14 October 2009

Brown ≠ Oedipus

There once was a man walking under the leafy boughs of the West End of Glasgow, searching for the Kelvingrove art gallery and museum. With him he brought a furry associate. His padding guide dog. Losing his way in the highways and byways, he stopped a passer by, asking her how to get to the red sandstone building from where he was now. After a moment’s thought, the lady sagged at the middle, and bending down beside the Labrador retriever’s lugs, proceeded to advise the hound to take the first right, second left, then straight on ahead.

Its sounds apocryphal – but similar little dramas of folk’s awkwardness and daft misconceptions about disability are common in our society. I’ve met a wheelchair user who frequently finds would-be Christly souls laying their uninvited hands on him. Another woman I’ve encountered, who has a bone anchored hearing aid, recounted to me similar experiences of the lunatic pious and their busy hands. Although not every member of society thinks they can personally instil divine energies, our more general, powerful discourses about disability continue to emphasise medical models, the dramatisation is one of tragedy and the thing devoutly to be wished is not social change but the dim and anticipated mysteries of cure. The politics of disability has striven to reject these tales and these policy priorities, and instead ask – what does society do to make impaired people’s lives more difficult? What does our built environment assume about the modal characteristics of its users? How can we plan our social life more effectively, both architecturally and procedurally? In what ways do our attitudes pose barriers which are unfair, unjust and unnecessary?

Among politically active disabled people over the recent political past, forging common cause among those who have been disabled by social choices has been a central rhetorical device. Implicit in this argument is a public and properly unembarrassed avowal of your status as a disabled person. It is in this context that I’m interested in how folk have been talking about Gordon Brown’s retinas – and more sharply, how Brown himself has historically contrived to conceal his disabilities in a reactionary way, pandering to the stereotypes of a clueless and gormless public. I wanted to start us off with a piece I found on the BBC’s section on disabilities, called Ouch, drafted by Disability Bitch in 2007. She does not mince her words, but does mince Mr Brown for what she regards as his connivance at disguising his disability as though it were something about which he ought to be ashamed.

Watching the political coverage, I was surprised by the vocabulary Brown used to discuss the issue with Andrew Marr. On subsequent Politics Show Scotland pieces, Nicola Sturgeon rather drably described the speculations on his sight as “distasteful” and I think, she largely misses the point. Distasteful is aloofness distilled, a word saved for grubby sex tales among those contriving to be lofty and above such “gutter politics”. The correcting ointment for those who think the speculation is distasteful is typically a resort to the language of privacy and a personal medical history. It leaves matters concealed and lets off innuendo-totting speculators with the allegation they are simply naughty or scatological souls.

They’re not. They’re grotesque. By peddling vindictive and patronising stories about disability for purely political purposes, in their pursuit of one stodgy man, they trample on the public involvement of innumerable other visually impaired people in Britain. Moreover, they foster an oppressive, spiritualising approach to blindness. The story is presented like a Greek tragedy. Benighted politically, the Fates conspire to dim Brown’s eyes, a metaphorical conjunction and a divine judgement. Brown isn’t Oedipus. Retinal tears are not the vindictive rendings of the Furies.

The answer to such narratives is not limp citations of privacy. It isn’t distasteful. Rather, the whole spun tale is an unmitigated assault on the stature of visually impaired citizens of the United Kingdom, which ought to be recognised for the unjust priggery it is. It is exemplary of Labour’s heartlessness and heatlessness that their responses on this issue have been so flat, so bereft of any crusading sense of the injustice of the thing. Who then to blame? Turn your eyes to the fat spider in the middle of it all, to Brown himself. I’m with the Disability Bitch on this point. Brown cannot find inner magma to spew. If once the volcanic energies gathered in him, they have now hardened into bare rock and the pervasive inauthenticity which has been that man’s bane. He cannot fire hot answers, and due to his slipperiness, he has furnished the baying baiters with their material. I'm sure visually-impaired citizens won't be thanking him for that.

1 comment :