Archive for June, 2009
Despite the gradual acceptance of homosexuality in the West since the mid-1970s, many cultures and religious groups still frown upon homosexuality, believing it “unnatural” and “sinful.” In fact, in many African and Asian countries, laws against homosexuality are still strictly enforced; in six of these countries, homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment; it ten others, it carries the death penalty. In light of the still widespread prejudice and discrimination experienced by homosexuals throughout the world, it is surprising to discover that cultures once existed that not only sanctioned homosexuality, but actually believed that same-sex relationships were morally superior to heterosexual ones.
Until the mid-twentieth century, an estimated ten to twenty percent of Pacific Island cultures (especially in Papua New Guinea) practiced ritualized male homosexuality. Most of these tribes believed homosexual sex with older males a necessary step in the process of maturing into men. However, the Marind-anim tribe took their celebration of male homosexuality even further, believing that heterosexual sex was polluting and hazardous to male health. As such, the Marind-anim only engaged in heterosexual sex for the purposes of religious rituals or procreation.
Adolescent Marind-anim males were traditionally initiated into manhood by participating in the “Sosum Ritual.” Sosum (the Marind-anim term for “bullroarer”), referred to a beloved ancestor who was castrated by his female partner’s mother while he was engaged in sexual intercourse. During this ritual, bullroarers and flutists provided energetic background music while the tribesmen danced around a giant crimson effigy of Sosum’s penis. After the dance was completed, the adolescent initiates would participate in orgiastic homosexual intercourse with the elder tribesmen.
Anthropologists believe that the Sosum Ritual reflected the origin of the Marind-anim’s celebration of homosexual practice. Marind-anim folklore is jam-packed with cautionary tales of other unlucky ancestors who had been castrated by the mothers of their female partners. However, the Marin-anim’s religious beliefs had its drawbacks; the strict restrictions put on heterosexual intercourse kept their population extremely low, and inevitably led to a high rate of infertility. Eventually faced with a demographic collapse, the Marind-anim resorted to kidnapping children from neighboring tribes in an effort to maintain a sustainable population. A small number of descendants of the Marind-anim tribe still live in New Guinea, but they have since disavowed their former religious beliefs, having been converted to Christianity by European missionaries.
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Impression Management, also sometimes referred to as, “Identity Management” or “Self-Presentation,” is a theory of personal identity employed by sociologists and social psychologists to describe the manner in which individuals both consciously and unconsciously attempt to shape the impressions other people form of them. Thus, Impression Management theory focuses on the ways and means by which individual actors regulate and control the information that they present about themselves in social interactions.
Impression Management theory was first fully articulated by Erving Goffman in his seminal sociological work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). In this work, Goffman attempts to describe the motivations and processes through which people cultivate, preserve, protect and try to boost their social identities. He highlights two central motives governing self-presentation: the desire to influence others/ gain rewards and the need for personal expression. These motives can be broken down into three specific goals: ingratiation, intimidation and supplication. Ingratiation describes an individual’s efforts to “put their best foot forward,” in social interactions, with the purpose of making people like them. Intimidation is the display of aggression and/or anger, with the purpose of eliciting fear or submission. Supplication explains the ways in which vulnerability and sadness are displayed, in an attempt to elicit sympathy and assistance from others.
Impression management also operates as a means of self-expression. Individuals construct an image of themselves to claim a desired personal identity, and try to present themselves to others in a manner that is congruous with this image. An individual’s Impression Management relies on there being a given definition of a situation, i.e. socially agreed upon expectations within a given context, so that people can model their image presentation appropriately.
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Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological theory that describes the feeling of psychic discomfort created when an individual holds two contradictory thoughts or beliefs that are incompatible with one another. Dissonance theory holds that the greater the inconsistency between the two ideas, the greater the discomfort and desire to reduce the dissonance between the two. As such, a person experiencing cognitive dissonance will typically change their beliefs to conform to their actions, or vice versa, in an effort to reduce their psychic discomfort.
This term was coined by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in his 1956 classic, When Prophecy Fails. Festinger observed a doomsday cult, lead by Chicago housewife Marion Keech, which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood. Ms. Keech claimed that she had been communicating with aliens from the planet Clarion and that she had been warned that a ‘great flood’ would destroy the earth on December 21 of that year. Many of Keech’s followers demonstrated a passionate commitment to this belief, leaving jobs, school and sometimes even spouses and families in preparation for their departure to the planet Clarion via flying saucer (an escape route only open to the “true believers”).
Festinger found that when the “great flood” failed to materialize, Keech’s fringe followers were more likely to acknowledge that their doomsday belief had been and chalk the experience up to a ‘lesson learned.’ However, the ‘true believers’ were inclined to re-interpret the evidence, convincing themselves that they had been right all along (i.e. the earth had been saved by the piety of the cult members). Thus, the anxiety that was produced in the ‘true believers’ after the great flood failed to materialize led them to go to great lengths to rationalize their actions. While psychologists have generally viewed cognitive dissonance as an irrational and harmful behavior, some evolutionary psychologists are now questioning this assumption, positing the theory that cognitive dissonance may be a survival mechanism that operates to limit time and energy wasting second-guessing, so that we can better focus on present challenges.
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In the period between 1830-1860, the United States experienced a massive influx of Irish Catholic immigrants, many fleeing devastating famine and the harsh penal laws of their homeland. This rankled many middle-class Protestant natives, who believed that these newcomers posed a threat to American “values.” Many of these nativists believed that Catholics were “controlled” by the Vatican, and circulated conspiracy theories alleging that the Pope planned to gain control over the government by sending a heavy influx of Catholic immigrants to the United States. Out of these religious tensions sprang the “Know-Nothings”, also known as The American Party, a political movement that strove to curb immigration and naturalization, especially from Catholic countries. They called themselves the “Know-Nothings” as a reference to its origins as a semi-secret society. When a fellow member asked you about the group’s activities, you were supposed to reply, “I know nothing,” to demonstrate that you were not an interloper.
Despite limited political success, the Know-Nothings made their anti-Catholic sentiments felt in other unorthodox ways. In 1854, members the group became incensed when it was announced that a block of marble, donated by Pope Pius IX from the Temple of Concord in Rome, was going to be used in the construction of the Washington Monument. Soon thereafter, a band of Know-Nothings actually stole the “Pope’s Stone” and allegedly threw it in the Potomac River. They also confiscated all official records from the existing Monument Society, and subsequently started their own competing construction committee. Congress, wary of involving itself with the polarizing group, rescinded all of its funding ($200,000) for the project. Thus, construction of the monument came to a screeching halt while the Know-Nothings attempted to raise enough funding to build it to their own “American” specifications.
Four years later, the Know-Nothings returned control of the monument to the original construction society, due to a lack of public support and funding. However, it would take another twenty-one years before Congress finally earmarked funds for the construction of the long-delayed monument. In 1983, a replacement “Pope Stone” was installed on the Washington Monument to great fanfare, more than a hundred years after the Know-Nothing’s infamous crime.
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In February 1968, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite visited Vietnam for the purpose of completing a documentary on the aftermath of the Tet Offensive (January 31, 1968-September 1968), an ambitious military campaign lead by 70,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers against forces from South Vietnam and the United States and their allies. The Offensive was the brainchild of brilliant and notoriously ruthless Vietcong military commander Vo Nguyen Giap, with the purpose of striking at military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam, in the hope of fomenting uprisings amongst the population that would lead to the collapse of the government in Saigon. Despite initially astonishing allied forces, most of the Vietcong were beaten back and the attacks resulted in heavily lopsided casualties for the communist forces. However, the Tet Offensive demonstrated that the Vietcong were a force to be reckoned with; the wily communists demonstrated impressive sophistication, determination and preparedness against the heavily favored and better-armed allied army.
It is difficult to overstate the influence that Cronkite, often called the “most trusted man in America,” wielded over the sway of public opinion. At a time when there were only three television networks, it is not an exaggeration to say that Cronkite’s CBS Evening News was America’s news source. Cronkite returned from his visit to Vietnam deeply pessimistic about the prognosis of the war for the allies, believing that a definitive victory over the communist forces was unlikely.
At the close of his broadcast on February 27, 1968, he introduced the topic to a spellbound America by announcing that he intended to impart “an analysis that must be speculative, personal [and] subjective.”
Cronkite proceeded to share his opinion that the war was likely to end in a “bloody stalemate” and that the Tet Offensive had ended in a draw. When President Lyndon Johnson heard Cronkite’s comments, he was quoted as saying, “That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” This broadcast is widely considered the turning point of the Vietnam War. Soon thereafter, the American public began to forcefully demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, and the anti-war movement hit its zenith as massive student protests erupted across the country. In an interview with CBS’s Morley Safer in 1989, General Giap shrewdly observed that, “The war was fought on many fronts. At the time the most important one was American public opinion.” On his part, Cronkite never regretted his candid broadcast and believed his comments on Vietnam were his greatest achievement as a news anchor.
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The Birth of Mary
In Christianity, The Gospels are the first four books of the New Testament, which describe the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They include the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and it is estimated that they were written between the years 65 and 100 AD. These four books are generally considered the “canonical gospels” and are the only books to be included in the New Testament, despite the existence of numerous other “apocryphal” gospel writings. One of the most influential apocryphal gospels is the Gospel of James, also sometimes referred to as the Infancy Gospel of James or The Protoevangenlium of James, probably written about AD 150. The Gospel of James introduces the concept of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, a central belief included in the dogma of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches. These churches believe that Mary was a virgin before she gave birth to Jesus, and remained chaste for the rest of her life, despite her marriage to Joseph.
The Gospel of James contains several stories “proving” Mary’s chastity, including a test performed by a midwife before Jesus’ birth confirming that she was still “intact.” Moreover, the passages concerning the Nativity (Jesus’ birth) state that Mary did not experience any pains from childbirth, because she was not stained with original sin (thanks to her Immaculate Conception). As an explanation for references made to Jesus’ siblings in the canonical gospels, Joseph is described as an older widower, who had sired children with his first wife prior to his accepting “guardianship” over Mary. Therefore, the “brothers” and “sister” mentioned in these texts are thought to be Jesus’ stepsiblings.
The doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary is considered de fide (essential to the faith) amongst religious denominations that adhere to this belief, with an entire branch of theological study (Mariology) exclusively devoted to studying scripture and teachings concerning Mary. The veneration of Mary is especially prominent in the Roman Catholic Church, especially amongst Latin American worshipers, where Mary’s chastity is revered as a uniquely female expression of holiness, piety and self-sacrifice.
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Robert Frost with Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
When Former President John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, he asked prominent American poet Robert Lee Frost (March 26, 1874-January 29, 1963) to pen his inauguration poem. Never one to shirk the limelight, the 86-year-old poet readily accepted the request. However, when Frost took the podium at Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961, the blinding sun and bitter cold made it impossible for him to read his poem. Desperate to salvage his performance and prevent the newly minted President further embarrassment, Frost recited another poem from memory. Even though Frost remained on good terms with Kennedy, the poet often privately expressed regret for the debacle.
In 1962, Frost met Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin at a Washington dinner party, and the two immediately hit it off. Frost impressed fellow attendees with his opinions about the “right kind of rivalry” between the two countries and the necessity of attaining a high-level modus vivendi. After this fateful dinner, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall suggested to Kennedy that Frost accompany him on a diplomatic mission to the Soviet Union as a “special ambassador.” Kennedy endorsed the idea, and the ailing Frost accepted the invitation, despite suffering from deafness and prostate cancer. Many close to Frost at the time believe that he agreed to go to the Soviet Union in an effort to make it up to Kennedy for having “blown” his inauguration poem.
Frost finally met with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev in the autumn of 1962, and by all accounts the two strong-willed curmudgeons hit it off. However, Khrushchev’s surprisingly laid-back demeanor during these talks masked an ulterior motive: he had begun secretly installing missiles in Cuba during the preceding summer, and wanted to get a sense of how the Kennedy administration was going to respond when they found out. Upon Frost’s return to New York, the poet was met by a gaggle of reporters eager for his impressions on Khrushchev. An exhausted Frost badly misquoted the Soviet premiere, by stating that “he feared for us because of our lot of liberals. He thought that we’re too liberal to fight—he thinks we will sit on one hand and then the other.” This gaffe badly embarrassed Kennedy and angered Khrushchev, deepening the strain between the countries. The President broke off all ties with the poet, and the two never reconciled before Frost’s death on January 29, 1963.
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