Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

17 MAY, 2013

Gender Politics and the English Language, Pete Seeger Edition

By:

“Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes.”

“Since the only test of truth is length of life,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her meditation on language, “and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest.” Indeed, language and culture are in constant osmosis, feeding and shaping each other.

From Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) — that remarkable collection of “social media” from the second wave of feminism, which gave us many brave women’s epistles of empowerment — comes this charming letter by legendary American folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger. At the time in his mid-fifties, he explores with equal parts wit and insight the gender politics of language:

The words congressperson and chairperson are awkward words, typical of the ugly words created by scholars and scientists. Working people traditionally simplify language. God bless the English peasants who gave us a hand, if irregular slanguage, by combining Anglo-Saxon and Norman French and discarding the formalities of both.

Why not use a vowel like o: congresso or chairo? And for those who don’t’ want to use the syllable man, likewise change foreman, boilerman, anchorman, newspaperman. et cêtera.

The language, agreed, needs more neutral words. Now’s the time to make the changes more creatively. Incidentally, we might as well face it: we’ve got to invent some neutral pronouns. Saying “his or her” all the time is awkward unless we want to slur it into “hizar.”

As a man, perhaps I have no right to make such suggestions, but as a user of words, I think I do. Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes.

P.S. I’ve been the chairo of many committees, and I like the word.

Pete Seeger
Beacon, New York
February 5, 1974

It’s always a bit disorienting to consider the history of the things we’ve come to take for granted, but Ms. editor and reconstructionist Mary Thom reminds us in the chapter on language, in which Seeger’s letter appears, that the cultural shift toward gender neutrality took a long time. June 19, 1986, was a major turning point for one such thing that shapes modern gender politics: Even after the Second Wave of Feminism had gathered critical mass, The New York Times had been a major holdout against using “Ms.” as a courtesy title for women, clinging instead to the only then-accepted addresses: “Miss” for single women and “Mrs.” for the married. But on that fateful spring day, the Times finally capitulated and joined, after having failed to helm, this seminal and symbolic shift toward women’s independence.

Though Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 is long out of print, used copies are luckily still floating around and are very much worth a grab — the collection is absolutely fantastic from cover to cover.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

16 MAY, 2013

The Letter with Which Adrienne Rich Became the Only Person to Decline the National Medal of Arts

By:

“I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.”

Beloved poet and reconstructionist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 — March 27, 2012) is celebrated as one of the most influential literary voices of the twentieth century, her essays and poems having catapulted into the forefront of collective conscience controversial issues like sexual identity and the oppression of women and lesbians. In 1997, to protest the growing monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, she became the first and only person to date to decline the prestigious National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States, awarded to such luminaries as Maya Angelou, John Updike, Ray Bradbury, and Bob Dylan.

In this 1997 broadcast from the radio show Democracy Now, Rich reads her letter declining the medal, adding to history’s finest definitions of art in what’s one of the bravest and most eloquent acts of political dissent in creative culture. It can be found in Voices of a People’s History of the United States (public library). Full transcript below.

July 3, 1997

Jane Alexander
The National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20506

Dear Jane Alexander,

I just spoke with a young man from your office, who informed me that I had been chosen to be one of twelve recipients of the National Medal for the Arts at a ceremony at the White House in the fall. I told him at once that I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal.

Anyone familiar with my work from the early Sixties on knows that I believe in art’s social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright.

In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.

There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.

I know you have been engaged in a serious and disheartening struggle to save government funding for the arts, against those whose fear and suspicion of art is nakedly repressive. In the end, I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.

Sincerely,
Adrienne Rich
cc: President Clinton

Complement with Rich on love, loss, happiness, and creativity and her indispensable 1978 poetry collection The Dream of a Common Language.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

15 MAY, 2013

Heinz Haber, Disney’s Chief Scientist, Explains the Atom in 1957

By:

What Aristotle, Aladdin, and Captain Nemo teach us about the promise of nuclear energy.

In 1954, Walt Disney entered an unusual barter-economy arrangement with television network ABC: He would provide them with a weekly hour-long broadcast, and in exchange they’d fund the construction of Disneyland. The TV show, originally named after the theme park Disney envisioned and later renamed Tomorrowland, went on to become one of the longest-running series in TV history, producing 54 seasons, 13 of which were hosted by Disney himself.

In January of 1957, two years after the release of Disney’s illustrated gem Our Friend the Atom, German atomic physicist and science writer Heinz Haber (May 15, 1913 — February 13, 1990) — whom Disney had hired as chief scientist at Disneyland and who had authored the book — appeared on an episode of the show bearing the same title as the book and exploring the “exciting possibility” of atomic energy as a new power source for humanity through a mix of science and illustrative animations from Disney films:

The atom is our future. It is the subject everyone wants to understand.

See the wonderful mid-century illustrations from the book, sadly long out of print, here.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.