Helen Keller, Socialist
May 10, 2022 4:23 AM   Subscribe

These are fascinating articles, and to me they seem to show just how much we want to put disability front-and-center in a story where it's a major aspect, and to use it to "explain" everything. I'm reminded in certain aspects (and in certain contrasts!) with the popular perception of Franklin Roosevelt, who, like Helen Keller, was born into wealth and privilege, suffered a major illness which caused severe disability, and became an ardent progressive. And in the popular narrative, that's usually the order those details appear in, with the strong implication that it was getting knocked down and made "inferior" which taught Roosevelt humility and compassion. The problem with this story, of course, is that Roosevelt had been a tireless progressive and equitable team-player for about a decade before he contracted polio. He was a callow youth in 1904 but a champion of social welfare by 1913. Polio didn't enter the picture until 1921. He arrived at his convictions mostly by growing up, and by getting a good look at how people who couldn't buy a yacht on a moment's notice lived.

Now, Helen Keller is a rather different story, as her disability was in early childhood and it was a lot easier to pin every aspect of her personality on it, because at least the timeline works. And she wasn't primarily famous as a political figure, so ignoring her politics outright was also viable in her case. But there as well there's absolutely an attempt (belittling rather than purely narrative-structuring) to "justify" her political beliefs as the result of her disability.

Now, did being blind and deaf contribute to her socialism? Possibly. If nothing else, it seems that she was introduced to socialism mostly by Anne Sullivan and John Macy, who she may not have met and probably would not have been nearly as close to were it not for the circumstances of her childhood. But we can't run the alternative timeline where she didn't, and it's entirely possible her thoughts would have arrived at the same place through a different route. Certainly she might well have gone to Radcliffe and met Macy and found his ideas just as attractive as a sighted and hearing person.
posted by jackbishop at 5:58 AM on May 10 [21 favorites]

Helen Keller's left-wing politics is one of my favorite talking points whenever someone uses "socialist" as a label for a person whose politics they don't like. "AOC isn't a socialist. Helen Keller; now SHE was a socialist!"
posted by TedW at 6:13 AM on May 10 [9 favorites]

Today I learned: Helen Keller was tracked by the FBI because of her dangerous views, with the reports sent straight to J. Edgar Hoover.

That reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Whitewashed as an inspiring, optimistic, liberal figure; was actually a socialist who the FBI considered a dangerous subversive.
posted by clawsoon at 6:51 AM on May 10 [14 favorites]

On failing to honour a legacy:
One day, passing through Alabama for the 45th time, I decided to visit the Helen Keller Home at Ivy Green -- including the famous water pump where she learned to talk using the tingling of her palms -- and to find out more about these forbidden texts.

I should have known it was a fool's errand. Tuscumbia, Alabama, is not the place one would expect to find works by the beloved matriarch of the disabled on the subjects of economics, politics and the labor struggle. Let me make this shockingly clear: The Helen Keller Home does not display any of the books Helen Keller wrote herself, except for The Story of My Life, which was co-written by Keller and Anne Sullivan while Keller was in college.
posted by clawsoon at 6:56 AM on May 10 [11 favorites]

That reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of all the amazing things about Keller's life, the sheer length of it always makes me have to recheck Wikipedia: She outlived King by nearly two months. She was friends with Mark Twain and got the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon Johnson. She was still alive when Patty Duke won an Oscar for playing her.
posted by Etrigan at 7:02 AM on May 10 [23 favorites]

Helen Keller’s college was paid for by a robber baron, H H Rogers, who also kept Twain from bankruptcy. She dedicated her first book to Rogers.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:25 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]

This fascinating episode of Radiolab digs into Keller's complex life and legacy.

Fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson has been haunted by Helen Keller for nearly her entire life. Like Helen, Elsa is Deafblind, and growing up she was constantly compared to her. But for a million different reasons she hated that, because she felt different from her in a million different ways. Then, a year ago, an online conspiracy theory claiming Helen was a fraud exploded on TikTok, and suddenly Elsa found herself drawing her sword and jumping to Helen’s defense, setting off a chain of events that would bring her closer to the disability icon than she ever dreamt. For over a year, Elsa, Lulu and the Radiolab team dug through primary sources, talked to experts, even visited Helen’s birthplace Ivy Green, and discovered the real story of Helen Keller is far more complicated, mysterious and confounding than the simple myth of a young Deafblind girl rescued by her teacher Annie Sullivan.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:11 AM on May 10 [12 favorites]

how much we want to put disability front-and-center in a story where it's a major aspect, and to use it to "explain" everything

But doesn't it, though? People's personal lived experiences absolutely do inform their politics.
posted by splitpeasoup at 1:02 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

The way that her disability was used to "explain" her politics when she was alive was that she was too limited as a result of her disability to really understand the world. E.g.:
Helen Keller, struggling to point the way to the light for the deaf, dumb and blind is inspiring. Helen Keller preaching socialism; Helen Keller passing on the merits of the copper strike; Helen Keller sneering at the constitution of the United States; Helen Keller under these aspects is pitiful. She is beyond her depth. She speaks with the handicap of limitation which no amount of determination or science can overcome. Her knowledge is, and must be, almost purely theoretical, and unfortunately this world and its problems are both very practical.
And, of course, they called her a "girl" well into her adult life. This short video has a couple of disabled disability rights advocates talking about their complicated relationship with the standard story of Keller:
The story focuses on her being six, seven years old and things happening to her. People teaching her, people giving her water. She comes across as very passive but if you learn about her life from her own words, you realize she was an agent of change. She advocated for women, people of color. Disability rights mattered to her but the dominant story doesn’t focus on that. Since society only frames her as a little girl, a lot of people subconsciously learn to infantilize disabled adults. That makes it difficult to get a job, to be treated with respect, to get good quality education and healthcare.
posted by clawsoon at 1:34 PM on May 10 [10 favorites]

I'm loving the Radiolab episode. Both Helen and Elsa are total badasses and not just because of "overcoming disability."
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:16 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

And um...I just hit a point in that podcast where I have to take that remark back :/ I apologize to everyone.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:19 PM on May 10

And um...I just hit a point in that podcast where I have to take that remark back :/ I apologize to everyone.

Is it eugenics? I learned that Helen Keller was a socialist from the book Reasoning Otherwise. One thing I'm learning from the book that I had no idea about was the huge impact Herbert Spencer had on socialists in the 1890-1920 era. He wasn't a socialist himself, but a lot of socialists found his paradigm of the evolution of human societies inspiring. The great confidence socialists had that socialism was the next stage of human existence was based mostly on Spencer, not Marx or other theorists.
posted by clawsoon at 3:04 PM on May 10

Here's a short piece discussing Keller's legacy from Cristina Hartmann, who's Deafblind.

Helen Keller’s Shadow: Why We Need to Stop Making Movies about Helen Keller:

A part of me loves that we are finally acknowledging Keller’s complexity and humanity. The other, and deeper, part of me senses the danger underneath the surface. If we focus on Keller and only on Keller, there is no room for other voices. Keller remains at the center of attention as Geraldine Lawhorn, Marjorie McGuffin Wood, and many others fade into obscurity. Only one example, one life, one perspective on deafness, blindness, and DeafBlindness occupies the public imagination. Little wonder Helen Keller conspiracy theories go viral: Keller is too singular, too exceptional to be believed. By fixating on Keller, the media is whitewashing and silencing the DeafBlind community. The hearing-sighted seem unable and perhaps unwilling to see or hear anyone else.

In her New York Times essay, hearing blind author M. Leona Godin asks, “Why is it that America can’t seem to quit its infatuation with Keller?” It’s a good question. Is it laziness that prevents us from seeking out new voices, especially those from different backgrounds and perspectives? Or are we more comfortable with a familiar historical figure who doesn’t challenge us too much? Maybe we prefer success stories rather than those that push us to examine the systematic failures in our education, health care, and support systems for the disabled?

It is time to give her a rest. Not because anything is wrong with her—she was a remarkable woman who touched many lives—but she has been in the public eye for over a century. She has yet to get a break from the scrutiny, even decades after her death. Let’s allow other stories to emerge. We can start with traditional biopics of Geraldine Lawhorn touching Carnegie Hall and Marjorie McGuffin Wood showing us how far she is from sainthood. That’s just a start. What we all need are extraordinary stories about ordinary DeafBlind people falling in love, picking fights, tangling with midlife crises, and having torrid affairs with traveling photojournalists. We are not so different, so neither should our stories be. With these stories, children like me can imagine a future outside of Helen Keller’s shadow.

Lawhorn's On Different Roads: An Autobiography
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:15 PM on May 10 [4 favorites]

Exactly because of the eugenics. Hence why I have to apologize to everyone. Hell, I thought it was cool she was a socialist, and then...THAT.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:19 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

Exactly because of the eugenics. Hence why I have to apologize to everyone. Hell, I thought it was cool she was a socialist, and then...THAT.

The proposal she made about that baby is not completely unlike conversations with doctors after my daughter's birth. They were talking with more sympathy than Keller proposes, and they presented it as an option rather than a firm scientific-eugenic decision, but the basic idea was there.
posted by clawsoon at 3:53 PM on May 10

People think that “The Story of My Life” is the hot shit, because in it she gushes about how great her life is. Want to know what it’s really like being deafblind? Read her “The World I Live In.”
posted by Melismata at 3:54 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

Once again, this seems to be a post where people seem to want to make a hero out of someone, buttress their (in this case, socialist) bonafides, or just find something or someone to cheer on.

In this case, the details get confounding.

Turns out, it's complicated. Keller herself seems a product of her times. Yes, that's not a popular description to hang on someone these days, but it's truth. And certainly, the progressive/socialist front of her era was, as we like to say, often problematic. Progressivism of the time was sometimes notably pro-eugenic. Regrettable, yes. Moreso that it took the guy with the stupid mustache to finally drive home what a regrettable idea it truly was. Sure, eugenics is no longer welcome to the table, thank dog, but his cousin, population control, still maintains a seat to this day, and gets to throw us a wink every now and then.

There's a desire to offer clean, simple narratives to drive our favorite causes. But sometimes, history resists. It's hard to say how much Keller's socialism has been whitewashed. Any simple look into her story that goes much beyond Patty Duke's portrayal reveals her politics without too much fanfare. I wouldn't be surprised if it was determined that her position on eugenics was even more whitewashed than her socialism.

Maybe it's too difficult to laud Keller's early advocacy for the rights of the disabled, or socialism, while simultaneously disavowing her support of eugenics. Or accepting money from a robber baron. Historical figures oare only human, and rarely come to us unsullied. When they do, it's probably because we haven't, or can't, or will not, look hard enough.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:35 PM on May 10 [10 favorites]

Exactly because of the eugenics. Hence why I have to apologize to everyone. Hell, I thought it was cool she was a socialist, and then...THAT.
Keith Rosenthal’s “The politics of Hellen Keller”, linked in the original post, says she believed in eugenicist ideas for a “brief moment” before rejecting the concept.
One recent Keller biography, written by disability studies professor Kim Nielsen, advances a number of important criticisms of Keller’s disability politics. She correctly condemns an article written by Keller in 1915 during a brief moment when she had adopted certain eugenicist ideas. Influenced greatly by her friend and then-comrade Margaret Sanger, Keller conflated the struggle for birth control and reproductive self-determination with the broader social goal of ensuring the “fitness” of future generations. To be fair, Keller never supported the more odious and racist aspects of eugenic philosophy, such as forced sterilization (a practice legalized by the US Supreme Court in 1927). In any event, within a matter of years, Keller was writing articles denouncing the entire “survival of the fittest” mentality upon which eugenics was founded, not only in Nazi Germany, but in the United States as well.
posted by EmperorOozy at 12:49 AM on May 11 [6 favorites]

My kids (now 29 & 31) when we all get together and play games - well, a lot of their humour goes over my head because they know so much about philosophy and ideologies and stuff. I enjoyed sending them the links from this post as much as I did reading them. How did my children end up knowing so much about this stuff (I asked them, but they've been too busy to reply so far)? I know that I accidentally did some really good educational things when they were in primary and middle school but I'm pretty certain that ideologies were only lightly touched on in secondary school, if covered at all, but they are both so aware of the concepts Keller promoted. I envy the time they have to explore these concepts (I'm in my 50s). Why did I never end up in a drinking group that discussed this, instead of one that "wanted to know what love is"?
posted by b33j at 2:59 AM on May 11

Keith Rosenthal’s “The politics of Hellen Keller”, linked in the original post, says she believed in eugenicist ideas for a “brief moment” before rejecting the concept.

In the Radiolab documentary, they dig a bit deeper into this. From what they could find in Keller's papers, it seemed that she rejected eugenics later in life for physical disabilities. For mental and developmental disabilities... not so clear.
posted by clawsoon at 3:18 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

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