Friday, April 15, 2011

Dude, Where’s My Sponsorship? Anti-Israel Boycott Activists Caught Lying About University of Massachusetts Backing

One has to wonder what was more frustrating for the anti-Israel BDS crowd here in Amherst last night: the modest attendance at the featured event—barely a dozen people at the start and even by the end, perhaps 75 at most, I am told—or the massive public relations failure.

The event in question was a talk by Omar Barghouti. A founder of the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, he was making the rounds of our great northeastern institutions of higher learning in order to promote his new book, which "makes the case for a rights-based BDS campaign to stop Israel's rapacious occupation, colonization, and apartheid against the Palestinian people." The goal, as he put it during his talk at Rutgers, is to turn Israel into "a world pariah nation."

The two-state solution—formally endorsed by the Palestinian Authority, the government of Israel, the “Quartet,” and the Arab League—is for him the “apartheid 2 states solution" because it "ignores the basic injustice" done to Palestinians. But while Barghouti and BDS have been pursuing their quixotic quest on American university campuses, others have been quietly accomplishing things on the ground. Acknowledging the efforts of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the UN just the day before the lecture determined that the development of the Palestinian Authority met key benchmarks for statehood. (Speaking of university campuses, critics have not failed to note the irony that Barghouti holds a graduate degree from Tel Aviv University.)

There was some drama in the lead-up to the events because of uncertainty as to whether Mr. Barghouti could obtain a US visa. Here, however, the issue was not drama, but confusion, which haunted the event from start to finish.

Brother, Where Art Thou?

Last week, it was announced as taking place at Hampshire College.

Then, this week, it was suddenly listed as taking place at the University of Massachusetts.

Rumors accompanied the mysterious change. It was asserted in several quarters that the venue had been shifted due to unspecified political opposition at Hampshire. This is untrue, of course (as the President confirmed to me in a conversation yesterday morning). It would be nonsense under any circumstances. Duly registered student groups, acting on their own, and not in the name of the College, are entitled to hold the events of their choosing, provided they do not violate the law or community norms of safety and conduct. In fact, Students for Justice held a much-touted how-to conference on divestment here two years ago without incident (or consequences).

"some confusion . . . with sponsors"

More puzzling than the location of the Barghouti event was the sponsorship.

Among the names listed in the publicity were the usual suspects from the narrow spectrum of passionate activist groups in the Valley, e.g. Students for Justice in Palestine, Western Massachusetts Coalition for Palestine, and the International Socialist Organization.

I was surprised, however, to find the names of three major University departments or programs: Economics, History, and Social Thought and Political Economy (STPEC). I am acquainted with faculty in all three and with the heads of two.  It seemed puzzling that they would lend their institutional names to such a controversial event:
(1) It is of political rather than scholarly character.
(2) It is highly partisan and divisive.
(3) Its advocacy of cultural as well as economic boycott flies in the face of the principles of academic life. In fact, the American Association of University Professors not only rejects academic boycotts in general, but also explicitly rejects current calls for boycotts of Israel: “In the long run, more, not less, dialogue with Israeli faculty members is an important way to promote peace in the region."
It took only a few phone calls and emails to get to the bottom of the matter. The reactions of the offices in question ranged from disbelief to outrage.

Economics had explicitly told the activists that it would not sponsor the event, and when the news reached the Chair on Wednesday night, he angrily demanded that Econ's name be stricken from the list. In fact, the departmental website soon  displayed a prominent disclaimer.

Social Thought and Political Economy (SPTEC) had likewise explicitly declined a request to add its name to the program, though it learned of the deception only on the day of the lecture, too late to do much about it. In any case, the calendar was already full: its featured event of the evening was a screening of "Harold and Maude."

History was perhaps the most perplexed. The Chair stated that she had never even been contacted about supporting the event.

Dude, Where's My Sponsorship?!

This is one of those situations for which an expression such as “shocked, but not surprised” seems tailor-made. Sadly, as Jon Haber has most effectively documented, willfully distorting the truth or resorting to outright lying have now become standard operating procedure for the BDS movement.

To cite but the most notorious case: that the myth of Hampshire College "divestment from the Israeli Occupation of Palestine" persists in some quarters does not make it any more true. My favorite new example is the myth of divestment at Harvard. That venerable institution removed Israeli companies from an emerging markets fund not out of revulsion at that nation's policies, but because its economy had grown to such an extent that it qualified to join the  Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in effect, the small club of the world’s most advanced economies, “a success which,” as Jon says, “unfurled during the very decade that BDS has been tirelessly working to undermine Israeli’s economy."

This week's hijinks were just unusually brazen and foolish.

As things fell apart on the afternoon of the event, another group asked to be added to the list of supporters. An organizer responded by asking for official documentation, explaining, with a touch of chagrin and more than a little understatement: "we've had some confusion with listing the right people as sponsors."

That's one way to put it. Here's another:

1) Economics Department sponsorship: LIE.
2) History Department sponsorship: LIE.
3) STPEC Program sponsorship: LIE.

In baseball, at any rate, they have rules about this: three strikes, and you’re out.

* * *

Press Coverage:

Michelle Williams, "Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti to discuss new book, recent developments in Gaza," Massachusetts Daily Collegian, 14 April 2011.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Civil War, Massachusetts, New York, and "Ancient Hatreds"

We are about to be inundated with coverage of our Civil War, which took up a mere four years in the history of a country then not even a century old. As recently noted, the origins and consequences of that war still divide us. And yet, there is hope for change.

By contrast, as journalists are constantly reminding us, the world is filled with and vexed by "ancient hatreds" that cannot be so easily cured:

Un-Civil War. The Anniversary, the Past, the Present

April 12 is the date of the attack on Fort Sumter, the official beginning of the Civil War, and thus, 150th-anniversary commemorations.

As chance would have it, several members of the faculty here at Hampshire College had the opportunity to meet today with  alumnus Ken Burns, creator of the now-classic "The Civil War" documentary. Our topic was not the Civil War (though we touche on that), but the fate of the humanities and the liberal-arts curriculum in an age of budget constraints and declining appreciation for humanistic culture and history. It was an animated and valuable discussion, an inspiring start to what we hope will be a longer converstation.

As chance would also have it, an editorial of Ken's had just appeared in the New York Times:, copies of which were distributed to us before the meeting.  To be frank, I was momentarily taken aback by the assertion that "In our less civil society of this moment we are reminded of the full consequences of our failure to compromise in that moment." Compromise? What compromise? Slavery was an absolute evil, and treasonous rebellion had to be crushed, by force of arms, if necessary. The"Missouri Compromise" was hardly a model for anything. Perhaps it was just an infelicitous phrase, for I of course knew that Ken must have intended something more thoughtful and historically informed than that, and indeed, he went on to say:
The result has been to blur the reality that slavery was at the heart of the matter, ignore the baser realities of the brutal fighting, romanticize our own home-grown terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, and distort the consequences of the Civil War that still intrude on our national life.

The centennial of the Civil War in 1961 was for many of us a wholly unsatisfying experience. It preferred, as the nation reluctantly embraced a new, long-deferred civil rights movement, to excavate only the dry dates and facts and events of that past; we were drawn back then, it seemed, more to regiments and battle flags, Minié balls and Gatling guns, sentimentality and nostalgia and mythology, than to anything that suggested the harsh realities of the real war.
Maybe we can do better this time around. Still, it may not be easy.

A new Pew Research Poll suggests that the population is as ignorant as it is divided. Some highlights: 56 percent of the population think that the Civil War is still relevant to American politics and political life (good), and 39 percent think it is "important historically, but has little relevance today" (not great, but I'll take what I can get). 36 percent think is it appropriate to praise Confederate leaders, and 9 percent of the people have a positive reaction to the Confederate flag; only 30 percent have a negative reaction, and fully 58 percent are neutral. 38 percent think the War was "mainly about slavery" (good), but 48 percent think it was "mainly about states' rights." Obviously, they drank the old reactionary agrarian-school Koolaid. (And just what do they think those "states' rights" involved—interstate commerce?! Try: duh, slavery.) What is particularly disturbing is that young people are more likely than older ones to adhere to this reactionary ideological mystification: 60 percent of respondents under 30. Those over 65 reject it (50% vs. 34%). Who said that age does not equal wisdom?

Friday, April 8, 2011

African American Student Leadership Group Condemns Appropriation of "Apartheid" Terminology

The Vanguard Leadership Group, which describes itself as "a leadership development academy and honor society for top students at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities," has challenged the use of the "apartheid" label in discourse surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict. It calls the analogy false and offensive and therefore destructive of true dialogue and efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation. JTA reports:
Black students group slams ‘apartheid’ abuse

April 8, 2011

(JTA) -- An African American students group took out ads in college newspapers blasting "Israel Apartheid week" organizers for abusing the term.

In a full page entitled "words matter" and appearing in the newspapers on April 7, Vanguard Leadership Group accuses Students for Justice in Palestine of a "false and deeply offensive" characterization of Israel.

"SJP has chosen to manipulate rather than inform with this illegitimate analogy," Vanguard says in the ad, signed by its members attending a number of historically black colleges. "We request that you immediately stop referring to Israel as an apartheid society and to acknowledge that the Arab minority in Israel enjoys full citizenship with voting rights and representation in the government."
The Jerusalem Post in the meantime adds more detail:
The letter continues to state that “[p]laying the ‘apartheid card’ is a calculated attempt to conjure up images associated with the racist South African regimes of the 20th century,” and calls the strategy “as transparent as it is base.”

“Beyond that, it is highly objectionable to those who know the truth about the Israelis’ record on human rights and how it so clearly contrasts with South Africa’s,” the letter reads, noting that under apartheid, black South Africans had no rights in a country in which they were the majority of the population. . . .

“Decency, justice, and the hope of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East compel us to demand an immediate cessation to the deliberate misappropriation of words and of the flagrant mischaracterizations of Israel,” the letter concludes. “Your compliance with this request will be viewed as a responsible and appropriate first step toward raising the level of discourse.”
Yeah, but what would they know, right?

* * *


Here is an image of the actual advertisement.

[Updates 9 April, 13 April]

Monday, April 4, 2011

Breaking news: Austin Sarat Elected New Library Trustee by Wide Margin

7:25 p.m.
At a joint meeting tonight, the Select Board and Library Trustees elected Austin Sarat the new trustee, to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Kathy Wang.

Candidates Carl Erikson, Richard Fein, and Austin Sarat made statements and answered the questions of the two boards for nearly an hour and a half.
The universal verdict was that all three candidates were admirably engaged and superbly prepared. Indeed, several participants said that they had rarely seen such knowledgeable candidates for any board office.

When it came to a vote, the final tally, by roll call, was:

Sarat: 8 votes.
Erkison: 1 vote.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Karl Marx: No Pain, No Gain! (I paraphrase)

"no royal road to science"

Occasionally, when students insist that a reading assignment is difficult or complain about the amount of work (in fact a reasonable amount, if one stops to consider that college is or should be the equivalent of a full-time job), or when I come across a badly written and badly reasoned news article or policy document, I ask myself what the best advice or response is. One could do worse than to cite Karl Marx.

From the Preface to to the 1872 French edition of Capital  l:
To the citizen Maurice Lachâtre

Dear Citizen,

I applaud your idea of publishing the translation of “Das Kapital” as a serial. In this form the book will be more accessible to the working class, a consideration which to me outweighs everything else.

That is the good side of your suggestion, but here is the reverse of the medal: the method of analysis which I have employed, and which had not previously been applied to economic subjects, makes the reading of the first chapters rather arduous, and it is to be feared that the French public, always impatient to come to a conclusion, eager to know the connexion between general principles and the immediate questions that have aroused their passions, may be disheartened because they will be unable to move on at once.

That is a disadvantage I am powerless to overcome, unless it be by forewarning and forearming those readers who zealously seek the truth. There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.

Believe me,
dear citizen,
Your devoted,

Karl Marx
March 18, 1872

Hey, Mom! Hampshire College is Totally Unique! In fact: more unique than the 9 other "most unique" colleges in the US!

I was of course delighted to see that  Best Colleges Online ranked Hampshire College the #1 entry among "10 U.S. Colleges That Are Totally Unique":
The search for the perfect college can be overwhelming, but also a lot of fun. Finding schools that mesh with your personality, study habits, educational preparation, and expectations for adventure is satisfying in a holistic sort of way. These schools take that philosophy to the next level. From colleges that cater to students in a particular field like engineering to universities that promote personal enlightenment as much as academics, these are some of the most unique colleges in the U.S.

Hampshire College: Located in Amherst, MA, Hampshire College allows its 1500 students to design their own curriculum. Favoring customized programs instead of "off-the-shelf" majors, Hampshire organizes students into three levels of study rather than categorizing students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors. Division I introduces students to basic principles and ideas in highly specialized classes, allowing them to experiment before settling into a concentration in Division II. Division III challenges students to complete an individual project and even teach and mentor other students while taking graduate-level courses.
A bit of hyperbole or missed nuance here and there, but basically a sound, accurate description. Fine with me.

However, some readers took umbrage at the piece on the level of language usage rather than content, as such.

Interesting, where the lines diverge.  What bothered me was not "totally unique," and instead: "most unique." The objection is the same, but the aesthetic or vernacular is different.  I myself was willing to give "totally unique" a pass, on the grounds that this was a popular site using a colloquialism: That's, like, the way we talk nowadays.  And who knows? here in New England, we might even—IMHO—be "wicked unique." I could live with that, too. In other words, "totally" here serves as a form of emphasis, rather than as an adverb to be taken in the literal sense.

The underlying issue, of course, is that some regard any modification of "unique" as anathema on the grounds that either something is unique or it is not.  Merriam-Webster's guide to usage predictably and provocatively accepts both the absolute and modified forms as historically justified as well as commonplace. I can understand that on one level. However, it's a bit slippery for my taste, given that "unique" has a clear origin and meaning—according to the Oxford Etymological Dictionary: "sole, alone of its kind." Merriam-Webster's examples (above and beyond the fact that a published author's [mis]use of a term does not necessarily justify it on any other grounds) are not totally compelling. More to the point, perhaps, we have other words that serve just as well for the comparative but not for the absolute. Why not just substitute "distinctive" or a similar traditional modifiable term for the absolute case? Personally, I suspect (though cannot prove) that a lot of modern language slippage is due to a desire for informality and convenience: although both "unique" and "distinctive" are Latinate terms, the former is more familiar and easier to pronounce (in the sense of: speak; fewer syllables, simpler use of the mouth and facial muscles).

None of this is anything to fight and die for, but when we have one word that is reasonably circumscribed in meaning, and a plethora of others that can convey the alternative sense, why do we feel so compelled to blur the distinctions?

Anyway, come to Hampshire, and we'll teach you how to write as well as think.

April Fools Us (but spring is nonetheless here)

I was excited by the arrival of spring weather and sentiments even before the formal onset of the season. Indeed, in the first week or March, it seemed that spring was, de facto, if not de jure, here.

The first harbinger was the arrival of the eagerly awaited garden catalogue from Andrew's Greenhouse, which arrived at the start of March.

It was followed, in short order, by the appearance of daffodils and crocuses.

7 March
17 March
I hoped too soon, of course, for April again proved to be the cruelest month (or at least, to play the cruelest meteorological jokes on us.

1 April

1 April

1 April
Of course, this will no doubt increase our seasonal and chronic misery by feeding the fantasies of climate-change-denying loons, who are unable to distinguish between weather and climate. On the bright side: they are wrong. And: people on all sides of the climate debate could welcome the return of warm and pleasant weather.

What a difference a day makes.  By Saturday, the snow had disappeared, the sun was shining, and the temperature rose above 50 degrees F, the perfect circumstances under which to launch the "Poems Around Town" program of the Emily Dickinson Big Read 2011.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Town Meeting: Do They Hate Us For What We Do or Who We Are?

As I recently noted, the low turnout in Tuesday's local election gives one pause for thought. At a moment when protests against dictatorship and for participatory government (whatever the complexities of the specific political constellations and possible outcomes) are rocking the Middle East in a spectacle captivating the attention of the world, the vast majority of us here in the safety of Amherst did not bother to vote (a mere 8.47%).  Aside from the fact that there were few contested races or hot issues, it is of course more generally true that voter turnout tends to be lower in societies with long-established traditions of democracy and elections.

Still, one wonders about the lack of candidates as much as turnout. It could well be that what Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe said of that office and contest applies here too: "the lack of challengers either indicates" that the incumbents "are doing a good job or no one else wants to do the job." And yet, it seems more problematic when applied to a 240-person Town Meeting than a 5-person Select Board.

We Amherst residents have something of a love-hate relationship with Town Meeting and our larger political culture (which, if you study Amherst history, seems to have its own tradition [1, 2] ). Twice in recent years (the first time in 2003), voters attempted to scrap our current  charter, with its system of Town Meeting and Select Board, in favor of one based on a mayor and council (that's the difference between a "town" and a "city" in Massachusetts law). The second time, in 2005 (1, 2), it was only narrowly defeated in an election that brought out 35.2 percent of the electorate. The so-called Charter Reform attempts arose because of a frustration with Town Meeting: its tone, its slow pace, and its outcomes (or lack thereof).

And yet the issue was complicated. I always recall what one ardent Town Meeting supporter, a refugee from Nazi Germany, told me.  He compared the lack of civic spirit and willingness to stand up for justice and democracy (what Germans call Zivilcourage) in his native Germany with his adopted New England's tradition of active participation and debate.  He had no illusions about the flaws of Town Meeting but cautioned against abandoning it as earlier generations had overthrown "messy" democracy in the name of fascist "efficiency." Each step away from broad-based democracy, he warned, reduced the opportunities for public participation in government, and in the process, not just citizen involvement but also citizen interest in public affairs. We had already gone from an open town meeting—in principle embracing every adult resident—to an elected town meeting, restricted to 240 members (24 from each of ten precincts), plus the dozen-odd officials. Now to reduce the number of citizens making decisions about the fate of the town by some 96%, to a nine-member council and mayor (with veto power) seemed to him a regression that could not be justified. It was a powerful argument.

I have to say that I think the last Charter referendum squeaker turned out to have a salutary effect all-around. It made clear to Town Meeting diehards just how deep the popular dissatisfaction and even anger ran. It made clear to Town Meeting opponents that, despite considerable popular sympathy for their complaints about the political culture, residents were not prepared to abolish this venerable political institution. And it thus conveyed the message to all:  we have to live together, so we'd better get our act together.

On balance, I'd say, we have learned that lesson well:  Town Meeting has become more efficient. It manages to get its business done while occupying fewer days on the calendar, thus reducing the demand on members' time (an oft-cited obstacle to greater participation, especially for families with young children). The tone is generally civil, the debate more focused and productive. There has of late been at least hypothetical talk of reducing the size of town meeting, so as to increase competitiveness and thus the actual representativeness of the representatives (empty seats and unopposed candidacies were among the issues that motivated Charter reform supporters), but for the time being that remains just talk.  For now, we work with what we have.

This is not to say that Town Meeting form of government (any more than Congress) cannot still be the source of silliness and frustration.  The piece from New Hampshire Magazine that I recently cited on the history of the hog reeve happened to be entitled, "I Hate Town Meeting":

I hate town meeting.

Town meeting is a laboratory sink for psychologists.

Every dreadful facet of human nature reveals itself at these gatherings. One must have the emotions of a sociopath to escape town meeting with one's soul intact.

I remember a town meeting in Temple years ago where the Police Chief, Russ Tyler, was attacked for using his cruiser too much. Poor Chief Tyler used his own car as the cruiser. He saved the town a lot of money using his own car.

But the mob at the meeting was sure he was getting away with something.

I remember thinking, "You people are crazy to be yelling at the Chief like this. He has a gun."

But Chief Tyler also had great heart. He was a straight shooter and a nice guy (although he did look like that sheriff in the old TV ad who says, "Boy, you're in a heap of trouble.")

In the end, the meeting vented itself and the Chief got his budget. But what heroic self-restraint that man showed.

Towns are made up of people who do not trust one another. It is and has always been "us and them."

The "new" people settle here with an idyllic view of living in a small town. They come from places where no one knows each other. Here they expected to find love.

What they find, of course, is resentment. The old Yankees don't trust the newcomers. Usually the newcomers are Democrats.

Some newcomer always stands up at the meeting and says something like, "My name is Ralph Lumpman and Loraine and I moved up here last fall from Darien. We bought the old Cosgrove place on Swamp Road. And I'd like to say that our moderator tonight is doing a bang-up job and I think we should give him a round of applause."

Then all the people, who recently moved to town, clap.

And there is always someone who informs the moderator that the flag is on the wrong side of the stage.

Town meeting gives people license. No one is expected to practice restraint.

Everyone is there to tell it like it is.

For 24 years of my life I was a small-town newspaper reporter and did news on the radio station in Peterborough.

I have attended over three hundred town meetings.

In my 50-plus years of going to town meetings I've seen a lot of changes. Years ago most towns were controlled by the families who owned the mills. In Milford it was Charlie Emerson; in Jaffrey it was D.D. Bean; in Wilton it was the Abbots; in Dublin, Robb Sagendorph.

If you didn't work for these men, someone in your family did. I used to watch D. D. Bean sit in the front of the hall at the Jaffrey Town Meeting.

Mr. Bean owned the match factory, in Jaffrey. When an article important to him came up he would turn and look back over his seat and note who voted "for" and who voted "against" the article.

Robb Sagendorph was the publisher of Yankee magazine and the Old Farmer's Almanac up in Dublin and he had double clout. Robb Sagendorph was also the moderator. If he didn't like an article he would close down discussion.

"We have had enough jawing about this matter," he'd say. "It's time to vote."
Of course, the system of mayor and town council is hardly perfect, either. The following episode of the old "Newhart" show seems somewhat confused in that it speaks in places of both "town council" and town meeting, but seems to depict the workings of the latter (perhaps the author was not familiar with the intricacies of New England government). In any case, no matter: the dilemmas and foibles can be universally appreciated. In episode 3 (full video here) newly arrived innkeeper Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) complains about a dangerous intersection in front of his establishment and wants the town to install a stop sign.  Local political honchos persuade Dick that, as a man of civic spirit who does not only complain but also proposes solutions, he should run for Town Council. In the clip below, he attends the first meeting:

(full video here)

It's nice to be reminded that things could always be worse.

Whatever your feelings on the institution of Town Meeting: better get geared up; we begin in just under a month. The Select Board is about to start reviewing and taking positions on the various warrant articles on Monday.

[updated episode description, V.2012]