Monday, June 30, 2014

Human Origins at the Folklife Festival

By Gary Berg-Cross

It’s early summer, just past the Solstice and the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrates the season near and on the Mall between 7th & 14th streets NW. This year it runs until July 6 and features the cultures of China & Kenya. . Kenya: Mambo Poa  focuses on various aspects new and ancient history of the East African country. There’s daily music & events. For runners every morning of the Festival (10:30–11 a.m.) one can meet at the Kenya House, just off the Mall and join Olympic athlete and long-distance track runner Tegla Loroupe for a jog through the National Mall.  If that doesn’t resonate there is a humanist connection to consider.  Some of the oldest artifacts of human/Homo Sapiens existence have been discovered there. Kenya is thus one of the early cradles of human kind. The festival a very nice exhibit on the mall called Searching for Human Origins in Kenya noting this

Kenya has been the epicenter of millions of years of human evolution leading up to our species, Homo sapiens. Before we came along, however, another species roamed the earth for over a million years. Homo erectus was the longest surviving species in human history, and evidence of their success can be found throughout Kenya.

I was there on the first Sunday and was really excited to see Paleoanthropologist  Rick Potts (director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution who has significant wok in Kenya AND China!).
The longest running Smithsonian excavation is in Kenya at site called Olorgesailie. Where Rick Potts and his team have worked to uncover evidence to explain how early humans in Kenya adapted and survived harsh, changing climates.  This Sunday Potts wasn’t at the museum or in Kenya.  He was  signing certificates of kids of all ages as they successfully dug into the fossil
realm as part of the exhibit. It is always wonderful to see kids interested in a science like anthropology exercising its tools and feeling the thrill of discovery and connection.

You could see a range of human origin fossils, replicas & artifacts including the recent, notable Homo erectus discovery in Kenya now widely known as “Turkana Boy.”  It’s an almost complete skeleton that dates back to about 1.6 million years.
A final nod to humanism at the event is a wall that allows visitors to past up ideas on “what makes us human.” It’s a nice thing to explore in the presence of our origins. Poets, like Christy Chiang,  have tried

What makes us human?
Is it love?
So many of us take it for granted
Yet so precious few know how to give it.
Is it hope?
So many of us fall into despair over tiny things
Yet so precious few know how to find strength in it.
Is it intelligence?
So many of us ooh and ahh over what technology can bring
Yet so precious few know how to live in harmony with nature.
Has two thousand years of civilization
Really brought nothing more than destruction?
Has it not also brought realization?
Within time, there is change.
Change for the better, bringing us back from the fringe.
There is always love,
To guide us through storms and roads that are rough.
There is always hope,
To back us while we cope
With our troubles, every day that we live
Every day that the sun rises from the heaving sea.
And though we face a heating Earth,
A dimming of our days,
With our intelligence we can fix it in a thousand small ways.
Human qualities come shining through
They almost always do.
It is the "always" that we dwell upon and have faith in,
So that a new, better age may begin.
There’s a Festival Blog to keep up on this and more.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

World Humanist Day 2014

by Gary Berg-Cross

It’s June 21st, the summer solstice and now World Humanist Day which was established by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

The history of this holiday starts in the 1980s when several chapters of the American Humanist Association (AHA) began to celebrate it. But back then there was no fixed date to celebrate it.  Some chapter took the founding date of the IHEU as the target while other AHA chapter found other meaningful dates. Starting in the late 1980s and continuing into the early 1990s, the AHA and IHEU each passed resolutions declaring World Humanist Day to be on the summer solstice. Finally it stuck.

I like this connection to the celestial-seasonal variation and setting aside a day is a way for the “ spreading awareness of Humanism as a philosophical life stance and means to effect change in the world.” This year (2014) the day falls on the weekend so there will be a number of outdoor events to celebrate. And people do celebrate this longest of days in different ways.

The British Humanist Association’s choir will be holding a “One Life” concert in London, “a variety show for the non-religious in celebration of the one life we have.”

The Central New York Humanist Association summer solstice picnic.  Picnics are popular, even if the World Cup is on TV.

Here in DC we have to hope that the showers will be over by the time for picnics and such planned.  DC Region Atheists are hosting one planned for 3 pm in Rock Creek Park. They are supported by the  Washington Area Secular Humanist ( as a chapter and have invited everyone from the various participating groups in the Washington DC Area Coalition of Reason to join them. Humanists of UUCF are coming.

The Maryland Science & Skepticism Meetup Group (306 W. Franklin Street, Baltimore, MD) will celebrate World Humanist Day at 6:30 by Watching "The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today."

Friday, June 20, 2014

Integrity and Political Behavior

by Gary Berg-Cross

How and why Eric Cantor lost to (convincingly) to a Tea Party challenger has been a big story in Washington. The political elites and chattering class of pundits didn't see it coming, but flash-mob hypothesized about it. One early theory of the “shocked and bewildered”, as Time put it, was religious and cultural in tone:

“One of the more fascinating threads that emerged from the cacophony of ideas put forward in the days following the primary was the effort to find a Jewish dimension to the story. Cantor, the House Majority Leader, was the highest ranking Jewish lawmaker in American history, with aspirations to be Speaker of the House. When one adds to that the fact that Brat is a religious Christian who speaks frequently of his faith, the temptation to uncover a Jewish angle became irresistible. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the leading Jewish weekly the Forward, and a variety of other publications duly turned out articles examining, from every perspective, the Jewish and religious sides of the election…. David Wasserman, a normally sensible political analyst, got things going with a much-quoted statement to the Times suggesting that anti-Semitism was at play in Cantor’s defeat. Cantor was culturally out of step with his redrawn district, according to Wasserman, “and part of this plays into his religion. You can’t ignore the elephant in the room.” Sensationalist headlines soon followed. The Week, a news magazine, ran a story entitled “Did Eric Cantor lose because he’s Jewish?” And the Forward ran an opinion column with the headline “Did Eric Cantor Lose Because He’s Jewish? You Betcha.”
But there was no elephant in the room. There wasn’t even a mosquito in the room. “Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at
Culture may have played a part (Eric Cantor was called the leading advocate for Jewish/Israeli issues in Congress) and we’ll have to see if conservative Jewish pols and evangelical Christian pols start to diverge. But another factors seems to be Cantor being perceived as lacking in integrity and political deftness. As Time also noted:
“Cantor’s problem was less ideology and more a sense that he stood more for his own ambition than for any definable policies. He frequently reinvented himself with splashy policy speeches, and toured the country raising money and gathering chits for an eventual run for House Speaker.”
There are several character issues here about what Cantor really stood for (aside from what some presume his conservative Jewish culture.). These were noted by a number of observers:
“[It's a] serious wake up call to all incumbents,” said Scott Reed, the top political strategist for the establishment-friendly Chamber of Commerce. “Time for candidates to run like they are running for sheriff… not prime minister.”

I think this is a point to note. In a functioning democracy the welfare of constituents (there perception o this at least) are the ultimate law, at least every 2, 4 or 6 years.

To his up close constituents Cantor showed a mix of avarice, as demonstrated in his numerous steak feasts mixed with a hint of phoniness, folly & cowardice. It’s was, in part, a classic words vs behavior issue. Cantor tried to have it both ways on so many things.  Was he loyal to his base and constituents or to Wall St. and lobbyists?  What does his behavior show?

What did he stand for on immigration reform? His early rhetoric on last year’s government shutdown that had excited the Tea-base (and sunk GOP’s poll numbers)
ended up making him look weak.  It was not enough that Cantor pose as a tea party conservative—his actions must be tea party peevish.  Without real action the veneer, the sheen of words wears off. As Cicero said, false pretensions fall as do flowers, nor can anything feigned be lasting.”

Cantor like many of the privileged pols we have now (Jewish or otherwise) forgot that reputation and integrity are important. People expect that when in power you will follow through on what you say you’re going to do. It's walking the walk.

Cantor’s credibility eroded rather than built over time if only because people who heard his words could see the contrast to his actions as well as his paid for steak dinners. Perhaps you still can't fool all American voters for very long. Something must ring true.

In the end people and policy are more important than politics...or ideology.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Bumping into Secular Poems from the Middle Ages

by Gary Berg-Cross

Movies can be an art form mix of cultural elements. I probably heard the chanting song of German composer Carl Orff’’s  "O Fortuna" from his  cantata Carmina Burana first in a movie. Perhaps it was the film The Doors.  Since then that rhythmic tune has become a recognized staple in pop culture. Harper's Magazine columnist Scott Horton has commented that:

 "Orff’s setting may have been spoiled by its popularization" and its use "in movies and commercials often as a jingle, detached in any meaningful way from its powerful message.”
Orff’ intended the work as a staged work involving dance, choreography, visual design and other stage action. It seems pseudo medieval. It has monkish parodies of chanting and primitive percussion that provides a background to many situations depicted in movies including pain and misfortune. It does include the words ‘examine the cycle of life and question the source of life’s pain’s’.

 The piece is now usually performed in concert halls as a cantata, but also as Modern Dance.

Only recently did I learn a bit of the background to Carmina Buran setting message which comes out of 13th-century poems. According to one source the Carmina Burana “is the largest and greatest collection of secular lyrics from the Middle Ages. It has proved useful in understanding the (minstrels( goliards, and it has demonstrated that music flourished widely in medieval times beyond the confines of the Church.” 
More on the Goliards later.
Orff subtitled "Carmina Burana" a 'scenic cantata'. The scene or setting comes from dozens of poems and various student songs in Medieval Latin and low German. The additional subtitle tells us an interesting bit more. "Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (This has been translated as – ‘Secular songs for soloists and chorus, accompanied by instruments and supplemented by scenery)'.
Secular songs??  This makes it a bit more interesting.  What is the background to this work from the Middle Ages?

One thinks of medieval poetry being like at - it is religious in nature.  But it turns out to be more interesting than that.  A notable exception to being religio-centric is the work of the what is called troubadours and minstrel singers (minnesänger).  They got into celebrating the ideal of courtly love. And among the most famous of these is the manuscript collection of  Carmina Burana, ˈkɑrmɨnə bʊˈrɑːnə/; Latin for "Songs from Beuern." (The manuscript was discovered in 1803 at Benediktbeuern, a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria from which the term "burana" is derived. So monks were involved at discover as well as creation.)

Well there is a courtly tradition but these quasi-vernacular poems and pieces in in Medieval Latin were organized by someone into parts that deals with topics like mortality and fate (That is O Fortuna mixed with some mockery in the Introduction) and nature in its first part.  So we have Fortune plango vulnera (Fortune's blows do I lament)", with following three parts:

Part I: In Springtime (Primo vere) with the songs "Veris leta facies (Of Spring's fair-countenanced delight)"; "Omnia sol temperat (The sun rules over everything)"

Sunlight warms all the fields

gently now and purely,
to a new world it reveals
April’s face completely;
to love itself now yields
the spirit of mastery,
and the boy-god wields
the power to make all happy.

, and "Ecce gratum (Anticipated)"; and On the Lawn (Uf dem Unger) with an orchestral dance, then "Floret silva nobilis (The noble woods bloom)"  These are quite a contrast with the drummed warning of fortune. 
Chramer, gip die varwe mir (Shopkeeper, please, a bit of pink)" is a charming musical piece, a very peaceful Round Dance (Reie) and Songs consisting of "Swaz hie gat umbe (Here are maidens in the round)", followed by "Chum chum geselle min (Come, pretty maid of mine)", and "Were diu werlt alle min (Were the enitre world mine)".
“Were the entire world mine” seems to set a rambunctious, sensual tone for the rest of the work. In it, the Chorus sings:

"Were the entire world mine from the ocean to the Rhine, the whole of it would I forsake that mighty England's queen awake in my arms intertwined"!

The next part deals with tender, romantic & courtly love but also but also up close, explicit, and highly sensual love. Reality intrudes into the medieval fantasy and there is plenty of it - 131 love (CB 56–186). An example is Sleep and love:

Come, come keep me company,
I beg you, please be kind to me.
I beg you, please be kind to me,
come, come keep me company.
Red lips have me under a spell.
Come, kiss me and make me well.

The poem and story collection (you can read translations here) concludes with bawdy tavern life and drinking which adds a tasty, irreverent, and satirical sauce. It’s a bit more like the Canterbury tales than one suspected and Orff’s music is much more varied than the monkish images associated with O Fortuna.

What do we know about some of the people who created these poems?  Among the anonymous authors of Carmina Burana were frocked and defrocked priests and monks, reverent and irreverent  students, and wanderers.  Some we know  including Peter of Blois, Walter of Châtillon and an anonymous poet, referred to as the Archpoet. 

Collectively they have been called 'Goliards' and were defrocked monks and minstrels who, according to a webpage who info is attributed to the Charles Cave's "Carmina Burana" webpage, were:

 "better known for their rioting, gambling, and intemperance than for their scholarship."

 And this source continues to inspire creative source david Bintley, for example provided a modern interpretation of "Carmina Burana" - an “Everyman” story that follows three seminarians as they reject their faith and explore the pleasures of the flesh, including lust, love, greed and gluttony.
“It’s really about what can happen if you abandon your spirituality and seek gratification in temporal appetites,” Bintley explained in a 2011 interview about the ballet.

Bintley premiered "Carmina Burana" in 1995 as his first work as artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB).

“It is beyond sensational, beyond moving, beyond thrilling,” said The Shropshire Star writer Andy Richardson in a 2011 review:

 “BRB director David Bintley has created a masterwork that will live long in the memories of those who witnessed his electrifying, tender and deeply intelligent work. The dancers, set alongside Carl Orff’s spellbinding choral tour de force, were a feast for the senses. Live entertainment does not get better than that.”