Tag: history

Disability Wasn’t Mentioned in the State of the Union. Should We Care?

Disability Wasn’t Mentioned in the State of the Union. Should We Care?

This past Tuesday, President Obama gave his last State of the Union address. As a policy wonk and a card carrying member of the politics fandom, I enjoyed it tremendously. As a disability rights advocate, I was underwhelmed. Except for a heartfelt section calling for more medical research on curing cancer, the President failed to bring up people with disabilities in his remarks. This is not altogether unusual. While President Obama will have many disability rights achievements as part of his legacy when he leaves office next year, he has rarely acknowledged the disability community in his remarks to the nation.

I have complicated feelings about that. After all, it isn’t as if President Obama has not done a tremendous amount for the disability community. The President’s Affordable Care Act is perhaps the single most important piece of disability rights legislation since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) itself, though most people don’t see it as such. And yet, the benefits of the ACA are designed first and foremost for the general public, and it has been sold in those terms. Very few people think of Obamacare as a gift to the disabled. Perhaps that is as it should be. But the minimal attention paid to the disability community in President Obama’s public addresses does leave one with the impression that the White House does not view disabled Americans as a group worth pandering to.

It is not as if Presidents addressing the disability community in their State of the Union remarks has no precedent in modern political history. George H.W. Bush, who championed and signed the ADA, made reference to the legislation in three of his four State of the Union addresses. Bill Clinton used his 1999 State of the Union to propose a modest long-term care tax credit as well as to call upon Congress to pass legislation making it easier for disabled people to remain in the workforce. In his 2000 address, he followed up to commend Congress for passing that bill into law.

George W. Bush focused on a more specific part of the community, but still emphasized disability services in at least three State of the Unions, twice calling on Congress to re-authorize the Ryan White Act supporting individuals with HIV/AIDS, and held a legitimately impressive record regarding improving treatment for HIV/AIDS internationally. An earlier State of the Union referenced his New Freedom Initiative, a Presidential agenda for expanding disability equality (albeit one with rather limited outcomes).

What’s galling is that President Obama has an extraordinarily strong disability rights record, arguably far more so than that of most or all of his predecessors. The Affordable Care Act’s ban on insurers discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions is a potentially game-changing step for disabled Americans. The Obama Administration’s Justice Department has engaged in unprecedented enforcement of the Supreme Court’s Olmstead v. L.C. decision, a 1999 court ruling requiring states to offer community services to seniors and people with disabilities that sat ignored for most of the Bush Administration. And thanks to an executive order signed by the President in 2010, the federal workforce has reached a record high in employing workers with disabilities.

So does it matter that President Obama doesn’t talk about people with disabilities, if his disability policy record is impressive? I think it does. During my time on the National Council on Disability and in my ongoing work with ASAN, I’ve seen the policy process up close and personal. Many of us in the advocacy community are aware of how many of the Administration’s most important disability policy outcomes came from the personal commitment and expertise of senior appointees. As Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Tom Perez made freeing people with disabilities from institutions and nursing homes a personal cause. Similarly, figures like Sharon Lewis, Sam Bagenstos and Patricia Shiu made aggressive enforcement of disability rights law a priority across every area they had responsibility. Much of the disability policy legacy of the Obama Administration can be attributed to the energy and vision they and others like them brought to their roles.

No doubt the President approved of those initiatives, and he deserves credit for appointing people who sincerely care about the community to important positions. Personnel is policy, after all. But not every political appointee comes with a personal connection to the disability community. Most take their cue from the White House as to which constituencies and projects should be prioritized on an agenda that can not possibly encompass every worthy cause. When people with disabilities are mentioned as a priority in a State of the Union, it lights a fire under every government employee. We need that kind of attention and focus.

Jefferson, Jabotinsky and the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre

As I mentioned in my inaugural blog post, this being a personal blog I will on occasion write about things that interest me and perhaps few others. The internet being a vast and bizarre place, maybe someone of similar interests will stumble across this post.

Thanks to my newfound love of the hip hop musical history Hamilton, I’ve been reading some of the Founding Father’s correspondence on founders.archives.gov. I’d recommend the hobby to anyone. Few pleasures compare to going through someone else’s mail – all the more so if they happened to have started your country.

There’s a lot worth writing about in those archives, but one thing that jumped out of me in particular was a letter Jefferson wrote to John Jay on September 19th, 1789 while America’s Minister to France. Shortly before his departure, Jefferson began writing regular updates on the state of internal politics in Revolutionary France to John Jay, then Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the nascent United States.

“Civil war is much talked of and expected: and this talk and expectation has a tendency to beget it. What are the events which may produce it? The want of bread… A public bankruptcy…[and] the absconding of the king from Versailles. 

This [last] has for some time been apprehended as possible. In consequence of this apprehension, a person whose information would have weight, wrote to the Count de Montmorin adjuring him to prevent it by every possible means, and assuring him that the flight of the king would be the signal of a St. Barthelemi against the aristocrats in Paris and perhaps thro the kingdom. M. de Montmorin shewed the letter to the queen, who assured him solemnly that no such thing was in contemplation. His shewing it to the queen proves he entertained the same distrust with the public. It may be asked what is the queen disposed to do in the present situation of things? Whatever rage, pride and fear can dictate in a breast which never knew the presence of one moral restraint.”

There is much of interest in this correspondence – the casual contempt Jefferson possesses for the morals of the 33-year old Marie Antoinette and the perilous political situation in France are both crystal clear. But neither of these things are new for any reasonably educated student of history. No, what I find fascinating is the particular reference Jefferson uses to warn of a potential massacre of the French aristocracy.

“The flight of the king would be the signal of a St. Barthelemi against the aristocrats in Paris and perhaps thro the kingdom”

What is this St. Barthelemi that Jefferson and the French aristocracy feared? How well known must it have been that he felt he could drop it casually into an official diplomatic communication to his superiors in the new American government?

As it happens, I had heard the term previously – in Hillel Halkin’s excellent recent biography of Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. In 1898, over a hundred years after Jefferson’s letter, Jabotinsky attended a lecture by Nachum Syrkin, an early proponent of socialist Zionism. Jabotinsky, then an 18-year old law student at the University of Berne with little prior knowledge of Zionism, commented that he had insufficient knowledge of socialism to commit to that ideology, but he felt that Europe’s Jews must make plans to flee to Palestine as “the only hope of avoiding a Bartholomew’s Night”. 

What was this St. Bartholomew’s Massacre? More importantly, how was it so well known that a world renowned statesman like Jefferson and a Jewish teenager like Jabotinsky could each casually drop it into conversation a century apart from each other, both with a perfect expectation of being understood by those around them?

The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place in 1572 during a brief interlude in the French Wars of Religion between the Catholic establishment and the Protestant Huguenots. Huguenot leaders had gathered in Paris, a rabidly Catholic city, to celebrate the upcoming wedding of the King’s sister Margaret, a Catholic, to the Protestant prince Henry of Navarre. The marriage was designed to cement a fragile peace between the warring factions. 

Unfortunately, several days after the wedding, the Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny was shot by an assassin working for parties still unknown. The bullet failed to inflict life-threatening injuries, but Catholic leaders feared retaliation from the Huguenots and decided to preemptively kill their leadership. Acting on instructions from the King and his mother, Catherine de’Medici, the King’s Guard engaged in a coordinated assassination of several dozen Huguenot leaders in the early hours of the morning. 

Seeing that the King was ready to sanction violence against Protestants, Parisian mobs quickly formed to hunt them down throughout the city. For the next three days, mass slaughters ensued throughout Paris, with men, women and children murdered in their homes and in the streets, their bodies then dumped into the river Seine. Elsewhere in France, similar events took place over the next several weeks. Modern historians place the death toll somewhere between 5,000 to 30,000 people. After the Paris massacre, the city had to pay workmen to bury and pull from the banks of the Seine over a thousand bodies.

These grisly details certainly justify the use of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre as a natural allusion for mass violence against a specific group. But how to explain the persistence of this reference, centuries after the event? 

This is what I find truly striking, and indicative of the degree to which 1898 and 1789 (and perhaps even 1572) belonged to the same era in a way that 2015 does not. The St. Bartholomew’s Massacre remained a common reference as late as 1916, when the famous (and incredibly racist) filmmaker D.W. Griffith incorporated it as a major part of the narrative in one his films. But as World War One raged on, it would soon become irrelevant as a symbol for mass slaughter.

In the end, the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre could persist for three hundred years as an easy reference for horrifying violence because it was relatively rare in European history that such violence took place against a group that was accepted as part of the European polity. While Jews were regularly subject to such massacres, most European nations legally prohibited Jews from citizenship till the 19th century, with horrifying anti-semitism continuing (and in some places, intensifying) well beyond that. Europe’s pervasive and institutionalized anti-semitism prevented such events from being seen with horror in the historical record. 

Ditto colonial massacres or the many and varied forms of violence that accompanied the slave trade. Europeans did not see violence against Jews or Africans as truly capable of motivating any form of visceral horror. St. Bartholomew’s Massacre, taking place as it did against a European Christian population (albeit a minority one rabidly hated by the French populace), carried more resonance. After all, it was very unusual to see violence on that scale against people who “mattered”.

The 20th century brought a succession of sectarian massacres that made insignificant the mere tens of thousands of victims of St. Bartholomew’s. After Gallipoli or the trench warfare of France in World War One, let alone the industrialized murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, the St Bartholomew’s massacre no longer stood out. Even Jabotinsky, who foresaw the danger and spent his entire adult life attempting to open the gates of Palestine to allow Europe’s Jews to escape before it was too late, would have had a hard time imagining the depths of horror that the 20th century would bring. No modern commentator would reference St. Barthelemi as the archetype of eliminationist violence. Terrible as it is to realize, the 20th century made small potatoes of the most horrifying event that 18th and 19th century thinkers could think of.