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Here's to a Happy, Customary New Year!



Champagne, confetti, feasts, favors, noisemakers, sparklers, fireworks, kisses, and more, including more champagne, nothing of which has a thing to do with the turn of the seasons, let alone the turn of the year, a new year, if there is such a thing. From an animal perspective there's a series of days, maybe seasons, but nothing like the momentous shift that humans have invented, all of which is pure construction, or culture, added layer upon layer over time. Capitalism seized on and even created much of what we take for granted as givens in the calendar, in the drive to invent new markets. Capitalism and communism are economic constructions; nations are geographical constructions; and gods are religious constructions. Christians aligned their holidays with pagan celebrations because the latter proved too stubborn to alter. Old customs won.

            But customs are funny things. The origins of some, like notions of god/s, gender/s, and sex/es are unknowable. We understand that literary texts came down to us that enshrined those things after having developed over ages––the text is the end of the line in a sense, though a new layering of customs began when subsequent works tweaked older ones (think Milton's riff on the Bible and Koran; more people believe in the Miltonic view of heaven than the biblical version nowadays). Meanwhile some things came into being in human memory, like the invention of race in the U.S. in the 1680s, in the form of the first anti-miscegenation law. In every way it's bullshit, but we're still stuck with the devastating effects of that very human creation, one with zero scientific basis, though religions––good christians––jumped on it, giving slavery divine justification. Hence its terrible aftermath.

            Even the judgmental wrath of fundamentalist christians against queer folk is constructed, as anyone knows who's read John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Once humans get a notion, once an idea is birthed, promulgated, and believed, as though god deemed it so, look out! Resistance to rethinking a "known" or a tenet of faith is one of the strongest forces on the planet. Christians throughout history have persecuted Jews based on a wrong-headed prejudice similar in kind.

            Evidence of the ill-effects of custom, blamed on god, is everywhere you look, including Russia and the Middle East. Somewhere along the line the former self-determined a superiority over Ukrainians and inflected it with a proprietary sense; the result is the bombing of countless cities and the deaths of thousands. (Millenniums ago men developed a similar, superior-proprietary attitude toward women, leading to a still-ongoing gender conflict, as we all know). Moreover, Rashid Khalidi points out in his book The Hundred Years' War on Palestine that "the father of Zionism," Theodor Herzl, determined early on, in 1895, that the Zionist project would be one of expropriation and dispossession, leading to a tradition lasting well over a century now. He wrote in his journal, "We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our own country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the remove of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly."* It didn't take long for discretion and circumspection to be jettisoned for military might, as anyone familiar with the Nakba knows, the 1948 war in which over 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes and all their possessions. Coincidentally many were forced into crowded conditions in Gaza.

            Custom––tradition, ritual, legacy, culture, birthright, norms, you name it––are frightfully powerful forces, whether their origins are known or unknown.  It doesn't seem to matter that they have human origins that get hung on god/s, and sometimes nature. Customs linked to god/s can make people do crazy, hateful, hurtful, and sometimes murderous things. They're almost always othering, as in: those people, less than us.  

            Customs are rarely attended with kindness or a universal sense, or sense at all. The drunken non-sense in the marking of the new year, which like gender and race has no universal––or ontological––basis, is clear. Chinese, Jewish, Islamic, and Tamil new years, to name a few, vary greatly from the Christian date. One would think that if humans insisted on having one there'd be a more accurate, never mind sensible, way of denoting the end and beginning of an annual cycle––say December 21st or thereabouts. But the situation would be the reverse in the southern hemisphere, and it'd be unwieldy to celebrate a turning by hemispheric halves. The problem highlights the random nature of not just calendars but pretty much everything, the failure of a universal––that was Foucault's point in The Order of Things. Unlike the ramifications of customs about race or gender, in the case of when to pop the bubbly it doesn't seem to matter a whole lot, though I wonder what a world would be like in which there didn't need to be any fuss at all. Probably fewer car accidents and alcohol-related deaths, and fewer children too (born on October 5th, the date with more birthdays than any other in the calendar year, my conception traces back to New Year's Eve, pointing up something about the relationship between bubbly and desire).

           Many customs are innocuous, quaint, and even delicious, like eating tamales on Nochebuena, or Christmas eve, in New Mexico. But human rituals like racism, homophobia, sexism, ethnocentricity, antisemitism, islamophobia, and on and on, have far greater consequences.  They all derive from a similar source. Nietzsche's point was that there's no hope for humans until they take up the work of rethinking custom, including their attachments to god/s whom they themselves constructed. His point was that we're in thrall––I believe he used the word slavery––to our own creations. Postmodernists like Derrida and Foucault took up the Nietzschean challenge, only to be beat back by the old guard. So we wait for the next round of thinkers to think beyond custom-for-custom's-sake.

 

 

 

*Khalidi, Rashid.  The Hundred Years War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2018.  NY: Picador, 2020.

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