Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween in a Colonial Cemetery

West Cemetery in Amherst, view from the western end of the 1730 Knoll

31 October: Reformation Day

For Americans, October 31 is just Halloween. For Protestant Germans, though, it is Reformation Day—the anniversary of the date on which, by tradition, Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The only problem is: the story perhaps never happened that way. For over four decades, scholars have been debating the issue. (Even official town and museum websites have taken conflicting stances over the years.)

To be sure, Luther dated the document 31 October, but there is no hard evidence that he actually nailed the theses to the door—though this was the common practice for scholarly disputations. In any case, any door to which Luther might have nailed anything is long gone: the church was destroyed by cannon fire in 160, during the Seven Years' War, and the building we see today therefore dates from only 1770, with additional restorations from the end of the nineteenth century. The bronze doors that now bear the text of the Theses were created only in 1858.

Regardless of whether Luther actually nailed his abstruse Latin Theses to the door, they immediately attracted attention, as supporters reproduced and circulated them. He soon saw the advantage of addressing a wider public, and the sermon on grace and indulgences of 1518, which presented the ideas of the Theses in popular form, went through 25 printings in two years. Henceforth, both proponents and opponents of the Reformation fought their battles in print as well as in the pulpits and streets. In particular, they found that the cheap, small, brochure (sometimes illustrated) was the ideal weapon. 9000 German pamphlets appeared in the first three decades of the sixteenth century. The share of vernacular texts in the market increased by a factor of seven between 1519 and 1522 alone. In a profound sense then, Luther's ability to grasp the power of the press and the new medium of print was analogous to or anticipatory of the revolutionary development of blogging and social networking in our own day.

Illustration: the unveiling of biblical truth by the Reformation, bronze commemorative medal marking the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, Weimar, 1817

* * *

Some Germans nowadays celebrate Halloween in the American style, but the date retains its traditional religious significance: German Catholics still celebrate November 1 and 2 as the traditional Allerheiligen and Allerseelen (All Saints Day and All Souls). Protestants commemorate the dead on Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead, sometimes translated as Mourning Sunday; also Ewigkeitssonntag: literally, Sunday of Eternity ) on the last Sunday before Advent.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

28 October 1918: Founding of the Czechoslovak Republic

On 28 October 1918, as the military power of the Central Powers began to fail and dissension within the Austro-Hungarian Empire grew, the Czechoslovak National Council in Prague acted on its Declaration of Independence of ten days earlier and brought the new state into existence.

After castigating at length the sins of the Habsburg Empire and citing "our historic and natural right" to a sovereign political existence dating back to the seventh century, the document concluded:
We, the nation of Comenius, cannot but accept these principles expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, the principles of Lincoln, and of the declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen. For these principles our nation shed its blood in the memorable Hussite Wars 500 years ago; for these same principles, beside her allies, our nation is shedding its blood today in Russia, Italy, and France.
. . . .
The Czecho-Slovak State shall be a republic. In constant endeavour for progress it will guarantee complete freedom of conscience, religion and science, literature and art, speech, the press, and the right of assembly and petition.

The Church shall be separated from the State. Our democracy shall rest on universal suffrage; women shall be placed on an equal footing with men, politically, socially, and culturally. The rights of the minority shall be safeguarded by proportional representation; national minorities shall enjoy equal rights. The government shall be parliamentary in form and shall recognize the principles of initiative and referendum. The standing army will be replaced by militia.

The Czecho-Slovak Nation will carry out far-reaching social and economic reforms; the large estates will be re-deemed for home colonization; patents of nobility will be abolished. Our nation will assume its part of the Austro-Hungarian pre-war public debt; the debts of this war we leave to those who incurred them.

In its foreign policy the Czecho-Slovak Nation will accept its full share of responsibility in the reorganization of eastern Europe. It accepts fully the democratic and social principle of nationality and subscribes to the doctrine that all covenants and treaties shall be entered into openly and frankly without secret diplomacy.

Our constitution shall provide an efficient, rational, and just government, which will exclude all special privileges and prohibit class legislation.

Democracy has defeated theocratic autocracy. Militarism is overcome - democracy is victorious; on the basis of democracy mankind will be recognized.

The forces of darkness have served the victory of light - the longed-for age of humanity is dawning.

We believe in democracy - we believe in liberty - and liberty evermore.

Given in Paris, on the eighteenth of October, 1918.

Professor Thomas G. Masaryk, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.
General Dr. Milan R. Stefanik, Minister of National Defence.
Dr. Edward Benes, Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Interior.
One man recalled his youthful escapades of 28 October:
When Austria collapsed and when Czechoslovakia was declared an independent state, there was big jubilation in the streets, and people were tearing down the Austrian eagle. One man lifted me on his shoulders and I removed one, from the police station.
Unfortunately, the "longed-for age of humanity" did not last long. The Nazis detested the new state, which they regarded as, if not quite a monstrosity, such as Poland, then nonetheless a usurper of German lands and rights. The betrayal at Munich on 30 September 1938, when erstwhile allies Britain and France forced Czechoslovakia to cede its western territories to Germany or face the blame for starting a world war, in effect marked the end of the state. Although the Nazis did not invade and occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia until 15 March 1939, the country had lost its morale, along with its eminently defensible borders.

The Nazis made their scorn, and their ultimate plans, all too clear when, already in October 1938—just 10 days after Munich and more than 5 months before the occupation of the rest of the country in 1939—they issued the following mock statement. In it, the "parents," "Ex-President Benesch" (the deliberately Germanized spelling of Beneš) and the League of Nations thank the world for the expressions of condolences sent in response to the passing of their "beloved child Czechoslovakia," which lived for only 20 years from its birth in the cradle of Versailles to its deathbed in Munich. Clear enough for anyone with eyes to see, one would think. And yet the world remained blind.

This photo is of my own copy of the document, but I also saw one on display in Prague last summer, in a wonderful exhibit on the history of the Republic at the National Museum. It was one of several shows marking the seventieth anniversary of the events of 1938-39. Another, at the Army Museum, commemorated the days of "Mobilization 1938," when the nation enthusiastically answered the call to arms before the tragedy of Munich. (I hope to write in more detail about them in this space at a later point.) It is virtually impossible for us, here and today, to imagine how the citizens loved that republic, and what its betrayal and destruction meant to them.

And after the War? The republic was of course reestablished, but under the communist regime established in 1948, 28 October was transformed from Independence Day into "Nationalization Day," commemorating the 1945 state takeover of banks, utilities, and major industries and businesses. The policy of the immediate postwar regime was a parallel assault on the ethnic German population and the propertied elements. By making this day a holiday, the communists sent the message of continuity and completion: the creation of the First Republic had achieved independence, a bourgeois political revolution, which necessarily had to be followed by a proletarian social revolution. Today, 28 October is once again the national holiday, though the irony that "it commemorates the founding of a state that no longer exists"—the Czechs and Slovaks, after all, parted company in 1992—has not escaped notice. Czech Radio addressed this issue in an interesting broadcast in 2006.

commemorative marker on Wencelas Square, Prague

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Damage at the Dickinson Museum

Imagine my surprise when I returned from a day trip on Sunday to learn from my wife that there had been something of an incident at work: the ceiling in the parlor of the Emily Dickinson Homestead had fallen in—this on a regular weekend, with tours going on. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

When I heard of a ceiling collapse, my first thought was: hunks of plaster and a cascade of dust coming down. In this case, however, the whole ceiling, still attached to its framing material, evidently came down in one piece. Pretty scary, and thus all the more fortunate that no one was hurt. On the bright side, the structure of the house was sound, and only this more recent finish layer fell down. The Museum will provide further details once it has had a chance to remove the fallen ceiling material and study the situation.

Early press coverage:

WBZ TV 38, Boston, citing the AP: "Falling Plaster Damages Emily Dickinson Artifacts":
AMHERST, Mass. (AP) ― A partial ceiling collapse at the Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst has damaged some historical artifacts and forced a temporary closure of the museum.

Executive Director Jane Wald says plaster from a ceiling in the parlor area fell on Sunday, damaging a teapot, sofa and set of chairs. The museum was open for tours at the time, but no one was in the room and no one was harmed.

Wald said it would be several more days until the cost of the damage is determined. She said the plaster that fell was not original to the house. The homestead will be closed to the public until Saturday for cleanup and repairs.

The 19th-century home of poet Emily Dickinson has been open to the public since 1965 when it was purchased by Amherst College.

Daily Hampshire Gazette: "Ceiling collapses at Dickinson family home"
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
AMHERST - The front parlor ceiling collapsed at the Emily Dickinson Homestead Sunday afternoon, damaging some of the museum's historic artifacts.

No one was injured in the incident, but a Dickinson family teapot, sofa and set of chairs were among the items damaged by the collapse. The homestead will be closed from Oct. 26 to Oct. 30.

Jane Wald, executive director of the museum, said in a press release that the cause of the accident is still under investigation, and that a damage estimate is forthcoming.

"The plaster from the ceiling fell into the room," Wald said in a phone interview.

The fallen plaster was not original to the home, and no beams fell from the second story floor, Wald said.

"The cleanup activity hasn't started yet. We are going to be having a structural evaluation of the spaces in the homestead. We want to have that done before we have too much activity in the house," Wald said. "Until we are able to get into the room to clean up the debris, we won't be able to assess the damage to the artifacts in the room." (read the rest)

There's an interesting difference in coverage here. The Gazette title is more dramatic. However the AP report focuses on damage to artifacts. Actually, though, both reports err if they give the impression of specific damage to collection holdings. What they are no doubt referring to is a summary of objects in the room at the time of the accident. Although one may speculate as to what was damaged or what survived, no one can tell for sure until the debris is cleared, and the Museum has not said.

Dedication of Plaque Honoring Robert Frost and the Jones Library

This past week has witnessed a string of events celebrating Robert Frost's life in, and long connection to, Amherst. It was a unique connection, for not only did he live, teach, and write here: Amherst is also home to an unrivaled collection of Frostiana, thanks to the foresight of librarian Charles R. Green. Soon after taking charge of the Jones Library in 1921, Green began to collect Frost's papers as well as publications. Current Curator of Special Collections Tevis Kimball, has, since her arrival in 2001, made a sustained effort to promote and care for the holdings associated with Frost, Dickinson, and other local poets.

Portrait of Robert Frost: Frost Library, Amherst College

Writing in last week's Bulletin, Bonnie Wells provided a nice overview of the history and significance of the Frost collection:
The yellowed manuscript bears the spidery script of the poet Robert Frost. Best of all, it offers a window on the evolution of one of the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet's best-loved works.

In the draft of "Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening," words and lines are crossed out and substitutions made. "A falling flake" becomes "a downy flake." "Between a forest and a lake" becomes the final "Between the woods and frozen lake."

"You can see the poet at work," said Tevis Kimball, curator of special collections at the Jones Library in Amherst, where the manuscript is one of some 12,000 items in the Frost Collection. (read the rest)
It was that particular connection that earned the Jones Library status as a "literary landmark" from the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations (ALTAFF).

The ceremony was originally scheduled to be held near where the commemorative plaque will be affixed to the wall at the main entrance. Heavy rains, however, forced the event indoors. It was probably a more congenial setting, and in any case, we fared better than our poor neighbors in Hadley, who had scheduled a host of outdoor activities for their 350th-anniversary "History Fair Weekend." I'm sure that it was not too problematic to move some of the craft and other "living history" demonstrations indoors, but what about the military ones? The website explained:
Firing Drills will be at 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm. In case of heavy rain, please go to the Most Holy Redeemer Church.
(Guns and rosaries, anyone??)

Accepting the honor on behalf of the Jones Library, Director Bonnie Isman said that the plaque really "celebrates poetry and poets in Amherst as a whole." "Power is in poetry," she declared, for as Frost himself put it, "I'm not a teacher, I'm an awakener." She recalled her own youth: Little did she imagine, when she as a child read "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," that she would one day become the director of the institution that owned the manuscript of that poem. It was therefore important to understand, she continued, that the award honored not just poets and poetry, but also the keepers of poets: the collection's originator, Charles Green, and the current Special Collections librarians Tevis Kimball and Kate Boyle. Without the librarians and archivists, essential pieces of our cultural heritage would not have been preserved.

Amherst Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe praised the Jones as "another jewel in Amherst's very impressive crown of cultural and literary attractions." Cultural tourism, she predicted, "will become an increasingly important industry," distinctive of western Massachusetts. The collections of Frost, Dickinson, and other literary figures housed in the Jones library of this small New England town "would be the envy of major metropolitan libraries."

Our State Senators Ellen Story and Stan Rosenberg are deeply dedicated to their district, and what is more, have been especially committed to lending their support, in word, deed, and presence to our cultural endeavors. Although other obligations prevented Ellen from attending, Stan was present and began his remarks by noting that the Jones would also be honored this week at the State House. "As some of you may know," he deadpanned, "I'm in politics." [predictable laughter] "We're not supposed to like the arts or even be able to talk about them." But the arts were in fact essential, he insisted. He then proceeded to cite (after his fashion), the famous 1780 letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail (here in the accurate original):
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study
Painting and PoetryMathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine .
Unfortunately, Stan ruthlessly abridges and recycles the text. I suppose I can console myself for the loss of "Naval Architecture" (it hardly trips off the tongue, and most people have no idea what it is) and other items for the sons, but it pains me when he stops at painting and poetry and leaves out the other fine and especially decorative arts (to hear a statesmen speak of a "right" to study "Tapestry and Porcelaine" is to open a new window onto the democratic and cultural promise of the Republic). It's a great letter, I've known it for ages, and I still love to hear it. However, I've also heard our distinguished State Senator use it on at least half a dozen occasions—and I attend only a fraction of the events at which he appears. I mean, really, Stan, get some new material. It's time to retire that old warhorse before it becomes an old nag.

Robert Frost's granddaughter Lesley Lee Francis gave the most distinctive performance, characterized by idiosyncratically fast-paced and somewhat meandering remarks. Drawing upon her book, Robert Frost: An Adventure in Poetry, 1900-1918, she recounted episodes from his family life and role as both father and progressive writing teacher to his children. Because William Pritchard had read "October" earlier in the week, she instead decided to read "My November Guest," which proved singularly appropriate to the meteorological conditions:
My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Chamber of Commerce Director Tony Maroulis, like Stephanie O'Keeffe, called attention to the growing importance of cultural tourism as a clean and therefore desirable form of economic development. He declared that "arts, education, and culture define our community," singling out the role of the Jones Library. The institution that he called "the heart of Amherst," in both the physical and figurative senses, attracts some 350,000 visitors per year. It is, accordingly, "the busiest place in Amherst at any given time," which brings a great deal of revenue to the town when users visit nearby restaurants, cafes, and other businesses.

The "reveal" (as they say on home improvement and decorating shows):
Jones Library Trustee Chair Pat Holland and State Senator Stan Rosenberg unveil the plaque.

"To the Jones Library
my first serious collector and
longtime friend under Charles Green"
—Robert Frost

The events this week not only formed part of the Amherst 250th anniversary celebrations, but also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the original Frost Room at the Jones Library during the town's bicentennial in 1959. In this 250th anniversary year, the Historical Commission has sponsored and won Community Preservation Act funding for four related projects: three at the Jones Library: renovations of the old roof, an engineering survey of climate control systems in Special Collections, conservation and digitization of Special Collections holdings; and the creation of the Amherst Writer's Walk, establishing markers at the homes of Amherst literary figures, including one of Frost's former residences.

43 Sunset Avenue, where Frost lived from 1931 to 1938

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Evolution Update: Profile of Harun Yahya

As chance would have it, not long after our Hampshire conference on evolution and the Muslim world, there appears an article nicely complementing Ronald Numbers's keynote lecture. Writing in the current New Humanist, Halil Arda offers a damning profile of the leading Islamic creatonist in "Sex, flies and videotape: the secret lives of Harun Yahya":
Inspired by the high profile of its Christian American counterpart, Muslim creationism is becoming increasingly visible and confident. On scores of websites and in dozens of books with titles like The Evolution Deceit and The Dark Face of Darwinism, a new and well-funded version of evolution-denialism, carefully calibrated to exploit the current fashion for religiously inspired attacks on scientific orthodoxy and “militant” atheism, seems to have found its voice. In a recent interview with The Times Richard Dawkins himself recognises the impact of this new phenomenon: “There has been a sharp upturn in hostility to teaching evolution in the classroom and it’s mostly coming from Islamic students.”
The article focuses as much on Yahya's personal foibles as his fradulent science.

Conclusion: "He is a deluded megalomaniac who has artfully exploited the global resurgence of religious sentiment to cheat us all. A ludicrous man for ludicrous times." (read the rest)

Evolution Update: Continuing to Celebrate Darwin

Vancouver Evolution Festival: A friend was kind enough to send me the publicity for this Canadian contribution to the Darwin Year. It's an ambitious program and an attractive design.

Monday, October 12, 2009

History: good TV, bad TV

History channel continues to explore the rich possibilities of self-abasement with the new series, "The Nostradamus Effect," which, it rather disingenuously claims, attempts to "to separate the prophecies that appear to be inspired visions from those that are merely crackpot conspiracy theory."

Historians of course, can accept no such distinction: (1) conspiracy theory, which retroactively imposes fanciful interpretations upon the past, is not "prophecy." (2) Prophecy, which seeks to predict the future through some occult means, is impossible. Both are bunk. (This, incidentally, is why I, by contrast, have an affectionate respect for "Monster Quest." Although, once you've been through the Loch Ness monster, Sasquatch, the Yeti, the giant squid, and maybe the goatsucker, it gets increasingly difficult to find compelling subjects, the fact remains that the show takes a case or hypothesis, examines evidence, and comes up with an answer. In other words, it adheres to an accepted standard of proof.)

As usual, these "Nostradamus Effect" programs turn out to be at least half hoakum, interspersed with relatively objective background information, sometimes consisting of interviews with serious scholars who may not even be aware of the actual use to which the footage is put.

By contrast, Discovery Channel broadcast an excellent program,"Discovering Ardi," on the recent presentation of the remains of Ardipithecus ramidus, "the oldest skeleton from our branch of the primate tree."

The contrast, indeed, could not be greater. When I watch one of those History channel programs, I find myself growing impatient and looking at my watch (isn't it time for the commercial and another beer?), unless I am busy scribbling down notes about another new inanity. In the case of Discovery's "Ardi" program, however, two hours devoted largely just to conversation by scholars sitting around a table went by quickly. They were interesting because intelligent people were teaching us something new.

Here's an example of the difference:

• History channel:

Somebody in the nineteenth century predicted that there would be war and destruction in the future. Then along came Hitler in the twentieth century. Pretty spooky.

• Discovery Channel:

How did we come to be and look human rather than ape-like? (though as one of the participants points out, one small bone in the foot is a relic of our early ape-like ancestry; fun facts to know and tell).

Let us consider the single tiny but telling example of how our skulls and faces became "human." Although we usually think of brow ridges, facial angles, and jaw structures, another measure is: small canines.

The female, "Ardi" is going to mate one day and will have to make a choice: She could of course succumb to the blandishments (well, it's not quite that romantic in the natural realm, but then, our dating customs are not all they're cracked up to be, either) of the traditionally attractive male with large canines. He's sort of like the captain of the football team. But does she want a guy like that, who's going to spend all his time competing with other males for prestige? or is she going to choose a guy with other desirable characteristics?

What sort of fellow might that be? Well, the serious student and nice guy—I mean: one with small canines, who can be attractive and win her over in other ways. For example, he may go out and bring back exotic or otherwise desirable foods. She will be willing to trade copulation for food. And then this will become a regular habit. And in the process, he'll have to make quite a trek through forests. What's the result: the trait for small canines is passed along, the development of bipedalism is encouraged. So, one human trait connects with another: our teeth and walking upright. Voilà.

Let's recap:
  • It's serious history and science
  • They got it out in short order (the discovery was announced only two weeks ago)
  • No glitzy special effects, no cheesy re-enactments, just serious talk about important matters.
There's a broader lesson there. At least coincidentally, Discovery made a virtue of a necessity. The producers didn't have a lot of lead time in which to build sets, go on location, and undertake complex and expensive reenactments. (Does History channel have a huge warehouse, in which it stores all those long robes, lace collars, and swords?) In that sense, it's in some ways the educational equivalent of reality TV. Or maybe it's a resurrection of the best documentary and discussion from a more classic age of TV. In other words, if you just take the trouble to put on a serious program on a compelling topic, people will watch it. In any case, more power to you.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Chinese Motivational Slogans

Just in case military parades and other festive events are not enough to celebrate the Revolution and build socialism in the future, the Chinese government has come up with new motivational slogans. Unfortunately, the sound as if they came from the mid-twentieth century rather than look to the mid-twenty-first.

There are, for instance, the classical Marxist-Leninist-sounding

• "Long live the great unity of all nationalities of China!" and

• "Warmly celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China!" or

• "Hail the great success of our country's reform and opening-up and socialist modernization!"

Now, "Adhere to the one China policy and promote the country's great cause of peaceful reunification!" is a both a bit awkward and more politically pointed, but it still sounds like the kind of thing one might have seen in the old communist world.

By contrast,

"Adhering to and improving the system of regional autonomy by ethnic minorities, so as to consolidate and develop socialist relations among different ethnic groups based on equality, solidarity, mutual assistance and harmony"

is just a clunker. I've come across this sort of scintillating prose not only in student papers (not surprising, coming from beginning writers) but also in the course of work on both academic and civic committees. It's revealing: a sign that the authors not only are muddled thinkers, but also have no idea of how they are perceived or how to communicate with someone who does not already agree with them.

One further point should be noted, though: What strikes many Americans as so strange about this sort of writing is not so much the ideas as the stock phrases, the elevated or stilted language, and above all, the dire earnestness.

In his classic Orality and Literacy (1982), Walter Ong observed that
"The elements of orally based thought and expression tend to be not so much simple integers as clusters of integers, such as parallel terms or phrases or clauses, antithetical terms or phrases or clauses, epithets . . . .not the soldier, but the brave soldier, not the princess, but the beautiful princess, not the oak, but the sturdy oak."
He believed he could detect the tendency even in modern situations, and speculated:
"The clichés in political denunciations in many low-technology. developing cultures—enemy of the people, capitalist warmongers—that strike high literates as mindless are residual formulary essentials of oral thought processes. One of the many indications of a high, if subsiding, oral residue in the culture of the Soviet Union is (or was a few years ago, when I encountered it) the insistence on speaking there always of 'the Glorious Revolution of October 26'—the epithetic formula here is obligatory stabilization, as were Homeric epithetic formulas 'wise Nestor' or 'clever Odysseus,' or as 'the glorious Fourth of July' used to be in the pockets of oral residue common even in the early twentieth-century United States. The Soviet Union still announces each year the official epithets for various loci classici in Soviet history."
Ong, as we see, attributed the tendency to residues of the past. China certainly enjoys a high-technology culture now, and its economy is growing more rapidly than ours. It will be interesting to see just which weight of tradition is the heavier here—that of orality and pre-modern life—or that of traditional revolutionary rhetoric. The answer may provide another clue as to which way China is going.

Conference on Darwin and Evolution in the Muslim World: Ronald Numbers lecture, "Creationism Goes Global: From American to Islamic Fundamentalism"

It is always a pleasure to share news of the accomplishments of one’s colleagues and home institution. Elsewhere in these pages, I have cited the innovative work of Salman Hameed, who has undertaken major initiatives in the study of Islamic creationism. In order that far-flung scholars working in this new field might share their insights and develop a common agenda, Salman organized a conference on "Darwin and Evolution in the Muslim World," which brought together speakers from the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East.

In addition to the private sessions among the attendees, the conference included two major public events, a keynote lecture on Friday evening, followed by a panel discussion on Saturday. Herewith, a report on the lecture:

"Creationism Goes Global: From American to Islamic Fundamentalism"
by Ronald L. Numbers (Hilldale Professor of History of Science & Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The prompt or point of departure for the lecture was Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion (2000) that, creationism, although strong and growing stronger in the US, was not likely to establish itself elsewhere: . “As insidious as it may seem, at least it's not a worldwide movement,” he said reassuringly. “I hope everyone realizes the extent to which this is a local, indigenous, American bizarrity.” Obviously, even the best scholars don’t always make the best prophets.

Professor Numbers began by noting that both the rise of organized creationism and its connection to Islam began in the 1980s. In order to explain that development, however, he had to review the evolution (no pun intended) of creationist thought itself.

He took the notorious Scopes Trial as a point of entry, saying, quite correctly, that the film and play of “Inherit the Wind”—which is how most of us know the incident—was great drama, but that, as history, it got almost everything wrong.

Contrary to popular opinion, for example, William Jennings Bryan and other opponents of evolution at that time were not simple-minded biblical literalists who thought that the world had been created a mere 6,000 years ago. All believed in the antiquity of the earth: it was the fact, not the date, of creation that was at issue. (They were perfectly content, for example, to take the “days” of the creation account in Genesis as metaphors for eras rather than literal 24-hour periods. (A then-popular variant or alternative form of Old Earth creationism was so-called “gap theory,” which posited a long chronological gap between the events described in the first and second verses of Genesis and thus allowed scholars to harmonize the biblical account with the geological record. The gap theory, as Numbers explained, was even enshrined in Oxford’s Scofield Reference Bible of 1917.) Even pre-human evolution did not necessarily pose an insuperable problem for many American religious conservatives, but the notion of human descent from “lower” species was unacceptable.

By contrast, it was primarily the Seventh Day Adventists who held to the notion of a literal seven-day creation. The crucial change occurred between the 1920s and and 1980s, this once “highly marginalized interpretation of Genesis moved from the margins to the center of evangelical Christianity.” A key step was the founding of the Institution for Creation Research in San Diego in 1972 by Minnesota engineer Henry Morris. As Numbers drily remarked to his sympathetic audience, the term was a horrendous oxymoron because creation is a miracle rather than something that can be substantiated by research. The Institution pursued a two-track agenda, seeking, on the one hand, evidence for the truth of the biblical account of a global flood, and on the other, errors in the scholarship on evolution.

The position of these advocates is often misunderstood, Numbers explained: They don’t defend the miraculous origin of species, and in fact have not done so for 50 years. Rather, the key shift consisted of abandoning acceptance of the antiquity of the earth and instead asserting a young earth, a move that requires them to rely on the Flood as the crucial explanatory mechanism for the destruction and survival of species. The Flood, accordingly, became much more important than the Creation, as such. It was, he said, relishing the irony, an unfortunate problem that the Bible gave the precise dimensions of the Ark, and yet modern scientists kept discovering ever more species. Numbers then detailed some of the contortions that advocates have to perform in order to square this circle: Did the Ark hold all species, or were the “kinds” referred to there perhaps biological orders, etc.? He also mentioned the problem of food and waste: Did the passengers on the Ark perhaps go into some form of hibernation or suspended animation for the duration of the voyage. (Had I been delivering a talk on this subject, I of course could not have restrained myself from quoting Calvin, who marveled that “Noah and his household lived for ten months in a fetid heap of animal droppings, in which he could hardly breathe”—and immediately went on to liken this plight to that of the fetus, which, “shut up in its mother’s womb, lives in filth that would suffocate the strongest man in half an hour.” Calvin had his own particular “issues” regarding confinement and contamination, but that’s another subject.)

Up to this point, there was nothing particularly novel in the talk, at least for specialists—even though Numbers’s skillful explication of both the complexity and shifting emphases in anti-evolutionary thinking was a revelation for the general audience that attended this public lecture rather than the conference, as such. Still, the heightened importance of the Flood was the crucial practical connection between evangelical and Islamic creationism. As the quest for Noah’s Ark took on new importance, teams of explorers went to Turkey, where it had presumably come to rest. In order to obtain the requisite permissions, they had to deal with the Turkish authorities. Then in the 1980s, the Ministry of Education in Istanbul asked the Institute for Creation Research to help produce materials for the schools. In 1992, American representatives took a prominent part in a large creationist conference in Turkey.

In the meantime, however, a major indigenous brand of creationism had arisen in Turkey, marked by the establishment of the Scientific Research Organization (BAV) in 1986. The central figure here and in Numbers’s narrative was the prolific Harun Yahya (pseud. for Adnan Oktar), “the Mary Baker Eddy of Islam.” Already as a student, Yahya is said to have became deeply concerned about the threat of materialism in the sense of both philosophical materialism and modern secular and consumerist culture. Like others before and since, he placed the blame on communism, the Jews (Numbers called him violently antisemitic, though Yahya denies the charge), and Freemasons. Yahya saw his mission as destroying materialism and evolutionary thinking in Turkey. He has since become something of a one-man industry, cranking out such a proliferation of publications (more than 300, at last count; among the best known is The Evolution Deceit) that many accuse him of being but a name behind a consortium of hired pens (though he of course denies it).

Numbers went on to explain some of the distinctive features of this brand of thinking, noting that the growing alliance between evangelical and Islamic creationism was in many ways rather strange. For example, because Islam is not bound by the evangelical Christian concern with the young earth and recent appearance of species, Yahya has no trouble embracing the Big Bang or radiocarbon dating. Still, for both, human evolution is anathema.

The rise of Intelligent Design as the new incarnation of creationism—the Discovery Institute was founded in 1990—should in theory have strengthened the alliance, but for the fact that the US side did not want one. Later, after one of Yahya’s associates collaborated with the Discovery Institute, Yahya, motivated by envy, turned violently against Intelligent Design, as such.

Numbers, who has both met and intensively studied Yahya, clearly relished the opportunity to relate some of the latter’s quirks and travails, including several arrests on charges ranging from cocaine possession to corruption and irregular sexual activities. At one point, he explained with evident restraint, Yahya was incarcerated and diagnosed as a “paranoid schiophrenic”—though later, a higher body adjusted that to ‘passionate idealist.’”

Numbers closed the lecture by noting that there were alarming signs on several fronts. An ultra-orthodox Jewish creationism has arisen. More ominously, belief in evolution is slipping in places other than the United States. Even some 20 percent of Europeans espouse creationist views. And what of Darwin’s birthplace, England, in this, his bicentennial year? A majority of Britons now reject evolution. Numbers concluded, “So much for celebrating Darwin.”

Video of the public proceedings will be available at the conference website.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Amherst 250th Parade: Kudos, and a few ironies and embarrassments

From the Amherst Bulletin:
An anniversary 250 years in the making: Amherst celebrates founding with huge parade
Staff Writer
Published on October 02, 2009

Rain or shine, came the words of organizers at 9 a.m. Sunday. The shine part never showed. But the Amherst populace did, throngs of 'em. The rain was coming down pretty steadily at 10, 11, 12, and was still going at 1:17 p.m. when Amherst's 250th Anniversary Parade stepped off from Amherst College. The parade didn't finish up until after 3 at the University of Massachusetts. (read the rest)
The weather was almost a more prominent feature of most coverage and chatter than was the parade itself, especially because the preceding day had been unusually beautiful and sunny. Still, the parade held the attention of viewers and reporters. HIghlights in some accounts: Parade marshals the venerable Steve Puffer (noted repository of North Amherst historical memory) and Stan Ziomek (longtime town official and patron saint of baseball and other youth sports) tossing Tootsie Rolls to the crowds (someday, anthropologists and historians will analyze each of these choices and actions in microscopic detail, you know), the ever-popular UMass Marching Band, members of South Church belting out the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the "Zamboni" (or was it? at the University of Wisconsin—another land grant university, historically related to UMass, and with a far better hockey team—there was never any doubt that we had a real, certified Zamboni, and not a knockoff) from the UMass rink, and the re-enactors of the 9th Masschusetts Artillery firing off a few rounds with real black powder.

Of course, in other of my circles, the favorites were the Emily Dickinson Museum—participants in the new ballet, "Emily of Amherst," dispensing cookies— and the float of the service organization, the Amherst Club, proclaiming that it had raised over a quarter of a million dollars for local charitable causes.

Hampshire College was ably represented in minimalist fashion by President Ralph Hexter and his partner, Manfred Kollmeier, along with former President Chuck Longsworth (a few others participated, notably some of our Library and IT staff, as individuals rather than part of the official lead team). Of course, in civic affairs no less than cuisine, minimalism may prove elegant but ultimately unsatisfying, leaving us hungering for more.

Indeed, the low profile of my employer in these activities was regrettable, as is the modest level of its involvement in the civic affairs of the town as a whole—which is ironic, given that one of our founding documents, The Making of a College (1975) identified one of its four key "challenges" as the need "To reorient the college in relation to community, so that it and associated institutions will play a vigorous, constructive part in shaping community development." and devoted an entire chapter to Interinstitutional Cooperation and the Larger Community. The founders of the College realized that the institutions of higher learning were changing the character of the town— the State College became the University in 1947, and since 1950, both population and population density have more than tripled—and had to bear some responsibility for helping Amherst adjust to those changes. Such was the theory, at any rate.

Participation in a boosterish parade of this sort is no litmus test, but we need to do more. To be sure, our previous Dean of the Faculty, Aaron Berman, speaking on the steps of Town Hall when we kicked off the 250th celebrations in February, astutely called attention to the extent to which our students have found ways to unite their talents and curiosities with the needs of the town, for example, through service in the educational system. To be sure, our colleague Myrna Breitbart has worked tirelessly to make more robust the community service requirement for students (new policies are about to go into effect). Nonetheless, even our admirable community-based learning program has focused more on traumatized urban areas such as Holyoke than our own surroundings. Community efforts of the College as a whole (even taking into account its meager resources, compared with those of Amherst College) are as modest as our parade presence.

What disappoints but does not surprise me is that our students don't really feel connected to the town. It's not their fault, and rather, it's ours and the norm: Students are transients, and almost all Hampshire College students live on campus, which is located at the far southern end of town, and not, like Amherst and UMass, at or within walking distance of the center. After all, why should they feel connected when their own institution evidently does not?

Our absence on the list of "major sponsors"—next to the names of the University of Massachusetts and Amherst College—is glaring. In fact, we could not even pony up to fund one of the blue-and-gold banners (above) that adorn the lampposts of the town. Frankly, it's an embarrassment. I mean, if the tiny Amherst Brewing Company, which is only half as old as the College, can be a "major sponsor," and if the purchasers of banners include (in addition to the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, History Museum, and Emily Dickinson Museum, as one would expect) local businesses whose domains range from liquor and insurance to plumbing and small-engine repair, what sort of message are we sending?

Well, apparently, none at all. In one of my courses, my co-teacher and I are devoting some time to local history. Had we not mentioned the 250th anniversary, our students would have been completely unaware of it. A sad observation on a happy occasion. (I hope to follow up with some postings on student reactions to their encounters with Amherst history.)

Additional highlights:

• Best slogan (fine points of grammar or usage aside): Valley Light Opera
"'Fifty percent less calories than those other operas!' cried a member of Valley Light Opera, whose collegues were in dress rehearsal for 'The Mikado'."
• Irony of the day: the invitation to and fascination with the Budweiser Clydesdales—this, in a town that prides itself on its defiantly anti-corporate attitude. Additional irony: The mighty equines could not "march" in the end because the rain would have damaged their elaborate gear, and so, they passed by in their trailer. Sort of like the difference between a Budweiser and a real beer, too. Speaking of real beer, Amherst Brewing Company not only stepped up and became a major sponsor of the 250th, but also produced a special brew for the occasion. There's a big whopping metaphor for something lurking in all these ironies.

I'm not sure just what about the gear of the horses was so precious. Didn't these creatures, appropriately harnessed, use to do real work in real weather? Fortunately, the horses pulling the Muddy Brook Farm Wagon, bearing Parade Marshals Barry Roberts and Stan Ziomek, were made of sterner stuff. So, too, were (as one would hope), the Quaboag Highlanders, with all fifteen pipers piping.

• Second place for irony:

-Those "Congos" singing Julia Ward Howe's stirring "Battle Hymn of the Republic" were a big hit. But isn't that a religious activity? I mean: a church congregation singing verses that are a veritable summary of Christology? (And weren't our squeamish residents concerned about the "militaristic" imagery? After all, as their bumper stickers like to proclaim, "War is Not the Answer"? Well, actually it was, in 1861.) Public money paid for this parade and would thus seem to be endorsing its content.

-Flash back to Spring 2008: Amherst Town Meeting appropriates (Article 35) $ 25,000 to support the 250th Anniversary celebration in which this religious act took place.

-Flash forward to Spring 2009: Town Meeting votes down a proposal (the lone historic preservation proposal defeated amidst a string of unprecedented victories) for $ 7,000 to repair the roof of the historic 1820s North Congregational Church on the grounds that this constituted an unconscionable violation of separation of church and state.

In point of fact, there is nothing wrong with using public money to pay for a parade in which a church choir sings—any more than in using that money to protect the public interest in a historic resource that has public value and just happens to belong to a religious organization.

You're 250 years old, Amherst: surely, it's time to grow up.

We note the ironies and disappointments because we have to (to do otherwise would be untrue to Amherst's critical spirit), but the event was, on balance, of course, a great success. As the Bulletin observed:
As a capstone on the year's celebration, the parade was a perfect moment in time to reflect on how far the town has come since its colonial period: where schools were once an afterthought, two colleges, a public university and a widely respected public school system now stand; where Native Americans were once persecuted, an accepting and diverse community thrives; and where a colonial territory once defaulted to an overseas king, one of the most democratic forms of government - Amherst's representative Town Meeting - holds sway.

So much has happened in the last 250 years, in the town, the nation and the world. One thing that has remained consistent is the care Amherst residents show for one another, as well as their sense of stewardship of the planet and the community they call home. (read the rest)

1 October: 60th Anniversary of the Chinese Revolution

Well, at least someone still knows how to arrange a good military parade (though what Mao or Lenin would make of red miniskirts and white boots is an interesting topic for speculation).

The 60th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution has attracted modest comment here in the "West," which is too bad in some ways and a welcome sign in others. Some of us can still remember when the People's Republic was "Red China" and inspired almost paranoid fear in Americans. And even just three decades ago, the arrival of scholars and students from the People's Republic at American universities was a tremendous novelty.

What is perhaps most intriguing is that so little of the commentary has had to do with the overall history of the revolution and socialism. These news stories are generally not the place to go if one is seeking a broad overview of Chinese history in the past six decades. Communism seems to come into play almost exclusively with regard to the disastrous Cultural Revolution (obligatory but briefest of references, of course) or recent reforms. And, although almost every report duly cites some statistics about the recent consumer revolution (world's largest auto market, highest numbers of internet and cell phone users; okay, so they can't get access to significant portions of that internet) almost none talks seriously or substantively about the greater and earlier transformation, from agrarian semi-"feudal" regime to modern industrial state. (BBC at least offered some statistics that spanned most of the regime's history)

Much of the commentary has, understandably, focused on the contemporary question of where China stands between its former or nominal socialism and its current engagement in the international economy as crucial producer and consumer alike. It is telling that the market in Mao memorabilia—the free market, that is—took off only in the 1990s, i.e. precisely when the nation most clearly began to distance itself from his legacy. As one California retailer explained: “There are not a lot of Chinese people, especially people over 40, who are interested in this stuff,” said Ms. Edison, whose parents and grandparents survived the Cultural Revolution. “For them, it is a sore reminder of two lost generations.”

Almost needless to say, the now megalomaniacally renamed "History" (formerly: History Channel) had no time to truck in such trivialities, being preoccupied with the need to pump out more pap about "Pawn Stars" and gangs (and the connection to history would be . . . what?). On the other hand, who can blame these people? After all, why bother with the formerly urgent debate about socialist utopia vs. dystopia when you can talk about other fantasy lands such as Atlantis?

* * *

A selection of commentary:

Associated Press (via NPR): "Communist China marks 60 years with tanks, kitsch"
• BBC, "China's lucky generation" (on people born after the Cultural Revolution)
• BBC, "Communist China Marks 60th Year"
Spiegel: "Marching in Lockstep into the Future: China Celebrates 60th Anniversary of Communist Rule" (concludes that the military parade and slogans are throwback and, if not entirely a sign of regression, "the characteristics on show on Thursday were not particularly attractive")