Thursday, September 4, 2008

Trig Palin and the Burden of Burden

I have been troubled recently by the discourse around Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's four-month-old son Trig. Trig was born with Down Syndrome, and because of that Trig is quickly becoming political fodder. Trig is being used as a reason why Palin should run by the right and shouldn't run by the left.

According to pro-life christian conservatives Palin's decision to keep Trig "despite his condition" will reinvigorate the pro-life movement and add credibility to Palin's emphasis on family values. In a story from On Faith at the Timothy Shriver argues that:

With the introduction of Governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) onto the national political scene, one thing is for sure: the pro-life/pro-choice divide is sure to become a significant issue in the coming election. We already know that John McCain is pro-life while Obama is pro-choice but there's a new factor: Trig Paxson Van Palin, the infant son of the governor, who has Down syndrome. Trig could be a game changer.


Such a candidate is bound to invigorate the pro-life movement. But if they respond in their usual Supreme Court-focused, judgmental fashion, it won't bring us any closer to reducing abortion in the United States. It hasn't yet, and there's no reason to think it will now. In the abortion debate, the law has proved a wholly ineffective strategy for promoting life.

What works?

Sarah Palin was not coerced into having Trig, she chose to have him. Therein lies the possibility of the moment.

Trig could be a high-profile example of how wonderful it can be to choose life, even in adversity, even when the conditions aren't perfect. After all, the conditions are never perfect, but the promise of a newborn baby is that God's love is. Somehow, despite everything, love is triumphant. The message: Love life. Choose life.

The other discourse surrounding Trig is whether he will prevent his mother from performing her duties as VP. Commentators (I'm thinking of a particular comment made on CNN) have wondered aloud how the mother of a child with down syndrome could do anything else other than raise that child (I think the reporter in question said a child with down syndrome is "an awful lot of work").

Although these are competing political discourses they both reinforce the hegemony of ableist normativity. Trig is rendered little more than a political pawn in these discussions and rarely is he discussed as a full human subject with all the dignity and rights that should be accorded to him as such. Trig is predictably reduced to the specter of the disabled burden (on society and on his mother). The idea that Trig could prevent his mother from gaining one of the most powerful positions in the country subjects Trig to others feelings of blame and resentment based on the idea that disabled individuals are inherently burdensome and completely incapable. It is never a question of how much attention and time infants in general demand, it is always a question of the demands that a disabled child places on a family. Trig remains only identifiable and conceptualized by his disability.

The pro-life argument also relies on the trope of the disabled as burden in order highlight Palin's moral superiority and thus her fitness for office. The argument acknowledges the trope of the disabled child as as burden and likens it to the biblical burden of the cross. Palin's choice is accorded an almost Christlike currency as she was aware of the burden but ultimately decides to do what was "moral."

I don't necessarily have any thoughts to conclude this besides saying this shit is messed up in on a lot of levels. Not only is it straight-up ablest, but its also an extremely sexist argument. If Palin's husband was running would he be subject to the same questions about his time and dedication to Trig? I also wonder if and how race fits into this. I haven't been able to concretely think about it and I'd be interested if anyone has any thoughts on the racial politics of how ableism is being deployed.

Ultimately, I am anxious to see if and how (dis)ability activists take up this discourse around Sarah and Trig Palin. Let me know your reactions and thoughts.

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