Pennsylvania Senate Insanity: Some in the media claim it’s a good thing for everyone that the Democrat candidate suffered a major stroke

We can support Americans with disabilities and recognize that they enrich our lives, but that doesn’t mean any given American with a disability is ready for a demanding job in the Senate or that suffering a stroke gives a candidate an edge or benefits the entire world.  How hard is that?

This spring, Pennsylvania Senate Candidate, Democrat John Fetterman suffered a stroke.  The details at the time were sparse, but as the campaign enters its final weeks, it is increasingly clear he has yet to fully recover.  Between a light schedule of public appearances for a highly contested Senate seat and a series of verbal mix ups at the few events he did attend, there have been signs he is not well.  The candidate himself remained tight-lipped about his health until a recent interview with NBC News, where Mr. Fetterman conceded to interviewer Dasha Burns that the stroke has affected his auditory processing and speech skills.  He revealed that he has been using speech-to-text closed-captioning software to communicate. The software is intended to help ensure he understands what people are saying accurately.  “I sometimes will hear things in a way that’s not perfectly clear. So I use captioning so I’m able to see what you’re saying,” he explained.  “And every now and then I’ll miss a word. Or sometimes I’ll maybe mush two words together. But as long as I have captioning, I’m able to understand exactly what’s being asked.”  Mr. Fetterman’s challenges also extend to forming words.  He can pick the wrong one or badly mispronounce it.  In the interview itself, he struggled with the word “empathetic,” saying “emphetic.” “That’s an example,” he said.  Perhaps needless to say, being a politician, he views this as a positive development.  “I always thought I was empathetic before the stroke. I now really understand much more the kind of challenges Americans have day in, day out.”  Previously, Mr. Fetterman claimed this would not affect his ability to be a United States Senator.  “I don’t think it’s going to have an impact. I feel like I’m gonna get better and better, every day.”  He also insisted he’s been transparent about this health, despite not revealing his reliance on any devices until last week.  “You can’t be any more transparent than standing up on a stage with 3,000 people and having a speech without a teleprompter and just putting everything and yourself out there like that. That’s as transparent as everyone in Pennsylvania can see.”

At this point, it is up to the voters in Pennsylvania to decide whether or not Mr. Fetterman is fit for office.  People can fully or at least almost fully recover from even massive strokes, and it is possible Mr. Fetterman will not have these auditory and speech issues in the near future.  It is also possible that his condition is permanent.  No one knows, but at the same time we cannot reasonably say that these health conditions and his use of closed-captioning software will not have an affect on his ability to perform the highly demanding job of Senator.  Mr. Fetterman’s transparency with Ms. Burns is welcome, but there is also reason to believe he might still be underplaying the challenges of his recovery.  Rolling Stone recently reported that the stroke has caused Mr. Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, to become the “de facto candidate” and a “political star.”  Kara Voght posted on Twitter, “I wrote about @giselefetterman and how her husband’s stroke transformed her from a reluctant political spouse to a de defacto candidate and political star.”  Of course, this would be huge news to Pennsylvania voters.  Ms. Fetterman is not on the ballot.  Her husband is, and if he is suffering so badly during his recovery that she is making decisions on his behalf, that is self-evidently a problem.  Ms. Fetterman will not be sworn next January should her husband prevail.  The voters need to know whether Mr. Fetterman is truly capable of performing the job.  It seems Ms. Voght quickly recognized her words could be problematic as she promptly deleted the tweet and rephrased it in somewhat more obtuse language.  “I wrote about @giselefetterman and her evolution from reluctant political spouse, to key surrogate for her husband as he recovered from a stroke, to a political force unto herself.”  The word choice of “de facto candidate” remained in the Rolling Stone article, however, prompting some to question it.  Logan Dobson posted on Twitter, “As further evidence to this point: a reporter tried to write a glowing piece about Fetterman’s wife, and called her ‘the de facto candidate’ But obviously, if Fetterman is fine and totally capable, they wouldn’t need another candidate!  So, whoops, tweet deleted.”

Ms. Burns herself also provided some commentary around the interview that prompted an immediate backlash from the usual suspects in the mainstream media.  Describing her interactions with Mr. Fetterman before the on-the-record portion, she claimed he “has a hard time understanding what he’s hearing…he still has some problems, some challenges with speech…he had hard time understanding our conversations.”  She also noted that he didn’t appear capable of following basic small talk when the closed-captioning system wasn’t on.  Clearly, this is crucial information for voters.  To a large extent, the job of a Senator is to talk, both in debate on the floor of the Senate and in interactions with their constituents, other government officials, or even foreign leaders.  The ability of a Senator to understand the nuances of language, pick up on the currents of a debate or conversation, and accurately analyze complex speeches and bills, is essential.  The job simply cannot be done without it, and yet the mainstream media responded by first attacking the messenger.  Journalist Kara Swisher chimed in with “Sorry to say but I talked to @johnfetterman for over an hour without stop or any aides and this is just nonsense.  Maybe this reporter is just bad at small talk.”  Rebecca Traister concurred, even going one step further to insinuate Mr. Fetterman is actually super-smart because of his ailment.  “As someone who has recently interviewed him: Fetterman’s comprehension is not at all impaired.  He understands everything, it’s just that he reads it (which requires extra acuity, I’d argue) and responds in real time.  It’s a hearing/auditory processing challenge.”  They say this despite the evidence in the interview itself.  At one point, Mr. Fetterman could not seem to understand a basic question.  Ms. Burns asked, “Are you committed to showing up on October 25th to debate your opponent no matter what happens?”  Mr. Fetterman responded with a definitive, “No, I’m not concerned.”  Then, he continued “I believe that is another opportunity to be transparent and people can make their own decisions you know during the debate.” Given that he began his answer with a negative, Ms. Burns gave him the opportunity to clarify the statement.  “Sorry to clarify, are you committed to showing up on October 25 no matter what, no matter what your opponent says or does?”  Mr. Fetterman stares off to the left side of the screen, appearing confused for several seconds, then says, “Yeah, of course, of course I am going to show up on the 25th.”

After it became obvious that Mr. Fetterman’s challenges were plain for all to see, coming with his own admission that he is still recovering, the mainstream media promptly changed direction and crafted an entirely new narrative, one at odds with their previous statements.  Suddenly, the conceded that Mr. Fetterman actually was disabled, but that was now a good thing for him, the Senate, Pennsylvania, and the entire country.   Perhaps needless to say, anyone who disagreed or questioned how they could change direction so fast was an ableist bigot and they had the experts and advocates ready to prove it.  The progressive “explainer” website Vox.com put it this way,  “the whole of society makes meaningful gains when workplaces of all kinds include people with a range of disabilities.  If Fetterman wins his race, the accommodations he may use as a senator are ones that could also meaningfully benefit his colleagues without disabilities. Furthermore, say advocates, his mere presence in a high-stakes campaign as a political figure acknowledging and working through a disability can move the needle — not only on what the public imagines when it conceives of elected officials but also what legislators imagine they can do for us.”  This is a shocking reframing of what is essentially a timeless political issue:  Fitness for office.  Senators make decisions affecting hundreds of millions of Americans and billions of people around the world.  This is not a job for the faint of heart or for someone suffering from a disability that impairs their ability to properly perform the work.  There’s a reason why most campaigns feature some sparring over medical records and reports from doctors about a candidate’s health.  Breezily pretending this can all be waved away because the Americans with Disabilities Act has been successful in providing opportunities for other disabled or special needs individuals is political spin of the highest possible order.  We’re not talking about building ramps to enter buildings in addition to stairs, or ensuring adequate parking and other facilities for the disabled.  We’re talking about giving a person who is cognitively impaired of their own admission a say in matters of war and peace.  Thus, when Vox.com claims “the conversation about his need for a disability accommodation is an opportunity to revisit the ways such accommodations have already benefited all of us,” what they are really doing is distracting from the core fitness issue.

A high stakes Senate campaign with control over Congress in the balance is not the time or place to discuss the ways we benefit from accommodating disabled people.  I do not say this because we do not benefit.  We do.  My own stepdaughter is on the autism spectrum and I’ve had the opportunity to observe some of these benefits with my own eyes, but neither me nor her mother would say she should be running for the Senate because of her disability, or that any potential run would benefit all of mankind or something.  The way Vox.com sees it, however, one would swear these live captioning devices and Mr. Fetterman’s use of them represent a political highwater mark for the entire world to marvel at.  “These days, it is a fixture among assistive technologies used to help people with language or hearing problems.  But live captioning offers a wide range of other benefits, too. Among hearing people, captions help children learn to read, improve adult literacy, speed up learning of second languages, and improve people’s ability to remember orally delivered material.”  What this has to do with Mr. Fetterman’s ability to do the job in the first place is entirely unclear.  Apparently, he uses one, so it must be awesome and his colleagues will benefit whether or not they have a hearing disability or something.  Besides, assisted hearing devices are only one of a whole series of things with huge benefits that were originally developed to aid people with special needs.  “Captioning is just one of many accommodations initially created for people with disabilities that have dramatically improved life for people without disabilities, said Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a disability justice scholar and professor emerita at Emory University. Curb cuts, the tiny ramps that allow wheels to smoothly climb a curb, are a great example, she said. ‘A curb cut was mandated for, basically, wheelchair users, and it has made the world more accessible for people like you and me and our rolling suitcases, and people who use bicycles,’ she said. Another big beneficiary: people pushing baby strollers.”

Yes, somehow Mr. Fetterman’s stroke is now helping you with your roller bag at the airport, but that’s not all as they say in the infomercial world, and make no mistake this Vox.com article is an infomercial.  Mr. Fetterman is also going to make the disability more “legible” in the public sphere, whatever that means.  “Witnessing people who have pretty significant disabilities doing a job that we imagine they can’t do is itself an important function,” explained Ms. Garland-Thompson. If we dare to dream,  Mr. Fetterman might even strike a blow at toxic masculinity.  “The effect may be particularly powerful when the disabled role model has a traditionally masculine presentation. Cultural scholars have argued that masculinity and disability are in conflict, in part because disability’s connotations of reliance bump up against masculinity’s connotations of independence.”  The author is sure to pause here to puff up Mr. Fetterman pre-stroke, part of his “appeal to working-class voters is his brawn — he is 6-foot-8, played football in college, and still has the build of an offensive lineman.”  Who can imagine what he might do were he permanently disabled?  “If elected, he could help destigmatize disability within communities where it’s currently highly stigmatized.  We assume that living without a disability leads to having a better life, said Garland-Thomson — and similarly, we might assume it makes for being a better politician and legislator. But over decades, elected officials have demonstrated that disability can be a source of strength.”  To summarize:  Mr. Fetterman’s stroke is not an unfortunate occurrence that might render him unable to do a demanding job.  It is not an instance where we should wish him a speedy recovery and hope he gets back to full health, even if we do not believe he is the right choice for Pennsylvania at this time.  It is instead an undeniably good and positive thing for everyone involved including the world at large.  It’s almost as if they believe more people should have more strokes simply to benefit from how good it is for everyone.

As I mentioned earlier, if you disagree with any of this, you are a bigot.  According to The Boston Globe’s Renee Graham, “Ableism is on the ballot.”  Putting this another way, you must vote for Mr. Fetterman or you are against people with special needs in general.   “People believe disability is synonymous with negativity, and they don’t have a more expansive understanding of what disability is or an experience that’s more comprehensive,” explained Heather Watkins, a Boston disability rights activist.  “They don’t understand that you could be in need of care, a caregiver, and a community builder all at once. They see disability through the prism of a limitations lens only, and it has a much wider lens than that.”  Ms. Watkins continued, “It’s either pity or pedestal. Sadness or ‘super-crip.’ It’s not that full-bodied range of experience.  People tend to focus on what they believe are these small facets that really are just so reductive. It’s not surprising, but it’s troubling.”  Oddly, Ms. Graham then continues to suggest that none of this really matters anyway in a classic “have your cake and eat it too” moment because “Fetterman seems to be doing well.”  Instead, the real problem in her mind is, you guessed it, conservatives and their “steady wave of lies and insults. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson falsely claimed that Fetterman is ‘brain damaged.’  Nepotism’s nadir Meghan McCain tweeted, ‘How can someone be a Senator without being able to speak or understand small talk?’ So much of this blather echoes Republican chatter about President Biden’s mental faculties because of a stutter he’s had since childhood.  Worst of all has been Mehmet Oz, Fetterman’s feckless Donald Trump-endorsed Republican opponent. He has demanded that Fetterman release his medical records and has cracked jokes about Fetterman’s health.”  Ms. Graham concludes, “ableist attacks on Fetterman’s health will accelerate. Like Barack Obama releasing his birth certificate, Fetterman can share every medical record and then some.  It’s too late to stanch the lies. His recovery has already been weaponized, and when Republicans go low, they always find a way to go lower.”

The array of disinformation is dizzying:  Mr. Fetterman isn’t disabled, but if he were disabled, it would be great.  Except he isn’t.  It’s all lies and Republican dirty tricks, or something, the same as Barack Obama, somehow.  Seriously, the only thing troubling here is the obvious fact that progressives in the mainstream media will do and say anything, however incoherent or bizarre, to craft a narrative that supports their candidate and to smear anyone who dares question it.  The frightening thing is:  The truth could not be any clearer.  We can support Americans with disabilities and recognize that they enrich our lives, but that doesn’t mean any given American with a disability is ready for a demanding job in the Senate.  We can also wish Mr. Fetterman well, but not want to see him sworn in for whatever reason.  How hard is that?

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