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Knowing and Unknowing, Part II October 12, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
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“… all of us who feel we “know” a certain field—any field, whether scientific or not—should, it seems to me, regularly ponder what we don’t know, admit what we don’t know, and not turn away from what we don’t know…. Perhaps the chance for more civil discussion of these topics lies in our willingness to mark out our own areas of knowing and “unknowing,” to pay attention to one another’s areas of knowing and unknowing, and to proceed humbly together.”

 

– quoted from an Autumn 2006 Harvard Divinity Bulletin article entitled “Knowing and Unknowing” by Will Joyner

I learned something new last week. An interesting bit of history that gave me some new perspective on what I thought I knew. I’m not one to ignore new information – or keep it to myself. I am, however, the type of person who considers the impact of how I tell the story… especially since how one tells a story is part of the story. How one hears and understands the story… is also part of the story.

If I take out the details and just giving you the general facts of the story, it becomes a story of propaganda… which it is. And, if I don’t tell you that up front, you might just soak it up and form an opinion, which may or may not change once the details are layered on top. Because, once you know I’m talking about how today is a holiday that centers around events related to today in 1492, what you know brings you smack up against opinions you’ve already formed.

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
He didn’t know what he thought he knew
And someone was already here.
Columbus knew the world was round
So he looked for the East while westward bound,
But he didn’t find what he thought he found
And someone was already here.

 

Chorus:

The Innuit and Cherokee,
The Aztec and Menominee,
The Onadaga and the Cree;
Columbus sailed across the sea,
But someone was already here.

 

– quoted from the song “1942” by Nancy Schimmel © 1991

 

So, if you didn’t skim over the first line of the quote – thinking you knew what the rest said – you may be thinking, “Wait, wait, that’s not the way the song goes!” True, this is not the poem most of us learned in school about Christopher Columbus, the Niña, the Pinta, and Santa María. Neither is it Jean Marzollo poem that aimed to correct some of the original misinformation (but without being too controversial). Instead, this is a song that gives kids a much broader picture. The “problem” with getting a bigger picture is that it calls into question all the things we think we know and begs the question: Why do we have a federal holiday that celebrates a mistake (i.e., a man who got lost) which led to a ton of atrocities?

 

For a long time, I thought I knew the answer to the question. I had answer that was built around wealth, class, whiteness, and nationalism. In some ways, my old answer includes some truth; however, last week a heard a new part of the story. It’s an oddly familiar bit about heritage: one that also includes elements of wealth, class, whiteness, and nationalism. But that heritage part… it’s the twist.

 

“They faced prejudice, violence and, after a 1924 law that aimed to limit immigration to desirable “old stock” Northern and Western Europeans, legal exclusion. But Columbus Day offered ethnic power brokers the opportunity to ‘rebrand’ their groups public image.”

 

– quoted from The Washington Post article entitled “Columbus Day had value for Italian Americans – but it’s time to rethink it: It helped erode discrimination but also upheld racial prejudice” (10/12/2020) by Danielle Battisti (author of Whom We Shall Welcome, Italian Americans and Immigration Reform)  

 

While we might not necessarily see the difference between certain groups now, there was a time when a large group of ethnically white people were publicly viewed (and ostracized) as racially diverse. These immigrants came from all over the Europe and were, in some respects, lumped in with immigrants from Asia and Latin America. These immigrants not only reflected diversity in race and ethnicity, but also religion. They spoke different languages and ate different foods. Again, we may not see the difference now, but as the 20th century approached there was a big perception difference between non-British or non-French immigrants and everyone else. “Everyone else” included about 4 million Italians who had something the other immigrants didn’t have – Christopher Columbus: the image of a “hero friend,”

 

By creating annual celebrations, art, and memorial tributes (in the form of street and building names) dedicated to Columbus, Italian Americans changed what we “know” about the explorer, about the country, and about who is “American.”  This very successful PR campaign resulted in Columbus Day becoming a federal in 1934, and Columbus himself becoming a national icon. To me, this is not unlikely the Lost Cause campaign in the South, which resulted in the celebration of the Confederacy (i.e, people who lost a war). And, ultimately, it comes with the same avidyā-related headache: we are celebrating something impure as if it is pure.

 

“… but I came to gradually see that laws are only observed with the consent of the individuals concerned and a moral change still depends on the individual and not on the passage of any law.”

 

– quoted from the a July 14, 1939 My Day column (about prohibition) by Eleanor Roosevelt

 

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Understanding is a two-way street.” And, as more people became part of the conversation, more understanding was gained, and more and more people publicly questioned the decision behind the federal holiday. South Dakota officially shifted the focus of the second Monday in October by renaming it Native Americans’ Day (in 1990) and a protest surrounding the 500th anniversary of 1942 led Berkeley, California to start observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day (in 1992). Today, Alaska, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, and Vermont officially observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday; South Dakota still (only) observes Native American Day as a holiday; and Hawai’i officially observes Discoverers’ Day (cause ya’ know, there’s that whole part of the story whereby other people “discovered” the Americas before Columbus). Alabama celebrates both Columbus Day and American Indian Heritage Day (which is consistent with the way they celebrate other controversial “heritage” days) and Oklahoma celebrates both Columbus Day and Native American Day. In recent years, governors in at least seven other states and the District of Columbia Council have signed proclamations in order observe “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” – but these proclamations only apply to the year in which they are signed (and are generally signed on or around the second Monday in October).

 

These changes, however, have come with resistance – as is often the case when a group of people experience growth and change. A lot of the resistance comes from our very human fear of change (i.e., abhiniveśāh; “fear of death/loss”). Some of it, however, comes from fear of the unknown.

 

“American scholars, compared with Iranian scholars, enjoy much greater freedom in approaching questions of faith and reason, and in knocking down barriers that hinder discussion of those questions. They also enjoy much greater latitude in ensuring protections for the rights of all religious and ethnic groups.”

 

– quoted from an Autumn 2006 Harvard Divinity Bulletin article entitled “Knowing and Unknowing” by Will Joyner

 

When Will Joyner introduced the main articles appearing the Autumn 2006 edition of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, he explained that all three articles “ could have ‘carried’ the cover in expressing our focus on, and concern about, the gaps and bridges between faith and reason,” but that the article by Ronald F. Thiemann focused on a unique intersection between American and Iranian scientists at a time when the United States and Iran were in conflict “beyond the tragic events that unfolded in Lebanon and Israel.” He also mentioned how the articles by Mark U. Edwards, Jr. and John Hedley Brooke highlighted the need to consider “how personal faith affects your work and workplaces, and your participation in the other public places of America’s democracy.” Yes, he was talking about science and religion, but explicitly states that his words also apply to those outside of science.

 

Joyner’s words also apply to what we believe (i.e., our faith) about ourselves and our country and how that overlaps with reason and innate curiosity.

 

There is no playlist for the Common Ground practices.

 

Facts, with a side of Funny

 

 

Just the facts

 

### “… joy, sadness, knowing and unknowing.” DB in 2013) ###