The “Academic Tarot”: 22 Major Arcana Cards Representing Life in the Academic Humanities Under COVID-19

“Speculations about the creators of Tarot cards include the Sufis, the Cathars, the Egyptians, Kabbalists, and more,” writes “expert cartomancer” Joshua Hehe. All of these suppositions are wrong, it seems. “The actual historical evidence points to northern Italy sometime in the early part of the 1400s,” when the so-called “major arcana” came into being. “Contrary to what many have claimed, there is absolutely no proof of the Tarot having originated in any other time or place.”

A bold claim, yet there are precedents much older than tarot: “A few decades before the Tarot was born, ordinary playing cards came to Europe by way of Arabs, arriving in many different cities between 1375 and 1378. These cards were an adaptation of the Islamic Mamluk cards,” with suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks, “the latter of which were seen by Europeans as staves.”

Whether the playing cards invented by the Mamluks were used for divination may be a matter of controversy. The history and art of the Mamluk sultanate itself is a subject worthy of study for the tarot historian. Originally a slave army (“mamluk” means “slave” in Arabic) under the Ayyubid sultans in Egypt and Syria, the Mamluks overthrew their rulers and created “the greatest Islamic empire of the later Middle Ages.”

What does this have to do with tarot reading? These are academic concerns, perhaps, of little interest to the average tarot enthusiast. But then, the average tarot enthusiast is not the audience for the “Academic Tarot,” a project of the Visionary Futures Collective, or VFC, a group of 22 scholars “fighting for what higher education needs most,” Stephanie Malak writes at Hyperallergic, “a bringing together of thinkers who ‘believe in the transformational power and vital importance of the humanities.’”

To that end, the Academic Tarot features exactly the kinds of characters who love to chase down abstruse historical questions—characters like the lowly, confused Grad Student, standing in here for The Fool. It also features those who can make academic life, with its endless rounds of meetings and committees, so difficult: figures like The President (see here), doing duty here as the Magician, and pictured shredding “campus-wide COVID results.”

The VFC, founded in the time of COVID-19 pandemic and “in the midst of the long-overdue national reckoning led by the Black Lives Matter movement,” aims to “trace the contours of things that define our shared human condition,” says Collective member Dr. Brian DeGrazia. In the case of the Academic Tarot, the conditions represented are shared by a specific subset of humans, many of whom responded to “feelings surveys” put out by the VFC in a biweekly newsletter.

The surveys have been used to make art that reflects the experiences of the grad students, professors, and professional staff working the academic humanities at this time:

VFC artist-in-residence Claire Chenette, a Grammy-nominated Knoxville Symphony Orchestra musician furloughed due to COVID-19, brought the tarot cards to life. What began as a three-card project to complement the VFC newsletter grew in spirit and in number. 

“In tarot, the cards read us,” the VFC writes, “telling a story about ourselves that can provide clarity, guidance and hope.” What story do the 22 Major Arcana cards in the Academic Tarot tell? That depends on who’s asking, as always, but one gets the sense that unless the querent is familiar with life in a higher-ed humanities department, these cards may not reveal much. For those who have seen themselves in the cards, however, “the images made them laugh out loud,” says Chenette, or “they hit hard. Or… they even made them cry, but… it needed to happen.”

Struggling through yet another pandemic semester of attempting to teach, research, write, and generally stay afloat? The Academic Tarot cards are currently sold out, but you can pre-order now for the second run.

via Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Breathtaking Courage of Harriet Tubman: An Animated History Lesson Speaks to Her Place on the $20 Bill

I was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and I can say what many others cannot. I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.  —Harriet Tubman

Remember how one of the Obama administration’s final initiatives was to redesign the $20 bill, banishing Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder, to a minor role on the back of the bill, in favor of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery?

The announcement arrived on the heels of a controversy, after then-Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew enraged American women by going back on a promise to install a woman on the face of a newly designed $10 bill.

The decision to keep Alexander Hamilton, architect of our financial system and the country’s first Treasury Secretary, in place is rumored to owe rather a lot to his status as the subject of a certain hit musical that had opened earlier in the year.

The official design of the Tubman bill was to have been unveiled in 2020, to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed a woman’s right to vote. Had all gone according to plan, it would have been in wide circulation later this decade.

At the time Lew was untroubled by the possibility that the incoming administration might kill off the proposed makeover:

I don’t think somebody’s going to probably want to do that — to take the image of Harriet Tubman off of our money? To take the image of the suffragists off?

It seems, however, that someone did want to do that.

In 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump told NBC that replacing Jackson with Tubman was “pure political correctness,” suggesting instead that a place might be found for Tubman on the $2 bill… which is no longer printed.

He also reportedly remarked to former White House adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman, “You want me to put that face on the twenty-dollar bill?”

The Treasury Department website’s revision in the wake of the 2016 election scrubbed all references to planned changes to the currency.

Lew’s replacement, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, finally announced that the new $20 bill wouldn’t be ready until 2028, and that the finished design might not include Tubman at all. He attributed this to technical reasons relating to security features, though a Treasury Department employee told The New York Times that the engraving plate for it was completed “as recently as May 2018” and that the design “appeared to be far along in the process.”

Certainly, there were bigger stories in 2020 than the absence of the promised Harriet Tubman $20 bill, but the obfuscation and delay were maddening given everything Tubman, a woman of action, was able to accomplish well over a hundred years ago.

Most of us are familiar with her prominence on the Underground Railroad, which led to the sobriquet “Moses of her people,” but there are several things in the above animated TED-Ed lesson by Janell Hobson, Department Chair of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Albany, that may come as news to you.

Of particular note, Tubman was the first woman in US history to plan and lead a military raid, resulting in the liberation of nearly 700 enslaved persons in South Carolina.

Her second husband, Nelson Davis, also born into slavery, had been a Union soldier, which entitled her to a pension of $8 as a military widow.

She fought hard for an increase on the basis of her own service to the Union Army, enlisting various friends and supporters to lobby on her behalf, including Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, who said, “I have known her long as a noble high spirit, as true as seldom dwells in the human form.”

Finally, in 1899, her pension was increased to $20 a month.

Professor Hobson, whose lesson predates Mnuchin’s announcement of the stall, called the denomination “a fitting twist of fate.”

As is the rubber stamp that artist Dano Wal created to help disgusted Americans convert Jacksons into Tubmans without the help of the Treasury Department:

Who we choose to honor as a society affects the moral attitudes that are baked into us as we grow up. The impact that seeing the face of Harriet Tubman staring back at you from a $20 bill should not be underestimated. This sort of representation can subtly but deeply affect someone’s conception of themselves and their place in society. The slightly subversive nature of it being currency that’s been hand-stamped by another human makes a discovery of one of these bills all the more joyous.

Good news looms on the horizon. Less than a week into the Biden administration, the Treasury Department confirmed that the agency is “exploring ways to resume” putting Harriet Tubman on the bill, as well as ways to hasten their release. She will be the first female and first Black American to be featured on our folding money.

TED-Ed has a list of additional resources for those who’d like to delve deeper into Tubman’s life and legacy, as well as a discussion as to whether putting Tubman’s face on the $20 bill is a fitting honor.

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Designer Creates a 3D-Printed Stamp That Replaces Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Amanda Gorman Read “The Hill We Climb,” “Making Mountains As We Run,” “Fury and Faith,” and More

Led by celebrity host Tom Hanks, the Biden inauguration’s entertainers, A-listers all, were safe bets, reliable stadium-fillers with instant mass appeal. They “did exactly what we needed them to do,” remarked Stephanie Zacharek at TIME, offering the reassurance that “we no longer need to live in dread.” They were “singers you actually know,” Alexis Petridis wrote at The Guardian. The comment was a dig at the previous administration’s C and D-list lineup, and also, perhaps, an admission that what Americans most crave is the familiar, which, of course, means, first and foremost, a national focus on celebrities we all know and love.

For a moment, however, this repetition of comforting household names was punctuated by an entirely new young face and voice—that of a poet, no less, a standard bearer of the form that has held the nation’s rapt attention in the work of Whitman, Frost, Hughes, and Angelou.

Amanda Gorman, chosen as the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, channeled a tradition of American lyric writing about America in her inauguration poem, and she brought to it her own experiences as a Gen Z black feminist and activist who overcame a speech impediment to address the country at one of the most significant televised public events in recent history.

Gorman’s resume is a testament to her generation’s commitment to art and activism in the face of compounding crises, and to her personal commitment to change in a country that promises little for young black artists in particular. Named youth poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014 at age 16, she published her first book of poetry, The One for Whom Food is Not Enough, the following year. She then went on to found a nonprofit writing and leadership program, open the literary season for the Library of Congress in 2017, and graduate cum laude from Harvard College with a degree in sociology in 2020.

While charting her own literary path, Gorman learned to use her voice as “a political choice,” as she says in her TED-Ed student talk above, in which she confidently asks a small audience of her peers, “whose shoulders do you stand on?” and “what do you stand for?” These are the questions she asks students in workshops, she says, to shake them out of the idea that poetry is for “dead white men who were just born to be old.” Then she shares her own answers. Gorman’s public appearances tend to focus on process as much as on politics and prosody. In a talk on “Presentation and Reading” at the Academy of Arts & Sciences in Cambridge below, she reads a poem, then has a brief discussion of “how it came to be.”

Gorman is as skilled a storyteller as she is a poet and educator. In her 2017 Moth GrandSLAM appearance in Boston, further up, she tells the story of trying to catch her big break auditioning for Broadway, an aspiration shaped by her childhood love of The Lion King. Her inaugural poem, she tells PBS, was written to “be accessible to anyone who might be watching, that they can feel that they are represented and well-established in this poem,” an act of writing she calls “a really difficult dance to do.” The effort did not blunt the poem’s most incisive lines, however, including its reference to “the belly of the beast,” in which “we’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.”

For Gorman, speaking out is a personal imperative she honed as “a form of a pathology,” overcoming her speech issues “by embarking on spoken word over and over and over again and reciting my poems. No matter how terrified I was, because I had the support of others, I was able to kind of slowly climb my way to the place I am at today.”

For millions of young people who watched the inauguration, it will be Gorman’s story of perseverance, community, personal growth, and refusal to be passive and silent in the face of social injustice that will most resonate, perhaps for the rest of their lives, amidst celebrations of a longed-for return to the familiar. See Gorman read more of her poetry above and below, including a poem for another inauguration, that of Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow, in 2018.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Tells Protestors What to Do–and Not Do–If Arrested by Authoritarian Police

Note: If the subtitles don’t play automatically, please click the “cc” at the bottom of the video.

Oligarchic regimes built on corruption and naked self-interest don’t typically exhibit much in the way of creativity when responding to crises of legitimacy. The most recent challenge to the oligarchic rule of Vladimir Putin, for example, after the attempted assassination and jailing of his rival, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, revealed “the regime’s utter lack of imagination and inability to plan ahead,” writes Masha Gessen at The New Yorker, and seems to promise an opening for a revolutionary movement.

Perhaps it’s safer to say, Joshua Yaffa writes, “that Russian politics are merely entering the beginning of a protracted new phase,” that will involve more large, coordinated mass protests against the “perceived impunity and lawlessness of Putin’s system,” such as happened all over the country in recent days: “In St. Petersburg, a sizable crowd blocked Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main thoroughfare. Several thousand gathered in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. Even in Yakutsk, a faraway regional capital, where the day’s temperatures reached minus fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, a number of people came out to the central square.”

Footage from the protests “shows activists pelting Russian riot police and vehicles with snowballs,” Dazed reports. Massive, in-real-life protests have been organized and supported by online activists on Tik Tok, YouTube, and other social media sites, where young people like viral teenager Neurolera share tips—such as pretending to be an indignant American—that might help protestors avoid arrest. In one video calling on young students to attend Saturday’s protests, a young woman holds a book, and captions “explain how she is reading about how citizens’ rights are guaranteed,” writes Brendan Cole at Newsweek. “But wait!” she says in one caption, “In Russia things happen differently.”

Russian citizens, and especially young activists, do not walk into protest situations unprepared for arrest and detention—particularly those who follow longtime trouble-makers Pussy Riot, famous for staging flamboyant anti-Putin protests and getting arrested. In the video at the top, the band/activist collective’s Nadya Tolokonnikova explains “how to behave when you’re arrested.” Detention “is an unpleasant experience,” she says, but it need not “end up being such a traumatic experience.” One must conquer fear with knowledge. During her first arrest, “I was scared because I felt that the police officers held an enormous power over me. That’s not true.”

The English translation seems inexact and many of the intricacies of Russian law will not translate to other national contexts. Woven throughout the video, however, are generally prudent tips—like not adding criminal charges by attacking police during arrest. Last year, the group distributed anti-surveillance make-up tips also useful to activists everywhere. The viral spread of videos like Pussy Riot’s and Neurolera’s tutorial show us a worldwide desire for youthful hope and determination in the face of brutal realities. Yaffa describes the “scenes of police employing brute force” that filled his Russian-language social media during the protests:

In one such video, from St. Petersburg, a woman confronts a column of riot policemen dragging a protester by his arms and asks, “Why are you arresting him?” One of the police officers kicks her in the chest, knocking her to the ground. Watching these scenes, I couldn’t help but think of Belarus, where months of street protests against the rule of Alexander Lukashenka have been marked by brutality and torture by the security forces, and a remarkable willingness from protesters to fight back against riot police, at times forcing them to retreat or abandon making an arrest.

These images do not spread so readily in English-language media, perhaps giving a superficial impression that the current anti-Putin, pro-Navalny movement is a new, young online phenomenon, rather than the continuation of a battle-hardened resistance to twenty years of misrule. “Throwing the book at Navalny could spark protests of undetermined strength and longevity,” Yaffa argues, from which mass movements around the world draw inspiration for years to come.

via Dazed

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Can You Do About QAnon?: A Short Take from Documentary Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson

You know that QAnon supporters figured prominently in the Capitol insurrection. Two QAnon conspiracy theorists now hold seats in Congress. And perhaps you read the disturbing profile this weekend about the QAnon supporter who attended the elite Dalton School in Manhattan and then Harvard. So–you’re maybe thinking–it’s finally worth understanding what QAnon is, and what we can do about it. Above, watch a 10 minute Op-Doc from filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, whose work we’ve featured here before. As you’ll see, his recommendations (from late October) align with expert advice found in our recent post, How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist: What the Experts Recommend. After the violence of January 6, however, it’s reasonable to ask whether we need something more than coddling and patience.

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How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist: What the Experts Recommend

Why do people pledge allegiance to views that seem fundamentally hostile to reality? Maybe believers in shadowy, evil forces and secret cabals fall prey to motivated reasoning. Truth for them is what they need to believe in order to get what they want. Their certainty in the justness of a cause can feel as comforting as a warm blanket on a winter’s night. But conspiracy theories go farther than private delusions of grandeur. They have spilled into the streets, into the halls of the U.S. Capitol building and various statehouses. Conspiracy theories about a “stolen” 2020 election are out for blood.

As distressing as such recent public spectacles seem at present, they hardly come near the harm accomplished by propaganda like Plandemic—a short film that claims the COVID-19 crisis is a sinister plot—part of a wave of disinformation that has sent infection and death rates soaring into the hundreds of thousands.

We may never know the numbers of people who have infected others by refusing to take precautions for themselves, but we do know that the number of people in the U.S. who believe conspiracy theories is alarmingly high.

A Pew Research survey of adults in the U.S. “found that 36% thought that these conspiracy theories” about the election and the pandemic “were probably or definitely true,” Tanya Basu writes at the MIT Technology Review. “Perhaps some of these people are your family, your friends, your neighbors.” Maybe you are conspiracy theorist yourself. After all, “it’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories…. No one is above [them]—not even you.” We all resist facts, as Cass Sunstein (author of Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas) says in the Vox video above, that contradict cherished beliefs and the communities of people who hold them.

So how do we distinguish between reality-based views and conspiracy theories if we’re all so prone to the latter? Standards of logical reasoning and evidence still help separate truth from falsehood in laboratories. When it comes to the human mind, emotions are just as important as data. “Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world,” says Daniel Romer, a psychologist and research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. They’re airtight, as Wired shows below, and it can be useless to argue.

Basu spoke with experts like Romer and the moderators of Reddit’s r/ChangeMyView community to find out how to approach others who hold beliefs that cause harm and have no basis in fact. The consensus recommends proceeding with kindness, finding some common ground, and applying a degree of restraint, which includes dropping or pausing the conversation if things get heated. We need to recognize competing motivations: “some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.”

Unregulated emotions can and do undermine our ability to reason all the time. We cannot ignore or dismiss them; they can be clear indications something has gone wrong with our thinking and perhaps with our mental and physical health. We are all subjected, though not equally, to incredible amounts of heightened stress under our current conditions, which allows bad actors like the still-current U.S. President to more easily exploit universal human vulnerabilities and “weaponize motivated reasoning,” as University of California, Irvine social psychologist Peter Ditto observes.

To help counter these tendencies in some small way, we present the resources above. In Bill Nye’s Big Think answer to a video question from a viewer named Daniel, the longtime science communicator talks about the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. “The way to overcome that,” he says, is with the attitude, “we’re all in this together. Let’s learn about this together.”

We can perhaps best approach those who embrace harmful conspiracy theories by not immediately telling them that we know more than they do. It’s a conversation that requires some intellectual humility and acknowledgement that change is hard and it feels really scary not to know what’s going on. Below, see an abridged version of MIT Technology Review’s ten tips for reasoning with a conspiracy theorist, and read Basu’s full article here.

  1. Always, always speak respectfully: “Without respect, compassion, and empathy, no one will open their mind or heart to you. No one will listen.”
  2. Go private: Using direct messages when online “prevents discussion from getting embarrassing for the poster, and it implies a genuine compassion and interest in conversation rather than a desire for public shaming.”
  3. Test the waters first: “You can ask what it would take to change their mind, and if they say they will never change their mind, then you should take them at their word and not bother engaging.”
  4. Agree: “Conspiracy theories often feature elements that everyone can agree on.”
  5. Try the “truth sandwich”: “Use the fact-fallacy-fact approach, a method first proposed by linguist George Lakoff.”
  6. Or use the Socratic method: This “challenges people to come up with sources and defend their position themselves.”
  7. Be very careful with loved ones: “Biting your tongue and picking your battles can help your mental health.”
  8. Realize that some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.
  9. If it gets bad, stop: “One r/ChangeMyView moderator suggested ‘IRL calming down’: shutting off your phone or computer and going for a walk.”
  10. Every little bit helps. “One conversation will probably not change a person’s mind, and that’s okay.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Social Psychologist Erich Fromm Diagnoses Why People Wear a Mask of Happiness in Modern Society (1977)

Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine. —Erich Fromm

There are more think pieces published every day than any one person can read about our current moment of social disintegration. But we seem to have lost touch with the insights of social psychology, a field that dominated popular intellectual discourse in the post-war 20th century, largely due to the influential work of German exiles like Erich Fromm. The humanist philosopher and psychologist’s “prescient 1941 treasure Escape from Freedom,writes Maria Popova, serves as what he called “‘a diagnosis rather than a prognosis,’ written during humanity’s grimmest descent into madness in WWII, laying out the foundational ideas on which Fromm would later draw in considering the basis of a sane society,” the title of his 1955 study of alienation, conformity, and authoritarianism.

Fromm “is an unjustly neglected figure,” Kieran Durkin argues at Jacobin, “certainly when compared with his erstwhile Frankfurt School colleagues, such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.” But he has much to offer as a “grounded alternative” to their critical theory, and his work “reveals a distinctly more optimistic and hopeful engagement with the question of radical social change.” Nonetheless, Fromm well understood that social diseases must be identified before they can be treated, and he did not sugarcoat his diagnoses. Had society become more “sane” thirty-plus years after the war? Fromm didn’t think so.

In the 1977 interview clip above, Fromm defends his claim that “We live in a society of notoriously unhappy people,” which the interviewer calls an “incredible statement.” Fromm replies:

For me it isn’t incredible at all, but if you just open your eyes, you see it. That is, most people pretend that they are happy, even to themselves, because if you are unhappy, you are considered a failure, so you must wear the mask of being satisfied, of happy.

Contrast this observation with Albert Camus’ 1959 statement, “Today happiness is like a crimenever admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m happy’ otherwise you will hear condemnation all around.” Were Fromm and Camus observing vastly different cultural worlds? Or is it possible that in the intervening years, forced happinessakin to the socially coerced emotions Camus depicted in The Strangerhad become normalized, a screen of denial stretched over existential dread, economic exploitation, and social decay?

Fromm’s diagnosis of forced happiness resonates strongly with The Stranger (and Billie Holiday), and with the image-obsessed society in which we live most of our lives now, presenting various curated personae on social media and videoconferencing apps. Unhappiness may be a byproduct of depression, violence, poverty, physical illness, social alienation… but its manifestations produce even more of the same: “Them that’s got shall get / Them that’s not shall lose.” If you’re unhappy, says Fromm, “you lose credit on the market, you’re no longer a normal person or a capable person. But you just have to look at people. You only have to see how behind the mask there is unrest.”

Have we learned how to look at people behind the mask? Is it possible to do so when we mostly interact with them from behind a screen? These are the kinds of questions Fromm’s work can help us grapple with, if we’re willing to accept his diagnosis and truly reckon with our unhappiness.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The 25th Amendment: An Introduction

Read along with the text of the 25th Amendment online here. And get some background from the Constitution Center here, and Vox’s explainer here.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.