Disabling Spectacles: Representations of Trig Palin and Cognitive Disability

Article excerpt

The article examines the confounding contribution that Sarah Palin has made to the public discourse on disability in the United States. While she and her son Trig, who has Down syndrome, brought a great deal of attention to issues surrounding cognitive disability from the instant Palin emerged as the Republican Party's 2008 vice-presidential candidate, it is unclear what utility this visibility actually had or has for real disabled individuals. Palin's rhetoric focused exclusively on disabled children and their families, leaving us to imagine that conditions like Down syndrome are temporary afflictions dissipating into normalcy as the afflicted reach adulthood. The article makes use of Lee Edelman's No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive to show that the cognitively disabled, like queers, are often figured as having "no future" in both popular culture and national health and education policy.


The phenomenon of Sarah Palin-as media spectacle, as one-time vice-presidential candidate, as potential presidential contender, and as self-established everymom of the Alaskan variety-is confounding in a number of ways, not least of which is its contribution to public discourse on disability in the United States. When a four-month-old with Down syndrome appeared on stage with the rest of the family supporting the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee who would soon speak about the plight of children with "special needs" and their families, a host of issues regarding the cognitively disabled was rushed to the national media fore. Politicians, journalists, pundits, bloggers, and both sides of a particularly high-profile presidential race began to discuss these issues in open and concrete terms. The race had been injected with allusions to disability long before Sarah Palin appeared on the scene. Her soon-to-be-opponent, Barack Obama, had broken new ground by making room for disability policy on his campaign website and for the able-bodied/disabled binary in the litany of neoliberal identity categories at the end of his stump speech from early in his primary campaign. The Alaskan governor, however, drew new attention to a constituency that has often been ignored by or tangential to discussions of disability even in academic and activist circles-the cognitively disabled.

While some were tempted to read as pure progress the sudden prominence of disability in the considerations of two widely publicized campaigns, the waters of public discourse were decidedly murkier than this simple reading would have it. First, some suggested that the mere fact of Palin's mothering a child with Down syndrome (and her willingness to show him off) constituted an automatic victory for the hitherto under-represented sector of the disabled caucus, regardless of her health care and education policies. Second, Palin littered her speeches with exploitive references to "beautiful children" who deserved our "special love" and used this familiar brand of pathos to bolster the conservative platform. In particular, she attempted to cast the Republican Party's anti-abortion logic out of the realm of the political and into the safe zone of protecting the poor, innocent disabled children so cutely embodied in her son. She trumpeted her own decision to keep the fetus that became Trig despite knowing that he would likely have Down syndrome and used this piece of well-timed personal history, not to encourage a nuanced debate about the questionable ethics of selective abortion, but to demonstrate her political commitment to a pro-life stance. Third, Palin limited her disability rhetoric and policy proposals to supporting disabled children and their families, as if cognitive disability is something that is shed after childhood or that, as in the 1994 film Forrest Gump, can be assimilated into the neoliberal doctrines of individualism and self-reliance. Fourth, the liberal leaning wing of the American media produced and widely distributed discourse opposing Palin's candidacy that mingled culturally pervasive ableist tendencies with a deep-seated sexism. …


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