My friend John Young educates Zac Brown about people with dwarfism — and gets an apology for Brown’s degrading skit at Fenway Park last weekend. WCVB-TV (Channel 5) reports.
I’m excited to announce that the third edition of “Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes” is now available.
Published by Rodale in 2003 and favorably reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and Publishers Weekly, “Little People” can be purchased as a high-quality publish-on-demand version through the Harvard Book Store. The best part about this new edition is that it features a foreword by my daughter, Becky Kennedy, who reflects on what it has been like to live with dwarfism.
I’ll be speaking about “Little People” this Saturday at the Little People of America district conference in Portland, Maine.
President Trump, whose multifarious assaults on basic decency include mocking a disabled reporter in front of a crowd of hooting supporters, may have hit yet another new low. Neomi Rao, Trump’s choice to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is an enthusiastic supporter of dwarf-tossing. Rao’s peculiar obsession with the practice of throwing short-statured people against Velcro walls was reported late last week by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones.
As you might imagine, Rao, a veteran right-wing activist currently serving in the Trump administration, does not claim to take part in this humiliating and dangerous practice. Rather, she has argued on several occasions that dwarf-tossing should be a matter of choice, writing that it should be up to the tossee whether picking up a few bucks in some shady barroom is worth the risk to his health and his self-respect.
Rao explained her views several years ago at The Volokh Conspiracy, a libertarian legal blog, in which she criticized a ruling in France against a little person who wanted to take part in dwarf-tossing. Rao wrote that it “demonstrates how a substantive understanding of dignity can be used to coerce individuals by forcing upon them a particular understanding of dignity irrespective of their individual choices.” She added:
The issue is not whether laws prohibiting dwarf throwing, burqa wearing, prostitution, or pornography may be desirable social policy. Rather these examples demonstrate that the conception of dignity used to defend such policies is not that of human agency and freedom of choice, but rather represents a particular moral view of what dignity requires. These laws do not purport to maximize individual freedom, but instead regulate how individuals must behave in order to maintain dignity (and in the case of criminal prohibitions, stay out of jail).
The individual-rights argument may seem appealing. But it ignores all kinds of activities that society has decided to ban or regulate in order to protect not just the person taking part in those activities but also the rest of us — prostitution, as Rao notes, as well as drug use, cockfighting, underage drinking, casino gambling (until recently), practicing medicine without a license, and driving on the wrong side of the street. So it is with dwarf-tossing, which not only puts the person being tossed at risk of injury because of the spinal abnormalities present in most forms of dwarfism but also places others with dwarfism in harm’s way by normalizing a practice that should be considered beyond the pale.
I have skin in this game, though I hardly consider it a game. Our daughter, Rebecca, has achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. My 2003 book, “Little People,” examines the culture and history of the dwarfism. Among the people I interviewed was Doyle Harris, a dispatcher at the University of Louisville and a former official with Little People of America, an organization for dwarfs and their families. As I wrote in the book:
Nearly twenty years ago, he [Harris] and some friends were waiting outside a Louisville nightclub. It was right around the time that dwarf-tossing — an Australian import that rears its ugly head wherever drunk, stupid men in their twenties gather — had first come to the attention of the media. “One of these guys came out — he was a little inebriated — and he went, ‘Oh, they’re going to have dwarf-tossing tonight. Well, let me practice,'” Harris recalled. “And the next thing I know, the guy literally picks me up and throws me out onto the grass. It was not a good situation. It was very demeaning to me. I was in fairly nice clothes, I was looking to go out, and I’m out in the grass, rolling around, getting grass stains and muddy. It was totally against my will.”
Florida, at one time the locus of dwarf-tossing in the United States, banned the practice in 1989. Incredibly, a state legislator proposed lifting the ban in 2011, dredging up the tiresome freedom-of-choice argument. As Angela Van Etten, a lawyer with dwarfism whose work helped lead to the original ban, wrote in The Huffington Post: “Dwarf tossing appeals to a lower instinct in people and creates a hostile environment in which Little People are disrespected and ridiculed. It legitimizes bully behavior.”
Exactly. Yet we now live in an environment in which bullying is not only condoned but indulged in by the president. In that respect, Neomi Rao seems like the perfect Trump appointment. According to Mother Jones, in addition to her fervor for dwarf-tossing, she holds retrograde views on LGBTQ rights and affirmative action and is an anti-regulation zealot. She should not be confirmed. But who will stop her?
There is so much to think about following President Trump’s illegal, un-American ban on immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries. I’ll be attending the Copley Square rally later today that’s being organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and will write about it for WGBH News.
For now, let me comment on a small piece of this. As I’m sure you know, Trump issued his executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day, thus turning the nation’s back on a new generation of refugees at the same time that he was commemorating one of history’s most terrible events. And his statement regarding the Holocaust made no mention of the Jews because, you know, others suffered too.
In my first book, “Little People,” I explored a longstanding belief among people in the dwarfism community that Hitler rounded up all the dwarfs and had them killed. What I found actually reinforced the uniquely Jewish character of the Holocaust. In fact, dwarfs were largely left alone by the Nazis. Some may have been caught up in Hitler’s campaign to eradicate people with severe disabilities, but most people with dwarfism are healthy and ambulatory, and thus did not run afoul of the Nazi killing machine.
Members of the Ovitz family — dwarf entertainers from Hungary — even recalled being helped onto trains by German soldiers. But then it was discovered that they were Jews. They were shipped off to Auschwitz, where they became the subjects of Josef Mengele’s unimaginably cruel experiments. Incredibly, all of them survived.
You can read my chapter on dwarfs and the Holocaust by clicking here.
We are living through very dark times.
I’ll be speaking at TEDxLowell this Sunday, April 27, on “Telling the Local Story: The Fate of Community Journalism in a Time of Cultural Upheaval.” Essentially I’ll be talking about what led me to write “The Wired City” as well as what’s next for local news. You can check out the slides for my presentation above.
It looks like a great slate of presenters. I’m especially looking forward to hearing from Becky Curran, a motivational speaker with dwarfism, who’ll talk about “The Media’s Perception of Little People and the Disability Community.” Way back in 2003 or ’04, I spoke about my first book, “Little People,” at Providence College. Becky was a student at PC and took part in the discussion.
Becky and I will be part of Session 1 at TEDxLowell, which will be held from 1 to 4:30 p.m. The event will take place at the United Teen Equality Center, located in downtown Lowell at 34 Hurd St. There is an admission fee; I hope that won’t dissuade you from dropping by.
Two people with dwarfism are running the Boston Marathon tomorrow, and today’s Boston Globe profiles them in a front-page feature. Globe reporter David Abel interviews Juli Windsor, who lives in the South End, and John Young, a teacher from Salem. His story is accompanied by a terrific video of Windsor produced by Thea Breite.
I don’t know Windsor, but I do know Young. He and his wife, Sue, and their son, Owen, are fixtures at Little People of America events, and we ran into them at a district conference in North Conway just a few weeks ago. Here is his blog. Young tells Abel:
The people who support and encourage me are the ones that get me to the starting line, while the ones who doubt or ridicule me are the ones that carry me to the finish line. Whenever I really start to hurt, I think of someone laughing, pointing, and saying, “You can’t do that!” and it seems to give me the strength to carry on.
Best of luck to Juli and John!
The Daily Mail has published a lengthy excerpt from a new book about the Ovitz family, a troupe of seven dwarf entertainers from Hungary who were shipped off to Auschwitz and subjected to horrendous torture at the hands of Josef Mengele after it was discovered that they were Jewish.
The book, “Giants: The Dwarfs Of Auschwitz,” was written by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev. It appears to be an extension of an earlier book by the two called “In Our Hearts We Were Giants: The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe.” (Thanks to Fred Short for pointing me to this.)
I wrote about the Ovitzes in my book about dwarfism, “Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes.” There’s a longish section about them toward the end of Chapter 4. I had seen a documentary about the Ovitzes at the Little People of America national conference in 2002, which prompted me to do some additional research.
One of my findings was that Nazis, contrary to what many people within the dwarf community believed, had not targeted people with dwarfism for elimination — unless they were Jews. Indeed, what happened to the Ovitzes underscored the uniquely Jewish nature of the Holocaust.
In the documentary, “Liebe Perla” (“Dear Perla”), Perla Ovtiz recalls that she and her family had continued to tour Europe and perform even after the outbreak of World War II. She remembers a time before their Jewish identity was discovered when “the Nazis gave us a hand, lifted us onto the packed train and helped us find some space.”
Though being Jews landed them in Auschwitz, being dwarfs kept them alive, as Mengele wanted to keep them around for his sick experiments. Another Jewish dwarf, Alexander Katan, was not so lucky. At the Mauthausen concentration camp, he was killed, and his flesh was stripped off his skeleton so that it could be displayed. Koren and Negev write that the Ovitzes feared a similar fate.
Incredibly, well into her later years of life Perla Ovitz remained on some level grateful that Mengele had saved her and her siblings. In “Liebe Perle,” she tells the filmmaker that she cried when she learned Mengele had died in Uruguay. “I can’t say anything bad about him,” she says. Truly a horrible and complicated tale.
One day in the summer of 2003 I found myself in a hotel lobby, engaged in an intense conversation with Andrew Solomon. His book on depression, “The Noonday Demon,” had won the National Book Award. Now he was working on a new project — about families with children who were so different from their parents that they called into question the very meaning of identity.
Solomon wanted to interview me because our daughter, Becky, has achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. She had survived a rather harrowing infancy during which her too-small airways left her struggling for survival. She needed a tracheotomy, oxygen tanks and home nursing until she was nearly 3 years old …
I’m pretty excited about this. Nine years ago Andrew Solomon, winner of the National Book Award, blurbed my book on dwarfism, “Little People.” He also interviewed me at the 2003 Little People of America conference for his next project — a book about families whose children were different from their parents, whether they be disabled, gay or suffering from mental illness, to name just a few examples.
That project — “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity” — has just been published, and has been the object of rapturous reviews. The New York Times alone has published two raves (here and here) as well as a feature on Solomon and his own family. And it turns out that I made the cut, as he both quotes from our conversation and cites “Little People” in several spots.
Naturally, I’m trying to figure out how this might benefit “Little People.” Although it’s officially out of print, I sell a high-quality self-published paperback. (You can read about how that came about in a piece I wrote for Nieman Reports.) So far I’ve taken a few small steps: I’ve removed the free online edition (except for the Introduction and Chapter One) and made it easier to buy a copy. As you can see in the right-hand column, I’ve pumped up its presence on Media Nation. And I’m going to try Google ads again, at least through Christmas.
Anyone have any other ideas? Are there any independent bookstores in the area that would be interested in carrying it?
Tomorrow I’ll be part of a panel on e-books being organized in Boston by the Association of College and Research Libraries. We’re supposed to talk about what we like and don’t like about them, and I can do that. But what I really hope to discuss is the place of e-books in a world in which what we used to think of as public space is increasingly being turned over to private, profit-making entities.
Let me explain what I mean with a couple of non-book examples.
In 2003 I bestowed a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award on Crossgates Mall, in the Albany, N.Y., suburb of Colonie, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing a mildly worded T-shirt in protest of the war in Iraq. The protester — actually, he was just having a bite to eat in the food court after picking up his purchase from the mall’s T-shirt store — was quickly released.
But there’s almost no chance he would have been arrested if he’d been hanging out in the village square rather than a mall. The trouble is that in too many cities and towns, we no longer have a village square except in the form of enclosed spaces owned by profit-seeking corporations. What happened to that protester said a lot more about our privatized idea of community than it does about that one particular incident.
In 2008 the Beverly Citizen, a weekly newspaper on Boston’s North Shore owned by GateHouse Media, discovered what can happen when you turn over some of your publishing operations to Google. The Citizen had posted a video of the annual Fourth of July “Horribles” parade, which included an offensive float that featured a giant, water-squirting penis. The float mocked an alleged “pregnancy pact” involving girls at Gloucester High School, a much-hyped story that turned out to be not quite true.
Although the Citizen’s judgment in posting the video could be questioned, there was no doubt that the float was newsworthy, as it had been seen by hundreds of people attending the parade. Yet Google-owned YouTube, which GateHouse was using as a video-publishing platform, took it down without any explanation. It would be as though a printing company refused to publish a particular edition of newspaper on the grounds that it didn’t like the content. YouTube is an incredibly flexible tool for video journalism. But Google has its own agenda, and hosting content that might offend someone is bad for business.
What’s that got to do with e-books? A physical book, once printed, enters a public sphere of a sort, especially if it’s purchased by a library. But an e-book remains largely under the control of the corporation that distributed it — most likely Amazon, Apple or Barnes & Noble.
We all remember those horror stories from a few years ago when some books people had purchased suddenly disappeared from their Kindles because Amazon was involved in a rights dispute. (Ironically, the books included George Orwell’s “1984.”) In some cases, students lost books they needed for school, along with their notes.
More recently, Apple refused to carry in its iTunes store an e-book by Seth Godin called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” The reason: Godin included favorable mentions of — and links to — other e-books that were available only through Amazon. “We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores … and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing,” Godin wrote.
And I’m not even getting into the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of alleged price-fixing by Apple and several leading book publishers.
Another concern I have involves the rights of authors. Several years ago Rodale, the publisher of my first book, “Little People,” reassigned all rights to me after the book had reached the end of its natural life. I published the full text on the Web, which led to my hometown high school’s adopting it as its summer read — which in turn pushed me to create a self-published paperback edition with the help of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “Little People” has had a pretty nice second life for an out-of-print book. (I wrote about the experience recently for Nieman Reports.)
But now that e-books and e-readers have become ubiquitous, I’m worried that publishers will simply have no incentive to let authors benefit from the full rights to their own work. If a publisher can make a little bit of money by selling a few e-copies each year, then it might just decide to keep those rights to itself. This is long-tail economics for the benefit of corporations, not authors.
And have you ever tried to lend an e-book to someone?
There is a lot to like about e-books. As someone with terrible eyesight, I like being able to adjust the type to my own preference and use my laptop’s or iPhone’s backlighting rather than depend on iffy room lighting. And my iPhone, unlike whatever book I might be reading, is always with me.
But when unaccountable corporate interests maintain control over what shall take place in the village square, what content shall be deemed suitable for public consumption and what rights the authors and even the purchasers of books shall have, we have put our culture at risk in ways we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago.