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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Civil Rights American Style

It has been difficult to watch the news since last Sunday night when President Obama announced Osma bin Laden was killed. The media frenzy has been intense. CNN must be thrilled; it is a classic example of media over saturation in the extreme. I am disgusted by the entire discussion. I understand but found the so called spontaneous celebrations disheartening. I was left with little doubt why most people in the Middle East hate the United States. What do they know of us? Armed soldiers and bombs that reign down death with regularity. What has struck me about the media is the endless news loop that we Americans are fighting for freedom. This has me thinking about the meaning of freedom as we know it. Americans have been fighting for the concept of freedom for over two hundred years. We have had good wars, World War II, bad wars, Vietnam War, police actions, Korean War, and now we have the endless war, the war on terrorism. It struck me last night as I watched yet another story about the death of Osma bin Laden that fighting for freedom has become a ritual. If we Americans are not fighting for something, exposing an injustice, or celebrating our freedom we are at a loss for words. We have been so busy fighting we have forgotten what exactly it is we are fighting for. It feels to me we are fighting to fight. Worse yet, we no longer have a way of measuring our supposed success or failure. Was killing Osama bin Laden good or bad for the war on terrorism? Check in at 11PM for the latest poll results.Is it not possible to think for ourselves? Do we really need a poll to tell us how to feel?

What does the above have to do with disability? If we value freedom above all else, civil liberties, what we now call civil rights comes in a close second place. we are all taught racism is bad, very bad. This is a good lesson many fail to learn. Racism is alive and well in spite of the fact we elected a black man president. In much the same way, just because we passed the ADA 20 years ago bias and discrimination did not suddenly end. This point was made forcefully by John Hockeberry. I recently attended a lecture he gave at Columbia University entitled "A Law is Just the Beginning: 20 Years of Americans with Disabilities Act". As usual, Hockenberry was an engaging and entertaining speaker. He has the rare ability to make one laugh and think at the same time. As Hockenberry talked I realized what a jerk I was when the ADA was passed. I really thought the country was going to be revolutionized. I honestly swallowed the rhetoric hook line and sinker. What a rube! I am no more equal today than I was 20 years ago. Architectural barriers abound. Social oppression though no longer blatant is still present in an ever so polite socially sanitized form (see inaccessible taxis for the future I posted about). These thoughts came to me as I was inspired to reread Hockenbery's memoir Moving Violations. Hockenberry's book is outstanding. I loved it when I first read it in 1995 and it has withstood the test of time--my time that is. Hockenberry's work still resonates deeply within in me. His experience reflects my experience. We were both paralyzed in our late teens, came of age before the ADA, and felt great self imposed pressure to excel. In terms of the present discussion, one passage in his book jumped out last night as CNN droned on.

What we call civil rights in America is people jumping through hoops for their freedom, then having their scores tallied like figure skaters in the Olympics. Uppity niggers score low, so do illegal immigrants, and welfare mothers and crips who ask too loudly why there is no ramp into the theater. "We fought for it, so it's only fair that you should have to". It is America's real declaration of independence that poisons and isolates Jews, Asians, and whites from each other. It is less about race today than it is about this brutal free-for-all of who gets what, who deserves more, who's being fair, who's taking advantage". pp. 351.

Wow, does this reflect my experience in the last decade. No one really cares about access or civil rights for people with a disability but rather does the school, work place, or bus conform to a poorly written law no one except a lawyer reads. The concept, the idea of freedom and civil rights are not even worthy of discussion. This makes me mourn for a time before the ADA existed though I do not want to relive those days. Prior to the ADA I knew who was my friend and who was a foe. Today, I have no idea. The person that slaps me on the back and gives me a big smile hello could be the same person that bitterly complains about the money "wasted on special needs" kids at school board meetings. I wish I had a solution to the vexing problems I have risen. Indeed I am ready to throw up my hands and say enough, I do not give a damn! Of course, I cannot do that. It is just not possible. I am too much of a hard ass to give the bigots of the world the satisfaction who ever they may be.

1 comment:

Ruth Madison said...

I just recently reread Moving Violatons as well and one of the things that felt very relevant was when he was talking to protesters in the middle east who were shouting "death to America." The same people shouting that asked Hockenberry why Americans think they hate them, they love the American people, but dislike the government. They were so convinced that Americans knew this that it wasn't necessary to lengthen the slogan to "death to the American government."