Monday, February 24, 2014

Worlds collide

This is what today was going to be about. The highlights from the Rachel Smalley hour of last Thursday, February 20, and how she ‘cut through complexity’ in the debate (there’s a debate?) on the mainstreaming of intellectually disabled children in our public schools. Citing the case of a young man with Asperger’s and dyslexia who was excluded from Green Bay High last year, Smalley proposed that
[w]orlds can collide when you merge children with special needs into the mainstream education system. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Our children, you see, belong to different worlds, which sometimes collide, with deleterious results. But Smalley had a good news story, too, which happened at her own son’s preschool. Here a child with autism initially presented as ‘extremely dysfunctional’. He was unable to socialise and exhibited all sorts of strange behaviours. But then something changed, and he became like the others.
He is now a fabulous, functioning little boy who’s social and interactive. You would never know he's autistic.
The good news story, as it turns out, was even more offensive than the bad news one. I wanted to sit across a table from Ms Smalley and tell her that when my daughter engages in some of her classically autistic behaviours, she is not being dysfunctional: she is being herself. Furthermore, that my aspiration for her is not that some day someone will never know she’s autistic, but rather that she may find her own place in society, a place of reciprocal acceptance and meaningful inclusion. For this to be possible, I am quite positive it’s not her that we must change. It’s society.

This is what today was going to be about: the beginning of the Smalley piece, and the rest, which is equally upsetting and damaging. But it won’t be, because Autism and Oughtisms has drafted her own response, one that is far more comprehensive, reasoned and lucid than mine would have been. I offer the following paragraph solely for sampling purposes:
I don’t think Smalley means harm, even though her article does harm. I don’t think she set out to misconstrue reality, I just think she did inadequate research into autism, special needs, and the state of the current education system. I would like to think that when we engage in the debate that she calls for – about mainstreaming and special needs children – that people like her will hear our arguments and realise that moving towards inclusion really is in the best interests of all students; that our children are not a threat, they are an opportunity for everyone’s betterment. That there is nothing inherently impossible about integrating our classrooms to better reflect societal reality; the disabled, the different, the differently-abled, are all around us anyway, they are part of our world and deserve to be. We can recognise that some students may never fit well into a mainstream classroom, but we need to know and make sure that the reason they don’t fit in is not simply because we gave up on the disabled. We need to be sure that when a child is excluded from a school, it really is because it was the best and only decision left, rather than the current situation where our kids are so often not even allowed in the front door.
The piece is that good from beginning to end. So go read it. Then come back, if you want, and we’ll talk about something else.


Over the weekend, I was included in a feature on blogging by Jonathan Milne for the Herald on Sunday. It’s an appalling piece, and in hindsight I can’t fathom how I could possibly have thought that it would be a good idea to take part in it, given that I was told fairly early on that the other main subjects were Cameron Slater and Martyn Bradbury. So how could this develop into anything other than an ‘angry male partisan bloggers are coming to eat your babies’ story? It was also rather naïve of me to think that I had been chosen for anything other than the Willie and JT controversy angle, and that Milne might have read my blog, like, ever, if only for research purposes. But I guess I had a good run with reporters over the last few months, and then hubris did the rest, as I fancied I might be able to argue against the premise of the piece, like some sort of half-naked Homeric hero. However, Milne and his puerile frame wouldn’t be denied, and so the few snippets of our long conversation that made it into print paint the charming picture of an irascible immigrant who clearly thinks very little of his country of adoption – yet for some reason won’t just bugger off – and who is bent on ‘shutting down the voices with which he disagrees’. Evidence for this includes how I ‘blocked the libertarian Herald on Sunday columnist Damien Grant on Twitter after a disagreement’, in spite of my patient efforts to explain that I did so because he wouldn’t stop pestering me. In the world of Herald on Sunday journalism, telling a Herald on Sunday journalist to go bother someone else is the worst form of censorship.

In the most extravagantly gratuitous piece of misquoting – of an email, no less – Milne managed to imply that I was a draft-dodger, thereby casting a sinister light on my reasons for emigrating to New Zealand. (Blog faithfuls will know I did in fact serve, and with interest.) But what bothers me most is the effort I wasted arguing for the patient work of so many bloggers outside of the braying, ego-driven few – amongst whom Jonathan Milne is more than entitled to include me – to counter the dispiriting shallowness of mainstream media commentary, and carry out cultural and political work of genuine importance. Once more, blogging is to be understood and represented by official journalism solely as its distorted mirror double – obsessed about readership numbers, striving for legitimacy and mainstream acceptance, parasitic, ethically compromised – and never as a distinct domain of knowledge work that is, on the whole, far more diverse and demanding than the opinion or cultural pages of our leading newspapers and magazines. Another case of worlds colliding.

(By the way, Jonathan, that’s the meaning of my campaign for the New Zealand Herald to drop Bob Jones. It’s not that I think he should be silenced. It’s that I think we’ve heard from him enough, and that we need to hear from somebody else. But you know that.)

There was a particularly unpleasant line midway through the piece: ‘The bloggers have the potent personalities - now they just need to turn it into cash.’ It’s unpleasant for many reasons, not least that most bloggers don’t care about making money out of blogging. (I personally wouldn’t mind, and I’ll get to that in a minute.) It also glosses rather grossly over the critical issue of what we value or should value as a society and as a culture. The exchange rate for Jonathan Milne’s feature in yesterday’s Herald on Sunday is roughly $1,200 before tax (had it been written by a freelancer, that is, but it’s a fair estimate of the market value). The far more urgent, considered and well-written response by Autism and Oughtisms to Rachel Smalley – a piece endeavouring to fix the damage done by a robustly salaried media personality – is worth nothing. Not a cent. We have no mechanisms to give it a monetary value outside of the plaintive Donate button on the blog’s sidebar. This button signals that the author wouldn’t mind some form of recompense for her writing, and at the same time that she doesn’t expect it. It also says that writing is just that: work, a product of labour. Even when they try to tell you otherwise.

So here’s my pitch. I used to feel bad asking for money, but then I look at the products for sale out there, in the mainstream. $1,200 for Jonathan Milne's story. Metro charging you $10.50 to watch Noelle McCarthy review books that she may or may not have read. (I should start the bidding at $11, as I can promise you I read everything.) Then there is Bob Jones, who can afford to write for the New Zealand Herald for free, and the paper is only too happy to oblige him. Let me have some of the cash he’s leaving on the table, and as a bonus gift to you I’ll keep my racist, sexist views to myself.

There is no moral obligation here: if you’ve been reading this blog since its beginnings, 258 weekly posts ago, hell, I'm the one who owes you money. Nor is this a transaction. You get nothing in return, and writing this thing makes its own time, so it will keep going regardless (or if it ends, it will end regardless). All that the money – any money – might do is take some of the pressure off the time I don’t spend blogging. Which would be no small thing. So, consider donating if you can and you think that this small piece of our blogosphere is a product of labour and has some value, even though it’s not for sale.

To this end, a donate button:

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