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For Those of Us Who Believe

October 01, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

For those of us who watched with innocence, then passion, then consternation, the results of the 1991 senate hearing for supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas; for those who championed film stars, then ordinary women daring, finally, to call out Harvey Weinstein and a stream of male predators; for those who watched with confidence the rise of #MeToo; for those of us who wrote poems and songs and opinions hailing a real cultural shift in female-male dynamics; for those of us still unable to admit being sexually abused; for those of us who finally confessed some discomforts to our lovers; for those of us who overcame difficulties to tell our sons and our daughters about those endemic secrets; for those of us who believe openness and dialogue are healthy and transformative--: we now fear we were misguided.

            The misogynist and white culture of privilege in the U.S.A. was again evident during the recent senate hearing to evaluate Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court.

            The end of Friday’s judiciary committee hearing suggests accommodation was reached by member senators. But to do what? Demonstrate a real solution was found to test the veracity of the parties involved and affirm that senate confirmation is a noble process? The delay (to call in the FBI) may allow more time for Americans to debate and for our infotainment industry to distract us from the urgent, decisive elections just weeks away. (This while a narrowly circumscribed FBI investigation is conducted in secret.)

            Committee senators have cast their vote; the number in Kavanaugh’s (and Trump’s) favor suggests the nominee’s success. Whether confirmation would drive outraged citizens (Democrats and others) on Election Day to determinedly ouster stalwart Republican office-holders remains to be seen. If Kavanaugh is rejected, there will be a lot of satisfied women and men on one side, but maybe many more recalcitrants on the other. Again, how this will manifest on November 6th is uncertain.

            Simply from the way these hearings evolved –a spectacle L.A. Times' Lorraine Ali descrives as unmatched raw politicizing -- I wonder if the process we have witnessed actually reinforces how deeply misogynist and white male-privileged American culture is. From the arrival of nominee-Dad with teenage daughter, his awesome welcome into the hearing, adorned by senate sycophants, proceeding through rumors, press reports, to a face-off-- testimonies by the ‘injured woman’ and the defending nominee—wrapped up with theatrical declarations by the candidate’s partisans and a phony compromise to bring the curtain down on Friday’s performance, America remains far, far from gender equity and open democratic processes. END

 

[ For Those of Us Who Believe ]

How Many More Women Are There?

September 24, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

How many more women await our discovery?

            My question is not related to ongoing exposés of sexual abuse suffered by women under a culture of male privilege and dominance-- the culture known by the new trope #MeToo. What concerns me here is a seemingly unrelated silence and need for exposure, namely accomplishments of women scientists. This too is being newly addressed, although desultorily.

            Like millions of others I was alerted to the history of women in science after viewing Hidden Figures http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/hidden-figures/. This celebrated film features three African American women working in the 1950s U.S. space program. It’s based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, herself African American whose parents and neighbors were themselves professionals working in the time and place of that story. So compelling were Shetterly’s revelations, it took just two years from the book’s release to the film’s completion. While this film is making a profound social impact, to grasp the full context of the involvement of African American scientists and women in general in the U.S. government’s pioneering space projects, read Shetterly’s full account. Book or film, Hidden Figures will propel more African Americans into the sciences while it impresses on all women the need to move from the margins into the center of public life.     

            Another “hidden figure” is revealed with the recent award of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics to British physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Had the monetary award not been $3. million, her story likely wouldn’t be featured in a major U.S. newspaper. Nevertheless the article is an opportunity to learn, once again, how a brilliant student of physics, somehow, despite adversarial male and institutional attitudes, managed what many of us cannot: she remained at work, applied her genius and pursued her irrepressible love of science. Burnell persisted despite her Cambridge supervisor, not Burnell, winning a Nobel Prize for his research on pulsars, a discovery she had made. (http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/she-made-the-discovery-but-a-man-got-the-nobel-a-half-century-later-she%e2%80%99s-won-a-dollar3-million-prize/ar-BBMZ9PT?li=BBnb7Kz&ocid=LENDHP That interview with provides the all too common narrative of how modesty allowed Burnell to demure to her male colleagues, and be upstaged by her professor. In this account we hear more about her modesty than her professional history and ongoing work at Oxford.

            This review regrettably includes a flawed note on other “hidden figures”. It mentions the white scientist Rosalind Franklin and the award-winning recent film but fails to name mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson and engineer Mary Jackson featured there. When will we learn to know, repeat and apply these women’s names? Dorothy Vaughan; Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson; Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson; Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson. And add Margot Lee Shetterly http://margotleeshetterly.com/ to that deserving list.

            Not long after perusing Shetterly’s highly readable and conscientiously researched book http://margotleeshetterly.com/hidden-figures-nasas-african-american-computers/ , browsing in my local library, I (by chance?) came across The Other Einstein https://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/the-other-einstein . It’s an historical novel based on credible rumors regarding Mileva Marić-Einstein https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mileva_Mari%C4%87, a mathematician herself and first wife of the famous physicist. In The Other Einstein, published in 2016, author Marie Benedict explores rumors of a woman whom history not only marginalized; it denies her any credit as a working scientist.

            A promising student of physics in Zurich, Marić was a close companion of Albert Einstein in university, a member of his circle of aspiring scientists, and mother of his children. Benedict presents a story of Marić that’s debated by others; that is: she was Albert’s indispensable intellectual collaborator —a tantalizing issue that physicist and writer Dennis Overbye mentions but leaves undeveloped in his 2000 biography Einstein in Love  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/may/13/biography.scienceandnature  --in Einstein’s work and deserving of equal credit for his (sic) discovery of relativity. (Did he assign his Nobel prize money to her as compensation for denying her scholarly accreditation?) Benedict explores that possibility, offering a convincing portrayal of how Einstein may have exploited Marić’s brilliance and her trust in him, removing her name from publications of their shared scientific discoveries. (A very serious charge which must be thoroughly explored.)

            Albert Einstein is so lionized a figure that it will take much more research to clarify Marić’s real role in the history of physics, but the work of Overbye and Benedict is a start, just as Shetterly’s work is an essential opening act on women in U.S. pioneering research http://margotleeshetterly.com/the-human-computer-project-1/.

            Women everywhere struggle mightily on. In small steps we cut away the deep roots of misogyny in every culture. While progress is slow at the legal level, headway is being made by the slogging research work by our writers. Doubtless many more histories await our attention and when we uncover them we will find our predecessors broke barriers long before this modern era. Knowing women’s early scientific work, even absent of fanfare or awards, is still empowering to our and future generations.  END

[ How Many More Women Are There? ]

I Can't Cast Your Ballot for You, Ma'am

September 10, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“The fight of my life…”; ”Republicans take a sledgehammer to Medicare…”; “Triple your impact to STOP…”; “Lowering our chance…”; “What’s at stake? Everything…”; “Last chance…”; “Numbers don't lie…”; “They’re scared we’ll win...”, warns yet another slogan, and on and on. As if to say: “We (the Democratic Party) are scared, and we want you to be scared too”. Each threat is followed by appeals that we’ll win with just a $3. pledge; victory secured if you can manage five dollars. It seems the Dems hired a squad of copy editors blasting out five-word threats in the subject line of my (and hundreds of thousands, millions, of others’) email and twitter accounts.  

            You get the picture. Several times daily these bulletins promise that if I give even the price of a cup-of-coffee to Stacey in Georgia, Fred in Iowa, and Heidi in North Dakota (or is it Oregon?), then the good guys win, the Trump nightmare ends, and Democrats will provide all the nice things intelligent-college-educated-white Americans deserve (something for minorities too):—full employment, free universal healthcare, cancellation of student debt, repeal of the second amendment (gun rights), an end to big pharma’s control of politicians, pre-industrial era clear blue skies, reforested cities, and restoration of Obama’s post-racial America. (No mention of reduced military spending or freeing US foreign policy of Israel’s grip.)  

            Delete, delete, delete; this although I’m not a Republican and never knowingly voted for one, not even when, as often happens at state and district levels, they run unopposed.   

            Do people who run these campaigns really think fear tactics are effective? In 2016 the vote-Hillary-or-else strategy didn’t work; I doubt if it’s a winner this time. It’s a hollow, misguided device. As many concerned analysts evidence, the Party is simply out of touch.      

            At ground level Democratic Party managers claim the algorithms they employ guarantee victory. Formulae based on data amassed from social media posts, phone records and past balloting (adopted perhaps from Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica, initially exposed by Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr, a scheme Trump’s campaign reportedly used) inform Democratic campaign chiefs.

            So a bouquet of lists is presented to me and other volunteer fieldworkers; we’re mainly retirees, not the under 30s who prefer spectacles with celebrities offering graphic encounters to share on instagram. (Young people’s voting record is in fact shoddy.) I’m a sucker for joining local campaigns though. Toiling naively through a summer afternoon, I learn that few in my ‘registered voter list’ know whose running in upcoming (NY) state primaries or who’s challenging the incumbent congressman.

            And these lists? My paid teenage supervisor firmly believes that personally reaching out to algorithm-generated lists is a winning strategy. (Like scare tactics?) I’m presented with lists, and more lists: a register of under 50s; a list of anyone who may have voted across party lines; a list of over 70s, folks more likely to be home in the morning (no cell phones?); independents who usually don’t vote; dependable Democrats we will solicit to volunteer with us; those we’ll phone a month before; those we’ll phone a week before; those who are first time voters. Doubtless there are lists of Blacks, Latinos, South Asians, Evangelical Christians, maybe Jews too. Lists likely come in degrees of education as well.

            My Sunday morning was productive, sort of: 25% of voters I call respond in person: 40% of them disconnect abruptly, hearing the name of the candidate I represent; 25% are uncertain; one snaps “We don’t get involved in politics”, another asks “Who’s he running against?” The 20% who say “We support him; he’s got our vote” sustain me. Too many registered Dems really are unsure of which candidate is running in which race; it doesn’t help that lawn signs littering our roadsides don’t indicate if the name printed represents a Democrat, Republican, or Conservative. New York State registered Democrats are notoriously negligent in the primaries. Barely 25% cast ballots in any primary election.

            Voter ignorance about candidates, even if they peruse all their emails in what we call midterm elections, is common. Midterm (off season or non-president) elections somehow can’t attract voters; primaries seem inconsequential, like midterm exams or penalty shots in football. Nothing much happens in midterms, we suppose.

            Yet this semi-annual ballot determines all congressional seats. In November—435 seats are up for re-election. (63 of these, held by Republicans, are said to be vulnerable, and Democrats need to win 23 of those to take control of the House.) Primary wins like those by Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Tlaib in Michigan are generating excitement and optimism among some Dems. Yes, national media highlight even the most marginal state primary win, but for a day or two only.

            It seems our US public—voters, would-be voters, and those who “don’t get involved in politics”-- prefers to devote its time to the president and presidency. My neighbors and colleagues, following the media’s obsession with the leadership, spend hours gasping, chortling, quoting—they repeat his tweets; they shudder at his braggadocio; they weep over his legal proclamations; they opine on White House personalities. This compared to blank stares and ambiguity regarding the women and men they actually can vote in (or out) at their neighborhood polling station September 13th (NY primary day) and November 6th .

 

 

[ I Can't Cast Your Ballot for You, Ma'am ]

Literature Can Displace Anthropology-- A New Look

August 29, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When I found myself well into my career as an anthropologist specializing in Himalayan peoples, I came across an historical episode concerning two no-longer living but obviously brilliant women who had performed remarkable political feats in the early 20th century. I undertook to uncover their stories, determined first because inspired by feminist revelations, I myself was in search of women heroes, and second because I had had enough of anthropology’s imperialist claims of scientific impartiality. This meant my breaking from both traditional research methodologies and from academic writing conventions.

            I’d been a social anthropologist, (ethnographer, of the British School) relying on intensive interviews, and, as we claimed, ‘objective participation observation’. (Ethnography is in fact more akin to journalism than academics will acknowledge.)

            Since my subjects were no longer alive I could not apply face-to-face interviews or behavioral observation-- they were already becoming mythical characters-- and the few people alive who’d known them were quite elderly. Moreover, those leaders had been political activists at a time when criticism of Nepal’s monarch, its officials and the powerful Hindu priest class was prohibited; any resurgence of interest would be stifled for another decade after my arrival at the site of the early protests.

            Those women’s fantastic careers happened on the steamy shore of the roaring Arun Kola deep in the Himalayas. It was possible to imagine past glories there, however isolated and overlooked it now seemed. So I pressed on determinedly.

            I was dealing with individuals wildly unrepresentative of their culture. Both were outrageous, atypical characters. A sociological approach was out of the question. And, although the women died only four decades earlier, there was no written record I could find, not initially. My determination proved rewarding because at the time (1980-85) I was welcomed by a small community of ascetics, all women, who’d known both of those radicals. Now quite elderly, they felt impervious to any government retaliation for assisting me.

            These ladies enthusiastically spoke about Shakti Yogmaya and Durga Devi—the first a revolutionary, the second a reformer-- who they‘d once followed. Recluses, now in their 70s and 80s, they vividly remembered how fifty and sixty years earlier, they’d been filled with fervor and faith in social reform.

            Based on their accounts I managed two academic reports. But these stories needed a more creative approach and I began my first attempts at biography. I was aided by the contemporary Nepali poet Parijat who introduced me to the perilous political work she herself was engaged in. She and I worked on translating the provocative quadrants of the long dead Shakti Yogmaya which in turn initiated me into Nepal’s political history.

            Nepal was still a dictatorship in the 1980s and attention to events surrounding Yogmaya were risky. A known dissident across Nepal, Parijat was not to be intimidated and she encouraged me to persist.

            My book Heir to a Silent Song appeared 17 years ago, published in English in Nepal. That effort propelled me out of the academic world and set me on my career in journalism. Meanwhile more revelations about Yogmaya, the most radical woman who Nepal had ever produced, attracted a new generation of capable, dedicated Nepali scholars.

            Some historical characters, like this Nepali rebel of the early 20th century, are too wild and unwieldy for normal history to grasp. And today, we have a wonderful example of where literature can overtake and outshine scholarly efforts. Shakti Yogmaya, the subject of the eponymous novel published early this year, has just won The Madan Puraskar, Nepal’s most prestigious prize in literature. It’s authored by the US-based Nepali writer Neelam Niharika who writes in Nepali language and is already known for her ambitious historical novels.

            Of course I am thrilled that this novel builds on my and other scholars’ efforts starting almost forty years earlier. (It was a colleague of Niharika at Radio Nepal four years ago, who reading those histories, suggested she turn her creative energy to Yogmaya.)

            Niharika had no obligation to remain within the boundaries of our accounts. Yet, she undertook more research. In a recent conversation she explained how she interviewed whomever she could in the very hills where Yogmaya’s political campaign occurred almost a hundred years ago. Not herself from the Arun River valley region, Niharika launched a visit there to know more about where Yogmaya was born. (This, after she’d reached locals through social media and phone, to schedule onsite meetings.) The area is much changed but this novelist still conducted her own fieldwork, using modern communications to her advantage. Not only this; she made a video of her arrival in the area, its ecology, recording conversations with local notables of what they remembered of that history.

            The novel “Yogmaya” begins with an imaginary conversation between me and the novelist Parijat, thus emphasizing a line of women who helped shape Niharika’s own historical inquiry.

            “Yogamaya”’s recognition by the nation’s highest literary prize rewards not only a skilled young author. The subject itself—a local woman warrior—will gain wider traction, inspiring a following which no amount of scholarly articles might. At a time when Nepal is sodden with questionable gender development projects that dwell on the ‘poor and vulnerable victim’ and where many educated urban women, following western feminists, express hardly more than institutional sympathy for their ‘deprived’ rural sisters, this novel offers a fresh look at what a village woman can do.

             Perhaps anthropologists too may learn how to honor the natives they study with the creation of quality biographies they deserve.  

[ Literature Can Displace Anthropology-- A New Look ]

Morality Tales-What Are the Limits of Public Behavior in USA?

August 13, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

 

          Many Americans who think their country is unquestionably the greatest have been chagrined by recent events that brought them to a new low point. The treatment of families seeking asylum at our southern border with forced separation of children from parents, some shipped to distant parts of the country, is shocking, embarrassing and reprehensible. Overwhelmingly, whatever their political leanings, people want that policy reversed. Some blame the Trump administration, others runaway ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement https://www.ice.gov/) procedures, others inept management.

            Do those gross measures mark the end of what was known as The American Dream? Most Americans are unwilling to see the morality of the policy, but a conservative British weekly views this immigration fiasco though a moral lens, referring to an “ill-fated moral debasement of American values”. The article attributes that state of disgrace specifically to the current US administration, pointing to the nation’s “moral shortcomings…. under Trump… Though America has experienced many moral corrections, from abolitionism to the civil rights movement, they have never come (to this) emetic moment…”, the feeling of revulsion, it charges. Notwithstanding many Americans’ disgust over the caging and separation of children, The Economist’s invocation of moral standards is largely unvoiced within the USA. Even though morality underlies many of our current woes.

            Why is it impolite to speak about moral markers in our society? Maybe morality is simply redundant today. Yet, without a moral compass, we may be becoming lost. Consensus is impossible; so too, any dignified leadership. Anything seems acceptable, evidenced by the ongoing gun violence and unattended massacres, uncontrolled police shootings of Black men and ugly online dialogue.

            We’re not talking about sin with its theological connotations. Morals can operate in the secular sphere too, within culture. Ask any parent, journalist or teacher.

            Right and wrong is a hard business for anyone to address nowadays, especially in so-called liberal circles. The perceived immorality of the US leader is answered by Robert DeNiro shouting “F..k You Donald Trump”, on stage at the Tony Awards. Is DeNiro exhibiting moral strength by this declaration? Did he reflect on his action beforehand? There were cheers from his audience; but then what? Did the Hollywood star suffer any retaliation? Would DeNiro have made the same declaration against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein or fellow actor Morgan Freeman when their crimes and misdemeanors were exposed? Has DeNiro now become an activist? And is this all his declaration signifies?

            And what about Roseanne Barr’s ugly tweet, her racist statement about former White House advisor Valerie Jarrett? Oh that’s different. Is it? Yes, to many of ‘us’, such utterances are offensive. Yet we are told Barr was already known for her indiscretions and personal attacks. With that tweet, she crossed a line and her show was cancelled. Yet Barr is still sought after by TV hosts and to many she remains a hero.

            Everyone seems to be pushing the envelop—to test today’s moral limits. How much can we offend? How wild can we look? How much dare we share of our phone snaps? How much violence can be created and tolerated as entertainment, or art? How much verbal abuse in the name of free speech; how much sexual or racial abuse to get or to keep a job?

The current occupant of the White house is a moralistic man. Yes. Calling others boorish names and winning accolades for his rudeness is nasty and insulting, but at the same time moralistic—to some. Your and my disgust is matched it seems, by others’ applause. Strange times.

           All this has me wondering: What is activism? And what’s the relation of political activism to cultural morality? I’m trying to understand this as a student of culture as well as a citizen of a country known for its openness. Can a healthy culture have no moral limits, whether it’s the behavior of its immigration officials, soldiers or celebrities?

            We speak about social behaviors as unethical or corrupt, decent or distasteful, respectable or dishonorable, progressive or illiberal (whatever illiberal means). Morality itself seems to be absent from our vocabulary, although it surely underlies all these attributes. Is there just too much borderline conduct flowing through our fluid, censor-free culture, that no mooring can contain it?

            Perusal of the Moral Monday campaign of Rev. William Barber started my reflections on morals. Moral Monday evolved into The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC): A National Call for Moral Revival led by Barber. Bruce Dixon writes critically of Barber, faulting him for blaming everything on immoral persons and policies, on lack of moral commitment. Barber calls for a cleansing of America with a “massive moral rest”, a “moral resistance”.

            “The problem”, Dixon maintains, “is that labeling your political opponents, their leaders, their misguided values and their persons as “immoral” is never a persuasive political tactic. It might make those already on your side feel nice and comfy to know they’re all moral and the other guys are not”. Dixon makes a worthy point. Especially today, when Americans are more aware than ever of increasingly economic, social and ideological polarization. So-called liberals have become sacrosanct about their own access to ‘truth’ while so-called conservatives, angry at how they are regarded and maligned, aggressively promote their own truth.

            Let’s not forget how yesterday’s immoral activists are later sanctified. Behavior (e.g. homosexuality) once attacked as sick and immoral eventually becomes codified into law. Our most esteemed American (moral) leader Martin Luther King Jr. was for many years vilified; then, when King moved beyond domestic injustices and called the American war in Vietnam immoral:-- well, that was unpatriotic which in some circles is treasonous. That charge was leveled at another memorialized leader, Malcolm X. He crossed a moral line when he defined Black Americans’ struggle for justice as not their civil right, but their ‘human right’. In that declaration Malik Shabazz (X) challenged American moral standards.

            During that same era when cultural standards were in flux, as they are today, and when military conscription was in force, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the US military to fight against Vietnamese: “Shoot them for what? They never called me Ni..er; they never lynched me…never set dogs against me…”, he argued. Ali’s stand so challenged American morals that he was stripped of his boxing titles and banned from boxing-- punishment hard to fathom today.

            Or is it? Ali’s now forgotten moral stance is in my view comparable to football star Colin Kaepernick’s decision to place a knee on the ground instead of a hand on his heart as others do for the US national anthem. The moral principle on which he acted – injustice, specifically police brutalization of Black and Latino citizens--was eclipsed in the ensuing controversy. (In time, it will become enshrined in US history.)

            Try to put yourself in Kaepernick’s position leading up to his declaration. He felt compelled to speak, somehow. Did he consult others--his religious guide, his family, fellow players? Did he ask others to join him? Did he consider the repercussions? What a supreme moral act! It made Kaepernick a hero for many (including this non-football fan); he was Amnesty International’s 2018 Ambassador of Conscience. Meanwhile he was fired from his job, and, I would argue, in its moralist retort, the National Football League banned players from ‘taking a knee’ in public. Although we don’t hear any charge of immorality against Kaepernick, some call his action unpatriotic-- a grave allegation in the USA. Kaepernick himself, accepting the AI award, invokes moral issues behind his action, just as Ali did in his defense after his banishment from boxing in 1966.

            That the names of music, sports and film celebrities come into our discussion of activism and morality may not be accidental. Favorable or not, celebrity is where morality today is defined and disseminated. Author Peter King has 4.8 million followers; actor Anne Hathaway has 12+ million instagram fans; Sean Hannity’s FB friends may exceed those numbers. Then there’s The Donald. Look what his celebrity led too. END

 

[ Morality Tales-What Are the Limits of Public Behavior in USA? ]
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