Opinion: Paraplegic's stand not intended as a rebuke
September 6, 2020
It's rare that a simple tweet triggers in me the desire to write a column.
On night three of the Republican National Convention last month, I had the great pleasure of watching Madison Cawthorne, a young paraplegic who is running for a house seat in North Carolina. At the very end of his short but moving address, this man - who is otherwise confined to a wheelchair - was helped out of that chair by two friends and stood.
He was standing for the flag, for what it represents, for his fellow citizens, for the president he supports, for his family, and as a symbolic gesture of how we are all able to transcend the most exceptional and challenging circumstances. Being paralyzed at the age of 20 clearly qualifies. Watching him struggle to stand up, and only imagining the effort it took to mobilize petrified muscle and sinew, I thought of the following lines from my father's favorite poem, "Invictus:"
"In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud/Under the bludgeoning of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed."
I assumed that most people watching had the same reaction, even if their minds didn't wander to a 145-year-old poem. I was wrong. Shortly after Cawthorne spoke, NPR correspondent Yamiche Alcindor tweeted the following:
"Madison Cawthorn made it a point to stand, suggesting that all Americans should stand during the Pledge of Allegiance & National Anthem. It was a direct rebuke of actions by ppl - including Black athletes who are currently sitting out games - protesting police brutality."
The thing that angered me about Alcindor's tweet was the fact that she presumed to delve into the mind of this courageous young man and find some negative, possibly sinister motive to his profoundly moving act of standing up.
Instead of simply admiring the effort it took for Madison Cawthorne to raise himself up and expose his disability to millions of viewers nationwide, this journalist decided to set him up as a foil to the men she obviously admired much more. Alcindor, without anything other than her own bias, decided that Cawthorne was attacking the Colin Kaepernick brigade, all of those "Black athletes who are currently sitting out games protesting police brutality."
And that, I would suggest, is beneath contempt.
Those "Black athletes who are currently sitting" are able to stand up at leisure and walk to the nearest bank to cash their six- and seven-figure salaries, while Madison Cawthorne will never be able to walk anywhere, ever again.
It is also beneath contempt because this journalist of color is, in a not so veiled way, accusing a young disabled white man of showing disrespect to able-bodied Black men. How dare she use someone else's misfortune to advance a political agenda, and do so in a way that is dishonestly veiled. After all, Alcindor can easily say that she wasn't criticizing Cawthorne, she was just "suggesting" that this is what his action "suggested." It's a nice trick, one I've used myself. But I would never be so callous as to use it to shame a paraplegic to advance a political message.
You might disagree that this is what Alcindor was doing. You might think that it was legitimate, and that Cawthorne opened himself to such attacks because he let himself be "used" by the GOP at the convention, allowed himself to be trotted out as some symbol of "Trump love for country." I actually heard that said.
Far be it from me to try and disabuse you of the notion that every time someone shows a moment of courage and allows us a glimpse into their soul, it's inauthentic and programmed (particularly if they support President Trump).
If you are that type of person, you were already clicking "like" on Alcindor's tweet before Madison Cawthorne had a chance to sit back down in his wheelchair.
Christine Flowers is a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times. Contact her at: