My Friend Ishmael, the Republican

I have a friend who’s a Republican, which is exceedingly befuddling to me. I can’t fathom why anybody’s a Republican these days—especially this guy, who’s as disabled as I am, perhaps more so. 

For our purposes here today, I feel compelled to give my friend a pseudonym. He probably wouldn’t care if I used his real name. He’s out of the closet when it comes to being a Republican. He wears it on his sleeve. But accusing someone of being a Republican seems like a mighty harsh charge, even if it’s true. I don’t feel I have the license to disparage anyone publicly like that, especially a friend. 

And who knows, maybe someday he’ll come to his senses and change his mind. If so, I’d like him to be able to make a clean break. If he ever wants to erase all traces of his Republican past, I wouldn’t want to be in any way responsible for making that as onerous and painful for him as getting rid of a hideous tattoo.

So I am going to call my friend Ishmael. And before we proceed any further, Ishmael would probably insist that I make it clear to you that even though he is a solid Republican, he strongly disagrees with the direction the squatter currently occupying the White House is taking things. In the interest of fairness, I will do that. We all have the right to define ourselves how we wish to be defined. 

But I would argue that you can’t forsake the squatter and still be a Republican. Ishmael thinks the squatter is a cement-headed racist who drastically distorts what the GOP is all about. That’s funny, because I think the squatter is a cement-headed racist who precisely symbolizes what the GOP is all about. Ishmael worries that the squatter may very well destroy the Republican Party. That’s funny, too, because that’s the only thing I like about the squatter. It’s the only thing about him that gives me hope.

Anyway, Ishmael is wise and funny. He’s a lawyer. Part of what he does is help people straighten out their Social Security problems. He lives in New York City. He’s about ten years younger than me. And, like me, he rides around in a motorized wheelchair and employs a crew of people to help him get dressed and out of bed, go to the bathroom, et cetera. 

Though Ishmael and I live in different states, the wages of our workers are paid by state programs created to help disabled folks live in the community rather than in institutions. So the services of our workers don’t cost us anything except what we pay in state taxes, like everyone. We could never afford to pay for all the help we need out of our own pockets. Ishmael has a crew member with him 24/7.

I think all this community cooperation paid for by public funds is the kind of thing Republicanism vehemently wants to squash. It’s as socialist as public schools. And we all know what Republicans would like to do to them. 

To me, a true Republican who subscribes to the party’s greed creed would consider a program that pays for our support crews to be another unnecessary intrusion by big government. The greed creed would shirk off any responsibility for getting guys like Ishmael and me out of bed, shuffling this off to charities and faith-based organizations.

So Ishmael, as much as I love him, comes off to me politically as the disabled equivalent of the Log Cabin Republicans—which, according to its website, is “the nation’s original and largest organization representing LGBT conservatives.” Its oxymoronic mission is to “work to make the Republican Party more inclusive, particularly on LGBT issues.” 

But, as I see it, homophobia is an indispensable ingredient for successfully fertilizing the soil of cynicism, paranoia, and arrogance in which Republicanism is rooted. If you remove it, the whole thing dies.

To me, a true Republican who subscribes to the party’s greed creed would consider a program that pays for our support crews to be another unnecessary intrusion by big government.

Ishmael would say au contraire. Just as the Log Cabin Republicans maintain that opposing equality for LGBTQ people is “inconsistent with the GOP’s core principles,” Ishmael would argue that true Republicanism isn’t incompatible with giving a flying damn about how disabled folks like us get out of bed. He’d remind me that Republican President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When I hear that—or when I hear Republicans defend their civil rights record by proudly proclaiming the GOP to be “the party of Lincoln”—it makes me laugh. 

So what if Bush did one right thing in signing the ADA? He did plenty of bad things to atone for his lapse—including appointing Clarence Thomas, who has done everything in his power to undermine the act and its protections.

Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion in the 1999 case of Olmstead vs. L.C. and E.W., in which the court ruled that it was a violation of the ADA for state governments to automatically confine disabled people to institutions rather than support them to live in their homes and communities. “By adopting such a broad view of discrimination,” he sniffed, “the majority drains the term of any meaning other than as a proxy for decisions disapproved of by this Court.”

Ishmael might well concede to me on this point. But I’ve heard him say that, most of all, his dedication to Republicanism is reaffirmed by the tidal wave of crap he and other disabled folks are hit with when dealing with government-run programs including Medicaid and Social Security.

I certainly can’t argue with him about that. There isn’t a disabled man, woman, or child alive who doesn’t have a horror story of that genre. Dealing with bureaucracies is often as surreal as it would be to go into a place of business that doesn’t want customers. You get the opposite of the hard sell. You get the hard repel. 

Imagine going to a restaurant and having a surly maître d’ ask, “What the hell do you want?” You say you want dinner. The maître d’ grumbles and huffs and presents you with a thirty-page application that you must fill out and have notarized and then submit along with a prescription from your doctor and then you’ll receive notification within 190 business days as to whether or not you’ve been approved to receive dinner. 

And then the maître d’ turns his back and resumes playing computer solitaire, hoping you’ll just go away. But if your choices in life are either eat dinner at this restaurant or starve, you’ll disdainfully jump through all those hoops. And it’s a good bet that somewhere along the line your dinner application will get “lost” and you’ll have to start all over. Either that or you’ll be denied and you’ll have to spend many more months appealing. 

That’s how it feels to wrestle with bureaucracies at their most belligerent and demeaning. It’s exhausting. Bureaucracies often don’t want customers because they think customers make the cash flow out rather than in. So Ishmael wonders why anyone would want to create more of them and perpetuate that degrading customer service model. That’s why he’s deeply skeptical about ideas like Medicare for All.

Ishmael has a point, but I just can’t see how in the hell Republicanism is the antidote.

At least now we have a bureaucracy to wrestle with. At least we’re at the table, though we may be seated at the most distant end. 

The reason Ishmael and I need the public programs to make sure our armpits get washed is that the greed creed doesn’t give a damn whether or not guys like us get our armpits washed because there’s no profit in it. Profit potential is the only thing that motivates the greed creed. If Ishmael and I have to wait for the omnipotent free market to get inspired to help us wash our armpits, we’ll be smelling like dead horses mighty fast.

Of course nobody thinks callous, stingy bureaucracies are the be-all and end-all. The next step is to pound away at them until they straighten out and behave. We have to demand that they change their culture to one that treats all customers respectfully and fairly. 

And I like this Medicare for All idea. It’s the “for All” part that really has a ring to it. I like the idea of only needing a pulse to qualify to receive a public service. That in itself would help immensely because it declaws the most hostile bureaucratic gatekeepers quite a bit. We customers don’t have to do so many painful contortions to prove ourselves worthy of their attention. It takes away much of their leverage.

And when we’re all in it together, I think it would be a lot harder for bureaucratic bullying to prevail. Bullies like to work in isolation. They like to jump on those who have been separated from the protection of the pack. But if we all have something at stake in the mission of a public service agency, we’ll all know and care much more about how things turn out. We’ll all have to have each other’s backs and stand up to abuse. To mistreat one is to mistreat all.

There’s one other thing about Ishmael that I can’t understand for the life of me. He’s a Yankees fan. How can anyone possibly be one of those? But even after that, we’re still friends.

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