THE "M" WORD. The Chicago Sun-Times has posted an extraordinary exchange of e-mails between film critic Roger Ebert and actor Daniel Woodburn. Woodburn, who is a dwarf, wrote to Ebert to object to the critic's use of the term midget, which is about as popular within the dwarf community as the N-word is among African-Americans.
What's fascinating about this is not just watching Ebert as he (metaphorically) listens and learns, but also seeing how technology can be used to expand everyone's understanding. Fifteen years ago, Woodburn and Ebert might have exchanged letters privately, and that would have been that. By publishing the e-mails on its website, the Sun-Times has offered an example of how the Internet can make the media transparent in a way that just wasn't possible before.
Ebert also quotes from an essay by Len Sawisch that attributes the coining of the M-word to P.T. Barnum in the mid-1800s. Sawisch was a valuable source for my book on dwarfism, Little People. But as best as I was able to tell in conducting my research, he's wrong about Barnum. In fact Barnum, in his autobiography, referred to his most famous employee, Charles "Tom Thumb" Stratton, as a dwarf, not a midget, even though the M-word describes Stratton perfectly: a short-statured person with proportionate limbs who was put on public display.
As best as I could tell, the first person to use midget to describe an unusually short person may have been Barnum's Connecticut neighbor, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Barnum started using the word toward the end of his career, but by then Stratton had retired. Stratton died in 1883, eight years before Barnum.
LYDON ONLINE. Christopher Lydon's new radio program, Open Source, won't debut until May 30. But he and his chief collaborator, Mary McGrath, and others involved in the effort are already blogging like crazy here. I haven't had time to read all of it, but there are some MP3s of an interview Lydon did with Camille Paglia, as well as some MP3s explaining what Open Source will be all about.
Lydon and McGrath are promising something revolutionary in terms of tying together radio and the Internet. I'm skeptical but intrigued. Frankly, if it just turns out to be a good radio show with a website (and a podcast!), that's enough.