Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The King who would be slapped

In Ancient Mesopotamia, the new year was rung in at a festival known as Akitu, which means “barley” in Sumerian. The festival was made up of two distinct festivals, each held at the beginning of the two half-years on the Sumerian calendar—one to celebrate sowing barley, and the other to celebrate cutting it.

Following the first new moon after the vernal equinox in late March, the Babylonians of ancient Mesopotamia would honor the rebirth of the natural world with a multi-day festival called Akitu. This early New Year’s celebration dates back to around 2000 B.C., and is believed to have been deeply intertwined with religion and mythology. During the Akitu, statues of the gods were paraded through the city streets, and rites were enacted to symbolize their victory over the forces of chaos. Through these rituals the Babylonians believed the world was symbolically cleansed and recreated by the gods in preparation for the new year and the return of spring.
One fascinating aspect of the Akitu involved a kind of ritual humiliation endured by the Babylonian king. This peculiar tradition saw the king brought before a statue of the god Marduk, stripped of his royal regalia and forced to swear that he had led the city with honor. A high priest would then slap the monarch and drag him by his ears in the hope of making him cry. If royal tears were shed, it was seen as a sign that Marduk was satisfied and had symbolically extended the king’s rule. Some historians have since argued that these political elements suggest the Akitu was used by the monarchy as a tool for reaffirming the king’s divine power over his people.

The festival started on the 21st of Adar, running until the 1st of Nisannu. The two most important places during the festival were the Temple of the supreme god Marduk (the Esagila), and the “House of the New Year” in the north of the city of Babylon. The primary gods of the festival were Marduk (of course) and Marduk’s son, Nabu.
The first three days of the festival weren’t filled with a whole lot of excitement—mostly prayers, pleading for the safety of the city and people, and confessing. On the fourth day, seemingly reassured by three days of sad prayers, folks got a little uppity, and the party began! The high priest would recite the Enuma Elish—the Babylonian creation epic—in preparation for the following day, sort of like many people’s modern traditions of watching White Christmas on Christmas Eve, or watching the ball drop in New York’s Times Square before midnight on New Year’s Eve.
On the fifth day, the King of Babylon was required to “submit” to Marduk—essentially, the King would enter the Esagila, be stripped of all his objects of power, and then got slapped across the face by the high priest.  And while slapping kings isn’t generally recommended for folks who plan on staying, well, alive, in this case the high priest was acting as a vessel of the god Marduk, forcing the King to remain humble and reflect on his blessings. In fact, the slap had to be hard enough to draw tears, and the more tears? The better!
While we don’t understand all the rituals that went on afterward, historians know that the sixth day and following saw a parade of sorts, perhaps several. The gods arrived in boats and traveled to the temples—that is, gold statuettes of the gods were carried and paraded around as the King made his rounds—and battles were recited and acted out with these statues. At the end of the seventh day, the procession was supposed to end up at the House of the New Year, amidst plenty of rousing songs and dances from the populace (no “Aud Lang Syne” at this party!).
Days eight through ten get a little shady in terms of historical knowledge of what happened, but perhaps that should be expected—when you’ve been celebrating for seven days beforehand, there’s bound to be a little forgetfulness at the bottom of one’s tankard of ale, if you catch my meaning.
We do know that on the eleventh day (or twelfth, depending on the source), the gods—ie. statues—boarded their boats to sail away for another year. And presumably everyone else went home and took a long nap.

Married With Children

Married With Children (1987-1997) in many ways resembles a similar sitcom framework to All in the Family. The show works very hard to use comedy to expose the shocking reality of poverty and dispel television’s myth of happy families, but in the process it reproduces very normalized scripts of femininity and masculinity. Brunson and Caughie argue that the image of femininity that is depicted by Married With Children represents a male view of women’s experience.  This is likely largely due to the writers of the show recognizing that Married With Children had managed to capture the attention of male television viewers, something that became less and less common as the sitcom evolved. 

This clip sets up the characters as they will remain for the rest of the series. Peggy is a lazy housewife. Al is a hardworking shoe salesman. Bud is the smart one, and Kelly is a tramp.

The show was created as one of the early shows for the emerging FOX network. FOX was invented in an attempt to capture the MTV generation and wasn’t afraid to push, even cross the boundaries of acceptable morality.  FOX was also extremely interested in capturing the demographic of young, black television viewers, and Married With Children was successful in doing this. This is interesting, as Clarence Lusane notes, considering the characters were essentially characterizations of “white trash.” In direct contrast to The Cosby Show, which was the most popular show on television at the time of Married With Children’s inception, which depicted an upper class life, void of any real drama, or problems, Married With Children exposed the harsh realities of poverty and working class life. The bubbly, upward-mobility of the Huxtables is subverted by the dysfunction and self-destruction evident in the Bundy household. In fact, the original title of the show was “Not the Cosbys.” Lusane also suggests that the verbal sparring that is the staple of interaction in Married with Children was modeled after many of the black comedies that executive producer Michael Moye worked on in the 1970s, but that in the culture of television and network hierarchies, it would have been impossible to produce a show featuring black characters with the same class-consciousness that the Bundy family evoked. 

The main character of the show, Al Bundy, is depicted as the hard-working, hard-done-by working class man, and something of an anti-hero. He began working in a shoe store as a part time summer job in high school, but after an injury meant he could no longer play football he became stuck in the shoe-salesman job as his full-time career. Al is frequently nostalgic about his football-glory days, and constantly reflects on how his life might have been different if he had not been “trapped” into marrying Peggy straight out of high school. This is a particularly important articulation of the historical and social context of the 1980s when an economic downturn meant that unskilled labour jobs were at a minimum and the market depended on a workforce that could afford to buy consumer goods, such as the shoes that Al works so hard to sell. 

The interplay between the Bundy family and their next-door neighbour, Marcy and her husband(s) is especially interesting because of the way Marcy is constructed as a feminist. She is portrayed as dominant over her first husband Steve, and her quasi-feminist statements are frequently discounted and undermined by Al and Peggy. Marcy and Steve frequently lord their wealth and job security over the Bundys, and blame the difference between the two families on their  lack of work ethic. However, in later episodes, Marcy re-marries to a younger man, Jefferson, who is content to live off of Marcy’s income. Jefferson and Al become quick friends, and form an all-men’s group called “NOMAAM” (National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Manhood Masterhood) to protest against feminism. Marcy loses what little credibility she had as a feminist, and with it any potential she has to present resistance to normative gender roles.

[1] Brunsdon, Chartlotte and John Caughie, eds. 1997. Feminist Television: A Reader. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.
[2] Lusane, Clarence. 1999. “Assessing the Disconnect between Black & White Television Audiences: The Race, Class and Gender Politics of Married… With Children.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27(1):12-20.
[3] Lusane, Clarence. 1999. “Assessing the Disconnect between Black & White Television Audiences: The Race, Class and Gender Politics of Married… With Children.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27(1):12-20.
[4] Lusane, Clarence. 1999. “Assessing the Disconnect between Black & White Television Audiences: The Race, Class and Gender Politics of Married… With Children.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27(1):12-20.
[5] Lusane, Clarence. 1999. “Assessing the Disconnect between Black & White Television Audiences: The Race, Class and Gender Politics of Married… With Children.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27(1):12-20.
[6] Lusane, Clarence. 1999. “Assessing the Disconnect between Black & White Television Audiences: The Race, Class and Gender Politics of Married… With Children.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27(1):12-20.
[7] Lusane, Clarence. 1999. “Assessing the Disconnect between Black & White Television Audiences: The Race, Class and Gender Politics of Married… With Children.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27(1):12-20.

Perceiving Reality

What is reality?
The best question to start one’s quest for truth.

No one sees reality as it really is because we all see the world through layers of cognitive biases & assumptions. So we see the world as we are, instead of as it is.

A good place to start being more circumspect about our beliefs is to question how we make our beliefs in the first place.

I always advise people now not to believe everything they think or feel. And to question the reasons for those beliefs.

Most of us, as humans, base our beliefs on emotion driven thinking. Rather than on strong evidence & objectivity.

As a result human beings are extremely gullible to unjustified beliefs.

Psychologists can tell you that most people make their beliefs first then look for evidence to confirm those beliefs. This leaves us vulnerable to subconscious cognitive biases like confirmation bias or observer bias.

As humans we can be very irrational about our beliefs and hold onto them despite disconfirming evidence to the contrary.

I strongly recommend studying how we, as human beings, actually form our belief systems.
Accepting that there is an actual reality out there is the first premise.

Then realising & understanding the limitations of our perception of reality is the next step.

Understanding how our minds perceive reality starts us on our journey into discovering what reality is & how to avoid the mistake of believing everything we think & feel is a true reflection of actual reality.

I believe that the best way to perceive reality is with a combination of:

1. Personal experience
2. Rational thought & reasoning
3. Empirical evidence.
The more of these three methods we use to understand reality, the more reliable our perception of it.

Our perception of reality is quite subjective.

It’s scary when one realises how unreliable our understanding of the natural world really is.

But rather, question everything!

You can have different emotions about knowledge. Certain information can make us feel happy or sad. But the information or knowledge exists independent of our feelings about it. The information actually doesn’t care what emotion it evokes. It just exists.

It’s a well studied & understood psychological phenomenon common to all humanity & used by most religions & even some businesses.

When looking at the evidence for cognitive biases, assumptions, phobias & prejudices being used as evidence for truth it’s frightening.

After 30 years of following my faith tradition & truly putting it to the test on many occasions I ‘knew’ I knew God was more real to me than life itself.

I had so many experiences which ‘proved’ to me of it’s veracity.

I too put my absolute trust in ‘spiritual knowledge’.

Till I realised I had been grossly in error. I came to realise the power of the mind in tricking us into believing in fallacy, as if it were reality.

Our minds are amazingly powerful & incredibly malleable which makes us vulnerable to severe errors in judgement.

As humans we are all susceptible to incredulity & even serious gullibility.

The more we understand the workings of the mind, the more we understand ourselves.

I recommend a wonderful book called ‘The Believing Brain’ by Michael Shermer, which looks at the evidence for how our minds work & how human beliefs are formed.

There really is no such thing as ‘spiritual knowledge’. It’s just explained very simply by how our minds work.

All beliefs are either justified by evidence or unjustified.

Declaring belief or faith in something is honest.

Hoping for something is honest.

Expressing a feeling about something is being open, and human, and authentic.

No-one can be absolutely certain of anything because none of us experiences reality in every possible way imaginable. As all of us merely perceives some aspects of reality, so none of us can know absolutely!
We can assess reality and judge the certainty based on levels of probability. So we assign degrees of certainty over information based on our assessment using the three methods I mentioned above:

1.Personal experiences,
2.Reasoning/rational thinking, and
3.Scientific evidence & observation.

Our assessment of the level of certainty is dependent on how much information we have about a subject, our preconceived ideas, and on automatic subconscious assumptions, biases, phobias and prejudices. These are often inculcated into our minds by the culture in which we grew up and live.

But asserting to have certain ‘knowledge’, when it is merely faith, hope and belief is, I believe, a form of self-delusion and shows a lack of thorough care in defining that level of certainty.

It is, of course, a common finding amongst all people and religions of the world and in every human being to some degree.

All of us, as humans, dislike uncertainty. Our subconscious minds abhor insecurity.

So, even if we are not certain, our subconscious minds will persuade us that we are certain after all.

A very useful way to avoid becoming trapped by unscrupulous people or organisations is to question even our own thoughts and emotions, instead of interpreting warm peaceful feelings as confirmations of the Spirit.

Being honest to oneself is the first step to having integrity and being authentic.

That is my goal.

Though I realize that our perception of reality is imperfect, I don’t hold to the concept of universal relativity.

There are many things in the natural world which the scientific method has discovered are universal certainties. Just like with mathematics and certain sections of science like physics & chemistry which are absolutes.
But I think it is seriously misleading for anyone to consider ‘spiritual knowledge’ in the same way.

One is justified by empirical evidence, the other by feelings.

Most religions use similar strategies to convince their adherents that they can rely on their feelings as confirmation of truth, & that feelings about God & their particular faith are somehow uniquely more reliable then any other emotions they may experience.

This complete & absolute trust in spiritual knowledge as being supreme is what scares me now about religion.

For it is this absolute knowledge in what God wants them to do which leads some to give up their lives in suicide bombings.
On the other hand there are many wonderful people in the world who are constantly striving to find answers through scientific enquiry. A good scientist is never satisfied that they have all the answers. They humbly try to disprove their research to increase the degree of certainty.
I have since come to realise that what I considered knowledge was merely belief and faith. Fervent and sincere as it was at the time. I thought I knew. I fervently & sincerely believed I possessed unassailable and certain knowledge.

I was, in effect, lying to myself. It was merely belief, hope and faith.

Always question your cognitive assumptions.

Humans are naturally gullible. Just look at the billions of other religious adherents around the world. I admit I was one of them.

We all like a good story! Especially if it makes us feel good.
“Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth.
Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.
A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing;
For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.
Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands.
But those who fear not doubt, and know its use; are founded on rock.
They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.
Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help:
It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the attendant of truth.”