Sunday, April 24, 2016

Extremism: communism, witchcraft, politics

Communist spies! It wasn't that Salem suddenly decided that witches were no longer in their midst at the end of 1692, nor was it that United States anti-communists suddenly decided that there weren't any more spies or disloyal Americans in the mid 20th century. It was that the accusers had gone too far: in 1692, the governor's wife was accused of witchcraft, centuries later it was, in part, Senator McCarthy's accusation that war hero and American President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist. In Salem, the overzealous judge Staughton was effectively kicked off of the witchcraft court, and later Senator McCarthy was embarrassed on television and censured by his peers. Thus ended the panics, if not the belief that they had some legitimate aims.

Staughton  and McCarthy were overzealous, and it was interesting to realize that some of their critics agreed that this had hurt a good cause. "Witches/communists remain a threat, but abuse of power has killed our will to fight the fight reasonably." It's not that different from environmentalists who booby trap trees that are in danger of being cut down, despite the fact that these traps could harm people, or abortion opponents who believe that God gives them the right to murder doctors. Many (most?) environmentalists, and many (most?) critics of abortion agree that extreme tactics hurt their cause. Caveat: "extremism" of the sit-in movement which desegregated lunch counters.

One of my favorite lines about the utility of extremism is from Malcolm X, who observed that the white establishment was opposed to Dr. Martin Luther King and the NAACP, but added with as much humor as seriousness, "And then the white establishment looked at me, and they proclaimed, 'Thank God for Dr. King ... and the NAACP!" The audience laughed and cheered.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Ricky Jay and ancient humanity

Magic tricks and anthropology? There is currently a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC featuring drawings with miniature writing (micro-graphy): it takes a magnifying glass to tell that the curls of a drawing of a wig actually include words, sentences. Other documents have micrography featured differently. Most are by a man who ---didn't have arms. All of that man's ephemera in the exhibit is owned by sleight of hand artist Ricky Jay.

After Peter Samelson, whom the New York Times called "a soft spoken conceptualist of sorcery", it was "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants" that taught me that what are too often trivially disrespected magic tricks can be performed with intellect, that my love of scholarship was not necessarily at odds with my love of fine sleight of hand and, in rare cases, love of stage illusion.

In "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants" Mr. Jay performed the ancient feat of the "Cups and Balls" with a script that included Latin and comparative anthropology! You know the trick: a marble sized ball is placed under an upside down cup, and reappears under another upside down cup. It was known to Seneca (tutor of the man who became the ancient Roman emperor Nero), and was also exhibited in ancient China using cups the size of small bowls, in ancient India with miniature cups. Alluding to this, and the apparent fact that these were created without contact between the countries, Mr Jay quipped in the show that "Anthropologists love the concept of simultaneous invention."

Like the fact that before the invention of monotheism, proto religions (is that the right term?) highlighted women, and featured the symbol of the bull. In Africa, Asia, and Europe. "Anthropologists love the concept of simultaneous invention."

The script of Ricky Jay's opening number in "...52 Assistants" was, appropriately, a verbatim quote from a century old book, which seemed to me poetic. Thank you, Mr. Jay.

Cups and balls trick: see _Street Magic_ by Claflin and Sheridan
Women and the bull symbology: see _Ideas: A History..._ by Watson
On Peter Samelson, see Samelsonmagic dot com

Profound Mom

My Mom read to me when I was young, one of the greatest gifts you can give to a child. Decades later, she supported her daughter when I had a crisis. In recent years she made me laugh, like when she'd watch the news and joke that the President of the United States should call her for advice. :)

Seeing a Mother's day ad the other day was painful, because my Mom is dead. A while ago.

I'll never again hear her wonderful laugh, she didn't live to see me give a speech a year ago that would have made her proud, never got to visit my fiance and I. There are also family questions, about her life, about 1987, for example, that I'll never know the answers to.

It took me a while to figure out that it was the mother's day ad that made me so sad the other day. How could it not?

I love you, Mom.

Your tearful daughter,