29 April 2012

The Priority of Democracy - Reviews (1)

"This is a book with some very important, even profound, ideas about politics, institutions, the virtues of democracy and what it takes to realize them, but it is written so so very, very diffusely that it will will have next to no impact, which is a shame." ~ Cosma Shalizi
The early returns have started to come in. Is it OK to write a smart book that no one will ever read? That, it seems, is our fate.


The Poverty of Political "Ethics" in the US

A report last week from Mother Jones regarding the loathsome Paul Ryan illuminates the impoverished way moralism shackles American politics. As the story suggests, poor Mr. Ryan found himself being criticized by a bunch of Catholics for his conservative proposals for the federal budget. You know, the ones where massive redistribution from the poor and working class to rich continues unabated. And he was compelled to recant publicly whatever fealty to the incredibly dim Ayn Rand he ever had. But notice options we are left with! As one of Ryan's critics complains:
"I am afraid that Chairman Ryan's budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ . . . Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love."
So, of course, it is either Randian objectivism or Christ's compassion. And Ryan, knowing which side the butter is on proclaims himself a devotee of Thomas Aquinas. Is that supposed to be an improvement? I love the way religious mouthpieces browbeat everyone into political conformity.

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28 April 2012

Zoe Strauss

Today on NPR there was this nice segment on 54 billboard installations Zoe Strauss has placed around her hometown of Philadelphia. The "subjects" are Strauss's neighbors and acquaintances - here Antoinette Conti and Nathaniel J. Jordan.


27 April 2012

Best Shot (203) ~ Natacha Merritt

(230) Natacha Merritt ~ "the first ever artistic shot of a spider erection"  


26 April 2012

Guns and the Tyranny of the Minority

"One in three Americans knows someone who has been shot. As long as a candid discussion of guns is impossible, unfettered debate about the causes of violence is unimaginable. Gun-control advocates say the answer to gun violence is fewer guns. Gun-rights advocates say that the answer is more guns: things would have gone better, they suggest, if the faculty at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Chardon High School had been armed. That is the logic of the concealed-carry movement; that is how armed citizens have come to be patrolling the streets. That is not how civilians live. When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left. [. . .]

Kids in Chardon High are back in school. Nickolas Walczak is in a wheelchair. There are Trayvon Martin T-shirts. Oikos University is closed. The N.R.A. has no comment. [. . .]

In an average year, roughly a hundred thousand Americans are killed or wounded with guns. On April 6th, the police found One Goh’s .45. Five days later, George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. In May, T. J. Lane will appear at a hearing. Trials are to come. In each, introduced as evidence, will be an unloaded gun."
These are some of the concluding comments from this smart essay by Jill LePore at The New Yorker.  I have posted here numerous times about gun ownership and its absurdities. If you want to hunt, fine. I don't but nothing about hunting implies opposition to gun laws. If you think having a gun makes you safer, you are wrong. I hope you never mistake your teenage son, coming in late at night, for a dreaded "intruder." If you want to carry a concealed weapon, get therapy - quickly.

 It is interesting that gun ownership in the U.S. has declined over time. A minority group is imposing idiotic policies on the rest of us. Tyranny of the minority.

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Visibility & Invisibility in American Politics

"The threat to democracy today is not the size of government but rather the hidden form that so much of its growth has taken. If those who assume government has never helped them could see how it has, it might help defuse our polarized political climate and reinvigorate informed citizenship" (stress added).
Last spring I posted on a short essay by political scientist Suzanne Mettler. I recently came across this Op-Ed in The New York Times that puts her point in a pointed way. I've lifted the punchline to the essay above. Mettler is right that politics revolves around visibility, even if I think she is a bit overly optimistic (to say the least) about the chances of mitigating polarization and political ignorance.

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24 April 2012

NYC Event: 25 April 2012, ACT UP / OWS

I have posted here and here on the affinities - symbolic and strategic - between Occupy in its various incarnations and ACT-UP. On those occasions I have treated ACT-UP as a precursor. It turns out that the two are coalition partners. For background see this report at The Nation. More pressingly, read the poster I've lifted above. There is a joint OWS / ACT UP action scheduled for Wednesday (Tomorrow) in NYC. More details here or here.

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23 April 2012

Magnum Comes to Rochester

I work in Rochester and live not far outside the city. I learned about this project this past weekend weekend when it apparently was virtually complete. It will be interesting to see what comes from the visit.

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22 April 2012

Solidarity with the Sisters

I received my first nine years of formal education from nuns in Catholic Schools. It is fair to say that as a boy my relations with many members of the Sisters of St. Joseph were . . . how to say it? . . . strained. Since I left Sacred Heart School, I have not had any sustained interaction with nuns. And while I suspect we'd still not see eye-to-eye on lots of matters, the nuns consistently have been on the right side of intra-church disagreements. So, I read this column from The Los Angeles Times with a sense of solidarity. I think the reason comes out in this passage about how some of the women in the church see their conflict with the hierarchy:
Sister Campbell said this is all about a "clash of cultures" within the church. The male leaders live in a monarchy, while for decades, good sisters have lived in the real world, pursuing democratic principles in their service to the poor and their exploration of the new.

"Where was Jesus?" she asked. "Jesus was with the poor, with the marginalized, with the outcasts."
Of course, it is (to be charitable) very difficult to reconcile democracy as I understand it with fealty to scriptures.* But the nuns take the right perspective - that of the marginalized. And they at least seem to engage in the struggle to confront the world in a democratic way.
*P.S.: I resolve this tension with little strain by simply ignoring the scriptures. One favor the Sisters of St. Joseph did do, was to (literally) beat the faith out of me.

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A Weekend Digest

This graphic popped up unaccompanied on my FB news feed this morning. For lot's of information look here and here and stay tuned.

You can find an amusing "obituary" for facts here. It doesn't hurt that the essay works by mocking Florida Congressman Allen West. And even if it is a sad day, it is difficult to feel badly for those left behind: "Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion."

There is an appreciative essay on Allan Sekula's new work here at The Guardian.

Really smart and relentlessly decent are, in my experience, a rare combination in a single person. At Crooked Timber, this post contains a link to a series of very touching and insightful comments offered at an Oxford memorial service for the late G.A. Cohen who seems to have been among the rare.

There is a new book out with the self explanatory title Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers' Essays. You can find a review here at The Guardian. Many of the contributions are by photographers whose work I very much admire. And, speaking of smart and decent, you can find an excerpt from Nina Berman's contribution here at The New Yorker.

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Women, Work, and Why Conservatives are Wrong

 Remember all the outrage among right-wingers when someone dared point out Ann Romney's role as helpmate and stay-at-home mom? Conservatives fell over themselves proclaiming that stay-at-home moms "do too" work! Well, here is a typically incisive assessment from Katha Pollitt at The Nation:
"So there it is: the difference between a stay-home mother and a welfare mother is money and a wedding ring. Unlike any other kind of labor I can think of, domestic labor is productive or not, depending on who performs it. For a college-educated married woman, it is the most valuable thing she could possibly do, totally off the scale of human endeavor. What is curing malaria compared with raising a couple of Ivy Leaguers? For these women, being supported by a man is good—the one exception to our American creed of self-reliance. Taking paid work, after all, poses all sorts of risks to the kids. (Watch out, though, ladies: if you expect the father of your children to underwrite your homemaking after divorce, you go straight from saint to gold-digger.) But for a low-income single woman, forgoing a job to raise children is an evasion of responsibility, which is to marry and/or support herself. For her children, staying home sets a bad example, breeding the next generation of criminals and layabouts."
Of course, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics inconveniently points out - setting aside the matter of whether we consider it "productive" or not - nearly all labor in the U.S. is differentially valued depending on who does it.

 And, of course, this is true too within sectors of the economy, not just across them; so the standard conservative canard about how persistent, pervasive pay disparities are just a symptom of women "choosing" poorly paying jobs/careers is just that, a canard. Moreover, just as Pollitt points out regarding judgements regarding whether any given work is productive, pay differentials too are inflected by race. The world is just way too complex for conservative nostrums.

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21 April 2012

Best Shots (202) ~ Sophie Calle

(229) Sophie Calle ~  From: Voir la Mer  (18 April 2012).


Arguing Over Pie Charts?

A short essay, from The New York Times of all places, on the uses of pie charts for data visualization - including comments from some who think they should be banned.

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20 April 2012

Passings ~ Levon Helm (1940-2012)

The Band (1968). Photograph © Elliott Landy.

One of the very first albums I ever bought was the brown, self-titled offering from The Band. I was probably a sophomore in high school. My parents had a big console stereo with legs a foot long or so. I used to put on the record, turn up the volume, and then lay on the floor with my head under the stereo.  In subsequent years I saw the Band live on several occasions too. What a treat. How could a bunch of Canadians make such great music? And, where'd they get those hats?

Yesterday (non-Canadian) Levon Helm died. There is an obituary here at The New York Times. It is a very sad event

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New Book: Krzysztof Wodiczko The Abolition of War

Due out this month from Black Dog Publishing.

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"Griefs and rituals and inside them cosmologies."

The post title is a line from this long poem - "August Notebook: A Death" - by Robert Hass. I came across it this evening while drifting around the web. Haas wrote the poem for his brother. I had read it some time ago in Haas's book The Apple Trees at Olema and the last lines made me cry. I know just what he means. I worry, still. And, mostly, the world takes no notice.

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17 April 2012

Pulitzer Prize for Manning Marable

Manning Marable. Photograph: © Philippe Cheng.

Manning Marable has won the Pulitzer Prize in History for his Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking Press). Marable died last spring just a few days before the book was published. This news, unfortunately, is being overshadowed by the putative snub the Pulitzer board delivered to the fiction nominees by not giving an award this year.

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What is Politically Radical?

“The United States is getting accustomed to a completely crazy level of inequality . . . People say that reducing inequality is radical. I think that tolerating the level of inequality the United States tolerates is radical.”~ Thomas Piketty

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16 April 2012

Havel's Heirs

The ghost of Václav Havel hovers over politics in the Czech Republic. His appreciation of irony and willingness to deflate the pretensions of authority seems to be entirely lost on current legal and political elites in the country. Need evidence? Try this brief report from The New Republic on the prosecution two men - David Hons (aka Roman Týc) and Roman Smetana - for committing political art and freedom expression in the country.

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Continuing Disaster: Tsunami Wreckage at Sea

This is satellite imagery (courtesy of NASA) of debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami making its way into the currents of the north Pacific. You can find the animated version here.

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15 April 2012

Best Shots (201) ~ Charlotte Dumas

(228) Charlotte Dumas ~ Jonker, 2002 (11 April 2012).

"The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas are specifically addressed to man." ~ John Berger
I normally do not comment on this series from The Guardian except to remark about how terrific it is that the paper attends so insistently to photography and how nice it is that they coax photographers to talk, however briefly, about their work. Having said that, again, I want to comment on this image, in which the horse seems ready to pirouette away from the camera. It brought to mind Berger's essay "Why Look at Animals?" from which I've lifted the sentence above. I recently had the chance to take August to the zoo in Portland and Berger's assessment strikes home.

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14 April 2012

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison.
Photograph © Caroll Taveras for The Guardian.

There is an interview with novelist Toni Morrison at The Guardian today. In part the interview is about her writing and her new novel. In part too she talks about politics. And I appreciate her views very much. But this week, especially, am struck by her closing comments about her son who recently died and her response to people offering condolences following his death. Here is what she says and, I will add, I could hardly agree more:

"What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren't. Somebody tries to say, 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.' People say that to me. There's no language for it. Sorry doesn't do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something."

And then her assessment of books and other writings about grief, about which, I have been almost uniformly uncomplimentary here in the past too. She dismisses:

"Books that have been written about the death of a child, but are all about the author. And people who were trying to soothe me, were trying to soothe me. I never heard anything about him. They say it's about the living, it's not, it's about the dead."

Too many people, spend too much energy making someone else's death about themselves. I've seen that happen close up and it is not pretty. Is it so hard, after all, to make death about the dead? Not really. This past week, for instance, many of Jeff's friends and classmates wrote wonderful, touching things about him on his FB page. For that I am grateful.

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Reality Based Politics - Problems with the Media

I noticed this report from NPR over on my FB news feed. A week or so ago I was on a panel here at the University of Rochester sponsored by various student groups. There were a bunch of folks from the community - mostly business types - in the audience. The panel was about the need for bi-partisanship and civility in American politics. My line is that bipartisanship is (following Ian Shapiro) collusion in restraint of democracy. I've said that here numerous times before. I also pointed out that the Republicans were the source of our polarization and that the entire problem mapped onto increasingly extreme political-economic inequality. I attributed all of that to McCarty-Poole-Rosenthal, pointing out that two at least of the authors are pretty right-leaning politically. I've said all that here before too.

At the panel the audience was more or less totally incredulous and made plain that they thought I was full of crap. The 'blame both sides' mentality is alive and well out in the hinterlands of Western NY - regardless of the actual state of the world! Why? Because, in part, even for stories like this one on the actual sources of polarization reporters feel obliged to run off and find a shill for the right from AEI to say 'both sides are at fault!' Even when there are not two sides to the story reporters feel the need to offer two. Are they simply idiots?

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11 April 2012

5 years

Here is my middle son, Jeffrey, in the summer of 2006. He was on vacation with his mom and brother - Cape Cod, I believe. I'd brought him the Princeton Lacrosse tee-shirt while at a conference that spring. A few months later Jeff died. That was five years ago today. I miss him. It has been a long five years. His friends have been leaving sweet, funny, revealing posts on the Face Book page they set up right after he died. They, his friends, are mostly young adults now, and their updates remind me of all the experiences and events Jeff missed. Have I said I miss him? That would only be every single day. I love you Jeff.

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08 April 2012

The Court, Actual People & the Individual Mandate

If you are offended by the notion that Obama's jerry-rigged health insurance reform package would compel you to buy insurance I recommend you read this Op-Ed by political scientist Andrea Campbell. The story she relates - about a devastating accident her sister-in-law has experienced and its financial consequences - demonstrates directly at how idiotic the SCOTUS justices will be should they overturn the legislation. The notion that the young and healthy can simply decide when they are at risk - and then rush out to buy insurance - is simply ignorant.

My son Jeffrey died five years ago this week. As regular readers will know, he basically dropped dead of a burst aneurysm in his brain. He was 14 and otherwise remarkably healthy. The bill for the few days Jeffrey spent in the ICU? Hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Fortunately when Jeff died, he had insurance coverage through my work. So the irreparable hole he left in my heart was not compounded by financial ruin. Jeff's situation nonetheless resembles the one that has befallen Campbell's sister-in-law. There was no warning that he would drop dead. There was no way to diagnose his malady. Indeed there was no reason to suspect he had an aneurysm or that it would burst. In other words, there would've been no way for he or I to pop out to the insurance store and pick up a policy. The mere fact that the Scalia and like-minded SCOTUS justices can contemplate such an eventuality suggests they have no business occupying a seat on the court.
P.S.: I should make it clear that Jeff was just one parent away from having no insurance. His mom's job at the time offered none. What we actually need is not the sham Obama reforms. cobbled together to satisfy the perverse preferences the rich and powerful, but (like much of the rest of the world) an actual single payer system that would prevent people like Andrea Campbell's sister-in-law from existing at the mercy of coffee can social policy.

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Possibilities - Friends & Lovers

I have posted with some regularity here about marriage and relationships. In part this is because the vicissitudes of my own life have kept such matter directly in front of me. In part too it is because here in the states marriage has been a pretty constant political issue. There are all sorts of issues involved in such discussions - freedom, commitment, sex, social expectations, passion, stability and so forth. And, it seems to me that the prospect of shoehorning all those into a one-size-fits-all arrangement is inauspicious and unattractive. Hence my ambivalence about the preoccupation with gay marriage. Yesterday in The Guardian and today in The New York Times there are essays (here and here) about other possibilities.

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Passings ~ Mauricio Lasansky (1914-2012)

Kadish #8 (1976)
Print © Mauricio Lasansky.

Argentine-American print maker Mauricio Lasansky has died. There is an obituary here at The New York Times.

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Passings ~ Fang Lizhi (1936~2012)

Chinese physicist and political dissident Fang Lizhi has died. An obituary is here at The New York Times, another here at The Guardian.

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07 April 2012


Late last month this memorial was dedicated in Nantes - by far the most significant port in the 18th and 19th century French slave trade. The project commemorates the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The site was designed by architect Julian Bonder and artist Krzysztof Wodiczko (about whom I've posted here several times).

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Best Shots (200) ~ John Myers

(227) John Myers ~ Mr and Mrs Seabourne, 1973 (4 April 2012).


A Weekend Digest

If you've got some free time, I've come across a few shortish things to read:
Here is a useful post from the folks at Occupy the SEC - "What is Private Equity?" - that nicely addresses the question in clear English prose.

Michael Sandel has a short essay in The Atlantic entitled "What Isn't for Sale?". I suspect that I agree with some but not most of what he has to say.

Project Syndicate has reprinted this old essay by Václav Havel called "Politics & Theater." A reasonably sharp analysis punctuated by a pretty bland, overly moralistic conclusion, I'm afraid.

FEMEN is a group of smart, creative, courageous young Ukrainian women who are busy protesting and raising a ruckus. There is an interview with one of the group's principals, Inna Shevchenko, here at Framed.

According to this report in The Chronicle of Higher Education Yale faculty evidently have criticized the University administration plans for a partnership with the National University of Singapore. The skepticism in New Haven has elicited this frank response in a student newspaper at NUS - the gist of the reply is that the folks in New Haven are patronizing and a bit hypocritical.*

Finally, here is a link to a new web page called OCCUPY.com which promises to be useful even though the '.com' seems an ironic categorization for the movement affiliated site.
* Thanks Chit!

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06 April 2012

Reality Based Politics ~ Actual Sources of US Deficit (again)

This made it into my FB News Feed this afternoon. I've posted similar graphics here repeatedly in the past. Just a reminder. If you want the sources of American political and economic woes look to your right. If you want to reduce the deficits, don't follow the Paul Ryan magical mystery tour (his recently passed budget is more or less total nonsense) but end the wars (really end them don't just take Obama-esque quarter steps) and reverse the BushCo tax cuts. It is pretty easy.

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04 April 2012

Reality Based Politics - Obama is Not (Even) a Liberal

This cartoon nicely highlights the hypocrisy of the SCOTUS ideologues. But that is sort of like shooting ducks in a barrel. It allows liberals to be all too self-satisfied in objecting to the recent SCOTUS ruling allowing strip searches for those arrested on charges of, say, walking their dog in violation of leash laws.

Reality: "The decision was a victory for the jails and for the Obama administration, which argued for an across-the-board rule allowing strip-searches of all those entering the general jail population, even those arrested on minor offenses." (The Guardian - here.)

While "liberals" may find the SCOTUS majority abominable, Obama cannot be considered a liberal. Or, if liberals embrace Obama, they cannot be too vocal about the SCOTUS ruling.

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Reality Based Politics - Obama is a Centrist

Here is a report on Sarah Palin's appearance yesterday on the Today show. She rants on and on about Obama being a socialist (albeit a failed one). Notice that at no time did the host ask her what she is smoking. So much for liberal media bias.

Here is a graphic by Keith Poole, perhaps the political scientist most adept at measuring the policy preferences of politicians. The graphic locates each American President since WWII in a common policy space. What the graphic shows in Keith's words is that: "President Obama is the most moderate Democratic president since the end of World War II."

Let's be clear about a couple of things. First, if the so-called-liberal-media are going to demonstrate their even handedness by inviting know-nothings like Palin onto the air waves, they have some obligation to call them out when they utter idiocies. Second, many of the recent Republican presidents (including all three since 1980) have been considerably further to the right than any of the post-war Democratic presidents have been. If you are looking for the source of our current political malaise (i.e., the dreaded "polarization" and "incivility"), look rightward. The nutters are off in the distance. Finally I wish Obama were even trying to implement socialist policies. But if he is a rabid socialist what does that make poor old Harry Truman?

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03 April 2012

No Compassion

Given my views about the (to be polite) dubious relation between politics, photography and compassion, I am surprised that I'd not recalled this lyric before today. Better late than never, I suppose.
No Compassion
David Byrne/Talking Heads (1987)

In a world where people have problems
In this world
where decisions are a way of life
Other people's problems they overwhelm my mind
They say compassion is a virtue, but I don't have the time

So many people...have their problems
I'm not interested...in their problems
I guess I've...experienced some problems
But now I've...made some decisions
Takes a lot of time to push away the nonsense
Take my compassion...Push it as far as it goes
My interest level's dropping, my interest level is dropping
I've heard all I want to, I don't want to hear any more

What are you, in love with your problems?
I think you take it...a little too far
It's...not so cool to have so many problems
But don't expect me to explain your indecisions
Go...talk to your analyst, isn't that what they're paid for
You walk, you talk...You still function like you used to
It's not a question...Of your personality or style
Be a little more selfish, it might do you some good

In a world where people have problems
In this world where decisions are a way of life
Other people's problems, they overwhelm my mind
They say compassion is a virtue, but I don't have the time
(Here we go again)

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Kathrine Switzer

Kathrine Switzer of Syracuse found herself about to be thrown
out of the normally all-male Boston Marathon when a husky
companion, Thomas Miller of Syracuse, threw a block that tossed
a race official out of the running instead.

These photos are from 1967. I recommend this report at NPR (listen to the interview with Switzer) for a few reasons. First, it was not so long ago (it mat still be the case) that Americans thought that women doing unnatural things would cause them to grow hair on their chests, and so forth. Second, for those who think social norms are unalterable, the transformation of women's athletics is a standing and massive counterexample. Finally, as Switzer explains, there was no "political" agenda here, she just wanted to run. That's how social change works sometimes.

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