Sunday, May 30, 2010

30 May 1971: Vietnam Veterans Against the War Occupy Lexington Green

As discontent over the Vietnam War rose, a "rabble" of militarily trained radicals was once again forced to disperse from Lexington Common.  As the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities recounts it in today's "Mass Moment":
On this day in 1971, over 450 anti-war protesters occupied the historic Lexington Green and refused to leave. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War had organized a three-day march from Concord to Boston — Paul Revere's route in reverse. According to Lexington's by-laws, no one was allowed on the Green after 10 PM, so the selectmen denied the protesters permission to camp there. With many townspeople supporting the veterans, an emergency town meeting was held. When no agreement was reached, the veterans and their Lexington supporters decided to remain on the Green. At 3 AM on Sunday, they were all arrested in the largest mass arrest in Massachusetts history. After being tried, convicted, and fined $5.00 each, they continued their march to Boston.
The rest of the piece goes on to talk objectively not just about the incident, but about divided opinions over the war, including the rationale of those in favor of continued US engagement.

Had I been there and of age, I would have been on the side of the protesters.  In this case, although the law was clear and the veterans, for reasons of political strategy, rejected a compromise proposal to allow them to camp nearby , it arguably would have made sense to grant an exception to a rule created for other purposes altogether.  Opponents sought to exploit that rule for their own political ends, though both sides no doubt thought they were best honoring the historical importance of the site.

Still, now that I've served in Town Meeting and recently joined the Select Board, I have to confess that I can better appreciate the technical arguments and the complexity of choices that local governments face. 

The famed New England "commons," used for public purposes ranging from grazing of flocks to markets and militia drills, were originally parts of the huge royal highways, laid out 40 rods (660 feet) wide.  As such, even if they from the later nineteenth century on acquired the character of parks, they are still considered part of the "public way," and thus under the jurisdiction of the Select Board (a collective executive in locales governed by a town meeting rather than mayor and council).  This is often a source of confusion in historic-preservation discussions as well as much else.

The real issue here, of course, was not who controlled the Common, but how and for what purpose.  We spend a lot of time trying to find that elusive middle ground that honors both procedures and outcomes.

At times, we are asked to disregard or bend the rules on the grounds, "but how could that possibly hurt??"  People don't understand that, particularly here, where local government long had a reputation as polarizing, arbitrary, and inefficient, an ad hoc approach that values procedures only to the extent that they produce desired results can erode confidence in the entire system. That said, not all rules and situations are equally important, and one needs to have a sense of balance.  Both myopic and rigid adherence to process, on the one hand, and cavalier disregard for process, on the other, can feed political frustration and cynicism. 

In still other cases, we are asked to vote on issues far beyond the scope of local government or otherwise having purely symbolic value. Here, too, there are philosophical differences. Some of us consider such measures to be essential and even heroic collective statements of moral principle while others of us see them as time-wasting and potentially divisive empty gestures that hamper our ability to accomplish the tasks clearly within our purview.  (A case in point was the debate last fall over inviting cleared Guantanamo inmates to settle here (1, 2)—even though current national law does not allow for their relocation within the United States.)

Of course, the founding fathers knew this democracy stuff would not be easy—but they also knew it was a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

Oh, yes, and, in case you didn't read the rest of the Mass Moments article: (1) the protesters were correct in concluding that the camping ban and arrests only increased publicity and sympathy for their cause, and (2) "At the next election, all the incumbents lost their seats on the Board of Selectmen."

Friday, May 28, 2010

28 May, 585 BCE: Birth of Science (according to Bob Park)

How nice to be able to pin an epochal event in the development of humanity to a specific date. Physicist Bob Park has it figured out:
On May 28, 585 B.C. the swath of a total solar eclipse passed over the Greek island of Miletus. The early Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, alone understood what was happening. The world's first recorded freethinker, Thales rejected all supernatural explanations, and used the occasion to state the first law of science: every observable effect has a physical cause. The 585 B.C. eclipse is now taken to mark the birth of science, and Thales is honored as the father. What troubles would be spared the world if the education of every child began with causality? We might, for example, have been spared the absurd cell phone/cancer myth.

Not everyone agreed with the designation May 28 as the birthday of science. It marks the day that Thales of Miletus is alleged to have predicted a solar eclipse. One reader thought the discovery of fire would be a better choice, but of course we don't know when that happened or who did it. Cause and effect on the other hand applies to all science. We can begin with any phenomenon and in principle trace its cause and the cause of its cause backward through time to the merger of all such tracks at the Big Bang, beyond which presumably no tracks remain. We are trying to re-create the last footprints with the LHC. We need a beginning that applies to all of science. Causality does that.
Religion seems to be a universal, transcultural human phenomenon dating back to deep time (some would say, it's hard-wired into our brains, though that's a complex issue). In part for that reason, no one can tell us precisely on what date it began. By contrast, even if we are endowed with rationality, the application of that rationality in systematic ways to the physical world implies a departure. Another of the differences between science and religion.

Spring Scenes (I): Flora, Fortuna, History

I'm really tired of talking about the divestment idiocy and campus politics and would much rather turn my attention to other, more properly historical issues.  As a transition and diversion, a few images of and thoughts about spring and nature in our western Massachusetts region.

high water almost reaches the canal bridge, Turners Falls

Turners Falls:  old mill buildings on the Connecticut River

The winter was a mild one with little snow, but the early onset of warm weather, along with ample rain, struck many as atypical.  One saw the effects throughout the landscape and in the garden. This all brings up further questions of what we take to be usual or unusual.

Most people are at least vaguely aware that the arrival of European settlers transformed that landscape and its ecology, in large ways and small.  Certainly, we think of the big effects of the "Columbian Exchange":  tomatoes, potatoes, maize, tobacco, chocolate (and much more) from the Americas, and horses, pigs, cows, and sheep (and much more, including devastating communicable diseases) from the Old World (there has been a lot of back-and-forth about syphilis, but current scholarship seems to support the view that the virulent sexually transmitted form of the disease was essentially of American origin).  It doesn't end there.  The Europeans also brought with them the honey bee and earthworm (the former, deliberately; the latter, apparently not [1, 2])

Seen in this light, the phrase, "as American as apple pie," takes on new significance, for the common apple (Malus domestica) was a European fruit, with deep origins in Central Asia.  Why else did the John Chapman (a.k.a.  the legendary "Johnny Appleseed"), born in Leominster, not far east of here, have to make such great efforts to promote its cultivation on the American frontier?  (the fact that his varieties were suited for cider—alcoholic beverage— production rather than use as edible fruit is another complication, but we dare not digress further).  Historically speaking, apple pie is as much—or little—"American" as tomato sauce is "Italian" and the prevalence of paprika in a cuisine is "Hungarian": in each case, the key ingredient in the national dish originally came from the other hemisphere.

The exchange includes much that we likewise take for granted in the domestic garden.  Europeans coming to the Americas brought with them the familiar and the valued and sent back eagerly awaited specimens of new plants. The rose (found in Europe as well as Asia) and the lilac (originally native to the Balkans) are but two of the best-known examples of the former. In The Young Gardener's Assistant (11th ed., 1844), Thomas Bridgeman  said "Syringa vulgaris, or common Lilac, blooming in May, is well known to all, and needs no comment," though he went into more detail regarding less familiar varieties.

 "Common" or "Dutch" crocuses (Crocus vernus), 
just after the vernal equinox

We here regard the crocus as one of the "traditional" harbingers of spring, but the plant is in fact native to regions stretching form the Mediterranean to China.

As Bridgeman put it, describing "the beauties of April and May," "Before the trees have ventured to unfold their leaves, and while the icicles are pendant on our houses, the Snow-drop breaks her way through the frozen soil, fearless of danger.  Next peeps out the Crocus, but cautiously and with an air of timidity.  She shuns the howling blasts, and cleaves closely to her humble situation."

In Flora's Interpreter (first ed., 1848) Sarah Josepha Hale—she who gave us Thanksgiving—accurately described the crocus as "One of the earliest spring flowers" and identified it with "youthful gladness," citing a poem that aptly reflects our meteorological conditions this year:
Glad as the spring, when the first Crocus comes
To laugh amid the shower.—
Soon afterward, England, having bested the Netherlands in the competition for industry and empire, could turn its attention to the horticultural field, as well.  In the words of George Glenny (1851), "Our tulip-growers have beaten the Dutch in the quality of their best novelties, and we see no reason why we should not beat them in crocuses."

The nineteenth-century American garden was likewise an unprecedented site of cultural and ecological  interchange, featuring traditional European plants, newly domesticated native ones, and, increasingly, exotics from other parts of the world.

the Romantic American garden as cultural meeting place

The most familiar plant here is the common daffodil (narcissus).  At left, the turtlehead (Chelone glabra), represented by some half a dozen species, is a relative of the foxglove and native to North America.  To the right, new leaves of the hosta pop up.  Now one of the most diverse and popular garden plants, hostas (originally classified as Funkia), came from Asia, reached England in the eighteeenth century, and began to become popular in the United States in the second third of the nineteenth. In the background, a carpet of a traditional herb, sweet woodruff (Asperula odorata), which prospers even in the shade under trees.

Common "Bleeding Heart" (traditionally classified as Dicentra spectabilis, but now Lamprocapnos spectabilis). This native of northeast Asia is now so common that we take it for granted. (Indeed, according to the standard reference work, there are more specimens in our gardens than in the wild.) It was  cultivated briefly in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century but not established in England untii 1846, after which it made its way across the Atlantic. In fact, the leaflet on the recreated eighteenth-century gardens at the Strong House (Amherst History Museum) apologetically describes it as a Victorian interloper:  once planted there, it was too popular with the public, and allowed to remain.

Barrenwort (genus Epimedium), whose species mainly come from Asia, was introduced to the west in the past century and a half.  Fun facts to know and tell: Turns out that Epimedium, long regarded as an aphrodisiac in Asia, contains a compound similar to the active ingredient in Viagra (who knew?).

Have Divestment Advocates at Hampshire College Finally Admitted Defeat?

I’ve spent a lot of time (more than anyone should have to) documenting the obvious:
Hampshire College never, deliberately and as a political statement, divested itself, in whole or in part, of investments in Israel or having to do with Israel’s policies.
It’s part (though often the least significant part) of what historians do: set the record straight.

In February, 2009, the local activists of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) inundated the world with press releases claiming that “Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, has become the first of any college or university in the U.S. to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

It was not true, as the administration promptly declared and repeatedly affirmed.

Ever since that time, however, SJP, engaging in a combination of casuistry, wishful thinking, and outright prevarication, has steadfastly maintained that divestment took place: most recently, on the non-anniversary of the non-event. (1, 2, 3, 4) Divestment advocates elsewhere bizarrely cite the imaginary event as precedent—and then, appropriately enough, likewise fail in their own efforts.

I recently described the student commencement speech by an SJP supporter. In his words:
Students moved to divest the school from US corporations that benefited from the Israeli occupation of Palestine . . . . Yet in the face of such hard work and political ingenuity, the administration threatened students who organized the divestment campaign with disciplinary action.
I focused on the general disingenuousness and distortions of his remarks: Divestment never occurred, and the College never threatened or punished anyone for activism or free speech; it merely insisted that students had no right to misrepresent College policy to the public.

However, although I didn’t remark on this, I was also struck by the fact that his portrayal of the controversy itself was curiously oblique and laconic. Why, unlike the host of SJP statements, did this one focus on the divestment movement and the aftermath, rather than affirming the act of divestment itself? It was thus moreover curious that his remarks were prefaced with feelings of defeat: “(sigh) . . . But I feel this like it’s, but it’s, this [=graduation] is one victory among countless losses. I feel like I’ve lost so many battles.” And: students failed “to change the school,” as a result of which he is “left with feelings of sadness, resignation, and anger.”

I was reluctant to leap to conclusions and assumed that the emphasis was explained by his desire to take advantage of the platform to criticize the administration.

However, the Gazette story was firmer in its conclusions:
[Scheer] also said he is disappointed that the college has not fully divested from "United States corporations that have benefited from the Israeli occupation of Palestine." He called on Hampshire to fulfill its mandate of social responsibility in the same way it did more than 30 years ago when it became the first college in the nation to divest from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa.

So, which is it?  We heard the same speech.

Doesn't really matter, on one level.
Pretty soon, the SJP activists will start to look like the few soldiers of the Japanese Imperial army who, unfortunate dupes of a fascist militarist system, held out in the jungles for almost three decades, still fighting a war that they had long ago lost.

Everyone but the SJP-BDS people understands that divestment at Hampshire lost. The only question is when these last holdouts will admit it.

Separating Your Friends From the Dicks: BDS Loses, Institutions Pay the Price

As I noted recently, the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, sanctions, divestment) movement has suffered a string of major defeats even as it claims to go from strength to strength. These escapades would be merely laughable if not for the fact that the movement is doubly deleterious: First, it erodes rather than enhances prospects for peace and reconciliation. Second, in the course of doing so, it cynically exploits and violates the parties that it claims to embrace, for they are but a means to its own gratification (hence my earlier recourse to the metaphors of failed seduction and date rape).

To be sure, the scholar or performer facing boycott pressure may come in for some abuse from a shrill minority, but the consequences of either choice are limited, because s/he is just one person and the BDS movement is so marginal. By contrast, the educational institution is the collective victim of a sustained assault that callously sows discord among all members of the large campus community, setting activists against administrators, colleague against colleague, and student against student. It survives divestment attempts at the price of deep scars and continuing post-traumatic stress.

My friend and fellow-blogger Jon Haber made this general point sooner, better, and more persistently than anyone else (1, 2, 3). For example:
If their activity rubs ethnic and religious tension on US campuses raw, or puts UK unions in legal jeopardy, what do they care? All they want is the “brand” of one of these well-known organizations associated with their squalid little political program. And if Berkeley is turned into a war zone or a union gets sued over the position the boycotters forced into an institution’s mouth, it’s the institution (not the BDSers) who have to deal with the wreckage divestment has caused. (read the rest)
I have seen all this play out here at my own institution of Hampshire College, where the activists among both students and faculty have never forgiven the administration for its failure to accept their demands for "divestment from the Israeli occupation of Palestine” over a year ago. The situation is the more tragic because this administration, like most others, assiduously tried to avoid making a bad situation worse.

When the President tried to calm the campus tensions arising from the conflict in Gaza by urging all parties to practice “interpretive charity,” Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and their supporters viciously denounced him for refusing to take sides (read: theirs). When SJP activists soon thereafter presented their demand for divestment, the Board of Trustees nonetheless received it politely and took it seriously. Then, when the Board reallocated some investments in keeping with its existing guidelines but explicitly rejected the logic and demands of the petitioners, SJP began to trumpet the false news of divestment. The administration, rather than denouncing the prevarication and prevaricators in the harshest terms, contented itself with soberly reaffirming the facts, in the anodyne language of lawyers and investment advisors. SJP exploited this weakness and tried to turn the tables on the College and claim that it was lying (a position they have maintained to this day). Outside opponents of divestment, for their part, criticized the College for its pusillanimity and timid, tortuous verbiage. Then, just a week ago, the student speaker at commencement used the occasion to denounce the College for its alleged oppression of divestment activists.  It’s for situations such as this that the saying, “no good deed goes unpunished,” was created.

Sadly, nothing that happened advanced the cause of peace or Palestinian rights by one millimeter, but here on the ground, the regression is measured in miles. The campus remains polarized, and far from “educating” the neutral majority in the middle, the hectoring “activism” has made many of them cynical or more apolitical. As recent events in which a colleague and I participated have shown (more on that another time), the atmosphere in some circles—not necessarily on the campus as a whole, mind you—is so toxic that the discourse around not just Israel, but Jews, as such, has crossed a red line. To its credit, the College, from the leadership of the administrative and academic sectors down through Student Affairs, has come to the realization that it is time to act. Many people, understandably, are asking why it has taken so long.

It’s a good question, though in one sense, the answer is fairly simple, I think. Decent people want to avoid conflict, and think that even their enemies can be reconciled if not converted. It’s also standard management practice. The responses tend to be bureaucratic-legalistic, for institutions are cautious by nature and believe they make the best case by addressing unimpeachable procedural principles rather than more subjective or controversial matters of substance.  Rather than risk fanning the flames with a forthright condemnation at the outset, administrations therefore lie low and attempt to play it cool, hoping that the crisis will, pass. Then, if the divestment effort fails, as it always has so far, they can skip over the injury and focus on “healing.” Unfortunately, as we here can attest, some wounds fester.

A modest exception was the response to the recent Berkeley divestment effort, by the Chair and Vice Chair of the Board of Regents and the President of the University, who actually alluded to campus tensions. After dutifully referring to federal law and fiduciary responsibilities, they warned against inconsistent standards and declared, ”This isolation of Israel among all countries of the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community.” It’s still after the fact, and fairly mild, but nonetheless unusual.

No one should expect or want college administrators to take a stand on the side of either Israelis or Arabs, as such. One would hope they would advocate peace and fair treatment of both parties. But we can demand that they take a stand on the vital issues that are within their purview, namely the integrity of academe. Where are the college administrations that will denounce, in no uncertain terms, sooner rather than later, and at the outset rather than when standing amidst the ruins, the divisive practices of the BDS movement, and the cost that they exact by eroding the foundational community norms of civility and rigorous intellectual discourse?

College administrations, understandably enough, want to be friends with everyone. They don’t want to have to create a foreign policy or alienate any campus constituency, and they shouldn’t have to do so. They have to serve all. Still, how much humiliation will you put up with for the sake of spurious friendship? When is it time to do an “intervention” and tell your “friends” that they have a problem and need to straighten themselves out? Critics of Israel's policies often invoke the language of “friendship” as an entitlement to talk bluntly. Should not the same then apply to critics of Israel if they claim to be your friends?   If you want to be everyone's friend at any price, what are you, and what do you stand for?

It all reminds me of a recent "South Park" episode that lampooned the Facebook obsession with accumulating “friends”—whom one often barely knows—for the mere sake of . . . well, having more friends. The vile but always entertaining Cartman introduces Kyle to internet “chat roulette” in order to help him find more Facebook friends. The result is disappointing and disgusting:

Kyle: “Aw, that’s some dude jacking off.”

Cartman: “Aw, yeah, you get those sometimes. We’ll just click to the next person. There we go. Hello!”

Kyle: “That’s just a guy’s penis, too.

Cartman: “Okay, let’s try this one.”

Kyle: Dude, "I don’t want to see a bunch of guys’ penises!”

Cartman: “Hold on, Kyle, this is seriously an amazing gathering place where people from all over the world can share their thoughts and ideas. . . . Okay, that’s a dude jacking off. But, . . . okay, he’s jacking off; . . . penis, . . . penis, . . . penis, penis, penis, ah, here’s a guy [. . . ] aw, he’s taking out his penis. Okay, next guy.”

Kyle: “Dude, screw this, I don’t want to see any more!”

Cartman:  “Kyle, this is the way the world works: if you want to find some quality friends, you’ve got to wade through all the dicks first.”

If a couple of fictional fourth-graders can see this simple truth, how long will it take for our institutions of higher education to figure out who their true and false friends are?

Conventional Radicalism at Hampshire College: Divestment Activists Bite the Hand That Feeds Them

To be sure, the address by Hampshire College Commencement student speaker Daniel Scheer contained the usual words of thanks to family and friends. To be sure, he also expressed his “love” for the unique educational approach, the faculty, and the staff (to loud applause in all cases). “Today we are supposed to celebrate Hampshire,” but, he added, “I have a love-hate relationship” with it, because, “like every other liberal arts school in the United States,” it is “predominately white, wealthy, and apolitical.” Specifically, he said, “I have problems loving the administration [loud whoops from the audience].”
We came here to shape Hampshire in the way we wanted to shape the world, but we were limited in our capacity to change the school. That is why after I have survived this gauntlet—we have survived this gauntlet—I am left with feelings of sadness, resignation, and anger. The administration is two-faced. Students have known for years that Hampshire, like most US institutions, is a hotbed of institutionalized racism.
Gee, thanks. Some romance. Remind me not to invite you to my next Valentine’s Day party.

But my condolences: It must have been a rough life. Passing through that “gauntlet”—which cost somebody (that ever variable mixture of family funds and College’s financial aid budget) about a quarter of a million dollars—got you a degree and the singular honor of a platform from which to address the entire Hampshire community, all the graduates and their proud families, and the press. Not the usual reward after the brutal punishment implied by “gauntlet.” I think your counterparts in Iran have a somewhat tougher time of things.

Many people were taken aback by the snide tone or general lack of manners. It’s not pretty. It’s also no act of heroism: The College does not censor students’ remarks in advance, and what could it do afterward without looking petty and vindictive? So, it’s risk-free “radicalism”: students mouth off while the administrators have to sit, impassively or grinning sheepishly, at the back of the dais.

My problem with the talk was two-fold: civility and substance. I’ll connect the two in a moment.

Okay, I, too, think it was ill-mannered, but the issue is really manners in the sense of civility, implying not just custom and convention, but common sense and decency. This is actually an interesting question, given the context. The College is celebrating its fortieth anniversary, and I recently had occasion to see a copy of the student handbook of the first entering class of 1970. It includes the statement:
The culture of the Hampshire College campus . . . will be neither normless nor joyless. The College—and this has little to do with rules and regulations—will expect a high degree of what John Kennedy termed civility in every part of its life. The College’s use of the term refers to the basic attitude and stance of people in their dealings with each other, not to superficial niceties for their own sake.
When President Ralph Hexter spoke of the relation between civic engagement and civility in his commencement address here, he was echoing the commencement address that Barack Obama recently delivered at the University of Michigan, who was in turn echoing John F. Kennedy: on civic engagement, the Peace Corps speech, delivered 50 years earlier in Michigan; and on civility, the inaugural: “So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”

So, civility was lacking here, but so was sincerity.

Mr. Scheer is a supporter of Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), part of the larger anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement. It’s a strain of “activism” that has little regard for civility, for one of its preferred tactics—as we see here—is to demonize its opponents, and then, when they respond, to play the martyr, and claim that it is being silenced:
[at approx. 5:00 into the video clip] “The administration is also corporate. Twenty years ago, the first to divest from Hampshire College was the first to divest from apartheid South Africa [loud whoops and applause]; the first institution of higher ed, excuse me. Twenty years later, students sought to uphold Hampshire’s promise to avoid investing in war, genocide, and military occupations. Students moved to divest the school from US corporations that benefited from the Israeli occupation of Palestine [loud whoops and applause in some quarters, waving of signs]. Students campaigned for two years to hold Hampshire accountable to our responsible investment policy. They held film screenings, distributed original literature, and put up cool actions [girlish laughter]. Yet in the face of such hard work and political ingenuity, the administration threatened students who organized the divestment campaign with disciplinary action. They micromanaged students afterward and forgot about its supposed obligation to invest in peace and justice.”

This is misrepresentation by omission.

SJP demanded divestment from funds that they said supported Israeli violations of human rights and international law. The College undertook a larger review of its holdings according to its socially responsible investment policy, and made a number of resultant reallocations, none of which had anything to do with Israel or its policies. Even though fully informed of this decision and its rationale, the students immediately trumpeted to the world, in a slew of press releases, the news that “Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, has become the first of any college or university in the U.S. to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

The administration never threatened anyone for organizing, protesting, or doing anything else that falls within the bounds of free speech and academic freedom. Indeed, it was very courteous in response to the student divestment activists and took their extensively documented request seriously, even as it ultimately rejected and declined to act on their logic. What the administration took issue with was public misrepresentation by the students—and their supporters—of College policy.

I remember the time well. I was waiting for a meeting to begin when one of the faculty supporters of SJP came in, quite agitated, after having read a just-published piece in the Jerusalem Post. Celebrity lawyer and pro-Israel gadfly Alan Dershowitz demanded, pending clarification on whether the administration or student version was true, a moratorium on contributions to the College. The President and Chair of the Board responded by reiterating that no divestment had taken place and closed by saying:
we . . . urge you to understand us clearly, when we say that students do not speak for the college and may not willfully misrepresent the school. It will be, and must be, the college's task to undertake any disciplinary action, according to its established rules and procedures. Discipline is an internal process that is not shared with the public.
Many of my colleagues became quite concerned and immediately began to speak of denouncing the administration and “supporting the students” for their “courageous” action. I explained that they were getting worked up over nothing and simply had to hone their vaunted skills in textual interpretation. Clearly labeling “discipline” an “internal process” was the College’s diplomatic way of trying to lower the temperature by saying that outside pressure and grandstanding by either side were not helpful, and that we could deal with the matter on our own.

It worked. The administration’s statement effectively put the story to rest as far as academe and the serious public were concerned, though the divestment myth continues to flourish in BDS circles where activists invoke it in vain hopes of inspiring future “successes.”

No students were persecuted, prosecuted, or even punished.

So, let’s recap:
• student engages in activism
• student denounces administration
• student is elected commencement speaker
• student denounces administration at official event before audience of hundreds
Threats of “disciplinary action”? “Corporate”? It’s not exactly the Gulag. Or even Walmart.

Twice Scheer stated, with slight variation, that students feel betrayed because they came here hoping to change the college and failed to do so. The notion that it is the primary task of students to transform a college, rather than vice versa, is a stunningly revealing example of solipsism and twisted logic. To be sure, we give students an unusually large role in shaping their educational programs and participating in college governance, and I firmly believe that this is as it should be, but this is not everything. To cite that first Hampshire handbook again:
Hampshire College does not assume that a student can pursue only his self-defined interest in the College . . . . the College sees its obligation as encouraging the expansion of a student’s definition of relevance, not pandering to it.
Pity the shlemazel Scheer. How could he know that his ill-considered, ill-mannered rant would be preceded by President Hexter’s call for civility and followed by Peter Cole’s subtle and thoughtful keynote address on “Radical Convention,” which could not have been a sharper aesthetic or political rebuke had it been conceived as such. (text; video)

Cole provocatively argued, “there’s nothing about convention that’s inherently inimical to radical ways of being and seeing, and in fact one might argue that an understanding of the nature and dynamics of convention is a prerequisite for truly radical expression”:
Conventional convention pacifies, or stultifies. Radical convention intensifies, and sometimes transforms . . . .

But that’s the easy and obvious contrast: conventional convention and a radical approach. What happens when the experimental impulse goes slack, is left unexamined, or is valued primarily as a mark of identity and ceases to be used as a vehicle for honest inquiry? That is—and this is something that goes to the heart of the experience of learning at a place like Hampshire—how can we distinguish between a radical vision of convention and conventional radicalism?

For all of its passionate intensity, conventional radicalism too easily preaches the organic but in fact is not about growth and nourishment and honest response to experience. Its aesthetic is assumed rather than earned or evolved. It embraces openness in theory rather than practice. More often than not, it is about attitude rather than aptitude. And it is—to borrow, perhaps unfairly, from a famous Amherst poem by one of the greatest of radical conventionalists—“public, like a frog,” broadcasting its allegiances, rather than cultivating a sustaining dynamic between inwardness and action. It sometimes asks hard questions, but rarely works hard to answer those questions in scrupulous fashion, and once it has learned the manner and style, conventional radicalism stops learning. And “stop” in that sentence is both an intransitive and a transitive verb.

The tradition of radical convention, on the other hand, never stops learning. And knowledge is never enough for it. Though knowledge is also critical to it. The radical employment of convention involves re-vision in the most elemental sense: the constant recalibration of sight, and with it of imagination.
Lesson over. Any questions?

The closing faculty toast by Professor of Biology Lynn Miller, founding member of the College and official resident curmudgeon (he used to have a button identifying himself as such) was a welcome conclusion and tension-breaker. Ironically, it, too, was an implicit rebuke to Scheer’s banalities.

Miller’s talk had all the elements of a good commencement address (only shorter)—along with a few pointed allusions to campus politics past and present: sharp enough to those who able to hear them, but subtle enough that they did not wound anyone or spoil the mood of the occasion—altogether a fitting way to end. That’s how it’s done, son. If only our student speakers could learn that.

Of course, as Peter Cole reminds us, college provides the beginning of an education, not the end. Let us hope, anyway.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hampshire College Commencement: Texts and Subtexts, Diplomas and the Dreyfus Affair

Commencement this year was a somewhat strange affair: in some ways, one of the best and most gratifying; in others, one of the stranger, though not quite as actively contentious as some of its predecessors.

Ironically, the date was the anniversary of the occasion on which, in 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner senseless in the chambers of the United States Capitol. More on that in a moment, but back to the present.

Upon arriving on campus, the first thing I did was to check the flags. You may be surprised. My reader will recall, however, my curiosity last May. On festive occasions, we place the flags of the United Nations around the perimeter of the grassy circle at the center of campus, with the UN flag itself front-and-center, facing the main drive. Last year, the flags of the United States and Israel flew next to it.

Commencement 2009

I wondered whether that was some sort of political message in response to mendacious reports that the College had divested itself of investments in or associated with Israel (1, 2, 3).  This year, the latter two banners were nowhere near the front.

Commencement 2010

Was this significant? Who knows? It was different, and I think that confirms my suspicions of last May. Still, without at least further circumstantial evidence, the historian must rest content with judicious speculation rather than leap to definitive conclusions. In any case, it’s what went on beneath the big tent beyond the flags that had everyone speculating this year.

In his Presidential address, Ralph Hexter touched on numerous issues of social justice and political engagement, from the financial meltdown to Iranian student protests and health care, and ended with the Dreyfus Affair. One could not avoid the feeling that he wanted to say much more than he could express under the circumstances and in the time allotted. Some listeners expressed puzzlement afterwards, and they may be forgiven for not having followed everything.

To begin with, there was, as always in his wide-ranging speeches, a lot to keep track of. Above all, though, those of us who work here could not help but wonder about possible subtexts. Smoldering tensions between administration and faculty had flared up in the course of the past year. Just a few weeks ago, a new brushfire—sparked by the ineptitude of the administration but opportunistically fanned by various parties—broke out.  The tone of conversation has become unrelentingly confrontational.  (1, 2, 3, 4 )  It's not my task to go into all this here, but suffice it to say:  Above and beyond disagreements over concrete policies, this is really a struggle over power and a clash of cultures or values, exacerbated by dysfunctional communication patterns on all sides. The real tragedy is the absence of mutual understanding and resultant breakdown of trust. In addition, the resentments arising from past conflicts such as last year’s failed anti-Israel divestment campaign remained, like the BP oil plume, toxic and submerged, but slowly spreading a contamination that eventually works its way to the surface. (1, 2, 3)  Only in this context, I think, can we attempt to make full sense of the President's remarks.

When he began with the understated observation, “This year has had its challenges,” we here could not help but think of the ongoing campus tensions as well as the larger financial crisis that had exacerbated them, one in which, as he put it, big corporations are “made whole” while ordinary people struggle to survive. Citing additional crisis moments around the world, he noted that “peace and quiet” is not the same as “peace and justice,” which we are duty-bound to pursue (some student murmurs).  Referring to the enduring and visceral opposition to President Obama and his policies—among the panoply of antagonists from racists to “Nirthers” and “Teabaggers” (though he didn’t call them that)—he condemned above all “the politics of no,” whose dogmatism and reliance on false assumptions, distortions, innuendo, and lies make both agreement and civil disagreement impossible.

The solution? “I often turn to history. No, I’m not going to go back to the Classics or go medieval on you,” he assured his audience. “My talk is long, time is short (what else is new?).” But, he continued, he would urge students likewise to turn to history: specifically, the notorious Dreyfus Affair, in which the unfounded accusations of treason against a Jewish staff officer in late 19th-century France unleashed both political scandal and a wave of antisemitism, and split the nation. In the concluding, most avuncular portion of his talk, he enumerated some key features of the Affair and their continuing relevance: “Once the narrative had been launched, it took on a life of its own: Prejudices were only confirmed.” Study the partisanship and corruption of that era, and “You’ll find yourself unsurprised by anything occurring on our political stage today.” Holding up writer Emile Zola and socialist leader Jean Jaurès as role models (actually, it took Jaurès 4 years to convince himself of Dreyfus's innocence; though he later became a passionate advocate), he declared, “Political and judicial reform starts from the revelations of injustice,” and praised students who “vigorously champion the cause of those who are downtrodden” (at which point a student help up a protest sign; no good deed goes unpunished). His closing point was a call to pursue principle while preserving civility and group loyalty: “Remember that we are all, despite moments of disagreement, even passionate disagreement, one community.” As most of the audience applauded a final commendation of the graduates, a group of students held up protest signs calling for more democracy on campus.

It was in many ways a strange moment: a potentially profound call to conscience that was perhaps not fully articulated and in many cases would anyway have fallen on deaf ears. Even many faculty expressed puzzlement: “What was he trying to say?” “Does he think he’s Dreyfus?” Well, of course not (and neither is Obama), or at any rate, it’s not that simple. A good lecture means what it says and is in addition capable of bearing multiple deeper or other meanings; it’s not a question of either/or. Although some of the links between topics and allusions could have been clarified, the meaning was not mysterious to me: The theme was the dual responsibility of intellectuals (and citizens): the need to pursue the call of one’s conscience without rupturing the bonds of decency and community.  It makes no sense for left-wingers to criticize the Tea Party movement if they apply the same destructive politics and tactics in the name of the cause they hold dear. In fact, the address largely echoed President Obama's call (I think they call that an "hommage") for both social engagement and civility, at the University of Michigan Commencement a few weeks earlier.

Seen in that light, the addition of the Dreyfus Affair is all the more significant.  Given today’s historical anniversary, Ralph  could easily have chosen the example of Charles Sumner to make his point about political courage and the degradation of political discourse. After all, the example is closer to us and would have tied in to his comments about racial prejudice directed against President Obama. As the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities tells us: 1856, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, viciously attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate. Three days earlier, in a passionate anti-slavery speech, Sumner had used language southerners found deeply offensive. Rather than challenge Sumner to a duel, as he would have a gentleman, Brooks beat him with a cane. It was three-and-a-half years before Charles Sumner was well enough to return to the Senate. Although he never fully recovered from the assault, he served another 15 years. An abolitionist who not only opposed slavery but advocated equal rights for African Americans, Charles Sumner was remembered as a man who marched "ahead of his followers when they were afraid to follow."
To be sure, the Dreyfus case is the more famous, and it has a lot to do with and say to intellectuals. Indeed, “the Affair” arguably marked the point at which intellectuals as a class established their claim to a leading role in modern European political discourse. Still I think there was another reason for that choice: It was, after all, about antisemitism. President Hexter quoted an opponent of Dreyfus to the effect that “the pride and ignominy of his race” confirmed his guilt. Hexter likewise declared that “the most heartbreaking symbolic moment was the public degradation of Alfred Dreyfus,” when the former Captain was humiliatingly stripped of rank. (see the image at the top of the page) He called attention to the fact that “one of the great episodes of modern antisemitism” had practical consequences: “there were riots and pogroms, with Jews killed and injured.”

I think there’s still more. The Dreyfus Affair serves as a reminder that, as a left-wing colleague in vain attempted to explain to a hostile crowd of anti-Israel students at a recent event, antisemitism provided the template for all other modern European racisms. There are lessons for everyone here. Still, we should not allow the universal to erase the particular. One cannot dismiss antisemitism as now somehow less important than other forms of hatred, much less, a figment of the paranoid imagination or tool of “Zionism.” Some recent episodes here have made it clear that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate anti-Israel attitudes and antisemitism on this campus as on others, and the administration has taken note. (I’ll leave it at that for now.) To choose the Dreyfus Affair as the epitome of the dangers of bigotry and dishonesty was therefore to send a salutary warning to the campus community about not just the evils of prejudice and the power of conscience, but also the poison of incivility and the danger of intolerance masquerading as iconoclasm and populism.

The only puzzling thing about the student address by Daniel Scheer (06F) was that it garnered extensive applause. Because the content touches more directly on issues especially germane to the concerns of this blog, I’ll address it in a separate post (to follow shortly). In a nutshell, though: As if inadvertently to confirm Hexter’s point, Scheer’s talk was a rather heavy-handed, moralistic, and self-righteous summation of his “love-hate’ relationship to the College, which he described as “white, wealthy, and apolitcal” and a “hotbed of institutionalized racism” with a “corporate and two-faced” administration. The culmination was an encomium of the unsuccessful efforts by Students for Justice in Palestine to divest from the Israeli “occupation of Palestine” last year. (Have they finally admitted failure?!)

Fortunately, the keynote address by alumnus Peter Cole (77F), acclaimed poet, translator, and MacArthur Prize recipient, returned the proceedings to a more elevated plane in every sense. Rather than attempt to summarize, I’ll let you read it for yourselves. In essence, however, this talk on the theme of “Radical Convention” was, like Hexter’s address, a call to acknowledge complexity. Riffing on the word, “weird,” which, as he pointed out, traditionally had to do with the notion of destiny rather than strangeness, he meditated on what fate had brought him to an experimenting college in the first place and its commencement today. The message had to do with true nature of radicalism and convention. As he pointed out, to accept conventions is not to resign oneself to being conventional. We all operate within conventions—in our social interactions, in work, in art. They’re a fact of life, but, at their best, they provide a framework or container within which to experiment:
Do not despise these small things, says Zechariah (chapter 4, verse 10). Recognize them, respect them and the need for them, but most important, re-imagine and re-conceive them—incessantly—and keep your altering eye on the altering prize: not the trappings of innovation and identity, not the posture of a certain politics, and not the experimental manner, but its abiding ethos, which calls for approaching the unknown with courage and rigor, and a compassion born of a deep-seated sense and perception of relation.
The concluding portion of his talk begins with his translation of a poem by one of the great Hebrew poets of Muslim-ruled Spain, Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021-c. 1058):

It was one of the richest, most profound, and most satisfying commencement talks I have heard here—not that, truth be told, there were many competitors. (And, admittedly, it’s a pretty miserable genre in any case, whether at Hampshire or Harvard.) Talks by “activists,” whether nonentities or celebrities, have tended to fall flat: hectoring, or banal, or both. Can’t remember most others. It was refreshing to hear a talk of some weight by a man of letters who assumes that his listeners have an intellect, and who therefore wants to challenge rather than merely coddle and flatter them. You’d think that would be the norm rather than the exception in academic life. (You’d be wrong.)

Ironically, one of the best other commencement talks here was by someone far removed from academe (not to mention, medieval poetry): comedian Jane Curtin, who over two decades ago spoke right after the death of her close friend, Gilda Radner: the appropriate rhetorical humility, a little humor, a little wisdom, a lot of humanity—in short, the epitome of what one needs in both education and life.

*  *  *

Updates since I wrote this:

• On May 24, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times posted his thoughts on "The Best Commencement Speeches Ever"
• Hampshire College has now posted the full video of Peter Cole's talk and the text of President Hexter's remarks

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hampshire Commencement

Celebration so far proceeding with relative calm. The President's
speech on social justice and conscience received a generally polite
reception with minor disruption.

Sent from my iPhone

Commencing to What? Hijinks at Hampshire

About to head off to Commencement.

The big speculation today concerns not the content of the keynote address by Commencement speaker Peter Cole, a Hampshire alumnus, distinguished scholar and translator of Hebrew, and MacArthur Prize winner—and rather, the likelihood of various disruptions.

Rumors have involved political protest by Students for Justice in Palestine (though why they would think of attacking a translator of medieval Hebrew, with left-wing political views, would make any sense is a mystery), or, more likely, protests arising from any one of a number of simmering controversies that have disrupted campus life this year: general and ongoing tensions between rebellious faculty and the administration, or the more recent faculty-student-staff protests over admissions policy and facilities. Anyone's guess.

I , for one, just want to watch the students graduate and listen to the speaker. Who knows? At least it won't snow, as it did several years ago.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

VE-Day: For Whom the Bell Tolls

One final tribute to V-E Day: a bell (dia.: 115 mm.), created as a fundraiser for the RAF Benevolent Society, and manufactured of aluminum taken from downed German aircraft. The handle bears the Churchillian "V for Victory." On the sides of the bell, the faces of the wartime Allied leaders: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin (though Truman of course succeeded Roosevelt in the final days of the War, and Atlee replaced Churchill between V-E Day and V-J Day).

• Minor excurses:

1) Given the material and production technique, the bell has a clear ring but limited resonance (among small recent antique bells, the one that to my mind has the most sonorous ring and intriguing story is the famous Saignelegier bell of 1878 and its imitators [1, 2, 3] ; but I digress).

2) It would be intriguing to study the fate of memorabilia and other items made of recycled World War II aircraft. My parents had suitcases made from the metal of destroyed Luftwaffe planes.

3) Given the lack of historical knowledge today, I am always both amused and exasperated when I come across news reports that describe Palestinian protesters or "fighters" making the "V" sign with their fingers but explain the gesture as a "peace sign." Sorry, folks, no 1960s hippies here. It is of course the "V" of victory (as these pieces [1, 2 ] correctly state). Wishful thinking or just plain ignorance?

• Historical-philosophical reflections:

To see and hear this bell is to mourn a necessary war but one made unavoidable by past miscalculations and cowardice. When England and France betrayed their ally Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938, they arguably deprived the world of the last best chance to stop fascist aggression in its tracks. The Czechoslovaks were ready and able to fight, but England told them that if they did not give in to Hitler's demands, it would hold them responsible for the outbreak of a war and offer no assistance.

František Halas expressed the national tragedy in a once-famous poem:
The bell of treason is tolling
Whose hand made it swing?
Sweet France
Proud Albion
And we loved them
Not only is it false that war is sometimes not the answer. Sometimes, there are worse things than war.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bad Days for BDS

BDS—the movement for Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment from Israel—has been having something of a bad run.

Even late-breaking news that Elvis Costello regretfully canceled a concert in Israel—though NB in a tortured attempt to maintain neutrality rather than as a statement of support for BDS—does not change the picture. What is noteworthy is that it takes so much pressure to attain such modest results. Gil Scott Heron finally succumbed, but the Argentine musician Charly García just performed there to great audiences and great acclaim. The list goes on.

Two major writers honored with the Israel Dan David Prize recently resisted the pressure of cultural boycotters in the name of cultural freedom and exchange. Although they demonstrably made sure to separate themselves from “the state,” their points were powerful. Amitav Ghosh said that if one boycotts Israeli academics, one would have to right to do the same to colleagues in the US, Britain, and his native India, all of whose governments are engaged in controversial combat. But he also sharply addressed the question of standards and consistency:
I do not see how it is possible to make the case that Israel is so different, so exceptional, that it requires the severing of connections with even the more liberal, more critically-minded members of that society. Is it really possible to argue that there is in that country such a unique and excessive malevolence that it contaminates every aspect of civil society, including private foundations and universities?
Margaret Atwood bemoaned the fact that “I got yelled at for saying there were two sides,” and denounced all overgeneralization and essentialism:
To boycott an individual simply because of the country he or she lives in would set a very dangerous precedent. And to boycott a discussion of literature such as the one proposed would be to take the view that literature is always and only some kind of tool of the nation that produces it — a view I strongly reject, just as I reject the view that any book written by a woman is produced by some homogeneous substance called “women.”
Most notable of all were the defeats that BDS suffered in bastions of American higher education and leftism: the University of California-Berkeley, where it lost twice, and UC-San Diego.

The shrewd, urbane, and witty Hussein Ibish (also an alumnus of UMass-Amherst, I am pleased to note), not one to go easy on Israel, got things exactly right after the first Berkeley vote. He made two key observations when he confirmed points that critics have consistently made (above and beyond arguments over the factual or ethical merits of the approach): first, the movement has been a failure, and second, that its advocates are not really interested in success as measured by their own stated goals.
The bottom line is this: if you can't get divestment through UC Berkeley, you're done. UC Berkeley is the epicenter of not only liberalism, but even radicalism, in American academia and indeed American social life in general. Frankly, I'm surprised it's proving so difficult.
. . . .
Spin is a wondrous thing, and I've rarely seen more spin in my life than has been engaged in by BDS proponents who have been trying to create the impression that there is a major movement in this direction in the United States and that is "succeeding" and, even more preposterously, "having results." . . . . BDS activists are spinning the thus far unsuccessful UC Berkeley effort (at issuing a recommendation, mind you) as a "great achievement," but I really don't think any serious person can buy that line.

The problem, ultimately, with the BDS approach as on display at UC Berkeley, and in contrast to other boycott efforts that wisely target elements of the occupation such as the settlements, as opposed to Israel itself, is that it doesn't advance any articulable or achievable political goal. No doubt that behind such efforts for the most part lurk one-state sentiments that, however noble they might be, don't actually correspond to anything plausibly achievable. Since working towards ending the occupation is the only sensible course of action under the present circumstances, and the only seriously achievable goal that would advance both the Palestinian national interest and the cause of peace, activism should be measured by the degree to which it helps to promote that goal. If another goal is intended, I think people need to be very clear about what it is, and how they hope to get there, and I really don't think anyone can really imagine that boycotts are going to be the primary tool in resolving this national conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Anyone who does think that is hopelessly, touchingly naïve. The very most generous thing one might say is that this is a movement waiting for a leadership to emerge deus ex machina that could translate its momentum, if any, into actual political results vis-à-vis Israel. If the goal is ending the occupation, then the problem with BDS is that instead of distinguishing between the occupation and Israel itself, and separating the interests of the majority of Israelis from the settlers and other proponents of maintaining the occupation at all costs, it conflates them and creates an atmosphere which encourages Israelis in general to circle the wagons against outside pressure rather than understand that ending the occupation is in their own interests.
. . .
Of course, there are plenty of people who support the broad kind of BDS that tends to unite rather than divide Israelis and which has no clear strategic aim, and who in fact are opposed to ending the occupation and prefer instead the one-state agenda aimed at the elimination of Israel and the creation of a single, democratic state in its place. For them, the fact that measures like the proposed Berkeley resolution target Israel generally is a positive thing. They've no interest in dividing Israeli society, only in confronting it. They've no interest in ending the occupation, since they don't recognize the occupation, or at least have adopted logic that doesn't allow for one to meaningfully speak in terms of an occupation, only discrimination in a single, at present undemocratic, state. Many of them also continue to talk about settlements, although that also doesn't make any sense either given their logic, although they could talk about discriminatory Jewish-only towns or something like that. It never ceases to fascinate me that one-state rhetoric continues to be so deeply mired in two-state logic (occupation, settlements, etc.), categories that make no sense once a single state agenda has been adopted. (read the rest)
So, if you won't believe me, listen to this Senior Fellow of the American Task Force on Palestine, former Communications Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and author of What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda? Why Ending the Occupation and Peace with Israel is Still the Palestinian National Goal.

BDS is bad news, and bad for peace.

[updated link]

17 and 18 May: Civil Rights Anniversaries

Two key dates in the history of the US Supreme Court and the Civil Rights Movement:

18 May 1890: Plessy v. Ferguson
A bleak day: The Supreme Court rules that the doctrine of "separate but equal" allows for racial segregation.

17 May 1954: Brown v. Board of Education (Brown v. Topeka)
A glorious day: The Supreme Court overturns the "separate but equal" principle, judges it unconstitutional.

• A nice footnote: in 2009, the descendants of both Plessy and Ferguson formed a foundation dedicated to education and reconciliation.

• A not-so-nice footnote: one of the key pieces of evidence used to overturn segregation in Brown v. Board of Education was a study showing that both black and white children internalized notion of black inferiority, as seen in their attitudes toward dolls of different colors. After decades of educational reform and social change, one would have thought all that a relic of the past, but a new study shockingly confirms the persistence of the phenomenon:
(CNN) -- A white child looks at a picture of a black child and says she's bad because she's black. A black child says a white child is ugly because he's white. A white child says a black child is dumb because she has dark skin.

This isn't a schoolyard fight that takes a racial turn, not a vestige of the "Jim Crow" South; these are American schoolchildren in 2010.

Nearly 60 years after American schools were desegregated by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and more than a year after the election of the country's first black president, white children have an overwhelming white bias, and black children also have a bias toward white, according to a new study commissioned by CNN. (read the rest)

Monday, May 17, 2010

16 May 1664: Battle of Scharnowitz

A date of no overwhelming importance, but one of many lesser events now forgotten in a chain of greater ones.

Austro-Turkish War: On 16 May 1664, the northern wing of the Austrian Imperial army under the Huguenot refugee Jean-Louis Raduit, Count de Souches, defeated a combined Turkish-Tartar army at Scharnowitz (Žarnovica, Slovakia; not sure which side my ancestors were on in that one). It was the prelude to his even greater success at Levice (Leva) in northern Hungary (Slovakia) on July 19.

Map, from Galazzo Gualdo Priorato, Historia di Leopoldo Cesare (Vienna, 1670)

That victory, plus the one at Mögersdorf (Szentgotthárd) blocked the Turks' advance on Vienna and forced them to sue for peace.

That peace lasted for some two decades, until the Turks attacked Vienna in 1683 and in the subsequent fighting were once and for all driven out of Austria and Hungary.

One of the charms of these old maps (aside from the window onto decisive moments in history) is being able to examine the engraver's technique in detail. This is not an especially sophisticated rendering, but like its more accomplished relatives, it in many places relies on suggestion rather than micro-realism to achieve its ends. Here we can see how a few characteristic lines suffice to depict the Ottoman army: a man and a horse, a sword or a bow. In particular, I've always found charming the use of the circular or ovoid shape, which instantly connotes the turban or helmet, and thus, "the Turk."

Note: Trying to untangle some of the geography in both the image and the accounts proved to be an amusing challenge. The dealer sold it as a map portraying a battle at Czernowitz (at the time, Turkish; acquired by Austria in 1775). However, I was aware of no major battle at Czernowitz, and neither the topography nor the names of the rivers matched the location of that city. To be sure, the Italian rendering as Scernowitz sounds like the Ottoman Çernovi and German Czernowitz, but the site turned out to be the aforementioned Slovakian town of Scharnowitz rather than the similarly named leading city of the Bukovina. For those interested in that fabled place, the "Vienna of the East" "where people and books lived," my worthy colleagues and betters at the portal for everything devoted to Czernowitz provide a wealth of information. 

Power Outage, Blogging Hiatus

The end of my personal V-E-Day celebrations was interrupted by a late-night explosion, as the room went black. The high winds had broken the top of one of our maples, which dropped onto the power lines. Those directly in front of the house sagged under the weight of the tree limbs but did break, yet the shock caused a segment down the line to snap, whereupon the loose ends fell into the street, sending off sparks, smoke, and flame.

Police arrived promptly, and the repair crews from Western Mass Electric were not far behind. Soon, a man in a bucket lift took a chainsaw to the branches.

As for me, I still had several hours of computer battery power but decided to go with the flow: beer, book, and candle. Every once in a while, especially when prompted by circumstances, it's worth trying to explore the realities of early modern life. As Thomas Jefferson said, "from candle light to early bedtime, I read."

Many people have "romantic" notions about candlelight, but there's nothing very charming if you actually have to work by it. We forget the extent to which the lives of our ancestors were tied to the rhythms of the day and the seasons, and we sometimes exaggerate the presumed benefits of early artificial lighting. The popular image of ordinary gatherings illuminated by the glow of dozens of candles is a fiction. In Colonial Williamsburg, it was considered extravagant to burn as many as three candles in an evening. Stanley Kubrick was famously able to shoot "Barry Lyndon" (1975) in even relatively extravagant candlelight only because he specially adapted a NASA lens originally designed to photograph the dark side of the moon: We are told that only because it was "100% faster than the fastest movie lens" was it "possible to shoot in light conditions so dim that it was difficult to read." Indeed. When researching the lives of writers in the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, I've come across regular complaints about the difficulties of working at night, and in the winter, when the days were shorter and the light poor.

Here, I was using a Sheffield Plate study lamp from the early 1800s, which reflects and focuses the light of a single candle on the page or other work surface. It helps a great deal, but even with other candles nearby for ambient light, reading a small volume with small Fraktur font takes some effort, and the eyes tire easily. The book I happened to be reading before the power outage was The Plague of German Literature (Die Pest der deutschen Literatur; privately published, Zurich, 1795), in which the reactionary Swiss author Johann Georg Heinzmann railed against reviewers, moneygrubbing writers, and revolutionaries.

The outage was minimal (a couple of hours), but it interrupted the flow of writing and posting, and then exam week was upon us, so I'm only now catching up. As luck would have it, there was another explosion and outage yesterday afternoon, though of undetermined cause and location. The electricity was off for two hours again. It's starting to become routine, but one I could do without.

Still, life is far easier than in the "good old days." Now as then, however, the task of writing awaits.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

V-E Day: Sometimes War IS the Answer

I am invariably both amused and infuriated by those idiotic bumper stickers reading, "War is Not the Answer."

Well, sometimes it is: the great revolutions (including our own), the Civil War, and above all, World War II. Without war, no end of slavery, no victory over fascism. Q.E.D.

Here, the classic Soviet patriotic song, "Sacred War":

Here, Winston Churchill congratulates the British people on the victory of freedom: