I hate it when this stuff sneaks up on me.
It was fairly late in the evening a few days ago. I had CNN on because the world was going nuts and I wanted to at least be aware of it in real time, but I wasn’t watching all that carefully. A reporter was speaking to host Don Lemon about how the White House is beginning to make excuses for President Trump’s behavior. And then suddenly he had my complete attention.
“That’s the best defense the White House has got. ‘Don’t blame him, he’s a special needs kid, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s kind of slow, you know, there’s a learning curve, he’s incompetent.’ When that’s your fallback for the President of the United States, where does that leave the country?”
I think I responded out loud. “Oh, come on. Really?”
For the record, the program was CNN Tonight, and the reporter making this astute observation was Michael Weiss, CNN Investigative Reporter for International Affairs. I don’t know much about him; even that little description was copied directly from his Twitter bio. Like so many other public figures, my introduction to Mr. Weiss, and my lasting impression of him, was hearing him using young people like my daughter as an insult, a more hipster cool way to call someone stupid. A punchline.
I’ve written about this kind of thing before, where a dehumanizing remark is made by an entertainer or an athlete or, I don’t know, anyone in the public eye who should know better. It happens, a lot, and when it does we all stand up and make noise and link to the pledge to stop using the R-Word. We start trouble on social media and maybe get an apology, or at least a fauxpology, but probably not.
We push back against ableist speech, over and over again, because we hope, against all the evidence to the contrary, that things might get better. And they did just a little, for a while, I think. And then a candidate for the presidency made fun of a reporter with a disability, and the citizens of this country saw the video of his grotesque behavior and decided that yeah, that’s our guy. And while that at least gave us a platform for advocating for disability rights, particularly at the Democratic National Convention, it also gave people license to say and do terrible things about and to our loved ones. So in the balance, things probably don’t change all that much after all.
This time, the remark bugged me a little more than most. One reason is probably because the joke was made at the expense of “special needs kids”. No R-Word, no hate speech, no “hyuk hyuk hyuk” laugh track, no obvious villainy. Instead, it was at the hands of a mainstream media reporter, using innocuous terminology. Great, now everyone gets to laugh at “special needs kids”, too. Even more egregiously, neither the reporter nor the network actually realized the offense of what he said. CNN tweeted a link to the sound bite, and Weiss retweeted it. As of 24 hours later, it’s still there.
Interestingly, about a year ago, Weiss apparently tweeted critically about Trump’s reprehensible behavior towards New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski. I’m not sure what this says about him, except that his outrage on behalf of people with disabilities seems to extend to circumstances of convenience, expiring at the point when he wants to sound cute while using kids with disabilities to snark at the president.
This isn’t a big deal, not on its own. We already knew that ableism is bipartisan. We already knew that outrage is circumstantial. We already understood that there’s a place waiting under the bus for our kids to be thrown when convenient.
But I’m making noise about this again. Because I can’t change this rotten mushy spot in the apple of our society, hidden under shiny, lying skin. But I can tell those who engage in this behavior that I see them. That’s not much, perhaps, and it’s certainly not enough. But it’s what I’ve got, so it’s what I do.
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