Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ho-hummus. Are You Prepared to Make the Ultimate Snack-rifice?

Speaking of public relations failures and dishonesty in advertising . . .

A while back, I mentioned that hummus boycotts (yes, really) had become the latest vehicle for "BDS" anti-Israel activism, and that a local church had played host to a how-to event. There were puzzling discrepancies between the rather typically bland and vague announcement put out by the church "peace" group and the more revealing ones by co-sponsors Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Western Massachusetts Coalition for Palestine.

I have been told in the meantime that at least some organizers within the church were not aware of the true nature of the event (which would be all too typical of BDS operating procedure). That of course suggests a rather stupefying lack of basic curiosity as well as due diligence, but intention can matter, so it's worth noting. Sometimes, one learns lessons only with considerable difficulty.

Department of irony: this was the scene a week ago on the snack counter in the office of the Hampshire College School of Critical Inquiry (formerly a.k.a. "Social Science"), home to the faculty and students most active in Students for Justice in Palestine.

And those are the large-size containers, too. I guess someone didn't get the message.

Apparently the activists at De Paul University are made of sterner stuff and prepared to make the ultimate snack-rifice.  That institution, which briefly banished and then reinstated the offending legumes last fall, has become a battlefield once again.

Sabra hummus reappeared on the dining tables there until the Fair Business Practices Committee could issue a judgment, but in the meantime, SJP, unwilling to wait for the result, secured a referendum on a proposed ban. As the Huffington Post puts it with understatement, the language on the ballot is "somewhat leading":
“Sabra, which currently supplies hummus to the DePaul cafeteria, is co-owned by the Strauss Group. The Strauss group provides financial support and supplies to the Golani and Givati brigades of the Israeli military, which have been found by the United Nations to be violators of human rights. Are you in favor of replacing Sabra with an alternative brand of hummus?”
Subtle. As one might suspect, the issues are actually a tad more complicated.

Voting is open until Friday. This is the first such campus-wide referendum there in a decade. (Nice to know the students have their priorities straight.) Oh, and by the way, according to a University spokeswoman:  the result is not binding.

Two clashes over hummus at DePaul in half a year: once more into the fridge fray. Not exactly the Second Battle of the Marne, but as they say of academic politics: the fights are so nasty because the stakes are so low.

* * *

Postscript May 25

The tension is over, the results are in:  1,127 students voted in favor of the boycott, 332 voted against, and 8 voted "other" (huh?).  Unfortunately, 1,500 students had to vote in order for the referendum to be counted as valid, and as noted above, even then, the result would have no power over actual university decisions. The BDS movement, although acknowledging those drawbacks, of course nonetheless portrays the event as a great symbolic and moral success (does it have any other operating mode?), indeed: "an incredible, landslide victory."

The other reading, of course, is that no one really cares and the whole thing doesn't matter. The nature of a referendum is that such measures are driven by the proponents, who have the strongest feelings about the issue; the elections are theirs to lose.

Boycott activists could not even muster the minimum number of participants--a mere 6 percent of the student body of more than 25,000. The vast majority of students--neutral, opposed, or confused--could not be bothered to vote.

Final exams loom, summer vacation beckons.

Chick peas be damned. Ho-hummus.

Hate and Hope: Groping Toward Peace

As readers of these pages know, 2011 has already witnessed more than its fair share of tensions surrounding the Middle East here in Amherst (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Ultimately, those tensions have as much to do with the way we talk about the issues as with the substance itself.

We heard of yet another example at “Art, Conflict, Identity: A Symposium with Israeli / Palestinian / American Writers & Artists” here at Hampshire College on April 5. As the session was opened up to discussion, a visiting Israeli research scholar in the audience spoke up. She had been taken aback to learn that a member of the Hampshire College faculty had formally complained to the host institution in our Five College Consortium that no Palestinian had been invited to present her work, as well. That was of course an absolute affront to academic freedom as well as common sense, given that the visitor’s work had nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. (The accuser moreover rebuffed an attempt at dialogue.) The host institution responded in the only manner acceptable, which is to say: with a sharp rebuke to the complaint.

The problem went deeper. As the visitor put it, “every time I hear people talking about Israel, I feel that there is this huge gap” between the reality and what Americans understand.” In particular, she said, she was tired of the reductionism that invariably left her “stigmatized as the ‘Zionist Jew’” regardless of her own political views and activity, which, as it happens, place her firmly on the left and include extensive work on behalf of Palestinian-Israeli cooperation (not that any of those things is in contradiction with “Zionist Jew,” properly defined).

The dismaying incident that she recounted stood in sharp contrast to the tone and level of discussion in the lecture hall. The guests were Palestinian-American physician Fady Joudah, who has received distinguished prizes for both his own poetry and his translation of Mahmoud Darwish, and Adina Hoffman, who, dividing her time between Jerusalem and New Haven, has written an acclaimed biography of Palestinian-Israeli poet Taha Muhammad Ali, and most recently, a history of the Cairo Genizah. The session began under a pall, for the previous day had brought news of the tragic and brutal murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis, a self-proclaimed Arab and Jew alike, and Director of the celebrated Jenin Freedom Theater. For that reason, a third panelist, filmmaker Udi Aloni, who works part of the year in Jenin, canceled his appearance at the last minute.

The panelists had just finished their presentations by speaking of the problems of stereotypes and representation, in particular, the burden that one feels, first when one is expected to stand or speak for one’s (presumed) group identity, and second, when others (whether inside or outside the group) impose their expectations on the nature of that identity. Joudah, for example, noted that he was “hypersenstitive” to the relentless expectation that a Palestinian poet be “political.” For the poet to produce high art that is not political may allow him to “transcend” the political, but then at the cost of having accepted the logic of transcendence—”an imposed concept”—which thus reaffirms the political as the norm. Hoffman explained that she felt this pressure, too, though Joudah insisted rather sharply, and not for the only time, that the two groups experienced external expectations differently because they approached it from quite different situations (the conversation was not all agreement, free of tension, but no one should have expected that of honest dialogue). Hoffman had perhaps elicited the anecdote from the audience when she spoke resignedly of the now almost universal unwritten rule that one cannot write about or hold an event featuring an Israeli voice unless it is paired with that of an Arab, and vice versa.

Both writers clearly bristled at the imposition of narrow and simplistic expectations. They spoke of the love of revolutionary literary form, from Dickinson to Whitman to Kafka. Hoffman mused about the possibility of a postnational world, or at least an art that did not have to answer to the demands of the national: “the borders are there and have to be recognized, but that’s not what you aspire to, poetically.” The transcendence arising from free will and artistic choice, averred Joudah, too, was a desirable thing.

There were other signs of hope. The following week, a local resident, who had just learned of the recent incidents on our campus—the physical and psychological harassment of a pro-Israel student, and the disruption of the talk by an Israeli soldier—wrote a letter to the Amherst newspaper to bring them to the attention of the community and voice her condemnation.

It was the more significant because the author was DeAnne Riddle, who grew up in the Arab Middle East and has long been an advocate for the Arab and Palestinian cause—but also for coexistence with Israel and dialogue abroad and at home. I have known DeAnne for a number of years. We agree on some things and disagree on others, but we have never had difficulty in discussing matters of substance in an honest and friendly way. In fact, we had worked together two years ago to try to foster understanding of and for the Middle East here in one of the local churches.

After recounting the incidents, she concluded:
The Hampshire College administration has condemned attacks and expressed the need for civilized dialogue and general education regarding Israel and Palestine.

As someone who has followed the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years, this polarization distresses me. I can remember when speakers wishing to present the Palestinian point of view were silenced on college campuses. Now the opposite appears to be happening. Both sides of the story should be allowed to be told. Inflammatory language and name calling should be avoided by all. A one-sided talk can be challenged respectfully with questions, rebuttals and opposing facts. I wish Hampshire success in calming the waters and obtaining a nuanced, respectful dialogue on this emotional topic.
Some may find this approach naïve. Others may call it decent and sensible.

Coincidentally, or not, April brought further events that seemed to promise a more positive campus atmosphere, about which more in a later post.

Dude, Where's My Sponsorship? Postscript

I had no idea that last month's post on false claims of University of Massachusetts sponsorship of an anti-Israel boycott event would generate so much interest and commentary. (Evidently it struck a nerve.)

The attempts to explain away the mess are laughable.

Posters were being "redacted"?! Please.

Using that specialized term to mean simply "write," "edit," or "correct" is either an affectation or an evasion or both.  The compilers of the Bible "redacted" various texts. The CIA and government agencies "redact" sensitive documents prior to public release.

Then again, if one takes the word as connoting an attempt to conceal something embarrassing or incriminating, maybe it does apply:  "to select or adapt (as by obscuring or removing sensitive information)"; "editing a record to prevent public viewing of material that should not be disclosed."

It's so simple that one should not have to explain it again: When patently false information circulates up to the last minute, that is not due to editing or proofreading errors—unless one wishes to imagine that the organizers are hopelessly incompetent. Why would anyone even draft, much less release, announcements of sponsorship that in no case had been confirmed, or even sought?

On the day of the event,

1) the Economics Department felt the need to publish a disclaimer on its website


2) this description (submitted a day earlier for approval) appeared in the Hampshire College daily announcements, falsely claiming sponsorship from Social Thought and Political Economy (which had rejected the request) and History (which had never even been asked).

One has a right to expect that the announcement of an event, on the day of the event, by the sponsors of the event, accurately represents their knowledge and views.


Epic fail.

Anyway, enough.  Time to move on.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Breaking News: Victory Under the Sun

After a long and impassioned debate, Amherst Town Meeting rebuffed two amendments and then approved Article 24--in all cases by overwhelming voice vote--authorizing Town Manager John Musante to enter into negotiations with Blue Wave Capital for a long-term contract leading to creation of a solar array on the former Landfill.
Details to follow.
Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, May 15, 2011

15 May 1886 Death of Emily Dickinson. Do You Know the Stamp? The Souvenir Cover?

On this day in 1886, the poet Emily Dickinson died in the home in which she was born, here in Amherst, Massachusetts. Although she published a few poems and shared more in manuscript with friends and family, the bulk of her oeuvre of 1789 pieces was, of course, discovered only after her death. The history of their publication and editing is a story in its own right, in some ways more dramatic than that of her life.

The Emily Dickinson Museum describes the funeral as follows:
Dickinson’s white-garbed body lay in a white coffin in the Homestead parlor, where the family’s former pastor Rev. Jonathan Jenkins of Pittsfield (Mass.) led a prayer and Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Cambridge (Mass.) read Emily Bronte’s poem on immortality, “No coward soul is mine.” Higginson, who gazed into the casket before it was closed for the service, reported: “E.D.’s face a wondrous restoration of youth – she is 54 [55]; looked 30, not a gray hair or wrinkle; perfect peace on the beautiful brow. There was a little bunch of violets at the neck; one pink cypripedium; the sister Vinnie put in two heliotropes by her hand ‘to take to Judge Lord’” (Years and Hours, Vol. II, 475).
The honorary pallbearers, among them the president and professors of Amherst College, set the casket down after exiting the Homestead’s back door, and their burden was shouldered, at the poet’s own request, by six Irish workmen who had been hired men on the Dickinson grounds.
Following her late directions, they circled her flower garden, walked through the great barn that stood behind the house, and took a grassy path across house lots and fields of buttercups to West Cemetery, followed by the friends who had attended the simple service. There Emily Dickinson was interred in a grave Sue had lined with evergreen boughs, within the family plot enclosed by an iron fence.
Originally the grave was marked by a low granite stone with her initials, E.E.D., but some decades later niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi replaced it with a marble slab bearing the message “Called Back.” The title of a popular Hugh Conway novel, the words were also the complete content of a letter the poet sent her cousins as she entered her final phase of illness.
Below is the Dickinson commemorative stamp (Scott # 1436) that the US Postal Service issued in Amherst in 1971.

Designed: Bernard Fuchs
Modeled: Leonard C. Buckley
Vignette: Arthur W. Dintamen
Letters engraved: Albert Saavedra
Printed: Giori Press

It is based on the famous 1847 daguerreotype—or: "derogg-a-type" (some sort of Freudian slip?)—as outgoing Amherst College President Anthony Marx embarrassingly referred to it at an elite reception following Garrison Keillor's benefit performance there for the Dickinson Museum last winter. (Good luck with that, New York Public Library!)

That youthful image, jealously guarded in the Rare Books and Special Collections of Amherst College—and in fact specially brought out for the above occasion—is the only authenticated representation of the poet, although other candidates appear from time to time and remain the subject of debate.

Emily DickinsonImage via Wikipedia

Although I was young in 1971, I had been a stamp collector for some years, and I also already knew something about Emily Dickinson and her work. Just what it was, I no longer remember precisely (this was even before Julie Harris's performance of the "Belle of Amherst" on network television in 1976, which I do remember quite well). I believe that we read Dickinson in school; it would have been about the right point in the curriculum, as I recall. Perhaps my mother had taught me about her, too. At any rate, Emily was already a growing presence in my life. (A few years later, I bought my own first paperback edition of her poems.)

So, I ordered a first day of issue cover.

It was the heyday of the first day of issue "souvenir cachets," as these unofficial, privately and often commercially embellished envelopes were known. Mount Holyoke College, which counts Dickinson as one of its most distinguished students (if not actual  "graduates") maintains a page that catalogues the proliferation of those items and other covers involving the stamp. (Note: Back in Emily's day, of course, it was the "Mount Holyoke Female Seminary," as one irate aficionado prissily informed visiting Dickinson scholar Lyndall Gordon after a lecture at Amherst College last fall.)

Below is a rare unused copy of one such cachet, produced by the particularly prolific "Art Craft" company.  It is one of the more repulsive exemplars of the genre. Even leaving the general bad taste aside, it is reprehensible because it is everything that Dickinson was not: sentimental, conventional, cloying, dishonest.


The whole presentation is profoundly false, but it begins with the distortion of Dickinson's image, a distortion admittedly ascribable to the poet's own conflicted family. Never happy with the haunting daguerreotype that so appeals to our modern sensibility, they were also dissatisfied with their own early attempts to modify and soften it. In 1897, at the request of Emily's sister, Lavinia, Boston artist Laura Hills first added the fuller and more styled hair and a flat angular lace collar. She subsequently turned the collar into a full-fledged ruff, part of a white dress rather than a superimposition on the old dark one. Emily's niece and zealous guardian of her legacy Martha Dickinson Bianchi had the new image modified still further in 1924, when she published The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Taken altogether, the Hills image with its subsequent modifications is quite an accomplishment, in that it manages to be infantilizing and meretricious at once.

I haven't the time or the energy to produce a digital graphic comparison right now, but sometimes the simplest approach is the best: Just cover the falsified image of the hair on the souvenir cachet with your fingers, and you'll see the lineaments of the poet's only authentic image emerge.

I didn't go for one of those fancy cachets. I'm not sure I saw an advance advertisement, but in any case, I think I was, haltingly, already developing a sense of taste and historical evidence. For example, I viewed with a certain skepticism the inordinate interest of some my friends in the deliberately exotic philatelic productions (some were issued on gold foil) of the feudal states of the Arabian Gulf, which to my mind were geared to the market of gullible western collectors rather than actual postal users. (1, 2)

In any case, a kid back then had limited funds and no checking account. The standard practice was to send a request, containing cash payment for the stamps and the proverbial "self-addressed envelope," to the "Postmaster" of the issuing locale, and then, lo and behold, a week or so later, the coveted cover would arrive in the mail.

Looking at mine for almost the first time since then, I see that I made a mistake in the Zip Code by transposing the digits to read 00102 rather than 01002. I know better now. I even know not to pronounce the "h" in Amherst. Not sure which I learned first. Anyway: been there, also got the t-shirt. A week ago at the North Amherst Rezoning Visioning session, I was surprised to hear that the head of the Cecil Group, the consultants who also took part in the public design process for Kendrick Park, still had not absorbed that little linguistic fact of life (though he also, upon learning this, appropriately poked fun at himself).

The spring is always a big season for Dickinson-related events here in Amherst, first and foremost the Poetry Walk, which takes place on the Saturday closest to her death anniversary. This year's Poetry Walk was distinctive, and it was moreover preceded by other events of note (hint: got a cell phone?). Separate reports to follow.


• Houghton Library, Harvard University:  Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamps and Ephemera (1 Box: includes stamps, Amherst newspaper articles, ephemera, and a pane of 50 stamps "in a presentation binder stamped in gold lettering: 'Harvard University.'" [in case anyone had any doubts about...what])

• US Postal Service: Women on Stamps

•  National Postal Museum

Enhanced by Zemanta

Back and Busy

In a recent comment to my last piece, a student reader gently asked why I was blogging rather than reading senior theses.

Well, in fact, for better or worse, I wasn't.  Reading theses and other student work was precisely what I have been doing. as is all too apparent, I haven't posted anything here for a month—which, mea culpa, is an eternity in the blogosphere—because I was simply too occupied with other matters.

The onset of spring coincides with the busiest part of the academic term, but there have been other special distractions and pressures this year:  for example, completion of work on the Governance Task Force, as we move toward implementation; the search for a new College president, which resulted in the bold choice of environmental expert Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

And here in town, it's been busier than usual, too, with an unprecedented string of zoning and development initiatives:  the final phase of the Kendrick Park planning process , the three-day charrette for the controversial ARA "Gateway" project between UMass and the Town of Amherst, the North Amherst Village Center rezoning visioning process last weekend, and the South Amherst/Bay Road-Atkins Corner planning session yesterday (Saturday). (With any luck, I'll report on some of these—but, the way things are going, don't hold me to that.)

That, and annual Town Meeting, which has now begun, and seems headed for big controversy over issues ranging from the proposed solar array on the old landfill, to zoning amendments on duplexes, parking, and the raising of chickens and rabbits.

It's already been more of a bloody slugfest than many expected. First, there was the unexpected debate over the Community Services line of the budget, and the addition of funds for the re-opening of War Memorial Pool. Then came a protracted fight over Community Preservation Act appropriations—primarily our historic preservation proposals, which for some reason have become a favorite target of naysayers.

Never a dull (or free) moment, it seems.