Monday, May 31, 2010

May 31st - Syaday

Story – Sometime around 1958 or 1959 Malaclypse the Younger, AKA Greg Hill, wrote a book called the Principia Discordia, thereby founding the religion Discordianism. The Principia Discordia is a masterpiece of silly nonsense and profound philosophy. It is often taken as a joke, and it is a joke, but it is also far more than a joke. I will have to wax rhapsodic about it’s brilliance some other day. For now suffice it to say that it is an excellent introduction to Zen aimed at Americans, and a good example of high grade traditional Crazy Wisdom mysticism, wrapped up in late 50s pop culture.

One of the many jokes in Discordeanism is the creation of an intentionally absurd calendar system, whereby May 31st is the 5th day of the month of Confusion, and is called Syaday in honor of the Patron Apostle Sri Syadasti, who is the patron of Confusion.

Sri Syadasti is one of the 5 apostles of Eris (the Greek Goddess of Discord worshipped by Discordeans), and thus a 5 star saint in their system (a rank “reserved for fictional beings who, not being actual, are more capable of perfection”).

His full name is SRI SYADASTI SYADVAKTAVYA SYADASTI SYANNASTI SYADASTI CAVAKTAVYASCA SYADASTI SYANNASTI SYADAVATAVYASCA SYADASTI SYANNASTI SYADAVAKTAVYASCA which is supposedly Sanskrit for “All affirmations are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense.”

That affirmation right there provoked me for many years. I have engaged in much contemplation of the roots of logic, both formal and informal. And I am still to this day in awe of this affirmation. Much of whatever enlightenment I have comes from the deep realization that this claim is true. Well, in some sense. And of course false in some sense, and meaningless in some sense, and both true and false, and true and meaningless, and false and meaningless, and true and false and meaningless. Well, in some sense …

I am grateful that confusion isn’t always a bad thing.
I am grateful for crazy wisdom
I am grateful for silliness in the cause of the greater enlightenment of humanity
I am grateful for multivariate logic, especially the dialethisms of the Indian tradition
I am grateful for skepticism’s constant reminders of the limits of our understanding

Other Notables for me for this day:
The death of Joseph Grimaldi, in some sense, the inventor of clowns (whose traditional feast day is the first Sunday in February, at All Saints Church in Haggerston, Hackney)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

May 30th – Memorial Day

Story The US holiday of Memorial Day began as grassroots remembrance of Union soldiers who died in the civil war. It was a day to decorate their gravestones and reminisce, and was promoted largely by the Grand Army of the Republic, basically the Unions veterans organization. It became called “Decoration Day,” and was celebrated in cemeteries throughout the North by the late 1868 and 69. It became a time for speeches to be given, bitter at first, but by the end of the 1870s the rancor was gone, and it became normal to praise the brave soldiers of both the Blue and Grey. Gradually it became a patriotic occasion to emphasize unity and forgiveness, as folk of all religions joined together in the commemorations, and folk of rival ethnicities did as well. Naturally, this took longer in the South, but by 1913, national unity, and a shared feeling of American exceptionalism, typically was emphasized over re-hashing the “lost cause” of the South, even in Southern Memorial Day speeches. The famous cemetery of Gettysburg played a key role, with obligatory parades and presidential speeches for many years.

Over time, the emphasis shifted and the name changed gradually from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day.” Decorating the graves and remembering folk who died in some other way than in the Civil War became normal. In WWI, veterans of that war were honored too, but by then it was normal to honor even non-veterans.

In the 1960s the emphasis of Memorial Day shifted again. In 1968 the Federal government passed the “Uniform Holidays Bill” shifting and renaming, 3 holidays, Washington’s Birthday became President’s Day, Decoration Day was officially renamed Memorial Day, and Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day. In each case they were moved from a fixed day, to always occurring on a Monday for the explicit purpose of creating a three day weekend. From 1868 to 1968 Memorial Day was observed always on May 30th, but since then its date has moved. And as its date moved so did its cultural function. Memorial Day became a time to relax, to celebrate the beginning of spring. Barbecues, trips to the pool, or family get-togethers became more typically associated with it than trips to the cemetery or public parades. Here in Indiana, it is associated with the Indianapolis 500, which has run on Memorial Day since 1911.

I am grateful that we as a culture take time occasionally to honor our dead.
I am grateful for symbols of national unity, especially of reconciliation which call us to set aside our differences and grievances and work together.
I am grateful that our nation does not allow legal slavery anymore.
I am grateful that our country has largely healed from the terrible wounds of a Civil War over a century ago.
I am grateful that the many religions of America can occasionally agree to pray together.

Other Notables for me for this day:
The birth of Mikhail Bakunin (anarchist) and Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny), and the death of Saint Voltaire (philosopher, writer and activist).

Saturday, May 29, 2010

May 29th – The Rites of Spring Day

Story – May 29th, 1913 was the Paris Premier of the “ballet” the Rites of Spring at the Theatre des Champs-Elysee. Igor Stravinsky wrote the music, Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed it, Nicholas Roerich designed the costumes and set, Serge Diaghilev was the impresario (roughly producer/director).
The piece was so artistically shocking, that the audience descended into a riot, the Paris police attempted to re-establish order during the intermission with only limited success.

Why? Well, The Rites of Spring marked a moment in the transformation of the art world and how we understand what art and beauty are. Cubism and other forms of avant-garde painting in the first part of the 20th century had already started the process. They gave pictures that were bizarre and challenging rather than beautiful in the conventional sense of the time. Yet they seemed to have a kind of beauty too … It was a sort of simmering scandal, that sometimes the opposite of beauty wasn’t ugliness but some alien form of beauty.

The Rites of Spring brought this point to dance. Traditional Ballet focuses on beauty and elegance. Long lines, graceful forms, height, airiness, refinement. Dancers stretch and stand on point whenever possible, bodies curve in delicious and delicate shapes. The Rites of Spring inverted all of that. It was as much of an “anti-ballet” as it could be. The motions were low, and heavy. It imitated folk dance wherever possible, and low class rural rhythms and modes. The movements emphasized pelvis over leg, centralness over extension, rhythm over grace. It should by all balletic theory have been horribly ugly, but it wasn’t. It was beautiful, but beauty of some heretical kind, beauty contrary to the canons of conventional wisdom. It was a clearly intentional thumb in the eye of conventional ballet. It was the beginning of modern dance. On top of that the set and costumes was designed to mimic early Russian Paganism and folkways. But Stravinsky’s music was complex and adventurous using dissonance, asymmetrical rhythms, polyrhythm, polytonality, deeply influencing 20 century classical music.

Imagine you are at the premiere, you have paid good money to see a thing of beauty and grace from a strange foreign troupe of artists, and what you get challenges all your preconceptions. That may even seem old hat now. Today perhaps it seems normal for art to be cutting edge and challenging, as if the job of art is to provoke as much as to beautify. But this is precisely what was changing in those first decades of the 20th century as Cubism and modern dance began to shake up what we thought of beauty and art.

I am grateful that I can see beauty in things that are challenging to me
I am grateful that I can be surprised by new forms of beauty, even after many encounters with beauty
I am grateful that artists take risks to bring me new forms of beauty, and new insights
I am grateful that sometimes the opposite of beauty is not ugliness, but an alien form of beauty
I am grateful that dance has been liberated from the strictures of ballet, while allowing ballet to remain one form of dance among many.

Other Notables for me for this day:
The births of Harry Frankfurt (philosopher, On Bullshit), Patrick Henry (patriot), G.K Chesterton (writer), Danny Elfman(musician), Melissa Ethelridge (musician), the death of Bahaiullah(founder of Bahai), Hoover Dam completed, and the election of Boris Yeltsin to Russian SFSR (marking the beginning of the End of Soviet Communism).

Friday, May 28, 2010

May 28th – Amnesty International Day

In 1960, Portugal was the last European power to be explicitly colonialist, and the regime of Estado Novo was noted for its secret police, and its vigorous pursuit of perceived anti-Portuguese conspiracies. On Nov 19, 1960, the English Lawyer Peter Benenson, overheard 2 Portuguese students talking on the London Underground (what we’d call a subway). They claimed to have been imprisoned for 7 years for “having drunk a toast to liberty.” Benenson was aghast, and it stuck with him. He wrote a newspaper article “The Forgotten Prisoners” about all the people imprisoned across the world for terrible reasons, and how we learn of them, feel indignant, but feel like we are unable to do anything about it. Its not like the Novo regime is going to listen to us. It was published in newspapers in several countries on May, 28th 1961. Benenson and his friend, the Quaker social activist Eric Baker, got a huge response and transformed it into “Appeal For Amnesty, 1961” a group intended to apply public pressure to free people who were imprisoned in violation of articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which all UN member nations are technically signatories to. People who are “imprisoned, tortured, or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government,” what Benenson called, “prisoners of conscience.” That year Benenson published a book detailing several cases of prisoners of conscience. The whole thing was originally intended to be very short term, but it soon became clear it wouldn’t be, the name was changed from “Appeal For Amnesty, 1961” to “Amnesty” and then to “Amnesty International” in 1962.

Amnesty International became pretty much the first modern human rights organization, and has had many imitators since. In the 70s it broadened its purview to include violations of UDHR article 9 (long detention without trial) and article 5 (torture). In 1977, Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize for their “campaign against torture.” Amnesty International has been an important force in pushing for many UN reforms, including the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Criminal Court.

I’m grateful for social organizations which pressure governments to live up to their highest ideals
I’m grateful for social organizations which help us transform individual desire for justice into collective pressure for justice.
I’m grateful for the Universal Declaration on Human Rights
I’m grateful that I’ve never been tortured, extra-judicially executed, disappeared, rendered

Other Notables for me for this day:
The death of Noah Webster (of dictionary fame), Alfred Adler (psychologist), the First Continental Congress convened for the first time to organize the US revolution

Thursday, May 27, 2010

May 27th –Saint Ibn Khaldun Day

Story: Abu Zayd ‘Abdu r-Rahman bin Muhammad bin Khaldun Al-Hadrami, was born May 27th 1332 by our calendar, lived until 1406, and is usually just called “Ibn Khaldun.” He was high born, well educated, and following family tradition went into politics. His autobiography reads like an adventure story, involving political intrigue, lots of jail time, reaching high public office, and being exiled again. He bopped around from Spain to Tunis, to mighty Egypt, to the wild Berber tribes. He was at various times an academic, a vizier, a man charged with collecting taxes from hostile barbarians, a prisoner, a diplomat successfully brokering a peace treaty, a soldier, and a judge. He wrote books on history, mysticism, logic, theology, philosophy, and an autobiography.

But we care about him, because of his masterpiece, the Kitabu l-‘ibar- the “Book of Evidence” which was nothing short of a history of the world in 7 volumes. Historians still use book 6, and 7 about the details of the Berber people, and the politics of medieval North Africa, but for everyone else, the action is in book 1, "the Muqaddimah"- the Prolegomena. It is a book of theory, of introduction to the whole project of history. It discusses the methodology of researching history, but also discusses general trends in history. The great British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee called the Muqaddimah "a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” Ibn Khaldun is frequently cited as the founder of sociology, and I concur. He was deeply interested in WHY groups of people behave in the way they do, and argued that “social cohesion” was more central to the explanation than the groups ideology, or any individuals actions or psychology, even the leader of the group. He is also probably the first person to apply the scientific method to history. He has an elaborate discussion of different forms of bias to which histories are habitually subjected.

Ibn Khaldun argued eloquently for understanding history in terms of cycles based on generations fueled by conflict between town and wilderness. He described a reoccurring process of barbarians conquering “soft” townies, and then over a few generations adopting the ways of town life, and being conquered in turn. His understanding of economics is profound, describing in detail feedback mechanisms that even the economists of the 1800s Europe hadn’t understood. One, famous example, among many is the Laffer Curve, a principle of taxation rates and revenues over time, which is usually referred to after Arthur Laffer who explained it repeatedly to people in the Ford administration in 1974, sketching it on napkin graphs, but is in fact clearly explained in Khaldun in 1332. He ranks with Smith and Marx as among the great economists of all time (and both camps have tried to claim him as a predecessor). He is the first person ever to propound the labor theory of value, and described the multiplier effect typically associated with Keynesian understandings of aggregate demand. Ibn Khaldun even argued for something like the evolution of humans from monkeys in chapter 6 of the Muqaddimah.

Ibn Khaldun is in many ways the father of the social sciences, presaging them, introducing them, arguing for the scientific study of societies, rather than just the unscientific recording of stories about societies. None who read him can doubt he was a pioneer in history, sociology, and economics. On a personal note, my beloved theorists of history, Strauss and Howe, are deeply indebted to Khaldun.

I’m grateful for inquiry into the behavior of societies.
I’m grateful for the theory that history moves cyclically, and generationally.
I’m grateful for the labor theory of value, that all economic values rest ultimately not on gold or land, but on human labor.
I’m grateful for the insight that histories are habitually biased in various ways, unless careful corrective measures are observed, and these minimize rather than eliminate the problems.
I’m grateful for the idea that careful methodology might be applied to social situations as well as to physical sciences.
I’m grateful for the bonds of social cohesion which form us into a society rather than a mere collection of individuals.

Other Notables for me for this day:
The births of Vincent Price (actor), Harlan Ellison (writer), Siouxsie Sioux (musician), Neil Finn (musician of Crowded House)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

May 26th – Martin Heidegger Day

Stories: Martin Heidegger, born 1889 - and died May 26th, 1976 and it’s not at all clear he should be thought of as a saint. He undoubtedly had 2 extra marital affairs, for example, with Hannah Arendt and Elisabeth Blochmann. But the real kicker has always been that he was a Nazi. But, well, not much of a Nazi. He was a member of the party and gave a few pro-Nazi speeches, but he never rose in the ranks and the other Nazis had contempt for him. Heidegger has had detractors and defenders over the years, even a number of European Jews have apologized for him. Heidegger claimed that he was initially attracted to the hopes the Nazis offer, but by 1934 had decided they were a bunch of hateful and worthless thugs, but that someone needed to pretend to join them to protect the future of the University.

Perhaps he was a comical toady, sliming up to the Nazis; perhaps he was a bitter collaborator trying to restrain the worst of the Nazi’s from within. Either way, he was a towering philosopher with a huge influence on Western philosophy, (and indeed, both Japanese and Chinese thought), from 1927 to today. Although, I frequently disagree with him, he’s certainly influenced me. He was also by all accounts a great teacher and several of his students became important in their own rights with time.

It’s hard to explain exactly why he was so influential, or what his “contributions” to our society have been. His first major contribution is the re-raising of fundamental ontology. His most famous work “Being and Time” begins by noting that we have lost the ability to even wonder what exactly being is. He claims that Western Philosophy has sold us on a story about the nature of being, re-affirmed in many ways from Aristotle, to Christianity, to Descartes, to his own mentor Husserl. There are objects which have properties, the world is a place of things, and ways for things to be. People, books, blogs. Liberal people, conservative people, people jogging, smutty books, blogs that are just starting and so on. But if I say “Brett is a liberal,” even if I understand the terms “Brett” and “liberal” what the heck does that “is” mean? Is it just a piece of grammar, or is it trying to tell us something, adding something to the sentence? Once philosophers were puzzled over the meaning of being, but now its almost impossible to even raise the question of the meaning of being again.

And that’s his second contribution, his understanding of “hermeneutics.” For Heidegger, we have habitual ways of understanding things which “covers over” our ability to understand things in deeply new ways. Progress involves digging under what we think we already know, and exposing things once again, so that they can be re-interpreted in new ways. Truth is not ultimately a matter of mathematics, or simple fact-checking, or adherence to an intellectual system, it is more like the process of interpreting art. We look at what we think we see, and we reach past it to search out new understandings, and the truth is the moments of “discovery” or “uncovering” where we “wrestle away” what we think we know and encounter something else. For Heidegger, this is not just how science comes upon new paradigms, but upending the old, but is also the process of us re-understanding our lives and our selves, in search of the meaning of our being, as part of the search for the meaning of being itself.

Heidegger had lots of other cool insights too. He traveled from Phenomenology to Existentialism, before Sartre made it cool, and pioneered much of that trip. He developed a notion of “handiness” that he used to express many ideas reminiscent of American Pragmatism within the idioms of Germany. He has a discussion of the three levels of human consciousness that my undergrad always found genuinely helpful, and that rather revolutionized how artificial intelligence theorists approached computerized intelligence in the 90s, when they re-discovered him. Heidegger explored how “care” is central to human experience. He meditated on the role of death in our lives. He has several remarks on the formal logic of questions that I have always admired. Late Heidegger, after the war thought a lot about technology, and feared that it had subtler philosophical effects than are typically appreciated. He was one of the first in Europe to express fear of industrial agriculture, saying in 1949
“Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”

Heidegger failed in his principle philosophical project, “Being and Time” was intended to explore human-being (Dasein) and use that to shed light on the nature of capital B. Being. But it didn’t work - he could link our own beings, with time, and care and mortality, but never showed how any of this linked to capital B, Being. Heidegger failed in his personal and political life, casting shadows on every interesting insight he ever had. His writings were opaque enough that he often failed to be comprehensible at all. Yet something of his thought transcends all his failures. Some hint of yearning to search out deeper matters than most have settled with. Some insight that truth is more about discovering than it is about being right.

I’m grateful for inquiry into the deepest questions of being.
I’m grateful for the picture of truth as discovery, rather than just truth as being right.
I’m grateful for value transcending the failures of our lives.

Other notables for me for this day:
Birth of Miles Davis (musician), Jack Kevorkian (suicide activist), Stevie Nicks (musician), Sally Ride (astronaut), Matsuhiro Morimoto (chef), Bobcat Goldthwait (comedian), Lenny Kravitz (musician)