Friday, October 09, 2009

Helen Keller deserves more than a statue!

HELEN KELLER with Anne Sullivan, 1898

IT has been said more than once that it s the fate of great revolutionaries and fighters for the oppressed that, after their death, they are turned into harmless icons, the better to console and dupe the mases, by those who calumnied them and hated everything they stood for when they were alive.

We can think of more than example.

But what brought this to mind today is the news that a bronze statue of Helen Keller was unveiled on Wednesday at the US Capitol in Washington DC. Helen Keller was certainly a great American and world citizen. Overcoming the hurdles of blindness and deafness, with the help of her dedicated teacher, Annie Sullivan, she was the first person so afflicted to acquire a bachelor of arts degree, and what's more, became a prolific .writer. She also became a world-famous advocate for the disabled, and campaigner for the oppressed.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “Helen Keller ignited a century marked by progress for people with disabilities.” Other politicians praised her campaigning for people with disabilities, for racial equality, and for the rights of women. But they could not do justice to her,and only told part of the story.

The United States is still maintaining its blockade on Cuba, still threatening Venezuela and Iran, and still assisting Israel to defy the UN and enforce its siege on Gaza. Well here is what Helen Keller had to say about such methoda 90 years ago, in November 1919: : " I am glad to join the People's Freedom Union and other friends of liberty in condemnation of the blockade of Russia by Japan, Great Britain, France and the United States of America. This outrage upon a people who are trying to work out their form of government, their ideas of life, upon their own territory, is one of the blackest crimes in history. The allied and associated governments which are guilty of this infamy violate every principle of civilization, every rule of common honesty.

"For our governments are not honest. They do not openly declare war against Russia and proclaim the reasons. They are fighting the Russian people half-secretly and in the dark with the lie of democracy on their lips and the indirect weapon of the blockade in their hands.

"We cannot remain silent while the government for which we are partly responsible assists in starving women, children and old people because, forsooth, our political rulers and perhaps a majority of the American public do not approve the ideas which underlie Russia's experiment in a new type of society. No thinking American can be silent, can fail to be on one side or the other. There can be no middle ground. Those who are not for fair play to Russia, for the removal of all alien soldiers from Russian soil, for the lifting of the blockade, are Russia's enemies. And Russia's enemies are the friends and upholders of Czarism, of oppression, of exploitation, of the plunder of one people by another".

Such views might bravely have been voiced, despite anti-Red press hysteria, by people in America's sweatshops and mines,. and industrial cities, not least those who had come as refugees from Czarist Russia. They are remarkable coming from someone with the background of Helen Adams Keller. She was born on January 27, 1880, on a plantation in Alabama father Captain Arthur H. Keller, a former officer of the Confederate Army, her mother Kate Adams Keller, a cousin of General Robert E. Lee. The Kellers originated from Switzerland.

Helen Keller was not born blind and deaf; but when she was nineteen months old she contracted an illness, possibly scarlet fever or meningitis, which left her deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat with Martha Washington, i the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs. In 1886, reading an account by Charles Dickens of the successful education of another deaf and blind child, Helen's mother and father took her to see a specialist, who put them in touch with Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children. Bell advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, then located in Boston. It was thus that Helen met her teacher, Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired, and only 20 years old at the time. It was the beginning of a relationship that lasted over 40 years.

The two travelled the world together, and met many famous people, in their efforts to win better treatment for blind, deaf and disabled people. But Helen Keller said it was partly what she found out about conditions in her country that made her a socialist:
"I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness".

This was in an article explaining why she joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the militant movement which believed workers could achieve socialism through industrial action and One Big Union, rather than maintaining craft and other divisions or trusting parliamentary careerists. Helen wrote several articles for the IWW paper, and supported its opposition to the First World War and Woodrow Wilson.

When a capitalist newspaper editor, who had previously praised her intelligence when they met, attributed her political views to her disabilities, Helen replied that it was editors like him who were socially deaf and blind, and were upholding the system which caused physical disability to so many working people.

Fortunately, some of Helen Keller's speeches and writings have been collected together and are available on:

This also has a copy of her FBI file. So we learn for instance that, as they noted, she had signed an appeal to end the arms embargo on Republican Spain to fight the fascists; and that in 1953 she sent a 65th birthday greeting to an old IWW comrade, turned Communist Party veteran, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was incarcerated in the Federal women's prison at Alderson, West Virginia.

There's more on the Helen Keller statue and an interview with her biographer Kim Nielsen at:

Helen Keller has been commemorated in books, movies, street names and now this statue. She desrves that fame, and so does Anne Sullivan, her remarkable teacher and companion. But Helen also deserves that we remember how she overcame her blindness, deafness, and one imagines, fairly conservative family background, to show such remarkable political and social vision.

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