Saturday, November 26, 2011

Black Friday Reflections

Market instability.  Government bailouts.  Depression.  Recession.  War casualties.  Non-violent protesters assaulted by police. 
While these are familiar headlines in 2011, they are also the headlines associated with Black Fridays and other black days in history: 
·         On Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, leading to a run on banks and precipitating what became known as the Great Depression.  Black Tuesday was so-named because it was the worst stock market crash in the history of the United States.
·         Sixty years earlier, September 24, 1869 was known as Black Friday for a financial panic caused by speculation on the Gold market, US currency backed by nothing but credit, and insider trading scandals.  Sound familiar?
·         In the UK, Black Friday refers to Friday, April 15, 1921.  The “Triple Alliance” between labor unions representing miners, seamen and railway workers unraveled over the failure of the seamen and railway workers to support the miners striking against reduced wages.
·         On the other side of the globe, Black Friday refers to Friday, January 13, 1939, when one of the worst wildfires in the world burnt almost 5 million acres of land in Australia.
·         Survivors of a failed World War II attack on a German destroyer referred to the February  9, 1945 operation as Black Friday because of the heavy losses sustained by the Allies.
·         In May 1960, on Friday the 13th, Berkeley, California police assaulted students at a sit-in protesting hearings held by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  What started as a non-violent protest became a riot.  This Black Friday is identified with the birth of the protest movement in the 1960s. 
These “black” days all refer to bleak moments in history; moments to be commemorated, perhaps, but not celebrated.  How then, did “Black Friday” in the United States become associated with a shopping extravaganza, which now starts immediately after Thanksgiving dinner?  How did we shift from protesting the House Committee on Un-American Activities to the post-nine-eleven idea that the best thing we can do for our country is go shopping?  Until recently, Thanksgiving was the last of the holidays that were about family and fellowship; about giving thanks for what we have:  family, friends, health and happiness.  No more.  For many it has become about giving thanks for what we are going to get as soon as we scarf down that last piece of pie and rush to the mall to wait in line until the doors open.
The Friday-after-Thanksgiving has been the “kickoff” to the Christmas season for decades.  Among other things, this meant that people who work in retail could never go out of town for Thanksgiving because they had to work the next day.  Moving the shopping hours up, first to 12:01 a.m. Friday and now to 9:00 p.m. Thursday means they can’t even have a drink with their Thanksgiving dinner – because they have to leave for work.  And, it’s not just any workday: they’ll be up all night dealing with frenzied shoppers! 
It’s often said that history repeats itself. 
In 1960, the Black Friday riots were about free speech.  In 2011, the Black Friday riots are about freebies (buy one, get one free).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Language Fundamentals

I still get my news from the newspaper every morning.  The other day, in between the news and the funnies, I came across a letter to an advice columnist in which the writer was concerned about a relationship between 'people who believe, “thou shall have no other gods but me” and those who believe, “There is no god but allah”'.  The writer mistakenly thought these beliefs are incompatible because they are saying different things or worshipping different gods. 

They are not. 

Allah is the Arabic word for God.  Muslims aver, “la ilahu ila allah” which translates to: “there is no god but god” – almost identical to the phrase, “thou shall have no other gods but me”.  By translating the first part of the phrase and leaving the “name” of god in Arabic, the differences are emphasized rather than the similarities.  By focusing on the “foreign-ness” of the religion, we create and perpetuate negative stereotypes.  Yet we live in a world where the French worship Dieu, the Italians worship Dio and the Germans worship Gott!  Jews are not supposed to “name” g-d at all; but no one would suggest they don’t worship g-d.

Separately, a friend who is working on her third university degree recently commented on her own ignorance of Islam.  Like most Americans, her "education" on Islam has primarily come from American media reporting on terrorism.

The fundamental function of language is communication and presumably the purpose of communication is to promote understanding.  Of course, language can mislead as well as inform, whether intentionally or not.  The overemphasis on linking Islam to fundamentalism and terrorism is misleading.  I prefer to promote understanding:

There are three major mono-theistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and although there are important differences, they all spring from the same roots and they all worship the same god.  Islam is the youngest of the three and recognizes Jews and Christians as “people of the book”.  Each tradition has a sacred language:  for Jews it is Hebrew, for Christians, Latin (or even Aramaic and Greek), and for Muslims, Arabic.  In the 20th century, Jews and Christians gradually allowed sacred texts to be translated into “vulgar” (i.e., commonly spoken) language.  Muslims around the world pray in Arabic.

It's been about 10 days since I saw that letter to the advice columnist and this emphasis on the differences that separate us over the similarities that draw us together has been weighing on me.  Today is the third day of Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, during which Muslims sacrifice a lamb to commemorate Abraham's sacrifice, a story which should be familiar to Jews and Christians around the world. 

It seemed like the right time to raise this question:
Why do people who call themselves "fundamentalists", of whatever stripe, focus on their differences when fundamentally we are so similar?

To those who celebrate, I wish you "Eid saeed", or "Happy Feast".