The 2019 Democratic Socialist of America convention had not yet ended when video emerged of a plenary session in which one member asked fellow attendees to stop their whispering and crosstalk that, he claimed, caused him to suffer “sensory overload.” What followed was a small barrage of clips snipped from the conference livestream: a meeting leader asking attendees to avoid wearing “aggressive scents”; the use of waving “jazz hands” — American Sign Language for applause — in place of actual applause either to accommodate those whose anxiety, autism, or stress disorders caused them to react poorly to sudden sound or to be inclusive of deaf participants, depending on who was tweeting the tale. Others pointed out the irony of asking members to sign rather than clap when the convention did not have sign-language interpreters present.
Seems like this DSA convention was a really fun time with lots of laughter and merriment pic.twitter.com/GoOwOP2vXv— Ben Dreyfuss (@bendreyfuss) August 4, 2019
The right quickly seized on these easily parodied moments. Something called “Young Americans Against Socialism” tweeted an unflatteringly edited video dubbed with lilting music to mock the proceedings. Grinning FOX goofus Jesse Waters swiftly aggregated rightwing reactions in order to mock the convention’s “impassioned hypersensitivity.” Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, replayed the same clips before hosting a colloquy with the self-described socialist writer and commentator Angela Nagle, who has carved out a media niche by chiding fellow leftists for an overcommitment to the language of identity and inclusion and for a position on national borders and migration that is — so goes the claim — antithetical to the protectionist policies necessary to protect the industrial working class.
Nagle pulled one phrase for special mockery: invisible disability. An invisible disability is, according to the Invisible Disabilities Association, “a physical, mental or neurological condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities that is invisible to the onlooker,” and such conditions may include symptoms like “debilitating fatigue, pain, cognitive dysfunctions and mental disorders, as well as hearing and eyesight impairments and more.” (Nagle claimed to have heard the phrase while watching full-length video of the conference, although not one that appeared in the widely circulated clips). Invisible disabilities are awfully convenient, she shrugged, since you can’t see them — you just have to take these coddled lefty shirkers and their sob stories at their word! The only illness from which any of them suffer, she pronounced to Carlson’s delight, is “bourgeois narcissism.”
There is a cliched idea that America’s working class consists of a vast population of robust men and women with thick necks and calloused hands. Their kitchen-table issues are adding another shift at the factory and keeping the Mexicans from driving down wages at the poultry plant. This is as cartoonish in its wrongness as depictions of the DSA — and the left in general — as a bunch of effete, pencil-neck trust-funders more worried about achieving social status in their privileged, intellectual spaces, more concerned with the proper use of the latest personal pronoun conventions than in gaining economic justice for their blue-collar comrades.
It’s an idea that has its greatest currency, ironically, in elite media spaces full of people who have never done a regular day’s work in their life, which may explain why their imaginary version of the American worker owes more to a cracked version of socialist realism — some kind of idealized New Soviet person triumphantly hefting his tools and implements over a vast field of wheat — than to any actual experience of working life in this country today.
Work in America is profoundly unhealthy, either too sedentary or too back-breaking or, frequently, an unpredictable succession of both states, punctuated by gulped-down meals and hasty bathroom breaks (if breaks are permitted at all). In most workplaces, the second most popular topic of conversation, after only the weather, is health: the bad backs and sore knees, the cramped elbows and ruined wrists, the migraines, the insomnia, the high blood pressure, the ringing in one’s ears.
This said, the left’s language of inclusion is often arcane; its rules of politesse and its habit of subdividing identity into ever-smaller and more precise tranches can be excruciating and alienating. There are undeniably bratty urban socialists whose minor anxieties and discomforts can grow, in environments where they are not checked and challenged, into exaggerated affectations of sickness and disability. But none of that obviates the fundamental relevance of confronting disability — including invisible disabilities — and promoting accessibility in a movement that seeks to meet America’s workers where they live, join them in solidarity, and improve their and their families’ lives.
I was a child of privilege in the small town where I spent my teenage years, but I knew plenty of kids in my public junior high and high school whose dads were “on disability,” that is to say, receiving Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance, really the only working-class welfare benefits left following Bill Clinton and his New Democrats’ disastrous “welfare reform.” We made fun of them, as cruel and thoughtless teenagers are wont to do. They weren’t in wheelchairs. They weren’t crippled. They could walk. They could drive. Some of them even mowed their own lawns! We had been socialized to believe that they were scammers, to be mocked simultaneously for being lazy and poor and for being conniving fraudsters on the make, getting rich off the government. The obvious contradiction of these insults made them all the worse.
Now that I am older, and aside from regretting these childhood cruelties simply for their meanness and lack of charity, I recognize the pain those men (we hardly thought of the women: another sort of insult), who could walk, yes, but could not climb the stairs, who slept upright in the living-room La-Z-Boy because it was too painful to lay flat, who had trouble with their insulin, who couldn’t hear you unless you shouted, or who were rattled by loud noises.
There is an air of performance in certain leftist spaces when it comes to mental and physical health, a bit of embarrassing competition to claim the mantle of Most Oppressed and to trade on the reputational kudos that accrue to oppression’s imputed authenticity. But there’s also something genuinely loving, kind, and admirable in this insistence-to-a-fault that physical and social spaces are accommodating and accessible to everyone.
This largely comes from a genuine wellspring of generosity that must be the foundation of any decent society, and is the cornerstone of true socialism. I don’t believe for one second that the people who mock these impulses, or this language, give one damn about working people. They may claim that they’re trying to warn socialists that regular folks will be turned off by it all. But in reality, they laugh and chide out of a desperate fear. They need to make socialism silly, to tease it, and to set it beyond the pale. They are afraid that if they don’t, those regular folk will hear all this talk of health and access and say, that sounds a lot like me.
In an often-cited 2018 essay, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer popularized a now-ubiquitous phrase to describe the politics of modern conservativism: “the cruelty is the point.” Cruelty, he observed, can have a powerful communal aspect. “Community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.”
The opposite quality to cruelty is usually taken to be kindness. (The now-disgraced public radio personality, Garrison Keillor, even defined liberalism as “the politics of kindness” in his 2004 book, Homegrown Democrat.) But kindness alone is insufficient as a political value; it is fundamentally an individual one, and it is not at all antithetical to collective cruelty. Many of the same Trump supporters whom Serwer discusses in his essay are not unkind — they will speak to you politely and invite you into their home for dinner or into their church to pray.
But a socialist politics requires not just personal kindness, but a collective generosity and a real commitment to inclusion. It requires accepting some measure of cost and temporary inconvenience in order to permit full participation in public life. It requires that we get over the old, mean American suspicion that someone is gettin’ one over on us by asking for a favor or a hand. I won’t naively claim that inclusivity will cost us nothing — but I will claim that it’s worth it.