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The Scribes Who Mistook the Crips for The Right

by Mary Johnson

DEAD TO RIGHTSClint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby swept this year's Academy Awards, winning for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director and, finally, Best Picture. Alejandro Amenabar's The Sea Inside was voted Best Foreign Film. The wins are being played as Hollywood's response to conservatives, "once again ignoring and marginalizing the disability community" says Not Dead Yet's Steve Drake.

Feb, 24, 2005, with updates -- IN HIS ACCOUNT OF The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks tells of handing Dr. P. a magazine, on its cover "an unbroken expanse of Sahara dunes."

"What do you see here?" I asked.

"I see a river," he said. "And a little guest house, with its terrace..."

Sacks's recounting comes to mind every time I read a new critic or columnist pontificating on the flap over Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. Media pundits typically leave out mention of disability rights opposition to "right to die" issues -- they do it with coverage of Terri Schiavo, too -- or mass it with opposition from the Christian Right, as though it's capable of no real agenda of its own.

But in the case of the buzz over Baby, the omission seems positively Sacksian.

USA Today's Susan Wloszczyna coyly refused to name The National Spinal Cord Injury Association as a critic of the Eastwood flick for fear of letting readers know the movie's hidden twist. (read her Million Dollar Mystery.)

The Times's Maureen Dowd could only find conservative "culture cops" beating up on Eastwood.

Yes, Michael Medved and Rush Limbaugh panned the film. But is that news, really? The news is about disability rights opposition. The bigger news is "why?" You will rarely find out through the major media.

Activists were especially outraged by New York Times critic Frank Rich, who in his Feb. 13 article, How Dirty Harry Turned Commie, completely ignored disability opposition to the film -- like Dowd, Rich sees opposition to the film as coming from Christian conservatives.

REBUTTALS RICHLY DESERVEDFrank Rich's Feb. 13 NYT article, How Dirty Harry Turned Commie drew rebuttals from Lawrence Carter-Long in the Melbourne, Australia Age and John Hockenberry, on MillionDollarBigot.org

The New York Times was sent dozens of letters to the editor about Eastwood's problemmatic handling of Baby, and about Rich's obdurancy. But the one letter that got printed was one that asked "How could Frank Rich allow the right-wing media to define the debate over Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby as one about euthanasia, and ignore the film's vile gender, class, and racial politics?" I am not making this up. Read the 2nd letter on this webpage. Half a world away, Lawrence Carter-Long's criticism of Rich's article was printed in the Melbourne, Australia Age, which had also run Rich's article. John Hockenberry's rebuttal of Rich appeared as an exclusive on Mike Reynolds' new website, MillionDollarBigot.org. (As it turns out, Hockenberry and Carter-Long share more than a view about the movie: their writings were both rejected by The New York Times.)

In yesterday's New York Press, in the kind of self-reflexive mode that pundits seem so fond of, Russ Smith quoted Dowd's analysis of Baby and its critics as gospel.

(Feb. 28 note: And thus, following the major media, blogsters use the same easy explanations: David Rankin, who describes himself as " a center-right lawyer living and working among the left of center in San Diego," writes on his Feb. 26 misteramericano blog that M$B "has become a battlefield in America's so-called Culture Wars between social conservatives and anti-conservatives." Not a word about us in any of his rantings.)

Some disability rights activists found it overly ironic that the man who waged a very public battle in 2000 to further delay requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act for access to businesses would then make a movie in which he helps a quadriplegic die. It was a good opportunity for some finger-pointing. But the moral complexities of Baby are not about access to buildings. They're about access to assisted suicide. Disability rights groups are equally bothered by Alejandro Amenabar's "The Sea Inside," an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language picture which recounts Spaniard Ramon Sampedro's real-life right-to-die battle.

Religious opposition to assisted suicide is based on "sanctity of life" arguments. Disability rights opposition comes from an entirely different sensibility. The mostly-agnostic activists we know who oppose the "right to die" are steeped in progressive leftist causes. They read "death with dignity" laws as disparate impact legislation.

The "right to die" may sound egalitarian; it may sound as though it's about nothing more than choice. In application, though, it applies only to people who are living disabled lives. And the disability rights movement continually returns to this central truth. "Since virtually all people who request hastened death have old or new disabilities, we're essential to the debate," wrote the late Barry Corbet, longtime editor New Mobility. Right to die, and death with dignity laws, Corbet wrote, "are about us."

"Many of our allies in the civil rights and health care movements have found this hard to understand. Isn't this about individual autonomy and rights, they ask?" says attorney Diane Coleman, founder of Not Dead Yet. "No, we say, it's about disability discrimination, a profit-oriented health care system, and a legal system that does not guarantee the equal protection of the law," she wrote in a 2000 article for the American Bar Association.

Or, as a sticker for sale from Mouth says, "I support the right to die. You go first."

"The idea that people with disabilities are not worthy of society's acceptance or resources is not new," says Coleman. Actively helping someone end their life is illegal in every state. But laws permitting a doctor to provide lethal medication are being contemplated in California, Vermont, Hawaii and Arizona (such a law is in force only in Oregon.) Proponents insist safeguards exist.

But those safeguards, says Harriet McBryde Johnson, whose articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, "are about defining a class whose desire to die may be presumed rational, because of illness or disability so 'bad' that no 'reasonable' person would want to endure it." Right to die laws, as she told Corbet, have "the power to validate and structure prejudice -- to tell suicidal newbies that yes, it really is as bad as it feels, and don't expect it ever to get better. They tell the larger society that disability and illness equal misery, so there's no need to bother about making our lives good. There's an easy way out."

Not that the major media seems to have noticed.

Posted February 24, 2005, with updates.

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge. Her latest book is Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights.

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