essay canon dispatch no. 9 — “A Philosophy of Handicap” by Randolph Bourne (1910’s)

image found here
image found here

[CN: Ableism, racism, class warfare, eugenics]

The commentary for this piece in the CNF Canon mentions a struggle “to be both objective and personal.” Sentences will use both “he” and “I” as pronouns, and “the handicapped man” is used as a kind of metonym when Bourne is probably talking about something intensely personal.  Randolph Bourne was born prematurely, and the doctor’s forceps deformed his face and the side of his head. Later on tuberculosis permanently bent his spine, making him a “hunchback.” His essay here which represents the 19-teens for the decadal canon list is appropriate since Bourne’s vocation as a writer was devoted to the USen Progressive struggles going on — first wave feminism, and reform for the education and treatment of immigrants and working class-families. The revised version can be found as the closer to his book YOUTH AND LIFE.

The piece is also performing another struggle alongside public vs. personal. Bourne’s tone and diction is genteel and optimistic, not only bc of the mainstream style (it first appeared in the ATLANTIC) but bc the subject matter and the depth of Bourne’s radicalism actually made this writing dangerous business.

Of course the late late 19th century (since the 20th didn’t really start til the Great War) were fucked up. The years after the civil war were marked with extreme violence on freed Black communities by whites on scales far beyond what public history suggests. The rise of industrial capitalism wrought social destruction thru urbanization and the North’s co-opting and transforming of Southern slavery into prisons and the wage relation. Eugenics and Social Darwinism targeted Black, brown, and indigenous women for sterilization. One amazing bit of context comes from an article by Paul Longmore and Paul Steven Miller

“‘A Philosophy of Handicap’: The Origins of Randolph Bourne’s Radicalism.” Radical History Review. Issue 94 (Winter 2006): 59–83.

Intelligence testing claimed to find high rates of “feeblemindedness” among school children. Reacting to the higher incidence of physical and mental handicaps among immigrants and the poor, special education advocacy was strongly tinged with ethnic and class bias. Special programs sometimes provided appropriate academic and vocational education, but most school systems continued to exclude the vast majority of handicapped children. Instead of requiring public schools to admit physically handicapped children, some state legislatures authorized local authorities to remove “crippled” children from their families — typically working-class and poor families — and place them in “hospital-schools” that provided rudimentary physical rehabilitation, basic academic education, vocational instruction, and “moral training.” The idea of moral training grew out of the bias that “the handicapped” were flawed, not only physically but morally and socially as well. 

Bourne does not address any of the stuff above — he couldn’t afford to.

But his essay is still powerful by throwing light on the socially constructed nature of “handicap.” Something as simple as adjusting the social meaning imparted on disability (or race and gender for that matter) is seen as outrageous and impossible with “common sense” bigotry.

He’s also coy about his own disability. The reader knows that he isn’t completely immobilized, but otherwise the details aren’t clear. Bourne had trouble breathing, and needed a special chair for his bent spine. He writes that his position, of being handicapped but not completely dependent, is worst of all or at least disadvantaged in a unique way. Perhaps it’s unkind but the authors of the article quoted above call it “cosmetic” as opposed to physical disability.

i was struck by the inverted use of common metaphors. Handicap isn’t like being locked out of a house of belonging, but is confined inside “and the key is on the outside.” He’s dependent on the cooperation of the people outside, the able-bodied “in unlocking the door.” Childhood is not innocent but in fact heavier than adulthood. Later on he is finding a purpose and a chance to demonstrate his gifts as a writer in college, and so “One’s self-respect can begin to grow like a weed,” something hardy and tenacious, not a blossoming flower that has to be tended.

The philosophy of handicap is developed after “the handicapped man” is disillusioned of banal platitudes, and must “construct anew a world of his own, and explain a great many things to himself” that the able-bodied take for granted in such a discriminatory society.

For all the difficulties he’s experienced, handicap gives Bourne an insight and capacity for empathy with the classes of people who are the most disadvantaged.

It makes me wince to hear a man spoken of as a failure, or to have it said of one that he “doesn’t amount to much.” Instantly I want to know why he has not succeeded, and what have been the forces that have been working against him.

While the first half, dominated by the “he” pronoun, counteracts the victim-blaming of the privileged, the next half, when the “I” and “You” assert themselves, shifts to a more bootstrap kind of mentality.

and if you do not find people who like you and are willing to meet you more than halfway, it will be because you have let your disability narrow your vision and shrink up your soul. It will be really your own fault, and not that of your circumstances.

This paragraph opens with the Bourne impelling this hypothetical handicap to “Grow up as fast as you can.” This along with sentences like “Childhood has nothing to offer him [the handicapped]; youth little more.” In a collection called YOUTH AND LIFE this is rather ambiguous.

Although the subject keeps shifting back and forth among “he,” “I,” “you,” Bourne is presumably talking about himself. So it’s an interesting kind of memoir that uses displacement, maybe bc he’s still working thru his analysis of handicap and society (“I am perhaps not yet sufficiently out of the wilderness”). His address to the hypothetical You might be a self pep talk. In my own experience, it took way longer than it should have to identify that i was having another depressive breakdown last year and was unable to cope — it felt like i was leaving myself off the hook; i just had stop being lazy and work on my relationships more or get thru the school year. I held myself up to standards i would never hold over anybody else with my problems. And he addresses this point when he talks about being is own “severest judge.”

Another reason why he would strategically efface his identity is bc he doesn’t want to divulge his own situation in light of the incredible bigotry and discrimination in culture and policy. He published his first version to the Atlantic under a pseudonym. If he were too forthcoming he’d risk having his entire work and self discredited. The article already mentions that the able-bodied believed the disabled to be inferior in morals as well as physical appearance. Pundits could write off Bourne and his ideas as completely degenerate — and some of them did.

It’s a complicated, contradictory essay. It records Bourne’s wrestling with the issue, not arriving to any pinnacle of insight, but still full of optimism and hope. Moreover, it reveals how he had to navigate such daunting social conventions thru his writing, and so this essay was the only shot he could allow himself to talking about this fundamental difficulty in his life.

This passage painfully conveys those difficulties — many of which persist. Labor laws remain appallingly ableist, permitting employers to pay the disabled sub-minimum wage. The worship of college reflects the bias towards the able-bodied and they who can trade in a Westernized higher ed, and makes the bullshit flung on the poor and “unintelligent” acceptable. The tools that produce the ideal body and labor source for the Man have never been distributed equitably.

“A Philosophy of Handicap” by Randolph Bourne

Perhaps the bitterest struggles of the handicapped man come when he tackles the business world. If he has to go out for himself to look for work, without fortune, training, or influence, as I personally did, his way will indeed be rugged. His disability will work against him for any position where he must be much in the eyes of men, and his general insignificance has a subtle influence in convincing those to whom he applies that he is unfitted for any kind of work. As I have suggested, his keen sensitiveness to other people’s impressions of him makes him more than usually timid and unable to counteract that fatal first impression by any display of personal force and will. He cannot get his personality over across that barrier. The cards seem stacked him from the start. With training and influence something might be done, but alone and unaided his case is almost hopeless. The attitude toward him ranges from, “You can’t expect us to create a place for you,” to, “How could it enter your head that we should find any use for you?” He is discounted at the start: it is not business to make allowances for anybody; and while people are not cruel or unkind, it is the hopeless finality of the thing that fills one’s heart with despair.

The environment of a big city is perhaps the worst possible that a man in such a situation could have. For the thousands of seeming opportunities lead one restlessly on and on, and keep one’s mind perpetually unsettled and depressed. There is a poignant mental torture that comes with such an experience, — the urgent need, the repeated failure, or rather the repeated failure even to obtain a chance to fail, the realization that those at home can ill afford to have you idle, the growing dread of encountering people, — all this is something that those who have never been through it can never realize. Personally I know of no particular way of escape. One can expect to do little by one’s own unaided efforts. I solved my difficulties only by evading them, by throwing overboard some of my responsibility, and taking the desperate step of entering college on a scholarship. Desultory work is not nearly so humiliating when one is using one’s time to some advantage, and college furnishes an ideal environment where the things at which a man handicapped like myself can succeed really count. One’s self-respect can begin to grow like a weed.

For at the bottom of all the difficulties of a man like me is really the fact that his self respect is so slow in growing up. Accustomed from childhood to being discounted, his self-respect is not naturally very strong, and it would require pretty constant success in a congenial line of work really to confirm it. If he could only more easily separate the factors that are due to his physical disability from those that are due to his weak will and character, he might more quickly attain self- respect, for he would realize what he is responsible for, and what he is not. But at the beginning he rarely makes allowances for himself; he is his own severest judge. He longs for a “strong will,” and yet the experience of having his efforts promptly nipped off at the beginning is the last thing on earth to produce that will.


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