The latest contribution to our ongoing reader series comes from the proud grandmother of a kindergartner with autism. She agrees with me that it takes a village to support children and adults on the spectrum:
Awareness and diagnosis are a priority for the family. There are too many children falling through the cracks, so my daughter has volunteered to start a community support group for parents who are concerned about their child’s development. She has found many parents reluctant to accept a label, and she hopes to turn their fears into action.
I told her that my wife and I embraced the label and found solace in knowing the challenges facing our son and what we could do to help him. More important, Tyler proudly calls himself an Aspie. “Like blue eyes, I don’t talk about how I have blue eyes,” he says in a video interview with Autism Speaks (embedded above). “I have autism. That’s it.”
This next reader and Twitter friend writes about the rich inner lives of people with special needs, including autism. (Some names and details have been changed to protect privacy.) It’s painful to read about this particular kind of heartache:
For two years, Frank has wanted to move out of his group home to a new place. Although his current digs are clean and safe, he’s gotten bored. When he saw our children move into college dorms, he wanted to do the same. He thinks of college life as what he’s seen on Beverly Hills 90210.
We finally found him a nice new home close to his current digs. He’s had dinner over there. We’re attending to the formal details. He’s been packing bags in his room.
In the house he is leaving, Frank lives with several other guys. He is closest to Jon. Jon cannot speak. He communicates by scribbling on scraps of paper and excitedly handing them to staff members who then try to decipher what he has written.
Frank is probably his closest friend. He’s called him Jon-Jon for a few years now. Frank has also been swiping Diet Cokes from us for years. I used to get annoyed by this, until I realized that he and Jon were sitting together, sharing the loot.
Jon is heartbroken by Frank’s pending move. He’s weeping, and doing some other manageable problem behaviors. A staff member called our house the other night, hinting around to see if we would reconsider the move. I won’t do that. Frank is an adult man entitled to make his own choices. He wants a change. I’m not going to pressure him to miss a valuable opportunity. But like many life changes, it brings someone else heartache and loss.
These men have much richer inner lives than we’ll ever really understand. They mourn long-ended relationships with relatives, housemates, and friends who’ve died, moved away, or slipped out of their lives. They are expected to bear these losses with a child-like smile, and not to get overly frustrated when we don’t understand what they are trying to tell us.
In this case, though, the message could hardly be simpler: I will miss you. Do you really have to go?
I think what we’re seeing playing out in this Notes thread is the division within the autism community. It’s a divide (if I might over generalize for the sake of the discussion) between those focused largely on high-functioning autistic people and the support they need and those geared more toward low-functioning autistic people and the need for research.
Into that breach comes Ari Ne’eman, a person with autism and a mission: He’s a zealous advocate for services that support people on the spectrum. It was Ari who pointed me to Hillary Clinton’s remarks on the subminimum wage. I asked him to respond to the readers defending the exemption for certain employers who hire disabled people, namely in “sheltered workshops.” Ari directed me to two long posts he’s written, here and here, under the title “(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Sheltered Workshops.” First, here’s Ari with an overview of the places we’re debating about:
Sheltered workshops are work centers which exclusively or predominantly employ people with disabilities. Many hold 14(c) certificates, so named after the section of the Fair Labor Standards Act allowing certain employers to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage.
Today, approximately 228,600 workers with disabilities are paid under 14(c), the majority of which are paid less than the minimum wage (a minority of employers also use 14(c) certificates to pay under the prevailing wage rate required by federal contracts). While there are more workers than that in sheltered workshops, the population covered under 14(c) tends to be the most focused on by advocates, as many garner little economic benefit from their work, some making less than a dollar an hour.
From Ari’s section, “What’s the problem with sheltered workshops?”:
At a basic level, sheltered workshops suffer from a fundamental conflict of interest.
As a service-provider, the workshop is tasked with helping a worker with a disability to pursue their preferred career and maximize their earnings. As an employer, the workshop has little incentivize to lose their most productive employees or add to their payroll costs. Make no mistake: even non-profit workshops are businesses, and like any business, they will seek to maximize their profits and economic viability.
Workers with the greatest likelihood of success in the general workforce are those that workshop supervisors are most loath to part with, as they are depended on to allow the workshop to deliver on its contracts. Workers in sheltered workshops lack any recourse to improve their economic prospects – because the people whose job it is to assist them in doing so have a vested interest in keeping them where they are.
Hearing this made a lightbulb come on. I’m a dandelion.
Part of this sounds like that whole “I’m-a-special-snowflake” crap that has been pushed around these days. But this is exactly how someone with Aspergers or autism can feel. On the downside, they might feel like a weed, a nuisance to the rest of the neurotypical world. It’s how I’ve felt at times. But the thing is, dandelions have benefits as well. What might not fit well on a lawn, might make a good wine or a balm.
But I think most employers, even in the nonprofits, tend to go for flowers, people that are “beautiful,” put-together, who know how to make small talk and aren’t moody or plain weird.
Maybe this is why the unemployment rate among those with autism is something like 85 percent. (No, that isn’t made up.) Our work culture is one that is geared towards efficiency. We want workers we don’t have to really train, let alone accomodate. So what happens when you get someone who is autistic and needs to be cultivated and isn’t geared towards being efficient? They don’t last long in their jobs.
I don’t think the job market was always like this. I think there was a time when companies and groups were interested in investing in the worker. Of course those with autism were locked up in institutions, so the old days weren’t so good. But I think we need to bring back the notion or nurturing workers instead of making them fit some template.
What needs to be done is a radical overhaul of how we see those with autism. In the profile of Somme, it is noted that employers need to gear themselves to be places that can accommodate autistic workers:
One significant challenge in utilizing individuals with autism is that many employers don’t always see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or a have poor communication skills. Because of this, Specialisterne focuses on developing new approaches that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. Sonne believes that innovative employment programs, that focus on individuals with special needs, can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.
Sonne’s company Specialisterne, has a unique approach in how they hire and work alongside persons with autism:
Work Design: Traditional approach: Work design derives business needs from stable strategies and plans. Jobs are designed by determining the tasks a given job requires, translating these tasks into job descriptions and then placing individuals into stable organizational roles.
New Approach: Design jobs to maximize potential for particular individuals to create value. Project roles are customized so they “work” for short-term needs but can evolve as needs change.
But while I’m glad for Sonne and Specialisterne, I have to deal with this world, the world where autism is still a puzzle or frustration.
So, at the risk of offending potential and future employers, I will say this: I’m a dandelion. I am rough around the edges. I am not pretty, I am not great at small talk and I will not be easy to get to know. But if you work with me, you will see a creative side that can produce things you never even thought of.
My brother-in-law has Down’s syndrome, and he works jobs for less than minimum wage. He does not really understand numbers, and he has minimal verbal skills. He frequently does not talk at all.
I remember he once came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder; he wanted to show me (wordlessly) that he had two dollar bills. At the time, he did not understand that they were worth less than a 20 dollar bill. He may understand the difference now.
In spite of his profound disabilities, he can clean and do laundry. It means the world to him that he earns his own money; it makes him like his (able) brothers. And the jobs that hire him do not get $7.25/hour worth of work. I think we are all happy with the arrangement.
Several other readers provided more smart pushback in the comments section, and my colleague Chris edited together some of the best responses below. This first reader insists we need to draw more distinctions in this debate:
Fournier’s post seems to throw all people with disabilities into one pot. Some disabilities (say, sitting in a wheel chair) may be a handicap for some jobs, but there are plenty of other jobs where a person with this disability can work just as well as someone without disabilities. Paying the disabled person a lower wage is unfair.
But there are also people with much more severe (in the sense of hindrance to work) disabilities.
Their work is more like supervised playing, the results of which people will only buy out of charity (say, pottery made by someone with the Down syndrome). Allowing these people this work is very helpful for their self esteem but it simply isn’t worthwhile from a purely economic standpoint, so paying them a federal minimal wage will destroy these opportunities.
Deciding which person falls into which category is another thorny issue, but treating every disability the same is not the answer.
Another reader has a real-life example of such distinctions:
I have a brother-in-law on the autism spectrum, and a co-worker with MS [multiple sclerosis]. My co-worker has the much more apparent disability; he is reliant on voice activation for much of his workday. My brother is fully physically capable, is communicative, and can do most tasks, but emotionally- and responsibility-wise, he’s a 13 year old.
My co-worker likely makes more money than I do, and he deserves it; he has a master’s degree and is an excellent employee.
My brother had a “shelter job” for years, making ~$4.50 an hour, but also receiving close supervision and peer interaction, and the “company” he worked for dumped all proceeds into staff and facilities to provide their employees with access to low-cost therapy, sports leagues, and other events.
But he quit working there to try and make “more money,” and he’s quit or been fired from about six jobs in two years. He’s currently unemployed and on a waiting list to get back into his old position.
This next reader gives an impassioned defense of the sheltered workshops that hire the disabled:
Not every employer is looking to exploit their workers. The majority of sheltered workshops are non-profits who contract with local businesses and provide critical life skills (and often residences) to their workers. The majority of these workshops barely break even.
The program that is in place under the FSLA [Fair Labor Standards Act] is closely regulated and observed by the Department of Labor. You have to have a special certificate to employ individuals with vocational disabilities, and even then you have to base their pay rates on their specific disability in relation to the work they are performing.
I am an unabashed progressive who hates unfair wages, but this is a program that is helping the disabled, not exploiting them.
The people who are in sheltered workshops are often extremely disabled for the work they are performing. To these individuals, the job itself means considerably more than the pay. It is a point of pride to be able to engage in meaningful work at all. If you get rid of differential wages for the disabled, people will stop hiring the disabled, and a significant source of pride and feelings of normalcy in those people’s lives will be diminished.
Of course, Hillary Clinton isn’t thinking about any of those things. She’s just sucking up for votes and trying to sound like she cares about the “little people.”
One more reader with a real-life example:
I have family member who did one of those programs. She needs close monitoring and regular (like every 10 minutes) direction and feedback. In hiring you have to ask yourself, “Can this person do the job without unreasonable supervision?” In her case, the answer is no.
Here’s another powerful story for our ongoing series. This reader asked to remain anonymous “because most people who know me in my adult life don’t know about my diagnosis”:
I’ve been following The Atlantic’s coverage of women on the autism spectrum. There’s a particular problem, as you all rightly point out, for autistic women/girls because there is not enough research in the area. Because of this, it is very hard for people like me to find information about ourselves, and it is both jolting and relieving for me to find descriptions that mirror my own experiences with autism (or Asperger’s, as I was originally diagnosed).
That was particularly the case when I read Wildhood’s recent article about “looking autistic” and the trouble with passing. She covered a lot of the feelings that I’ve had when somebody denies my autism (I don’t really tell people about it anymore, because those interactions are too hard and, actually, shaming).
I’d like to talk a little bit about why it’s problematic to try to make an autistic person “normal.”
I’m somewhat unusual for an autistic woman in that I received my diagnosis fairly early (late elementary school), but I’m very typical in that my outward symptoms lessened over time, thanks in large part to therapy and work done by my parents. These efforts to make me seem “normal” have been so successful that in the rare instance that I disclose my diagnosis to somebody, they often deny that I could possibly have autism*, or tell me that mine is clearly so mild I don't actually have a disability.
This probably looks like success: I can pass for normal. For a while in my late teens, I convinced myself that I was normal. Despite this, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that this isn’t the case, and the more I’ve realized that the outward veneer of “normalcy” hides an interior that is still impaired, in some ways quite significantly.
To speak just a little bit about this: I’ve realized that I still process most social interaction through the logical part of my brain. I’m extremely intelligent and so I’m usually quite capable of logic-ing through basic social interactions, and much of my interactions are based on me consciously developing strategies for interaction. I make up much of the rest through training that I had in therapy. I know to paste on a smile and say “fine thanks, how are you?” when somebody asks how I’m doing, because I practiced that in a therapist’s office.
But I also have trouble around the edges, which I assume the people around me are more or less aware of, and that I seem far less normal the more people know me. I have particular trouble making sense of when to say “thank you,” for example, outside of very particular situations I’ve practiced for. I tend to over-disclose personal information too early in new friendships, something that I try to keep a tight lid on. I still have a great deal of trouble with “mind-blindness” [a cognitive disorder where an individual is unable to attribute mental states to the self and others]. I often have trouble evaluating what other people are thinking/feeling, especially in reaction to me, and this causes me a huge amount of anxiety.
All of this requires mental energy expenditures far above what most neurotypical people must make to carry on basic conversations. I’m constantly filled with anxiety when interacting with new people, and I’ve struggled to form deep friendships as an adult.
The other issue, which I’m still struggling to come to terms with, is that I have some of the more major issues that come with autism, and when they come out, other people have no idea what’s going on. I have trouble with executive function. I have autistic meltdowns when I’m overtaxed (something that has happened very rarely outside of my own home, but the threat of a public meltdown is incredibly worrisome for me). I have issues going into new situations, I am resistant to change, I constantly suppress stimming (self-soothing repetitive motions), I often can’t read humor, I have trouble regulating my tone of voice, etc.
Because I’ve been molded into normalcy on the outside, the idea that I have special needs and that I can’t always control the results if those needs aren’t met isn’t something that people understand. My parents, and my father especially, never quite came to grips with Asperger’s Syndrome as a global neurological disorder, rather than as a series of behavioral quirks that needed to be corrected. My father took the attitude that I needed to be forced “to behave” and to be forced out of my “comfort zone,” rather than using my diagnosis as “an excuse.”
I now realize that in many cases this was like asking somebody on crutches to walk up several flights of stairs, rather than use the “excuse” of their disability to ride the elevator. They might wind up at the top of the building, but they also may be injured getting there.
When I was a child and teenager, I was told to state my needs, only to have them be ignored by the adults around me, until I was overwhelmed in crisis situations that could have been avoided if I had been listened to. I wasn’t protected from bullying in school because I was “overreacting.” I was told that my special interests were wrong and “evil” (that word was literally used—nothing that I was interested in approached evil), and sometimes I was forced to stop engaging in them. I was forced to participate in sports, even though I found them impossibly frustrating and difficult.
The meltdowns that ensued from this were punished, and then I was forced back into situations that led to more meltdowns.
When I was younger, I felt that my parents were making the right decision. I believed that I shouldn’t be allowed to “behave badly” just because I had a psychological problem, and I felt that I was constantly failing to “be good.” Unfortunately, although I was diagnosed independently by two experts in the treatment of autism, we lived too far away for me to receive ongoing treatment from either of them.
I was treated by a regular psychologist who mostly dealt with emotional disturbances and trauma and who had little experience with autism. Thus she didn’t have the insight to explain to my parents that my autistic behaviors were my normal and that I needed to learn coping mechanisms to deal with times when I struggled, rather than just have my behaviors “fixed.”
I’ve realized now that although I’ve been trained to be “normal,” I haven’t been trained to be a healthy autistic person. I wish that rather than trying to make me pass as normal, my parents had learned to support me as I was and am.
*A side-note: It’s surprisingly painful to be told that you don’t have a problem that causes you trouble every single day. I’ve experienced that firsthand and heard about it from a couple of friends who also have issues from childhood that have lasted into adulthood but who now present as normal from the outside. If you want to mentally put them into the category of people with gluten “sensitivity,” that’s fine, but please don’t tell somebody who has trusted you with their diagnosis that they’re wrong about their own mental health to their face. It’s just needlessly hurtful. And bear in mind that all you’re seeing is the way that they present to the world. You can’t see their internal struggle, and you can’t see the (possibly years of) therapy or medication or whatever that got them to the place they’re at today.
Our latest reader contributor and parent of an autistic child strikes a chord with me and my family: Late diagnosis. Check. Solitary life. Check. Crushing rejection. Check. A parent’s desperate dream: “I wish more employers could see past the facade of autism to recognize the smart, hard-working people who simply have minds that are wired differently from the majority of the population.” Here’s our reader in full:
Thanks for sharing so many of these stories. My daughter had some of the typical autism traits as a preschooler, but she was so intelligent, we didn’t think she possibly could be autistic.
As she rose through elementary school, she slowly pulled more into her own little world, and away from all of the other children. By fifth grade, her school guidance counselor told us she was certain my daughter was autistic. As we read more about the spectrum, it was obvious to us, too. We didn’t get her officially diagnosed until she was 16, and then only as a precaution in case she needed help in college.
She never needed help (though she did live at home instead of on campus). She finished college with a 3.9 GPA in biology, with a goal to go to medical school because she always had wanted to help others. Her grades and great MCAT scores earned interviews at medical schools, but she couldn’t get past the admissions interviews.
I understand why they couldn’t see her as a physician. She struggles to look people in the eye. She speaks in a monotone. She answers questions with the fewest words possible. But she would have been amazing at the analytical aspects of pathology.
Crushed by the rejection, she went with a backup plan of lab work. Thankfully, a wonderful instructor saw her potential and accepted her into a histotechnology training program.
When she finished the one-year program, the hospital lab where she trained had no openings for her. For eight months, she got a couple of job interviews a month. Like the med school interviewers, they couldn’t see her working in their labs.
Finally, the lab where she trained had an opening and hired her. They had seen how dedicated and smart she was. Two years later, she is the perfect person to work the overnight shift, which leaves her alone in the lab for about half the shift. Following protocols to the letter every time is so important in lab work, and that’s a strength of many with autism. Her life is very solitary, but she’s happy that she has found her own way to help others.
As parents, it hurt us when she had no real friends in school, and no social life in college, but it never bothered her. It took us a long time to realize her needs for happiness were different from ours. Now, we’re so proud of her, and she even seems proud of herself for finding her own niche in life. I wish more employers could see past the facade of autism to recognize the smart, hard-working people who simply have minds that are wired differently from the majority of the population.
On happiness, it took me years to realize that Tyler’s needs were different from my own. And it was only after digging into research on happiness (and a trip to Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson pursued his) that I sorted through the difference between goodness and pleasure. The latter is what parents most often want for their kids, including neurotypicals. But it’s the former that makes them happy (Marc Gellman sums this up nicely here.)
On employment, it’s worth noting here that Hillary Clinton made big news Monday that was little-noticed in the media. Fielding questions from a campaign audience, Clinton told an autistic lawyer she opposed a Depression-era labor law that allow employers to hire disabled people at a subminimum wage. Sometimes as low as 8 cents per hour. (If you or someone you care about has worked for subminimum wages as a disabled worker, please let me know your story.)
That’s how reader Gary describes his three amazing stepkids:
I was touched by the note about your son Tyler as I read it this morning. It was forwarded to me by my wife of nine years whose three children have all been diagnosed with ASD [autism spectrum disorder]. Her oldest son is 26 and seeking a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with plans to attend graduate school. She has 13-year-old twins who are seventh graders at a public school right now. One of the twins and the oldest son have Asperger’s while the other twin has a more severe form of autism with speech problems and more challenging behavioral issues.
My wife has struggled tirelessly to help her three kids adjust, adapt, and grow into the wonderful human beings they can become. They are so much better off because of their mom. She has faced many obstacles with each child, yet through her fiery determination and strong will, they have overcome those obstacles and were strengthened as a result.
Your note came at a particularly challenging time for her. Last night, as she lay in bed, she told me that she was not a good parent and that she had failed her younger son.
She has adjusted his IEP [individualized education program] so that he does half of his schooling at home under her supervision. He was not particularly excited about his studies that evening and he showed his frustration by ignoring her lessons. This had gone on for about three weeks and she punished him by taking away his various forms of entertainment. She was regretting her decision and felt that he hated her.
I reminded her of how well her two other children have done despite their ASD and how she has helped them overcome so many pitfalls in their lives. I also reminded her that he is so much better off because of her and that he is coming along just like his older brother. She just needed to remember the patience she showed her eldest.
My wife is an amazing woman. She can be so hard on herself because she wants her kids to have a great life. But there are times when so gets depressed trying to make that happen. I can only console her because I don’t understand all of it. The love of a mother for her child is immeasurable, but when there are three of them with ASD and that love is not commonly reciprocated, it can be very difficult to handle.
Your note was uplifting to her when she needed it the most. How do I know this? Her email to me with your forwarded note said, “I love my dandelions!!” I know she does and I know that she is cultivating them in her kitchen for the wonderful characteristics they possess.
Two readers responding to my note on autism reflect two disparate vantage points. The first is a 66-year-old Georgia man with Asperger’s Syndrome, a retired Army officer who has struggled socially his entire life. His subject line: “On the Spectrum.”
[B]oth parents and teachers must understand that not all young people are cut out to be “the leaders of tomorrow”—that some individuals will make their greatest contribution as tinkers or inventors or mechanics or engineers or programmers.
To quote Popeye the Sailor: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am!” And I’ve done okay.
The second is from an elementary school teacher who has taught children on the spectrum. Keith Bohlender of Toronto is neurotypical:
I read “My Little Dandelion,” as well as the Wildhood and Garcia articles, with great interest …. My wife is a speech therapist whose clientele is made up of pre-school children. Many of these children have very recently received diagnoses, or are facing the very real prospect that their beloved child may imminently be diagnosed with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder]. My wife is in the exceedingly difficult position of being able, after many years of experience, to expertly recognize the markers that are described in these articles.
She cannot, however, make a formal diagnosis—even when tearfully begged to do so by parents. So, she encourages the parents to seek an opinion from a medical professional.
I am sending all three of these articles to her, with the thought that she may be able to pass them on to some of the parents of her clientele. It may give them comfort and sustenance to read of how adults with ASD are able to cope, contribute and thrive.
Also worth checking out is the video seen above, on how creative expression can help kids with autism. And keep the emails coming—if you’re autistic or the parent of an autistic child and would like to share your story.
I used to dream my son would be an athlete. Now I enjoy watching Tyler chase his own dreams to be a history teacher or comedian. One thing I never considered my boy to be: a dandelion.
Not until I read a Forbes profile on a new acquaintance of mine, Thorkil Sonne, who uses the analogy to describe the brilliant uniqueness of autistic people—like his son and mine:
To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.
Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.
The article describes Thorkil’s efforts to link autistic people with employers who need the distinctive skill sets that come with autism. Most employers don’t know what they’re missing. People with autism aren’t defective; they contribute a special sauce to the human experience. Steve Silberman puts it this way in his book NeuroTribes:
One of the most promising developments since the publication of “The Geek Syndrome” has been the emergence of the concept of neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture, rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.”
After my son’s diagnosis six years ago, I slowly came to the same conclusion and wrote about it here, here, and here. But there is only so much I can do to help the cause—to help neurotypical people understand what it’s like to be autistic and to realize the value autism offers society—because I’m not truly a part of it. Because I am not autistic.
The perspectives I have on people and the world I’ve interacted with thus far in my life are necessarily informed by my [Asperger’s], whether it looks like I’m an Aspie or not. Ultimately, when my friend told me I don’t look autistic, he was essentially affirming my constructed normalcy, my ability to fake it. In high school, I would have relished in this aptitude to appear “same,” and would have taken his remark as a compliment. But I’ve come to realize that each attempt to somehow make myself more “acceptable” to someone else, more lovable, has left me with what is, in the end, a false connection. I don’t want to be judged based on my [autism] alone, but nor do I want it to not matter. I may not “look autistic” from the outside, but if you see with my eyes, I do.
Please read the powerful stories by Wildhood and Garcia, and let me know what you think. And if you’re autistic or the parent of an autistic child and would like to share your story, I’d love to hear from you as well.
Tyler accept his autism far better than his father once did. “It’s a part of me but I don’t find that it’s a big deal, that I have to be talking about it every five seconds,” he says in a video for Autism Speaks that will be released next month with my parenting memoir, Love That Boy. “Like blue eyes: I don’t talk about how I have blue yes. I have autism, that’s it.”
With the advent of 24/7 reporting and commentary and the public’s nearly insatiable appetite, there is indeed a surfeit of opinion lacking balance or even facts. It’s up to readers to wade through what’s available to find that which provides sufficient reasoned articulation of the issues. That means individuals overcoming their own biases: a formidable task. We simply cannot blame the media for pandering to our own appetite for biased or un-nuanced news. Those appetites are ours! Or, if we have difficulty finding balanced sources, we need to read opposing opinions and take them into account in our own thinking.
I agree with the reader, without letting my industry off the hook.
The media is just another 20th century institution struggling to adapt to vast economic, technological, and social change, and with that struggle comes a blurring of mission. Too many journalists have traded their truth-to-power objectivity for a partisan’s red or blue jersey. Others cede control to the institutions they should be curbing. Still others slavishly chase clicks and ratings for their corporate bosses.
And yet, as today’s reader suggests, the public has never had more access to more information, and in the United States, people have the power to turn that information against the powerful. At some point, we get the government we deserve.
I suspect this is a shaking-out period—the interregnum between an era in which information was gathered, packaged, and distributed by a relative handful of gatekeepers and that time in the future, when new generations of people will build new institutions that help 300 million-plus gatekeepers sort, analyze, and act upon a common set of facts.
Call me vaguely optimistic. Put today’s reader in that category; here he objects to my “circling the drain” metaphor, and not just because it’s a cliché:
As for the nation circling drain, that may be a conclusion un-tempered by historical perspective. As a nation we are in so much better shape now than in many previous eras. We just need to counterbalance the negatives so ardently voiced by Chicken Littles with objective assessments that are, in my opinion, far more positive that what I commonly hear. Yes, we have problems but ones that can be addressed and resolved …
[W]e are in no worse or more vitriolic a position than we were when Federalists were battling Republicans, when abolitionists were battling pro-slavery forces, when laissez-faire proponents were dismayed by economic progressives, or many other times of great philosophical an political divides. We all need to realize that impassioned zealotry (redundant?) is the lifeblood of democracy. As Churchill is said to have proclaimed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they've tried everything else.”
As a father of a 13-year-old boy, I’m trying to teach him about practical versus hopeful. As a liberal Democrat I am amazed how bad the press has treated Trump. He is a successful business man, a good husband and father. He needs to soften up his approach if he is going to be elected but there isn’t anything wrong with him.
Noting my obsession with millennials, the reader says his son is part of the next greatest generation:
I think you are wrong about millenials. I think our future rests in the hands of Gen Z. These millennials are nothing like the silent generation; they more resemble the hippy Baby Boomers. Fascinated by your take on that, I plan on reading your book about your kids. Lately I’ve been doing some research on Gen Z within politics hence why your statement caught my eye.
I need to learn more about the generation behind the millennials, and will start by forwarding this link to a sounding board on young voters, which includes Michelle Diggles at Third Way, John Della Volpe, pollster at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, and Nicco Mele, author of “The End of Big.” Will post their thoughts here. Please email me yours.
A software engineer from Clarkston, Michigan, emails to say my profession deserves blame for allowing Democrats and Republicans to circle the drain with the nation’s future. His name is Ken Sebastian, and he lives about 30 miles south of Flint, where this conversation began.
There is little chance the duopoly will reform government. One party is willing to burn the system to the ground and openly rooting for the government to fail. The party in question has little to no motivation for solving common problems like fixing roads or lead in water. It seems to me doing nothing achieves said parties goals of shrinking government by making the government look incompetent and unworthy of money or power. I would like to point out I used to vote for the party in question.
To be fair, the other party wrecked the relationship with Congress when the Affordability Care Act was being debated. The party not in power was told their votes were not needed, since enough votes to pass the law were held by the party in power. Not surprisingly, after losing power, the party opposed to the ACA spent its time doing the opposite or saying the opposite of their adversaries. Based on this, both parties should go to etiquette school and quit acting like preschoolers.
The biggest problem I see is the vast polarization of the media. The media has lost the public’s trust …. The result of this mistrust is people filling in the blanks on their own or believing all manner of nonsense because there seems to be no reliable place to get facts and facts only.
I have read many articles that can be quite condescending toward people who vote for Trump. Journalists need to remember what I learned in college English 101. When writing a piece to convince someone of a position, don’t belittle their beliefs. You’ve lost them at that point and they won’t read further. You’ve lost credibility.
The reason I say the duopoly won’t reform government is one party wants to burn it to the ground, and while it’s burning, the media doesn’t have much credibility any longer, at least with a good faction of the American people. The rest are left dazed and confused about what to do about our common problems as Americans, and those problems are increasingly not being solved.
He ended on an optimistic, if ambiguous, note.
I also have tried to quell my angst for the future. However, I do fear I may not be able to retire due to healthcare costs, like my father in law. And the talk of dismantling of Social Security, a system I have paid into my entire life, is a bit scary. As true to my training by the University of Michigan to be an engineer, I have a backup plan. I’m considering other countries to retire to if things are not mended here at home. I just hope the United States rights itself. After all, our system was designed to be a reflection of the people, and from what I can tell that, reflection isn’t pretty, but I have faith we will right the ship.
Another reader, Matthew, suggested that Trump is a symptom of a generational problem that will be fixed in time. Matthew shares my admiration of millennials, young Americans shaped by economic, technological, and demographic change in ways that could make them the next greatest generation. (I call them Generation Disruption.) “America can’t be saved by a strong man,” Matthew emailed, “and won’t be saved by the generation that got us here (the Baby Boomers, which I am a member of).”
But America will be saved, and it will be by the generation just now coming of age. They are the best generation we have ever raised. Lacking any hidden prejudices, open to all ideas, embracing technology and genuinely caring for their friends, the environment, the poor, and other societies. In ten years or so they will start having a significant impact. We can muddle along till then. I raised three of these kids and I know them and their friends. They are connected and honest like no generation America has seen. Just wait. It will be awesome.
Now that it’s here, readers are reminding me that the Trump and Sanders phenomena are not the end result of voter unrest. They represent merely the beginning of a great unraveling. Many Americans have not just lost faith in the political system; they’re losing faith in the idea that they can ever trust again. This email is from a Michigan attorney who works for the federal government:
I have long believed in our governmental institutions. In an era where some people want to destroy government agencies with a hatchet, I've quietly defended these institutions as necessary and worthy of support and reform. But now? How can anyone have any modicum of faith in these institutions? In democracy?
I grew up in Grand Blanc, Michigan, where the population is affluent enough, and white enough, to avoid being poisoned. It's shameful for me to think about how the golf course my parents live on gets cleaner water than the children a few miles up I-75. Periodically, I'll read something in the news about the Flint water crisis that will sicken me so much, that I feel I must make a large financial donation to the cause. I've done that three times so far, and will probably be compelled to do so again soon.
Today, I sat in the waiting room of an auto repair shop, waiting for a mechanic to fix the damage done by the Michigan legislature’s unwillingness to fund road repairs. To pass the time, I listened to the most recent congressional testimony. The thing that stood out to me the most was the “circular-Nuremberg-defense” between [Gov. Rick] Snyder and [EPA director Gina] McCarthy. Apparently, leadership comes full circle. The other thing I noticed was that, even if a person was originally oblivious to which political party each congressman belonged to, they could figure it out by the first question that they asked. I guess it's true that the two parties are living in alternate universes.
I've always been a cautions optimist. But now …
I replied to his email: “Any thoughts on our way out of this? Is there hope in the next generation? Are there bold policy fixes?” I included a link to this column suggesting that, beyond recrimination, political leaders could find in Flint the seeds of broader government reforms that allow for crowd sourcing of crises and solutions. He replied:
A couple years ago, I legitimately thought Flint could have had a Detroit-style revival. Young professionals, loft apartments, gluten-free artisan everything. I really doubt that’ll ever happen. Call me a cynic, but Flint’s best case scenario is now just getting back to its pre-lead-poisoning past. If Flint is able to maintain anything close to its current population (even if it’s mostly people who are too poor or too stubborn to leave), that’ll be a huge victory. Pretty depressing aspirations, right?
As far as larger policy fixes, it would be nice if both parties developed a legitimate interest in actually improving government. What we have now is Republicans wanting to kill government with a chainsaw, and Democrats just trying to stop them, but not seeking reform. It would be nice if Republicans made their peace with the existence of government regulations, and Democrats worked with them to maintain a constant sense of vigilance and oversight. That would be how government should ideally work. But it’s hard to focus on clearing out the rats when someone else is trying to burn down the entire building.
I couldn’t agree more with this reader. Note the lack of equivalence in his critique; he clearly sympathizes more with Democrats than Republicans. And yet, unlike most professional liberals and conservatives in both politics and the media, he’s holding his party to the highest standard.
Where does this all lead? The reader isn’t hopeful:
Best case scenario: The funding comes in and Flint slowly crawls its way back to being one of Michigan's struggling medium-sized cities. Government learns a bit of a lesson.
Worst case scenario: Once the political fervor subsides, Flint gets forgotten and rapidly crumbles. Then, sometime in a couple years, you get to write an article about Flint that has to include a lengthy introduction reminding readers of where Flint is and what happened there.
Will Flint get its money? Will the duopoly reform government? Or is the United States circling the drain? Let me know what you think. More importantly, let me know what you’re doing to force disruption upon the status quo. I’m on email and Twitter.