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Slaying Himself with the Jawbone of an Ass: Michael Savage on Autism


Let me to start with a sappy tangent. Some decades ago, my brother-in-law Vincent ran in a Special Olympic race with many other contestants. He took off at the starter's gun, only to see a panicked fellow contestant overwhelmed by the moment, standing motionless at the starting line. Over the screaming protests of his own mother, Vincent ran back to the starting line, took the girl's hand, and the two ran hand-in-hand the entire way. They finished last by a good margin, but not in any way that really counted.

That's also the kind of moment Special Olympics can bring. Not every moment is saccharine and sweet. Some years ago, I saw a soccer player blow a bad play, only to have a teammates give him a swift kick. 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of the Special Olympics. This is a good time to thank the Kennedy family for this ingenious celebration of our common humanity.

Vinnie joined our household in February 2004, when his mom died suddenly and we trundled him into our minivan, and drove him 770 miles to a new life. Three years later, he moved into a nearby group home, but he is still very much part of the family. I can't describe the joys and pain of providing such intimate care for another person. Not every moment makes for the Hallmark card. My relationship with Vincent is much more emotionally complex and freighted than my relationship with my wife, my parents, or with my kids. That's for some other day's posting.

Vincent suffers from fragile X syndrome, a complicated genetic disorder that manifests in varied ways. Vincent has an IQ around 50, has a sweet disposition, and is physically and emotionally healthy in most respects. Fragile X gets a lot of attention because it is the most common heritable cause of cognitive disability. It is also one major cause of autism spectrum disorders. Which brings us back to Michael Savage.

Until last week, I had only a vague inkling of who he was. Now I know more than I want to know, after reading his on-air comment when my wife made a Jesse Jackson-esque comment at the breakfast table hearing Savage's nasty comments about autism. If you were lucky enough to have missed it, here is what he said, courtesy of Media Matters,

I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is. What do you mean they scream and they're silent? They don't have a father around to tell them, 'Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot.'

He has not apologized for these comments. Squirming to limit the damage, he has allowed that the figure 99 percent is hyperbole.

I won't bother to parse the above statement, except to say that they provide yet another ignorant and hurtful statement of the extreme sensibility which views psychiatric disorders as character flaws that require mere doses of humiliation and heavy discipline. If autistic kids could be cured by such things, they'd already be cured. They get these messages from parents and peers, usually humanely, sometimes cruelly, all the time.

Savage outed himself as a belligerent jackass long before he spoke about autism. Here, courtesy of Thinkprogress,, are some of his prior oevre that reach eight million people:

"90 percent of the people on the Nobel Committee are into child pornography and molestation." -- Michael Savage [12/12/07]


- "Notice what this double-talking slut just did, this mind-slut Barbara Walters. And I stick by those words. She's an empty mind-slut." -- Michael Savage [3/16/07]

- Madeline Albright is "a traitor. In my opinion, she should be tried for treason, and when she's found guilty, she should be hung." -- Michael Savage [10/9/06]

- The U.S. Senate is "more vicious and more histrionic than ever, specifically because women have been injected into" it. -- Michael Savage [9/12/06]

- To "save the United States," lawmakers should institute an "outright ban on Muslim immigration" and on "the construction of mosques." -- Michael Savage [11/27/06]

How should we respond to such things? Like a dead skunk in the road, Savage is someone whose presence we can't fail to note, but maybe the best thing is to just quietly pass by. Unfortunately, there is a problem here. As Amanda Terkel noted in an email, while we can ignore people like Savage and Limbaugh, it doesn't mean other people are. These guys have really large audiences. We might think that if we ignore them, we deny them credibility and exposure. That's what we did for years. It didn't work.

The market may fix this particular problem. It's one thing to attack racial and sexual minorities, to attack immigrants, or to make crude comments about women. That's all disgusting, but doesn't seem to bother Savage's core audience. Autism is something different. The autism community is cross-class, cross-race, cross-party, cross-just-about everything.

I googled to see which local radio station carries Mr. Savage's show. This led me to a 4+minute video clip on which two local new anchors--who bore the usual resemblance to Barbie and a pleasantly graying Ken--discussed the story.

The anchorman, Jim Watkins, noted that his own son Liam suffers from autism. He went on to politely but firmly excoriate Savage for his ill-informed views. An autism expert, Sabeeha Rehman, appeared. She was actually permitted to speak in connected complete sentences that included terms such as "cognitive function" we don't often hear on local news. They then interviewed Paul Waldman of Media Matters, a prominent critic of right-wing radio.

Anchorwoman Katy Tur then blasted Savage for his equally dumb comments about asthma among Latino children -- a critique made infinitely more powerful after family-minded viewers had just watched three minutes of smart programming debunking Savage's views.

The fact that a local news program presents this story in greater depth than the national networks typically cover Iraq reflects the fact that millions of Americans care about this story. Many know someone with this condition. Others have relatives or friends struggling to care for an autistic child or sibling.

Savage's shock-jock schtick has worked before, but I believe he has overstepped. My brother-in-law lost a race to help a friend. That's the kind of man he is. He is a source of joy to many people around him. Michael Savage gratuitously offends people to gain market share, because that's the kind of man he is. And Americans know it. Whether they are black or white, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, decent folk don't care to hear him disparage the disabled or their caregivers.

Amazingly, Michael Savage is still broadcasting. I wonder how long he'll remain a star on the national scene. Several major advertisers, including Aflac, Home Depot, Sears, Cisco, and Direct Buy, have withdrawn their business. They should never have worked with him at all, but at least they've seen the light.

Sadly, this case is the exception that proves the rule. You might wonder why people like Michael Savage get away with broadcasting such offensive shows. He said it himself: In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. They don't have a radio station or a sponsor around to tell them: "Straighten up."

P.S. On a totally different plain, former Surgeon General Julius Richmond, a giant of medicine and public health, passed away.

A pioneer of Head Start, anti-smoking activism, and equal rights for gay and lesbian people, Dr. Richmond did much to leave behind a healthier and more humane nation.