In a textbook example of whitewashing, if today's America knows Helen Keller (1880-1968) at all, it's the easy-to-digest image portrayed in the 1962 film, The Miracle Worker. Brave deaf and blind girl "overcomes" all obstacles to inspire everyone she meets. "The Helen Keller with whom most people are familiar is a stereotypical sexless paragon who was able to overcome deaf-blindness and work tirelessly to promote charities and organizations associated with other blind and deaf-blind individuals," writes Sally Rosenthal in Ragged Edge.
But, in 1909, Helen Keller became a socialist. Soon after, she emerged as a vocal supporter of the working class and traveled the nation to voice her opposition to war. "How can our rulers claim they are fighting to make the world safe for democracy," she asked, "while here in the U.S. Negroes may be massacred and their property burned?" Of course, as a woman with disabilities, she was patronized by the same mainstream media that previously championed her as a heroine. The editors of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote: "Her mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development."
Keller minced no words in her responses...one of which appeared in newspapers across America: "So long as I confine my activities to social services and the blind, the newspapers compliment me extravagantly, calling me an 'arch-priest of the sightless' and 'wonder woman'. But when I discuss poverty and the industrial system under which we live that is a different matter."
As the militaristic frenzy spread across America, Keller appeared at New York City's Carnegie Hall on January 5, 1916. "I have a word to say to my good friends, the editors, and others who are moved to pity me," she said. "Some people are grieved because they imagine I am in the hands of unscrupulous persons who lead me astray and persuade me to espouse unpopular causes and make me the mouthpiece of their propaganda. Now, let it be understood once and for all that I do not want their pity; I would not change places with one of them. I know what I am talking about. My sources of information are as good and reliable as anybody else's. I have papers and magazines from England, France, Germany and Austria that I can read myself. Not all the editors I have met can do that. Quite a number of them have to take their French and German second hand. No, I will not disparage the editors. They are an overworked, misunderstood class. Let them remember, though, that if I cannot see the fire at the end of their cigarettes, neither can they thread a needle in the dark. All I ask, gentlemen, is a fair field and no favor. I have entered the fight against preparedness and against the economic system under which we live. It is to be a fight to the finish, and I ask no quarter."
Keller's critique of the government propaganda campaign to stir up Americans to support U.S. intervention in the war remains more germane than ever. "Every modern war has had its root in exploitation" Keller said. "The Civil War was fought to decide whether the slaveholders of the South or the capitalists of the North should exploit the West. The Spanish-American War decided that the United States should exploit Cuba and the Philippines. The South African War decided that the British should exploit the diamond mines. The Russo-Japanese War decided that Japan should exploit Korea. The present war is to decide who shall exploit the Balkans, Turkey, Persia, Egypt, India, China, Africa. And we are whetting our sword to scare the victors into sharing the spoils with us. Now, the workers are not interested in the spoils; they will not get any of them anyway."
She urged workers-the ones who do the fighting and dying-to strike at the heart of America's drive toward war. "Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought," she declared. "Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction."
(In solidarity with Cindy Sheehan)
Mickey Z. is the author of several books including the soon-to-be-released 50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism, from which this essay is excerpted. Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at: www.mickeyz.net.
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