Friday, December 17, 2010

More Disagreeing by Diagnosing: the Aspie-in-Chief

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Partial transcript of a podcast by two progressive political bloggers that criticizes President Obama's leadership style, which the podcast hosts believe is weak. The podcast, titled "Hey Obama, Get Your Head Out of Your Asperger's!" spends a lot of time drawing a picture of Barack Obama as a "high-functioning Asperger's" autistic, who is fixated on governing according to his own ideas of what the Presidency is supposed to be, even at the expense of governing well, or of doing any of the things the people who voted for him want him to do. Besides producing this transcript, I also critique the Obama-as-Aspie metaphor, and quote another autistic blogger's (Leah Jane) criticism that I particularly endorse.

Leah Jane at The Quixotic Autistic linked to this Professional Left podcast from a couple of weeks ago, titled "Hey Obama, Get Your Head Out of Your Asperger's!"

The podcast couches some actually very good criticism of Barack Obama's approach to being President in
some really offensive stereotyping of autistic people (similar to the instances of Disagreeing by Diagnosing I've chronicled earlier on this blog). Leah Jane transcribed and paraphrased a little bit of the relevant part of the podcast (which is very long --- almost the whole first half of the forty-minute recording), but invited other people to transcribe more of it, so I figured I'd do that.

The participants in this exchange are progressive bloggers
Driftglass and Blue Gal:
Driftglass: ... I'm very disappointed in my president right now.

Blue Gal: Yep. I actually woke up this morning and had a revelation about Barack Obama that I want to share with you.

Driftglass: Ooh! Pray tell, pray tell.

Blue Gal: I haven't even put this in the podcast notes, because I want it to be fresh.

Driftglass: Well, hold on, let me "man up" so I can handle it!

Blue Gal: (Laughs)

Driftglass: Let me put on my "man pants," as the new parlance for bracing myself ---I'm girding my loins.

Blue Gal: Girding your loins. There ya go.

Driftglass: Ready, gird! Okay, go.

Blue Gal: You and I both know --- and I actually did Photoshops this week of Obama as Spock --- and you and I both know, and lots of people have said that basically, Obama is sort of on that high-functioning Asperger's end of the spectrum, of not being emotional, of being very rational about things rather than getting mad, and that's very frustrating to a lot of us.

Driftglass: Yes.

Blue Gal: But along with that --- and also, full disclosure: Driftglass and I are very familiar with what it feels like to be on the Asperger's end of the spectrum; I think I can speak for both of us in that regard, may I?

Driftglass: That's a fair statement.

Blue Gal: We've talked about that before.

Driftglass: Yes, that's a reasonable ---

Blue Gal: Obsessive interests, you know, being able to ignore everything else to the point of a fault, and so forth. But one of the things that people like us, at that end of the spectrum, often do, is focus on one little detail --- again, to the fault of forgetting the big picture.

Driftglass: Yes.

Blue Gal: --- and I really think that the Constitutional scholar Barack Obama has this little seed in his mind that the Presidency is supposed to be weak, Constitutionally speaking, in relation to the Congress, in terms of starting legislation, and so forth. He's decided that he's going to return, he's going to change the way Washington works, and what he means by that is he's going to go back to a time when the Presidency and the Congress and the courts were part of this balancing act --- you know, the three branches ---

Driftglass: (cuts in) Pre-Imperial.

Blue Gal: Pre-Imperial presidency. So I'm thinking this morning in my kitchen about, "Well, when was it that we sort of got this imperial presidency?" and I realized, "Oh, my God, FDR!"

Driftglass: Yeah?

Blue Gal: And, so, doing this is antithetical to the New Deal! You know? It really is!
Driftglass: It is. It is.

Blue Gal: And that's why we're all having such a collective freakout, like "Revenge of the Nerds," when the nerd gets elected to the presidency of the student council, and, instead of sitting down and taking over and representing the rest of us nerds, and doing what we want him to do, he sits down and takes out the bylaws, and says (speaks in nasal voice) "Well, ya know, we really have to go by the bylaws and the bylaws say that everyone gets a vote and we all have to work together on a consensus."

Driftglass: Uh-huh.

Blue Gal: And we sit there and we're like, "But wait! We elected you President because we don't want the Alpha Betas to have a voice in this! They're jock assholes! They're not gonna come up with anything that's gonna even resemble a reasonable answer to any of the problems we have." (nasal voice) "No, but the bylaws say we have to do it this way." (resumes her normal voice) And the collective freakout from the progressive base, is, "Oh my God! He's going by the bylaws! Stop it! Stop it! Stop him now! We want you to be an imperial President. We want you to be strong."

Driftglass: He's an originalist. He's a Constitutional originalist; the first branch of government is the Congress.

Blue Gal: Yeah! And they're the ones that originate legislation.

Driftglass: Yeah, absolutely true.

Blue Gal: And, as someone who came fresh out of the Senate --- you know, was really in the Senate for a very short time --- and being the Constitutional scholar that he is --- but the other thing about this "Aspie" thing, this Asperger's thing, is, two things: One is, I think Barack Obama really has faith in America, and thinks
that America can survive anything. We survived Reagan. But I think he really has fundamental faith in America to survive anything, and so it's perfectly okay for him to conduct this experiment, and I really think he's conducting an experiment now, in his head. Let's go ahead and really do this Constitutional thing of letting the Congress have more power.

Driftglass: Yeah.

Blue Gal: And I think he realizes that, the people he's dealing with, they're Republicans, you know?

Driftglass: Yes. Well, there's the fly in the ointment, isn't it?

Blue Gal: Yeah! The fly in the ointment is, they want to destroy him. And he doesn't care because he's gonna conduct this little experiment in Constitutional originalism --- it's almost ironic in terms of the Tea Party always talking about defending the original Constitution, which to them means "we only have white men for President" ---

Driftglass: The Second Amendment, the Tenth Amendment, and nothing else.

Blue Gal: --- but the real Constitutional originalist is Barack Obama.

Driftglass: That's a very interesting revelation.

Blue Gal: And it's intellectualizing it like that that distracts me from wanting to (bleep) Congressional offices, damn it!

Driftglass: Okay, you'll have to, uh ---

Blue Gal: I think I'll have to edit that out.

(Both laugh).

Blue Gal: It's a joke! It's a joke. I'm kidding, I'm kidding.

Driftglass: Send them a very firm letter.

Blue Gal: I'm going to send a very firm letter, too!

Driftglass: Well, I can understand that point of view. I can respect that point of view. You raise a very interesting point, that he is conducting his presidency as a mediator among the branches of government, and as a modest, confirm-or-deny kind of person, but [one] who doesn't originate. And that is what the Constitution generally says a President should be.

Blue Gal: We're so not used to this, because, when I teach middle-school U.S. history, it's all about who was President. You start there, with U.S. history.

Driftglass: Of course.

Blue Gal: "Okay, when FDR was President, this, this, this and this happened." You don't start with, "The great Congresspeople of 1945, how brave they were!" You know? You don't go there! That's not how we think of history.

Driftglass: So he's essentially gone to the House basement and pulled out this 200-year-old machine, and said, "I'm going to oil it up and get it running again and make it run the way it was originally intended to run." That's a very interesting theory, and I think that we could spend probably the rest of the podcast talking about it.

Blue Gal: I think so. Yeah.

Driftglass: But if I'm that guy, then Step One is, I stop torturing people.

Blue Gal: Yeah. Yeah.

Driftglass: Step Two, I close down secret prisons. If you really ---

Blue Gal: And that's it. I think that's where he fails his own experiment.

Driftglass: He does.

Blue Gal: Because, there are areas --- particularly during the Bush administration --- where presidential power just exploded.

Driftglass: And he wants to hang onto that.

Blue Gal: He wants to hang onto that! You can't have it both ways.
I do think there might be something to Blue Gal's notion that Barack Obama, the Constitutional scholar, might be deliberately not being as strong a leader as he could be because he believes the Presidency *should* be weak. Of course, there is a conflict there with his keeping in force all the totalitarian measures his predecessor adopted after 9/11, using a vague Terrorist Threat to justify all manner of surveillance-state excesses --- and Driftglass and Blue Gal catch that inconsistency, and acknowledge it. They make some other criticisms of Obama's leadership style that I think carry a lot of weight, like his persistence in believing that the extremists who've largely taken over control of the Republican Party (in what I think of as a two-stage process that began with the anti-Clinton Republican Revolution of 1994, which gave us Newt Gingrich, and has culminated with the current anti-Obama backlash) will move even one nanometer to the left in order to compromise with him --- even if he moves a mile to the right first, as a gesture of good faith. Driftglass also makes a good point that Obama is not only President, he is also leader of the Democratic Party, and he is abandoning this second responsibility. I also appreciated their discussion of the long historical roots* of the "imperial Presidency" that they suspect Obama of wanting (if not quite wholeheartedly) to abdicate.

But this "oh, the President is an Aspie, that's why he's so 1) emotionless, 2) naive and 3) stubbornly committed to principle at the expense of realpolitik" thing, that's the part I didn't find particularly helpful or illuminating.

I thought Leah Jane put her finger on the biggest thing that's wrong with this use of autism-as-metaphor:

[W]hen the American people were at an all time euphoria about Obama, he was compared to Spock, and Superman, and other idols of nerd culture, but the "A" word never came up. Now, progressives are finding a few walloping things wrong with his decisionmaking and snubbing of progressives, and now it's so convenient to label him with autism or some other "disorder" or invisible disability. Disability need not apply to people when they're doing what you think is right, but the moment you find fault with them, disabilities begin to be thrown about, and always the negative stereotypical traits are thrown in too. Never would it be suggested (at least while he is alive, see Einstein and Newton) that Obama has Asperger Syndrome for an exceptional trait which makes him a fine leader. Always focus on what makes them different, not good. Same for Narcissistic Personality, or Psychopathic Personality, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or now, Asperger Syndrome. Yay. Or just happily labeling anyone who disagrees with you as part of the Loonie Left, or a Wingnut, or a Right Wing Nutjob, having "Nazi Tourettes," having some type of ADD or ADHD, or a Crazy [insert noun], or Republitard.

How delightful to know that the mentally and intellectually disabled are so disposable.
I remember this, too: during the campaign and shortly after he became President, people would use words like "cerebral," "rational" (or "hyper-rational," if you're fond of superlatives), "intellectual," "professorial," or talk about his desire to transcend partisanship, or dirty politics, or whatever; the image was of a guy who practically embodied Reason and Idealism and Moderation in All Things. And we did not use a psychiatric diagnosis to convey this image; we used mere adjectives. Now that some commentators see these same traits as flaws --- as impediments to his being an effective President --- they describe them in psychiatric terms. What were character traits or habits are now symptoms.

Using metaphors like that --- comparing some trait, or philosophical stance, or policy position, in a politician to a DSM diagnosis --- does two things. First, it marginalizes and delegitimizes the person you're talking about, since whatever they say can (and usually is) just be used as further evidence of their incapacity; and second, it feeds the stigma against people with that particular diagnosis. There's already a stereotype that autistic people are never leaders, never politicians, because of our total lack of social skills; if "autistic" or "Aspie" become common insults for a leader who is seen to be ineffective, the stereotype becomes stronger (and also, more specific to political leadership). Young autistic people trying to find something they're good at and want to do with their lives might assume they can't go into politics (even if they might want to, or have an aptitude for it**), or people in a position to hire, say, campaign workers might choose not to hire anyone who says they're autistic, or who looks autistic, because they've gotten the idea that autistic people don't belong in politics.

*I wonder if, based on some things I've read at Arthur Silber's blog (start with this nine-part series on "Dominion Over the World" and follow links to his other writings on the history of American imperialism, if you've got lots of time and an intense interest in this matter), if this overpowered executive branch might not be even older than they seem to think it is --- if maybe it didn't start with Woodrow Wilson (or earlier --- you wouldn't call Teddy Roosevelt a passive, retiring, conciliatory sort of leader, would you?) rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt. Wilson was also a very active, aggressive President who embroiled the nation in bloody, imperialistic wars that it had no need to fight (in Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Russia, according to Wikipedia; he also ultimately made the choice to involve the U.S. in World War I). But Wilson in particular seems to have done a lot of the thing that I had previously thought started with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that kicked off U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War: using executive power to declare war without ever formally declaring war, which the Constitution allows only Congress to do.

**Which some of us do!


Anonymous said...

That's a really interesting analysis, though I see your point about comparing someone's traits to those of a disabled person if they happen to be doing something you don't like.

I've read that Obama plays it cool because if he didn't, he'd be seen as the 'angry black man', which I always thought was a good point as well. Still, I never thought about the Constitutional history angle.

I voted for Obama, and always liked his cool, calm, intellectual manner. I still do, even though he's done things I haven't liked. But I knew when I voted for him that he wasn't as liberal as I am, so I was somewhat prepared for disappointment.

Armchair diagnosing is probably something best avoided in any case.

Lindsay said...


"I've read that Obama plays it cool because if he didn't, he'd be seen as the 'angry black man,' which I always thought was a good point as well."

Me, too. I actually meant to include that in my post, but I forgot to.

I definitely think Obama has a keen sensitivity to exactly how much anger, or how much political envelope-pushing, he can "get away with" before he starts to frighten the white middle-class liberals. Even though I think he probably really *is* a centrist, I suspect that even if his heart lay farther left, he'd still stick pretty close to the center in his rhetoric and policies to avoid being caricatured as a Black Panther. (Which has happened to him!)

Fran / Blue Gal said...

Certainly no harm or offense was meant. My son is diagnosed PDD-NOS, and both Driftglass and I self-assert that we are on the spectrum. If we had a bit of fun at the President's expense, it's nothing compared to what he did after that with the tax deal. Sigh.

Thanks for the linky love and attentive analysis. Much appreciated.

Lindsay said...

Hi, Fran!

Yes, I heard you saying you and Driftglass were on the spectrum yourselves.

I didn't think you meant any harm, either --- the metaphor just annoyed me, for the reasons I talked about above.

(I'm also a lot more worried about you guys insulting autistic people than insulting Obama --- he *does* deserve lots of criticism for all the things you guys mention! You are completely justified in your frustration with him!)

I also greatly enjoyed the podcast in general, and will probably listen to others.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your analysis. Obama deserves a lot of criticism, but using disability as a mateaphor to voice this criticism, is inappropriate, although it personally does not offend me.

Leah Jane said...

You've out done me, Lindsay. Your post is spot-on, and I thank you wholeheartedly for the link and the transcript, as well as your excellent analysis.
@ Fran/Blue Gal: I know you probably didn't mean to cause offense, but intent doesn't erase harm. But I think, if both you and your podcast partner are on the spectrum, you can take an opportunity to talk about autism in a much more positive light and refrain from disability as negativity. Autistic people have worked hard to obtain a level of visibility that doesn't have an emphasis on pity or curing. We don't want the other hand of our visibility being a portrait of apathy and cold logic.
Next time, I'm sure you can think of a much more clever way to voice your legitimate (and shared by me) criticism of the president.

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