On the Wobblies, on the Philippines and on Disability Rights

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Phillip Colligan, E. San Juan, Jr. & Ravi Malhotra

I’VE JUST READ the informative articles on the IWW (Wobblies) in the March-April issue (ATC 115). Although mention was made of several prominent Wobbly balladeers, you fail to note “Haywire” Mac McClintic who wrote many Wobbly songs including “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” He also served as Grand Secretary of the IWW. This information is gleaned from the excellent CD of Wobbly songs, “We Have Fed You for a Thousand Years” by Utah Phillips. –Phillip Colligan, Buffalo NY

YOU RECENTLY FEATURED the case of Walden Bello and the FOCUS letter defending him (ATC 115), mainly relying on Pierre Rousset’s word about what is going on in the Philippines. Apart from needlessly interfering in an ideological and political conflict within the Philippine left, it might be in the interest of fairness or balance to give a voice to the other side. Unless you are already absolutely sure your position is correct and that you have already claimed the role of the vanguard of world socialist revolution…

As you know, the struggle in the Philippines is (and has been historically, since its violent colonization in the last century) against U.S. imperialism and its local allies, so that puts the U.S. left in a situation where they need to clarify their stand in a careful and consequential way. –E. San Juan, Storrs, CT

AS A CANADIAN disability rights activist who has also lived in the United States, I was delighted to read Barri Boone’s folksy but articulate presentation of disability rights, “The Left and Disability” in ATC 115 (March/April 2005). As an introductory piece to the issue, she makes many important points that most leftists rarely think about.

Nevertheless, there were a number of issues that I think require clarification. First and most importantly, while the Americans with Disabilities Act was undoubtedly important legislation in marking the American disability movement’s coming of age, it in fact is far from clear whether ADA has actually increased employment for Americans with disabilities.

Many detailed empirical studies convincingly claim the opposite and this demonstrates a point that ought to be obvious to readers of ATC: the clear limitations of all civil rights legislation to transform social problems at a time of increasing austerity, privatization and deregulation. Few have done a better job than left activist Marta Russell, listed in Boone’s index of reading, in documenting the economic dimensions of disability.

Moreover, Boone neglects the fact that in recent years, U.S. Supreme Court rulings like Garrett and many other court rulings at all levels have greatly restricted the scope of the ADA, both with respect to jurisdiction in the case of discrimination by state governments and because of a ridiculously narrow definition of disability. Far too many ADA plaintiffs are found not to have disabilities, on the most spurious of grounds, as conservative judges fail to grasp the transformative intent of the statute.

Boone also fails to mention the 1977 occupation of the Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services) building in San Francisco by dozens of disability rights activists. Lasting weeks, this struggle from below, with solidarity from the local branch of the Black Panther Party and many unions, forced the Carter Administration to release the crucial regulations pursuant to s.504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a major piece of civil rights legislation. This missing page of disability activist history should not be forgotten.

Finally, I think that her account of the Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy was radically incomplete. She is certainly right to note that other disabilities have been slighted. But the central point that disability rights activists have made is that the overwhelming focus of the Telethon has been on a failed quest to cure disabled people from what is portrayed as a fate worse than death, rather than providing services. The freak show display of disabled children for this purpose has been highly exploitative and degrading.

Another world of disability accessibility is possible. But it is up to left activists to make disability discrimination struggles as central to everyday activism — including assuring physical accessibility to left events — as they have gender, race and sexual identity in the last few years. With the Christian Right using wedge issues like assisted suicide to attract some support among disability rights activists, it is the left that must take the lead today in demonstrating solidarity to people with disabilities. –Ravi Malhotra, Toronto, Canada

ATC 116, May-June 2005