Over the weekend, we were watching the Golden Globes, not even with that much interest. It was one of those “well, this is what’s on television tonight, so we’d might as well point our eyeballs in that direction” kind of tv nights. I’ve never been a big awards show kind of guy. “I’d like to thank my agent…” a dozen times gets old in a hurry. But then Meryl Streep got up for her lifetime achievement award, and began to speak.
And she said it. Without warning or flashy prelude, she just said it. The three of us sat on the couch and watched and listened in awed silence, and we all three understood what had just happened, even Schuyler once we explained it a little.
“An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, passionate work.
“There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth.
“It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.
“And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”
There’s been a great deal of discussion this week about Meryl Streep’s remarks, some of it within a divided disability community. I understand that, and looking back, I can appreciate the imperfection of Streep’s advocacy. Chiefly, she infantilizes New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski in a way that isn’t appropriate for him (although it might be another story if she’d been discussing someone with an intellectual disability like my daughter). Kovaleski is an extremely gifted and eloquent journalist. He isn’t defenseless, and while he’s certainly not on an equitable power scale with the president-elect, that’s not a product of his disability. Streep’s advocacy is flawed, in a way that matters.
But the perfect is the enemy of the good, as my old trombone teacher used to tell me. Disability advocates and self-advocates most of all can fine tune her message, build on it rather than tear it down or dismiss it as one more person outside the disability community who just doesn’t get it. Because on a gut level, I believe she DID get it. She understood the thing that endangers our disabled children and the adults they’ll become. Meryl Streep saw the tacit approval that the president-elect handed society. She understood exactly what his example says, and where it leads. She flicked on the kitchen light at midnight, and made the roaches scatter.
A week ago, the mainstream media and the general public weren’t talking about disability rights at the top of the news hour, if at all. And a week ago, the video of Donald Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski had begun to fade from the national consciousness. Neither of those things are true now, thanks to Meryl Streep. That’s not a small thing.
There’s a new narrative that has been going around quietly for the better part of a year but which has exploded in the past week. It’s the one claiming that Donald Trump never intended to mock anyone with a disability. There’s a handy video showing him making gestures when discussing other people. There’s testimonial from Ann Coulter claiming that Trump’s gestures weren’t meant to impersonate Kovaleski in particular, but rather he was portraying any “standard retard”. (Who is she talking about with that delightful descriptor? My daughter? Your loved ones?) People who have a vested interest in the success of Donald Trump are engaging in a remarkable, Olympic-quality feat of gymnastics and contortion in order to excuse and explain away what we all saw on that video.
I have a very particular opinion of that position.
There are two kinds of deniers. There are the kind that are just goofy, like moon landing deniers. They’re not hurting anyone, they’re just being kooks, God bless ’em. And then there’s the other kind. September 11th was an inside job, they say. Sandy Hook was a hoax. The Holocaust never happened. Donald Trump wasn’t mocking people with disabilities. These deniers aren’t just trying to change the narrative to fit whatever their ideology might be. They are erasing people, they are taking the struggles and the particulars of the lives of vulnerable people or people who have been destroyed by the world and they’re simply sweeping it away, as if it had never happened. If there’s pain there, from the agony of a family wiped out by a hateful ideology or an act of violence to the heartbreak of a parent watching the future president turn their children into a joke and an insult, well, that pain is wiped away with simply denial. Didn’t happen. The media lied. You’re being too sensitive. You’re being politically correct.
They are silencing a community that is already marginalized. They are shutting down a discussion that desperately needs to happen.
If you find yourself championing that position to me or anyone I love or even someone I just know and read on social media, here’s what you should understand. I’ll see your heart, I’ll understand exactly how little regard you have for my daughter and her peers. I’ll see that you are unsafe. I’ll know that no matter how much you claim to care, in the end, people with disabilities are disposable to you, and your heart is devoid of empathy, because empathy is for losers.
In every way possible, you’ll be dead to me.
“Disrespect invites disrespect.” You’re goddamn right it does.
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