“Our nearest neighbor, Canada, has four women on its nine-member court, and one is their chief justice. And they’re a great group. Now what’s the matter with us? You know, we can do better.”- Sandra Day O’Connor
On July 7, 1981, President Ronald Reagan announced that he intended to nominate Sandra Day O’Connor, a 51-year-old judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, for a position on the United States Supreme Court. With the selection, the Gipper fulfilled a campaign promise to pick a woman for the Court as soon as a spot on the bench opened up.
Conservatives derided her lack of federal judicial experience and claimed she was lacking in constitutional knowledge. They considered her a wasted nomination and suspected her position on abortion. Liberals, on the other hand, could not deny their satisfaction at seeing a woman on the High Court, but they were dismayed at O’Connor’s apparent lack of strong support for feminist issues.
In time, however, O’Connor has come to answer all these criticisms. O’Connor has emerged from the shadow of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and the Court’s conservative bloc with her own brand of pragmatic and centrist-oriented conservatism. Even those liberals who branded her a “traitor” in her early years for compromising on abortion rights, now appreciate her efforts to keep the “pro-choice” message of Roe v. Wade (1973) alive.
“It was impossible for the Church to compel man to obey the law of God, and to send him to eternal damnation for his failure to do so.”- John Humphrey Noyes.
Prevailing American attitudes towards hippies reflect a deep ambivalence (affection contradicted by contempt, obsession contradicted by irony-(to borrow from Sontag)) toward the subject matter, to say the least. On the positive end, hippies produced some great music, shattered the taboo on casual sex and really knew how to have a good time. That being said, their endless peace-mongering drum circle shtick was annoying as hell, especially in light of the fact that their “establishment” parents were footing the bill, but I digress….
Anyway, while the hippies deserve the lion’s share of credit for mainstreaming fornication, “free love” was practiced in America long before Woodstock. In fact, the “free love” Oneida Community, founded in New York State by John Humphrey Noyes during the turbulent decades before the Civil War, practiced an extraordinary system of “complex marriage”. In fact, for more than thirty years, the two hundred adult members of the Oneida Community considered themselves heterosexually married to the entire community rather than to a single monogamous partner.
Noyes, deeply influenced by the religious revivalism that swept through New York and New England in the first third of the nineteenth century, based his ideas for the new social order in religious perfectionism. All members of the Oneida commune were expected to “take on the task of personal reform and self-betterment”. In accordance with this belief, Noyes decreed that his flock enter into “complex marriages”, under which members of Oneida chose their sexual partners freely. He believed “or at least claimed to believe) that complex marriage as it was practiced at Oneida would eliminate selfishness and possessiveness in sexual and social relationships.
Noyes can be credited with granting his female followers equal voice in the governance of the commune, especially when you consider that he came of age in antebellum America. The commune had its very own community nursery that provided care for infants and children so that both parents could work. Females adopted a style of dress, believed to have been copied from the Iroquois, consisting in a short skirt over trousers (bloomers). This allowed them the luxury of actually being able to breathe and move freely in their clothing, in stark contrast to the punishing corsets that their contemporaries were expected to wear (with a gracious smile).
However, Noyes was hardly the king of Kumbaya. He sexually manipulated many of his followers and his commune was hardly a democracy. Noyes was well aware of the gendered application of power in his rule of Oneida, and he often tried to control other men in the community through his sexual use of women. He also consolidated his power over women through sexual relationships. In 1874 Noyes bragged of an “exquisite little romance” he was conducting with thirteen-year-old Lillian Towner, the daughter of James Towner, the leader of an anti-Noyes faction. Yikes!
Dubbed the last true samurai by his fellow countrymen, Saigō Takamori (1828-1877) is considered one of the most influential samurais of Japanese history. He lived during the late Edo Period and Early Meiji Era, a time of great political upheaval in Japan. Leader of the Meiji Restoration, Saigō played a key role in overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, an event that many historians consider a watershed moment in Japanese history, as it brought about the end to Japan’s feudal age.
Unusual amongst his isolationist peers, Saigō advocated an aggressive foreign policy that many others deemed both unrealistic and unwise. By 1877, he had grown disillusioned and frustrated with what he considered the weakness of the new government and its lack of honor. He subsequently led a rebellion against the government, knowing he would lose and that it would result in his death.
The combination of his role in the futile Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, as well as the important part he played in the Meiji Restoration, has made him a national hero in Japan. A striking bronze statue of Saigō walking his dog stands in Ueno Park, Tokyo, and serves as an important landmark that Tokyoites use as a meeting point. Designed by famous Japanese sculptor Takamura Koun, it was unveiled to the public in December 1898.
The American outlaw and bank robber Jesse James (the subject of today’s entry in The Intellectual Devotional, Biographies Edition) has been the subject of dozens of pop culture artifacts: novels and comic books and songs and TV shows. He is also the subject of at least 25 movies. The 1939 “Jesse James” isn’t necessarily the best, it does occupy a spot in movie history, albeit a rather bizarre one.
Toward the end of the film, Jesse (Tyrone Power) and his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) are on the run on a pair of horses. They get to a cliff over a lake, with marshals closing in behind them. Nowhere to go but down into the water, horses and all.
How did director Henry King make it look like he actually threw the horses over the cliff? By actually throwing the horses off the cliff. Were the animals harmed in the making of the picture? Well, one of them died. This wouldn’t do.
The American Humane Association immediately began monitoring the use of animals in film productions, and, since 1980, The Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers have required that every move made by their members get AHA approval. If the AHA is happy with the product, the producers can add the trademarked “No Animals Were Harmed”® slogan to their credit sequence.
To see the first scene that the AHA was NOT happy with, skip to about 2:30 in the clip below. (Fair warning: nothing too gruesome, but those are real horses jumping off the cliff.)
“What’s up, Doc?” Elmer Fudd’s spear and magic helmet, of course! What’s Opera, Doc? the 1957 animated cartoon, features Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny through a 6:11 operatic parody of 19th century classical composer Richard Wagner’s operas, particularly The Ring Cycle and Tannhäuser. The cartoon reflects an image of opera that comes straight from Wagner–the overweight, stentorian soprano wearing horns and breastplates, shrieking rather than singing her part in a feast of noise, gongs and melodrama. Were Wagner’s operas really this over the top?
The short answer is YES. Wagner had an ego as big as his operas, and liked shaping his own public image. While he only wrote 13 operas (sorry, “music dramas”!) during his lifetime, Most of them are several hours long with massive orchestras, extremely loud combinations of instruments, epic plots, and difficult singing parts. A production of the entire Ring Cycle, which consists of four epic operas, runs approximately 14-16 hours long (depending on the performance)!
The story of The Ring Cycle comes, in a very general way, from the old Norse/Germanic legend of the Nibelungenlied (“The Song of the Dwarves”). Wagner wanted to invoke his beloved ancestral legends and put them to use to explore the relationship between love and earthly power, and themes of yearning and loss. He outfitted his mythical characters (who tend to be knights, nymphs, dwarfs and a hodgepodge of other warlike beings) in full armor, horned helmets (or wings) and with elaborate braided coiffures for his leading ladies.
Now, about the ‘fat ladies’ and the stentorian voice: Wagner made demands on his singers such as no one had ever made before and few have since. He increased the size of his orchestra to titanic proportions, and required his singers to be heard over them for longer periods than ever before; a typical Wagner opera will run well over four hours.
As if that weren’t enough, the size of a major opera hall today is perhaps three times anything Wagner ever planned for. It takes enormous strength and stamina to sing a Wagner opera, and the rare voices capable of it tend not to come on small frames. However, most Wagnerians assert that the girth of his leading ladies has been greatly exaggerated— they may have had some junk in the trunk, but they were no fatties.
Robert Morrison, China’s first Protestant Missionary
Hong Xiuquan, the subject of today’s entry in “The Intellectual Devotional: Biographies,” led his 1851 “Taiping Rebellion” (which killed over 20 million people) in order to install himself as the Emperor of China. Throughout the fourteen-year rebellion, however, Xiuquan claimed that he was the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. It was an unusual sentiment in China at the time, to say the least. And it wouldn’t have been possible without Robert Morrison.
Morrison was the first Protestant missionary to enter China. He worked toward the conversion of China’s one billion inhabitants to Christianity. He managed ten baptisms. Unimpressive as that number may be, Morrison did also manage a translation of the entire Bible into Chinese, with the help of Liang Fa—China’s first Protestant minister, ordained by Morrison.
Fa was converted to Christianity after reading Morrison’s Bible. (Morrison had originally contacted Liang because he owned a printing press, and he needed help printing and distributing his translation in violation of Chinese law.) Morrison’s translation of the New Testament was complete and printed by 1813, and the Old Testament soon followed. He and Liang also published a number of commentaries and summaries of the Biblical texts. Twenty years later, in 1836, Hong Xiuquan would hear a missionary preaching from these texts. He decided, then and there, that things needed to change.
The Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus remains one of the most important figures in the history of science. The system of Latin names still used today — for everything from “Paramecium aurelia” to “Homo sapiens” — is indebted to his original system, as laid out in his 1735 book “Systema Naturae.” But can individual organisms really be divided so neatly into “species”?
The Austrian-English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would have argued “no.” In 1953, he published his magnum opus, the “Philosophical Investigations.” It’s a favorite work of Devoted Intellectuals, but Wittgenstein’s subtle ideas still haven’t made their way into the mainstream, the way that Linnaeus’ have. The idea with the greatest bearing on the “system of nature” is what Wittgenstein called “family resemblance.” Here’s his description, in the context of classifying and defining “games”:
“Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “-but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!
“Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.
“Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear.
“When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.– Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.
“Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! sometimes similarities of detail.
“And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.
“And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.” (I.66)
So if all “games” don’t have one or a few specific things in common, how do we know to call these various activities by the same name? In the next section, Wittgenstein proposes a brilliant solution:
“I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way.-And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.” (I.67)
This is one of Wittgenstein’s most influential ideas, but it has never been rigorously applied to the field of biology. Should we stop thinking of “species” in terms of rigid hierarchies — and Linnaeus’ systems — and start building networks of “family resemblance”?