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What Attacks On John Fetterman’s Health Reveal About Disability And Politics

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In the months since John Fetterman had a stroke, the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat has returned to the campaign trail and started doing interviews — while his opponent’s attacks on his health have grown more and more intense.

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As Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee, continues to flounder in polls and fundraising, he’s taunted Fetterman about initially declining to debate and questioned whether his rival is using his stroke as an excuse to avoid a public faceoff. Now, Fetterman’s health is in the news again after the candidate — who’s currently serving as the state’s lieutenant governor — used closed-captioning technology during a recent interview with NBC News.

Fetterman said that as part of his recovery he needed the technology, which transcribed the reporters’ questions and displayed them on a screen for him to read, because of a temporary difficulty with auditory processing; in the aftermath of the stroke, Fetterman still doesn’t understand everything that’s said to him. With the captioning, however, he was able to respond to the reporter’s questions (with the occasional verbal slip-up). During the interview, Fetterman said that the stroke has changed his life — but that it wouldn’t affect his ability to serve as an elected official. Still, the interview prompted a new spate of questions and digs from Republicans about whether his recovery makes him unfit for a seat in Congress.

The lines of attack used against Fetterman, many of which are ableist (meaning they convey prejudice, either overt or subtle, against people with disabilities), tap into long-standing stereotypes about people with disabilities and could affect voters’ perceptions of him. That’s because there continues to be stigma against people with disabilities, according to Lisa Schur, a co-director of the Rutgers Program for Disability Research. As a result, she said, political “candidates with disabilities have to work extra hard to ensure voters that, yes, I’m competent and capable of doing the job.” This stigma can be particularly intense for candidates with mental or cognitive disabilities — or even for candidates where questions are raised about their cognitive function.

To be sure, we don’t have enough evidence to say for certain whether candidates with disabilities have a lower chance of winning elections. We do know, however, that people with disabilities are dramatically underrepresented in government. That’s especially true at the federal level where just over 6 percent of elected officials reported having a disability compared with 12 percent at the local level, according to a study from Schur and her co-director Douglas Kruse.

Despite his health challenges over the past few months, Fetterman’s odds against Oz still look good. Fetterman’s lead in the race is narrowing, according to recent polls, but FiveThirtyEight’s 2022 midterm election forecast still gives the Democrat a more than 7-in-10 chance of beating his Republican opponent. And that’s probably why Oz has ramped up attacks on Fetterman’s health, Kruse suggested. “Oz is …  behind right now and wants to bring up this issue of competence,” he said.

Indeed, with Fetterman still leading in most polls, it only helps Republicans to amplify ableist stereotypes about chronic illness and the use of accessibility aids to argue that Fetterman is unfit for office. The media’s coverage of Fetterman’s condition is arguably bolstering them, too: The NBC interview focused mostly on his health and the reporter who conducted the interview made an offhand comment that Fetterman appeared to struggle to understand small talk beforehand, which drew criticism from other reporters who had spoken with the candidate and said he did not exhibit issues with comprehension.

As a result, it’s been easy to keep people focused on Fetterman’s health: His ability to speak and understand, rather than his policy positions, were the subject of many stories and tweets posted in reaction to the interview.

According to Richard Scotch, a professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Texas at Dallas who researches disability rights and social inequality, some of the stigma surrounding physical disabilities has decreased over time. “They’re not viewed as negatively as they were 60 or even 30 years ago,” he said. That, in part, could be one reason why a spate of public officials with physical disabilities across the political spectrum — including Republicans Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, and Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois — have run successful campaigns. “There aren’t many critics who would say that their disability hampers their ability to hold public office,” Scotch said. Still, he added, the same isn’t true for all disabilities: “Impairments that affect one’s ability to communicate effectively may be more stigmatizing than those that do not.”

Having a disability like Fetterman’s, which he and his doctors believe will improve over time, could fall into that category. That’s because having an “invisible” disability versus a “visible” one — having trouble understanding speech, as opposed to using a wheelchair — could get linked in voters’ minds to issues like mental capacity or a cognitive decline, “which are scarier for people to digest,” Schur said.

Fetterman is not the only politician of late who has had to field questions about his mental abilities. While not physically disabled, older politicians like President Biden or Sen. Dianne Feinstein (the oldest sitting U.S. Senator who is reportedly experiencing a decline in her cognitive health) have been repeatedly told that they should step down from or not seek additional terms in public office.

But disability discrimination is not always covered equally: Several former presidents, for instance, have been in apparent cognitive decline while in office without much question. What might make Fetterman’s case different, however, is that he’s both publicly discussing his condition (unlike other politicians who have hid theirs) and is in an ongoing and competitive race. “There’s this image in America, especially, that the goal is to be completely independent and self-sufficient: All those values that supposedly go along with this kind of ‘capability,’” Schur told me. “Whenever you see somebody dependent on technology, or accommodations, I think some people, especially those with more traditional values, might question whether that person is fit for a particular job.”

Oz’s attacks have drawn on these stereotypes: Last month, the Republican released his medical records and has been repeatedly challenging Fetterman to do the same, despite the fact that doing so is a fading tradition — and typically employed in presidential races, not Senate races. “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly,” a senior communications adviser to Oz’s campaign said earlier this year.

On the other hand, Fetterman’s health journey could resonate with some people. According to estimates from Kruse and Schur, 69 million people in the 2020 electorate either had a disability themselves or lived with someone with a disability. “So almost one-third of people have very direct experience with disability,” Kruse said. “And when a politician says they have a disability, I think a lot of people with disabilities and those who are close to them will say, you know, that’s me. That’s part of my identity.”

In his interview this week, Fetterman said that his experience gave him an even greater ability to understand the challenges that voters face. “In some ways, having an impairment has some positive valence for candidates because recovering from a serious illness demonstrates grit and resilience,” Scotch said.

At this point, we don’t know enough to say for certain whether Fetterman’s interview and the ongoing recovery from his stroke will change the way he’s perceived. It’s very possible that it won’t, Kruse predicted, since the Democrat utilized widely available closed-captioning technology he said most voters could see as “reasonable.” And despite the fact that our metrics show a tightening race in Pennsylvania, that could be due to a number of factors, including both campaigns ratcheting up attack ads on a host of issues as Election Day approaches or Republican voters coalescing behind Oz.

Overall, though, voters still overwhelmingly have a positive view of Fetterman, according to recent polls. A September Marist Poll of registered voters in Pennsylvania, for instance, found that a plurality of adults in the state (45 percent) said they had a favorable view of Fetterman compared with 39 percent who had an unfavorable view. Oz, meanwhile, was underwater: Just 30 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of the former TV personality versus 51 percent who viewed him unfavorably.

That said, we would expect that this issue will come up again — especially as the race could well determine which party controls the Senate. Fetterman and Oz are slated to debate on Oct. 25, so there’s time for Oz’s attacks to sink in — but also time for Fetterman to respond.

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10 Must-Read Novels About Asian American Politics

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In Ryan Wong’s daring and generous debut novel, Which Side Are You On, Columbia University student Reed informs his parents that he’s dropping out of college and dedicating himself to grassroots organizing—for the past few months, he’s been protesting the killing of an unarmed Black man by an Asian American police officer. He’s adamant to learn everything he can about his Korean mother’s involvement in a Black-Korean coalition in the 1980s, so that he may use it to impress his other activist friends and fuel their current work. But the stories recounted by his mother and the discussions they engender—all carefully laid out in electric, and occasionally heartrending, dialogue between mother and son—start to affect Reed’s clear-cut views, revealing to him the many difficulties of organizing across cultures, and hinting at the importance of empathy and humanity in the effort to fully understand one’s community.

You might not know that “Asian American” is a relatively new term, only about fifty years old. You likely don’t know the term was coined by student leftists to join a coalition of Chicano, Black, and American Indian movements on Bay Area campuses in 1968. You might not think of Asian American Pacific Islanders as political as all, and this is largely because that history has largely been ignored or erased in favor of the tame, assimilationist “model minority” narrative.

Today, as we face intense anti-Asian violence, ongoing U.S. militarism in Asia, rapidly shifting migration patterns, and a crisis of American racial identity, it might help us to examine the political nature of Asian America through some of its most compelling narratives. Here’s a selection of ten novels that expand upon, challenge, and imagine futures for this young identity. They’re stories of rebels and revolutionaries, organizers and outsiders taking histories into their own hands.

1. I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

This sprawling, 700+ page epic pays tribute to the Asian American Movement that defined this new identity. It was written decades later, but has all of the humor, bite, hope, and surrealism you might expect from a novel of vignettes set in the Bay Area of the 1960s and ’70s—scenes of Black Panthers and young Asian American radicals in a hotel room in Chinatown, of an Alcatraz Island takeover, of free folk concerts in Golden Gate Park, and, of course, of the demonstrations to save that hotbed of organizing and elder care and arts making, the I Hotel.

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2. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The narrator of this novel talks to you, but the “you” of it is an ambiguous American who is in Lahore, Pakistan, for unknown reasons—to befriend the narrator, to kill him, or both. Like the confessor in Camus’s The Fall, we get a frank and revealing series of tales, but instead of the existential angst of the judge we have the racial existentialism of the man trying to belong in a world that won’t have him. It’s a reminder that often fundamentalists scorn the very systems in which they once came close to belonging.

3. Leche by R. Zamora Linmark

Can a novel about Japanese war atrocities in the Philippines be funny? An early scene has protagonist Vince watching a maudlin drama on the airplane back to the Philippines (which he left for the U.S. 13 years before) about a convent during the Japanese invasion. To speak about the unspeakable, you may need the absurdities that pop culture makes possible, the distance of humor. The Manila of Leche is a hazy hell, but also one full of pathos and heart, and it leads Vince exactly where he needs to go.

4. Guerrillas by V. S. Naipaul

What would the Asian diaspora in the Americas be without Naipaul’s Trinidad, which he left to attend Oxford only to revisit again and again in his writing? Guerrillas takes place on an unnamed island on the eve of revolution. Naipaul is one of the original problematic faves—his sexual politics are horrifying, his view of revolution condescending. Yet he’s one of the greats at showing the extreme bifurcations that colonialism and diaspora perform on the human mind, whether the white liberal’s paternalism or the would-be revolutionary’s deluded egoism.

5. Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn

This isn’t an “Asian American” story in the usual sense, but America’s presence is like a long shadow, a bogeyman, an uninvited dinner guest in this kaleidoscopic story of 1950s Manila. In other words, American stories happen anywhere America’s military and political presence rule, and their tacit condoning of the rise of an unnamed dictator and his glamorous first lady form the story’s backdrop. Hagedorn’s sentences bite and her scenes steam with heat as you follow this network of characters asking what they’ll do with their new-found “independence.”

6. Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee

This novel is often remembered as a portrait of a son and his working immigrant father. But it’s also a novel of politics, where some of the most tender and dynamic moments are between the narrator, Henry Park, and the city councilman John Kwang, who he’s assigned to spy on. John is charismatic and idealistic, a foil to Henry’s mercenary pragmatism. One of the crucial plot points revolves around a Korean money circle, or ggeh, one of the main ways Korean businesses survive, but to the U.S. state looks like money laundering. The novel asks what it means to succeed in a country designed to destroy you, to be loyal to people sent to undo you.

7. America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

Somewhere between novel and autobiography, America Is in the Heart has all the sweep, heroism, and tragedy of the old epics. We follow the narrator, also named Carlos, from his youth in the Philippines to the fields of California to the canneries of Alaska, where, witnessing the brutality against Filipinos by police, bosses, and business owners, he becomes radicalized. He joins socialist and communist groups, organizes with unions, and publishes poetry and essays on his experiences, the culmination of which is this monumental book.

8. The Winged Seed by Li-Young Lee

Lee’s father was jailed under the regime of President Sukarno in Indonesia. That traumatic event shows up in Lee’s poetry and is a central feature of this poem-novel-memoir-myth of his family’s migration story. The book is called a “remembrance” and it reads like a dream, or, often, a nightmare, as the ravages of persecution and exile, of otherness and violence, manifest within and between Lee’s family members. History and displacement haunt this prose, every sentence drops like a stone, and the smallest moment sends you reeling to the past.

9. Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

Dense yet sprawling, this experimental book traces Korean independence martyr Yu Gwansun through the stories of other mythic women martyrs in history. Cha was a visual artist, writer, and performer—a brilliant polymath who was murdered just as this book was published. Dictee shows what a book can be, that it’s capacious enough to contain photographs, verse, myth, and anything else the writer needs to assemble in order to speak about a fractured history.

10. The Hanging on Union Square by H. T. Hsiang

It’s not hard to see why Hsiang had trouble finding a publisher for this oddball novel that reads something like a screenplay or a novel-in-verse but without the respective plot or lyricism that usually accompanies those forms. But he had the foresight to self-publish it in 1935, and it’s a good thing he did, because he offers a portrait of the vibrant and rough life in Greenwich Village through the eyes of Mr. Nut, who becomes politicized by the grind of the down-and-outs. He seems compelled by some manic force, conveyed through the novel’s prose—a heady mix of bohemianism and radicalism pushing the lines forward.

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Justin Trudeau says he’s ‘absolutely serene and confident’ he made right decision to invoke Emergencies Act

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ended his testimony at the inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act on Friday by saying politics had nothing to do with his government’s decision to invoke the legislation.

“My motivation was entirely about ensuring the safety of Canadians,” he said just before 4 p.m. ET in response to a question from government lawyer Brian Gover.

“My secondary motivation was making sure Canadians continue to have confidence in their institutions and society’s ability to function and enforce the rule of law when it’s not being respected. Politics was not the motivation at all in the invocation of the Emergencies Act.”

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Commissioner Paul Rouleau then asked the lawyers for various stakeholders if they had any other questions. When they said they did not, Mr. Rouleau thanked Mr. Trudeau for his testimony, which began just after 9:30 a.m. ET.

“Well, Prime Minister, I am very pleased to be able to tell you we have completed our work for the day with you,” he said.

Earlier Friday, Mr. Trudeau said the threats to Canada’s national security from last winter’s convoy protests were both economic and violent, and before he invoked the Emergencies Act the premiers were unable to suggest any alternative to using the sweeping powers to end the protracted demonstrations.

The Prime Minister was the final witness to testify at the inquiry studying the act’s use. Mr. Trudeau made the ultimate decision to invoke the never-before-used act on his own on Feb. 14, with the goal of ending protests that gridlocked the capital and jammed several border crossings across Canada.

“I am absolutely, absolutely serene and confident that I made the right choice,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Senior Political Reporter Marieke Walsh, Marsha McLeod and Deputy Ottawa Bureau Chief Bill Curry

 

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‘Bad humour’ and short fuses: How politicians’ texts played out at the Emergencies Act inquiry

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The public inquiry investigating the federal government’s unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act in February has seen a huge number of documents that otherwise would never see the light of day — including politicians’ private texts exposing some embarrassing, and enlightening, conversations.

Politics is a profession prone to carefully crafted statements and rhetoric, so the text messages offered rare insights into the thought process of many key politicians — and a glimpse at tensions between governments.

Here are some of the stand-out text exchanges from the past few weeks.

‘Screwed the pooch’

According to text messages that Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Jason Kenney wrote, the then-premier of Alberta accused the federal government of not caring about the Canada-United States border closure in Coutts, Alta.

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Around dawn on Feb. 14, the RCMP arrested more than a dozen Coutts protesters and seized a cache of weapons, body armour and ammunition — just hours before the Emergencies Act was invoked.

Anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate demonstrators gather as a truck convoy blocks the highway at the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta. on Feb. 1, 2022. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

According to the messages LeBlanc shared with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino three days earlier, Kenney accused the federal government of leaving the provinces holding the bag on protest enforcement.

The texts were brought up during Mendicino’s testimony and were in documents released by the inquiry this week.

In the texts attributed to Kenney, he also complained about the federal decision to decline Alberta’s request for military equipment that could help remove protesters’ vehicles.

One message said — in an apparent reference to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — that “your guy has really screwed the pooch.”

“Speaking of bonkers,” Alghabra wrote in his text exchange with LeBlanc and Mendicino, apparently in reference to some of Kenney’s texts.

“Totally,” LeBlanc replied.

Ontario’s Sylvia Jones gives a cold response

The commission also got a glimpse of a testy call between Mendicino and Ontario’s solicitor general at the time, Sylvia Jones, about how to handle last winter’s convoy protests. Their conversation apparently included some colourful language.

Mendicino’s chief of staff Mike Jones and Samantha Khalil, director of issues management at the Prime Minister’s Office, discussed wanting Jones at the table during trilateral meetings.

“Can have my boss reach out again [to Sylvia Jones] but last call got pretty frosty at the end when [Mendicino] was saying we need the province to get back to us with their plan,” wrote Jones.

“‘I don’t take edicts from you, you’re not my f–king boss,” the staffer continued, describing Jones’ response.

‘Tanks’ text was a joke – Lametti

Mendicino was party to more than one text conversation that came up during the inquiry. One exchange with Justice Minister David Lametti generated some controversy during the inquiry hearings.

In that text exchange, Lametti told Mendicino he needed to “get the police to move” and secure support from the Canadian Armed Forces, if necessary.

“How many tanks are you asking for,” Mendicino wrote back.

“I just wanna ask Anita how many we’ve got on hand,” he added, referring to Defence Minister Anita Anand.

“I reckon one will do!” Lametti texted back.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino was party to more than one text conversation that came up during the inquiry. In this one from Feb. 2, he and Justice Minister David Lametti joked about calling in the Canadian Armed Forces. (Public Order Emergency Commission exhibit)

During his testimony at the inquiry, Lametti said he wasn’t calling for the deployment of the army and described the exchange as banter with a colleague and a friend.

“There will be occasional attempts at bad humour,” he said.

Lametti calls Ottawa police chief ‘incompetent’

A separate exchange of texts between Lametti and Mendicino appeared during Lametti’s testimony.

In those messages, Lametti shared some criticism of former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly, who resigned during the occupation of the city’s downtown streets last winter.

“They just need to exercise it and do their job,” texted Mendicino, referring to the Ottawa Police Service’s authority to enforce the law.

“I was stunned by the lack of a multilayered plan,” Lametti responded. “Sloly is incompetent.”

While Lametti said he’d now soften his language about Sloly, he told the inquiry he had to move out of his Ottawa residence during the protest to avoid harassment.

“I was frustrated, I have to admit,” he said. “It is frank.”

Trudeau, Blair take aim at Ford

During a private call with then-Ottawa mayor Jim Watson in early February, Trudeau accused Ontario Premier Doug Ford of hiding from his responsibilities as the streets of the nation’s capital were gridlocked by the protest.

 

Text messages between Emergency Prepadreness Minister Bill Blair and his chief of staff were entered into evidence at the Emergencies Act inquiry on Monday. (Public Order Emergency Commission exhibit)

 

The inquiry had access to a readout of that call — which is not an exact transcript of the conversation.

“Doug Ford has been hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons, as you highlighted,” Trudeau said.

“Important we don’t let them get away from that.”

The prime minister wasn’t alone in criticizing Ford. Text messages from Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair to his chief of staff also shared a few choice words about the premier.

“I am embarrassed for my former profession. And worried for my government which is being made to look weak and ineffective,” Blair, a former Toronto police chief, said in a text message.

“I can’t believe that I’m hoping Doug Ford will save us.”

Government ‘is losing … confidence in OPS’

Politicians weren’t the only ones seeing their private text exchanges aired in public.

A text message from RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki released to the inquiry said the federal government was already losing confidence in the Ottawa police just one week into the massive protest.

The Feb. 5 texts were between Lucki — who was in a meeting with federal ministers at the time — and Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique.

Text messages between RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki and Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique were also brought up during the inquiry. Lucki’s texts are in blue. (POEC)

“Trying to calm them down, but not easy when they see cranes, structures, horses bouncing castles in downtown Ottawa,” she wrote.

She also provided insight into the government’s thinking at the time, adding that she or Carrique might be called in if the government invoked the Emergencies Act.

“Between you and I only, (Government of Canada) is losing (or) lost confidence in OPS, we gotta get to safe action (or) enforcement,” Lucki texted Carrique.

‘Friendly fire’

In one text exchange with Mendicino’s chief of staff, Serge Arpin, who was chief of staff to Mayor Watson, criticized Blair for saying the lack of enforcement was “somewhat inexplicable.”

“But it is friendly fire from you guys – don’t kid yourself,” Arpin wrote.

In a separate text in the same exchange, Arpin told Mike Jones that the RCMP was “lying to you flat out” about the police resources available.

Arpin told the inquiry that comment was the product of exasperation.

“Extraordinary frustration of having to tell the mayor that our residents who are now onto day 14 or 13 of the demonstration and we’re not seeing any meaningful progress in terms of additional bodies on the ground assisting [the Ottawa Police Service] with the operation,” he testified.

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