If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of my friends, and if that’s true, you probably heard about or saw Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes, which attacked the President-elect’s debasement of a disabled person. His spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, came on TV the next morning to disparage Streep for failing to address the disabled victim of a recent hate crime in Chicago. Frank Bruni’s reaction: “Is this the new bar for taking Trump to task? You can’t do it until you’ve completed a roll call of every bully in the news?” Not bad, but my reaction was to think again about Margaret Carlson’s recent piece in the Times, “The Life of a Disabled Child From Taunts to Hate Crimes.”
First, Meryl. As the proud parent of a severely disabled child, I have something to say about people like Streep using my child, or people like him, as props in a political stunt. And here’s what I have to say: Go. Right. Ahead. Please. I would feel differently if Streep were using the disabled as props in an Oscar campaign, but she is reminding us that the worst thing anyone can do is repeatedly bully someone, and that when someone in power punches down with impunity, we all lose. In other words, she found common cause with the disabled, uniting their struggle with our struggle. And furthermore, she did it as resistance against someone who the disabled have considerable reason to fear. This article lovingly praises Republicans other than Trump, and I have not seen Kellyanne Conway or anyone else dispute any of its damning findings.
Prior to the Golden Globes, I wrote that I thought the Hollywood resistance to Trump might begin that night. Sure enough, Meryl threw down the gauntlet, and more power to her. I loved Mark Harris’ take on it:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Hollywood liberal gets political at awards show — we know that song. No, no, no: This was Meryl Streep, beloved, respected, emotional, and precise; the punch she threw was clearly carefully considered, and it landed hard. She held the moment, the room, which sat rapt for five minutes and then stood to cheer, the audience, and social media. She didn’t use Trump’s name — an approach borrowed from Michelle Obama; she didn’t rant; she didn’t make fun of his vulgarity or his wealth or his empty promises or his tweeting or his voters. She picked the one thing that would make it hard for critics to brand her an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal — his propensity to use cruelty to play to his audience — and zeroed in on it. By contextualizing him as a performer, she leveled the playing field and went after him actor to actor. And when Meryl Streep does that to you, it’s a contest you’re not going to win.
But Kellyanne Conway tried anyway, using the horrible incident in Chicago as her prop. Which brings me to Margaret Carlson. She’s a bit of a Streep in her own right, as the first female columnist for Time. And she’s admirably candid about her childhood, including the fact that she wasn’t always happy to be the sibling of a handicapped brother. She wrote:
One kid loved bending the training wheels on his bike. I sometimes fell in with the crowd. I’d hear the whispers about pretending to go home so that Jimmy would. Later, I’d sneak back out hiding my Wiffle ball from my mother.
Maybe my judgment is colored by Facebook, where everyone’s life is always so awesome, but I have an odd respect for anyone who admits that they’re not always great to the vulnerable. I trust them more. So when Carlson says she later tracked down one of her brother’s bullies, and confronted him, and “He pleaded ignorance. The description fit,” I cheer a little harder.
Kellyanne Conway didn’t confront Carlson. Maybe that’s because Carlson was talking about the Chicago attack. Or maybe it’s because Carlson’s column wasn’t a big speech on NBC. It’s interesting that the Trump people think they can play whack-a-mole with people who resist them. I would argue that it only makes more people who already have a microphone — e.g. anyone with more than 2 million twitter followers — want to mole up, to get feisty, knowing they can get Conway on TV freaking out the next day. Maybe Cory Booker, who clocks in just above 2 million followers, was thinking about this when he made a lot of noise in the Senate today about Trump’s Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions, opposing the Voting Rights Act, an opposition that may well endanger many vulnerable people including my child.
Anyway, Carlson said we don’t hear the word “retard” so much anymore. I had a student in last semester’s film production class that kept saying, “that’s retarded.” Not to me, instead to other students as they were doing group lab work (learning editing suites and so on). I didn’t correct him, even though I winced a bit every time. I should have. I don’t cheer myself so much.
Carlson ended with:
I thought I knew my parents’ heartache but didn’t have a glimmer. It’s called politically correct and squishy liberal or nannyish to protect the weak among us — transgender children, minorities, the homeless, old people — but it’s really just human. And as Chicago showed us, oh so necessary.
Margaret was telling her own story. Meryl spoke on behalf of empathy and the storytellers in her room (and if any right-winger tells you they’re out-of-touch limousine liberals, tell them their new President embodied that term for three decades). Stories matter. I recently rose in defense of Libby Chamberlain, who doesn’t want to turn Pantsuit Nation into a direct advocate, but instead remain a place for stories. I think she has a point. Direct engagement freaks people out, as Meryl demonstrated. Stories heal, and stories bridge gaps. It’s one of the little reasons I’m telling you my and my child’s ongoing autism story right here. Not as much this week. A lot more next week.
I love older women who refuse to be put out to pasture. (I love such men too.) The bottom line for Meryl and Margaret (and Kellyanne, in her own self-serving way) is that before this month is over, America will have a leader who bullies with impunity, and we have to remember not to let the American story get away from us, and not to allow bullying become more acceptable in any way. Our most vulnerable people, like my child, are counting on us.