Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Breaking news: Jones Library Trustee Evaluation Committee has disbanded

Just received word that the Jones Library Trustees have disbanded the committee whose review of longtime Director Bonnie Isman had sparked such controversy on the Board and in the town as a whole (see recent posts).

No further details yet, but will add as they become available.

(As I only recently returned from a trip abroad, I still have to upload the recently composed final post on the unfolding of this crisis, which will follow shortly.)

23 August 1793 Revolutionary France decrees the "levée en masse"

One of the great days in the history of revolution, democracy, and warfare:  The revolutionary French Republic, threatened by invasion on its borders and civil war at home, declared the "levée en masse," or mobilization of the entire nation, in what was the precursor of modern total war:  military, economic, and ideological, practical, symbolic, and psychological.

The six-page decree of the National Assembly, drafted by Lazare Carnot—the "architect of victory"—begins with the famous exhortation:
1. From this moment until that in which the enemy shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the service of the armies. The young men shall go to battle; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothing and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old linen into lint; the aged shall betake themselves to the public places in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach the hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.

2. The national buildings shall be converted into barracks, the public places into workshops for arms, the soil of the cellars shall be washed in order to extract therefrom the saltpeter.

3. The arms of the regulation caliber shall be reserved exclusively for those who shall march against the enemy; the service of the interior shall be performed with hunting pieces and side arms.

4. The saddle horses are put into requisition to complete the cavalry corps the draft horses, other than those employed in agriculture, shall convey the artillery and the provisions.

5. The Committee of Public Safety is charged to take all necessary measures to set up without delay an extraordinary manufacture of arms of every sort which corresponds with the ardor and energy of the French people. It is, accordingly, authorized to form all the establishments, factories, workshops, and mills which shall be deemed necessary for the carrying on of these works, as well as to put in requisition, within the entire extent of the Republic, the artists and workingmen who can contribute to their success.

6. The representatives of the people sent out for the execution of the present law shall have the same authority in their respective districts, acting in concert with the Committee of Public Safety; they are invested with the unlimited powers assigned to the representatives of the people to the armies.

7. Nobody can get himself replaced in the service for which he shall have been requisitioned. The public functionaries shall remain at their posts.
In his classic history of the Revolution (already more than half a century old in its second edition), the great Georges Lefebvre notes that the levy was in part a response to pressure from below for more radical political and military measures, and moreover notes that the decree marked an important step in the efforts of the Committee of Public Safety—hence, the role of the quintessentialy calculating and systematic Carnot—to take control of an unruly revolutionary society that required discipline if it hoped to be victorious. The modern revisionist Simon Schama amplifies and reinterprets this view:
  In its original incarnation, then, the levée was meant to be a spontaneous explosion of martial enthusiasm involving large numbers of men, loosely organized and separated from the professional army.  It need hardly be said that this version of anarchic belligerence did not recommend itself to the engineers and technologists of the Committee of Public Safety. But it was a nonmember, namely Danton, who in the third week of August tried to put the concept of a conscript army back on the rails by making its expansion strictly proportionate to the amount of munitions, clothing and food with which it could be supplied.  The inspiring rhetoric of the Convention's decree in August was less a prescription for an uncoordinated call to arms than a vision of a militarized commonwealth with every lever and pulley working in perfect articulation.  The language drew heavily on Roman history, but the vision was that of Guibert's total war.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Greetings from Helsinki

Greetings from Helsinki, where I have been attending the annual conference of SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing), whose general theme is "Book Culture from Below." (Admittedly, most of Helsinki and the swelling tourist population were fixated on the coming festival, featuring U2.)

Although I had been considering sending regular posts from here, I decided to wait and think about posting some longer pieces later. Not only has it been a very busy and full schedule, what with meetings of the Executive Council and Board of Directors as well as the regular program of papers (not to mention the need to finish up my own talk).  In addition, this is the first SHARP conference to take advantage of Web 2.0.  We have been featuring live streaming coverage of major addresses and plenaries, and several colleagues and I have been energetically tweeting reports throughout the proceedings (Twitter hashtag #sharp10).

It was a marvelous experience, the more so as it demonstrates that it is indeed possible to organize a full SHARP conference in a site outside one of the major North American, UK, or western European metropoles boasting a larger membership in the organization.  Dedication and energy of organizers are all that are required, and all possibilities are open.  Who will be next to take up the Helsinki challenge?

Next year, making our habitual trip back across the Atlantic, we'll be in Washington, D.C.

[links & image update]
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21 August 1968: Warsaw Pact Invades Czechoslovakia, Crushes Prague Spring

Demonstration in Helsinki against the Soviet-l...Image via Wikipedia

[posted from Helsinki]

On the night from 20-21 August 1968, troops from the Warsaw Pact (with the exception of Romania) invaded Czechoslovakia in order to put an end to the perceived threat represented by the democratic reforms of the "Prague Spring" and Alexander Dubček's experiment in creating "socialism with a human face."

As the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party attempted to make sense of the unfolding events, it issued the following declaration just after 1 a.m.
To All the People of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic:

     Yesterday, August 20, 1968, at about 11 p.m., the armies of the Soviet Union, the Polish People's Republic, the German Democratic Republic, the Hungarian People's Republic, and the Bulgarian People's Republic crossed the state borders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.  This took place without the knowledge of the President of the Republic, the Presidium of the National Assembly, the Presidium of the Government, and the First Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee. The Presidium of the Central Committee was then in session, preoccupied with the preparations for the Extraordinary Fourteenth Party Congress. The Presidium calls upon all citizens of the Republic to keep peace and not resist the advancing armies, because the defense of our state borders is now impossible.
     For this reason, our army, the Security Forces, and the People's Militia were not given the order to defend the country.  The Presidium considers this action [the invasion] to be contrary to the fundamental principles of relations between socialist states and a denial of the basic norms of international law.
     All leading officials of the Party and the National Front remain at their posts, to which they were elected as representatives of the people and members of their organizations according to the laws and regulations of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.  The appropriate constitutional organs have called into session the National Assembly and the Government of the Republic, and the Presidium of the Central Committee is convening the Party Central Committee in order to deal with the situation that has arisen.
(from:  The Czech Black Book, Prepared by the Institute of History of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, ed. Robert Littell (NY: Avon Discus Books, 1969, 21-22)
Writer Arnošt Lustig recalled the tense atmosphere of the preceding months and the shock occasioned by the invasion itself:
"I did not count on occupation but my wife did. Whenever she heard a car outside the window, she said 'Russians are here', and they finally came. But it was still a shock for me. I thought it had nothing to with socialism. I was in Italy at the time and they invited me to the Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party and asked me what I thought. I said that socialism degraded into fascism and that deeds are proving it. I said they are occupying a brotherly country which really liked them, as Russians, as liberators, and that they betrayed this trust horribly, and that I considered the equal to fascists. From socialism, it went to fascism, from utopia, it went to murder."
Although resistance was impossible and the government had earlier asked the US not to intervene on its behalf, for many citizens, the invasion was the humiliating repeat of the Munich Agreement, in which the nation again had to yield to outside hostile force without a fight.  For many observers inside and outside the country, the invasion was the less violent but no less ominous pendant to the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution just over a decade earlier.  The intervention resulting from the "Brezhnev Doctrine," declaring that the nations of the east bloc would not be allowed to move backward from what was called "socialism" sent the message that internal reform was henceforth impossible.  The misleadingly entitled process of "normalization" in fact concealed a policy of brutal repression.  Seventy-two citizens were apparently killed in the invasion, but the real toll came afterwards:  some 300,000 citizens emigrated, and dissenters who stayed behind lost jobs and found educational and career opportunities blocked.  The crushing of both reform and dissent was in effect the beginning of the "era of stagnation" that lasted until the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, who retroactively endorsed the Prague movement as a precursor of his own efforts.

Resources from Radio Praha

• here, a summary of political history
retrospective (with audio) from 2007, including the recollections by Lustig

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Jones Library Drama Approaches its Climax: What outcome do you predict?

Rather than offering any commentary of my own as the Library crisis builds to its probable climax today, I thought I would instead simply share a little piece of print ephemera that I recently acquired. It's a vintage postcard of the Jones Library, which is attractive and interesting enough in its own right. What additionally intrigued me in this case, however, was the form. Originally, one put the message on the front of a postcard, for the law forbade any writing other than the address on the back.  In 1907, that changed, and people began to write on the cards in the manner familiar to us.  So-called "white border cards" flourished between 1915 and 1930. The current Jones building was opened in 1928. So, that all fits. But rather than providing a space for both the address and message on the back, this card puts the message area on the front, where the sender can check off one or more of a menu of message choices. 

The check-boxes intrigue me because they are the positive and civilian progeny of a military invention that Paul Fussell wrote about in his now-classic The Great War and Modern Memory.  The British "Field Service Post Card" (Form A. 2042), he says, "has the honor of being the first wide-spread exemplar of that kind of document which uniquely characterizes the modern world:  the 'Form.'  It is the progenitor of all modern forms on which you fill in things or cross out things or check off things."

The association of the normally placid Jones Library with bloody trench warfare, sadly, does not seem all that far-fetched these days.

Naturally, this got me to thinking:

If you were to send this card from the library now, which boxes would you check?
• Hot here?
• Do not expect to stay long?
• Will be here for some time?
• Will leave soon?
• Are all well?
• Don't worry?
• Congratulations?
Obviously, the precise answer would depend on just which role you were playing in the unfolding drama (though we all certainly could have used "The date has not been set" on several recent occasions, notably when the big meeting was postponed this week).

Or, if you were to design a new version of the card, what other message options would you include?  (haven't had time to create such an item myself).

Ultimately, then, it all boils down to:  What's your prediction?  Will the drama turn out to be a tragedy or a farce?

The meeting is scheduled for Friday (today), from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. in the large downstairs meeting room.

By the way, this happens to be Friday the 13th. Fortunately, I'm a rationalist and not a superstitious person, though I have a feeling the day will bring misfortune to one party or the other.  We all want what is best for the Library and the town as a whole, but so far, this controversy has been nothing but bad luck for all concerned.

Jones Library Crisis Continues: an eleventh-hour update

The Jones Library crisis that I announced at the end of last month has continued to deepen and gain ever greater attention. The newspapers have dutifully covered the meetings of the trustees and their evaluation committee, while Larry Kelley's "Only in the Republic of Amherst" and, in particular, its famed often anonymous commenters, have provided even more frequent and, uh, let us say, spirited commentary.  His blog has in addition posted key documents in full, notably, the dissenting report of trustee Chris Hoffmann, and the petition of protest by a distinguished group of citizens associated with the Jones LIbrary and other libraries in the Pioneer Valley.

Until now, the critics of the trustee committee conducting the required annual performance review of longtime Director Bonnie Isman—the ostensible focus of the controversy, but in reality just the most visible manifestation of a deep and growing conflict—have dominated the discussion.  It remains to be seen whether the triumvirate on the evaluation committee—Carol Gray, Pat Holland, and Sarah McKee—who have been talking for over a week about a response to unfair press coverage, can succeed in making their message heard.

Last Wednesday, George Goodwin, Chair of the Jones Friends/Trustee Subcommittee responsible for managing the half-million-dollar Woodbury Gift, wrote a sharp but controlled letter to the Gazette.  Perhaps consciously echoing Emile Zola's "J'accuse," he repeatedly charged the Trustee Evaluation Committee with showing a "lack of empathy":  for the other trustees, for the Friends, for the staff, and "most seriously," for Director Bonnie Isman.

That same evening, the meeting of the trustees, like its recent predecessors, drew an atypically large crowd.  The tension was palpable.  Trustee Chris Hoffmann announced that he was videotaping the meeting, and trustee Carol Gray, that she would be making an audio recording.  The moments of greatest tension came at the beginning, during public comment, and toward the end, when the trustees took up the issue of Carol Gray's desire to remain on the board during a ten-month absence from the country.  Former trustee and current Friends board member Nancy Gregg read a petition from former trustees, members of the Friends of the Library, professional librarians, and other concerned citizens. It called upon the trustees to ask the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners
to appoint a review committee of persons familiar with the governance and management of public libraries within the Commonwealth to investigate the procedures used by the Jones Library Trustees' Evaluation Committee in reviewing the performance of the Library Director; that the review committee be asked to make recommendations for resolving the controversies between the Trustees' Evaluation Committee and the Director, as well as with other members of the Board of Trustees, particularly with regard to the separate and/or shared roles and responsibilities of the Trustees and Director in the management of the Library (full text)
Trustee Chair Pat Holland responded by saying she hoped to create a board operating on the principle that we are all working to make the library better. There may be be ways to do the review better, she acknowledged, but she wanted a process  “that would help us to go" forward: “the evaluation has been done, we will formally turn it in at the next meeting.” “We will take this petition very seriously,” she assured Ms. Gregg.

Evidently that was not good enough for John Coull, who stood up and declared, with evident passion, "I am distressed by what I have seen,” above all, the harm being done to the institution:
I understand the behavior that I have heard about to be in fact a basic misunderstanding on the part of some members of this board about the roles and responsibilities among the director and trustees . . . .
I also am distressed to hear that an evaluation process has taken place with the possible objective of concluding the employment of a longterm director that is not at all the purpose of an evaluation process.
Chair Pat Holland responded, “we have this terrible dilemma here in that we have an evaluation that must remain confidential.” The Evaluation Committee had a "series of goals" that the director had accepted, and it was simply trying to measure her success in meeting them. And, in a significant declaration:
In no way have we called for her resignation—no way . . . . But we’ll talk about this at the next meeting so I think we should move on with our agenda here.
At this point, Carol Gray, who has been spearheading the trustee drive for change at the Library, including the more rigorous scrutiny of Director Bonnie Isman, asked to read the text of a letter that the Committee had written to the Springfield Republican in order to correct what it regarded as inaccurate coverage—“including serious misquotations,” she said, glaring at fellow trustee Chris Hoffmann. Chair Holland ruled that the issue could wait.  (To date, the Republican has not, as far as I know, seen fit to publish either such letter or a retraction.)

Library trustees deliberate (l.-r.):  Emily Lewis, Pat Holland, Sarah McKee, Carol Gray
Public comment concluded with an employee reading a letter detailing complaints of several members of the Jones Library staff, repeating earlier protests over the nature of their participation in the director's review: concerns that they were being asked about their jobs rather than hers, the feeling that they had been coerced into participating, and the fear that their comments were being misquoted.  (I understand that the trustees have now received the third complaint on labor practices from the Service Employees International Union [SEIU].)

After that, it was on to the mundane business of historic preservation restrictions, handicapped parking spots, grant funding for consultants and program assistants as well as "teens and tweens" initiatives, carpet samples, and how to treat "rudeness" in the revision of the Personnel Handbook.

The political and emotional temperature in the room rose again when it came to the discussion of trustee Gray's desire to remain on the Board while on a Rotary Scholarship to Egypt, where she plans to study sharia (Carol is law professor and a well-known local attorney).  Ms. Gray maintains that "remote participation" in government meetings, an option currently under consideration by the Attorney General, could allow her to fulfill all her duties via e-mail, Skype and other modern technologies.  Mr. Hoffmann argued that this would be a violation of the spirit of the law, which he and some others see as in intended to address the problem of the occasional absence rather than the extended leave.  How would people react if someone on Select Board were to be absent for ten months? he asked, citing the American Library Association Code of Ethics:
Assume your full responsibility as a board member. If you are unable to attend meetings regularly and complete work delegated to you, resign so that an active member can be appointed.
“I’d be saying this no matter what else is going on,” he assured her, adding,"I’m angry that I’m being asked to excuse you for a third of your term."

Chair Pat Holland: “Let’s try to be calm, be civil about it."

Carol Gray, clearly acting hurt, asked for "civility," pleading, this “really damages the image of the library.”  The issue, she said, involved her ability to get the work done, not her physical presence.  Nobody can “force me to give up my seat,” she defiantly insisted, especially “considering I’m already putting in forty hours per week."

Trustee Emily Lewis affirmed, "I think Carol is right in commending herself to us. She has done a huge amount of work—and good work—in many areas.”
from left to right:  trustee Chris Hoffmann, Director Bonnie Isman, trustee Kathleen Wang
Director Bonnie Isman, attempting to mediate, said, “I always like to take a broader view,” explaining that one had to consider all possibilities and the role of precedent. The trustees would need to consider how they would in practice function as a 5- rather than 6-member board. She cited an example from the past in which a trustee was elected but never actually showed up for meetings. Fortunately, that was "the opposite" of the situation presented here, other trustees observed. Trustee Gray and her supporters were certain that the Attorney General would supply the desired answer quickly, whereas the skeptics suspected it might take as long as six months.

With that whimper rather than a bang, the meeting concluded.

The main news this week was that the meeting at which the evaluation of Director Bonnie Isman was to be presented had to be postponed from Tuesday until tomorrow due to an error in posting under the revised Open Meeting Law.  In the meantime,the Trustee Evaluation Committee sent off its long-awaited response to trustee Chris Hoffmann's detailed charges.  This week's Bulletin hasn't gone online yet, and I'll put up a link when it does, but the text of the document was already available for scrutiny on Larry Kelley's blog.


A Town Meeting member who took the trouble to peruse (check the real meaning of the term) the minutes of the Jones Trustees came to the conclusion that the Evaluation Committee had, between January 4 and July 16, devoted 112 hours and 5 minutes to the review of Director Bonnie Isman.

Someone said to me, sarcastically,  "I guess that's still fewer hours than the Select Board meets. In a whole year."

Actually, the answer is: no.  Under the leadership of Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, the Select Board has, thankfully, gone to meeting only twice a month rather than weekly except during Town Meeting season.  I haven't done a precise calculation (life is too busy and too short), but the Select Board met 27 times from the beginning of May 2009 to May 2010.  Assume that each session ran for the typical 3 or 4 hours (though those during Town Meeting last only an hour at most), and you end up with 81-108 hours.  And, looking over the agenda of our most recent meeting, this past Monday, I see that we dealt with 11 rubrics or (in practice) 33 separate items between 6:30 and 10:30 that evening.  Among our ongoing tasks this summer is the annual evaluation of the Town Manager, whose performance goals were recently listed in the newspaper.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Historical Commission Calls Demolition Delay Hearing on Amherst College Fence

As noted in a recent post, a request came before the Historical Commission from Amherst College for permission to remove an old fence in front of one of the historic College properties.

At its meeting on 3 August, the Commission decided to schedule a demolition delay hearing, which will take place on 23 August at 7:15 p.m.

Don't Know Much About History: Letter-writer blames Truman for recognizing Israel but forgets when he was President

A modest little news item, but one that I am unable to let pass without comment because its errors are too egregious and too typical of a fashionable strain of casual argumentation.

I have nothing against ignorance, but I do have a problem with arrogance.

What people do not know, they do not know, and often, they cannot be expected to know more.  To criticize them in such cases would be uncharitable at best, and nasty, at worst. However, those who do not know yet think they do, and those who simply should know better—they are in a different category. 

One sadly typical example of this kind of smug class bias and cultural elitism appeared in a letter to the Gazette over the weekend. Responding to an earlier letter attacking President Obama as a smart man but a political failure, the writer took the opportunity to explain how "Truman's lack of learning led to tragic decision." No, not the dropping of the first atomic bomb, as one might expect.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

To the editor:

For the most part, the July 10 letter "Wise leadership not guaranteed by genius" is one with which I can agree. A first-class education does not guarantee good judgment by our presidents. However, I would not sleep better with Harry S. Truman at the helm directing the ship of state in our time of spectacular crisis, as the letter states.

Perhaps the letter writer is too young to remember one of Truman's first acts as president. Without consulting either the American people or the Congress, Truman recognized what became the state of Israel and, by so doing, made us the hated enemy of millions of Palestinians and their fellow Muslims. Truman wanted to lessen the pain of Holocaust survivors and their fellow Jews, as the majority of Americans did. The Holocaust was the creation of Hitler and the German Nazis. Why would Truman wish to punish the Palestinians for the atrocious crimes of the Nazis? I doubt that he did.

Ben Franklin maintained that the man who educates himself has a fool for a teacher. Harry S. Truman was no fool but he did have a very limited educational background. In a documentary on the career of former Secretary of State George Shultz, this leader credits his formal education, a very rich one indeed, for his very long, successful career as a statesman starting with high honors in economics at Princeton and continuing both as a scholar and teacher at the University of Chicago. As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about Harry Truman and I have come to believe that had he been able to afford the high-quality education available to Mr. Shultz, Truman would not have taken it upon himself, well meaning though it was, to recognize the founding of the new nation of Israel in the midst of another country, a move that has resulted in years and years of turmoil and death.

Beverly Parker Bingham

It's not worth taking the time to point out the host of factual and other errors, whether the canard that Israel was nothing but a misguided response to the Holocaust, or the convenient omission of the fact the UN had called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states over five months earlier.

So let me focus on the main point: it is stunning that, in the midst of condescendingly accusing our 33rd president of ignorance, the writer reveals herself to be, uh,  less than fully informed:
"one of Truman's first acts as president"?
Well, let's see:  when did Truman become President? Upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on 12 April 1945. And when did he recognize Israel? On 14 May 1948. Truman had in effect served more than three quarters of the presidential term by this point.

There are many things to debate with regard to US policy in the Middle East, but fortunately, the calendar is not yet one of them.

Truman ignorant?  Physician, heal thyself! (As an "educated" person, Ms. Bingham presumably knows the source of that quote.) Or, as we'd say nowadays,  attempted history lesson:  FAIL (she may need to look that one up:  here's a link.)

As for that great tv program on George Shultz:  We may note in passing that the three-hour (!) documentary was in fact controversial because of both its funders and its content (1, 2, 3, 4).  To be sure, Georg Shultz did some fine things, though he had a disturbing habit of working for or otherwise supporting some of the worst recent presidents.  Under Nixon, he helped to integrate construction unions.  And as Secretary of State under Reagan, he helped to re-professionalize the State Department.  He also attempted to maintain some distance from the Iran-Contra scheme, and eventually came to advocate dialogue with the USSR, though his record on both the Soviet bloc and Latin America is rather more complicated than the program suggests.

The writer would presumably take issue with some of Shultz's stances as a Cold Warrior. He endorsed and has even been called "Father" of the "Bush Doctrine" of preventive war.   Already in 1984, he said,
We must reach a consensus in this country that our responses [to terrorism] should go beyond passive defense to consider means of active prevention, preemption, and retaliation.
And as for Truman's "tragic decision"?  In 2007, in "The 'Israel Lobby' Myth," Shultz declared:
Israel is a free, democratic, open, and relentlessly self-analytical place. To hear harsh criticism of Israel's policies and leaders, listen to the Israelis. So questioning Israel for its actions is legitimate, but lies are something else. Throughout human history, they have been used not only to vilify but to establish a basis for cruel and inhuman acts. The catalog of lies about Jews is long and astonishingly crude, matched only by the suffering that has followed their promulgation.

Defaming the Jews by disputing their rightful place among the peoples of the world has been a long-running, well-documented, and disgraceful series of episodes across history. Again and again a time has come when legitimate criticism slips across an invisible line into what might be called the "badlands," a place where those who should be regarded as worthy adversaries in debate are turned into scapegoats, targets, all-purpose objects of blame.
Of course, it's really no different from what then presidental candidate Barack Obama himself said the following year:
It was just a few years after the liberation of the camps that David Ben-Gurion declared the founding of the Jewish State of Israel. We know that the establishment of Israel was just and necessary, rooted in centuries of struggle and decades of patient work. But 60 years later, we know that we cannot relent, we cannot yield, and as president I will never compromise when it comes to Israel's security. . . .
a secure, lasting peace is in Israel's national interest. It is in America's national interest. And it is in the interest of the Palestinian people and the Arab world. As president, I will work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security
So, which is it?  Did Shultz take these positions because of or despite the "rich," "high-quality education" that he received from his elite prep school, Princeton, and MIT? And what's Obama's excuse? It was his educational qualifications that sparked the exchange of letters. Can both Truman the dummy and Obama the whiz kid be wrong?  It is perplexing.

President Obama also said, concerning peace-making, "I have no illusions that this will be easy."  Ignorant pronouncements of the sort contained in that letter certainly will not make the task any easier.

The next time the elitist writer is seized with a desire to dash off a letter to the Gazette, she would be better advised to walk over to the reference desk rather than rely on a stroll down memory lane.

Maurice Olender on the craft of reading and historical reasoning

A little gem from what Umberto Eco calls "one of the most beautiful books that I know on this subject":
A scholar's writings can be a place where conflicts crystallize: an author's whole work can be based on positions that to us seem mutually contradictory . . . .
  To confine an author to a simple image of his work, often concocted by later researchers for purposes of their own, is to recreate the past by inventing precursors for the present. . . .
  To take an author seriously, to view his work in the context of its times, to attempt to describe the twists and turns of his thinking does not, however, mean that one agrees with his conclusions or subscribes to his views. Obvious as this point is, it is worth making explicitly here.

Maurice Olender, The Languages of Paradise: Aryans and Semites, a Match Made in Heaven, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, revised and augmented ed. (NY: Other Press, 2002), 18

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ramadan Kareem! (with some tools for keeping track of non-Christian holidays)

At our last Select Board meeting on Monday night, one of the minor tasks that was assigned me was to review calendars of religious holidays, in order that we might do our utmost to avoid scheduling events at times that could disadvantage some community members.  This has been an issue mainly with regard to Jewish holidays for various reasons, e.g. uncertainty as to which holidays or portions of multi-day holidays were really full holy days with prohibitions on work, and the like.
Last spring, for example, the 250th anniversary parade was scheduled to begin on the afternoon before Passover.  The local rabbi had assured organizers that the holiday, like almost all Jewish festivals, began at sundown. What he apparently did not think or bother to explain was that some holidays—especially Passover, which involves the ritual cleaning of the house and a complex and festive meal—require considerable preparation (think of Thanksgiving).  In the end, the town concluded that there was enough time to allow people to participate in most or all of the parade and then return home for the holiday, but it was an unnecessary case of not acquiring the proper information and cutting things too close. Hence the new task.

In a follow-up e-mail to Monday's meeting, I took the opportunity to point out that we are also about to start Ramadan, a movable holiday, whose nature and scheduling may be potentially even more confusing.  There are many reference works and web sites that explain non-Christian religious holidays and practices (see some of the links above and articles below), but one of the simplest starting places is one's own computer, mobile phone, or pda, on which one can install calendar software.

"HebCal" supplies Jewish holidays (and much more: sundown times, Torah reading schedules, etc.) for several platforms, and the "Islamic Holiday Calendar 1.0" works on Macintosh iCal.

In the meantime, a Ramadan Kareem and Ramadan Mubrarak to all.

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Questions About Historical Analogies? Read Richard Evans

I wanted to add a footnote to my recent discussions of historical analogies by recommending the work of Richard J. Evans. Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, is one of my favorite historians who, with only a handful of others in recent generations, has reshaped the field of German history and our attitudes toward it.

Evans is energetic, of dauntingly wide-ranging interests and knowledge, as his major publications show. He was a pioneer of real social history in the field of German studies. He has written about feminists, peasants, and workers. His conceptually as well as empirically studies of Hamburg are anything but mere "local studies."  Among the main themes of his work are the questions of continuity and change in German history, as represented by the twin emphases on the Wilhelmian Kaiserreich and the Third Reich. In the course of writing on the latter, he has also produced major works on historiography dealing with both the challenge of the Nazi past and general issues of method. His In Defence of History has been translated into German, Swedish, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Italian and Turkish.

Evans has just brought out the third and final volume of what is bound to be regarded as his magnum opus, a history of Nazi Germany (irony of success: one can only hope that it brings additional and deserved attention to his earlier works rather than eclipses them).

I thought of a review of his Third Reich at War this May and June, as Nazi analogies burst out like summer flowers on both the domestic and international fronts. The New York Times Book Review appraisal (May 17), by Walter Reich, former director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, made the point very simply:
The public’s memory of what Nazi Germany was and did has been, in recent years, mangled and trivialized. Widely seen but misleading films and politicized accusations of countries perpetrating “holocausts” against various groups have debased people’s sense of the real nature of the Germans’ deeds during World War II.

Which is why Richard J. Evans’s “Third Reich at War” couldn’t have come at a better time. The book may well be not only the finest but also the most riveting account of that period. If any work of accurate history has a chance to correct the distortions of public memory, this is it.
Agreed.  Read the book and learn.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

They're back! Homeopathy Hoaxsters Haunt Hampshire

Yes, it's that time of year again.  Even as the summer winds down and we begin to gear up for new academic activity, we are reminded that the struggle is a tough one—and that we ourselves sometimes send a mixed message.

Hampshire College has no real academic summer term and therefore rents its space to other groups. That makes good financial sense, but I really wish that we could generate our own programs, which would pair the income generation with presentation of our distinctive talents and educational philosophy.  There has been some general talk of this (even some very interesting proposals), but no concrete action, so far.  I wish, at the very least, that we would not lend our space and name to groups whose values are inimical to our own.

Homeopathy is hokum, and Hampshire should have none of it.  Would we host the Flat Earth Society? Provide a forum for creationists?

It is disconcerting to see an institution simultaneously boasting of its scientific-pedagogical prowess and hosting pseudoscientific hoaxsters.  Ironically, on one of the days when I drove past this frightening sign, I was reminded of just how good we really are.   A colleague tweeted the news that she had just been listening to a podcast of a recent  talk by another colleague from the "Academic Minute" series on Albany Public Radio (WAMC)

Professor of chemistry Dula Amarasiriwardena there explains how he uses Laser Ablation Inductively  Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry  (LA-ICP-MS) to analyze the 7000-year-old hair and teeth of mummified dead from Atacama for clues to diet and toxins.

Science can do many amazing things. Unlike God, though, it cannot choose to suspend its own laws. If only the homeopaths understood that.

10 August 1792: Storming of the Tuileries

An "Example to the Nations":

On 10 August 1792, as tensions rose in an atmosphere of civil war and foreign invasion, the revolutionaries in Paris stormed the Tuileries Palace, where the royal family had been kept under de facto house arrest since being captured in an attempted flight the preceding year (details in last year's post).

The National Assembly issued the following decree:

LAW No. 1978.

Relative to the suspension of the executive power.

of the 10th August of the Year 4 of Liberty.

The National Assembly, considering that the dangers to the Fatherland have reached their zenith;
 That the most sacred of the duties of the Legislative Body is to employ all its means to save it.
  That it is impossible to find efficacious means of doing so if one does not concern oneself with putting a stop to the source of its ills;
  Considering that these ills derive principally from the distrust that prompted the behavior of the head of the Executive Power in a war undertaken in his name against the Constitution & national independence;
  That these suspicions have elicited among various parties of the dominion a desire tending to the revocation of the authority delegated to Louis XVI;
  Considering nonetheless that the Legislative Body neither must nor should want to aggrandize its own by any act of usurpation;
 That under these extraordinary circumstances, in which events unforeseen by all the laws have placed it, it can reconcile what it owes to its unshakable fidelity to the Constitution with the firm resolution to bury itself beneath the ruins of the temple of liberty, rather than than to let it perish.
 except by having recourse to the sovereignty of the people, & at the same time taking indispensable precautions so that this recourse is not rendered illusory by treason, decrees, as follows:

Article One

  The French people is invited to form a national convention:  the extraordinary commission will tomorrow present a plan to indicate the method and date of this convention.


The Head of the Executive Power is provisionally suspended in his functions, until such time as the national convention will have declared regarding measures that it believes it must adopt in order to assure the sovereignty of the People, the the reign of liberty and equality.
. . . . (full, slightly different translation from another site)
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Monday, August 9, 2010

And you think Amherst is weird?

And you think Amherst is weird?

As I recently noted, the debate on Amherst’s weirdness or wing-nuttiness (not necessarily the same thing, though the two sets can intersect) continues. Some attack the Select Board for its response to the Arizona election law. Others see the Select Board as the eye of calm and sanity amidst the turbulence of our other elected bodies. But either way, the sentiment persists that we are stranger than other towns.

Really? I found cause to doubt this when I read that a man wearing a Darth Vader mask and cape robbed a bank on Long Island last month. (What kind of a mask—Nixon, maybe?—would one wear while committing a crime in Amherst? I wondered—not that we would do any such thing, of course.)

Actually, I was already thinking about this when attending the June 12 Massachusetts Municipal Association Selectman's meeting with two Amherst colleagues. One of them reported that, in a session she went to, a politician said, “It’s true: I was fired. But I took the high road: everyone else was indicted.” We had a little laugh over this on the drive home from Sturbridge, and that got me to thinking. Another colleague later helpfully began to supply examples of bad behavior by politicians elsewhere in the Commonwealth.  Here's a sample from the Cape Cod Times for only a two-day period about a year ago: Select Board member arrested for drunkenness; Town Manager accused of sexual harassment; school administrator makes accounting error leading to teacher job losses, fakes accident to avoid questioning.  And then, closer to home, there is of course our select board counterpart down the road in Hadley who got nailed for trying to use a complimentary police commissioner badge to get out of a traffic citation. Whoops. This story in turn led to the revelation that there were—well, nobody knows exactly how—many such badges floating around out there.  Double whoops.

Of course, this is all just run-of-the-mill New England scandal, and even then on a small scale. We're not talking Big Dig here (anniversary today!).  Now there was a scandal. I don't think an underworld figure called the "Cheese Man" could flourish in Amherst, unless, perhaps, he dealt in illicit raw-milk Stilton.

This past winter, the biggest scandal here involved a little kerfuffle about the Jones Library (no, not that one: it hadn't broken yet), where hordes of rowdy middle schoolers regularly caused a commotion on Fridays by:
running, blocking access to stacks, yelling, eating and throwing pizza, closing off bathrooms and engaging in inappropriate sexual activity
Thus the Bulletin. The Trustee minutes are a lot funnier. Library staff sought to present the problem as a larger one of social opportunities in the downtown as a whole, requiring town action.  The Trustees took a different tack.  Gruff old Louis Greenbaum proposed "that the Library employ a part time person who will toss the ruffians out, if necessary." (gotta love that: when was the last time you heard someone say, "ruffian," since "Frasier" went off the air?).  Other trustees were busy trying to sew a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  Carol Gray cheerfully declared, "We don’t have to see this as a problem. It can be seen as a Library opportunity since many libraries are struggling to figure out how to draw teens in to the Library and we already have teens coming to the Library.” To prove her point, "Googling resourcefully on her laptop," she came up with lists of other "libraries that had received teens and tweens grants."

In the end, pretty tame stuff--for, meanwhile, down the road in Hadley, police busted a huge prostitution ring. 

Yes, prostitution. Yes, in Hadley, where just this week the big scandal was "Dispute spurs Buffalo Wild Wings closure at mall." It wasn't the the wings that were hot not so long before that.
A Saugus man with chronic back pain was in town in late May of 2009 and wanted a massage. He saw Hadley Massage Therapy at 215 Russell St., and stopped in for treatment.
What the massage therapist attempted to give him, however, was sex, according to court documents.
James Goggin, 41, was outraged when he was touched inappropriately by the masseuse,...
What he prompted police to uncover was part of a "sprawlng criminal enterprise" in which Asian women were often forced to work "against their will, in a sort of modern-day indentured servitude." "Nearly identical operations were underway at six other sites in the Pioneer Valley: in East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Chicopee, Springfield and West Springfield."

But I’m not concerned only with crime and corruption, I’m really talking about the weird and the surreal. This was the topic I raised in the car on the way home.  Not only are we in Amherst not corrupt, but there has been a lot of weirdness in the neighboring towns of late: I mean, stuff werider than the badge scandal or the prostitution, truly worthy of the famed Amherst police blotter.

In one case, a man wielding a crossbow robbed a Springfield convenience store at 4:30 a.m.  Original, I thought.  But then it turns out this may actually have been a copycat crime: there was a similar case in my native Wisconsin a good 3 years earlier.  (Nothing new under the sun, said Ecclesiastes)

In another, one man threatened another with a Samurai sword at a Route 9 gas station in Hadley. It wasn't even a robbery attempt this time: more like, demanding a favor at swordpoint:
Police have said that Norzelin showed a man a two-foot sword in his car and gave him money to buy him cigarettes. Police said Norzelin threatened to kill the man if he didn’t buy him cigarettes.

The store clerk called 911. Norzelin never got the cigarettes.
The time was 4:25 a.m. I was sensing a pattern.  "WTF?!" I asked myself, and then Alisa. “What is this: medieval crime week? sounds like some parody of a program from the History channel."

A few days later, the good folks down at Channel 22 in Springfield came to the same conclusion.

Amherst is perhaps politically weird. But this other stuff: well, it’s just existentially weird. Maybe it’s just that all normal towns are alike, and all weird towns are weird in their own way.

Come visit us and find out (cultural tourism is good for the clean economic development we are trying to promote). Just watch out for the cannibals.
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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Coming Attractions: this Sunday, on National Geographic, "and Man created Dog"

 Just a heads-up on a new program about the human role in the evolution of the dog.

Here, an excerpt:

It runs Sunday evening at 9 p.m.

More later, perhaps.

New Amherst Select Board Election Slogan? "Vote for Us: We're Not the Wing-Nuttiest!"

All of a sudden, a lot of people here (with obvious exceptions, not to mention residents of the surrounding region) are feeling rather good about the Select Board.  It is a strange and disconcerting feeling.  Not bad—just strange.  (People say that our meetings are boring.  I tell them: "that's the way we like 'em!")

Why this should be the case is something of a mystery.  If I were a mystical or superstitious person, I would posit a new natural law according to which the focus of turmoil and acrimony periodically migrates from one town board or committee to another, a sort of mischievous demonic counterpart to Hegel's famous "world spirit."

That's certainly the way it looks.  The Select Board, in the more distant past often either a site of dissension or subject of scorn and ridicule (sometimes both) has in recent years functioned as a collegial and efficient body.  When I contemplated running for office, all the then-serving members assured me that it was a good group of people who, although not agreeing on everything, got along well with and respected one another. I sensed that at the little ceremony honoring outgoing former Select Board member and Chair Gerry Weiss in March.  When he and current Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe paid tribute to one another—this, despite their different personalities and political styles—one felt that they really meant it.

Perhaps this is what is behind some recent comments.

Over on Larry Kelley's popular and sometimes rambunctious blog, the famed "anonymous" commenters paid (backhanded) tribute to us twice in the space of a few days.  One said:
It's time to Amherst voters to grasp that the wing-nuttiest board or committee in town right now is not Select Board (not by a long shot), not even School Committee, and not Planning Board. It is, and has been for some time now, our Library Trustees.

Now our library employees are paying the price. It's time to wake up and smell the lunacy.
Another put it this way.
maybe Amherst will wake up. Our school committee/regional school committee is quite dysfunctional. Now our library trustees seem to be equally at each other's throats. Thank goodness for the Select Board which seems oddly content and functional.
Granted, someone else responded to that comment about the Select Board with "LOL." Still, I think "content and functional" is actually a very accurate description. I'll own that.

(Our intrepid School Committee bloggers, Catherine Sanderson and Rick Hood, presumably have their hands full with their own town body, and don't need to comment on ours.)

And just this week, writing more formally and at far greater length in the Amherst Bulletin, former Marks Meadow Principal Michael Greenebaum observes:
Perhaps it is time to think a bit about boards and administration, about governing and managing, and about an etiquette of controversy in the age of the Internet.
We read this week about tension among the Jones Library trustees and the director of the Jones Library. The Amherst School Committee has recently seen itself as policymaker, manager, consultant (and lobbyist) and has positioned itself as antagonistic to the superintendent of schools. And while it now seems like ancient history, it was not that long ago that the Select Board was embroiled in its own epic controversies. This is all relatively new. Amherst had long prided itself on the ethic of volunteerism that permeated both our elected and appointed committees. We had been grateful to our friends and neighbors who undertook the time-consuming and stressful work of governing our town, schools and libraries. And we were relieved to have competent and resourceful managers to administer these three institutions. Until recently boards and managers worked closely together, saw themselves on the same team, as it were. But those days are gone, at least for now.
Continuing, he notes that undeniably fuzzy boundaries between such tasks as governance and management become more dangerous when the Open Meeting law and blogosphere allow or force us to air our differences in public and all the time.

He asks:
I wonder if we can agree about this: When the boards make the news the situation is not healthy. Recently, the School Committee has been publicly taking credit for a series of decisions. Regardless of the decisions themselves, this is bad news. When we read about the library trustees instead of about the libraries, this is bad news. It is worth remarking that, unlike previous years, there is little bad news about the Select Board. This is not because its members always agree with each other; they do not. It is not because the Select Board always agrees with the town manager. It is because the current Select Board and town manager have adhered to an etiquette of controversy. This etiquette has little to do with politeness, with saying "please" or smiling. It has to do with stating clear positions, acknowledging that other positions are held as sincerely as one's own and avoiding sectarianism. Symptoms of trouble are excessive use of "I" and "we," and assertions of authority. We have seen a lot of both recently.
I'm glad he said the answer is not banal or hypocritical "politeness" and "smiling."  "Etiquette of controversy" nicely describes a situation in which we pull no punches but "fight fair" and respect those who do likewise.

I of course wish that all of us on all Town boards and committees could get along better, but one step—I mean: board—at a time.

Anyway, I'll leave it at that. The topic bears on history to the extent that we are talking about the evolution of Amherst politics, but I won't belabor the story.  Too much else to cover.  (And who knows what will happen next?)
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The Arizona Immigration Law: what the Amherst Select Board actually said and did

Now that a judge has granted the federal government’s request for an injunction to stop key portions of the new Arizona immigration law from going into effect last week, it may be time to take a calm look back at what happened in Amherst, which got some people riled up. As it happened, I was the one who ended up presenting the background on the issue at the Select Board meeting on June 7, so I should be able to provide a fairly straightforward overview.

In a nutshell: the Amherst Select Board received two citizen requests, asking the town to take various actions in protest against what they described as the discriminatory measures of the new Arizona state Immigration law. We agreed to endorse a stop to economic dealings with the state, although rejecting the clauses calling for any action above and beyond this.

There is no scientific sampling of opinion. The video interviews that the Springfield Republican posted were generally nuanced and thoughtful.

The talkbacks and other responses in the Daily Hampshire Gazette were in many cases very harsh. Those in the  Republican were both more numerous and overwhelmingly hostile and even nasty, though that may be both because they come from outside the local area and because access to the site (unlike that of the Gazette) is free and does not require a subscription. (This is where the science comes in.)

At any rate, the main charges were:

1) typical Amherst idiocy!
2) bet you stupid people didn’t even read the law!
3) typical Amherst idiocy!

Some representative ones:
And I will make it a point to NOT buy, NOT drive through, NOT recommend any purchase, NOR visit or support your anti-U.S.A. mentality.

...wingnuts to the right of me, moonbats to the left, here I am stuck in the middle with who?
This is insane.
Don't these panderers realize what Arizona is going through? ...What do you expect from a place that tries to ban flying the flag.
I can see why Boston, Springfield, and Holyoke are pandering to their Hispanic populations (which this law doesn't even effect), but lily-white Amherst? What's the matter Amherst, Don't want to showed up by the big boys? Hey I'm sure Arizona is really going to miss you pinheads
I don't have to boycott Amherst, nothing there interests me.

You know, I was going to be my usual sarcastic self but I'm so disgusted I literally want to puke. Self righteous, self important, elitist, divisive, American tradition and value loathing hypocrites who are willing to slander and hurt fellow Americans for the temerity of trying to protect their communities against the consequences of mass illegal immigration.

You have to consider the source here...I mean Amherst...? They are a bunch of backwards left over hippies from the sixties. No suprise here, just a bunch of quacks.

I plan to boycott Amherst and the colleges that my 3 were looking at... as if AZ needed business from Amherst! They should be boycotting the illegals here in America, not those trying to stop it, what a @@&$#@ up town!

I feel for the few hard working regular residents of Amherst who have to deal with those self righteous, holier-than-thou clowns on a daily basis. Worse part is that if they vote the moonbats out, they'll only be replaced by other moonbats

Just another meaningless political gesture by guilt-ridden neurotic white people.

Hey! That's what Amherst is all about!
Amherst never fails to demonstrate how stupid the residents really are.

a true embarrassment...Standard uber-liberals that didn't read the law, research the issue or try to empathize.

I don't bother going there anymore because it's just old hippies sniffing their own farts.

These are a scary, no RABID bunch of people, no doubt about that.
hahahahaha reminds me of a Southpark Episode...

If these Bozo's in Amherst would read the Arizona Law, they would discover that Arizona is simply following the (already passed) law of the USA. Sheesh.. I'll have to make it a point not to do any business in Amherst and much more support for Arizona!

Clearly the Select panel approves of the drugs, violence and crime. Throw in a few kidnappings a murders for good measure. According to Amherst these activities are just fine.

Today I will be making my LAST trip to Amherst for the forseable future. The ONLY reason I will be going there is to tell my friends at Adventure Outfitters and the Soup-er-bowl that they will be lossing my business until Amherst's elected officials come down off their high horses.

Why would anything this bunch of idiots does surprise anyone? Remember, this is the place where cop killers and terrorists are put on a pedestal. But if you smoke outdoors they want to lock you up.

F Amherst.....plain and simple.

Ahhh, Amherst, the bastion of liberal fascism here in the North East. How the hell can anybody live in a town where you can't fly the flag except on holidays and that allows the High school to put on the Vagina Monologs and not West Side Story. Skewed liberal policies. Boycott Amherst. Or better yet, send all of Arizona's illegals there.
Many of the critics who said we had not read the law evidently came from towns outside Amherst and had therefore read only the brief account in the newspaper and not seen the meeting on local-access cable television. You can watch the recording and judge for yourself (I invite you to do so), but here, at least, it will be simpler if I just tell you.

The charge that we did not know or read the law is simply false. It rests on two assumptions: that we are lazy and stupid, and that we wouldn’t understand what we read anyway. Now, to assume that a critic has not studied the idea or text that he criticizes is, sadly, often not an unreasonable assumption in political life in general (we can all think of examples), but in this case, it would be wrong. I made a point of circulating the full text of the law as well as a sample of commentary, for and against (see below, at the end of this piece) to members of the Board prior to the meeting. In fact, one can see us referring to the document in the course of the discussion. The corollary assumption is that, if we did read it, we must not have understood it. In the minds of these critics, the measure was simply enforcing existing federal law, so if we opposed it, obviously, we were a pack of loony left America-haters.

the text of SB 1070 at the Select Board
I began by trying to relieve some of the tension with a touch of humor and historical perspective by pointing out that, by some standards, the proverbial Colonial forefathers who came to these shores from Europe centuries ago were also “illegal immigrants,” who were nonetheless allowed to stay.

I observed, as a point of departure: it is self-evident that every nation has the right to determine standards of citizenship and residency, and consequently, to control its borders. That is part of the definition of sovereignty. According to that principle, then, there are by definition "legal" and "illegal" immigrants. No one can argue with that, though that says nothing about what specific sorts of laws we should create in order to regulate immigration.   And for that matter, I added, I was glad to live in a country that people were dying to get into rather than out of.

Turning to the law itself (SB 1070), I noted that it was long—running to some 16 dense pages—and complex, but that the key disagreements could nonetheless be boiled down to a few essential points.

Proponents of the law argued that it was filling a gap left by the central government, and thus merely enforcing existing federal law. The most controversial portions involved the clauses allowing law enforcement officers, "where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States" to make "a reasonable attempt. . . to determine the immigration status of the person."  It sounds harmless enough.  Proponents of the law point to the repeated use of the term, "reasonable," and insist that the measure cannot be unfair because discrimination—including racial profling—is illegal in Arizona and the rest of the nation. Although one argument against the law is that it violates the so-called “supremacy clause” by usurping the rights of the federal government (and it was on these most neutral grounds that the court granted the recent injunction), it was nonetheless the prospect of discrimination that most exercised opponents. They worry that it would in practice be very hard to prevent the slide into profiling: after all, who—a person of what ethnicity or appearance—is most likely to be asked to prove citizenship? The issue is thus not so much that illegals might be caught and punished, and rather, that American citizens or legal aliens who just happen to look foreign might be humiliated by being forced to prove themselves legitimate when Anglo-Americans are subjected to no such test. A subsidiary concern voiced by civil liberties groups was that illegal aliens might be scared not only to report crimes against themselves, but also to report or serve as witnesses involving crimes against others. In other words, the law seemed to risk creating as many problems as it hoped to solve. (Although I did not mention this in my explanation, it is also notable that a number of law enforcement officials—the Chief of Police of Phoenix, among the first—opposed the law as creating an unenforceable goal and impossible burden.)

Polls showed that, although there is considerable national popular support for heightened enforcement of immigration laws, it is precisely over the aforementioned dilemmas that the consensus begins to break down. To be sure, some opponents indulged in inflammatory rhetoric, calling the law racist or even “Nazi.”  That was stupid and inappropriate.  Responsible opponents rejected this language and such extreme analogies, simply arguing that the law was unnecessary and threatened to divide rather than unite the country. They do not deny that there is a problem, but they see the solution in comprehensive national reform of immigration policy, not ad hoc regional measures.

The Select Board deliberated thoughtfully on the measure for far longer than the 25 minutes allotted on the agenda. I should add that this is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the more cautious and restrained Select Boards in recent Amherst history (and much of the public seems to agree; 1, 2, 3). We are well aware of jurisdictional boundaries and the proper limits of our collective powers and voices. Most of us are on record as, in one way or another, evincing considerable skepticism toward actions that register a symbolic but otherwise ineffectual protest against one policy or another that lies far beyond the scope of normal local government. This is what Select Board member Alisa Brewer was referring to when she was quoted as being opposed to “resolutions.”

In the end, we therefore declined to endorse any of the requested actions that went beyond our local control, e.g. urging that the Major League All-Star Game not be held in Arizona. much less, endorsing “the repeal of NAFTA and the decriminalization of certain drugs” in hopes of “making illegal immigration. . . [from Latin America] less necessary and attractive.” (As the discussion unfolded, the petitioner himself therefore withdrew his request for the latter.) We moreover declined to endorse Select Board member Diana Stein’s suggestion that we adopt the more flamboyant language of a California Democratic group that denounced the law and/or its supporters as racist and xenophobic. As I argued, decent people could disagree about the merits of the legislation, and as I did not claim to be able to see into the hearts of opponents and had no desire to accuse anyone of racism, I preferred to restrict our statement to the narrower topic of the law and its possible consequences.

The Select Board unanimously endorsed the slimmed-down resolution. I believe that we thought long and hard and perhaps agonized over how to vote in this case, given our general reluctance in such matters. That we nonetheless voted as one is therefore notable. It should not, however, be seen as a reflection of “just Amherst” or anything of the sort. The call for locales to cease business dealings with Arizona was part of a mainstream nationwide movement of modest protest, not unlike others of recent decades. Many major professional organizations, for example, declined to hold conventions in states that had not endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, and many also boycotted Arizona when it rejected the holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of you will have noted how the Phoenix Suns donned jerseys reading, “Los Suns.” In this case, city councils across the country had already debated and endorsed boycotts—among them San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, Boulder, Columbus, Hartford, Boston.

It was at once irritating and amusing to see readers talk of boycotting Amherst as a result of our decision to boycott Arizona. It is of course never pleasant to see strangers attack one’s town or one’s own motives, especially when the charges are baseless and the language vicious. Still, there was a humorous side. Those who threatened to boycott Amherst evidently did not understand that this was part of a national movement, endorsed by perfectly sane people in "normal" communities. Boston Mayor Tom Menino (who, last I checked, was no flaming radical) was a determined supporter of the boycott:
As the City Council passed a resolution urging that Boston cut business ties with Arizona, Menino said it was important to send “a message’’ that the city disagrees with that state’s response to illegal immigration.

“It’s a message saying America is a land of opportunity,’’ he said. “Now there’s one little state out there saying, we don’t want that land of opportunity. We want to be isolationists.’’

Menino added, “To say you’re not welcome in your state to work, that’s wrong. This country was built on immigrants. My grandfather, so many other folks, came to America looking for that hope of a better future.’’
So, my response to that was: if you want to boycott us for our action—fine, but if you’re consistent, you’ll also have to boycott Boston and Hartford. So that means: no more flying in and out of Logan and Bradley airports. No more Boston Red Sox, Celtics, or Bruins games. No more Sam Adams beer.

The point is not to engage in tit-for-tat exchanges, and rather, to demonstrate that our action, though not endorsed by all residents, had a solid and responsible rationale and was hardly lunatic or extreme.

A few weeks later, the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Amherst Bulletin observed:
In recent days, our sister paper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, published a series of letters that criticize the Select Board for voting to boycott goods and services from Arizona because of a law it enacted. One writer urged "fair-minded Americans" to boycott Amherst itself -- and even named a "very good" Amherst business that will no longer receive his trade.

Anger over the town's stand on Arizona law SB 1070 brings this issue home in a new way. What issue is it? A complicated one, to be sure, that includes many sore places on the body politic.
After reviewing the pros and cons, the editorial concluded:
Supporters of the law say Americans have every right to protect the country from unlawful residents, some of whom we know to be responsible for violence on the border that has claimed the lives of law-enforcement officers. This perspective plays hourly on TV and radio programs.

Some of the letters we've received echo the tone of broadcasts that accuse people like those on the Select Board - "moonbats," one local writer called them - of taking leave of their senses.

It is hard to stomach the fact, though, that the law all but sanctions racial or ethnic profiling. By design, officers will be requesting papers from people with brown skin, not white.

Those who have pushed back, including not just Amherst but members of the Boston City Council, cite a desire to speak out against an erosion of civil rights. They are calling Arizona out for resorting to one of America's least flattering reflexes: a nativist contempt for immigrants.

The resolution Amherst adopted June 7 directs the town manager to make sure no town money is spent on products or services that originate in Arizona. It urges residents to act similarly. These kinds of boycotts are, of course, symbolic. Amherst took a principled stand against a law its leaders believe degrades human rights. Yes, the place it is happening is 2,600 miles away. No, that's not a compelling reason to ignore it.

It was the unanimous view of the Select Board that there is merit in adding the town's name to the list of American communities unhappy with the Arizona law. If the people of Amherst don't want their town's top board to tackle questions like this, they can order up changes at the next town election.

The power of the voting booth is as clear a feature of the political process as the movement that gave rise to the Arizona law. Unlike others, we will not fault Amherst for living in our times - and wanting to engage with them.
As I said at the Select Board meeting, the issue is complex: decent people can disagree about it. I myself have friends on both sides of the issue, and we still speak to one another. Some of us may even share common hopes and fears but disagree on how best to address them. In the end, we all have to live together in the same country.

 * * *
Documents consulted by the Select Board prior to the meeting

original packet

additional documents and opinion pieces that I distributed:

• the full text of the Arizona Law (SB 1070)

• Kris W. Kobach, "Why Arizona Drew a Line," NY Times, 28 April
[defense of the measure—its legality and fairness—by a man who helped to draft it]
• Jonah Goldberg, "Arizona's Ugly But Necessary Immigration Law:  There are many government functions that are unappealing to one extent or another; that is not in itself an argument against them," National Review Online, 28 April
• PEW Research Center:  "Public Supports Arizona Immigration Law: Democrats Divided, But Support Provisions"
• La Raza:  Boycott Intolerance:  "What's Wrong With the Law?"
• American Civil Liberties Union, "Arizona Immigration Law Threatens Civil Rights and Public Safety, Says ACLU"
• Anti-Defamation League:  "ADL Laments Arizona Governer Brewer's Decision to Sign SB 1070 into Law" and "Arizona Law Endangers America's Immigrant Heritage"

* * *

Local press coverage

• Scott Merzbach, "Area campaign gears up vs. Arizona immigration law," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 7 June
• Diane Lederman, "Amherst Arizona boycott resolution approved by Select Board," The Republican, 7 June
•  Scott Merzbach, "Amherst OKs Arizona Boycott," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 8 June [abridged as:]
• Scott Merzbach, "Amherst Boycotts Arizona," Amherst Bulletin, 11 June
• "Amherst's Arizona boycott:  Reactions to the Select Board's resolution [video]," The Republican Newsroom, 11 June