Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mr. Beast, and the Ableism of Altruism.
"Nothing should surprise us any more, who see the miracle of stars," Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in Aurora Leigh.
How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways…
A timeless poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet has spanned the ages and become a Hallmark card in its own right — saying the things we aren’t deep enough to think, let alone write, about the ones we love the most dearly. What very few take the time to learn, however, is the story that inspired the poem so ritualistically spoken at wedding ceremonies around the globe — a love story that Shakespeare may very well have likened to a “marriage of true minds.”
Born in England on March 6, 1806, Elizabeth Barrett was the oldest of twelve. After a minor illness followed by the measles at approximately age 13, she never fully recovered and would spend the rest of her days with various symptoms including “incapacitating weakness, heart palpitations, intense response to heat and cold, intense response to illnesses as mild as a cold, and general exhaustion in bouts that lasted from days to months or years.”
Unable to discern a diagnosis, physicians gave her opium to relieve the pain and discomfort, which she spent the rest of her life addicted to. She eventually kept a diary to record her symptoms and possible triggers. It is only recently that a researcher and her daughter were able to identify the likely cause of Elizabeth’s illness: “hypokalemic periodic paralysis (HKPP), a muscle disorder that causes blood levels of potassium to fall because potassium becomes trapped in muscle cells.”
Her health worsened with every tragedy she experienced, proving nearly two centuries prior to the great discoveries in the field of neuroimmunology and bioelectronic medicine how the mind influences the body.
Despite her pain, Elizabeth refused to be defined by the confines of her body’s limitations — and instead, became known for the infinite expanse of her mind. She made a name for herself in the literary world, known far and wide for the fruits of her intellect — a mind brimming with beauty in the face of suffering, and a sense of duty and purpose to create art to reflect the era.
And it is because of her mind that Robert Browning first fell in love with her, and then felt compelled to tell her so in a letter. Two strangers who hadn’t crossed paths yet in life, but clearly, had already traversed lifetimes.
When Elizabeth received her first letter from Robert Browning, six years her junior, her illness was incapacitating, and she was living a secluded life in a room filled with her muses — busts of Chaucer and Homer, engravings with the writing of Tennyson, Carlyle, and — before she had even met him or corresponded with him — Browning, among others.
Elizabeth expressed her deepest insecurities, worried that her health would become his burden and that he’d eventually encounter their differences due to a slight age gap. For those reasons and more, she shared her willingness to love him from afar as friends rather than intimately intertwined ‘til death do them part. Robert rejected the idea that Elizabeth’s age and ill-health would burden his life, and assured her that a life without her would be his only burden.
And in return — Elizabeth wrote him a sonnet: How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways…
Mrs. Barrett Browning, Meet Mr. Beast.
Jimmy Donaldson — aka, Mr. Beast — is a 24-year-old American YouTuber who makes videos that are apparently popular enough that he’s made well into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Love his content or hate it — the young man won capitalism.
But not so fast, Progressive Friends — let’s not hop on the Jump to Conclusions Mat too quickly. Mr. Beast isn’t hoarding his wealth. He gives away millions of dollars per year, and has pledged to give away “every single penny” before he dies. To date, his nonprofit Beast Philanthropy has donated four million pounds of food and fed 250,000 people. He’s also teamed up with Mark Rober, Ocean Conservancy, and The Ocean Cleanup with the mission to remove 30 million pounds of garbage from the world’s oceans. And he and Rober teamed up with the Arbor Day Foundation to plant 20 million trees as part of the foundation’s global reforestation efforts.
Or, according to Twitter: What a bastard.
Late to the game for everything, it isn’t until this week that I watched a Mr. Beast YouTube video. My previous knowledge of the young gent was limited to hearing through the grapevine that he, like me, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teenager. After dropping forty pounds due to his condition, he was forced to quit baseball — but channeled the energy he could muster into starting a YouTube channel.
For the young man who says in his Instagram bio that he wants “to make the world a better place before I die,” I would argue that his actions to date have supported his mantra.
And for the 1,000 people who are now able to see because of Beast’s philanthropy, it appears he has, indeed, made each of their worlds a better place.
To accomplish this feat, Mr. Beast partnered with Dr. Jeffrey Levinson, an ophthalmologist and chief medical officer of the nonprofit SEE International, an organization who is “on a mission to end preventable blindness.”
Dr. Levinson has been working to “bring low-cost cataract surgery to the world's poorest populations in order to make treatment more accessible” — something he even was invited to do a TedTalk for in 2017.
Early on in the video currently under indictment by the Peanut Gallery, we learn from Mr. Beast and Dr. Levinson that half of all blindness can be cured with a ten-minute corrective surgery. Before I continue, allow me to point out that it is made abundantly clear in this video that this procedure may not work for everyone, but for those who it does, it is, indeed, curative.
Over the course of the eight minutes that follow, we meet some of the individuals who have signed up to participate, and we experience their unfettered joy when their eye patches are removed.
We meet Charlie, a gentleman who was once a cashier but has been unable to work due to his worsening condition, and we learn that his goal is to go back to work. His vision is indeed restored, and Mr. Beast gives him 10k.
We then meet another gentleman who, after his procedure, says to Mr. Beast: “I just haven’t been me for the last 62 years,” and delights over being able to see Mr. Beast’s face.
The stories being told in the video are human — these individuals encapsulate the indomitable human spirit, and their post-procedure dreams can be summarized by their longing to experience the most routine, basic privileges that those of us with our sight have the luxury of living with every day.
Of course, this is the 21st century, and in this hellscape, no one is allowed to have nice things for long.
Soon, the mob piled on with accusations of ableism — if you’re not familiar with this term, allow me to provide a brief overview of its purpose: it is a new avenue to shut down ideas that make the Diagnosed Sect of the Extremely Online uncomfortable because they have to encounter the possibility that they aren’t perfect and might have a problem, but aren’t interested in fixing it, so instead, a mob forms with the rallying cry: “This is ableist garbage. I’m FINE. You’re the problem.”
One of the voices that gained steam in the latest Ableism Smackdown was that of Steven Aquino, a freelance writer and iOS accessibility expert. Aquino wrote an essay with his thoughts on the Beast video, titled ‘MrBeast’s blindness video puts systemic ableism on display’ for ‘Tech Crunch,’ an online newspaper dedicated to covering all things tech, including but not limited to topics such as crypto, cybersecurity, and now, apparently, systemic ableism.
Early on in his critique, he refers to our aforementioned literary heroine, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by saying she would be “proud” of how he “counts the ways” that Beast’s “myopic perspective lacks perspective.”
In my very own listicle below — a first for me — allow me to “count the ways” of how absurd this Beast Backlash is, and in doing so, outline how this fixed mindset of ‘disability as identity’ stagnates progress.
How Does This Essay Aggravate The Shit Out Of Me? Let Me Count The Ways…
1. Ableist Altruism and the Quest for Virtue
There is something to be said regarding those who do good deeds out of sincerity versus those who do good deeds for online clout or virtue-signaling. This does happen, and it’s not a good look when it does.
However, that isn’t what Mr. Beast is doing in this YouTube video.
Instead, Mr. Beast’s effort highlighted a tragic and unknown statistic: that half of all blindness could be cured with a ten minute procedure.
What’s more, by paying for 1,000 people to willingly undergo this procedure and have their vision restored, he highlighted the great impact that a calculated investment can have.
Did he pull an Oprah with giving away Teslas and 10k-50k checks? Sure, but what would you prefer? That the billionaire hoard his billions so we can criticize him for that instead? Or that we see a young man have his vision restored and then given 50k for his future college tuition?
Regardless, assuming ill intent here says more about you than it does about him.
2. Who needs the stars when I have all I’ve only ever known.
Where we can agree: yes, disease and disability alike are due to flaws in either the software or hardware (depending on the issue), and I can assure you that there are, indeed, engineers who are uncovering new mechanisms and methods of restoring those faulty systems to allow patients an option for a — yes, I’ll say it — fuller human experience.
We are doing no favors to loved ones or strangers by denying the truth that having all of our faculties in proper working order allows for the greatest breadth of the human experience.
Further, the idea that being able to see the stars, a rainbow, or a child’s smile is a “romantic notion” is not only the height of cynicism, but a poor attempt at a coping mechanism. There are few things I’ve enjoyed in my life more than a meteor shower. The sight of a rainbow at the end of a storm has to be one of the most beautiful metaphors for hope, and the beauty on the other side of adversity, that nature could ever concoct. A child’s smile — well, the first time my nephew looked at me and smiled will remain embedded in my memory for as long as I have a breath.
I don’t say these things to make you or anyone else feel bad — that certainly isn’t the goal. The point, however, is that if you are visually impaired or blind, there are experiences you aren’t able to participate in, let alone critique or diminish as a “romantic notion.” To suggest that any of those things are “notions” is to say that these experiences are theoretical rather than tangible.
Perhaps in an effort at self-preservation, you’ve convinced yourself that these things aren’t that great anyway, or perhaps even if given the opportunity for a procedure that would allow you to, maybe you aren’t ready to see those things because if you do, you will have to endure the realization that you’ve missed these experiences for decades — and speaking from personal experience here, I can attest to how that realization feels like a loss.
However, what I’ve learned is this: you can recognize and grieve that loss, yet still overflow with the enchantment of having access to beauty previously unexperienced.
3. Would she though?
I’m not so sure she’d be proud of this, but agree to disagree.
4. The Ultimate Insult to My Existence: Your Prosperity
A. The ‘visual acuities’ of these individuals prior to having this procedure was clearly limited enough that they were compelled to participate, and their long-term prognosis is none of your beeswax.
B. No one said there is an all-encompassing cure for blindness. The physician said that half of blindness worldwide can be treated with a ten minute surgery.
C. By “more power to them,” I think (hope) what you meant to say was: “Wow, that’s really great to hear — I’m so happy for them and I pray for their continued well-being.”
5. Inspiration Porn: Not At All Like Actual Porn, But Somehow Worse, According to The Woke.
This is a wildly cynical way to meet the world.
No one said that disabled people are “less than the masses.”
Further, you provide no evidence of “structural ableism” in your essay.
Of course, there is undoubtedly a need to enact protections for people with disabilities, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, IDEA, and 504 Plans to provide equal access to education, employment, and so forth that would otherwise lend to unjust restrictions or discriminatory practices.
Despite having those protections in place, there are still plenty of systems operating today with structural issues that need to be addressed, such as reforming Social Security to provide disabled people income that actually makes a dent in their monthly bills, or improves opportunities for disabled people to work when and if they are able to without it threatening their SSI or SSDI.
Instead, though, your argument is based on preserving disability as both an identity and a culture, as though to be disabled is akin to the experience of an indigenous person impacted by colonialism.
It gives me heartburn.
6. Miracle Max or the Miracle of… Orthopedics?
A broken bone is a temporary injury and can be reset. It’s not miraculous. It’s orthopedics.
While I fully agree that disabled people shouldn’t be thought of as defined by their disability, the problem is that you’re creating a boogey man out of thin air. It’s no one’s job to define someone else’s identity other than the person who is wearing those shoes — and none of these ‘Ableds’ are attempting to, nor was Mr. Beast.
Arguing that the ‘Ableds’ are defining people by their disability just doesn’t work. Not in a world where Twitter Bios are filled with everyone’s diagnoses. ‘Abled’ people didn’t make anyone in the disability community do that — that was a choice made by individuals in the disabled community who do so.
7. Wait. Hang On. I’m Confused. So If We Can Escape, Are We Allowed?
So if people with disabilities can escape their disability and experience what life is like without their disability — and Mr. Beast is willing to pay for the procedure for them to do so — is it okay with you if they choose to do so?
And if they do, does it take away from their traits as individuals?
Is having the option to no longer be disabled akin to having someone take pity on them?
What about if they want to be uplifted — even if they aren’t able to get the procedure themselves? Or are we unable to experience joy for our fellow man?
God — I don’t know, you guys — I kinda think all of us could use a little uplifting content. Haven’t we all experienced enough trauma in the last few years? Can we have some good news, please?
8. I Walked Two Feet Of Snow Uphill Both Ways And So Should You
Your family is very lucky to have you — truly — and that was a heavy weight to have on your shoulders as a child. What an experience it must have been. And I’m so happy that your family and friends know you for all of those wonderful things you are.
However, what this section says is that because you like where you ended up, others should continue to endure disability for the sake of disability culture.
I am sure deaf culture is real — I won’t go toe to toe with you on that — but I ask you this:
If there is a cure for deafness, don’t you think it’s up to the individuals who are deaf to decide whether they want the opportunity to hear?
That seems like such a basic respect we could afford another human being — the opportunity to make that decision for themselves — but whether you realize it or not, your argument asks them to stay as they are as to not disrupt a culture that they may or may not want to be a part of.
Let’s look at it this way — let’s say you’re a Ukrainian soldier fighting the Russians and putting your life on the line to protect your homeland and all the people in it. When the commander is dividing the platoon into squads, you end up with the best squad ever — a small group of guys and gals who have your back in every way: on the frontlines of the battlefield, all the way to those quiet moments when the bombing temporarily subsides and you can take a moment to breathe. They are there to celebrate the wins with you, and grieve the losses.
Now let’s call it for what it will be — God (and NATO) willing, sooner than later: the Ukrainians win the war. Russia runs back home with its tail between its legs, and if we’re lucky, Putin does the world a favor and takes a long walk off a short pier.
You can go home now — but while everyone else is hanging up their gun, unlacing their boots, stripping out of their combat fatigues, and joyously sharing stories of what they plan to do now that the war is won, you are sitting in the corner, sulking, and saying to your comrades, “How dare they take this away from us — what about our squad’s culture? What about our inside jokes and all the time we’ve spent together?”
And the squad would reply, “What we went through will bind us together for the rest of our lives, but now we don’t have to fight anymore — the war is over — we can go home.”
Your argument throughout this essay calls for the squad to remain on the battlefield.
It’s not up to you to decide who gets to go home.
9. Finding The Silver Lining Isn’t The Same As Protecting The Reason You Had To Find It At All.
We all need silver linings, and we can even be grateful for our silver linings and all that we learned from them, and who we became because of them. Many of us who have experienced disability wouldn’t go back in time and change it — I certainly wouldn’t either.
Having said that, just because we wouldn’t change our past, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the ability to rewrite our future. The lessons we gained from our silver linings aren’t lost when we remove the causative factor that required us to have the silver lining in the first place.
Each one of us is a portait of our individual experiences — and that is true as well for Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She would not have been the writer she was if she hadn’t endured the physical pain and limitations she had — not to mention the endless stream of opium given to her from the age of 14 on that didn’t treat her disease but undoubtedly contributed to her massive imagination.
However, having to find the silver lining doesn't mean we should view the cause of that silver lining as a rite of passage.
The only job that humanity is truly tasked with — the only thing that we can be certain of in regard to identifying some kind of universal purpose for existence at all — has only ever been to live in a way so that those who come after us don’t have to endure the adversities that we did, but are equipped to meet the new ones they encounter.
During our time here, all of us do what we have to do and play the roles we need to play in order for us to get to the next step, whatever that may be. We play the part of what the era calls for. What that looks like is different for all of us — but all that matters is having the self awareness to know how to meet the circumstances of our lives.
The idea isn’t to leave behind a world that is devoid of suffering; there will always be a cause for suffering. There will always be an adversity that bends and breaks our character and builds a new character in its place.
In your essay, and in this section, you are calling for the stagnation of progress and for turning a disability into a tradition to be passed down from generation to generation because you wouldn’t change your experience.
You aren’t being required to partake in new treatments or cures — that’s the wonderful thing about living in a country that allows us to act on our own free will.
But truth be told, how dare you attempt to take away the opportunity for someone else to change their human experience.
10. I’m Not An Oracle. I Don’t Speak For All Disabled People. But I Can Tell You Definitively: A Cure Won’t Help Disabled People.
“I don’t speak for all visually impaired people, but a cure is not the answer to helping them — nor is a cure the answer to helping any other disabled person.”
(“Also, I’m not a God.”)
Well, thanks for clearing all that up.
Pardon me if I’m starting to repeat myself, but I still have questions.
What would you tell those disabled people who did take him up on that offer? Are you going to tell them they were wrong? You said early on in your essay not to vilify them — but then you spend the rest of the essay doing exactly that by inadvertently accusing them of being duped by the Ableds, and giving in to their own internalized ableism.
And if it is true that Mr. Beast is an Ableist Troll Who Likes to Peddle Disabled People for Publicity — then what exactly does that make a person who is using their experience with disability for publicity to gain social capital while shaming other disabled people who may want an opportunity to change their human experience and rewrite their story’s ending?
11. —isms and allies: a 21st century love story.
Today, our society isn’t able to enjoy a love story like that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, or Johnny and June, or any of the other great romances in history — because we already have all the love story we need in the love affair of -isms and allies.
What’s more, let’s rewrite the entire hero’s journey too — the tale as old as time. It’s been the same for millennia: an everyday, ordinary person is given an enormous task or is up against some great adversity (or adversary), and that ordinary person has to traverse unknown lands and band together with a group of misfits along the way to fight off evil forces and find a way to navigate seemingly impossible obstacles, and doubt herself, and then win a victory, and then face a new foe and end up enthralled in doubt and fear yet again, and go through a period where she almost loses herself, and while she’s at rock bottom and consumed by despair, maybe she even meets a devil of some sort and is horrified by the recognition that she sees some of herself in the beast — and right when she’s about to give up, she doesn’t — she keeps going because something has been reminding her all along that if she gets to the end of this journey and slays the dragon, she will have met the call of her adversity — and her experience will have impacted a collective good greater than herself, and her journey.
Quick re-write: the ordinary, every day person is already a hero because they’ve mythologized the experience of having a hardship to begin with.
The only story we get to have now: —isms and allies.
12. I Don’t Have a Problem, YOU have the problem.
Where would you like to draw the line on cures? Cancer — okay, that can be cured. AIDs too. How about diabetes? Sure, it’s not cured now, but boy that was a hell of a disability before the advent of insulin in 1921. What about vaccines — should Louis Pasteur have created the rabies vaccine that saved Joseph Meister in 1885? Where do we stand on Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin to treat dangerous and fatal infections?
How about the research happening today — should patients with rheumatoid arthritis be given the option to participate in a clinical trial to test the efficacy of vagus nerve stimulation? Or should we bring all medical research to a halt?
Should I still be disabled?
And since I no longer am, is my previous experience as a disabled person something others now can’t learn from?
Is there more than one way for a disabled person to experience their disability — or is there just the right way?
The Boundless Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Legacy
When the sculptor Harriet Hosmer met the Brownings, she was so enamored by their love for one another and the deep friendship they shared that she asked if she could cast their hands in plaster to create a bronze sculpture that Nathaniel Hawthorne described as a symbol of “the individuality and heroic union of two high, poetic lives.”
After years of frailty due to the weakness of her lungs and heart — that same heart that felt so deeply and loved so richly — Elizabeth’s last heartbreak due to the death of her friend caused her final demise. On June 29th, 1861, at the age of 55, the Boundless Elizabeth Barrett Browning breathed her last breath in Robert’s arms — yet the two remained eternally intermingled far beyond the physical experience of existence, where love still resides regardless of reason or evolutionary utility, vibrating somewhere within quarks we can’t measure, on another plane where the energy of soulmates crosses space and time, into a quasar of their own making.
So would Elizabeth Barrett Browning be “proud of the way” that our friend at Tech Crunch “counts the ways in which this myopic perspective lacks perspective”?
I suppose that depends on whether we know Barrett Browning for a single poem that we can use as a placeholder for our own myopic 21st century listicles bemoaning all the ways this week’s ‘villain’ harmed us with inspiration porn, or if we know her for more — for the depth of her imagination and the magnificence of her love story — and if we know her for the latter, perhaps we should ask her:
Dear Elizabeth: If you could have been cured of illness and lived to be old and gray with Robert, would you have chosen more years with your love, or died with the definition of your disability?
Maybe I’m a romantic, but a love so extraordinary to witness that Hosmer felt compelled to capture its art form to be gazed upon and felt deeply for centuries — well, that seems like a love I’d want to stick around for — and I'm so glad I did.