Cathedral Round-Up #26: Philosophy

In sob stories about just how hard it is to be one of the most privileged people in the world, 21 Harvard and Oxford Students Share Their Experiences of Racism They Face Everyday [sic]:

I, Too, Am Harvard is a powerful photo campaign highlighting the faces and voices of black students at Harvard College. Fed up with the institutional racism they face everyday [sic], the students are speaking speaking out against it by sharing their heartfelt stories in a series of portraits.

“Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned,” they say. “This project is our way of speaking back,of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: we are here.”

The students from Oxford University have also begun a similar campaign.

Examples of nefarious racism keeping down Harvard and Oxford students include people asking if they’re listening to rap music on their headphones and jokes abut Somali pirates. Several complaints also center on the fact that whites believe that blacks and Hispanics get an admissions boost due to Affirmative Action, which Blacks find terribly offensive. (Of course, as the NY Times notes, Harvard has been acting affirmatively since 1971:

The university has a long and pioneering history of support for affirmative action, going back at least to when Derek Bok, appointed president of Harvard in 1971, embraced policies that became a national model.

The university has extended that ethos to many low-income students, allowing them to attend free. Harvard has argued in a Supreme Court brief that while it sets no quotas for “blacks, or of musicians, football players, physicists or Californians,” if it wants to achieve true diversity, it must pay some attention to the numbers. The university has also said that abandoning race-conscious admissions would diminish the “excellence” of a Harvard education.

This is why Harvard is now getting sued by Asians, whose excellent SAT scores result in a significant admissions discrimination at top schools.)

Why do students at such elite schools indulge in such petulant whining? For that matter, why do these schools allow inanities like students yelling at faculty members about Halloween costumes (Yale, I’m looking at you)?

They say the Devil’s best trick was convincing people he doesn’t exist; perhaps the Cathedral’s best trick is convincing people that it’s oppressed. If Cathedralites are oppressed, then you can’t complain that they’re oppressing you.

Or perhaps people who get into top schools develop some form of survivor’s remorse? How do you reconcile a belief that “elitism” is bad, that intelligence isn’t genetic, that no one is “inherently” better than anyone else nor deserves to be “privileged” with the reality that you have been hand-selected to be part of a privileged, intellectual elite that enjoys opportunities we commoners can only dream of? Perhaps much of what passes for liberal signaling in college is just overcompensation for the privileges they have but can’t explicitly claim to deserve.

Over at Yale, the Philosophy Department is very concerned that too many white males are signing up for their courses:

But not all departments draw evenly across Yale’s many communities — some will be more demographically homogeneous than others, such as Yale’s Philosophy Department, which has historically been majority white and male.

Philosophy has struggled as a discipline to attract students from diverse backgrounds, and faculty and students within Yale’s Philosophy Department told the News that while the department is not as diverse as it could be in terms of racial and gender makeup or curricular offerings, ongoing efforts to remedy the problem are a cause for optimism.

Yalies seem lacking in basic numeracy: if some departments–say the African American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies–attract disproportionately high numbers of blacks and women, then there won’t be enough blacks and women left over to spread out to all of the other departments to get racial parity everywhere. Some departments, by default, will have to have more whites and men.

“[Lack of diversity] has inspired a lot of soul-searching in the discipline in recent years,” said Joanna Demaree-Cotton GRD ’21, co-coordinator of Yale’s chapter of Minorities and Philosophy which works to combat issues faced by minorities in academia. “Lots of departments, including ours at Yale, have started asking tough questions about the cause of this drop-off in the representation of women and racial minorities, and how we might go about ameliorating the problem.”

In case you’re wondering, Demaree-Cotton is a white lady. When the push comes to get some professors to give up their spots in favor of women-of-color philosophers, will Demaree-Cotton get pushed out for being white, or will she be saved because she’s female?

Unfortunately for Yale, they recently lost their only black philosophy professor, Chris Lebron, author of The Making of Black Lives Matter: The History of an Idea and The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time, to Johns Hopkins U.

Yale has a second problem: very few people major in philosophy, period. For example, in 2016, only 20 undergrads received degrees in philosophy or philosophy of mathematics (data is not broken down for each department.) Of these, 13 were men and 7 were female. These are the kind of numbers that let you write hand-wringing articles about how “philosophy is only 35% female!” when we are actually talking about a 6-person gap. The recent “drop-off” in women and racial minorities, therefore, is likely just random chance.

“For example, although over the last four years women have represented less than 25 percent of applicants to our Ph.D. program, they represent about 40 percent of students currently in our program,” Darwall said.

Sounds like Yale is actually giving women preferential treatment, just not enough preferential treatment to make up for the lack of female applicants.

Deputy Dean for Diversity and Faculty Development Kathryn Lofton said that Yale is working hard to “rethink diversity” across the University…

Each academic department and program, not just philosophy, must engage with this topic, Lofton added.

“The protests in the fall of 2015 showed that our students believe we have work yet to do to achieve this ambition,” she said. “The University has responded to their call with a strong strategic vision. But this work takes time to accomplish.”

Kathryn Lofton is also a white woman. Besides lecturing people about the importance of Halloween Costume protests, she is also a professor of Religious Studies, American Studies, History and Divinity and chair of the Religious Studies department. Her faculty page describes her work:

Kathryn Lofton is a is a historian of religion who has written extensively about capitalism, celebrity, sexuality, and the concept of the secular. … Her first book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) used the example of Oprah Winfrey’s multimedia productions to evaluate the material strategies of contemporary spirituality. Her forthcoming book, Consuming Religion offers a profile of religion and its relationship to consumption and includes analysis of many subjects, including office cubicles, binge viewing, the family Kardashian, and the Goldman Sachs Group. Her next book-length study will consider the religions of American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.

Apparently writing about Oprah and the Kardashians now qualifies you to be a Yale professor.

Back to the Philosophy Department:

For instance, [Jocelyn] Wang said that many undergraduate introductory philosophy classes are history-based and focused on “dead white men,” which is not necessarily as accessible to students from varied backgrounds.

“I think the way that the undergraduate philosophy curriculum is structured contributes partially to the demographic composition of the major,” Wang said.

In other words, Miss Wang thinks that Yale’s black and Hispanic students are too dumb to read Socrates and Kant.

This is really a bullshit argument, if you will pardon my language. Any student who has been accepted to Yale is smart (and well-educated) enough to “access” Socrates. These are Yalies, not bright but underprivileged kids from the ‘hood. If language is an issue for Yale’s foreign exchange students, all of the philosophy texts can be found in translation (in fact, most of them weren’t written in English to start with.) But if you struggle with English, you might not want to attend a university where English is the primary language to start with.

However, if we interpret “accessible” in Miss Wang’s statement as a euphemism for “interesting,” we may have a reasonable claim: perhaps interest in historical figures really is tribal, with whites more interested in white philosophers and blacks more interested in black philosophers. Your average “Philosophy 101” course is likely to cover the most important philosophers in the Western Tradition, because these courses were originally designed and written by Westerners who wanted to discuss their own philosophical tradition. Now in order to attract non-Westerners, they are being told they need to discard the discussion of their own philosophical tradition in favor of other philosophical traditions.

Now, I don’t see anything wrong with incorporating non-western philosophies if they have something interesting to say. My own Philosophy 101 course covered (IIRC) Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, John Rawls, the Bhagavad Gita, Taoism, and Confucianism. I enjoyed this course, and never found myself thinking, “Gee, I just can’t access this Confucius. This course would be a lot more accessible without all of the brown guys in it.”

Look, some people like talking about what a “chair” is and what “is” is, and some people like talking about police brutality against black bodies, and if one group of people wants to get together in the Philosophy department and talk about chairs and the other group wants to go to the African American Studies department, that’s fine. We don’t all have to hang out in the same place and talk about the same stuff. Sometimes, you just need to sit down and acknowledge that the thing you’re interested in isn’t 100% interesting to everyone else on the planet. Some subjects are more interesting to women, some are more interesting to men. Some are more interesting to whites or blacks or Asians, married or single people, young or old, city or country dwellers, etc. We are allowed to be different. If different people have different interests, then the only way to get people with different interests into the philosophy department is by changing the department itself to cater to those different interests–interests that are already being better served by a different department. If you turn Philosophy into Gender + Race Studies, then you’ve just excluded all of the people who were attracted to it in the first place because they wanted to study philosophy.

Speaking of which:

[Wang] added that in her experience, students can create a “culture of intimidation” by making references to philosophers without explaining them, thus setting up a barrier for people who are not familiar with that background.

I know some people can be cliquish, reveling in overly-obtuse language that they use to make themselves sound smart and to exclude others from their exclusive intellectual club. Academic publications are FILLED with such writing, and it’s awful.

But Miss Wang is criticizing what amount to private conversations between other students for being insufficiently transparent to outsiders, which rubs me the wrong way. Every field has some amount of specialized knowledge and vocabulary that experienced members will know better than newcomers. Two bikers talking about their motorcycles wouldn’t make much sense to me. Two engineers talking about an engineering project also wouldn’t make much sense to me. And I had to look up a lot of Jewish vocabulary words like “Gemara” before I could write that post on the Talmud. Balancing between the amount of information someone who is well-versed in a field needs vs the amount a newcomer needs, without actually knowing how much knowledge that newcomer already has nor whether you are coming across as condescending, simplistic, or “mansplaining,” can be very tricky.

This is something I worry about in real life when talking to people I don’t know very well, so I’m sensitive about it.

Still, [Rita Wang–a different student with the same last name] noted several classes that delved into questions of race and gender, such as a class on American philosophy that included the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and another course on G.W.F. Hegel that discussed his interpretation of the Haitian Revolution.

I was curious about Hegel’s interpretation of the Haitian revolution. A quick search of “Hegel Haiti” brings me to Susan Buck-Morss‘s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. According to The Marx & Philosophy Review of Books:

The premise of Susan Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History is the arresting claim that Hegel’s renowned ‘master-slave dialectic’ was directly inspired by the contemporaneous Haitian Revolution. Commencing with a slave uprising on the French colony of Saint Domingue in 1791, the victorious former slaves declared Haiti’s independence from Napoleon’s France in 1804, three years before Hegel published his Phenomenology of Spirit, which contained the earliest published (and still the best known) rendition of the master-slave dialectic. …

However, if Buck-Morss is right to claim that Hegel was alluding to the Haitian Revolution when writing his master-slave dialectic, then Hegel’s seemingly callow optimism was not mere fancy but drew directly on lived historical experience: the achievement of Haitian slaves not only in overthrowing a savage and comprehensive tyranny but also in establishing their own modern state. Buck-Morss only hints at this possibility, however. Her aim, she says, is different: she wants to ensure that the great German philosopher is forever linked to the greatest of Caribbean revolutions (16)….

Bridge made of trash, Haiti

Ah, yes, Haiti, such a great revolution! And such a great country! Say, how have things been in Haiti since the revolution?

Dessalines was proclaimed “Emperor for Life” by his troops.[63] …Once in power, he ordered the massacre of most whites. … In the continuing competition for power, he was assassinated by rivals on 17 October 1806.[66]

The revolution led to a wave of emigration.[70] In 1809, nearly 10,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue settled en masse in New Orleans.[71] They doubled the city’s population. …

Haitian politics have been contentious: since independence, Haiti has suffered 32 coups.[134]

Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince, one of the biggest slums in the Northern Hemisphere, has been called “the most dangerous place on Earth” by the United Nations.[138]

Haiti has consistently ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world on the Corruption Perceptions Index.[159] It is estimated that President “Baby Doc” Duvalier, his wife Michelle, and their agents stole US $504 million from the country’s treasury between 1971 and 1986.[160]

Haiti’s purchasing power parity GDP fell 8% in 2010 (from US$12.15 billion to US$11.18 billion) and the GDP per capita remained unchanged at PPP US$1,200.[2] … Haiti is one of the world’s poorest countries and the poorest in the Americas region, with poverty, corruption, poor infrastructure, lack of health care and lack of education cited as the main sources. …

Haiti’s population (1961–2003) from 4 to 10 million

Meanwhile, Haiti’s population has steadily increased from 4 million (in 1961) to 10 million (in 2003).

Sounds great. Who wouldn’t embrace a revolution that brought such peace, prosperity, and well-being to its people?

Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that Susan Buck-Morss is a member of the Frankfurt School. Wikipedia also notes that the idea that the Frankfurt School is a bunch of Marxists–or “Cultural Marxists” is just a “conspiracy theory.” Clearly there is nothing Marxist about the Frankfurt School.

But back to Yale:

This year, new faculty members who have joined the department will teach courses that diversify the curriculum, Gendler said. Philosophy professor Robin Dembroff, who is genderqueer, is teaching a social ontology course next semester that focuses on questions surrounding social construction and the nature of social categories.

Here’s an excerpt from Dembroff’s PhD dissertation summary (Princeton):

Many important social debates concern who should count as belonging to various social categories. Who should count as black? …as a woman? …as married? …it is widely assumed that these questions turn on metaphysical analyses of what makes someone black, a woman, and so on. That is, it is assumed that we should count someone as (e.g.) a woman just in case they satisfy sufficient conditions for having the property `woman’. My dissertation argues that this assumption is wrong: whether someone should count as a woman turns not on whether they satisfy the correct metaphysical analysis of what it is to be a woman, but on ethical considerations about how we ought to treat each other. …

While researching this post, I also came across what I think is Dembroff’s old Myspace account. While looking back at our teenage selves can be ridiculous and often embarassing, the teenage Dembroff seemed a much realer, more relateable human than the current one who is trying so hard to look Yale. Perhaps it isn’t the same Dembroff, of course. But we were all teenagers, once, trying to find our place in this world. I think I would have liked teenage Dembroff.

Dembroff’s dissertation, boiled down to its point, is that all of these debates over things like “trans identity” don’t really matter because we ought to just try to be kind to each other. While I think statements like, “What matters for determining ethical gender ascriptions are normative questions about how we ought to perceive and treat others, and not facts about who is a man or a woman. This claim has an important implication: It may be unethical to make true gender ascriptions, and ethical to make false ascriptions,” are quite wrong, because reality is an important thing and basing an ethics around lying has all sorts of bad implications, I find this at least a more honest and straightforward idea than all of the “gender is a social construct” nonsense.

Still, I question the wisdom of having someone who thinks that social ontology, social construction, and the nature of social categories don’t really matter teach a course on the subject. But maybe Dembroff brings a refreshing new perspective to the subject. Who knows.

Let’s finish our article:

“One thing that I have found really encouraging at Yale is that I have been made to feel as if the graduate student community as a whole — including white men — truly cares about working together to create positive change,” Demaree-Cotton said. “This really makes a big difference. The importance of all students and faculty — not just minorities — taking an active interest in these issues should not be underestimated.”

So much social signaling. So much trying to impress the legions of other privileged, to scrabble to the top, to hang on to some piece of the pie while deflecting blame onto someone else.

I wish people could leave all of this signaling behind.

Animism, HeLa Cells, and Mystical Flesh, (pt. 2)

This is a series on the animist religions popularly known as Voodoo. Yesterday we discussed various West African forms and their notable tendency toward human sacrifice (and even cannibalism.) Today we are hopping the Atlantic to examine the thankfully less-homicidal, local Voodoo variants. (Tomorrow’s post is here.)

The trans-Atlantic slave trade created new religious communities by mixing up adherents from different parts of Africa and exposing them to new religions traditions–Protestantism in the US, Catholicism in Haiti and Latin America, and various Native religions.

The results are the forms of Voodoo you are probably familiar with, due to their frequent depictions in popular media, Halloween productions, and Louisiana tourist shops.

Haitian Voodoo altar located in Boston
Haitian Voodoo altar located in Boston

Voodoo makes for better fiction than reality, because in reality, Voodoo doesn’t work. (If Voodoo spells for power and money worked, Haiti would have conquered the planet and would be fabulously wealthy. Who needs nukes when you could just take out you enemies with Voodoo Dolls?) Voodoo’s popularity is based, instead, on appealing psychologically to its adherents.

Wikipedia claims that Voodoo Dolls aren’t actually for doing harm to others, “The Hoodoo doll is a form of gris-gris and an example of sympathetic magic. Contrary to popular belief, Hoodoo dolls are usually used to bless and have no power to curse,” but this is obvious bullshit. “Sympathetic magic” is the idea of influencing one thing by doing something similar to another thing. So, for example, if you have yellow fever and I want to cure you, I make a little effigy of you, paint it yellow, and then wash off the paint, hoping this will “wash off” the “yellow” from you. Sympathetic magic goes both ways; if I can cure you of yellow fever by washing the paint off the doll, I can give it to you by putting paint on the doll.

Consider, similarly, a claim that “Christian prayer is only supposed to praise god and request good luck or favors, not to invoke harm against others.” A Christian might say that, but in reality, prayers like, “Dear God, please give me victory in battle so that I may defeat the infidel,” or “Please give Johnny a cold so he won’t go to school and beat me up tomorrow,” are pretty common.

There is a general reluctance on Wikipedia to write things that reflect negatively on one’s subjects. For example, the page on West African Vodun doesn’t mention the word “sacrifice” at all, though one wonders how those fetish markets obtain their large piles of animal parts for magic rituals if animals are not killed in some way. The Wikipedia page on the DRC only references cannibalism only in the footnotes, and that’s just the title of an article from which a statistic on the size of the Pygmy population is based. The DRC human rights violations page also fails to mention cannibalism, focusing instead on their more mundane forms of horrifically common violence.

Or take this Scribol article on West African Voodoo, which admits that animal sacrifice is part of the religion, but also says, “These days, Voodoo remains flexible and capable of assimilating ideas from different traditions. At its core, however, it is monotheistic, believing in a single creator god who is assisted by spirits known as “Orishas”.” No, Voodoo is not monotheistic; having a supreme deity who rules over lesser deities is not the same thing as having only one deity. The article is accompanied by this photo:

voodoo2

Wow, look at that expert focusing of the camera on something other than the actual subject of the photo so that you can’t actually tell what’s going on, and the convenient black-and white to make the blood not stand out! If you’re going to defend animal sacrifice as “not cruel” or sinister, then don’t turn around and act like you’re afraid to actually show it to us. The article also reassures us that human sacrifice hasn’t been part of West African Voodoo for a hundred years, though recent news articles tell a different story.

Still, it’s true to say that human sacrifice isn’t exactly “mainstream” in the region and governments in most of the affected countries are trying to stomp it out.

Luckily for us, sacrifice takes a milder form in most of the New World forms of Voodoo, with many adherents content to just pour out libations for the thirsty dead or hand them the odd cigarette.

As always, exceptions exist.

Palo is a Cuban variety of Voodoo with large Congolese influences, which also invokes the magic of human remains. According to Wikipedia:

The main practice of Palo focuses upon the religious receptacle or altar known as a Nganga or Prenda. This is a consecrated vessel filled with sacred earth, sticks (palos), human remains, bones and other items. …

Palo has been linked to a rash of grave robbing in Venezuela. Residents report that many of the graves at CaracasCementerio General del Sur have been pried open to have their contents removed for use in Palo ceremonies.[2] In Newark, New Jersey, USA a Palo practitioner was found to have the remains of at least two dead bodies inside pots within the basement, along with items looted from one of the tombs.[3]

I looked up the Newark case (the original article is from the WSJ, but you have to join to read it, so I linked to a copy from another site):

Unlike its close relative, Santería, which stops at animal sacrifice, Palo believes that dead humans can also help connect believers to the spiritual realm. Paleros, says Mr. Canizares, believe that “the body has a right to be resurrected as a religious aid.” In the mythology of Palo, he says, “there is nothing wrong with asking a skeleton to work with you.” …

Skulls are the most prized form of human remains put into the nganga. Effort is made to leave at least three-quarters of the skull exposed, to enhance the visual effect for adherents at services. The nganga is the home to the spirit of a particular Palo god as well as the spirit of the dead person whose remains are “fed to the nganga.”
Which brings us to grave robbing, or “so-called grave robbing,” as paleros like Mr. Canizares refer to it, objecting to Western judgmentalism. Palo doctrine insists that those who take remains from graves perform elaborate “permission rituals.” The dead are to be left alone if they say no. A palero can gauge skeletal interest by sprinkling liquor on a grave and listening for a rumbling sound–i.e., “yes.” Other permission rituals involve nailing an animal’s tongue to a tree so the spirit can speak through it.
How often do you think those tongues say “no”?
Not all skeletons are created equal: The more evil or powerful a person was in life, and the more violent the death, the better. This makes criminals and corrupt politicians especially appealing, along with murder victims and suicides. The longer a person has been dead, the better, too. An infant’s full skeleton is also highly prized for its power.
With its high concentration of Cuban immigrants, northern New Jersey has become a Palo hotbed. In 1999, Kearny, N.J., police charged a Palo priest and several followers with the theft of the remains of an infant dead for 83 years. Workers at the cemetery had found machetes in trees, and animal tongues.
Consider that it is not actually that easy to get from Cuba to the US! Unless Castro did something clever like load his most annoying population into boats and aim them at the US, one imagines that the average Cuban-American had to do something pretty daring and clever to get over here, or at least had a lot of money. Jumping over to Wikipedia for a second:
From 1965 to 1973, there was another wave of immigration known as the Freedom Flights. In order to provide aid to recently arrived Cuban immigrants, the United States Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966. The Cuban Refugee Program provided more than $1.3 billion of direct financial assistance. They also were eligible for public assistance, Medicare, free English courses, scholarships, and low-interest college loans.[citation needed] …

Fidel Castro sent some 20,000 criminals directly from Cuban prisons, as well as mentally ill persons from Cuban mental institutions, with the alleged double purpose of cleaning up Cuban society and poisoning the USA. Those people were labeled “unadmissible” by the US government, and with time, through many negotiations, have been returned to Cuba.[citation needed]

So Castro was pretty clever. (In case you were wondering, New Jersey has 83,000 Cubans, the nation’s third highest concentration after Florida and California.)
Continuing with the article:
…connections to a Palo conspiracy remained elusive until an informant led police to a religious-items store, or botanica, while a ritual was in progress in August of this year. Inside the pots were three skulls and body parts from five corpses. Police charged the store owner with burglary, theft and conspiracy. Just a month ago, Newark police raided the scruffy tenement at Central and Norfolk. Inside a basement worship room, 10-gallon Palo pots held at least two sets of human remains, including two skulls. … The other bones may belong to a juvenile. This, police say, raises the prospect of an unreported grave robbery or even a murder. The scene inside the worship room, says Newark Detective Donald Stabile, was ghastly. Animal parts were arranged on altars around the room. The basement “had an odor that you keep with you–like your first DOA.”
Photo that accompanied the article:
24/7/10A man collapses after the spirit possessing him leaves his body during a Palo Mayombe ceremony in Camagüey, Cuba. After a few minutes passed other members of the Palo house helped to revive him: taking him into the garden and pouring buckets of cold water over his head until his own spirit was revived.
A man collapses after the spirit possessing him leaves his body during a Palo Mayombe ceremony in Camagüey, Cuba.

Let us be thankful that most Palo followers are content with grave robbing. Some, like serial killer Adolfo Constanzo, aren’t:

Constanzo was born in Miami, Florida to Delia Aurora Gonzalez, a Cuban immigrant mother in 1962. She gave birth to Adolfo at the age of 15 and eventually had three children of different fathers. She moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico after her first husband died and remarried there. Constanzo was baptized Catholic and served as an altar boy, but also accompanied his mother on trips to Haiti to learn about Voodoo.[1] … As a teenager, Constanzo became apprenticed to a local sorcerer and began to practice a religion called Palo Mayombe, which involves animal sacrifice. His mother remarried and his new stepfather was involved in the religion and drug dealing. Constanzo and his mother were arrested numerous times for minor crimes like theft, vandalism and shoplifting.

They sound like lovely people! I hope we keep our policy of indiscriminate Cuban migration just because we hate Castro!

As an adult, Constanzo moved to Mexico City and met the men who were to become his followers: Martin Quintana, Jorge Montes and Omar Orea. They began to run a profitable business casting spells to bring good luck, which involved expensive ritual sacrifices of chickens, goats, snakes, zebras and even lion cubs.[1] Many of his clients were rich drug dealers and hitmen who enjoyed the violence of Constanzo’s “magical” displays. He also attracted other rich members of Mexican society, including several high-ranking corrupt policemen who introduced him to the city’s powerful narcotics cartels.[1]

Constanzo started to raid graveyards for human bones to put in his nganga, or cauldron, but before long he would need live human sacrifices instead of old bones. More than 20 victims, whose mutilated bodies were found in and around Mexico City, are thought to have met their end this way.[1]

Constanzo began to believe that his magic spells, many of which he took from Palo Mayombe, were responsible for the success of the cartels and demanded to become a full business partner with one of the most powerful families he knew, the Calzadas. When his demand was rejected, seven family members disappeared. Their bodies turned up later with fingers, toes, ears, brains and even (in one case) the spine missing.[2]

Finally Constanzo murdered an American, at which point politicians in Texas managed to do what politicians in Mexico apparently didn’t feel like doing, and got the Mexican police to do their fucking jobs:

Police quickly discovered the cult and that Constanzo had been responsible for Kilroy’s death, after a ‘good’/superior brain for one of his ritual spells. Officers raided the ranch and discovered Constanzo’s cauldron, which contained various items such as a dead black cat and a human brain.[3] Fifteen mutilated corpses were dug up at the ranch, one of them Kilroy’s.[3] Officials said Kilroy was killed by Constanzo with a machete chop to the back of the neck when Kilroy tried to escape about 12 hours after being taken to the ranch.[4]

Costanzo committed suicide, but 14 of his associates were arrested and charged with murder, drug-running, etc.

I actually don’t object, abstractly, to the physical practice of animal sacrifice. Most sacrificed animals are eaten after wards. I eat animals; what does it matter if someone says a prayer over an animal before butchering and eating it?

I object to the spiritual notion that animal (and human) bodies contain magical powers or spirits that you can obtain by killing them. That is a road that leads to head-hunting, cannibalism, and murder.

One of the things I appreciate about Christianity and Judaism is that they have basically eliminated sacrifice. Judaism first did away with human sacrifice, symbolically in the story of Abraham, Isaac, and the ram, and then explicitly in the injunctions not to sacrifice your children to Moloch. This was no mere hypothetical; their neighbors regularly sacrificed children to Moloch.

Jews still conducted animal sacrifices until the fall of the Second Temple, after which there was nowhere to do the sacrifices, and so they stopped. Hypothetically they could resume if anyone ever gets around to rebuilding the temple, but this does not appear to be a priority, and I don’t think most Jews want to do animal sacrifices.

Christianity never had animal sacrifice of any kind, having begun with a replacement of all forms of sacrifice with deistic sacrifice in the form of Jesus’ death and resurrection. (As a result, some early Christian sects were vegetarian, due to the association between all forms of animal butchering and “sacrifice.”) The closest Christianity gets to sacrifice is the Catholic belief in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, in which bread and wine are supposed to become, in some non-physical way, Jesus’ flesh and blood. Still, there is no threat of Catholics tracking down an actual Jesus and deciding to eat him.

But I’m off-topic. Grave robbing may be illegal in the US, but animal sacrifice isn’t; in 2009, for example, a Texas court ruled that Jose Merced, a Santeria priest (Cuban variety of Voodoo also common in PR,) was legally allowed to sacrifice animals in his home:

“Merced cannot perform the ceremonies dictated by his religion,” Judge Jennifer W. Elrod wrote. “This is a burden, and it is substantial. It is real and significant, having forced Merced to choose between living in Euless and practicing his religion.”

The court said Merced’s only available ceremonial space was in his house, due to the scarcity of Santeria temples in the United States. They also found that the Santeria priest discarded of the animal remains in a timely and sanitary manner.

The Dallas Observer has an interesting article on the case, and a ritual sacrifice reporters were allowed to watch:

As the sacrificial hour approaches, several priests (Santeros) are preparing the 40 assorted goats, roosters, hens, guinea hens, pigeons, quail, turtle and duck who grow noisy and nervous in their cages. Their lives will be taken in an exchange mandated by Olofi, Santería’s supreme god and source of all energy, to heal the broken body and spirit of Virginia Rosario-Nevarez and to initiate her into the Santería priesthood. …

Mounted against a wall in the back room shrine in Merced’s house are shelves containing clusters of small ceramic pots, ornately decorated and filled with shells, stones and other artifacts—the physical manifestations of the Orishas that reside in the room. To initiate Nevarez as a priestess, new godly manifestations of the old gods on Merced’s shelf must be born. To make this happen, animal blood will be spilled onto new pots, which the priestess will take home to begin her own shrine with her own newly manifested gods. …

Thea article then takes us through Merced’s childhood in Puerto Rico and introduction to Santeria. At the age of 12 he developed chronic stomach pain:

A medical doctor suggested exploratory surgery, but his mother wouldn’t hear of it. … he asked his mother to bring him to a woman his mother had been seeing for private spiritual readings. Even without him mentioning it, the woman told him about his intestinal pains and his nightmares. Hoping she could cure him, Merced began attending weekly séances at her home. …

The woman became his godmother in Santería, and she continued to treat him with herbal potions and spiritual readings. Over the next 18 months, he lost 60 pounds and had good months as well as bad.

I’m interpreting “lost 60 pounds” as “his stomach was so bad he couldn’t digest food anymore and was starving,” rather than “he became increasingly healthy and worked off excess fat,” but I’m not positive.

Finally, Merced says that the Orishas spoke through the woman and told her that the only way to make his pain disappear was to get initiated as a priest. Merced was ready, but the ceremony was expensive, $3,000, and he didn’t have enough money. For a year after graduating high school, Merced saved up …

Anyone else get the impression that someone is taking advantage of sick people?

He had helped with other initiations at his godmother’s house but was never allowed inside the shrine-room. “I saw the animals going in alive and coming out dead,” Merced recalls. But he had no idea why. … If you’re not crowned [a priest], you’re not supposed to know. So when I went in to my ceremony, I didn’t have a clue.” … As the animals were brought in, he was told to touch his head to the animal’s head and its hooves to other areas of his body. The animal was absorbing his negativity. He had to chew pieces of coconut, swallowing the juice but spitting the coconut meat into the animal’s ear.

… The pieces of coconut represented Merced’s message—his thoughts, feelings, needs—which were transferred to the goat for direct passage to Olofi. His physical contact with the animal was also symbolic of his commitment to God. As soon as the animal’s blood was spilled, Merced’s negativity, which had been absorbed by the goat, was released. The purified blood then spilled into the pots. (bold mine)

Shortly after the initiation, he says his stomach pains subsided. “I never, ever have felt again the same pain that I used to feel before,” he says.”

It’s a pity this sort of thing doesn’t seem to replicate under controlled, scientific conditions, because if you could really cure chronic conditions just by sacrificing a few goats, modern medicine would be revolutionized.

Getting back to the legal situation:

Laycock had successfully represented the Santería church before the Supreme Court in 1993 after the city of Hialeah, Florida, tried to ban the ritual killing of animals not for public consumption. The Hialeah City Council enacted the ban specifically targeting the Santería religion after it learned one of its churches had plans to locate within city limits. The high court saw this ordinance as being applied exclusively to Santería and held it an unconstitutional restriction on the free exercise of religion.

Snake handlers
Snake handlers

Laws specifically targeting snake-handling Christian churches have been on the books in pretty much every Southern state but West Virginia for decades, (WV believes in freedom of religion or something,) and the SCOTUS seems fine with that. (Actually, the court might decide in their favor if they bothered to bring a case.)

The American South has its own Voodoo traditions, with Catholic and Haitian influenced Voodoo down in Louisiana, and the more Baptist flavored Hoodoo everywhere else.

Haitian/Louisiana Voodoo probably come closest to the form of an organized religion, in large part because Voodoo has been able to operate above-ground in Haiti, where about half the people believe in it, including their erstwhile dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier:

Duvalier fostered his cult of personality and claimed he was the physical embodiment of the island nation. He also revived the traditions of Vodou, later using them to consolidate his power with his claim of being a Vodou priest, himself. In an effort to make himself even more imposing, Duvalier deliberately modeled his image on that of Baron Samedi, one of the loa, or spirits, of Haitian Vodou. He often donned sunglasses to hide his eyes and talked with the strong nasal tone associated with the loa. The regime’s propaganda stated that “Papa Doc was one with the [loa], Jesus Christ and God himself”.[11] The most celebrated image from the time shows a standing Jesus Christ with a hand on the shoulder of a seated Papa Doc, captioned, “I have chosen him”.[31] Duvalier declared himself an “immaterial being” as well as “the Haitian flag” soon after his first election.[32] In 1964, he published a catechism in which the Lord’s Prayer was reworded to pay tribute to Duvalier instead of God.[33][32]

Duvalier also held in his closet the head of former opponent Blucher Philogenes, who tried to overthrow him in 1963.[25]:132He believed another political enemy was able to change into a black dog at will and had the militia begin killing black dogs on sight in the capital.[34]

Clearly the kind of guy you want running your country!

Personally, the vibe I get off Papa Doc is less Loa of Death and more Steve Urkel:

DUVALIER-ELECTION-PRESIDENCY-286296 CNiBkOIUYAAGOxq

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But maybe you had to be there.

Sadly, I can’t find the picture of Jesus endorsing Papa Doc.

Wikipedia gives some insight into the practice of Haitian Voodoo, which appears to revolve around death, worship, and spirit possession:

Antique Haitian Vodoo drum
Antique Haitian Vodoo drum

The practitioners of Vodou revere death, and believe it to be a great transition from one life to another, or to the afterlife. In some Vodou families, it is believed that a person’s spirit leaves the body, but is trapped in water, over mountains, in grottoes, or anywhere else a voice may call out and echo for a span of one full year and one day. … After the soul of the deceased leaves its resting place, it can occupy trees, and even become a hushed voice on the wind. …

As the songs are sung, participants believe that spirits come to visit the ceremony, by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. … In Haiti, these Vodou ceremonies, depending on the Priest or Priestess, may be more organized. But in the United States, many vodouists and clergy take it as a sort of non-serious party or “folly”. In a serious rite, each spirit is saluted and greeted by the initiates present and gives readings, advice, and cures to those who ask for help. Many hours later, as morning dawns, the last song is sung, the guests leave, and the exhausted hounsis, houngans, and mambos can go to sleep.

Vodou practitioners believe that if one follows all taboos imposed by their particular loa and is punctilious about all offerings and ceremonies, the loa will aid them. Vodou practitioners also believe that if someone ignores their loa it can result in sickness, the failure of crops, the death of relatives, and other misfortunes. [32] Animals are sometimes sacrificed in Haitian Vodou. A variety of animals are sacrificed, such as pigs, goats, chickens, and bulls. “The intent and emphasis of sacrifice is not upon the death of the animal, it is upon the transfusion of its life to the loa; for the understanding is that flesh and blood are of the essence of life and vigor, and these will restore the divine energy of the god.”

Hoodoo seems pretty mild, all things considered, involving more stories of witch doctors and sacrifice than actual witch doctors making actual sacrifices, and is less of a “religion” and more a collection of folk medicines and superstitions. Wikipedia explains:

The purpose of hoodoo was to allow African Americans access to supernatural forces to improve their lives. Hoodoo is purported to help people attain power or success (“luck”) in many areas of life including money, love, health, and employment. As in many other spiritual and medical folk practices, extensive use is made of herbs, minerals, parts of animals’ bodies, an individual’s possessions and bodily fluids, especially menstrual blood, urine, saliva, and semen.

Contact with ancestors or other spirits of the dead is an important practice within the conjure tradition, and the recitation of Psalms from the Bible is also considered spiritually influential in hoodoo. …

Hoodoo is linked to a popular tradition of Bottle Trees in the United States. According to gardener and glass bottle researcher Felder Rushing, the use of bottle trees came to the Old South from Africa with the slave trade. Bottle trees were an African tradition, passed down from early Arabian traders. They believed that the bottles trapped the evil spirits until the rising morning sun could destroy them.

*Googles “bottle tree”*

bottle tree, American South East
Oh, that’s really pretty.

Hoodoo and Louisiana Voodoo are referenced frequently in American music:

Many blues musicians have referred to hoodoo in their songs. Popular examples include “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues” by Ma Rainey, “Hoodoo Lady Blues” by Arthur Crudup, and “Hoodoo Man Blues” by Junior Wells. The Bo Diddley song “Who Do You Love?” contains an extensive series of puns about a man hoodooing his lover. He also recorded an album titled Got My Own Bag of Tricks (1972), a reference to a mojo hand or trick bag. In Chuck Berry‘s song “Thirty Days” he threatens an ex-lover, telling her that he “…talked to the gypsy woman on the telephone […] she gonna send out a world wide hoodoo…”. Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics for “Hoodoo Voodoo”, a song later performed by Wilco and Billy Bragg. Creedence Clearwater Revival made reference to it in their hit song “Born on the Bayou” with the lyrics, “And I can still hear my old hound dog barkin’, chasin’ down a hoodoo there….”

and folklore–God, Doctor Buzzad, and the Bolito Man is a good book if you’re interested in the subject, but since I don’t have my copy anymore, here’s a story I found on the internet:

The first Dr. Buzzard came to Beaufort on a slave ship. Almost as soon as he was given a cabin in which to live, his master learned of his magical powers. This Dr. Buzzard had so much influence over the other slaves that his master gave him a large measure of freedom to be used in the practice of witchcraft. When the slaves were allowed to pursue their ancestral customs and beliefs, they performed their tasks more cheerfully.

I have read elsewhere that the “first” Dr. Buzzard was a white guy, but after he died, the mantle was taken up by dozens of others, most of them black. I doubt anyone could prove it either way.

The people born in slavery and their descendents relied on those who “worked in root” for their medical needs. Roots were mixed with cemetery dirt, frog’s feet, hearts of owls, and crushed bones and used as charms.

…He wore purple eyeglasses, a custom which prevented others from seeing his eyes, and he seemed to be always chewing on a root. The root on which he chewed had magical power, according to Dr. Buzzard. He said if he went into a courtroom during the time a case was being tried, he could chew the root and affect the outcome of the case. He also used another procedure in affecting the result of trials. He concocted a powder by grinding together certain materials, and he sprinkled the powder on desks, tables, and chairs in the courtroom. After the powder had been scattered about the courtroom, Dr. Buzzard said the room had been “rooted” and the course of the trial in progress would change.

Dr. Buzzard’s routine also called for the use of black cat’s. He said there was no stronger force in the world than that of a bone from a black cat that had been boiled alive! The technique called for Dr. Buzzard to put a black cat in a kettle of boiling water, and when the hot water covered the cat, “ That cat would talk just like a man.

After the cat had been boiled, it was dropped into a sack (the water in which the cat had been boiled was poured into a container for future use, as it was considered to be powerful in the treatment of certain maladies) and taken to a creek. The cooked cat was then dumped into the creek. If the process of boiling the cat and dumping the remains into the creek had been done correctly, according to the unexplained techniques of voodoo, all the bones would float away from the bank of the creek or sink, except one bone. “That bone just floats right to me,” Dr. Buzzard said. That was the bone with the power. Anyone carrying that bone was safe from “the law and everything else.”

In Dr. Buzzard’s case, it was probably more important to be known as the kind of guy who would boil cats alive than to actually boil them alive–but you never know.

I thought perhaps the “Magical Negro” trope in movies had its origin in folks like Dr. Buzzard, but it appears that–O Brother, Where Art Thou? possibly excepted–the trend is a recent thing has nothing to do with Southern folklore. Besides, proper Hoodoo doctors are supposed to be a bit scary.

I see a certain similarity between the ecstatic dance and spirit possession of the Voodoo ceremonies; the ring shouts of American black churches; speaking in tongues, faith healing, and spirit possession in various Pentecostal or Charismatic churches; snake handling; etc. These groups are not all theologically linked, but they are all common in the South, where they may have influenced each other by proximity.

More likely, though, I suspect the impulse toward these forms of worship arose fairly independently, simply because they appeal to the people involved.

Part one (yesterday)

Part three (next).