Disability and the return of blame culture

From newspaper columnists, to politicians, to nightclub owners, myths and distortions are spreading.

It’s no longer enough to be disabled. One must, in modern Britain, be a type. Are you the real type? The genuine that is, the sort that sits there quietly and is grateful for any hand-out they receive. Showing a bit too much life, there? Then you’re a faker, dear, undoubtedly a scrounger – and that objecting attitude means you’re a manipulative threat. It’s not enough to be disabled in these days of cuts and exclusion. There’s a right way to be lame and a wrong way, and if you spot someone doing it wrong it’s your duty as an able-bodied to let someone know.

Cristina Odone did her bit this week in the Telegraph, valiantly supporting Iain Duncan Smith’s “defiant stand” in reforming disability benefits despite him basing it on six inaccuracies. Using lies and distorted facts to win a fight against people deemed liars and fakers is an irony we’re not meant to talk about – or call the nasty hypocrisy which it actually is.

The good disableds stay quiet, as the myths and distortions spread. Myths that now include the power – and desire – to close down entertainment premises, that is according to Royalty’s favourite licensee Howard Spooner. It wasn’t fighting, urination or swearing in the street that led to his club’s late license being withdrawn but angry dwarves and wheelchair users who just wouldn’t move out the way. “If a dwarf says he can’t live opposite a nightclub,” he stated with apparently full mental function, “then it is impossible to have a nightclub there because able-bodied people are having fun.” Though not having the pleasure of Spooner’s personal acquaintance I’m assuming he needs no help to play the entitled fool. It’s saying something though when licensing laws are blamed on people with disabilities – and when it’s a correlation a person is confident in declaring out loud.

But the real disableds don’t scream about the blame culture, the one that’s been given new life by dire economic conditions. They sit by as it grips and excludes and pushes them outside, only brought back in when something on the inside needs to be declared their fault.

The true disabled take whatever’s done or said to them, dutifully lifeless in body and the mind. When they get a little vocal though, when they dare object and campaign and speak the truth – that’s when they become a different type of disabled, the type that Odone took the time this week to warn us against. This type are “savvy activists”, she told us; having the potential to succeed appears to be a reasonable ground on which to criticize the opposition. They favour “manipulation and shock value”, she distorted, citing the menacing vision of a few campaigners wearing a symbolic glove.  

True disableds fit the box that’s been made for them. Passive, needing and accepting. Just not enough to make Odone or the compassionate conservatives start to feel guilty; then it’s probably time to take your offensive need and go indoors. Luckily that’s starting to happen anyway, thanks to cuts to the benefits and services that enable many disabled people to leave the house. Taking a human’s dignity and freedom is all well and good of course, but one doesn’t want to have to look at it whilst it occurs.

Don’t worry though! There’s nothing to fret about, not if you’re the real disabled. These measures will only affect the liars and the fakers, the ones all this is out to get. The slashes to welfare and the hateful rhetoric is, as Cristina tells us, “for the sake of the disabled” and that’s something we shouldn’t forget.
Disabled people are enduring vilification and the arbitrary withdrawal of life-defining welfare. They’re now being told to be grateful for it.

Disabled protesters walk past the Houses of Parliament. May 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue