Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Able-Bodied Guilt

This is old news, but I was too caught up in other assignments to blog about it when it was fresh. As it is, my commentary is only half thought out, but there might be something here that's not too crass and worth debating.

An August 30 article in the SJ-R concerning the eviction of a north end church from its property over tax obligations included the following quote:

"This is greed in its worst form - throwing a church on the street," said Daniel
Richards, a one-armed neighbor who lives two doors down, as he loaded a U-Haul.

I don’t know what stand that newspapers take on providing a physical description of a subject when it has no relevance to the story, but I do think I know why it might have been included in this instance.

Many seem to perceive that amputees have received a wisdom that transcends that of the fully-limbed. Losing an appendage must be a terribly sobering experience and perhaps with it comes a moment of clarity that casts thereafter every experience in a light that is both lucent and unforgiving. If a one-armed man sees pure greed where others might see a regrettable yet equitable enforcement of tax laws, well then maybe we need to rethink those tax laws.

As a society, we ascribe a moral authority to anyone who has overcome, or at least lived through, a traumatic experience. Former drug addicts, combat veterans, Paris Hilton’s ex-boyfriends, anyone who has ever touched the deepest pits of despair must have, for their troubles, come away with a perspective on life that is free of the primrose and trifle that clouds the judgment of the rest of us. Mustn’t they have?

There’s a reason that Blind Lemon Jefferson can legitimately sing the blues, but John Mayer can’t. The reason is that we value the licks taken by a person who was educated in the school of hard knocks more than someone who attended the Berklee College of Music. But is the authenticity we grant the disabled always earned, or is sometimes a product of the guilt we feel for not having been made to suffer on an equal scale?

The Kids in the Hall once parodied our propensity for revering the disabled. This skit was a series of movie trailers that parodied Tom Cruise’s deviant turn as good soldier turned anti-war activist Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July. In each, a crowd is cheering on a speaker who is proposing some measure to screw over the disabled, until a lone, disfranchised person rises up, and amid a crescendo of inspirational music, delivers an oratory that shames the populace for their cold-hearted ways. If I remember correctly, in the last of these increasingly preposterous trailers, the hero was suffering from a fork in his head that apparently couldn’t be dislodged.

The skit’s purpose was to skewer Hollywood, but Hollywood couldn’t play upon our emotions with such stories if we weren’t such suckers for them.

And that’s good. Far better for society to err on the side of compassion and accommodation than to cast the disabled aside in the battle of survival of the fittest. But if the goal is equality, then compassion and accommodation must be reasonable to the degree that a person is disadvantaged.

Consider the news yesterday of a band of disability rights activists who protested at the Thompson Center in Chicago. According to reports, they used their wheelchairs and bodies to block employee entrances and exits, and security allowed them to do so.

I have no doubt that if Woody Harrelson and a group of High Times subscribers took to the state building to protest marijuana laws, security would have snatched them up by their hemp-woven collars and floated them out into the street. But that course of action, however warranted it might have been considering that blocking exits is a safety hazard, simply wasn’t an option, and the activists knew it. You can’t forcibly remove someone in a wheelchair and not face a fierce comeuppance when the news footage hits the fan.

The truth is, of course, that the disabled are no more entitled to skirt the law than anyone else, nor are they necessarily any more sagacious when commenting on matters of property seizures. Yet when a one-armed man talks, I’ll probably still listen. Will you?

There’s probably a good Ironside analogy to be made here somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. Perhaps the Lemonhead’s Cazzo Di Ferro might offer some insight.


Dr. Richard Kimble said...

That guy killed my wife.

Anonymous said...