Against Ability

By Willie Johnson

Last July, while Jeffrey Epstein awaited judgment for sex trafficking, the New York Times reported another of his longstanding pet projects. For years, Epstein had planned to “seed the human race with his DNA by impregnating women at his vast New Mexico ranch.” Epstein’s plans for his “baby ranch” were pretty straightforward: he intended to have groups of twenty women at a time inseminated with his sperm in a small town near Santa Fe. The project grew out of Epstein’s reported interest in eugenics and, more specifically, his passion for the twenty-first-century eugenicist movement known as transhumanism. 

Essentially, transhumanism promotes the use of genetic engineering and cryonics (the as-yet unproven technology of freezing human heads or bodies to be preserved for future reanimation) to transform the initiated into super-evolved organisms called “posthumans.” Epstein’s charities reportedly donated more than $100,000 to leading transhumanist organization Humanity Plus. According to one transhumanist interviewed by the Times, Epstein was particularly taken with cryonics, having expressed a desire to have his head and penis frozen after his death. Presumably, he hoped to have these vital organs reanimated periodically for the purpose of impregnating teenagers back at the baby ranch.

All this may sound like just another unbelievably creepy footnote in Epstein’s epic saga, but  it shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. Epstein’s transhumanist fantasies rested on the idea that exceptional abilities are hereditary resources that can be transmitted through a combination of genetic engineering and selective breeding, and then hoarded by an elite few. Though transhumanism remains a fringe movement, this understanding of ability is well established in the mainstream. Epstein’s preoccupation with fantasies of genetic purity and population control provide a window into the ideology of the ruling class of which he was a part. 

Epstein wasn’t born into the ruling class. He grew up in a working class Brooklyn community, inheriting neither a family name nor society connections to trade on. Instead, he used his gifts for exploitation and predation to join the ranks of the world’s intellectual and political elite. Speaking anonymously to Vanity Fair, one of Epstein’s ex-girlfriends described Epstein as “brilliant,” but added that his genius rested on his ability to manipulate others “for his own needs.” She called this aspect of Epstein’s genius sociopathic, but to pathologize Epstein’s remarkable skills is to miss a key point: the capacity to manipulate, oppress, and exploit others for one’s own ends is precisely the ultimate marker of exceptional ability under capitalism. 

How can we understand ability otherwise, when the most able, gifted, and talented people in fields ranging from the arts and sciences to politics are Jeffrey Epsteins, Harvey Weinsteins, Bill Clintons, and Donald Trumps? The entire notion of gifts and talents has been so thoroughly warped that it may be irredeemable. If not that, it demands radical change.

***

Segregation based on ability doesn’t begin and end with the private parties of the ruling elites. My own experiences of this segregation began in elementary school, and were partly the result of my abnormally large tongue. When I was little, my tongue made it difficult for me to articulate certain consonant sounds clearly, and sometimes I spoke with a lisp. Early in elementary school, either in first or second grade, I began receiving speech therapy services during the school day. A few times a week, I left the classroom where I spent most of my day and walked down some hallways into a very small speech classroom, where I sat with a teacher whom I remember as a kind, youngish woman. She gave me very specific instructions about how to articulate certain sounds (probably my “s” and my “th”) and then I applied her instructions by speaking or reading to her—I can’t remember which.

Eventually I stopped getting pulled out of class to receive these services. I must have passed some sort of test, because by fourth grade, I began to leave the classroom to participate in a different type of specialized program.

I remember the gifted and talented class as a small group of no more than ten or twelve students. I don’t remember a lot of what we actually did in gifted and talented. I know we dissected some animals and learned a formal system for outlining essays—the system I still use today—but that’s about it. More than the content of the class, I remember that leaving my home classroom to join the gifted and talented group felt really good. I felt some sympathy for my peers who weren’t in the club, but I also felt superior. When classmates stumbled during a read-aloud, I was impatient. When a peer volunteered an answer that I didn’t agree with, I was dismissive. Being gifted and talented made me feel entitled to take up as much space as I wanted. It made me feel special.  

It must feel similarly special to be accepted into one of New York City’s elite specialized public high schools, schools reserved for the city’s most gifted and talented teenagers. For the past few years, these schools have been a focal point for some serious political conflict in New York, largely because the composition of their student bodies begs the question of whether they can truly be called public. According to New York’s Department of Education, Black and Latinx students make up roughly 68 percent of the city’s high school students, but only roughly 10 percent of the students at the specialized high schools. Students who attend specialized schools benefit from a wide variety of privileges, including (but not limited to) an “annual bonus” of nearly $1,000 per student. Whether we call these specialized schools public or not, one thing is clear: they are exclusive institutions designed to provide a small group of elite students with resources and privileges that most of the city’s high schoolers can only dream of. 

The siphoning of resources away from the vast majority of New York’s public school students and towards a small set of elite adolescents is often justified on the grounds that said adolescents possess exceptional ability. Based on this logic, students of exceptional ability are more deserving of resources than other students: they have greater value than students of only middling or negligible ability (including, of course, the disabled), and are therefore entitled—even expected—to enjoy themselves at everyone else’s expense. 

Ability, like whiteness and gender, is socially, rather than biologically, constructed. This does not mean that the physical and mental impairments often termed disabilities are not real; impairments, ranging from deafness to limited mobility, are very real conditions with which millions of people live and struggle. To understand disability as socially constructed is to acknowledge this reality, then go a step further, maintaining that our society structurally disadvantages people with certain impairments. 

As historian Michael Oliver explains it, the category of disability is itself a product of the capitalist mode of production, specifically of the speed, uniformity, and enforced discipline that such production requires. In other words, the disabled are defined by their refusal or inability to conform to this production process’ needs. At the other end of the spectrum, those categorized as gifted and talented excel, for whatever reason, under a capitalist regime.

Like many dominant groups, the gifted and talented maintain their elite status in part by maintaining a type of invisibility. Exceptional ability functions as both a norm and an ideal against which the non- and disabled are to be measured and evaluated. Ability is an assumed norm; those who don’t possess it are understood to be deviant or deficient. Thus, when the non- or disabled suffer violence or exploitation, the able oppressor is not identified as such. In fact, as in Epstein’s case, when an exceptionally abled person is exposed as a violent offender, their peers try to revoke the offender’s membership in the gifted and talented club. This is certainly what happened to Epstein.

***

In the wake of his arrest and subsequent death, Epstein’s associates and representatives scrambled to classify him with a number of maladies, pathologies, and disabilities. Longtime Epstein friend and associate Stuart Pivar told Mother Jones that Epstein was “a very, very, very sick man” afflicted with a “disease” called “satyriasis.” Vanity Fair declared Epstein a sociopath and “monster” who suffered from “perversions,” and went on to quote a variety of sources diagnosing Epstein with afflictions including agoraphobia and emotional infantilism. Epstein associate Stephen Pinker offered a casual posthumous diagnosis for Epstein of intellectual laziness combined with ADD. Clearly, the members of the abled class wish to banish Epstein from their ranks, even though not long ago he was one of their guiding lights.

The notion of the abled as an elite class gifted with the authority to exclude and oppress the rest of us is nothing new.  Since the early days of eugenics and “race science,” rightwing forces have insisted that certain classes of people deserve to be subjugated because of their imagined deficits. All kinds of subjugation—that of the poor and working classes, black and brown people, women, LGBTQIA people, immigrants, and (of course) the disabled—have historically been backed up by claims that these groups lack certain key abilities. Transhumanism — which traffics in the ideas that standard-issue humans are deficient and that a master race of “posthumans” is desirable  —  is just one contemporary example of such a movement.

In her essay “Eugenics and the ‘Sole Possible Economic Order,’” scholar and disability activist Marta Russell traces the history of these ideas, noting that under Nazi rule, “disabled people were the first to be systematically exterminated” and that, for the Nazis, disability was “the primary qualifier for death in the eyes of physicians and the state.” The primacy of disability for the Nazis is worth highlighting here. “If one was of pure Aryan blood and disabled,” Russell writes, “one was slated for extermination for contaminating the race.” Besides extermination, forced sterilization of the disabled was widespread in Nazi Germany. In roughly a decade of Nazi rule, Russell writes, some 200,000 of the “congenitally feebleminded” were sterilized by Nazi doctors, along with “80,000 schizophrenics; 20,000 manic-depressives; 60,000 epileptics,” and some 50,000 others classified with disabilities ranging from blindness to Huntington’s disease to alcoholism. The Nazis would soon expand these sterilization and extermination practices to encompass race. 

eugenics_CC

Across the Atlantic, the 1930s saw the rise of a parallel movement of white supremacist eugenicists in the US. Among this movement’s leaders was prominent eugenicist (and Planned Parenthood founder) Margaret Sanger, who in 1932 advocated for the compulsory sterilization of “morons, mental defectives, and epileptics” as a means to protect the integrity of America’s exceptionally abled master race. Sanger also argued for the necessity of severely restricting immigration, in combination with a policy of segregating “illiterates” and others possessing “objectionable traits” to work camps, in order to improve “the general intelligence of our population.” Once the defectives and undesirables were segregated in their work camps, Sanger proposed that they be policed by some “fifteen or twenty million . . . soldiers of defense” who would “defend . . . the unborn against their own disabilities.”

The overlap between white supremacist and ableist thinking is striking here. To maintain the purity of the abled race and protect the abled from “hereditary taints,” the non-abled (a category that for Sanger apparently includes the mentally and physically disabled; sex workers; “dope-fiends”; poor people; and “illiterates”) must be segregated, incarcerated, sterilized, and in certain cases euthanized. Sanger’s defectives represent a threat to the idea of a pure abled race, just as people of color represent a threat to the white supremacist’s fantastical Aryan racial purity. 

Seen through this lens, New York’s specialized schools are not simply siphoning resources away from the masses toward a privileged few; they represent the elite segment of a school system designed to produce a segregated society dangerously similar to the one that Sanger envisioned. While students at these elite schools enjoy their superior resources and learning conditions, New York’s non-exceptional schools resemble Sanger’s work camps: students are heavily policed and penned into overcrowded classrooms where conditions range from grim and dirty to downright toxic. 

From the exceptionally talented Jeffrey Epstein to specialized schools depriving the city’s less abled students of classroom resources, the class of the exceptionally abled appears to depend upon the subordination of others. This should surprise no one. If ability is defined by one’s capacity to thrive under the capitalist mode of production, then it seems quite logical that the traits and behaviors promulgated by the gifted and talented class would be predatory and parasitic. After all, to thrive under capitalism is to thrive in a system predicated upon brutality and exploitation.

***

The violence that logically follows from assigning value to people based on their ability has defined the COVID-19 pandemic. While our ruling elites have spent the past few months sheltered in well-stocked mansions and their companies have raked in record profits, the virus has ravaged the elderly and disabled. Since March, some 55,000 U.S. nursing home workers and residents have died from COVID, according to The New York Times, accounting for more than 40% of all U.S. deaths from the virus. Group homes for the disabled have been similarly brutalized. A recent study published in Disability and Health Journal found that in New York, group home residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities were roughly twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than the general population. It’s a division of suffering straight out of Sanger’s eugenicist fantasies: elites thriving under police protection while the unfit — and the workers who serve them — are penned in toxic facilities and systematically culled from the herd. 

Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, proclaims that the government’s only priority should be to “protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis refuses to provide sign language interpretation at his COVID-19 press briefings for the 800,000 Floridians who are deaf or hearing impaired. The message is clear: if you’re not one of the abled, go ahead and die.

The late Noel Ignatiev argued for the abolition of the white race as one approach to combatting white supremacy. For Ignatiev, abolishing whiteness does not mean eliminating white people, but rather fighting against the social construct of the white race until whiteness “is destroyed.” Can we similarly abolish the gifted and talented? Can we develop a new vocabulary for human potential, one that doesn’t divide us into “haves and have-nots”?

Many years since I graduated from speech therapy and moved on to my own gifted and talented class, I now work as a high school special education teacher. I spend my days with students who grapple with impairments ranging from deafness to cerebral palsy to dyslexia. These varied impairments are all equally real, and all have equally little to do with my students’ potential to generate unique ideas, analyze texts insightfully, or do any of the things we would normally associate with the quality we call intelligence. Some of the classrooms where I teach are “inclusion” classrooms; they house a mix of students classified with disabilities and students without that classification. These mixed classes are my favorite ones to teach, in no small part because they are a living, breathing refutation of the myth that these students have nothing to learn from each other. Every day, in these classes, I see students considered gifted and talented learning from students classified as disabled. And every day, I see students with disabilities learning from their gifted and talented peers. 

Just about every day, I assign my students some kind of writing task. When I do this, most of the students start writing, but a few of them look frozen. They can’t figure out what to write. They raise their hand, call me over. They tell me they’re having trouble getting started. I ask them some basic questions: “What do you think this phrase means? Why do you think that?” They answer. I urge them to write down what they’ve said. Then they ask me questions in return. All we’re doing is asking and answering, as best we can. Neither of us knows where this inquiry is going. We’re building something together. It doesn’t matter that I’m a teacher and they’re students. It doesn’t matter that they’re classified as having learning disabilities and I’m not. As we work together, the writing appears. The ability to answer our questions, to complete the task, exists in this dialogue. 

The problem is never that a student can’t write or that I can’t teach. The problem is that we understand ability as a quality possessed by an individual, rather than as a communal process. To abolish the gifted and talented, we’ll have to abolish the idea that abilities are private property. 

 

Willie Johnson is a writer and high school teacher based in New York. His essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The NationJacobin, and the Thomson Gale Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. He is a member of Red Bloom: A Communist Collective and the United Federation of Teachers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s