Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Monday, January 31, 2011

Let's designate a woman for a holiday

Sometimes I get these crazy thoughts that hit like mortar rounds lobbed from some hidden source, shrapnel everywhere.  They come unprovoked, often when I’m taking a shower, or most inconveniently, when I’ve turned the light off, anticipating a good night’s sleep.  Such unexpected musings doubtless find their sources in the vestiges of a day’s stimuli: TV news, a chance website, a desultory  conversation, something I read.  

Last night, I started thinking about  American heroines, and there are many, and who they are, and why we don’t celebrate them more consistently and noticeably, as in a day set aside, a holiday if you will, something akin to International Women’s Day (March 8), though not a holiday.  Why not a Women’s Day in America, and with holiday status?  We have two specific holidays when American heroes, Washington/Lincoln (President’s Day) and  Martin Luther King, Jr. are honored, and yet no women, who outnumber males. Mother’s Day doesn’t count as a holiday any more than Father’s Day, though they’re great for mall sales.

Me, I’d like to see a day commemorating a specific American heroine who has contributed richly, and vitally, to the American fabric. Yes, I’m a male, but I would like to think in a day of shrinking gender boundaries it doesn’t matter.  What we do need is understanding, fair play, and good will.  We need each other.

And whom would I pick?

In her recent book, American heroines: The Spirited Women Who Changed Our Country, Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson features her roll call of fourteen heroines, among them stalwarts like Emma Willard, Amelia Earhart, Mary Austin Holly, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Sallie Ride.  Heroines they surely are, yet I want more than that.  Hutchinson has written a safe book, free of controversy, a rendition of the feminine scene, sanitized and plastic wrapped like a dry-cleaned comforter.  I want a heroine transcending occupational breakthrough, or singular achievement. I want a heroine fashioned on the anvil of heated struggle for emancipation from the weight of custom in its myriad guises: social, political, economic, and religious.

I want a heroine with an enduring, formidable legacy, effecting change in social consciousness.  I hold that truly great heroes do not merely inspire; they transform.  I have employed this tenet as a litmus test to assess our greatest presidents, for me, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.  We are profoundly affected by their deeds, which also define us as a  nation committed to social justice.  By this standard, I nominate Margaret Sanger.  

She came from poverty, the 6th of 11 born to her mother, who ultimately had 18 pregnancies, before succumbing to tuberculosis  at an early age.  Sanger, called home from school to assist , contracted tuberculosis.  Her mother’s circumstances in a society outlawing contraception would define Sanger.

Becoming a nurse, she gave her efforts to the poor on New York’s East Side, often besieged by women desperately seeking counsel on limiting their offspring.  Courageously, she championed their right to such counsel, coining the term birth control we now use freely. At that  time, advocating contraception was a criminal act, or violation of the Comstock Law (1873), outlawing contraception devices and literature promoting their use and abortion.  Along with pornography, sending such material through the mail could result in prosecution. Sanger was imprisoned eight times. This didn’t deter her from founding clinics to advise on family planning and distribute diaphragms. She is regarded as the founder of the Planned Parenthood organization.

The law remained on the books until 1965, when it was modified, though not revoked, to allow dissemination of contraception devices and literature for married couples. Not until 1972 (Eisenstadt vs. Baird) was it allowed for the unmarried. The pornography provision of the post office act remains.

Sanger is not without controversy, especially for those on the  Christian right.  In 2010, Fox’s Glenn Beck called her “ one of the most horrible women in American history.”  She is often associated with eugenics because she held that the mentally enfeebled shouldn’t be allowed to have children.  She has been called a racist because many of her clinics were located in urban minority areas.  Sanger’s defenders contend that this is simply where the demand was highest, representing impoverished women.  Martin Luther King, Jr. apparently endorsed these clinics and was given an award by Planned Parenthood shortly before his assassination. In truth, she opposed abortion, regarding it as a taking of life no matter when performed.  Birth control was its preventative.

In the mid 60s, the contemporary feminist  movement got underway in earnest with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem.  Certainly, Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) can be regarded as the movement’s manifesto and one of the last century’s most influential books. Still, Sanger made the way easier and paid for her struggle with repeated imprisonment and ostracism.  With her began an incipient shift in the social paradigm, a growing consciousness of a woman’s right to sovereignty over her own body, freeing her with opportunity for greater self-realization and emancipation from poverty.  Without the right  to birth control, the feminist movement  could not have achieved its revolutionary  breakthroughs. 

Today, birth control is exercised as a right, covered by most health insurance, and practiced even among many Catholics.  Sanger lived to see the birth control pill, a pharmaceutical development she had encouraged, her successful efforts in combatting laws restricting contraception easing the way for its distribution.

She is remembered in the Wellesley College Library, where a room bears her name.  There is a building at Stoney Brooke University named in her honor.  In New York City, there is Margaret Sanger Square in Greenwich Village.

Her life story is presented in two films:

    Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story

     Margret Sanger: A Public Nuisance

She needs more than this.  She needs a holiday in her honor.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On Christians and gays

In a story unlikely to grab the headlines, we learn of the death of David Kato, Uganda’s leading advocate for gay rights. 

The other night I caught Piers Morgan’s interview of current high profile preacher, Joel Osteen, whose broadcast services now reach 100 countries. Author of 20 books, his estimated net worth is 40 million dollars.  In the interview, Piers asked his views on homosexuality. Osteen replied that he isn’t a judge, God does that, but that homosexuality is a sin.  (Did I miss something here?) His gospel is one of love.  Hey, I think I’ve heard this line before: love the sinner; hate the sin. Pope Benedict VI informs us that protecting humanity is just as important as saving the world from climate change.

I suppose we should welcome, even with its latent irony, this upgrade in Christian tolerance reflected in Osteen’s remarks, given the historical record.  Christianity, however, isn’t alone in its hostility towards homosexuality. In seven countries, mostly Muslim, the death penalty applies. Iran has executed 4,000 gays since 1979. In the world at large, seventy-six countries criminalize homosexual acts.  While cultural and political contexts may apply, I would argue that the seminal factor, in most instances, is religion. 
In Uganda, homophobia has swept the nation. Its parliament is presently considering a bill calling for the execution of homosexuals, despite the threat of several European nations to cut off aid.  According to Val Kalende, chair of one of Uganda’s beleaguered gay rights groups, “The Ugandan government must take responsibility for David’s blood”  (reported by Jeffrey Gettleman, NYT, Jan. 27, 2011).
She was referring to American evangelicals, who held rallies and workshops throughout Uganda in 2009.  Although these Americans have denied promoting violence, it was shortly thereafter that the antigay bill was drafted, with some of its sponsors acknowledging their attendance at the rallies and subsequent discussion of the legislation with the Americans.  Recently, Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, James Nsaba Buturo, a devout Christian, declared, “Homosexuals can forget about human rights” (qtd.in Gettleman).
Wednesday afternoon, David Kato’s body was discovered. He had been bludgeoned to death with a hammer. Police have suggested robbery as a motive.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Farewell, dear Jack

Fitness guru Jack LaLanne died yesterday at his California home of pneumonia at age 96.  I first began watching him  on TV in the 60s, inspired by his zeal for the healthy life of exercise, juice and veggies.  He set the plate for my turning to weights when I simply couldn’t stand the pangs of being over six feet, yet weighing only 135 pounds.  High school was bad enough, with students calling me giraffe or zipper. Once I was told not to turn sideways, lest they not see me.  

The day I went down to Sears and purchased the110 pound set of vinyl weights, including bar. remains embedded in my memory. I began with an empty bar, starting with one set of 5 reps, before moving to a subsequent set when I could do 6 reps, then to a third when I could complete 7 reps of several exercises.  In the following weeks, I pursued the same regimen, except for adding 5 pounds every week.  I was lucky to have a wonderful little paperback guide to follow, which I still have.  It promised underweight readers that if they followed the exercise routine within six months they would be 25 to 30 lbs heavier.  I worked hard, never missing a workout, saying no to fatigue and distractions.  Every week, two pounds or more in weight gain, six months later, the promise had delivered, and I bathed in a sea of  compliments.
Jack was a pioneer when it came to the value of weights.  In 1936, the pervasive notion was that weights made you muscle bound.  He also fostered body building for women.
His own physical feats were legendary.  When he was 43, he performed 1000 push-ups in 23 minutes.  At 60, he swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf, hand- cuffed, shackled and towing a boat.  At 70, he pretty much repeated the event in Long Beach. 

I had begun to suspect that Jack was exempt from mortality.  I had hoped, at the very least, he could reach the century mark.  Recently, following heart valve surgery, he had remarked that he couldn’t die, for it would ruin his image.  

But now, Jack, you can rest, your inspiration alive and well in all of us privileged to follow your recipe for active living and long life.  Thank you, dear Jack.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why I shut the door on Facebook

I spent at least two years in Facebook, only to become increasingly chagrined about the site. On the one hand, I valued its putting me in-touch with friends, many of them my former students that time and space had relegated to a diaspora of specters. Still, I was uncomfortable with several features. I wanted outreach beyond my circle, with the option of linking with those with whom I shared compatibility of interest.

I also wanted substance, not shibboleths, only to find Facebook a shallow water trough with its drive-by narcissism, the self-pitying, sentimental and hyperbolic.
I tired of the plethora of "I’m going to bed now”; “I’m married to the best husband in the world”; “I thought Friday would never get here.”  Some used the site as a platform for in-your-face political statement.

Then there were those legions of turf conquerors, anchoring their egos in a competitive tally of friends. How can one possibly have 200 or more genuine friends, particularly in Facebook where you often as not get a request for friendship without any message or any to appear in kingdom come?  It vaporizes the very meaning of the term.

What really made me head for the exit was the ubiquitous tampering with member privacy in Facebook’s exponential subordination of one’s profile for mercenary ends revealed in ever more ads.  Now comes the investiture of 1.5 billion from Goldman Sachs and Digital Sky Technology (a Russian conglomerate) lifting the site’s estimated worth to around 50 billion. This investiture, however, will not apply to the U. S. site and its members.  The United States Security Exchange Commission requires companies having more than 499 shareholders to file quarterly reports, a number Facebook anticipates exceeding shortly.  As CNN tells it, “Keeping American investors out of the pool limits the scrutiny   U. S. regulators can apply to the deal” (CNN Money, Jan 21, 2010).

As in life, you sometimes find the noise too much and you shut the door, I shut the door on Facebook.  Did you hear the slam?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The crowning of Colin Firth

I was delighted that Colin Firth won for best actor in this week’s Golden Globe Awards for his role in the spectacular The Kings Speech.  When the film concluded in our local theater, the audience erupted in applause. I can only remember this happening one or two times in many years of seeing movies.  Like many, I first saw him in BBC’s stellar TV production of Pride and Prejudice (1995), where he plays Mr. Darcy, now nearly a pseudonym.  As he wittingly commented in a French magazine interview, “There are three women in my life:  my mother, my wife, and Jane Austen.”  Indeed, he’s played Mr. Darcy in the films, Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) and its sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004).  In a 2003 film, he plays Henry Dashwood from Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in What a Girl Wants (2003).  

I was struck with his wit, eloquence, and sensitivity in his acceptance speech.  I found it the most memorable acceptance speech, not only of the night, but of any similar award ceremony I’ve viewed with their plethora of thank you’s, tears and, sometimes, political advocacy.  Several seasoned commentators on the celebrity scene picked up on this as well.

What I like best about Firth transcends his acting prowess.  A man of conscience and compassion, he waxes hot at injustice.  Founder of  the website, Brightlife, he is engaged in the formidable struggle to bring dignity and resolution to the plight of refugees and indigenous people worldwide.  A splendid actor,  he’s for real as a “royal” human being.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bashing teachers

Teachers have been taking a terrible bashing lately and are increasingly blamed for the woes plaguing our public schools.  Behind this is the assumption that if Johnny and Susie don’t get it, then it’s the teacher ‘s fault. This assumption, familiar to students of logic, is a non-sequitur, since other factors may be at work, among them, a large influx of disadvantaged students, inadequate funding, competing priorities, and a lack of parental involvement. 

For me, while there’s no single factor, I hold that parents are vital to their children’s success. Unfortunately, many homes lack both parents, although many single parents do compensate with valiant, and successful, efforts.  If you ask teachers about what happens when they assign homework, a key indicator of parent involvement, they’ll tell you that much of it never gets done. They may send emails home, make phone calls, yet the problem will persist among some students.  And the teacher is the blame?

The assumption that bad teachers are responsible has exacerbated in the incipient efforts of “civilian” cadres to rid the schools of tenure, seen as protecting these alleged incompetents.  Again, this is another non sequitur.  Tenure does not protect a teacher from dismissal. It does assure, however, due process.  Consider what might otherwise happen, given extraordinary federal, state, and local budget deficits consequent with our economic downturn: one can maximize reductions by targeting senior teachers.  Age discrimination can be neutralized under the pretext that it’s incompetent performance that is the criterion of dismissal.

This debate is now sharply underway in the NYC school system.  It’s further premised that talented new teachers shouldn’t be sacrificed for entrenched, ineffective teachers protected by tenure. Now there is merit to this view, but only if exercised in a context of due process with empirical evidence of incompetence assessed from multiple criteria. I remember well how a few years ago a troubled suburban school district in Illinois found they could maximize savings by dismissing teachers with master degrees.  In fact, the district got rid of all of them.

The No Child Left Behind approach with its reliance on performance measurement, initially of schools, now increasingly of teachers, began in the Republican administration of George W. Bush. Its subsequent implementation is supported by Arne Duncan, current Secretary of education.  Its best known proponent in the DC schools was  Michelle Rhee, who resigned following the defeat of the mayor, who supported her policies. The truth is that despite years of investiture in the billions and reliance upon testing, our schools continue to decline.

I will bring more to this discussion in a later entry.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


from my garden
I’ve never done a blog before, so I looked up sundry models, only to make the discovery that blogs, like flora, fauna, and humans, come in variegated shapes, sizes, and hues.  And so I’ll do what works for me, making mistakes along the way, but with practice becoming more sure-footed. 

In fact, I don’t know quite know how to begin. So many things interest me: hot news items, accounts of injustice and cruelty, scenarios of human heroics and compassion when we can indeed overcome, music, books, etc. I know that I’ve always been in love with the realm of ideas. I enjoy discussion, civilly delivered, rebuttal as well as endorsement. I have always  wanted to have an informed perspective, and I have long held that today’ s truth may  be tomorrow’s lie. I don’t see the wisdom of holding on to the gods of yesterday.  I love the beauty of nature such as  the rose above which graced my garden for several days last summer, reminding me of Keats’ poetic rendering:  “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”  

Do you have an experience you’d like to share that helps define beauty?  It need not be of nature.  In a troubled world, beauty sometimes triumphs in the human spirit, offering redemption and forgiveness, eroding the cynicism that sometimes takes hold.