Friday, October 31, 2008

Duelling Inanities: Give Obama a Break. (Give me a break.)

The highly influential conservative blog, Little Green Footballs has been admirably vigilant in denouncing those who support or apologize for Nazi and neofascist doctrines, from Pat Buchanan to Eurofascists (such as the Vlaams Belang in particular), to groups whose purported  anti-Jihadism (a cause it otherwise espouses with gusto) crosses the line into racism. It goes overboard, however, when it lunges after a remark that Barack Obama made in a 2001 Chicago Public Radio broadcast:
Obama Compared America to Nazi Germany
POLITICS | Mon, Oct 27, 2008 at 5:10:01 pm PST

[. . .]

At about 15:30, Obama compares what was going on in the United States during the time of Brown vs. the Board of Education to ... Nazi Germany. Yes, really. Here’s the quote:

“...just to take a, sort of a realist perspective...there’s a lot of change going on outside of the Court, um, that, that judges essentially have to take judicial notice of. I mean you’ve got World War II, you’ve got uh, uh, uh, the doctrines of Nazism, that, that we are fighting against, that start looking uncomfortably similar to what we have going on, back here at home.”

There you have it. America is close to electing a President who compares his own country to Nazi Germany.
Obama's point is simple and had been made by many intelligent and respectable figures before him: The irony that the United States was fighting a war against racist Nazi Germany with an army that segregated black from white soldiers was not lost upon some contemporaries. The NAACP pursued its so-called "Double V" campaign, for victory against fascism abroad and racism at home:  Patriotic military service, the argument ran, was not only right in itself, but also the best way to stake a claim for full rights after the War. The persistence of segregation even following the defeat of Nazism was thus an increasing moral and practical embarrassment. Obama clearly meant no more and no less.

Not to be outdone, Oliver Willis jumps overboard for a little dip in the sea of silliness when he declares:
The mental midgets of Little Green Footballs have gone so far in their defense of the indefensible that they would rather defend the concept of segregation - and maybe slavery too - in order for them to attack Sen. Obama.
Not surprisingly, LGF responds, with indignation, and a corresponding tone, that this is patently untrue:
The world’s dumbest leftist blogger puts his “scary racism” attack face on
[. . . ]
Not one word of that post defends segregation, and not a single comment from an LGF reader defends segregation.

The point is simple, and really not hard to understand unless you’re Oliver Willis: as bad as segregation was (and it was terrible), to compare America during the time of Brown vs. the BOE (when we were dismantling segregation) to genocidal Nazi Germany with its pogroms, death camps, and forced labor camps, and more than six million murders, is not just ludicrous and wrong, it is a morally bankrupt argument that verges on Holocaust denial.
And so the sniping continues.

It is sad: History provides a rich store of materials for exploration in their own right, or as arguments in political debate. The nation faces crises of the proverbial historical proportions. And this is the best we can do?

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Pint is a Pint?

Pewter bar tankard in one of the most popular or classic shapes--one low fillet, c. 1715-1820 ff. and standard handle, c. 1700-1820 ff.--by the prolific James Yates of Birmingham (1860-81).

* * *

While the superficial were worrying about being able to fill their gas taks, a deeper crisis was developing, almost unnoticed, but for the vigilance of Joe Sixteen-Ounce. 

In Search Of An 'Honest' Pint Of Beer

by April Baer

All Things Considered, October 22, 2008 · A lager lover catches some Portland establishments serving pints that actually measure a few ounces under. Does a real 16-ounce beer exist in Portland, Ore.?
The historian can add that this is nothing new. The history of medieval and early modern Europe (for example) is replete with regulations for the enforcement of proper weights and measures. Closer to our own time, we find concrete and charming evidence of the problem in surviving artefacts. When the British government established the Imperial Standard of weights and measures in 1826, it also introduced verification marks, which can be seen not only on measures, but also on drinking vessels used in public houses, such as this one.  Soon after the introduction of the initial mark (a portcullis), verification marks indicated the monarch's reign.  Various county and borough stamps followed, until, in 1879, a standard system prescribed the monarch's crowned initials over a district number (and sometimes a letter, as well).  The Yates tankard here bears the number 525, designating Northampton County, which is a nicely appropriate detail, as we live in Hampshire County, the seat of which is Northampton.

Evidently the problems of our poor Portlander were nothing new, for Christopher A. Peal, writes:
We have assumed that workshop-produced goods were verified at the source, but subsequent measures sometimes bear a sequence and multiplicity of verification marks.  One wonders if certain inn-keepers were regarded with grave suspicion, and the authorities chivvied and hounded them constantly. I have seen about fifteen verification marks on a single tankard.
(British Pewter and Britannia Metal for pleasure and investment (NY and London:  Peebles Press, 1971), 68).
Our battered tankard by Yates displays a respectable (?) eight marks from Victoria to Elizabeth, prompting one to wonder whether dishonesty ran in the family of the publican.

Turning to measures: One of the most famous and popular is the classic Irish "haystack" measure (named after the roughly conical rather than American rounded) shape of the piles in which grains were accumulated in Europe; cf. the paintings of Monet). This one was made by Joseph Austin and Son of Cork, between 1828 and 1833. It held one noggin, which was the same as one gill (incidentally, pronounced as a homonym of the woman's name and not the breathing apparatus of a fish), equal to a quarter of a pint, or 5 imperial fluid ounces. These--in Peal's words, "really delightful and distinctive" (p. 168) measures were never exported to the United States and are therefore found here either because Irish immigrants brought them with them or because collectors later acquired them. The marks are of the reign of George IV (1820-30), when it was made, William IV (1830-37), and apparently, George V.

Measures also mattered because the United Kingdom was an assemblage of peoples and regions under Anglo-Saxon dominion. Scotland proudly resisted the Imperial Standard and clung to its own measures, until the English finally banned them in 1855. Those measures were also considerably more capacious, for the magisterial Scots Pint was equal to three Imperial Pints--or 60 oz. A gill in Scotland therefore meant something, as in this description of 18th-century Edinburgh:
"When St. Giles bells played out half-past eleven in the morning," writes one historian, "each citizen went to get a gill of ale, which was known as his 'meridian,' although before breakfast he had paid a similar visit." People did business deals, signed legal documents and wills, organized their university lectures, or planned a father's funeral with the help of a glass or a dram. Many of the city's most important intellectual movements began with a gathering in a tavern."
(Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World. . . (NY: Three Rivers Press, 2001), 191)
Footnote: A listener takes NPR to task for succumbing to the seduction of alliteration and using "lager lover" to describe the detector of delinquents when the issue actually involved ale: "Portland and this story are about ALE not lager. If you think that is a minor detail, you're full of it, all 16 or 20 ounces."

Touché. Such ignorance should be pilloried, and those whose striving for literary elegance outstrips their zymurgical expertise are deservedly hoist with their own petard. There is, however, an even more profound issue at stake. Knowing that there is a difference between two things is one thing (so to speak). Knowing which is better is quite another.

Civilized people know that, although most craft brews in the US are ales (and the beverage is an accepted style in some cultures, such as England, where I enjoyed many fine examples this summer), the bottom-fermenting lager, requiring cold storage during the ageing process (from the German verb and noun for storage and store: lagern; Lager) was traditionally the more sophisticated and complex product. Only with the advent of modern technologies in the post-World War II era did a pale and watery swill misleadingly marketed under the description, "lager," come to dominate the market of the industrialized countries.

I like an IPA as much as the next guy, but the classic beers from the classic beer regions of Central Europe, from Germany to Bohemia, are and remain lagers.  (In fact, the designation of Czech beer just recently won protection under EU law.)  

For those seeking an objective and comprehensive history of the brewing profession and culture in the United States, we may recommend the recent work by colleague and local historian Amy Mittelman: Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer.

And in the meantime, there is good news for all.  e!Science News reports:
College students often spend their free time thinking about beer, but a group of Rice University students are taking it to the next level. 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. Rice's "BioBeer" will be entered in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition Nov. 8-9 in Cambridge, Mass. It's the world's largest synthetic biology competition, a contest where teams use a standard toolkit of DNA building blocks -- think genetic LEGO blocks -- to create living organisms that do odd things.
(read the rest)
Don't rush out to the store, though.  This won't even conceivably reach the market for years:
Ironically, most of the team's undergraduate members aren't old enough to legally drink beer. But the reality is that with less than a month to go until the competition, the team has yet to brew a drop. All their work to date has gone into creating a genetically modified strain of yeast that will ferment beer and produce resveratrol at the same time. While the team does plan to brew a few test batches in coming weeks, these will contain some unappetizing chemical "markers" that will be needed for the experiments.

"There's no way anyone's drinking any of this until we get rid of that, not to mention that there's only one genetically modified strain of yeast that's ever been approved for use in beer, period," said Segall-Shapiro. "In short, it will be a long time before anybody consumes any of this."
In the meantime, we'll just have to stick with the usual stuff, for whose consumption the election will no doubt provide an appropriate occasions for partisans of all causes, victorious or defeated.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing: Emily Dickinson Museum Landscape Restoration

A report in the Gazette this week seeks either to bring basic news to the public or to create a controversy that does not exist (depending on one's view of the local press):

Monday, October 20, 2008>

AMHERST - More than 200 large hemlocks that surround the Emily Dickinson Museum property could be cut down to make way for the installation of a historically accurate hedge.

Tentative plans (for nothing is set) of the Emily Dickinson Museum (full disclosure: my wife is the Executive Director), in the context of its historic landscape restoration plan, involve simple restoration of the landscape that the owners knew and desired. That shouldn't really be very controversial, except among those who have no real sense of history and historical perspective.

A full report will follow this weekend.

PreserveUMass Shines a Spotlight on the University: bright spots and dark corners

This piece follows on our recent postings concerning both modern architecture on campus and the larger question of the University's willingness to observe State laws on historic preservation.

Preserve UMass, which has led the fight to save historic buildings on the campus, issued the following statement over the Massachusetts Historical Commission's listserve on 4 October:

Preserve UMass is pleased to report that the UMass Amherst campus administration has taken some very positive steps on issues important to historic preservation.

1. The professional assessment of all buildings 50 years old or older is underway. We will be watching to see how the results will be used.

2. The campus administration has decided to put Old Chapel under the wing of the Library and restoration of its interior is now on the top of the Library's list of fund raising projects. This makes a lot of sense since the Chapel (never used as a religious chapel) started life as the first campus library.

3. When the renovation of the Campus Center was announced the administration stated that the architectural design of the original architect would be respected. Many people do not like the concrete buildings of the 1970's, but they represent American architecture of the period and nationally known architects were specifically solicited to ensure that their style would be included on the campus scene.

Meanwhile, we have been waiting for well over 3 months for a response from the UMass Building Authority (UMBA) to comments on a draft Memorandum of Agreement sent to the Authority by the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) in June. UMBA finally responded at the end of last week. We were encouraged to see that UMBA will now agree to MHC's request to document, though photographs and written material, the remaining three structures of the Grinnell Arena Complex, namely, the wooden Victorian Horse Barn, Grinnell Arena itself, and Blaisdell House (the oldest Mass Aggie built structure left on the campus). UMBA had originally wanted to be held only to documenting the now demolished stucco cow barn.

UMBA up to now has been refusing to support one of the most important outcomes of the professional assessment of the campus' historic buildings - namely nomination of qualified buildings to the National Register of Historic Places. We were pleased to see in their response of last week that they will withdraw from that discussion and defer to the Amherst campus administration. We will take that lead and press for campus acceptance of nominations to the National Register.

The most discouraging news in the UMBA response of last week was their continued refusal to admit that the projects that they undertake on the UMass five campuses constitute a "state action." UMBA in oral presentations at two public meetings have made it clear that they "are not part of the University." Their refusal to accept the MHC view that their activities involving state land, state owned buildings, and funds from University issued bonds, are not "state" actions is hard to explain, unless you consider that they may want to erect a shield from environmental and historic preservation regulatory oversight. We will continue to shine a bright and very public light on this issue.

Joseph S. Larson
Corresponding Secretary
Preserve UMass

Friday, October 17, 2008

New England Celebrates Noah Webster 250th

Engraving of Noah Webster 
John Tallis & Company, 1834
(based on the portrait by S. F. B 
Morse [1823]:Mead Art 
Museum, Amherst College)

Given all the attention on next year's 250th-anniversary celebrations here in Amherst, it would be easy to forget that 2008 includes another such occasion: the birth of Noah Webster (1758-1843) on October 16.  And when that anniversary is marked in the press elsewhere, there is often scant mention of Webster's Amherst connection.

West Hartford, as Webster's birthplace, justifiably asserts its ownership, and has undertaken a substantial celebratory campaign. Yale University, where Webster studied and in whose vicinity he spent the last decades of his life, has scheduled at least a day of special and varied events (topics include not just the predictable dictionaries, but modern political campaigns and polling techniques).

Amherst institutions are doing what they can to ensure balance.  Special Collections at both Amherst College and the Jones Library have created exhibits that draw upon their rich holdings (and Amherst, like Yale, is throwing a little birthday party).

Webster spent only a decade of his life in Amherst (1812-22), and the achievements for which he is best known, such as his grammar, spelling books, and dictionary, were begun or completed in other locales.  Still, Webster's Amherst career was significant in its own right, for the history of both the town and the wider world. It was while living in Amherst that he worked on An American Dictionary of the English Language (completed in 1825, published in 1828). He played a major role in the creation of the Amherst Academy as well as Amherst College.  And not only was "Squire Webster" active in local and state politics. He was also a farmer and an agricultural innovator renowned for his orchards.  When the Town of Amherst built a new parking garage to the north of Webster's (no longer extant) residence on Main St. a decade ago, archaeological surveys revealed some pottery sherds dating from the early nineteenth century as well as the remains of a well. The latter seemed to correspond roughly to accounts claiming that it had been uncovered in the course of renovations more than half a century ago, but the identification had to remain speculative at best.

A final footnote:  Given that Webster fought so hard to shape and amend US copyright legislation, it is ironic that his name has become a mere merchandising label, which anyone can apply casually to any dictionary.   Name Wire blog includes a poem in Webster's honor:
October 13, 2008

An Ode to Noah Webster - From Brand Name to Genericide Victim

Oh noble Noah, you who stripped the u
From color and the k from music and who
Taught a nation how to spell and gave
Us a lexicon of the language of the brave
Rejoice! For Yankees all still celebrate
Your dictionary and your birth upon this date.
as well as this reflection on intellectual property:
the Merriam company, which bought the rights to Noah Webster’s dictionary after his death, lost control of both the “Webster’s” name and the original 1828 text.
As a result, several other publishers also produce “Webster’s” dictionaries and Merriam-Webster has to work hard to establish its claim to being the real Webster’s.

That may just make Noah Webster America’s first victim of genericide.

Friday, October 3, 2008

October is Archaeology Month

From the Massachusetts Historical Commission:
This is the 18th annual celebration of archaeology in Massachusetts. Archaeology Month features more than 60 events that promote awareness of the Commonwealth’s rich archaeological past through fun and engaging programs. This year’s theme is “Pointing to the Past."