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Halloween, Knowledge Democracy and US Foundations


Rajesh and I have recently spent several days in New York City.  Our time happened to fall on October 31, which is the Halloween celebration in Ireland, the United States and some other countries. Halloween is said to have evolved from the Celtic Winter Festival in Ireland, a pre-Christian Indigenous Celtic festival celebrating the end of one season moving into the other.  We often use the word Pagan for forms of pre-Christian knowledge and practice.  Christians built upon the timing and relate to it as All Hallowed Eve, the night before three days of remembering the dead. But to see the practices of Halloween in Greenwich Village in New York City is to come to understand the ancient forms of spirituality from which it sprang.

The spirits of the dead are seen in many forms as ghosts, vampires or the ever-popular zombies (themselves an evolution of Africa via Haiti Indigenous spirituality).  In putting on costumes, a modernized form of the Irish Mumming, contemporary New Yorkers are acknowledging alternative Indigenous knowledge systems that historically carried more mainstream knowledge of daily life. But over the years, Christian dominated knowledge systems have stripped away the broader base of traditional knowledge, leaving Halloween as a curious exhibition of pagan masks and images.  Western knowledge systems have similarly stripped away, diminished or killed – off most of the ancient knowledge systems that pre-dated enlightenment.  This was done in Europe, the Americas and all over the world as empires with guns and epistemology spread outwards.

Knowledge democracy calls for broadening of and inclusivity in recognition of knowledge systems.  It calls, among other things, for a recognition and revitalisation of ancient Indigenous knowledge systems.  It says that a healthier and more just world requires access to fuller representation of knowledge systems and traditions.  Halloween began as a celebration of the earth’s seasons, expanded to acknowledgement of the presence of our ancestors amongst us.  It has been stripped of these deeper meanings by rational and Christian systems of meaning – making in a similar way that Western knowledge has tried to dominate all alternative knowledge systems.

So, what does this have to do with US Foundations?  The US Foundation is an historic offspring of national and, now, global capitalism.  The practice has been to create, out of the profits of capital, a structure for addressing some of the most egregious imbalances of modern patriarchal capitalist life: poverty, homelessness, violence against women, destruction of the planet.  Their mission statements call for attention to injustice, inequality, and social change generally.  Modern global capitalism, as Wilkinson and Piketty have shown empirically, produces growing inequality and structural gaps between the rich and poor.  Foundations are there to attend to the ills that our global economic system create.

However, US Foundations, and the persons that work for them, play a very important role and, in fact, are sources of some of the only potentially untied funding that civil society organisations or universities might have access to.  But as long as these Foundations conceive their roles as supporters of elite arts, mainstream narrowly conceived higher education knowledge bases or approaches to change that depend solely on extending elite knowledge to those in need, they will never achieve their transformative potential.  Supporting the role of the Humanities in the face of neo-liberal regimes that seek to eliminate everything but the skills necessary for the global assembly line is admirable.  But if the idea of the Humanities is limited to the myth that European knowledge of the 16th Century Enlightenment is all that is needed, the deeper changes that many are calling for will never stand a chance.

As de Sousa Santos says, “There will be no global social justice without global cognitive justice”

Budd L Hall
November 6, 2015

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