Category Archives: Media Criticism

You want a safe space? How about Yale College, 1924.

Thomas Chatterton Williams joins a long line of whiners complaining that taking basic steps to make our public and academic life more inclusive is Just. Too. Hard.  In his review, entitled “Does Our Cultural Obsession with Safety Spell the Downfall of Democracy,” he argues that it is “fraught” for marginalized people to object to the appropriation of their language or to the use of their bodies as metaphors.  He describes an allegedly new generation of college students who “are ‘obsessed with safety,’ which they define to include expansive notions of ‘emotional safety.’”  He asserts that this “safetyism culture” started when this generation “began arriving on college campuses in 2013.”  These students apparently have the audacity to want respect, to want a classroom in which their existence, freedom, and standing as citizens is not open for debate.  Oh the drama!

You want safe?  I’ll show you safe.  I’ll show you a truly fucking safe college experience — 89 years before 2013.

When it was time for my white, Christian, Southern,* formerly-wealthy-but-still-pretty-fucking-privileged, two-generations-away-from-enslaving-people grandfather to go to college, he found a very, very safe space.** In 1924 — according to a story my father often told*** — Yale College accepted the entire graduating class from Hotchkiss, my grandfather’s prep school.  Talk about safety schools!

Image: Yearbook photo of a white man with brown hair in a suit and tie. Text reads Arthur Clendenin Robertson. Age 19. Yale College. Home address: 12 Coolidge Hill Rd., Cambridge, Mass. Prepared at: Hotchkiss. Activities: Hawaiian Trio, Freshman Cabinet Dwight Hall.  What Granddaddy found when he got to Yale must have felt very safe, too. His entering class of 823 students had (::checks calculator::) zero women.  It also had:

  • one (1) Black student;
  • by my very unscientific count (*cough* lastnames *cough*) approximately 20 Jewish students;
  • one Armenian-American (again, per my unscientific analysis of the guy’s last name);
  • one Greek-American (same), and
  • one (likely) Syrian-American (same).

The “Yale Freshman Yearbook” for the Class of 1928 claimed that the class included six “foreign” students, which turned out to be six white guys who happened to be living outside the country when they were accepted at Yale, for example, Willard Tisdel Hodgsdon from Guatemala, and George Robert Carter, Jr. from Hawaii (remember the year!).  And of course a token Canadian — so diverse!  There were no students with names that appeared to be even remotely Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, etc.).

If the Yale class of 1928 was not safe enough for Granddaddy, he could always retreat to his fraternity or, if that was still too diverse, to his “secret society,”  Skull and Bones.  There, I said it.  A bunch of white guys with weird rituals whose childish need for safety, sorry secrecy, was so profound that my father warned us NEVER, EVER to so much as say the words “skull and bones” in front of my grandfather.  Guess this made our family an “emotionally safe space” for Granddaddy.

This cocoon of unisex, monoracial safety was the default setting for the American university for most of our history.  These white dudes did not have to encounter classmates with different gender, racial, cultural, or linguistic experiences.  They did not have to worry that speakers invited to campus would call their very existence a “disease” or “a disorder comparable to sociopathy” or explain that they were genetically inferior to individuals of a different race.

Sometime between 1924 and 2013, colleges began to integrate.  My guess is that, for much of that time, female and minority students were (and were expected to be) sufficiently grateful just to attend college in the first place that they did not dare or did not know how to demand a space that respected their existence.  By the time I started college in 1978, we were griping about the white male canon and marching for divestment from apartheid.  Even then, though, I don’t think we gave much thought to how welcoming we were to students of different backgrounds.

But let’s examine the whole “safety” thing from a broader perspective. White people’s need to feel safe has given us lynchings, the modern police state, and BBQ Becky.  A white woman felt emotionally unsafe in the presence of Emmett Till.**** His penalty was not cancellation of his speaking tour or criticism in the college newspaper.  It was violent death at the hands of a white mob.

Do students from marginalized backgrounds demanding respect at university “spell the downfall of democracy.”  Oh hell no.  They will help us build a democracy that is truly democratic. But I’ll edit Williams’s question and answer in the  affirmative. “Has White People’s Cultural Obsession with Safety Almost Spelled the Downfall of Democracy?”  A resounding yes.


* I’m not really sure how he ended up with a Cambridge, MA address.  I think I know the story, but it’s not really important.  He was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a family with deep roots in the south.

** I hate telling this story.  Granddaddy is not who I am.  Within his generation, the family fortune was lost in the Depression and he was a very deeply flawed, highly entertaining failure.  My father, also a privileged WASP, married my mother, the daughter of a middle-class Jewish family, and my public school upbringing in the DC suburbs was a far cry from Hotchkiss.  But who am I really fooling?  I went to a small liberal arts college that my aunt and uncle had also attended, and then to Yale Law School, which my father had attended.  My path, too, was plowed by white affirmative action.

*** My father often told this story because he lectured widely on employment discrimination and specifically affirmative action.  He would explain “you want affirmative action?  Let me tell you about Yale’s admissions policies in 1924.”

**** Edited.  I originally wrote, “Emmett Till made a white woman feel emotionally unsafe.”  As Anita Cameron pointed out, Mr. Till himself did nothing.  His accuser ultimately confessed that “she falsely testified he made physical and verbal threats.”

Wanted: foreign affairs journalist to cover events in Ferguson, Minneapolis, and Cleveland.

Sometimes I think journalists don’t even read their own articles — or internalize their own hot air.  In this Sunday’s New York Times, Ellen Barry writes about a murder case in India in which caste affiliation gets in the way of justice.  Early in the piece, she grills the local constable, gets pushback, and examines her navel a bit:

Over the past decade, in Russia and then India, I have been asked versions of this question hundreds of times: Who are you to come here and tell us what is wrong with our system? And it’s true, the whole enterprise of foreign correspondence has a whiff of colonialism. During the years I have worked abroad, Americans’ interest in promoting their values in the world has receded, slowly and then precipitously. I doubted the regional hegemons filling the vacuum would do better, but still, I wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing.

(Emphasis, as the law nerds say, added.)  So, cool, I think, she’s just a little bit self-aware about her privileged position and first-world filter.  But after reporting that the local justice system refused to recognize a murder as a murder — based on caste loyalty — she sheds her self-awareness like a gossamer scarf:*

Sometimes it seemed that the European legal system, with its liberal emphasis on individual rights, had settled only lightly on a country fixated on the rights of groups. Political leaders have driven this deeper into the culture: Equality, in India, is equality among groups. Justice is group justice.

Perhaps her next colonial assignment should be Ferguson.  Or Minneapolis.  Or Baltimore.  Or Cleveland.  Or New York.  I’d be interested in the promotion of American values in those far flung locales.


*I’m picturing a blonde woman — perhaps in a perfume ad — running in slow mo as the scarf of self awareness floats gracefully up and away from her.**

**Note the latest in accessible images:  the image-free image description.

New/old rule: no one gets to criticize the way other people mourn

The days since the attacks in Paris and Beirut have followed a predictable Scold Cycle:

  • Massive coverage by Western news sources of the attacks in Paris.
  • Outpouring of sympathy for Paris with associated profile-photo-changing, Marseillaise-singing, and awkward-French-speaking.
  • Outpouring of hypocrisy-pointing-out with calls to acknowledge the recent attacks in Beirut.

Rinse repeat.  Although I guess this blog may be the next round in the cycle:  the criticism-of-hypocrisy-pointing-out.  But ever since Republicans decided to launch a media campaign denouncing the way grieving liberals spoke at Paul Wellstone’s funeral — one of the most craven political acts in a sea of cravenness — I’ve decided that people get to say pretty much whatever they want when they are grieving.  Perhaps all the Tricolour profile photos belong to people who have traveled to France, or have loved ones there.  Or maybe it is because they identify with white Europeans more than brown Lebanese.  I don’t know.  Let them process their shock and grief for a bit before telling them that it’s racist or colonialist.

Corollary:  this is not the time to point out that France has done all sorts of First World colonial bad shit.  Yes.  True.  This is not the time.  Like that time you attended the funeral of a guy who had done both good stuff and bad stuff in his life.  The funeral, right then, was not the time to point out the bad stuff.

Obviously, the media are in a different situation.  They need to be more evenhanded in the way they cover violence.  Yet the American media still cover the rest of the world according to Spy Magazine’s “Death News Equation:”  a calculation that involves the number killed or injured, the “sensitivity . . . of Times editors to the episode,” and the proximity of the incident to Times Square.  And by “sensitivity,” I think they meant “resemblance of the victims to actual Times editors.”  That equation still holds up, though I’ve always thought — based on my experience living in Taiwan — that it was a fairly universal phenomenon.  The day Benigno Aquino was assassinated, the banner headline in the main Taiwanese newspaper read, “China Airlines service to Philippines suspended” with a smaller headline and article below explaining that Mr. Aquino had been shot on the tarmac after disembarking from a China Airlines plane.  We’re all about ourselves, wherever we are.

“The Case Against Gay Marriage: Top Law Firms Won’t Touch It”

The Case Against Gay Marriage: Top Law Firms Won’t Touch It –

Here is what I wrote to the author:

I find it funny that the unwillingness of big law firms to handle cases that might affect their bottom line is getting a lot of attention around the marriage equality issue. We run a small civil rights non-profit that files lawsuits to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act, and honestly, big firms that will represent tobacco companies and death row inmates won’t touch our cases. Why? Because we are asking their [potential] clients to be accessible to people who use wheelchairs, to deaf and hard of hearing people, to others with other disabilities. It’s not front page news; it’s business as usual for us.

Here is what I wrote on Facebook:

Oh cry me a fucking river. Your position is unpopular. Deal with it. Grow some balls and speak up for what you believe in. It’s not “crushing dissent” when you self-censor for economic gain.

Honoring our Dead

[I am honored to provide a platform for Corbett’s latest guest post. – ed.]

“Her life was not worth living.”

“He was such a burden to his family.”

“The parents suffered so much.”

“It’s understandable.”

“There’s no crime here – they did a merciful thing.”

This is how the media often reports on the murders of disabled people. The reports are full of sympathy for the murderers and short on compassion for those murdered.  Disabled people’s lives are framed as useless, tragic, suffering. Media writers ignore the joys and passions of the victims – maybe because that disrupts the sympathy narrative for the murderer.

Since 2012 on March 1st an international Day of Mourning vigil is held to honor and remember those disabled people killed by family and caregivers.  Some vigils also include those murdered by authority figures, such as police and school personnel. This year there are 104 names on the list. These are just the people who got caught. Research by Dick Sobsey and others show that a great many acts of violence against disabled people are never caught. In one chilling report, he discovered that 25% of the deaths of people with cerebral palsy were murders. Even when the murders are reported, the punishment for the murderers is often light.

If my writing seems drier than usual, it’s because I am holding my breath and trying to keep my teardrops off the keyboard while I type. It’s hard to sit with these stories. Hard to know how easy it is for those that we, disabled people, rely on to kill us. Hard to read the sympathetic media reports that say our lives were not worth living. Hard to know that the murderers know that even if they are caught there will likely be few consequences. Hard to sit with these facts while we are fighting every day for society to become just a little bit more accessible.  Hard to look into the faces of these murderers and know that a great many people support them.

So on Saturday I am going to attend my local vigil and honor those killed. I will surround myself with people who know that disabled people’s lives are valuable. I will not let those murdered be forgotten.


Find an in-person or online vigil here

2014 list of names and causes of death

Dick Sobsey

Kassiane (direct and has profanity)

Ibby Grace

Zoe Gross (who started the vigils) blog

Bad Cripple

s.e. smith

What’s the wheelchair equivalent of black face? (Guest post!)

[I’m very excited to present a guest post by Frances Lively.  She is responding to Joanne Ostrow’s August 9, 2012 column in the Denver Post.]

Dear Ms. Ostrow:

I have been a subscriber to The Denver Post for a very long time and always enjoy reading your column.  You are a good writer with an enjoyable style and an intelligent approach to television matters.

I wondered, however, about one segment of your “Good News, Bad News,” column in the August 9, 2013, issue, concerning diversity.  You are correct in noting that there are far too many white males and too few Hispanics featured in TV shows.  But how can you say it represents a positive step forward for diversity to have Blair Underwood — an able-bodied person, albeit a member of a minority group — portraying a person with a disability?  This casting makes the same mistake that “Glee” made in one of its teenaged characters and does not really advance inclusion of people with disabilities in our society.

I understand that the networks worry about ratings and would prefer to take their chances on a bankable star in the main role in a new show, but I would hope that you could at least point out this irony in your column rather than lauding the networks for this short-sighted casting.  The irony of your comments only increases with your follow-up regarding Michael J. Fox, who does, indeed, have the illness that is to be portrayed in his new show, but who is himself a very well-known, long-time white male star.  Perhaps your “good news” instead should have been that there are good actors available who happen to have disabilities and who would love the chance to be featured in a network television show.

Please do not file my message under the heading of “Can’t please all the people all of the time.”  Instead, give me credit for not lighting into you regarding your description of Underwood’s character as “a highly capable, sexually active paraplegic.”  Time does not permit a discussion of all of the problems with that statement.

I hope you will put my letter in the file for “How can we keep networks from being ignorant.”  I’m sure many of your readers would appreciate your using your position in our community as a critic to nudge the networks in a better direction.  Thanks very much for your time.


Frances Lively

Ms. Ostrow responded:

Thanks for writing.

Agreed, it would be better to have a disabled actor playing a disabled character. but at least the character exists.

I’ll return to this topic in the future and keep your comments in mind.

Meanwhile I hope if you watch “Ironside” you’ll see what I mean about his action-hero antics…