Is Trig Palin really a “prop”?

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The fallout continues from the recent despicable post by Jack Stuef on the well-known liberal blog Wonkette, mocking Sarah Palin’s son Trig, who has Down syndrome. Even after the addition of a pre-pended apology and some cleaning up, the post remains deeply reprehensible. [Update 5 p.m.: The post has now been deleted, Wonkette finally having given up defending it after three full days. Although the apology is merely for “poor comedic judgment.”]

But rather than piling on regarding the disgusting aspects of it, I’m interested in the defense which Stuef and Wonkette continue to lean on, as justifying the mockery of a three-year child with a mental handicap. The defense is simply this: Sarah Palin uses Trig as a prop. (Andrew Sullivan also uses this justification for his warped campaign to disprove Sarah Palin’s maternity of Trig.)

The key question is the following: Would they be saying this if Trig Palin did not have Down syndrome? I think that the answer is a clear no. You might choose to accuse Sarah Palin of using all of her children together — indeed her entire family — as props, if you like. She is certainly always surrounded by them and has not tried to keep them out of view of the cameras. Some of them have done interviews and taken on quite public roles. But there is simply no reason to single out Trig Palin as prop, other than the fact that he has Down syndrome. When he was first seen, in 2008, he was an infant. What mother would or should be separated by a great distance from her infant? In fact, having the newly-born Trig around was far more natural than having the rest of the family around. He is even now only three years old, and rightly near his mother, even when cameras are rolling. What is so weird about that?

The answer is only that he has Down syndrome. Seeing a child with Down syndrome not being hidden away in shame, but instead proudly held in the limelight by his mother and family fills quite a lot of people with joy. It warms hearts, especially the hearts of people who know Down syndrome people and the kind of obstacles and stigma they face. By the same token, it riles certain people who, for bitter ideological reasons, hate to see people’s hearts being warmed by anything Sarah Palin does. If people are being moved in some way by seeing Sarah Palin hold her son Trig, then therefore he must be a prop. The more of an emotional response they see to Trig’s presence, the more they revile him based on their view of his mother.

It isn’t new, as already mentioned; this all goes back to Palin’s first appearance on the national scene with her baby in 2008. And in the fall of 2008, I wrote something addressing the subject, which I’m going to reproduce below. But since it’s long, I’ll summarize the point of it here: In days not long gone by, babies with Down syndrome would often be separated from their mothers and families shortly after birth, and institutionalized. The kind way of explaining it is that it was not commonly believed that they could be cared for at home. The fact of having a Down syndrome child (or sibling) was often shrouded in secrecy and shame. I think it would be overly sanguine to say that the days of shame are over. (In fact, the kind of mockery on display in the Wonkette post demonstrates that in some ways things have not changed.) However, now it is far more commonly believed that children with Down syndrome will thrive best at home with their families, and as productive members of society. There is a much more positive view of their ability to learn, to be well adjusted, and then as adults to hold down real jobs and be cherished in their communities. But it is precisely because of the tragedies of the past, and the continued obstacles of the present, that some react so warmly to seeing someone like Trig on TV and in the newspaper. It’s a good thing. It’s not a political thing. Many people feel great about seeing Trig who would probably not vote for his mother. The fact that seeing theses good feelings infuriates the likes of Stuef and Sullivan is sad, and it says more about them than anything else.

At slightly greater and more personal length, this is what I wrote two and a half odd years ago:

A Note on Sarah and Trig (Paxson Van) Palin (October 29th, 2008)

Since seeing Sarah Palin on stage at the GOP convention, proudly holding her infant son Trig, I’ve been meaning to write a little bit about how it struck me. I’ve put it off because I don’t usually get too personal in this space, and this is a little personal for me.

For some years I worked with mentally handicapped (or insert whatever term is de rigueur where you live) adults, mainly in a variety of group home environments. These were houses in ordinary communities where these people lived with varying degrees of assistance and care, provided by people like me. (A whole lot of very left wing and earthy-crunchy people did this kind of work, in my experience, but that’s a whole other story.) For many of the adults in these residences, this was the first time they had ever lived in an ordinary community. Many of them had been born in a time when parents might be told that a child with mental retardation, like Down Syndrome, was beyond being cared for at home. This resulted in the institutionalization of these children. At a certain point, great public scandal exposed the terrible conditions common in these institutions, and the effort began to move people to places where they could live with greater normality and hopefully be treated with more dignity.

So when I worked with some of these individuals they had been in a group home for a period of years, though their more formative years were in institutions, where they would at times have witnessed and been victim to varying degrees of neglect, coercion and outright horror. In the group home environment, one of the things the staff would do would be to encourage and facilitate family contact. Generally, no encouragement was necessary when it came to the residents themselves — they were always extremely eager to call or to visit with their family. Anger towards a parent or other family member over having been institutionalized was not something that I witnessed in the people with whom I worked. But that is not to say that their feelings were uncomplicated, either. There was an entire world of hurt and heartbreak there, albeit inexpressible for most. I remember a guy named Jim — in his forties, with Down Syndrome — whose face always brightened when the subject of his “mama” came up. She lived in Las Vegas, and it seemed the greatest event of his lifetime had been his first trip out there on a plane to visit her and see some of his siblings, after he was already an adult and had been released from the institution to the group home. He would take out his photo album and point to people and name them and tell stories of the trip (in his staccato one or two word sentences). He was the picture of happiness when doing this. Yet, there were times when we found some of his precious photographs in the garbage. He had ripped them up into tiny pieces and wrapped them many times in plastic bags, and stuffed them to the bottom of the trash. “Why?”, we’d have to ask. He had no answer beyond “Garbage!” and a dismissive wave.

Jim was a nice guy. He loved country music, the World Wrestling Federation and the occasional Budweiser. Although he had his difficult idiosyncrasies (and don’t we all), he was capable of great kindness to others and he worked with the efficiency of a demon at everything he did. Seeing whatever he saw in that institution had not made him fearful and violent (though not all were so resilient). I remember a woman named Dorothy too — in her sixties when I knew her. She didn’t have Down Syndrome but some accident at birth had caused some damage and she had also lived most of her life in an institution. But no coarseness had taken root in her personality. She would admonish others (sometimes staff) for the bad words they used with a sarcastic “Nice talk!” I took her to visit her mother often, in an old walk-up apartment where we’d drink Sanka and eat dry sugar cookies. We helped Dorothy write a “Get Well” card to her brother on one occasion, as we’d heard he was ill. He was overjoyed and touched to get this card, from the sister he hadn’t really grown up with. He died of a heart attack a few days later. Dorothy’s mother wasn’t sure that Dorothy should come to the wake, but come she did, and she both possessed and projected unspeakable dignity.

So, what does this all have to do with Sarah and Trig Palin? Simply, that these two people mentioned above and other individuals I worked with during those years always come to my mind when I see her proudly holding her son. Accepting the nomination of her party for Vice-President of the United States, surrounded by her family, holding her child with Down Syndrome right out there in the spotlight: that constitutes a huge milestone, one which goes beyond politics and resonated, I am sure, with so many families who have been touched by this kind of issue. And it resonated too, I have no doubt, with some of those residents in group homes dotted across the landscape, who did not receive the same blessings that God’s grace has bestowed upon Trig Palin. We live in a different time. Much has been learned about Down Syndrome, and about how much is learnable and doable by people with this condition. There’s a vast range of potential there, depending on the individual. With the right kind of care and teaching, many people with Down Syndrome (and other mental handicaps) can lead extremely independent lives. And all, without question, can lead worthwhile lives. Ironically, as the science of care has improved, the science of pre-natal identification and elimination has also progressed. I’ve seen a figure of 90% quoted as the likely percentage of babies with Down Syndrome who are aborted in the United States today.

It is sad, but some have callously remarked that Trig has been used as “a prop” by the Palins. It is just one example, unfortunately, of a level of personal attack on a candidate’s family for which I cannot recall a parallel. In allowing Trig to be visible to the public, the Palins are doing nothing more than treating him as a member of their family. The fact that they are doing so is remarkable only because it is the first time we’ve seen this kind of thing with such a high profile figure. It touches many people as a tangible expression of hope and love and the priceless blessing of human life. It’s not Trig’s fault that it touches people, and it’s not his mother’s fault. That’s just the way it is.

I don’t know how this election will go next week (and I suspect the pollsters don’t either). But this simple and profound witnessing to the value of every life, visible in a picture of a vice-presidential candidate holding her baby, is something that has already traveled to the four corners of the world, and cannot be undone. And to me that’s a very good thing indeed.

Addendum: Not too off-topic at all, read Babies Perfect and Imperfect by Amy Julia Becker in First Things.