On the eve of the midterm elections with Pennsylvania’s Senate race viewed as a dead heat, a debate has continued to rage over whether Democratic candidate John Fetterman is fit after suffering a serious stroke that impaired his communication and processing skills. However, as we previously discussed, many on the left have swatted back questions concerning Fetterman’s fitness as “ableism.” Now, the Washington Post has run a long column from University of Delaware Professor Jaipreet Virdi declaring that it is not just embracing ableism but eugenics to question Fetterman’s fitness.
Professor Virdi is an associate professor at the University of Delaware who describes herself as “Deaf & forever a radical.” She is a prominent and influential voice against discrimination against the deaf.
There were parts of her column that I thought raised valuable and probative insights, including Virdi’s observation that “disabled people are the ‘original life hackers,’ people who adapt to their circumstances and find their way through the disabled world, by creating new objects and paths that allow them full participation.” She is also right that we need to reevaluate how our expectations might be barriers to those with disabilities. However, she engages in her own sweeping generalizations of those who raise these concerns and tells them that they must “jettison eugenics-influenced ideas about disability.”
Virdi frames her analysis by insisting that Fetterman is just given to “verbal stumbles and pauses.” The problem is that we do not know if there is more serious cognitive damage. Fetterman has refused to release his medical records despite requests from the media, including newspapers that support him.
Moreover, Fetterman had this stroke before the primary vote but he and his staff kept the serious impact of the stroke a secret. After he received the nomination, they then largely prevented the media or voters from questioning him and sharply limited his public appearances. They would only agree to one debate and insisted that it occur relatively late in the election after hundreds of thousands voted.
In other words, we still do not know the extent to which Fetterman can process information and communicate. His sole debate was widely viewed as alarming.
However, it is the escalation of the rhetoric that is most notable about the Washington Post column. Professor Virdi explains that the doubts raised over Fetterman are reflective of our history with eugenics and view that certain groups are “socially deficient.”
“As far as eugenicists were concerned, science said that “moral” flaws were hereditary and threatened the health of the nation. This meant that the solution to social problems such as crime, promiscuity and poverty aimed at the institutionalization and sterilization of the “morally degenerate”. As [Sir Francis ] Galton envisioned, human improvement was only possible through consistent, scientific intervention brought about by eugenics: ‘What nature does blindly, slowly, and recklessly, man can do proactively, swiftly, and kindly.’”
Professor Virdi ties such doubts over the fitness of disabled people to past efforts of sterilization and the view that “controlling human reproduction through better breeding was a must.” She warns that “at its core, eugenics simply applied a scientific gloss to existing racial, class, and gender prejudices. Immigrants, people with disabilities, and racial and ethnic minorities were among those identified as socially ‘disabled.'”
As I wrote in the earlier column, there is no reason why a senator cannot be fully effective despite a disability, including the use of such devices as readers. The problem in Pennsylvania is that the Fetterman campaign has actively prevented efforts to determine if there are more serious cognitive difficulties for Fetterman in processing information.
In the end, the Fetterman strategy worked in sheltering the candidate from further questioning or debates. The best way to dispel such questions would have been greater interaction with the candidate to show that this was limited, as Professor Virdi suggests, to mere “verbal stumbles and pauses.” As it stands, voters will largely vote without such information and any doubts are the result of the concerted effort to leave these questions unanswered.
N.B.: The original version of this blog posting noted the controversy over Fetterman allegedly saying that he “celebrated the death of Roe v. Wade.” It appears that Fetterman stumbled over “Oz” and it came out sounding like “I.” However, it was removed as not a good example of the health concerns given the minor confusion.