her what she considers the big challenge of adult friendships, she emphasizes that it’s legitimately hard to make time for them, because they’re not, you know, mandatory. And the older you get, the more things in your life are mandatory.

Perhaps this is why there is such a paucity of stories about friendship in books and film. A friendship can be destroyed without any drama. All the characters have to do is lose touch.

And that can be fine. Many friendships are simply not worth laboring over. Time changes every one of us and there is little point in forcing ourselves to pretend to be someone we are not simply for the sake of sustaining the appearance of something that no longer serves us. Scores of people can be your perfect match in a single context: that course you took together, that team you both played on, that year you roomed together when a deep heart-to-heart required nothing more than walking down the hall and flopping onto the bed with a beer. (Or maybe there was more convenience in those years before you roomed together and had no idea how much/little time/money s/he spends on cleaning/personal hygiene/video games.)

A friendship is significant if it can survive all the changes and challenges life will inevitably throw at it. But the same goes for family, to the extent that I believe there is really no difference between the two. As Andrew Solomon wrote in what I still consider the Best Book of the 21st Century, “Love becomes more acute when it requires exertion.” The exertion can be exquisite.

Family can be fun to be with, but what they offer with far more consistency is purpose. This is why studies find that parents are often happier watching television than spending time with their children, but it’s their children—not television—that inspire them to endure when they are faced with pain or hardship.

Many traditional beliefs about family are not helpful. If you’ve explored this blog at all, you know I believe bloodlines are dangerously overrated. I also believe it can be damaging to expound upon the virtues of lifelong commitment and forgiveness without exception. While many people abandon others all too easily because they are more concerned with their own comfort than anyone else’s, just as many people remain in emotionally abusive relationships because their generosity trumps their self-care. I have sadly witnessed enough toxic relationships to know that some ties are better off severed.

This is why I define family not by genetics, but as the people you are so close to that they regularly drive you crazy – while still being worth the grief. They are the people who know you so well that it embarrasses you to think about. They can simultaneously be uncles, cousins, godmothers, half-brothers, former coworkers or classmates. But no matter their origin, once it’s clear to me that I will always stick by someone no matter how vexing they can be, they are family to me.

Because if novels and films and social psychology tell us anything, it’s that you can’t get truly close to another human being without being annoyed by them.

 

Originally published December 2014

Blaming the Election on the Minority Rights Movement Is Flawed and Dangerous

20 Nov

 

It’s a trick you’re bound to encounter if you work with issues of diversity: Someone comes along and insists that he’s got nothing against any particular minority—in fact he’s all for progress!—but lots of people feel left out by diversity awareness so people should really stop talking about it. Now. I was told on Election Night by a voter that bringing up racism or homophobia is “divisive.” Mark Lilla writes in the New York Times this week that an over-emphasis on minority identities at schools and universities is what has caused the backlash seen in the recent U.S. election. 

This argument pushes the fallacious color-blindness approach to human rights, calling on us to “focus on our commonalities and not our differences.” Most people our society designates as minorities would love to be able to do this. We would be thrilled to live in a world where your race, nationality, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, cognitive ability and appearance are considered no more remarkable than whether or not you’re right-handed or left-handed. Such a world is the final goal in the struggle for social justice. But the insistence that the only way to achieve such a world is to start pretending we live in it already demands we kindly stop filing complaints of inequality, underrepresentation, harassment and abuse.    

Dr. Michael Ain says in the documentary Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale, “When you wake up in the morning, and you do what you have to do, you don’t think you’re different. When I woke up this morning to go to work, I don’t think, ‘I’m short.’ It doesn’t approach me when I look in the mirror. It doesn’t cross your mind until someone makes it apparent.” He then talked about how many doctors tried to block his efforts to apply for medical school on the basis of his physical appearance. “The first guy I interviewed with told me I couldn’t hold the respect of my patients because of my stature,” he reports.

Many of the proponents of the commonalties-not-differences approach are noble in their intentions if naïve in their conviction that such cases are tremendously rare and best left viewed as isolated incidents. But other proponents are simply irritated when attention is afforded to injustices other than those they personally have suffered. I have encountered many arguments placing blame on the “entitled, whining” attitude plaguing minorities, who are too obsessed with their own victimhood to learn about hard-work and self-reliance. Nine times out of ten, supporters of this view then argue that straight, white men actually have it harder than anyone else thanks to the social justice movements of the past 50 years. Which begs the question: Wait, who’s really acting like a victim here? Who’s blaming others for their lot in life?

Minority rights groups contain many people also guilty of such self-centeredness: Blacks who suppress Jews, Jews who suppress women, women who suppress trans citizens, etc., ad nauseam. Which is why it is crucial to reiterate that if we’re going to support the rights of one group, we have to support them all. Your identity matters far less than your willingness to think beyond your personal experience and understand the diverse sorts of harassment and Othering experienced by citizens of all identities.

And speaking of commonalities, I am done reading lectures from professors, pundits and princess experts that claim those of us in the minority rights movements are elitist and don’t understand the “white working class.” People who could be lumped into the “white working class” include many of my friends and family. Some of them join overly educated hard-liners in blaming immigrants and minorities for society’s problems, and some of them are leading the discussions on human rights. Some of them are massively insecure and will lash out if they have to hear anything about xenophobia, and some of them listen to diverse points of view better than anyone of any political conviction. And a tremendous number of them are LGBT, disabled, immigrant and/or non-Christian. Many of them are fully accepted by their peers for who they are. Many are not. Reducing human rights discussions to attacks on—or defenses of—“rednecks” ignores and insults the diversity of that group. Human rights discussions must always cross class lines. Those of us who base our work on intersectionality have been saying this for decades.

Writing and teaching about diversity awareness can be exhausting when even the classiest behavior is accused of divisiveness. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this and so does Brandon Victor Dixon, the star of Broadway’s smash hit Hamilton, who made his now famous appeal to the incoming vice-president of the United States on Friday night. See the video above or the transcript here:

Vice-president elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us, just a few more moments. [Some audience members begin to boo.] There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. We’re all here sharing a story about love. We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. We thank you for sharing this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations. 

Critics on both sides of the political spectrum are reprimanding Dixon for making this plea. After all, isn’t Pence accepting all Americans by attending a play with a diverse cast like Hamilton? 

As many others have pointed out, Pence is a politician recently elevated to a position of tremendous influence who has given many Americans good reason to worry that his acceptance of them does not extend much beyond tolerating their presence on a stage. He has successfully fought for the right for businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers and is an advocate of gay conversion therapy, which has been widely condemned as psychologically damaging by medical professionals. In his 2000 bid for Congress, Pence sought to defund any AIDS support organization that did not urge patients to repress their sexual orientation. 

Both stars of Hamilton are openly gay and one is HIV-positive. In a just world, they would have no reason to worry about their health under any presidential administration. But we do not live in that world yet, and Dixon’s appeal to Pence was as justified as it was polite.  I implore anyone who thinks otherwise to try changing their sexuality before they make a call for an end to diversity awareness.

 

 

While Facing A Trump Presidency, We Cannot Afford to Let This Slide

13 Nov

Ku Klux Klan(Image by Martin used under CC 2.0 via)
 

It’s been a good week for anyone who believes white Christian straight men deserve more power than anyone else. Donald Trump was elected to the most powerful office in the world with the support of extremist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the alt-right, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and the Family Research Council. Many have felt validated by the electoral victory to voice what they really think of minorities. Graffiti found in Durham declared, “Black Lives Don’t Matter And Neither Does Your Votes.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, whose mission is to document and prevent hate crimes, reported over 200 incidents in the first three days after Election Day, mostly at K-12 schools, universities, and businesses. 

None of this is surprising to those of us who documented the uptick in celebratory hate crimes in the U.K. after Brexit and who have witnessed Trump do nothing to discourage supporters screaming Nazi slogans at his rallies. His long history in the public eye gives no indication he would start any time soon.  

Trump launched his political career by spreading fear that America’s first black president is not a U.S. citizen. Back in the late 1980s, he injected himself into the notorious case of the Central Park Five, wherein a group of black teens were pressured under duress by investigators to confess to raping and beating a female jogger nearly to death. Trump took out a full-page ad in the Times, calling for New York State to reinstate the death penalty because “THEIR CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” In 2001, a lone man confessed to the crime and DNA testing proved the likelihood of his guilt to be 6 billion to one. As recently as last month, Trump insisted the Five were still guilty.

Trump has been accused by over a dozen women of sexual harassment and/or assault, and a leaked tape recording caught him bragging about forcing himself on women. Sexual violence prevention groups know that most sexual predators are serial offenders, and therefore the more people accuse someone, the more likely it is that he is guilty. It may be important to acknowledge that in the United States one is innocent until proven guilty. But the Central Park Five know that if you’re a black man in Donald Trump’s world, you may be declared guilty even after you’re proven innocent. Trump throwing a black supporter out of his rally upon assuming he was a “thug” has done nothing to ease worries about the way he likes to govern.

Many Trump voters have been joined by those who didn’t vote at all in calling for national unity now that the election is over. They take offense at any assumption that their political choice was based in such bigotry. The best response to this has come in a post by Michael Rex that’s gone viral:

I believe you when you say you didn’t vote for any of these things. Most of America wasn’t thrilled with the choices we had in this election. But… If you’re tired of being called a bigot, then you need to use the same voice you used on Tuesday and speak out against these things fully and clearly. It’s not enough that you didn’t say them yourself. You need to reassure your friends and family members who feel like they no longer have a seat at the table that you still stand with them, even if your priorities were different on Tuesday. If you aren’t willing to do that, then you have no right to call for unity.

Mark Joseph Stern writes this week at Slate, “I Am A Gay Jew in Trump’s America. And I Fear for My Life.” And rightly so. Not only are hate crimes on the rise in the U.S., but nationalist movements that blame immigrants, minorities and gender equality for their problems are gaining power here and in the U.K., Australia, France, Sweden, Germany and in Eastern Europe. In the countries where democracy is younger than I am, voters are reverting to authoritarians with little interest in the processes and institutions that protect human rights. Non-whites, religious minorities, women, LGBT citizens and those of us with disabilities know that the concept of universal human rights is younger than many people they know. A few wrong turns and authoritarians could turn all the progress of the past 50 years into a mere moment in human history when the law offered to protect us against violence, harassment, medical abuse, and other existential threats.

Trump hasn’t had a chance to change any laws yet, and the Alternative for Germany is only polling at 20%. But hate groups around the world have been feeling empowered for a while now. Neo-Nazis, Klansmen and any other people willing to beat someone up for the way they were born commit their crimes when they think they can get away with it – when there is a high number of people who aren’t violent but still share their views, combined with a high number of people who don’t care either way about human rights discussions.

A pregnant, non-white German woman was recently punched at a train station near a friend’s house for being a “lousy refugee.” An acquaintance in a wheelchair was told by a stranger on the street, “We should gas your kind.” Perpetrators are less likely to do any of this if they fear not just legal consequences but their friends and families shaming them for such despicable behavior. Which is why it is on all of us to support the watchdog organizations that aim to expose and combat hate crimes, to speak up for those who are being told that their place in the new world order is at the bottom, and to convince the people who don’t care about any of this that they absolutely must summon the bravery to.
 

  

U.S. Election Night 2016

6 Nov

 

This Tuesday night I’ll be featured live in English on Deutsche Welle’s U.S. Election Night Special, commenting on the results and what they mean to me as a U.S. citizen living in Berlin. I’ll be giving interviews between 6 pm and midnight EST (0:00 and 6:00 CET).

Deutsche Welle is broadcast internationally throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. You can watch its live stream here.

 

 

Disability & the Politics of Shoe-Shopping

16 Oct

Fashion(Image by Thomas Hawk used under CC 2.0 via)

 

“I like them,” I said, eyeing the smart and slinky black sneakers in my hand, “but my orthotic inserts don’t find inside.”

The saleswoman shook her head sympathetically. “These doctors just don’t understand. They make it so difficult for women looking for shoes.”

Um, I don’t think that’s who’s making it difficult, I said to myself. Because she isn’t the one flooding the market with shoes that discriminate against disabled bodies, it didn’t feel necessary that this one saleswoman be confronted with the issue. But we as a society probably should.

If I don’t wear my orthotics, I burden my achondroplastic back in very unhealthy ways. The same goes if I wear heels regularly, instead of only occasionally, as my orthopedist advises. When I was younger I would often flout the rules, but my tolerance for pain-inducing shoes has lessened since I turned 30 and needed back surgery to avoid paralysis, as one-third of all people with achondroplastic dwarfism do. A friend who has undergone a few operations on her spine absolutely cannot wear heels. Yet wearing orthotics every day is not seen as being healthy and responsible in the same way that, say, running a marathon is.

Will chronic pain management never be seen as bad-ass because it lacks the thrill of breaking records or leaving others in the dust? Or is it because it defies the “no pain, no gain” rule? In which case, foregoing orthotics and swallowing the pain would seem to be the bad-ass choice.

“Oh, I rarely ever wear my orthotics!” two non-disabled women told me years ago.

Eat something sugary or fattening and you can easily attract disapproving looks or even commentary. (“Do you know how many calories/toxins are in that?!”) But risk back pain in a pair of stilettos that make you teeter like a giraffe and you’re suffering for beauty like any self-respecting woman would.

Why? Is it because, as Jessica Valenti wrote last year, too few woman are willing to endure “the social consequences of aesthetic apathy”? Does bodily beauty always require some degree of discomfort? Even the love-your-body yoga crowd pushes the back-to-the-earth barefoot aesthetic, which can be supremely painful for many disabled people.

Fashion is fickle and ever-changing. In a world where humans can find beauty in everything from body-builder biceps to heroin chic, and switch from viewing heels as manly to sexy, it seems possible for us to stop marginalizing and perhaps even some day tout medically responsible choices as fashionable choices. Why haven’t we managed this yet? What will it take to get us there?

 

 

Auf Augenhöhe – A Film about a Boy’s Search for His Father Who Happens to Have Dwarfism

9 Oct

  

Auf Augenhöhe (“At Eye Level”) is a German film by Joachim Dolhopf and Evi Goldbrunner currently playing in theaters across the country, starring Jordan Prentice and Luis Vorbach. Michi (Vorbach) is an 10-year-old foster child living in a home. He’s at the age where put-downs and one-upmanship are conversation-starters both at breakfast and on the basketball court. Dissing your opponent’s family is standard fare, but it carries extra weight for him and his housemates, many of whom were neglected or abused by their parents. Michi was raised as a toddler by a single mother until her death. Since the identity of his father is unknown, he can and does make up stories about how cool his dad must be whenever he needs to swagger in front of his friends.

Early on in the film he discovers a letter at the bottom of a keepsake box addressed to his father, Tom Lambrecht, who lives not far away. Michi heads to his house and leaves a letter under his door, explaining who he is and inviting him to meet at the foster home. On his way out, a neighbor points him in the direction of Tom’s rowing team. Michi heads over and hears someone utter his father’s name. The man who answers to the name is curly-haired and 4 feet tall (1.24 meters). Michi runs away.

Previously unaware he ever had a child, Tom is shocked to discover his son’s letter and worries about the prospect of meeting him. He is fearful of how his son might react to his size. “And what if he’s short-statured, too?” he asks a friend. “He’ll blame me.”

“Well, it means he’ll already know all about it,” his friend shrugs.

Tom shows up at Michi’s foster home and in this moment Michi’s world of pre-teen posturing transforms into a nightmare right out of Lord of the Flies. He and his father are shoved, screamed at, mocked, grabbed and pelted with chips until neither of them can hide their tears. The scene is painful because no amount of Tom’s attempts at being the adult in the situation can protect either of them. After Tom leaves, the bullying remains and takes on more sadistic forms. A garden gnome hanging from a noose outside his window drives Michi to run away and show up again on Tom’s doorstep, insisting he live with him. Tom agrees, but their problems are far from over.

Michi blames Tom for ruining the life he had by entering it. Tom is riddled with guilt and endures his son standing 10 feet away from him in public. Kids from the foster home show up and spray-paint “Verräter” (“traitor”) on their apartment building.

It’s reminiscent of another German film, Young Törless (1966), which like Lord of the Flies sought to pinpoint the roots of the Nazis’ cruelty by examining bullying at a turn-of-the-century boarding school for boys. Auf Augenhöhe adds the emotional problems of young people failed by neglectful parents into the mix. But it doesn’t let non-orphans off the hook either.

Because an even more painful scene soon follows when Tom is at the gym with his rowing team. Two gawking men creep up behind him to snap a photo—a common humiliation for people with dwarfism today, as I’ve written before—but his teammates come to his defense. They are successful in getting an apology out of the perpetrators because there are only two of them. The moral of this film, Young Törless and Lord of Flies could well be that no good comes of allowing the mature to be outnumbered by the immature, no matter their age.

After the incident, Tom lashes out at his friends, accusing them of only defending him out of pity. This was the hardest scene for me to watch because I could understand both sides of it. No matter how self-confident you are, the knowledge that a good deal of the world can’t handle your Otherness feeds paranoia. In moments when people in power strike you down, that paranoia can rise up and reign supreme, making you doubt the open-mindedness of everyone around you. Yet to act on such paranoia is rarely helpful, and Tom later apologizes at the next rowing practice.

Hours later in the bar, his friends insist that they should apologize. “I’ve got to admit I always assumed things were easier for you than they actually were,” one of them says. “And yet if I’m really honest with myself, I am glad I don’t have to deal with the problems you do.”

“Thanks for your honesty,” Tom nods.

Michi is also granted such honesty from a few peers over time. And of course he and Tom gradually warm to one another as odd couples in film are wont to do. Auf Augenhöhe has been marketed as a family comedy, and for that reason I had feared a predictable schlockfest of sight gags, height puns and an overly simplistic sing-song that we’re all the same inside! But the film is more contemplative than that. It’s heavy on dialogue, largely avoids clichés, and the acting is excellent.

There aren’t even that many jokes. Scenes of Tom standing in a streetcar, nearly smothered in the crotches of other passengers is presented soberly, not for laughs or tears. A young viewer sitting next to me smirked at the image of Tom using a step-stool to look through a peephole, but the film presents the adaptations in his car and around his apartment so matter-of-factly that any air of novelty quickly fades away. The biggest play on height comes when Tom turns it around to his advantage. When he lets Michi drive donuts in an empty parking lot, a police car pulls up. Tom switches back into the driver’s seat and puts on Michi’s hat before the police officer opens the door and is surprised to find an adult at the wheel.

“Honestly, officer, that we dwarfs are so often mistaken for children is quite humiliating. I think I’m going to need another session with my therapist to get over this,” Tom deadpans.

The officer issues his sincerest apologies before walking away and leaving father and son to burst into giggles.

That Luis Vorbach and Jordan Prentice develop such a chemistry on screen is all the more impressive in light of the fact that the Canadian Prentice delivered all his lines in English, which were then (almost seamlessly) dubbed over in German. I don’t know what that says about the state of job opportunities for German actors with dwarfism today, but in this case, the result is a cast of characters who are completely believable. This is no small feat when we consider just how many triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity films take the easy route with angelic and diabolical caricatures we only ever see in our fantasies. And Prentice redeems himself as an actor after his role in In Bruges (2008) and all the failures of that film to avoid freak show humor.

Three-quarters through the story there is another plot twist that borders on soap-opera. I won’t say anything about it other than that foster children or social workers may want to contest its credibility. But it gets a point across, and it’s a good point to make.

Glancing at the six other families in the theater with me at the screening—all of their children roughly the same age as Michi, some of them visible ethnic minorities—I wondered what kind of film they had been expecting. Were they drawn by the subject matter? Or by the trailer that makes the film look a lot goofier than it is? No matter what they were hoping for, I’m glad they saw it.

 

 

It’s Dwarfism Awareness Month!

2 Oct

x-ray of a dwarf(Image by Lefteris used under CC 2.0 via)

It’s October, so you know what that means. Here’s one of the most popular pieces from the Archives:

 

October is Dwarfism Awareness Month. This means you should be aware of the facts and experiences regarding people with dwarfism for the next 25 days. Then you can stop and go back to life as usual.

We have picked this month because it has Halloween in it. This way we can ensure that no one will offend us through drunkenness or choice of costume. This plan is foolproof.

We realize that October is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month, LGBT History Month, and Polish-American Heritage Month. Given that a month can handle only one minority at a time, we urge you to side with us. I myself picked my dwarfism over my Polish heritage and I promise you, the choice was easy. Anyone who chooses otherwise is a self-hating dwarf and the reason why we haven’t had a dwarf president yet.

In order to become Aware Of Dwarfism (A.O.D.), you can read up on it under the FAQ’s, read about some of my dwarfish opinions here or here or here, or consider any one of the following facts:

To begin with, Peter Dinklage is the best dwarf. Everyone agrees on this.

We love being photographed on the street. (Thank god for camera phones!) It is every dwarf’s dream to end up on Tumblr or Instagram someday. Either that or in a Peter Jackson film.

It is true that all dwarfs are magical. But especially homosexuals with achondroplasia. They are dwarf fairies.

We love it when you ask about Lord of the Rings. Please keep asking us about Lord of the Rings. We’re currently in fierce competition with New Zealanders over who gets the most LOTR questions.

Mini-Me is even better. It is the height of originality. We can’t get enough of it.

Please keep telling us that we must be really good at hide-and-seek. We don’t quite believe it yet, so your pointing it out is helpful.

Tossing a dwarf will make you more of a man. This has been scientifically proven by evolutionary biologists.

Adding a dwarf or two to your fantasy/cabaret/oddity story will make you a sophisticated artist. In his little known essay “L’art mystérieux du nain,” Toulouse-Lautrec wrote that World War II would have been prevented had there been more dwarf figures in 1930s song and film. (Terry Gilliam and Amanda Palmer are currently in a bidding war over the rights to the essay.)

In China and Russia and other evil countries, limb-lengthening is a cruel form of torture. In America, limb-lengthening is a miracle.

Liberals say a dwarf who has had limb-lengthening is destroying the dwarf community. Conservatives say a dwarf who has not had limb-lengthening is destroying their own future. Realists point out that dwarfs are destructive by nature.

Indeed, there are three dwarf personality types: belligerent, cute or nefarious. That is all. If you have met a dwarf who is contemplative or sarcastic or boring, that person is a not a dwarf. He is a fraud. I mean frawd.

Garden gnomes are frawds.

Midgets are left-handed dwarfs. Munchkins are elves in disguise. Oompa-Loompas are related to Pygmies, but less racist, so when in doubt, say Oompa-Loompas.

Dwarfs are happy to answer any of your questions about their sex lives. Just remember that if you don’t laugh at some point, we will be offended.

Dwarfs cannot have normal children. Like our great-great-great grandfather Rumplestiltskin, we are always on the lookout for normal children to kidnap. If you see a dwarf with normal children, contact the local authorities immediately.

Remember these facts and you will be officially A.O.D., which means no one has the right to accuse you of being insensitive from here on in. Better yet, you can recite these facts at dinner parties and lecture your friends with your newfound expertise. It is very important to be the expert on a subject at a dinner party. It proves you are a grown-up.

It is also important to spend as much time as possible this month making up height puns. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a challenge as many of the best puns have already been taken: Thinking Big; Don’t Sell Yourself Short; Even Dwarfs Started Off Small; Little People Big World; In Our Hearts We Were Giants. I suggest aiming for slightly more abstract sayings like, “All dwarfs have high voices. Ironic, isn’t it?” But make sure you say “high” emphatically or it will be lost on people. (Oh, and I’ve found that saying, “Achondro -paper or -plastic?” confuses most supermarket cashiers.)

And finally, sometimes it’s spelled “dwarfs” and sometimes it’s spelled “dwarves.” We get to decide. It’s the best part about being a dwarf.

 

 

Originally posted in October 2013

On Catcalls, Body Types & Lasting Love

25 Sep

My latest article, “Disabling the Male Gaze: ‘Longing’ to Be Objectified Won’t Shatter Narrow Beauty Standards” is featured this weekend at Salon. It’s a rebuttal to a recent piece in The New York Times ongoing series on Disability.

 

 

When We Ignore Clinical Trials, We Ignore the People They Protect

11 Sep

Mime/Sleep(Image by Del May used under CC 2.0 via)

 
Back pain is one of the most common causes of sick leave in many Western countries. It is also one of the most common symptoms of achondroplastic dwarfism. The severe curvature of the spine coupled with innate hypotonia (i.e., low muscle tone) results in chronic pain from birth on, at times requiring back-braces and/or surgery to avoid debilitating complications.

I recall being younger than five-years-old, sitting cross-legged on the floor with a book and knowing I couldn’t stay like that for more than a minute or so before the aches would begin. I would usually end up slinking toward the sofa. In primary school I was exempted from sitting on the floor, given a chair with which to tower over my classmates during story-time. Years of physical therapy and orthopedic consultations have done little to alter this reality because the curvature is anatomic. Exercises and ergonomic furniture make the difference between utterly unbearable pain and merely lingering pain. At the end of a three-week stay in Tokyo, I wrote to my partner, “I will miss so many things about this city. Things I will be happy to come home to: couches, chairs with backs, toilets with seats, back support in general.”

A fascinating interview with architect Witold Rybczynski appearing last month in The Atlantic chronicled the history of the chair and the differences between cultures in which people primarily sit on chairs and those in which people, like the Japanese, primarily sit on the floor. The reason for the dichotomy continues to elude researchers:

You’d think, for example, that people in cold, wet climates would be more likely to sit on chairs, so as to avoid the unpleasant ground. But the Japanese, who endure frigid winters, have traditionally sat on floor mats, while the ancient Egyptians, who lived in a warm, dry climate, are thought to have invented the folding stool. Nor is chair-sitting necessarily a matter of lifestyle; some nomadic groups move about with collapsible furniture, while others don’t. Nor is it always a product of economic or technological advancement; the prosperous Japanese were long aware that people in other parts of the world sat on chairs—they just chose not to. Some societies, like China, have transitioned from being predominantly floor-sitting cultures to being predominantly chair-sitting cultures. Others, like India, idiosyncratically mix the two approaches.

California-based acupuncturist Esther Gokhale believes that members of most floor-sitting cultures do not suffer as much back pain as those of us in chair-sitting cultures. National Public Radio’s Goats and Soda program interviewed Gokhale in June about a series of exercises she developed—the Gokhale Method—intended to reshape the Western human spine and rid sufferers of back pain. Doctors in the San Francisco Bay area have been referring patients to Gokhale, and several celebrities have followed suit, despite that her method has not yet been clinically tested. Dr. Neeta Jain demands, “If people are finding things that are helpful, and it’s not causing any harm, then why do we have to wait for a trial?

We should wait for many clinical trials because they would prove decisively whether or not the method is causing any invisible harm, and it would control for preexisting conditions like achondroplasia, cerebral palsy or lupus. While there is no proof that Gokhale’s method cannot lessen back pain for people with achondroplasia, there is also no proof that her one-size-fits-all approach cannot cause more pain or injury to people with achondroplasia as many exercises developed for average bodies can.

As a doctor, Jain is in a position of authority and she is acting irresponsibly when she fails to acknowledge the possibility of unforeseen risks. Perhaps she only refers her patients to Gokhale after screening them for potentially complicating factors, but her statement excludes such caution and instead serves as an advertising slogan.

Perhaps the greatest achievements of modern medicine has been its ability to serve not only the general population but those with rare and exceptionally complex conditions. Yet advice found in the health sections of any mainstream news source tends to overlook those of us with rare conditions and official disabilities. This is a truly ironic form of marginalization, since our lives have undoubtedly been far more affected by issues of health and medicine than the average reader. Going so far as to call it ableism seems extreme, since space is limited from a journalist’s point of view. But it is unfortunate that the best health advice for most people with disabilities is to ignore the mainstream health sources that ignore them.

 

 

Frozen Sperm & the Slippery Idea of Increased Risk

21 Aug

Hanging bodies(Image by Gillie Rhodes used under CC 2.0 via)
 
As long as people do not want to have children, or certain types of children, they will search for a way to avoid it. In a recent CNN report on reasons why a small but growing number young men have been freezing their sperm, achondroplasia was listed as one of the conditions the risk for which is associated with advanced paternal age. While the report cites single studies finding an increased risk for various conditions and disorders, many studies over the past two decades have linked achondroplasia to advanced paternal age. (Perhaps Mick Jagger should educate himself, if he hasn’t already.)

Most people with achondroplastic dwarfism are born to non-achondroplastic parents like mine. (“Are you parents little, too?” is one of the most common questions I get from strangers.) Most of us grew up told that our genetic mutation could not be traced to any known source. That is now changing, as news networks repeat the link to advanced paternal age.

My father was 28-years-old when I was born, hardly what we in the West think of when we envision advanced paternal age. All but one of my friends with achondroplasia have parents that were roughly the same age as my own when they were born: that is, late 20s or early 30s. And the majority of my friends with achondroplasia are first-borns.

Anecdotal evidence is often rife with bias, so I cannot officially dispute the researchers’ findings. Perhaps my friends and I are simply exceptions to the rule just like every smoker can name someone who beat the odds and puffed their way to age 95. But my personal experience easily invalidates any argument that men who freeze their sperm in their 20s or 30s are on a clear path to avoiding fathering a child with achondroplasia.

Bioethicists are divided on whether or not to advise men to freeze their sperm to avoid various conditions. Regardless of the answer, men should hear that the statistics on achondroplasia and age risk imbuing them with an inflated sense of control. One could say most forms of genetic counseling do.    

 

 

Can Playing R2D2 Be Taken Seriously?

14 Aug

R2D2(Image by Dr. Case used under CC 2.0 via)
 

British actor Kenny Baker, best known as the puppeteer who operated from inside the costume of Star Wars’ R2D2, passed away yesterday. Baker performed in six of the Star Wars films. His death is the second this year by a dwarf actor who performed a fairly well-known, non-human character. Michu Meszaros, who appeared on screen as the walking version of the alien Alf, passed away in June.

A tribute to Meszaros’s work in Germany’s (highly regarded) Süddeutsche Zeitung sparked an outcry among the German dwarf community. The offending lines include:

Meszaros was only approximately 84 cm tall. Such little people were a topic of discussion even way back in Ancient Egypt.

Dwarfs give us a thrill because they emit a fairytale-like magic. Because they give the impression of an adult that’s been stuck a child’s body. Because they move just as funnily as the gawky Stan Laurel or Jacques Tati. Because their voices squeak as if they had inhaled helium.

Dwarfs’ pitch is usually higher than women’s. This is impressive to anyone who has overcome their own voice cracking.

A backlash went viral with the hashtag #keinZwerg (“not a dwarf”). While the sentiment of the movement was nothing but admirable, linguistic differences rendered the issue a bit more complicated for this bilingual woman with dwarfism. (More on the politics of the word “dwarf” here and here.)

And perhaps predictably, the lesson learned by the offenders remained superficial rather than deeply reflective: The Süddeutssche Zeitung issued an apology for using the word “Zwerg” and replaced it with “Kleinwüchsige” (“short-statured”) in the online version of the article.

Most tributes to Baker today have simply stated the facts of his life and death, with a quotation by George Lucas:

Kenny Baker was a real gentleman as well as an incredible trooper who always worked hard under difficult circumstances. A talented vaudevillian who could always make everybody laugh, Kenny was truly the heart and soul of R2-D2 and will be missed by all his fans and everyone who knew him.

I have written before about my visceral discomfort with the type of work Baker did, because such roles do not combat the stereotype of people with dwarfism as little more than props. But Lucas speaks of Baker’s work with the same respect the Jim Henson Company has expressed for the actors who have romped around in their outrageous costumes in order to portray the likes of the Ghost of Christmas Present and Big Bird.

Which begs the question: Can a career in circus performing and puppeteering based on body type elicit respect from the general public? Or will it be doomed to elicit smirks and giggles, from the open to the suppressed?

 

 

What’s the Point of Nationalism?

3 Jul

 
Brexit(Public Domain Image from Freestocks.org)

 

The National Police Chiefs Council reports hate crimes in the United Kingdom have increased fivefold in the days following the vote for Brexit. A Polish waitress was asked by two customers, “Why do you look so happy? You’re going home.” A German woman found dog excrement thrown at the door to her home. Bilingual cards reading, “Leave the EU – No more Polish vermin” were distributed in Cambridgeshire. Some Central Europeans and non-white Britons have been harassed on the street, others have had to evacuate their residences after threats. 

Paul Bagguley, a sociologist at the University of Leeds told The Guardian:

There is a kind of celebration going on; it’s a celebratory racism…  People haven’t changed. I would argue the country splits into two-thirds to three-quarters of people being tolerant and a quarter to a third being intolerant. And a section of that third have become emboldened. At other times, people are polite and rub along.

While politicians argue about whether or not such incidents accurately represent the Brexit movement and its anti-immigration platform, no one can deny that belligerent nationalists have felt empowered by Brexit to say what they have been feeling about foreigners for a long time.

It may be nigh impossible to publicly reason with extremists – such as those who fire-bombed a halal butchery and the white supremacist who murdered Jo Cox. But it is essential to engage with anyone in the mainstream who may agree with their politics if not their tactics. So in the wake of all this, not to mention the Fourth of July, it bears asking, what is the point of nationalism? 

British political scientist Benedict Anderson called nationalities “imagined communities” because being American or German or British is all in the mind. No Briton will ever manage to get to know—let alone meet—all of his other 65 million fellow British citizens. In fact, he won’t ever meet a majority of them. But nationalism urges him to feel connected to them, and specifically more connected to all of them, across the country and overseas, than to anyone in Ireland or France, or to any Polish or German or Japanese people who live two doors down from him.

Sociologist Patricia Hogwood argues there are two models of nationalism states can choose from: the Nation of Culture and the Nation of the Constitution. The Nation of Culture, first made popular in the 19th century, determines citizenship by supposedly uniting millions through a common language, religion, arts, sports, holidays, traditions, and appearance. To be German means to speak German, belong to the Lutheran Church, read Goethe and the Grimm fairy tales, love beer and sausages, celebrate Christmas and Oktoberfest, and be tall and blond.    

With an exception made for those who are short with thick dark mustaches. And those who love döner kebab and hate Oktoberfest. (It’s Bavarian after all.) And those who speak Sorbian or Swabian as their first language. Not to mention those millions who are Catholic. Or Muslim. Or Jewish. Indeed, Nazism and the Holocaust was nothing if not a crisis of German identity, an attempt to dictate who was allowed to live in Germany on the basis of culture.

The Nation of Culture is a fallacy because no nation on earth is monocultural. Even bite-sized Luxembourg has three official languages, plus 30% of its residents are immigrants whose first languages is Portuguese, Italian or English. For all the jokes about the superiority of the Queen’s English to the American variant, the British Isles contain 11 living indigenous languages. Not long ago speakers of many of those languages faced the same sort of adversity documented in the past week in Britain against Central Europeans and non-whites. A Nation of Culture encourages the touting of one set of traditions, fashions and physical features while ignoring, or silencing, all others.

In a Nation of the Constitution, membership is defined by one’s adherence to the laws and rights guaranteed by a government’s founding documents. Which is what the European Union aims to be: an unabashedly diverse union of states united by a commitment to democracy and the European peace project. (Access to the European single market, the world’s largest, is ideally the reward, not the goal.) Member states must ensure the rule of law, freedom of the press, free trade union organizations, no capital punishment, equal protection of all minorities, and for all citizens the guarantee of freedom of personal opinion, the right to a secret ballot in free and fair elections at every governing level, and the rights listed in the European Convention on Human Rights. 

While many of these rights have long been preserved in Great Britain, they are less than 50 years old in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and the former Soviet Bloc countries. (And, contrary to common knowledge, the E.U. has expanded rights for women in the U.K. as well.) Turkey and Albania are both candidates for E.U. membership. A cultural model of membership might block their applications on the basis of their Muslim populations, while a constitutional model of membership instead demands improvement on their human rights records.

The E.U. has plenty of work to do in improving its implementation of human rights protections and anti-corruption laws, as in cases like Greece. But it is unwavering in its demands that members must openly recognize and celebrate their cultural diversity without clashing over it, in the same way New Yorkers can make fun of Californians for being loopy, passive-aggressive, granola-crunching, up-talking airheads and Californians can make fun of New Yorkers for being tactless, aggressive-aggressive, materialistic, shouting hotheads without going to war over it. Indeed, the most enthusiastic supporters of the E.U. often speak of its members some day becoming as open and close-knit as the fifty States across the Atlantic.

Generation Euro is, as one New York Times journalist put it, one that thinks nothing of “growing up in one country, studying in another, and living in a third.” When such intermingling does not outright prevent someone’s xenophobia, it forces them to confront it head-on. As reported in 2014, one million children have been born since 1987 as a result of the European study abroad program – that is, these children were born to parents who met because one of them was taking part in the program. This leads to multilingual families with multicultural social circles who bring diverse perspectives to the table when politics and the solutions for the world’s problems come under discussion. 

It may sound idealistic if not saccharine, but a mere glance at the last 1,500 years on the continent—battle after bloody battle of Protestants vs. Catholics, capitalists vs. communists, fascists vs. democrats, Belfast vs. Belfast, Nazis vs. everyone—should forever be a reminder that the European peace project can never be taken for granted. It’s a project that makes a lot more sense than any model of cultural nationalism.

 

 

There’s More Than One Way To Make A Nerd

19 Jun

buch-und-baum-copyright-emily-sullivan-sanford

From the Archives

Can we stop using the words “nerd” and “geek” interchangeably? Forgive me if this doesn’t sound like the most pressing social justice issue of our time, but hear me out. I think the distinction is subtle but significant. 

Geeks are a subculture. They like science fiction usually because it’s built around ideas posed by math and the natural sciences, just as literature is built around ideas posed by the humanities. If you don’t have a big appetite for Star Trek, the Hitchhiker’s Guides, or video games, you’re probably not a geek. Just like if you don’t enjoy nature, long hair, or folk rock music, you’re probably not a hippie.

Nerds, in contrast, simply share one trait: wanting to learn almost everything there is to know about a subject at the expense of their cool factor. And it seems to me that there’s a little nerd in all of us. From trivia and statistics to random factoids, a nerd examines a topic down to what Slate calls “the granularity that would glaze the eyes of a normal, well-adjusted human.” Sometimes the eye-rolling this brings on is fueled by inane rules for style that value keeping the lowest common denominator very low. But anyone with social intelligence knows that it’s also unfair to demand everyone share your love for a subject, no matter what it is. 

I try not to look bored when friends expound upon existentialism, or when my dad gets excited about weather statistics, but I can likewise put them to sleep with monologues about typography or Russian grammar. I have a hard time looking thrilled when my husband analyzes the meal he cooked for us in too much detail, or when my uncle gets out his car magazines, but I get the same looks from outsiders whenever I discover a fellow classic rock fanatic. An obsession with trivia—in any area—will forever be the opposite of a social lubricant. Saying, “I’m such a nerd” with a sheepish grin usually means, “I love something to a degree that might ruin the evening if you ask me about it.”

But traditionally, the nerd word is used much more specifically. Nerd hobbies are thought to be geeky. Nerd intelligence almost always means “book smart.” The Urban Dictionary says a nerd is “one whose IQ exceeds his weight.” A gardener and a mechanic can be skilled, but only botanists and engineers can be nerds. Why? 

One summer in my early teens, I was sunbathing at a friend’s house and talking about the new atlas I had bought. “I’m hoping that someday I can identify all the flags of the world,” I smiled, with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm.   

My friend’s mother frowned and asked, “Why?! Just to be better than everyone else?”

She knew how to repair a motorcycle. I knew the names of the world’s nations. Why was my knowledge automatically seen as a pretension? (I was too embarrassed and too young to dare to ask her, but I wish I had.)

A lot of it has to do with social status, however ridiculous that is. We tend to see bookish people as the inventors of ideas and therefore the brains. People working in production and maintenance are the realizers of the ideas and therefore the salt of the earth. Artists are classified depending on which of these two groups they appeal to: Classical composers and jazz musicians make high art for the “elite,” while rappers and country singers make soul for “the people.” (Artists who appeal to both are gods and everyone wants to sleep with them.)    

Self-proclaimed nerds sometimes defend these rigid categories, reassuring themselves that the only reason anyone would malign their expertise is meat-headed jealousy. This is certainly true in many cases. The stereotypical anti-intellectual will lash out when someone’s way of life threatens to highlight his weaknesses. But the stereotypical ivory tower snob will sneer when someone’s way of life threatens to highlight his weaknesses.  Both the belligerent athlete and the arrogant mathlete lack the emotional intelligence to recognize that both trigonometry and football require brains. Both topics can be obsessed over in nauseating detail. But Western society—which places an inordinate emphasis on IQ—has yet to be convinced of this. IQ tests define “intelligence” as strong mathematic and/or verbal skills, and so do most of us when we describe someone as “smart.” This is wildly inaccurate and unhelpful.

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences turns 30 this year, but we have yet to adopt the concept into our common parlance. The theory currently identifies seven forms of intelligence:

1) Logical-Mathematical Intelligence – useful to chemists, accountants, physicists  

2) Linguistic Intelligence – useful to writers, speech therapists, managers

3) Kinesthetic Intelligence –  useful to athletes, surgeons, carpenters

4) Visual/Spatial Intelligence – useful to photographers, architects, engineers

5) Musical Intelligence – useful to composers, dancers, poets

6) Interpersonal Intelligence – useful to counselors, salespeople, politicians

7) Intrapersonal/Introspective Intelligence – useful to philosophers, artists, parents

(Some groups have promulgated a theory of Culinary Intelligence, as well as Sexual Intelligence.) 

So there are more than two ways to be “smart.” It seems logical to conclude that people choose their jobs based on combinations of intelligences. A speech therapist needs both linguistic and interpersonal intelligence, whereas a songwriter needs linguistic and musical intelligence. A dancer needs musical and kinesthetic intelligence, while a soldier needs kinesthetic and spatial intelligence. Take that, IQ tests.

But this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Every one of us knows someone who’s read a hundred books but can’t fill out a tax form. Or who can identify every bit of green in your backyard but can’t analyze news stories in a historical context. Or who can counsel people with all sorts of problems but can’t dance for the life of them. Or who can sew the coolest costumes but can’t make strangers feel comfortable. We should all be big enough to take pride in our talents and to be teased for our weaknesses. Especially if we’re going to start fully accepting people with certain disabilities.

The theory of multiple intelligences does not claim that everyone is a genius in their own way. Everyone knows a good guitarist isn’t as smart as a great guitarist. But the theory asserts that a great guitarist is no smarter than a great nurse or a great ballerina or a great chemist. So why then do we call the chemist “smart” and the others “talented”? 

And why isn’t the soccer nut who won’t stop analyzing the semi-final games called a nerd? Why isn’t the housewife who goes on and on about how to master pie crust recipes called a nerd? Maybe it’s because these activities are socially condoned: A guy is expected to love sports and a housewife is expected to love baking. Maybe by choosing less socially accepted hobbies, people of high IQ monopolize the term “smart” as a consolation prize.  Maybe the term “nerd” still carries too much stigma for socialites to desire it. Maybe if we broaden the use of these words, maybe if everyone recognizes their inner nerd, then maybe some social barriers will be knocked down along the way.

I’m not expecting utopian results. We’re all doomed to clash over our passions because no one can be expected to obsess over the intricacies of every subject on earth. Whenever I get together with a friend who works as a computer programmer, it’s a fight over whether we play games that reward strategy (like Monopoly), or games that reward vocabulary (like Scattergories). He’s geekier than I am, but he’s not nerdier. In any case, I always get my way because I’m bossier.

Originally published January 13, 2013

 

 

Can Hobbits Be Human?

12 Jun

homo_floresiensis(Image by Ryan Somma used under CC 2.0 via)
 
Homo floresiensis or “Florian Man” is an extinct species of hominin, named after the Indonesian isle of Flores on which remains have been found. Its precise evolutionary origin and relation to humans remains an issue of ongoing debate, most recently continued in this week’s issue of Nature. Reports in the mainstream media refer to Homo floresiensis not only as “little humans” but as “Hobbits,” on account of their characteristic short stature.

Wikipedia attributes this nickname to the ubiquity of Tolkien fans in the scientific community, while the Tolkien estate has sued scientists for using the name in lectures and documentaries on the grounds of copyright infringement. Despite court rulings, the pop science media as well as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History continue to refer to Homo floresiensis as Hobbits.

There are plenty of cases of scientists tending toward the glib rather than the professional when it comes to naming. The famous specimen of Australopithecus afarensis was dubbed “Lucy” after the Beatles song that was playing on the archaeologists’ radio as the remains were discovered. But Homo floresiensis qualifies as having dwarfism according to scientific, medical and social definitions. Dwarfism can be identified in humans, animals, and plants, but referring to them as “Hobbits” implies an Otherness that is non-human. Does this work as long as they remain mere relatives of humans, and not fully human?

Plenty will protest that “dwarfism” itself also has its origins in mythology. Which is why there are those who seek to dissociate all human medical conditions from fantasy jargon. The German Federal Association for People of Short Stature never uses “dwarf” (“Zwerg”) to avoid connotations brought on by fairy tales. The Intersex Society of North America rejects the ancient Greek term “hermaphrodite” because it spreads scientific misinformation and attracts fetishists.

Yet others embrace these terms in an effort to confront the confusion brought on by the mythological terms head-on. It is a means of declaring: We are the freaks you read and write about. Why are you so interested in making up stories about us? Are you willing to listen to our real-life stories? Humans with dwarfism have been around a lot longer than any of our known myths and legends, regardless of how we define Homo floresiensis.

Many have rightfully argued that when it comes to grouping people, labels often cause more trouble than they’re worth. But others also correctly argue that the words we use to talk about something or someone demonstrably shape the way we think about them. And the desire to study Homo floresiensis and all humanoids is rooted in a desire to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

 

 

The Bathroom Debate and the Pursuit of Personal Comfort

5 Jun

gender_neutral_toilets_gu(Public domain image via)

 

Cisgender people have been sharing bathrooms with transgender people throughout history, whether they have been aware of it or not. So when conservative groups across the United States mobilized this spring to draft bathroom bills, demanding all citizens use public facilities “according to the sex on their birth certificates,” most people I know responded with a head shake and a shrug, summed up best by this meme.

Comedian Stephen Colbert declared on his show, “To all those lawmakers out there who are so obsessed with who’s using what bathroom and what plumbing they’ve got downtown? Newsflash: You’re the weirdos.”

Here in Berlin, unisex bathrooms have been on the rise over the past three years in parts of the city and federal buildings. (As seen in the image above.) Some citizens have expressed their outrage to reporters. Most have shrugged.

But in the U.S., the issue has been taken to court. When North Carolina became the first state to pass a bathroom bill in March, the federal government sued the state for non-compliance with anti-discrimination laws, and the Department of Education issued guidelines to schools nationwide for compliance regarding bathrooms and locker rooms. Attorney General (and North Carolina native) Loretta Lynch argued:

This is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress for our nation. We saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. We saw it in fierce and widespread resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. And we saw it in the proliferation of state bans on same-sex unions intended to stifle any hope that gay and lesbian Americans might one day be afforded the right to marry. That right, of course, is now recognized as a guarantee embedded in our Constitution, and in the wake of that historic triumph, we have seen bill after bill in state after state taking aim at the LGBT community. Some of these responses reflect a recognizably human fear of the unknown, and a discomfort with the uncertainty of change. But this is not a time to act out of fear…

Let me speak now to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my state of North Carolina. You’ve been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm – but that just is not the case. Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society – all it does is harm innocent Americans.

Conservative groups have fired back. Eleven states are suing the federal government. Matt Sharp, the lawyer for a faith-based legal group Alliance Defending Freedom argued on National Public Radio:

And so we’ve got several families there that the Obama administration came in and forced the District 211 to allow a biological boy into the female’s restrooms. And so these girls are telling stories about how when they’re in their locker room changing for PE, they’re now uncomfortable knowing that a boy can walk in at any time under the school’s new policy. They talk about how one girl in particular does not change out of her gym clothes but rather wears them all day long, wears them after going to gym, after getting them dirty and nasty through PE class and then just puts her clothes on top of it because she’s so nervous about the possibility of having to change and shower and whatnot in front of this boy. And we hear stories like that across the country of these girls speaking out and saying, look, we don’t want this student to be bullied or harassed or anything, but we also want our privacy protected. And we just want to know that when we go into these lockers and shower rooms that we’re not going to be forced to share with someone of the opposite biological sex. That’s all these girls are asking for.

If we want to “protect” women in bathrooms and locker rooms from the presence of people who could be attracted to them, then we have to pretend lesbians do not exist. Or stamp out homosexuality altogether. We’ve tried both. Many times. It didn’t work. And countless people suffered.

If we want to assign people to bathrooms and locker rooms based on “the gender on their birth certificates,” then we have to pretend that intersex people don’t exist. Approximately 1 in every 2,000 people are born with sex characteristics that do not correspond with the traditional Western categories of male or female. Surgeries intended to “normalize” the appearance often cost the patient sensation and function. That few of us ever learn about the prevalence of such bodies in our biology classes at school—let alone anywhere else—is a testament to the Western World’s strong tradition of ignoring the evidence that questions the gender binary.

While conservatives argue on the shaky basis of common sense and personal comfort, our personal comfort is so often inculcated in us by our culture. Multiculturalism can increase conflict, but also open minds on both sides. In 2013, a devout Muslim student sued her school in central Germany over her right to be exempt from co-ed swim class on religious grounds. The court ruled that the right to religious freedom includes the right to adhere to a Muslim principle of modesty by wearing a burqini, but that it does not extend to being exempt from swim class and the knowledge of what boys look like in swimming trunks.

Here in the former East Germany, nudism is widely accepted at the beach. It’s not uncommon to see teens and senior citizens alike strip down for a quick dip in a lake at a park. While West Germans often find that a bit strange, they shrug at the fact that public saunas are unisex across the nation. Visitors from around the world, from Japan to the U.K., famously have a hard time accepting this.

Which is why I do not believe all of America will embrace such liberal values any time soon. And yet, 100 years ago mainstream American men and women alike were aghast at the idea of bare female ankles. And bathing suits looked much more like burqinis than anything the mainstream dons today.

After all, if you want to make a Northern European laugh, just tell them that mermaids in the U.S. are always depicted wearing seashells.

When society’s traditions clash with a person’s reality, one of the two will have to change. The moral question is: Who suffers more in the change? Demanding a trans woman use the men’s bathroom because she has an x and a y chromosome puts her at very real risk for harassment and assault. And any person, cis or trans, who is denied their gender identity is at risk for a wide range of horrific experiences. For society to change, we must learn to accept the unalterable fact of human gender diversity with a willingness to learn about it, so that our descendants may someday look upon it the same way we look upon exposed ankles. History implies we are capable of that.