Peter Singer’s “Tribute” to Harriet Johnson – and Paul Longmore’s Response

On December 28th, the NY Times Magazine published an edition titled “The Lives They Lived,” which consisted of 24 essays about notable people who passed away in 2008. One of the individuals selected for inclusion in the issue was disability rights lawyer/activist/writer/lecturer Harriet McBryde Johnson.

Not long after that, Paul Longmore, historian and Director of the Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University, wrote a message to a large number of people in his address book:

Colleagues and Friends:

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine carried obituaries on people who died during 2008. One of the obituaries was about Harriet McBryde Johnson, disability rights campaigner and challenger of philosopher Peter Singer. Yet the Times had Singer write that obituary. I sent the letter below to the editor a few minutes ago. I urge everyone who regarded Harriet as one of our most important leaders to register their outrage.

As I am sure others did, I waited for the NY Times Magazine to print Longmore’s letter. The wait was in vain. Last Sunday, two responses to Singer were published, and I don’t want to take away from the authors, who made some good points. But they weren’t the points made in the letter submitted by Longmore, whose critique is blunt and brutal. Here it is, published with permission:

Having Peter Singer write an obituary about Harriet McBryde Johnson seems so reassuring. We can have a calm, rational, even friendly discussion about “killing” people with disabilities. That’s Mr. Singer’s word and that’s his ethical and legal position. He thinks parents should have the right to have their disabled babies killed. And that’s what my comrade in disability rights activism Harriet fiercely opposed. In this short piece, Mr. Singer demonstrates that while he learned a couple of things about the real lives of people with disabilities from his encounters with Harriet, he still does not understand the meanings and values and imperatives of her life, or, for that matter, the lives of the rest of us who live with significant disabilities. If he did, he wouldn’t question surveys which find “that people living with disabilities show a level of satisfaction with their lives that is not very different from that of people who are not disabled.” And though the magazine’s editors published a couple of Harriet’s articles, you expose your failure to understand her and her message by offensively headlining this piece “Happy Nevertheless.” In the end, Mr. Singer still thinks that Harriet’s parents should have been able to prevent her from living her life, from having her life at all, a life that championed the dignity and value of all people’s’ lives. So the Times, which a long time ago editorialized in favor of a disabled person’s right to have a doctor help her commit suicide (“Condemned to Life,” April 24, 1986), gives Mr. Singer the last word in his debate with Harriet and enables him portray himself as open-minded, tolerant, and humane. Meanwhile, we who mourn the loss of our Harriet must regard this obituary as not just falsifying but obscene.

A few weeks ago, there was an article saying that the print version of the NY Times could actually come to an end within the next year. This produced a lot of warning calls from (big surprise) professional journalists that our society could suffer without the benefit of classically trained journalists.

Me, I’m not convinced. I don’t see where the NY Times or other big newspaper has really ever “gotten” disability. Maybe it’s time to try something new. –Stephen Drake

5 thoughts on “Peter Singer’s “Tribute” to Harriet Johnson – and Paul Longmore’s Response

  1. Gosh, Longmore is such a great writer and historian. His letter perfectly sums up how badly the the much heralded NYT continues to miss the point in terms of disability. As to the death of the print version of the NYT, who cares. I do not know a single person that buys a newspaper more than once or twice a year. In fact the only time I buy the NYT is when I plan to have a fire in my wood burning stove.

  2. The New York Times says “All the news that’s fit to print.” As in eugenically fit?

    As in the advocate of killing us having the last word on one of the strongest & most eloquent fighters for our lives and wellbeing?

    It always makes me laugh when someone says the New York Times is “liberal.”

    Although it rings its expensively manicured hands every once in a while, it hasn’t got a real drop of
    –disability consciousness
    –class consciousness
    –race consciousness
    –global poor consciousness
    et cetera
    in its ink.

    Ha, ha, the verification word for this comment is “croole.”

    I know Harriet McBJ didn’t believe in God, so apologies…but I wonder if this is God’s comment on the matter?

  3. I forgot where I read the comment but I read that Paul Longmore should be the person that writes the obituary for Peter Singer in the NYT. Revenge can be sweet.

  4. Odd. Of all the people to write her obituary they pick THAT FELLOW?!

    I did like her take on their meeting. She didn’t have much malace for him even though she totally disagreed with his point of view.

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