Disability Studies and Nationalism

Nationalism, George Orwell writes, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself—unshakeably certain of being in the right” (Orwell, Notes on Nationalism). Most importantly, nationalism points to the “habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled good or bad” (Orwell). In the last few decades, nationalism has reached its peak to the point that our actions and speech, even the way we interact with others is defined by the nation our ancestors originally come from. Nationalism has become an extremely powerful tool for determining the social and cultural strata individuals belong to, and our position as a good, or a bad citizen or an outsider is determined by where we come from, how we speak, the way we dress and eat, and many other superficial things. Nationalism has turned into yet another determiner of abled and disabled bodies, preventing a great percentage of its citizens from realizing their personal and professional potentials. Political programs and agendas of many world leaders are based on the eugenicist beliefs of the exclusion of immigrants and the concern “with what the nation would look like: surveying which women were bearing which men’s children, tabulating (and frequently fabricating) hereditary disabilities, asserting biological determinants of sexual and political behavior” (Ordover, American Eugenics 6). It is exactly on these eugenicist beliefs, as Nancy Ordover proves, that the nationalist and xenophobic ideas are based: nationalism has started to classify people as superior and inferior species fighting to sustain themselves in a world that caters only to the economically and socially fittest. What I find particularly interesting in Ordover’s article “National Hygiene” is her analysis of literacy tests that were used throughout the first half of the twentieth-century U.S. to determine the mental fitness of immigrants.

From the day of our birth, we are taught that literacy defines who we are and the ways we construct ourselves in respect to the environment, as well as the world itself. Almost every society nowadays conducts yearly studies on its literate and illiterate population. But where does the literacy begin, and where and when does it stop, if ever? If we look at Europe in the Middle Ages, one was considered illiterate if they did not possess the knowledge of Latin. What is more, books were mainly written in Latin; therefore, access to knowledge was very limited, and as always, your financial income determined whether or not you could be educated. Today, knowledge has become accessible on a global level through the Internet and other means of industrial-technological advances. I am wondering where the term literacy fits today. If you know how to read and write, and possess superb rhetorical skills, but do not know how to use computer, you will most probably be considered illiterate. Literacy has reshaped and redefined itself so much that to be literate nowadays implies having knowledge in almost every field; literacy has been changing through decades, assimilating our identities to the new demands of social and political orders. We now live in the age of digital literacy where everything is a result of digital production, where books are written and read on digital boxes, where handwriting has completely lost its purpose. At one instance, Ordover reflects upon a few eugenicist organizations, such as the Immigration Restriction League whose aim was to keep Irish and Italian people out of the East Coast, primarily Boston. Even if literacy tests have become an abolished immigration practice in many countries, we still have tests in foreign languages. Or what about all of the standard tests (SAT, GRE) given to high-school students, and undergraduate and graduate students who wish to pursue more knowledge through academia? If, for instance, we consider the GRE test, the fact is that this test has become a primary determiner of general knowledge in college students. The GRE test has become a tool in determining the level of intellectual/mental ability or disability students have. If you score low on the verbal comprehension exam, which is mainly comprised of archaic words that only a very few English speakers would know, does that mean that your ability to speak and comprehend a language is non-existent? Likewise, if you score low on a foreign language test in a country you wish to immigrate to, does that mean you are less intelligent? The answer, according to most people, is yes, because in order to have our identities acknowledged and to be integrated into a society that is not our own, our own culture—ironically so—needs to change and adapt to differences in order to serve the majority.