Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye 2008

With less than an hour left to this most interesting (in the regrettable, Chinese proverbial sense) year, I want to wish you all a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2009 (acknowledging that all calendars and new years are arbitrary and conventional, human symbolic inventions, media and technologies, not natural occurrences). And now for a quick year-end wrap up, here's Uncle Jay:

Monday, December 29, 2008

Interconnections, Make No Bones About It!

So, there's nothing new to the idea of convergence and the internetworkings of the computer/cyberspaced/digital age, as various types of hardware, such as the personal computer, laptop, PDA, and mobile phone interconnect, along with various types of software, especially those that make up the Web 2.0/social networking/social media revolution, including blogs such as this one, and services such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube, etc., etc.

But when you can say the same old thing in a new and entertaining way, that's always a big plus! And so, without further ado, as part of the really big shoe (if you don't know about Ed Sullivan, never mind) that this blog represents, and now this:

I just loved that, didn't you? And in the spirit of the song, this video appears on YouTube under the heading of LEAN MEAN FIGHTING MACHINE "Dem Phones" by CandleMusicLondon. It came to my attention via a Google Alert on the term "media ecology" because it appeared on a blog entitled The Ideas Bazaar written by an anthropologist named Simon Roberts, with whom I am otherwise unfamiliar. He in turn notes that he got the video from another blog, which he provides the link for, Memex 1.1, written by John Naughton, a professor of technology and computing, with whom I am otherwise unfamiliar. And Naughton credits someone named Charles Arthur for spotting the video, but provides no link, and that's about as far as I'm prepapred to research the matter. So that's pretty much it.

Oh, and no, I don't have an iphone.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Under Chanukah's Spell

A few folks have asked me why there are so many different spellings of Chanukah, to wit:


Okay, I'm exaggerating just a tiny bit here. And technically, when it's spelled with an H instead of a Ch, there's supposed to be a dot under the H, which indicates that it's pronounced as the guttural "ch" sound that is not found in English, but is present in some other languages, such as German (ach du lieber!).

For some, it's quite the conundrum, and the subject of a lighthearted song by the LeeVees:

Of course, there is one standardized way to spell the name of this holiday, and that's as follows:

See, it's spelled cheit, nun, vav (which represents the "oo" sound in this context), kaf, hei. Simple! That's going right to left, of course, because that's the direction you read and write in in Hebrew, and there are no vowels represented (aside from the vav indicating "oo"), which is typcially the case in Hebrew, although it is possible to fill in vowels using diacritical marks.

The process of translating from one writing system to another is called transliteration, and is a separate issue from the process of translation itself, which has to do with the meanings of the spoken language. As Eric Havelock has noted, learning another writing system is a separate and distinct task from learning another language, and of course it's much easier to just learn another language that uses the same writing system, for example learning French when you know English (although you do have to learn about the extra accent marks), or learning Hebrew when you already know Yiddish (a German dialect which is written in Hebrew, but uses the Hebrew alphabet in a slighty different way to accomodate itself to the different sounds of Yiddish, just as French uses the Roman alphabet in a slightly different manner than English).

So, not to belabor the point, but I just wanted to note here that I think that the fact that I went to Hebrew school as a child, and learned to read and write in another alphabet, helped to make me aware of the distinctions between orality and literacy at an early age, and set me on the course to becoming a media ecologist.

So, with one more night of Chanukah coming up, here's a very nice original song about Chanukah from the rock group Barenaked Ladies--the video is not much to look at, but it's the sounds that count.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Light One Candle

So, tonight I was once again the lay leader for services at Congregation Adas Emuno, and this being the Sabbath that falls during Chanukah, we began with the lighting of the Chanukah Menorah. Actually, I began by noting that the Menorah is in one sense symbolic of the Burning Bush, which was when God first spoke to Moses (according to the story related in Exodus, of course). Later, in conjunction with God giving the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai, he provides specific instructions for setting up a Sanctuary, an Ark, and then a Menorah:

And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made, even its base, and its shaft; its cups, its knobs, and its flowers, shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of the sides thereof: three branches of the candlestick out of the one side thereof, and three branches of the candle-stick out of the other side thereof; three cups made like almond-blossoms in one branch, a knob and a flower; and three cups made like almond-blossoms in the other branch, a knob and a flower; so for the six branches going out of the candlestick. And in the candlestick four cups made like almond-blossoms, the knobs thereof, and the flowers thereof. And a knob under two branches of one piece with it, and a knob under two branches of one piece with it, and a knob under two branches of one piece with it, for the six branches going out of the candlestick. Their knobs and their branches shall be of one piece with it; the whole of it one beaten work of pure gold. And thou shalt make the lamps thereof, seven; and they shall light the lamps thereof, to give light over against it. (Exodus 25:31-37).

I noted that the six branches parallel the six points of the Shield or Star of David (also known as the Seal of Solomon). The seventh lamp is the Shamash, the helper (yes, I already went over this in a recent post, Eight Lights). There are additional instructions about how to make the sacred oil for the lamps:

And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually. In the Tent of Meeting, outside the dividing curtain that is in front of the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall set it up before the Lord from evening to morning; [it shall be] an everlasting statute for their generations, from the children of Israel. (Exodus 27:20-21)

The Menorah was central to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and contemporary synagogues and temples typically have a six-branched Menorah (typically electric now) and an Eternal Light that is supposed to always stay on. The Menorah is a symbol of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem (the First destroyed by the Babylonians, the Second by the Romans), and also of Judaism and the Jewish people, and it is also used by the State of Israel (see Eight Lights). The light itself symbolizes enlightenment of course, both of the intellectual and spiritual variety, and it also symbolizes spirit itself, a symbol of the divine.

I then noted that on Chanukah we have a special Menorah with two extra lamps. It is a holiday of lights to mark the winter solstice, and according to tradition, we are celebrating the miracle of one day's worth of oil burning for eight days. Chanukah lasts for eight days also because it represents a delayed celebration of Sukkot, an eight day harvest festival that falls right after Yom Kippur. Sukkot could not be properly observed because the Temple had been desecrated by the Syrian-Greeks, with unclean animals and a statue of Zeus placed inside it, until the rebel Maccabees, fighting against overwhelming odds, were able to oust the conquerors and retake the Temple. And along with cleansing and purifying the sacred space, they rekindled the Menorah.

I also explained that Chanukah is also an echo of the festival of Passover, with a similar theme of freedom from oppression, and that the name Chanukah means dedication, or rededication, originally associated with the restoration of the Temple. But for us today, we ought to think about our own dedication to enlightenment and spiritual renewal.

At this point, I turned to the short Chanukah service in the prayerbooks. After lighting the candles, we recited the lyrics to "Light One Candle," by Peter Yarrow. Here's how they go:

Light one candle for the Maccabee children
With thanks that their light didn't die
Light one candle for the pain they endured
When their right to exist was denied
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
Justice and freedom demand
But light one candle for the wisdom to know
When the peacemaker's time is at hand

Don't let the light go out!
It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe
And light one candle for those who are suffering
Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in
That anger not tear us apart
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our hearts

Don't let the light go out!
It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

What is the memory that's valued so highly
That we keep it alive in that flame?
What's the commitment to those who have died
That we cry out they've not died in vain?
We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail
This is the burden, this is the promise
This is why we will not fail!

Don't let the light go out!
It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.
Don't let the light go out!
Don't let the light go out!
Don't let the light go out!
Here is a beautiful live concert version of the song, by Peter, Paul, and Mary:

This is my favorite Chanukah song of all time!

We then proceeded with our regular Shabbat service. When it came time to chant the Mi Chamocha prayer, I noted that the Hebrew term Maccabbee, which refers to the followers of Judah the Maccabbee, and is usually translated as hammer (hence, Judah the Hammer, the military leader of those rebeling against the Syrian-Greek occupiers) is also an acronym of the first four words of the prayer, Mi chamocha, ba'elim, Adonai? (Who is like you, Lord, among the gods?). This is the oldest prayer in the Jewish liturgy, it's what the newly freed Israelites sang in the Book of Exodus after God parted the Red Sea for them and they were able to cross safely and escape the Egyptians. In its written form, the fourth word is not Adonai, that's what we say instead of uttering God's name, which is represented by the letter YHWH (the English tranlaltion is Jehovah), and the Y equivalent provides the "ee" ending of Maccabbee (MCBY).

So, when we came to the sermon portion of the service, I first asked everyone what Chanukah means to them. A few people answered, I think folks were pretty tired from the week, so I didn't push it and went on to do three readings providing differen views of Chanukah. The first was by Emma Lazarus:

The Feast of Lights
Emma Lazarus

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening's forehead o'er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,

The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
From one heroic stock, one seed divine.

Five branches grown from Mattathias' stem,
The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
Eleazar, Help of-God; o'er all his clan

Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
Whose praise is: "He received the perishing."

They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah's heights the tangled grass
Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie

Disfigured and polluted--who had flung
Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,

Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o'ercame,
Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.

Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
Music and revelry wed day with night.

Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas? Where our five-branched palm?
Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!

As you no doubt know, Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) was a Jewish-American poet from New York City who is best known for her sonnet, "The New Colossus," which goes like this:

The New Colossus
Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

That's right! This is the poem that appears on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. If you're wondering about the twin cities she makes reference to, they're New York City, and Jersey City (which is actually closer to Liberty and Ellis Island that New York is). So, anyway, let's call up a picture of Emma Lazarus, why don't we?

That's much better. As for the poem, "The Feast of Lights," was published in 1882, and reflects the growing sentiment that formally coalesced as Zionism in 1897; 1882 was the year that many Jews started to immigrate to Palestine (that's what it was called back then), mostly from Russia to escape the pogroms.

So, I then read two excerpts from an essay that Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor of Tikkun and National Chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, published online in the Huffington Post online recently, under the title Chanukah and Christmas: When Hope Triumphs Over Cynical Realism, and you can go ahead and click on the title to read the entire essay, I'm not going to reproduce it here. I just pulled out two paragraphs to read at services that I thought conveyed a contemporary progressive interpretation of Chanukah:

The "old-time religion" that the Maccabees fought to preserve had revolutionary elements in it that went far beyond the Greeks in articulating a liberatory vision: not only in the somewhat abstract demand to "love your neighbor as yourself," "love the stranger," and pursue justice and peace, but also concretely in Torah prescriptions to abolish all debts every seven years, allow the land to lie fallow every seven years, refrain from all work and activities connected to control over the earth once a week on Sabbath, redistribute the land every fifty years (the Jubilee) back to its original equal distribution. . . .

The miracle of Chanukah is that so many people were able to resist the overwhelming "reality" imposed by the imperialists and to stay loyal to a vision of a world based on generosity, love of stranger, and loyalty to an invisible God who promised that life could be based on justice and peace. It was these "little guys," the powerless, who sustained a vision of hope that inspired them to fight against overwhelming odds, against the power of technology and science organized in the service of domination, and despite the fact that they were dismissed as terrorists and fundamentalist crazies. When this kind of energy, what religious people call "the Spirit of God," becomes ingredient in the consciousness of ordinary people, miracles ensue.

Now, I think the entire piece is worth reading, whether you agree with his politics or not, but it was a bit long to read in its entirety, and I wanted to get at the the core message, which is very much consonant with Peter Yarrow's "Light One Candle" I think.

As for the third reading, that was my poem, "Eight Lights" (which I just posted the other day in my post entitled, naturally enough, Eight Lights). When I read it tonight, I didn't say that I had written it, but my friend Michael Fishbein knew that it was my piece because he actually reads this blog (thank you Michael!), and filled the others in (we had about 20 people attending tonight), and I got some nice compliments on the poem, which is always gratifying.

So, after that, we resumed the service and closed with the Chanukah hymn "Ma'oz Tsur/Rock of Ages" and lo and behold, I found a nice version on YouTube that was recorded just a couple of weeks ago at a concert in nearby Tenafly, New Jersey:

And, well, tonight was the sixth night of Chanukah, two more nights to go! We sure don't let the lights go out, do we?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This is Not An Animation! (Or Is It?)

So, my MySpace friend Peter Schmideg (click on his name to go to his MySpace profile), who is a New York-based web artist (who has also been an actor, a playwright, a screenwriter, a film director, and a radio host/producer) posts some of his work on his MySpace blog (which you can access from his profile), and recently posted a post entitled Whatever, featuring and I take this right from his blog, link and all, "A quote from Alfred Korzybski:" And here is the very cool animation that followed:

(Note, you don't see the entire quote of "Whatever you say it is, it isn't," click on the image to get the full picture. For some glitch reason I cannot fathom, this an other picks are cut off when I view the blog.)

This can be understood as a basic concept of general semantics, that there is an unbridgeable chasm between symbols and the reality that they represent, that words are not the things they refer to, maps are not the territories they depict, that language ultimately misleads us about the nature of the world, all the more so because we naturally assume that it is not only accurate, but essentially is one and the same with the world. And we are especially misled by the verb to be, which implies identity between different phenomena, the same kind of relationship as when we say that 1+1=2 or A=A. So this saying, "Whatever you say it is, it isn't," is a pithy way of explaining general semantics while standing on one foot, as the saying goes.

I should mention that Peter's website is called Illumination Gallery, yeah you can get there by clicking on that name, and it's chock full of animations, many text-based like this quote, many others of images. For example, Peter took a picture of me dancing with my daughter, and turned it into this:

He titled it Rolling the Dice of Design, created it for Autism Awareness Month this past April, and you can read what he wrote about it on his website by clicking on the title.

Getting back to the quote, "Whatever you say it is, it isn't," Bruce Kodish, who is writing the definitive biography of Korzybski, and is a fellow blogist--Korzybski Files--and who I've mentioned here before, tells me that there is no evidence that Korzybski ever actually said this, even though it is commonly attributed to him. No doubt he said something to that effect, but that particular statement does not appear in print. As for what he may have said orally on any given occasion, well, who can say?

Perhaps the conclusion is, "Whatever Korzybski said, he didn't" or "Whatever you say Korzybski said, he didn't," or maybe "Whatever you say Korzybski said, you didn't" or maybe I better quit while I'm ahead?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Eight Lights

Well, last night was the first night of Chanukah, and today is the first day. In case you're wondering, Jewish holidays begin at sundown because in Genesis we begin with darkness, then God says let there be light, and that's how the day ends. The conclusion, then, is that a new day begins at dusk. When you think about it, the idea that a new day begins at midnight must be a relatively recent historical invention, as there was no easy way to determine the midnight hour before the invention of the mechanical clock circa the 13th century. Relying solely on natural signs, sunrise and sunset are the obvious markers that separate day from night. And we still tend to think of daybreak as the beginning of the day, in part also because it's associated with the biological phenomenon of waking up, while night is associated with going to sleep, sleep being the transitional period from one day to the next. This was illustrated in last year's television program Daybreak, whose run was cut very short by poor ratings, not to mention the more successful romantic comedy film, Groundhog Day. The idea of sundown marking the beginning of a new day may seem counterintuitive, but a vestige of this worldview remains on the Christian/Roman calendar, as the Christmas holiday begins with Christmas Eve, and we begin to celebrate that auld lang syne and happy New Year on New Year's Eve.

So anyway, as you no doubt know, Chanukah lasts for eight days, and we commemorate the holiday by lighting candles, one on the first day, two on the second, and so on until all eight candles on the Chanukah Menorah are lit. The Chanukah Menorah, or Chanukiah, actually uses nine candles, one being the shamash or helper, which is used to light the other eight (interestingly, Shamash is the name of the Sumerian sun god). Oh, and just in case it's not obvious, a Menorah is a candelabrum, but when I hear the word candelabrum I can't help but think of Liberace (if this confuses you, never mind, you're probably just too young to get the reference). So why is this week different from all other weeks? On all other weeks, the Menorahs that are used only have six lights, plus the seventh shamash. The six lights of the standard Menorah correspond to the six points of the Star of David, the symbol of Judaism, but the Menorah itself is said to symbolize the burning bush, and it is said that the design of the Menorah was part of God's revelation to Moses. It was a feature of the Temple in Jerusalem, and remains one of the symbols of our faith, and the Jewish people as a nation. Here's one image of a Menorah, patterned after the one that existed in the ancient Temple:

And here is the Coat of Arms of the State of Israel, where the Menorah is used as a national symbol:

And now, here is a traditional image of a Chanukah Menorah:

And here's the national Menorah of the United States, on the Mall in Washington, DC, courtesy of National Geographic:

And now, these images below look pretty sad after the professional National Geographic photographer's work, but I took them with my camera phone last night at the community Menorah lighting outside of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia:

With snow on the ground even, but I can't see dreaming of a White Chanukah, oy!

So anyway, last year one of my MySpace poet friends, Moses Roth, known on MySpace as "Moses the One and Only (aka Moses the Holy Dude)," suggested I write a poem about Chanukah, which I did. I actually wrote it as a series of eight little poems, with the idea of trying to give a special meaning to each one of the eight lights, meanings that correspond to the meaning of the holiday, of course. And I decided to post it as if I were lighting the candles, so on the first night I posted "One Light" with just the first verse, then the next night I added the second verse and reposted it as "Two Lights" and so on until it was complete. This generated a very enthusiastic and positive response, as many readers came back each night to see the new verse, looking forward to the next verse with some degree of anticipation, and feeling more of a sense of involvement than is usually felt with a blog post. This really reinforced for me the point that a blog post, like all forms of electropnic media, is an event, not an object. That's why people are much more likely to leave comments on a blog post if it's recent, much less likely if it's from the archives. Posting the way that I did last year created a sense of an ongoing event, which in turn created a sense of a community, at least for that period of time. If you want to get a sense of it, you can check out the archive here: Eight Lights on MySpace 12/12/07 (if you look through the comments, note that they are not all in chronological order, as can be seen by the dates on the comments).

So this year I just reposted the poem in its entirety over on MySpace, and I thought I'd also shared it with you here. So now, without any further ado, here we go:

Eight Lights


Freedom from slavery and tyranny
From oppression and persecution
Freedom to live in harmony
With the Earth and with Heaven

Justice and equality
Human rights and human dignity
Peaceful coexistence
An end to war and violence

To stand up for liberty and bow to the law
To lead by example with courage and wisdom
To be a hammer that builds as well as a hammer of war
With a passion for peace, for justice, and for freedom

Four on a dreidel
Twenty-two in total
Infinite in combination
Endless in education
An alphabet aligned with order
A numbering of our works, days, names
Books—greater than any leader
Knowledge stored transcends our times


Reading, writing, remembering
Studying, questioning, understanding
Preserving tradition
Saving continuity from being lost
Moving forward—evolution
Avoiding errors of the past
Teachers—the highest calling
Bring to the world much needed healing

A sacred gift
Most precious of all
Vessel of the spirit
Root of liberty and law


Courtship and Family
Friends and Neighbors
Community and Humanity
Creations and Creators


Spinning dreidels
Chocolate gelt
Jelly doughnuts
Potato latkes
Giving gifts
Singing songs
Saying blessings
Children playing
Family visiting
Friends gathering
Lifting hearts
Kissing keppellahs
Glowing candles
Eight nights
Eight lights
Happy Chanukah!

8 8 8 8 L 8 8 8 8
G E E R T T D 2 E
H 7 6 N S E E 2 R
T 7 6 I 0 R R 2 T
E 7 6 N 0 S S 2 Y
R 7 6 G 0 4 3 2 1
8 7 6 5 0 4 3 2 1

And there you have it. So, Happy Chanukah, and Happy Everything!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Seasons Greetings?

So, I was interviewed by USA Today religion reporter Cathy Grossman, and quoted in her piece, "Mandatory 'Merry Christmas' line may lose its lilt" (and yeah, you can click on the article name to go see it on the USA Today website, and yeah, I will review it here as well). The question that started things off was, should store employees be forced to say Merry Christmas to their customers, as some would like them to. And more generally, what are we to make of the campaign in recent years to get people to say Merry Christmas all the time again, as opposed to Happy Holidays.

So, okay, here's how Cathy starts her article:

Despite the four years of Bill O'Reilly and Christian groups insisting that "Merry Christmas" turn up in every TV commercial, sign and salutation, the phrase may be losing its spiked-eggnog punch.

Has it been four years already? Well, I have to admit that when it all began, I did feel some sympathy to O'Reilly and his crew. In the aftermath of 9/11, somehow rallying around the flag got associated with rallying around Christmas as a traditional American holiday, and I have to admit to feeling more connected to and defensive of Christmas than I had ever felt before. Even though I am not a Christian, or maybe it's because I'm not a Christian, I do realize that "the holidays" are pretty much all about Christmas. It's nice that they add Chanukah into the mix, but after all, Chanukah is a minor holiday and only became significant because of its juxtaposition to Christmas. So yes, the holiday is Christmas, and there are many aspects of the holiday that are aesthetically pleasing, even if you are not part of the religious celebration.

Having said that, after four years (has it really been four years?) of hearing about The War on Christmas, I cannot help but conclude that it is a phony, trumped up accusation (no, I am not suggesting any kind of pattern here regarding phony, trumped up wars). There is no war, if anything, Christmas is more pervasive and overwhelming than ever before. It is more in your face, harder to escape from, more of a national obsession than it has ever been. It may not be the religious sense of Christmas that some would like, it may involve euphemistic terms for Christmas, like the holidays, but it is still all about Christmas.

Now, let's go back to the article and see what Cathy has to say:

First, the "War on Christmas" cultural campaign may not be working any more. This year Costco, the grocery warehouse chain, has left Christmas off its national advertising, according to the American Family Association.

"We say, put religious beliefs aside, it doesn't make good logical business sense not to acknowledge what your customers care about," says marketing expert Bob Hutchins, co-author of an upcoming book, Faith-Based Marketing: The Guide to Reaching 140 Million Christian Customers.

Now, let me interrupt just to note that much of the concern has to do with business and marketing. For example, should businesses mandate that they employees employ a particular greeting, whether it's requiring them to say Happy Holidays and not Merry Christmas, or requiring them to say Merry Christmas and not Happy Holidays? Or should the salespeople be allowed to make their own decisions as to holiday greetings? I think the natural inclination is support freedom of choice, but on the other hand don't businesses have a right to choose how their employees represent their business to their customers, have a right to determine the image they will project to the public? This goes beyond retail, as a friend related to me that someone she knows was required to sign and mail several hundred Christmas cards to company clients, even though he is Jewish. Anyway, let's get back to Cathy's piece:

Anne Graham Lotz, Bible teacher and daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, was unsettled after a swing through decorations-drenched Manhattan last week. She heard several clerks mumble "Happy Holidays" rather than offer a cheery "Merry Christmas." Lotz says:

People just seem to have a problem with Jesus. It's as if people invited you to a birthday party for me but wouldn't let you acknowledge it was for me and my name was blacked out on the invitations. It's CHRIST-mas.

You know, that Christ, the foundation-of-Christianity Christ.

So, note again, this is particularly about retail. And let's recall that corporations are all about the bottom line, they are machines, technologies whose sole concern is the maximization of efficiency and profit. Okay, now, it's time to hear from the expert (LOL):

But Lance Strate, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York City, says hammering home "Merry Christmas" as a mandatory greeting in the marketplace can turn people into "Christmas robots."

When you say something over and over again it becomes a kind of ritual and becomes emptied of meaning, particularly if it becomes an employment requirement, not a choice. You are just deploying it as a euphemism for saying, 'Hello,'" says Strate.

Christmas robots? A little harsh. I think he's exaggerating to make a point, however, about whether people sense a degree of sincerity in your Christmas or Hanukkah best wishes.

Maybe it was harsh, but it wasn't in the larger context of the interview, just when the statement is isolated. I did get some feedback from friends and colleagues to the effect that it wasn't harsh at all, and folks seemed to like the phrase, "Christmas robots," for some reason. So anyway, I made my point about freedom of choice, and also about how, when a symbol is repeated over and over again, it is drained of meaning. To the extent that Christmas is all about Jesus Christ, shouldn't people be saying "Merry Christmas" because they mean to celebrate the birth of their saviour, not as an empty gesture that simply serves to acknowledge one's existence and presence? That's what phatic communication is all about, small talk like hello and how are you, where no one is really inquiring as to the other person's health, we just are confirming each other as fellow human beings, recognizing one another as members of our society. Which brings me to the end of Cathy's article, and what a perfect ending it is:

I asked staunchly conservative Christian Michael Horton, a theology professor and an associate pastor, how he greets strangers he meets in December. Horton reports, "I say 'Hello.'"

Horton's strategy insures that Christmas greetings are only exchanged in contexts in which they are meaningful, and only when he is mindful of the meaning of the greeting. This concern, it seems to me, relates to the larger issue that I've been hearing about since I was a kid, people complaining that most people seem to have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas, and just get caught up in all the celebrating and shopping. Perhaps nothing captures that struggle better than that wonderful animated special TV program that first aired when I was a kid, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Of course, in talking about meaning, whether it's the meaning of words like "Christmas" or the meaning of rituals, holidays, or events in general, we have moved into the terrain of general semantics. So, we can start by noting that there is no "thing" that the word "Christmas" refers to, no objective reality behind the term, just a myriad of subjective experiences. And it makes sense then to use the general semantics technique of turning a singular noun into a plural, and talk about the different Christmases that exist, or at least some of them.

Putting the Christ back in Christmas, there is of course the religious Christmas, the holiday that actually involves a Christ mass, that celebrates the birth of Jesus, who is identified as the savior, the Messiah (meshiach meaning "anointed one" referring to a descendant of the House of David who would restore the monarchy and independence of the Jewish nation, the Kingdom of Judah or Judea as it was known to the Romans, or the combined Kingdoms of Judah and Israel (aka Samaria), so it reflected a combination of religious vision and political aspirations) or Christ. The narrative surrounding the Christmas holiday is a beautiful one, even if you are not a believer or Christian, and it is an often-unacknowledged product of ancient Jewish culture, one of many compelling narratives that have originated from our people. Personally, I have no problem with the religious Christmas (unless it's forced upon me), I can appreciate it as an outsider. And if there is any kind of war on the religious Christmas, it's one from within, as people generally have been turning away from all kinds of organized religion, including Christianity.

Of course, there are many variations on the religious Christmas, a major distinction being between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Christmases, not to mention the fact that the Eastern Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 6th rather than December 25th. And also there are different Christmases in different time periods, so that the Christmas of the Colonial period in America was a low key affair, compared to the religious significance of the holiday today. Then there is the pagan Christmas, not really Christmas at all, but the Christian overlay on pagan rites of season, the celebration of the winter solstice, the pagan holidays of Yule, and the Saturnalia. This has special added resonance in the temperate zones (no doubt even more as you get closer to the poles), and is much less meaningful closer to the equator (where the Christian holiday began). There is also much beauty in the celebration of winter, the Christmas tree, the lights (although they can become terribly overdone), the fire, the snow, the cold, all of that! We know it as the great northern holiday, associated with northern European cultures, English, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, as opposed to the hot desert climate of the Middle East, or the warm weather of the Mediterranean region. And to the extent that some people, in the New Age movement for example, want to reclaim and renew paganism and separate it from the Christmas overlay, while others just want to celebrate the holiday as being about a winter wonderland rather than religion, saying happy holidays makes sense.

Along these lines, we can also isolate a cultural Christmas that is not necessarily religious, although never entirely separate from religion. This is the most widely celebrated and lauded type of Christmas, often tied to rites of season so that it becomes a celebration of winter as well (is Jingle Bells about Christmas?). There's all that stuff about sleighs, snowmen, snow itself (I'm dreaming of a white Christmas wrote Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin). There's green and red as the colors that symbolize the holiday, there's the Christmas tree, the Yule log and fire burning, the lights, Christmas lights on trees and on homes. And of course there is Santa Claus, rooted in a religious figure, Saint Nicholas, turned into a broader symbol of an almost-secular (to some, though, a truly secular) Christmas. Obviously, the cultural Christmas will differ significantly from one culture to another. Christmas in American culture is pretty much of a norm, taken for granted, whether people do or do not wish each other a merry Christmas or not. It is not an endangered species. And while parts of it are heartwarming, families getting together for example, and winter vacations, it's also in the cultural arena where things start to get out of hand (competition over house and lawn decorations being a well known example), and it starts to feel like Christmas is being forced on you, in your face so to speak, regardless of your beliefs.

One thing that I have found offensive is the assumption that everyone should love Santa Claus and embrace the childlike wonder associated with this seemingly innocent symbol. And it is true that through Santa Claus, the cultural Christmas alone, uncoupled from the religious Christmas, has been adopted by many people who are not believers and not Christians (maybe it helps that in English Christmas is pronounced Chris'mas, not Christ-mas). There are Jews who do the Santa thing, do the lights, have a tree (sometimes using the euphemism of the Chanukah bush), etc. My son has a friend whose an Albanian Moslem who also celebrates the American cultural Christmas. And, hey, I have no desire to ruin anyone else's fun, but think about how it comes across to a non-Christian when you say that Santa only comes to the house of good boys and girls? Are my children bad because we don't do the Santa Claus thing? Sorry, I don't consider this "saint" to be all that innocent and, well, saintly.

So, there is also the secular holiday of Christmas, one that is recognized by the federal, state and local governments, so that government offices are closed, many services shut down and others on a holiday schedule, etc. This is cause for some to argue that Christmas is indeed an American holiday, and if nothing else, it is a pragmatic concession to a cultural institution that the vast majority of Americans take part in, in one way or another. There is an inherent contradiction here, though, between the official acknowledgement of a religious holiday, and the principle of separation of church and state. That's why you get the tendency in recent years for local governments to decide not to have nativity scenes on government grounds (e.g., city hall), no Jesus in the manger, although typically they still display non-religious Christmas decorations, the Christmas tree, Christmas lights (green and red specifically connoting Christmas), and of course good old Santa Claus. And that's why you also see public schools abandoning traditional Christmas pageants. In some instances we have an attempt at pluralism and inclusiveness by including Chanukah, the recently invented holiday of Kwanza, and other religious celebrations, along with Christmas. The separation of church and state that does raise the ire of many conservative Christians, but given that it is recognized as an official holiday, I don't think there's much cause for complaint here. And it really is awful when a child is made to feel like an outsider because his school is teaching about the religious holiday celebrated by the majority.

Cathy Grossman's piece was already talking about Christmas as a commercial event, so let's return to that point, and note that commercialization is the source of much of the discontent surrounding Christmas. Essentially, the holiday has been turned into an orgy of consumption, so much so that the "official" opening of the Christmas shopping season, the day after Thanksgiving, is now commonly referred to as Black Friday, black because it is the day when retailers finally get out of the red and show a profit, the extent of their annual profit being determined by the remainder of the shopping season. At this time of year, stores, shopping centers and districts, and malls, are a nightmare. Everyone seems to be under a lot of pressure, there's competition for a limited number of hot toys for children, it all seems to be Christmas at its ugliest. Gift-giving is not necessarily a bad thing, if done in moderation and with taste, of course. But the point is that the commercial Christmas, which involves the extended Christmas shopping season (and the days following Christmas for returns and exchanges), has much to do with the sense of the holiday being out of control and being forced on everyone. And sure, the whole point of commercial Christmas being to generate profit, they have generalized the commericalization to everyone, hence the commercialization of Chanukah (eight nights of presents? it used to be a few chocolate coins!), and to the generic holiday season. And that may be perceived as a step away from Christmas, but in truth it is the triumph of Christmas, it's penetration into places where Christmas itself was never celebrated before.

Closely related to the commercial Christmas is the mass-mediated Christmas, which contributes to the sense of the holiday being in your face, particularly through the ads and commercials (anyone else out there really despise the Lexus commercials they run this time of year, with these rich people waking up to get a new luxury car with a giant bow on top?). Aside from advertising, the regular programming becomes obsessed with Christmas, especially on the news because there's little else to report on during the final weeks of the year. Look, I'm not talking about the Peanuts special or any of those sweet animated bits from when I was a kid, or showing It's A Wonderful Life, or anything like that. It's all a matter of proportion, after all. But when it comes to the mass-mediated Christmas and the commercial Christmas, we are decidedly out of proportion, and rather than a War on Christmas, Christmas makes war on all of us.

All right, a bit of a rant I'm afraid, but I didn't bring up the subject, I was just asked to comment on it. And it all relates to a sense of time. The "War against Christmas" folks are fond of saying that, when greeted with "Happy Holidays" they ask, which holiday would that be?, only to then be told it's Christmas. But the traditional formulation is, "Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year," and those are the holidays that everyone refers to. Everyone knows that the Christmas or Holiday Season mainly runs from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day. And maybe Chanukah intersects with that week, but if it doesn't, no one starts to say "Happy Holidays" any earlier. Unless "Happy Holidays" are invoked in reference to the Christmas shopping season that starts the day after Thanksgiving, and Chanukah almost certainly falls within that period of 5 weeks or so that ends with New Year's Day.

So, I wish you Happy Holidays, a Happy Chanukah, a Lovely Winter Solstice, a Merry Christmas, a Joyous Yule, and a Happy New Year.

Friday, December 12, 2008


A few days ago the temperature went down to the teens, yesterday it went up to almost seventy degrees, now it's down close to freezing. This parallels the fact that a few months ago gasoline cost over four dollars a gallon, and now it's less than two dollars. And let's not even talk about the stock market. What is going on here? Fluctuations abound. Instability seems to be the rule of the day. Chaos rules. Is catastrophe and collapse coming next? Or will there be regression to the mean? Will things settle down? Bubbles punctured, equilibrium punctuated, I think we've all been punked!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sights and Sounds of the AKML and Creating the Future Symposium

So, I know I already blogged about it, but what the hey, time for some photographs, courtesy of Robert Francos, some of which he already posted on his blog, FFanzeen: Rock 'n' Roll With Integrity, along with some commentary about the event, in his recent post entitled, Douglas Rushkoff at General Semantics/Media Ecology Association Dinner, 11/14/2008, and of course you can click on that title to read what Robert wrote. But first let's look at some pictures, ok?

OK! So first, here's me greeting Doug Rushkoff before the AKML, with IGS Vice-President/Treasurer Jackie Rudig in the center:

Now, here's me giving my welcoming remarks:

Looking pretty snazzy, if I do say so myself. Now here's IGS President, Marty Levinson:

And on to the main event, here are a couple of shots of Doug delivering his Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture:

Pretty cool, huh? And finally, after it was all over, time for a hug:

And this has come up before, but to listen to Doug's talk, once again, here's a link to get an MP3 that also get's a bit of me introducing him, just click here. Another version that entirely omits my introduction can be downloaded from here. And there's a version that can be streamed from a third site (this may be the same recording as the first one): Douglas Rushkoff: Don't Change Your "Self", Change The World.

These audio links, and related blog posts, including my previous posts on the topic, were collected by Institute of General Semantics Webmaster Ben Hauck, and included on the Institute of General Semantics website, as the November 17, 2008 entry on the Recent News from the Institute of General Semantics page--many thanks, Ben. Ben also posted a number of pictures taken by Robert Francos, including the ones I already showed you. And here are some more from the AKML:

That's my graduate student, Pamela Miller, behind the table, handling registration and book sales. And there's Stephanie Bennett of Palm Beach Atlantic University on the right, she's a member of the Media Ecology Association's Board of Directors. Now here's a photo of the new editor of the IGS journal, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Bill Petkanas of Western Connecticut State University, and like me a graduate of the dearly departed media ecology program at New York University.

And now this, another shot of Marty Levinson:

And here is another IGS Trustee, holding the office of Secretary, all the way from Paris, France, Vanessa Biard-Schaeffer:

And another of our Trustees, IGS Ambassador-At-Large, Milton Dawes from Montreal:

And yet another Trustee, Allen Flagg, who is also the President of the New York Society for General Semantics:

And we're not done yet, here's IGS Trustee George Barenholtz:

After my welcoming remarks, and before I introduced Rushkoff, Marty Levinson presented Allen Flagg with the 2008 J. Talbot Winchell Award in recognition of his lifelong service, accomplishments and time-binding efforts:

And here's a photograph of IGS Honorary Trustee Harry Maynard:

Now, how about a few more shots of Rushkoff, as this was his lecture after all:

And why not a close-up? Here goes:

And an audience shot featuring IGS Trustee Jerry Nierenberg:

OK, so that was all about the AKML on November 14, now on to the Creating the Future Symposium, and photos from the first day, November 15. Here's Pamela Miller again, at the registration area and book exhibit, set up this time in Fordham's Law School building, in the Atrium outside of McNally Auditorium:

That last is the view looking up, and here are some crowd shots from the Atrium:

OK, now let's go inside McNally Auditorium where I am introducing the morning's speakers:

And here they are, more or less, starting with Kathleen Sweeney from the New School:

Author David Berreby:

Tom de Zengotita from the Dalton School and NYU:

Author and NPR digital media maven Dick Meyer:

Information Architect for the New York Times, Alex Wright:

Biologist from NYU, Tyler Volk:

And author and Alfred Korzybski biographer, Bruce Kodish:

Unfortunately, there aren't photos everyone participating, in part because we had concurrent sessions, but here are some shots from the afternoon, from sessions taking place over in McMahon Hall. Here's philosopher Jerry Erion from Medaille College in Buffalo:

General semanticist Phil Ardery:

Media ecology program graduate Zhen-bin Sun, a professor of communication from Fairleigh Dickinson University:

Marty Levinson with his latest book:

And my colleague from Fordham, Margot Hardenbergh:

And a group shot:

Here's Stephanie Bennett again:

And Fordham and MEA's Janet Sternberg:

And this is Robert Berkman of the New School, my friend from Twitter:

And my old classmate from graduate school, Paul Lippert of East Stroudsburg University:

Now for the evening sessions back in McNally Auditorium. First, here's David Walczyk of Pratt Insitute standing, along with seated Alicia Gibb, and St. Louis activist Paul Guzzardo:

And here is author Andy Postman:

This audience shot features Shelley Postman, Neil's widow and Andy's mom, along with Terry Moran, a founder with Neil of the dearly departed media ecology program at NYU:

And here's Terry giving his address on media ecology as general semantics writ large:

Another shot of the audience:

And now Allen Flagg introducing Milton Dawes, and then Milton giving his talk:

And finally, me wrapping things up for the night:

And on to the second day, November 16, in McMahon Hall. And here I am again:

And media ecologist Brian Cogan from Molloy College:

Thom Gencarelli is a fellow founder of the MEA, and now a Trustee of the Institute:

The brilliant and hilarious Bob Blechman of model media ecologist fame:

My MA student Jessica Crowell, who did her thesis on prison policy towards media use:

And now some audience shots:

So, next are some shots from a session on Science Fiction. Here's my colleague and friend, Meir Ribalow:

And now, a couple of photos of John C. Wright, author of The Null-A Continuum, a sequel to the Null-A books of A. E. van Vogt:

In this second picture, he's holding a copy of Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity, the general semantics Ur-text, which I had just given to him as a present. Anyway, here's feminist science fiction critic Marleen Barr:

And my colleague and great friend, Paul Levinson on his own, and with Marleen:

And now some more crowd shots:

And now this, Eric Goodman doing his multimedia thing:

Which earned him a round of applause from me and Jackie Rudig, and everyone else of course:

And then I took the opportunity to introduce Peggy Cassidy, who earned her MA degree with us at Fordham, before getting her PhD with Neil Postman in the dearly departed media ecology program at NYU, and is now chair of the communication department at Adelphi University:

And here is a photo of general semantics educator Frank Gastner:

And Frank had Ben Hauck and Jackie Holtzman act out a little skit for him:

And then we have Bill Petkanas again:

And here's Renée Cherow-O'Leary, from the first graduating class of the dearly departed media ecology program, now teaching at Columbia University's Teachers College:

And once more, our Parisian representative, Vanessa Biard-Schaeffer:

And Ben Hauck:

And this is psychologist Lloyd Gilden, emeritus at Queens College, and the founder of the Lifwynn Foundation for Social Research:

And general semantics maven Hillel Schiller:

And who better to have the last word than Allen Flagg? Here he is:

And that is a fragment of a map of a much greater territory that you really had to experience first hand to fully appreciate. If you weren't able to make it, make it a point to be there next year! Could all of these smiling faces be wrong?