Tuesday, January 09, 2007

When Pigs Glow

It's the sadist in me: I often make houseguests read me my favorite children's book, Oink, which tells an entire story about a mama pig and her piglets with one repeated word: oink. But last night I was reading the news and screamed: What the fucking oink? Chinese researchers just bred the first transgenic pigs with glowing green organs and Disco-rific body parts. They created radioactive-looking swine by injecting phosphorescent green protein into pig embryos. These are the first human-tampered pigs to glow from the inside out .. hearts and all.



The same day, it was announced that researchers had isolated stem cells from human amniotic fluid, once again making the religiosity of stem cell bans a senseless tirade of uninformed extremists who likely serve to profit from the temporary barring of this technology from US citizens. Effective therapeutic stem cells can now be derived from bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, human blood, and now the fluid from the womb. So why can't patients get cells derived from their own bodies?

It's a little-known fact perhaps that, from a legal standpoint, we don't own our bodies. Certainly, we have eliminated some of the overt exploitations and chattel mentalities around human flesh. But the patient .. she who waits .. may not even own her own cells, her own blood. Legal battles have raged over such things. And patients have strategized the best way to crawl through the doggie door of medicine and beg for their bodies back.

Why is this? At the core, it's about the bigotry that never speaks its name: ableism. This bigotry has little to do with religion, although it is conveyed with great religiosity (and has been justified by many religions over the centuries, including Christian Science and the New Age). It poisons the right and left and center and every corner of politics.

I think of Christopher Reeve, man in an iconic Superman suit, man felled by a spinal cord injury, rich man at the mercy of personal care attendants (who sometimes endangered his life), inhumanly capable man unable to go beyond the slightest -- yet most triumphant .. twitch of recovery due to a cruel and archaic mentality about the disabled body's indentured servitude to a Calvinist culture that feels vastly uncomfortable about physical debility.

A disabled man in our culture is always seen as a (fey) man in tights. Not a Superman but a lesser man (I love how guys from the Krip-Hop troupe 4 Wheel City say on their MySpace page: "ladies . . . don't let the chairs fool ya, ya heard!"). A disabled woman is viewed as hysterical (still) and asexual (please!). A disabled person of any gender is prey to the most primal Darwinian impulses, the most inhumane cruelty, impassable steps and ramp-less temptations. Disabled people are battered and abused at astronomical rates, but the biggest cruelties are mundane, pedestrian in the truest sense. On second thought, even pedestrian cruelties are reserved for those who walk. To those in chairs, those hobbling along, those with a crutch or cane or immobilized, even the playful thruway of daily hazing is usually inaccessible. Cruelty of the modern world to those with disabilities is more reminiscent of a Jim Crow psychology: the disabled are subjected to relentless deprivation and invisible signs saying Keep Out. The fight of the disabled is a fight to get through the door. It's an enigmatic fight, a fight against a crevasse. So often, the disabled spend their days explaining the trauma of deprivation.

But it's so basic.

What is shut out is never witnessed. What is never witnessed is disbelieved. Isn't the pain of absence .. the very rationale for solitary confinement .. intuitively the cruelest punishment? We all know by instinct what it means to be rejected by a herd. To be the lame elk, the bird afraid to reveal its weakness until it falls from the perch. It's so easy to shut out the disabled from cultural dialogue: just don't put in a ramp. Just forget the Sign Language Interpreter. Just wear scented products that cause people to go into anaphylaxis and risk their lives.

I wonder about the essential anxiety behind giving people medical/visceral authority. Are the not-yet-afflicted .. those in the eternal white gloves of eternal flight .. afraid the disabled will rise up and become Bionically reactive against the indignities they have suffered? Perhaps people think it's cuter (read: non-threatening to a dominant paradigm) to see a pig with a glowing nose than a righteously indignant former gang member asking for wheelchair access. Or stem cells. If we are freed to own our own bodies, to alter them toward our freedom, what kind of power might we seize? Frankly, I can't wait to see a whole shiny army of disabled folks once treated worse than social swine rise up and take their righteous place.

I ponder the juxtaposition of Superman's cartoon reality where glowing kryptonite could fell a superpower, and the mere mortal .. Christopher Reeve -- spending his last years fighting for the triumph of moving a finger. I couldn't believe the way he died: felled by a bedsore. It was a perfect metaphor for the reductionism of this cruel regime that denied him healing. Then his lovely wife who illuminated and articulated the stem cell struggle succumbed to an improbable cancer. Since their deaths, we have hardly progressed in disability rights or stem cell access in America.

I read this amazing interview with Todd Haynes, the filmmaker who did the seminal movie about multiple chemical sensitivities, Safe. The film was widely misinterpreted when it came out in 1995. Many in denial about the toxic world and its resulting disabilities thought it was a parable for AIDS. Haynes actually lobbies a subtle critique against the Louise Hay-ist New Agers who damned the sick for being sick. As Susan Sontag asserted, disability and illness are not metaphors: they are roulette realities and that's all. As Haynes stated in this interview in Filmmaker Magazine, his character represented the most vulnerable part of life, and in this she was inherently terrifying: a horror movie. There's no use complicating the issue. Fragility can engender great fear, but without it there is no glow to existence, no real light.

And that's what this stem cell thing is all about. Fragility. Fear of it.
There's nothing safe about any of it. We can't wait until people are hermetically sealed off from their fears. We have to give people all the tools they need to equalize their chance of survival and access. Is this too much to ask? Those born under the Year of the Pig are supposed to be chivalrous, gallant, possessing strength and fortitude. It's the Year of the Pig. Give me a gluttony of hope.