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Faith and FestivityFaith and Festivity

Faith and Festivity

John Von Heyking traces the classical roots of the Calgary Stampede and finds that even Muslims celebrating Ramadan are treated fairly at the fair

John von Heyking
15 minute read

Liberal societies prize tolerance as their prime virtue and unifying principle. Yet tolerance for those one does not like turns out to be a weak link, which leads to claims that tolerance should mean we must "embrace" those unlike us. But that move is illiberal, especially when the State is called upon to coerce us to embrace others. Liberal societies, then, tend to fluctuate between two extremes of a tolerance among distant citizens on the one hand and a soft paternalism that coerces us to love one another on the other. It is difficult to reconcile tolerance with faith in a common life.

Two recent events in my former hometown, Calgary, illustrate how it might be possible to conceive the reconciliation of tolerance and common life. The first was the catastrophic flood of June 2013, which displaced between 75,000 and 100,000 people from their homes and severely damaged the facilities of the city's world famous Calgary Stampede. The second is the city's accommodation of its numerous Muslim taxi drivers, who faced the dilemma of fasting and resting during Ramadan, which in 2013 overlapped with the Stampede, a period that sees a dramatic increase in demand for their services.

Begun in 1912, the Calgary Stampede is an annual festival that celebrates the West by holding a professional rodeo, agricultural exhibition and carnival midway as well as numerous other cultural and economic activities. Despite initial worries, Stampede officials proclaimed that the flood of 2013 would not cause the Stampede to be cancelled. "Come hell or high water" became the rallying cry not only for the Stampede but also for the city as a whole, for which the Stampede is very much its own. Indeed, many observed that the Stampede, which is a non-profit organization run at arm's-length from the civic politicians, depends on its army of roughly 2,500 volunteers, many of whom worked to clean and rebuild the facilities. As Mayor Naheed Nenshi, an Ismaili Muslim, declared to the National Post after the flood, "All of those volunteers that make it happen every single year will make it work." Indeed, the volunteer effort to clean up the city was astounding. As Cardus executive vice president Ray Pennings observed, "It is significant that only 1,500 of the 75,000 evacuated people utilized the municipally provided shelters—all the others were taken care of through their own social contacts or by strangers who offered their homes. Monday morning the city needed 600 volunteers to do a door-to-door drop-off; 2,500 people showed up at McMahon Stadium ready to help."

The Stampede is emblematic of the "can do" and volunteer spirit of Albertans, and the fact that the cleanup and rebuilding effort took place well in advance and independently of government efforts reveals something important about the regime.

The Stampede is emblematic of the "can do" and volunteer spirit of Albertans, and the fact that the cleanup and rebuilding effort took place well in advance and independently of government efforts reveals something important about the regime.

These two events illustrate something crucial about the Calgary Stampede and about the question of tolerance and faith in the common life. First, regarding Ramadan, the Stampede, while a festival celebrating the West, is also one that celebrates the founding principles of Western civilization, namely ordered liberty, and this includes tolerance. Second, regarding the response to the flood, the Stampede is an expression of civic friendship, as illustrated in its central role in the community as well as in the importance of volunteers.

Moreover, the Calgary Stampede is, in important respects, something rarely found in modern civilization: a civic festival, or a festival of the civil religion of a specific area, namely Calgary and southern Alberta. Its festivities embody principles and stories specific to a particular regime, but ones practised across Western liberal polities devoted to liberty and, less obviously, civic friendship

I suggest it is a civic festival in the sense that it embodies the principles of the regime's civil religion of liberty. This is rare because most festivals today are cultural and therefore reside in the social sphere, whereas this is more specifically political.

Civil religion is a topic that has received some attention recently. Attention has also been paid to how liberal democracies, despite formal separation of Church and State, constitute their own civil religion through the formation of customs and mores suitable for liberty. Most of this work focuses more on the orthodoxies or right-opinions of these civil religions and less on their practices. There might indeed be a fundamental difference between modern civil religion, based as it is on orthodoxy or correct opinion, and ancient civil religions, including those of Athens and Rome, that had more to do with orthopraxy, or right practice. Most observers see the rise of civilization (including social differentiation) as undermining festivity (sociality) because the former entails an Apollonian rationalism that attempts to control the Dionysian ecstasies of the latter.

Indeed, during Calgary's early days, the cowboy was looked down upon as a kind of hooligan by the city's Victorian elites. It is for these reasons civic festivals in modern times are less frequent and less political than they were in antiquity or medieval times. Modern festivals tend more to be social and cultural, embodying "traditions" and appealing to a segment of the population instead of to the whole, which expresses its citizenship by participating.

For the participants of the rodeo, the purpose or significance of the rodeo consists mostly of competition, prize money, fellowship with other participants, fellowship with the horses, and the continuity of family traditions within the games. For the spectators, the theoroi, as the ancient Greeks called festival spectators, the Calgary Stampede is a mixed bag. For many, the 10-day festival is bacchanalian. It is said that the wedding rings of many Calgarians are removed during that time. Festive overturning of the nomoi—or laws and customs—is lubricated by alcohol and other intoxicants, including country music that most never listen to at other times. For others, the festival is simply a time to enjoy the spectacles, the animals, the carnival atmosphere and being served pancakes by one's social superiors. For still others, especially those from eastern parts of Canada, the Stampede is simply a tasteless exercise in kitsch, a nostalgia play based on what Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm called an "invented tradition," which is to say that the Stampede is simply bread and circuses created by an oligarchy to pacify the dispossessed masses. Thus, discerning meaning in the festival beyond mere pleasure or tradition is not easy to do.

Yet, as Max Foran observes in his introduction to Icon, Brand, Myth: The Calgary Stampede, it is not the images or spectacle per se that make the Stampede; it is the act of one's participation in it. "I learned my first and probably most important lesson about the Stampede that day [of his first Stampede]: it had more to do with the act of participation than with offered opportunities. Paradoxically, it has been this capacity to embody a significance that transcends the sum of its various components that explains in part why the Stampede is held in such high and low regard."

Thus, with Foran's observation of how participation helps one enucleate the inner meaning of the Stampede in mind, let us proceed in the spirit in which Pythagoras says we should view festivals:

"Life…is like a festival; just as some come to the festival to compete, some to ply their trade, but the best people come as spectators [theatai], so in life slavish men go hunting for fame [doxa] or gain, the philosophers for the truth."

Festivals are the quintessential manner in which polities become present to themselves, to the world and to the gods. This is the insight of Plato in the Laws, where he has the Athenian Stranger claim that festivals were instituted by the gods to remind human beings of their essential link with the gods and to re-establish that connection. Festivals are public exercises of anamnesis, of remembrance of the beginning and the beyond. Festivity, as numerous poets and philosophers testify, is the essential activity of gods. As thinking is the most divine of human activities – Zeus tirelessly beholds the cosmos and human activity therein – festivity is the most divine activity humans do together as a community.

In The Religion of the Greeks and Romans, Károly Kerényi explains: "The Greek law of Style demands an onlooker, and Zeus as he is portrayed by Homer is tireless at looking on…. Zeus is the spectator who completes the picture of the world as it appears to Greek religious experience. For the Greeks, the standpoint of the spectator is in itself divine. To adopt this standpoint means for them the divine fulfillment of existence."

Festivity, after all, is a form of contemplation but one that engages the entire bodily, moral, cultural, political and religious dimensions of our being. It is not philosophical contemplation so much as contemplation embedded in play and dance.

Festivity raises human beings to a higher stratum of being, that of play. Again, Kerényi explains:

"The festival reveals the meaning of workaday existence, the essence of the things by which men are surrounded and of the forces which operate in their life. The festival as a reality of the world of men – for so we may call it, fusing its subjective and objective ingredients – means that humanity is capable, in rhythmically recurring periods of time, of becoming contemplative and, in this condition, of directly meeting the higher realities on which its whole existence rests."

In celebrating the cowboy, the Calgary Stampede celebrates the humble and stoic virtues of the cowboy and his work. It celebrates calf roping, bull riding, horse riding and, unique to southern Alberta, chuckwagon racing. It transforms the workaday world of the ranch worker into a playful celebration of universal humanity, of our relationship with the animal world and of the cosmos. This festival is also a synthesis of free play as well as compulsion. It is expected that participants will dress in Western wear, however gaudy. Indeed, I always find it marvelous when I see non-Europeans dressed up in cowboy wear. Their Western wear complements their turbans and they figure out how to wear their cowboy hat on top of their hijab.

The play of festivity includes in it, serving as a peak as it were, the act of theoria, of contemplation. In festivity, we have the unity of action and contemplation. The theoroi was also the name given to visitors or envoys to other poleis to their religious festivals. Kerényi explains the theoroi:

"These official festival ‘visitors' or envoys combined in their office the two outstanding characteristics of Greek religiosity, the festive quality and the standpoint of the onlooker. The festival embassy itself was called theoria and was sent out by a State on a ‘visit of inspection' or ‘spectatorship' – to some distant place where a deity had once appeared to men and where the occasion was now celebrated with a festival. Apollo himself, who visits his people from a distance, is in this capacity called theorios and thearios. A mere delight in show-going with a fleeting prayer. At the beginning of Plato's Republic, Socrates describes such a visit. Out of pure curiosity, he went down to Piraeus with his friends to view the fire of the Thracian goddess, then he prayed to her, and thus returned not from a mere sightseeing visit, but from a theoria."

In festivity, humans find active leisure in a communal act that combines contemplation and action but that points towards contemplation because in play they participate and reflect upon the action that fundamentally characterizes their regime. I turn now to the play of the Calgary Stampede.

Guy Weadick, its founder, along with its main backers, Patrick Burns, George Lane, A. E. Cross and Archibald McLean (the so-called Big Four), inaugurated the first Calgary Stampede in 1912 as a festival to celebrate the Western way of life in the form of rodeo, and specifically to recollect the time before the closing of the frontier, which had occurred some 30 years previously. Weadick wished to put together "the greatest gathering of men who participated in the laying of the foundation of the present great Western development," according to Foran in the Icon, Brand, Myth chapter "The Stampede in Historical Context."

Weadick's comment strikes at a deep ambivalence regarding the project because in celebrating the frontier, it celebrated an era that had passed. It is for this reason that the Big Four thought the first Stampede would also be its last. Yet it also marked "the present great Western development." So the Stampede is an alchemic mix that celebrates the freedom of the frontier and the virtues of the cowboy—his risk taking, co-operation and manliness in particular—along with the "development" that takes place after the closing of the frontier, after the "wire." This alchemy or perhaps translation between pre-history and history can be seen in the way in which modern risk takers see themselves in the risk taking of the cowboy. "The myth of the pioneer, especially of the pioneer as risk taker, remains a central part of Calgary's and Alberta's view of itself. It is remarkable how slight a shift has been required to extend an appreciation of the homesteader's perceived rural character and perseverance into a justification of the activities of Calgary capitalists. The notion of risk has now become central in the idealization of the Stampede," according to Donald G. Wetherell in the Icon, Brand, Myth chapter "Making Tradition."

So the cowboy is an independent risk taker who is also co-operative, which embodies both liberty and the specific manner in which co-operation is manifest in the modern liberal regime, namely, volunteerism, which Harvey Mansfield, in America's Constitutional Soul, suggests is between the passive citizen and the permanent revolutionary. His liberty is ordered liberty, leavened with obedience to the rhythms of nature, including the harsh continental climate of Western Canada, and the cowboy's companion, his horse.

By celebrating the horse, the Calgary Stampede is in a long line of horse cultures that go back to the original horse cultures: the anonymous communities along the banks of the Oxus, the river that separates central Asia and Persia, as well as the artists in southern France who painted their horses on the walls of caves, their cathedrals. The Stampede connects post-industrial and post-historical humanity with history and with pre-history. It is a universal festival.

J. Edward Chamberlin's family ranched along the Milk River ridge in southern Alberta, which for horses is the centre or "navel" (omphalos) of the North American continent on account of it being located at the crown of the continent, where the rivers originate that flow into the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans. He meditates that life with the horse is the life between freedom and necessity and between civilization and barbarism, where freedom is experienced as a gift. "Horses need watching. They let you wander, but they make you settle down…. They embody the in-between, not only in between wandering and settling down but also in between the fence and the free," according to Chamberlin in Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations. Reflecting on freedom, Chamberlin states, "It's a gift of grace, a form of forgiveness; and when a wild horse is tamed, or a young horse is trained, we take custody of that gift and catch a glimpse of that generosity."

Of course, in rodeo, the bucking broncos are not tamed, which is the point of cowboys wishing to test themselves by riding on their backs. Yet the inbetween tension of life with horses applies here, too. The archetypal pose of the bronco rider, with one hand waving free, according to Chamberlin, is "both concentrated and cavalier…bringing together the clarity of a flying change of leads with the mystery of how it happened, and hovering between surrender and control."

Cowboys speak lovingly about their horses, their counterparts in the action. Indeed, while horses frequently get killed at the Stampede, especially in its famous chuckwagon races, the cowboys respond that competing with those horses is a means of raising them up. If they did not compete, they would go to the glue factory. As a world-historic festival of the horse, the Stampede has what Eric Voegelin termed a primary experience of the cosmos that also engages their universal humanity. The Stampede celebrates the in-between, the metaxy. Thus, the lesson of the Stampeder is the direct opposite of the lesson of that other great horseman, Napoleon, as described by Hegel:

"I saw the Emperor—this world-soul—riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here on a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it…this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire."

Instead of seeing world history sitting astride in a pose of domination over reality, as if history has ended and all possibility exhausted, the Stampeder views the cowboy trying to attain gyroscopic balance atop the primordial forces of nature, with the recognition that if he lasts eight seconds, he—and we, the spectators, the theoroi—will have received the gift of freedom. Born out of the expectation that the closure of the frontier – the "wire" – would end history, the Stampede in fact stands as a forceful reminder of the full amplitude of man's historical existence.

Chuckwagon racing is a southern Albertan innovation with roots, one can imagine, going back to Roman chariot races. The original chuckwagons were the portable kitchen wagons, or Conestogas, used in the U.S. Civil War and subsequently used during the great cattle drives of the second half of the 19th century. Naturally, someone realized great fun could be had racing them. Today's chuckwagon races involve four wagons, each pulled by a team of four horses with a driver and two outriders responsible, at the start of the race, for placing the kits inside the wagons and then accompanying their wagon teams through the initial figure eight before racing the "half mile of hell" around the racetrack. What appears as a chaotic sprint is actually a carefully choreographed team effort.

Aritha van Herk, in the Icon, Brand, Myth chapter "The Half a Mile of Heaven's Gate," explains the cultural significance of the chuckwagon races: "The chuckwagon cowboys personify the co-operative spirit of Western Canada…independent spirits in a communal enterprise. And their sport, which embodies team sportsmanship, community and collaboration, is an apt mirror of the Canadian West and a symbol of the character of western Canadians." She goes on to explain the "symbol of character":

"For chuckwagon racing is about staring at mortality, the possibility of death always hovering, the thunder of hooves an apocalypse. Jim Nevada recounts, ‘I was 15 years old, it was my second show outriding and I was nervous. Veteran driver Orville Strandquist said to me, "Jim, when your card's laid, it's played. It could be on the racetrack or in a car on your way to Calgary, but as long as you're doing something you like, that's what you do. You don't know when you're going to die, and don't push it, but when your card's played, you're dead."' Such fatalism might belong to the world of unpredictability, but it also speaks to an acceptance of danger as a companion to the adrenalin of risk…. Every race articulates a hope that out of the complicated danger of these competitions will come a gently persuasive story. This legend might indeed hark back to the ancient chariot races, but it also echoes a yearning to witness the long-lived haunting of a western tradition."

Spectators witness chuckwagon races as cooperative exercises that entail deadly risk. Racers co-operate with one another – among outriders, and outriders with the wagon driver—but they also co-operate with their horses. It is not uncommon for a chuckwagon horse to perish in the races. At its core, for driver and for spectator, is the experience of playing your card and having your cards played within a specific set of cultural and even family traditions and practices. The outcome of life's endeavours are uncertain. Liberty involves risk. Our co-operative exercise in the regime is an endeavour of risk.

Today, one witnesses Muslim girls wearing their cowboy hats atop their hijabs as they reconcile their religious practice with the civil religion of their home. The Stampede, then, is a public commemoration of the kind of spiritual tension that seems to be central to numerous faith traditions. It seems that the bronco riders, chuckwagon drivers and spectators share the same spiritual tension that Voegelin notices in Plato's "Myth of the Last Judgment," and in Islamic prayer exercises that Calgary city officials accommodated for the city's large Muslim taxi driver population.

Voegelin writes in Science, Politics, and Gnosticism:

"When I want to pray, says the rule, I go to the place where I wish to say my prayer. I sit still until I am composed. Then I stand up: The Kaaba is in front of me, paradise to my right, Hell to my left, and the angel of death stands behind me. Then I say my prayer as if it were my last. And thus I stand, between hope and fear, not knowing whether God has received my prayer favorably or not."

The chuckwagon driver, bronco and bull rider, spectator, Muslim, Christian, Platonist, all pray the same prayer.

And Muslim cab drivers were able to pray thanks to a prayer tent erected in a downtown parking lot by the taxi industry, allowing them to observe Ramadan without worrying about missing work. This accommodation showed respect for the drivers and allowed them to return to work more quickly. No public funds were used – it was paid for by the taxi driver's association.

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