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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Comparative Suffering: Tammy Duckworth's Fury

Braulio Castillo, CEO of Strong Castle is under an intense and detailed investigation. Castillo is accused of gaming the system to obtain government contracts.  Castillo is also accused of using his friendship with Greg Roseman, an important employee of the IRS, to his advantage. What drew Duckworth's fury in the video above was the fact Castillo manipulated the Veterans Administration. He claimed he had an injury and was partially disabled. Castillo injured his ankle in a military prep school. Despite his injury, he went on to play college football at San Diego City College. In maintaining he had a disability Castillo's company was eligible for special contracts reserved for disabled veterans and small businesses operating in low income areas. The competitive advantage he created resulted in $500 million dollars of contracts.  See:

 I understand Duckworth's anger. Castillo ethics are questionable at best. In fact Castillo cannot even recall when he was so severely injured he could claim he was disabled. These sort of scams happen.  But Castillo laid it on too thick with the VA. He wrote about his injury: "Theses are crosses that I bear due to my service to our great country and I would do it again to protect this great country". If I were a disabled veteran I too would be furious. Despite the widely shared outrage, I feel decidedly ill at ease over Duckworth's outburst that has gone viral. Every major news outlet is airing part or all of the above video clip. It must be very hard for Duckworth not to explode when Castillo maintained he had a 30 point disability rating. Duckworth as may know is a double amputee and has limited use and feeling in her right arm. For her arm injury she garnered 20 disability points.

I refuse to be cynical and state Duckworth was grandstanding. Yet the visuals were striking. Duckworth is a wounded warrior who lost her limbs in battle. She was a helicopter pilot no less. Castillo  is a typical white middle aged ordinary looking man. The dichotomy is striking. If I were Duckworth I would use the opportunity to grill Castillo and get my name in every newspaper in the country. It was in short great political theatre. Still, I pause. I do not like the exchange or Duckworth's attack on Castillo. Frankly, it looks like Castillo is an unethical weasel that did his best to manipulate the system. For this reason alone, I was delighted to see Duckworth shred the man pieces. Yet again I pause. Do we as Americans really want to place a point system on disability? An arm that has limited ability and feeling is apparently worth 20 points. What then of a single, double or triple amputation? What about a spinal cord injury or head trauma? I understand the Veterans Administration is a giant enterprise and a system must be put in place to determine who is and who is not disabled. I understand disability is complex and that people with what can be considered a severe disability need services to lead a complete and active life. I do not like the point system. To me it creates and fosters the idea of  comparative suffering that is inherently divisive and subjective. Injured veterans are put into a situation in which they must fight against their brothers in arms for services. More to the point, how can we ever truly know how much another person suffers. I am not a veteran yet I am a person with what would easily be considered a severe disability. I have a high thorasic spinal cord injury and profound scoleosis that is cork screwing as I age. Periodically I have intense spasms. My back hurts at times and I have high blood pressure. I do not feel I physically suffer in a way that is disabling or debilitating. My suffering is limited to skewed social interaction and disability based bigotry.

Disability in my estimation defies any and all attempts to be placed on a point scale. For the same reasons I strenuously object to QALY (quality adjusted life years). I also am appalled at the ideas espoused by utilitarian philosophers such as Peter Singer at Princeton University and virtually all the work coming out of Oxford's Uehiro Cenrtre for Practical Ethics.  I will freely admit I lose sleep after reading a book such as Dominic Wilkinson's Death or Disability and was stunned to learn that Julian Savulescu will be a key note speaker at the October meetings of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH).  These men, all things considered, would prefer people with a disability would simply die or not exist to begin with. Some scholars believe in post birth abortions (yes this term exists). These ideas deeply entrenched in academic jargon scare me. Thus I do not think it is far fetched to speculate that a point system could be used to determine if a human being is too disabled to live? These scholars philosophize over the idea there is there is a threshold or markers we must achieve to be human. All of this was lost in the theatre of politics. This is something I hope Duckworth will turn her attention to some day. She is after all a warrior.


Unknown said...

Again, thank you for writing this! I too, indulged in some satisfaction when Duckworth tear Castillo to pieces, but I also flinched when she used this point system as one of her foundation points. This kind of stratification is very troubling to me. Similar to the designation of "high functioning" to some individuals with disabilities, with the understanding that this should be what we hope for, strive for, if we are unfortunate to have a disability (sarcasm there). It all troubles me greatly as well.

william Peace said...

Jisun, I get why a point system exists but bemoan the fact it is required. And for duckworth to use it as a foundation for her attack was problematic yo say the least. I read a bit of your writing. Was impressed. Prenatal testing is a real cultural battleground.

Unknown said...

Thank you. I am really just trying to work out a lot of things out in my mind, so your comment is a huge compliment! I also understand the point system, but simply cannot square what I see as monetizing disability with the greater goal of equality and acceptance. So I'm stuck.

Prenatal testing, yes. Also very troubling, not for the pro-life/pro-choice debate, but for the debates that are missing (eugenics, capitalism, ableism, to name a few).

Anyways. I've lurked on your blog for a bit now. Nice to have "met" you finally. :)