Manufacturing Sympathy: Sarah Palin, Special Needs and Identity Politics
As the older brother of someone with Down Syndrome, I've been intrigued by Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's use of her son Trig during the campaign. It's strange to listen to her speak so tenderly about the "special love" that special needs children bring into the world on the heels of Republican rallies resembling lynch mobs, often incited by her characteristic vitriol. On Friday, Palin gave her first policy speech, which was-not surprisingly-dedicated to issues confronting special needs families. Watching it live on FOX News, I couldn't help but wonder if something was wrong with my television as she proceeded to announce how profoundly being the parent of a child with Down Syndrome has touched her life. It was the perfect advertisement for compassionate conservatism. Who could criticize this dedicated mother of a special needs baby?
It's tough. In her emotional speech, not only did Palin announce that she supports fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Act, she also stressed that she would fund more school services to meet the demands of special needs students, strengthen the National Institute of Health so that every family has a place to go for support and guidance, and modernize the Vocational Rehabilitation Act so that special needs adults can live independently if they are able and choose to do so. It sounds like the dream of every special needs family.
So what's the problem?
First of all, if elected, Sarah Palin will report to a powerful boss in the White House who has repeatedly called for a government-spending freeze during what is shaping up to be a long economic crisis. During the last presidential debate, Senator John McCain praised Palin's dedication to the special needs cause and commended what she has accomplished for the community as governor of Alaska. Senator Barack Obama also applaud Palin for increasing spending to special needs programs, but quickly pointed out that he doesn't understand how McCain would pay for doing the same thing across the nation if elected President-a contradiction worth exploring further.
It seems to me that with Palin we're seeing a new type of identity politics in which the Republicans are exploiting her image as a special needs advocate in order to win the votes of special needs families and appear like caring, compassionate conservatives-while avoiding the actual phrase Bush made popular during his 2000 campaign. It is easy to understand the appeal of this tactic within a special needs community that has been repeatedly letdown by both Republican and Democratic administrations. With Palin, at least, comes something crucial to identity politics: visibility.
However, Obama's question remains. How will a McCain administration pay for greater special needs programs if McCain declares a spending freeze? Furthermore, in the same debate, Obama pointed out the massive expense of the war in Iraq, stating that the U.S. government needs that money to improve such domestic programs. So while the McCain camp attempts to manufacture sympathy for Palin's teary-eyed speeches about special needs, in which she rightly claims that "the truest measure of a society is how it treats it's most vulnerable," all the evidence seems to indicate that sympathy-not federal dollars, which would smell too much like the stinky socialism that both Palin and McCain have been busy denouncing-is all that special needs families can expect from President McCain, at least during the on-going economic crisis or until the end of the war in Iraq, which McCain once famously claimed could last another 10,000 years. And then there is that possibility of bomb, bomb, bombing Iran...
So while it is all well and good to talk about supporting special needs families and to grant visibility to an overlooked population, it doesn't much matter if in the end it's all a campaign strategy to counter dominant images of a hostile, racist and militaristic ticket. Such politics is insulting to the very families that Palin seeks to speak for. The attempt to manipulate special needs families into a means to achieve dark objectives-just as Palin's poor baby Trig is being exploited by Republican spin doctors-is demeaning and yet another form of dirty politics being practiced by a desperate McCain campaign.
Yet as a member of a special needs family, the thing that bothers me the most is that while Palin herself claimed in Friday's speech that she and her family will learn far more from Trig then he will from them, it was obvious to me that she hasn't learned much so far. During 28 years of contact with the special needs world, the values I've seen demonstrated by people with Down Syndrome are radically different from the values I've seen on display on the Republican Party campaign trail this year. Hate, deceit and fear mongering is not something I associate with my brother and his special needs friends.
But don't take my word for it. Take a minute to read Dennis McGuire's 2005 National Association of Down Syndrome plenary address, "If People with Down Syndrome Ruled the World" . Among other things, based upon his experience as the Director of Psychosocial services at the Adult Down Syndrome Center in Park Ridge, Illinois, McGuire believes that if people with Down Syndrome were in charge, "People would be refreshingly honest and genuine," and "anger would only be allowed in special sound proof rooms." And to the big question, "If people with Down syndrome ran the world, would there be wars or murders?" McGuire answers with an unequivocal, "We don't think so!"
Sounds like a far cry from Palin's usual campaign speeches, as well as McCain's bloody agenda. Perhaps Palin should stop flaunting her son on the campaign trail, and actually take the time to learn the lessons she insinuates she's already learned from him.
Scott Boehm is a Ph.D. Candidate in Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of California, San Diego and a freelance writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.