Sunday, August 09, 2009

Disability and modern-day Nazism?

Last night, disabled activist Liz Crow sat in her wheelchair on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square dressed as a Nazi as part of the One and Another art project. It was a shocking image. Kind of like when Samuel L. Jackson dressed up as a Nazi in The Spirit (a terrible film, memorable only for putting a black man in a Nazi uniform). And then this morning, Nick Dupree shows us Donald Duck as a Nazi! But of course Liz Crow had far more dignity than either.

Liz Crow's brave and startling protest was to commemorate the victims of Aktion T4 and to draw attention to the relevance of those events for disabled people today. She says in the press release available here;
Today, the development of pre-natal screening and a rush to legal rights for newly disabled people to assisted suicide, show that disabled people’s right to life still needs to be defended. With a rise in hate crime, disabled children still excluded from mainstream schools, and over 340,000 disabled people (more than the population of Cardiff) living in institutions, disabled people still experience those historical values as a daily threat.”
Clair Lewis put it even more strongly;
"The values that the Nazis used to justify murdering quarter of million disabled people are just as strong today."

Now Nazism is over-rated. Nazism itself has become synonymous with total uncomplicated evil, the worst thing ever. It was, at the very least, a rather complicated evil and hardly the worst thing ever - very many times more people suffered and died in the Atlantic slave trade, for example, because of similarly nationalist and racist ideas.

These days the concept of Nazism is a touchstone of hyperbole. My favourite Nazi-related portmanteaus are econazi and feminazi. Environmentalism and feminism having exactly what in common with the far-right? Telling people to change their behaviour, apparently. The first Nazis took away people's freedom of speech, freedom of movement, the right to a private life and in many cases, life itself. These days, exactly the same kinds of people are making us feel ashamed for using plastic bags. Vee have ways of making your recycle und respect vimen!

But calling someone a Nazi is a good way of shutting them up. It's an insult, it turns people off and it silences debate. Nobody is going to engage with you in you compare them to the forces of tyranny and genocide. And clearly that's often way people are after. If nobody you disagree with engages with you, you can pretend that nobody (who isn't an evil Nazi) has any other arguments. I don't believe that of Liz Crow, Clair Lewis and other disabled activists for whom I have the utmost respect, and so I want to challenge their assertion.

The idea that modern disablism and the disablism of the Nazis are connected is not without merit. Personally, I've never heard anyone suggest that disabled people should be killed off but I do occasionally hear or read someone state that disabled people are an economic and social burden to everyone else, and it is imperative for current society and future populations that we abort foetuses which are likely to result in a disabled baby (even if the vast majority of disabled people could not be "screened-out"). But this isn't many people, certainly not most.

I have met, hear or read very many more people who think that disabled people are an economic and social burden but that, out of compassion, we should be looked after. They see reasonable accommodation as an act of charity, state benefits as alms. This causes no end of problems for us and it does leave us in a vulnerable position should the former rhetoric grow stronger. But is this comparable to Nazism?

I have written two lengthy posts on euthanasia if anyone wants to read my ultimately ambivalent views here and here. I'm not making an argument for one side or another here, just asking questions about some questions about the comparison, focusing on the most controversial issues of euthanasia and abortion.

Are the abortion of disabled foetuses and calls for the decriminalisation of assisted suicide driven by the same motives as the Nazi Aktion T4 programme?

As far as abortion is concerned, I'm afraid there is an echo. The individual decisions of pregnant women are always individual, but broader social attitudes are clear. Parents of disabled children (and disabled parents or non-disabled children) report the judgment of others that having their child was somehow irresponsible. Sarah Palin's choice to continue with her pregnancy when her unborn child screened positive for Down Syndrome has been presented both as an act of saintliness and profound selfishness - it was neither. I've written a lot about prevention here and here, but yeah, it's the same old. Don't subject your child to this half-life, don't burden society with this half-person.

But does that mean we shouldn't screen for impairments and we shouldn't allow women to have abortions on those grounds, just because the rhetoric stinks? Does the only way to make disabled people equal involve restricting women's reproductive freedoms? Would it not be better to focus on the creation of a world in which having a disabled child was not seen as a disaster?

Assisted-suicide is quite a different matter. Calls for decriminalisation are driven by ideas around compassion, the relief from tremendous suffering or simply freedom - the freedom for people with severe impairments to make the same self-destructive choices that the rest of us can.

Whether these ideas are misguided is up for debate. Point is, the non-disabled people most vocal about assisted suicide do not so much as imply that this is about disabled people being a burden to others. Tragically, some of the disabled people talking about assisted suicide consider themselves a burden, but that's not really how this argument is popularly made.

Are there similarities between legal assisted suicide as it might exist in the UK, the abortion of disabled foetuses and what the Nazis did to disabled people?

No. There's a very important word here and that's consent.

This was the biggest reason that T4 was ultimately abandoned. The Nazis didn't act with the consent of disabled people's families, let alone the disabled people themselves. There is a tremendous moral difference between an abortion which a woman consents to and a forced sterilisation. There is a similarly enormous difference between assisted suicide and murder. And whilst alas, many Germans could turn a blind eye when the Jewish family down the street disappeared, when it was their child, their parent or their sibling, it could not be born.

Being murdered, or having your reproductive choices violently removed are perhaps the greatest imaginable crimes against your person. Not that everything that may be consented to is necessarily okay, but at least there's some room for debate when there is consent.

And I think it is possible to increase the degree to which a person can give their consent. The more information a person has, the less pressure they are under, the more freedom they really have. Whatever the choice they have to make.

Could assisted-suicide be the first step on a slippery slope towards the persecution and genocide of disabled people?

Slippery slope arguments can be made about any change and are therefore best avoided.

In any case, it is very unlikely. I have plenty to say about the disablism that exists in the world today - as do others - but I still reckon that we're winning the battle. In general, things are better for disabled people in the UK now than they were five years ago, and even better than they were ten years ago. There are increasing reports of disability hate crime in the UK, but that may be because we've only very recently started talking about hate crime towards disabled people. Like any kind of crime against an oppressed group of people, reporting patterns and offending patterns may not completely coincide.

What is a real danger is unintended consequences. In the same way that women report feeling under increased pressure to abort a disabled foetus, there will be some severely ill people who will feel under pressure to opt out – or, perhaps even worse, some people with physical impairments and depression may find that their irrational suicidal thoughts are given some legitimacy by the society in which they live. This is a long way from genocide, but it would still be very very bad news.

The one thing I do feel really strongly about in all this is that there is no moral difference between the suicide of any two people who are not actually dying. The life of a young man who wants to die because he has a spinal injury is no less valuable than that of a young man who wants to die because he failed his exams or broke up with a beloved girlfriend.

But there may be ways of decriminalising assisted-suicide to prevent unnecessary suffering in death and preventing tragedy. If perhaps we think and talk about it for long enough?

Whatever happens, disabled people who consider themselves equal to non-disabled people need to be talking about this stuff and applying a little imagination. These are grey areas of morality; people have abortions or end their lives because they regard their chosen course as the lesser of two evils. I believe that we can and must decide which shade of grey is preferable for everyone, but seeing the matter in black and white missing the point entirely.


DesertRose said...

You said it!

The Goldfish said...

Thanks DesertRose! Good to see you about. :-)

Elizabeth McClung said...

I do not know time, nor was aware that this post is more than 7 days old or why that should matter.

This is a serious subject, you responded seriously, so I will respond that.

First, I applaud your direct and yet, to me inoffensive exposure of the overuse of 'Nazi' or what historians call the 'black hole' of history because once invoked as you point out, what can be said? Well also I know as this has been said in debate to me, that people forget what the word means, which is sort of relevant when the USA is going through a National Socialist examination of health care, and many National Socialist movements are going on. From the representation of the many can come the apathy of many during the horrid actions of the few.

Certain the National Socialist of Germany did not have the big book of Evil Plans, in fact the leader, like many leaders had a best seller, and then they did research and took programs like Eugenics from Darwin's grandson in the UK Eugenic's society or from the women of the Alberta Eugenics Society - women who were farming women, knew how to cull a herd and became politicians and set up a board (with a woman on it) in the 1930's to do a sterilization form of Eugenics on people, thousands of people.

Plus from the Eugenics Society of New York, all forms of sexuality and things like gambling were studied and decades ahead of other scientists it was decided that being left handed, being homosexual, alcoholic and a compulsive gambler all had a genetic component and thus needed a three point plan of 1) isolation - to stop interbreeding, 2) Sterilization - to stop escaped epileptics from having sex with anyone and 3) Elimination - ironically all detailed in a book entitled "Love" from 1924.

So, the people chosed for T4, the children chosen to the euthenized where not random but rather from the reasearch and papers, ones presented TO the governments of the UK, US and Canada amoung other countries in hopes that those countries would act in this fashion. The US did so to Criminals, BC and Alberta did so to people in institutions (!), and I haven't found out exactly what those in the UK did.

And yes, several horrific things happen every few years to decades which are not used as propeganda simply because they lack the organization and documentation of 'the Nazi's' - not because they killed less. I mean, the slave trade is still killing black men in the US with sickle cell, heart attacks and strokes.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Part II - Does it occur today?

I believe that whatever you want to call it (I call it 'passive Eugenics') the principals used in T4 ARE active today and yes, by governments but not in a direct but an indirect fashion.

For example, having a disability shortens your life. Well so does not having enough heat in the winter. If the government does not allow for enough heat subsidy for people with specific heat related disabilities, when they die, did they kill them out of a willful ignorance, a deliberate action or stupidity? And yet such things happen, people who recieve care don't, they get kidney infections and die of sepsus. One woman I saw frequently died because the Cardiff hospital told her family there was no portible generator in the hospital to be attached to a wheelchair; nor was the critical dependant ward air conditioned, even during a heat wave. Was she murdered or sustained by the hospital? She certainly had her quality of life and length of life determined by official policy. Would she have had 14 incidents of pneumonia in one year on the fixed ventilation system in that one room if other policies were implimented, or she were elsewhere. Yes, that is likely. So would she have lived longer. Yes. Is that T4?

Is the excessive delay in time between the reporting of a disability and the recognition of one, then of the equipment needed to help a person care for themselves or improve the quality of life in the UK cause major suffing of individuals? Does it do so in Canada? YES. Does the lack of care for the uninsured in the US cause many deaths a year? YES!

These all originate from official policies and the premise those policies are based on, beyond the nature of involving many agencies or paperwork is that 'nature sorts itself out' - sort of when people institutionalized for 40 or 50 years are let out without knowing if they have anywhere to go. Here is $200, and the governor just saved $14 million by closing that institution. Well, the area's homeless death rate spikes for the next 10 years. 'nature sorts itself out' - Is the governor creating a place where a squad of people with guns kill someone. No. But, for example, in a case my father worked in LA, did the closing without notification of all hospitals but one to non-insured, then at one point, all hospitals were closed to non-insured individuals so that a real person was driven around for hours, being denied at each hospital due to "Hospital Policy" (signed by Dr. John Smith and filed in triplicate) until they died. Yes. That happened. It happened many times. LA hospitals were eventually sued for dumping ill people presumed homeless in front of shelters (due to the camera security shelter's had identifying doctors) while still in life threatening condition in order to free up beds. That happened. That still happens.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Part III

While in Cardiff a heart surgeon in a town down the road, the second selection for heart surgery, was found to be grossly incompetent and killing individuals. It was publically determined and then then NHS also determined publically that due to shortages in that area, a surgeon who kills 50% of the patients and is incompetent, is still better than none. And so he worked on.

I cite these because they are easy to find, they are public events. The same sort of decisions are made about people with disabilities (of which there are doszens to hundreds of disabilities which require certain items or care for quality of life to life itself) and those who take care of them (that a supervisor who killed 11 seniors in a facility here by incompetence was transfered to another job for example). Can anyone anywhere require a hearing for a care worker or an investigation into the care given by a specific care worker? Can the police? Can the family of a dead relative? If not, that is an official policy and one which will affect (and end) lives.

That is T4 in my opinion. A slower T4, a more pathetic, "I'm not really responsible" version but one that exists all the less.

I will admit to bias, and that bias is that I will die sooner, much as my grandmother did before me, because of the care giving I do not recieve and the medical attention I do not get. Or in my grandmother's case was withdrawn from her; specificially her blood transfusions for her cancer because....she was depressed.

Anonymous said...

The Goldfish, you say equating Nazism with contemporary attitudes to disabled people is lazy thinking, but given the fact that today as we speak ill or disabled people are being "helped to die" without their consent, eugenism is happening before our very eyes.

The Goldfish said...

Elizabeth, thank you ever so much for your comment, I appreciate the time and effort that went into that.

And you're right. Eugenics was/ is much broader than the Nazis and disablism still kills. I guess the only question remains whether it is helpful to compare modern disablism to T4?

I suppose the same anxieties come up in all activism around which is a worse thing to risk between overstating or understating the way we see it - I think the Nazi thing is overstating the matter by quite a long way.

In fact, I'm kind of torn between what you call

A slower T4, a more pathetic, "I'm not really responsible" version but one that exists all the less.

and feeling that the original comparison is a little insulting to the memory of folk who were taken from their homes, carted off and killed by violence.

However, clearly those people who make this comparison mean it the way you do - and rightly or wrongly, fear the same about the possible legalisation of assisted suicide.

The only question remains is whether this is helpful rhetoric, whether is likely to get people's attention or turn people off. I'm unconvinced.

Anonymous, I don't think I can add much to what I wrote in my post and what I've said to Elizabeth, but I always appreciate comments so thanks for yours.

seahorse said...

Why have i been away so long??? A really excellent piece Goldfish

Bobby Steele said...

I have to make a correction to a very innacurate 'fact' that you state.

NAZISM: "National SOCIALISM" is NOT Right Wing. ALL Socialism is LEFT WING, but since Leftists are incapable of telling the truth, they always try to lay their attrocities on the good Right Wing.
Hitler was a LEFTIST - the same as STALIN, LENIN, MAO - you know - those LEFTIST mass murderers.
Is that why you downplay the obvious Nazi, Holocaust threat in the words of Robert Reich and Zeke Emanuel ? Or when Bill Clinton was suggesting that the economic problem was because of the Handicapped burden ?

I was born with spina Bifida. what would these Leftists have to say about the 'potential' for my life. I launched the East Village - ya gotta wonder how many other great people the Left has managed to abort.

bha said...

To Bobby Steele:
Nazis weren't purely socialist, despite the name, and Hitler's party had little in common with Stalin's regime, apart from a penchant for violence and aspects of fascism and totalitarian.

The truth is not a matter of determining how left or right they were, because these labels only very poorly describe political ideology. Even comparing "left" and "right" parties in different countries is not simple--let alone doing so over different time periods.

It's the same game of "hot potato" people of any political alignment play with the Nazis precisely because nobody wants to "own" them. Of *course* the nazis always belong to the opposing, "evil" political viewpoint. They're the nazis, and if you can compare anyone to a nazi, you can discount the merits of any arguments they make.

I think this is precisely why real discussions end when someone uncritically invokes the nazis on an unrelated topic--it's obvious nonsense intended to appeal to emotions and take discussion away from the issue at hand.

(That doesn't exactly apply to this thread, but in general that's what I make of it.)

Just for the record:
"The term national socialism was coined by French intellectual Maurice Barr├Ęs. His rejections of pluralism, individualism and materialism was based on a combination of the anti-Semitism of the counter-revolutionary right, and the socialism, nationalism, and republicanism of the anti-liberal left, in nineteenth-century France"

"Hitler's National Socialism was founded on a biological determinist Weltanschauung (World View), in which history is seen as a racial struggle in the social Darwinian sense. It was a Messianic movement, centered in the F├╝hrerprinzip (Leader principle) and anchored in the idea that Germany could be saved only through racial purity. Based on antisemitism, anti-Marxism and hyper-nationalism, it manifested itself through pan-Germanism and the quest for Lebensraum (Living Space)"

They don't resemble many other parties, left or right, but their sense of conservative and normative social values and their opposition to Marxism are pretty decent reasons to classify them as a far right party.

But no other ideology really owns the Nazis--it'd have to espouse the same anti-Marxism, anti-semitism and racist values of purity.

I'll make another post for points more directly relevant to the OP...

bha said...

I think I agree with most of what you said. Wrote. The Nazi idea of "strengthening" the nation has been replaced by simple economic concerns, but I think the end result is eerily similar, and could also manage to legitimize a lot of oppressive policies.

Consent really is key, though I think injustices are bound to occur as long as certain groups' very *existence* is stigmatized and marginalized. Ideally, we could have things like legal assisted suicide without fear that certain doctors would exploit that. But the pressures of society and mere reality can easily conspire to make it a less than free choice.

It's like being in the US, where the "free market" (not actually free or much of a market) approach provides access to the best healthcare on the planet...if you're wealthy and don't have any pre-existing conditions, anyway.

Ditto for screening f(o)etuses. The other issue there that sticks out to me is that it's definitely in the interest of the mother's health to know if there are conditions which will complicate pregnancy or pose a threat to the potential child. The issue, again, is that doctors and society at large can use that to stamp out "undesirables".

I'm certainly conflicted on whether or not it's even OK to abort because of possible disabilities. I certainly think it's better to live disabled than to not be born, but I definitely think that any kind of mandate to stamp out disability--rather than leave it up to the woman--official or unofficial, would be a terrible thing.

I guess bringing T4 into modern contexts can be useful. Particularly if you can get people to make a connection between the Nazi (systematic killing) approach and systems that do the same by passive means. If you can't, there's a big chance for backfire.

I think the really good thing about it is that it's calling out the 'apathy' approach as being as vile as the Nazi approach.

Sins of omission can certainly be as bad as those of commission.