In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, students who are entering the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry must be assigned to one of four houses. The houses are residential halls but also function as small societies in themselves, although the students from all four houses may go to many of the same classes. Each of the houses was founded by one of the four founders of Hogwarts: Godric Gryffindor, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Helga Hufflepuff. During their lifetime, each of those founders would choose the kinds of students that they liked for their house. After the founders’ death, Gryffindor’s enchanted hat became the Sorting Hat. During a ceremony at the feast that marks the beginning of each academic year, each incoming student must put on this mind‐reading talking hat. The Sorting Hat then decides where each student belongs and announces to the entire school where the student shall be assigned. The hat can have a private conversation with each student before making its decision.
J.K. Rowling has said that the attributes of the four schools were related to the four elements of ancient Greek philosophy: fire, water, air, and earth. However, the four schools also correspond precisely with the four varnas of the Hindu Vedas, and the conflicts between houses teach us important lessons about the conflicts within muggle (ordinary human) society. These four varnas are a universal concept: they served as the basis for the four suits of European playing cards! The correspondence between House and Varna becomes clear when the Sorting Hat has a “hatstall”—which means that the hat has a difficult time in assigning a particular student.
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The Nativity stories in the Bible do not really mention any kings. The story of the Three Kings probably came from a story about King Tut (the Egyptian boy‐pharaoh Tutankhamun), who had died in about 1323 BC. Stories about Jesus and stories about King Tut were circulating in the same place at the same time. So it is possible that some of the stories about Jesus were actually influenced by stories about King Tut!
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William Blum, who was the conscience of a generation, has died. He passed away on December 9, 2018, in Washington DC, at the age of 85. Fortunately, his writings will continue to guide those of us who follow in his footsteps. As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, Bill dreamed of serving his country by being the best possible Foreign Service officer. Instead, he ended up serving the world by becoming one of the most vocal critics of U.S. foreign policy.
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Lately, a lot of people have started having some much‐needed conversations about white privilege. Unfortunately, many of these conversations have been generating more heat than light. Nobody likes to be told that they are ignorant, and people whose own families have only barely escaped from grinding poverty (and who are at risk of sliding back in) resent being told that they have had it easy at someone else’s expense. Thus, the discussions about white privilege could easily serve as a way to divide black people from the working class white people who should be their natural political allies. So I suggest that progressive activists think carefully about how they frame these discussions. Rather than carelessly accusing strangers of being ignorant exploiters, we might try to talk about what it means to be cool, why so many black people are so effortlessly cool, and how a white person can become somewhat less uncool.
One of the characters in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice warns us, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart. O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” Many Bible verses and Bible stories have been used for bad purposes. The worst example of this was the story of the Curse of Ham from the book of Genesis (Gen. 9:20–27). This story has been used to justify the trans‐Atlantic slave trade. However, the original meaning of the story had nothing to do with Africans or the slave trade. Originally, the story was probably about a scandal that erupted within a king’s harem. However, the story involves a figure of speech whose meaning is not immediately obvious, and the story itself was inserted into the Biblical narrative at a point where there were not yet any kings. This insertion probably resulted from an editing process that occurred late in the development of the Bible text (possibly as late as the third century BCE) and served a political purpose. Fortunately, the Bible gives us another clue that helps us discover the original meaning of the story.
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Documentaries are movies that are intended to teach us lessons about something real. In contrast, horror movies are about things that are clearly not real. Nevertheless, horror movies can teach us important lessons, if we are willing to learn. On the simplest level, horror movies allow us to experience fear in a safe setting so that we can observe our own fear and learn how to recognize and manage it. On a deeper level, horror movies teach us that reason is the way to deliver ourselves from needless fear. As the Spanish Enlightenment painter Francisco de Goya put it, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” If we are to battle monstrosity, our reason must be fully awake and engaged.
Many people think that Billy Joel’s song Always a Woman is about a dysfunctional relationship: about a woman who is cruel to her lover. They think that it is about loving a woman despite her flaws. It’s not! The song is really Billy Joel’s mockery of people who underestimated the business acumen of his first wife, Elizabeth Weber, who was also his business manager. Pay careful attention to the pronouns in the lyrics. He talks about how deceptive and cruel “she” can be to “you.” He then contrasts that with the statement “she’s always a woman to me.” Notice that the song never says that she was cruel to “me,” only to “you.”
Always a Woman was released in 1977, which was in the heyday of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Back then, many men still assumed that the woman’s role was simply to type up contracts, not to negotiate them. Evidently, some music industry executives expected that Joel’s wife would be a pushover. Perhaps some of them thought that Weber’s toughness was unwomanly. Joel thought otherwise.
Photo by Mark Morgan Trinidad B
Harry Potter is the boy wizard in a series of books written by British author J. K. Rowling. These books then inspired a series of major motion pictures. On a surface level, the books are about the struggles of a boy wizard who must deal with the pointless cruelty of muggles (ordinary people), as well as contending with the threat that an evil magician poses to the entire world. Yet Harry’s struggles can also serve as a metaphor for the kinds of problems that gifted children face in the real world.
When I was a child, I loved the television show Bewitched! A beautiful and powerful yet thoroughly nice witch named Samantha fell in love with a young advertising executive named Darrin Stephens. On their honeymoon, Samantha reveals her secret: that she is a “real, house‐haunting, broom‐riding, cauldron‐stirring witch!” Darrin is at first skeptical and then appalled and more than a little frightened. Yet he agrees to stay married to her, on the condition that she gives up practicing witchcraft. Yet was this story about witchcraft, or about something powerful yet real?
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Narcissists worship themselves, and they want you to worship them, too. But that does not mean that you can sway them with flattery. Narcissists want to be the person in charge. They want to be the person who does the manipulating. They do not want to let you manipulate them. Many people, including the leaders of foreign countries, are finding this out the hard way in their dealings with Donald Trump.
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