Friday, September 30, 2011

The Great Hurricane(s)

New England is still recovering from the effects of the severe weather this spring and summer. Preservation Massachusetts' new list of most endangered historic resources will focus on tornado-damaged communities here in the western part of the Commonwealth. The state of Vermont has had to launch a campaign—including television and YouTube appearances by the Commissioner of Tourism—to demonstrate to fall foliage tourists that, despite Hurricane Irene, Vermont is indeed open for business (more: 1, 2). 

As we all know, however, the region has been through far worse.

September 21 marks the anniversary of the "Great Hurricane of '38," that is, 1938. The first major tropical cyclone to strike New England since 1869, and the most devastating in our history (with the only possible exception of one in the seventeenth century), it has gone by various names: "The New England Hurricane of 1938 (or Great New England Hurricane or Yankee Clipper or Long Island Express or simply The Great Hurricane of 1938)."

As MassMoments tells us:
in 1938, a hurricane of astonishing force ravaged New England. Having gone to bed the night before to radio forecasts of scattered rain and fresh southerly winds, New Englanders woke on the 21st and went about their weekday routines. At least they did until the storm broke in mid-afternoon. Within minutes, the hurricane leveled virtually everything in its path. The whirling, shrieking winds and rushing waters took more than 600 lives and caused damage estimated between $6-12 billion in today's dollars. Technology now provides enough warning to evacuate vulnerable areas, so a storm of similar magnitude might take fewer lives today. But the pace of development along the coast means that property and environmental damage would undoubtedly be many times greater. (read the rest
The hurricane is famous in Amherst, too, for it struck far inland. Amherst College students of the day whom I happened to teach in an Elderhostel course some years ago told me of the devastation, above all, to the large and stately trees that used to grace the town. Indeed, total damage to trees and utility poles alone was said to have exceeded a million dollars (in the valuation of the day).

the New York Daily Mirror covers the hurricane in New England
 The Amherst Record noted, though, that the disaster united the usually contentious town residents:
The spirit of the people has been an inspiration. Nature's catastrophes bring us close together in friendliness and neighborliness, and we are much the gainers because of it. Many a person during the past two weeks has had the pleasure of doing a neighborly act to people who had never before been in need, and many another has had his heart warmed because of some unexpected kindness rendered.
(Essays on Amherst History, [Amherst, 1978], 204)
Perhaps because the main damage was only to the landscape, the Amherst high school sports teams decided to name themselves the "'Hurricanes." It always seemed doubly strange: first, because the incident was so atypical (my wife grew up in Florida where it seemed far less anomalous for her high school teams to bear the same name), and second, because, although a hurricane clearly symbolizes power, it is also a destructive and potentially lethal force. I very much doubt that sports teams in Japan are rushing to name themselves "The Tsunamis."

Perhaps because this hurricane has become so famous, most of us have no knowledge of the 1954 "Hurricane Carol," whose anniversary fell in August.  "Carol" was of roughly the same power as the Hurricane of '38 when it hit our region, and the storm surge in Narragansett Bay was actually larger. It killed 65 people and destroyed some 4000 houses. Winds of 80-100 miles per hour knocked out power in the eastern part of Massachusetts and destroyed the steeple of Boston's historic North Church, made famous by Paul Revere's ride. Interestingly, that steeple, by famed architect Charles Bulfinch, was itself a replacement for the original, destroyed by another storm 150 years before Carol. Today's steeple, combining elements of both, is thus the third to grace the building.

As even Irene begins to fades in our memories and we go about our routines in calm and safety, it's easy to forget the havoc that Carol wreaked on the region.


The Hurricane of '38 as documented in the collections of Amherst College

September Anniversaries Wrap-Up

It's been a busy month, and there's a lot to catch up with. I would be remiss if I did not make a modest attempt to acknowledge at least some of the historical anniversaries that fall in the month of September (not necessarily in chronological order).

Stay tuned.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Honoring Amherst's African-American Civil War Soldiers: "Assault on Fort Wagner": "The Rush of the Garrison to the Parapet"

The following engraving (20 x 23.6 cm) appeared in The Illustrated London News of September 26, 1863:

The caption reads:  "The War in America: Assault on Fort Wagner, Charleston Harbour, on the Night of July 18—The Rush of the garrison to the Parapet. From a Sketch by Our Special Artist."

This was the dreadful assault made famous in our time by the 1989 film, "Glory." Although this engraving includes some iconic features in the evolving representation of the event such as the advance of the figure with the Union flag (cf., with variations, the lithographs by Currier and Ives [1863] or Kurz and Allison [1890]), it offers no indication that volunteers of the Mass. 54th—or, indeed, any African-American troops—took part.

The accompanying text on p. 317 (perhaps because written by reporters "embedded"—as we would nowadays say— on the Confederate side) speaks of the battle only in more general terms:

A Blockade-runner has brought us some sketches from our Special Artist in Charleston, two of which are engraved in the present Number. Respecting the Engraving on our first page--"The Assault on Fort Wagner on the night of July 18"—our Special Artist and Correspondent writes as follows:—"I returned from the south-west just in time to witness this most formidable of all attempts made by the enemy on the defences of Charleston. You are already doubtless aware that the Federals succeeded a fortnight since in effecting a lodgment of their forces on the islands forming the approaches to the city. A temporary success enabled them to throw up works in front of Fort Wagner, and to commence an advance on the last-named stronghold. In conjunction with their iron fleet, which took up an enfilading position seawards, they maintained a heavy fire of mortars.

Further reading on this site

Mass 54th
West Cemetery
African-American Amherst

Hampshire College Students Hold Vigil for Troy Davis

Late on Wednesday afternoon, Hampshire College students, like their counterparts and other citizens around the country, held a vigil to protest the impending execution of Troy Davis, sentenced to die at 7:00 p.m. for the murder of a Georgia policeman some two decades ago. A massive international petition movement protested the sentence, arguing that there was substantial doubt as to his guilt.

Surprisingly, I was the only member of the faculty present, aside from my colleague Chris Tinson, professor of African-American studies, who was one of the speakers.

Chris spoke both of the case at hand and of the broader problem of the "prison-industrial complex" and the death penalty, which, he said, disproportionately victimized the US minority population, especially African-Americans. At the same time, he reminded the several dozen students in attendance: to protest the sentence of Davis was in no wise to deny the suffering of the murdered policeman and his family, who, he said, we should hold in our hearts and prayers. The ultimate message, he said, should be not first and foremost to seek vengeance, but to set things right.

It was, all in all, a serious, sincere, and dignified event.

Around 6:00 p.m., the students boarded the PVTA bus and headed downtown to a larger rally on the Common. As all know by now, the Supreme Court—the last resort in this instance, because all previous decisions by the courts and review board had upheld the original sentence—declined to stay the execution, which was finally carried out around 11:00 p.m.


The only discordant note was struck by some outside "Spartacists," who, in their characteristically parasitical manner, attempted to attach themselves to this local protest in order to further their own interests. Typically, they made no statements about the Davis case and did not in any way take part in the event, instead (as is their default mode) merely attempting to peddle what they rather grandiosely call a "newspaper." (I hope that is not the sum total of their business model; I've never seen anyone actually buy the thing.) When one of them approached me, I made the mistake of being polite (yeah, I should know better), and she attempted to extol the virtues of the publication. Finally—even though it was the fortieth-anniversary edition (woo-hoo!)—I simply indicated that her parents had tried to sell me the same rag a generation ago, and I hadn't bought it (literally or figuratively) back then, either. She kept smiling her but eventually stopped talking.

Evidently the infantile leftists were not all smiles last time they darkened our doorstep, for today's internal college announcements included a lengthy statement protesting their presence on campus. The objection was not to their political views (which are merely ludicrous rather than dangerous), and instead, their social behavior. As the complaint explained, last year they "behaved in a transphobic and queer-phobic manner towards a transgender student of color on campus; in the process insulting both the student and that student's allies." To make matters worse, they declined to engage in proper (my characterization) Marxist-Leninist self-criticism: "Instead of apologizing or acknowledging the concern, the Spartacists claimed that transphobia was a made-up term, and although corrected multiple times, refused to address the student by their correct pronouns."

Not surprising that they had no idea how to talk about queer and transgender issues. They don't even have a clue about socialism. Sad that these wingnuts run around, interfering with our events and giving leftism a bad name. Maybe they should re-read what Lenin said about objective and subjective political conditions. Oh, yeah: and what their mentor Trotsky said about the garbage heap of history.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ceremony Honoring African-American Civil War vets wrapping up

Huge and enthusiastic crowd in West Cemetery today. Full report tonight.

[Update: an unusually busy stretch of days.]

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Local Colleges Mark 9/11 10.0

All three institutions of higher learning in Amherst marked the tenth anniversary of 9-11, each in its own way.

The University of Massachusetts observed four moments of silence. Students placed flags on lawns and attended a vigil and interfaith service. Amherst College held an early-morning memorial service (at the hour at which the attacks began) as well as an evening discussion on how the world had changed in the intervening decade.

Hampshire College, as might be expected, marched to a different drummer (figuratively speaking of course. I don't think we are allowed to march: sounds too militaristic. African or Afro-Caribbean drumming is okay, though, In fact, students organized a "salsa parade" as part of their protest against admissions and construction policies last year. But I digress.)

Unlike the other two institutions, it did not (to the best of my knowledge) hold any sort of memorial for the victims. Like Amherst College, however, it sought to make the anniversary an academic and learning experience.

As has by now become the custom here, there was a screening of a film, "The Other Sept. 11," a commemoration of the 1973 coup in Chile, for which many hold the US responsible.

In addition, the Office of Spiritual Life, the Cultural Center, and the Center for Feminisms offered: "Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire: a critical view of the Administration we elected after 9/11--conservative, reactionary, and dangerous,"

and a screening of

"Saint of 9/11," which "documents the journey of a queer Fire Dept Chaplain- his life, struggles and transformation."

The main event, though, was: "9/11 Plus 10: Islam the Middle East, and the Future of American Foreign Policy," a faculty panel featuring Professors Omar Dahi, Sayres Rudy, and Falguni Sheth, moderated by Professor Michael Klare (Peace and World Security Studies) and introduced by new President Jonathan Lash.

I wish I could have attended the panel, but it was Select Board night. Duty called.

One minor note on the commemorations: I noticed that the American flag at the center of campus was flying at half-staff. This had not been the case in previous years, as in this photo from 2008.

 In fact, this year, it was in the lowered position for at least three days, through September 13. Perhaps they were trying to make up for the past three years.

9/11 10.0 in Amherst: Lone Sign of Dissent

As noted, the official commemorations of the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks were dignified and austere. An interesting contrast (or: complementarity) was created by the nearby presence of the traditional weekly Peace Vigil, a few yards away. Each group marked the day and expressed its values separately and simultaneously, at once close together and far apart.

There was, however, one lone protester, whose aim was more to confront and provoke.  Carrying large placards, she paced back and forth behind the speakers in an attempt to capture the audience's attention. The passer-by here was clearly doing all she could to ignore her.

The reverse of the placards, displayed in alternation with these sides, was even more densely covered with writing. Although I was unable to get a photo, I recall that it included a denunciation of President Obama.

Not sure why she thinks removing Gadhafi from power is a bad thing. Spelling was not her strong suit, either.

In any case, the message seems to be that she is angry at people whom she holds responsible for killing, and thinks they should be . . . er . . . killed. Something like that.

Eventually, she walked across the street and just sat down on a bench in front of the bank, still glowering, still desperately hoping that someone was paying attention.

Vignettes of 9/11 10.0 in Amherst

Here, a few further scenes of the day of remembrance in Amherst.

Police Station flag at half-staff
preparations on the north end of the Common, in front of the 1889 Town Hall

officials confer
Firehouse bell
Fire Department officers at the ready

Peace Vigil packs up at the end of its weekly event

decorated planter on Town Common
official flags fly this year

small flags planted by UMass Democrats and Republicans dot the downtown

flags in Kendrick Park
The Town of Amherst recently completed a lengthy public process to determine the future design and uses of the newly created park, expected to become a major gathering place at the north end of the downtown.

North Amherst farmhouse
I greatly appreciate ritual as long as it is tasteful and dignified. Particularly when it takes place as a true public action, it has the power to convey shared values and create or reinforce community. However the private and spontaneous commemorative gestures are often also compelling. I saw some on the way home after the official events downtown: a small flag mounted on a rural roadside mailbox, a flag flying from a house in an outlying area. Nothing grand, nothing that shouts: just small statements of mourning and belonging.

the end of the day

Friday, September 16, 2011

9/11 10.0 in Amherst

As any one who reads the local blogs and papers (and well, yes, sometimes even just the national media) knows, Amherst has had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the at times awkwardly entangled complex of phenomena involving flags, patriotism, and the military. In part by chance, September 11 has come to be a focus of that tension.

Fortunately, this year the tension seemed to subside, and we by and large seemed at one with the rest of the country in focusing on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Residents had a variety of commemorations from which to choose.

Along with fellow Select Board members Stephanie O’Keeffe, Alisa Brewer, and Diana Stein, Acting Town Manager (and Director of Conservation and Development) David Ziomek and Veterans’ Agent Steve Connor, I attended the official ceremony on the Common in the early afternoon. At our last Select Board meeting, we voted to endorse a request from Senator Frank Lautenberg to join in a national movement of commemoration, which entailed issuing a proclamation recognizing a Moment of Remembrance, and arranging for the corresponding tolling of bells or similar calls to attention and contemplation at 1:00 p.m.

A day that had begun with glorious sunshine (as can be seen in these photos from Larry Kelley's blog) had begun to turn overcast by the time that we started to assemble after 12:30. Still, the flags everywhere (permitted to be displayed again this year) stood out, even against graying skies. Along with the “official” flags on poles and lampposts, there were dozens of smaller ones, stuck in lawns or planters: the work of UMass Republicans and Democrats coming together in a rare moment of cooperation.

Members of the Amherst Police and Fire Departments as well as University of Massachusetts Police lined up in two formations at right angles to one another in the parking lot at the north end of the Common (where the "Merry Maple" winter celebration and similar events take place). It is not an intrinsically inspiring space, so it is a tribute to the mood of the event that one forgot one was standing on or near degraded asphalt striped with lines for parking spaces. Eventually, a fire truck and ambulance also made their way, backwards, into the parking lot (purpose not exactly clear; there seems to be some solemn significance attached to the mere presence of such vehicles).

The theme of the day proved to be in part commemorating the dead, but in equal measure, highlighting the spirit of unity and communal solidarity, and honoring special service to that community: on the part of first responders to the disasters and the military forces overseas, but also of the public safety officers who work in our midst and on our behalf day in and day out.

Firefighter David Dion called the assembled public safety officers to attention to begin the event.

Public safety officers at parade rest
Select Board Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe then formally opened the ceremony with words of welcome and exhortation. As she put it, the devastating attacks deprived us of our security and illusions in one blow: “We mourned for our feelings of invincibility, left devastated like those magnificent towers.  And we mourned for our lost innocence.” At the same time, however, they gave us a new sense of unity, purpose, and determination.
“In our collective grief, something amazing happened.  We opened our eyes.  We recognized just how precious is every person and every moment.  We recognized how truly connected all of us are.  We recognized with wholehearted clarity how indebted we are to those who protect us. . . .”
We came to appreciate “heroism," but also, “to savor simple moments, joyful or tranquil, thrilling or calm.” The very disruption of the daily routine made us cherish its humble pleasures all the more. [full text here]

Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, Fire Dept. Chaplain Bruce Barbour, Fire Dept. Chief Tim Nelson
We observed a moment of silence, followed by the tolling of the bells at nearby Grace Episcopal Church.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone spoke next, expressing his gratitude to both the armed forces and the police, and singling out for attention members of our public safety team who also serve in the military.
Police Chief Scott Livingstone speaking
The Fire Department Chief elaborated on this theme. As summarized by Stephanie O’Keeffe:
Fire Chief Tim Nelson spoke about the loss of life on that day, and the appreciation for those who put themselves in harm's way, who heed the call to serve and protect, and who sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice.  He spoke of the special flags at each fire station representing the firefighters who are serving on active military duty, and how this helps to remind us of their service.
He also explained the fire department tradition of using bells to convey messages. A sequence of three sets of five rings once signaled the safe return of a unit. Eventually, this “Tolling of the Bell” came to announce the death of a firefighter in the line of duty, marking the final “return.” That gentle ritual, enacted here, was the centerpiece of the commemoration.

Fire Department Chaplain Bruce Barbour then offered a prayer on behalf of the dead and their survivors. Speaking without reference to any particular faith, or even any mention of a deity, aside from a reference to "light," he asked those assembled to remember the victims, but also the living: the families and other relatives whose lives were forever changed and who continue to need our support.

The ceremony closed with the now-traditional playing of “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.

It was a disciplined and dignified ceremony.

To be sure, I wish that more people had attended. There were perhaps 50 present: friends and relatives of public safety officers, ordinary citizens, a few Town Meeting members, and some people who strolled over after the services at Grace Church. Admittedly, although the event was described in a recent issue of the Gazette and posted on the Town website, it may not have been publicized as fully as it needed to be.

In any case, a good many people, out for a stroll or an errand on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, simply went about their business, walking by without stopping to listen or even paying attention.

Notably absent were most of our politically more active residents, aside from the members of the weekly Peace Vigil, who quietly held their signs in their customary place and stood respectfully but did not take part in the commemorative event. On another corner was a lone protester, silently accusing.

There was moreover no official—or for that matter, other—representation from the college or university administrations: presumably because two of the three institutions held their own ceremonies (as noted, University Police did take part). Perhaps for that reason, faculty and students were likewise nowhere to be seen.

Equally puzzling was the absence of the local press, with the exception of intrepid Collegian reporter William Perkins. Puzzling, the more so, as the Gazette for some reason found it worthwhile to attend and publish a color photo of the "interfaith" event in Grace Church from the afternoon.

Admittedly, that grandly named gathering dedicated to “Memory, Healing, and Hope” attracted a much larger crowd (though the reporters who failed to show up three hours earlier could not necessarily have known that in advance). In retrospect, that’s not surprising. To begin with, it could draw on a set of ready-made constituencies. Above and beyond that, though, I suspect that it simply allowed people to remain in their comfort zone. There is something easy and affirming about listening to common pieties and treating murder and warfare in the larger and safer context of the unexceptionable desire for peace and brotherhood.

A ceremony—even a "solemn" "low-key and reverent" one, as Chief Nelson described it to the Gazette a few days in advance—dedicated specifically to commemorating victims of terrorism and honoring members of the military and public safety forces, may have seemed just too direct a confrontation with painful and complicated realities. Better the church, the songs, and the candles.

A final commemoration, held after nightfall, focused even more sharply on those thornier issues, attracting a small but attentive audience.

As they have on key past anniversaries, Larry Kelley and Kevin Joy organized a a gathering on behalf of their "Remember 9/11" Committee.

With help from the Fire Department, they had mounted a huge United States flag between two trees on the west side of the Common, forming a backdrop for a small commemoration of the tragedy of 9-11 originally used in a Fourth of July parade: twin metal towers, set in a pentagonal base on which are scattered shoes, thus representing the dead of all four planes on that fateful morning. In front of it, from 9 p.m. to midnight, were vertically aimed spotlights, imitating the iconic but transient early tribute to the absence of the twin towers. Although the organizers did not anticipate it, the lights, even directed upward, at the same time projected the shadows of the model towers onto the American flag, in front of which stood a group of veterans.

Early in the ceremony, a fire truck and police cruiser turned on their emergency lights, adding a more colorful glow to the scene, and conjuring up disturbing echoes of the chaos at "ground zero."

Kevin Joy began by likening 9-11 to Pearl Harbor. A former FBI agent, he spoke about the losses in his own circle of friends: one who died at the Pentagon, and another at the World Trade Center. The latter was John P. O'Neill, who, as an FBI agent, spent years warning of the danger of Al Qaeda attacks on US sites. He took over as head of security at the World Trade Center just a week before the attacks, and he died on that day, trying to bring others to safety. Many of us know his story from the "Frontline" documentary, "The Man Who Knew," and the miniseries, "The Path to 9/11."

For his part, Larry Kelley rehearsed the story of his intense commitment to the commemoration of the attacks, from  the unfortunately timed Amherst controversy over display of the flag on the eve of the attacks to his taking an American flag from Amherst to raise over the "ground zero" cite (he also tells it here).

Many of the speakers located 9-11, along with the Kennedy assassinations and the space shuttle "Challenger" disaster, in a constellation of tragic events that caused almost everyone of the baby boom generation to be able to say, "I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news." Vietnam veteran Kevin English was a case in point. He spoke at length and with both emotion and precision about his own experiences, beginning with the sudden instruction, one day in the Springfield Cathedral school in November 1963, that the class was to pray.  A few years later, English was a Marine in Vietnam, one of a dwindling number of troops pinned down in the old imperial city of Hue during the Tet offensive. He recalled how their spirits were buoyed when they managed to raise an American flag during the battle. The trauma of that conflict and the seeming lack of comprehension of that experience on the part of both contemporaries and subsequent generations made him sensitive to the need to remember the victims of the 9-11 attacks and the value of freedom.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, sporting an American flag tie, spoke about the need to remember individuals as well as our collective tragedy. Unlike many other speakers on this weekend, he also spoke explicitly of the perpetrators. He referred to "evil"--a word that I doubt cropped up in the interfaith church service, even though it is of course at the core of Christian theology, and part and parcel of religion's general attempt to make sense of human nature and the human condition.

Understandably, actions that we regard as evil can provoke a strong reaction, even excess. Addressing that issue, English noted that he had come to find benefit in the power of prayer. The first reaction to danger, fear, and injury, he said, is anger and the desire for revenge. Today, prayer helps him to come to terms with those feelings and to seek, in what he called a higher power, the sources of goodness and kindness to others.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Preparing for 9/11 in Amherst

 The Town of Amherst will mark the 9-11 anniversary in various ways today.

• The by now customary ringing of the Fire Station bell at the hour of the first plane's impact

• The official ceremony takes place downtown, on the Common:

-12:30 to 1255 – Assembly.
-12:55 to 1:00 – Remarks by Selectboard Chair.
-1:00 to 1:01 – National Moment of Remembrance.
-1:01 to 1:02 – Grace Church bells ring.
-1:03 to 1:15 – Remarks by Chiefs Whitehead UMASS/PD, Livingstone APD, Nelson AFD.
-1:15 to 1:20 – Ringing of Amherst Fire Dept bell followed by a prayer and a final bell ringing .
-1:25 – Piper plays Amazing Grace. -
1:30 – Dismissal.

Among the private or unofficial commemorations.

• Many local churches are marking the day in their regular services.

• In addition, there is the collective "Memory, Healing, and Hope: An Interfaith Gathering on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11/01":

"Processions of various faith communities -- including Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Quaker, Baha'i and Buddhist -- will begin throughout the day. People of all faith communities and no faith are invited to begin gathering on the Common at 4 p.m. when bells will toll around town. After processing solemnly around the Common, we will enter Grace Episcopal Church (on the Common) at 4:30. Those who are unable to participate in the processions are welcome to gather in the church before 4:30. The service will include the reading of names of some of the dead, the sharing of prayers and readings, and a litany of healing and hope. be an interfaith procession around the Common, to the ringing of church bells at 4:00, followed by an interfaith service.

• Grace Church is also hosting a community performance of the Mozart Requiem at 7:30 p.m.

• The Remember 9/11 Committee, led by Larry Kelley and Kevin Joy, have hung a large American flag on the Common. In front of it, from 9 to 12 p.m. will be two powerful vertically aimed searchlights, echoing one of the most striking early memorials to the twin towers. There will be an open microphone at which residents may share recollections and feelings.

* * *

[updated: the original post should have contained the list of local events, from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 10 Sept.:]


· Memorial Service, 8:30 a.m., Amherst College, Memorial Hill. The gathering will feature music from the Amherst Choral Society and carillon bells, silence and words of reflection from President Carolyn A. Martin and Paul Sorrentino, director of religious life at Amherst College.

· "From Towers and Tragedy to the Birth of a Book," 1 p.m., Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 West Bay Road, Amherst. Author Mordicai Gerstein tells the story behind his book "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers"

· 9/11 Commemoration, 4 p.m., Amherst town common on South Pleasant Street. An interfaith gathering.

· Memory, Healing and Hope, Interfaith Gathering, 4:30 p.m., Grace Episcopal Church, Amherst. Religious groups will hold the service, which is to include a reading of names, religious texts and prayers and a litany.

· Community Sing of Mozart Requiem in Commemoration of 9/11, 7:30 p.m., Grace Episcopal Church, 14 Boltwood Ave., Amherst. All are welcome to listen.

· Amherst Remembers 9/11, 9 p.m., Amherst town common on South Pleasant Street. Spotlights representing the Twin Towers will shine into the air until midnight, a large American flag will serve as the backdrop and a Twin Towers float from the first Independence Day parade following 9/11 will be on display.


· Candlelight Vigil, 5-8:30 p.m., Belchertown town common, North Main Street. The 9/11 memorial vigil is being held by the Belchertown Friends of First Responders.


· Remembrance Ceremony, 10 a.m., outside the Easthampton Public Safety Complex, Payson Avenue. The public event will be led by the Easthampton Fire and Police departments.


· Sept. 11 Memorial Service, 2 p.m., Granby town common. Members of the Fire and Police departments will be attending the special memorial service led by the Church of Christ Congregational Church of Granby.


· Service of Remembrance, 10 a.m., Hatfield Congregational Church, 41 Main St. A service to honor all those who were affected by 9/11.


· Special 9/11 Mass, 10:30 a.m., Most Holy Redeemer Church, 120 Russell St., Hadley. Emergency responders are invited to attend the Mass, where Rev. Shaun O'Connor will offer a special 9/11 anniversary blessing.


· Memorial Service of Appreciation, 7 p.m., North Leverett Baptist Church, 70 North Leverett Road. A service to remember those that died on Sept. 11 and to appreciate those who currently serve their country and communities. Keith Rivers, a retired New York City police officer, will speak about what it was like to witness the events of 9/11.


· Northampton's Day of Remembrance, 9:50 a.m., Northampton Fire Department, Carlon Drive. The city will commemorate the event with a moment of silence, a prayer by Chaplain Bruce Arbour and recitation of The Firefighters' Prayer.

· Movie Screening, 2 and 4 p.m., Wright Hall, Smith College, Northampton. The Media Education Foundation will screen two films, "Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire" at 2 p.m. and "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning us to Death" at 4 p.m. There will be a Q&A session with foundation Executive Director Sut Jhally and Trinity College professor of international studies Vijay Prashad following the screenings.

· Remembrance and Hope, Interfaith Community Service, 4 p.m., Smith College, Helen Hills Chapel, Northampton. The faith communities of greater Northampton will mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11 with a service of music, poetry, prayer and song.


· South Hadley 9/11 Anniversary Ceremony, 1 p.m., South Hadley town common, on the corner of Routes 47 and 116. The ceremony will be led by the town's two fire districts and will include speeches and singing. Various public safety personnel and city officials will participate.

· Multifaith Service, 3 p.m., starts at South Hadley town common and continues in Abbey Memorial Chapel on the Mount Holyoke College campus. A reception will follow.


· Service of Remembrance, 10 a.m., First Congregational Church, Sunderland. At 10:15 a.m., the special remembrance service will conclude and members of the town's police and fire departments wil attend a commemoration in Greenfield. The regular worship service will then begin.


· Remembrance Service, 8:45 a.m., Williamsburg Fire Station, North Main St. Rev. Worth Noyes will speak at the event and firefighters will ring a fire engine bell in memory of those who perished on 9/11.



· Ringing of the Bells. The UMass campus will hear the ringing of the bells in the Old Chapel at 8:46 a.m., 9:03 a.m., 9:45 a.m., and 10:10 a.m., marking the times of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the crash of the airliner in Pennsylvania on that day.

· "9/11 Plus Ten: Islam, the Middle East, and U.S. Foreign Policy," 7:30 p.m., Hampshire College, Franklin Patterson Hall. Free faculty panel chaired by professor Michael Klare.


· "9/11 Reflections: Ten Years Later," 4:30 p.m., Smith College, Nielson Library Browsing Room, Northampton. The Global Studies Center will host the panel discussion to offer observations and impacts of Sept. 11.

Friday-Sunday and beyond


· The Amherst community is invited to express their sentiments about 9/11 using markers provided in Keefe Campus Center at Amherst College.

· "9/11: How We are Different 10 Years Later," Tuesday, Sept. 20, 8 p.m., Amherst College, Converse Hall. A panel featuring professors Frank Couvares, Lawrence Douglas and Pat O'Hara, moderated by Gregory Call, dean of the faculty.


· "Remembering 9/11," Smith College campus exhibition runs through Dec. 22 in the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Neilson Library. The exhibit features a dozen books and photographs created by 16 artists and writers.

Earthquake and Hurricane Clean-up

The communities of the northeast are still cleaning up after the flooding that hit parts north and west of here particularly hard. This afternoon, when I was driving to and from Westfield via I-91 and I-90 on the way to the annual "Pyrapalooza" (more on that later), I still saw lighted highway warnings of detours for travelers attempting to head west to destinations such as Shelburne Falls and Savoy. And I spoke with acquaintances who live in New York just west of the Massachusetts border. Both of them work in the public sector and have been involved in clean-up efforts. They told of devastated small-torn centers, with whole rows of buildings either washed away or flooded so badly as to require virtually complete reconstruction if not demolition. The husband had just come off a string of twelve-hour shifts and was exhausted.

Actually, though, my topic today is more figurative than literal.

When the twin disasters struck within days of each other, I was curious to see how many idiotic statements about divine wrath, just punishment, and the like, would crop up.

The answer seems to be: surprisingly few. After all, the earthquake hit hardest in the Washington, DC, area, and the hurricane was particularly destructive in the Northeast. Could it be so hard to see God's hand in the devastation of the heartland of "big government" and the proverbial liberal (Volvo-driving, quiche-eating, etc.) establishment?

To be sure, Michele Bachmann got some grief for remarks she made about two such natural upheavals in quick succession being a wake-up call about out-of-control government spending, but in fairness, she was making a clumsy attempt at humor. She says enough nutty things (especially about American history: 1, 2), that it would be uncharitable as well as unjustified to go after her for this one. It is a "target-rich environment," as they say in the Army.

By contrast, Pat Robertson did not disappoint:
"Ladies and gentlemen I don't want to get weird on this so please take it for what it's worth," Robertson said.

"But it seems to me the Washington Monument is a symbol of America's power, it has been the symbol of our great nation, we look at that monument and say this is one nation under God," he continued.

"Now there's a crack in it, there's a crack in it and it's closed up. Is that a sign from the Lord? Is that something that has significance or is it just result of an earthquake? You judge, but I just want to bring that to your attention," he said.
"It seems to me symbolic," Robinson said. "When Jesus was crucified and when he died the curtain in the Temple was rent from top to bottom and there was a tear and it was extremely symbolic. Is this symbolic? You judge."
Now, the comparison with the Crucifixion seems forced and (although I am perhaps not fully qualified to judge) almost blasphemous. Still, at least the DC damage is verified. According to the Gospels, the Crucifixion was accompanied, as well, by an earthquake and an eclipse. The great historian Edward Gibbon raised some questions about all this in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world, to those evidences which were represented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, when, during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendor. The season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had been already celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age. 
Abridged translation into modern idiom:
Dude! So, there were all these great scientists back then, and none of them, like, noticed any of this?! What's up with that? Just sayin'.
The report went on to conclude that it was unclear why Robertson would want God to damage the National Cathedral, as well. Actually, it's perfectly clear. That ecclesiastical edifice belongs to the Episcopal Church: Aside from the fact that he would have no natural sympathy for a mainline church with liberal proclivities, he was outraged in 2006 at at the appointment of a Presiding Bishop who denied that Jesus was the only path to God (and favored ordination of gays and acceptance of same-sex marriage). Pinnacles were bound to fall off, though why it took five years for the wrath of God to build to this stage, and why it was not more ferocious, well, that may be less than evident. As we say, He works in mysterious ways.

From the vaults:
For the record or the hell of it, here are the posts that I wrote in response to superstitious and nasty verdicts on the Haitian earthquake.

On the Earthquake (13 Jan. 2010)
Who's Being Diabolical Here? Pat Robertson Blames Earthquake on Revolutionary Haiti's Pact With the Devil (13 Jan. 2010)
Haiti Update (8 Feb. 2010)
Chilean Earthquake: The Devil's in the Details, or: Kleist vs. Robertson (resist [P]at answers) (2 March 2010)

Amherst College, according to Twit Cleaner

Amherst College, according to the analysis of Twit Cleaner:

(Hey, I didn't write this. Just quoting.)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day 2011: What to Celebrate?

Things may not be quite as grim as in that satirical video that I posted a while back, but Labor Day today does a bit more somber even than in recent years: a dismal jobs report for the past month (1, 2), Congress and White House deadlocked over economic and fiscal policy, a petulant and indecisive President who seems unable to act and able only to infuriate supporters and foes in equal measure.

The New York Times editorial concluded,
This is not a history that crosses the minds of most Americans during a three-day weekend that feels like the border between summer and fall. (On Labor Day, we try our best to remain unaware that stores have already stocked up for Halloween.)

But change the emphasis from labor to jobs and you come upon a subject that is very much on the minds of Americans, and not merely among the 14 million officially unemployed people in this country, a number equivalent to the population of Illinois, Wyoming and Vermont.

Perhaps Labor Day should be a day to consider the struggles of so many Americans eager to work but unable to find jobs. Perhaps it should be a day for parades of the unemployed, to remind us of the dignity of work and the indignity of being out of it.
Among other things, this strong statement stands in the most striking contrast to the banal and platitudinous observations that this same publication offered up only a year ago at this time.

Maybe something has started to sink in. In "The Limping Middle Class," economist and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich has some analysis and striking graphics, illustrating the difference between "The Great Prosperity: 1947-79" and "The Great Regression: 1980-Now" (hint: those dates aren't coincidental).

Well, maybe at least the unemployed will have time to read.

Some further Labor Day resources:

• Darlene Superville, "Obama Labor Day Speech: President Says Congress Must Pass Jobs Plan (video)" Huffington Post, 5 Sept.
• Sam Hananel, "Labor Unions Adjust to New Reality Under Obama," Huffington Post, 5 Sept.

The Nation has compiled a list of "Top 10 Labor Day Songs" (with audio and video)
• The Library of Congress, which last year focused on the history of the holiday, this year offers a guide to resources on labor and labor history.
• In "Sacrificing Their Lives to Work," The New York Review of Books calls attention to the deaths of 72  migrant workers murdered by drug dealers while trying to reach the US last year. (Further information at
• Blogger and fellow Tweep Barbara Sarudy (@History_Art) has a feature on "Women and Labor Day." History magazine (@HistoryMag) even picked up and tweeted her "Labor Day Photos of 19th-Century African American Women Working."
• The Jewish Museum tweeted, "Here's to all the social and economic achievements of American workers!" along with an untitled Ben Shahn photo of workers in a field, c. 1935.
• The Newseum asks, "What was the worst job you ever had?"

Previous posts from this site:

• from 2010: "What's Left? Squeezing the Workers Out of Labor Day"
• from 2010: "Labor Day Postscript"
• from 2009:  "Labor Day . . . and who was talking about the Labor Movement?"

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Hurricane Track Through the Northeast

Amherst is fortunate in having not only an outstanding emergency response team, but also an outstanding IT department, led by Director Kris Pacunas, who, together with GIS Administrator Mike Olkin, has made it possible to put the latest technologies to use in the service of planning as well as communication and data management. Our GIS (Geographic Information Systems) are particularly robust, and offer residents information not only on properties and zoning, but even street trees, sewers, and cemeteries.

The Valley is also home to a lively and informal Valley GIS network, whose members, drawn from government, academe, and other areas, gather together outside of work to share tips on technology and data sets.  They were therefore on top of the evolving earthquake hurricane reports and helped to circulate information in the community.

Here is a fine representation of of the track of Hurricane Irene and its precipitation, prepared by Andy Anderson of Amherst College.

Here, from the US Geological Survey, is further information on the hurricane, as well as the August earthquake.


• The US Geological Survey offers this handy overview of what GIS does and how it works
• a recent video explains the role of the military in developing GIS

Student Return updates

I met with my new first-year advisees yesterday, had a great class.

In the meantime, with every passing day, Amherst is assuming its school-year character.  Driving past a student rental yesterday evening, I saw my first big lawn party with a sign informing drivers, "You honk, we drink."

Of course, as one of my Tweeps recently remarked, "if they need a reason to drink (honk) they just aren't in the big leagues ;-) " I replied that it was probably just that they were not very athletic and considered this a form or sport.

In the meantime, inspired by the satirical advice proffered to new Boston-area students, I am thinking of collecting my own advice for the new Five-College arrivals.

First admonition:
Be sure to pronounce the "h" in Amherst very clearly, so that people will not think you are an ignorant outsider.
Your suggestions?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Historical Anniversaries: Muammar Gadhafi Takes Power

As the various this-day-in-history sites remind us, today is the anniversary of the day, 42 years ago, when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (or Qaddafi, as we used to spell it, and Gadhafi, as we are often now spelling it) overthrew King Idris of Libya.

I just have one thing to say:  So, how's that evil dictator thing working out for you these days??

Student Return Redux 3: Rejected!

To complement the recent posts on the annual return of the students from their summer migrations (1, 2, 3):

As the new college year begins around the country, I hope that students and their parents are happy with the choices they have made. Some students of course met with rejection from some of the institutions to which they applied, and that's never pleasant. Still, the modern rejection letter is an overflowing cup of kindness compared with the bitter medicine they spooned out in the old days.

Take a look at this earlier post containing a 19th-century rejection letter, whose terse message could nowadays be translated as:

"Dude! Shape up, and call us when you're serious and have got your act together!"

Student Return Redux 2: The Young and the Restless

To complement the recent posts on the annual return of the students from their summer migrations (1, 2):

Think students in Amherst are too wild? Think they have too much power over both town and gown?

Think again.

And ever wonder where that "town-gown" phrase came from in the first place?

Check out this earlier post on the origins of the university and the character of student life in the Middle Ages.

Student Return Redux Resource 1: The Young and the Rested

In my previous post, I alluded to the anti-student sentiment that occasionally crops up here among some of our residents. Like it or not, we're a young town.

Thanks to the relatively small size of the permanent population and the large size of the student population, Amherst happens to be the town with the lowest median age in the Commonwealth (21), whereas Alford is the oldest (60.5). The median age in Massachusetts as as whole is 38.5.

Check out this earlier post, which features text and video from a Boston Globe piece on the topic. Choice phrases: "a town of bachelors and bachelorettes," and "a lot of hipsters going around."