Upright Nationalism

video, 4 minutes 18 seconds

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Flatscreen tv with two pairs of headphones hanging on a wall. Video still
            shows person using medical exoskeleton and arm crutches standing
             up from their wheelchair
           while President Biden looks on.
[Upright Nationalism video with captions, no audio description]

Upright Nationalism consists of fast cut clips sourced from news, promotional, and personal YouTube videos depicting people using exoskeletons playing over a marching band rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever. The majority of clips show wheelchair users with paralysis with various medical exoskeleton models, along with some clips of military and industrial/manufacturing exoskeleton users. The video begins with a sequence of users (or “test pilots” as they are often called by exoskeleton manufacturers), transferring from their wheelchairs to a chair with the device splayed out, and then strapping in by themselves or with the help of physical therapists and trainers. Many of the source videos with a woman strapping in include a lingering shot of the torso strap being tightened under her breasts, and some of these clips are included here. The users then grab onto arm crutches or walkers and stand (most are filmed from the front or side of their bodies, though one clip with a Latina user is a close-up of her (from) behind). Users or trainers activate the standing and walking functions in the device by pressing a button on a wristwatch or other remote control.

There are clips of exoskeleton users standing and walking in medical, academic lab, and home settings. Some are in public: admiring themselves in a mirror at an art exhibition, talking with a reporter on the sidewalk, in front of press and curious onlookers. Some are on a national stage: meeting U.S. President Joe Biden (2022), U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2013), and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. President Donald Trump (2020). Several clips depict users during ceremonial events: walking across the stage at college graduations and down the aisle at weddings; standing at attention in a combat uniform during a military pinning and surrounded by uniformed police officers while raising the U.S. and the POW/MIA flags on the 4th of July; throwing out the first pitch at an MLB game and with putting their hand on their heart during the Star-Spangled Banner at a NASCAR race.

Current U.S. Representative Madison Cawthorn is shown rising from his wheelchair while onstage during the 2020 Republican National Convention. He’s wearing non-robotic long leg-braces or KAFO’s over his suit (the only non-exoskeleton wearing instance in the video) and is flanked by two suited white men who hold the walker as he pulls himself up. They move away once he’s upright, like secret service agents retreating after the threat is gone. Though not audible in Upright Nationalism (but perceivable if one is skilled at reading lips), Cawthorn is giving a speech during this performance-- “be a radical for freedom, be a radical for liberty, and be a radical for our republic for which I stand,” timing “which I stand” for the moment he is fully upright. Later in the video Cawthorn is shown walking in a rehabilitation setting with a walker and wearing an exoskeleton over athletic apparel. In this setting he appears as the near ideal physical representation of a medical exoskeleton user as a white, telegenic, and hyper-athletic paraplegic man, as well as the ideological representation by exalting the superiority of standing over sitting or wheelchair use. Cawthorn falls short of these ideals by not being a veteran disabled through combat. Several of the users depicted in the video are veterans, especially in the clips from high profile events or news stories. Nearly all these appearances are covert and overt fundraising events for a nonprofit organization called SoldierStrong, which donates medical exoskeletons, (or “SoliderSuits” as they call them), to Veterans Affairs (VA) rehabilitation centers. In only a handful of the clips do the users own the devices themselves. Only one model is approved by the FDA for home use and the VA is the only health care organization, public or private, which funds personal use of the device (others fund therapeutic sessions in a medical setting).

In other parts of Upright Nationalism, medical exoskeleton users play catch, propose marriage, and kiss their (assumed heterosexual and non-physically disabled) partners. Sometimes an exoskeleton is seen empty without a disabled user wearing it, but still rising from a seated position or walking in a circle held by a trainer like a puppet on a string. Mostly only one exoskeleton user appears in a clip at a time, though sometimes they are together. After Pence’s speech at the RNC he and Trump descended the stage to meet with a group of five white SoliderStrong affiliated veterans wearing exoskeletons in the first row of the standing crowd. The veterans are shown walking towards a clapping and encouraging Trump and later exchanging fist-bumps with Pence.

Filtered in with the medical exoskeleton users are clips from military and industrial/manufacturing exoskeleton users. The military users wear a lower body device over fatigues and are shown running and leaping over rough terrain, lifting a limp body draped over their shoulders, doing back squats with a barbell, carrying a bomb up a hill, and kneeling to take aim with a large rifle. There are computer generated clips of military users running down a flat rock, squatting while holding a gun, and moving in unison in a small group; these scenes resemble a video game. In the clips with industrial/manufacturing exoskeletons the users wear upper body exoskeletons. One clip shows a person holding a power drill in an empty room pretending to use it on an object overhead, while another lifts a box with one arm. Ivanka Trump is shown putting on a device while visiting a Kentucky Toyota Factory in 2019. She smiles and laughs while high-fiving and shaking hands with a Toyota CEO who is also suited up. She lifts a long tool up and down, pantomiming a worker. The video ends with clips of medical exoskeleton users sitting down. The final image is of Trump and Pence doing thumbs up while posing for photographs with the SoliderStrong veterans at the RNC.