Born in 1933, Myrlie Evers-Williams was the wife of murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers. While fighting to bring his killer to justice, Evers-Williams also continued her husband's work with her book, For Us, The Living. She also wrote Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be. Evers-Williams served as chair of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998.
Surprised by the moral outrage expressed by some over the depiction of blacks in The Help, civil rights journalist and activist Myrlie Evers-Williams pens a moving letter at the Hollywood Reporter in defense of the award-winning film.
My mother was “the help.” And so was her mother. I’m telling you these things because they were courageous and they were not alone in their courage. Legions of black women like them — maids and waitresses and caretakers who fanned out across Vicksburg and Mississippi and the South to work in the homes and restaurants and hotels owned, operated and occupied by whites — practiced small measures of courage every day by facing constant violent threat and institutionalized racism instated by the very people they were charged with feeding, rearing and caring for their children. Theirs is an American story that is rarely told on any grand, meaningful scale — not one, at least, that defies stereotype and caricature. But recently, “The Help,” a film based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling book of the same name, became a cultural touchstone when two of its lead characters, both African-American maids in the then-staunchly segregated Mississippi, challenged viewers to walk their journey — to see, as lead protagonist, Abileen Clark, said, “what it felt like to be me.”
To me, The Help is this year’s most outstanding and socially relevant motion picture; Viola Davis’ quiet but powerful portrayal of Abileen made us all take notice of a historically invisible class of women and Abileen’s story, along with those of the other maids who rallied with her to tell it, remind us that when we speak, if only in a whisper, momentous things can happen.
More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).
A recent study by a University of Nevada, Reno economist and a graduate student found that employer-sponsored workers in the United States on temporary visas who acquire their green cards and become permanent residents increase their annual incomes by about $11,860. They studied data from The New Immigrant Survey, a collaborative study of new legal immigrants funded in 2003 by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and other public and private partners. The study, “The Value of an Employment-Based Green Card,” by associate professor Sankar Mukhopadhyay and former graduate student David Oxborrow in the College of Business, was published this month in the journal, Demography. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, from 1999 to 2008, about 1 million green cards were approved each year. The majority of these, 74 percent, were to those sponsored by family or with immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens. However, about 15 percent of those approved for green cards were classified as “employment-based applicants.” These workers are mostly highly educated and highly skilled with college degrees, here on work visas for up to six years. The average wait to obtain a green card, however, is six to 10 years. Of those workers here on this particular type of visa, about 56 percent end up being successful in obtaining their green cards.
From the jaded, not to say cynical, observer of international politics, the passing of the American Century elicits a more ambivalent response. I’d like to believe that the United States will accept the outcome gracefully. Rather than attempting to resurrect Luce’s expansive vision, I’d prefer to see American policy makers attend to the looming challenges of multipolarity. Averting the serial catastrophes that befell the planet starting just about 100 years ago, when the previous multipolar order began to implode, should keep them busy enough. But I suspect that’s not going to happen. The would-be masters of the universe orbiting around the likes of Romney and Obama won’t be content to play such a modest role. With the likes of Robert Kagan as their guide—”It’s a wonderful world order,” he writes in his new book, The World America Made (Knopf)—they will continue to peddle the fiction that with the right cast of characters running Washington, history will once again march to America’s drumbeat. Evidence to support such expectations is exceedingly scarce—taken a look at Iraq lately?—but no matter. Insiders and would-be insiders will insist that, right in their hip pocket, they’ve got the necessary strategy.
more from Andrew J. Bacevich at The Chronicle of Higher Education here.
A s birthday parties go, this one has been a bit of a downer so far. The American Civil War was 150 years old last year, but it went on for four years, so there’s still plenty of time for history buffs in period costumes to re-enact blood-soaked battles; actors to give President Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s speeches, grafting new wings on to a bygone era’s soaring oratory; and writers to churn out volumes chronicling the history of the nation’s deadliest conflict. But, up to now, the reaction has remained oddly muted, suggesting that people in the United States, though apparently still obsessed with the Civil War, remain uncertain about how to remember this troubling event collectively: as triumph or tragedy, as rebirth or mass murder, or as something else again. Or maybe it’s just that Americans are notoriously suspicious of foreign languages, and just what kind of fancy word is sesquicentennial anyway? The problem of how to recall the conflict dates back to its immediate aftermath. With broken bodies still cooling in trenches outside Richmond, and ruined swathes of Georgia and South Carolina still smouldering in the wake of Sherman’s march, Confederate ideologues, having lost the war itself, embarked on a memory project designed to help them win the peace.
more from Ari Kelman at the TLS here.
In a chapter of his memoir, Speak, Memory, Nabokov tells of his nocturnal wanderings through St Petersburg. Real darkness and artificial light conspire to make foreign his surroundings. “Solitary street lamps were metamorphosed into sea creatures with prismatic spines”; “various architectural phantoms arose with silent suddenness”; “great, monolithic pillars of polished granite (polished by slaves, repolished by the moon, and rotating smoothly in the polished vacuum of the night) zoomed above us.” The whole scale is recalibrated, all perspective redrawn, but the young Nabokov laps it up, feeling “a cold thrill” and “Lilliputian awe” as he stops to contemplate “new colossal visions” rising up before him. He is thrown by these hall-of-mirrors distortions but not entirely surprised to be so—after all, he is in “the world’s most gaunt and enigmatic city.” This was 1915 and Nabokov was not the only writer to consider the city enigmatic. One year later, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg was published, a novel which possesses stranger, more fantastic distortions. The characters in Bely’s book are too flummoxed by the city and intoxicated by its swirling yellow mists to share Nabokov’s thrill. Their dazedness hardens into fear, and the reader is thrilled (and admittedly flummoxed, too) by the fecundity of surrealness on show and the sheer exceptionality of such a book coming from such a country at such a time. Nabokov himself approved, declaring Petersburg one of the greatest novels of the 20th-century.
more from Malcolm Forbes at The Quarterly Conversation here.
Frances Farmer was an actress in the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood’s golden era. A goddess among other goddesses, a beautiful woman with a lower-register speaking voice (close your eyes, hear the plangent tones of a French horn). No less a goddess, either, for the relative brevity of her Hollywood career. Frances made only 15 feature films from 1935 to 1942—and a 16th, albeit trashy one, in 1957—appearing in the best of these with such luminaries as Cary Grant (The Toast of New York), Bing Crosby (Rhythm on the Range), Edward Arnold (Come and Get It and The Toast of New York), and Tyrone Powers (Son of Fury). But she was not just a figure of the ’30s and ’40s; she was one of the ’90s and ’00s, too. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” is the fifth song on Nirvana’s In Utero; particularly arresting is the line, “She’ll come back as fire and burn all the liars, leave a blanket of ash on the ground.” Full-bore vengeance on untold millions of Seattle innocents. That’s dramatic enough to make you wonder: What the hell happened to Frances Farmer?
more from Matt Evans at The Morning News here.
Dorian Warren in Salon:
The fate of the labor movement is the fate of American democracy. Without a strong countervailing force like organized labor, corporations and wealthy elites advancing their own interests are able to exert undue influence over the political system, as we’ve seen in every major policy debate of recent years.
Yet the American labor movement is in crisis and is the weakest it’s been in 100 years. That truism has been a progressive mantra since the Clinton administration. However, union density has continued to decline from roughly 16 percent in 1995 to 11.8 percent of all workers and just 6.9 percent of workers in the private sector. Unionized workers in the public sector now make up the majority of the labor movement for the first time in history, which is precisely why — a la Wisconsin and 14 other states — they have been targeted by the right for all out destruction.
The urgency is striking. Instead of being fundamentally discredited, the oligarchs and plutocrats who crashed our economy are raking in record profits and acting even more aggressively to bury the American labor movement once and for all. Over the last year, several labor leaders have told me that they believe unions have only about five more years left if they don’t figure out some kind of breakthrough strategy.
The complete collapse of unions would have devastating consequences.
V. S. Ramachandran at Edge.org:
One of the peculiar syndromes, which we have studied recently, is called apotemnophilia. It's in fact so uncommon that many neurologists and many psychiatrists have not heard of it. It's in a sense a converse of phantom limbs. In a phantom limb patient an arm is amputated but the patient continues to vividly feel the presence of that arm. We call it a phantom limb. In apotemnophilia you are dealing with a perfectly healthy, normal individual, not mentally disturbed in any way, not psychotic, not emotionally disturbed, often holding a job, and has a family.
We saw a patient recently who was a prominent dean of an engineering school and soon after he retired he came out and said he wants his left arm amputated above the elbow. Here's a perfectly normal guy who has been living a normal life in society interacting with people. He's never told anybody that he harbored this secret desire—intense desire—to have his arm amputated ever since early childhood, and he never came out and told people about it for fear that they might think he was crazy. He came to see us recently and we tried to figure out what was going on in his brain. And by the way, this disorder is not rare. There are websites devoted to it. About one-third of them go on to actually get it amputated. Not in this country because it's not legal, but they go to Mexico or somewhere else and get it amputated.
So here is something staring you in the face, an extraordinary syndrome, utterly mysterious, where a person wants his normal limb removed. Why does this happen? There are all kinds of crazy theories about it including Freudian theories. One theory asserts, for example, that it's an attention seeking behavior. This chap wants attention so he asks you to remove his arm. It doesn't make any sense. Why does he not want his nose removed or ear removed or something less drastic? Why an arm? It seems a little bit too drastic for seeking attention.
Hanif Kureishi in the New York Times:
If you’re writing and you get stuck, and you then make tea, while waiting for the kettle to boil the chances are good ideas will occur to you. Seeing that a sentence has to have a particular shape can’t be forced; you have to wait for your own judgment to inform you, and it usually does, in time. Some interruptions are worth having if they create a space for something to work in the fertile unconscious. Indeed, some distractions are more than useful; they might be more like realizations and can be as informative and multilayered as dreams. They might be where the excitement is.
You could say that attention needs to be paid to intuition; that one can learn to attend to the hidden self, and there might be something there worth listening to. If the Ritalin boy prefers obedience to creativity, he may be sacrificing his best interests in a way that might infuriate him later. A flighty mind might be going somewhere.
I might have been depressed as a teenager, but I wasn’t beyond enjoying some beautiful distractions. Since my father had parked a large part of his library in my bedroom, when I was bored with studying I would pick up a volume and flip through it until I came upon something that interested me. I ended up finding, more or less randomly, fascinating things while supposedly doing something else. Similarly, while listening to the radio, I became aware of artists and musicians I’d otherwise never have heard of. I had at least learned that if I couldn’t accept education from anyone else, I might just have to feed myself.
Jonah Lehrer in Wired:
Here’s a brain teaser: Your task is to move a single line so that the false arithmetic statement below becomes true.
IV = III + III
Did you get it? In this case, the solution is rather obvious – you should move the first “I” to the right side of the “V,” so that the statement now reads: VI = III + III. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people (92 percent) quickly solve this problem, as it requires a standard problem-solving approach in which only the answer is altered. What’s perhaps a bit more surprising is that nearly 90 percent of patients with brain damage to the prefrontal lobes — this leaves them with severe attentional deficits, unable to control their mental spotlight — are also able to find the answer.
Here’s a much more challenging equation to fix:
III = III + III
In this case, only 43 percent of normal subjects were able to solve the problem. Most stared at the Roman numerals for a few minutes and then surrendered. The patients who couldn’t pay attention, however, had an 82 percent success rate. What accounts for this bizarre result? Why does brain damage dramatically improve performance on a hard creative task? The explanation is rooted in the unexpected nature of the solution, which involves moving the vertical matchstick in the plus sign, transforming it into an equal sign. (The equation is now a simple tautology: III = III = III.) The reason this puzzle is so difficult, at least for people without brain damage, has to do with the standard constraints of math problems. Because we’re not used to thinking about the operator, most people quickly fix their attention on the roman numerals. But that’s a dead end. The patients with a severe cognitive deficit, in contrast, can’t restrict their search. They are forced by their brain injury to consider a much wider range of possible answers. And this is why they’re nearly twice as likely to have a breakthrough.
From The Root:
In 1993 Rita Dove was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, making her the youngest person — and the first African-American — to receive this highest official honor in American letters. She held the position for two years. In 1999 she was reappointed Special Consultant in Poetry for 1999/2000, the Library of Congress's bicentennial year, and in 2004 Virginia governor Mark Warner appointed her as Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, a two year position. Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952 as the daughter of the first Black research chemist who, in the 1950s, broke the race barrier in the tire industry. In 1970 she was invited to the White House as a Presidential Scholar, one of the hundred most outstanding high school graduates in the United States that year, before attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio as a National Achievement Scholar. She graduated summa cum laude (as well as Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi) with a degree in English in 1973, followed by two semesters as a Fulbright scholar at Universität Tübingen in Germany. She then joined the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1977. In 1976 she met the German writer Fred Viebahn, who was a Fulbright fellow in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program that year; they married in 1979, and their daughter Aviva Chantal Tamu Dove-Viebahn was born in 1983. Appearances in magazines and anthologies had already won national acclaim for Rita Dove when she published her first poetry collection, The Yellow House on the Corner, with Carnegie-Mellon University Press in 1980. It was followed by Museum (1983) and Thomas and Beulah (1986), both also from Carnegie-Mellon. Thomas and Beulah, a collection of interrelated poems loosely based on her grandparents' life, earned her the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, making her the second African American poet (after Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950) to receive this prestigious award.
More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).
Mark Post has never been tempted to taste the 'fake' pork that he grows in his lab. As far as he knows, the only person who has swallowed a strip of the pale, limp muscle tissue is a Russian TV journalist who visited the lab this year to film its work. “He just took it with tweezers out of the culture dish and stuffed it in his mouth before I could say anything,” says Post. “He said it was chewy and tasteless.” Post, who works at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, is at the leading edge of efforts to make in vitro meat by growing animal muscle cells in a dish. His ultimate goal is to help rid the world of the wasteful production of farm animals for food by helping to develop life-like steaks. In the near term, he hopes to make a single palatable sausage of ground pork, showcased next to the living pig that donated its starter cells — if he can secure funds for his research. Post started out as a tissue engineer interested in turning stem cells into human muscle for use in reconstructive surgery, but switched to meat a few years ago. “I realized this could have much greater impact than any of the medical work I'd been doing over 20 years — in terms of environmental benefits, health benefits, benefits against world starvation,” he says. Largely because of the inefficiency of growing crops to feed livestock, a vegetarian diet requires only 35% as much water and 40% as much energy as that of a meat-eater1. Future 'in-vitrotarians' should be able to claim similar savings.
The Belgian writer Georges Simenon was the creator of Jules Maigret, one of the greatest of all fictional detectives: the anti-Holmes, the stout “mender of destinies” who fuels himself with copious amounts of beer and calvados and gets to the bottom of things, not through deductive process, but by intuition and his compassionate feeling for the outer reaches of human behavior. Most literary detectives embody their creator’s fantasy; Maigret is especially unusual in that the jumping-off point seems to be Simenon asking himself not, what would I be like if I were clever or tough, but, more intriguingly, what would I be like if I were a good man? Simenon certainly didn’t see himself as a good man. He once made the outrageous claim that in his life he slept with 10,000 women (or was it 20,000?), most of them prostitutes. And he was just as prolific on the page. In fact, he’s remembered chiefly for the swiftness of his output; he reckoned he could crank out a first draft in eleven days or so, and once agreed to write a book in public, in a glass booth. Simenon was a relentless self-mythologizer, but a pitiless self-analyzer too, from which emerged the invaluable second strand of his output, the so-called romans durs, or “hard novels.” Most of these deal with more or less the same predicament: a character, usually a man, is caught in a trap of his own devising and then pushed to the limit. The best of the romans durs feel raw and electric, because Simenon, despite all his worldly experience and his enormous wealth, never stopped seeing his own life in such anxious terms. He always thought the roof was about to cave in.
more from at the LA Review of Books here.
In one sense, the analysts who forecast that “peak oil”—i.e., the point at which the rate of global petroleum extraction will begin to decline—would be reached over the last few years were correct. The planet is running short of the easy stuff, where you stick a drill in the ground and crude comes bubbling to the surface. The great oil fields of Saudi Arabia and Mexico have begun to dwindle; one result has been a rising price for energy. We could, as a civilization, have taken that dwindling supply and rising price as a signal to convert to sun, wind, and other noncarbon forms of energy—it would have made eminent sense, most of all because it would have aided in the fight against global warming, the most difficult challenge the planet faces. Instead, we’ve taken it as a signal to scour the world for more hydrocarbons. And it turns out that they’re there—vast quantities of coal and oil and gas, buried deep or trapped in tight rock formations or mixed with other minerals. Getting at them requires ripping apart the earth: for instance, by heating up the ground so that the oil in the tar sands formation of Canada can flow to the surface. Or by tearing holes in the crust a mile beneath the surface of the sea, as BP was doing in the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon well exploded. Or by literally removing mountaintops to get at coal, as has become commonplace across the southern Appalachians.
more from Bill McKibben at the NYRB here.
On December 16, 2007, on the two-hundred-and-thirty-fourth anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Ron Paul, congressman and Presidential candidate, presided over a nationwide fund-raiser. This was a new tea party, with a new slogan: “Liberty is brewing.” In Boston, hundreds of Paul’s supporters marched to Faneuil Hall. Paul himself appeared in Freeport, Texas, where organizers had prepared barrels for him to dump into the Brazos River. One barrel read “United Nations”; another read “I.R.S.” The campaign raised more than six million dollars in one day, which was a record, and the event prefigured the protests that became common as the Tea Party movement coalesced, in 2009. The movement, with its focus on economic liberty and small government, sometimes seemed like a continuation of Paul’s campaign for the Republican nomination, during which he won a great deal of attention and a modest number of votes. It’s not much of a stretch to call him the “Godfather of the Tea Party,” as his campaign literature does, quoting Fox News. Ron Paul was ahead of his time. Paul is running for President again this year, in a field that many Republicans find disappointing. And yet, while Paul is doing better, state by state, than he did in 2008, he has conspicuously failed to establish himself as this year’s Tea Party candidate. Polls have shown that voters who support the Tea Party are actually less likely to support Paul—some have gone for Newt Gingrich, whose denunciations of Obama are pithier, or for Rick Santorum, who is more forthright in his defense of “traditional American values.” In South Carolina, where Paul received thirteen per cent of the vote, behind Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Santorum, he did his best among voters opposed to the Tea Party. The Ron Paul movement has grown, but the events of recent years—the rise of the Tea Party, the fights over corporate bailouts, the messy passage of Obama’s health-care reform bill—have done surprisingly little to raise Paul’s standing among Republicans.
more from Kelefa Sanneh at The New Yorker here.
Amitava Kumar in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
The organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival were asked to hand over to the police the videotape of a reading from a novel last month. The tape will show the writer Hari Kunzru and me reading from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, a book banned in India since its publication in 1988. We were protesting Rushdie's absence from the festival. He had been forced to withdraw after extremist Muslim groups expressed displeasure, and, more urgently, when intelligence reports revealed that hired assassins from Mumbai were on their way to kill the writer. (Those reports were later revealed to be fiction. Cops as magical realists.)
On the tape, the police will have seen that, during our reading, I told the audience that just before the start of the protests in Tahrir Square last year, the Google executive-turned-cyber-activist Wael Ghonim had entered Egypt with a message ready on his computer. It said, “I am now being arrested at Cairo airport.” All he needed to do was press Send.
I joked that perhaps Hari ought to do something similar. Within minutes of my saying this, the festival's producer arrived and asked me to stop reading. I didn't. When the reading was over and we came out, a bank of television cameras was trained on us. A Hindi reporter asked me, “Aren't you guilty of provoking religious violence?” And then, a little later, the police were there, informing us that we had broken the law.
I was staggered at the speed at which all of this happened.
Colin Allen in American Scientist:
Does your dog know what you are thinking? Can a chimpanzee understand what another sees? In the three and a half decades since David Premack and Guy Woodruff first asked whether chimpanzees have a “theory of mind,” a considerable empirical and philosophical literature has sprung up around what has come to be called “mind reading” in animals. Theory of mind, as Premack and Woodruff defined it, is the ability to attribute perceptual and cognitive states to others. This is not about telepathy, but about whether any animals besides humans have the capacity to attribute such states to others. Numerous experimental tests and other observations have been offered in favor of animal mind reading, and although many scientists are skeptical, others assert that humans are not the only species capable of representing what others do and don’t perceive and know.
Robert Lurz, a philosopher at Brooklyn College, CUNY, surveys the experiments at the heart of the debate and finds that not one of them solves what he calls “the logical problem” in animal mind-reading research. The logical problem is that for any mind-reading hypothesis, it seems possible to construct a complementary “behavior-reading” hypothesis that makes exactly the same predictions but is assumed to be less cognitively demanding. The basic point is that whatever mind reading is, it is not magic, and thus depends on ordinary, perceivable cues—but these same cues are then available as a basis for expectations about actions that an animal might take without making any mental attribution. If you see me gazing at a piece of cake with a certain look on my face, you may infer that I’m thinking about eating it, or you might instead directly form some expectations about my cake-directed behavior without imagining what I might be thinking about it.
Ode to the Medieval Poets
Chaucer, Langland, Douglas, Dunbar, with all your
brother Anons, how on earth did you ever manage,
without anaesthetics or plumbing,
in daily peril from witches, warlocks,
lepers, The Holy Office, foreign mercenaries
burning as they came, to write so cheerfully,
with no grimaces of self-pathos?
Long-winded you could be but not vulgar,
bawdy but not grubby, your raucous flytings
sheer high-spirited fun, whereas our makers,
beset by every creature comfort,
immune, they believe, to all superstitions,
even at their best are so often morose or
kinky, petrified by their gorgon egos.
We all ask, but I doubt if anyone
can really say why all age-groups should find our
Age quite so repulsive. Without its heartless
engines, though, you could not tenant my book-shelves,
on hand to delect my ear and chuckle
my sad flesh: I would gladly just now be
turning out verses to applaud a thundery
jovial June when the judas-tree is in blossom,
but am forbidden by the knowledge
that you would have wrought them so much better.
(who I believe would be 107 years old today)