Thursday, March 9, 2017

Helen Keller on the fight for women's liberation and socialism (1912)

If we women are to learn the fundamental things in life, we must educate ourselves and one another. For instance, why in this land of great wealth is there great poverty? Any intelligent young woman like those who write to me, eager to help the sightless or any other unfortunate class, can learn why such important work as supplying food, clothing, and shelter is ill-rewarded, why children toil in the mills while thousands of men cannot get work, why women who do nothing have thousands of dollars a year to spend ... There is an economic cause for these things.

It is for the American woman to know why millions are shut out from the full benefits of such education, art, and science as the race has thus far achieved ... We must know why 150 of our sisters were killed in New York in a shirt-waist factory fire the other day, and nobody to blame ... why our fathers, brothers, and husbands are killed in mines and railroads.

I am surprised to find that many champions of woman, upholders of 'advanced ideas,' exalt the intelligence of the so-called cultivated woman. The woman who works for a dollar a day has as much right as any other human being to say what the conditions of her work should be. It is just this, I am sorry to find, which educated women do not always understand.

Throughout the ages, man has drilled woman in morals, that she might not deceive him; he taught her obedience, that she might be his slave. He made her laws, constituted himself judge, jury, jailer, and executioner. He had entire charge of her prisons and convents, or her house, her church, and her person. He burnt her, tortured her, gave her to wild beasts and cast her forth to be a pariah ... Through all times he granted her the privilege -- of bearing his children.

A woman opens a can of food which is adulterated with worthless or dangerous stuff. In a distant city a man is building himself a palace with the profits of many such cans. If a petty thief should break into her pantry, and she should fight him tooth and nail, she would be applauded for her spirit and bravery; but when a millionaire manufacturer a thousand miles away robs her by the peaceful methods of commerce, she has nothing to say, because she does not understand business, and politics is not for her to meddle in.

In the hospital wards where the nurse [works], there are men unnecessarily laid low by the accidents of trade ... from the battlefields of industry come the wounded, from the shambles of poverty come the deformed. What enemy has stricken them? How much of all this disease and misery is preventable? Shall the wise nurse stand by the bed of pain and ask no questions about the social causes of ill health?

It has been found that you must feed your child before you can teach it, and that the poor home defeats the best schoolroom. Behind the free school we must have a free people. What profits it to provide costly school buildings for anemic, under-fed children, to pass compulsory education laws and not secure a livelihood for the families whose children must obey them? What is the common sense of free text-books without wholesome food and proper clothing?

Countless mothers of men have no place fit to be born in, to bear others in, to die in. Packed in tenements forgot of light, unheeded and slighted, starved of eye and ear and heart, they wear out their dull existence in monotonous toil -- all for a crust of bread! They strive and labor, sweat and produce; they subject their bodies and soul to every risk, lest their children die for want of food ... [all this] has but served to herd them in masses under the control of a growing industrial despotism.

Many young women full of devotion and good-will have been engaged in superficial charities. They have tried to feed the hungry without knowing the cause of poverty. They have tried to minister to the sick wihout understanding the cause of disease. They have tried to raise up fallen sisters without knowing the brutal arm of necessity that struck them down. We attempt social reforms where we need social transformations.

The greatest change is coming that has ever come in the history of the world. Order is evolving out of the chaos that followed the breaking up of the old system in which each household lived after its own manner. By using the physical forces of the universe men have replaced the slow hand-processes with the swift power of machines. If women demand it, a fair share of the machine-products will go to them and their families ... They will no more give their best years to keep bright and fair the homes of others while their own are neglected. They will no more consume all their time, strength, and mental capacity in bringing up the rosy, laughing children of others while their own sweet children grow up pitiful and stunted.... We know that there is plenty of room in the world and plenty of raw material in it for us all to be born right, to be brought up right, to work right, and to die right.

We shall not see the end of capitalism and the triumph of democracy until men and women work together in the solving of their political, social, and economic problems.

[The above is excerpted from two articles written by Helen Keller: "The Modern Woman," Metropolitan Magazine, 1912, and "Why Men Need Women Suffrage," New York Call, 1913.]

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"Equal pay for equal work" | Gender, race, and class

The issue of gender-based inequality in pay was a prominent theme at this year’s Democratic National Convention. Numerous speakers called for “equal pay for equal work” (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2016/07/25/elizabeth_warren_at_dnc_when_we_turn_on_each_other_we_cant_unite_to_fight_back_against_a_rigged_system.html), and the final Democratic Party platform ratified by the Convention stated, “We will fight to secure equal pay for women” (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=117717).

Here in Massachusetts, pay equality has even taken a big step forward at the legislative level. On August 1, the Republican Governor, Charlie Baker, signed into law a bill requiring that “men and women be paid equally for comparable work” (http://boston.cbslocal.com/2016/08/01/massachusetts-equal-pay-comparable-work-baker-bill/).

All of this is of course an incredibly welcome development. Socialists have historically been and should continue to be involved in the fight against gender discrimination and inequality in wages in all sectors of the economy. Sexist inequality is unjust and in fact damaging to the interests of all working class people.

However, an anti-capitalist and intersectional approach to gender pay inequality requires ultimately taking the question a few additional steps further.

For instance, while the often-cited statistic -- that women in the US earn approximately 78% of what men earn -- is certainly outrageous, it is also the case that both Black men and women, and both Hispanic men and women, earn less than both White men and women (http://www.aauw.org/2015/07/21/black-women-pay-gap/).

Black men earn 75%, and Black women earn 64%, of what White men earn; while Hispanic men earn 86%, and Hispanic women earn 69%, of what White women earn (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0882775.html).

Moreover, it is ultimately necessary to talk about wage inequality as a function of class inequality. While winning an equivalent $10/hr wage for both men and women working full time at Wal-Mart is an important first step, it is simply insufficient for the conversation to end there. We also have to talk about the fact that the men and women working for $10/hr at Wal-Mart earn less than 1% of what top Wal-Mart executives earn (http://www1.salary.com/Rosalind-G-Brewer-Salary-Bonus-Stock-Options-for-Wal-Mart-Stores-Inc.html).

As socialists, our end goal is not simply to secure an equivalent rate by which the labor of both the men and women in a given workplace or industry is exploited by their employer.

We should therefore strive to bring to the fore the fact that the “work” of all members of the working class is systematically undervalued against that of the upper and ruling class within the context of capitalist society.

 For instance, the current female President of Harvard University, who makes close to $1 million a year, exerts the same (if not less) magnitude of labor in a given year as the largely-female clerical workforce at Harvard who earn an average of 5% of what the President makes (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2014/5/16/administrator-salaries-990-2012/).

Or take the single richest individual in Massachusetts (who happens to be a woman), Abigail Johnson, CEO of Fidelity Investments, who has a net worth of $14 billion (http://www.masslive.com/business-news/index.ssf/2016/05/how_much_is_the_wealthiest_person_in_mas.html). Abigail inherited control of the financial corporate giant from her grandfather.

Now, if one wants to truly talk about “equal pay for comparable work,” there is no way that Abigail has done a comparable magnitude of work as, say, a male or female born into poverty who has had to work their entire life in order to survive and today has a (median) net worth of $45,000 (http://money.cnn.com/2014/06/11/news/economy/middle-class-wealth/); in other words, 0.000003% of Abigail’s net worth.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Helen Keller on the injustice of high-stakes standardized testing in schools

Educator, activist, and author Jesse Hagopian writes recently on his blog:
Twelve national civil rights organizations released a statement today in opposition to parents and students who opt out of high-stakes standardized testing–what has now become a truly mass direct action campaign against the multi-billion dollar testing industry.  I believe that their statement titled, “We Oppose Anti-Testing Efforts,” misses the key role that standardized testing has played throughout American history in reproducing institutional racism and inequality.  I wrote the below statement, with the aid of the board of the Network for Public Education, to outline the racist history of standardized testing and to highlight leadership from people of color in the movement against high-stakes testing. I sincerely hope for a response from the civil rights organizations who authored the statement and I hope that this dialogue leads to deeper discussion about how to make Black Lives Matter in our school system and how to remake American public education on foundation of social justice.
I, too, think it is utterly despicable that these prominent civil rights groups -- including the NAACP, La Raza, National Disability Rights Network, American Association of University Women -- would pen an open letter condemning the growing movement of marginalized students, teachers, and parents against high-stakes testing and corporate education deform. These civil rights groups' ties to the Democratic party establishment and corporate financial donors (who they depend upon to keep their NGO machinery running), means that they side with billionaire "limousine liberal" philanthropists intent on further privatizing and stratifying the education system, rather than with those they purport to represent who are fighting back precisely for genuine education justice and equality. 

Ultimately, it is a question of class and social position. Do these groups use the mantle of civil rights in order to serve the elites who run this racist and oppressive system premised upon capitalist-apartheid education, or do they stand with the truly oppressed and defrauded in order to fight against a vision of education "reform" premised upon the further erosion of the gains of the 1960s mass civil rights movements?

In this vein, I offer the words of the famous Helen Keller on the subject, herself a life-long educator, civil rights activist, and author:

Regularly twice a year the children who come to visit me are disturbed and upset by the Damocles sword of school examinations. These horrid occasions hang over their heads, a threat and a terror, for weeks in advance, and even though I cannot see the little faces of my visitors nor hear their voices, I feel tenseness and perturbation in the very air.
Whenever these times come, I cannot help but recall the attitude of Miss Sullivan towards strictly conventional modes of education when she came to teach the little groping, helpless creature that was the Helen Keller of long ago.
She found me anything but amenable to discipline at first, but she adapted herself to me in many ways, instead of forcing me to adapt myself to her. Shortly after beginning a more lenient regime, she wrote to a friend: 
"Since I have abandoned the idea of regular lessons, I find that Helen learns much faster. I am convinced that the time spent by the teacher in digging out of the child what she has put into him, for the sake of satisfying herself that it has taken root, is so much time thrown away. It's much better, I think, to assume that the child is doing his part, and that the seed you have sown will bear fruit in due time ... "
Of course, I realize that the methods which can be successfully followed with one child offer obstacles when they are large groups of children to be dealt with. I realize that public school education must be standardized for the quantity production of graduates, just as any other process of quantity production must be standardized for the most efficient results. And yet -- it seems to me that the trend of modern education and thought should be all away from the medieval inquisitorial methods of formal twice-a-year examinations. On the nervous, high-strung, sensitive students they work cruelty and injustice. A child may be a splendid student with a real enthusiasm and devotion to learning and yet find himself so paralyzed with nervous apprehension, as examination time draws near, that every thought flees and the work of months comes to naught.
I believe the time will come when teachers will be so attuned to the responsiveness of every individual in class work that that responsiveness, that eagerness to learn, will be made the basis for judgement as to whether or not the child is fit to proceed to the assimilation of more or less work. Informal tests, perhaps, there must be, but the looming, giant bear of the twice-a-year examinations -- surely the youngsters could be spared of that.
Many teachers, I believe, given the opportunity, would say with Miss Sullivan, so wise even in her youthful days of teaching the seven-year-old Helen: "The time spent by the teacher in digging out of the child what she has put into him, for the sake of satisfying herself that it has taken root, is so much time thrown away."    

(Keller, Helen. “EXAMS.” Boston Daily Globe 23 June 1926: A30).

Monday, March 30, 2015

Socialism & Disability: The politics of Helen Keller

By Keith Rosenthal

This article was originally published at International Socialist Review.

Helen Keller is one of the most widely recognized figures in US history that people actually know very little about. That she was a serious political thinker who made important contributions in the fields of socialist theory and practice, or that she was a pioneer in pointing the way toward a Marxist understanding of disability oppression and liberation—this reality has been overlooked and censored. The mythological Helen Keller that we are familiar with has aptly been described as a sort of “plaster saint;” a hollow, empty vessel who is little more than an apolitical symbol for perseverance and personal triumph.1

This is the story that most of us are familiar with: A young Helen Keller contracted an illness that left her blind and deaf; she immediately reverted to the state of a wild animal, as depicted in the popular movie The Miracle Worker; she remained in this state virtually unchanged until she was rescued by her teacher Anne Sullivan, who “miraculously” introduced her to the world of language. Then time passed, and Helen Keller died eighty years later: End of story.

The image of Helen Keller as a gilded, eternal child is reinforced at the highest levels of US society. The statue of Helen Keller erected inside the US Capitol building in 2009, which replaced that of a Confederate Army officer, depicts Keller as a seven-year-old child kneeling at a water pump. Neither the statue itself nor its inscription provides any inkling that the sixty-plus years of Keller’s adult life were of any particular political import.

When the story of Helen Keller is taught in schools today, it is frequently used to convey a number of anodyne “moral lessons” or messages: There is no personal obstacle that cannot be overcome through pluck and hard work; whatever problems one thinks they have pale in comparison to those of Helen Keller; and perhaps the most insidious of such messages, the one aimed primarily at people with disabilities themselves, is that the task of becoming a full member of society rests upon one’s individual efforts to overcome a given impairment and has nothing to do with structural oppression or inequality.

Ironically, this construction of the iconic, or mythological, Helen Keller has resulted in numerous essays and books written by individuals with disabilities who recount growing up feeling deeply resentful of her. They saw Keller as an impossibly perfect individual who personally overcame all limitations in order to become a world-famous figure—someone who pulled herself up by her bootstraps, so to speak, and did so with a polite smile.2 In reality, such a narrative starkly contradicts the experiences of the vast majority of people with disabilities, then and now, who endure incredibly high rates of poverty, homelessness, discrimination, police brutality, and ostracism.

Distortions of Helen Keller, then and now

Keller fought her entire life against such bigoted notions and distortions of her life story. She constantly combated attempts to render her a hollow icon. Nonetheless, such images regarding Keller and disability continue to be reinforced everywhere. This can be found in primary school curricula, in the vast majority of children’s books on Helen Keller, and in most adult biographies of her. More often than not her radical politics are simply ignored. But even when they are acknowledged, it is usually to discount them.

One of the most authoritative recent biographies on Keller—written by the noted author Joseph Lash, and commissioned by the prestigious Radcliffe College and the American Foundation for the Blind—includes the following explanation of Keller’s involvement with socialist politics: “She needed to see the world as a contest between Good and Evil. Her imagination—cut off by blindness and deafness from many of the signals that brute experience sends most of us counseling caution, compromise, grayness instead of black and white—lent itself to dichotomies. . . . If she kept some grip on reality, it was because of her Teacher [Anne Sullivan], a woman of practical common sense.”3

This assessment, while expressed in milder terms, isn’t far from the accusations Keller regularly faced in her lifetime. Newspaper editors would use her disability as a means to dismiss her politics and to dissuade people from taking her seriously. Her radicalism, conservative writers would aver, was a product of the political “mistakes [which] spring out of the manifest limitations of her development.”4

Here is what the Detroit Free Press wrote about her in 1914:

As long as Miss Keller appears before the public in the light of a member of society struggling nobly under great handicaps and furnishing by her example inspiration for others who are unfortunately placed, she does a valuable work. But the moment she undertakes to speak ex cathedra, as it were, of all the political and social problems of the day, she receives a consideration out of all proportion to her fund of knowledge and judgment.

Helen Keller, struggling to point the way to the light for the deaf, dumb and blind is inspiring. Helen Keller preaching socialism; Helen Keller passing on the merits of the copper strike; Helen Keller sneering at the constitution of the United States; Helen Keller under these aspects is pitiful. She is beyond her depth. She speaks with the handicap of limitation which no amount of determination or science can overcome. Her knowledge is, and must be, almost purely theoretical, and unfortunately this world and its problems are both very practical.5

What is remarkable, however, is the power and tenacity Keller brought to bear in answering these attacks. She courageously defied any and all attempts to render her a second-class citizen. She would have her say, and woe unto those who would try to silence her.

The radicalization of Helen Keller

Helen Keller was born in 1880 in Alabama to an upper-class family. Her father had been a slave-owner before the Civil War in which he had served as a commanding Confederate officer. After the war, he became the editor of a major newspaper in Alabama. Keller’s mother hailed from a wealthy and connected New England family.

When Helen Keller was two years old she became permanently deaf and blind as the result of an unknown illness. It was not until she was seven years old that she began her formal education under Anne Sullivan, a twenty-one-year-old graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, who had been hired by the Kellers as a live-in tutor.

Keller’s education proceeded rapidly under Sullivan’s guidance, and her development soon gained attention from increasingly far-flung quarters. When she enrolled in a college preparatory school with seeing and hearing girls in 1896, newspapers around the country—and even the world—ran articles detailing her course loads, semester grades, and attendance records. Her every move became the subject of intense scrutiny and gossip. By the time she had graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliffe College in 1904, Keller had become something of a global celebrity.

Then, in 1908, Helen Keller took the seemingly unlikely step of joining the American Socialist Party (SP). She cites two major factors that led her to this: First, her widespread readings on society and philosophy, which had ultimately led her to the works of Karl Marx as well as those of contemporary socialists, such as H. G. Wells, William Morris, and Eugene Debs; and second, her growing interest in studying the specific conditions of people with disabilities in the United States, which led her to draw conclusions about society that dovetailed with the former.

She noticed that the leading causes of disability in the United States were largely attributable to industrial and workplace accidents and diseases, frequently caused by an employer’s greed and reluctance to prioritize workers’ safety lest it diminish profits. She found that other social factors contributed, too, such as the prevalence of poverty, unequal access to medicine, overcrowded and unsanitary slums, and an officially imposed societal ignorance regarding matters of reproductive and sexual health.

She discovered that, once disabled, such individuals constituted a class who “as a rule are poor,” cast aside and forgotten.6 They were thrown into institutions; mired in poverty and unemployment; cut off from educational opportunities; and segregated and marginalized at every turn. There was not a single census in any state or city of the country that even kept track of the numbers and needs of the disabled population. They simply did not exist as far as the powers-that-be were concerned.

“Step by step,” Keller recounted in 1912, “my investigation of blindness led me into the industrial world.”

And what a world it is! How different from the world of my beliefs! I must face unflinchingly a world of facts—a world of misery, degradation, blindness, sin, a world struggling against the elements, against the unknown, against itself. How to reconcile this world of fact with the bright world of my own imagining? My darkness had been filled with the light of intelligence, and behold the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness.7

“For a time I was depressed,” she told the New York Times in 1916, “but little by little my confidence came back and I realized that the wonder is not that conditions are so bad, but that humanity has advanced so far in spite of them. And now I am in the fight to change things. I may be a dreamer, but dreamers are necessary to make facts!”8

In short, she had come to conclude that “our worst foes are ignorance, poverty, and the unconscious cruelty of our commercial society. These are the causes of blindness; these are the enemies which destroy the sight of children and workmen and undermine the health of mankind.”9

One final factor that attended her decision to publicly commit to the socialist movement is less explicitly political but nonetheless important. In 1908, she wrote a sort of existential treatise titled The World I Live In. Keller felt that if she were to be taken seriously by society at large in the assertion of her right as a human being to discuss the affairs of that society, she would have to mount a fundamental intellectual self-defense against her many detractors.

[Scientific men] think that I can know very little about objects even a few feet beyond the reach of my arms. Everything outside of myself, according to them, is a hazy blur. Trees, mountains, cities, the ocean, even the house I live in are but fairy fabrications, misty unrealities.

Ideas make the world we live in, and impressions furnish ideas. My world is built of touch-sensations, devoid of physical color and sound; but without color and sound it throbs with life. Every object is associated in my mind with tactual qualities which, combined in countless ways, give me a sense of power, of beauty, or of incongruity.

It is not for me to say whether we see best with the hand or the eye. I only know that the world I see with my fingers is alive, ruddy, and satisfying. . . . The colors that glorify my world, the blue of the sky, the green of the fields, may not correspond exactly with those you delight in; but they are none the less color to me. The sun does not shine for my physical eyes, nor does the lightning flash, nor do the trees turn green in the spring; but they have not therefore ceased to exist, any more than the landscape is annihilated when you turn your back on it.

In sum, she asserted, “Between my experience and the experience of others there is no gulf of mute space which I may not bridge.”10


Monday, March 16, 2015

Mental illness and violence

Just as an FYI -

It is inaccurate to draw a correlation between mental illness and violence, or to explain an act of violence by alluding to a perpetrator's mental, psychological, or emotional state:

"Public opinion surveys suggest that many people think mental illness and violence go hand in hand. A 2006 national survey found, for example, that 60% of Americans thought that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else, while 32% thought that people with major depression were likely to do so." [http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/mental-illness-and-violence]

In actual fact:

"The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don't even realize it, because every year ... one in five American adults experience a mental health issue; one in 10 young people experience a period of major depression; and one in 20 Americans lived with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression" [http://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/myths-facts/]

Moreover:

"People with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime (Appleby, et al., 2001). People with severe mental illnesses, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis, are 2 ½ times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population (Hiday, et al.,1999)." [http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_violence.php]

All of this has a particular bearing on people of color, poor people, and those generally in the lower socio-economic class, all of whom tend to experience much higher rates of mental health problems than the rest of the population:

"That a relationship exists between poverty and mental illness was first established in the landmark New Haven study conducted by Hollingshead and Redlich (10), whose findings were published in 1958. Their principal conclusion was that there is a significant relationship between social class (SES or socio-economic status) and mental illness as regards the type and severity of the illness suffered as well as the type and quality of the treatment provided. Specifically, persons who were members of the lowest social stratum were the poorest, had a higher incidence of presumed serious mental illness and received the least adequate forms of treatment if they received any treatment at all." [http://www.madinamerica.com/2012/03/poverty-mental-illness-you-cant-have-one-without-the-other/]

Several further unfortunate results of the marginalization and stigmatization of people with mental illnesses is that they face very high rates of:

a) homelessness

"More than 124,000 – or one-fifth – of the 610,000 homeless people across the USA suffer from a severe mental illness, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They're gripped by schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression — all manageable with the right medication and counseling but debilitating if left untreated." [http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/27/mental-health-homeless-series/14255283/]

b) unemployment

"Most adults with mental illness want to work, and six in 10 can succeed with the right supports, according to the report. Yet only 1.7 percent received supported employment services in 2012. Just 17.8 percent of people receiving public mental health services were employed in 2012 – down from 23 percent in 2003. That’s an unemployment rate of more than 80 percent. [http://portside.org/2014-07-13/adults-serious-mental-illnesses-face-80-unemployment#sthash.Ui9Y6lVH.dpuf]

c) incarceration

" ... Kathryn Wooten of Los Angeles called 911 for help when her 23-year-old son Terrence suffered a mental breakdown in October 2011. ''The police came and I thought they were going to take him to the hospital but he wind up in county jail,'' said Wooten. Police say with few mental health beds available at state facilities, they have no choice but to leave the fate of people like Terrence Wooten to the criminal justice system.... The Department of Justice says up to 64 percent of inmates at local jails have some mental health problems. Using that statistic, the two largest jails in the United States, Cook County and LA County would become two of the largest mental institutions in the country - de facto." [http://www.cbsnews.com/news/patients-as-prisoners-jails-new-mental-health-institutions/]

" ... In a 2006 Special Report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that 705,600 mentally ill adults were incarcerated in state prisons, 78,800 in federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails. In addition, research suggests that "people with mental illnesses are overrepresented in probation and parole populations at estimated rates ranging from two to four times the general population" (Prins and Draper, 2009)." [http://nicic.gov/mentalillness]