Sunday, January 24, 2010

Humanizing language

A woman named Lya Graf has surfaced in the news a number of times over the past two years. She was the person of short stature photographed with JP Morgan during Banking Hearings in the Depression Era. The photograh has reappeared recently in the wake of more government finance hearings and investigations in 2009 and 2010. But little has been said about Graf other than she is the “midget” with JP Morgan in the famous photograph. Part of the problem with the word midget is that it slices away a person's humanity. The word affords little space for character, depth, emotion and feeling, leaving room only for a physical object. One way to combat against the word is to assert the history and character within the person to whom the word has been applied. I am grateful to people like Dan Kennedy and Betty Adelson, both authors of books about little people, who have done what The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have recently failed to do and what I am guessing many media outlets from 1933 failed to do, empower the legacy of Lya Graf with a bit of humanity.

In a letter to the New York Times early in 2009, Adelson wrote,

In the course of doing research for these books, I read about the incident that was referred to briefly in the Times article: Few readers, and perhaps not many LPA members, are likely to be aware that the woman referred to as a midget was Lya Graf (her stage name), at that time a member of a Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey circus troupe. She had been "plopped" in tycoon J.P. Morgan's lap during a depression-era Senate hearing on banking by a press agent for the circus, in conjunction with a Scripps-Howard reporter. Much to the surprise of those present, Morgan, generally regarded as a stiff curmudgeon, smiled and interacted with Graf pleasantly--and the photograph later led to at least a temporary improvement in the public's impression of him.

However, its outcome for Graf was very different. Sensitive and shy, and hounded by the press during the following two years, she later returned to her native Germany--and perished at Auschwitz. She had been rounded up because of the triple stigma of her being half-Jewish, a person with a disability, and widely associated with J.P. Morgan, a despised American capitalist.

Adelson's letter helped influence the New York Times current policy to use the word dwarf to identify people of short stature. Kennedy includes a similar piece about Graf in his book, Little People, Learning to see the world through my daughter's eyes.

Hopefully, a similar effort will influence the Wall Street Journal, which used the m-word last week when reporting on a recent round of banking hearings, again referring to the photograph of JP Morgan and Graf.

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