Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., may be the youngest member of Congress, but he's already racking up a number of scandals that could rival those of his veteran peers.
It's that he felt compelled to summon these false heroic narratives about his disability that should cause nondisabled folks to reflect on the ecosystem we've created.
According to a report by Sara Luterman at The Nation, in addition to maybe having helped to incite the armed riots at the U.S. Capitol and having visited Hitler's vacation home, it appears he flat-out lied about having a thriving real estate business before he ran for Congress and about having been accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy before the accident that partly paralyzed him. In addition, he was reported to have fabricated stories about having trained for the Paralympics.
We could sit here all day and analyze Cawthorn's deceitful actions toward the public he took an oath to serve. But it's that he felt compelled to summon these false heroic narratives about his disability that should cause nondisabled folks to reflect on the ecosystem we've created, an ecosystem that allows Cawthorn's gigantic lies to thrive.
Let this be an opportunity for nondisabled people to realize that the disability inspiration fable was created only to make them feel comfortable about their own ableism. Because while his political scandals include a lot of embarrassing details, they reveal far more about nondisabled people and culture than they do about him.
"None of this would be possible if the public weren't complicit in perpetuating ableism," disability rights activist and writer Imani Barbarin told me. Cawthorn, she said, "is doing nothing but benefiting from the decadeslong tradition of using people's inherent ableism to separate who he is from his actions using disability."
"None of this would be possible if the public weren't complicit in perpetuating ableism."
She said "nondisabled people are easy to manipulate" because disability tends to be flattened when it's represented. "Because the media consistently presents disabled people as one-dimensional creatures whose only existence is to inspire, he can ride the coattails of those representations to present an air of innocence without much pushback."
From the conversations I've had with disability rights activists, it seems the grift Cawthorn was running wasn't fooling many members of the disabled community. Luterman reports that among Paralympic athletes, Cawthorn was more of a punchline than an inspiration.
During the 2020 Republican National Convention, disability Twitter, which assembles under the hashtag #CripTheVote, reacted with shock when Cawthorn made himself stand during the national anthem (he uses a wheelchair) because it was perceived as being uniquely performative for a nondisabled audience.
It's ableist to expect people who are disabled to stand for an anthem, which is why the announcement to "stand if you are able" at the inauguration of President Joe Biden was noted by so many people in the community. Even though the bar remains far too low, it's still unusual to see basic inclusion of disability in film and TV — and especially in government.
People with disabilities are expected to prioritize the comfort and feelings of people without disabilities so often that most nondisabled people don't even notice that there are major and harmful flaws in the representation of disability that has been fed to them.
If representation of people with disabilities made room for a person's individual humanity, fake stories like the ones carefully scripted by Cawthorn wouldn't be appealing to the mass public.
People with disabilities have to choose between being accepted or being human. Ableism denies the possibility for both.
As long as we invalidate bodies that don't fit into an arbitrary definition of "normal," people with disabilities have to choose between being accepted or being human. Ableism denies the possibility for both.
It's also impossible to ignore that the tall tales Cawthorn felt the need to produce were intimately bound up with idealized notions of masculinity, from financial success to military prowess to athletic skill. This makes sense, though; his perfectly curated image, filtered through the lens of the quintessential conservative values of male strength and supremacy, feels perfectly suited to the conventions of a party that enlisted a man who openly mocks disabled men as being weak.
During his presidential campaign in 2015, Donald Trump ridiculed the political columnist Charles Krauthammer, who had the same partial paralysis as Cawthorn, on NBC News. And how else could Cawthorn exist in the GOP reality, with an openly ableist man like Trump in charge of the Republican Party?
While nothing justifies lying to the American people, there's deep tragedy in Cawthorn's attempt to earn approval from a party uninterested in getting his. The Cawthorn debacle therefore gives nondisabled people a compelling opportunity to confront the myth of the "good disabled person," a common stereotype that paints people with disabilities as delicate and unable to do any harm.
This is a trope invented by people without disabilities to feel more comfortable about people with disabilities. One group is denied its humanity in the service of the comfort of the other, and it limits the connection and intimacy that could otherwise flourish between the communities. Cawthorn's self-serving manipulation of reality just presents a more complicated and nuanced alternative to that myth.
While I'm not in the business of finding any silver linings to atrocious scandals, perhaps more nondisabled people could realize how easily they were fooled into believing Cawthorn's litany of lies, finally end their subscription to the damaging disability inspiration narrative and ask themselves why they needed it in the first place.