Wednesday, August 31, 2011

New Wine in Old Bottles. The Return to School


 It's that season again: the students are returning to town. June and September always bring about a remarkable transformation in Amherst. Between those two points, the place seems to change in character, becoming, if not what it once was before all of us interlopers moved in, at least something a bit more like a typical rural New England town. Many express pleasure at the change, if only because the pace of life seems to slow down—and it's easier to find a parking place. Others are actually and explicitly happy to be rid of the students.

Amherst's permanent residents have something of a love-hate relationship with our students, which I find at once amusing and irritating.

On the one hand, we are proud to be the home of three of the five colleges (which earns us that "book" on the book-and-plow emblem). We certainly value the students as direct contributors to the local economy as well as the people who justify the existence of those colleges, which contribute even more. As our Master Plan puts it, "These institutions offer stable employment levels and have low turnover." (As the Chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, I can tell you that the consultants' original draft more bluntly characterized the labor market here as: stable but stagnant. So now you know.)

On the other hand, a certain number of us (and note: usually not the real natives) just don't seem to like students or appreciate their presence. It's a sort of sour and humorless attitude, which at times makes me want to exclaim:  "But you moved to a college town! What did you expect?! I mean, if you don't like young people, maybe you would find Alford—with the highest median age in the Commonwealth—more to your liking." (It's an attitude that the students themselves somewhat awkwardly tried to mock—though incorrectly targeting Town government rather than cranky town residents—in the April Fool's issue of the UMass Collegian last year.)

Still, those objectively cranky folks are probably in the minority.  The more justified concerns involving students really fall into two categories: the increased demand on resources and services, and behaviors ranging from the inconsiderate to the antisocial. This isn't the place for a longer discussion on this important topic, but the Select Board and Town Manager, in partnership with the University, have been making a sustained effort to address all these issues.

That's why one of the performance goals for the Town Manager (whose evaluation we recently completed) reads:
2. The Town Manager shall continue to strengthen relationships with UMass and the Colleges, for concrete progress in areas that improve the community’s quality of life by:
  • a. mitigating the impacts of a significant student population: on neighborhoods, on demand for public safety resources, on parking and traffic issues, and so forth; 
  • b. compensating for the significant amount of non-taxable property; 
  • c. pursuing issues of mutual benefit to the Town and the academic institutions
Booze, Books, and Bylaws

As for the behavioral issues, part of this is just a matter of teaching common courtesy, and the other part is a matter of law enforcement. Both involve good public education and public relations. In order to get the student population to obey our laws, we first have to tell it what they are.


The Police are sending a cover letter and copy of the relevant bylaws to all the local campuses. Ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but it's also no help. [documents added Sept. 1] The "Community and Campus Coalition" focuses on education about responsible attitudes toward alcohol. The "Have a Heart Coalition," a joint effort of Town and University Police, starts from the premise of basic awareness and courtesy: Students need to realize that they are living with and among others, and to respect their needs and sensibilities. Often, students simply aren't aware that their behaviors are problematic or objectionable until someone tells them. We are also facilitating efforts to introduce the local population to students, so it gets to know them as individual people rather than merely a nebulous "problem."

An amusing discussion of the seasonal transformation in the Boston area arose yesterday on Twitter, where contributors proffered a variety of suggestions (earnest or sarcastic) to newly arriving students (#bosfroshadvice). Among my favorites, this one nicely captured the problem of student cluelessness about life in a residential neighborhood: "No need to shovel, your elderly neighbor cherishes that time with nature."

Sometimes, of course, education is not enough, or at any rate, lessons need to be learned another way. The Town recently passed a "nuisance house" bylaw and raised the fines for violations of both noise and open-container laws to the state maximum in order to send the message that we take these things seriously. The police have shifted to a policy of fines rather than arrests for many infractions of the law, which is a win-win situation: It simplifies the process for all parties concerned while sending the same clear message. Although this shift was not intended as a revenue-enhancing measure, receipts from "Fines and Forfeitures," as we learned from the quarterly budget report at Monday night's Select Board meeting, are up by 144% over the past year. (That's a total of $ 74,692 over what was budgeted, because revenue from Library fines decreased by $ 8,600. In this case, at least, booze clearly beat books.)

One of the ways that social scientists distinguish between cultures is by differentiating between those whose norms are based on guilt vs. honor-shame. The latter tended to be more prevalent in non-western or pre-modern western societies. Shaming the violator of community norms can be a means of enforcing them. Since we have abolished the stocks and pillory (though I have occasionally heard Planning Director Jonathan Tucker express a certain nostalgia and desire for their return), citizen-journalist and blogger Larry Kelley has taken it upon himself to call attention to the violators of the "nuisance house" ordinance under his "Party House of the Weekend" rubric.

Although the focus in these discussions of both welcoming the students and regulating student behavior is always on the University—because of its size, location, and the larger share of its students living in off-campus housing—I reminded the Select Board on Monday night that we should direct our messages in equal measure to the populations of Amherst and Hampshire Colleges.

Like it or not, the students are back, as regular as clockwork—for that matter, like my spring and summer pollen allergies, which happen to coincide with their departure and return. Or, as one of my Boston-area Tweeps put it, "I knew it when the cloud of Axe wafted north."

As much as I appreciate the quiet of the summer, I do admit that I in the end always look forward to and enjoy the return of the students and the start of a new academic year.


C.S.I.—O.M.G.

The "move-in" signs were all over town today. I didn't get a picture, but a large highway-style alert board between the apartment complexes on Meadow Street this evening, with lettering spelled out in yellow-orange light bulbs, directed new arrivals to turn right in order to find the campus dorms. [images now added]




 I did get a shot of the more modest Hampshire College welcome sign.


Here at Hampshire College (as at Amherst College), we have a new President. However, over in my building, we also have new signs and a new name. I am based in the (former) School of Social Science. It's a quasi-arbitrary thing, because that's where the position happened to be created way back when. I could as easily be based in Humanities and Arts & Cultural Studies, which also has a history line. Although, as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, I took my history classes in the Humanities Building, I have become accustomed to thinking of myself as based in a school of "social science," to the extent that we attempt to pursue the investigation of culture systematically, and to generalize about historical patterns as well as explore specific cases.

That said, for most of us, the term, "social science" was not terribly congenial.  For me, it was not attractive, but no big deal. I used to joke that I was not a social scientist, but I played one when on the job. For other colleagues who were trained in that actual milieu rather than the humanities or humanistic social sciences, it was deadly serious. They resented the term, which was redolent of the 1950s, "positivism," American imperialism and ethnocentrism, and the military-industrial complex (did I leave anything out?). It smelled of "rats and stats."

I had one reason for objecting, if not to the School name, then at least to its representation: in course numbers, email addresses, campus and external envelope mail codes, and casual conversation, it was always abbreviated to "SS." Now, I did not particularly like having a Nazi acronym attached to my identity to begin with. But particularly when corresponding with German or other European colleagues, it was an embarrassment. In Germany, most public use of former Nazi acronyms—e.g SS, SA (Storm Troopers), NS (National Socialist), etc. etc.—is banned. You cannot even use those abbreviations on license plates, given their abhorrent historical associations. It would be the equivalent of "KKK" here. I occasionally called attention to this issue, but no one cared. (So much for cultural sensitivity and "multiple cultural perspectives.")

At any rate, we all agreed that the old name was neither very imaginative nor very descriptive of what we do, so last year, we again set about discussing alternatives. I'll spare you all the details, but suffice it to say it was an instructive conversation. It was quite interesting to see what terms colleagues cottoned to, rejected, or regarded with indifference. Many rejected the notion of "science," as such, while a few defended it, but that's amatter for another conversation. The debate at times seemed to have as much to do with the quest for a good acronym as a good name, as such. (At one point, in a moment of mild frustration, I suggested: Society, History, Information, and Theory).

At any rate, in the end we settled for Critical Social Inquiry. That gives you: CSI. Get it? Tee hee hee. People were really quite proud of this choice, in large part because of its presumed cleverness. A student intern even generated some signs and posters with a motif copied from crime-scene police tape. Admittedly, it may not help to distinguish us from Cognitive Science (abbreviated CS) when it comes to course listings and mail codes. Acronym fail. And of course, the "cleverness" of the joke may be lost on people five or ten years from now. I'm just glad we weren't doing this when "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." was on the air.

The new name was introduced with festive flair at the end of the spring term. i can even literally claim that I was there, did that, and "got the t-shirt."


Bottom line: Old wine in new bottles, but more honesty in advertising.

Toward the end of the summer, new signs went up, which was a double good: they concretized the change, but in many cases, they also showed up where there had been little, unclear, or no formal "signage" before. At the least, they have made the building easier to navigate and moreover helped to connect these spaces with one another and the rest of the campus through a common aesthetic, using the (relatively new) design standard.




A pity they couldn't do something about that ghastly "mural." (Good intentions do not equate to good art.)


On the other hand, we did get new restroom signs, helping to end the confusion caused by unclear or temporary ones.



Every thing in its place.


[updates: added images and documents]

Updates: press coverage

• Scott Merzbach, "UMass students asked to be good neighbors," Hampshire Gazette, 3 Sept.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Arab Muse: a new newspaper for Arab-American youth

I just received notice of The Arab Muse, a new online publication describing itself as "the first Arab-American youth based newspaper in the United States." (Youth is here defined as "college age or younger.") It promises varied content and perspectives in areas ranging from news to culture to opinion. The first issue has pieces on such topics as the Palestinian UN statehood initiative, the dilemmas of hijabis (especially in the summer heat during Ramadan), an earnest piece warning of the temptation of adolescent suicide, and book reviews. As is to be expected, the tone and level of the writing and analysis vary, too. It should be interesting and worthwhile to see what develops.

There is also a Twitter feed.

Irene Updates

I have posted updates on the aftermath of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene in our area under the original post.

Amherst: Governed by Warlocks, Managed by a Wizard

The cartoon from which the above is excerpted recently came across my desk. I have no idea why we became the reference in this specific piece. Amherst does, however, have a general reputation for the flaky and bizarre (even leaving aside that cannibal thing). It extends from our government to our citizenry as a whole.

I can’t speak for everyone. As for the government, though: Warlocks? I’ve heard us (and our predecessors) called much worse. But not often lately, and that’s the main thing. We on the Select Board have tried to govern lightly and quietly. There’s enough drama in the world and the town, without our contributing to it.

Depending on how one looks at it, I suppose, “warlock” could be complimentary. It’s certainly better than incompetent. In any case, although the Select Board does not regard itself as an assembly of sorcerers, it did recently acknowledge the wizardry of Town Manager John Musante.

Last night, the Select Board formally concluded its first annual evaluation of Mr. Musante’s performance. The results are summarized in a press release issued this afternoon. (The full documentation on the evaluation process is available at the bottom of the Select Board web page, under "Related Resources.")

As Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe explained at the meeting, this is one of our highest and most demanding obligations. Under our Town Government Act, the five-member elected Select Board serves as the collective chief executive (which is why the we receive form letters and junk mail addressed, “Dear Mayor”). It governs, but it does not directly manage, for we hire, and oversee the work of, the Town Manager, who serves as chief administrator. (Perhaps the analogy is comparable to the difference between a chief executive officer and chief operating officer.)

We gave John the highest marks across the board (no pun intended).

To begin with, we praised him for restoring employee morale and confidence, which had reached a low in recent years. He brought to the job a calm temperament and shrewd judgment that allowed him to avoid unnecessary crises and master unavoidable ones. He thus steered us through the ongoing fiscal crisis with a minimum of turbulence and discomfort. When dealing with citizen fear of and opposition to major undertakings, such as the Gateway redevelopment initiative and the proposed solar farm on the old landfill, he showed himself capable of both firmness and flexibility. He was an eloquent advocate for the Town’s positions, but he reached out to opponents, compromising where feasible so that essentials were preserved and the projects could move ahead. In other words, he showed wisdom as well as intelligence. And if any further proof were required, one need look no further than the exemplary way that the Town’s emergency management team prepared for and dealt with Hurricane Irene.

As the summary puts it:
This evaluation demonstrates tremendous appreciation for your performance thus far. The Select Board and the community had high hopes for the skills, enthusiasm and tone you would bring to this position, and for the results those would yield. Our hopes have been met and exceeded. We thank you for your excellent work and dedication, and we look forward to your continued success in the service of Amherst.

 Press coverage:

• Scott Merzbach, "Board Praises Town Manager Musante," Amherst Bulletin, 26 Aug.
• Diane Lederman, "Amherst Town Manager John Musante 'hit the ground . . . in an all-out sprint' in the first 9 months in office," Springfield Republican, 30 June

Monday, August 29, 2011

So, how's that rampant free-market capitalism thing working out for you?

"Ghosts With Shit Jobs": A little satirical piece on the consequences of globalization, outsourcing, and the decline of the US economy.



Hat tip:  The Propagandist

Shaken—and Stirred: An Earthquake and a Hurricane in One Week?!

I missed our late-spring tornadoes, but I was here for the latest outbursts from Mother Nature. An earthquake and a hurricane in one week: even though we think of ourselves as special, that really has to be some kind of record for Amherst.

Actually, I still almost missed the earthquake. "No earthquake shook the town," Louisa May Alcott said in a different context. I didn't notice anything. Evidently, I was wrong. I joked that it was because I had been taking part in a discussion of books and our minds were therefore not on earthly things. In point of fact, though, when I went back over the chronology, I realized that I was probably in my car, driving from Amherst to Hadley. I had heard a CNN news anchor on satellite radio announce that they were cutting to a picture of the Capitol because a magnitude 5.8 earthquake had recently been registered in the DC area. I could of course joke that I didn’t notice the quake because I just thought it was our lousy Amherst roads that were causing my car to shake, rattle, and roll, but (a) I was on a newly paved stretch, and (b) besides, that might irritate Town Manager John Musante and Director of Public Works Guilford Mooring, who are very proud (as am I) of the new Street Improvement Plan that is finally addressing the deferred maintenance on our roadways. I’ll instead attribute my lack of awareness to driving a heavy wagon with a smooth ride and fine handling.

 a more serious "seismic event": God causes the earth 
to swallow up Korah's rebellious faction (Numbers 16:28-34). 
Baroque illustration from:
Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, Physica Sacra . . . (1731-35)

Once it became clear that no one had been killed, the tension abated and jokes began.

Although science websites published serious information about this event and earthquakes in general (1, 2, 3, 4), some other learned authorities loosened up a bit. Even the Library of Congress got into the game, devoting its Sheet Music of the Week feature to an “All Shook UpEdition,” displaying items from popular dance tunes to liturgical music.

The Jewish Daily Forward reported that a lunch for seniors in a Washington synagogue had to be interrupted when the building was evacuated. More serious, perhaps:
No one had yet arrived for a bris scheduled for later in the afternoon. “Fortunately, the bris hadn’t started yet,” said Easton. “That would not have been a good combination. We hope there aren’t any aftershocks,” he added.
That reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live spoof of the Lincoln automobile commercial (and conveniently allows me to complete the circle of reference to my having been in a well-engineered car at the time of the seismic event; see how that works?).

As in the case of other breaking news stories, however, Twitter became the prime forum for discussion. Tweeps competed to see who could come up with the best photographs of the devastation, such as here, in Philadelphia and DC. And of course, there were plenty of verbal jokes: about earthquakes in general or about comparative toughness in coping with them. Buzzfeed ran a feature on "The Best Twitter Responses to the Earthquake" (sample: "I felt that earthquake last week" - Brooklyn hipster). Here, in no particular order, some favorites from the general Twitter stream:
(1) "East Coast shaken, not stirred. #whyisaneastcoastearthquakelikeajamesbondmartini "

(2) "Glass of champagne tipped over in Martha's Vineyard. Obama not harmed."

(3) "Guess we should have been more specific about wanting a government shake up"

(4) "There was 5.8 earthquake in Washington. Obama wanted it to be 3.4, but the Republicans wanted 5.8, so he compromised."

(5) "Massive post-quake looting underway in Manhattan! (Wall St traders allowed back into their offices)"

(6) "East coast: 'Holy crap.' West Coast: 'Amateurs.' Midwest: 'You still can't drive in the snow.'"
(7) "Earthquake damage here limited to my TV, which has been taken over [by] reporters babbling endlessly about nothing."
As Patrick Johnson of the Springfield Republican quipped, "This is shaping up to be one of the funniest earthquakes ever. Keep those one liners coming, everyone." And they did.

It was relatively easy to joke about the earthquake because it did relatively little harm.

It seemed, though, that the hurricane would be the real thing.

Still, it did have its humorous aspects, as well.  For a start, there were all the jokes about how to prepare for the disaster (the usual: what to stock up on, how to spend your last hours on earth, etc.). In addition, though, there was something new. I had been amused watching New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempt to make his periodic announcements in Spanish as well as English. One could truthfully say that he spoke Spanish without an accent: because he pronounced it just like English.  Evidently, I was not the only one who found the effort on his part at least as amusing as it was sincere.  A character named ElBloombito soon appeared on Twitter, pretending to be the Mayor and issuing encouraging announcements in Spanglish.

A few choice samples:
• Lo siento el briefing is el late. No subwayo y yo have to walko.

•  No elevatorador serviso en el high rises por que no electrico para movo y no rescue. el sucko para you.

• Ay Ay Ay! Yo forgoto evacuato el isla de Rikers! My bado.

• Nueva Yorko will get through el hurricano por que nosotros el besto personas de la earthador.

• Muchos trees esta falling downo. No stando under los trees. Que splat!

• El hurricano is Categoryo 1 y still vamosing towards Nuevo Yorko. Cuidado!

• Los cans del trasho por favor to turn them back overo. Gracias.

• No criminales comito el mucho crimes last noche. Poco few arrestados compardo to el average. Felicidades!

• Yo soy muy proud of los effortos del el departementes de policitas y el flamo. Tu es el pride of Nuevo Yorko.
 The hurricane itself proved to be no laughing matter.

I followed its progress hurricane via the internet and television (more the former, actually).  Certainly, there was a great degree of fear at the outset.  By this afternoon, as the storm headed inland and declined in severity, the chatter on Twitter had largely been reduced to two voices: (1) “Boy, this was a lot of hyped up nonsense,” and, in response (2): “Shut up, asshole.” As someone observed, well, it was a big deal to those who were affected.  As of this moment, there have been 21 fatalities, this, above and beyond the losses of property and disruptions of daily life. Eventually, a consensus seemed to emerge around the idea that the hurricane had been pretty bad, but what irritated people was the hyped up coverage, and journalists who talked about the story 24-7 but really had nothing much to say (see above, under: earthquake). It was good to know that know that, in the end, both good sense and good humor prevailed. 

Here in Amherst, it was hard to know what to expect.  My own hunch was that we would escape more or less unscathed (Given our situation in a valley, with the Holyoke Range to the south and the Berkshire Mountains farther west, it can be hard to predict how we will be affected by a given weather phenomenon. Sometimes, thunderstorms and blizzards hit us, whereas at others, they deliver a knockout to our neighbors but leave us alone.) That said, one certainly cannot make policy on hunches, and in any case, we have seen that far less violent storms can wreak havoc simply by bringing down a few tree branches near power lines. One winter, our house was without heat and electricity for days for that reason. In this case, predictions were complicated by the fact the storm path came farther inland than some had expected. The eye had been predicted to follow a path between Boston and Worcester (i.e. still well to the east of us), but in the event, it moved west of us, toward Albany.

shoppers buying up bottled water at Stop & Shop in Hadley Friday afternoon
shelves of bottled water emptied fast
Trader Joe's had to restock shelves of bottled water; here, bread shelves empty out, as well, on Saturday evening
The Town of Amherst prepared to the fullest, as it had to. I played no part in this, but as a member of the Select Board, I did receive regular updates on the progress of our plans from Town Manager John Musante, who shared information on weather conditions, developing local emergencies, and action steps. Beginning on Friday, an emergency management team assembled to deal with all possible occurrences. It included the Town Manager, Police and Fire Chiefs, the Directors of Health, Public Works, and Conservation and Planning, as well as other staff responsible for safety and Town facilities. There were preparations for every potential aspect of the crisis, from communications and power supplies, to removal of fallen trees, and emergency medical services and shelter.

The Town issued an Emergency Declaration at the end of the workday on Friday, detailing expected weather conditions, and emergency contact numbers and procedures. The emergency alert system directed key information to individual residents via telephone messaging. Periodic announcements updated the community on the most severely affected streets or neighborhoods, power outages, and changing weather forecasts (1, 2, 3). We in Town government received, in addition to the public announcements, periodic internal updates.

Here’s a snapshot of the situation.

My main concern was that there might be widespread and extended power outages. In the end, only 127 customers (1% of the population) were without electricity, and by early evening, power had been restored in more than two dozen cases. There was flooding in some of the “usual” problem areas, resulting in temporary street closures, but no worse. Here, scenes from Haskins Flats and East Leverett Road:


[images courtesy of Town Manager John Musante]

The torrent at the Puffer’s Pond dam, near where I live, gives just a hint of what we escaped (see the story on Shelburne Falls):

video
[video courtesy of Town Manager John Musante]

Some of our neighbors suffered as much or worse. Compare our paltry 127 darkened homes with the total of 319,631 Massachusetts electric customers who were without power, and the 4 million along the east coast as a whole. Our flooding, too, was minimal. Rising river waters forced evacuations in Huntington and Chester, to the south. Closer to home, I-91 between Deerfield andGreenfield was closed, and in Shelburne Falls, the Deerfield River rose so high that the waters swamped the famous Bridge of Flowers. Late this evening, the Connecticut River was threatening Northampton. And that's not all. The ten inches of rain flowed into the rivers, which aren't expected to crest until Tuesday. Meanwhile, the eastern half of Connecticut was still reported to be without power at midnight tonight. The situation is even worse in Vermont. I am told that CNN was the only network still covering the hurricane live by 11:30 p.m.—which means Vermont. (Maybe it is trying to make up for its slowness in covering the fall of Tripoli.)

We were twice lucky: lucky in that the storm passed over us without doing serious harm, and lucky that our Town’s emergency management team was impeccably prepared for the worst.


Update Monday afternoon:

And again, it is not over:  Shelburne Falls (see above) was hardest hit, and Deerfield and Greenfield are still suffering from flooding. In the latter, for example, a golf course is awash in toxic sewage: what officials describe as "poison water" moving at a speed of 4-6 knots.


Tuesday updates:

Last night, Town Manager John Musante reported to the Select Board on the Town's response to the hurricane. We "came through," he said, "in very, very good shape. "We're very fortunate, very lucky," certainly more so than out neighbors to the north and west. There were no reported injuries, and only 6 or 7 temporary street closings due to flooding or fallen branches. The roughly 125 residences that lost power had it restored by the next day. Town buildings were not damaged.

Mr. Musante stated that he was "very, very pleased at how prepared we were for the storm," and he thanked citizens for heeding Town advice and staying off the roads so as to reduce danger to themselves and facilitate the work of emergency responders. He had the highest praise for Amherst's emergency team, led by Fire Chief Tim Nelson, which ensured "tremendous cooperation" among between public safety teams, the Health Department (which worked with the Red Cross), Public Works (DPW), and others. Every branch of Town government did its job: IT ensured continuous communication, the Animal Welfare Officer assisted farmers with livestock problems. The University of Massachusetts was part of the picture, ready to put its facilities at our disposal if things had worsened.

Going forward, he explained, DPW would be continuing street clean-up and dealing with some 20 downed town trees. The continuing concern, however, was water in the wake of the heavy rains. That water drains into rivers and streams, which are not expected to crest for another day or so and pose an often unappreciated danger. "Be smart in the days ahead," he advised residents, advising them to "stay safe and stay away from the high water."

Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe reported being deeply impressed with what she saw when she attended one of the emergency response meetings on Saturday: "ever base was covered.," "The Town was really just on top of all these things, and I want to compliment and thank you very much."  It was "an excellent exercise in preparedness and readiness."


Further selected coverage:

As of today, some 4,000 western Massachusetts residents were still without electrical power. Threats arising from the rains—first, flooding and, particularly in our immediate area, health hazards through contamination—remained the most pressing concern.

Springfield Republican, 30 August:
• AP: "Helicopters rush food, water to Vermont towns"
• S. P. Sullivan, "Sen. Ben Downing: Flooding of roads, bridges and culverts remains a concern in the Berkshires after Irene"
• John Appleton,  "Hurricane Irene flooding devastates several Western Massachusetts farm crops"
• George Graham, "Shutdown of Greenfield's wastewater treatment plant sending wastewater into Greenfield and Connecticut rivers"
• Patrick Johnson,  "Irene has gone but problems remain; Western Massachusetts towns waiting to get full measure of damage"
• "Editorial: Calm after the storm - Lessons from Irene"

Daily Hampshire Gazette, 30 August

• AP: "Irene brings worst flooding in century to Vermont"

Daily Hampshire Gazette, 31 August

• Chad Cain, "Threat of more flooding subsides, most roads re-opened"
• Chad Cain, "Area residents warned about contamination of rivers after Irene"

• "Slideshow: Local scenes from Tropical Storm Irene"

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What Will Happen in Syria?

I was glad to learn that my colleague, economist Omar Dahi, returned safely from a visit to his native Syria this summer. When it comes to Middle Eastern politics, we agree on some things and disagree on others, but we are always friendly. The conversation is civil. This is exactly what I have been talking about in these pages when I point to the lack of honest dialogue and civility in campus life: We can help to change that situation by showing students that it is possible to disagree, even sharply, but analytically and without rancor.

As the revolt in Libya winds down, attention turns to Syria, thus far the second-bloodiest scene of the "Arab Spring."

A couple of weeks ago, Omar wrote a substantial piece on the current unrest for Joshua Landis's Syria Comment blog, "A Syrian Drama: A Taxonomy of a Revolution."  It begins:
The Syrian regime is in big trouble. Absent an economic collapse, its downfall may not be imminent, but Most indicators lead to the conclusion that the regime is effectively done, and the only remaining questions are how bloody the transition will be and what type of Syria will emerge. 
Particularly interesting is the attempt at a differentiated analysis of the protests and protesters, which, he maintains, cannot be contained within such standardized categories as "region" and "class." Equally compelling is the analysis of the other side. Omar notes that relatively few people are diehard supporters of the regime as an objective good. However, those who support it or decline to break with it are not just its opportunistic creatures, either. Many people effect a hostile or strongly skeptical stance toward the protests or revolt, and for a variety of reasons. Some were predisposed at the outset to accept the official line about the character of the opposition. Some fear loss of national unity or territorial integrity. Some fear persecution of minorities under any new regime. Still others simply fear the unknown and prefer the devil the know to the one they don't know.

Provocative reading. (read the rest)

Libya: Looking For Despots in All the Wrong Places

As I just noted, the Libyan revolt has been a political and psychological roller coaster (couldn't avoid the stereotypical image, but did manage to shun the adjective, "emotional").

At first, it seemed that the struggle would drag on inconclusively. Then, just last weekend, the pace quickened, the rebels advanced, and the regime forces collapsed. But then it was back to uncertainty (and I don't mean all the incredible reports about Ghadafi's death). First, the rebels claimed they had Gadhafi's hated son in custody. Soon after, however, he reappeared in public, free, and taunting them. Within a short time, they seemed to have asserted their control over the capital—and yet, the dictator was nowhere to be found: neither cornered nor killed. Vanished.

We have a rather poor (or at least lackadaisical) record of hunting despots. For example, "Operation Just Cause" toppled the Noriega regime in Panama with relative ease, but the pineapple-faced general then eluded the US troops until he was cornered in the Vatican embassy. Blasting him (and the rest of the compound, to the irritation of the helpless Catholic clergy) with cheesy American rock was said to have broken him like a cheap champagne glass (1, 2). Saddam Hussein was an even tougher customer. It took some eight months before he was hauled out of his spider hole.

I was drafting this yesterday, when, as chance would have it, Benjamin Runkle, author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden, took up this very theme in Foreign Affairs. He tells us:
I found four surprising conclusions. First, although U.S. forces almost always enjoy an edge in technology over their quarry, this advantage is never decisive. Second, troop strength is less important than the presence of reliable indigenous forces. Third, although terrain can influence individual campaigns, there is no single terrain type that predicts success or failure. Finally, more important than physical terrain is human terrain, or the ability to obtain intelligence tips from local populations or support from neighboring states to assist in the strategic manhunt. 
As for how this applies specifically to Libya, you'll just have to read the rest of the piece.

One thing's for sure, though: You wouldn't want to rely on CNN in your quest for the quarry.

My inspiration was this horrifyingly inaccurate graphic:


Hint: He isn't in Lebanon, so if you're looking there, it's a sure thing you won't find him (and Hizbullah, despite its affection for other despots, has no love to spare for this one).

Now, I know I saw Sara Sidner reporting from Libya in body armor and oversized helmet (some Tweeps worried that she seemed more nervous under fire than were other, more hardened reporters). Anyway, she was there. I saw her. It's not her fault, and she sure as hell knows where she is.

But a screw-up of these colossal proportions really does make you wonder about both the higher-ups and the drones who churn out the stuff for the shows 'round the clock.

My guess is that some underling looked up "Tripoli" in a reference work and, because Lebanon comes before Libya in the alphabet, either chose that one or just looked no further (my attempt at a historian's source criticism).

But are they all culturally illiterate? And does no one check what the drones are doing?

To be sure, there are two Tripolis, one in Lebanon and one in Libya. Both date to antiquity and derive their (western) names from the Greek tripolis, or three cities. Beyond that, the similariites to our enterprise end. Bottom line: astoundingly stupid, embarrassing; inexcusable.

Bonus question: The "Marines' Hymn" (US Marine Corps Hymn) begins with the famous lines, "From the Halls of Montezuma/to the Shores of Tripoli..."

In the course of their history, the Marines have landed in both (present-day) Libya and Lebanon.

To which one does the song refer?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

August 21: Rebels Enter Tripoli. CNN Yawns (in which I attempt to intervene in the course of world affairs—or at least, journalism)

A week ago, I, like most politically engaged (or even just curious) people, was trying to follow the drama of the Libyan revolution. It had been a complex series of events and choices: had NATO intervened too late? would an essentially directionless US policy lead to that worst of all possible worlds: a prolonged intervention that nonetheless failed to remove Gadhafi? Then, suddenly, things seemed to change, and our hopes rose again: the rebels were advancing rapidly, as Gadhafi's forces fell back or melted away, much as in Iraq nearly a decade earlier.

I was following events on Twitter, which I generally find the most convenient means of keeping track of breaking news (we all were pretty sure that Osama bin Laden was dead some 45 minutes before President Obama went on the air to announce that fact). Twitter via Tweetdeck is convenient because I can either focus on it or let in run in the background and watch the pop-up notifications in order to see what deserves more urgent attention. Some of the Tweeps I was following were in Libya or neighboring countries. Others were simply following live coverage via Sky News or Al Jazeera (English or Arabic).

I kept looking for similarly current coverage from US news sources. No luck.  I then left my desk, walked to the other room, and turned on the tv to CNN. Surely, the first 24-hour-a-day international news station would have something to report. Wait, what? They were running features on Washington, DC's local "go-go" music style and Casey Anthony's probation appearance for check fraud. In my desperation, I even clicked down one channel to Fox, which, it turned out, was doing a sensationalistic (or was it: human interest?) story about the baby stroller in the back of the pickup truck.

I finally lost it. In a controlled rage (sort of like a low boil), I decided to use CNN's "iReport" hotline.

Got the automated menu and pressed "1."
An anodyne female voice welcomed and thanked me at once, and asked how she could direct my call.

I said, with as straight a face and serious a voice as possible, that, while they were showing junk segments about DC music and Casey Anthony, something important seemed to be going on in Libya.

No reaction. Was she as clueless as she appeared (what? me, follow the news?) or consummately professional? You be the judge. At any rate, without skipping a beat, she thanked me again in her Stepford-wife voice and said she would transfer my call to the appropriate extension.

I got another one of those menus. I was warned that this call was only for serious breaking news stories, and that obscenity was forbidden or discouraged (I forget which), etc. etc.

Again, mustering straightest face and most serious but deadpan voice, I said: Uh, there seems to be some kind of revolution going on in Libya—and you know, you might want to start covering it.

There. I had done my duty (and prevented a possible heart attack).

Perhaps it was probably only coincidence, but moments later, CNN switched to dedicated coverage of the rebel entry into Tripoli and the taking of Green Square.

Oh: If you ever get the urge: "Please contact 404.827.1500 and select option 1, or text CNN (space) and your news tip to 772937"

Campus Climate: Continuing Concerns and Cautious Hopes


One never knows what the arrival of September and the new academic year will bring.

This year, that question takes on a different color and special urgency in light of coming controversies involving the Middle East: the symbolic Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN and the controversial “Durban III” conference on racism marking the 10th anniversary of the “Durban I,” widely criticized as a platform for antisemitism (1, 2).

Here, at Hampshire College, a forthcoming report on a revised socially responsible investment policy may provide for additional heat, to the extent that it fuels still-simmering fires over the faux divestment controversy of 2009, in which activists made headlines by falsely claiming that the College had divested “from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” As I have already noted in these pages, a growing number of faculty and staff, as well as students, have become concerned about a campus atmosphere in which political orthodoxy threatens open academic debate, people are afraid to speak honestly about controversial issues, and civility is regarded as a retreat rather than an obligation.

A defining characteristic of the news business, amplified and exaggerated in the blogosphere, is the rush to publish first rather than best. When it comes to coverage of college politics and academic culture, shoddy or sensationalistic reporting does a great deal of damage. Among other things, it all too often creates a vicious circle, prompting the institutions in question to respond dismissively or defensively to this "outside interference" and making follow-up and dialogue all the more difficult. The academy pulls its wagons into a circle, and the fourth estate brings up bigger guns. Few listen, and still fewer learn.

The coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict is Exhibit No. 1. Every controversy attracts the scrutiny of numerous parties, from curious individuals to political watchdog groups of all colors. Serious discussion of potential problems is too often smothered in the blizzard of charges of “racism,” “antisemitism,” and “Islamophobia.”

It is therefore welcome to see a reporter take the time to do proper research rather than rushing to press with a rumor and a headline. Leah Burrows of Boston's Jewish Advocate worked for several months on this piece, interviewing current and former students, faculty, and administrators on all sides of the issue. Those of us to whom she spoke can attest to her thoroughness. (As always, there are a few minor errors of fact, but they do not materially affect the basic solidity of the piece.)

Her article was published behind a subscriber paywall, but I have received permission to reproduce it here in its entirety. [I have added links to sources referenced in the article.] It should help to stimulate a much-needed debate that it is just beginning.


* * *


The Jewish Advocate, August 19, 2011

"What's up with Hampshire College?
A small Bay State campus becomes a hotbed of anti-Israel fervor"
By Leah Burrows
Advocate Staff


Pro-Palestinian students protested at a lecture given by an IDF veteran at Hampshire College in February. Clashing signs were draped in the lobby. These images are from video posted on YouTube. It began with a call for civility and ended in a cacophony of accusations.

On Feb. 3, some 300 students from five Amherst area campuses packed into a Hampshire College lecture hall to hear Benjamin Anthony speak about his experiences as a sergeant in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Some came to listen; many came to protest. [video]

Anthony was interrupted again and again by pro-Palestinian students, many from local Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, and the evening quickly devolved from a lecture to a shouting match, as can be seen in videos of the event posted on YouTube. [raw video footage] [Students for Justice in Palestine video]

Pro-Palestinian students held up signs reading "Free Palestine." They shouted names of Palestinians killed in the conflict. They blew whistles. They chanted. They hurled insults.


All this after an assistant dean, Amnat Chittaphong, opened the evening by saying he wanted "to ensure that you all as students, feel this is a safe place where we can have discourse, where we can be intelligent young men and women." [video: speaking first, Special Presidential Assistant for Diversity and Multicultural Education Professor Jaime Dávila; second: Assistant Dean of Students Amnat Chittaphong]

Over the next hour or so, Chittaphong returned to the microphone at least twice to urge students to be civil. When that failed, he asked some to leave. A few were escorted out by campus security.

On the YouTube video, Chittaphong can be seen reminding the audience that a student had been harassed earlier in the year for her views about Israel.

"Not true," someone yelled.

The dean appealed to the students' sense of community.

"Don't talk about harassment with that man by your side," another yelled.

"Stop the show, stop the show, take your racist lies and go," students chanted.


Hundreds of students and community members exchanged heated chants in the lobby of a Hampshire College auditorium last February before a speech by an IDF veteran [video]. Anthony announced he would end his lecture early. Some students cheered.

"It was disgusting," recalled Samantha Mandeles, a Hampshire alumna who organized the event. "The students were behaving like apes."

Hampshire College generates more complaints about students being targeted for pro- Israel beliefs than any other campus in the New England region of the Anti-Defamation League, according to its director, Derrek Shulman. (The region does not include Connecticut.)

While Shulman declined to provide exact figures, anecdotal evidence suggests that February's furor erupted after years of tension. Here are examples:


Hampshire College was founded as an alternative to traditional education. Lihi Benisty, a Hampshire senior, said she was verbally harassed for a week after attending a pro-Israel lecture at the nearby UMass.- Amherst last December. Benisty, 20, said she was the only pro-Israel student on the campus shuttle bus to the event; the others were pro- Palestinian students who went to protest.

While she wasn't personally confronted at the event, Benisty said the following week she was taunted with insults such as "racist bitch" and "apartheid lover" as she walked through campus at night. She said she heard different voices, but couldn't see anyone.

At the end of the week, Benisty said she received an anonymous email that said: "Do the world a favor and die slow."

She filed an incident report with campus safety officials, who investigated the claim but found no culprits.

Benisty is completing her senior year off campus.

When Amir Fogel was a freshman, he hung an Israeli flag and a fact sheet about Israel on the door of his freshman dorm room. One day during his second semester, Fogel returned home and said he found his flag ripped off his door and the Israeli fact sheet torn up and placed in a neat pile in front of his room.

Fogel said he reported the incident to public safety then told his advisor.

"The most disappointing thing was that they weren't surprised," Fogel recalled. "[The advisor] said, 'I'm surprised you had it up for that long.'"

Fogel is going into his junior year.

Danielle Lubin said she transferred from Hampshire College after her freshman year because she said she felt uncomfortable expressing her Zionist views.

"Being a Zionist at Hampshire College is a challenging endeavor." Lubin wrote in her transfer application to UMass-Amherst, which she provided to the Advocate in lieu of an interview. "I had been singled out and isolated. I felt uncomfortable in social situations, and in the dining hall, the epicenter of first-year Hampshire social life, I experienced numerous attacks on my beliefs."

Lubin graduated from UMass this year.

There has been at least one report of anti-Palestinian activity. Alex Van Leer, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said a jar of urine was left outside an SJP meeting last year, with a note attached that read "From Palestine."

The 'Hampshire bubble'

How did it come to this? How did a small, liberal arts college nestled in the valley of Western Massachusetts become so vitriolic?

Hampshire opened its doors in 1970 as a place for experimental education. Instead of grades, Hampshire has written evaluations. Instead of majors, students create their own concentrations.

It is part of the Five College Consortium along with Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke and UMass-Amherst. Students can float among schools, taking classes at any of the five.

Hampshire prides itself on its political activism - in 1977, it became the first American college to divest from South Africa in protest of Apartheid.

"People call it the 'Hampshire bubble,'" said Mandeles, the alumna who brought the IDF veteran to campus. "Students here live, eat, sleep and breathe their concentrations. I've never found a college like that. . Students think, 'I have to be a political mover and shaker.

. "And then there is Israel, and it's just perfect" as a target for activists, she added.

Mandeles, who graduated last year, now works for CAMERA, the watchdog group that monitors the media for anti-Israel bias.

"You barely get the tape off the windows from one protest before you hang the signs for the next," said Marlene Gerber Fried, a long-time Hampshire professor of philosophy and reproductive rights. Last year, Fried served as interim president while the college searched to replace President Ralph Hexter.

It was under Hexter's administration that the university was first thrust into the national spotlight over Israel.

In 2009, Hampshire's SJP chapter and other Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) groups claimed they had successfully petitioned the administration to divest from Israel. The college strenuously denied that to be the case.

After the divestment dispute, the ADL began working with faculty and staff on campus, running dialogue sessions and sensitivity training. The David Project, a pro- Israel educational organization, also began working on campus, according to former campus coordinator Michal Adut, who worked with Hampshire students among others. She called Hampshire the "toughest campus to work on for a pro-Israel organization." The David Project runs pro- Israel programs on about 150 college campuses across the country.

Strong Jewish presence

While the Hampshire campus may be perceived as hostile to Israel, the college has a strong Jewish community.

In 1997, the National Yiddish Book Center, home to the largest collection of Yiddish books in the world, opened its headquarters at Hampshire.

Hampshire has always boasted a large number of Jewish students. In 2010, some 20 percent of its 1,500 students were Jewish, the college estimates.

The campus has a full-time rabbi, a Jewish Student Union, a student-run kosher kitchen and an LGBT Jewish student group. Hampshire does not have a Hillel chapter, but does have a pro-Israel student group, SPICI, Students Promoting Israeli Culture and Information. SPICI focuses more on promoting Israeli culture and innovation than politics or Zionism, according to students.

In spite, or perhaps because of the large number of Jewish students at Hampshire, many of the students active in SJP or other Palestinian solidarity movements are Jewish.

Alex Van Leer grew up in a Jewish home and attended Jewish camps. An active member of SJP and a "proud Jew," Van Leer said that Jewish students are more aware of the Middle East conflict than their peers coming into college and thus probably more likely to participate in the debate.

Benisty and a few other students said they felt that some of the attacks against Israel bordered on anti-Semitism but many students involved in the Palestinian movement said they make a point to separate Judaism and Zionism. That distinction became the focus of contention after Benisty's report of harassment went public.

In December, Fried issued a letter to the campus community, condemning the attacks and urging civility.

The then-interim president wrote: "[W]e will not tolerate attacks and discrimination in any form against any individual or group. The instances of vandalism against the property of students who identify either with Israel, Judaism, or who express particular opinions about the Israel/ Palestine situation in the Middle East, go against the values of inclusiveness that we want to foster in our community."

In response, SJP released a letter condemning the attacks, but criticizing Fried for not distinguishing between Judaism and Zionism.

"What is very clear to us is that the letter issued to every member of the Hampshire community was not primarily concerned with acts of anti-Semitism, but with vocal opposition towards expressions of Zionism," SJP wrote. "Hampshire is choosing to create a safety net for people whose political beliefs are actively being called into question on campus."

SJP member Ilana Rossoff, who is also Jewish, said while no student should feel unsafe, pro-Israel students shouldn't take attacks against their beliefs personally or construe them as anti-Semitic.

"Calling someone a racist isn't a personal attack," Rossoff, 22, said. "I'm not going to say it's not unpleasant to be called that, but it's not about you. It's about the Palestinians. You're not speaking for the movement if you call someone a racist bitch, but we should all emotionally be able to handle that most mild harassment."

Rossoff graduated this year.

Alex Van Leer, also 22, said Jewish students should be careful about labeling political views as anti-Semitic.

"Let's call out real anti-Semitism," Van Leer said. "Calling everything anti-Semitic devalues real anti-Semitism."

Van Leer also noted that the name-calling goes both ways, saying that he's been called a "selfhating Jew" on several occasions.

A fervent few

Although the debate on Hampshire's quad or in student centers can be loud and, at times nasty, it involves a relatively small number of students.

Amir Fogel, chair of SPICI, estimated that there are about 15 to 30 active pro-Israel students and 15 to 20 active pro-Palestinian students, with another 50 to 100 students who are peripherally involved in SJP.

"The rest are students who don't care or are too scared to get into the conflict," Fog[e]l said.

Despite the relatively few number of students involved in the debate, Professor James [Wald] said that the pro-Israel voice has been "marginalized" on campus.

"It's not just that people are critical of Israel," Wald said. "It's an atmosphere that assumes that people think a certain way, and increasingly in recent years, one gets the sense that a lot of people feel that if you support Israel, it is not a serious or legitimate position."

Wald has been a professor of European history at Hampshire for almost 20 years. He said he started noticing an increase of hostility on campus during Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza invasion, at the end of 2008 and during the divestment scandal of 2009.

"The atmosphere became unhealthy and distorted," Wald said. "It should be possible for people to say, 'I have this point of view.' ... The academy should be able to foster a civil dialogue about those views and no view should be ruled out of court."

Wald said it was up to professors and administrators to address the divisive attitude on campus.

Hampshire students interviewed offered varying views of the classroom situation.

Samantha Mandeles said she felt uncomfortable taking Middle Eastern studies classes, citing what she felt was professorial bias and intimidation from her peers. Some other students, on both sides of the issue, said they felt at ease expressing their beliefs in class.

Aaron Berman, who teaches a course called the History of Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism at Hampshire, said most students come in with little knowledge of the roots of the Middle East conflict. At the beginning of the course, Berman said he tells students that he will challenge their beliefs on both sides.

"We have a wide array of students across the political spectrum," he said. "If at some point in the course I don't make everyone uncomfortable at least once, I'm not doing my job."

Berman has taught this particular course for 10 of his 30 years at Hampshire. While agreeing that Hampshire students can be intense about their feelings, he said he has not seen ideological intimidation or bullying in his classroom.

"When you are dealing with young adults, they can be extra passionate about things," Berman said. "They are trying on different things and different notions and different identities. and sometimes those passions can be better controlled."

To teach students how to control those passions, Fried said that the college last year started holding small group dialogue sessions and workshops. Also last year, Hampshire created a position called the coordinator of religious identity and political intersection.

In July, Jonathan Lash took office as Hampshire's new president.
A Harvard graduate, Lash is the former president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental organization in Washington, D.C.

The new president said he was aware of the conflict before coming into office, but as yet doesn't have a specific plan to address it. He said he would like to see the college continue working with the ADL and promoting dialogue groups with students on all issues, not just Israel.

"I see as an important priority to ensure that there is a safe environment to engage in the issues on campus," Lash said. "Debate is never going to be entirely neat - just look at the debate in Congress. I want to talk to people about how to have an informed, active and engaged debate."

New students arrive at Hampshire's campus on Sept. 1.

* * *

As the article notes, Hampshire College does not have grades. We don’t have traditional tests, either. Be that as it may, the new administration is already about to face its first real test. We here, and many outside the campus, will be watching closely to see how it performs. Let us hope that those covering the next phase of the story will emulate Ms. Burrows and do their homework.

* * *

Postscript/resources

As chance would have it, this video also came out this week. The product of an advocacy group rather than a journalist, it nonetheless covers the same controversies described in the article, and features interviews with some of the students cited there (with additional reference to the situation at nearby Smith College). As such, it may be a useful complement.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ramadan in Amherst: Celebration of Community and Concerns Over Intolerance

I am remiss this year in noting the start of Ramadan.

A belated, then, but no less heartfelt wish for the holiday.

I will simply quote the greeting sent out by Gershon Baskin and Hanna Siniora of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI)
To all of our Muslim friends and colleagues, Ramadan Kareem!

May we all enjoy the blessings of health, prosperity, happiness and peace into our lives and may we all multiply it and share with others as well! 
My post last year included this explanation of the sacred month:


I was already intending finally to catch up this week and post my greeting, but I got an additional and unexpected prompt from a nice front-page piece in Friday's Amherst Bulletin. In "Ramadan Ritual: A small but devoted Muslim congregation gathers in Amherst," Ben Storrow describes the history and character of the local community and its mosque.

He also reminds us of the controversial and failed attempt by the mosque to acquire larger quarters in a former Christian school on Harkness Road in 2010. (Although I had just joined the Select Board at the time and the issue was not under our authority, I myself followed that controversy rather closely, through all the relevant documentation as well as news reports. I saw the plans for the structure as well as the complaints.) Neighbors—including the town of Pelham just across the municipal line—protested that there would be an intolerable increase in traffic, parking problems, and hazards to pedestrians. Admittedly, the issue was somewhat complicated: the road is used as a cut-through between two major thoroughfares; there is no on-street parking, and there are no sidewalks; responsibility for some aspects of both road maintenance and traffic enforcement seemed to need clarification. Still, there were mechanisms to resolve those questions, ranging from simple consultation between municipalities to site plan review requirements under our Zoning Bylaw.

And anyway, I've driven that road often enough. Why the former Christian school did not produce the same dread results, or why the hordes of people who come to visit the famed lilac groves along that street each spring—likewise a seasonal blip rather than continual change in traffic patterns—were not similarly odious to the abutters is something I could never quite wrap my head around.

As in so many such cases in Amherst, abutters generated plausible objections to a seemingly reasonable proposal, and everything ground to a halt. Was the proposal in fact more flawed than its advocates had anticipated? Were the abutters just engaging in selfish NIMBY-ism? Was there something darker at work? It is hard to draw definitive conclusions. All I know is that the Muslim community felt singled out and stigmatized, the victim of prejudice and disingenuous arguments. As Ben puts it in the article:
It withdrew the proposal after meeting substantial opposition from neighbors who voiced concerns about the impact the mosque would have on traffic.
The objection came as a surprise to members of the congregation, who expected members of the liberal Amherst community to be more open to the move, Hazratji [President of the Mosque's Board of Directors; JW] said.
"In our opinion those were not legitimate concerns," Hazratji said. "We tried to reach out to the neighbors, but people came to the meetings with lawyers and that told us we were not going to be accepted."
During the controversy, members of the congregation were targeted on the Internet with Islamaphobic remarks, Hazratji said. And members of the inter-faith community who supported the move began receiving anonymous mailings replete with anti-Islamic rhetoric, he said.
Many mosque members interviewed said that the slurs people endured in that instance is evidence that Islamophobia remains a persistent concern in the Valley, a region that prides itself on its cultural tolerance.
"Ever since I was little that word was a thorn in my side. You tolerate smell, you tolerate pain, you don't tolerate people" said Bushra, 36, of Amherst who was born in Pittsfield to Palestinian parents. She asked that her last name not be used due to her fear of prejudice. Recently, she said, she was called a "towel head" while walking a street in Pittsfield with her infant niece. Unlike many of the congregation's female members, who don a hajib only in the mosque, Bushra also wears a head covering in public.
"We always find ourselves constantly having to defend our Americanism, which is really tiring," she said.
It is sad but no longer surprising to have to read that.

I was honored to be invited to attend the opening of the Hampshire Mosque in its current location in the Carriage Shops some years ago, and I still recall the event well. Mostly, I recall the fellowship, and the clear presentation of Islamic ideas on the divine, the nature of worship, and the duties of human beings to one another as well as the deity.

However, I also recall, equally well, the relative paucity of communal representation. To the best of my knowledge (my memory could be faulty), there were no town officials there, certainly not in a formal capacity. And more surprisingly, there was almost no one from the local academic community—certainly not from the vocal Middle East activist contingent, which often warns about the dangers of Islamophobia. Instead, the guests were ordinary citizens who came primarily from the local Christian and Jewish congregations or interfaith dialogue groups, and the like. The latter fact in itself was heartwarming; it just would have been nice if others had been there, too. Perhaps Mr. Storrow's piece will help to inform and interest the public.

One of the problems is that, for all our vaunted commitment to multiculturalism as an ideology or a policy, we know very little about other cultures. In fact, most of us know precious little about the diversity of our own American or "western" society (and when I talk to students about the Middle Ages, I always include Islam as a crucial element in our western heritage). How many Christians, for all the talk of a (largely spurious) "Judeo-Christian tradition," really know anything about Judaism as it understands itself? How many Jews really have more than a superficial knowledge of the dominant Christian culture? (How many have ever bothered to open a New Testament?)

In last year's piece, I noted that I had been charged by the Select Board with developing some guidelines on how to shape the public calendar in light of the varied religious needs and customs of our diverse population. I also included links to digital calendars for Jewish and Muslim holidays. It's a small start, but a start nonetheless.

Tomato, Tomahto

Speaking of multicultural knowledge, I cannot resist gently pointing out one little slip in the otherwise admirable newspaper article.


It is highly unlikely that "many of the congregation's female members" would "don a hajib" "only in the mosque"—or for that matter, anywhere else. Indeed, it would be utterly inappropriate. A "hajib" was a government official in medieval Muslim Spain and Egypt. The writer presumably means: "hijab," or woman's head-covering.

Then again, it's the same mistake that President Obama made in his famed Cairo speech, so it can happen to the best of us.

We're all just honestly trying to learn more about and from one another.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chocolate Chips, Microchips, and Palestinian Rights

from The Propagandist

So, what's the connection between chocolate chips, microchips, and Palestinian rights?

No, that's not a joke. Or: in another sense, it is.

Answer: nothing at all, and that's just the point.


This is the subject of my inaugural contribution for The Propagandist.

The anti-Israel "BDS" (Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment) movement reached new heights of inanity this summer, where, in Australia, it has made boycotting Israeli chocolate the centerpiece of its efforts.  No, I couldn't make this stuff up.

Their public enemy no. 1:  the chic "Max Brenner" chain of gourmet chocolate restaurants. Strident activists gather outside the stores to shout that the owner is a "murderer" and supporter of "genocide," and to chant for "Palestine from the river to the sea."

Founder Oded Brenner, who calls himself "a man of peace," has said, "Whether it is in Israel or not, anything to do with violence, aggressiveness or appearing at protests or boycotts seems silly (to me). But then again, I am just a chocolate-maker." He confesses to being "perplexed and dismayed" at all the controversy.

Can you blame him? The protests have gotten a lot of attention, almost all of it negative. Leading Australian politicians have condemned them.  Faced with the sight of screaming mobs harassing customers and trying to obstruct the operation of Jewish-owned stores, they have tried to point out: uh, folks, the Nazis tried this once before, and we don't think this is the best model for you to follow.  Even the head of the leading pro-Palestinian activist group in Australia, who supports BDS, as such, called these protests "indefensible and stupid."

The character of BDS has lately become even clearer, in case anyone was not paying attention. There is virtually universal agreement that the solution to the Arab-Israeli wars ultimately lies in the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and their mutual recognition that this division of the land puts a definitive end to their conflict. Indeed, that is at least the official position of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. How and when that will come about is another matter.

The Palestinian Authority is pressing ahead with its quest for a vote on statehood at the UN, and although there is quite some debate as to whether that move is an attempt to revive (1, 2) or circumvent (1, 2, 3) peace negotiations, it has focused world attention on the issue as rarely before.

You'd think the BDS folks would be pleased at this turn of events. Think again.

For them, even a return to the so-called "1967 borders" (actually: 1949 armistice lines) without adjustments would be inadequate. Anything short of the return of all refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel—which would of course in practice eliminate one of the two states—is treason and betrayal. One of the more vocal advocates of that view, "Electronic Intifada" co-founder Ali Abunimah, therefore argues that the "UN ‘Statehood’ Bid" actually "Endangers Palestinian Rights.”

Just last night, he foolishly picked a fight on Twitter with Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, accusing her of not being sufficiently dedicated to the Palestinian cause because she would not state her support for BDS. She replied he was not woman enough to challenge her political credentials, and it was downhill from there. Anyone familiar with her work knows that she can be a harsh critic of Israel. But her refusal to play the BDS street cred game earned her a spot on the politically correct blacklist, causing her to say, "Thought police. I will not submit to your litmus test."

Yesterday, too, the demonstrators were out in force again in Sydney, and very proud of their achievement. Those actually trying to shop and eat were rather less enthusiastic about the result. (this video captures some of the flavor of the event)

There you have it: To many observers, Palestinian statehood seems at last within reach.  And meanwhile, more than 19,000 Arabs have died in the ongoing struggle against their own dictatorships in recent months.

And yet the BDS crew is convinced that (1) the possible creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the near future will be a betrayal and a disaster, but (2) persecuting a chocolatier and harassing Australian shoppers will bring about The Revolution.

So much for the chocolate chips. And the microchips? You'll just have to check out the whole thing in The Propagandist. (Hint: if you support BDS and used a popular search engine to get here, you'll have to change your habits. Better check that cell phone in your purse or pocket, too.)
Read the rest: "BDS Fail. Let the (Micro) Chips Fall Where They May"