My Cousin Heads the NRA, And I Don’t Get It

My second cousin, Pete Brownell, was just elected President of the National Rifle Association. While I’m proud as punch of Cousin Pete’s accomplishments, I confess I’m confused and conflicted about his new role.  I’m having difficulty reconciling what I know about Pete with what I observe about the NRA.

 

Pete Brownell2I knew Pete as a boy growing up in rural Iowa. Later, he and I reconnected to train together for triathlons, and share lunches and coffees.  I cried with him when his mother died, and his dad came over for my mom’s funeral.  My daughter spent a summer working for him as a nanny.  I’m named after his grandfather.  My cousin Pete is a caring, compassionate guy, the kind of person you’d enjoy spending time with.

 

So how did he get mixed up with an outfit like the NRA?

 

It’s true that Pete’s family business, Brownell’s, Inc., is the world’s largest supplier of firearm accessories, so there’s that. But that doesn’t automatically mean he has to run the NRA, too.

 

The NRA is the biggest, meanest bully on the block, shouldering its way into backroom deals with legislators simply to sell more guns, with utter disdain for the public good. There’s already a gun for every man, woman, and child in America, for God’s sake.  Why do we need more?  The NRA has long ago abandoned arguments based on common sense, public safety, or fact.  More firearms in the hands of more people will not make us safer.  It’s not the Wild West.  “Good guys with guns” don’t deter “bad guys with guns.”  That’s just stupid.  More guns put us all at ever greater risk.

 

Gun2Why is the NRA pushing for guns in schools, statehouses, bars, and churches? Who thinks it’s a good idea for children, or mentally unstable people, or no-fly passengers to own guns?  What other civilized nation is so enamored with weapons?  Demonstrably, sensible gun regulations save lives.  Tens of thousands of people in the U.S. are killed by firearms each year, but statistics are hard to come by because the NRA has lobbied hard to exclude gun violence data from CDC public health studies.  How much money has the NRA poured into the legislative process in opposition to the will of the people who, when polled on this question, consistently support common sense gun regulation?

 

How many times have law enforcement agencies themselves opposed the extreme positions held by the NRA, fearing they would make their jobs more difficult and less safe?

 

As I see it, there are three alternatives to consider. First, I could be wrong about the NRA and its belligerent “Pry it from my cold dead hands” rhetoric.  Maybe with even more guns on the streets we will all be able to sleep soundly at night.  How many more, exactly?  Another hundred million?

 

Second, maybe with Pete at the helm of this powerful organization, we will see some positive change. Perhaps the words “well-regulated militia” from the Second Amendment will come into sharper focus on his watch.  A gentler tone.  The recognition that firearms might not be appropriate in every single setting in American life.  Call me an optimist; that’s the option I’m rooting for.

 

But the third alternative scares me. What if my cousin has sold out?  He’s a smart guy, and a brilliant businessman.  But business has a social context and a community impact, a reality we tend to overlook in this country.  In the three days following the Sandy Hook massacre, Brownell’s sold three-and-a-half years’ worth of 20-round ammo clips for the AR-15 rifle.  Now, outdoorsmen don’t buy high capacity AR-15 magazines for hunting deer.  Profiting from human tragedy is obscene.

 

Lots of people have their loyalties tested in their professional lives. Lawyers have to defend both the innocent and the guilty.  Police must ensure the safety of protesters no matter what their cause might be.  Perhaps my cousin is conflicted by the public roles he plays.  One can only hope.

 

I hope to ride bikes with Pete again someday, so we can talk this over. I have a feeling it will have to be a very long ride.

Rally Fail

I arrived, late, for the rally against the president’s immigration ban. The streets were full and it was impossible for me, in a wheelchair, to maneuver through the crowd – a typical wheeler’s dilemma that adds to the frustration of using a wheelchair.  So I found a spot behind the raised platform stage where I could see the speakers.

No ramp to the stage, I noted.

One after another, speakers representing various nationalities and religions spoke a powerful word about the value of diversity in America. Two Sudanese girls in American flag hijabs read an original poem.  A Syrian professional at the university praised America for the opportunity he has had to study and work here.  A group of northern African Muslim women climbed the rickety step-ladder to the stage to sing a song.  An imam spoke.  A rabbi spoke.  A Native American, the only one in the crowd whose ancestors were not immigrants, was cheered.  It was America at its best, a potpourri of diverse voices clamoring to be heard.  The head of the ecumenical Christian coalition made some comments about the value of inclusion.  How we are better together.

And then it went off the rails.

The ecumenical leader, a large man with a cane, couldn’t get off the stage. He bent down to try to access the ladder but his knee wouldn’t cooperate.  He tried bending to the other side and again failed.  Finally an entire phalanx of dark-skinned resisters bodily picked him up and crowd-surfed him to the ground.

The next speaker was a woman in a wheelchair who was wearing a hijab. The sound technician handed her the mic and wheeled her in front of the stage.  Her words were inspiring, but only twenty people could see her – me and the front row of resisters.  Although she was an invited speaker, included in the program, her disability presumably known in advance by the organizers, she was a disembodied voice to the rest of the crowd.

How many times have I attended pro-diversity events that overlook disability needs? The GLBTQ gay pride banquet that fails to leave a pathway for a person in a wheelchair to access the buffet table.  The Hispanic prayer leader who intones, “Please stand for the invocation.”  My church denomination, which prides itself on being open and affirming, welcoming to all, holds a convention in a hotel that requires me to go outside in the rain from one level to the other in order to attend the plenary sessions.  And the workshops are upstairs with no elevator.  A march around the capitol building on a hill too steep for me to navigate.  The list goes on and on.  Intersectionality often seems to overlook persons with disabilities.

This time I spoke up. “Perhaps a ramp next time.”  The well-meaning sound technician, who had donated his time and equipment, looked at me.  I expected a comment such as, “You’re right.  Maybe next time!”  That would have been more than enough.  But he just stared at me for a moment.  And then turned his attention back to the sound board sliders.

Inspiration Porn

Grandpa 2014

You’ve seen the feel-good news features. They’re on almost every day.  A child born without a hand gets a pink prosthetic limb.  A woman deaf from birth hears for the first time.  A high school student with Down syndrome gets invited to the prom.  An autistic teen sings the national anthem.  An athlete with CP is allowed to shoot a basket.  An amputee runs a marathon.  A miracle cure allows a woman with a spinal cord injury to walk down the aisle into the arms of her waiting groom.

And the tears flow. It’s all so inspiring.

We who live with disabilities call it “inspiration porn.” And we note that the stories, while they serve to make the able-bodied community feel good about itself, do nothing to enhance the self-esteem of those featured in the clips.

What these news clips have in common is:

  • They tend to make the person with the disability the object of the story rather than the subject of their own destiny. He or she is always “rescued” by a caring, generous able-bodied person, through no agency of their own. They are victims of their circumstances until the shining knight rides in.
  • The assumption made by those who produce and disseminate and consume these stories is that the burning desire of a person with a disability is to be like “normal” people – to be able to hear, see, go to prom, shoot a basket, etc.
  • Another assumption is that disability is repairable. Christopher Reeve and others have promoted the fallacy that with enough scientific research and funding, we can all get out of these wheelchairs and walk again, like “normal” people. Disability is a deficit that can be remediated, often through sheer willpower (although your generous contributions are greatly appreciated!).
  • They reduce the experience of disability to that of inspirational punch-line. It’s a pity that someone should have to live with a disability. But it’s inspiring when they can overcome their obstacles. This flattens the rich experience of disability into a single, misleading narrative.

Let’s try on a different conceptual framework for understanding disability. Instead of labeling a disability as a deficiency that can be fixed with the proper medical intervention, let’s regard it as an essential component of one’s identity.  Like the fact that I’m male, balding, and in my 60s, I also use a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury.  It doesn’t define me, but it’s certainly part of who I am.

Instead of prejudging the disability experience as a pitiful curse, let’s let the person with the disability speak for him- or herself. You’ll probably find that their experience is wildly nuanced.  They have good days and bad days, that may or may not revolve around their disability.  They may regard their condition as simply given, and dedicate their lives to other, more important things.  Like nurturing grandkids or fixing lunch.

I like to think that living with disability is like a cross-cultural excursion. Have you ever visited a foreign country?  I’m guessing that when you first touched down in an international airport and set foot on foreign soil, you were culture-shocked.  The sights, sounds, and smells were strange.  The taxi driver didn’t speak English.  They wouldn’t accept American dollars.  Could you eat the food or drink the water?  Am I safe walking the streets?  The inhabitants seemed poor and disadvantaged.

That’s how I felt when I woke up in a hospital and was told that I would never walk again. I felt like I had been cruelly abandoned, with no return ticket, in a foreign culture where I couldn’t speak the language, didn’t know the currency, and was afraid to drink the water.

But if you’re able to spend some real time in this new culture of yours, you may find the blessings hidden there. It’s not deficient, it’s just different.  I’ve spent six years living in Central America with the Peace Corps and the Mennonite Central Committee, and I’ve discovered some real joys in the lives of people who live there, when my first impressions were of poverty and misery.

The same with a disability. After I got over my initial shock and anxiety about the loss of the use of my legs, I put my energies into adapting to my new life and discovered that my reliance on a wheelchair was a pretty insignificant factor.  Vastly more important to me was the fact that I was still alive and could experience the maturing of my two children and the births of four grandchildren, making contributions to the lives of the congregations that I have continued to serve as pastor, writing books and articles, and going on to compete in marathons and triathlons.  I will reject any offer to try to “fix” me, but I do welcome partners along my journey who will honestly engage with me to learn what my experience of disability is like.

Who says that a child who has successfully adapted to the use of one hand is unhappy without a pink prosthesis? That’s an able-bodied assumption.  You have no idea whether that child craves a prosthetic hand or not.  Why are we surprised that a person with a cognitive or physical disability can sing like an angel?  Why are we inspired when someone with a disability adapts and is able to get on with life?

Perhaps we should put our energies into adjusting our own attitudes, and welcoming those with varieties of needs and abilities into our common life. Instead of rescuing or repairing or being inspired by them, pitying or ignoring them, think how our common experience might be enriched by simply making room in our society for those with disabilities.

Intersectionality: Boundaries, Bathrooms, and Black Lives

I’ve been in a wheelchair for nearly twenty years, due to an accident that left me paraplegic. So I’ve experienced my share of exclusion: by doorways too narrow, by stairway access, by hills and cobblestones and grass and other obstacles, by the arrangement of banquet tables.  Generally I just accept exclusion as my lot in life.  After all, the Appalachian Trail was carved into rugged terrain laid out millennia before the Americans with Disabilities Act was ever envisioned.  It’s my problem that I’ll never check it off my bucket list now, not yours.  My exclusion is usually the result of neglect or oversight, not deliberate dismissal.  Although my worth as a human being sometimes seems diminished by my use of a wheelchair, nobody, as far as I know, viscerally despises me for my disability.

But once I experienced rejection as an intentional act. And the experience, for me, shines a light on the lives of other vulnerable minorities who are deliberately disenfranchised and oppressed.  I think I have at least some insight into how people who are the targets of the current “bathroom bills” must feel as they are singled out for discrimination by zealous legislatures.

It was at a weeklong conference in western New York. I was among a crowd of enlightened liberals, a thoughtful, well-educated group that had gathered to hear Bill Moyers, among others, talk about politics and compassion in presidential election cycles.

The iconic facilities were largely inaccessible for persons with mobility challenges, in spite of the fact that the majority of those in attendance were in their golden years. After all, who else would have the time, money, and inclination to retreat for a week to listen to intellectually stimulating lectures?  Every venue was littered with walkers and scooters, like the aftermath of a successful healing crusade.

But there were plans being drawn up to improve the site and to make it more accommodating. In fact, a tour was offered to present the new vision.  I gladly signed up to learn more and perhaps offer observations from my experience.  The tour was enjoyable enough, until the tour guide led our small group of about a dozen down a ramp that was far too impossibly steep for me to follow safely.  I sat at the top and watched my group descend.  When they reached the bottom, I called out, “EXCUSE ME, BUT I CAN’T GET DOWN THERE.”   The group looked at me like cows across a field.

“SORRY,” the tour guide offered.

“WELL, COULD YOU MAYBE COME BACK SO I COULD HEAR THE REST OF THE TOUR?”

The tour guide thought about this for a minute, and then surveyed the group. “How many of you would like to continue the tour?”  A show of hands.  “OK, how many of you would like to go back up where that guy in the wheelchair is?”  Another show of hands, but from a smaller sampling.

“SORRY. THE GROUP VOTED TO GO ON.”  And that was the last I saw of them.

My participation had been put to a vote!  And I had lost!!  A group of my peers, ostensibly interested in making accommodating changes to this venerable venue, had voted, right in my presence, to abandon me because they didn’t want to be inconvenienced by my special needs.  I vowed to never set wheel in that venue again.

I wonder if that’s how my gay, lesbian, and transgender colleagues feel when waves of state legislatures are busy enacting laws to prevent them from using the public restroom facilities corresponding to their gender identity. But no, it can’t be.  Not quite.  Because my LGBTQ colleagues are also exposed to vitriol and disgust spewed by the legislators who enact these laws and by their hate-driven supporters.  I may be ignored, but I’m not reviled.

Public restrooms and fitting rooms are already menacing enough for people with non-conforming gender identities. A masculine-appearing female colleague of mine writes that she and her wife always share a joke when she goes to the bathroom: “Okay, honey, if I’m not out in five minutes, come look for me.”  But the joke isn’t funny anymore, as actual laws prohibit transgender persons from public accommodations, as actual police drag gender non-conforming individuals from bathrooms, and as bigots post threats that they will now be packing heat when they go into public bathrooms.  My friends are no longer safe taking a pee.

Don’t talk to me about protecting our wives and daughters. More people have been sexually assaulted by lawmakers than by transgender individuals with full bladders.  Don’t bring up your “Christian values” unless you’re also prepared to give up shellfish and football.  I’m a pastor myself.  I’ve been studying scripture professionally for forty five years.

I know what it feels like to not fit in – literally – when my chair is too wide to fit or can’t negotiate the stairs. I have my own bathroom stories.  But I don’t imagine that architects are scheming over their blueprints to deliberately keep the disgusting cripples out of their facilities, or that sinister tour groups are secretly plotting to jettison the worthless rolling persons trailing after their tour.  In my case it’s just neglect, self-absorption, and lack of attention.

For the LBGTQ community, this is raw bigotry aimed squarely at them. Mean-spirited, hateful, unenlightened folks have found a way to lash out against the encroachment of civil rights for all.  As the arc of history bends inexorably toward acceptance and inclusion, there are those who feel threatened by this trend and who are desperate to derail or delay it.  To the point of regulating the potty behavior of their selected scapegoats.

These people will attempt to preserve their worldview and privilege by any means possible. They will build walls to keep Mexicans out.  They will put mosques under surveillance and restrict Muslim immigration.  They will carpet bomb the enemy and waterboard its combatants.  They will exclude gender non-conforming people from their bathrooms (since they can’t seem to legislate them out of existence).  They will aggressively and sometimes violently counter any claim that Black lives, like the lives of the dominant culture and race in this country, should matter too.  They will refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Disenfranchise millions through stricter voter ID laws.

The battlefields will vary: Stairs and ramps.  Bathrooms.  Seats on the bus, lunch counters, and drinking fountains.  Head coverings and accents.  Waistband height.  Wedding cakes.  Photo IDs.  But the pain is common to all who don’t fit the majority narrative.