The spokesperson and the punters

A number of years ago I attended a book launch by a local, self-published author with a disability. While I hadn’t known them for very long, being new to local writing communities, I wanted to see what was up, and on some level show support. At this juncture, I was still denying that inner voice that was telling me that something was wrong, and instead telling myself that the odd quirks and signs of passive aggression were not worthy of consideration.

So what? Some people are weird. Artists particularly, right?

Besides, if their work was serious enough to attract an arts grant in the first place, it couldn’t have been all that bad, could it? (Stop laughing.)

Initially I had a little trouble mentally digesting what I saw. Precisely nobody in attendance acted as if anything was untoward. There wasn’t so much as an awkward shuffle in a seat. And if there’s been a word of criticism voiced anywhere by anyone I saw in attendance, it’s been behind doors or somewhere else where us normies aren’t free ranging.

What resulted from this book launch I’d later incorporate, along with other displays of cynicism from local wannabe “activist” artists, into a mental architype of the cynical, neoliberal spokesperson who co-opts progressive language purely for marketing purposes.

“Nobody notices your artifice, or at least, if they do, they don’t want to be the only one who’s calling you on your shit – that’s a one way trip to lonely-town. ”

(‘Tricks in Neoliberal Culture #001: Affirming Values Through Compliments’, 2014)

It’s possibly worth noting that while this piece was well received among a number of friends in the “scene” at the time, aside from those I’ve confided in, all guesses as to who I was talking about have been wrong. People have assumed I was writing about an activist/artist that they just happen to hate. One activist/artist wrongly assumed that I was writing about them – although in that case I’ll take it as a confession. The truth is, the architype was a gestalt of a number of local artists/spokespersons; of both sexes, all middle-to-upper-middle class, all white, and all so incredibly vain.

But back to that book launch.

So, what would you expect from a book written by someone with a given disability, spruiked as the work of someone who was a spokesperson for others with that same disability? What would you expect if the point was made in the lead-up that said spokesperson had lead discussion in focus groups?

You’d expect discussion of the interests of that group of people, right?

Well, the book it turned out, was a memoir, and the perspectives of others with the disability in question – a disability known for its capacity to manifest different symptoms and difficulties from person to person – were completely absent. Moreover, the memoir made it clear that the author was actually living the good life; no economic hardship; good quality of life; excellent prognosis.

What policy exactly would one feel inclined to support after hearing this “advocacy”? Your guess is a good as mine. And probably as good as the guesses of all those folks in the focus groups who’s views weren’t represented in the final product.

Notably, the launch was presided over by a chap from the state government, who praised the author for the high quality of their advocacy work (without providing a single example of said work). You have take a bit of time out to consider what the guy’s interest was in all of this.

Serious advocacy for people with a given disability, by rights, should make people responsible for relevant government services at least a little anxious. Yet the content of the book, and all discussion at the launch, was completely absent of any discussion of government involvement, other than in its role in complimenting the author.

I’m not saying the bureaucrat should have been harangued or abused. There is, for example, no need for activists to call him names or leave a turd in his letterbox. But serious activism is going to raise questions that on some level people like him are going to feel uncomfortable with being raised, if only because it invites consideration of existing efforts.

If all advocacy consisted of such fluff as was on display at the launch – if it were all just solipsistic memoirs from people who are doing fine, actually – government would certainly have a much easier time.

“Hey, we’re cutting back disability services. Could you distract people by talking about what you name your socks again? Thanks! We love your advocacy work! Love, The Government.”

So no, there’s no salacious tale here. Just an anecdote about banal self-regard dressed up as disability activism, and the role and interests of state power in promoting it instead of discussion of actual, material problems.

This is a problem. Tell anyone who’s material issues are being distracted from on account of this kind of thing that it isn’t, and I hope they give you a serve.

Asking around those in more pro-active roles, revealed that it was a given that author was a flake. “Flake” was literally the word used. There was a repeated inference of “why bring it up? It’s so obvious. It’s no secret!”, as if author/spokesperson was a well-known running joke.

This was obviously true. It wasn’t a secret. And it’s not like I expect people to obsess over it either (if I did, I probably would have addressed it more directly, sooner, and then banged on about it ad infinitum).

I can’t fault people for laughing, and then getting on with their lives either.

Only, if you raised this issue with the rank and file members of a number of local writers groups, there’d be gasps, and silence, and people shocked at your audacity, and a whole heap of gossiping about you behind your back. How very well dare you?

Depending on which group you wind up in – some are better than others – you may very well be required to ignore the evidence of your eyes.

“Nothing is wrong! Why, there was even a man from the government saying it was all wonderful! Has a man from the government ever called you wonderful? No! *Sniff*”

There’s no master list of which writing groups to avoid, and arguably there shouldn’t be. But you have to feel, especially for the younger ones, those with a chest full of energy and a head full of good intentions, who go into these things not realizing the nature of the culture they’re immersing themselves into, only for them to find out the hard way.

Meanwhile, the self-regarding, disingenuous sorts remain an almost protected species.

~ Bruce

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