This was originally published on October 16, 2008, on the Still Life With Shark Blog. My brother Ben re-posted it on some site that I can't remember what it is. It ended up getting over 10,000 views in the next few hours, resulting in many comments praising me and my first comments of people calling me names and attacking me. In anticipation of Le Mixeur Sharky: Nine Stories, here it is again...
This has been much written about in many spaces with far greater readership than this blog, but I feel compelled to take a break from my tales of school placements to share some comments that reveal the emergence of an inevitable autism backlash.
Michael Savage is a UC Berkley Graduate and former herbalist, turned "Compassionate" Conservative talk show host. In 2003, he was fired from his show on MSNBC for the following rant after a caller insulted him, then identified himself as being gay:
"Oh, you're one of the sodomites! You should only get AIDS and die, you pig! How's that? Why don't you see if you can sue me, you pig? You got nothing better than to put me down, you piece of garbage? You got nothing to do today? Go eat a sausage and choke on it. Get trichinosis. OK, got another nice caller here who's busy because he didn't have a nice night in the bathhouse and is angry at me today?"
He later defended his actions by claiming he didn't realize he was on the air when he said it. Savage has waged a long-term (and still ongoing) assault on the gay and lesbian community, often referring to "the gay mafia," likening the legalization of same-sex marriage to making it legal to marry a horse or a mule, and comparing flamboyant homosexuality to the excesses of the Weimar Republic, which he claims gave rise to Hitler and the Nazis.
Despite having lost his show on MSNBC, Savage remains one of the most popular radio talk show hosts in the world. His show is broadcast on 350 stations, with 8.25 million listeners.
On his July 16th show, Savage took time out from the gay-bashing to unleash a sickening attack on some old standby targets of conservatives - minorities and the poor - and also upon two new targets: asthmatic children and children with autism.
From the July 16 edition of Talk Radio Network's The Savage Nation:
'Now, you want me to tell you my opinion on autism, since I'm not talking about autism? A fraud, a racket. For a long while, we were hearing that every minority child had asthma. Why did they sudden -- why was there an asthma epidemic amongst minority children? Because I'll tell you why: The children got extra welfare if they were disabled, and they got extra help in school. It was a money racket. Everyone went in and was told [fake cough], "When the nurse looks at you, you go [fake cough], 'I don't know, the dust got me.' " See, everyone had asthma from the minority community. That was number one.
Now, the illness du jour is autism. You know what autism is? I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is.
What do you mean they scream and they're silent? They don't have a father around to tell them, "Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot."
Autism -- everybody has an illness. If I behaved like a fool, my father called me a fool. And he said to me, "Don't behave like a fool." The worst thing he said -- "Don't behave like a fool. Don't be anybody's dummy. Don't sound like an idiot. Don't act like a girl. Don't cry." That's what I was raised with. That's what you should raise your children with. Stop with the sensitivity training. You're turning your son into a girl, and you're turning your nation into a nation of losers and beaten men. That's why we have the politicians we have.
It can be daunting, even awe-inspiring, to stare straight into the face of such galactic proportions of stupidity, wretchedness, and depravity as these comments. There's also a temptation to just ignore it. After all, why even dignify such pap with a response?
But consider this: 8.25 million listeners. And consider this: now we have "comedian" Denis Leary joining in on the fun in his newly released book:
“There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks . . . to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons. I don’t give a shit what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you - yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”
Pardon me for the jarring juxtaposition, but let's go straight from Savage and Leary to a slightly more enlightened human being, Martin Luther King:
“Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.”
And let us make no mistake about it: the Savages and Learys of the world are cowards. They are cowards, and thus the question "is it safe?" comes up. Sadly, they don't even need to consciously ask this question any more. Of course it's safe. Assaulting children is always safe. Persecuting those without a forum to defend themselves - whether they be children, people with disabilities, the impoverished, the sickly, or some blessed combination of these - is always safe.
And there's no doubt it is all expedient and politic. It's vitriol such as this that fuels the allegiance of the "Savage Nation," keeping the ratings up. And as far as Leary, the "edgy" persona he cultivated in order to propagate his comedic career has now expeditiously found a tow hook in the form of Savage.
And so where does conscience and what is right enter in? Sadly, it once again is left to the muted voices of those who are being attacked, those voiceless people that bullies like Savage and Leary delight in piling on. Usually, those people consist of people of color, homosexuals, immigrants, poor folks, Muslims, or some combination of the above.
Today, as a parent of a child with Autism, it's my turn.
Let's start with what is not right.
The assertion that minority children fake asthma in order to garner excessive welfare benefits - even when divorced from the repugnant and typical insinuations that people or color are lazy free-loaders who devote their lives to exploiting "the system" - is inane.
According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH), low-income children with diagnosed asthma, compared to children generally, suffer disproportionate levels of hardships such as gaps in insurance coverage, housing problems, and insufficient food after diagnosis.
Furthermore, the children most likely to experience hardships are those afflicted with severe asthma. In fact, 78% of low-income children with severe asthma experienced one or more of the above-mentioned hardships, compared to 64% for children with mild to moderate asthma.
And, in spite of this obvious need for services, according to NIH, "children with severe asthma were no more likely to use housing, childcare or SSI benefits, and were less likely to get WIC benefits than children with less severe asthma."
So not only are children with asthma not reaping untold fortunes from the debilitated social welfare system of the United States, they are actually suffering most from its failures. And the more severe their condition, the less assistance they are likely to receive.
The reason minority children are suffering disproportionately from asthma is because minority children are suffering disproportionately from poverty. And with poverty comes greatest exposure to the side-effects of our corporate, toxic culture.
Environmental Racism. What could possibly be more tragic than the fact that such a phrase needs to exist? Yet it exists out of perfectly legitimate reasons. Our society, as presently constructed, necessitates the creation of massive quantities of filth and toxicity, and all that toxic mire must be generated, exploited, and dumped somewhere. And you can rest assured that isn't going to happen in an affluent white community. It's going to happen somewhere where the people are poor, powerless, and disenfranchised. It is going to be inflicted upon the same people that the Savages and Learys of the world inflict their vitriol.
Take an extreme case for example. East St. Louis. East Saint Louis is 98% African American. It has one of the highest rates of child asthma in America.
The people of East St. Louis are impoverished and powerless, as is the City itself. Most rely on welfare to survive, as local commerce and industry are almost non-existent. Even the city government has laid off most of its employees over the last 20 years due to lack of funds.
East St. Louis lies in the Mississippi River's floodplain, surrounded by the Illinois Bluffs. The bluffs, predominantly white and middle to upper class, have never been compelled to pay taxes to assist with flood control, despite the fact that it is their drainage that floods the floodplain and East St. Louis. East St. Louis lacks the funds to be able to pay for this itself.
The flooding in East St. Louis is especially problematic, because the deficient sewage systems of the town are entirely contaminated with the toxins of the chemical plants that surround the town. When flooding occurs, the poison in these sewers flows through the streets and the homes of East St. Louis.
Monsanto and Pfizer have maintained chemical plants here for years. Apart from the release of toxins into the sewer system (not to mention the soil and the drinking water), the plants release a steady stream of smoke that literally forms a perpetual cloud over all of East St. Louis. From time to time, the plant emits a blast considered to be toxic, at which time an alarm sounds. People who have breathed the smoke get a payment of a few hundred dollars, if they first sign a release relieving the company from liability. The companies that operate these plants have formed small incorporated areas, outside the jurisdiction of East St. Louis, and therefore are exempt from paying any taxes to the city.
So, to recap: affluent white communities on the bluffs are excused from assuming fiscal responsibility for the preventable occurrence of the flooding of East St. Louis. Multinational corporations, earning billions of dollars in revenue, are excused from taking responsibility for preventing the release of their toxic chemicals upon the environment and the residents, and from cleaning up the released toxins. The voiceless people of East St. Louis absorb all the misery that comes from all this, and their children become afflicted with asthma and other diseases, such as lead poisoning, liver tumors, and abscesses.
But heaven forbid a mother in East St. Louis, out of desperation, should ever once coach her child to fake a cough in the misguided hope that this will somehow derive them an additional benefit of some sort. For this act will surely be noted by the ever-observant, astute mind of Savage, who will quickly pass it along to his 8.25 million "listeners" as evidence that their bigotry is actually righteousness.
As for Leary...Diagnoses of Autism tend not to come from a "shrink," or a "crackerjack whack job" as he so assonantly describes them. Perhaps Leary has not heard, but autism is not a psychological or psychiatric condition. It is a neurological disorder. Diagnosis, in our case, initially came from a medical practitioner, with the advisory of licensed physical, occupational, and speech therapists. Eventually, a proper diagnosis should come from a neurologist, a process we have yet to go through, but will likely have to if we ever hope to receive a state-provided benefit.
Between the two of them they did say something that is right. That would be Savage. He is right that Sharky - a child diagnosed with autism - lacks a father who calls him an idiot, a moron, a putz, a dummy, a brat, or a fool. He is right that Sharky lacks a father who tells him not to cry, not to act like a girl.
Savage claims to have a father who told him all these things, and out of cowardice proclaims his father was right, and begs us all to not deviate from his father's methodology, perhaps out of some desperate dream that universal adherence to this cancerous way will somehow vindicate it, and provide Savage with a specious peace in the sewage-flooded nest he has sought shelter in.
Despite his venom, despite his daily efforts to seduce 8.25 million listeners into his own cauldron of hell, I feel genuine compassion and pity for him.
Years ago, in his HBO special, “No Cure For Cancer,” Leary spoke – touchingly in fact – of his tough Irish father, and the understood rule that even a small child was not permitted to cry, even upon having an arrow lodged in his head.
I feel genuine compassion for him as well.
I cannot, however, adhere to the path they beckon us toward. I will never do my child like that, and I trace it back to a lunch break years ago at a Wendy's in Bellingham, Washington.
I was working as a barista, and if I neglected to bring a lunch with me to work, the only place I could make it to during my 30 minute lunch break was the Wendy's adjacent to the the coffee shop. I sat there one day, eating a salad, and noticed my place mat was adorned with rows and rows of pictures of children.
I read that these children were all foster children, and we fast-food eaters were being asked by the Wendy's corporation to consider adopting one of them. About 3 rows down, slightly to the right of center, my eyes locked in on one of the photos. Even in small size, on a fuzzy printout discolored slightly by my soda's condensation, this child's eyes burned. The look was simply, purely, unmistakably one of wounded pride. The child was cooperating with the adults around him by posing and smiling for the picture, perhaps realizing that the emotions he exuded for this photo could very well dictate whether or not he found a home to live in. And at the same time, he seemed fully aware of how wrong this all was.
This child, as all children, had an innate sense of the promise of existence, and consequently knew that this promise had been broken. Born a proud warrior, and now, by the age of 8, disillusioned and hurt. Wounded pride, the promise of existence betrayed.
And I thought to myself right then and there, that should I ever have a child I will fight with everything I have to make sure this never happens to him. And years later, when I found out I was to be a father, I made this vow to myself and to my unborn child:
Whatever happens, no matter how tired, frustrated, or desperate the challenges of raising you make me, I will never shame you. I will never insult you. I will never, ever do anything to take away your pride. If I ever were to do this to you, it would be a violation of what is right, and it would be a betrayal of you. And should I ever betray you as such, I would not at all blame you if you found it difficult to ever trust another soul. And my apologies would then go out to the world for having cast another lost, hurt, betrayed soul into its midst.
And I thought clearly of what my hopes were for my child. And they were simple. I hoped that I would have a healthy, happy child. And I hoped that my child, both from his own innate strength and from my support, would have the self-confidence, pride, and strength of character to be his own person, to follow his own path, and withstand any indignities the world might throw at him and stay true to himself.
That, to me, is what it means to be a man (not a beaten man: Savage and Leary are the beaten men). And at the same time, let's not draw lines along gender. Sharky is a boy, and so I talk in terms on what it means to be a man. But truth be told, this is what it means to be human.
There exists a higher plane of being, one that transcends this messy matter of arguing with the crippled and wounded thinking of Savage and Leary. Having just now sufficiently vented my spleen, I now am on this plane, and I find myself – oddly yet comfortably – capable of devoting the same vow I gave the unborn Sharky to Savage and Leary.
The Savages and Learys, when taken in proper context, are our Bodhisattvas, always nudging us closer to enlightenment. Their attacks on children with Autism, people of color, the poor, and homosexuals, have reawakened me to the presence of all of these communities within me.
I am the parent of a child with Autism, and am raising that child with a lesbian couple. I am the child of a man who grew up in abject poverty, suffering all the hardships outlined in the NIH reports. The same man spent the better part of his adult life as a devoted teacher and advocate for low-income youth, incarcerated youth, and miseducated youth - the vast majority of whom were people of color.
All of these communities come together within me, just as many communities come together within most of us. And as the attackers grow bored with their usual punching bags, their expedience and cowardice compels them to seek new targets that they perceive to be voiceless. But with each new community they attack, they step upon the sacred grounds of more and more of these "voiceless." And in doing so, they awaken us to our commonality, they drive us towards the realization that we are all together. And perhaps this realization will give us our voice.
For Savage and Leary, I truly have the same hopes as I do for Sharky, just as I hope for this for myself, just as I hope for this for all of you.
Really now, what else could I possibly hope for?
“A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave.”
- Mohandas Gandhi