The Telegraph reports that, though the inauguration of an African-American president may represent a civil rights milestone for many Americans and observers abroad, some segregatory practices are alive and well in Montgomery County, Georgia:
Kera Nobles’ senior prom should have been a high point of her life, as she celebrated graduation from her home town’s school system after 13 years of education.
But instead it has left the normally bubbly 17-year-old smouldering with anger. For, following a local tradition that seems extraordinary in a country which has elected its first black president, there was not just one formal dance for the 54 classmates who graduated from Montgomery County High, but two.
On the first night, a prom was held for the school’s white students; the following night came the celebration for Miss Nobles and the school’s other blacks.
“I don’t like segregated proms, there’s no need for it,” she said, her eyes still burning with hurt. “We went to school together and we all graduated at the same time. I feel like I’ve been deprived of something that was important to me.”
One concern I have as a U.S. Southerner is that people outside this region, and particularly outside this country, might reasonably acquire the impression that such flagrant racism is universal in this part of the world. This simply isn’t true. At the very least, it is today nowhere near as true as it once might have been.
My observation has been that racism here is largely a generational phenomenon—the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today are far less likely to harbor prejudicial attitudes than their parents and grandparents. Of course, this is not to say that racism is absent among young people, particularly since they are their parents’ children. Those young people who attend or have attended rural schools with small or non-existent African-American populations are much more likely to grow into virulent racism than their urban peers. I have seen it happen, too often.
That’s one reason why segregation, while it may make some comfortable in their ivory towers, is a very bad idea—today, tomorrow, and forever.
In keeping with the holiday spirit of reflection and renewal, I wanted to share with you a few of my hopes for humanity. Some will cry “unabashed idealism.” Others will recognize real solutions that, combined with real attention, just might achieve real results.
- I hope that people will realize that consumerism is making a tiny percentage of the world’s population wealthy, a slightly less tiny percentage comfortable, and most of the world miserable—while wrecking all that is decent and wholesome in human values and destroying the planet in a blaze of absolutely needless waste.
- I hope that people will strive to respect and learn from one another by understanding this: the power of myth is necessarily stronger than and prerequisite to the power of divinity.
- I hope individuals and society will realize that a hungry, active, open mind is the best defense against being manipulated by unseen forces, to quote a popular term from economics—and that those forces are operating in new quarters and new ways all the time, with the singular goal of making money to the exclusion of all other concerns.
- I hope that people will come to grips with the fact that, if one views our planet as a functioning organic entity and not merely a collection of resources to be exploited, then one must realize that free market capitalism indeed promotes growth—in exactly the same way as does cancer.
- I hope that people will consider that a society in which obesity is a more pressing problem than hunger is not necessarily on the right track.
- I hope that the citizens of privileged nations will first realize how privileged they in fact are, and next realize that dissent against establishment corruption and misdirection is the highest form of patriotism and the world’s best shot at peace and harmony.
- I hope people will realize that science is only as trustworthy and as productive as the values of the society that guide it.
- I hope people will realize that religion is only as trustworthy and as productive as the values of the society that guide it.
- I hope that individuals will come to understand that their relationships with nature define, more than anything else, who they are.
- I hope that people will spread the message that institutions of authority must be directly challenged if they are to remain responsible.
- I hope more of us will choose love over fear more of the time.
- I hope it will become more apparent to more people that, if each of us does a little, together we achieve a lot.
In his end-of-year address to Vatican personnel, Pope Benedict XVI said that eliminating “self-destructive” homosexuality is an important part of “human ecology,” and drew a direct comparison with saving the rainforest.
The Pope’s words come on the heels of the decision of the Vatican—along with the U.S., several Islamic states, and a number of other nations—to refuse signing a U.N. resolution calling for an end to anti-gay laws worldwide, a resolution to which all member states of the European Union were signatories.
BBC News reports:
He explained that defending God’s creation is not limited to saving the environment, but also protecting man from self-destruction.
The pope was delivering his end-of-year address to senior Vatican staff.
His words, later released to the media, emphasised his total rejection of gender theory.
Pope Benedict XVI warned that gender theory blurs the distinction between male and female and could thus lead to the “self-destruction” of the human race.
This sentiment is not surprising in that it represents established Church doctrine, but many will find the way in which the Pope framed his thoughts inappropriate at best. In a modern world in some ways buckling beneath exponential population growth along with rapidly dwindling traditional resources, one wonders exactly what criteria—other than scriptural hermeneutics—the Church considers in defining what is and is not “self-destructive.” The Catholic Church is well-known for its stance against contraception, for instance, even in AIDS-plagued and hunger-stricken African communities.
Also on the agenda for the Pope’s address were his hopes that World Youth Day, which His Holiness attended in Sydney earlier this year, not be viewed as “mere spectacle” or a “rock concert” with the Pope as the star.
Science-fiction author Charles Platt published this piece in BoingBoing describing a visit to see his penpal Son Tran, a homicide convict and inmate in Texas jailed for gang-related killings at age 17. Not only does Platt describe the prison environment with the vivid eloquence of a seasoned narrator, he reminds us of the idosyncracies and absurdities inherent in the medieval penal system flourishing in what is supposed to be one of the world’s more enlightened states:
This gets me back to the case of Son Tran. Imagine yourself aged thirteen, feeling angry and estranged from your fellow students because you’re Vietnamese-American. Imagine that you are approached by some older kids who are themselves Vietnamese. They invite you to join their club, and for the first time in your short life, you are freed from your feelings of alienation. You find acceptance.
Of course, there’s a price to pay. It’s like joining the army: You go through a process of indoctrination and desensitization, during which you bond with your comrades-in-arms and learn to obey orders.
The scenario that I’m outlining does not excuse the crime. It merely suggests that someone who was not yet an adult, and became infatuated with gang culture at a very impressionable age, should not be judged as harshly as, for example, a serial killer who has committed multiple crimes over ten or fifteen years. After a decade in prison, the serial killer may still represent a severe risk to the general public while the younger man may not, and a system that refuses to take this into account wastes human potential and wastes our money. Even when the state reaps some income on the side by forcing prisoners to do menial work for no pay, incarceration remains an expensive proposition.
The United States has the highest prison population, as a percentage of the general populace, of any nation on Earth, according to a King’s College, London study—762 per 100,000, more than half again as many as Cuba and about six times as many as China.
Platt notes that, from about 1925 to 1975, the U.S. prison population stayed near the international average. Since then, it has mushroomed. Platt suggests that reactionary social conservatism and a sensationalist media coupled with large building and maintenance budgets makes our penchant for lock-ups possible and helps give vigor and vitality to a culture of fear and retribution.
I don’t like Christmas very much (I’m a mean one, I guess), but I certainly have learned to dig the winter solstice.
While plenty of good folks are campaigning to “keep the Christ in Christmas,” a pursuit I happen to think is actually a worthy one on its own terms, it seems that not as many realize that, long before anyone had ever heard of Jesus Christ, the astronomical/-logical event known as the winter solstice already played a starring role in human civilization. Were this not the case, Christians might very likely celebrate the birth of their savior in March, May, or just whenever.
So Jesus isn’t the only reason for the season. Far from it. Give me that, and we’ll be okay forever and ever.
What is the winter solstice?
The winter solstice can be defined celestially as the point at which the Sun appears at the greatest distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer. In the northern hemisphere, it is the instant at which the sun could be said to ‘stand still’ (Lat. sol “Sun” + sistere “to be still”) at its southernmost point in the sky before beginning the return track northward towards summer. This happens sometime between December 20-23 in the northern hemisphere, and between June 20-23 in the southern hemisphere. Reverse those dates, and you have the dates of the opposite phenomenon, the summer solstice, for each hemisphere.
The cause of the solstices is that, at the instant of solstice, one hemisphere of the Earth is at its maximum tilt away from the Sun. This is why the day of the winter solstice is the shortest, in terms of daylight, of all the days of the year (again, from the perspective of those in the North—it naturally marks the longest day in the South).
Why is it culturally significant?
Because people didn’t always have supermarkets and refrigerators. These are, in fact, extremely recent developments!
In the cultures of the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the onset of ‘deep winter.’ In primitive societies, particularly hunter-gatherer and early agrarian societies which had not yet developed means of harvesting and storing surplus food, it was not always a given that a community would survive through the winter. Cattle were slaughtered at about the time of the solstice so that they would not have to be fed through the winter, creating a temporary supply of fresh meat—this is why we associate winter holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas with feasting.
Aside from such practical concerns, the winter solstice was ceremonially important as an astrological event of spiritual/ritual significance. On the night of the solstice, the stars of Orion’s belt form a line with Sirius, the ‘Dog Star,’ which points to the exact spot where the Sun will rise the following morning. This fact was well-known to the skywatching ancients; important Celtic religious sites such as Stonehenge and New Grange are obviously aligned with the solstice sunrise or sunset, and we see similar reverence for the solstice in even completely unrelated cultures, such as those of neolithic Mesoamerica.
Symbolically, because the winter solstice marks the point at which the Sun reverses course and begins to climb back toward its summer posture, it was associated with the concept of spiritual renewal and with the birth dates of certain Sun deities, such as the Roman god Sol and the Persian god Mithras. According to many scholars, this is both why the birth of Jesus, the son (read: “Sun”) of God, is celebrated near the winter solstice, and why the Western New Year falls just behind it.
The winter solstice is culturally significant in and of itself even today because of the effects of deep winter on the minds and lifestyles of people in the more extreme latitudes. Winter is a dark, cold time in which people tend to spend more time indoors, are generally somewhat more sedate, and can sometimes even suffer seasonal depression—although it should be noted that many others claim the winter months as their favorite time of year (most of them own ski passes, no doubt). Having a celebration of feasting and communal fellowship to look forward to is a nice way to add spark and charm to a bleak season.
What is the relationship of the winter solstice to Christmas?
December 25 was the date of the winter solstice on the old Julian calendar; this date was known as Dies natalis Sol invictus (“Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”) in Rome, and conveniently allowed people in various parts of the Roman Empire to celebrate the birth of their sundry Sun deities together. In Rome itself, the solstice marked approximately the end of the festival of Saturnalia, during which masters and slaves swapped roles for a time, there was much feasting and licentious merry-making, and the giving of gifts and alms was encouraged. Aside from the obvious similarities between the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” and the “Birthday of the Unconquered Son,” meaning Christ, the Christian celebration of the Nativity very likely inherited the tradition of “merry” gift-giving from Saturnalia.
We know that, as late as the 3rd Century A.D., at least some Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrated the Nativity in May. The earliest known reference to a Nativity feast corresponding to the winter solstice comes from an illuminated Roman manuscript dated from 354 A.D., although, at least through the early Middle Ages, the celebration of the Nativity in and of itself was not usually distinguished from the early January celebration of the Epiphany.
Many of the traditions of Christmas were undoubtedly incorporated through the assimilation of other cultures into the Roman Empire. We have already mentioned that Saturnalia likely passed certain traditions into the Christmas holiday; the Germanic winter solstice festival of Jul (Yule), marked by feasting, decorating with greenery and candlelight, visits from a gift-giving demigod, and the burning of the infamous Yule Log, made a particularly strong imprint on Christmas traditions both because the Germans were the last major culture in the Empire to be christianized, and because Christmas as a holiday first became popular in Western and Northern Europe at approximately the time of Charlemagne, who was crowned on Christmas Day of 800 A.D.
It was not until about this time that Christmas became the major Christian observance of the Nativity, and this was a development that was later challenged throughout Christianity. Early American Puritans particularly disapproved of Christmas, and ever since, there have been religious movements, especially in North America, which have sought to disentangle Christmas from its primarily non-Christian origins and heritage.
What are some other winter solstice celebrations around the world?
A small sampling:
- Wayeb (Maya) – the five unnamed days completing the end of the Maya solar calendar, thought to be an ominous and unlucky time in which divisions between the mortal and immortal worlds were partially broken. People often avoided leaving their houses during this period.
- Amaterasu (Japan) – in ancient Japan, the winter solstice was celebrated as the reemergence of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, from her hibernation in a cave. The celebrations were marked by observances for the dead and theatrical performances, among other events.
- Yalda (Persia) – dating from as long ago as the 2nd millennium BCE, this Persian festival originally marked the birth of the Sun-god Mithras. It is roughly synonymous with the modern Shabe Celle, associated with socializing and feasting on nuts and dried fruits.
- Şeva Zistanê (Kurdish) – this winter solstice observance dates to ancient times and is marked by feasting and the giving of sweets to children, similar in nature to Halloween in America.
- Beiwe (Saami) – the Saami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, have worshipped this goddess of the Sun and of fertility since antiquity. On the night of the winter solstice, many Saami would sacrifice white female animals and paint their doorways with butter for Beiwe to eat, nourishing her for her return from the solstice to the heights of the summer skies.
- The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is not specifically related to the winter solstice, although it roughly coincides with it. However, because Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of a holy temple (similar to Saturnalia), it may be associated de facto with the more ancient traditions of the midwinter feast.
I hope to have amply shown than, while Jesus may be the reason for Christmas proper, He is not the only reason for our celebrations of the winter solstice. The winter solstice is of a deep, broad, and ancient significance which touches on biology, ecology, psychology, sociology, astronomy—practically all aspects of human existence—and has been interpreted in many ways by many cultures.
So, by all means, put the Christ back in Christmas. Just remember that ‘Happy Holidays’ is far more warm, welcoming, and inclusive.
Paul Graham, a notable computer programming pioneer and essayist, published in 2003 an insightful piece on the phenomenon of the nerd. It’s a part-memoir, part-sociological treatise through which Graham explores the deceptively simple question: Why aren’t nerds popular?
Alberti, arguably the archetype of the Renaissance Man, writes that “no art, however minor, demands less than total dedication if you want to excel in it.” I wonder if anyone in the world works harder at anything than American school kids work at popularity. Navy SEALs and neurosurgery residents seem slackers by comparison. They occasionally take vacations; some even have hobbies. An American teenager may work at being popular every waking hour, 365 days a year.
I don’t mean to suggest they do this consciously. Some of them truly are little Machiavellis, but what I really mean here is that teenagers are always on duty as conformists.
For example, teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don’t consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids’ opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things “right” is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular.
Nerds don’t realize this. They don’t realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don’t realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who “can draw” like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that’s why they’re good at it. Likewise, popular isn’t just something you are or you aren’t, but something you make yourself.
The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties. They’re like someone trying to play soccer while balancing a glass of water on his head. Other players who can focus their whole attention on the game beat them effortlessly, and wonder why they seem so incapable.
I felt that the essay was eloquently and authoritatively written and that it was well worth my time—of course, I am a nerd.