It was on this date, April 8, 1896, that American popular song lyricist Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg was born Isidore Hochberg (Yiddish איסידור הוכברג) on the Lower East Side of New York City—into a Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox Jewish family that had emigrated from Russia. Best known as Edgar “Yip” Harburg, he attended high school and became friends with another future lyricist and freethinker, Ira Gershwin. After going deeply into debt following the stock market crash of 1929, Harburg collaborated with new friend Jay Gorney for musical revues on Broadway. The most memorable lyric, from Americana in 1932, was for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” which became a kind of anthem for the Great Depression. Other popular songs included “April in Paris” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Hollywood called later in the 1930s and Harburg collaborated with composers such as Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern, Burton Lane and Jule Styne. His signature lyrical achievement was for The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, which won him the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Over the Rainbow.” The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the American Film Institute (AFI) judged Judy Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” as the Number One recording of the 20th century.
While Hollywood was scared of Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition about liberal politics, Harburg could let his social conscience run free on Broadway. “The House of God never had much appeal for me,” Harburg once said. “Anyhow, I found a substitute temple—the theater.” Harburg believed people should be guaranteed basic human rights, political equality, education, economic opportunity and health care. His musicals included Bloomer Girl (1944), about temperance and women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer and Finian’s Rainbow (1947), with its groundbreaking integrated chorus line and the songs “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” The writer of the lyric for the 1937 song “God’s Country,” who never joined the Communist Party, was nevertheless blacklisted from Hollywood from 1950-1962. Harburg’s lyrics satirized the hysterically anti-communist sentiment in the U.S. in the short-running 1951 musical Flahooley.
Yip Harburg was not shy about satirizing popular religious beliefs, as well. Here are some selections from a collection called Rhymes for the Irreverent—
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree;
And only God who makes the tree
Also makes the fools like me.
But only fools like me, you see,
Can make a God, who makes a tree.
No matter how much I probe and prod,
I cannot quite believe in God;
But oh, I hope to God that He
Unswervingly believes in me.
“A Nose Is A Nose Is A Nose”
Mother, Mother, tell me please,
Did God who gave us flowers and trees,
Also provide the allergies?
In ’29 when the banks went bust,
Our coins still read “In God We Trust.”
And in a lyric for Cabin in the Sky (1943), but performed by Lena Horne on Broadway in Jamaica (1957), Harburg wrote—
Life is short, short, brother!
Ain’ it de truth?
An’ dere is no other
Ain’ it de truth?
You gotta rock that rainbow while you still got your youth
Oh! Ain’ it de solid truth?
As if there were any doubt about Yip Harburg’s opinion of religion, he gave a radio interview with Jack O’Brian on 21 May 1977, heard on WOR, New York City. O’Brian asked him, “In the abstract, what is your religion?” Harburg replied, “Well, that’s a tough question, but I would say—quickie—that my religion is to make people laugh, and in return, to give me love and I want them to make me laugh and I want to give them love.”
Edgar “Yip” Harburg died of heart failure in Hollywood, while his car was stopped at a traffic light, on 5 March 1981. It would seem his feelings about a life beyond death were influenced by similar words from Mark Twain when Yip Harburg wrote “Small Comforts”—
Before I was born, I seemed to be
Contented with being non-be-able;
So after I’m gone, it seems to me
My lot should be not less agreeable.
It was on this date, April 7, 1506, that the co-founder of the Jesuits or “Society of Jesus,” Francis Xavier was born Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta in the Kingdom of Navarre (currently Spain). Xavier was discovered by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), who was 15 years his elder, while Xavier was studying at the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris. Ignatius admired the younger man’s learning, physical beauty and athletic ability as a runner. Xavier was soon seduced into the Company and was there with Ignatius at the founding, on 15 August 1534, becoming one of the first seven Jesuits. Thereafter, Xavier was ordained.
Apparently thinking his skill at running was vanity, Xavier tied cords around his legs to damage himself for God. His first commission was significant, considering the vanity evident in trying to convert non-Christians in Asian lands: he was sent in 1541 to the Portuguese colony in India to re-convert the Christians there! As a measure of his success there, it should be noted that the majority-Hindu India is only 2.9 % Christian in our time (only a quarter of the Muslim population). In 1546, Xavier attempted to convert the inhabitants of the Portuguese colony of Malacca and the Maluku Islands. Malacca today is 3% Christian and 66% Muslim. From 1549-1551 he spent 2½ years failing to convert the Japanese—the Christian population in Japan is 1% in our time, as 70% profess no religion whatsoever. Xavier set out for China in 1552, but died off the coast, on 2 December, having failed to set foot on the Chinese mainland. The life of Francis is proof, as the early Christians learned, that conversion is easier under threat of death; and, as Muslims to this day know, reconversion is not necessary when apostasy carries the same penalty!
Christian missionary and failure Francis Xavier was canonized a saint, along with his Jesuit leader, Ignatius, in 1662. However, 48 years earlier (1614), by order of Claudius Acquaviva, General of the Society of Jesus, Xavier’s right arm was severed at the elbow and transported to Rome. The arm rests now in the Church of the Gesù; the rest of the maimed corpse is in a church which formerly belonged to the Jesuits, the Bom Jesus Basilica at Goa, India.
The Jesuit maxim, “Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards,” is attributed to Xavier—and it shows the psychological truth that capturing minds before they have reached the age of reason yields good soldiers for any sort of indoctrination. Before he died, Xavier had initiated the Goa Inquisition, via a 1545 letter to John III of Portugal, to kill the apostates in that Portuguese colony with the love of Christ. It should be noted that, like the Taliban and the 2001 dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, Xavier rejoiced in the destruction of elements of indigenous cultures, saying, “I order everywhere the temples pulled down and all idols broken. I know not how to describe in words the joy I feel before the spectacle of pulling down and destroying the idols.”
It was on this date, March 31, 1940, that American politician Barney Frank, who served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for the Massachusetts 8th District from 1981 to 2013, was born Barnett Frank in Bayonne, New Jersey. Frank graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and served in the Massachusetts legislature beginning in 1972, before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980. For 10 years (2003-2013), Frank was the leading Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, and he co-authored the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that, in spite of good intentions, has been hobbled by corporate lobbyists and a lack of implementing legislation. He has consistently supported abortion and other reproductive freedom rights for women, equal rights for women, minorities and the LGBT, has favored stricter scrutiny of guilt before consigning people to jail, has supported medical marijuana use, network neutrality by Internet service providers, pro-environment regulations and (not surprisingly, as a Jew himself) is a strong supporter of the State of Israel. Frank has been described by his colleagues as the “brainiest,” “funniest” (as in quick-witted) and “most eloquent” member of the House.
In May 1987, Frank announced publicly what was know privately to his associates since before he ran for Congress: that he is gay—thereby becoming the first serving member of Congress to declare his same-sex preference voluntarily. Indeed, his quick wit was on display during the putative scandal involving then-President Bill Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky: he complained that he could not study the Starr Report because it contained “too much reading about heterosexual sex.” In 1995, then-Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey infamously referred to Barney Frank as “Barney Fag” in a press interview. When Armey later apologized, claiming it was “a slip of the tongue,” Frank rejoined: “I turned to my own expert, my mother, who reports that in 59 years of marriage, no one ever introduced her as Elsie Fag.” Eight years after marriage equality became legal in Massachusetts (by judicial ruling, on 17 May 2004), in July 2012, Frank married his long-time partner James Ready, becoming the first serving member of Congress to marry someone of the same sex.
But this descendant of Polish and Russian Jews, who consistently described himself as a Jew, who came out as gay when such an announcement could have hurt his political career, who married his same-sex partner when such a thing was legal in only a handful of states—all while still in public office—delayed coming out as an atheist until he was safely out of office. Why? And, more to the point, why is lacking belief in a god inimical to elective office?
Almost seven months to the day after leaving Congress, on the live Internet-only after-show “Overtime,” which follows the live HBO comedy-politics hour called “Real Time with Bill Maher,” on 2 August 2013, Barney Frank cleverly suggested he is a “pot-smoking atheist” like his host. The audience applauded. But although Frank has been on the side of nonbelievers on some church-state issues before Congress, nevertheless, Frank supported reaffirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto, voted to give land to the Boy Scouts of America, and supported a measure that allowed “certain church plans to be exempt from registration and disclosure requirements.” Throughout his career, Frank has been missing in action as an outspoken atheist ally. True, a 2012 Gallup Poll says Muslims and gays are more electable than atheists, even if the “nones” (those who declare no religious preference) now make up almost 20% of the U.S. population. But Frank has always been a groundbreaker in identity politics. It is also significant that Frank’s admitting that he smokes pot—over 20 years after Bill Clinton felt compelled to say (in 1992) he “didn’t inhale” during his pot-smoking days—was less of a controversy than his atheism.
Ever since the rise of the Tea Party, the United States has become an ever more hostile home to nonbelievers. Though not enforced since the Supreme Court’s 1961 Torcaso decision, seven state constitutions even today include provisions prohibiting atheists from holding public office.* The divisive phrase “under God” is still in the Pledge of Allegiance, the divisive “In God We Trust” still replaces the inclusive “E Pluribus Unum” as the national motto on U.S. coins and currency, nonreligious parents still lose child custody cases, Congress still has a chaplain (exclusively Christian) paid out of taxpayer funds, and churches still pay no property taxes. And hostility to nonbelievers, while occasionally contrary to law, is not always amenable to legal remedy: as Alternet points out: discrimination can take other forms, “such as social ostracism; bullying in schools; public schools denying atheist students the right to form clubs; religious proselytizing promoted by the government; widespread perceptions of atheists as untrustworthy; businesses denying equal access to atheists and atheist organizations; government promotion of religion in social service programs; government promotion of religion in the military.” One might also include near-invisibility of nonbelievers in the media and in school history class.
This is not to say that discrimination against nonbelievers is in any way worse in the U.S. than elsewhere: in 13 countries, all of them predominantly Muslim, anybody who is openly atheist or who rejects Islam (blasphemy or apostasy) can face execution under the law. In Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen you can be executed for blasphemy—as was a 15-year-old Saudi boy in 2013, and as have some Bahá’ís recently in Iran.
In one sense, Barney Frank was courageous in coming out as atheist in 2013. He excused himself for this late confession to journalist Jennifer Michael Hecht of Politico (9 Dec 2013) by rather lamely saying he stayed silent about his atheism “because it wasn’t relevant to policy” and he “didn’t want to look like I was separating from Judaism”—as if defenders of Jews don’t have enough representation inside and outside of Congress! There seems very little in Barney Frank’s history or political philosophy to explain why he wasn’t there when nonbelievers needed him—like Dwight D. Eisenhower criticizing the “military-industrial complex” only after he was leaving office or Robert McNamara regretting his piloting of the Vietnam War only after he retired from public life. But nonbelievers may take heart: like the growing public acceptance of pot smoking and marriage equality, perhaps Barney Frank’s coming out as atheist is a case of “better late than never”!
= = = * The seven states with (legally unenforceable) Constitutional prohibitions against nonbelievers holding public office, and lacking the political will to expunge the offending clauses, are Arkansas (“No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court”); Maryland (“That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution”); Mississippi (“No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state”); North Carolina (“The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God”); South Carolina (“No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution”); Tennessee (“No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state”); Texas (“No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being”). Pennsylvania reverses the onus by affording special protection to believers only (“No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth”).
It was on this date, March 26, 1985, that English actress Keira Knightley was born Keira Christina Knightley in Teddington, London, UK, to an actress-playwright mother and an actor father. Following the family profession wasn’t a natural choice for her: as Knightley said later on, “I’m dyslexic, and at six years old [my parents] realized I couldn’t read a word and had been fooling them. My mum said to me: ‘If you come to me with a book in your hand and a smile on your face every day through the summer holiday, I’ll get you an agent.’” She began acting before age 10 and won her first film role in 1995. Knightley became recognizable on both sides of the Atlantic after her starring role in the 2002 sports film Bend It Like Beckham. She achieved international fame from 2003 after appearing as Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series—The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Dead Man’s Chest (2006), At World’s End (2007). Performing in period dress, Knightley also starred in King Arthur (2004), Pride & Prejudice (2005, Golden Globe Award), Atonement (2007, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations), Silk (2007), The Edge of Love (2008), The Duchess (2008), A Dangerous Method (2011) and Anna Karenina (2012).
Taking her stand against domestic violence, Keira Knightley starred in a TV and cinema ad called “Cut,” for the charity Women’s Aid. In the two-minute ad, directed by Joe Wright (who directed her films Pride and Prejudice and Atonement), she is shown as an actress suffering a shocking assault by her partner. The ad ends with the tagline “Isn’t it time someone called ‘cut.’” All the participants, cast and crew, volunteered their time and talent. Said Knightley, “I wanted to take part in this advert for Women’s Aid because while domestic violence exists in every section of society we rarely hear about it.” Knightley has also expressed perplexity in a 2013 interview at the use of “feminist” as a pejorative: “I think it’s great that the discussions are finally being allowed to be had [about feminism], as opposed to anybody mentioning feminism and everybody going, ‘Oh, fucking shut up.’ Somehow, [feminism] became a dirty word. I thought it was really weird for a long time, and I think it’s great that we’re coming out of that.”
Keira Knightley came out as an atheist in the April 2012 issue of Interview Magazine, in which Knightley had the following exchange with director and fellow atheist David Cronenberg—
KNIGHTLEY: Absolutely extraordinary . . . If only I wasn’t an atheist, I could get away with anything. You’d just ask for forgiveness and then you’d be forgiven. It sounds much better than having to live with guilt.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, but you could always lie about being an atheist. I don’t think an atheist could get elected in America right now.
KNIGHTLEY: No, I don’t think they could either.
CRONENBERG: So you’re not going to be able to run for office.
It was on this date, March 26, 1913, that Hungarian mathematician and mathematical problem-solver Paul Erdős was born in Budapest, the son of two professional mathematicians. Although born into a Hungarian Jewish family (the original family name was Engländer), neither of his parents were observant Jews – but they did introduce young Paul to mathematics, mostly through tutors. By age 21, Paul had earned his doctorate in mathematics and set out on an itinerant career that would span the next six decades. Erdős never married and had no children, but he co-authored 1,475 papers with roughly 485 collaborators. A man of few possessions and little regard for property, Erdős would typically show up at a mathematician’s home and announce, “My brain is open,” then get to work co-authoring another paper pursuing problems in approximation theory, classical analysis, graph theory, combinatorics, number theory, probability theory or set theory.* To himself, he would say, “Another roof, another proof.”
Highly regarded by mathematicians in his field, around 1965 a colleague, Casper Goffman, invented the “Erdős Number” to indicate the proximity of collaboration with the great mathematician: if you had collaborated with him, your “Erdős Number” was 1, if you had collaborated with someone who had collaborated with Erdős, your number was 2, and so on. He worked so tirelessly at mathematics in part because he was fueled by caffeine and Benzedrine. This substance habit became so notorious among his friends that one of them quipped, “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”
Erdős was also regarded as an eccentric in behavior and vocabulary. What little money he received for his mathematical work he gave away: to relatives, to colleagues, to students, even to strangers. Although an agnostic atheist, to him, to give a mathematical lecture was for him “to preach.” Indeed, he visualized God as the keeper of “The Book,” a repository of the best and most elegant proofs for mathematical theorems. In a 1985 lecture Erdős said, “You don’t have to believe in God, but you should believe in The Book.” And, when he saw a particularly beautiful mathematical proof, he would exclaim, “This one’s from The Book!”
He also had his own word for God: the “SF” or “Supreme Fascist.” And, having lived through World War II and Hitler’s incursion into Hungary, Erdős had some knowledge of fascists. He took a similarly dim view of the SF, saying at one time, “The SF created us to enjoy our suffering. … The sooner we die, the sooner we defy His plans.”** Or perhaps it was an eccentric joke: in a biographical video clip,† Erdős pointed out—
SF means Supreme Fascist — this would show that God is bad. I don’t claim that this is correct, or that God exists, but it is just sort of half a joke. … As a joke I said, “What is the purpose of Life?” “Proof and conjecture, and keep the SF’s score low.” Now, the game with the SF is defined as follows: If you do something bad the SF gets at least two points. If you don’t do something good which you could have done, the SF gets at least one point. And if nothing — if you are okay, then no one gets any point. And the aim is to keep the SF’s score low.”
In his own vocabulary, when a person had died, he had “left.” So on 20 September 1996, Erdős “left”—following a heart attack while attending a mathematical conference in Warsaw. He was 83 and doing what he loved, and perhaps the only activity at which he was competent. He is buried next to his mother and father in Budapest. It is said that for his epitaph, Paul Erdős suggested “Végre nem butulok tovább”—“I’ve finally stopped getting dumber.”
* Quoted from My Brain Is Open : The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos (1998) by Bruce Schechter, p. 10. ** Quoted from The Man Who Loved Only Numbers : The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth (1998) by Paul Hoffman, p. 4. † Video clip at this link.
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