Monday, May 16, 2022

Review of "Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life" | Disability Studies Quarterly

Originally published at Disability Studies Community Blog

Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life
Gustavus Stadler
Beacon Press, 2020

Image of book cover featuring title and profile of Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life is an eponymous man-behind-the-myth look at an abiding figure of folk-music and left-wing Americana. Against the popular (and populist) conception of Guthrie as a rugged, rambling, and hardheaded archetype of freewheeling Old Left communist politics and salt-of-the-earth masculinity, author Gustavus Stadler presents a man whose life’s labors were informed by a profound awareness of vulnerability, fragility, and debilitation. An Intimate Life is also more than pure biography as it is an opportunity to explore the broader concepts of love, sexuality, disability, and communism in the context of the early-to-mid-twentieth century United States, as refracted by the personage of Guthrie. Though not a work of the Disability Studies genre, per se, the issues of normativity (and deviance), madness, impairment, and physiological stigma and shame are featured prominently throughout the book.

Indeed, this book is an intimate biography and a biography of the intimate. More than Guthrie’s strident politics or ideological journey, Stadler focuses on the private correspondences, diary writings, and personal friendships that reveal Guthrie as a deeply sensual human being. Rather than conjuring the image of a man violently strumming a guitar amidst the throes of revolutionary fervor, An Intimate Life elicits the sensation of a man delicately rolling a pencil between his fingers as he prepares to put innermost thoughts to paper. It is more Walt Whitman than Karl Marx, who is put into communion with Guthrie in this book. In describing the import of Guthrie’s semi-autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory, published in 1943, Stadler writes that it tells “the story of his [Guthrie’s] interest in troubled people and damaged bodies that needed intimate attention.” This includes scenes of “men improvising relations of care, of quasi-domesticity” while riding in train boxcars across the Midwest. It also significantly includes Guthrie’s “haunted” relationship with his mother, Nora, “through his deeply traumatized depiction of [her] decline,” due to Huntington’s disease.

Nora Guthrie began expressing increasingly acute symptoms of Huntington’s, viz. physiological and psychological loss of control, when Woody was still young. The people of the small Oklahoma town in which the Guthrie family lived began to comment derisively upon and shun Nora for being “crazy.” In 1927, Woody’s father had Nora committed to a state institution for the “insane,” where she died shortly thereafter. The young Woody, ignorant at the time of both the diagnosis and the heritability of Huntington’s disease, would have been shocked to know that a similar fate awaited him in his elder years. In fact, the adult Woody Guthrie of the 1950s was resistant to the Huntington’s diagnosis given to him by doctors; he instead attributed his advancing physiological and psychological impairments – and his increasingly frequent and extended stays in various state institutions and psychiatric hospitals around New York City – to alcoholism.

There are other often-overlooked elements of Guthrie’s story that Stadler gives extensive treatment to, such as the importance of his relationship with his long-time partner and wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia; Guthrie’s fascination and complicated relationship with sex, sexuality, and homosexuality; and the abstract artistic expressionism of his later years, after he began exhibiting symptoms of Huntington’s, which focused on questions of racism, whiteness, and white supremacy in the U.S. Additionally, Stadler presents an even-handed, if not sympathetic, interpretation of Guthrie’s lifelong commitment to working-class revolutionary politics and the American communist movement, which enjoyed something of a surge in popularity in the New Deal 1930s.

From a disability and madness studies vantage the most interesting sections of An Intimate Life are to be found in the latter chapters of the book, which examine Guthrie’s experience with and reflections upon being institutionalized. Between 1956 and 1967, when he died at the age of fifty-five, Guthrie cycled between a number of state institutions, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily. The conversations and observations he obtained from others in these institutions profoundly impacted him. ‘Shell-shocked’ war veterans, old leftists, ‘deviant’ victims of the 1950s persecution of homosexuality – such people furthered Guthrie’s awareness of the social effects of stigma, marginalization, and shame. Mediated by a callous and cruel capitalist social system and an imperious medical establishment, Guthrie saw in his fellow ‘patients’ not people who were primarily victims of their various diagnosed pathologies – many of whom Guthrie maintained were “sick in [their] own healthy [emphasis added] way” – but victims of a “crazy mixed up” society.

In a fascinating stroke of comparative insight, Stadler contextualizes Guthrie’s experience by making recourse to the apt poetry of Allen Ginsberg. In 1956, the same year that Guthrie entered the Greystone Psychiatric Hospital near New York City, Ginsberg published the famous poem, “Howl,” which references Greystone and other New York institutions, inhabited by “twenty-five thousand mad comrades.” When Ginsberg writes in the opening line of the poem, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” he may well have had numerous specific names in mind, as Ginsberg witnessed many friends, contemporaries, and family members committed to institutions over the years, many of whom identified as communist, queer, or otherwise non-normative.

An Intimate Life has a lot to offer those interested in a diverse array of subjects. It is a story of the shifting ideological climate of the United States between the 1900s and 1950s, as working-class politics went from milieux of itinerant syndicalist organizing, to New Deal and Popular Front socialism, to revanchist and repressive Cold War anti-communism. It is a story of sexual politics, gender variance, and the socially-constructed deviance corresponding thereto. It is a story of American racism, lynch mobs, white supremacy, and critical self-reflective whiteness. It is a story of disability, illness, normativity, stigma, and institutionalization. And it is a story of love, romanticism, the beauty and bane of family intimacy, poetry, music, the sublime, and the sublimated.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Pandemic Accommodations Proved We Can Vastly Expand Disability Access If We Try | TRUTHOUT Interview

Originally published at TRUTHOUT, 23 January 2022

Keith Rosenthal interviewed by Danny Katch

The COVID pandemic has been a traumatic and revelatory historic experience for everyone, but especially so for disabled communities. On one hand, the virus appears to have had a disproportionately deadly impact on disabled people, and the government’s relentless push to restore “normal” business activities — already oppressive for disabled people — is cruelly discriminatory for those with immunocompromising conditions.

At the same time, governments and businesses have responded to the pandemic with flexible schedules and remote meetings that offer a glimpse into how readily society could provide accommodations to meet the needs of disabled workers and students. And as millions of previously nondisabled people find themselves applying for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) remote work accommodations or disability benefits due to “long COVID” symptoms, there is potential for building unprecedented levels of support for disability rights and justice.

Keith Rosenthal, editor of Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings of Marta Russell, argues that the pandemic has forced all of society to suddenly confront the questions of accessibility and access that disabled people had previously struggled with on their own. In this interview, he talks about how the condition of disability is created less by people’s bodily limitations than capitalism’s cruel unwillingness to accommodate them — and why disability politics are relevant to anyone engaged in fighting for a more humane response to COVID and future public health crises.

Danny Katch: Government leaders across the country have pushed to get employees back in offices and keep students in school buildings even as COVID cases have spiked because of the highly contagious Omicron variant. What does this push to “return to normal” mean for immunocompromised people and others who remain especially vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID even if they are vaccinated?

Keith Rosenthal: The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been widely criticized by disabled people for recently saying that she was “really encouraged” that most deaths from Omicron seem to have occurred in “people who were unwell to begin with.” This statement may be written off as an individual gaffe. But the logic behind it is something that disabled people have been documenting and criticizing throughout the pandemic — ever since CEOs, financiers and politicians first floated the idea that some people might have to die in order for the economy to get back to a profitable place.

Whether stated openly or not, the implicit reality of what has been called “disaster capitalism” or “COVID capitalism” is that marginalized, vulnerable and so-called superfluous populations are being callously sacrificed by those who ruled over the pre-pandemic status quo to which they seek a return.

It is worth recalling that as of last June, over a third of all COVID deaths occurred in the nation’s nursing homes — over 180,000 elderly and younger disabled individuals. What’s worse, snap legislation was passed in New York and many other states that granted immunity to nursing home executives from any liability.

As for the return to school, firstly, it is simply not true that children cannot get sick from COVID. Second, the logic that COVID is not severe for most children ignores the significant number of immunocompromised or disabled children for whom COVID does remain a serious threat. If these children are not offered a remote learning option, they will also soon be counted among the numbers sacrificed in the name of a return to the “normal.” Or they will have to remain home, in a regressive turn to the educational conditions that prevailed over 50 years ago in which disabled children were segregated from the rest of their nondisabled peers and excluded from the public school system.

You recently wrote that one impact of the pandemic has been that society itself has become disabled. Can you elaborate on this point?

The implicit reality of what has been called “disaster capitalism” or “COVID capitalism” is that marginalized, vulnerable and so-called superfluous populations are being callously sacrificed.

The widespread character of COVID merely generalized what many disabled people experience as a regular feature of life under American capitalism. To put it in ADA terms, most people’s “major life activities” have been “substantially limited” by the pandemic — earning an income, taking care of family, eating, hygiene, leisure and recreation, etc.

In a physical or deficit-oriented sense, the ability of people to do all sorts of things has become substantially impaired. In another sense, however, disability is a social phenomenon, arising from conditions obtaining in the external world. We experience disablement as a function of not only the biology of the virus itself but also prevailing political and workplace policies, health care and social service infrastructures, community networks of solidarity, as well as racism, sexism, class inequality, poverty, homelessness, etc.

The United States is constituted in a way that makes it particularly disabling to those who become affected by such crises. With COVID, that crisis and consequent disablement was experienced by broad swathes of the population. Most of the people so affected would probably not think of themselves as experiencing a form of disability oppression. But that is in fact essentially what disablement is.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

COVID, Disablement, and the “Return to Normal”

Originally published at Monthly Review (October 2021, vol. 73, no. 5)

==

by Keith Rosenthal and Ari Parra

It has been one and a half years since the COVID pandemic first took on a widespread national character within the United States. During this span of time, we have witnessed the punctuated cessation of public, social, and economic activity; conflicts and controversies over mask mandates and stay-at-home recommendations; panic over the rationing of everything from the mundane to the serious, toilet paper to hospital beds and ventilators. The virus itself was talked about as a universalizing pathogen that did not discriminate; a threat to each and all of us. Meanwhile, anecdotal and quantitative data began to depict the vastly unequal impact that the pandemic was having on certain demographics of the population—people of color and Black people in particular, Indigenous communities, poor and working-class populations, and especially elderly and disabled people living in nursing homes and congregate long-term care facilities (along with the perhaps less-documented populations of homeless people and disabled people on the verge of entering nursing homes).1

Suddenly, the nation and the world seemed to find itself living in a protracted emergency variant of reality. From “normal” existence, society metamorphosed into a prolonged state of “abnormality.” Virtually all aspects of social and economic life, previously taken for granted, became inaccessible by degrees to vast numbers of the populace. Physical movement, gathering with friends and family, the desire to meet new people and possible intimates, travel, shopping, even going to a bar or restaurant, all became eminently restricted tasks. Daily activities of personal care and hygiene occupied more and more of people’s functional time and mental concern. The basic process of leaving the house required a great deal of pre-planning and preparation. Anxieties escalated around people’s ability to continue engaging in, or go about finding, paid work that would accommodate their restrictions and needs, and whether their employer would offer paid sick leave if they or a dependent became infected. Access to adequate, affordable, and safe health care likewise became a more generalized and potentially fatal concern. In a word, society itself had become disabled—disabled by the coronavirus; disabled by the actions or inactions of various ruling and hegemonic institutions; disabled by the preexisting social, political, and economic conditions of an unequal and individualistic capitalist society.

Through it all, the watchword of virtually all politicians occupying positions of power within the ruling circles of government—regardless of party affiliation or political persuasion—has been the aim of a “return to normal.” This sentiment resonated broadly across a public chafing under the disabling conditions of pandemic existence. The development and widespread distribution of a vaccine seemed to be the single beacon of hope—even as the novel strain of the coronavirus mutated into more robust and resilient variants, potentially requiring booster shots and additional vaccinations.2 It is as if the pandemic purgatory we have been stuck in was a detour off the main road, one wending laterally from the “normal,” desired route. Generalized immunity, then, stands in prospect as an on-ramp back to society’s proper timeline, back to the pre-pandemic vector, back to a “normal” future.

Abnormality Is a Preexisting Condition

For many disabled people in the United States and around the world, however, the abnormal state of things over the last year and a half is not such an estranged discontinuity from the previous state of things. Certainly, just like everyone, pandemic life for disabled people has been exceedingly difficult, painful, oppressive, and deadly. But the “normal” of pre-pandemic life was also exceedingly difficult, painful, oppressive, and deadly. To be disabled in contemporary capitalist society is to live in a permanent state of socially constructed “abnormality.” Illustrator Sam Schäfer, for example, has aptly depicted this phenomenon in a series of graphics on disabled people and the pandemic, published online in early 2021.3

In one of the panels in the comic titled “And Now Here We Are,” Schäfer writes: “We died the same way many of us lived: in hospital, isolated, stuck indoors, financially struggling, isolated.” As the caption explains: “Each point is illustrated with an empty hospital bed, a silhouette sat in a jar, a closed door, a broken sad and very adorable piggy bank with little coins in it, and nothing.” A subsequent panel features the words: “Every day I see people wishing for things to go back to normal. Back to the way things were. Where we were still suffering and dying.” The inscription accompanies a drawing of crutches lying abandoned on a patch of grass beneath a rainbow and sunshine.4

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Jailbreak of Disability

Originally published at Rampant magazine

The abolitionist movement stands to gain key lessons from mass deinstitutionalization, argues Liat Ben-Moshe's latest book.

Decarcerating Disability book cover
Decarcerating Disability book cover


Decarcerating Disability

Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition


By Liat Ben-Moshe

Published by The University of Minnesota Press




A growing number activists have become familiar with the vast and interlocking histories of oppression that are constitutive of present US society—indigenous dispossession, racialized slavery, exploitative capitalism, imperialist plunder. Less often understood or theorized is the phenomenon of mass disablement as an artifice of social oppression.

In fact, a critical analysis thereof is pivotal to making sense of myriad other oppressive American histories, including: eugenics and the enforcement of biosocial hierarchies; the pseudoscience of race inferiorities and intelligence quotients; segregationist and eliminationist regimes of carcerality and sterilization; hyper-exploitative cults of productivity, wealth accumulation, and universal competition; and the constant reproduction of variable layers of the human species rendered into a permanent underclass of paupers, peripherals, and euphemistic “surplus” or “superfluous” populations.1

Theorizing the Disability-Carceral Relationship

One important area that has recently seen inroads in theorizing across various forms of oppression, including that of disability, is the prison abolition movement. Having as their goal the complete elimination, or transcendence, of all existing structures of carceral violence, coercion, and subjugation, prison abolitionists have made recourse to a number of emancipatory frames of analysis—from settler colonialism to racial capitalism to hetero-patriarchy. Paying homage to the ancestral liberation movement against American slavery, from which it draws both literal and figurative analogies, modern abolitionism focuses primarily on the state apparatuses of the prisons and the police: how these latter institutions dialectically emerge from and reproduce existing systems of oppression. Among the names associated with this movement we might include Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Beth Richie, Erica Meiners, Dean Spade, and Mariame Kaba. Many of these figures adhere to a feminist of color or queer feminist of color critical framework, which is also often anticapitalist or socialist.

Of those explicitly theorizing the disability-carceral relationship, Marta Russell and Jean Stewart were among the first. Their article “Disablement, Prison, and Historical Segregation,” originally published in Monthly Review magazine in 2001 (and reproduced in the book I edited, Capitalism and Disability, published by Haymarket Books in 2019), is seminal as an historical materialist analysis. The authors trace the emergence of the “disabled” classification in line with the development of industrial capitalism, how those whose bodies and minds were deemed less profitably productive from the standpoint of competitive wage-labor were effectively marginalized. “American capitalism,” write Russell and Stewart, “in its failure to incorporate disabled people into its social fabric, instead shunts them into prisons and other institutions.”2

Others have engaged in illuminating analyses focused on the connection between Special Education and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline or “school-prison nexus,” such as Subini Annamma along with Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear.3 Presently, however, the scholar doing the most expansive work on the relationship between disability and incarceration is Liat Ben-Moshe. Ben-Moshe has produced two books on the subject within the past ten years: Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (2014), and Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition (2020).4

Disability Incarcerated is an edited collection that surveys the various iterations and sites of historical carcerality vis-à-vis disabled people: asylums, mental hospitals, state institutions, migrant detention centers, prisons, nursing homes, segregated schools and workshops. It is an accessible overview and exploration of the pertinent topics, histories, and theories. Decarcerating Disability, in contrast, is singularly authored by Ben-Moshe; it is an interesting attempt at utilizing the experience of disability incarceration and decarceration—in the form of the lesser-known deinstitutionalization movement of the later twentieth century—in order to impart lessons and considerations of relevance to the present-day abolition movement.

Others have written extensively on the history and political economy of deinstitutionalization as such.5 Ben-Moshe’s Decarcerating Disability is unique in its explicit positioning within the framework of prison studies and the abolitionist movement; it is, in fact, a polemical intervention into living debates. As Ben-Moshe writes in the introduction:
To those who claim that prison abolition and massive decarceration are utopian and could never happen, this book shows that they’ve happened already, although in a different arena, in the form of mass closures of residential institutions and psychiatric hospitals and the deinstitutionalization of those who resided in them.

Understanding how to activate this knowledge can lead to more nuanced actions toward and understandings about reducing reliance on prisons and other carceral enclosures as holders for people who are deemed by society to be dangerous, abnormal, or disturbed.6

Carceral Histories of Disability: AN ABOLITIONIST ANALYSIS

Originally published at Spectre Journal

In 2013, investigative reporting revealed that nearly 150 women incarcerated in the California prison system had been sterilized between 2006 to 2010. The gynecological prison official who oversaw the procedures – and was paid nearly $150,000 by the state per sterilization – defended the payments and the procedures, stating, “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money, compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more.” It is certainly outrageous that interned women were coerced into undergoing sterilization – oftentimes at the precise moment when they were “under sedation and strapped to an operating table.” But such practices are neither rare within the long scope of U.S. history, nor are they even technically prohibited by law in all circumstances.1

THE INSTITUTION AND THE PRISON

Given the disproportionate rates at which people of color and disabled people are over-represented within the U.S. prison population, the above abuses were essentially a case of modern eugenics being carried out against precisely those populations that have been historically targeted – disabled people, people of color, and women in poverty. What this demonstrates is the insidious ways in which the matrix of institutional confinement, disability oppression, and eliminationist social policy has remained a persistent feature of modern capitalist society, even as it has undergone mutations, adaptations, and reconfigurations over past decades and centuries.

Insofar as the ruthlessly competitive accumulation of capital via exploited labor has been the constant guiding imperative of historical capitalism, disabled people have ever represented a troublesome source of non- (or even counter-) profitability to the ruling class. The labor power that disabled people possess – the basic unit of commodity value under capitalism – is deemed an invalid, defective, or otherwise undesirable resource vis-à-vis the productive economy.2As the U.S. federal government defines it, to be disabled is to be “unable to engage in substantial gainful activity”;3 in other words, to be unable to competitively acquire a paying job within the prevailing conditions of capitalist wage-labor.3

In this way, disabled people have historically been cast into that sub-class of people under capitalism who rely on state welfare payments, are marginal to the formal process of capital accumulation, and are considered ‘disposable’ from the standpoint of political economy. In truth, and conceptualized broadly, disabled people occupy a class position that spans the proletariat: the active working class, the reserve army of labor, and the so-called lumpenproletariat.4 Under any conception, however, disabled people under capitalism are, by definition, so many ‘damaged goods’; commodities systematically devalued as a result of inherited or acquired ‘deficits’ in their functioning as components of capital accumulation. Thus, to the capitalist ruling class, disabled people represent an economic ‘problem’ necessitating a political ‘solution.’

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and reaching its peak maturation in the early-to-mid twentieth century, the prevailing ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of disability was the erection of a system of mass institutionalization, sterilization, and social elimination, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled and other marginalized and oppressed peoples in the U.S. This system was codified and executed at the state level, and rendered licit at the federal level.5 Then, as now, a central pillar of the overarching regime of control, separation, and social exclusion of the disabled and other marginalized populations was the carceral institution. This is a complex of controlling and controlled spaces ranging from asylums, hospital wards, state facilities, nursing homes, penal colonies, poorhouses, halfway homes, jails, and prisons. The form has changed over the years, but the function – control, separation, and social exclusion – has remained. At its peak, in the mid-1950s, there were an estimated 550,000 people confined to the nation’s mental asylums and hospitals.6 Today, the number of people with mental illnesses and disabilities confined to the nation’s prisons and jails is estimated to be close to 1.25 million.7

The red thread connecting the erstwhile system of incarceration in institutional asylums and that of the prison system today, is more than abstractly analogous. Both represent forms of segregation, subjugation, and constraint as coercive mechanisms of social policy. Behind the paper-thin pretense of being ‘rehabilitative’, both structures eschew the latter in favor of the social removal and warehousing of putatively deviant, degenerate, or maladjusted populations. Involuntary confinement and loss of autonomy are equally characteristic of the institution and the prison. Through the mid-twentieth century, the majority of people in state mental hospitals were forcibly committed by lunacy commissions, medical professionals, state welfare agencies, or the judiciary.8

Moreover, whether committed on a voluntary or involuntary basis, institutionalized residents had no control over when they would be discharged, what treatments they would receive, or the nature of their living conditions (this remains the case for those committed to psychiatric wards and institutions to this day). In similar fashion to the way that durations of prison sentences are determined by Parole Board bureaucracies, release from the institution was contingent upon the subjective determination of bureaucrats (which determination was likewise influenced by a resident-inmate’s exhibit of “good institutional behavior”).9 In sum, the high degree of continuity between these various carceral systems suggests a shared function across wide-ranging forms.