Saturday, March 21, 2009

Some Needs Aren't All That Special, I Guess

Frequent commenter Retriever has weighed in on the President's Special Olympics gaffe. The frontline report, of her own son's defense of his classmates, and the turmoil at the therapeutic school as all the Obama-supporting staff reassured their students that they really are valuable, despite the president's implication otherwise, is worth reading.
I was thinking that a man who cannot speak coherently or appropriately without a teleprompter has very little business snarking at people with disabilities.
Obama's mistake is in one way not serious, yet in another, very serious indeed. People misspeak. In searching for negative comparisons, we necessarily have to imply something lacking about someone else. Trying to describe something negative about AIG executives, Obama compared them to suicide bombers. We object to that for the opposite reason, because suicide bombers are generally agreed to have some important part of their humanity lacking, and the comparison with business executives who may or may not be responsible for a company's failure seems a bit much. Al Gore referred to the Taliban wing of the Republican Party, and at a different time, the double-chromosome portion of his opposition.* When you make a comparison for dramatic effect, you are likely to offend on one side of the equation. People make such incautious statements all the time, because they don't have a finely-distinctive repertoire of negatives to draw from. Which is a good thing.

Once you are aware of an issue, however, you become protective of the feelings of that group, especially if it touches you in some way. We cannot all be always aware of every possible offense, but we try to decently avoid offense. As so many people have been protective on Obama's behalf along racial lines this past year, to the point of ludicrous overinterpretation of nonracial comments, he might set himself the task of being especially careful about giving offense. But no, that is beyond him, I believe. He is very quick to insult whole categories of others. It is revealing that this protectiveness, required of leaders of nations rather than interest groups, does not occur to him. He doesn't dislike kids at Special Olympics - when he thinks of them, I'm sure he wishes them well and hopes they succeed.

But he doesn't think of them. They aren't a star group of victims, because you can't blame their problems on his political opponents. They aren't on his radar. They don't matter. (They matter now, of course. Look for some high-profile event where he says something nice and gives them money. Government money, of course, not his.) It's just a group of people he thinks should be given money and then go away.

*Tangentially, I think Gore was not reaching for a Down's Syndrome reference there, but to Klinefelder Syndrome, which was once thought to be implicated in hypermasculine, violent, learning-impaired behavior. Which wouldn't have been any better, but would have offended fewer people.


Ju said...

Remeber Don Imus' Comment?

Obama said: "He fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two young daughters are having to deal with today in America. The notions that as young African-American women — who I hope will be athletes — that that somehow makes them less beautiful or less important. It was a degrading comment. It’s one that I’m not interested in supporting."

Therefore, laughter and the lack of reaction from Obama’s remarks suggest Americans have a set a rules for race, class and gender: If you touch them you will pay.

And another set of rules for individuals that have a mental or physical disability: If you touch them, it’s ok if you apologize. Oh, and by the way, it’s okay to laugh at the jokes that come at the expense of the latter.

It is just cruel.

Retriever said...

Thanks, AVI. I liked the way you placed the remark in question in recent political context. Particularly given PC harangues, one hesitates to be "over-sensitive", but you outline well how a leader has to be like Caesar's wife, and also the hypocrisy of benefitting from hyper-vigilance about one type of prejudice and sloppiness about another type.

Anonymous said...

Avi, I think this is part of a larger problem, and one in which I as a mental health processional and Qualified Mental Retardation Professional have long fought. It seems, as the words "Tardo," "Retard" and institutions like the Special Olympics are too often fair game, even for folk that we believe as we do - that the human spirit transcends all. And that is not a matter of being conservative or liberal, just a matter of class, and Mr. Obama proved he has little supply of that commodity.

Anonymous said...

He didn't have enough direct experience with American morays to realize that since the Kennedys, it hasn't been cool to poke fun at the mentally retarded, and thus auto-censor such a remark. His remark about the Special Olympics, like his thinking out loud about rural Pennsylvanians being “bitter.. clinging to rung and religion,” shows again that he is basically out of touch with the American people, which is not surprising given his background. Indonesia, Honolulu, Ivy League universities, South Side of Chicago : not exactly Main Street nor Mall of America.

He can only connect with the American people via scripted moments courtesy of the teleprompter. Without the script, he cannot connect. Others have observed that he is like an anthropologist studying a primitive people. What should I say to get them to like me?

As has also been pointed out, when your form of humor is the put-down, and you are the leader of many different groups, you need to watch what you say. Only a young smart-ass adolescent thinks that his put-downs are automatically funny, even when they are directed at oneself.

ELC said...

And another set of rules for individuals that have a mental or physical disability: If you touch them, it’s ok if you apologize. Oh, and by the way, it’s okay to laugh at the jokes that come at the expense of the latter.

I don't think that's the situation at all; not in this particular case. Oh, there are two sets of rules, but it's one set for liberals / Democrats and another for conservatives / Republicans.

Nobody could convince me that, had the remark come from a Republican president, there would not already be demands from coast to coast for his resignation.