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For One Minority, a Bias That's Just So Not Right

By Bill O'Brian
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Thirty years ago today, a movement was born: Aug. 13 was declared International Left-Handers Day.

As a rights campaign for lefties -- surely America's only remaining uncoddled interest group -- it has been an anemic crusade at best. The date was selected because it was not yet a holiday and happened to be Friday the 13th in 1976. The organization that started the movement is defunct. For whatever reason, the 10 percent of us who are left-handed have not taken up the mantle. The 90 percent of you who are right-handed have remained cruelly oblivious to the plight of your oppressed brothers and sisters.

Rampant cultural biases have imbued us with the notion that left equals bad. The English word "sinister," for example, is derived from the Latin for "left-hand side." In French, gauche means left and, of course, awkward, clumsy and socially unrefined. Being out in left field is not good, and neither is having two left feet. Left-handedness has long been associated with Satanic influences and witchcraft. In the Bible, the blessed are always sitting at the right hand of God, never the left.

Then there are the practical biases, a regular source of inconvenience, frustration and, sometimes, peril to left-handers.

Try opening a can of tuna with a manual can opener using your left hand -- your arms will be crossed, and you're likely to cut yourself on the lid. Try using a grapefruit knife with your left hand -- the blade's contour and serration will be backward until you adjust. Hold a measuring cup with your left hand -- the non-metric fractional amounts will be facing unhelpfully away from you.

Think: circular saws, drill presses, chain saws, surgical instruments, firearms and holsters. All designed primarily for righties.

Toilet paper dispensers are virtually always on the right, as are the handles on most water fountains. The important controls, including the stick shift, in most cars outside the British Isles, India and Japan can be reached easily only with the right hand. Computer keyboards are made for righties -- even though Bill Gates is left-handed. Crossword puzzles are designed so that the clues are easily accessible to righties. Lefties have to lift their writing hand and reorient themselves each time they fill in an answer. Go to today's Magazine and try it for yourself. And they say The Washington Post is "left-leaning." I don't think so.

Classrooms can be truly exasperating for lefties, what with those arm-contorting, wrist-wrenching desks, three-ring binders and spiral notebooks built for right-handed writers. Sports equipment for a lefty -- especially a baseball catcher's mitt -- is often hard to find.

So, to left-handers across this great nation, I say: Don't be left out. Your fate is in your (left) hands. Assert your rights. Stop adapting to the hardships foisted upon you!

To the right-handed majority, I say: Feel our pain. Recognize that your handism can be ugly. We lefties are not asking for a handout, just for some respect and a helping hand.

In the meantime, let us take a moment to celebrate a select few men and women, who -- according to news accounts, published biographies and lists compiled by researchers -- are generally believed to be left-handed.

· Musicians Eminem, 50 Cent, Kurt Cobain, Paul McCartney, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Simon (yes, he plays guitar right-handed) and Jimi Hendrix (who, from age 12, played re-strung right-handed guitars upside down).

· Actors and entertainers Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Stiller, Jerry Seinfeld, Matt Groening (and Bart Simpson), Diane Keaton, Julia Roberts, Robert De Niro, Keanu Reeves, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lisa Kudrow, Angelina Jolie, Robert Redford, Goldie Hawn, Morgan Freeman, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, and, especially, W.C. Fields, who said, "If the left side of your brain controls the right side of your body, and the right side of your brain controls the left side of your body, then left-handed people must be the only ones in their right minds."

· Artists and innovators Henry Ford, Ben Franklin, Isaac Newton, M.C. Escher, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.

· Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prince William and the United Kingdom as a whole for being so automotively correct.

· Presidents James Garfield, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. With a particular nod to Bush, Clinton and Ross Perot, who made the 1992 election campaign all lefty, all the time.

Of course we lefties must acknowledge that some of our own have been seriously bad actors, including the lefty of all leftists, Fidel Castro, who, like me, was born on Aug. 13, International Left-Handers Day.

We may detest the iron-fisted manner in which Castro has maintained dictatorial control over the Cuban people since 1959. But, as a fellow left-hander, I'm willing to say: Happy 80th birthday, comrade. Long live the (anatomical) left.

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