It’s been a long time since I watched a movie twice in the same day, but after seeing Their Finest on DVD, I wanted to hear the Director’s commentary. Both the movie a second time and listening to Lone Scherfig was well worth the time taken.

Their Finest is set in London in 1940, during the height of the Blitz, and takes its title from a speech by Winston Churchill. I recommend that if you are watching it on-line or on DVD you should first watch this ten minute explanation of what happened at Dunkirk and why it is important. Actually, the video is so well done it is watching, period. Their Finest is about making a movie of the Dunkirk rescue for the people of Britain, to raise their morale and encourage them to carry on even as they endure the terrible bombing. It is based on history and on the importance of movies and the cinema to ordinary people in those most trying times.


Scherfig remarks, with evident pleasure, that because the British maintain and respect their built environment, the film crew found locations and ways to present the streets and buildings of London as they really were in the 1940s, aided by the use of CGI for recreating the images of a bombed cityscape. Scenes of the Dunkirk beach and shore were shoot on the beautiful beach of Pembrokeshire, Wales.

The leading man in Their Finest, a screenwriter, Tom Buckley, played by Sam Claflin, expresses his dream of creating a quality movie that is worth people’s time to watch. We watch how they accomplish this, how all the elements come together. Lone Scherfig in her comments speaks of the extraordinary effects produced in the main film by the camera men and women, by the set designers, the crews working behind the scenes, and above all, by the amazing actors. All the roles in Their Finest, even the smallest, are played by experienced and skillful actors. Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole is just right as the central character, subtle and expressive. I was engaged with her throughout. Jeremy Irons does a wonderful cameo as Secretary of War quoting Shakespeare. Favorites of the reviewers are Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard and Helen McCrory as Sophie Smith who becomes his agent. From the New York Times review “… sly puss Bill Nighy as a faded star in permanent high dudgeon over his career …” steals scenes and “… Sophie as a talent agent, brings man and dog to heel in a few short, barbed scenes. She’s the kind of no-nonsense woman you can imagine contributed to the real war effort, including in the film industry. …” The Director reports that she had to omit from an already complex movie a subplot they had filmed of Sophie supporting Jewish refugees in her home.

I liked the Phyl Moore character, played by Rachael Stirling and the way she evolves. She is the executive who keeps tabs on the film crew for the Ministry of Information. Tom, the screenwriter, definitely disapproves of her and of women generally taking on work he believes belongs to men, and he is no different from any of the other men on this. Catrin’s main challenge is to prove herself as a writer, as an independent individual and to make certain their screenplay does justice to the bravery of women in the movie they are making. Hilliard points out that the women and he, as an aging actor, are benefiting from the war taking away the young men who would ordinarily step in and push them aside. From the Guardian review — We see “… the quiet revolution in wartime sexual politics – the key female characters are in their jobs because the chaps are otherwise engaged, but for the most part, the women have no intention of going “back into their boxes” once the war is over. It also acknowledges the dismissive, tweedy sexism of the era by having even the most sympathetic of the male characters, sarcastic bespectacled screenwriter Tom Buckley, blithely dismiss women’s dialogue in a movie as “slop”. …”

Phyl says to Catrin that the men will expect the women to go back into their box once the war is over, implying that women will resist this, but in fact they did go back to traditional roles. This is clear from the BBC Call the Midwife I comment on here. The fundamental change for women, and for the larger society, came later, with the reliable contraception.

This is an excellent review that includes a video showing a critical scene in the story line, one where Catrin approaches Hilliard and they, as writer and actor, join forces to save the movie they are making. You will see a bit of the film’s marvelous acting.

The Guardian review is very good and includes a six and a half minute video.

My Indian husband, Ravi, told me long ago, when he was still new to American culture and could contrast it with his own, that the American view of life was different from his, that Americans see an individual’s life as a trajectory that begins in the home as a launching platform, on into school, the job market, marriage and children, gradually rising to the prime of life, followed by decline into old age. Indians, he said, see life in four stages, the ashramas, of student, family, post-family, and a fourth, last stage. At the time we were students, still believing, like young people everywhere, that we would live forever, always young. I thought of ashramas as little more than an interesting cultural concept and went through the first three stages without remembering or being reminded of it. It was in my Sannyasa stage, reexamining our lives together and studying Ravi’s life in India to better understand him that I rediscovered the ashramas. Of course, traditionally, with rare exceptions, the stages are for men. What I write here is an addition to recent modifications that include women, (I discussed in a previous blog post my thoughts on women in the scheme of things.)

I read that within Hindu philosophy the last stage of life, Sannyasa, is one of renunciation and asceticism. I have already redefined the third stage, Vanaprastha, (forest dweller) to be the time in life when family responsibilities are lessened and one turns to activities in and for the community. I use the modern word, Senior. The second stage, Grihastha (householder), is the central period of adulthood, beginning when the first stage, the Brahmacharya (student), ends. Traditionally the family arranged the boy’s marriage when he was in his late teens, maybe early twenties. Marriage for a girl was linked to her first menstruation, when she was able to have babies. (I discuss a charming, excellent movie, The Householder, here) I discussed here the idea of age grades rather than stages of life and when and how these began changing in our modern society.

The sannyasi was expected to detach himself from material life and spend his time reflecting on the spiritual, on matters more abstract than a specific religion. It seems to me the sannyasi was, and still is, searching for something called the meaning of life. Even though that phrase may sound banal and overused, it is a profound philosophical question to be asked and explored in multiple ways, without a universally accepted answer ever being found. I certainly have not found the meaning of life. I cannot imagine a creator god as an answer to how and why we exist. All I know at this moment for certain is that we are here, must take care of one another and more actively protect our endangered planet from the ravages we inflict upon it.

I do believe the Sannyasa stage of life grows out of our biology and psychological nature but changes in the specifics with each era and from culture to culture. My era is the Information Age (discussed in my previous post) and my culture is middle-class in an advanced post-industrial society. I heard in an interview on a PBS television program a remarkable comment that has given me a new way to think about what I have become. Bill Moyers, a public intellectual now in his mid-eighties, remarked that when one lives this long and is still in good health the mind becomes one’s university.

My mind has become my university. From my mind I retrieve the experiences, information and ideas that are stored there. The traditional sannyasi delved into his mind as I do into mine. The differences in outcomes are due to the differences in the times in which we live. He had his mind’s acquisitions plus, maybe, a book of sacred learning. Alternatively, I have, because of the computer, both a carrier of the internet and an instrument that makes the act of writing infinitely easier. I have access to the equivalent of hundreds of universities and their libraries. I do not think as fast or remember as well as I once did, but I can turn to the internet for help, some of it simple, such as for spelling or confirming the definition of a word, but also to check out the accuracy of a memory. Information via the internet introduces me to entirely new ideas I use for completing and disciplining my thoughts. The technology allows me be patient with myself, to follow at my own pace any path I choose to take as I wander through my mind full of memories.

I continue to learn. I miss my friends and being out in life but that is my past. Fortunately, I loved school, especially the university, both as a student and as a teacher. Now I am both, a teacher to my student self.  I find it exciting and deeply satisfying.

The fourth stage of life, described here and in following essays, is an idea Ravi, my husband, introduced into the way I see life’s progression.

I am in my fourth stage and write from that perspective but admit to finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on my past. I follow the chaotic American political scene, read and watch the news obsessively, contemplate the future of our democracy. I won’t be around for much of it but still wonder, worry and am curious about the new world we are entering. And it is a new world.

The Digital Revolution has been with us for a while, having begun in the late 1950s with computers and digital computing. I was approaching my thirties by then, but being in or around a university while living in the States, in Ankara, and in Paris I was an early adopter. In 1983, in a French research institute, I saw one of the first DVDs, tried and failed to get a grant to develop, with a young computer guy, a program on one for a health care application. No one where I applied could imagine the technology I proposed to use. In 1985 I bought my first computer, a Macintosh. Throughout this time I read and was aware of the personal computer’s effects on bureaucracies. It was hollowing out middle management; fewer managers, usually middle-class, were needed for supervising front-line, often working-class, workers. The computer certainly lessened the importance of the secretary, a middle-class job for non-college educated women.

In 1995, Ravi and I retired to a city with three major universities and I used their libraries while writing Tales of Mogadiscio. By 2010, driving to the libraries became too inconvenient for me to manage. Today, without the internet I would go crazy. We have entered the Information Age, an age of societal change brought on by essentially new technologies and comparable in its magnitude to that of the Agricultural Revolution, the Neolithic, some 12,000 years ago, and the Industrial Revolution, from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, the age when the steam engine expanded our sources of energy beyond human, animal, water and wind. In between were the Bronze Age and cities, when metal tools replaced stone tools, and the Iron Age, when a stronger metal smelted from a more widely available ore came into use.

Each of the Revolutions and Ages resulted from new technologies for producing more food more efficiently, producing more surplus, allowing more people to survive and freeing more of them to produce more goods, manage larger and denser societies, be creative and advance the culture. Of course, the individuals freed to participate in these more complex societal activities were, for better or for worse, male. Despite profound technological, social, and cultural change, women continued in their primordial narrow range of roles. They had babies, raised children, tended to family needs and participated in public activities if and when doing so supported the roles their male family members were playing outside of family life. Until very recently and in only a few societies, the great historical revolutions, agriculture and the civilizations, have not favored women. Women fared far better in hunter-gatherer societies, the sort we lived and evolved in for over tens of thousands of years. The average woman had better health, a longer life expectancy and certainly a higher social status in a hunter-gatherer band than in the Neolithic or any other form of society that followed.

I discovered this reassessment of the original form of human societies when returning to one of my favorite books, a history of what we humans were as hunters-gatherers for tens of thousands of years, of how and why and where agriculture began and how and where our world civilizations developed. The book is Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies, published in 1997, by Jared Diamond, professor of geography and biology. It is encyclopedic in range, brilliant in its basic thesis and fascinating in detailed expositions based on scientific evidence. Additionally, Diamond being a great storyteller, it’s a good read, but written in modules, so I take it in stages, skipping sections and returning to them when some relevant question or idea particularly interests me. A readable summary and discussion of Guns, Germs, and Steel is here.

In 2005, the National Geographic Society made a documentary film based on the book. Episode One is available on-line, here. It is about the hunter-gatherer society Diamond lived with. Episode two is here. It is about the Spanish conquest of the Peruvian civilization, informative, enlightening and beautifully photographs but not within my concerns at the moment. Outlines and explanations of the two documentary films are here and here.

Here for an engaging and informative interview with Jared Diamond.

Diamond’s passion for studying birds in all their variety lead him into Papua New Guinea and living in the jungle with the Kaulong, a hunter-gatherer band-level people who knew the environment. He soon realized that as individuals they were essentially no different from people in his own society, obviously equally intelligent and certainly more resourceful. The question then arose of why they are still hunter-gatherers and why his society is more complex, or as Yali, a man in the local government asked him: Why is it you white people developed so much cargo, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” 

Diamond decided to find out why, to discover the causes of societal differences. He begins his book with a history of Homo sapiens hunter-gatherers and why some invented agriculture and others did not, moves on to why some societies with a Neolithic village level of technology, economy, social organization or a Bronze Age/urban level of complexity continued to develop and others ceased changing or went into decline. He argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate primarily in environmental differences, which are amplified by various positive feedback loops. He views Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean area as one continuous landmass with environmental conditions that gave it a number of advantages over other areas of the world and that advances there, such as written languages and dominance in trade, occurred through the influence of geography on societies and cultures.

In accounts of his New Guinea hunters-gatherers, a band-level society of about thirty persons, he covers where and in what context a woman gives birth, how a child is weaned and how children are raised, but mostly he writes of the men’s activities.

I recently watched a television program on the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer people living today in the vast grassland area of Tanzania’s Rift Valley, on land not yet taken over by other people for raising cattle or farming. They are the indigenous people, and except for using steel knives instead of stone tools and wearing clothing, they live much as did their ancestors.

The San

Seeing them took me back to the 1960s when I taught Anthropology 101 and showed my students John Marshall’s 1957 documentary film, The Hunters, of the Kalahari Bushmen, the San people in South Africa. I remember the scenes of San men shooting a giraffe with a poisoned arrow and tracking it down as the poison took effect, then the activities that followed as everyone in the band shared in the eating and celebrating.

The program on the Hadza began with a journalist entering their camp with her interpreter, a young man, introducing her to a group of men who were sitting under a tree, doing men’s things, such as making arrows for the hunt, and talking. Diamond and other observers of hunter-gatherer people remark on their continual talking, comparing notes, being social. She chatted with the men, interviewed them and after some time asked, “Where are the women?” They were, of course, taking care of children and out gathering food, picking berries and fruit and using the digging stick to bring up tubers, the band’s basic food. Men hunt and women gather. Both activities require skill and knowledge of the environment, but the men’s side of the culture is more dramatic, less time-consuming, more fun to watch and more likely to be studied and recorded. In this simple band level society there is no social hierarchy; all are equal, but men dominate. My own pregnancies and having babies taught me why women are less mobile, mostly do the work compatible with childcare, plus we manage the inconvenience of menstruation. Besides, men are bigger and stronger. In this very readable account of the Hadza society Michael Finkel wrote “Gender roles are distinct, but for women there is none of the forced subservience knit into many other cultures. … women are frequently the ones who initiate a breakup—woe to the man who proves himself an incompetent hunter or treats his wife poorly. … some of the loudest, brashest members were women. …”

Here for a 7 minute video and here for photos, all of men.

In 1987, after having lived in the New Guinea forest with his friends, Diamond wrote for Discover Magazine a brief, widely read article in which he called the adoption of agriculture “the worst mistake in human history,” a mistake from which we have never recovered. Humans as hunter-gatherers, he wrote, living in bands of around thirty individuals, were more successful, as measured by increase in population and territory, than any other animal ever, but agriculture, the Neolithic Revolution, was the beginning of our taking over the earth.” — through our continual, accelerating population growth.   Archeological evidence shows that band level people had more leisure, were healthier and longer lived than people growing their food and living in villages. Diamond notes that circumstances for women changed with settled village living, and not for the better.

The Neolithic entailed making new sorts of stone tools, growing food that could be stored, domesticating animals, building substantial housing, living in settled village communities of a hundred or more households, making pottery, weaving cloth. In a hunter-gatherer mode of life a woman can manage only a carrying baby and a walking child; pregnancies and births were/are spaced (lactating suppressing ovulation, abstinence and infanticide. A child is not quite human until it proves likely to live and is therefore given a name.) Settled village life made it possible for a woman to have a baby every two years and for children to have a better chance of survival into adulthood. In band level society population increased; with agriculture, the rate of increase increased. The larger community needs a more complex social organization. In the hunter-gatherer band everyone was/is equal (although Diamond does mention that a girl new-born is more likely than a boy new-born to be put to death). In the settled village community one man, a chieftain, from a particular family or lineage ranked above other individuals and families/lineages and became the center of social organization. As the population increased, villages split, sending families out to establish new villages and the founding family usually held a special, often religious role in that village as it grew in population. The number of villages increased and became a tribal unit. A chieftain could organize men and take military action against other villages/tribes.

During the Bronze Age and onwards, technological innovation continued, societies grew in size and cultures became more complex and diverse, at least for the men. The lives of women remained much the same. They had babies, raised children, tended to family needs and participated in public activities primarily through their family or lineage roles.

Not all women were pleased with their limitations. The Queen of Sweden and Norway, wife of King Charles XIII and II, known for her beauty and vividness, kept a diary, 1738 – 1788.  Since she either miscarried or her children died soon after birth, she was not absorbed in the usual woman’s occupation. She wrote in her diary, “You have to admit, my dear friend, that woman is truly an unhappy creature: while men have their complete freedom, she is always burdened by prejudice and circumstance; you may say that men also have that hindrance, but it is not in equal degree. I am convinced that most women would ask for nothing more than to be transformed to men to escape the unhappy bondage and enjoy their full freedom.”

In my comments here on the Cyrano de Bergerac movies I include Roxane’s words as written by the playwright Edmond Rostand, 1897. Cyrano and Christian moon over Roxane but that does not change her status. She will have to marry some man or be a nun. All she asks for, most elegantly, is some say in her fate. Rostand’s wife, Rosemonde-Étienette Gérard, was a poet and playwright, and it shows.

In my 1970 study of a traditional town in Central Turkey, I decided to record and call attention to the unrecognized, unappreciated women’s contribution to the town economy. It is here in a three-part essay – “Surviving the Patriarch” – Part I is on middle-class Ankara, Part II on women’s work and the traditional family, Part III on the women’s day in the hamam.

As a girl growing up I was certainly aware of my lower status as female but had no mother to enculturate me into the attitudes and behaviors expected of a woman or how to value being female. It was evident to me that my father wanted a son. No one I knew ever questioned standard male/female roles. Everyone accepted that a woman hold a job after high school, then quit it to become a housewife when she married. In the 1940s and ‘50s I heard both middle-class White women and a middle-class Mexican-American woman say they liked having a man dominate them; it made them feel feminine and loved. This puzzled me. I wonder how many middle-class women today think or feel that way. As a girl I always had a boyfriend, and more than most girls, friends who were boys, always as equals, or so I believed. The rule for girls was no sex before marriage, so by teenage there was lots of what we called “necking,” or “petting” but no genital contact.

In 1952, I read, in English translation, the 1949 book The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Given my educational background, most of it went over my head but I did remember Beauvoir asking, “What is woman?” She argues that man is considered the default, while woman is considered “The Other … Thus humanity is male and man defines woman as not herself but as relative to him.” She stated what I knew to be true.


In 1960, The Pill came onto the American market. The first easily usable and reliable contraceptive. For the first time in human history a woman could easily, dependably decide if and when she would become pregnant. It was the beginning of a slowly growing revolutionary force.

In my early blog posts I wrote of why, in 1953, not yet 23, I married Ravi. He and I went on to graduate school together. I had two unplanned pregnancies, and as much as I loved my babies, always feared having another. Then the Pill arrived. It transformed my life, and Ravi’s. I had been using the diaphram as our contraceptive. If there had been a third pregnancy and baby, I could not have continued in school, could not have done research and written my M.A. thesis. We could not have lived twice in Somalia as a family. I could not have taught even part-time as a Lecturer in a university. Ravi could not have accepted the position that took him and us to Turkey and eventually to Paris. Another baby, maybe two, would have meant spending my life managing our family on a professor’s modest salary. And Ravi did not want to spend his life as a professor. The Pill saved us. I did not have the academic career I dreamed of, but I did all right.

Other young faculty wives in the 1960s were reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. The first chapter of the book concludes by declaring “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.

In 1957, American women had an average of 3.7 children. Catholic women had an average of 4.5 children. Those numbers began to fall immediately after the introduction of the pill. Today, American women have an average of 1.9 children, an all-time low.

All is not ideal. The rate of unintended pregnancies in the U.S. is higher than the world average, and much higher than that in other industrialized nations. Almost half (49%) of U.S. pregnancies are unintended, more than 3 million per year. In 2001, of the 800,000 teen pregnancies per year, over 80% were unintended.

Jonathan Eig tells the history of The Pill in his 2004 book The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. The four people who created this revolution were: Margaret Sanger, who believed that women could not enjoy sex or freedom until they could control when and whether they got pregnant; scientist Gregory Pincus, who was fired from Harvard for experimenting with in-vitro fertilization and bragging about it to the mainstream press; John Rock, who was a Catholic OB-GYN and worked with Pincus to conduct tests of the pill on women; and Katharine McCormick, who funded much of the research. Women’s control over when and how many children they have is indeed revolutionary.

I suppose my form of feminism is a concern for how and when a woman becomes a mother. Nothing is more important than being a mother but one must also participate in society as a full individual. How does one manage that?  In 1972, I returned to graduate school at the U. of Chicago into a specialty for the management of family planning programs, followed by the MBA in hospital/healthcare management. All but one of my consultancies were on health care programs but family planning and population concerns were always with me.

On the broader population concerns, demographers have noted the Demographic transition. In the 1800s in Western European advanced industrial societies, urban middle-class families were already having fewer children, even without effective contraception. Poor women still lacked control of when they got pregnant and upper class families could afford as many children as came naturally,  Overall, the fertility rate, roughly the number of births per woman, declined. Nevertheless, since the number of young women in the population was still high and the death rate was decreasing, the population continued to increase.

I remember the women I knew while doing sociological research. In the 1950s it was my friend in the Mexican-American community who was having a baby every two years. In Somalia it was the woman who scolded me for having only two children. What would I do, she asked, when they died, as her children had died? And Savamma, the poor woman in a South Indian town where I was doing a study and my failed attempt to get her into proper care for an abortion. And I think of the poor women in so many countries and refugee camps who do not have contraceptive services available.

The empowerment of women. And the changed circumstance for the family and children. The complexities are beyond my even listing them. I discussed The Intern, A Movie for Our Time here. Robert de Niro is great. The situation of the young woman and her husband would have been unimaginable a decade or two earlier.

On another aspect of controlling the timing and number of births — I do believe the greatest threat to the earth’s environment is overpopulation. That next.

It was sometime in the mid-1980s, while visiting friends at the university where Ravi and I had once taught, that I told an anthropologist about important differences I noticed between the various countries where I was and had been living and working. I attributed the differences to the agricultural base, whether it was wheat-growing or rice-growing. We discussed my observations at some length and he included them in a footnote, crediting me, to an article he was writing for an anthropological journal. I had left academia in 1968, had become an expatriate wife and mother following Ravi from country to country as he followed his career. For myself, I did research projects, went back to school for two years with the kids, and finally, on a consulting basis, did evaluations of primary health care programs in developing countries. For a number of years I lived and did a rural-to-urban migration study in Turkey, a wheat-growing country. In India, broadly, the Northwest is wheat-growing, while the East and South are rice-growing. I had done health care related research projects in both the regions, and of course, had visited Ravi’s family across India, from Bombay, Delhi, Benares, Calcutta, down to Bangalore. In rice-growing Indonesia, I worked in rural and urban contexts with Ministry of Health colleagues across Java, Madura, Sulawesi and Sumatra. (Somalia, where I lived and did research, was a tribal, pastoral nomadic society, like the Arab Bedouins, with yet another, quite different pattern of psychological-cultural characteristics.)

Woodcut by Piero Crescentio

Thrashing wheat in Delhi, at Humayun’s tomb

I told my anthropologist friend how different the wheat villages were from the rice villages and how the differences affected me.When I first lived in Turkey, in 1968, farming was still traditional, not very different from earlier Europe or northern India, rather like peasant farming. Tractors were still rare. The village was a compact settlement of a hundred or so households, maybe more, surrounded by wheat fields, pasture, fallow land, wooded areas. Travel time from one village to another was considerable. At the center of production was a man with his plow and an ox, mule or horse. (I wrote here on women’s role in the economy of a traditional Turkish town.) Inheritance was from father to son and women were outsiders who married into the family.

Planting rice

plowing the field

I first went to Bali in 1978 and after that, until 1994, to the other islands. As I  crossed Indonesia it was the nature of the farming more than the shape of the villages that caught my attention. Without actually studying the agriculture, it was obvious to me that rice farming is multi-phased and especially complex in the relationships required between farming households within the community. I describe Bali’s farming complex here   The man and his plow and bullock were there but as one part of the work sequence.

Women worked in the planting, weeding, harvesting, and they participated, at least in Bali, in the community’s agricultural decision-making meetings. (a photo of the woman’s blade for harvesting rice is here.) I read that in Java, descent is reckoned from both the father’s and the mother’s family line.

By habit, I view life from a sociological perspective but psychologists also have found differences between people dependent upon one or the other of the two basic food crops. (Maize/corn was the base in native American civilizations and the potato in South America.)  Psychologist Tim Talheim did research in China, on individuals in both the wheat-growing north and the rice-growing south. I found the results fascinating and relevant to my particular interests. Ordinarily, China had not been a culture I read or thought about but last year an archeological discovery having to do with amazing art lead me incidentally into months of acquiring background for understanding Indonesia. The discovery related to the 8,000 terracotta warriors that for millennia have kept watch over the tomb of China’s first emperor. Two of these remarkable statues had been shown in an art museum and I saw them. The Terracotta Army depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, in 210–209 BCE. Based on DNA evidence, archaeologists think Greek sculptors could have trained the local artists, indicating that the north China civilization, based on millet as its grain, had early-on contact with Indo-European culture via Central Asia and the northern steppe – and with growing wheat. Entirely separately, in South China, by 7500 BCE rice-based agriculture had developed along the Yangtze River.   Here for a map showing where rice, wheat, corn are grown in China.

migrations of Dai people

It was in the Yangtze River Neolithic based on rice, before the northern Han expansion, that the agricultural people of the S.E. Asia have their origins. They are the Austronesians, named for their language family. Genetic research shows that an ethnic minority in southern China, the Dai, are the people from whom the Indonesians are descended. Most likely their ancestors came from the region around the Tonkin Gulf, the homeland of the Dai, and migrated to Indonesia through the Vietnam corridor. (I previously wrote here, based on linguistic theory, that the indigenous people of Taiwan were the original Austronesians. That now seems unlikely. For Japan’s deep history, see comment five below. )

Tim Talheim and his research team propose that a history of farming wheat makes cultures more independent, while farming rice makes cultures more interdependent, and these agricultural legacies continue to affect people in the modern world. He reports that the northern Chinese seemed more direct, while people in the south were more concerned about harmony and avoiding conflict. They tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites and found that those in rice-growing southern China were more interdependent and holistic-thinking than respondents in the wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, they tested people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border and found differences that were just as large. Individualism is often considered a trait related to modernization but it did not fit the data. The wheat-growing/rice-growing differences persist with urbanization and modernization.

Quoting from the National Geographic article –  “To see if these agricultural differences led to contrasting psychological traits, Talhelm’s team recruited 1,162 Han Chinese students from around the country and showed them sets of three objects, such as a train, a bus, and tracks. When asked to pair two of them together, volunteers from rice-growing regions were more likely to choose holistic pairings based on relationships (train and tracks), while those from wheat-growing areas chose analytic pairings based on abstract similarities (train and bus).”

From a New York Times article, social psychologist Hazel Rose Markus asked people arriving at San Francisco International Airport to fill out a survey and offered them a handful of pens to use, for example, four orange and one green; those of European descent more often chose the one pen that stood out, while the Asians more often chose the one more like the others.

I wonder how Ravi would have chosen. His family was both north Indian and south Indian. Oddly, for example, for him a proper Indian main meal included both wheat chapattis and rice. I agonize over how to make a pair from the bus, train and tracks set. I am from a wheat culture but as a professional woman felt more at ease in rice culture countries, in cultures where even in the traditional sectors of the society women participated in public life. I will reflect more on this as I write about my experiences in Indonesia. One aspect that immediately comes to mind is my American habit of smiling at people in public and how this affected me, as a woman, in the various countries where I lived and worked. I describe that here.

Addendum — I wrote here of my first experience, other than Bali, in a paddy rice village and remarked on ways in which it was different from with the wheat societies I grew up in. My working in public health shaped much of how I understood each culture I came to know.


I think about movies and their influence in our lives. Gaslight, for example, is a good movie and it added a useful word to the languge; “gaslighting” is a verb that names behavior previously we could only describe. Now we say “he gaslighted me” and people know what we mean. Decades ago Rashomon, a truly great movie, gave us a phrase, the “Rashomon effect.” It did not become part of our common, every-day vocabulary but is used by psychologists, psychotherapists, journalists, and people like me because it names, and therefore helps us understand, a particular sort of complex social interaction.

But first, the movie – I saw Rashomon in 1952, soon after it arrived in the U.S.  Roger Ebert wrote that “Rashomom (1950) struck the world of film like a thunderbolt.” It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, introducing Japanese cinema to the world, and won the Academy Award as best foreign film, setting box office records in the U.S. for a subtitled film. At the time I was a university student and holding down a job to pay for it, so had little time for movies, which I then thought were, anyhow, mostly a waste of time. Student friends more sophisticated than I were foreign film enthusiasts but a movie from Japan did not interest them. It was outside their experience, so I, the anthropology student, asked my sociology student friend, who happened to be Japanese-American, to see Rashomon with me. (During World War II, his family was relocated and interned in a camp for Japanese-Americans, a totally unjust action taken by the U.S. government.) Less than half an hour into the movie he stood up, abruptly, and walked away, out of the theater. I was so involved in the movie, in the story and the marvelous images, that only after it had ended, after sitting there for some time, still caught in its spell, did I wonder why my friend had left. He never spoke of it and I felt somehow it better not to ask.  Here for a full description of the movie.

No one discussed Rashomon with me; in college social circles cinema was not yet considered an art form and I was not yet reading movie reviews. Bosley Crowther’s in the New York Times seems to be the only Rashomon review from 1951. Robert Ebert wrote his in 2002, in concert with the Criterion Collection release on DVD. For many years I believed I was the only person who knew of Rashomon, but the question it asks and scenes from the movie stayed with me. I have seen it again on DVD and on-line.

Not all the critiques of Rashomon have been unstinting in their praise. Phillip Lopate, who reviews the book by Paul Anderer, “Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Vanished City, a Lost Brother, and the Voice Inside His Iconic Films,” believes that Anderer overrates Rashomon. In Lopate’s opinion – “… …The fact that it is “iconic” does not necessarily make it a masterpiece — certainly not one of comparable depth to, say, Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” or Ozu’s “Late Spring.” Visually dazzling, yes, but the hammy and naïve aspects remain irksome. Toshiro Mifune’s monkey-scratching bandit, charming at first, becomes one-note; the drifter’s cynical laughter is excessive; and the woodcutter’s rescue of the baby at the end, a crudely sentimental device. Kurosawa’s Big Thoughts, like What is truth? and Is man inherently evil?, seem trite. The problem is not that these questions are undeserving of consideration, but that Kurosawa poses them in a didactic, simplistic, self-congratulatory manner.”

I prefer Roger Ebert’s view. He accepted the elevated emotional level of the actors, as did I. Kurosawa was not looking for realism. He had the actors, in the mode of silent film, use their faces, eyes and gestures to express emotion, and the story takes on a universal, mythical meaning beyond what language can ordinarily communicate.

In another review from 2015 2015 Kim Newman places Rashomon as less than a masterpiece but important in film history. She considers it is essential viewing.

James Berardinelli’s thoughtful commentary is well worth reading to comprehend the significance of the movie and the questions it raises.

Whether one considers Rashomon a great movie or merely consequential, the idea of the “Rashomon effect” remains. For the anthropologist it is central; a main problem is how do deal with different understandings in different cultures.

Michael Lakahn defines it: “Stated simply, the “Rashomon effect” is the effect that our subjective perceptions have on our memories of events. The result is that two or more observers of the same event will describe substantially different but equally plausible accounts of the event. As neurological science has demonstrated, we are all subject to the Rashomon effect. We are all unreliable narrators.”

In the first scene of Rashomon, in a heavy wind-driven rain, two men sit in the ruins of a once massive city gate. The woodcutter says and repeats, “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.” The priest, in a sad voice, lists many of the wrongs perpetuated by man and by nature — wars, plagues, floods, fires — but finds the court trial testimonies he and the woodcutter heard, sitting there in the background, the most distressing and disastrous of them all. A commoner who joins the woodcutter and priest states the obvious. He points out that murder and violence are everyday occurrences and wonders why they agonize over this particular murder, over how it was committed and by whom.

For the priest, the succession of personal tales may have reinforced his fear that human beings are inherently flawed, self-serving, locked into the individual’s own perspective, while the very essence of being religious is putting the good of others above self. For the woodcutter, perhaps the stories told were reminders that people in other places and other social statuses are different from himself, not really understandable, but since he had played a part, if only a small part, in the drama of the thief, the noblewoman and the nobleman, he cannot separate himself from them. The commoner shrugged it off, mindlessly, and looked to his own interest.

I have lived my life as a friend, wife, citizen, anthropologist and public health worker trying to understand why people from different backgrounds think and act differently from the ways I acquired growing up in America. I recognized the Rashomon effect but until recently did not find it, as in the movie, a reason to lament the nature of human nature; I thought differences in perception were simply a fact of life to analyze and work with. Now, however, everything around me has changed. I observe new technologies and the global economy changing American society and culture. Americans are divided as never before into factions with sharply opposing self and national interests. We have at present a toxic political climate and a government dominated by a President and his appointees who represent one part only of the society, and a minority part, at that. I wonder how our traditional democratic institutions, the economy, ordinary people will weather this ideological storm.

I cannot help but reconsider the grave view held by the priest in Rashomon. We are all subject to the Rashomon effect. We are not only unreliable narrators, we are unreliable observers who interpret circumstance and relevant information to favor our own self-interest and to act in that regard, justifying our actions as beneficial for the larger society. Thus, we have no hope for a universal court where everyone can agree on what is true and just. However, unlike some of the commentators, I do believe that a knowable psychological and social reality does exist and can be discovered through scientific study.

But enough of this for now.

I find it difficult these days to concentrate on my past, on my memories, and writing about them seems particularly irrelevant. Instead, endlessly I read and listen to news reports and political analyses, obsessed with the crises Donald Trump is creating in and for the American government. I believe Trump and the people he brings into office are a danger to America’s democracy and economy, maybe also to other countries’ well being.

And I worry about what is happening to young people. They face a job market where wages are abominable.

Since 2000, the hourly wage of the median worker rose just 0.5%, while productivity increased by nearly 23%. From 1979 to 2011, wages for the median worker grew by 6%, wages for the highest-earning 5% rose by nearly 38%, and for the top 1% they rose by 131%. For the lowest paid workers, wages actually fell during those years. Nearly one-third of women, compared to nearly a quarter of men, earned poverty-level wages in 2011. For more statistics, check here. But know that this sort of inequality has happened before in capitalist democracies and has been reversed through collective action by the workers. In the 1930s my grandfather and father worked as unskilled, low-paid laborers in a steel mill, in a dangerous setting, for long hours six days a week. They joined with other workers and formed a union. Unions transformed the society and the economy.

Norma Rae captures the meaning of the union, which is why I remember so many of the scenes. Besides, it’s a wonderful movie about friendship, family, love, relationships, individuals growing and changing, all of which made it a box office success. Watching a real textile factory floor in action, both the technology and how the workers and managers related to one another, fascinated me. The cinematography is exceptional and the acting remarkable. Sally Field won a large number of Best Actress awards for portraying Norma Rae, including at Cannes in 1979 and the Oscar in 1980, along with “It Goes as it Goes” sung by Jennifer Warnes, as Best Song. It’s a classic film, selected in 2011 for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Nevertheless, very few reviews of Norma Rae are available on-line and the reason why is explained in this excellent summary of the story Matt Langdon wrote in 2011.   “This is a classic 1970’s film that successfully blends a feminist component with the typical management labor struggle that have existed in factories and mills since the 19th century. It’s an important subject but more than 20 years after it was made it continues to have a bad rap with mainstream audiences. Mainly because it is a feminist film, a pro-labor film as well as one that is very class conscious and takes place in a small southern town. All these things, though, make “Norma Rae” a unique Hollywood film since its kind wouldn’t be made today. … …”


An early meeting

I like this detailed summary of the plot, but certain expressions need to be explained. For example, “balled out” should be “bawled” out, meaning to shout at and scold someone. In the last paragraph, regarding the expression: “And boy that Sally Field really did an excellent job.” I no longer hear “boy” used to emphasize an idea. When I was young the expression was “boy oh boy.” Perhaps the original meaning was from buoy (same pronunciation), a devise that bloats on the water and serves to warn people of a hazard, such as a reef. The buoy often had a bell attached. As a verb, buoy or buoy up can mean to boost or increase. For another slang expression:  “And the Flying Nun was looking pretty sharp in the film.”  “Looking pretty sharp” means looking bright and very pleasing. Flying Nun refers to a television series Sally Fields starred in.

I love this video clip from the movie. It expresses why the union was important to ordinary people.

The man speaking is a union organizer from New York. He is Jewish, the first Jew Norma Rae has met. The meeting is being held in a humble Black church. This photo is from its interior, with people sitting on the church’s benches. Norma Rae later asked the White preacher for permission to hold a union meeting in the much better equipped White church, the sort of church in the other photograph, and he turned her down.

The events in the movie took place in 1974, at a time when the textile industry was already unionized, nationally, except for this one company, J.P. Stevens.

The turning point

The U.S. Congress had passed laws to protect the right of workers to unionize, but by keeping its workers from knowing about the law and worker rights, the J.P. Stevens company was able to keep worker wages low and their work conditions dangerous to health. In one dramatic scene we see Norma Rae’s bosses harassing her as she copies a paper posted on the factory’s bulletin board. Management had written it to frighten the White workers. The paper states that if the workers formed a union, the Blacks would run it, which is untrue, and under national civil rights law such a prejudiced assertion is illegal. The company is gaslighting the workers.


The woman, Crystal Lee Sutton, on whom Norma Rae is based is described here.  She was pleased with the movie’s interpretation of her union activities and of her life.

The movie’s presentation of a town such as Crystal Lee’s town is authentic. Compared with those in the North where I grew up, it is a life of relative poverty. Norma Rae’s household needs three adults, her mother and father and her, a mother of small children, working full-time to support the family. (After all, the textile industry owners moved their factories from the North to the South because the wages there were significantly lower.) I compare this scene of Norma Rae and her parents in their yard with the yard of my low-income working-class grandparents. In the 1940s, Grandmother had a washing machine and wringer in the house and her clothes line in a neat back yard. Norma Rae’s mother, in 1974, is doing laundry in a tub, wringing it out by hand. It seems like a hardscrabble life.

This article is by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was sent in 1974 to North Carolina to report on efforts to unionize the workers in large textile mills. It is a lengthy discussion of struggles between the textile companies and the unions, including the movie’s unionization, and of the government’s involvement in settling disputes.

Finally, my memory of union country — In the 1940s, I lived for three years with my White Anglo-Saxon Protestant working class grandparents (described here) in Ohio. Like many small town White Christian working-class girls, I never heard the word “Jew” outside of Bible studies at church and was quite unaware of anyone in my high school being Jewish. The Negro community in the South (“Negro” being the polite word at that time) was a large minority, unequal and living segregated from the Whites, except as servants. (described here in The Help) In my Ohio town the Negro community was small and socially invisible to most Whites. The high school was integrated and I chatted with a few Black kids in the classroom but social segregation reigned. (a note here on sports and Black/White school integration.) My circle of friends included children of Catholic families who had come in the early 20th century as immigrants to the northern U.S., rarely to the South, from southern and eastern Europe, and although Grandmother and Granddad disapproved of the Catholic Church they reluctantly accepted my visiting with families they found so different from themselves. I was always curious about different people and asked Granddad to tell me where the Negro children lived and why nasty words like Dago and Wop were used for people from Italy and other strange places. He said, “We don’t talk about that.” End of discussion.

His non-answer, so unlike him, puzzled me, but I now think his silence had to do with the union. Granddad and Grandmother personally held the standard racial and ethnic prejudices but did not like to say negative things against other people. To avoid unpleasantness they, in their own words, stayed with their own kind. However, Black men and men of the new ethnic communities were in the union with Granddad. They had been on the picket line together, together they fought the company and its well organized, well financed supporters. They had won and together elected leaders, fought for decent wages and safe working conditions, followed union principles and acted as one. The union saw to it that Grandmother had a nice, affordable place to live when she was widowed. My grandparents had no vocabulary for a rationale discussion of the inconsistencies between their union identity and social differences in the larger society, so they choose not to talk about it. They believed in the union and were faithful to its ethic of collective identity and action. I think it taught them tolerance. In later years, although not always comfortable with it, they accepted my stepping out into a diverse world. They even accepted my marrying a foreign student from India, without going so far as to include his photograph among the family photos on the top of the piano in the living room.

Apparently, the unions that built middle-class America are dead, gone. I read that Americans have reached the (incorrect) conclusion that organizing workers is counterproductive. If so, this has to be changed.

As an addendum — In a fascinating, well written article, “Confronting the Parasite Economy,” in the American Prospect magazine, Nick Hanauer, an extraordinarily successful businessman, presents his view of the economy and of wage scales, of what is wrong with both and why and how they should be changed. His ideas are controversial among economists but I find them convincing.

Hanauer’s argument is that in the U.S. we have two types of businesses – (1) businesses in the real economy that pay their workers decent middle-class wages and (2) parasite businesses that pay unjustly, economically unnecessarily low wages. The cost is high for taxpayers working in the real economy because the majority of the money we collectively pay for anti-poverty programs goes not to poor people without jobs; it goes to low-wage workers who must rely on government welfare programs to survive. Our tax money supports the working poor employed by parasite businesses — businesses that keep wages low because they can, not because it is necessary for running a profitable business but because they have total power over their employees. Parasite businesses are bad for the economy; they reduce their workers’ ability to buy goods and services from businesses in the real economy and prevent those workers from contributing to the nation’s economic growth. And the wrongs the parasite businesses create for the society … … too numerous to list.

The solution is collective action. Governments should raise the minimum wage, which entails raising citizen awareness of the negative effects of poverty-level wages. Mostly, we need a rebirth of unions to increase wages, improve working conditions and bring individuals from diverse communities together in collective action. With our nation’s growing ethnic diversity, bringing people together for collective action is especially important for our democracy.

Addendum 2 — An important study indicates that the growing income inequality in the U.S. is caused in large part by a politically induced decline in the strength of worker unions. Unions reduce pay differences within companies and unions lobby in the federal and state governments on behalf of the working and middle classes for better education, better health services and generally for a strong public social infrastructure. Union decline, and the decline in public infrastructure, has come from business-financed political conservatives who spread misinformation and successfully lobby Congress to pass laws that make it difficult for workers to unionize. When in my mid-forties, in the 1970s, I did an M.B.A, in the Kellogg School. The hostility many of the student expressed toward unions, and toward workers, surprised me. How different from the small business people I had known for whom employees were people, not factors of production requiring cost control.

Recently a young woman was telling me about how she had once worked in a certain business establishment but left because the men were gaslighting the women employees and even though it was my first time hearing of gaslighting I knew what she meant; I had seen the movie. However, my friend had not; Gaslight is from my generation, not hers. Indeed, she had barely heard of the movie. Gaslighting was simply the word everyone she knew used to describe such circumstances. The following day, watching a news program on television, a woman reporting on sexual harassment in the work place spoke of gaslighting; it has become an ordinary word.

Gaslighting is similar to but stronger than the phrase I heard from the 1960s-70s generation, something like “he’s messing with her mind.” In the past, people certainly thought about such situations but had no vocabulary for reifying and contesting them. It was assumed that men would dominant women and pushing a woman around psychologically was considered normal, if not nice. Gaslight is from that past, from the 1940s. It was a time when, quoting from this excellent film site, a large number of noir, gothic, melodramatic movies had the theme of a sheltered woman who is menaced, threatened, or at least frightened by a deranged man. The 1940s was early for me but I saw a number of the movies later, in the 1950s, when I was in my twenties, including Jane Eyre (1943)Rebecca (1940)Suspicion (1941)Laura (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945),  And, of course, Gaslight.

Not many films have their title enter the language in such a socially significant manner.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2017, Ben Yagoda wrote that the American Dialect Society, while choosing the Word of the Year, selected to gaslight as winner in the category of “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed.” They defined to gaslight as “to psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” Yagoda continues in the article to give a history of how, beginning in the 1950s, gaslighting has been used by various public personalities in print and on television.

In the December 10, 2016 issue of Teen Vogue magazine, in an article, “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” Lauren Duca wrote that since the rise of social media, of smart phones, Facebook and its imitators, of instant communication, gaslighting has been the word of choice for teenage girls and young women when describing how ex-boyfriends have tried to mess with their heads, and she continues with a discussion showing that from the time when Donald Trump began his campaign for President, and was elected, the use in the media of the verb to gaslight has increased enormously. She states that Trump won the Presidency by gaslighting the public and supports her point with examples and an analysis of the consequences.

An article in a technology and science magazine accuses the food industry of gaslighting the public on the harm of heavy use of sugar.

Returning to The Chronicle of Higher Education —  In 1951, Solomon Asch, social psychologist, conducted a series of experiments in which a person, the Subject, sat in a room with other people. The Experimenter showed them four lines – Line A and a set of three other lines, one of which was the same length as Line A – and asked them all to identify the line among the three that matched line A. The Subject chose the correct line but the other persons, having been primed by the Experimenter and part of the experiment, all agreed on one of the incorrect lines as being the same as Line A. Of the 50 Subjects who did the experiment, 37 decided that the others in the room were correct. Most admitted afterwards that they had not agreed with the majority but had gone along to avoid being ostracized. To understand the Subject’s motivation:  “Suppose you go to a fancy dinner party and notice to your dismay that there are four forks beside your plate. When the first course arrives, you are not sure which fork to use. If you are like most people, you look around and use the fork everyone else is using. You do this because you want to be accepted by the group and because you assume the others know more about table etiquette than you do.” The Subject was being gaslighted, and most of the Subjects conformed to the group but did not lose their grip on reality.

In other such experiments, if just one person agreed with the Subject, the Subject person could resist conforming to the majority. This, I think, is encouraging. It shows the importance of having an ally and of getting information to people in a way that is relevant to them. Of course, an emotionally disturbed individual with no friends is vulnerable to a single negative influence, but that is another matter.

A small number of the Subjects in the experiments were truly convinced by the majority that they were seeing incorrectly. These are the individuals at great risk for serious gaslighting and psychological damage. In the real world “ … (The) victim must be somehow emotionally cathected (deeply attached) to (the bully). Thus a beloved husband can gaslight his wife; thus a charismatic dictator can gaslight many of his subjects. By fostering insecurity, by loudly asserting as truth various “facts” and narratives that make no sense, the gaslighter gains a kind of emotional access that will eventually trump his victims’ reasoning. … ” (no pun intended)

A Hotline is available in the U.S. to victims of domestic violence. A national organization of highly trained experts on the sort of violence that can happen in the home, mostly against women and children, keep a telephone service that anyone may call at any hour to receive useful, helpful information and advice.

Returning to the movie –  A British Gaslight, based on a stage play, was released in 1940 but the 1944 Hollywood version, directed by George Cukor, starring Ingrid Bergman  and Charles Boyer became the box office success and it won Oscars.

Touches like this add to the 1944 Gaslight: The set decoration is by Paul Huldchinsky, a German refugee who borrowed elements from the German expressionist style to make the house cluttered and stifling and give it a claustrophobic jail-like atmosphere. The movie received an Oscar for interior decoration. For depicting the broader Victorian period environment, the 1940 version is considered more effective.

I saw Gaslight many years ago, so I watched it again on-line. Obviously, the atmospherics are much better on the big screen, but Gaslight is a good movie, and even without the current interest in its title and theme, the story and the acting still would have engaged me.

How could Paula, played by Bergman, be so easily and seriously gaslighted? The answer lies in her vulnerability as an inexperienced and isolated young woman. Moreover, she had fallen in love with a charming, clever, authoritative father-figure of a man considerably older than she, and he, by hiring particular household servants, constructed an environment that he alone controlled. Her vulnerability began when she was still a child, about twelve years old, and her aunt, her guardian and only family, was murdered in their London home. Paula heard but did not see it happen. She never recovered from the trauma she suffered from the event. Her isolation began when she was sent, immediately after the death, to live in Italy under the protection of a kindly, elderly maestro whose responsibility it was to train her as an opera star. Unfortunately, she doubted her talent and she lacked motivation. The story is set in a time when and in a place where girls did not venture out into public without family. (I wonder about the social status of a woman opera singer in that era but that matter is totally ignored.) Paula had wealth but no family and, apparently, no friends or companions. Not until the end did she have that one essential ally.

I like this bright, witty review and it’s many photographs from the movie.

In this review, also with photographs, the two film versions of Gaslight are discussed and compared. It is excellent and a good read.

It did not occur to me, seeing Gaslight in the 1950s, that this man’s bullying of his wife was a theatrical expression of a fairly common pattern of behavior, one we could more easily recognize and act on after it had a name. It took psychotherapists to first name it and today’s young women to bring the word into our vocabulary. I wrote here, toward the end of the essay, about the teenage stage of life as a fairly recent social phenomenom, of the rise of women in public life and of the social revolution we are experiencing. The invention and widespread use of a word like gaslighting is yet another instance of how our world is changing – both in private life and in the way we perceive, think and talk about our societies’ leaders.