In his Essay on Man Ernst Cassirer referred to Helen Keller as an example of humans’ ability to abstract symbols from signals, as opposed to animals, who understand merely signals (I know, I know: he was speciesist; all animals are equal; but is it possible that some animals are more equal than others?).
I remembered an essay I’d read of Hellen Keller’s, when I was in the seventh grade, titled something like “If I had Three Days to See and Hear,” in which she describes imaginary trips to the Louvre and symphony recitals better than most people I’ve read and/or known who actually have seen and heard these things many times more than three days’ worth. So I took a break to look her up on the ol’ Information Superhighway — beware the road-kill — and saw this passage below.
Honestly, I had no idea she was a radical socialist, feminist, co-founder of the ACLU, etc. etc. etc. Oh, if only I hadn’t been to school, I might have acquired a genuine education!
Note the grotesque attacks upon her “condition” after she came out as a naughty deaf-blind girl, not the kind you’d “take home to meet the folks.” Before I became an apocalyptic Baby Doomer (seven billion is an awful amount of people to be on one depleted planet. Anyone volunteer to leave? Hell, I will), I believed that everyone had the right to food and shelter, etc. as they did in any tribal society I’ve ever read about. But though I despise patriarchy and its hierarchies, believing as the Sioux and others seemed to have, that the more one achieves or is capable of achieving, the greater one’s responsibility to the tribe, respect and honor being the only rewards worth receiving, I did not, do not and never will believe that Pee-Cee crap about how everyone is “special” and that we’re all “equal” (in ability? conviction? hope? hours logged before Dr. Phil and Oprah?). Bullshit. Some people are just plain imbeciles and Self-loathing And Venal Enablers of the System (SLAVES), such as the newspaper columnist mentioned below, and some people are just plain old superior, Ms. Keller being a case in point:
Keller went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. She is remembered as an advocate for people with disabilities, amid numerous other causes. She was a suffragist, a pacifist, an opponent of Woodrow Wilson, a radical socialist and a birth control supporter. In 1915 she and George Kessler founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization. This organization is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. In 1920 she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Keller traveled to 40 some-odd countries with [her teacher/companion, Annie] Sullivan, making several trips to Japan and becoming a favorite of the Japanese people. Keller met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with many famous figures, including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. Keller and Twain were both considered radicals at the beginning of the 20th century, and as a consequence, their political views have been forgotten or glossed over in popular perception.
Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909 to 1921. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency.
Newspaper columnists who had praised her courage and intelligence before she expressed her socialist views now called attention to her disabilities. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.” Keller responded to that editor, referring to having met him before he knew of her political views:
“At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him. … Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.”
Keller joined the Industrial Workers of the World (known as the IWW or the Wobblies) in 1912, saying that parliamentary socialism was “sinking in the political bog”. She wrote for the IWW between 1916 and 1918. In Why I Became an IWW, Keller explained that her motivation for activism came in part from her concern about blindness and other disabilities:
I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness.
The last sentence refers to prostitution and syphilis, the former a frequent cause of the latter, and the latter a leading cause of blindness. In the same interview, Keller also cited the 1912 strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts for instigating her support of socialism.
It must be noted that Ms. Keller came from a prominent, wealthy Southern family. Her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army. So I guess she was just “slumming it,” you know, one of those parlor pinks. She had all the advantages wealth and position can confer, and made a ton of money off her many books and essays as well. It’s not like she was stressed-out like we American consumers who are too harried by the “hectic demands of modern life” to concern ourselves with politics.
Hellen Keller sure as hell wasn’t overwhelmed with the proliferation of junk media and sensory over-load. I mean, really, it’s not like she was disadvantaged or anything, like the rest of us…