Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

22 MAY, 2013

Arianna Huffington on Redefining Success: 2013 Smith College Commencement Address

By:

“Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over.”

At the zenith of commencement season and its treasure trove of timeless advice — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Neil Gaiman on making good art, and Bill Watterson on creative integrityArianna Huffington shares her wisdom with the young women of the 2013 Smith College graduating class, expounding on the message of her 2007 semi-memoir, On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life (public library). Like some of history’s most memorable commencement addresses, the import at the heart of hers calls for redefining our notion of success by doing away with the treacherous idols of money and power, and instead focusing on the three W’s — well-being, wonder, and wisdom — with an eye toward the next wave of feminism. Transcript highlights and discussion below.

At the center of her argument is a call to challenge our fetishism of money and instead focus on meaning:

Commencement speakers are traditionally expected to tell graduates how to go out there and climb the ladder of success, but I want to ask you, instead, to redefine success.

[…]

At the moment, our society’s notion of success is largely composed of two parts: money and power. In fact, success, money and power have practically become synonymous.

But it’s time for a third metric, beyond money and power — one founded on well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder, and to give back. Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over. And more and more people, very successful people, are toppling over. Basically, success the way we’ve defined it is no longer sustainable. It’s no longer sustainable for human beings or for societies. To live the lives we want, and not just the ones we settle for, the ones society defines as successful, we need to include the third metric.

Irreverently riffing off 1954 Smith graduation speaker Alistair Cooke’s notorious counsel that women’s way to the top would be determined by whom they marry, Huffington advises graduates to “sleep their way to the top” — in the literal sense. Like another wise woman, who knows that sleep is “the greatest creative aphrodisiac,” Huffington emphasizes how profoundly sleep impacts your every waking moment, from your creativity to your mood to your risk of obesity, smoking, and heart disease:

In 2007, sleep deprived and exhausted, I fainted, hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone and got four stitches on my right eye. And even as it’s affecting our health, sleep deprivation will also profoundly affect your creativity, your productivity, and your decision-making. The Exxon Valdez wreck, the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island — all were at least partially the result of decisions made on too little sleep.

[…]

We have to change workplace culture so that it’s walking around drained and exhausted that’s stigmatized. … What adding well-being to our definition of success means is that, in addition to looking after our financial capital, we need to do everything we can to protect and nurture our human capital.

Huffington goes on to note that the Huffington Post newsroom, like in Thomas Edison’s lab and library, is equipped with nap rooms to boost productivity. Echoing Bertrand Russell’s timeless meditation on education and the good life, in which he rhetorically asked, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?,” she points to the essential gift of which the money-mill robs us:

The problem is that as long as success is defined by just money and power, climbing and burnout, we are never going to be able to enjoy that other aspect of the third metric: wonder.

I was blessed with a mother who was in a constant state of wonder. Whether she was washing dishes or feeding seagulls at the beach or reprimanding overworking businessmen, she maintained her sense of wonder, delighted at both the mysteries of the universe and the everyday little things that fill our lives.

Huffington adds to other cultural icons’ collected wisdom on the meaning of life:

I’m convinced about two fundamental truths about human beings. The first truth is that we all have within us a centered place of wisdom, harmony, and strength. This is a truth that all the world’s religions — whether Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism — and many of its philosophies, hold true in one form or another. . . . The second truth is that we’re all going to veer away from that place again and again and again. That’s the nature of life. In fact, we may be off-course more often than we are on-course. . . . When we’re in that centered place of wisdom, harmony and strength, life is transformed from struggle to grace and we are suddenly filled with trust — no matter the obstacles, challenges and disappointments. Because there is a purpose to our lives, even if it is sometimes hidden from us, and even if the biggest turning points and heartbreaks only make sense as we look back, not as we are experiencing them. So we might as well live life as if, as the poet Rumi put it, “Everything is rigged in our favor.”

She concludes by asking this next generation of reconstructionists to conceive of a new way to think about success, particularly in the context of the question of how to be a woman in the world today, by seeking greater access to ourselves first and foremost, rather than greater access to power and its proxies:

So please don’t settle for just breaking through glass ceilings in a broken corporate system or in a broken political system, where so many leaders are so disconnected from their own wisdom that we are careening from one self-inflicted crisis to another. Change much more than the M to a W at the top of the corporate flowchart. Change it by going to the root of what’s wrong and redefining what we value and what we consider success.

And remember that while there will be plenty of signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, there will be almost no signposts reminding you to stay connected to the essence of who you are, to take care of yourself along the way, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible. “Give me a place to stand,” my Greek compatriot Archimedes said, “and I will move the world.”

So find your place to stand — your place of wisdom and peace and strength. And from that place, lead the third women’s revolution and remake the world in your own image, according to your own definition of success, so that all of us — women and men — can live our lives with more grace, more joy, more empathy, more gratitude and, yes, more love.

Pair with Huffington’s On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life, then complement with other fantastic commencement addresses by Bill Watterson, Debbie Millman, Neil Gaiman, Greil Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Jacqueline Novogratz, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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.

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 (May 3, 1919–January 27, 2014). 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

Why 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, essayist, 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 spectacular letter — one of the bravest and most eloquent acts of political dissent in creative culture, and a superb addition to history’s finest definitions of art — later published in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (public library).

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 1977 commencement address on claiming an education, then see why Sartre became the first person to decline the Nobel Prize.

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.

10 MAY, 2013

The Politics of Homosexuality, 20 Years Later

By:

“Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.”

On May 10, 1993, The New Republic published a seminal essay by Andrew Sullivan — the magazine’s then-editor, currently purveyor of some of the internet’s finest political and cultural commentary on The Dish — titled “The Politics of Homosexuality.” Based on a series of talks he had given on college campuses around the United States and later included in his fantastic 1996 book Virtually Normal (public library), the intelligent treatise was in large part spurred by the impending ban on openly gay soldiers serving in the military, which spawned the notorious Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and presages with remarkable lucidity today’s peaking debates about marriage equality.

Those of us who came of age in a culture that would rarely, if ever, entrap us in the pressure chamber of being “in” anything in order to come “out” of it, who have been free to live our lives with dignity and honesty and full ownership of our hearts, owe much of that privilege to Andrew’s tireless, paradigm-shifting advocacy over the past two decades.

He observes the “unnerving confusion of roles and identities”:

Where once there was only the unmentionable, there are now only the unavoidable: gays, “queers”, homosexuals, closet cases, bisexuals, the “out” and the “in”, paraded for every heterosexual to see. As the straight world has been confronted with this, it has found itself reaching for a response: embarrassment, tolerance, fear, violence, oversensitivity, recognition.

Presenting a taxonomy of the politics of homosexuality, Sullivan explores three main archetypes of relating to the issue — the conservatives, the radicals, and the moderates, all of whom engage in various and often conflicting forms of ghettoization and oppression — and offering a remarkably prescient admonition:

This fracturing of discourse is more than a cultural problem; it is a political problem. Without at least some common ground, no effective compromise to the homosexual question will be possible. Matters may be resolved, as they have been in the case of abortion, by a stand-off in the forces of cultural war. But unless we begin to discuss this subject with a degree of restraint and reason, the visceral unpleasantness that exploded earlier this year will dog the question of homosexuality for a long time to come, intensifying the anxieties that politics is supposed to relieve.

[…]

There are as many politics of homosexuality as there are words for it, and not all of them contain reason. And it is harder perhaps in this passionate area than in any other to separate a wish from an argument, a desire from a denial. Nevertheless, without such an effort, no true politics of sexuality can emerge.

He warns against radicalism’s particular brand of toxic paradox:

The trouble with gay radicalism … is the problem with subversive politics as a whole. It tends to subvert itself.

[…]

More important, the notion of sexuality as a cultural subversion distanced it from the vast majority of gay people who not only accept the natural origin of their sexual orientation, but wish to be integrated into society as it is. For most gay people – the closet cases and barflies, the construction workers and investment bankers, the computer programmers and parents — a “queer” identity is precisely what they want to avoid. In this way, the radical politics of homosexuality is caught in a political trap. The more it purifies its own belief about sexuality, the less able it is to engage the broader world as a whole. The more it acts upon its convictions, the less able it is to engage in politics at all.

This, Sullivan argues, is to the detriment of those most in need of an inclusive politics of identity:

“[Q]ueer” radicalism’s doctrine of cultural subversion and separatism has the effect of alienating those very gay Americans most in need of support and help: the young and teenagers. Separatism is even less of an option for gays than for any other minority, since each generation is literally connected umbilically to the majority. The young are permanently in the hands of the other. By erecting a politics on a doctrine of separation and difference from the majority, “queer” politics ironically broke off dialogue with the heterosexual families whose cooperation is needed in every generation if gay children are to be accorded a modicum of dignity and hope.

Despite the discussion of formal politics, in a sentiment that has been recently echoed, twenty years later, Sullivan argues that the most important political act a gay person can take is coming out:

Far more subversive than media-grabbing demonstrations on the evening news has been the slow effect of individual, private Americans becoming more open about their sexuality. The emergence of role models, the development of professional organizations and student groups, the growing influence of openly gay people in the media, and the extraordinary impact of AIDS on families and friends have dwarfed radicalism’s impact on the national consciousness. Likewise, the greatest public debate about homosexuality yet — the military debate — took place not because radicals besieged the Pentagon, but because of the ordinary and once-anonymous Americans within the military who simply refused to acquiesce in their own humiliation any longer. Their courage was illustrated not in taking to the streets in rage but in facing their families and colleagues with integrity.

In debunking the oft-cited similarity between discrimination based on ethnicity and discrimination based on sexual orientation, Sullivan points out that unlike skin color, which travels with the generations and thus offers an implicit bond of belonging, homosexuality occurs sporadically within the community and the family unit, and can thus produce even deeper isolation for the individual. He writes:

To reach puberty and find oneself falling in love with members of one’s own sex is to experience a mixture of self-discovery and self-disgust that never leaves a human consciousness. If the stigma is attached not simply to an obviously random characteristic, such as skin pigmentation, but to the deepest desires of the human heart, then it can eat away at a person’s sense of his own dignity with peculiar ferocity. When a young person confronts her sexuality, she is also completely alone. A young heterosexual black or Latino girl invariably has an existing network of people like her to interpret, support, and explain the emotions she feels when confronting racial prejudice for the first time. But a gay child generally has no one. The very people she would most naturally turn to — the family — may be the very people she is most ashamed in front of.

The stigma attached to sexuality is also different that that attached to race because it attacks the very heart of what makes a human being human: her ability to love and be loved. Even the most vicious persecution of racial minorities allowed, in many cases, for the integrity of the marital bond or the emotional core of a human being. When it did not, when Nazism split husbands from wives, children from parents, when apartheid or slavery broke up familial bonds, it was clear that a particularly noxious form of repression was taking place. But the stigma attached to homosexuality begins with such a repression. It forbids, at a child’s earliest stage of development, the possibility of the highest form of human happiness. It starts with emotional terror and ends with mild social disapproval. It’s no accident that later in life, when many gay people learn to reconnect the bonds of love and sex, they seek to do so in private, even protected from the knowledge of their family.

Arguing that anti-discrimination laws only scratch the surface of the problem rather than addressing its core, he writes:

They want to substitute for the traumatic and difficult act of coming out the more formal and procedural act of legislation. But law cannot do the work of life. Even culture cannot do the work of life. Only life can do the work of life.

But as insufficient as anti-discrimination laws may be, the notion of indoctrinating discrimination into the law is contrary to the very tenets on which a society claiming to be democratic is based:

The military ban is by far the most egregious example of proactive government discrimination in this country. By conceding, as the military has done, the excellent service that many gay and lesbian soldiers have given to their country, the military has helped shatter a thousand stereotypes about their nature and competence. By focusing on the mere admission of homosexuality, the ban has purified the debate into a matter of the public enforcement of homophobia. Unlike anti-discrimination law, the campaign against the ban does not ask any private citizens to hire or fire anyone of whom they do not approve; it merely asks public servants to behave the same way with avowed homosexuals as with closeted ones.

[…]

Its real political power — and the real source of the resistance to it — comes from its symbolism. The acceptance of gay people at the heart of the state, at the core of the notion of patriotism, is anathema to those who wish to consign homosexuals to the margins of society. [Even liberals] find it hard to fit the cause simply into the rubric of minority politics. For instead of seeking access, as other minorities have done, gays in the military are simply demanding recognition. They start not from the premise of suppliance, but of success, of proven ability and prowess in battle, of exemplary conduct and ability. This is a new kind of minority politics. It is less a matter of complaint than of pride; less about subversion than about the desire to contribute equally.

And yet, in another farsighted insight, Sullivan recognizes that the military ban is a microcosm of a much larger, much more deeply human concern — one currently on the precipice of a historic shift:

The critical measure necessary for full gay equality is something deeper and more emotional perhaps than even the military. It is equal access to marriage. As with the military, this is a question of formal public discrimination. If the military ban deals with the heart of what it is to be a citizen, the marriage ban deals with the core of what it is to be a member of civil society. Marriage is not simply a private contract; it is a social and public recognition of our personal integrity. Denying it to gay people is the most public affront possible to their civil equality.

Like a family engaged in the first, angry steps toward dealing with a gay member, the country has been forced to debate a subject honestly — even calmly — in a way it has never done before. This is a clear and enormous gain. Whatever the result of this process, it cannot be undone.

You can say that again, Andrew. No doubt in another twenty years, we’ll look back on these failings of democracy and human rights with the same profound cultural embarrassment that haunts our collective memory as it uncomfortably traces the issues that spurred Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights movement.

The move towards marriage equality between 1970 and 2012 via The Atlantic Wire

The heterosexuality of marriage is civilly intrinsic only if it is understood to be inherently procreative; and that definition has long been abandoned in civil society. In contemporary America, marriage has become a way in which the state recognizes an emotional and economic commitment of two people to each other for life. No law requires children to consummate it. And within that definition, there is no civil way it can logically be denied homosexuals, except as a pure gesture of public disapproval. . . .

In the same way, emotionally, marriage is characterized by a kind of commitment that is rare even among heterosexuals. Extending it to homosexuals need not dilute the special nature of that commitment, unless it is understood that gay people, by their very nature, are incapable of it. History and experience suggest the opposite. It is not necessary to prove that gay people are more or less able to form long-term relationships than straights for it to be clear that, at least, some are. Giving these people a right to affirm their commitment doesn’t reduce the incentive for heterosexuals to do the same, and even provides a social incentive for lesbians and gay men to adopt socially beneficial relationships.

The first couple to receive a same-sex marriage license in Washington state in December of 2012: Jane Abbott Lighty, 77, and Pete-e Peterson, 85, who have been together over 35 years. (Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

The law, thus, robs gay people of an essential human aspiration, making them keenly aware of the robbery, which takes place in broad daylight, at the public square:

Gay people always know this essential affirmation will be denied them. Thus their relationships are given no anchor, no endpoint, no way of integrating them fully into the network of family and friends that makes someone a full member of civil society. Even when those relationships become essentially the same — or even stronger — than straight relationships, they are never accorded the same dignity of actual equality. Husbands remain “friends”; wives remain “partners”. The very language sends a powerful signal of fault, a silent assumption of internal disorder or insufficiency. The euphemisms — and the brave attempt to pretend that gay people don’t need marriage — do not successfully conceal the true emotional cost and psychological damage that this signal exacts. No true progress in the potential happiness of gay teenagers or in the stability of gay adults or in the full integration of gay and straight life is possible, or even imaginable, without it.

These two measures — simple, direct, requiring no change in heterosexual behavior and no sacrifice from heterosexuals — represent a politics that tackles the heart of homophobia while leaving homophobes their freedom. It allows homosexuals to define their own future and their own identity and does not place it in the hands of the other. It makes a clear, public statement of equality, while leaving all the inequalities of emotion and passion to the private sphere, where they belong. It does not legislate private tolerance, it declares public equality. It banishes the paradigm of victimology and replaces it with one of integrity. It requires one further step, of course, which is to say the continuing effort for honesty on the part of homosexuals themselves. This is not easily summed up in the crude phrase “coming out”; but it finds expression in the myriad ways in which gay men and lesbians talk, engage, explain, confront, and seek out the other. Politics cannot substitute for this; heterosexuals cannot provide it. And while it is not in some sense fair that homosexuals have to initiate the dialogue, it is a fact of life. Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.

May 2013 New Yorker cover by Chris Ware, celebrating a Mother's Day of equality with a two-mom family

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was signed into law seven months after “The Politics of Homosexuality” was published. It wasn’t repealed until 2011, three months after New York State passed its historic Marriage Equality Act allowing for gender-neutral marriage. On May 9, 2012, President Barack Obama declared his support for marriage equality.

Virtually Normal is excellent and enormously important in its entirety.

Today, Andrew writes about these issues and many more dimensions of contemporary culture, and is at the helm of yet another revolution, defying the broken model of funding journalism by breaking off from the media establishment and building an ad-free, reader-supported haven for intelligent cultural commentary. Join me in supporting him and his small team 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.