Monday, March 29, 2010

History Bullshit Watch: Mayan Mashup

The History Channel just keeps hitting bottom and digging deeper. Latest example: "Apocalypse Island," a crackpot program that devotes a full two hours to the crackpot theories of one James Turner, who presents himself as a pioneering archeologist of Mayan culture (his MA thesis on an aspect of the Dresden Codex notwithstanding, how many real scholars refer to their service on the college newspaper, their performance on the GRE test, and the fact that astronomical events occurred on their birthdays?).

The program begins:
Somewhere in the vast Pacific Ocean sits an island, which may hold the key to understanding the mysterious date of December 21, 2012. Explorer Jim Turner is on his way there, hoping to unlock the great mysteries of Mayan prophecy.
Well, the only thing mysterious about the date is why so many people think it has any meaning: the entire notion is entirely made up.

A nice example: the so-called archeologist and a skeptical companion are heading for the island, off the Chilean coast, said to contain an unexpected Mayan monument that is the key to all the apocalypse predictions for 2012 (you can see a solar eclipse and the transit of Venus from there; only from there, it is preposterously said, at one point). As they set out, the narrator tells us, in portentous tones, that that the trip will take 3 days, leaving only (!got that?) 5 days before weather and ocean conditions make the island unreachable. (Just to make sure that you get the point, the narration is often delivered in a particularly deep tone, with an added echo effect.)

To which, any rational person would reply: well, then maybe you and the producers should have planned ahead and thought of all that before you arranged for the boat and the tv crew! Either the timing was sloppy, or it is not an issue, in which case the narration is attempting to conjure up a drama out of smoke and mirrors. Sadly, this is typical of the breathless tone and disingenuous character of most of these pseudo-documentaries.

The archeologist, on the now-notorious ritual, in which the Maya king pierced his penis with a stingray spine, soaked a piece of paper in the blood, and burned the paper, on the bizarre assumption that the rising "smoke serpent" allowed him to speak with the spirits of his forebears: "Was it just a hallucination, or were they somehow able to communicate" with the spirits of their "dead ancestors"? Uh, I dunno, what do you think? You try it first, let me know whether it works.

And so it goes.

Okay, 90 minutes in (typical for these shows: there's never enough to fill the program without padding), and the big revelation is: the big rock might originally—kind of, sort of—have looked like a statue of a king with a crouching jaguar behind him. Can't tell for sure now, but part of the Mayan plan was to have this thing in an obscure place so that it would be revealed only now. O-kay.

So, end of the show: the believer believes he has found what he believed in, and the skeptical companion remains rather skeptical. Still looks like a big weathered rock to me.

The protagonist remains convinced this will be able to teach us "what will happen at the end of the world, according to the Mayan calendar." If you say so.

Damn, I spoke too soon: "wait, there's more!" as they say on equally plausible tv infomercials. It's all connected with a black hole. I should have known.

Tell you what: if I'm wrong, and the world ends on December 21, 2012, I'll buy you a beer.

Amherst Politics: election over, time to get down to work (with some stray reflections on the media and political discourse)

Well, last Tuesday, actually, but it took until the end of the week for the media to bring empirical results for the major contests that were not headline material.

Although our local access channel, ACTV, reported the outcomes for the main races live (as fellow Select Board candidate Alisa Brewer and School Committee candidate Rick Hood and I were being interviewed in the studio [link not yet available]), and the weekly Amherst Bulletin ran the news in its weekly Friday issue, the Hampshire Gazette and Springfield Republican evidently concluded that their work was done on Wednesday. I mention this not so much because of my race (whose outcome was virtually a foregone conclusion, with only the vote count to be determined) as because of the contests for individual Town Meeting seats. We don't necessarily expect the print media to cover all that nowadays, but it deeply is ironic that, even as I write this, the Town website still bears only its original laconic [and misspelled] Tuesday evening announcement, "Prelininary [sic] Election Results: Override Passes in all Precincts": no official vote count for the closely watched override and School Committee ballots, not to mention, the less dramatic uncontested elections for Select Board, Town Moderator, Library Trustees, etc. etc.

Above all, though, given the limitations on coverage in the print and broadcast media: what source, besides the Town itself, can be expected to provide prompt election results for Town Meeting, the central democratic institution of our local government?

The Town's IT department posts results as soon as they are available, so the delay originates in the office of the Town Clerk. Now I understand, of course, that it was taking the Clerk's office quite a while to count the Town Meeting ballots, a process complicated in the first place by the large number of write-ins, and in the second place, by the frequent phone calls from people—guess what? seeking to learn the results of those contests (can you think of a better example of a vicious circle?)—but this is getting a bit silly. I mean, on the same day that the Bulletin ran the results of the major elections, we also received word of the final results in the Iraqi elections that had taken place on March 7, involving, let us say, far more difficult conditions and far greater numbers of voters.

And, although the Town website remains stuck in the past (it's just so March 23rd!), my wife (who was running for Town Meeting) and I on Saturday received congratulatory propaganda letters from a fellow who is running for state-wide Democratic office. This does raise a serious question about information and authority in the "information age": anyone—any political candidate, any blogger, any ordinary citizen—can call or visit Town Hall to get election results, and can then go on to circulate or act on them, even as the official source remains silent and behind the times. This is a revealing but less than desirable state of affairs.

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about the blogosphere and its impact on the tone and substance of our local politics. When asked about this in the course of election-night coverage on ACTV, my response, in a nutshell, was: A medium is only as good as the people who produce the discourse.

1) We need to historicize the problem. Newspapers used to be considered scandalous and unreliable. Eventually, they came to represent the voice of considered authority. Television was likewise long considered lightweight. With the rise of the internet, however, we wax nostalgic about the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. And so on. (I've dealt with this and related issues here and here.)

2) Therefore: the more, the merrier. The blogosphere, for all its flaws, provides an opportunity to create a new sort of public sphere: for the government to engage in dialogue with the citizenry, and for citizens to converse with one another. Any fault lies not in the medium, but in the use we make of it. Not happy with the tone or content? Post a comment, or start your own blog. It's a hell of a lot easier than starting a newspaper or a television or radio station.

Speaking of the tone of politics, the real issue for me will of course be what tone and vocabulary to employ. As I was watching the national news on Tuesday evening, before heading off to the interview at the local television studio, Vice President Joe Biden's on-camera "blooper" topped the list of stories:

Biden's characterization of the passage of the health care bill as "a big fucking deal" quickly became notorious and promptly provoked a new thread on Twitter (#bidenthroughouthistory). Still, he made it sotto voce, and only by chance was it picked up on camera. By contrast, San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly has become known for using what reporters prudishly call colorful language openly and with abandon. After garnering attention for swearing profusely at the end of 2009, he evidently decided to make a virtue of a necessity in 2010: "Chris Daly Vows to Say 'Fuck' at Every 2010 Board Meeting -- For the Greater Fucking Good."

In Amherst, of course, our rules and customs place particular value on civility, but it's nice to have a sense of the range of behaviors out there. Stay tuned to ACTV.

As a closing thought, the opinions of the inimitable Austrian humorist and songwriter Georg Kreisler on the political profession:

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Vernal Interlude: go green!

Go Green: forest scene

woodcut Ex Libris for a Hungarian book collector, 1937
by Czech artist Jaroslav Dobrovolsky (b. 1895-d. concentration camp Mauthausen 1942)

Anti-Override Forces Don't Go Godwin—But Do Play Fast and Loose With the Facts

The proposed tax override in Amherst is generating at least as much heat as light. I've already noted the rhetorical excess of one anonymous pro-override individual. However, the opposing side is not innocent, either. Even if it has not officially descended into name-calling, it is certainly—and officially—playing fast and loose with some of the facts.

Eager to prove that the Town (a) is mismanaging existing resources, and (b) therefore does not need to raise new revenue, it in at least one case stretches the truth like Silly Putty in order to produce what is by any standard a distorted image of our fiscal picture.

Granted, the Town has reserves. Override opponents claim that we should draw more heavily upon them. Proponents reply that our earlier profligate use of these resources is part of the reason for the current structural deficit. This falls within the realm of honest policy disagreement. No problem there.

By contrast the spokespersons for the anti-override movement make another claim that they, given their knowledge of town government, must know to be disingenuous.

Clicking on the link for "wasteful town expenditures" brings one to a list that includes:
$81,000 to purchase Hill Lots. Money still sits in the community preservation slush fund.
. . .
$20,000 Mass. Historical matching grants
Both these items pertain to Community Preservation Act (CPA) appropriations, so, to begin with, it is hard to see why they are not described in the same terms. More important, the CPA fund is not a "slush fund," which term, though originally designating auxiliary or reserve monies, has come to connote illegitimacy, even corruption. Neither designation is appropriate. The Community Preservation Act is part of Massachusetts state law, and every expenditure of those monies has to be authorized by a vote of Town Meeting.

Historical Commission Clerk Gai Carpenter and I felt obliged to set the record straight in our letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette last week:
Uses of CPA funds incorrect in override flier
Created 03/19/2010 - 04:00

To the editor:

This weekend we received a flier from Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change that advocates a "no" vote on the override question. We are not writing to debate the override, but to correct some information presented in the flier.

In a list headed "Are we using our tax dollars efficiently for essential town services?" the writers include several items funded from the Community Preservation Act.

The CPA is not part of the direct property tax, but is a surcharge, voted by Amherst residents, on the portion of that tax for property values above $100,000. CPA funds can be used only for four purposes: affordable housing, open space conservation, recreational spaces, and historic preservation. Under state law, 10 percent of the CPA's annual budget must be allocated to each of these activities, and the remainder may be apportioned, on the recommendation of the Community Preservation Act Committee and vote of town meeting, to any of those areas. The state provides matching funds for local CPA budgets, although the percentage of the match varies, especially in the current fiscal environment.

Although the Amherst Preservation Plan has been endorsed by Town Meeting, the Historical Commission has no funding except the CPA. We know that the other three priorities for funding are compelling to Amherst residents, and in any year the funds allocated to historic preservation may be minimal. Sentiment about priorities varies with the project and the public perception of its value to the community. We respect the work of CPAC in sorting through those priorities, and of town meeting in accepting or rejecting each of their recommendations.

We emphasize, however, that regardless of the appropriations of CPA funds, they are strictly limited in their uses, and cannot be reallocated to general budget relief.

Jim Wald

Gai Carpenter


Jim Wald is chairman of the Amherst Historical Commission and Gai Carpenter is its clerk.

Had space allowed, we would also have explained:

1) The proposed purchase of the Hills (not: Hill) lots did not represent just some idle whim, and rather, was an attempt to acquire two rare open downtown parcels that would preserve essential landscape and viewscapes in the Dickinson National Historic Register District. What is more, the amount appropriated represents only half of the total cost. The purchase proposal depended on our ability to obtain the other half from a state grant. When, after long negotiations, it turned out that we could not reach an agreement with the owners at the legally mandated price, the Commission this year duly returned the funds to the CPA pool (not "slush fund"), where they can be used for other legitimate purposes.

2) The historical inventory/survey money has not been expended because the state matching grant fund in question ran out of money this year. We therefore decided to postpone this expenditure until matching funds again become available.

In both cases, then, we were not only acting on the mandate of the Preservation Plan, but, by using matching grants, also trying to double the power of our dollars. This is the sort of math a school child can understand: 1+ 1=2=a 100-percent increase. Isn't this good fiscal management of precisely the sort that "Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change" should endorse?

Go figure. (And when you do, make sure to get the figures right.)

As John Adams famously said, facts are stubborn things. Why don't we start with agreement on those simple basics so that we can have an honest discussion of the more complex things that really divide us?

[links updated]

Attempting to intervene in the Middle East conflict, however ineptly or disingenuously, is not the same as genocide

Those nasty Nazi analogies are all over the place.

Most often, nowadays, they of course emanate from the infantile anti-Israel discourse of those who, having abandoned the brains and scruples of the old left, retain only its name. Still, as we have seen, insensitivity and hyperbole know no ethnic or political bounds.

It was thus dismaying but not entirely unexpected to encounter the following:

Jeanette Pryor,"Clinton Joins World Powers for Wannsee Conference Part II: Condemnation is Final Solution to the Israeli Question"

It begins as a moving story of growth and witness:
When I was nineteen years old I sat in a classroom in France and was taught that the Jews control the entire world. My conservative teacher was deeply influenced by far-right French extremists and Holocaust Deniers who hated America and, of course Israel. I had always been interested, more like obsessed, with the history of the Holocaust. The Diary of Ann Frank was a favorite childhood book. I read The Hiding Place at least 100 times, no Irish exaggeration.

My easy repudiation of an accurate, open-minded world-view for radical extremism — coming as I did from a family that valued ethnic diversity — is a perfect example of the danger of the New Anti-Semitism. Teaching young people that Israel uses finance to undermine the global economy and “capitalizes” on the Holocaust to prevent anyone from criticizing her involvement in world governments is rampant. Rallying people against “all-powerful Jews,” happens in churches and even on nationally syndicated radio shows.

More than two decades and hundreds of hours of research separate me from the naïve child who simply accepted the lies about Israel and Her role in world politics. The regret of living a portion of my life with a paranoid worldview based on illogic, cruelty, and hatred is profound. Today, the nature of the lies makes me furious, furious with the girl I was, who should have known better, enraged with the teachers who could have opened a book, looked at a map, and known the truth. . . .

Sadly, it ends with a rant. The author denounces recent US and EU calls for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict within 24 months:
When I think of Clinton and the other UN and EU representatives sitting politely around a table, drinking Perrier and deciding what “to do about Israel,” all I can think of is the Wannsee Conference, the oh-so-civilized reunion of top Nazi officials to “find a solution to the Jewish Question.” . . .
and concludes:
I live within a few blocks of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Studies. While doing research, I used to drive on the campus and notice all the cars with their Obama 2008 stickers. I wonder now if the patrons had any idea that their votes for Obama would be votes against the continued existence of Israel; votes that would send Clinton, the first-lady who embraced the wife of terrorist butcher, Yasser Arafat, to the second round of the Wannsee Conference, where she and like-minded revolutionaries would sign what may turn out to be a second death warrant for the Jewish People.
This is sad.

The Wannsee Conference was the secret gathering in early 1942 at which the Nazi leadership definitively decided upon the physical liquidation of the Jews of Europe: the official death warrant of the genocide.

Whatever one thinks of the continuing stalemate in the "peace process" and the intervention of the US and the EU, and even if one thinks that it may endanger the survival of Israel, this is unhelpful.

If the thrust of the essay was a compelling "witness" or "conversion" narrative of one who went from ignorance and blind acceptance to understanding and mature critical inquiry, then the closing lines wipe all that out. If the point is that the latter-day great powers are behaving, well, imperiously, they are still by no stretch of the imagination endorsing, much less, embarking upon a genocide. And if one unleashes that sort of barrage against the leadership of the west, what ammunition would the author have in reserve for the genuine antisemites and inciters of hatred? Talk about overkill.

Actually, were one to search for a historical analogy, the more apt one might be the notorious Munich Agreement (which I happened to teach yesterday): in September 1938, Great Britain and France forced their putative ally Czechoslovakia, the only democracy in the region—upon pain of being abandoned and blamed for any ensuing war—to surrender a portion of its territory in order to appease the Nazi demand for self-determination of restive and increasingly subversive ethnic Germans.

However, even that one is inappropriate. Fortunately, we're not yet there again, either. Perhaps, then, it is best to set aside forced historical analogies and instead deal with the very real problems of the present and future.

Dudes: Opposing a tax increase doesn't make one a Nazi; let's "damp down" the political rhetoric in Amherst

As I've said, this blog is not going to turn into one devoted to local politics, but as I also said, there are occasions when the historical concerns of this site and the larger issues of town affairs intersect.

As my reader will know, I'm always on the lookout for inappropriate historical analogies, particularly when they involve Nazism, which is something that I know something about. They are too numerous to count or address, so I choose to highlight select ones, or sometimes random cases that I just happen across. Here's one local example of the latter.

One of the most contentious issues on the ballot today is the proposed tax override (for you outsiders, Massachusetts Prop 2 1/2, following the pattern set by California way back in the 1970s, requires voters to approve any property-tax increase above the legally mandated 2.5 percent per year).

Tax increases are never uncontroversial, and in the current depressed fiscal climate, advocates and opponents alike can generate strong arguments as well as strong passions. Most people in my circles seem to support the override, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly. However, I know many other people who strongly oppose it for a variety of either ideological or practical reasons. Each group tends to think the worst of the other. This year's debate has been even more heated than usual because it coincides with ongoing controversies over our schools and the extent to which they are managed efficiently (1, 2, 3, 4).

Here's one case in which the political rhetoric got terribly out of hand. Local political gadfly Larry Kelley (self-proclaimed admirer of Robert Kennedy, diehard fan of the American flag, and diehard foe of the town's Cherry Hill golf course) is one of the most widely read local bloggers, known for castigating our liberal-leftist foibles, real or imagined. A strong opponent of this and other overrides, he has of course been posting regularly about it. The comment section of his blog is, let us say, among the more frank and freewheeling sites of local political discussion. Probably most of the anonymous posters are in agreement with his views, but there are the plenty of challenges, as well.

This comment, in which an anonymous reader called Larry a genocidal Nazi, crossed a red line:
Yellow signs = black death said... [the anti-override signs are yellow and black; JW]

In 2007, Amherst voters defeated the proposed override, setting off $7 million in cuts to annual, recurring expenses and changing forever how Amherst gets its work done.

The town is in better fiscal shape than it has ever been. Everyone agrees on that.

Now, what?

There is only $1.7 million left -- the schools.

Now, you want us to...

... finish off the schools?

Yes!!! The children must be made to pay!!

Why don't you just set up a gas chamber at the schools, it would be cheaper.

Start with the youngest.

Leave the oldest, to work in your factories. Someone has to clean up this mess.

Yellow signs = black death
I'm familiar with Godwin's law, and yet, I was taken aback. This is just deeply offensive, thoughtless, and idiotic. As I've said on these pages before, few if any things are "like" the Nazis (Larry himself has been known to slip into that mode of argument). To liken school budget cuts to Nazi genocide is to desecrate the memory of the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust (1, 2). But even if one has no historical-moral sensitivity, one at least should not have a tin ear for political effectiveness. Resorting to this sort of mudslinging just makes one look lazy and stupid and undercuts the cause that one claims to support. Is that so very hard to understand?

Please, folks, let's take a step back and take it easy. Whatever happens on March 23, we are all going to have to live together and pull together on March 24.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Closing of Cowls Sawmill

Year-end catch-up:

It is with mixed feelings that one read of the closing of the Cowls sawmill. Shortly after our 250th anniversary year comes to an end, the town will lose an enterprise that had been here for 268 years:

W.D. Cowls, the 12th oldest family business in the U.S., will close its venerable but unprofitable sawmill next month to focus on timberland management and its retail store.

The sawmill is a niche business specializing in timber framing and its customers are mostly nonlocal post-and-beam builders seeking custom lumber, said president Cinda Jones. But those builders have been hurt by the recession, and alternative materials that require less maintenance have become more popular, she said.

Demand for the sawmill's products has been cut in half each of the last two years, she said. Gross sales have dipped to less than 10 percent of the company's total.

"This is not the closing of a business. It's an evolution of a business," she said.

Jones and her brother Evan, who manages the retail operation, Cowls Building Supply, are the ninth generation of the family to be involved in the business, which started in 1741. Their grandfather moved the milling operations to the family farm in North Amherst in the 1940s when electricity made it possible, she said.

Although the sawmill's profitability has been shaky for 30 years, it was always a source of pride to the family, she said. Paul Jones, their father, listed his occupation as "lumber manufacturer," and although he is "heartbroken" by the closing, he knows it's necessary, Evan Jones said.

"It's very disheartening," he said. "It's hard realizing it's the end of an era. I know we're doing the right and necessary thing, but it's very hard. It's the most romantic and historical part of our business." (read the rest)

Only a few years ago, the firm and its owners were featured on a History Channel "Modern Marvels" episode devoted to lumber. I know I'll miss the sawmill, because I drive by it every day and in any case have a particular interest in forestry and the lumber business.

Yes, sad to lose it. On the other hand, it's encouraging news in that it is good to see good business sense: The mill was no longer competitive, so to attempt to run it at a loss out of nostalgia or stubbornness would have made no sense. History is littered with the names of firms, technologies, and tv shows that didn't know when to call it quits.

The mill portion of the business is closing, but the firm, as President Cinda Jones, emphasized in the article, is very much alive: continuing expansion into retail construction materials and management of its vast sustainable forest holdings. As Amherst moves toward adoption of the Master Plan and begins to pursue more systematic economic development, it's good to have before us an example of both fiscal realism and entrepreneurial adaptability.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How Environmentalism and Historic Preservation Got Me Started in My "Political Career' (while I was still a schoolchild)

As I contemplated running for office in this town where "only the ‘h’ is silent” and “reality is an option,” I asked myself not only what made me take this particular step, but also what influences and paths had led me in this general direction. My instinctive answer was that it had to do with when and where I grew up: Madison, Wisconsin, a state capital and large university town, in the 1960s and early 1970s.

I was part of the tail end of the baby boom generation, too young to have taken part in the upheavals of that era, but just old enough for them to have decisively shaped our experience and consciousness. From 1967 to 1968 alone, for example, we lived through the escalation of the Vietnam War and the rise of the antiwar movement, the Six-Day War in the Middle East, the Student Revolt in Europe, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, urban race riots, and the Soviet crushing of the “Prague Spring.”

One encountered politics at the dinner table and while giving “current events reports” in school. We grew accustomed to the sight of tense face-offs between angry and often violent students and police clad in riot gear and armed with clubs and shields. We learned to recognize the smell of tear gas before we could drive. All this led to my intensive involvement in George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972, although I was still too young to vote.

As I thought a bit longer, though, I realized that my practical involvement in politics had different and even earlier roots, in two of the areas that are still most important to me: environmentalism and historic preservation.

I had always been most interested in nature and the natural sciences, from geology and paleontology to chemistry and bird-watching. That I to this day recall the taxonomy and even much of the Latin nomenclature of the plant and animal kingdoms and can tell the difference between a true bug and a beetle is thanks to an exceptionally dedicated sixth-grade teacher. My first modest foray into activism occurred when I joined other residents in urging the city to cease spraying of the horribly toxic DDT—then used in a desperate effort to combat the Dutch Elm Disease that was devastating our streets and neighborhoods—and find safer alternatives, such as the locally produced methoxychlor. That effort was successful because it was riding a popular wave of ecological interest and backed by science. The State of Wisconsin held landmark hearings on DDT, declared it to be an “environmental pollutant,” and strongly recommended against its use in 1969. A nationwide ban followed in 1972.

This was, after all, the era when the modern environmental movement began. One of our Senators, Gaylord Nelson, was a leading environmentalist and the founder of Earth Day. Our junior high school class celebrated the new holiday in 1970 with “teach-ins” and a huge paper “mural” depicting the evils of pollution. We were all influenced by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and by the rediscovery of pioneering local ecologist and environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), who called conservation “a state of harmony between men and land.”

Although I of course could not articulate this at the time, I believe that I instinctively recognized the connection between environmentalism and historic preservation. Even a child could understand: we, in our arrogance, had no right to threaten either old architecture or the osprey with extinction. I doubt that I was aware of the landmark National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, but my parents, both at home and on vacation trips, had always taught me to appreciate history in general, and the American past, in particular. I found myself saving newspaper and magazine articles about successful rescues and restorations.

When a great historic site was threatened in 1969-70, I naturally joined others in protesting. It seemed simple enough. Here in New England, we tend to take old buildings for granted. In the Midwest, by contrast, a building dating to the 1850s (Wisconsin became a state only in 1848) was quite a rarity, and this one was distinctive for other reasons, too: “Mapleside” was a grand Greek Revival sandstone farmhouse (1853), whose owners were the first white settlers to farm in the area. And yet it was going to be demolished in order to make way for—of all things—a Burger King. In this case, our efforts were not successful. We wrote letters to the corporation, the city, and the newspapers. Eventually, the realtor offered to sell the building to the citizens’ group, but it of course could not raise that kind of cash, and so, the landmark succumbed to the wrecking ball.

The pattern was one that occurred many times before and since. Although it was a matter of shutting the barn door after the cows were gone, the city finally woke up, enacted a preservation ordinance, and created a Historic Landmarks Commission.

The lesson has stuck with me ever since. Ironically, the Burger King is gone now, replaced by a gas station. The house had lasted 117 years. But whereas one can always find another fast-food franchise, our historic resources are irreplaceable rather than interchangeable.

Already back then, I think, I was beginning to learn something about good versus bad "development" and the relative strength of government authority and citizen initiatives. Although the fight against DDT and other pollutants was a long one, it was ultimately successful because we accept strong regulation for the sake of health and safety. Barring such evident risks to the public good, private property enjoys, by custom and law, a broad range of protections. Although that differential treatment still maintains, we nowadays better understand the common interest in preserving cultural as well as natural resources—and even discern the connection between them. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation tells us, "the greenest building is . . . one that is already built." In fact, the current issue of Preservation Magazine is dedicated to the theme, “Old is the New Green!”

Contemporary politics helped to deepen my long-standing interest in history, and eventually, I chose a career in that field rather than the sciences and environmental studies. That is another story, but I am pleased that, in our local work on behalf of sustainability in the broadest sense, I can pursue the two of them together. After all, Aldo Leopold’s wisdom about the natural environment could be adapted and extended to the human, built one: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

I am a Candidate for Amherst Select Board

Our town is governed by a number of elected offices and bodies, chief among them a representative Town Meeting (254 members) that serves as the legislature, and a five-member Select Board that serves as the collective chief executive officer.

Somewhat to my own surprise, I decided to run for a seat on the Select Board. Although I'm a Town Meeting member, I never thought of seeking one of the higher elected offices. This year, however, as I considered both the great progress that Amherst has made in developing more transparent and efficient government, and the great challenges that we still face, I concluded that I might have something to offer. So, here I am.

Never fear: This remains a blog about history, including its political uses or implications. I'm certainly not going to use it to discuss all aspects of Amherst public affairs (plenty of our local citizens are already doing that online, and with gusto; some would say: with a vengeance). However, some of these issues are related to the historical. First and foremost, many of the decisions that the town makes bear on land use and economic development, which automatically affect the character of the community and the heritage of our natural and built environment. I therefore thought I would share my rationale and goals.

My Statement of Candidacy

My goal is to help guide Amherst toward a more sustainable future, in particular by facilitating implementation of our new Master Plan. Because I had to ask myself why I was running and how I had gotten to this point, please allow me to tell you why I think I can accomplish this.

As I look back over my increasing involvement in town affairs since we moved here some 20 years ago, I can now see a logical pattern or the completion of a circle. I took the first tentative step when, as a Mark’s Meadow parent, I joined a town-wide world languages task force convened by Martha Ntiforo. My involvement really began, however, when I joined the Historical Commission. I still remember very clearly filling out the Citizen Activity Form: I said that I wanted to preserve the town’s character and historic resources but not live in a museum or time capsule. I see now that, without realizing it, I was trying to articulate what most of us feel about Amherst.

My main interests have always been culture, environmentalism, and social justice. My experience on the Commission (which I continue to chair) deepened my interest in the overarching challenge of keeping what we like while adapting to changing circumstances. This led me to serve as Historical Commission representative to the Comprehensive Planning Committee (CPC), which—to my considerable surprise, and that of everyone else, I am sure—I ended up chairing, as well, following in the footsteps of Alisa Brewer and Eric Nakajima, who already had done the real heavy lifting.

Service on the CPC was the most valuable part of my Amherst political education:

• First, it gave me a much broader perspective on how my particular interests fit into the larger picture of sustainability, rational planning, and smart growth.

• Second, it familiarized me with all branches of Amherst government, from Town Hall to Town Meeting and the dozens of citizen boards and committees. In fact, because my chairing of both Historical Commission and CPC necessitated my periodic appearance before Town Meeting, it led me to join that body, as well, as an elected representative of Precinct 1.

• Third, and perhaps most important, chairing the CPC helped to teach me patience, teamwork, and the art of compromise. I learned that a leader does not have to be the smartest or most knowledgeable person in the room (for that I certainly was not), but instead just the person who can get things done. Often that means simply recognizing skill in others, or helping others to recognize common ground that they themselves are unable to see. It was—and I am not given to using sentimental terms—inspiring to see how residents representing so many different constituencies and political views came to find that common ground and work together as a team.

This is the spirit of cooperation that I would bring to town government as Amherst faces painful, potentially divisive choices concerning fiscal policy, economic development, environmental affairs, and provision of essential services.

In summary, I undertook this race with a sense of both confidence and deep humility:

• confidence, because I think that I have a very good sense of who we are, what we want, what challenges we face, and what tools and resources we have at our disposal.

• humility, because I know my own limitations and those of the office of Select Board. We are neither legislators nor individual chief executives, and rather, part of a collective leadership whose chief duty is to facilitate and to exercise good judgment.

In summary, I’ve spent this time speaking of myself. I’d like to close by promising that, if elected, I will spend the next three years listening, as well.

* * *

To my great surprise (and relief), this has turned out to be an uncontested race. Incumbent Alisa Brewer is seeking reelection, but no one else stepped forward to run for the seat vacated by two-term Selectman Gerry Weiss. Explanations vary. One popular hypothesis is that the job (like many other commitments to town service, only more so) is seen as too time-consuming. That is quite plausible, although the Select Board in recent years has been functioning in a more collegial, united, and efficient fashion, so the lack of candidates may also represent an implicit vote of confidence in the current direction of Town government.

In any case, the real drama this year (in contrast to the more distant past) has involved the schools: debates over the philosophy, curriculum, and performance of the local and regional school system, a drama only heightened by a controversial budget override ballot question, and now the precipitous departure of the new Superintendent. The five-way race for two School Committee seats is thus the most hotly contested, and the one whose outcome is still impossible to predict.

Press reports:

• Diane Lederman, "Candidates few for town posts," The Republican, 12 Jan.
• "Briefs: Two candidates step up for Select Board," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 14 Jan.
• Diane Lederman, "Amherst ballot lacking drama," The Republican, 31 Jan.
• Diane Lederman, "5 candidates to seek 2 openings on Amherst School Committee in annual town election," The Republican, 2 Feb.
• Diane Lederman, "Candidates beat deadline for filing," The Republican, 3 Feb.
• Scott Merzbach, "O'Connor throws hat in election ring," Amherst Bulletin, 5 Feb.
• Scott Merzbach, "Candidates speak on Amherst Schools," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 12 March
[it's actually a report on the League of Women Voters Candidates' Night as a whole, though focusing on the schools]

[added here 19.III.:]
• Scott Merzbach, "No contest for open Select Board seats," Amherst Bulletin, 19 March

Save the Program That Saves Our Treasures: National Trust Highlights Emily Dickinson Museum

The blog of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has a brief piece on one of our local landmarks.

Jason Clement's "This Treasure Matters: Inside the Home Where Emily Dickinson Pushed the Poetic Envelope" makes two essential points:

• The first is that, in order to interpret the lives of the writers to the public, we need to understand their environments. This is not the biographical fallacy against which literary theorists so assiduously warn us. Rather, it is a simple recognition that the life is part of the story, and that the story is a better one if we can show as well as tell it. Johann Wolfgang Goethe famously said, "Wer den Dichter will verstehn, muss in Dichters Lande geh'n": whosoever wishes to understand the poet must go to the poet's land. Today, we understand that to mean the environment not only in the sense of topography and regional cultural influences, but also material culture on the level of the individual author: the buildings, the indoor and outdoor spaces, the objects—the physical horizons that shape and reflect the mental ones.

• The second is that the preservation of these sites and their public accessibility does not happen by accident or come for free. The Dickinson Museum benefited from a grant from the federal Save America's Treasures program, which is now under threat from the budget-cutting axe.

The article also underscores a point made with increasing frequency here in Amherst, in the context of our own regional and master-planning process and the current struggle over budget deficits and overrides: cultural tourism is clean and smart economic development (1, 2, 3, 4).

Dickinson was born in 1830 at a home in Amherst, Massachusetts known as the Homestead. Introverted and reclusive even in her early years, it is here where she would spend the majority of her life – and where her creativity would flourish. Many of those who study her believe that her quarantine gave her an opportunity to step back and understand the human experience like none before her had. She passed away in 1886, leaving behind 1,800 poems that continue to push the poetic envelope today.

Quite simply, Emily’s story could not be told without her home. Save America’s Treasures realized this, granting $200,000 in 2004 towards the creation of a master plan that would link and preserve the Homestead and the Evergreens (a neighboring home where members of the Dickson family also lived). The federal grant was matched by more than $500,000 in private funds, which ultimately addressed critical exterior restorations and mechanical systems upgrades.

In 2009, some 13,000 tourists and Dickinson enthusiasts visited the homes, known collectively as the Emily Dickinson Museum. According to the site’s executive director, the rising visitation numbers have had a multiplying effect on the local economy of Amherst, drawing thousands of curious visitors into the town where Emily was once known only as an eccentric woman of mystery (read the rest)

The article is this part of a series dedicated to raising public awareness and mobilizing public support on behalf of a program, now at risk, that has benefited 1,100 historic sites and created over 16,000 jobs.

Take action here.

Another Defeat for BDS

Briefly noted:

A number of recent postings have referred to the lack of results on the part of the BDS movement. As it happens, Jon Haber just posted a thorough analysis (with appended documentation) of the recent failure of Israel boycotters to force their views on the venerable, 9,000-member Davis Food Co-Op in California. The case seems to have symbolic significance and institutional implications. Read the details here in "BDS Flames Out in Davis" on Divest This!

Building Peace Through Understanding: Of and Beyond the Confrontation

New York Times correspondent Ethan Bronner—after he had to defend himself against charges of pro-Israeli bias because his son was said to serve in the IDF, but before he accused Israelis of disliking Barack Obama out of anti-Black racism (got that??)—actually wrote (with help from a Lebanese correspondent) a pretty decent piece with an encouraging message.

It describes how prominent Palestinian lawyer and activist Elias Khoury, who lost both his father (a committed opponent of Israeli policies after statehood) and son to terror attacks by fellow Palestinians, controversially decided to memorialize his son by financing the translation into Arabic of the highly praised autobiography of Israeli author Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness.
In explaining his decision, Mr. Khoury said that literature was an important bridge and that he had a specific goal in mind with this book, a point he includes in a preface to the translation.

“This book tells the history of the rebirth of the Jewish people,” he said as he sat in his law office. “We can learn from it how a people like the Jewish people emerged from the tragedy of the Holocaust and were able to reorganize themselves and build their country and become an independent people. If we can’t learn from that, we will not be able to do anything for our independence.”
. . . .
Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian philosopher who wrote his own powerful autobiography of growing up in Jerusalem in the same era, “Once Upon a Country,” said in that book’s opening that it was upon reading Mr. Oz’s volume that he was struck by the parallel existences of Jews and Palestinian Arabs of the time.

“Weren’t both sides of the conflict totally immersed in their own tragedies, each one oblivious to, or even antagonistic toward, the narrative of the other?” he wrote. “Isn’t this inability to imagine the lives of the ‘other’ at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?”

Mr. Khoury believes it is.

“If we don’t understand each other, there will always be suspicion and gaps that can’t be bridged,” he said.

Mr. Oz, who has come to know the Khoury family — Elias, his wife, Rima, and their two other children — through this project, said by telephone that their sponsorship of an Arabic translation of his book made him very emotional.

“This is the right book to travel into Arabic because it contains a nonheroic rendering of the birth of Israel and a description of Israel as a Jewish refugee camp,” he said. “Elias wants to build emotional bridges between our nations, and to do that you need to let each read the narrative of the other. Reading literature is like taking you into the bedroom of the other.”

Mr. Oz noted that in the book his father recalled how, as a youth in Europe, the walls were covered in graffiti saying “Jews, go to Palestine.” Then when he got here some years later, the walls carried the message “Jews, get out of Palestine.”

Mr. Oz added, “I am very eager for Arabs to read this to realize that Israel, just like Palestine, is a refugee camp.” (read the rest)
To speak in this way of empathy and reconciliation is not to pretend that they will come easily, and rather, only to assert that, precisely for this reason, they are all the more necessary.

Just compare this profoundly humane approach of Khoury's—one who has suffered at the hands of and understands both sides—with the historical distortions, bumper-sticker philosophizing, and hate-mongering of the BDS movement and its allies.

Is it really a difficult choice?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

17 March: St. Patrick's Day

It's that time again, when everyone is Irish and happy (well, maybe not the English; too bad).

In Washington, Michele Obama had the water in the fountains dyed green, an homage to the Chicago practice of coloring the entire river green (for those of us who grew up in the region, it's an indelible memory and seasonal marker).

Here in Massachusetts, of course, the Boston area celebrates today as a legal holiday, "Evacuation Day," the anniversary of the British withdrawal from the city during the Revolutionary War—a date that just happens to coincide with St. Pat's.

In Amherst, the warm weather added to the fun. The Harp, our classic North Amherst Irish pub, opened its outdoor deck, and the cars of revelers extended for several blocks eastward, alongside historic Cowls lumberyard.

A few select links to celebrate the day:

• NPR had seven hours of streaming music

• Over at History News Network, Christopher Shannon's "The Wearing of the Green" offers some reflections drawn from his recent book on the representation of the Irish in film. He manages to take both a light-hearted look at the holiday and a serious look at definitions of race and ethnicity:
Well, it’s that time of year again. As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, many Irish Americans prepare to celebrate their ethnic heritage, while many other Americans prepare to steer clear of the streets of major U.S. cities for fear of the celebrations that will ensue. I see some cause for hope in the fear. In our late date of the year 2010, at a time when most Irish Americans have moved out of the cities and assimilated into the white-bread safety of American suburbia, the 24/7/365 capitalist work time of the cities the Irish once ruled still comes to a halt for at least one day as Americans of all ethnic backgrounds throw themselves into an orgy of drinking, fighting, singing and dancing that flies in the face of the fresh-scrubbed wholesomeness of official, national American holidays such as the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Scholars of Irish American history who bemoan the reduction of Irish culture to the worst of nineteenth-century, stage-Irish stereotypes might do better to sit back and wonder at the simple, and almost miraculous fact of the continued existence of the St. Patrick’s Day parade—a private, ethnic religious holiday whose public celebration dwarves those of most official national state holidays.
. . . .
If the Irish appear at all in contemporary studies of ethnicity, it is more often than not as racists, the fully assimilated “white” people who serve as the demons in so much of the literature of “whiteness.”
. . . .
In many ways, the Irish racist has a place in the contemporary academic imagination analogous to that of the ape-like Paddy in the minds of nervous, middle-class WASPs in the nineteenth century. In making this criticism, I do not mean to deny the lamentable and deplorable reality of Irish American racism; still, we cannot equate racism with “whiteness” or assimilation. In fact, I believe the low standing of the Irish in mainstream studies of race and ethnicity reflects a historic reality deeper than racism: namely, the historic reality of the failure of the Irish to conform to scholarly expectations of what counts as ethnicity.
• One of the points that Shannon made is that the supposed happy endings of classic America films involving Irish (and Jews) generally "come not with the imagining of a utopian synthesis of ethnic and American, but when the individual reconciles himself to the community by coming to terms with the standards of the community." Coincidentally, in the Jewish Forward, Sarah Litvin discussed this cultural symbiosis in "St. Patrick’s Day With the Irish and the Jews: A Musical Mix of Pats and Isadores on Broadway and Beyond." The centerpiece of the story is singer Mick Maloney, and his recent album, "If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews," whose title is drawn from an old lyric:

Talk about a combination, heed my words and take a note

On St. Patrick’s Day Rosinsky pins a shamrock on his coat…

…Without the Pats or Isadores, we’d have no big department stores

If it wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews.

Invest in Peace Through Environmentalism and Social Justice

Amidst all the noise of “Israeli Apartheid Week,” it’s sometimes hard to hear the voices of calm and reason, from people more concerned to make the world a better place than just make a point.

My students had the opportunity to do just that last week when representatives of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies came to the class on secular Jewish culture that Rachel Rubinstein and I teach together. Located at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert on the border of Israel and Jordan, the Institute was an early outgrowth of the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries. Students from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and other Middle Eastern lands as well as North America work and study together in four accredited programs, ranging from summer study to a full two-year Master’s in Desert and Environmental Studies.

As both Special Projects Director Michael Cohen and the two visiting graduates assured us, the undertaking is challenging and rewarding in equal measure. The Israeli student noted that, although she came from a left-wing family and of course encountered Arabs in daily life, it was only at the Institute that she had an opportunity for real personal engagement with them and came to understand their experience and perspectives. The Jordanian related the difficulties that students from Arab or Muslim lands face just by virtue of deciding to participate in the program. Some are unable to tell their families that they will be living in Israel, and have to pretend that they are in Egypt or another "acceptable" locale. In Jordan, the peace treaty notwithstanding, several professional organizations (including both engineers and journalists) have blacklisted colleagues for having dealings with Israelis or visiting Israel. Coming together out of a shared desire for environmental activism and peace cannot eliminate differences in political convictions and narratives, yet the commitment to a common goal coupled with the fact of daily shared tasks and physical space forces participants to emphasize commonalities and keep any disagreements within civil bounds.

The motto of the institute is “preserving nature, building peace,” and it rests on the conviction that “nature has no borders.” As the visiting Jordanian engineer explained, trying to solve an environmental problem in a national context can actually cause a greater problem. Restoring the health of the Jordan River and preventing the Dead Sea from disappearing are challenges that require Arab-Israeli cooperation. In that sense, the practical lesson of the environment can serve as a metaphor for the political world, as well. Students come to understand that their home is not just a country, but the entire region.

As Executive Director David Lehrer says, “if one side loses, both sides lose.” Another teacher observes,“We are 20 years ahead of the rest of the country, 20 years ahead of the rest of the region.” Isn’t that a lesson we should all learn, and isn’t that where we should all strive to be?

You can make tax-deductible donations online.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It’s Official: BDS and Israeli Apartheid Week Are Not to Be Trusted!

Okay, so here’s my final comment on “Israeli Apartheid Week,” 2010.

I try to read material from a variety of viewpoints, including views that I oppose, so I therefore periodically check out the BDS websites and the like. However, when I recently got a new computer, I temporarily had to turn off some Firefox browser extensions while resolving a few software conflicts. Among the items that I then reinstalled was “Web of Trust”:
Web of Trust is one of Mozilla’s most popular add-ons. Our safe surfing tool uses a traffic-light style rating system to help you stay safe when you search, surf and shop online.

WOT ratings are powered by a global community of millions of trustworthy users who have rated millions of websites based on their experiences.
When I returned to the official site of “Israeli Apartheid Week,” here is what I found:

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Take Down This (Extremely Silly) Wall (please!)

How does one determine the date of a sacred event? Traditionally, both Judaism and Islam relied on lunar observation to set the calendar, and the difficulty of communicating the news over long distances led to uncertainty. Diaspora Judaism solved the problem by simply adding an extra day to major holidays, for safety’s sake. And “Israeli Apartheid Week”? Well, it begins with the month of March, but when it ends is anyone’s guess. It lasted five days in its original incarnation, but in some places today, runs as long as twelve or fourteen (unless there’s a special deal: for you, seven!).

As I wrap up my coverage of our local festivities, I therefore wanted to make sure they were really over. Today is the 15th, so I should be safe. In fact, there’s been no visible activity for almost a week.

Let me, then, take you back to the (anti)climax.

March 6 was one of those glorious pre-spring days when the sun shines and the temperature tops 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and everyone, frustrated at having been cooped up during the New England winter, surges into the great outdoors. For better or worse, it was also the weekend, and what is more, the first (or only? see above) Saturday of “Israeli Apartheid Week.”

Sure enough, when I came downtown in the early afternoon, I spotted the dreaded hordes of shouting students. In fact, many were even wearing the tell-tale symbolic green of the faithful. As it turned out, though, they were all lined up in front of McMurphy’s tavern, and it was the green of Saint Pat rather than Hamas.

By contrast, over at the nearby Town Common, where the “Israeli Apartheid Wall” had just been erected, the scene was dead.

In fact, all the action was taking place on the blank backside of the wall, where students picnicked, oblivious to the great political crimes being pilloried but yards away.

And the fearsome construction itself?

Pretty much a joke, as well. Graphically, it was a disorganized mess. Intellectually, too, it used a “spaghetti against the wall” approach: throw everything up there, and hope that something sticks in the minds of the onlooker.

It contained a potted history of the Middle East conflict far too ludicrous to fisk here.

A few examples will have to suffice:

(1) “1920-The British Occupy Palestine.” Uh, no. The British army conquered the Ottoman territory in 1917-18 (do students no longer know the dates of World War I? well, they would if they took my classes). In 1920, the San Remo Conference assigned to Great Britain the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. That still-binding document, which under the “international law” that activists so love to cite, authorized “the establishment of the Jewish national home,” went into effect in 1922.

(2) “1967-War; Israel annexes Gaza and the West Bank.” Sorry: never happened. The standard view is that Israel “annexed” only East Jerusalem, though even that is debatable, as it merely extended unified administration to all sectors of the city. There’s no mention of the "annexed" Golan Heights or the vast Sinai Peninsula (returned to Egypt), presumably because Palestinians do not claim them, and yet this omission completely and conveniently removes the context for the 1967 conflict, which was a major international war—Arab-Israeli rather than Israeli-Palestinian.

(3) More telling still, the overall logic is thus reminiscent of a magical rather than scientific mentality. Terrible things just happen without evident causation: “war ensues” (or more often, “war” is left an orphan, without even a verb for company). The standard set of propaganda maps, showing Israeli territory increasing and Palestinian decreasing, is thus presumed to speak for itself and send a message of relentless Jewish expansionism. Actions of the Arab side—most notably, rejection of a Palestinian-Arab state in 1947, and aggression in 1967—are conveniently absent.

(4) “1948 War, the Nabke [emphasis added]. 750,000 Palestinians displaced.”

Uh, . . . that’s “Naqba” (or: Nakba), activist dudes!!

The reference of course is to the Arabic term for “disaster” as a description of the war and the creation of the refugee problem: the absolutely central element in the Palestinian national narrative.

It would be like a Jew referring to the “Hokolaust.” Whoops.

Need one say more? The inability to get such fundamental facts and terms right speaks volumes. No need even to try to make sense of the bizarre depiction of other border barriers around the world, which not even the addition of the gratuitous epithet, “el muro fascista,” can rescue from graphic and conceptual incoherence.

Very few passers-by paused to engage in the desired conversation, or even to look. The only real activity I saw was the group’s videographer filming other activists:

* * *

The Wall moved to Hampshire College on Monday, March 8, where it garnered about the same amount of attention—and this, at the lunch hour on another warm and sunny day, when activity on central campus is at its height:

Once again, only the (now expanded) video crew was really in evidence: the monotonous monologue of activists talking about—and to—themselves.

An exercise in sheer self-gratification.

Twilight of BDS: a metaphor?

This was the scene shortly after 5 p.m. Even less action.

My suggestion: Drop the name, “Apartheid Wall,” and call it what it is: the “Apathy Wall.” No one cares. (In fact this seems to be the trend around the country.)

To be sure, SJP tried to cajole or provoke the apathetic masses into developing a suitable revolutionary consciousness by plastering the campus with "clever" flyers that invited community members to share their negative reactions and take the opportunity to inform themselves about the heroic action. Yeah, right.

Give ‘em points for trying, but few students were gullible enough to fall for that one. Even assuming they were both curious and naïve, they had papers to write, and spring break was less than a week away. You do the math.

It’s like what happened when the SJP kids tried to promote the first anniversary of their failed divestment attempt last month. Eager activists surged through the dorms, waking everyone up and exhorting all to celebrate and meditate on the great victory—at 8:00 a.m.

This certainly reveals a failure to understand what the old Marxist-Leninists used to call the subjective as well as objective conditions for revolution. Translation: no matter what his or her politics or preceding nocturnal activities, every normal college student wants to sleep in on Sunday morning.

The only response, on both occasions was: a big yawn.

Who says college students have no common sense?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Justice for Palestinians and Israelis: Invest in Peace (activism)

Where is the road to peace to be found: in great and empty journeys or small but meaningful steps?

The most obvious problem with the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement is its vicious doctrines and goals. But another is its lack of concrete results. After nearly ten years (five, if, following its advocates, we conveniently erase the first half of the decade): not only has it not helped the suffering Palestinians one bit, but it has caused no economic pain to the target country (on the contrary, entrepreneurship and even foreign investment in Israel have surged; bummer).

In only one area has BDS achieved even limited success, intrinsically disturbing but still marginal: namely in trying to smear and thereby delegitimize a United Nations member state. I’ve never liked the Anglophile neologism, “branding,” in the sense of marketing or attaching an image to a product. There was no need for a new term. And the proper meaning of the old verb, "brand,"—to mark or stigmatize—has served us perfectly well since the fifteenth century, thank you very much. In this case, though, both are appropriate. The BDS movement is simply an attempt to brand Israel: it wants you to associate “apartheid” and “Israel” the way people used to associate “cunning“ and “Odysseus” or “avid” and “reader.” That is why, absence of concrete successes notwithstanding, opponents are mobilizing (1, 2, 3) and proponents are redoubling their efforts.

Only this overriding goal of stigmatization and delegitimization can explain the persistence of a movement that by any normal standard would long ago have been abandoned as an abject failure (you know the popular definition of insanity: to keep doing the same thing over and over but expect a different result). Only this can explain the obsessive-compulsive need of BDS activists to engage in increasingly futile and ridiculous gestures.

Exhibit A is the recent Gaza Freedom March, a comedy of errors so ludicrous that it sounds like the sort of thing its opponents would have made up. I have heard the imploring and naïve presentations. “The call went out,” as the activists tell it with hushed tones but quickened pulse, and nearly 1400 of them (as many as half from the US) set out for Egypt “with the hope of breaking the blockade of Gaza.” For some reason, these soi-disant revolutionaries who can see so confidently into the distant utopian future neglected to coordinate with the local authorities about the events of the coming weeks (whoops). The Egyptians, who tightly control the border with Gaza, would have none of what they regarded as an affront to their sovereignty and a threat to their security. They not only refused the activists entry to Gaza, but even (this is a police state, as the visitors came to realize; surprise, surprise) refused to allow large demonstrations in Egypt itself. Eventually, 84 activists were allowed to visit Gaza for a quick symbolic drop-in, while the other 94% of them twiddled their thumbs in Cairo or unfurled a Palestinian flag on a pyramid. (The British "Viva Palestina" junket—whose bigots and useful idiots had the same goals as our Code Pinkers and local Raging Grannies (1, 2, 3)—managed to go the Gaza Freedom March one better: it got its leader, pseudo-leftist but genuine antisemite George Galloway, declared persona non grata, and provoked a riot that killed an Egyptian border guard and injured 3 Palestinians and 50 activists; can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, don't you know.) Even the participants in these events admit that they achieved nothing tangible. They are reduced to spluttering that they at least garnered "a lot of Egyptian press" or inspired Egyptian dissidents to do something or other on their own (those helpless natives: a revealing touch of the paternalistic thinking typical of these fundamentally bourgeois-liberal "activists").

a "successful sit-in" at the UN in Cairo
("successful" in accomplishing . . . what??)

Can there be anything more preposterous? Well, perhaps only the thought of all these self-styled progressives driving their bumper-sticker-clad Priuses to the airport and then flying halfway around the world on gas-guzzling jets for the sake of an empty gesture. What, we may ask, was the monetary cost (simple to calculate) and carbon footprint (the precise math remains controversial, but you get the point) of such dilettantish political tourism? Could not those resources have been put to better use in concretely helping Palestinians?

Well, yes, for sure. Earlier, I promised to talk about some positive rather than negative approaches to the conflict, so here’s one: support organizations that, unlike BDS, are truly committed to peace, reconciliation, and practical results.

The Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) is a good example. Led by Israeli Gershon Baskin and Palestinian Hanna Siniora, it dates back to the first Intifada and has survived all subsequent communal and international violence between Arabs and Jews:
IPCRI seeks to serve as an intellectual platform for Israelis and Palestinians (and others) to create and develop new concepts and ideas that enrich the political and public discourse in order to influence decision makers and to challenge the current political reality with the aim of advancing the political solution of two-states for two-peoples. . . . .

IPCRI, with its active information activities and joint Israeli-Palestinian forums, is unique in that it is the only Israeli-Palestinian joint public policy think-tank and "do-tank" in the region. From the start it was based on what was then, and still is, a unique premise: IPCRI should be a truly joint Israeli-Palestinian organization with its governance and management built on co-leadership.
Accordingly, IPCRI has been named one of the world's best NGO's.

It meets my baseline standards:
• It is dedicated in equal measure to the interests of both peoples.
• It supports two states, living side by side, securely and in peace, on mutually agreed terms.
• It understands that one state will be the Jewish national home, and the other the Palestinian national home (though some members of each group may continue to reside in the state of the other, with full civil rights).
• It unequivocally condemns not just violence, but incitement and intolerance on both sides.
• It does not just encourage talk, but facilitates concrete collaboration on the part of Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
Not everyone will endorse all of its stances on any particular issue (even I may not)—and that is exactly the point. It is possible to disagree politically about an organization’s policies and consequences, but if its ethics are sound, that can be the basis for a conversation: dialogue rather than demonization.

Isn’t that better and more meaningful than wearing a clown suit in Cairo?

What’s better:

empty gestures


real peace-work?

IPCRI has just embarked upon its annual spring fund drive, and you can donate here if you so desire.

A contribution of $ 25 per month—less than the cost of a single day of "economy" parking at Boston's Logan International Airport—adds up to $ 300: way less pricey than a jaunt to Egypt, and way more satisfying for those who actually live in the region rather than just pop in for a pyramid and a protest.

Divest from Israel or invest in peace for both peoples? Not a hard choice, if you stop to think about it. Of course, "think" is the operative word here.