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Abolitionist, activist, dwarf – we all need role models like Benjamin Lay

When I was 13, the awful “Mini-Me” hit our screens. When I was 31, I learned of Benjamin Lay.

I have dwarfism. Long before I was ten I had heard of the Seven Dwarfs. Seven characters – all white, all male – each so one-dimensional they could be labelled as a single state of being (e.g., “Bashful”). When I was 13, the awful “Mini-Me” – a hyper-sexual, unintelligent, aggressive, replica of an average-height character – hit our screens in the Austin Powers films that would further fuel abuse towards people like me. When I was 31, I learned of Benjamin Lay.

Who was Benjamin Lay? Historian Marcus Rediker’s excellent book, published last year, illuminates the life of this extraordinary man. Born in England 1682, Lay was among the first-known white radical abolitionists. He was a sailor, glove-maker, and bookseller. He was fearless, compassionate, and principled. And he had dwarfism.

Once described as a “living stick of dynamite”, Lay was “one of the very first to call for the abolition of slavery”. He wrote one of the world's first abolitionist books – All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates – and called for the church to cast out slave owners. A Quaker, Lay became known for shocking and theatrical protests. In one spectacular demonstration in September 1738, he ran a sword through a bladder, hidden in a book, filled with red juice – spattering “blood” over slave-keepers present at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

At the time, many Quakers opposed Lay's abolitionist views. They disowned him, denounced his book, denied his right to speak at meetings, and even withheld his marriage certificate – to Sarah Lay, who also had dwarfism. Undeterred, Lay vehemently criticised Quakers who owned slaves, disrupted their meetings, and boycotted slave-produced commodities.

Life in a dwarf body shaped Lay’s abolitionist beliefs. He struggled to be taken seriously and considered equal – a battle that many people with dwarfism still fight today. As a dwarf person, he needed cutting repartee. Rediker records that a man once attempted to publicly mock Lay, announcing to him “I am your servant”. Lay stuck out his foot and replied, “Then clean my shoe” – embarrassing the bully. 

Lay’s dwarfism is partly why readers have probably never heard of him; some historians dismissed him as a “little hunchback”. But there is a bigger, more insidious reason as to why Lay is not a household name: because representations of people with dwarfism in media and popular culture are dominated by harmful stereotypes.

How many have consumed the spectacle of Mini-Me but have never heard of Seneb, a court official in Ancient Egypt? How many thought nothing of the violence towards dwarf bodies in films like Wolf of Wall Streetviolence often savagely re-enacted in real life – but have never heard of role models like Paul Steven Miller, Rebecca Cokley, Cara Reedy, John Young, Lisa Hammond, Meredith Eaton, or Dr Debra Keenahan? Representations have been so bad for so long that some average height people seem to herald the drunk, lecherous, womanizing, white male Tyrion Lannister (whom, as a dwarf person, I must confess I love and own), as a sort of dwarf prophet, as if he alone now compensates for centuries of ridicule and abuse.

Historical and cultural representations matter a great deal. Most average height people meet few, if any, people with dwarfism in real life. Sadly, many have been drip-fed harmful stereotypes – through pantomime, literature, film, and television, and the neglect of real life role models like Lay. Too often, media and popular culture lead us to believe that dwarfism is, at best, undesirable and, at worst, something to be ridiculed or feared. Sometimes, this translates into everyday behaviour: studies show 77 per cent of people with dwarfism have experienced verbal abuse, nearly two thirds have felt unsafe while out, and 12 per cent have experienced physical violence (including this writer).

Lay died in 1759. Two hundred and fifty years later, he is beginning to get the recognition he deserves – thanks to books like Rediker’s. I want to live in a world in which films like Austin Powers and Wolf of Wall Street flop, while movies about real life people like Lay smash box office records; in which schoolchildren learn about Seneb in history classes; in which dwarf bodies are celebrated and not fetishised or turned into spectacle for “entertainment”.

My parents raised me to know my value and be proud of who and what I am. When I have children I'm going to tell them stories about Benjamin Lay. And they will know of his deeds long before media and television tell them the names of those who propagate stereotypes of us and sustain the spectacle of our beautiful dwarf bodies.

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.