Played for Laughs

trump-mocks-reporter-with-disability

After reading a positive review, I watched the first two episodes of Patriot, a new web series streaming on Amazon about a reluctant American spy. I was sort of enjoying it until I was struck by how many “humorous” references the program made to disability. Apparently Steve Conrad, who created and wrote Patriot, still thinks mental and physical disabilities are good for a couple of yuks.

In the first episode, John Tavner, the “hero” of the series, pushes a job rival in front of a bus in order to secure an engineering gig he needs for his cover. The result is that the rival (who also happens to be Asian—more laughs there) suffers brain damage. What a riot when, in episode two, he is asked back to the company because he can still do complex computations, but has lost his memory, speaks like a young child and is unable to perform simple tasks, such as opening his computer.

Then there is the hilarious scene in which John is ordered by the janitor at his workplace, who is blackmailing him, to steal some things from a group of Vietnam vets. Cut to the scene of the vets in a swimming pool during an exercise class. When they all duck under the water, John grabs their lower limb prostheses that are lined up against a wall and runs away down the street awkwardly clutching them. Artificial legs are just funny—don‘t you get it?

But there’s an even better payoff when our hero, again at the janitor’s command, sneaks into a police station. First, having been told that one of the cops on duty has PTSD, John startles him with a loud noise, causing him to collapse in tears in a corner. Before you can catch your breath from laughing at that bit, John then encounters a very short officer who tries to stop him—but John just picks him up because, hey, he’s so little. In the final shot, as John extracts something from an evidence box, another cop starts to chase him, but he can only hop because…wait for it…he has only one leg. He was one of the vets!!!! End scene.

So here is this admittedly rather clever program probing the conscience of a spy who, working for his country and directly reporting to his father, must murder in order to fulfill his mission. A program that raises questions about the usefulness and morality of espionage, that explores relationships between a father and his sons (John’s brother is also in the game) and between brothers. Maybe it does a lot more but I’ll never know. I stopped watching because it is also a program that blithely plays mental and physical disabilities for laughs, and no one involved, from the producers, directors, actors, folks at Amazon and the reviewer who recommended it, saw anything wrong with that.

This is a societal problem. When millions of people vote for Trump after he mocked a reporter with arthrogryposis, it’s clear we have not come very far in our acceptance or understanding of people in the disabled community. At times like these it’s more important than ever to point it out and call it out.

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A Classmate’s Death

Forced into this life on February 13, 1949. Left on purpose on August 22, 2013.
–Obituary in the New York Timesclass-photo

Reading the New York Times this morning I came across a review of a documentary, Left on Purpose, about Mayer Vishner, a former Yippie who committed suicide in 2013. And the name leapt out at me because how many Mayer Vishners can there be? And when I read he grew up in New York City and then Googled him and saw his photo, it was clear this man had been my classmate at P.S. 94 in the Bronx. We were in elementary school together.

Had I heard of his death almost four years ago? I can’t even remember. And if I had, why did it strike me so much harder now?

I was not aware of how he had worked all his life for freedom—for all of us, for himself. I didn’t know about his illnesses, loneliness and addictions. But I do recall a thin, intense child with big, dark eyes and lank hair. I liked him. He was smart and different somehow. I was a kid, too, but I found him interesting.

I am making no claim to him. Of course I had thoughts of “if I only knew,” and “I should have kept up with him” and wished I could have told him I have experienced depression, too, and that I share his fear of becoming increasingly frail and dependent.

But, as sad as I am about the death of someone I think of as the little boy he once was, I am really writing about getting older and realizing how far away my childhood is. I guess I’ve aged a lot these last four years and that’s why Mayer’s death has a new resonance for me. It also has made me more convinced that we are who we are from the get go and there’s no changing it. That what made me remember Mayer from almost 60 years ago is what made him deeply unhappy despite all he accomplished as an activist and journalist, his creativity, his lifelong commitment to peace and equality, his humor—and is what led him ultimately to kill himself.

I am writing about wanting to go back, anyway, back to Miss Lucille’s and Mrs. Graux’s classrooms, and have a do-over. About missed opportunities, missed connections. About recognizing that sometimes we can’t save people. About the fact that, like Mayer, I often focus on the doors that are closing instead of the ones that are still open, and that I can understand why he felt he needed to plan an escape route. That his death reminds me of how quickly our lives go by, how little time is left.