On Biomedicine and its Limits: An Interview with Joseph E. Davis

—Joseph E. Davis

[This piece originally appeared on Social Trends Institute.]

Q: The title of your book is To Fix or to Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine. What choice is implied by the phrase “fix or heal”?

A: In our book “fix” alludes to a reductionistic medical framework, “heal” to a more holistic one. We use this reductionism/holism distinction to frame a broad continuum of concerns, from patient care to global health disparities. Neither term has a univocal meaning, but “reductionism” means generally those features of the biomedical model against which “holism” aligns itself. These features include a mechanistic and narrowly somatic understanding of disease, a preoccupation with cure to the neglect of prevention, diminishing medical care to a marketplace commodity, and restricting the definition of the human good to naturalistic terms.

Q: The term “holistic” often refers to “alternative” medical approaches, such as homeopathy or ayurveda. Is that what you have in mind by “holism?”

A: Not really. “Holism” in that sense opposes conventional medicine and wants to replace it. We have in mind a different holism: a set of interlinked ideas articulated within the mainstream of medicine and social science. “Holism” as we use it includes a broad range of systemic, integrative concerns: the patient as person, the experiential aspects of suffering, the environmental determinants of health, and more. The shared feature of all these concerns is a contextual understanding of disease causation, intervention, or prac­tice.

Q: The title seems to frame the issue as an either/or choice: to fix or to heal. Is it possible to do both?

A: The or is not meant to indicate an absolute distinction. Reductionistic and holistic approaches are not polar opposites, but ways of thinking that are often negotiated in practice. The elements of the “fix” orientation have their proper place; what we stand against is the belief that they are entirely sufficient. Our argument is that the contemporary practice of medicine is based on both prodigious knowledge and very real limitations. We need a balance between “fix” and “heal” orientations.

Q: What are the “limits of biomedicine” mentioned in the subtitle?

A: The book is divided into three sections, each of which tries to suggest some challenges to the prevailing “fix” orientation. Part 1 focuses on the cultural context of reductionist medicine, and the limitations that context imposes. Biomedicine is powerful, but it is powerful in part because it echoes key features of the broader social order. To some extent, biomedicine depends on this cultural context for its power, and is captive to it. It is increasingly clear that this dependency presents certain challenges to medicine. For instance, biomedicine is deeply individualistic, but the very logic of individualism makes it hard for medicine to resist the encroachments of consumerism, and defend its own goals as an ethical profession.

Part 2 focuses on the practical limits of reductionist medicine in the face of the shifting disease burden. The biomedical model came of age in a era when infectious diseases dominated, and a specific disease/specific cure orientation was well suited to such diseases. But the chronic illnesses which now kill most Westerners resist explanation in deterministic, monocausal terms. Moreover, developments in the larger world cast doubt on biomedicine’s apparent success. From the rising cost of health care to the unexpected resurgence of infectious disease, we are confronted with the need for holistic approaches like never before. In light of a globalized world, one-dimensional and reductionist approaches seem anachronistic.

Part 3 addresses the limits of current ethical discourse about biomedicine. Health and illness are public as well as private matters, and ethical questions are ineradicable from medicine. The great cultural appeal of the reductionist biomedical approach was partly that the messy business of moral questions could largely be avoided—or so it seemed. In fact, the biomedical model smuggled in a great many moral convictions without ever examining them. “Health” language can become a kind of repressive ideology, and health has become nearly synonymous with the good life. An important work of ethics here is to draw out the background assumptions of biomedicine, making them transparent and open to discussion. The naturalistic language of conventional bioethics may not be equal to this task.

Joseph E. Davis is Research Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Research at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is one of the editors of To Fix or To Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine (NYU Press, 2016), the Publisher of The Hedgehog Review, and is the author or editor of three other books, including Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self.

What Sarah Palin’s Endorsement of Donald Trump May Say about Tea Party Women

—Melissa Deckman

[This piece originally appeared on Presidential Gender Watch 2016 on January 26, 2016.]

Sarah Palin’s high-profile endorsement of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Iowa last week continues to dominate the news cycle. Many view Palin’s motives for endorsing Trump as sheer opportunism, while some conservatives, even Palin’s own Facebook followers, feel betrayed by her decision to back Trump given his uneven (at best) record on many conservative issues. Taken at face value, however, Palin’s decision to endorse Trump may best be viewed as an utter rejection of the GOP establishment.

As she indicates in her—ahem—colorful endorsement speech, Palin believes that Trump is a political force that exposes the “complicity” of both sides of the political aisle in enabling a “fundamental transformation of America.” She argues that Trump has been able to “tear the veil off” the political system:

The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class, and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in [sic]. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able to suck off of them…We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment to make things great again.

Palin is not alone among conservatives, particularly those who sympathize with the Tea Party, in their view that the Republican Party is weak-kneed and ineffectual, despite lots of evidence that the GOP has taken a far right turn thanks in no small measure to the Tea Party movement. In my forthcoming book Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Activists, and the Changing Face of the American Right, I interview dozens of women active in the Tea Party and they, too, uniformly express downright derision toward the Republican Party. These Tea Party women believe that the current crop of GOP leaders will do little to shrink the size and scope of government. That belief, in fact, helped to propel their activism in the Tea Party.

However, I was surprised to find that some of the animosity toward the Republican Party among Tea Party women is linked, in part, to their gender. Several activists I interviewed recounted attempts to influence their local or state Republican parties in a more conservative direction, only to encounter a hostile, good ‘ole boys network. For example, Katrina Pierson, who co-founded the Garland Tea Party in Dallas, Texas in 2009, hails the Tea Party movement for allowing women to find their voices as a new generation of conservative leaders, telling me, “It used to be that men in the GOP or male leaders could take a woman’s idea as their own—I have had this experience—but with social media women can be attributed, they can define their own brand, and define yourself and have your ideas heard. You don’t have to go through the good old boys’ club any longer and that has been huge for women.” Women such as Pierson describe the Tea Party as a more appealing form of political activism for authentically conservative women than the GOP. Social media platforms, in particular, not only allow Tea Party women a chance to promote their political views, but also serve as launching pads for their own political careers. For instance, although Katrina Pierson failed in her challenge to Representative Pete Sessions in the 2014 GOP congressional primary in her home district in Texas, her high-profile involvement in the Tea Party led to her being hired as the national spokeswoman for the Trump presidential campaign. She maintains that Trump’s nontraditional campaign appeals to her and other Tea Party types: “He’s sort of not politically correct. He sort of calls it like he sees it. I’m kind of that way, too.”

To be sure, the past several election cycles have brought some very conservative women to prominence within the Republican Party; examples include Senator Joni Ernst (IA) and Representative Mia Love (UT), both elected to Congress in 2014 (and both endorsed by Sarah Palin). Yet their success is the exception and not the rule. Ironically, the challenges that many right-wing Tea Party women face making inroads with the Republican Party are similar to those experienced by women representing the ideologically moderate flank of the party. As the Republican Party has become more conservative ideologically in the past few decades, work by political scientist Danielle Thomsen shows that GOP women state legislators, who have historically been more moderate than their male counterparts, have been reluctant to seek their party’s nomination for Congress, given that primary voters are far more conservative than voters in the general election. Likewise, experimental research by David King and Richard Matland finds that Republican voters may punish female candidates within the GOP, believing that such women are less conservative than their male counterparts; thus, the perception of women being less ideologically conservative may hurt women’s chances to emerge both as candidates and as party leaders within the Republican Party.

These perceptions about Republican women, then, may have spillover effects for women in the Tea Party, despite their very conservative orientation: if Republican party leaders, most of whom are men, believe that women within the party are less conservative than men, Tea Party women may be hindered in their ability to wield influence within the GOP itself, making involvement in the Tea Party a more appealing alternative.

Turning back to the Republican presidential race, however, what role will Tea Party women play in choosing the eventual nominee? Will Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump mean that the “mama grizzlies” she has previously called to arms will follow suit? Possibly. But it won’t likely be because of Sarah Palin’s endorsement alone. Right-wing icon Phyllis Schlafly, whose conservative bona fides are far less open to question than Sarah Palin’s and who has a strong following among socially conservative women at the grassroots level of politics, has also endorsed Trump, declaring him the “last hope for America.” Time will tell if Tea Party women will back Trump or perhaps will find a more “authentic” Tea Party candidate such as Ted Cruz appealing. He, too, was a popular figure with many of the Tea Party women I interviewed, and his anti-establishment rhetoric, as shrill and pronounced as Donald Trump’s, is also likely to find favor with many Tea Party women.

If the latest polls are any indication, however, Palin and Schlafly’s endorsements appear consistent with the sentiment of Tea Party women in battleground states. According to CBS/YouGov, Trump bests Cruz among Republican women and Tea Party voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina who seem to agree with Palin that, “[Trump] is perfectly positioned to … make America great again.” She added, “Are you ready for that, Iowa?” Come next week, we’ll know.

Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College, where she also chairs the Political Science Department. An expert on gender, religion, and American politics, she is the author or co-author of four books, including Tea Party Women and School Board Battles: The Christian Right in Local Politics, winner of the 2007 Hubert Morken Award for the best book on Religion & Politics from the American Political Science Association. She chairs the board of the Public Religion Research Institute and her political commentary has appeared in The Washington PostHuffington Post, and the Brookings Institution’s FixGov blog. Her latest book, Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Activists, and the Changing Face of the American Right, will be published by NYU Press in May 2016.

What Makes a Story

The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read by Michael Bérubé is out today! This excerpt appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle Review

—Michael Bérubé

My kids are no longer kids. One is in his late 20s, one in his early 20s; Nick, the firstborn, was a “gifted” child, capable of copying drawings of medieval European hill cities at the age of 5; Jamie, his brother, has Down syndrome. Jamie also has an encyclopedic knowledge of sharks and the music of the Beatles, and an astonishing memory. Both of them are natural narrative theorists — though because of the differences in their capacities for abstraction, I wound up testing their narrative theories in different ways.

I learned almost as soon as Nick could talk that he loved my stories; he even gave them numbers, though I never did learn his classification system. Nick liked stories with drama — the story of how the hockey-camp bus left Tallinn without me in 1972; the story of how the camp counselor threw me out of the pool; the story of my first day in first grade, when the teacher corrected me for saying I was 6 when I was still only 5 (a situation that got worse in the following years, after that teacher decided to skip me into the second grade because of my reading skills). But as you might imagine, sometimes Nick’s appetite for stories became wearisome. I read to him every night, and I told him stories about people in my life, and I even made up some stuff. But one day when he was about 3 and a half, on a long car trip in the Midwest, he asked for story after story. And finally I decided to conduct a little experiment.

“All right,” I sighed. “I have a new story for you. It goes like this: Red. Yellow. Orange. Blue. Violet. Green. Black. Brown. White. … ”

“Daddy!” Nick interjected, annoyed. “That is not a story.”

“No?”

“No! It is just a bunch of colors.”

“And a bunch of colors is not a story?”

“No! A story has to have things in it.”

“Ah,” I replied, Phase 1 of the experiment complete. “A story has to have things in it. You are right. OK. Tree. Cloud. Sunshine. Water. … ”

“No, no, no,” Nick insisted, more annoyed. “Things happen in a story.”

“Fair enough,” I acknowledged. “The tree blocked the cloud. The sunshine reflected off the water. The flowers grew. … ”

“Dad!!” Nick interrupted, even more annoyed. “That is not a story either.”

“But things happen in it,” I pointed out.

“But you are not telling why they happen.”

Eureka. We were very close, at this point, to E.M. Forster’s famous dictum, “‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” In a story, things have to happen for a reason.

Jamie learned his alphabet before he started kindergarten at age 6; he learned to read at a first-grade level by the time he was 8. Along the way, he somehow taught himself the American Sign Language alphabet and a few simple ASL words by imitating the pictures he saw in a Sesame Street book devoted to the subject. But even though Jamie had developed a profound love of sharks, barn animals, and the movie Babe (just like any number of children his age), he didn’t really understand stories as stories. He had an amazing recall of individual scenes, particularly scenes that involved pratfalls, and he was able to repeat most of the dialogue from the exchange in which Ferdinand the Duck tells Babe the Pig why he wants Babe to go into Farmer Hoggett’s house and steal the Hoggetts’ alarm clock from the side of the bed. But he didn’t understand how much of the movie’s plot is predicated on that scene (the issue is whether animals can avoid being eaten by humans if they demonstrate that they are “indispensable,” and Ferdinand has decided that he will crow like a rooster each morning in order to stay alive), nor did he understand what it might mean for a plot to be “predicated on a scene” in the first place. Until he was 10, Jamie enjoyed narratives almost as if they were a series of entertaining vignettes.

Then, in 2001, we took him to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. We feared that the film might be a bit too much for him to take in — from the opening scenes of Harry the Abject Orphan to the climactic sequence in which Voldemort’s baleful spirit speaks from the back of Professor Quirrell’s head, with all the plot miscues and misdirections along the way (most of which point to Snape rather than Quirrell as the malevolent force in Harry’s world). But we were most pleasantly surprised to find that he got it — and not because he himself had glasses just like Harry’s, not because he dreamed of going to Hogwarts himself. He roundly dismissed all comparisons between himself and Harry. Rather, he got it because he loved the story — and he loved talking about it for weeks, even after he’d seen the film three or four times. Impressed, I asked him if he’d like to read the book on which the film was based, and he responded with hand-rubbing glee.

Thus began his — and my — adventures with J.K. Rowling’s plots, and Jamie’s fascination with the intricacies of plotting. A critical index of Jamie’s increasing sophistication as a reader was that he became increasingly capable of (and delighted by) making thematic connections that enriched his understanding of his other favorite narratives. In the course of our reading of Half-Blood Prince, we came upon an extended flashback/exposition in which the young Professor Dumbledore visits an 11-year-old Tom Riddle in the orphanage in order to inform him that he is a wizard and extend him an invitation to Hogwarts. Jamie gasped at Tom’s arrogant reaction to Dumbledore’s invitation, and, despite his fatigue, stayed awake for another couple of pages.

But before we got to that point, I read the following passage: “The orphans, Harry saw, were all wearing the same kind of grayish tunic. They looked reasonably well-cared for, but there was no denying that this was a grim place in which to grow up”. I decided to say a few words about the orphanage, and about Harry’s odd, complex moment of sympathy for the friendless boy who grows up to become Voldemort. “Did Harry have a happy childhood when he was growing up?” I asked. Jamie shook his head no. “He had the Dursleys,” he said. I pointed out that Harry and Voldemort are similar in that they grow up without parents, and that the kids in the orphanages are there because they have no parents either. I added that Jamie might remember the orphanage in the filmLike Mike, which was in the “heavy rotation” section of Jamie’s DVD collection for a while.

“Or Free Willy,” Jamie suggested. “Yes, that’s right,” I said with some surprise. “Free Willy is also about a kid who is growing up without parents, and who has stepparents, and he has trouble getting used to his new home.”

“Or Rookie of the Year,” Jamie said. “Not exactly,” I replied. “In Rookie of the Year, Henry has his mother, but his mother’s boyfriend is a creep, and we don’t know where his father went before he was born.”

Star Wars too. There’s Luke,” Jamie said. “Good one! Great example!” I cried. Perfect, in fact. Star Wars is like a class reunion of the West’s major mythological motifs.

Mrs. Doubtfire,” Jamie offered. “Nope, that’s about parents who are divorced and live in different houses,” I said, “but still, in Mrs. Doubtfire the father misses his kids and wants to see them, so dresses up as a nanny.”

“What about Babe?” Jamie asked.

“Oh yes, that’s a very good example,” I told him. “Babe has no parents, and that’s why he is so happy when Fly agrees to be like his mother.”

“And Rex is like his father,” Jamie added. “And Ferdinand the duck is like his brother.”

Why, yes, Ferdinand is like his brother. This had never occurred to me before. But who knew that Jamie was thinking, all this time, about the family configurations in these movies? And who knew that Jamie knew that so many unhappy families, human and pig, are alike?

But my children, adept narrative theorists though they be, are not my only inspiration. I’m also informed by years of conversations with colleagues in disability studies, including two wholly unexpected encounters that subtly but decisively widened the parameters of how I could think about how an understanding of intellectual disability can transform the way we read.

The first encounter happened at the 2011 Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles, and in retrospect is merely amusing — though at the time, it seemed like the stuff of professors’ anxiety dreams. I was on a panel titled “Narrative and Intellectual Disability,” chaired by Rachel Adams, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. I was trying to get at the question of how narrative irony works when it involves a character with an intellectual disability, a character who is rendered explicitly as someone who is incapable of understanding the story he or she inhabits. Steinbeck marks Lennie in this way from Of Mice and Men’s opening scene:

Lennie looked timidly over to him. “George?”
“Yeah, what ya want?”
“Where we goin’, George?”
The little man jerked down the brim of his hat and scowled over at Lennie. “So you forgot that awready, did you? I gotta tell you again, do I? Jesus Christ, you’re a crazy bastard.”
“I forgot,” Lennie said softly. “I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.”

And just as Lennie does not understand where he is going or why, so too will he not understand what is going to happen to him in the book’s final pages; in that sense, his intellectual disability provides the structure for the narrative irony, and the narrative irony defines the novel. Lennie knows not what he does, and we know he knows not what he does. But I mentioned Of Mice and Men only in passing, opening instead with Benjy Compson of The Sound and the Fury and proceeding to a comparison between Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,because Haddon provides an ingenious (and quite moving) solution to the problem of writing a novel in the voice of a character who (initially) does not understand the narrative he is in, whereas Moon has to skirt that problem by giving us a second level of narrative focalized through characters who do not have autism and who can explain what is at stake in the unfolding of the narrative told by the character who does have autism.

At the last minute, one of my fellow panelists had to pull out of the convention, and Rachel Adams informed us that Rob Spirko, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, would substitute instead, with a paper titled “The Human Spectrum: Human Fiction and Autism.” Rob preceded me on the program — and proceeded to deliver a paper about The Speed of Dark and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,making many of the points and citing many of the passages I had hoped to highlight in my paper. As I listened to Rob, I toyed with the idea of taking the podium and saying simply, “My paper is what Rob said,” but just then, he made an offhand reference to the “Rashomon-like” narrative sequence in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip. I snapped to attention: This seemed to me to be something worth discussing. I had not written anything about Martian Time-Slip in my paper, but I had recently read it and was still trying to figure out what to make of its extraordinary strangeness. And I was thrilled to be able to discuss it at a conference with Rob Spirko, who has worked on disability and science fiction for some time.

I did wind up delivering most of my original paper; Rob’s arguments and mine did not overlap completely. But I threw in some extemporaneous remarks about how the narrative sequences in Chapters 10 and 11 of Martian Time-Slip are not, in fact, Rashomon-like. If they were, they would involve four characters telling the same story from drastically different perspectives, narrating significantly different sequences of events, such that the very idea of “the same story” becomes untenable. But they don’t. Instead, they open by telling the same story almost word for word, and then proceed into disturbing fantasias that cannot be attributed to any one character — even though each character, the following day, feels the aftereffects of the sequence as a whole. The sequence is not merely “about” the perspective of a character with an intellectual disability; it represents an attempt to render intellectual disability in the form of a disabled textuality that cannot be attributed simply to any one character’s mental operations.

And when I realized that, thanks to the offhand remark of a last-minute-replacement speaker giving a 15-minute paper at the MLA convention, I realized that I had a critical piece of my argument — a way of talking about intellectual disability and narrative that did not begin and end with the discussion of whether X character has Y disability.

As for the second encounter: To say that it was “wholly unexpected,” as I have done, is actually an understatement. It was pretty much the last thing in the world I might have imagined. It involved a whimsical decision to join Facebook (after years of steadfast, principled resistance) and, relatedly, to go to the 40th-anniversary reunion of my sixth-grade class (not a happy place for me when I was 10, but I thought that the details of tween angst of 1972 were not worth recalling in 2012).

Within a few days of joining Facebook, I was hailed by one Phyllis Anderson, nee Phyllis Eisenson — someone I had not thought about in almost 40 years. And in the course of striking up a conversation with this person 40 years after graduation from PS 32 Queens, I happened to mention Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, about which I had just been reading; 2012 was the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, and in 1972 at least half of our cohort had read it. And Phyllis was of course (or so I imagined) Meg Murry, the very smart girl with the long hair and prominent glasses. This rudimentary identification was complicated a bit by the fact that I identified more with Meg than with any male character in the book — with her sense of isolation, helplessness, and vulnerability above all — and by the fact that I did not stop to think that I might be inadvertently saying to my former classmate, “I remember you — you were the girl with glasses and what’s more, everybody thought you were a weirdo.”

But in the course of that brief Facebook conversation, as we caught up on partners and kids and professions (literature professor, clinical psychologist), I mentioned that I was sitting at a table across from Jamie, who had just handed me a list of 25 kinds of sharks. To which Phyllis replied, “I am sure you did not know that my brother is autistic.” Well, I could have plotzed. Needless to say, I did not know that; I did not know anything about this person, starting with the fact that she had a brother. And a brother with autism, in the 1960s (Andy Eisenson was born in 1957).

Oh my goodness, I thought at once, what that must have meant for her mother — to have a child with autism at the precise historical moment when autism was being attributed to “refrigerator mothers.” How difficult that must have been. Followed almost immediately by, oh goodness, and then along comes this very smart girl, the younger sister. I can’t even begin to imagine the family dynamics, except that no, wait, yes I can. And the story quickly went still deeper: Sylvia Eisenson, Phyllis’s mother, was in fact a psychologist in the New York City school system. She was A.B.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I taught for 12 years. She knew very well what Bruno Bettelheim was doing with Leo Kanner’s refrigerator-mothers theory, and had actually written to Bettelheim to tell him that his work was destructive to loving parents. She received a reply from an underling, telling her to get therapy.

All this I learned in the course of one Facebook chat, which somehow went from “oh yes, I remember you” to serious familial and emotional matters in the course of a few minutes. Life in the disability community can be like that; I remember a conference at which someone introduced herself as the parent of a child with Down syndrome and we wound up talking about our then-teenaged sons’ desires for friends, especially girlfriends, within 10 minutes. Because there is so much shared terrain, casual conversations can suddenly turn into serious discussions of special-needs trusts and the ethics of getting your child or sibling to sign over his power of attorney. And then, a few days later, after Phyllis had gone back to look at her copy of A Wrinkle in Time, she wrote:

just read the first chapter of “Wrinkle”, and Meg is described with her glasses and braces and general awkwardness. And I thought — that is at least partly why I liked this book so much — there I am, though without the spunk to duke it out with the kid who said something mean about my brother.

When I read that note I had yet another “oy, what did I say” moment: Oh yes, I remember you with your glasses and braces and general awkwardness? (It turns out the braces came later. I did not remember any braces.) But it was the last clause that grabbed me. No doubt young Phyllis Eisenson, or anyone with a sibling with an intellectual disability, would read Wrinkle with that inflection, with a sense of protectiveness for the more vulnerable family member: Wasn’t this one of the lessons we learned in Reader-Response Criticism 101?

From one angle it is a rudimentary point, a truism: Of course we all bring to every text the welter of experiences, associations, encounters, and intertextual relations we have accumulated over the years. Reader-response criticism made much of this rudimentary point for much of the 1970s, with earnest Critical Inquiry forums on whether readers or texts make meaning, whether meaning is determinate or indeterminate, and whether the hypothetical “Eskimo reading” of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” can be ruled out of court.

But from another angle, this exchange seemed (and seems) to me to open onto a principle of considerable breadth, one that has not yet been considered by literary criticism influenced by disability studies. It is the complement to the Rob Spirko-induced insight that disability in literary texts need not be located in, or tied to, a specific character with an identifiable disability: It is the Phyllis Eisenson-induced insight that disability in the relation between text and reader need not involve any character with disabilities at all. It can involve ideas about disability, and ideas about the stigma associated with disability, regardless of whether any specific character can be pegged with a specific diagnosis. This opens the field of criticism considerably; and I am going to insist that this is a good thing, not least because I am determined to cure disability studies of its habit of diagnosing fictional characters.

My argument is that even as disability studies has established itself in the humanities in a way that was unthinkable 20 years ago, it has still limited itself to too narrow a range of options when it comes to literary criticism; and though I am (obviously) being facetious about the idea of “curing” disability studies of anything, I am quite serious about the conviction that disability studies limits itself unnecessarily, as a new branch of criticism and theory, whenever it confines itself to determining the disability status of individual characters. Disability studies need not and should not predicate its existence as a practice of criticism by reading a literary text in one hand and the DSM-5 in the other — even when a text explicitly announces that one or more of its characters is (for example) on the autism spectrum. It is not that a character’s condition is irrelevant to how we read him or her; rather, I want to argue that we should avoid the temptation to think that a diagnosis “solves” the text somehow, in the manner of those “psychological” interpretations of yesteryear that explain Hamlet by surmising that the prince is, unbeknownst to himself, gay.

In opening the question of the potential relations between disabled and nondisabled characters (and readers’ potential relations to those relations) so that it includes characters who are merely presumed to be intellectually disabled by their fellow characters (such as Coetzee’s Michael K and Friday, from his novel Foe), we come to recognize intellectual disability not merely as the expression of somatic/neurological symptoms but as a trope, a critical and underacknowledged thread in the social fabric, a device for exploring the phenomenon of human sociality as such.

This is not merely a matter of remarking that the idiot and the holy fool offer strategic insight into human hierarchies and the contingency of systems of value, though it is partly that; it is also a matter of gauging how literary works depict systems of sociality in part by including characters who either are, or who are presumed by their fellow characters to be, constitutively incapable of understanding or abiding by the social systems by which their worlds operate. When you think about it that way, and you should, you realize that we have only just begun to explore the implications of disability for our understanding of the narratives we read and the narratives we live by.

Michael Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks professor of literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read (NYU Press, 2016).

Teaching Environmental Crisis and Justice

—Alexa S. Dietrich

When events that are understood to be tragic happen, like the poisoning of the residents of Flint, Michigan, it is typical for we, as human beings, to ask Why? When these events affect whole communities, it then becomes incumbent upon us, as human beings, to ask “How could this happen? because the cause is far less likely to be a random occurrence. Students tend to sense this connection intrinsically, but struggle to think critically about causal factors in situations like Flint.

In classroom discussions, students will often respond to stories of severe environmental pollution in one of two ways. Sometimes they express bewilderment. They feel the inherent injustice but cannot fathom a reason for the damage to people’s health and well-being. The other common response, such as one of my students stated just this week in talking about the toxic waste in Flint’s drinking water, is to say, “It’s almost as if someone planned it.”

It is easy to see conspiracy behind a series of what were, with the benefit of hindsight, a series of despicable acts leading to the potential devastation of an entire community, particularly a community already so disadvantaged and seemingly disposable as Flint. To our shame, in the United States we have long since become terribly inured to the suffering of communities of color, and poor communities.

But while it is easy to imagine a conspiracy of evilly-inclined individuals, such as politicians, plotting to wipe out a community like Flint, this perspective avoids the hard conversations we need to have with our students and others. Explicitly evil intentions are not required in order for great harm to be perpetrated. I am not suggesting that politicians, such as Rick Snyder, are “innocent” in this situation – far from it. Rather, we need to be having frank discussions, leading to actions, about how our culture rewards greed at the expense of human life-especially the lives of the poor and oppressed minorities.

We must, as educators and students, together answer the question, “How could this happen?” The fact is that people with the power to protect the lives of Flint residents chose not to do so. Not once, but many times, people in the position to make decisions about sourcing the water, about testing the water, about reporting the test results and health impacts, made decisions for financial gain or political expedience. And our cultural system (encompassing, e.g., economics, social relations, and ideologies) reinforced the permissibility, the very social and political acceptability of those decisions. There were undoubtedly both legal and moral crimes committed – but accountability for these crimes should weigh heavily on all of us.

In the aftermath of a public health crisis like that in Flint, there are likely to be emerging narratives of the heroic actions of empowered individuals, those who seem to swoop in as community saviors. However, a culture of community engagement cannot, and will not, wait for such heroes, as significant as their contributions may be. As one Flint resident and activist has been quoted as saying, “I decided, I guess I got to figure the science part of this, because you can’t argue with the science.” In the pursuit of environmental justice, there is no substitute for the actions of “non-experts” with local knowledge, and local commitment. But it is also our responsibility to teach and reward this commitment to collective good on a broad scale, more than we currently reward (or at least accept) harmful self-interest, and the violence of disinterest in the well-being of others.

It is also tempting to rely on the explanation of “bad apples,” or individual actors, as is so often used to describe the causes of violence and social suffering perpetrated by institutions. But these explanations are too simple, and release us of our own obligations to care for our fellow human beings. How could this happen? The answer lies in a larger examination of our culture, and our individual roles in it.

Alexa S. Dietrich teaches anthropology at Wagner College, where she is also the Faculty Director of Wagner’s First Year Learning Communities. Her book, The Drug Company Next Door (NYU Press, 2013), won the 2015 Julian Steward Award for the best monograph in environmental and ecological anthropology from the American Anthropological Association.

WASPs Still Fighting for Recognition

—Molly Merryman

“Women Who Flew,” documentary short directed and produced by Molly Merryman & Tom Baumann.

When I interviewed veterans of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, it became clear that what most troubled them was the need to “pass the hat” so that women pilots killed in the line of duty could receive proper burial. They glossed over the discrimination and indignities they themselves endured, but they could not forgive the mistreatment of their fallen comrades.

Nor should we.

It recently has come to light that Arlington National Cemetery has refused to accept the cremains of WASP veteran Elaine Harmon. According to her family, it was her dying wish to be inurned there. Once more, these veteran pilots and their families suffer painful discrimination at the hands of bureaucrats.

The WASPs were 1,074 skilled pilots who flew missions that including ferrying planes from factories to bases, test-piloting new and captured enemy planes, and pulling targets at which live artillery rounds were fired for training. Thirty-eight WASPs died in service.

“If we got killed in action our friends passed the hat to get enough money to send our personal effects home to the family. We couldn’t have a military internment; we didn’t get a flag for the coffin; and we got no burial expenses,” WASP Madge Rutherford Minton noted. In a 1978 news story, WASP veteran Pat Pateman said: “We served our country, and when one of us died the parents were met with a pine box saying, ‘Thanks a lot, here’s your daughter’. It was pretty earth-shattering.”

Now, Arlington Cemetery offers earth-shattering disregard to the sons and daughters of WASP veterans.

The bureaucrats at Arlington are using the mistake of a 1940s Congress to justify excluding these veterans. When World War II started, women were forbidden from military service, but it was realized that the war effort would only succeed if that changed, so all military branches created women’s units that were enacted as civilian entities until Congress militarized them. One by one, women in the Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy were militarized. But when the WASP bill came up for debate in 1944, Congress balked: it wasn’t able to accept a unit of women who engaged in the most masculinized and romanticized role: the military pilot. The WASPs were disbanded.

In 1977 Congress passed and the President signed a bill allowing the WASPs to “have their service recognized as active military service by the Secretary of Defense and to receive honorable discharges and full veterans’ benefits.” When Airforce Colonel Arnold testified before the House, he said this about WASP military burials: “Who is more deserving, a young girl, flying on written official military orders who is shot down and killed by our own anti-aircraft artillery while carrying out those orders, or a young finance clerk with an eight to five job in a Denver finance office?”

We should be ashamed to let these veterans’ dying wishes be ignored. The WASPs gave their everything to the war effort—can’t we as a country at least permit them to be buried with the honor they earned?

Molly Merryman, Ph.D., is a documentary filmmaker, author and an associate professor of Sociology and director of LGBT and Women’s Studies at Kent State University. She is the author of Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) of World War II (NYU Press, 1998) and has written a number of academic journal articles and book chapters. She also has produced and directed documentaries that have screened internationally and been broadcast on regional PBS stations.

The Difference a Mutant Makes

—Ramzi Fawaz

[This piece originally appeared on Avidly.]

Like any good origin story, I’ve told this one a thousand times: The first comic book I ever read was X-Men #80, the 35th Anniversary issue of America’s most popular comic book series, which, for over three decades, had narrated the lives, loves, and losses of a band of mutant outcasts gifted with extraordinary abilities because of an evolution in their genetic makeup. It was 1998. I was thirteen years old and the cover of this single comic book issue was a young gay boy’s dream: a shiny pink hologram with a tower of dazzling disco-attired superheroes exploding before one’s eyes.

Growing up in a queer family, sibling to a gay brother, and bullied to tears on a daily basis for my own exuberant gayness, the words “A team reunited…a dream reborn” emblazoned on that cover spoke to me of the promise and possibility of queer kinship and solidarity in the face of all odds. Above all, what struck me about that cover was the sheer variety of characters depicted—how could a man of made of steel, an intangible woman, a white haired weather goddess, a butch teen girl ith bones sticking out of her skin, and a teleporting blue elf be any kind of team? Who were these people, I wondered, and what kind of dream did they share?

tumblr_n7bmdkqKUU1sqltzeo1_500Like so many readers of the X-Men over the decades, no character drew me in more than the weather goddess Storm, a Kenyan immigrant to the U.S., the first black woman superhero in a mainstream comic book, and by the 1990s, the X-Men’s team leader. In that same anniversary issue, at a low point in the team’s battle with an imposter group of X-Men, Storm rallies her bruised and beaten comrades by reminding them that what defines their bond is a set of shared values, a chosen kinship maintained through mutual love and respect, not by force or expectation. With my budding left-wing consciousness on one side, and my attachment to queer family on the other, I fell in love with this fictional mutant goddess and her team: this was the kind of community I longed for. How did it come to be that a thirteen year old Lebanese-American, suburban gay boy found common cause with an orphaned, Kenyan, mutant, immigrant X-Man?

If one were to try and explain this question by turning to recent public debates about superhero comics, we might put forward the answer: “diversity.” Yet this term and its shifting meanings—variety, difference, or representational equality—would have rung false to my thirteen year old ears. It was not simply the fact of Storm’s “diverse” background as Kenyan, immigrant, woman, or mutant that drew me to her, but rather her ethical orientation towards those around her, her response to human and mutant differences, and her familial bond with her fellow X-Men. These were qualities significantly shaped by her distinct differences, but not identical to them. This was not any traditional idea of diversity then, understood as the mere fact that different kinds of people exist. Rather what Storm and the X-Men embodied was true heterogeneity: not merely the fact of many kinds of people but what those people do in relation to their differences. As I became a dedicated comic book fan, I realized that every issue of the X-Men was both an extended meditation on the fact that people are different from one another, and that this reality requires each and every person to forge substantive, meaningful, intelligent responses to those differences.

As a teenage reader, I simply took this fact for granted as part of the pleasures of reading superhero comics. As a scholar years later, I came to realize that the ability to respond to differences and forge meaningful relationships across them was a capacity, a super-power if you will, that comics could train their readers to exercise, an imaginative skill fit for a truly heterogeneous world. It was this realization that led me to write The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics, in which I ask the question: what is it about the visual and narrative capacities of the comic book medium, and the figure of the mutant, cyborg, or “freak” superhero in particular, that has allowed so many readers to develop identification with characters across race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and cultural origin?

Recent public dialogue about the rapidly diversifying ranks of superhero comic books have overwhelmingly celebrated the increased racial, gender, sexual, and religious variety of America’s greatest fictional heroes. Yet every time a news outlet lauds the major comics companies for introducing a gay superhero, or a Pakistani superhero, or a classically male superhero replaced by a powerful woman, the historian in me thinks, “but comics were doing that in 1972, so what’s the big deal now?”

Certainly, one potentially distinct element of today’s push for diversity is the range of “real-world” or identifiable differences comics are willing to name and represent on the comic book page. But in writing The New Mutants, I came to the conclusion that without an underlying democratic ethos or worldview, such real-world differences have little meaning. In The New Mutants, I argue that cultivating egalitarian and democratic responses to differences became the sin qua none of American superhero comics from the 1960s through the early 1990s.

justice leagueI call this vision a “comic book cosmopolitics,” an ethos of reciprocal, mutually transformative encounters across difference that infused the visual and narrative content of comics for nearly three decades. In the 1960s and 1970s comic book series like the Justice League of America, theFantastic Four, and the X-Men provided readers an exceptionally diverse range of new characters and creative worlds, but most importantly, modeled what it might look like for those characters to bridge divides of race, species, kin and kind for their mutual flourishing and the good of the world. What “doing good for the world” meant or could mean was the question that motivated these characters to engage one another, forge bonds, disagree, and take collective action. Today’s celebratory proclamations about the internal diversity of American comics ignores the fact that by 1984 Marvel Comics alone had Kenyan, Vietnamese, Native American, Russian, American working-class, Jewish, and Catholic superheroes, and even a Pagan Demon sorceress at the helm of one of its main titles.

What distinguished these earlier figures from their contemporary counterparts are the seemingly endless dialogues and struggles they engaged to negotiate, respond to, rethink, and do somethingwith their differences as a matter of changing the world. It was this negotiation within the context of characters’ actual diversity that allowed readers like me, and thousands more, to identify with a vast range of people who were, at least on the surface, radically unlike us.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, “That Oxymoron, The Asian Comic Superhero,” columnist Umapagan Ampikaipakan makes the counterintuitive claim that the push for racial diversity in contemporary superhero characters, rather than reflect the progressive evolution of the superhero, might actually “dilute” the fundamental purpose of the figure to function as a universal fantasy of belonging. The more specific or particular the superhero gets, he suggests, the less the character speaks to all kinds of readers.

As a child growing up in Kuala Lampur, Ampikaipakan explains that even thousands of miles away from U.S. culture, he found himself identifying with the misfit and freak Spider-Man. It didn’t matter that Spider-Man and so many of the superheroes in the Marvel Universe were white. Rather it was the message these comics carried about the value of being a freak or an outcast that translated across both actual and virtual distance.

In the face of much public celebration of comic book diversity, Ampikaipakan’s argument is compelling because it refuses a reductive understanding of identity politics, namely that seeing oneself or one’s own particular identity reflected back in any given character is the only possible way that one can feel invested in a them or their creative world. This argument is both undoubtedly correct, yet severely misguided.

The mistake Ampikaipakan makes is not to claim that readers have the capacity to identify with a range of characters regardless of their social identity, but in his failure to stress thatit is difference and distinction itself that has made the superhero such a durable fantasy to so many readers globally, not the figure’s empty universality or the flexibility of whiteness to accommodate a variety of identifications. The fact that superheroes highlight (rather than overlook) the social, cultural, and biological differences that shape humankind, that makes identifying with them possible—this is why one superhero is never enough. Superheroes proliferate because no matter how many there are, they can never quite capture the true heterogeneity of everyday life. The attempt to do so is what keeps us reading.

We should not settle for the mere representation of more diverse characters, as though the very existence of a female Pakistani Ms. Marvel alone were an act of anti-racism, or anti-sexism; these latter categories describe not a representation or image, but an ethos, a worldview and way of life—this ethos is what Ampikaipakan was drawn to in reading Spider-Man. It was an underlying ideal of celebrating outcasts, misfits, and freaks—a democratic investment in all who did not fit into the model of “normal” American citizenship—that defined Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 1970s, and that shaped readers’ relationship to characters like Spider-Man and his universe of mutant, alien, and superhuman friends, all of whom we grew to love because of their particularities, differences, and distinctions, not their imagined universality. As readers, we must demand that the depiction of more diverse characters be motivated by an ethos attentive to human heterogeneity, its problems and possibilities; these character must be placed into dynamic exchange with the world around them, rather than merely making us feel good that some more of us are now included every once in a while.

X-Men Move to San FranciscoTake for example the dramatic creative decision by writer Matt Fraction to relocate the X-Men from their long-standing home at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning in Westchester, Massachusetts, to San Francisco in 2008. With this momentous move to one of America’s most recognized gay holy lands, it seemed as though the X-Men series had finally made explicit its long-standing symbolic association between mutation as a fictional category of difference, and gayness, as a lived form of minority identity; and yet, in the handful of years that the X-Men resided in San Francisco between 2008 and 2012—where they lived as billionaire jet-setters buying property in the Marin headlands at the height of a national recession no less—never once did they address the city’s massive housing crisis, increasing rates of violence towards the city’s queer and minority populations, or the shifting status of HIV. Did the X-Men even deign to go to a gay club in their five years in the Golden Gate city? Did the team’s one putatively “out” character Northstar claim any solidarity with the city’s queer community? I’m afraid not.

The series capitalized on its symbolic gesture of solidarity with minorities, queers, and misfits, but it jettisoned its earlier substantive engagement with the problem of difference: back in 1979, when Storm visited the slums of Harlem and witnessed the reality of youth homelessness and drug abuse, she was forced to contend with the realities of inner-city African American life from the perspective of a Kenyan immigrant who experiences blackness differently than African Americans and the working poor; and in the early 1990s, with the invention of the fictional mutant disease the Legacy Virus, the X-Men series used fantasy to address the AIDS crisis by thinking through the kinds of solidarities mutants and humans would have to develop to respond to a genetic disease ravaging the mutant population.

Storm Visits Harlem 1979

In today’s comic book pages, is there a single X-Man with HIV? Now that Iceman is out of the closet, will he go on PrEP, the HIV prophylactic? And as a former lady’s man, will his sexual health be an issue at stake in the series? The likelihood that Bobby Drake’s gayness will either be treated substantively, or have a meaningful effect on the social fabric of the Marvel Universe seems very low in today’s creative environment, where the mere “outing” of characters as exceptionally diverse in their identities is presupposed as an act of social benevolence on the part of writers and artists.

My point here, is not that superhero comics need greater realism in their storytelling or should be more “true to life.” Rather, superhero comics are one place where fantasy and creative worldmaking can run up against the specificities of our everyday lives, so that “real life” is presented to us anew or opened up to other possibilities. Mutation and gayness, for instance, are not the same thing. But they resonate in surprising ways.

The imagined category of mutation sheds light on the workings of a real-world social identity like gayness, or blackness, but it also reveals the limits of analogy because all of these categories are never quite identical. The ability to distinguish between the places where differences overlap and where they don’t is a political skill that fantasy can help us develop. It demands we not only see where solidarity can be forged, but also figure out what to do when sameness no longer holds true, or our differences overwhelm the ability to forge meaningful bonds.

What I was doing that summer day when I read my first issue of the X-Men was figuring something out not only about myself, but about my relationship to the world around me as someone who fundamentally understood that I was different, but didn’t yet know how to respond to being different. This is the true gift that superhero comics have given to American culture in the 20th century, but it is a creative offering increasingly taken from our grasp.

When Marvel Comics reached a creative level of near maximum mutant heterogeneity in the X-Men series around 2005—a moment of incredible promise when mutants no longer appeared as minorities but a significant portion of the human population—Marvel spun out a barrage of storylines from “E is for Extinction” to “House of M” that depicted the mass slaughter of the majority of the world’s mutants by members of their own kind. The X-Men have been living in the shadow of genocide ever since: shot down by ever-more efficient mutant killing robots, murdered and harvested for their organs, nearly eliminated from history by time-traveling mutant hunters, and now subject to M-Pox, another genetic disease threatening to wipe out the mutant race. In a sense, Marvel could not face the complexities of the world it had created, and decided to obliterate it instead: in so doing, fantasy truly became a reflection of our violent post-9/11 reality.

uncanny-x-men-1-marvel-nowContrast the exuberant, bubble-gum pink cover of the first X-Men comic book I ever read, with the most recent issue I picked up: in the renumbered Uncanny X-Men #1 (2013) written by Brian Michael Bendis, the cover presents us a picture of mutants at war. There is a revolution afoot, but it is lead by a single male figure, the famed character Cyclops reaching out to the reader from the center of the page with his army of followers, merely black and white outlines in the background. That army is composed of some of the most complex characters to ever grace the pages of the X-Men series, yet here they have been flattened to ghosts haunting the background of the X-Men’s former dream.

The X-Men now appear as a leather-clad, armored military unit, not a high-flying, exuberant, queer menagerie. At the center, Cyclops’ hand reaches out to us not in a gesture of solidarity but as a claw, perhaps ready to grip our throats. In this new chapter of the X-Men’s history, mutants are presented as divided over the right path towards the preservation of the mutant race. But instead of rich, textured disagreements the characters appear merely as ideologues spouting flat and rigid political manifestos. There is no space for genuine debate, or loyalty amidst disagreement, or even the notion that more than one dream could exist side by side among companions. As Alex Segade has recently argued in a brilliant Art Forum article on theX-Men’s decades long mutant mythology, the recent introduction of increasingly “diverse” cast members to the series has come at extraordinary costs, including the mass deaths of entire swathes of mutants round the world.

In the X-Men, fantasy—that realm meant to transport us to a different world—has become the ground for narrating the collapse of all visions of hope, social transformation, or egalitarian action: in Bendis’ epic narrative the original five teenage members of the X-Men are teleported to the present only to see that their youthful dreams of peaceful relations between human and mutant kind have resulted in death, destruction, and seemingly endless violence.

When I recently caught up on Bendis’ X-Men plot about time traveling mutant teenagers, it made me wonder what my thirteen year old self would have thought about his future had these been the comic book issues he first encountered in the summer of 1998. But I’m lucky they weren’t. In the face of the kinds of violence and death-dealing that recent comics present, I remember that there are other uses for fantasy, because it was the X-Men series itself that first showed me it was possible. Today, as years of reading, thinking, and writing about superhero comics come together with the publication of The New Mutants, I look back at that first cover image of X-Men #80 with a mix of longing and hope: I wonder now how a team can be reunited, and how new dreams can be born.

Ramzi Fawaz is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (NYU Press, 2016).

Putting the Lead in Structural Violence

—Peter C. Little

As anthropologist and disaster studies expert Gregory Button, author of Disaster Culture, recently put it, the unfolding disaster in Flint, Michigan is more than a case of urban lead contamination. Rather, it is a “morality play about structural violence.” [i] He encourages this way of thinking about this emerging national environmental health conflict because this “structural violence” he refers to is about a system of racial discrimination that is a social, political, economic, and infrastructural fact of life in the US. Thinking about the structural violence of lead contamination requires a focus on how lead politics are exacerbated by deep-historical racial discrimination and ongoing poverty politics. As evidence for these lead-related disasters, Button sites a recent study [ii] published in the American Journal of Public Health that reports that while 41.5% of Flint residents are living below the poverty line—compared to the national average in 2014 of 14.8%—nearly 60% are African American. These are some bare facts of inequity that when meshed with toxic substance exposure risk exacerbates the bitter reality of recent Flint water crisis headlines.

The scale, scope, and depth of this man-made disaster are impressive, no doubt justifying the need for an environmental justice perspective on the matters at hand. Robert Bullard, long regarded a leader in the environmental justice community and a major source of inspiration for social scientists working on environmental and social justice conflicts, was recently interviewed about the Flint conflict. [iii] He speaks of a “reality” that goes beyond lead toxicity, drinking water distribution pipes, and a systemically fraudulent city, state, and federal government: “Unequal protection is a reality. The right to clean air, clean water and safe places for kids to play is something that affluent communities take for granted. But many low-income and minority communities don’t get parks, or street lights, or housing code enforcement, or safe drinking water. The cumulative environmental stresses in these neighborhoods create a toxic stew. And then government agencies don’t respond when people complain. The government’s nonresponse to Flint’s water crisis is on the scale of the federal nonresponse to Hurricane Katrina.”

The municipal, state, and federal response and mitigation plan unfolding in Flint also turns our attention to how such disasters are treated more as “technical” water management problems rather than human relations problems. Some critiques of the situation have suggested that “Working with communities to plan for better infrastructure, funding those developments, and adequately enforcing environmental laws will help reduce the number of future similar crises from becoming disasters.” [iv] While continuing to expose the contentious role of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his government counterparts in this complex disaster still matters, an underlying politics of uncertainty lingers as impacted residents try to navigate a living amid the circus of accusations and attempts to restore calm. Continuing to deal with what residents themselves are dealing with is of utmost importance and ought to be where local, state, and federal government energy and forms of empathy focus.

[i] See http://foodanthro.com/2016/01/20/the-flint-water-disaster-a-perfect-storm-of-downplaying-denial-and-deceit/

[ii] See http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003

[iii] See http://www.juancole.com/2016/01/flints-water-crisis-is-a-blatant-example-of-environmental-injustice.html

[iv] See http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/01/22/the-real-disasters-in-flints-water-crisis/

Peter C. Little is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rhode Island College. He is the author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press, 2014).

Flint’s Sorry Legacy of Environmental Racism

—Carl Zimring

“I am sorry, and I will fix it.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder devoted his State of the State speech to the public health catastrophe in Flint that has poisoned its residents with high levels of lead in its water supply.

This failure has many parents, including Snyder. His administration placed an emergency manager in control of Flint’s finances, a manager who who was not elected by its citizens to do the will of the people of the city. Saving money by switching the water supply ignored the well-being of Flint residents, as was the state’s initially dismissive response to health complaints.

Snyder bears responsibility and blame, but he is not alone. The seeds for this catastrophe were sown decades before the 2011 managerial takeover. Deindustrialization and residential segregation shaped a city with low revenue, high unemployment, and the apathy and scorn of white Michiganders. That history allowed the past two years of lead poisoning.

Environmental racism is the systemic placing of toxic burdens upon people of color. It is an example of structural racism – not necessarily the conscious acts of individuals, but ways in which society is structured that creates patterns of unequal burdens.

The health catastrophe in Flint involves reliance on decaying infrastructure due to disinvestment in the region. Why these conditions led to the poisoning of black children involves structural patterns in residential real estate practices, as well as recent political decisions. Environmental Justice movements have fought for safer, healthier communities for decades, including African American residents opposing waste siting in Houston (1978) and Warren County (1982), and Latino residents of Chicago protesting dirty coal-burning power plants in their neighborhoods in this century.

Yet inequalities persist. They are rooted deeply in land-use patterns, employment patterns, and in cultural stereotypes that privilege whites to have clean, safe communities at the expense of people of color. Noxious stereotypes that nonwhite people were somehow less clean than whites emerged in the nineteenth century, stereotypes that have informed who handles waste and where waste is located. Sociologists observed national patterns of inequities by the late twentieth century. Thirty years ago, the report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States concluded exposure to toxic pollution was determined by race above all other variables, including class, region, and urban/rural density. Ten years ago, a followup report revealed more continuities than change. Flint is further continuity.

The eyes of the nation are on Flint in 2016, but they could easily be on lead-contaminated communities in East New York or Gary, Indiana. Flint is the most conspicuous example of environmental racism in the United States. There are so many examples, however, that a bimonthly journal (Environmental Justice) has filled eight volumes of articles chronicling environmental inequalities. Governor Snyder’s promise that he will fix the present crisis flies in the face of his past actions, the history of Flint, and majority-minority communities across the United States. Recognizing this history is crucial to fixing what ails Flint.

Carl A. Zimring is Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute. He is the author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (NYU Press, 2016).