Events

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gaza: The Bigoted Stuff Will Hit the Fan



I'm sure that almost no one in the Middle East or elsewhere actually relishes the prospect of renewed and intensified fighting in Gaza. (Well, I'll qualify that:  the Hamas leadership evidently looks forward to killing or martyrdom or both.)

There are many historical perspectives on the conflict, but scarcely less important than the conflict itself is the way that it will be treated in the media and integrated into future historical consciousness.  Given the nature of asymmetrical warfare, and the relatively low level of military and historical understanding on the part of press and public alike, as well as the high stakes that numerous parties have in the outcome (sometimes multiple ones on the part of the same actors, depending on whether we are dealing with public comments or private sentiments), we should particularly be on the lookout for careless or wantonly distorted historical analogies, and for language inflation.

Among the high-yield epithets that we can expect to see launched against Israel (for this tendency most clearly manifests itself in one direction):  anything having to do with Nazis (individual entries sure to rank high: Warsaw Ghetto, genocide, concentration camp, holocaust [with big or small "h"]), massacre, extermination, disproportionate/disproportionality. In addition, expect a barrage of standard-issue, low-grade but serviceable platitudes, such as "cycle of violence."

Already, the Nasty Nazi Analogies are cropping up, and we'll talk about them in due course. For the moment, let's scroll back, though.

At the UN Security Council this past spring, as widely reported (here, by Al Jazeera, quite objectively), "Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy UN ambassador, ended a long speech about the plight of the Palestinians by comparing the situation in Gaza to the concentration camps set up by Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews."  The representatives of the US, Britain, Belgium, Costa Rica, and France--led by the latter--walked out, and the South African ambassador, who was chairing, closed the meeting, saying "members 'could not agree' on the statement."

Will the press and the public now have the civil courage to--figuratively speaking--"walk out" when they hear similar abuse of language, history, and basic decency? That is:  refuse to let such abuse go unchallenged, or at least not willingly become complicit in it?

The erosion of language and the erosion of moral principle go hand in hand.  Those on all sides of the conflict owe it to themselves and everyone else--their opponents, the public, and the casualties--to choose their words carefully.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

December 25: the other birthday (science vs. superstition?)

We have periodically referred to the irony--or simple fact, if you prefer--that events that become famous or infamous tend to eclipse all other anniversaries associated with that date (who today associates September 11 with the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814, a naval encounter that ensured that the young United States would survive the encounter with its old Colonial foe:  Without the first 9-11, no second 9-11.)

The inimitable physicist Bob Park seeks to restore some breadth to our historical reflections on December 25 in the current issue of his weekly "What's New":
4. THE TWENTY-FIFTH OF DECEMBER: IMPORTANT BIRTHDAY.
Yesterday marked the birthday of two important figures in history: Jesus
of Nazareth and Isaac Newton. Should WN compare their impact?
It's characteristically succinct and naughty, but we have to acknowledge that the idea was not originally his. As evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson explains in her blog:
Some years ago, the evolutionist and atheist Richard Dawkins pointed out to me that Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics and mathematics, and arguably the greatest scientist of all time, was born on Christmas Day, and that therefore Newton’s Birthday could be an alternative, if somewhat nerdy, excuse for a winter holiday.
The discrepancy between the Julian calendar under which he was born and the Gregorian one that we use (in which his birthday would fall on January 4) then provides her with an opportunity to riff on the relation between calendars and astronomy, which eventually takes her to Newton's key ideas. She closes with the suggestion that we could celebrate "The Ten Days of Newton" just as well as the "Twelve Days of Christmas," and even composes some new verses for the old tune:
On the tenth day of Newton,
My true love gave to me,
Ten drops of genius,
Nine silver co-oins,
Eight circling planets,
Seven shades of li-ight,
Six counterfeiters,
Cal-Cu-Lus!
Four telescopes,
Three Laws of Motion,
Two awful feuds,
And the discovery of gravity!
I know exactly what Park and Dawkins had in mind, and I am sympathetic to the endeavor, though it becomes more complex if one pursues the comparison a bit further:

To be sure, Jesus worked in an entirely speculative and spiritual realm. The most energetic attempts to turn him into some sort of social revolutionary notwithstanding, he was an apocalyptic prophet, whose beliefs, if properly understood, would shock if not totally alienate most members of liberal mainstream churches today--just as the doctrines of the fundamentalists would appear totally alien to him.

Newton, by contrast, by identifying physical principles on which the world works, discovered an underlying reality that had existed since before the origins of the earth and continues to do so long after his death. (And we can add to this his other accomplishments, including calculus, with due respect for Leibniz.) That's what Parks and Dawkins mean, no doubt: that Newton discovered realities, and that our modern world to a large degree rests on our understanding of that reality as mediated through Newton's achievement and that of his successors.  No argument there, and more attention is due him.

However:

1) It is a real toss of the coin as to whether the average westerner understands more of Christianity or classical physics. (I'd bet s/he gets failing grades in both.) That in no wise diminishes the greatness of Newton's accomplishment--and it might even strengthen the argument for the new holiday--but it does prompt some sobering thoughts. 

The reality of physics remains firm, but cultural illiteracy takes many forms. 

One of the most alarming aspects of modern society is the widespread skepticism regarding science.  Cultivated liberal elites who look down upon creationists as knuckle-dragging yokels don't come off much better themselves when they claim, drawing upon our heightened awareness of the subjectivity of all intellectual endeavor (a little knowledge is a dangerous thing) that science is a "fiction" or "social construct" or "just another narrative."  

I have to say that I cringe when I hear my colleagues in the social sciences utter inanities of this sort with all the cretinous smugness of the devout. It's not only (at times boastful) ignorance, but also simple emotional and ideological resistance to facts that threaten comfortable worldviews.

One of the things that impressed me about our current College President when he came here for his job interview was his response to a question from a scientist precisely about how to confront this antiscientific mentality. His very simple answer: If you don't believe in science, on what grounds could you possibly refute the ideas of a creationist??

2) Newton's idea of science was in many ways very different from our own.  To be sure, Newton became an idol of the Enlightenment. One need but cite Pope:
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,
God said let Newton be and all was light.
or Voltaire:
When one considers that Newton, Locke, Clarke, and Leibniz would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned at Rome, and burned at Lisbon, what are we to think of human reason? One would swear it was a native of England in the present age at least. In the time of Queen Mary there was a violent persecution on account of the proper way of pronouncing Greek, in which the persecutors were, as usual, in the wrong. They who put Galileo before the Inquisition were still more so; and every inquisitor ought to blush, from the bottom of his soul, at the sight of the sphere of Copernicus. Nevertheless, had Newton been born in Portugal, and had a Dominican friar happened to discover a heresy in his inverted ratio of the squares of the distances of the planets, Sir Isaac Newton had certainly walked in procession in his sanbenito at some auto-da-fé.
3) That said, although Newton's interest in astrology has now been called into question, he was, as Judson points out, a deeply (though rather heterodox) religious man who spent (or wasted, depending on how charitable one wants to be) a great deal of his time experimenting with alchemy and trying to calculate the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, which, he believed, contained some clue as to the harmony of the universe.

4) If Bob were able to sit down and have a conversation with Isaac, it might well turn out--according to the historical record, at least--that Newton would be a believer in what we nowadays call "intelligent design"--that is, acceptance of evolution, but evolution directed or at least set in motion by some higher--supernatural--power.  Then again, since evolution did not exist as a concept in Newton's day, that would require quite some adjustment in his worldview.  And for that matter, if he could assimilate that new theory, than why not (hypothetically, at least) the rest of Darwin's doctrine, which--although Darwin, no less than Newton, began by believing that he was doing and discovering God's work--does not require a god at all?

5) Okay, Bob: I see where you were heading!  Science--unlike religion--begins with hypotheses and revises them in the light of new evidence.  Got it!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry . . . Whatever . . . Again!

Although the modern reader could be forgiven for interpreting this image as some sort of cutesy multiculturalism in this age of Chrismukkah, the reality is rather different--though there is a connection.

As an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin from 2005 explained, the concept goes back over a century to a time when increasingly assimilated German Jews appropriated Christmas celebrations in their own secular manner. (The original term was Weihnukkah, of which Chrismukkah is just an anglicization.)

In recent decades, the term has become respectable--half-serious and half-humorous--and taken on a life of its own.


This image of the menorah evolving into the Christmas tree comes from a postcard sold by the Museum, and whose original intent was critical rather than celebratory. The caption reads:
"Darwinian: Zionist caricature on assimilation, from the periodical, 'Schlemiel' (1904)"
That these issues still arouse strong sentiments can be seen from this rather less subtle blog entry by Jeremy Cardash and its responses at the Jerusalem Post.

In any event, greetings of the season on whichever holiday(s) you happen to be celebrating.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Serious Take on Fauxtography

One of the scandals of the 2006 Lebanon War--ranking higher than Israeli mismanagement of the political-military calculus though lower than the brutal cynicism of the Hizbullah clerico-fascists--was the failure of the press to distinguish between true and patently false information.

Bad coverage resulting from a combination of gullibility and cowardice was nothing new, for it is amply documented in the case of the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970s as well as the Second Intifada. (Exhibit A in the latter case was the myth of a massacre at Jenin: Despite conspiratorial theories and wildly inflated talk of "massacres" and mass executions of anywhere between 500 and 3000 innocent victims, even Palestinian and international sources later concluded that the combined local military and civilian death toll was under 60.)

Among the novel and worrisome features of the latest Lebanon War was the blatant faking of photographic evidence--in some cases, by members of the press themselves--rather than simply the uncritical acceptance of false evidence from other parties attempting to deceive the press, whether by staging scenes or providing doctored images and untruthful accounts. (My Boston University history colleague Richard Landes, for example, has made a name for himself in this domain through his unrelenting pursuit of what he has concluded was the staging of the death of the Palestinian boy Mohammed al Durah in Gaza during the Second Intifida. The topic remains sensitive and controversial.)

I recall following the unfolding of this unexpected conflict via the internet during business travels in Europe. Somehow (I honestly forget how, at this point), I turned to the sites of several conservative blogs (not an information source that I customarily used) and was struck by their insistence that coverage of the fighting was tainted by more than what they habitually claimed was the bias of the mainstream media.

One of those sites was Little Green Footballs (LGF), run by software innovator, jazz musician, and political commentator Charles Johnson--who had hardly endeared himself to liberals by igniting what he liked to call "Rathergate" (for those of you too young to remember, even if you can appreciate the clumsy but established use of the suffix, "-gate," to denote a scandal: Dan Rather was a major figure in the reporting of the Watergate criminal conspiracy that toppled President Nixon): i.e. demonstrating that documents presented by then-News Anchor Rather on CBS--purporting to show that George W. Bush had shirked his military duties during the Vietnam War--were patently faked.

In the case of the Lebanon War, LGF began by showing that purported scenes of mass destruction in Beirut were in fact doctored photos in which someone had crudely used the PhotoShop "clone" tool to multiply plumes of smoke. Further revelations from that site and others followed.

In a recent article, as LGF proudly announces--Hey Mom, I'm Peer Reviewed"--Nikki Usher, writing in First Monday, highlighted the role of the blog in changing the discourse and drew some new conclusions about the nature of the blogosphere in general:
BLOGOSPHERE | Sat, Dec 13, 2008 at 8:24:46 pm PST

It might be the first peer-reviewed study that begins with the words, “OK, now things are getting weird.”

Reviewing Fauxtography: A blog-driven challenge to mass media power without the promises of networked publicity.

Abstract

During the Israel–Hezbollah War of 2006, bloggers caught Reuters publishing doctored images from Lebanon. Known by bloggers as Fauxtography, the scandal provides an important site to analyze the ability of blogs to challenge mainstream media. One blog in particular was almost single–handedly responsible for unearthing and for publicizing the scandal — Little Green Footballs. This paper uses the scandal as a case study to assess how Little Green Footballs was able to mount a challenge to mainstream media. Despite theorizing to the contrary about the collective promise of networked publics, Fauxtography reveals that one of the biggest challenges of late to mainstream media came from the activities of a single blogger.
(Note: Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris touched on some of these issues and others in a New York Times blog report. "Photography as a Weapon" back in August. One of the immediate inspirations then was the obvious fakery of photographs purporting to show Iranian missile tests, exposed--once again--by LGF.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Urban blight or adaptive reuse: which model will come out of Detroit?

On the Op-Ed page of today's Times, Detroit journalist Bill McGraw offers a picture of the past as future in "When the Cars Go Away":
This week, as Washington has tried to decide whether to rescue the automobile industry, Americans have wondered what it looks like when a giant automobile company goes under. The answer can be found in Detroit.
His point--with the old Packard company as Exhibit A--is that the failure of the big automakers would be a social disaster.  No doubt. Inefficient cars produced by inefficient companies will nonetheless still have to go away, though what will follow is very much within human control and need not correspond to the vision that he sketches.

The essay, however, is in some ways most interesting for its impassioned description of the huge formerly state-of-the art plant, which is decaying for a variety of reasons and whose ownership is a matter of legal dispute:  
So the property is virtually abandoned, and much of it has been empty for years. Almost all the windows in the four- and five-story buildings — thousands of them — are broken. The bricks and masonry are crumbling, and two large enclosed bridges that soar over streets are falling apart. Part of one of the large passageways recently collapsed onto Bellevue Avenue, and still sits there, blocking the street.

Some floors have caved in because metal scrappers have cut out the I-beams. Vast rooms are filled with trash, from old shoes to unwanted pleasure boats.

Nature has reasserted itself: Trees grow on the roof and moss has spread inside. Chalky stalactites hang from ceilings, apparently the result of rain coursing through the walls.

Water from broken pipes collects into small lakes, freezes during the Michigan winters, then breaks up in spring and runs out of the plant onto neighboring streets. The plant is home to wild dogs, feral cats, homeless people. Arson is a regular event.

In its day, when Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the early 20th century, the Packard complex was a center for innovation. In 1905, the architect Albert Kahn designed Building No. 10 with reinforced steel concrete, creating an airy, spacious workspace. Such construction revolutionized the building of factories around the world.
Like McGraw, one wonders what might have been.  Adaptive reuse of factories to revitalize urban areas and provide new jobs should be part of any major economic and technological transition, and a plan from the start, not an afterthought--or, perish the thought--as here, something that no one thought of until it was too late.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Salman Hameed on Islam and Creationism

I was delighted to hear from my friend and colleague Salman Hameed (whose blog we also follow on this site), that an interview with him on Islam, creationism, and science, was about to appear in New Scientist.

I was equally pleased (and more surprised) to see that Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs (LGF) gave prominent play to the story.

The influential and at times idiosyncratic conservative blog, which is the bane of many on the left (for example, it broke the "Rathergate" scandal back in 2004, supported the Iraq war, and harshly attacks Islam itself as well as Islamic fundamentalism), is also known for its resolute defense of science against pseudo-science and superstition. In particular, it has aggressively denounced creationism, intelligent design, and other manifestations of religion masquerading as--or attempting to emasculate--science.  (Admittedly, LGF has expressed skepticism regarding the human causes of climate change, but that is a debate that can take place on the plane of science.)

Naturally, this has puzzled many liberals, who evidently imagine political conservatives and religious fundamentalists as cut from the same cloth.  (Most preposterously, someone suggested that the rising prominence of science stories on LGF was some cunning attempt to secure the election for John McCain by tricking the mainstream electorate into voting Republican.)

Should LGF's stance really so hard to understand?  Humans are complex creatures, capable of holding many ideas in their heads simltaneously:  some of which are complementary, some of which are mutually contradictory, some of which simply exist separately side by side.  Determining which of those three possibilities applies in any given case is not necessarily simple.  The point of having evolved a large and powerful brain is to use it. 

Given that more Americans believe in miracles, the Devil, and a literal hell than believe in evolution, I, for one, am happy to see conservatives standing up for science rather than telling our kids (in the 21st century?? WTF) that dinosaurs survived into the Middle Ages, when they were known as dragons.  Rather than complaining, let's be thankful for what we agree on and save our energies for arguing over matters of fundamental disagreement.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reproductive Rights: American Social History in the Making--and Retelling--in the Pioneer Valley

Many citizens are familiar in general terms with the controversial Supreme Court "Griswold decision" (Griswold v. Connecticut) of 1965, which legalized contraception for married couples but made it illegal to display or advertise contraceptive products.  Few of us, however, realize that an important step in challenging that bizarre ruling took place right here in the Pioneer Valley:
It was a mob scene. On April 11, 1968, some 200 college students and Valley residents joined reproductive-rights activist Bill Baird in a demonstration outside the Zayre's department store in Hadley on the site of present-day TJ Maxx store.
. . . .
That day, Baird had walked into Zayre's and legally purchased a can of contraceptive foam and a copy of Modern Bride magazine, which carried an ad for the product. Outside, in front of the store, he showed the foam and the magazine to the crowd, challenging local police to enforce the law, including arresting the attorney general for the sales tax collected on the product.
Among those present was Smith theater professor Leonard Berkman.  Now, Len and his wife, our University of Massachusetts colleague in US and women's history, Joyce Berkman, have collaborated on a major new work that recalls and interprets Baird's campaign, set to open next week at UMass:
Baird's lifelong crusade, nearly lost in the annals of reproductive rights for women, will take center stage next week at UMass. The docudrama "Menace to Society," named for the moniker given to Baird by his opponents, is the work of a multidisciplinary team drawn from the UMass departments of history, legal studies, women's studies, English and theater.
. . . .
Last year, when UMass Dean Joel Martin put out a call for proposals for a "Visioning Grant" for a multidisciplinary project, the last tumbler fell. Berkman was awarded the grant and set about assembling a team.

The 10-member research group included investigators from the history, legal studies and women's studies departments. Lori Sandhusen took an oral history from Baird, while others researched the law, women's history, the struggle for reproductive rights, the responses of the Catholic Church and organizations such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women.
. . . .
"The most surprising thing about the story itself is that so many groups of people who you would think would be [Baird[']s] natural allies - Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the women's movement - totally rejected him," said Kimberly Fuller, a Ph.D student in the history department and the project's historian. "People saw him as being too radical."
We cannot fail to note that my own institution, which has been a leader in promoting education about reproductive rights, played an indirect role in the creation of this work:
Three years ago, Berkman heard Baird speak at Hampshire College. "It was spellbinding," she said. "After his lecture a bee got in my bonnet about recognizing the important role he played in women's reproductive rights."
(full article, including performance schedule:  Bonnie Wells, "Choice:  UMass breathes life into the history of a local man's lifelong crusade for women's reproductive rights," Amherst Bulletin, 5 Dec. 2008).

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Real Jeffery Amherst


Amherst prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary next year, but this year also marks two other two hundred fiftieths:  the birth of Noah Webster, who lived for a decade in Amherst, during which time he helped to found Amherst College; and the arrival in the American colonies of Sir Jeffery Amherst, after whom the town takes its name.

Our Amherst colleague Kevin Sweeney, a specialist in early American history--including Native American history and material culture--who is also teaching military history this year, offers a portrait of Jeffery Amherst in the current issue of Amherst Magazine.  In fact, it is a portrait of a portrait, for he takes the striking and enigmatic painting of Jeffery Amherst by Joshua Reynolds (Mead Art Museum, Amherst) as the point of departure for a series of reflections on a turbulent career.

As Sweeney observes, 
Jeffery Amherst played a prominent role in deciding the imperial struggle to control North America, yet today, many residents of the town and most alumni of the college know little about what he actually did. What is popularly known arises from the debate over his role in the spread of smallpox among Native Americans during 1763 (a controversy that Amherst magazine examined in 1989). But that event came at the sorry end of a meteoric career.
He proceeds to evaluate Amherst as man and commander, noting that his legendary caution was a strength as well a weakness, for it enabled him to master the mundane but crucial art of logistics, which both won battles and prepared the way for the victories of his fellow commanders. Indeed, Sweeney says, contrary to popular opinion, it was the adaptation of traditional European military discipline that both enabled the British to win the French and Indian War and provided the model that the rebellious Americans later used against their former British countrymen and rulers.

Sweeney concludes:
Reynolds captures Amherst’s genius triumphing over the sublime powers of nature. The artist paints Amherst as a proto-Romantic hero. But in reality, Amherst operated as a very model of a modern, managerial commander, employing meticulous planning, lavish resources, overwhelming manpower and superior firepower to force his foes to surrender unconditionally. It’s an approach to waging war that bears a certain resemblance to a much later American approach that produced victories in the Civil War and in World War II, and it was Jeffery Amherst, his subordinates and his “American Army” of British regulars who first unleashed this way of war in North America.
The article includes a video interview with Sweeney.

Merry . . . whatever!

Two snapshots of the syncretic holiday season in Amherst.


When I drove through town earlier this evening, I passed our annual holiday fête on the Common, organized by the Chamber of Commerce and the Town: the "Merry Maple Celebration of Lights" (and this year, multicolored, rather than plain white, to boot).

It epitomizes the easy-to-digest but at times uneasy blending of the sacred and secular that most public institutions affect at this time of year:  No Christmas tree, but Santa on a fire truck.  No Christmas celebration, as such, but lots of carols.  (Incidentally, my UMass history colleague Dan Gordon will be blogging on the theme of religious displays on public property later this month for The Public Humanist.) 

One of the ironies:  As I was stopped at the intersection, the Amherst Regional Middle School Chorus and UMass Minuteman Marching Band were playing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing"--one of the most popular modern Christmas songs, composed by the Lutheran Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. His grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn, the great Enlightenment scholar, who pioneered the modernization of Judaism.  Only two of his six children remained within the Jewish faith; the rest, like many of their German compatriots, followed the path of assimilation and conversion to Christianity.

I was heading through town on my way to the University of Massachusetts to attend the Third Annual Friendship dinner of the Rumi Club, on the theme, "Building Bridges of Dialogue, Bringing Cultures Together."  Following a lavish Turkish meal, several speakers, including local residents and a representative of the Turkish Cultural Center of Western Massachusetts, discussed their experience of interfaith cooperation between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The keynote speaker was Ismail Acar, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School, who talked about the preconditions for true cross-cultural dialogue.

In a sense, it's comparing apples and oranges, because the "lighting of the Merry Maple" is a full-blown community event that attempts to please all by blurring all differences in the spirit of the homogenized "holiday season," whereas the dinner of the Rumi Club was a more intimate affair that sought common ground in part through acknowledging the legitimacy of difference. I found the latter much more satisfying (and not just because of the imam bayildi).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Building Consensus": Architecture and Preservation at UMass Make Headlines

The current issue of UMass Magazine features a very important trio of articles highlighting the debates over architecture and historic preservation on campus:

• "Building Consensus," journalist Eric Goldscheider's lead piece, reviews the controversy and the stakes:
Past and future had a bit of a scuffle on campus last spring. As crews prepared to dismantle the College Barn to make way for a new Recreation Center across from the Mullins Center, a fledgling preservation group stopped the proverbial wrecking ball mid-swing.
Led by professor emeritus of wildlife biology Joseph Larson ’56, ’58G Preserve UMass, or PUMA, has more than 100 members, including alumni and active and retired faculty and staff. In the face of the barn’s demise, they convinced Preservation Massachusetts, a statewide organization with a kindred mission, to place the campus as a whole on a list of the 10 most endangered historical resources in the Commonwealth. (full article)
• In "Joining Together," Professor of Classics Emeritus Vincent Cleary tells the story of the old Student Union and chronicles its central role in the life of the campus, from the Eisenhower era, through protests over the Vietnam War and the Rodney King verdict. (full article)

• In "Preserving the Future," our colleague Professor of Architecture and History Max Page (and a former member and Vice Chair of the Historical Commission) explains why the modernist style of many of the campus buildings should be treasured rather than scorned:
What I wish to suggest is that the architecture of this campus, far from being impersonal, cold, drab architecture that some see today was in fact a heroic statement of the value of a public university. As the college became a university in the second half of the 20th Century with aspirations to turn Massachusetts citizens into national leaders, it chose not to mimic the colleges nearby—brick Amherst College, Gothic Mount Holyoke, Victorian Smith. No, campus leaders decided that this national public research university would stake its claim as something modern through its architecture. This university would be elite but not elitist, it would be open and accessible, and it would pursue research in the public interest. There was to be nothing quaint or precious about this new university. It would unshakably place itself as herald of the future. (full article)
The pdf version contains all the articles, along with graphics (photographs and timeline) in full color.

Monday, December 1, 2008

New York Historic Preservation Crises: buildings endangered by strong wills vs. weak laws. Why not fight back?

In contrast to the relatively encouraging preservation news contained in the New York Times stories on Buffalo and New Bedford, the more recent piece on the metropolis itself is depressing in the extreme:  a story of cynicism, evasion of the law, and exploitation of weaknesses in the law for the sake of philistine pursuit of naked profit  (Robin Pogrebin, "Preservationists See Bulldozers Charging Through a Loophole," 29 Nov. 2008).

It is a long and lugubrious tale, for which reason I allow you to read it for yourselves.  The essence of the story, though, is that developers seeking to demolish old buildings or revamp them beyond recognition will use any trick in the book, from casuistry to bribery, to attain their ends.

Most disturbing is the attempt to circumvent the spirit of the law by ostensibly legal means:  Owners or developers rush to demolish a building before it can acquire landmark status. And if a building has been so designated, they typically "strip" it, removing the features that make it most historically noteworthy.  When the case comes before the authorities:  voilà, no more historical character to preserve--and demolition is allowed to proceed.  

It is a shameful practice, and one can only hope that the countervailing practice of public shaming of the wrongdoers--as in the case of the aforementioned article--will increase in response to the offense.  At first sight, it is not the most powerful weapon, but when wielded both aggressively and wisely, it can achieve significant results.  Especially in the glorious age of the internet and cell phones, it is relatively easy to mobilize opinion against miscreants.  In the 19th century, Heinrich Heine declared that the press was the modern equivalent of the fortress.  Today, we may say:  the pillory is dead, long live the blog! Social networking can summon a crowd as fast as the tocsin.

In the case of Amherst, our Demolition Delay Law (Article 13) explicitly cites historic and aesthetic criteria:
Finding that the economic, cultural and aesthetic standing of the Town of Amherst can best be maintained and enhanced by due regard for the historical and architectural heritage of the Town and by striving to discourage the destruction of such cultural assets, it is hereby declared as a matter of public policy that the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of structures of historical and architectural significance, located within the Town of Amherst, is a public necessity, and is required in the interest of the prosperity, civic pride and general welfare of the people.
Its provision for the imposition of delays furnishes limited and temporary protection intended to facilitate negotiation and compromise, but it also has some more potent "sticks" with which to chastise the irresponsible.  The key points are:  (1) No one can demolish a building without filing the proper request, a document that, in the case of buildings older than 50 years, must in principle pass under the review of the Historical Commission, and (2) Any owner who knowingly destroys or structurally sabotages a building without obtaining the proper permit faces a fine of $ 300 per day--the operative clause being, "until the demolished building is rebuilt or re-created as directed by the Historical Commission, or unless otherwise agreed to by the Commission."  In the case of someone forced to recreate a vanished and irreplaceable building, that could add up. For better or worse, that aspect of the law has not really been put to the test.

As the eighteenth-century British architect and preservationist Nicholas Hawksmoor put it, "Whatever is goode in its kinde ought to be preserv'd in respect for antiquity, as well as our present advantage, for destruction can be profitable to none but such as live by it."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

New Bedford Revival as Model of Adaptive Reuse and Urban Revitalization?

A recent New York Times article featured the successes and challenges of historic preservation in Buffalo.  One of the issues raised there involved the at times uneasy relationship between preservationists and developers.  A briefer piece yesterday focused on the approach that New Bedford is taking.  The center of the whaling trade in the mid-19th century, New Bedford fell on hard times and in recent decades "started to become known mainly for blight and despair," epitomized by "The notorious 1983 rape at Big Dan’s tavern."

The city government hopes to capitalize on the improved current situation through intensified use of its historic resources, the centerpiece of which is a major downtown hotel to fill the void created when the last one disappeared half a century ago:
The LaFrance Hospitality Company, a family business in Westport, Mass., which owns eight hotels in New England, a restaurant and catering business, is planning a $10 million 106-room Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites on a 1.6-acre parcel across the street from New Bedford’s fishing piers. Site preparation is under way, with a groundbreaking planned for early next year.

The five-story hotel will incorporate a historic granite structure, which used to be a whale oil refinery, a reminder of the days when New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world. Its facade will combine brick, granite and wood. The site is just outside the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, 13 city blocks of 18th- and 19th-century buildings where the likes of Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass once strolled.
Although the model is not directly applicable to Amherst for a variety of reasons, the examples are in some ways heartening and should cause us to take notice: A large chain hotel would not be consonant with Amherst's sensibilities or downtown zoning, but the fact that a major national firm such as Marriott can adapt itself to the constraints of a historic structure should remind us of what is possible.

Further highlights:
Since 2000, 32 buildings in the downtown have been restored, at a cost of more than $80 million; 14 other buildings are in a “preconstruction” stage, the city said. Most of these are historic structures that are being renovated into commercial or mixed-use space, often with the help of state and federal historic tax credits.

In addition, several developments are under way elsewhere in New Bedford, including a $35 million mill conversion into condominiums, and there are plans to build the $2 million Waterfront Community Center on the Acushnet River, which will be a recreation facility and event center.
and
New Bedford has embraced a belief that the arts can be used to rebuild its fortunes. In 2007, it authorized hiring a creative economy development officer to coordinate arts programming, financing and development.

The city’s landmark Zeiterion Theater draws an average of 4,500 people downtown on weekends. The city also holds an annual Arts Symposium and Open Studio Weekend, which attracts 300 to 500 visitors.
Amherst is undertaking some similar measures and could learn from the others.  New venues such as The Amherst Cinema Arts Center and adjoining structures--one of which, not coincidentally, houses the new Chamber of Commerce--epitomize the advantages of historic preservation through adaptive reuse, and more generally, of using culture and leisure activity to rejuvenate the downtown social atmosphere and economy.

Although Amherst is a destination in itself rather than a pass-through of the sort that New Bedford had become, our problem is not entirely dissimilar:  Thousands of visitors come to see Amherst each year, but because our accommodations are limited, many have to travel in their cars to and from the large motels along Route 9, expending fossil fuels, fueling traffic congestion--and leaving both the room rental fees and the taxes to neighboring Hadley.  Given that clean economic development, including cultural tourism, is among the priorities in Amherst's Master Plan, it stands to reason that a well-conceived and sustainable hospitality industry should likewise be among our prime topics of discussion.

(Elizabeth Abbott, "Old New England Whaling Center Will Soon Offer Visitors a Place to Stay," New York Times, 26 Nov. 2008)

Beautiful Buffalo: historic preservation--and lessons for us?

Perhaps you never thought of Buffalo as a beautiful city. More likely, you never thought much about Buffalo at all.  As I know from my own conversations, however, its residents are very proud of what they have, and a little bit sad and offended that others don't understand their pride.

The New York Times recently helped to correct that imbalance (Nov. 16) with an extensive and lavishly illustrated spread on the city's architectural treasures poised between destruction and preservation:  "Saving Buffalo's Untold Beauty:  The Home to Some of the Greatest American Architecture Tries to Balance the Past With the Future."  It also offers some valuable lessons for the rest of us, whether in rural or urban environments, east or west. As author Nicolai Ouroussoff puts it, the city is a microcosm of American urban and architectural development:  "Touring Buffalo’s monuments is about as close as you can get to experiencing firsthand the earliest struggles to define what an American architecture would look like." He notes that the early industrial structures fascinated European architectural innovators:
the city’s grain silos and steel mills had become architectural pilgrimage sites for European Modernists like Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, who saw them as the great cathedrals of Modernity. In their vast scale and technological efficiency, they reflected a triumphant America and sent a warning signal to Europe that it was fast becoming less relevant.
Still, he continues, it is the evolving picture of American architecture--from Richardson and Olmsted to Sullivan and Wright--that most fascinates the student nowadays.

The dilemma, he explains, is also a sign of hope: For many years, Buffalo seemed to epitomize the fate of the deindustrialized, economically and culturally declining urban space. Today, preservation offers a chance not only to save buildings, but also to revitalize both the economy--in part through cultural tourism--and the quality of urban life:

However, a positive result is far from guaranteed. In the first place, there is continued danger of destruction. Even as preservationists doggedly restore public structures and homes in blighted neighborhoods alike, massive federal projects threaten whole swaths of the city:
Preservationists raised an outcry this year when Mayor Brown unveiled his plan to demolish 5,000 houses over the next five years as part of an effort to clean up some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the mayor’s office are now trying to hammer out a compromise.
In the second place, there is the threat of too much of a good thing, or the right thing the wrong way or in the wrong place:
how these projects will be forged into a cohesive vision for the city’s future is less certain. The best-intentioned preservationists, however determined, can accomplish only so much. Often developers co-opt the achievements of these trailblazing individuals and nonprofit groups by dolling up historic neighborhoods for private gain. The city’s rough edges are smoothed over to satisfy the hunger for more tourist dollars. Shiny new convention centers and generic boutiques follow. Yet schools, roads, bridges and electrical and power lines continue to crumble.
As Ouroussoff sees it, the city is a sort of preservation laboratory whose evolving results others would be wise to observe:
Buffalo is an ideal testing ground for rethinking that depressing model. Its architectural heritage embodies an America that thought boldly about the future, but believed deeply in the city as a democratic forum. What’s needed now is to revive that experimental tradition.

and

Now the city is reaching a crossroads. Just as local preservationists are completing restorations on some of the city’s most important landmarks, the federal government is considering a plan that could wipe out part of a historic neighborhood. Meanwhile Mayor Byron W. Brown is being pressed to revise a proposal that would have demolished hundreds of abandoned homes.
The outcome of these plans [the tension between local desires for preservation and federal determination to bulldoze the city into modernity; JW] will go far in determining the city’s prospects for economic recovery, but it could also offer a rare opportunity to re-examine the relationship between preserving the past and building a future.
The most important lines for me were in many ways those that spoke to the rather different condition of our own rather different town.
today its grass-roots preservation movement is driven not by Disney-inspired developers but by a vibrant coalition of part-time preservationists, amateur historians and third-generation residents who have made reclaiming the city’s history a deeply personal mission.

At a time when oil prices and oil dependence are forcing us to rethink the wisdom of suburban and exurban living, Buffalo could eventually offer a blueprint for repairing America’s other shrinking postindustrial cities.
What we see is a more egalitarian, diverse and socially tolerant vision of the city. It is both pro-density and pro-history. These residents have come to recognize through firsthand experience that social, economic and preservation issues are all deeply intertwined.
The Amherst Master Plan does provide such a cohesive vision and does embody these principles. It declares sustainability in all aspects of town government and life a priority implementation strategy and moreover advocates directing development primarily to village centers.  Preservation or adaptive reuse of historic buildings conserves resources and energy andfacilitates the kind of infill that allows us to preserve open space by increasing density in built-up areas without destroying their existing character.

How to achieve actual preservation can be more complicated. There are a number of lessons here.

One can only stand in awe of Buffalo's achievement in organizing a citizen coalition to raise 76 million dollars for the restoration of Richardson's neo-Romanesque State Asylum for the Insane.  Amherst has proven less ambitious and successful in its attempts to raise private funds for preservation purposes, though to be fair, that may be because we have not encountered the sort of single high-profile case capable of mobilizing all forces and resources. To date, we have managed to get by with a combination of Community Preservation Act funds and the occasional grant, but as these revenue streams shrink or no longer prove as reliable as they once were, we may find ourselves in situations in which private funds constitute the only recourse--and we may find ourselves unprepared and under-resourced.  We may have had a foretaste of this in the case of the Hills lots on Main Street this year.

The case of Buffalo also raises the sensitive issue of developers, often reviled as either destroyers or appropriators of historic structures and landscapes. Given the lack of legal protections--aside from our Demolition Delay Law--for historic resources, our Historical Commission and local preservationists often have no choice but to negotiate with developers or other property-owners (private or institutional). Such situations raise fears of extortion (and to be frank, I have voiced such concerns myself), but the obvious fact remains that property-owners are the people with property to develop or sell.  Since we cannot expect altruism in a social system based on property and profit, the best that we can usually hope for is to be able to persuade owners that preservation (including adaptive reuse) is to their practical and political advantage.  The same applies to institutional owners such as colleges and universities: the fact that they are "non-profits" does not mean that they do not have material interests.  The description of the city as a microcosm of architectural development also applies, as we have repeatedly affirmed on these pages, to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst campus. The University could affirm, preserve, and market its landscape and built environmental heritage, to the benefit of all. From the latest reports, it is at last learning to do so.

The key in all cases is building effective coalitions, and that entails being able to explain what preservationists do in a way that enables constituencies to see it as in both their interest and the common interest.  Some citizens wonder why, under Massachusetts General Law, a single chapter of a locale's Master Plan embraces both "natural and cultural resources."  To be sure, there are many specific differences, but I see the two realms as intimately connected:   Both the Conservation Commission and the Historical Commission are charged with protecting the resources of the town, and that means in large part protecting them from inappropriate development.

Some scholars and practitioners occasionally warn that our definition of historic preservation is becoming dangerously broad (and that warning is well taken), but the fact remains that preservation is good sustainable and environmentalist practice.  (As the new phrase goes, "the greenest building is. . . one that is already built.")  There is nothing wrong with selling it that way, given that the sales pitch is honest--as long as we remember that preservation is a good in itself, and not simply the means to another end.  The latter point is indeed the most difficult to explain.

Although our community clearly espouses the value of preserving the historic character of the town, many residents see concrete historic preservation measures--those that cost money--as something of a luxury. Even if they no do not dismiss them as the domain of the stereotypical "blue-haired ladies in tennis shoes," they do not see them as an urgent need.  In particular, advocates of open space, farming, and conservation often do not recognize in historic preservation a kindred task.  The growing need for affordable housing sometimes prompts advocates of that cause in turn to assume that theirs is the only or most worthy cause.

Until and unless we can find a way to understand how these various goods fit together and reinforce one another, it will be difficult to make real and coherent progress.  That is why, in arguing for an increase in the Community Preservation Act surcharge, I have argued that the Commonwealth's grouping of the three tasks under the same legislative authority was positively brilliant:  all three contribute to the quality of life.  Still, the power and cohesiveness of that vision will be for naught if, as is sadly too often the case, advocates of each cause view those of the other as opponents in a zero-sum game.

Finally--Someone Talks About the Beer Crisis! (with a comment on both science and history)

We were prescient. Over a month ago, we told people to stop worrying about gasoline and start talking about beer. And it worked! Well, sort of. Gas has gotten cheaper, but beer remains expensive. We took an NPR story about bartenders underfilling beer glasses as an opportunity to throw in a few tidbits about the history of beer drinking vessels and measures. That was about retail practices rather than wholesale production, and we can't really take any credit for the drop in gas prices. But we had noted to ourselves the rising curve of beer prices, so clearly we were onto something. Anyway . . .

We are delighted to see that our colleague, historian Amy Mittelman, whose book we mentioned there, is prominently featured in an interview in US News and World Report, in which she addresses precisely this issue:
Will Beer Be the Next Casualty of the Crisis?
The downturn could hurt high-end brewers
By Kimberly Palmer
Posted November 18, 2008
The beer industry is often described as immune to economic downturns. After all, when people get laid off, they want to nurse their sorrows with a cold one, right?

It turns out that, as the beer industry has gone increasingly upscale, the answer to that question is no longer simple. In recent years, beer sales have been relatively flat except in one category—craft beers, which are made by small, independent brewers. Amy Mittelman, author of Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer, says that the heyday for such high-end, specialty beers could soon be over as consumers look to cut costs. Mittelman spoke to U.S. News about the future—and history—of the American beer industry. (read the rest)
This story also provides a welcome opportunity to catch up on the beer story that was breaking last last month, just before the elections: Rice University students made headlines with their attempt to develop a genetically modified beer yeast that would produce the compound, resveratrol--the component in red wine that, according to some studies, accounts for the "French paradox," as a result of which some populations that consume relatively high amounts of both fats and alcohol, nonetheless display fewer long-term health problems than do others with nominally bad dietary habits.

The titles of the various articles were instructive.

In the early story we cited, Eureka! Science News rather (over)dramatically led with: "Better beer: College team creating anticancer brew" (16 Oct.). It's a bit strange: good news that comes with mention of a potentially fatal illness may be lacking something, or at least make the product sound more like a medicine than a recreational drug. And if the title raises extravagant hopes among headline-skimmers, the body of the article provides the sobering message that this is no panacea (and indeed, that the medical benefits remain unproven; more on that sort of thing below). Not sure that was the best authorial strategy.

Far more effective was the approach in scientificblogging (16 Oct.):
"Only One Thing Could Make Beer More Awesome - Preventing Cancer (Thanks Biobeer)"

Think you knew spent too much time pondering the wonders of beer in college? These Rice University students have you beat. They're using genetic engineering to create beer that contains resveratrol, a chemical in wine that's been shown to reduce cancer and heart disease in lab animals.
(read the rest)
This one took a positive and mundane fact, and added the potential good news as a surprise bonus (and using the slangy, "awesome," in a story about college students had the right feel, too). Good strategy.

MIT's Technology Review , which reproduced most of the content of the preceding entry, chose the more neutral and generically upbeat "Beer That's Good for You" (4 Nov.) and added a few details of its own:
Since headlines began trumpeting the antiaging effects of red wine a couple of years ago, the traditional toast to good health has become more meaningful. But students at Rice University, in Texas, think that beer drinkers shouldn't be left out. They're trying to engineer a yeast that produces the antiaging chemical found in red wine--resveratrol--and use it to brew "BioBeer" with a health boost.

"It's not going to prevent you from getting a beer gut from drinking too much beer, or from getting cirrhosis of the liver," says Taylor Stevenson, one of six undergraduates working on the project. "But people are already drinking beer, so why not make the activity a little healthier?"
(read the rest)
The title of this article, like that of the first, is of course slightly misleading, because beer, as such (consumed in moderation), is a healthful beverage, which, historically, solved many problems in the human diet, from provision of useful carbohydrates to the maintenance of a supply of safe potables when water was often bad; not for nothing was it called "liquid bread" in several world cultures. The point, however, is welcome.

Latecomer NPR (8 Nov.) came up with the sloppily confusing title, "Turning Beer Into Wine, One Gene At A Time" (which risks conjuring up disturbing visions of Joe Six-Pack [yes, the obligatory reference is present] and Jesus in white lab coats).

(Oh, and the results of the iGEM competition? Slovenia won the Grand Prize. Rice got the award for "Best Presentation, Runner up.")

And since the talk is of genetically engineering beer yeasts, it is worth noting that recent research from Stanford has also decoded the genome and history of these organisms. Some reports could not resist trumpeting as a revelation the news that lager and ale yeasts prove to be related: "Lager lovers convinced that their beer of choice stands alone should prepare to drink their words this Oktoberfest." But the real news beneath that report from the front of the warring beer factions is the insight into the way that artisanal practice in effect achieved the same results that one would now pursue scientifically--selecting for a combination of traditional traits associated with ale flavors, and new ones that permitted the colder fermentation required for longer-lasting lagers. "'These long-ago brewers were practicing genetics without even knowing it,' said geneticist Gavin Sherlock, PhD. 'They've given us a very interesting opportunity to look at a relatively young, rapidly changing species, as well as some very good beer.'" ("Heads up: Stanford DNA study reveals evolution of beer yeasts," Eureka! Science News, 10 Sept.)

The scientific and historical question: Will the Rice experiment do anything to change the popular resistance to genetically modified foods? To be sure, genetic modification, especially of crops in open nature, should be undertaken with all due caution (and humility). That said, the sad fact remains that most of the resistance to such scientific innovations is instinctive and based on presuppositons and fears rather than knowledge--one of the few instances in which many avowedly secular people display an almost religious superstition. One might begin with the fact that irradiated and genetically modified foods, which have yet to be proven to cause demonstrable harm to human health, are strictly regulated--whereas "health supplements"--which, thanks to an abominably foolish US law dating back to 1994, are allowed to make wild and unsupported claims for their supposed benefits--are not. (My favorite example, cited by the irrespressibly skeptical physicist Bob Park, was the company that marketed salt water under the name of "Vitamin O").

Just over a week ago came further confirmation that most of the supplements that supposedly educated but definitely prosperous citizens purchase with such zeal and abandon (take a trip to your local Whole Foods store--or "whole pay check," as they call it around here) have no value, except to separate a sucker from his or her money. Ginkgo biloba does not prevent dementia or Alzheimer's. It thus joins echinacea and probably St. John's Wort on the list of greatest failures. As Steven Novella points out, the quest is not entirely irrational, for herbal drugs "are, after all, just pharmaceuticals in unpurified plant form." The problem--aside from the fact that people insist on selling the herb rather than purifying the possible drug, and that, as he says with some irony, the marketing precedes the research, rather than vice-versa--is that when a clinical study fails to prove benefits, producers of the supplements simply refuse to accept it ("there is great promise"). Novella observes:
The only herbal remedy that has been abandoned by proponents and marketers because evidence showed it was unsafe is ephedra - and that was only after the FDA banned it as unsafe. Proponents have never, to my knowledge, abandoned a claim or a product due to negative scientific data.
That is the bottom line. No industry or profession can claim to be evidence-based if they never stop using or selling a treatment because scientific evidence shows it does not work. We will see what happens to the gingko market. I predict nothing will happen. The NPA already has their spin.
As a thought experiment, imagine how you would react to a pharmaceutical company dismissing negative evidence about one of their drugs in the same way.
And, to add insult to injury, other new studies confirmed the trend of earlier research, which showed that consumption of significant doses of supplements of even necessary vitamins and minerals not only did no good, but in fact potentially caused harm. As Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times put it, "Everyone needs vitamins, which are critical for the body. But for most people, the micronutrients we get from foods usually are adequate to prevent vitamin deficiency, which is rare in the United States." Interestingly, this is pretty much what we learned in advanced science seminar back in high school (which is longer ago than I care to remember). Linus Pauling had suggested that Vitamin C was a cure for the common cold, but our chemistry teacher scoffed at the notion and suggested that the Nobel laureate had lost his edge: "Either you're getting adequate amounts from a normal diet, or your body can't absorb them properly--in which case supplements do no good." ("News Keeps Getting Worse for Vitamins: The best efforts of the scientific community to prove the health benefits of vitamins keep falling short," Well Blog, 20 Nov.)

And if you think that's depressing, watching the responses of readers who insist that they know why multiple, large-scale, carefully controlled clinical studies just "can't" be right and "must not" have taken factor x or y into account is a deeply disturbing excursion into the world of scientific illiteracy and self-delusion. (One expects this sort of denial from the capitalist supplements industry, which is incorrigible and has a material stake in the affair.) It is illuminating, though (and here's where we bring things back to history): if educated people have so little capacity to understand the physical world, which operates according to regular and demonstrable laws and rules of evidence, can it be any surprise that they encounter so much more difficulty in making sense of the social world of history, culture, and politics, with its immeasurably more varied and complicated causal factors and interactions? Next time, don't take chances: Call a historian.

Health benefits? I think I'll just stick with beer (lager), thank you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Inevitable Thanksgiving Piece

If it's Thanksgiving, it's time for the inevitable pieces, usefully (?) reminding us of the distance that separates our ritual collective memory from the historical reality.

I say, "pieces," meaning mainly items in the print media or internet news and blogosphere, because television seems to have become ever more reticent. Not many years ago, the cable if not broadcast channels would show some conventional historical/biopics such as "Plymouth Adventure" (1952).  Not even that nowadays.  History Channel is running one program on the history of the holiday, which was not without merit: e.g., explaining something of the first Thanksgiving, pointing out that the holiday did not become a national one until the Civil War (including the role of Godey's Lady's Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale in relentlessly promoting the festival along with a New England-centric view of US history, until she at last won Lincoln's support) and an official federal one till 1941, tracing the evolution of the great family holiday in the twentieth century, and even acknowledging Native American protests at Plymouth. Admittedly, the website had a generous range of material.

Both of the pieces on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times argued, in different ways, but with likeminded political-didactic intent, that we could learn valuable lessons from a fuller knowledge of the past.

Andrew Beahrs, in "Where the Wild Things Were," cites both Mark Twain's writings and the records of the first Thanksgiving to make the point that game and other wild plant and animal foods, once an integral part of the celebration, have vanished and yielded to store-bought and even prepared foods:
Preserving or restoring the wild foods that remain begins with appreciating what they have to offer — extraordinary taste and smell, certainly, but also the joy of experiencing the marshes and mountains and lakes these plants and birds and animals rely upon. We have a great deal to learn from Twain’s instinctive premise: that losing a wild food means losing part of the landscape of our lives.
Kenneth C. Davis, in "A French Connection," uses a little-known fact of as the point of departure for a riff on our long history of intolerance and violence: French Huguenots came to Florida more than half a century before the Pilgrims set sail, and celebrated their own Thanksgiving--only to be slaughtered by the Spanish Catholics who founded St. Augustine.
The list goes on. Our history is littered with bleak tableaus that show what happens when righteous certitude is mixed with fearful ignorance. Which is why this Thanksgiving, as we express gratitude for America’s bounty and promise, we would do well to reflect on all our histories, including a forgotten French one that began on Florida’s shores so many years ago.
Having no such weighty message, I'll content myself with the delectare rather than prodesse, and a glance at the original menu:

The only eyewitness of the account comes from a letter by Edward Winslow to a friend in England in 1621:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
History Channel, citing Plimoth Plantation Food Historian Kathleen Curtin, lists what may have been and what was definitely not on the menu. In the former category are many of the usual foods, though most strikingly, also (cf. Beahrs) seafood (cod, eel, clams, lobster) and more wild fowl (in addition to the obligatory turkey, goose, and duck:  crane, swan, partridge, and eagles) and game (seal, in addition to the expected venison).  What was definitely not there:
Surprisingly, the following foods, all considered staples of the modern Thanksgiving meal, didn't appear on the pilgrims's [sic] first feast table:
Ham: There is no evidence that the colonists had butchered a pig by this time, though they had brought pigs with them from England.
Sweet Potatoes/Potatoes: These were not common.
Corn on the Cob: Corn was kept dried out at this time of year.
Cranberry Sauce: The colonists had cranberries but no sugar at this time.
Pumpkin Pie: It's not a recipe that exists at this point, though the pilgrims had recipes for stewed pumpkin.
Chicken/Eggs: We know that the colonists brought hens with them from England, but it's unknown how many they had left at this point or whether the hens were still laying.
Milk: No cows had been aboard the Mayflower, though it's possible that the colonists used goat milk to make cheese.
When it comes to information on the Pilgrims, I still always turn to The Times of Their Lives:  Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (NY: Anchor Books, 2000), by the pioneering historians of material culture, James and Patricia Scott Deetz. They point out that the only original account suggests "a celebration bordering on the rowdy, with sounds of firearms being discharged accompanying talking and shouting, in two languages, and the consumption of quantities of food"--and contains not a word about "giving thanks":  "Such an image is entirely at odds with the manner in which Thanksgiving has been portrayed in pictorial form, a solemn group of people seated primly at long tables and partaking of the traditional turkey, among other foods" (5). The only demonstrably present meats--based on a later passage in Winslow's famous letter--were "ducks, geese, and venison" (7).

My favorite tidbit in the dietary domain involves the cranberry.  The interesting thing is not that cranberries were available and not eaten, but what contemporaries called them: "alkermes berries," which they knew from Europe:
The strange fact is that alkermes berries are actually bright-red pregnant female insects found in the Mediterranean, which were long thought to be a vegetable.  Their juice was used both as a dye and a cordial. (7)
Take a close look next time you pass that bowl of relish.

And the Deetzes also adds beverages, which Curtin strangely leaves out:  "the likelihood of beer in generous quantities seems quite high.  Beer was consumed by all seventeenth-century English people in quantities that today would seem excessive." In fact, a journal kept on the Mayflower indicates that the a thirst for malty libations even helped to determine the site of their historic settlement:  "We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer . . . ."(8)

Guns and beer (a shot and a brew): what could be more American than that?

I'm thankful that the settlers in Plymouth weren't the drab bunch of prigs depicted in our schoolbooks.  History is usually more interesting than legend.

Resources:

• Mass Moments on the First National Day of Mourning organized by Native Americans in 1970

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

11:00, 11.11.1918: Armistice/Veterans Day

Veterans Day (contrary to popular opinion, not expressed as either a singular or a plural possessive) is one of those American holidays that reflects our shifting appreciation for historical time and ritual: It commemorates the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, when the Armistice brought an end to the slaughter of the Great War. First celebrated as a US holiday on 12 November 1919, it became the familiar Armistice Day, celebrated on the 11th in 1926, and was transformed into Veterans Day in the aftermath of World War II, in 1954.

Like many other federal holidays, Veterans Day succumbed to the problematic "Monday Holiday Law" of 1968, which attempted to shift celebrations from their historic dates to neighboring Mondays, thus providing workers with a three-day weekend.  In the case of Veterans Day, the shift was notably bizarre, for as of 1971, when the new legislation went into effect, the celebration was relocated to the fourth Monday of October.  It would have made about as much sense to shift Independence Day to June, but the change was particularly ill-conceived, given the numerological significance of the original.  Forty-eight states accepted the new date, but in the course of the next four years, 25 peeled away, and eventually, a total of 46 celebrated the old date.  Federal legislation of 1978 finally and irrevocably returned the holiday to 11-11. (No doubt, the Vietnam experience had something to do with it.)

To mourn what we have lost in the realm of ritual as well as human life is not to cling to tradition, but to understand how it should be used.  When I was in elementary school (quite a while back, but not all that long ago), we still stood and observed a moment of silence at 11:11 on November 11.  There would be no point to that now, for the Great War was not the "war to end all wars" and is not a particular point of reference for the current generation.  Similarly, when I was a child or even a young adult, veterans' organizations still sold paper poppies, with their reference to the flowers of "Flanders Fields" in the Great War. At some point in recent decades, these emblems became purple forget-me-nots instead, which may have been a more meaningful message in more ways than one in the post-Vietnam era.  However, the shift of the date is a more serious matter.  

Even leaving aside the compelling and beautiful significance of the triple "eleven," a Monday holiday in effect defeats the purpose of this commemoration in particular.  The whole point of the holiday, like most ancient and traditional holidays, is to mark a break from ordinary times and routines: one thinks of the well-known pre-industrial rhythms of "feast and fast" versus our modern, smoothed-out time, made even flatter by the availability of almost every good and service "24-7." We are unwilling to give up our convenience and the routine of being bound by no routine.  

Anyone who wants to appreciate how the ritual disruption of routine can function as a call to civic memory need only consider the simple commemoration of Yom ha-Shoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day (there is a similar practice on th day on which the war dead are mourned), when a morning siren brings all vehicular and pedestrian traffic to a stop for a moment of silence:


Writing about November 11 in the New York Times, Alexander Watson reminds us of the varied cultural assumptions and experiences behind our practices of commemoration:
Cambridge, England

TODAY is the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, and it will be commemorated very differently on each side of the Atlantic and across the borders of Europe. It’s a reminder that not all “victors” experience wars in the same way, and that their citizens can have almost as much difficulty as those of the vanquished states in coping with the collective trauma of conflict.

For Americans, Veterans Day celebrates the survivors of all the nation’s 20th and 21st century wars. In France and Britain, by contrast, the mood is altogether more somber. In these countries, it is the dead who, since 1919, have been the focus of the ceremonies.

Why this difference?
(read the full article: Alexander Watson, "The Holiday to End All Wars," New York Times, 10 Nov. 2008)

Commemorations of the 90th anniversary of the end of the war in the UK, France, and Belgium:

Video of commemorations in the UK, France, and Belgium

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Landscape Restoration Begins in 1730 West Cemetery

The restoration of Amherst's 1730 West Cemetery, once among the ten most endangered historic resources of the Commonwealth, has been a priority of the Historical Commission for a decade. Our initial efforts have focused on securing the site through installation of new fencing and lighting, and preservation of the most endangered artifacts. The major phase of headstone restoration, described earlier on these pages, began this summer and should be completed by next spring.

What visitors most often come to see--and notice, whether for positive or negative reasons--are, of course the headstones. What they are less aware of is the physical context in which those stones are situated. One of our arguments for the importance of the Cemetery was that it contains some of the only virtually undisturbed Colonial-era topography in the center of town. Other portions of the Cemetery preserve traces of later historical periods, each distinctive in its own right--in a sense, a museum of evolving social values and landscape architecture.

The Commission, in accordance with the West Cemetery Preservation Plan of 1999, and now with the approval of Select Board and Department of Public Works, is therefore embarking upon further restoration efforts, involving landscape and plantings. We are pleased to have as additional collaborators the members of the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School, and its fraternity, Alpha Tau Gamma (ATG), whose members and alumni undertake extensive community service work throughout the Commonwealth. Among their projects have been a garden in memory of alumnus Jim Crockett, who for many years hosted the popular "Victory Garden" show on WGBH Public Television, and arborist and horticultural work for the Amherst History Museum, highway beautification work near the University, and assistance in the Amherst 250th Anniversary bulb planting program.

Our initial efforts will focus on the restoration of the turf floor in the two oldest sections of the Cemetery:

• The 1730 Knoll. At the moment, the area is desolate in the sense of nondescript and neglected rather than in the sense of evoking strong emotions and contemplation. With the new planting scheme in place, the change in scenery would be immediately apparent to anyone entering through the Gaylord Gate, signaling that one was in a special place, separated from the time represented by the streetscape (especially if we can restore proper perimeter plantings, as also called for in the Plan). This would be one of the most striking ways to communicate our efforts to the Town in a way that contributes to the celebration of our 250th anniversary, the more so as the plantings would change with the seasons.

In Colonial days, the Knoll would have been not a neatly mowed lawn, but a meadow-like expanse of varied plants kept in check by grazing sheep. To recreate something of this atmosphere without the assistance of hungry herbivores, the Plan recommends planting of bulbs and sun-loving herbaceous plants, to be kept in check by an annual mowing. In addition to having the merit of historical accuracy, this approach will reduce both costs and the risk of damage to fragile stones from heavy equipment as well as lighten the environmental cost of maintenance.

Restoration of the Knoll began yesterday, as members of the Stockbridge School and ATG planted several hundred grape hyacinth bulbs (Muscari sp.) and a scattering of barrenwort (Epimedium), provided by Hadley Garden Center. In the spring, as these plants come to life, we plan to add herbs and wildflowers, if possible, with the collaboration of plant-propagation classes at the University.



• The African-American section: A flat and shady expanse of lawn to the south of the Knoll. Many graves here were unmarked or no longer have markers, and many of the surviving stones are in poor condition. Introduction of low shade-loving plants, along with creation of a path to limit and direct foot traffic would restore a more dignified and historically appropriate character, and, again, reduce cost of mowing and risk of damage from same. The Plan also proposes a bench or other seating, accompanied by an interpretive marker to explain the history and legacy of Amherst's Black residents--among whom are Civil War soldiers of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. We expect to establish a public-input process to gather suggestions for implementation of these directives.

Master Plan Turned Over to Planning Board

Scott Merzbach, "Plan for Amherst set, seeking OK," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 8 Nov. 2008:
AMHERST - The town's master plan, which will serve as a blueprint for the town's future, is ready to be turned over to the Planning Board for approval, board members learned Wednesday from James Wald, Comprehensive Planning Committee Chairman.

"We've been living with it a long time, and we think it's a good document," Wald said.

The document comes more than 10 years after the process was launched, and incorporates information gleaned from numerous public comment sessions and townwide surveys of households. Wald said the plan provides an overarching vision for the town with respect to open space, housing, recreation and services and facilities, among other categories.

"In a sense, the whole thing is about land use," Wald said.

(read the full article)

Change You Can Motherf***ing Believe In!

As noted, the recent local and national electoral struggles have been physically and emotionally exhausting.

What to do afterwards is a problem in more than one regard. One problem is the tendency of the mainstream media and quotidian thinkers--during, and above all, after the campaign--to praise "bipartisanship." To be sure, the country accepts the verdict of the electorate and to that extent unites behind the new president, and to be sure, a certain measure of inter-party cooperation is essential to getting business done. But to elevate "bipartisanship" and "crossing the aisle" to an abstract ideal--as both candidates to some extent did as supposed evidence of their "credentials"--is also in some way deeply perverse: Why bother at all to have even two parties? (not least, when the ideological difference between them is rather modest, at least as measured by the scale of historical and global alternatives).

It was dismaying to watch the presidential debates and see the reaction of the designated pool of proverbial "undecided" voters respond in live time: Whenever one candidate criticized another, the graph of approval dipped downward. This had nothing to do with the merits of the argument at hand, and rather, with the mere fact of criticism. There are few more damning indictments of our political culture.

Hard political debate was a fact of life for American and French Revolutionaries, and the debates in the British Parliament are notoriously more boisterous than anything that occurs in our Capitol. There is something to be said, if only for the sake of basic honesty, for recognizing that people disagree about political issues, that these issues are important, and that we should cultivate and honor rather than paper over those disagreements.

How, then, to acknowledge irreconcilable disagreement and yet move on?

Sigmund Freud acknowledged the problem when, in his Civilization and its Discontents, he cited the immortal and incorrigibly ironic Heinrich Heine on the problem of enemies, reconciliation, and revenge. As Freud explained, "A great imaginative writer may permit himself to give expression--jokingly at all events--to psychological truths that are severely proscribed." Heine explained:
Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those threes. Before tbeir death, I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one's enemies--but not before they have been hanged.
Freud himself but a few years later drew up a "hate list" of his own enemies.

Now conservative commentators are gnashing their teeth at the announcement that Rahm Emmanuel, member of Congress, Democratic Party official, and former Clinton administration staffer, will become Chief of Staff in the Obama White House.
Given all the predictable and nauseating banalities about "cooperation" and "bipartisanship," it was therefore a refreshing change to see this humorous piece about Emmanuel and real "hardball" politics.

Play ball!