In addition to his current roles as a history professor at Dominican University and “Unofficial Medievalist to CNN,” David Perry ’95 is a disability rights journalist and author of the blog “How Did We Get Into This Mess?” Following his lecture at the University on Oct. 13, Perry sat down with The Argus to discuss his unconventional career.
Due to its length, the interview was printed in two parts. Below is the second half of the conversation.
The Argus: How do you handle differing approaches to language? For example, someone who says “I don’t identify as disabled” but needs resources associated with that identity.
David Perry: It depends on in what capacity you’re asking me. As a journalist, I’m going to write my story using the most inclusive, accurate, kind of best-practice language possible…obviously quoting people accurately.
As an advocate, or for the people involved in the disability community, I think you have to figure out where to push and where to educate and where to just provide services….My goal is never to tell the person with lived experience that they are interpreting their lived experience wrong. Never. But my goal is to tell society that stigma matters, and that we have to fight it.
And so in my journalism, I’m not trying to change the perspective of the individual with lived experience and tell them they’re wrong. I’m trying to tell society, “There’s a big social stigma problem here. Let’s work on it,” so that person can feel that they can change; they can move along to a place not where they’re using the “right” language but where they’re better able to accept all parts of themselves. They’re also more able to articulate their needs, where society is ready to give them help for those needs. It’s a long process.
I do think we need to de-stigmatize disability and talk about it as a socially constructed phenomenon, like gender and many other categories. There are biological components; there are historical components; there are lots of other kinds of components we can point to, but fundamentally, what is disabled and what is not disabled is socially constructed. And I want that message to get out there.
A: You discussed the second book you’re writing about the “cult of compliance.” Your first book, “Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade,” was about the transport of relics—quite a different topic. How has your focus shifted since your initial foray into journalism?
DP: Well, I actually think this is a very Wesleyan story. We get our education and we go off to do whatever we’re going to do. But I have met so many Wesleyan alums, both people I knew and people I didn’t, who at some point in the 10 or 20 years after they graduated…saw some kind of an opportunity or a need or something, and I do think Wesleyan teaches us, [however] possible, to try and jump at it. So I’ve jumped.
It’s people who were one kind of lawyer and then saw an opportunity to make a lot of money—it doesn’t have to be social justice. You know, they saw an opportunity. People who start a business or create an artistic movement or do whatever they do—they jump at it. So that’s kind of what happened to me. I was a writer, and I saw something, and I did some writing, a little writing, a little more writing, and now I’ve really jumped. It doesn’t pay my mortgage; I’m still teaching history. I love teaching history, but [disability rights journalism] definitely is where my passion is right now.
A: You also spoke about the difference between academic and journalistic writing. Where do you see the value in each?
DP: There is something incredibly beautiful about deeply specialized scholarship, about spending years or even decades really [getting] to know something and producing new knowledge and new interpretations….It is a wonderful experience to have; I think it is a fundamental social good to have people doing intellectual work of all kinds and in any context. The writing that comes out of that, where you’re trying to write with the most intense precision possible, is also extremely important and valuable.
The complete polar opposite, but maybe the other side of the same coin, is when you’re trying again to reach an audience with a kind of clarity, but it’s a different kind of clarity. My journalism is informed by my PhD and my years as a teacher and my years of reading theory, and I want the person who reads at an eighth-grade level to be able to process what I’m saying about intersectionality or about social justice or about the social model of disability.
I’ll give you an example. So on Monday, The LA Times is going to publish a piece with the lede that “Trump is the most ableist presidential candidate in modern history.” Now, I know there are a lot of LA Times readers—a big newspaper, with a big distribution—who have never heard the word “ableism.” They don’t know what it is; my attaching an -ism to a phenomenon will make them want to distance themselves from it. But I also know that ableism is true, that it’s a real thing. So I’m trying in 783 words, I think it is, to bring this academic concept of ableism to a mass audience.
To me, that’s actually very similar to trying to write a 90,000-word book about nine medieval Latin texts about the movement of relics out of Constantinople. The stakes are a little bit higher—the immediate, day-to-day stakes are higher for the LA Times editorial—but the writing is pretty comparable.
A: You were previously the Director of Catholic Studies at Dominican University. When I hear the word “Catholic,” I think not only of the religion but of the broader meaning of the word “universal.” How did this position relate to the rest of your work?
DP: I’m Jewish, and a secular Jew, as I talked about in my lecture. But I got a job at a Catholic university, and I was a little skeptical. My first day on the job, at Convocation, they gave an award to a civil disobedient peace activist, and I thought, “Oh, I’m going to fit in here just fine.”
I’m a Medievalist, and the Medieval era, at least in Western Europe, [had] this idea of universal Christendom under the Catholic Church. Now, it’s only an idea—highly divisive, quite often oppressive—but…it’s [from] the era that I study, and I’m interested in the ways in which that works. So when I got to Dominican, I wanted to draw connections between the kinds of history I taught and the people working in theology, and have theology students come take my classes. That was part of it.
I’m no longer directing Catholic Studies, although we still have that program, but I do think that if you have a religious university, there are kind of two ways it can go. And one way I think is the stereotype, which is that it’s about closing, that it’s about using theology and ideology to erect walls, physical or metaphorical, around an institution. Places like Wheaton College, where discussion of homosexuality is not tolerated, or Liberty College, which right now is in the news because it involves the Falwell family. And those are institutions at which I would not be comfortable, although some of them are very intellectually sophisticated places. But it’s using an ideology to create barriers.
The other kind of institution, though—and that’s where I teach—is where you have a very strong, very clearly expressed religious identity, and from this rock of saying, “We know who we are,” you open your doors so that everyone comes in and you can have really good conversations. I have to say, I think the social justice mission at Dominican University is stronger and less encumbered than at even a place like Wesleyan, where the students are deeply socially active, and the professors are, and the administration is, [too]. But to say that Wesleyan is an institution dedicated to social justice…I don’t know if everyone would agree with that.
Whereas at Dominican, that’s just kind of the baseline…“Give to the poor,” right? But don’t just give to them, create conditions for empowerment. Open the doors [and] make sure that all voices are [heard], including queer voices, including Muslim voices, including Jewish voices. Because the institution has this very clear rock of identity, and it’s not threatened by diversity. So it’s been pretty great, and I hope it continues; I hope it’s something they manage to keep going.
A: You’ve referred to yourself as the “Unofficial Medievalist to CNN.” Since the word “medieval” has been tossed around a lot in this election cycle, what do you consider as the real parallels between now and the Middle Ages?
DP: There is no question for me that history informs the present, and the dominant traditions in American society come out of the Western European tradition and still have a lot of cultural power.…[That’s not] necessarily a good thing, or a bad thing, though it certainly brings a lot of specific patriarchy [and] a lot of specific intellectual traditions, some of which are glorious.
I mean, I think some of the best things about the university, in terms of how people study and how we learn and how we debate, [such as] the rise of disputatio as a method for [acquiring] knowledge…come right out of the Middle Ages, along with the Western misogynistic tradition and the Western anti-Semitic tradition. History is complicated and always ambiguous, in terms of what it brings to us.
There’s clearly a wide strain of rhetoric that’s trying to adopt a medieval position—you could call it a Manichean position, but I don’t know if that’s a good word—that wants to divide the world into zones of “civilized” and “barbaric,” and “good” and “evil,” and “Christian” and “non-Christian,” or “Islamic” and “non-Islamic.” And there are definitely echoes of the Middle Ages, but they’re not simple echoes; they’re constructed echoes….People with agendas have created this fantasy of a Middle Ages that was simpler and clearer and less heterogeneous and are trying to use that to promote a view today. The Middle Ages were wonderfully diverse, not in the way we frame diversity now, but that’s because diversity, like gender, like race, like disability, is a socially constructed moment. Medieval people had their ideas about this.
To understand the present we do need to understand the ways in which it is informed by the past, but not to make these simple metaphorical [statements such as] “This is like the Middle Ages,” or “America is like Rome.” People want to say that we’re about to fall, like Rome fell. Well, it turns out that Rome didn’t fall….People living in France didn’t know that Rome had fallen; that was not a concept that they had adopted as a narrative of their own [experience]. So I think we have to be very thoughtful about how we make these kinds of comparisons.
A: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
DP: The most important thing I’ve learned from shifting from history to journalism is how to listen to sources. And of course, that is something I learned as a historian. You go to your sources, and they say things, and you try to learn from them….Applying that to real people you can just call up on the phone or tweet at or write emails with or go sit in a park [with] in Englewood, Chicago and hear them talk about their lives is a very different kind of experience, and very powerful. Whatever I do going forward, that’s really my goal, to find people with real, true things to say and to listen as hard as I can so that I can share them.
Part of my success is that it turns out I’m really good at writing 800 words in about 45 minutes. They’re not always perfect; my motto as a journalist is “Pretty good, pretty quickly.” And that has allowed me to grab news cycles and to say things within them. So when [Carly] Fiorina said something about the Middle Ages a year ago, I [had] an essay in to The Guardian within about two hours of the event…so that’s definitely been a skill I didn’t know I had. I wish I was as good when I was an undergraduate at writing 800 words in 45 minutes; many of my sleepless nights would have been filled with blissful rest…if I could have gotten out of my own way and just written these things. But we develop as writers, and that’s where I am now.
[Lastly,] one of my major topics now is writing about disability journalism, not just producing it but critiquing it in order to try to shift [the] norms. So that people stop writing stories about disability issues without talking to disabled people. I mean, it’s Journalism 101…don’t write about a topic without talking to the people who are living it! But somehow with disability, [reporters] talk to parents; they talk to doctors; they talk to professionals; they talk to politicians. They often don’t try to talk to the person with the disability at all…and that needs to change.