Sunday, February 21, 2010

19 February: Japanese American Day of Remembrance

Japanese American Day of Remembrance: commemorating the World War II internment.

The BBC today broadcast an unusual interview with actor George Takei (of "Star Trek" fame), who recounted his youthful experience of the events and reflected on how they had shaped his life:
At a stroke Executive Order 9066 branded Japanese-Americans the enemy within. In California alone tens of thousands were sent to the north of the state or the interior of the country, forced to live in barracks and penned in by barbed wire fences. Resentment grew, particularly among the young, and riots sometimes ensued. George Takei recalls the time he spent interned, the effect on his family and others – some of whom were driven to suicide – and the moment when he heard the war was over. He also tells interviewee Lucy Williamson about the time spent adjusting to freedom. It took decades for a formal apology from the US government to those labelled a threat, over two-thirds of whom were American citizens. (read/listen)
Read last year's post.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Donna Robinson Divine, How to Teach All Sides of the Arab-Israeli Conflict Without Taking Sides

It is a shame—no, it is tragic and disgraceful—that discourse about the Arab-Israeli conflict on college campuses has become so polarized and polarizing. Aside from the fact that much of the most partisan argument from all quarters is just that, the confrontational and agonistic tone that has moved from the quad into the classroom is an abysmal intellectual and social model: it oversimplifies what is complex, it rules out of bounds views that demand to be debated seriously, and it suggests that the conflict can be resolved by coercion rather than compromise.

There are of course exceptions, so even as we mark the farcical anniversary of a farcical (non-) event that made the Pioneer Valley the target of misplaced admiration and vituperation alike, it is a pleasure to call attention to the achievements of one of our colleagues in the consortium, Donna Robinson Divine, Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College. Donna stands out in a number of ways, notably: (1) she is conversant with the relevant languages of the region (Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish), and (2) she takes with the utmost seriousness not just the duty to present multiple viewpoints, but the need to show students themselves how to put themselves in the minds and shoes of others.

The estimable History New Network (HNN), from George Mason University, recently profiled Donna and her approach:

The feelings stirred up by the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis are so volatile that it is difficult to examine it without taking sides even within the halls of the academy. But in the classroom, the terrible toll exacted by this hundred years’ war should command intellectual analysis, not political advocacy. Politicians posture and champion causes; teachers develop perspectives, generate critical and thoughtful scrutiny, open up conversation, and produce some understanding of the reasons for the persistence of this conflict. Properly practiced, the academic study of this conflict rights no wrongs, provides no political or social therapy and configures no single moral compass for what to do outside of the classroom. The classroom is no battleground and the lectern no soapbox. The responsibility of an engaged intellectual is to bring clarity and substance to the issues probed. For that reason, I routinely begin my course on this topic by asking students about the appropriateness of its title: The Arab-Israeli Conflict. I do so to invite criticism, to suggest that my perspective is not sovereign and to say, plainly, that the arguments I may put before them need not be taken for granted.

In designing my syllabus, my task as instructor is to help students develop their analytical and critical abilities as well as to make available to them the body of knowledge necessary for making their own informed judgments long after the final examination has been graded. Over the years, I have experimented with various approaches to achieve these aims—my syllabus never remains the same from year to year, and the changes I introduce invariably generate the need for even further change. The initial readings, including excerpts from books or articles by Edward Said, Fawaz Turki, Hillel Halkin, Amos Oz, and Aaron Soloveitchik (1), encourage students to confront the fact that this conflict is not only about a piece of real estate: it is also about different and competing conceptions of national identity. And on that topic, Zionists and Palestinians disagree as much within their own communities as across the national divide. (read the rest)

Instead of propaganda and partisanship, "activism" and acrimony, how about empathy for all sides, coupled with academic rigor? It just could be there is a market for that. Of course, it is the faculty who need to endorse and sell that product.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Auschwitz Sign Theft Update: new arrest

Acting on a Polish warrant issued some 10 days ago, police in Sweden arrested neo-Nazi Anders Hoegstrom, 34 as the alleged mastermind behind the theft of the famed sign from the Auschwitz gate. The authorities have not yet taken on extradition, pending his interrogation. The case marks the first major use of the new European Arrest Warrant, which can greatly streamline the extradition process. Polish authorities had recovered the sign and arrested five Polish citizens shortly after the crime

Initial speculation concerning the motives attributed the crime to a desire for profit, but the authorities in the meantime concluded that right-extremist elements were behind it.

Sample coverage:

• BBC,"Auschwitz sign theft: Swedish man arrested in Stockholm," 12 Feb.
• Deutsche Welle, "Poland issues EU arrest warrant for Swede over Auschwitz theft," 2 Feb.
• News from Poland, "No European arrest warrant for Auschwitz sign theft Swede?" 26 Jan.

Emily Dickinson: "The Belle of Amherst"—or "The Spinster of Amherst"?

A month from now, the Emily Dickinson Museum will sponsor a performance of William Luce's now-classic play, "The Belle of Amherst," featuring Barbara Dana. The title comes from a letter that Emily wrote at the age of 14, proving, among other things, that the later recluse was quite a normal adolescent, though already showing signs of both the literary sensibility and wry humor that would mark her mature work:
I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year.
I don't doubt that I shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age.
—Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, 7 May 1845
Emily was mentioned tonight in a different context during the combined concert of the Hurricane Singers and Symphonic Orchestra at the regional high school. The program featured, "Heart, We Will Forget Him," a setting of Dickinson poetry by David Dickau. Addressing the audience between numbers, Singers Director Anita Cooper observed:
That's what every Valentine's Day concert needs: another break-up poem by Emily Dickinson, Amherst's spinster poet. And now we go to a song about a man and a mule: "The Erie Canal."
In the meantime, if you need a dose of Emily and the arts, an excerpt from the new ballet, "Emily of Amherst," will be part of the annual "Love Notes" charitable fundraiser on Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Intelligent Design

"sort of what like God could do if he had the time"
—art historian Ellen Kosmer, explaining the aesthetic ideal of the naturalistic "informal" or "picturesque" gardening style of the 18th and early 19th century, in a lecture on "Art in the Garden" at the Amherst Club, 9 February

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Amherst Adopts Master Plan

After one final, unexpected delay: success! Amherst adopted its first new Master Plan in over 40 years, thus coming into compliance with state law and enabling us to pursue smart growth and regulate development in a fair and sensible manner.

Here is Scott Merzbach's story from the Daily Hampshire Gazette:
Amherst's master plan now in place
By smerzbach
Created 02/08/2010 - 05:00
AMHERST - A document to help guide municipal officials in protecting open space, promoting housing and commercial development initiatives and ensuring various services remain intact is now in place.

The master plan, developed over the last several years in response to concerns the town's phased growth bylaw might be ruled illegal, was adopted Wednesday by the Planning Board in an 8-1 vote. Board member Denise Barberet was the lone dissenter.

Its adoption will allow officials to formulate and make decisions based on what the community really wants, rather than just hunches, said Select Board member Aaron Hayden, who served as a clerk to the Comprehensive Planning Committee.

"What the master plan process did was to take those hunches and test them with real people," Hayden said.

The 10-chapter document was written following a public component, with sessions to gather input scheduled at all times of day and night, and meetings even held in different languages with interpreters. "We really wanted and worked hard to engage every segment of the citizenry in Amherst," Hayden said. "No other planning process has involved the public at such a high level."

A draft of the document was turned over to the Planning Board in November 2008. The board held a public hearing a month later and then had a subcommittee spend the last year revising the document.

Jim Wald, former chairman of the committee, said he found remarkable consistency in what people want to see in Amherst. One core concept is that village centers should be the focus of development, where people can live near and walk to the services they need.

The plan also has an emphasis on social service provision and meeting the needs of all community members through diversifying and expanding the tax base and providing a range of housing options, from affordable units to housing to housing for the homeless, said Cheryl Zoll, executive director of the Amherst Survival Center, in an email. Zoll served for a period as vice chairwoman of the committee. "Knowing the concern for the full spectrum of the community that went into crafting these goals, I'm optimistic that Amherst will become a place even more able to support the diverse needs of its residents," Zoll said.

The master plan, Wald said, will be a point of reference for the town moving forward when it has hard choices to make. "I think the plan gives us a rational and respectful way to talk about those choices," Wald said.

A land-use map that accompanies the plan raised concern from Carol Gray of South East Street. Gray said she was worried the circles on this map, indicating all the village centers, need to be more narrowly drawn or else open space and farmland would be jeopardized by development. "What concerns me is this map has the circles where village centers are taking up half the town," Gray said.

Planning Director Jonathan Tucker said the circles don't indicate change will happen, but only say "this is where the conversation will take place."

An immediate impact of the master plan adoption is not likely.

Elisa Campbell of Pine Grove said it is unfortunate that many of the choices offered in the document have previously been made over the last 40 years. With open space already more limited, the concepts of in-fill development, while preserving historic buildings, may not be welcome in some neighborhoods, and money to execute some ideas might not be available. "I hope we will do the best we can. I still think it's a good thing to have," Campbell said.

Wald said certain things in the plan, such as how fire protection services are provided, possibly through a new fire station, will cost money, but some zoning changes and other ideas will not need financial support from the town.

If nothing else happens, the town should be able to revise the phased growth bylaw, which was amended in 2004 to be tied to the completion of a master plan. "This gives us the legal foundation we're required to have to implement zoning bylaws that regulate growth," Hayden said.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Haiti Update

Other obligations prevented me from attending the Smith College lecture on the Haitian Revolution today, but I can at least present a brief update here.

• Discussing Pat Robertson's ludicrous and obscene interpretation of the earthquake as an act of divine punishment for satanism, I alluded to the role of President Thomas Jefferson in isolating the Caribbean Revolution in what the United States might instead have chosen to regard as a sister republic.

In the interim, Henry Louis Gates has taken up precisely this theme. Writing in The Root, he likewise notes that Robertson's remark was a garbled reference to the initial Haitian Revolution of 1791 rather than that of 1804, and he moreover calls attention to the prejudicial view of voudou that lies at the heart of Robertson's screed. He goes on to point to the responsibility of US foreign policy—dating back to Jefferson—for at least some of Haiti's problems:

Christian missionaries, as is their wont, denigrated this religion created by black people by characterizing it, in a binary relationship with Christianity, as “devil worship.” (They did the same thing with Ifa and Vodun in Nigeria and Dahomey, by the way, and lots of other religions.) Rev. Robertson is just the most recent example of this ignorant and manipulative tendency; and he should know better.

Actually, Robertson, and many other observers going back to the time of the Haitian Revolution, couldn’t bring themselves to believe that the sons and daughters of African slaves could ever possibly defeat a European nation in a war without supernatural intervention, without, in other words, a pact with the devil himself. That is a sign of how profoundly deep the currents of anti-black racism run in Western culture, and bubble up, in the most unexpected places, even today.

If there is a curse on Haiti, we don’t have to sully another person’s religious beliefs to find it. Perhaps curses, like charity, start at home. And the first two places to search for the source would be the White House and Congress, especially those historically dominated by Dixiecrats. Starting with Thomas Jefferson and continuing in a steady march that only really began to end when President Bill Clinton sent General Colin Powell to broker the deal for the generals to “retire” and restore Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a succession of American presidents and Congresses have systematically undermined the independence and integrity of the Haitian Republic. I thought about this ignoble, shameful history as President Obama proclaimed, for one of first times in the history of both republics, that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south,” they “who share our common humanity.” It was a noble sentiment, long overdue.

• Those interested in following the developments may find useful Disaster in Haiti: A guide to research and information, compiled by the staff of the Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

The Blitz on PBS: More is Less

Watching the documentary on the London Blitz on PBS.

One peculiarity: a perverse possible evenhandedness? Although the background discussion began by noting that the German campaign of aggression on the continent yielded the picture of ground troops cutting through cities weakened by air attack, the narration moves directly to a discussion of moral slippage on the part of Britain after it stood alone: Roosevelt had urged both sides not to attack civilians, and both had agreed. Slowly but surely, we are told, the British widened the notion of "military" targets to include communications, economic resources, etc. Then Hitler declares that, if his cities are destroyed, he will destroy the British cities.

No mention of the earlier savage German air attacks on Rotterdam and Warsaw?! Without that context, what are we supposed to understand?

Back to the film as a whole:

It seems in many ways to be an exemplar of the new popular documentary style: lots of individual stories, some told by interviewees in real time, some performed by actors; lots of recreations. Even much of the documentary footage seems to be sexed up: e.g. tinted for greater effect. This may be more engaging for a modern audience, but the film certainly isn't great history or great art. At least in the case of the music video (which began as a somewhat clumsy means of jazzing up an otherwise merely audio performance), a new genre eventually emerged. One wonders what will become of the popular documentary form.

It's striking to turn from this sort of overpriced, underwhelming production to the classic late-twentieth century series, "The World at War," to see how much one could accomplish with so little: file footage and interviews, so simple and powerful. Nowadays, more is indeed less.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

7 February 2009: Hampshire College Divests From "Israeli Occupation" (NOT!)

As long as we're dealing in anomalies: whereas the last posting tardily marked a historical anniversary, this one punctually marks the anniversary of a non-event.

I wouldn’t note it at all, were the whole episode not so surreal.

A year ago, as readers may recall (or maybe not, for it was a colossal non-story, if that's not an oxymoron), Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine (HSJP) secured their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame (or was it only five?) by announcing to the world that my college, the first to sever its economic ties to South Africa a generation ago, had made another epochal political statement by deliberately divesting itself of holdings that supported the proverbial "Israeli occupation of Palestine." [correction: I forgot to capitalize "Occupation." So sorry!]

The narrative details of the story are complicated, but the plot summary is not: As the President and Vice President and Dean of Faculty of the College and Chairman of the Board of Trustees immediately made clear, no such thing ever happened.

Undaunted by this minor obstacle to its ambitions and blemish on its reputation, HSJP now proclaims:
First Anniversary of Divestment 2009 coming up!

February 7th marks the anniversary of Hampshire College's divestment from the Israeli Occupation of Palestine, the first institution of higher education to wash its hands of the systematic exploitation of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state. To remember the occasion, Students for Justice in Palestine urges you to talk, inform and celebrate this historic event. . . .
And once again, HSJP is spreading the story across the internet.

This is the more disappointing because it had seemed that we made progress. The atmosphere on campus last winter became positively toxic as a result of HSJP agitation over the Gaza conflict and divestment. This fall, as HSJP planned its first national conference to promote the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), I was part of a group of faculty, staff, and students who worked to ensure that the campus climate would remain calm and civil. As I have explained earlier, the student organization was entirely within its rights to organize and host the event. The administration laid down just two basic requirements: (1) the campus had to be a safe place for all opinions; (2) HSJP was under no circumstances to make false statements about College policy and actions.

We did fairly well on the first count. There were the few inevitable animated debates, but the entire event took place by and large without controversy--or consequences (as one would have expected of a movement whose entire raison d'être is self-referential).

On the second count: not as well: SJP formally distributed its convoluted and disingenuous account of the February Revolution, insisting that, despite what the administration said, divestment really did take place. That should have been a tip-off.

We live in a strange world. Some educated and otherwise rational people believe that the Mayans not just predicted, but correctly predicted that the world would end in 2012. Some believe that no airplane hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Others persist in asserting that President Barack Obama is not a US citizen. Still others believe that global warming is a hoax.

Political disagreements are one thing. History and historical evidence are quite another.

A real Massachusetts revolutionary (as opposed to those who just play that role on the internet) understood this:
"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

—John Adams, 'Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,' December 1770

31 January 1966: Students Propose Own Plans for Hampshire College

Okay, this one is a few days tardy (I've been busy with other matters), but better late than never. It's an episode that deserves to be better known.

From the Amherst Student, 29 Jan. 2003, Issue 14:
This Week in Amherst History: Hampshire College is Born, January 31, 1966
By Tim Danner, Staff Writer
Thirty-seven years ago this week, The Student outlined a plan drafted by a group of Amherst and Smith students for the social and educational system of Hampshire College, which would begin admitting students in 1970. The plan was a response to "The New College Plan," first proposed in 1958 by faculty of Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke and UMass.

The student proposal followed in the experimental footsteps of Hampshire's original conception, pivoting on a "village" structure where five separate hubs, or villages, would serve as "educational as well as social centers." Not only would these villages be self-sufficient, as students were to clean and repair their dorms as well as create their own social rules, but they would also be the sites of seminar and group-style courses.

The school would also include a general "education center" common to all students. This center would house a "comfortable and relaxed" library, sitting rooms, a coffee shop, and a gym. Committee member Eric Reiner '66 stressed the non-traditional aspect of the education system, saying, "We want to eliminate the administration as an obstacle between the students and the faculty-which we feel it is here [at Amherst]."

Some faculty members of the Hampshire College Curriculum Committee greeted the plan with praise and excitement. Amherst Professor of Psychology Robert Birney said of the student plan, "This kind of document is extremely valuable to anybody planning a college, and it's too bad we don't have a fistful of them."

I, too (on good days, at least), wish we had a fistful of them. Problem is, when we have them, we sometimes ignore them. Hampshire College—which likes to describe itself as a continually "experimenting" institution—is in the midst of many changes, complicated by the fact that they need to be implemented in an environment of new fiscal constraints. One constant of Hampshire change (if that's not a total paradox) has been the intensive involvement of students in all aspects of that process: from formal participation in governance to informal influence through exhortation or protest. It is on balance one of the great strengths of our system.

Several years ago, for example, we revised our first-year program and distribution requirements in hopes of making the process clearer and facilitating student progress through the system. For a variety of reasons, the ideal was not fully implemented. Students in particular felt that the pendulum had swung too far back in the direction of tradition and mindless mechanics versus innovation and substance. They formed a curricular "re-radicalization" group, calling for a revision of the system. To be sure, a good percentage of their suggestions inevitably reflected a kind of uninformed utopianism, which glorified a golden past that had never existed (not unlike the idealization of the Anglo-Saxon world prior to the imposition of the "Norman Yoke" in the ideology of the English historical and Common Law tradition). Still, they had a point, and most of the student activists and their efforts were well-informed and serious. They cared about pedagogy, they did their figurative as well as literal homework, and they worked within the system by joining the appropriate bodies and taking their institutional responsibilities seriously. The more they became involved, the more detailed and pragmatic their proposals became. In no small part thanks to this new student initiative, we now stand poised to debate (and, most of us expect, adopt) a new system of distribution requirements that retains the best of the current system while restoring some of the flexibility and innovation that we had inadvertently discarded.

So, how did we do the first time around?

The "village" concept endured. The housing units are not quite the centers of learning that people once envisioned (that takes place overwhelmingly in classroom buildings, not least because we discarded the tradition of having faculty "masters" live in the residential colleges), though student-initiated courses and similar collective learning activities to seem to be on the rise again.

Actually, that's another interesting point: Hampshire College and the town of Amherst resemble each other in many ways: both believe in the village center model, which they at times ahistorically idealize. Both are dependent on small and excessively narrow revenue streams (tuition in one case, residential property taxes in the other). Both are admirably committed to a deeply participatory democracy that at its best is a point of pride and at its worst degenerates into an ideological and unwieldy hyperdemocracy that privileges (or at the least tends to yield) process over results.

As for the idea that "students were to clean and repair their dorms"? I'm not sure what they were smoking back then. Repairing?! Even cleaning is a utopian fantasy (checked out your child's room lately?). Some things never change.

Regarding that educational center with "comfortable and relaxed" [sic] library, sitting rooms, coffee shop, and gym? Well, they all exist, after a fashion, but most components were substandard and all are now antiquated, and the whole manages to be less than the sum of its parts. No one has ever described our library as "comfortable and relaxed." A decade ago, faculty, students, staff, and outside experts took part in a series of symposia: the aim, as ambitious in its democratic character as in its desired result, was to re-envision the relation between library resources and social space in the emerging digital age of the twenty-first century. We got quite far in this process, and even generated an ambitious architectural program and model. The idea was to make this combined educational and social center the embodiment of our core values: the practical and symbolic "heart of the campus." The project was featured in a major capital campaign—and then dropped out of sight. I guess we thereby inadvertently did make a statement—just not the one we intended.

It was an outstanding idea, and it was and is worth pursuing. But how to get from here to there? My suggestion: get the students involved.