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Don't Question Kanye's Agency Because He Has Bipolar Disorder

Over the past week, a number of media outlets have reported evidence linking certain Kanye West apologists to Republican officials who are supporters of Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. The extent to which West, a Black artist who has bipolar disorder, is deliberately helping throw the election to Trump with his quixotic Presidential bid has been speculated upon by CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times, among other publications.

While it is one thing to assert that West is part of a scheme to siphon votes from Joe Biden to reelect Trump, it is quite another to insinuate that he may be a pawn because of his bipolar disorder. That is, however, exactly what a Forbes journalist suggested, noting that Kanye — justifiably, in this writer’s estimation — didn’t bother to respond to his inquiry on the matter.

For as troubling as is the claim that a grown man who has become a billionaire through his musical talent is anyone’s pawn, it underscores toxic American cultural discourses about people with mental illnesses and other disabilities — tropes that are deleterious to a growing segment of the American population, which comprises 26 percent of U.S. adults and innumerable children.

In too much of our society, if someone has a mental illness or other disability, that individual is seen as lacking agency. When Greta Thunberg, for example, a teenage autistic influencer and climate justice activist, was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019, Thunberg was pilloried by commentators who assumed that she was a mouthpiece for her parents and progressive, environmental leaders. While her father later corrected the record, there still remains a wide segment of the population that persists in doubting her autonomy, while similar attacks are never levied at neurotypical teenage activists like the Parkland shooting survivors.

The same dynamic played out last week on Twitter with Joshua Collins, the neurodivergent former U.S. Congressional candidate. When it was discovered that a majority of his nearly a quarter million dollars worth of disbursements were siphoned to a small number of staffers, including his wife-cum-campaign manager, at least one Leftist in the Twitterverse suggested that he, too, was being used. In this alternate universe, that the 26-year-old Collins was hobbled by his own political inexperience was inexplicably less logical than assuming that his bid was a ruse masterminded by neurotypical people conning him.

Why, a reader may wonder, are people with mental illnesses and other disabilities all too often assumed to be pawns in our culture? This abhorrent trope has its origin in the Jerry’s Kids telethon, which, commencing in the 1950s, and running each year on Labor Day from 1966 to 2009, would fundraise for the Muscular Dystrophy Association by using people with disabilities, evoking pity, and calling them — adults included — “children of all ages.” The influence of the telethon on our culture becomes evident when one contemplates the staggering $2 billion plus that the MDA raised during the duration of its campaigns, which it terminated for good in 2015.

As a result of this programming’s cultural hegemony, the idea that adults with mental illnesses and other disabilities are children and must be simultaneously supervised and protected from a world where they will be exploited has gained a pernicious prominence in our public parlance.

While it is indeed true that some with such conditions need extra support, in a system where all too often guardianship and Social Security payees are unjustly foisted upon these culturally marginalized populations, our society sees lack of agency as the rule, rather than the exception.

Ensconced in a political milieu where every politician is trying to weaponize any perceived weakness, to what extent is Kanye West being exploited? While it was unfair and ableist that the Forbes journalist asked West to defend his own agency in the first place, even with bipolar disorder, the rapper-cum-politico has adult cognition with adult ratiocination and adult life experiences.

While it is worth entertaining that Kanye West is scheming to elect Trump, rather than seeing Kanye as being conned based upon infantilizing cultural tropes, consider that he is the author of his destiny. In short, he has his own very legitimate feelings, thoughts and desires, based upon his lived experience as a Black billionaire with bipolar disorder who cares deeply about politics.

No matter how much Kanye West at times struggles with his manic-depressive illness and occasionally displays erratic behavior, it is worth contemplating how damaging it is to perpetuate such dismissive and discriminatory discourse, not only to West himself, but to the 61 million American adults and countless children who contend with mental illnesses and other disabilities.

Although it will take sustained effort to extirpate the deleterious discourse rooted in Jerry’s Kids that people with mental illness and other disabilities are “adult children,” our culture can and should do better. Thus, journalists and opinion leaders bear a particular responsibility to affirm the agency of neurodivergent influencers like Kanye West.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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