I found the above photo posted March 3rd on Twitter under #MobileAL, and thought it striking. Uniquely illustrative of the America few actually see. The image of tranquil Mobile Bay, relatively sleepy downtown Mobile, and then atop—probably due to its novel trimaran hull, it sorta appears to levitate ON not *in*—the somber, gray bay waters like some demonic silver monopoly game piece, a behemoth Cylon-lookin’ war machine, warship USS Montgomery (LCS-8).
The LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) program was supposed to make small, maneuverable Navy SEAL-type amphibious strike ships, essentially next gen swift boats with huge firepower relative to their slight profile. Initially the LCS project was promoted as small, easy to churn out quickly, and at roughly 1/6th the eventual $600 million+ cost per Leviathan beastoid the design bloated into. Instead of light, quick, and responsive, truly littoral (near-shore ops, coastal by definition) ships, it ballooned into a heavy corvette after many re-designs. Great enough a shift to warrant re-classimg the ships from LCS to FF, fast frigate, and permanently so in 2019 as even beefier, heavier-armor bulky versions are laid down and launched.
Jobs for the city of Mobile are a big positive. And it’s not that i don’t want badass navy warships, I just object to design bloat as much as its parent, mission creep. More importantly, effectively switching from swift boats with serious teeth intended to deter international traffickers and beat down Somali pirates, to a plan for behemoth frigates primarily equipped to take on Big Bad warships, hold their own in ship-to-seaside-fort and ship-to-ship battle vs. some formidable heavy metal, i.e. Russia and the PRC’s growing fleets of high-tech vessels… is indicative of a very different kind of world. Geopolitical expectations have significantly shifted.
Back to the image above: a rare and honest juxtaposition. The warm, steamy mellow port city of Mobile in back, cutting-edge deathbringer in front, moving out from the homefires. Open your eyes and most important changes are there in plain sight…
“Down in Mobile they’re all crazy, because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.”—Eugene Walter
So I was in Mobile, AL, a port city as complex as it is old, the Confederacy’s “undefeated” city, and my hometown, and I move from the Fox News in the pulmonologist’s office to the Fox News in the psychologist’s office.
It’s late 2004. George W. Bush already won reelection and both camels of Congress are firmly Republican-controlled. This is a red state epicenter, and the receptionist slowly shakes her head at all the evils of them dadgum liberals in Washington.
The Fox News reporter on screen is in Iraq, sandy winds off the desert dunes whip his polo shirt’s sleeves back, and he tries to keep his pencil-like physique upright as he shoves his big fuzzy Fox News-emblazoned microphone into soldiers’ faces. He was asking almost Colbert-like questions of the desert camo-wearing Army men, like how much have Senate Democrats harmed the war effort? and do you think the recent comments of Senate Democrats constitute treason?
More than one serviceman laughed the guy off. None of them knew what comments Democrats had made. The questions were totally removed from the Army’s mission in Iraq and mostly seemed the ramblings of another clueless civilian or rear guard patriot. Really apparent was the complete disconnect from the composition of government: Republicans unified the federal elected bodies and the executive branch under their control from 2002 and gained even biggier majorities in the 2004 elections, but it sounded like the Senate Democrats ran everything on Fox News. The ever-present librul conspiracy is all-powerful and ALWAYS the problem.
This idea of eternal opposition is easy to understand in the undefeated city, our lady of perpetual defiance. This I understand easily, the rebellion is deeply ingrained in Mobilians’ DNA. Over time, surrounded by Confederate ghosts (some of them your relatives) and architecture, the big bronze Admiral Raphael Semmes statue looking at you, marinating in that culture and place and tripping over its ghosts in the lit beams of fog, you start to understand that the port cities have a different narrative from that of the plantationocracy, that for the urban South it’s more utopian.
Yes it’s about a slave economy and getting them dadgum liberal Abe Lincolns off your lawn, but it’s also this idea of Alabama knowing how best to build Alabama. There’s nothing libertarian about the state that they would choose; the vision is more Thomas Paine than Edmund Burke. There’s this idea and utopian dream of all types of creation-energy and creativity and building being unleashed once you get that damnable federal boot off your neck.
It’s mostly a pipe dream—AKA a dream you get after hitting dat pipe o’ opium—and also there’s NOTHING morally justifiable much less utopian about the reasons why the feudal lords of the Southern interior supported secession, that is slavery slavery and slavery. But the port cities that were bustling centers of New World civilization already when George Washington was in diapers really complicate whatever narrative of the Confederacy you have. They resist simplicity. The port cities (Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans) are/were full of madmen and poets and dreamers like Eugene Walter described. And they were not only about wiping out the invaders, but also trying to create a better society that isn’t trying to out-hustle the North but wants to make a nation that is culturally if not economically independent (slavery spreading because of capitalism on steroids, often with northern financing).
As uber lefty cultural historian Morris Berman often says, a Southern victory in The WONA (“War of Northern Aggression”) would not have necessarily “given us a better world–slavery having been the obvious dark aspect of the Southern way of life–but the destruction of a gracious, slow-moving, community-oriented society in favor of a frantic, commercial one is nothing to crow about.”
So I always try to understand the ideas behind the arguments. Wanting to get dem dadgum bluebacks out of your hair I understand.
But if your side never has to shoulder the responsibility of governance, is perpetually in opposition vs. having a share of the credit and consequences of success or failure as part of a ruling coalition, your party can become badly warped.
I think it’s advantageous to understand all sides as much as possible. I got really confused during the federal gov’t shutdown of 2013, especially as to the predominant ideas underpinning it, so I listened to right-wing talk radio for the week and tried, to the best of my ability, to explain Teapublican thinking at the time on this blog. I think that it is more radical to attempt to get your head around the other side’s ideas than to knee jerk oppose, and more interesting.
Even the SHUT IT DOWN extremism I could eventually understand somewhat, but there are things I seriously can’t grasp at all except as purposefully misleading, disinfo more than misinformation, especially with Fox News. It worries me about our nation’s ability to learn, to adapt to multiple decades of scientific data, move forward and lead the way so humans don’t end up extinct.
Concerned about Fox Newsification of Medicine and Science
On the medical front, there are obvious policy differences on substantive issues, like the stem cell lines kerfuffleearly on in Bush Jr’s presidency, but I mean things like blaming John Edwards and “librul trial lawyers” for the flu shot shortage of 2004. This was a talking point on Fox News repeated again and again, part of the “scandal of the day” format Faux News sticks with throughout its lineup of programs.
Like the disloyal Democrats’ comments brought up over and over again, even by FNC’s Iraq correspondent in lieu of actual reporting, there’s this consistent appeal to some story example that acts as a code word or proof-text of Demonrat perfidy—this time the librul conspiracy has gone too far!! A good contemporary example is Benghazi, which for several years now is a code word for Barack Obama is a radical Islam and MURDERED that ambassador to cover up his traitorous support for terrorists OMG!!
In a way I understand this as coming from the story-example way of communicating so prevalent in the South, you can look back at 19th century newspapers and see how the openly partisan news media of the South would fixate on whatever meme of “Yankee radical” treason or perceived slight and milk it.
21st century partisan news media fixates on whatever obscure example and rides it for as many news cycles as possible, but an important difference is the whole South understood the example stories of 19th century newspapers, more or less, whereas the example stories of Fox News are little known outside of the conservative media bubble. Few know what Benghazi is or understand why Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl being brought home from being a Taliban POW per no man left behind is another traitorous plot of the Obama. Example narratives like these circulate only among the conservative media niche, have no traction outside that narrow audience and even within the alternate reality of the Rightosphere they create a terrible hew and cry but aren’t salient past the few news cycles they’re designated talking points for…
So on this day, Faux News’ librul conspiracy meme of the day was this thing about John Edwards and the dadgum ambulance chasing trial lawyers. The pulmonologist and nurse were discussing the flu shot shortage crisis affecting us and the other patients, and that the lawsuits pursued by John Edwards and his parasitic ilk are the primary cause of vaccine factory closures and the shortage of flu shots. Conservative media was citing this as a proof of lawyers ruin health care and pass legislation to further immunize vaccine makers from lawsuits!
Tidbits of Colonial Mobile’s Economic and Legal History Through a 19th century Jewish Lens
The rare book “A History of the Jews of Mobile,” a brief monograph published by Springhill Avenue Temple rabbi Alfred Geiger Moses in 1876 on the Jewish history of my hometown Mobile, AL, and now available online, records some fascinating facts. I’ll get into the super weird history of Mobile Jews serving in the Twelfth Alabama for the CSA in the Civil War in a future post. In this post I’ll go over the most interesting bits of history I was able to glean of the legal and regulatory system early Mobile had in place (when it was considered part of French Louisiana, then British West Florida, then Spanish West Florida).
Mobile was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville on his brother Pierre de Iberville’s advice. Both young explorers had sailed from their birthplace, Quebec, in search of advantageous spots to put trading posts to cash in on trade with the Indians. The earliest decades of Mobile’s existence saw sparse settlement and several relocations of the colony due to flooding and swamp epidemics. Everything was in flux, and often, like the Dutch,¹ the French only supplied enough money and people to support the bare necessities for trading. But slowly, the Louisiana colonies eventually added settlers.
New colonial societies can’t function or generate sustainable populations (and are totally depressing) without women. Bienville wrote of the sex ratio emergency to his royal backers in France, and in 1704, Mobile was the first port to see “casquette girls” arrive to be the colony’s first official wives. Bienville went on to found New Orleans, Natchez and New Biloxi after Iberville founded Old Biloxi near what is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi. “Consignments” of casquette girls reached Biloxi in 1719, and New Orleans in 1728, and to this day a mythos surrounds the casquette girls as the most virtuous religious women of France, like Virgin Marys founded the old Louisiana families. To claim descent from one of them is to gain auto-nobility in the Louisiana context. Like most lore, the legend that the casquette girls were nuns and Joans of Arc is mostly false. But the dynamic honors founding mothers and mostly omits founding fathers, a notable reversal.
Jews, being strictly banned in the “Code Noir,” weren’t much of a presence in Mobile’s early years. Alfred Geiger Moses noted:
The first two articles of the code read as follows: “Article I: Decrees the expulsion of the Jews from the colony. Article II: Permits the exercise of the Roman Catholic worship only. Every other code of worship is prohibited.” Strange to say, the rest of the code deals with laws regulating the sale and conduct of negro slaves. Gayarre finds the reference to the Jews irrelevant to the general subject-matter of the code. My own explanation of the anti-Jewish laws, which is supported by a good authority, is that they were merely a repetition of the similar legislation current in France at the time of Louis XIV. Drastic as the law appears, it was probably never enforced, because there are no further references to it in Louisiana records. The expulsion of the Jews from America would have been in the sixteenth century an event worthy of the chronicler’s notice.
The Code Noir was developed in France and strictly regulated every corner of economic life that related to the (highly active) slave trade, all activities of the enslaved and freed black population, in enormous detail. And of course a perfunctory ban on all Jews, though Jewish settlement nonetheless accelerated, especially during the subsequent periods of British and Spanish quasi-control.
The main point of controlling Mobile was its lucrative port, so imports and exports were heavily regulated and taxed for the crown’s benefit, and if you didn’t interfere with that imperial extraction process you were relatively free, hence “quasi-control.”
Non-paying the right amount of tribute/taxes, though, could imperil your ability to operate within that colony, and if you were seen as thieving, speculating or profiteering to the detriment of the power people’s loot, you could be imprisoned or death-penaltied.
Rabbi Alfred G. Moses explains:
In the British epoch of Mobile’s colonial history, which extended from 1763 to 1780, an interesting reference to a Jew is citable: Major Robert Farmer, the British commandant of Mobile, was accused, among other charges, of selling flour belonging to the King to New Orleans, or selling or attempting to sell it there by means of “Pallachio, a Jew.” The Major was afterwards acquitted of the charges.
What became of poor Pallachio isn’t known, but it was quite possibly a noir fate.
The concept of “the King’s flour” is really hard to grasp in the 21st century but I think of it as explicitly royalist mercantilism.
Mercantilism meaning “2: an economic system developing during the decay of feudalism to unify and increase the power and especially the monetary wealth of a nation by a strict governmental regulation of the entire national economy usually through policies designed to secure an accumulation of bullion, a favorable balance of trade, the development of agriculture and manufactures, and the establishment of foreign trading monopolies” (see Merriam-Webster dictionary definition)
The “foreign trading monopolies” were the point of colonization, and more purely about royalist monopolies for the French, being less encumbered by entrenched notions of self-sufficient land-ownership meaning individual freedom and citizenship.
Political rants invoking a bygone golden age of “the free market” and no regulation are misinforming the people. “The American Way” is another term for the American System, the tariff-heavy economic plan that predominated in the 19th century, mercantilism in reality. The next time a buffoon is waxing nostalgic about an economic past completely unlike anything we had in North America, remember Pallachio and remember royalist mercantilism.
It’s not exactly surprising that the New York Times missed the story: their writers too often cling to conventional wisdom like a drunk grabbing a lamppost, not for illumination as much as desperately-needed support. Don’t get me wrong, the Times sometimes has great coverage and is valuable as one of the few newspapers doing fact-checked, traditional journalism, and one of the last old-guard newspapers still standing, but their coverage of the American South is consistently abysmal. It’s nearly as clueless as their coverage of disability issues. When it comes to the South, the NYT writers are like most New Yorkers, they hear “Alabama” and can picture only the cornfield backdrop on that show Hee-haw!The problem is, despite the reality being more crawdad than cornfield, more riveria than rural, you can get through this front page report on Alabama’s First Congressional district primary run-off with the image of the rural cornfields unperturbed.
The front page story, well, it was actually a prominent front page blurb in Wednesday, November 6th—print, web, and app—New York editions then continued inside (or on page A17) with the headline: Byrne Wins Republican Runoff in Alabama House Race, was seen nearly 100% through the DC pundits’ lens:
… But the race to replace Mr. Bonner became a national proxy fight between the ideological wings of the Republican Party after Mr. Byrne and Mr. Young emerged atop a nine-candidate field in a September primary.
Dean Young, the Tea Party challenger, did see the race as an epic struggle: his defiant election night “concession speech” ominously referred to his loss as “the first warning shot that goes out across the nation,” and the beginning of his national movement. Byrne, to his credit, tried to explain to the media.that the race was actually about representing Mobile Bay area interests in the House. This is why he won. (I’d say Jo Bonner won too, abruptly retiring a few weeks before the tsunami of filth from the shameful government shutdown hit)
The New York Times missed the story because they missed Mobile. After the dateline, MOBILE, Ala—pronounced MoBEAL, my hometown—they don’t mention the city again and don’t interview anyone in the city, though Mobilians are the bulk of the voters in the First district, and thus decide the election. At minimum, The Times has deprived readers of the context that explains why Bryne won: Mobile.
Bradley Byrne didn’t win because voters sided with the “Republican establishment” vs. the Tea Party, as The Times suggested. Byrne won because he’s more like his predecessors, Jo Bonner and Sonny Callahan, who were laser-focused on getting federal earmarks, grants, and infrastructure projects for the city and the area economy, and made “bringing home the bacon,” not ideological warfare, job 1. Dean Young might have won in a purely rural district with his pledges to “be just like Ted Cruz,” but far-right crusaders will never get much traction in districts like the First, where an urban population center supplies much of the vote… in this case, Mobile is also a port city trying to compete with similarly-sized ports (like Charleston) and needs the pipe of infrastructure funding open and flowing in order to have a chance.
You see, the true story of Mobile and the Mobile Bay area is infinitely more layered, diverse, and beautiful than the stereotypes or The Times’ one line descriptor “the deeply conservative district.” The city of Mobile is over 300 years old: it’s called “the city under six flags” because of its rich history
of being under France, Spain, Britain, Republic of West Florida (nominally), United States, and the Confederacy. These flags are on the city seal, including the bonnie blue flag of the Republic of West Florida, a 90 day secession in 1810… though Mobile remained de facto under Spanish colonial rule, this Republic also included Pensacola and Baton Rouge. The secession was crushed and all the territory therein forcibly incorporated into the U.S. by Andrew Jackson’s troops during the Madison administration.
Mobilians’ historical and socio-economic background, the collective subconscious, draws more on the statist-war economy under the Confederacy and the mercantilism of the French, Spanish, and British periods—I’ll write a post on Mobile and mercantilism—than the free market American image. European colonies like Mobile and New Orleans didn’t really ever have the “wild west capitalism” or “free enterprise system” that politicians often say that they want to get back to, it never happened. Whether you are Republican or Democrat in Mobile—and the word “Democrat” means something different in the Alabama context where the history includes George Wallace-style Democrats—you’re not automatically against state intervention, especially when it means some “bacon” for the local economy.
It’s unfortunate that The Times substituted the canned, pre-determined “Republican establishment vs. the Tea Party” narrative for the truth that it’s a purple district where the more moderate, bacon-bringing candidate has a natural advantage, and all politics are local. They mangle the story, not from falsehoods, but from missing the point. I understand the limited space in newspapers, but a few lines of context would have made all the difference.
As you see in the map of the First Congressional district, they’ve included the hinterland counties to create a balance of rural and urban voters. Balanced districts like these are rare. And maybe they shouldn’t exist: so many rural areas are included here, the Mobilians are nearly canceled out. Back when the Democrats held Montgomery—in the late ’90s and mid ’00s—there was discussion of drawing a new Mobile-only Congressional district. This could have meant real representation for Mobile and Mobilians’ urban interests, a constituency that is 51% black and heavily Catholic, a very different person sent to Congress, and some misconceptions about coastal Alabama shattered in Washington. We should remember this when discussing redistricting.
The one time my hometown makes The New York Times, and not for hurricane destruction, they gotta mangle it. Dang it….
OR John Kerry Should’ve Grown A Beard: The North-South Manliness Inversion
A Post That Cites Its Sources…with Footnotes!
As I mentioned in the preceding post, the Nick’s Crusade blog is a history blog too. I think delving into history can be very valuable, not just because the strange doglegs and twists in the American story—history NEVER progresses in a straight line—are infinitely interesting, but because we become better thinkers and citizens the more we understand our prologue, the previous generations, the prior struggles, and what we’ve gained and lost since.
One thing we’ve lost—though we have gained from its absence in many ways—is the whole concept of the elite 19th century Southern Gentleman, the image of Southern aristocrats with smooth, un-calloused hands and clean-shaven plump faces, and the brutal slave-driving that made such lifestyles possible. A lot of insight into that old image can be gleaned from the strange story of William Rufus deVane King of Alabama (my home state).
William R. D. King—more typically referred to as just “William R. King”—was the first U.S. Senator from Alabama (alongside John Williams Walker, who was also sent to Washington—the state legislature electing two U.S. Senators per constitutional requirements—after Alabama was admitted to the Union in December 1819). King also played a major role getting Alabama statehood done, and helped write the constitution of Alabama. He named the city of Selma “Selma” meaning “high seat” or “throne” in the 18th century Ossianic poem The Songs of Selma, was president pro tem of the United States Senate, got into a Hamilton-Burr-style duel with Henry Clay,¹ and served as U.S. Minister to France and had other diplomatic posts in Naples and St. Petersburg. As president pro tem of the Senate, he was behind the writing and passage of the Compromise of 1850 and more. What’s odd is, he did all this while being…while being known by the public as super effeminate and flamboyant, and was re-elected again and again by the hardcore states’ righters in Montgomery (prior to the ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913, state legislatures elected U.S. Senators to represent their state).
I won’t say William R. D. King was gay, though it is very striking that, in a culture that almost never mentioned such things, contemporaries like Andrew Jackson publicly called him by derogatory names like “Miss Nancy,” and
powerful Tennessee Dem Aaron Brown (later appointed postmaster general under Buchanan) referred to him as “she” and “Aunt Fancy” and [Buchanan’s] “better half.”² The Senators King and Buchanan were reported walking arm in arm around Washington, though that was common for men even in James Garfield‘s time 30 years later. The rumors of King wearing 18th century powdered wigs and stockings long after they’d been abandoned in the 19th century are false,³ but there was definitely a lot of scandalous gossip in D.C. about his clothes and mannerisms. And it’s well established that King did have a very intimate relationship with future-president James Buchanan, and something must have been unusual enough to’ve drawn derision. Buchanan was sometimes ridiculed as “Mr. Fancy Pants” or “Granny Buck.”
Still, the serious historian demands a high standard of proof: the text document equivalent of “pics or it didn’t happen.” Though there is more material suggesting King was seen as gay than almost anyone else in the 19th century, it’d be unwise to say King was a homosexual with certainty. I agree with the James Buchanan entry in glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture that:
In his The Invention of Heterosexuality Jonathan Ned Katz cautions against the application of contemporary terms regarding sexuality to other times and societies in which “[w]ays of ordering the sexes, genders, and sexualities have varied radically.” He further points out that in the “pre-Freudian world [of early-nineteenth-century America], love did not imply eros”–although neither, of course, was an erotic component excluded.⁴
As King’s effeminate manner is evident beyond a shadow of a doubt, I’ll ask a broader—and, I think, more interesting—question, on gender presentation widely-speaking: how is it that such an effeminate public figure got elected by the legislators in rough-and-tumble frontier Alabama?
The answer is, there was nothing odd about William R. D. King amidst the Southern slaver planter aristocracy of his generation. It only seems strange to us, seeing through the lens of the latter half of the 20th century and its mega-strict gender roles. In the antebellum South, the elite planter could be flamboyant, his body unmarked by any of the wear and tear associated with daily labor, his beardless, cherubic visage and opulent clothing a sign of plantation riches, heralding social status as much as signaling the success—and therefore rightness—of the Old South. That kind of presentation harkens back to the aristocratic plantation lifestyles of the 17th and 18th century colonies, when it was, if anything, MORE pronounced. The kind of luxurious appearance and elite manner King exemplified was not uncommon among antebellum aristocrats in cotton country, in fact, flaunting your aristocratic bona fides was cool.
The anti-slavery left, the free soil partisans of the north who were organizing into what would soon be called the Republican Party, had picked up on this. By the time Millard Fillmore—a northerner with pro-slavery sympathies—moved into the White House following President Taylor dying of dysentery in 1850, they had a name for his sort: doughfaces, an obvious allusion to the idle, beardless planter aristocracy.
The best explanation of masculinities of the 19th century and the politics of facial hair I’ve found, is in Adam Goodheart’s amazing book 1861:
It was no accident that Northerners who sympathized with slaveholders were called “doughfaces”: in the American context, beards connoted a certain frank and uncompromising authenticity. Nor was it a coincidence that “Honest Abe” began cultivating his famous beard as he prepared to take over the presidency from “Granny Buck.”⁵
Northern free-soilers began presenting themselves as everything opposed to those they framed as the effete, decadent planter class, or as they referred to them, “the slave party.” They cultivated an image marketed as everything opposite the idle, soft-handed, soft-faced rich Southern aristocrats, they were the candidates of rough-hewn common working men with beards! They [the first decades of Republican Party free soil candidates] were one of the Real ‘Merickens who crawled out of mama and into a log cabin, grew up ridin’ a blue ox and drinking hard cider, and as a man split rails with an axe in one hand while reading law with the other. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, this backstory was kind of true, and his 1860 presidential campaign leveraged that to. the. MAX. The Republican National Convention in Chicago that (unexpectedly) nominated Lincoln for president in 1860 was held in a massive, makeshift wooden “wigwam”—Chicago’s fire marshall didn’t get any sleep that week—and the crowd badgered Honest Abe to tell the convention his “clearing the land with an axe” story…again. The Fall campaign was almost singularly about the image of Lincoln “the rail-splitter,” and was used non-stop; I’m sure some folks didn’t even know his name, just knew “rail-splitter.” To focus on the frontiersmen ethos and related manliness, and all the subtle messages within that, while not mentioning free soil doctrine, abolition, or any of the issues currently boiling over was a brilliant stroke of campaigning genius, and stands out in political history.
Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening is the best, most quick-to-understand work of social history I’ve read to date, delving into what Americans lives were really like on the eve of the Civil War. It goes into the BIZARRE social arrangements of 1861 Washington, DC, where free blacks owned slaves, and in Goodheart’s descriptions, those slaves were better off than much of DC’s free black population, who were largely stuck below-subsistence-level in squalid shantytowns, and with no “owner” to vouch for them, they were “undocumented” in a way—my term—and had no real rights to move around in public spaces and were subjected to frequent stops and harassment by police. 1861 has a whole chapter on young James Garfield’s doings at the time, and the way passions were channeled into male friendships in his social circle since expressing emotions was quite circumscribed where women were concerned. I’d like to explore that more in another post.
What I discovered by looking back at William R. King vs. early Republican campaigns—and it’s exciting when you figure something out for the first time—is that the North and South have not only undergone a political transformation, there’s been a cultural inversion alongside it. First, the obvious political inversion. Look at the electoral map following Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential run. The liberal “free soil” north is ruby red, Republican. The South, pro-slavery, is the Democratic Party “solid south,” and with the exception of the fracturing of the Democrats behind several Southern candidates in 1860, then a period of Republican military rule and Republican-elections, “Reconstruction,” the solid Democratic south stays together a remarkably long time, from Andrew Jackson to like… John Kennedy’s run in 1960… Kennedy loses significant votes to Nixon in the Deep South, then in 1972 ALL Southern states peel off—a huge change from the results of the ’68 presidential election just four years before, when the solid south voted for the Dem, Humphrey, and the former-Dem-then-Dem-again, George Wallace—and REALLY break in Nixon’s favor, what with his infamous “southern strategy” and a Dem challenger perceived as wimpy. ’72 clinched the end of realignment, sealed the deal. Ever since, the South has been Republican red, with Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond and ex-Wallace supporters defecting to the GOP in droves and Lincoln’s states up north increasingly leaning Democratic; it’s a total inversion!
What I’ve realized is, it’s also a North-South inversion of the culture of masculinity. In short, northerners are framed as effete, wimpy, decadent, out-of-touch elites today, similar to the way northerners caricatured southerners in the first decades of Whig and Republican campaigns (1840-1870ish). Now, it’s southerners that seem to treasure uber-rigid common man masculinity, and William Rufus deVane King couldn’t get elected dog catcher in today’s Alabama; despite his great wealth, I doubt he could find a place in Alabama public life due to his…different gender presentation. Southerners of today expect a working man to run for office, someone manly and “like us,” the opposite of William R. King. Thomas Frank explored today’s Republican “backlash” against “elites” in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas. This “backlash” is far more determinative than people realize, and deserves much more examination.
John Kerry got the brunt of this backlash in the 2004 campaign, with Karl Rove using the words “effete, elite Massachusetts liberal!” every day. Kerry got Buchanan’ed! Today’s Republicans are as aware of Americans’ deep-seated resentment of “the idle rich” as their northern founders were!
John Kennedy did a modern version of the “Hard Cider Campaign” in 1960; you could call it the “high-ball glass and scotch campaign.” It worked. The “effete, elite Massachusetts liberal!” line was certainly attempted against Kennedy, but for the most part it failed to stick, and he won a majority of working class voters and held the bulk of the South. Kerry failed…failed BADLY to counter the “effete, wimpy, decadent, out-of-touch” frame employed against him. Maybe John Kerry should’ve tried some form of the Kennedy strategy. Maybe he should have gone full Abe, grown a beard and had the press film him chopping firewood.
What he tried instead, photos and videos of him “huntin” backfired terribly, making him look even more phony and out of touch.
Unfortunately, image matters and always has mattered in American politics. Today, it matters disproportionately, and 21st century Democratic candidates like John Kerry have been awful at it. He was completely unable to fight back against the opponent’s framing him as an elite, decadent aristocrat, just as King and Buchanan and other antebellum southern gentlemen were caricatured.
Southern politics and southern masculinity has shifted dramatically, and I wonder if we haven’t lost something important. I wonder if becoming much more rigid in gender expectations isn’t narrowing what’s possible in political life, excluding not just potential 21st century William Rufus Kings, but ANYONE who doesn’t look like a square, iron-jawed working man. We’ve narrowed potential in public life, and I think that’s always bad.
1. Clay “believed the Globe to be an infamous paper, and its chief editor an infamous man.” King responded that Blair’s character would “compare gloriously” to that of Clay. The Kentucky senator jumped to his feet and shouted, “That is false, it is a slanderous base and cowardly declaration and the senator knows it to be so.” King answered ominously, “Mr. President, I have no reply to make—none whatever. But Mr. Clay deserves a response.” King then wrote out a challenge to a duel and had another senator deliver it to Clay, who belatedly realized what trouble his hasty words had unleashed. As Clay and King selected seconds and prepared for the imminent encounter, the Senate sergeant at arms arrested both men and turned them over to a civil authority. Clay posted a five-thousand-dollar bond as assurance that he would keep the peace, “and particularly towards William R. King.” Each wanted the matter behind him, but King insisted on “an unequivocal apology.” On March 14, 1841, Clay apologized…
Senate Historical Office. “William Rufus King, 13th Vice President (1853).” Senate.gov. (accessed May 6, 2013).
2. p. 189: Hernandez, David. Broken Face in the Mirror: Crooks and Fallen Stars That Look Very Much Like Us. Dorrance Publishing, 2010. http://books.google.com/books?id=OJ-0nNPAisgC&pg=PA189 (accessed May 6, 2013).
3. “Vice President King is sometimes confused with [signer of the Constitution in 1787 and Federalist presidential candidate] Senator Rufus King of New York. This confusion with the first King explains the rumors that persist to this day of the latter King’s wearing of ribbons, scarves and powdered wigs long after they were in fashion. Vice President King always wore the contemporary styles of the early-to-mid-1800s and he never wore a wig.” pp 13-14: Stern, Milton. Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady. 2005. http://books.google.com/books?id=5B9ngDFT2vgC&pg=PA14 (accessed May 7, 2013).
4. Rapp, Linda. glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Chicago, IL: glbtq, Inc., 2004. http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/buchanan_j,2.html (accessed May 6, 2013).
5. p. 113: Goodheart, Adam. 1861: The Civil War Awakening. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2011. http://books.google.com/books?id=bCPbnsUPhB0C&pg=PA113
Recently, comments on C-SPAN’s BookTV sparked my interest, because Appellate Judge Frank Easterbrook said something very revealing. He talked about how he and then-solicitor general Robert Bork crafted the legal reasoning that now is the dominant precedent that prohibits or stifles desegregation across America. And no one noticed. Segregation and the laws around it deserve more discussion.
This is a clip I made of Judge Easterbrook’s comments, which reveal a history few know about (c-spanvideo.org allows you to make your own clips now!) During a discussion of Robert Bork’s last, posthumously published book “Saving Justice,” Frank Easterbrook reveals how he and Robert Bork’s reasoning that school segregation “by personal choice” is not a violation, though so inflammatory in the ’70s the DOJ ordered it shredded, is now the opinion affirmed by the Supreme Court.
Even Robert Bork thought the anti-busing opinion should be shredded at the time; according to Judge Easterbrook, Bork was worried it would empower violent bigots in the ongoing Boston busing conflict.
Somehow, this opinion was unearthed from the bowels of hell and embraced by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has again and again affirmed this radical-right reasoning that school segregation doesn’t hurt anyone and is just fine as long as the state isn’t forcing it and it’s “segregation by private choice.”
The nail in the coffin for desegregation seemed to come from Bork and Easterbrook’s brief.
With my own eyes, I’ve seen the retrenchment of segregation in the South. My hometown of Mobile, Alabama was once a good example of relative-racial harmony; Mobile boasts it was the only major city in the Deep South never to suffer race riots. Leaders on both sides of this peaceful, heavily Catholic city made negotiation work instead of the conflagration everywhere else. My college, Spring Hill College (“The Jesuit College of the South”) was praised in MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail for being the first university in the Deep South to integrate, in 1954. When the KKK tried to burn a cross (highly blasphemous) on campus in response, students chased them off with rocks and baseball bats, a couple of Jesuit priests in tow. We showed how possible integration could be; we showed that not everybody in the Deep South supported the Klan. (Also, people tend to see the world through the lens of their hometown values and upbringing, and this post gives you insight into mine, where I am coming from).
It’s been sad watching my hometown leave behind their powerful legacy of peaceful desegregation without discussion, following the other Southern cities. Accelerating subsequent to the 1991 Supreme Court ruling Board of Education v. Dowell, which—in a 5-3 decision—lifted integration-busing court orders (Thurgood Marshall, on the verge of retiring, wrote the dissenting opinion) busing has been jettisoned as a relic, and the busing-integrated high school I went to, John Shaw High School, was shuttered.
There’s been a retrenchment of racial segregation throughout the South—and elsewhere too (see this article about Omaha dividing into separate segregated school districts at the request of the black minority). The reasons for re-segregation are complex and difficult to talk about; it’s clear that both communities are fueling this trend. Black communities may dislike sending children on hour-long bus rides, among other things, while white communities may want to wall off their children from the kinds of things going on in the black ghettos (which may or may not be a true perception, because in MY high school, the white kids were the ones dealing drugs).
According to a 2003 Harvard study, following the flurry of court rulings against busing, black students were less integrated at the turn of the millennium than in 1970, “a year before the Supreme Court authorized the busing that became a primary way of integrating schools.” These trends have accelerated unabated since 2000. In many of these segregated communities, a kid has a better chance of winning the lottery than meeting a person of different ethnic background than them. It looks as though our broken judiciary will allow entire states to re-segregate, decades of progress down the tubes, because we’ve made the democratic choice for that kind of society. And in a democracy we should be able to choose that; but let’s not be blind to the destructive potential of segregation: the damage to the children socially and emotionally, the distancing of racial communities, the retrenchment of a U.S. caste system. A growing body of social science research is reaching the conclusion that school desegregation should get some credit for the drop in urban crime in the ’90s and ’00s, and that the rise in crime in recent years can be partly blamed on re-segregation (Source: Slate: Resegregation has led to a spike in violent crime).
We need to be honest about the prejudice, the pre-judging we’re all capable of, and try and do what’s right. Separate but equal can never be equal, and invites a myriad of problems.
My younger brother Jamie, who’s also on a vent, said of visiting one high school, “I felt like the little white chunk no one wants at the bottom of the can o’ pork ‘n beans.”
That isn’t good, but it is the reality in the 2000s and 2010s….
Mobile has its first black mayor now, and peace and negotiation is still the order of the day for the most part, but in places like Atlanta and New Orleans the intensifying of segregation has communities on both sides simmering with racial tension. Racial violence in Atlanta isn’t yet “only of interest to historians.” Economic and social segregation in New Orleans, not to mention the strict geographic segregation—so extreme you wouldn’t believe it—has racial discord at all time highs. Hurricane Katrina (which I barely survived in Mobile) not only devastated New Orleans bow to stern, it opened up a LOT of old wounds. Surprisingly virulent racist memes have come back, big time; too often, Louisiana whites have welcomed that stuff back with open arms.
Libertarians like Ron Paul are right to point out that laws alone can’t turn hearts and minds around, and that’s an important point, but laws provide enforcement of equal opportunity against the worst injustices. Laws that have dis-empowered the most egregious offenders, especially vis a vis voting rights and equality under the law, have driven most of the progress we’ve seen.
Bork and Easterbrook’s brief provide a window into how we got to where we are. And where we are, and the legal opinions behind it, deserve re-examination.
I’ve been thinking about my friend Chris a lot this week, especially in the days preceding and following March 4th, when the tragedy that took him happened.
When I was little, Chris was the bigger kid, both in age (four years older) and heft (kids with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy—DMD, which I don’t have—tend to be heavy, seeming to keep their baby fat, plus, until the preteen years). He was the poster child for the Mobile MDA (Muscular Dystrophy Association). I’ve gone in-depth on this blog about what it was like being in the Mobile MDA in the 1980s before. There was really a sense that “I want to be involved in the MDA, I want my kids to be involved, and raise money for the MDA, so then when my child is older and in full decline and we need all the help we can get, the resources will be there.” Parent involvement in the MDA really was seen as an investment in your children’s future, so the feeling of betrayal was intense when the MDA of Mobile (transformed and unrecognizable as the community-engaged organization it was in 1980s) didn’t help Chris in his fight for survival or even note his death.
Chris and I really became friends as young adults, when he would hang out in my chat room (Disabled Teens Support Group) that I had set up as a safe space for people like us to share the unique challenges facing young people with disabilities. I ran the group on the Delphi Forums site, which was a very, very Web 1.0 platform that you could run chat rooms and message boards on. It was a clunky, antiquated tool, even at the time, and perhaps some of the language (“Disabled Teens”) was antiquated too, but we got a lot out of it. Chris and I shared a deep context of what it means to be a young, vent-dependent man in South Alabama, the very real challenges, threats, and pain involved, and a lot of those basics could go unsaid; that, in-and-of-itself, was very freeing. He was also the only other vent-dependent friend I had outside the home that was close enough (South Mobile) to see in person. I was at one of his birthday parties; an old guy in the neighborhood called the police about the loud rock music.
Chris had a mohawk, so dark red it was almost black. He loved metal. Especially metal performed by scantily-clad women. For him, you’re either 100% extreme, balls out, hardcore, or you’re wimpy (though he used much harsher terms than wimpy). So, he tended to see me as soft and decidedly un-metal, though he developed a deep respect for my work overturning Alabama Medicaid’s age 21 cut-off, or as he put it, “kicking ass.”
Chris, with his mohawk and gaunt, angular appearance, looked metal; he’d have been perfect for the glossy cover of a metal album. And it all fit. It fit as one of the only reasonable reactions to the unreasonable policy realities in the Deep South that yank all support and shove people with disabilities and their families to tiptoe a high-wire without a safety net. And it definitely fit his hardcore words, hardcore music, hardcore aesthetic. What’s more hardcore than life on a ventilator? What’s more extreme, more on the razor’s edge, than being in your face, rocking all over Mobile County, despite being on life support? And what’s more American than saying “f**k nature, the hell with the odds, I’m here, I’m on a vent, and I won’t give up.” To me and his friends, Chris was this amazing, punk rock “only in America” kind of figure. His death was a horrible loss.
Chris was also an incredible writer; I’ve never known anyone as good as him when it comes to short fiction. He once shared one of his short stories with me, about a Viking “berzerker” warrior. His chatting with my group on the Delphi Forums, led to him participating in other Delphi communities, RPG groups, where what he was really doing was writing a novel with others. Brilliant writing!! I wish it could’ve been properly compiled and published at that time.
Though this writing on Delphi, he met a young woman in Northern Alabama who he grew to love. Chris never let anyone neuter or infantilize him for a second; his passion for women was as hardcore as everything else about him. It’s awful that he never met this girl he loved and that overall, he never could get in-person reciprocal feeling from Alabama’s female half. Like me, he ultimately got the cold shoulder from every girl he met in Alabama.
In an email about sharing his feelings with the aforementioned girl, he wrote: “If you have a dream, or something you need to say, or to let out, don’t hesitate, don’t let go of that opportunity, it may never come again.”
The only extant piece on the web about Chris’ death is this, from Inclusion Daily News: Alabama Medicaid Policy Blamed For Friend’s Death (thank you Dave Reynolds for keeping this article available nine years in; I will keep it accessible from the front page sidebar of this blog in perpetuity.) Chris’ goals in life were like anyone’s, to survive, find his niche, and thrive. His parents did everything humanly possible to help him keep going, in sports terms, “they left it all on the field.” But they were put in an impossible situation by Alabama Medicaid’s policies, which ended most in-home care for recipients at age 21, knocking them down to about 12 hours of nursing care per week, apparently with the idea that the family could provide coverage without sleep for the rest of the week 24 hours a day. No human being can do that forever, though Chris’ family and friends tried, and kept it going for five years without Chris even being hospitalized. But it’s one of those probability things, Medicaid put them in a situation without care, where it is likely that eventually, a ventilator tube disconnection event would coincide with a time his mom went to the store and only one parent was present, and too asleep to respond given the exhaustion of the care every day. That tube disconnection meant… suffocating until brain dead. His parents shouldn’t blame themselves for the impossible situation Alabama Medicaid put them in. They never should’ve been thrust into that situation; if he weren’t in Alabama, it’s likely he would’ve received some care hours each day that would have enabled his mom to leave the home for supplies with peace of mind.
There’s a lot of blame to go around, but I think Alabama Medicaid should get the brunt of it for “just following orders,” mailing out termination notices with one line, “PDN (private duty nursing) to terminate after [xx.xx.xxxx]” (the person’s 21st birthday) and phoning nursing agencies to ensure they know no hours can be billed after that date, without ever ruminating on the barbarism of their actions or considering solutions. Part of the blame goes to the several Alabama politicians who ignored numerous pleas for help from Chris and his family. And, of course, the MDA ignored their cries for help when they could’ve helped Chris’ parents organize daily volunteers, or assisted somehow, large or small.
And I feel like part of the blame goes to me. Chris died after my “victory” over the 21 cut-off in February 2003, which set up a new program for vent-dependent, or in their terms, “technology assisted,” Alabamians who are “aging out” at 21. This program made the 21 cut-off, at least where ventboys are concerned, a thing of the past in Alabama, making my home state an island of relative sanity in a sea of Deep South states (including Florida) that continue to essentially shove their most vulnerable off a cliff just for turning 21, even now in 2013. But the “technology assisted” waiver I got started had no provision for grandfathering in people like Chris, cut off five years prior to the advent of the TA waiver. I never felt less victorious than the day Chris reacted to the fact that my “victory” meant no change for him. I made sure local news channel 15 knew about Chris’ situation; they did a significant feature on him about six months before his death. But I feel guilt that I didn’t launch a national effort for awareness and I didn’t push harder to involve lawyers. I also don’t understand the premise that I survive and he doesn’t.
I need to get back in the fight. Unless I’m actively fighting so similar tragedies don’t happen again, I don’t feel like I’ve found my niche. For 2013, this book I’m writing, this memoir/exposé, is like the “tip of the spear” of my new campaign on Medicaid 21-cut-off, with the focus on vent users. The vent-dependent population can’t afford to be invisible anymore.
So, there’s been a dust up over Mitt Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” comments on CNN. A lot of the blogosphere is mindlessly blasting this quote sans context, and the TV news even worse, so Team Romney isn’t wrong to protest how this has been “taken out of context.” Cable news has been bad. So bad: stopping short of breaking it down into a few syllables and grunts between prescription drug advertisements.
But, to be honest, Romney’s answer is even worse when examined in its full context and nuance.
Here’s Mitt Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor, I’m not concerned about the very rich, I’m campaigning for Americans in the middle” the relevant part of his interview with Soledad O’Brien, with all the context and nuance he gave CNN:
ROMNEY: You know, just let people get to know you better. The nice thing about what happened here in Florida is I got a chance to go across the state, meet with people. They heard what I am concerned about. They understand how I will be able to make things better.
I think people want someone who not just throws an incendiary bomb from time to time but someone who actually knows how it takes to improve their life, get home values rising again, to get jobs again in this country, and to make sure when soldiers come home they have a job waiting for them. And make sure people who are retired don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen at the end of the week.
This is a time people are worried. They’re frightened. They want someone who they have confidence in. And I believe I will be able to instill that confidence in the American people. And, by the way, I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.
I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation.
O’BRIEN: All right. So I know I said last question, but I’ve got to ask you. You just said I’m not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net. And I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say that sounds odd. Can you explain that?
ROMNEY: Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have the safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them.
O’BRIEN: Got it. OK.
ROMNEY: The – the challenge right now – we will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor, and – and there’s no question, it’s not good being poor and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor.
But my campaign is focused on middle income Americans. My campaign – you
can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich. That’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That’s not my focus.
My focus is on middle income Americans, retirees living on social security, people who cannot find work, folks who have kids that are getting ready to go to college. That – these are the people who’ve been most badly hurt during the Obama years.
We have a very ample safety net, and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have
Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor. But the middle income Americans, they’re the folks that are really struggling right now, and they need someone that can help get this economy going for them.
O’BRIEN: All right. Mitt Romney, congratulations to you on your big victory last night. Thanks for talking with us. appreciate it.
For me, the “not concerned about the very poor” comment is one of the least disturbing parts of his answer here.
First, it’s what he said immediately following that: “We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” That anyone who has been a leader in government can still essentially wonder aloud IF the safety net needs repair astonishes me. After all the tragic deaths (like the 12-year-old boy who died for lack of a dentist to simply pull a tooth) and horrible suffering that’s been well-documented and displayed, how can anyone not know our safety net needs a major shoring up if not—my position—a total rethinking and restructuring?
For those with severe disabilities dependent on Medicaid, the Republican cuts from 1995-2007 have had horrible consequences. I’ve had to fight like hell to survive. In 1996 in Alabama, Medicaid started gutting EPSDT (the federally-mandated program providing nursing care for those in need) and sending out termination notices to families in the mail. Then in 1999-2001 we had more aggressive cuts. They changed the rules so it’s only a temporary program to train caregivers to stay with their child 24/7, and they keep repeating that it is not the government’s role to “babysit” your child at all (even if your child is on life support and routinely coding). And now it is 2007 and Alabama barely funds it at all. We’ve almost been rolled back into the 1970s level. I’ve had friends die. I’m sick of tolerating this evil like it is a valid policy position. It is in no way valid nor deserving of our deference and patience. It is nothing but immoral…
I have seen too much suffering and death because of inadequate supports and invisible safety nets and I am frakking traumatized that people are still pushing this destructive right-wing mythology that if we chip away at government funding even further, that this will magically increase services. It has been tried for years and has failed every time.
I plan to drop Willard “Mitt” Romney a note, you could do the same. Let him know what problems in “safety net” programs need his help, concisely and politely. Appeal to his “Mr. Fix-it” rhetoric. I don’t know if anyone will be able to connect and begin a constructive dialogue with Team Romney, but if even one person did, it would have a wonderful impact.
Mitt Romney for President
P.O. Box 149756
Boston, MA 02114-9756
I wanted to talk about the social model of services and supports for people with disabilities, and barriers to implementing it.
When you think about disability internationally, most disabled people in countries around the world are taken care of by their own families and their own communities. In Alabama, where I’m from, and in many of the poorer states, they didn’t get the medical model at all until federal funding in the 1960s. Prior to that, all you had was a kind of quasi-social model, with families and neighbors taking care of their disabled children, the same way they did in the 19th century and from time immemorial. A new social model of services and supports would essentially work like an enhanced version of that, with disabilities normal phenomena that communities live with and provide for.
In the first world countries, as families are working almost entirely outside of the home, they have no recourse but to use government services to help take care of their disabled children and adults. In Alabama, the attitude is that the most harsh, spartan medical model is all they can afford, and that they can’t afford to innovate. They have missed an opportunity to save money by re-imagining a social model that would put the power back in the hands of families and people with disabilities, instead of forcing them to spend on treatments that the medical model wants for them.
Across the country, budget cuts are removing the medical model more and more from our lives, because the states can no longer afford the kind of medical services that they’ve been paying for. The medical model won’t be the force it has been without enough public funding. So there’s more need than ever to implement a new social model of services and supports. In one of the conferences that I attended (TASH Boston ‘02) there was a session on what drives people to put their loved ones into nursing homes. And the number one reason found in studies was that when someone becomes incontinent of bladder and bowel, the family doesn’t want to deal with it, and puts them in a facility. There was one story where a mother wanted to put her autistic son in a facility just because he couldn’t figure out how to zipper his pants, though he could otherwise engage in self-care. This is the institutional bias, up close and personal, and it is ridiculous. We can no longer afford to put people with disabilities in segregated, medical model institutions. The funds saved by turning the institutional bias on its head and closing more of these terrible, outdated, freedom-killing institutions is great. We can’t afford these awful dinosaurs financially, and we can’t afford it in the human toll, in the human potential and spirits that are locked up.
To escape that fate of being put away forever in a nursing home, I had to fight Alabama Medicaid policies that would cut off home care services at age 21. My campaign, Nick’s Crusade, led to the Dupree v. Alabama Medicaid lawsuit, which used the Olmstead decision to end the practice of Alabama cutting off ventilator dependent people from in-home services once they turned 21. It was a victory that helped half a dozen people stay in their homes, but it didn’t solve the underlying problem, that even in the home, the medical model of home nursing care tends to segregate, restrict and limit the liberty and potential of people with disabilities.
Because Alejandra and I love each other, we made the decision to spend our lives together, as many people with and without disabilities do. However, most people with disabilities living in the U.S. run into the so-called “marriage penalty” if they receive federal Social Security benefits, which are reduced by one-third if two recipients marry. Choosing to declare our commitment to each other despite this policy, we held a commitment ceremony in Central Park on June 6, 2010. It was also an opportunity for others in the community to learn about and share their experiences with this injustice.
Getting the supports needed to maintain my health and safety, attain freedom to access the community and resume college remain problematic. I write and draw webcomics, such as Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders vs. Zombies. I was going to show my work from a table at the MoCCA Festival, and ended up canceling because we didn’t have the help for getting me up in the chair and out to the festival. For me as a disabled man, “freedom,” means that I have good caregivers around me that can help me do stuff. Without those people, I’m stuck in my room at best, and, at worst, dead.
Nurses, personal care attendants, and other home caregivers will always remain enormously important in any model because in first world countries the cost of living is high, and thus the people doing the bulk of the care will be the ones who can do it without losing their apartment. Paid supports should be budgeted by the disabled person (see individualized budgets and the Cash & Counseling program) so that both the caregivers and the patient aren’t constantly battling middlemen–agencies and Medicaid, and so the patient can give their best staff higher pay and bonuses. This essay isn’t meant diminish the importance of nurses and PCAs but to re-imagine them as part of a support community that form around people with disabilities; with families and communities that refuse to shelve their people in prison-like nursing facilities, that refuse to use a strict, heartless medical model inside the home, that say NO to materialism and profiteering, and instead focus on care and caring. Personal care is incredibly intimate and sensitive, caregivers see and touch and care for wounds, deformities and vulnerabilities that no one else sees, this is soulful and special work; it should never be callously commodified or turned into a cold assembly line in a nursing facility. The people who are good at going into someone’s home and making them clean, comfortable, giving them care and freedom, are very special people. In a new social model, friends and neighbors of the disabled person partner with and lend their support to these special caregivers, helping them and assisting them to assist their patient. The caregivers in turn helping the friends to help their patient. They care about each other and collaborate to help the disabled person. The community loves and supports each other.
Relying on Medicaid to give me ALL the assistance needed to live a real life in the community will always be difficult as long as Medicaid is locked-in to the medical model. It’s near impossible without friends and volunteers in your community lending some support. What is needed is the social model: normalization of disability: for society at large to start seeing people with disabilities as equal members of families and communities, instead of undue burdens. If someone in the community had cared about the kid who couldn’t manage the zipper on his pants, he wouldn’t have been at risk of institutionalization at great cost to his community. If the community would give their time and love more, we’d need Medicaid, the increasingly dark, Kafkaesquebureaucracy that pays for services for disabled people, less.
There are plenty of ways for the community to support people with disabilities. When I was hospitalized for several months in early 1992, Bettie Hudgens, the founder of the Communications department at Spring Hill College, where my mom taught, created a sign up sheet so that volunteers would visit me every day, so I would have someone checking in on me during the hours mom was teaching. The signup sheet allowed the community to organize around me so that every day was covered. We need that kind of community building now more than ever.
Communities will eventually be forced to choose, will they pay more and more for Medicaid as its red tape continues to render it hilariously dysfunctional like a Soviet department, or will friends and neighbors pitch in to help the elderly get in and out of bed, and change soiled clothes so they wouldn’t have to be segregated in institutions, so their people with disabilities will have less involvement with the heartless Medicaid bureaucracy and be less exposed to the whims of the politicians that fund them. It’s up to usto implement a new social model, as the old models begin to collapse.
I couldn’t think of a better candidate for Surgeon General than Dr. Benjamin, and I was surprised and pleased that someone from my old hometown that I am familiar with hit the big-time!
Dr. Benjamin works in a clinic in Bayou La Batre just south of Mobile, Alabama (where I’m from). As far as I know, she’s the first Surgeon General to come directly from the trenches caring for the poor, not a hot-shot surgeon who never sees the outside of a hospital, a public health administrator, or a leading health care CEO well-known among country club political donors. ALL Surgeons General should be from the hands-on world, with experience with the hard realities of getting appropriate health care for America’s poor majority.
No one knows these tough realities better than Regina Benjamin, who is one of the only doctors in the small shrimping town of Bayou la Batre along the Gulf of Mexico, where old French Catholic and old Anglo Catholic families have fished and shrimped for centuries, and South Vietnamese (Catholic) shrimpers fled as war refugees after the Vietnam war ended. Bayou la Batre attracted many Vietnamese families because it’s one of the only rural shoreside shrimping villages in America similar to theirs back home, where they can live in a similar environment and work with fishing nets in the ways their families have for millennia, no need to re-train for a new job. The Vietnamese shrimpers and fishermen have increasingly edged the old shrimping families out of the business with their willingness to live on their boats all season, and a seemingly infinite capacity for thrift, bartering fish for gasoline to run their boats and other clever ways of lowering costs. I once knew an ex-army medic and LPN who’s a direct descendant of Joesph Bosarge, the French-born guy who founded Bayou la Batre with a land grant from Spain in 1786, and he told me a lot about the area. I’ve visited Bayou la Batre a few times. I’ve also talked to several Vietnamese kids about it (some of them I went to high school with; despite being poor they were always #1 in the year-end academic rankings, way ahead of me, though I was high up there). My point is, I know exactly where Regina Benjamin is coming from, and it ain’t the same board rooms and government offices where they found most of the previous Surgeons General. She runs a free clinic, and treats poor whites, poor blacks and poor Asians (often by having one of the English-speaking schoolkids translateinterpret her medical instructions into Vietnamese). Like an early 20th century country doctor, Dr. Benjamin does house calls, and accepts whatever patients can pay, even if they can’t, or even if all they can do is barter her part of their catch. This is a doctor who has risen to the top not through the usual cutthroat tactics, not through being the best at what everyone else is doing, but by charting a different path, advocating for and caring for the most needy, showing us what the focus of the medical world should be, public service.
I first became familiar with Regina Benjamin when I was fighting my famous two-year campaign to get Alabama Medicaid to stop stripping home care coverage for people like me just because we turn 21 (full story here). Local WPMI TV news interviewed her about my fight (as she then was director-designate of the Alabama State Medical Association) and she made supportive comments and said of course Alabama Medicaid should cover those who really need it, and that they’re obviously overlooking some gaps.
I don’t know of any other doctor who would stick her neck out for justice for kids she’s never met. Dr. Benjamin is a special person, exactly the kind of person who should be put in a powerful position to affect change. This nomination is one thing President Obama is doing RIGHT.
Bayou la Batre is one of the few remaining Catholic fishing communities that still does the annual Blessing of the Fleet in hopes of a bountiful catch that year. Dr. Benjamin is Catholic also, and likely has strong moral convictions that have led her to devote her career to the poor. Her clinic, along with all of Bayou la Batre and much of Mobile (including our backyard), was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. She rebuilt the clinic, only for it to burn to the ground the night before its grand reopening. Then she rebuilt again. Like a heroine in a Biblical fable or something, each crushing tragedy made her stronger, gained her more support and attention, only pushed her higher. She was awarded the papal cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice by Pope Benedict XVI for exceptional service to the people of her diocese.
Incredibly, now Dr. Benjamin has the far-right fringe calling her “baby killer” because she’s never taken a hard-line against abortion (which is understandable from a doctor in an impoverished community that sees too many rapes and pregnancies endangering the mother). Even dumber, people are attacking herfor her weight! These critics have probably never been to the Deep South; she is svelte by Alabama standards! And they’re also clueless about the expectations black men have for the women in their community re: size (maybe I should do a post about the differences in cultural expectations).
Anyhow, the haters need to get a grip. This nomination is going to sail through faster than a shrimp boat in a hurricane!
Regina Benjamin is probably Obama’s best nomination yet.
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