Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘activism’

09 MAY, 2014

May 9, 1933: Helen Keller’s Scorching Letter to the Nazis about Book-Burning, Censorship, and the Inextinguishable Freedom of Ideas

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“You can burn my books… but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.”

In 1933, as the Nazis began taking over Germany, their parasitic despotism spared no effort in co-opting the country’s people, ideas, and culture. Among the many oppressive tactics was a command to destroy all books deemed to reflect an “un-German spirit.” Nazi leaders enlisted mobs of students in ripping such books from bookstores and libraries, then setting them ablaze in the streets. Within days, a book-burning epidemic spread like urban wildfire across Germany.

Among the blacklisted authors was Helen Keller. Upon hearing the news, Keller, ordinarily a legendary optimist and champion of the human spirit, promptly issued a searing letter to the student body of Germany. Found in Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture (public library) — that fascinating effort to quantify cultural change through the dual lens of history and digital data by analyzing 30,000 books — Keller’s message is at once scathingly outraged and full of inextinguishable humanity.

May 9, 1933

To the student body of Germany:

History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.

You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds. I gave all the royalties of my books for all time to the German soldiers blinded in the World War with no thought in my heart but love and compassion for the German people.

I acknowledge the grievous complications that have led to your intolerance; all the more do I deplore the injustice and unwisdom of passing on to unborn generations the stigma of your deeds.

Do not imagine that your barbarities to the Jews are unknown here. God sleepeth not, and He will visit His judgment upon you. Better were it for you to have a mill-stone hung around your neck and sink into the sea than to be hated and despised of all men.

Helen Keller

Complement with famous authors on censorship and Madeleine L’Engle’s particularly poignant thoughts on the subject, then revisit Helen Keller on optimism and let yourself be moved to tears by her first experience of dance.

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07 OCTOBER, 2013

Edie Windsor, Patron Saint of Modern Love

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“The more we see each other, the more we love what we see.”

At the 2013 New Yorker Festival, I had the existential thrill of meeting the magnificent and humbling Edith Windsor — beloved patron saint of modern love, who invested years of legal battle and decades of personal struggle in making marriage equality a constitutional reality for all of us, and subject of the soul-stirring 2010 documentary Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement. During her conversation with the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy — whose beautiful profile of Windsor remains a masterpiece of magazine journalism, an absolute must-read, and a lamentable case of paywalls robbing culture of culture — 84-year-old Edie spoke with remarkable wit, wisdom, and bravery about her journey and her monumental win for universal love as she was losing the love of her life. Thea Spyer, her spouse of 42 years, who died in 2009 and her death imposed an outrageous estate tax of $363,053 on Edie, which precipitated the landmark United States v. Windsor case that resulted in overturning DOMA.

Portrait of Edith Windsor by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

Here are some of the most memorable highlights from the talk.

On being gay and in love in the 1950s:

It looked impossible.

On the elegant humanity of how acceptance happens:

The more we see each other, the more we love what we see.

On reconciling rejection from family and friends — something Edie knows a grim lot about, given her own homophobic sister didn’t speak to her for thirty years:

You just have to live your life, and the people who can’t catch up, can’t catch up.

On the rewards of her pioneering role in the LGBT rights movement, despite the personal tragedy:

I can’t think of a better position to be in and I can’t think of a better life for myself to have. There’s so much love and such a sense of community.

Her relationship advice to all couples, gay, straight, and varied — a wonderful addition to history’s greatest wisdom on love:

Don’t postpone joy.

But the moving moment, for me, came when I got a chance to ask Edie a question about love and mortality. Her answer, simple and honest and immutably human, was pure goosebumps:

Q: My partner is older than I am, so the prospect of mortality, of eventual and inevitable grief, always haunts the back of my mind. How do you keep love alive after death?

A: I sometimes wish I knew how not to.

Thank you, Edie, for everything.

Try not to tear up at this trailer for Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement:

Complement with Windsor’s Reconstructionist profile and Debbie Millman’s illustrated account of Edie’s historic phone call with President Obama.

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28 JUNE, 2013

After Stonewall: The First-Ever Pride Parades, In Vintage Photos

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“There were no openly gay policemen, public school teachers, doctors, or lawyers.”

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, violent protests and street demonstrations took over the streets of New York after a police raid of Stonewall Inn, the now-legendary Greenwich Village gay bar. Known as the Stonewall Riots, these protests are commonly considered the tipping point at which the LGBT community coalesced into political cohesion and the birth of the modern gay rights movement. On that June morning, equality for all seemed a distant but necessary dream — a dream that has finally become reality a day shy of 44 years later.

In Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution (public library), David Carter contextualizes the remarkable delta of progress that the Stonewall Riots precipitated:

It was only a few decades ago — a very short time in historical terms — that the situation of gay men and lesbians was radically different from what it is today. At the end of the 1960s, homosexual sex was illegal in every state but Illinois. Not one law — federal, state, or local — protected gay men or women from being fired or denied housing. There were no openly gay politicians. No television show had any identifiably gay characters. When Hollywood made a film with a major homosexual character, the character was either killed or killed himself. There were no openly gay policemen, public school teachers, doctors, or lawyers. And no political party had a gay caucus.

In 1970, to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprisings, the very first Gay Pride marches took place in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Digging through the New York Public Library archives, I unearthed some goosebump-inducing photos of the first-ever Pride parades around the world:

New York City Gay Liberation Day, Christopher Street, June 27, 1970 (Photograph: Diana Davies via NYPL)

Gay Liberation Day march and dance, New York City, June 27, 1970 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

New York City Gay Liberation Day, Christopher Street, June 27, 1970 (Photograph: Diana Davies via NYPL)

Gay Liberation Day march and dance, New York City, June 27, 1970 (Photograph: Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Gay Liberation Day march and dance, New York City, June 27, 1970 (Photograph: Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Philadelphia's first Gay Pride rally and march, June 11, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Annapolis students at Philadelphia's first Gay Pride rally, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Philadelphia's first Gay Pride rally, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Philadelphia's first Gay Pride rally, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Philadelphia's first Gay Pride rally, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Chicago Gay Pride celebration, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Toronto Gay Pride march, 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Gay couple at Toronto's first Gay Pride Week, August 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

Lesbian couple at Toronto's first Gay Pride Week, August 1972 (Photograph: Kay Tobin Lahusen via NYPL)

For the complete cultural context on this tidal change, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution is indispensable in its entirety.

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