Archive for August, 2009
Take that, Richard Wright....
By the time that once-acclaimed African-American anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston died on January 28, 1960, her impressive body of work had all but slid into obscurity. All of her stories and novels had gone out of print, and she was all but forgotten until a kindly neighbor lent novelist Alice Walker a copy of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Deeply moved by the novel’s depiction of the experience of being a black woman in the early 20th Century South, Walker embarked on a pilgrimage to research Hurston’s forgotten life and work.
Despite initial critical success, Hurston’s work became marginalized over time for cultural and political reasons that had little to do with the quality of her work. A dedicated folklorist, Hurston’s characters were written in African-American dialect, a style that was generally frowned upon within the African-American community. While this naturalistic approach to dialogue is commonplace in African-American literature written today, many prominent members of the black intelligensia believed that dialect writing reinforced racist stereotypes. The most stinging criticism came at the hands of Richard Wright, the pre-eminent African-American author of Native Son, who wrote in his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God:
… The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is “quaint,” the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the “superior” race.
Wright’s political views and style reflected the prevailing norms of African-American intellectual community during the 1930s and 1940s. Wright’s work was explicitly political, and he believed that other African-American artists had a responsibility to be political as well. Hurston’s work, on the other hand, was mostly peopled with intimate portraits of individual characters and communities, and therefore dealt only indirectly with political issues. As such, Hurston was gradually exiled from African-American intellectual circles, and the critical reception to her work suffered accordingly.
During Walker’s pilgrimage, she discovered Hurston’s unmarked grave in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Determined to honor her idol, Walker installed a headstone in its place, and had it inscribed “A Genius of the South.” Walker memorialized her experience in a 1975 Ms. Magazine article titled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” The publication of this article fortuitously dovetailed with the emerging prominence of many female African-American novelists, such as Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. This resulted in a major revival of interest in Hurston’s work. Now, her novels and short stories are widely read in English Literature classes, and in 2002 she was included amongst scholar Molefi Kete Asante’s list of the 100 Greatest African-Americans of all time.
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Prior to its appropriation by the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) community, the rainbow flag or ‘freedom flag’ has long symbolized diversity, inclusiveness, hope and yearning. The symbolic meaning of the rainbow is rooted in the Bible, when God purportedly used a rainbow to send Noah the message that he did not intend to flood the earth again. The LGBT community appropriated the rainbow flag in the late 1970s, when artist Gilbert Baker created a hand-dyed rainbow flag (consisting of seven stripes), which was flown in the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978.
Shortly thereafter, the demand for the flag increased sharply in the aftermath of the November 27, 1978 assassination of openly gay San Francisco City Supervisor/activist Harvey Milk. In an effort to demonstrate the strength and unity of the gay community after this tragedy, the 1979 Pride Parade Committee officially made Baker’s flag a symbol of the Gay Right’s movement. The Committee also elected to eliminate the indigo stripe, so that they could evenly divide the colors along the parade route (three colors were flown on the opposite side of the street). Soon thereafter, the flag was officially switched to the six-stripe version, and has remained unchanged since. The gay pride flag has been officially recognized by the International Congress of Flag Makers, and is now a ubiquitous symbol of gay pride worldwide. In 1994, a mile-ling rainbow flag was created for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots held in New York City, and was subsequently divided into sections and flown at gay rights events around the world.
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“Rolfing’s foundation is simple: Most humans are significantly out of alignment with gravity, although we function better when we are lined up with the gravitation field.”
Named after its founder, “Rolfing” is a system of gravity-based soft tissue manipulation and movement education that was developed in the 1950s. Rolfing fans and practitioners (called “Rolfers”) claim that it improves posture and movement through the correction of “soft tissue fixations or improper tonus.” Ida P. Rolf, a biochemist turned physical therapist, extensively studied osteopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic medicine and yoga during the 1930s. Dr. Rolf claimed that she found a link between muscular tension and suppressed emotions, and developed Rolfing in response. In sum, Rolfers believe a properly aligned body is able to harness the force of gravity for its own well being, increasing energy, improving overall health and leading to a positive state of mind.
However, Rolfing goes further than chiropractic medicine in that it claims that both physical and emotional health depend on the proper alignment of the body. Moreover, unlike chiropractic medicine, Rolfing involves the alignment of much more than the spine: the head, ankles, hips, thorax, pelvis, shoulders, knees, etc. all much be configured in the proper way in order to fully counteract the negative effects of gravity.
However, despite glowing testimonials from Rolfers, a 2004 review of the practice found that, “there is no evidence-based literature to support Rolfing in any specific disease group.” Rolfers defend the efficacy of the practice, claiming that the “proof” lies in the fact that everyone manifests patterned tension in the muscles of some part of their body, and that releasing this tension helps to improve a person’s overall sense of wellness. Of course, this defense could hold true for any type of massage, and doesn’t necessarily demonstrate why Rolfing is any more effective at relieving tension than any old backrub…..
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The Sylvia Plath effect, is a term coined by psychologist James C. Kaufman in a 2001 paper published in the Journal of Creative Behavior. It describes his finding that creative writers (especially female poets) are more likely to suffer from serious mental illnesses, such as depression and mood disorders. He named his theory after the poet Sylvia Plath, who represents one of the most notable examples of this phenomenon: her life-long battle with crippling depression, detailed in her thinly veiled autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar,” finally drove her to suicide at the tender age of thirty-one. Kaufman’s theory is hardly revolutionary-the link between creativity and “melancholia” was explored by Aristotle- but it is only recently that scientists have attempted to study it scientifically. Some studies on the subject have supported Kaufman’s theory, finding that writers and artists are more prone to chronic depression and other mental illnesses (such as bipolar disorder), and that individuals diagnosed with certain mental illnesses are more likely to be “creative.” One study even concluded that “creative” people are roughly 30 percent more likely to suffer from mood disorders, especially bipolar disorder.
However, some scientists contend that the findings of these studies should be taken with a grain of salt, citing the subjectivity of the research methodology, including selection bias, reliance on past recollections and a vague definition of “creativity.” Moreover, these critics contend that even if “creative” people are more likely to suffer from mental illness, their creativity is not necessary dependant on it. One of the most prominent critics of the “Sylvia Plath effect” is psychiatrist Dr. Albert Rothenberg, who argues that mental illness acts as an impediment to creativity in his book, “Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes.” Rothenberg asserts that creativity and mental illness are mutually exclusive; thus, he believes that the artistic output of so-called “tortured artists” would actually improve if they received proper treatment for their psychiatric condition. He thus believes that the “tortured artist” archetype is ultimately harmful to artists, because they have been led to equate their creativity with their mental illness. As a result, they frequently eschew treatment, fearing that their work will suffer accordingly. This often leads to tragic consequences, most recently illustrated by the suicide of acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself shortly after making the fateful decision to stop taking medication for his bipolar disorder.
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In 1997, Richard Lawrence Miller discovered an 1838 poem in the Sangama Journal of Springfield, Illinois, titled “the Suicide’s Soliloquy” which some historians believe can be attributed to President Abraham Lincoln. After poring over the text, he concluded that it was indeed Lincoln’s work, noting that the meter, syntax, diction, and tone was consistent with Lincoln’s other works. Convinced of its authenticity, Miller announced his discovery in a 2004 newsletter published by the Abraham Lincoln Association. The Suicide Soliloquy reads as follows:
Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through
Though I in hell should rue it!
Sweet steel! Come forth from out your sheath,
And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!
I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!
Historians are divided about whether the poem can plausibly be identified as the work of Lincoln. In support of their theory, believers point out the fact the well-settled fact that Lincoln suffered from episodic bouts of melancholia throughout his life. Moreover, the existence of a Lincoln “suicide poem” has been rumored to exist since shortly after his assassination, when his close friend Joshua Speed told Lincoln’s law partner and later biographer William Herndon, about it in 1865. Speed also confided to Herndon that Lincoln had seriously spoken of suicide on at least two occasions, first at the age of twenty-six and again at thirty-one. Surprisingly, there are few naysayers who have come forward to contest the validity of the poem. Even Harold Holzer, the co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, declared, “It looks like Lincoln. It sounds like Lincoln. It probably is Lincoln.”
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Way back around 300 BCE, the Greek philosopher Epicurus somehow discovered that matter was composed of atoms. (His theory would not be definitively proven until Einstein published a paper on “Brownian Motion” in 1905.) How he came to that conclusion so long ago is a mystery, but many were convinced even at the time.
One of the most prominent followers of Epicurus was the Latin poet http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucretius, who expounded on the master’s teaching in his first-century BCE epic poem De Rerum Natura, or, On The Nature of Things. It’s a marvelous work, poetic, lyrical and scientific all at once. Much of it is an expansion on the theories of Epicurus, but Lucretius did make at least one original contribution to the theory of atomism, and to the debate about the freedom of the will.
In Book II of the poem, in lines 216-293, Lucretius discusses the “swerve” of atoms. Here’s a sample (from a translation by Martin Smith):
When the atoms are being drawn downward through the void by their property of weight, at absolutely unpredictable times and places they deflect slightly from their straight course, to a degree that could be described as no more than a shift of movement. If they were not apt to swerve, all would fall downward through the unfathomable void like drops of rain; no collisions between primary elements would occur, and no blows would be effected, with the result that nature would never have created anything.
What conclusion did Lucretius draw from this random “swerve” of the atom? That human beings have free will: the randomness proves that the universe if not deterministic.
It’s a clever thought, and it’s been an influential one. If you want to read more about it, a quirky place to start would be with a pamphlet called “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature”: in March 1841, it was submitted as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Berlin by a 23-year-old student named Karl Marx.
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Second-wave feminism in the United States concerns the period of feminist activism from the early 1960s through the late 1970s. Unlike first-wave feminism, which focused its efforts on overturning legal obstacles to gender equality, second-wave feminism cast a wider net, addressing inequalities with respect to issues surrounding sexuality, family, work and reproductive rights. One of the most influential (and controversial) legal victories credited to second-wave feminists was Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, or simply Title IX, a law enacted on June 23, 1972 that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Intended to expand opportunities for female athletes, Title IX essentially requires public schools to equally fund men’s and women’s sports programs. Administered and regulated by the U.S. Department of Education-Office of Civil Rights, Title IX in enforceable against all schools or institutions that receives any federal funding; thus, public athletic programs are subject to the dictates of Title IX. As a result, Title IX has received the most publicity for its impact on high school and collegiate sports, despite the fact that the original statute made no reference to athletics.
Title IX has elicited controversy from some groups who allege that it has caused schools to “discriminate” against certain male athletic programs-such as wrestling, cross country, swimming, volleyball and tennis-as schools have responded to a tighter budget by focusing their attention to money-making male sports (such as football). Moreover, critics of Title IX allege that these smaller athletic programs are being scrapped to make way for expanded women’s sports programs. On January 14, 2007, The New York Times published an article titled, “Equal Cheers for Boys and Girls Draw Some Boos,” which followed the aftermath of a successful discrimination complaint under Title IX in Binghamton, New York, which mandated that cheerleaders attend both girls and boys games. In an effort to spread the cheer to both sexes without overloading their schedules, cheerleaders were only allowed to attend home games. According to the article, over half of the aspiring cheerleaders promptly quit the team in protest; some no longer wanted to participate without the excitement of away games, while others admitted that it “felt funny” to cheer for other girls.
However, proponent of Title IX cite statistics demonstrating that it has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on female participation in sports; in 1972, one in 27 girls played high school sports, while currently one in three play. Moreover, advocates contend that although there are more teams available to women than to men, males still pursue athletic opportunities in far greater numbers. In the 2007 reporting year, the male total was 289,800 versus the female total of 196,364.
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