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Ear to the Ground

Nine Left-Handed People Who Changed the World

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Posted on Aug 13, 2014

Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait.

Wednesday is international Left Handers Day, a time to reflect on one of the mysteries of science, a minority complex that has resisted centuries of abuse and ridicule.

The Latin word for left is sinistra, root of the word sinister, and that’s how the culture behaved for many, many years. Cartoonist Paul Conrad, one of the best ever, drew with his right hand, but only because the nuns beat him growing up. Is the devil at work? Surely not, but scientists haven’t done a much better job explaining “handedness.” Studies suggest that left-handed people are likelier to be gay, dyslexic and good at sports. Some left-handed people, although it is often exaggerated how many, have asymmetrical brains. It is estimated that roughly 10 percent of us, including this blogger, prefer the left hand. This, despite social efforts from the dark ages on to purge left-handedness from the species. And it’s not just a Western prejudice. In India and much of Asia, one wipes one’s rear with the left hand and eats with the right.

Given such widespread disapproval over the years, it’s difficult to know for certain who was in fact a southpaw. We strongly suspect that the following men and women preferred their left, and we take this Left Handers Day to recognize them (in no particular order).

1. Leonardo da Vinci—Does it get any better than the best renaissance man? He could paint, sculpt, compose, compute, engineer—Da Vinci was one of the world’s great geniuses, and the “Mona Lisa” is just one of many gifts he left us.

2. Bill Gates—The man who vowed to put a computer in every home and decided to give away all of his record fortune is a lefty. Go figure.

3. Joan of Arc—It’s not known for certain, but this warrior-saint who had visions of angels and was burned at the stake may have preferred her left hand.

4. Fidel Castro—The Cuban, er, leftest, who probably holds the record for surviving the most assassination attempts, would have been vexed by can openers, embargo permitting. Castro’s Venezuelan friend Hugo Chavez, incidentally, was also left-handed.

5. Vincent van Gogh—Everyone’s favorite painter was never appreciated in his own time, but his works are priceless, beloved and wondrous.

6. Alexander the Great—The king of tiny Macedonia, Alexander marched his army across Greece and just kept going until he hit India and his soldiers revolted. Alexander killed a lot of people, but he also melded Western and Eastern culture, and he’s the reason you can get falafel everywhere from Greece to Iran. By the way, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charlemagne were also, allegedly, left-handed.

7. Helen Keller—Her courage, determination and nerve changed the way we think about disability.

8. James Baldwin—The brilliant and inspiring Baldwin dropped wisdom as if he had an endless supply, with quotes like, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time,” and “Everybody’s journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.” Also, because it seems especially relevant right now: “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.”

9. Luke Skywalker—Well, maybe not. But the actor who plays him—Mark Hamill, is a lefty.

The list of unconfirmed and certified left-handers goes on and on and on. Just Google it. You’ll be amazed. Some live up to the word sinistra (looking at you, Osama bin Laden). Others make it seem like the root of light, not evil.

—Posted by Peter Z. Scheer

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