Clearing the Air

Last week I stunk up my kitchen and house by letting the oven go too long without being cleaned.  I had noticed in December that it was starting to get dirty, but I thought it could wait for a day warm enough to open the windows while the self-cleaning cycle was running.  There weren’t many warm days this winter, though, and the oven never got its long-delayed cleaning.

So there I was last Tuesday night broiling some bratwurst on the top rack, only to get a noxious blast of smoke in my face when I opened the oven door.  The brats weren’t burned—it was just because the oven had gotten too dirty.  It set off the smoke detector and left the house reeking of old stale grease, even after I opened the windows and let in the frigid air.

Then my husband suggested that we might as well go ahead and put the oven on the cleaning cycle, since we already had the windows open.  Although that seemed like the sensible thing to do, we soon discovered that there was so much grease in the oven that the ashes started wafting out the vent, adding to the overall stench.  Even after I scrubbed the countertops and mopped the linoleum, the grease smell lingered.  I ended up having to put an air freshener next to the oven for the next few days.

The house was mostly back to normal by the time I read Mark’s post on Friday about Autism Speaks’ propaganda, which has for the past few years been stinking up our collective cultural space.  Although I don’t disagree with Mark’s assessment that Autism Speaks intended to wage war, I believe we need to keep in mind a point that eluded George W. Bush: nations commit acts of war, while terrorist gangs commit acts of criminality, and different responses are needed for each.  Giving terrorists too much attention is a bad idea because it overstates their importance, elevating them in the public’s view almost to the stature of national leaders.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that Autism Speaks has perpetrated any actual criminal acts; on the contrary, freedom of speech in the United States is broad enough to protect even the most odious bigotry.  But in the realm of the psyche—in that dreamspace where hungry monsters with dripping fangs roam the dimly lit streets—Autism Speaks intentionally engaged in a very literal form of terrorism by creating images meant to terrify the masses, for the purpose of advancing its own agenda.

As it turned out, however, the spooky-voiced bogeyman from the I Am Autism video was a colossal failure by any measure.  Disability rights organizations promptly condemned both the video and the organization that released it.  Bloggers blasted Autism Speaks for its ignorant appeal to prejudice.  As a result of the controversy, Autism Speaks lost an international affiliate.  So many video parodies were created that the original soon fell out of the top ten video results in a Google search for I Am Autism.  In only a matter of days, public pressure forced Autism Speaks to distance itself from the video, stating that it reflected only the personal views of two parents and not the views of the organization.

This wasn’t accomplished by setting up an exaggerated image of an autistic hero as a contrast to the nightmare bogeyman.  To the best of my knowledge, none of the responses to the video took that route.  Rather, the responses broke down into two categories: earnest condemnation of the harm done by bigotry, and snide parodies.  As to the latter, much of the humor wasn’t far above the schoolyard level of “Autism Speaks, you stink.  You have dirty socks, and your underwear is showing.”

Whatever one may think of such juvenile humor in general, it proved to be an effective means of asserting dominance in the colorful and often immature realm of the psyche.  Autism Speaks ended up being cast as the archetypal playground bully picking on smaller kids for being different, while the parody videos and blog posts basically amounted to the Revenge of the Nerds.  Instead of spreading terror throughout the land as it had meant to do, Autism Speaks accomplished only a banana-peel pratfall of epic proportions.

Granted, the organization is still capable of making a nuisance of itself in the political arena; and it continues to take in large amounts of money from its walks, much of which goes toward causation research.  As I discussed in my post last week, however, the science now suggests that the genetic basis of autism won’t be amenable to prenatal testing.  To put it another way: Autism Speaks has no WMDs.  So perhaps we don’t need to send our autistic archetype heroically charging off to war, or even sitting down in Mark’s imaginary diner to have a long chat with the grimy unwashed bogeyman who reeks of old stale prejudices.

Maybe all we need is a good air freshener.

on 03/2/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 5 Comments | Read More

Comments (5)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    And to think that just the day before my stinky malodorous post ran, security expert Bruce Schneier excerpted this from a recent article in Reason:

    “Know thy enemy is an ancient principle of warfare. And if America had heeded it, it might have refrained from a full-scale “war” on terrorism whose price tag is touching $2 trillion. That’s because the Islamist enemy it is confronting is not some hyper-power capable of inflicting existential—or even grave—harm. It is, rather, a rag-tag band of peasants whose malevolent ambitions are far beyond the capacity of their shallow talent pool to deliver.”

    [and yet that $2 trillion war’s biggest cheerleaders are now eager to inform us we have budget problems …]

    But back to the odor at hand, I am receiving communications both private and public now that make me stop and say, “Wait, where and on what exactly are we supposed to be disagreeing?”

    It reminds me of a night class at Roosevelt University I used to take the train into Chicago for while I was still in high school, and the one night when the professor handed us our test results and announced we had all failed. So, he barred those results from the gradebook, on the grounds that when no one passes, it means that the teacher has failed.

    Steve Silberman recently posted about an interview with a psychologist whose work I spent several years absorbing in solitude; I’m finding that the vocabulary and concepts I learned there, when put to use here makes us maybe a bit like England and America — two countries divided by a common language. Mea culpa in any case. Gwen’s better with a sword than she lets on, and while hero-promotion isn’t the failure I’ll cop to clearly I deserved to be nicked. Touché there, Guinevere.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    Yes, differences in word usage often are at the root of confusion and disagreement. And I didn’t mean to suggest that your post itself was stinky, Mark; I was referring to Autism Speaks’ propaganda efforts.

  3. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Well, no offense taken. Tone is yet another thing that’s difficult to convey via text, and I honestly do feel I haven’t been communicating well lately — in terms of definitions yes but also perspective and worldview. I think I was mostly just jumping at a chance to acknowledge that.

  4. Stephanie says:

    In defense of Mark, Autism Speaks still reaches a lot of parents who have the responsibility to raise their young, autistic charges. In terrorizing the parents, Autism Speaks contributes to the terror those parents inflict on defenseless children.

    If justice were as wide-reaching in actuality as it can be in theory, I would claim that Autism Speaks could be held accountable as an accessory to some very real crimes.

  5. Gwen McKay says:

    No dispute from me there, Stephanie. Those who spread terror need to be held accountable for the harm they cause, whether or not they carry out all their schemes as intended.

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