Monday, October 31, 2011

Snowtober, Snowmageddon: whatever you call it, it's pretty nasty

Nobody expected the early October snow to be quite this bad and disruptive here in the northeast--much more so, as the New York Times pointed out today (at least the paper came) than Hurricane Irene.

I somehow ended up in the middle of it. I had to forgo the Amherst House tour—a benefit for the Amherst Historical Society and Museum, on whose board I serve—because I had earlier agreed to chair a session at the Northeast British Studies conference in Worcester. It was a very enjoyable time, though the anticipation of bad weather on the way home took some of the pleasure out the event. It proved far worse than anticipated. Many people on the road that weekend decided to seek accommodations rather than travel further, and hotel rooms quickly filled up. I was intent on going back in any case, but I did decide to convoy with a colleague. Slushy and slippery roads and at times near-blinding snow slowed traffic to a crawl, so that a trip that should have taken about 80-90 minutes lasted nearly four hours. I saw a good many accidents, ranging from cars that ran into ditches to those that hit guardrails head-on. There seemed to be at least one serious accident involving a large trailer-truck and a car. Even coming through Amherst, there were delays: trees down all over. Route 116 north of UMass was blocked by debris and emergency vehicles.

When I came home, there was still electricity, though lights flickered a few times. The power finally went out late in the evening. Reports indicated that 9,000 of WMECO's 126,000 customers were without electricity (which at least allowed me to quip that I was now among the 93 percent as well as the proverbial "99 percent.") Temperature in our house dropped to about 45 degrees Fahrenheit at night, but a woodstove in the addition made life more comfortable.

There was severe tree damage--blocking roads and downing power lines--throughout town and in particular, it seemed, at the norther end. Damage in our yard was not severe, but nonetheless sad: a dogwood and at least one of the antique apple trees near the house broke (because the trees still have their leaves, damage was much worse than in a typical winter storm).

The Dickinson Museum lost power but escaped major loss. Fallen trees and branches damaged a few sections of the recently restored fence (more on that in another report).

On Saturday, residents flocked to a Stop & Shop in Hadley, largely darkened except for emergency lights at checkout and the ends of aisles.

Dairy foods, meats, frozen foods, and other perishables were removed. Blood stains the racks.

These lobsters died in their tank instead of a pot of boiling water.

A brief report from Town Hall, where I am sitting this afternoon because I needed to charge my phone and computer. Town Manager John Musante is back at work and fully in charge of things, coordinating with the various public safety and public works divisions and keeping the community informed via email updates and SMS. There was only a skeleton staff here today, though it is expected that the building will be open for normal business tomorrow.

Fortunately, the homeless shelter was able to open in time for the storm, and served five clients. Others in need of help, including travelers stranded in town, got help from the police and other authorities.

Power in central Amherst has been restored. As of this afternoon 63% of Amherst was still without power. When John called with an update last night, he hoped that power would be restored to everyone within 48 hours. This afternoon, the estimate was a more cautious and vague "multiple days."  As he and Director of Conservation and Development Dave Ziomek (whom I also saw here) indicated, power went out in some sections of town on Saturday night, but because of the extent and nature of the storm damage, WMECO decided to shut down the entire town so that it could more systematically address problems and repair service. Power enters the town grid from three points or stations: one on College St. in east Amherst, one on West Bay Road, and one on Route 116 in the north.  The general plan was to work outward from each station.

As Dave and John explained, the work is particularly delicate because of the extensive tree damage. Not only did trees take down power lines in some places. In others, they are resting on the lines, which means that each such limb has to be carefully lifted out cut away and power in the affected segment tested and restored.  The Department of Public Works took the lead in clearing debris from roads, and it has now been joined by other groups. Today, WMECO announced that its crews are being joined by those from Westar.

Town Manager Musante says that coordination among Amherst departments has been excellent. And on the bright side: as he and Dave Ziomek told me, the declaration of a local and state emergency means that reimbursement for a large share of the clean-up and repair expenses will be available. Not only is this good news for the budget in general: it also allows town staff more flexibility in deciding which actions to carry out where.

On balance, we have been lucky: there were no fatalities or even serious injuries. By contrast, a 20-year-old Springfield man was killed when he touched a guardrail that had been electrified by a downed power line, and two Sunderland residents have been hospitalized, apparently because they tried to use a gas grill indoors. Amherst Fire Chief Tim Nelson was blunt in warning residents not to grill indoors: "If you do this you will die. Period." He's right: both gas grills and charcoal fires generate carbon monoxide that can easily build to fatal levels (1, 2 ).

Like many other towns in the region, Amherst had decided to postpone Halloween trick-or-treating until next weekend (in our case, November 6). As one of my tweeps put it, "Nothing scarier than a 9yo having a light saber duel w/ a dangling power line."

Latest updates on other institutions:

Amherst public schools are closed tomorrow. UMass and Amherst College are set to reopen Tuesday, but Hampshire College, which sent students home or found them accommodations elsewhere in the Valley, now does not plan to have students return until Wednesday afternoon, which means that classes resume on on Friday (Thursday is an advising day.)

Tuesday update:
latest estimates are that some portions of town may not have power until Friday. It's going to be a long week.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Season of Tolerance, Season of Intolerance: Vandalism of Sacred and Historic Sites in the Middle East

During the season of the Jewish High Holidays, we heard the shocking news that vandals—apparently Jewish extremists—had set fire to and vandalized a mosque and its holy books in Tuba-Zangariyye, in northern Israel (video here). Israeli political and religious leaders were swift to condemn the crime in the strongest terms. President Shimon Peres spoke out against the incident in the context of a High Holiday message, and then visited the site in the company of an interfaith delegation, declaring,
I am filled with shame for this hateful act. I came here, to this burnt Mosque, and I am shocked to the depths of my soul. This is desecrating the holy. One cannot put up with this abomination and I believe that there is not one Israeli who is not ashamed by this arson attack. This evil act is not only against the law, it is against Judaism, morality and spirit. We will not rest and will not be silent until we apprehend the culprits and they will be punished.
The Sephardic Chief Rabbi said, "This is a desecration of God's name, a desecration of the State of Israel, and a desecration of all peoples and religions. All of us must raise our voices against terror." The Prime Minister's office described Benjamin Netanyahu as "furious," quoting him as saying, "The pictures are horrifying and have no place in Israel," whose values of "freedom of religion" the incident flagrantly contradicted.

Arab voices, both in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority, laid the ultimate blame at the foot of what they saw as an insufficiently sharp response to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab incitement. Some commentators thought they saw a reflection of that concern in Peres's remarks, as well. And opposition leader Tzipi Livni said, "Such serious incidents obligate us to conduct a national self-examination."

The situation seemed to worsen when, soon afterward, there were reports of vandalism of Muslim and Christian cemeteries in Jaffa, followed by the firebombing of a synagogue there. Political and religious leaders from all communities condemned the new attacks and called for calm. (1, 2)  (Although some foreign publications such as the Guardian were quick to ascribe blame to "settlers," the actual scenarios and identities of perpetrators were not clear 1, 2, 3).

What got far less attention was the desecration of the Jewish sanctuary at Joseph's Tomb, in Nablus (Palestinian Authority). IDF troops preparing the site for worship during the High Holidays found the interior defaced with swastikas. The Nablus area has been identified with the biblical Shechem, where, according to tradition, key episodes in the lives of the Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob took place and Joseph was buried after his descendants brought his body out of Egypt during the Exodus.

Joseph's Tomb: lithograph by David Roberts (Brussels, 1849)
Most scholars question the identification of the edifice with Joseph, though that is beside the point in this context. The historical veracity of traditions associated with many holy sites of various faiths is, after all, tenuous at best.

The left-wing peace activist group Gush Shalom condemned the attack as follows:
“The swastika is a vile symbol of racist, murderous ideology, and it is clear that drawing this symbol anywhere in the world is a vile deed – especially in a Jewish religious holy place,” Gush Shalom spokesperson Adam Keller said.

“Joseph’s Tomb in the heart of the city of Shechem is a holy place for Judaism and the desire of religious Jews to visit it is perfectly legitimate,” he added.
Keller went on to note that some such sites, especially those located in the Palestinian Authority, were sacred to more than one faith, and that Jewish worshipers needed to be sensitive to local rules.

Although the vandalism was quickly repaired and the building was not permanently harmed, the incident was nonetheless at least as noteworthy as the attack on the mosque. First, by contrast, it earned no public criticism from leading Palestinian and Muslim figures (a call from the ADL for a condemnation notwithstanding), and no comparable outcry—or even coverage—in the world press. Second, it formed part of a long-standing pattern affecting both the Tomb and Jewish sacred and historic sites in general.

Joseph's Tomb has been the site of repeated vandalism and even violence (photos of the most recent incident, half a year ago, here). The Palestinian Ma'an News Agency, citing AFP, summarized:
Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, the site was to remain under Israeli control. But the Israeli army evacuated the premises in October 2000 shortly after the start of the second intifada, or uprising, and it was immediately destroyed and burnt by the Palestinians.
The restoration of the tomb was completed recently, and following improved security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, the army allows Jewish worshipers to make monthly nocturnal pilgrimages to the site.
In 2001, Columbia anthropologist Nadia Abu El Haj provoked controversy with a book on the politics of Israeli archaeology that won plaudits in some fashionable political and non-specialist academic circles but little respect from serious field archaeologists and historians of the topic. Among its most controversial aspects was her willingness to legitimize what she coyly calls "looting" of historic and archaeological resources as: "a form of resistance to the Israeli state and an archaeological project, understood by many Palestinians, to stand at the very heart of Zionist historical claims to the land.” Exhibit number 1, cited in her conclusion:  the destruction of Joseph's Tomb. Abu El Haj's book is but the hyper-theoretical, sophisticated, and "kinder, gentler" form of a disturbing tendency toward denial of the historical and archaeological record of an ancient and continuous Jewish presence (e.g. 1, 2, 3).

An ironic pendant to the Tomb desecration was the story of a Libyan Jew who returned from exile in Italy to support the ongoing revolution. When, citing the long heritage of the Jewish community, he also announced plans to renovate and reopen an abandoned and desecrated historic synagogue, he was threatened, told that he was persona non grata, and forced to leave.

The point, of course, is not to cite one example in order to diminish the others, and on the contrary, to reaffirm the simple truth that all such attacks and desecrations are hateful and equally deserving of attention and condemnation. It is alarming that, in a conflict in which competing political claims are closely linked with competing historical narratives or complicated by outright historical denial, irreplaceable historical and archaeological resources have increasingly become the focus of violence and erasure.

Just this week, conflict flared up again over the revived Israeli plan to construct a new access ramp (said to be necessitated by earthquake damage) to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The controversy dates to 2007, when the initial proposal and concomitant archaeological salvage excavations provoked a firestorm of criticism. Then as now, there was room for debate: The public process has arguably been truncated and bungled. Some Israeli archaeologists have expressed the professional concern that large-scale new construction is unnecessary and would jeopardize historic resources in the ground. Muslim and Arab leaders, by contrast, raise the by now predictable charge that this is all part of a sustained plot to destroy the Al Aqsa mosque and pave the way for the building of a synagogue or even the restoration of the Temple. The Al Aqsa Foundation for Waqf and Heritage is described as saying the latest plan "would lead to the demolition of a section of the mosque itself." Israeli journalist Nadav Shragai cites such charges as yet another example of the vociferous and increasingly entrenched Muslim "denial of the Jewish bond to Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the Temple." (further background: 1, 2, 3, 4)

It need not be this way, for it was not always this way. Although neither the recent nor the distant past was some idyllic interfaith paradise, the fact remains that such acts of outright denial and destruction, like fundamentalism itself, are a modern rather than an ancient phenomenon.

Back in 2007, Israel scaled back and then postponed the Mughrabi Bridge project, but it first took several unusual steps to address the concerns. In addition to inviting the public to witness the salvage work in person and via webams, it sought the mediation of Turkey, then still a friend. This prompted the following recollection from Yehuda Litani about a hitherto unknown but typical episode of Jewish-Muslim cooperation under Ottoman rule. In 1992-93, when Jordan financed the restoration of the spectacular golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, he was privileged to view an artifact that had not seen the light of day for nearly a century:
The Dome of the Rock was surrounded with scaffolding, and before ascending one of them a friend of mine drew my attention to an iron panel that lay on the floor and was inscribed in French. The foreman of the Irish construction company said the panel had been found between the two halves of the crescents at on top of the mosque, and was temporarily dismantled so that the dome could be coated in gold.

The words in French revealed that the Mosque had been renovated in 1899 during Turkish rule, and that the works had been assisted by the Jewish community in Jerusalem led by a public figure called Avraham (Albert) Entebbe, who among his numerous other activities was also the principal of the city's "Kol Israel Haverim" school.

Entebbe, who was the undersigned on the French inscription, was known for his courageous ties with the heads of the Ottoman rule, and the inscription noted that for the purpose of renovating the mosques on the Temple Mount five acclaimed Jewish artists had been invited to Jerusalem. The Jewish stone carvers, wood carvers and iron mongers from various cities in the Mediterranean basin, shared their skills with their Muslim brothers during months of work.

The inscription also noted that all the students at Entebbe's school were given a three-month leave in order to assist their Muslim brothers in the renovations works on Temple Mount. In the last lines of the inscription, Entebbe described the ideal cooperation and understanding that prevailed between Jews and Muslims in the Holy City, which reached its zenith when the Jews undertook renovations of the Temple Mount mosques in 1899.
When he asked to have a photograph made and returned the next day, the panel had disappeared. (Read the rest: "Friendship on the Temple Mount. The wonderful story of Jewish-Muslim cooperation under Turkish rule."

On the one hand: an inspiring story from the past. On the other: yet another crucial historical artifact needlessly lost, and with it, both evidence and the lesson that it could teach. It's tragic in more ways than one.

[update: new arrest in mosque arson attack]

Prophet Isaiah: Occupy Jerusalem!

No, I'm not talking about that issue. (In "The Occupy Movement's Branding Problem" Adam Clark Estes observes, "As the name for a protest, the word 'Occupy' works okay when you put it in front of "Wall Street," but as it becomes a worldwide political movement, it's pretty iffy. Try out: 'Occupy Poland.' Or 'Occupy Palestine.'")

As I recently noted, it was interesting to see how the "sophisticated" readers of the Guardian mostly missed the point of an opinion piece by a British rabbi, attempting to explain the importance of the notion of repentance.

One need not believe in any particular religion, or even God, or for that matter, any sense of "purpose" in life, in order to acknowledge that the world's religions arguably represent the most sustained historical record of our attempt to make sense of our place in the universe and our relation to one another.

The teachings of Judaism pertaining to the High Holy Days and immediately following festivals seem particularly relevant to current debates about economic crisis and social justice, especially in these days of the renewed "J14" and "Occupy Wall Street" movements.

Yom Kippur (copperplate engraving; London, 1780)

As I mentioned in the post on the "Days of Awe," it is striking that the reading from Isaiah for the fast day of Yom Kippur provocatively questions the meaning of such outward piety in the absence of equal obedience to the commandment to do social justice:
Chapter 57
14 [The Lord] says:
Build up, build up a highway!
Clear the road!
Remove all obstacles
From the road of My people!
15 For thus said He who high aloft
Forever dwells, whose name is holy;
I dwell on high, in holiness;
Yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit —
20 But the wicked are like the troubled sea
Which cannot rest,
Whose waters toss up mire and mud.
21 There is no safety— said my God —For the wicked.

Chapter 58
2 To be sure, they seek Me daily,
Eager to learn My ways.
3 "Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?"
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
4 Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
6 No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
To let the oppressed go free;
And untie the cords of the yoke
To break off every yoke.
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
8 Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
Your Vindicator shall march before you...
The High Holy Days are followed by the pilgrimage and harvest festival of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), which commemorates the period in which the Israelites, according to tradition, dwelled in "tabernacles" or "booths" (Sukkot) while wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus.  Because the holiday involves a ritual meal and the construction of a temporary and vulnerable shelter, it naturally lends itself to meditations on the theme of hunger and homelessness.

Sukkot (copperplate engraving; London, 1780)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, citing a tradition that echoes Isaiah's warning, comments:
We celebrate by eating our meals in colorfully decorated succot which remind us of God’s protection in the desert. Our prayers in the synagogue are punctuated by the waving of the Four Species, by which we thank God for His agricultural bounty.
From this description, it might seem that the emphasis during Succot is on religious rituals connecting God and Israel. However, the great legalist-philosopher Maimonides makes the following comment in his Laws of Festivals: “During the days of our Festival, it is incumbent upon every individual to rejoice and to be glad of heart, parents, children and extended family. However, when one eats and drinks in a festival meal, we are commanded to offer hospitality to the stranger, the orphan and the widow together with other poor and needy individuals.
“He who closes the doors of his home or succa booth and only shares his meals with his personal family – without including around his table the poor and bitter of soul – is not rejoicing in a commandment, but is rejoicing in his stomach. About such individuals it is said, ‘Their sacrificial offerings are like the bread of the dead and those who eat in such an environment become defiled....’” The Four Species are symbolically described by the Sages of the Midrash as representing four types of Jews: The “etrog [citron] Jew” is both learned and filled with good deeds; the “lulav [palm branches] Jew” has learning but no good deeds; the “hadas [myrtle] Jew” has good deeds but no learning and the “arava [willow-branch] Jew” has neither learning nor good deeds. We are commanded to bind these four together, in order to remind us that a Jewish community consists of many types of Jews all of whom must be accepted and lovingly included within our Jewish community.
From examples like these, we see that a festival which superficially seems to be oriented solely toward religious ritual actually expresses important lessons in human relationships. (read the rest)
Haim Shine goes even further:
Over the past few years, Jewish holidays . . . have acquired an additional meaning beyond their religious foundation. It is in mankind's nature to seek meaning, and the incredible pace of modern day life puts us in a never-ending quest for more meaning.

The recent Jewish New Year will always be remembered as the day when the false idol of capitalism disintegrated, and its fragments were strewn about the entire universe. Even the waters of many rivers could not wash away the clouds of dust that resulted from the collapse of the modern Tower of Babel. Wall Street's walls fell in minutes, signalling the end of capitalism, just like the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of communism.

.... A modern day association with Sukkot can be this past summer, when Israeli masses rallied together and answered the call of the disenfranchised throughout the country.

Judaism has a unique and ancient answer to the existential economic crisis - a beautiful and wonderful holiday, Sukkot. For centuries Jews have upheld the tradition of leaving the comfort of their concrete or wooden homes and moving in to a temporary tent-like home for eight days. The tradition calls for a small "Sukkah," with branches and leaves for a roof and walls of fabric. It is a structure that is hardly secure, and to which Ushpizin (guests) are invited, enabling every Jew to get to know their neighbor. It is a Sukkah that creates equality among mankind and binds us like the four species that are bound and presented during the holiday prayers.

Sukkot is a holiday in which we pray for rain and return to nature due to our commitment to environmental preservation and the preservation of our resources which ensure our existence. In the Sukkah we experience the temporary nature of our existence and are forced to act responsibly towards the coming generations. It is a wonderful time in which we conclude that our security does not lie in our strength, protection, or our egos, but rather in a life filled with values and respect for human life and honor, as well as a commitment to values, justice and morality.

We can only hope that upcoming events will lead Israelis and all of humanity to ponder the meaning of life beyond material assets.
Of course, holidays and campaigns for social justice, no less than the stock market, can produce outbursts of "irrational exuberance." Last I checked, the Sukkah had come down, and capitalism was still standing. But you get the point. There is much that even radicals can learn from tradition.

Religion is able to propose values, and that's a matter of ethics. How we attain those goals remains a matter for debate. That's the realm of politics.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Planning Bodies Continue to Grapple With Village Center Rezoning

The Zoning Subcommittee (ZSC) of the Planning Board again took up the question of village center rezoning for North Amherst and South Amherst at a public hearing tonight

Although I was unable to arrive for the start of the session, the tenor and basic content were the same as that of previous sessions: objections from a vocal group of residents concerned about what they view as the encroachment of commercial uses into current residential areas, and in particular, the growth of rental housing that they fear (especially to the extent it might attract students) would alter neighborhood character. Controversy centers both on proposed uses and on the new application of form-based codes, an overlay zoning that regulates appearance rather than uses.

Members of Town staff and the Subcommittee attempted to address the questions and argued that the concerns were exaggerated—or simply misplaced, to the extent that they involved issues not properly within the domain of zoning, as such.

The Zoning Subcommittee voted 2-1 to recommend the proposed rezoning to the Planning Board as a whole, which is now taking up the issue. Voting in favor were Jonathan O'Keeffe and Rob Crowner. Bruce Carson voted against it only on procedural grounds: He strongly supported the measure and simply felt that it would be more effective to deal with it at a Special Town Meeting this winter rather than at the Annual Town Meeting early next month.

Update (post-10:00 p.m.)

After three hours of public comment and internal debate, the Planning Board recommended the warrant article to Town Meeting by a vote of 5 in favor, 2 opposed, 1 abstaining.

During public comment, the Planning Board sought first to encourage reactions to the South Amherst/Atkins Corner rezoning proposal, given that almost all discussion to date has focused on North Amherst. As in meeting of the ZSC, a representative of Atkins Farms/Fruitbowl spoke strongly in favor of the measure. At the ZSC hearing, a representative of the large nearby Applewood retirement community, which is also eyeing an expansion, had likewise spoken in favor of the measure. Negative reaction came chiefly from residents Seymour and Alice Epstein, who restated the contents of an open letter to the ZSC: They fear that increased density could have a fateful or even fatal effect on the life of abutters: noise from a nearby shooting range would impair the mental development of children, construction would threaten the existence of the Eastern Brook Trout, and the impact of traffic in the two new roundabouts was unpredictable; hence any rezoning should be postponed until after the actual vehicular circulation could be measured and studied. Planning Director Jonathan Tucker, although noting the thorough preparation that had gone into the zoning proposal, also said that the Board would welcome the submission of any empirical documentation on the issues in question.

The North Amherst discussion added little that had not been said in any of many previous meetings: Residents repeated their insistence that they were not opposed to development as such and proceeded to articulate their opposition to proposed altered uses or density in the village center area. As in the past, the main theme, repeated in several variations, was opposition to rental housing—in particular, anything that might become undergraduate rentals—as well as opposition to commercial or even mixed-use development in areas now predominantly residential. Paola Di Stefano summarized the contents of an open letter to the ZSC and other Town boards and officials by several residents: the belief that there is already too much rental housing in North Amherst, opposition to any zoning designation other than Neighborhood Residential (the current proposal is for the more flexible Village Center Residential) on Montague Road north of Mill River and on the residential stretch of Cowls Lane, "without exceptions for previous or present business use" (emphasis in the original). The letter and petition moreover note the pain of the signatories arising from the fact that the consultants had not adopted the particular vision of the neighborhood that these residents themselves had proposed.

Only a very few residents—notably several members of the North Amherst co-housing project, which was the object of fear-mongering when it was in the planning stages but is now considered a model of dense and sustainable development—spoke strongly in favor of the project and density and intensified and diversified use in general. Architect Laura Fitch, for example, welcomed the opportunity to address and redress what she called "the zoning mistakes of the 1970s."

In a quasi-new twist, it appeared that the objectors might be placated if the controversial areas of Montague Road and Cowls Lane would be removed from the plan—though this would of course seem to vitiate the purpose of the measure, which is to intensify appropriate development in the village center. A number of other town residents—including some from other precincts—expressed these and other concerns.

Planning Board deliberation was fairly limited. Members attempted to clarify regulations and definitions and address the numerous objections. Rob Crowner and Jonathan O'Keeffe, for example, noted that attempts to exclude certain logically appropriate portions from the Village Center simply because residents objected to the designation made little sense. After all, they reasoned, the whole idea behind a "center" is that it is encompasses a certain critical mass of territory and population.

There followed some deliberations as to whether it made sense to proceed with a vote at November Town Meeting. Did the public adequately understand the measure? Was it too complex for Town Meeting to grasp? Should it be divided or further modified? Should discussion be postponed to a Special, later Town Meeting, in order to satisfy public doubts and criticism?

Noting that the Planning Board had already held close to 40 meetings plus 5 or 6 public hearings, a visibly frustrated Planning Director Jonathan Tucker declared, "the notion that somehow Town Meeting members would not have had the chance to educate themselves" is simply "not credible." Everyone is busy, but "then it's our responsibility" to inform ourselves as best we can. "Anyone who contends that this process has not been adequate is deluded."

Planning Board member and contrarian Richard Roznoy thereupon spoke up: "If a 'delusional' can ask a question..." He repeated his longstanding complaint that the proposal did not adequately address transportation needs, specifically, public transit. (His dedication to complete streets and other sustainable transportation policies is self-evident: he arrived dramatically on his bicylce just in time for the end of North Amherst planning charrette last summer, in helmet, and yellow and black jersey and spandex pants, in order to comment briefly on this topic before the meeting dispersed.) In Roznoy's view, the "transportation flaws are just too major" and "cannot be rectified."  Vice Chair Jonathan O'Keeffe asked: was it not true that the basics were there and could always be modified? Mr. Tucker read from the relevant portion of latest draft in order to demonstrate that transportation was indeed adequately addressed. Stephen Schreiber pressed Roznoy on which public transit was being excluded, saying "This is a huge step in the right direction, and I don't see how this precludes public transportation." Roznoy, it became clear, (a) did not consider the mere option or even presence of public transit adequate (e.g. he seems to have insisted not just on bus routes, but also on designated bus lanes, even though this may not be compatible with the engineering or aesthetic of a rural village center), and (b) truly prefers light rail—which, as Mr. Schreiber noted, many of us may want, but few if any of us will live to see.

Mr. Roznoy concluded by saying that he is prepared to be described as "delusional" and to explain his vote at Town Meeting, The latter, it should be noted, is no idle threat. A year ago, the Planning Board brought forward the long-awaited Development Modification Bylaw, which the Town had been eagerly awaiting for many years as a replacement for an old anti-sprawl measure, which, court decisions suggested, was unconstitutional. Indeed, the ticking clock on the expiration of this old Phased Growth Bylaw was perhaps the only factor that lent any common sense of urgency to a Master Planning process that had dragged on for a decade. At that Town Meeting, Mr. Roznoy, in effect offering an unofficial personal minority report, spoke strongly against the Bylaw, arguing that it was so complicated that he could not understand it. The measure, which faced strong opposition from others likewise opposed to or confused by its provisions, went down to defeat.

In the end tonight, the Planning Board voted 5 to 2 to 1 to recommend the Village Center Rezoning measure to Town Meeting,

• Voting in favor were Rob Crowner, Connie Kruger, Jonathan O'Keeffe, Stephen Schreiber, and Chair David Webber.

• Bruce Carson, as at the ZSC, voted against, but only because he preferred a Special Town Meeting as the forum. Richard Roznoy, as expected, opposed the measure because of its presumed inadequacies regarding transportation.

• Sandra Anderson abstained, like Mr. Carson, not due to content, and instead out of preference for a different procedure (voting schedule or forum).

(Circumstances permitting—always a big "if—I will try to elaborate on these concerns if I am, as I hope, able to prepare a more thorough review of the issues prior to Town Meeting.)

[update: corrected a few typos]

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, er, . . . wherever

The "Occupy Wall Street" movement has been a big story in some circles. Not so much in others. For weeks, leftist activists protested that the mainstream media, having profligately covered every wacky utterance from the Tea Party, were ignoring this genuine social movement. That finally changed in the last week or so, as the movement swelled rather than shriveled, and a few prominent Democratic officials and a growing number of other left-liberal figures endorsed the phenomenon. The major liberal magazines, The New Republic (1, 2, 3)  and The Nation (1, 2, 3), are taking the movement seriously. Conservatives of course hastened to denounce it—as, for example, when Herman Cain (though casually admitting, "I don't have the facts to back this up") labeled the whole thing a plot by supporters of the Obama administration, and helpfully added, “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” Eric Cantor dismissed the protesters as "mobs," which New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg accused of "trying to destroy the jobs of working people in this city."

We may have been ahead of the curve. Already more than two weeks ago, students at Hampshire College put up a virtual occupation tent on the lawn in front of the Library, seen here in a shot from the start of the month. (One of the few times, of course, that our students ever endorsed any "occupation.")

Admittedly, graffiti on an engineering structure a few hundred yards away suggested less unity (or seriousness) of purpose.

In the meantime, the real movement has arrived here, as well: there will now be an "Occupy Amherst." Students protested at the University and downtown on the Common last week, as described in this story from the Collegian (which, incidentally features comments by my friend and colleague, economist Gerry Friedman). A major all-town demonstration is planned for Sunday, the 16th.

To be sure, it's easy to dismiss the protesters as a bunch of "trustafarian nitwits," but here is where it's good to be able to historicize one's own position. Much of the old left as well as political establishment had little respect for the hippies and yippies and other countercultural protesters of the 1960s—but even though that movement had more than its share of weaknesses, it ultimately produced or contributed to something more enduring and influential (after all, where is the old left today?). Whether today's movement has that sort of potential is very much an open question. (Personally, I was most intrigued by the analysis of Occupy Wall Street as a self-functioning ecosystem.)

Above all, the protests seem to lack deeper intellectual coherence as well as aims. A flier inviting residents to the Amherst "general assembly" basically asked residents to come and bring their suggestions. This is one clear difference from some of the protests of the so-called "Arab Spring," which, even if made up of diverse and opposing groups with no shared long-term vision, at least had some clear, shared, and verifiable short-term goals: toppling a government, altering the legal and electoral system, and so forth. Ditto for Israel's J14 movement, which eventually won social and economic reforms. It was interesting, incidentally, to see veterans of the Egyptian and  Israeli protest movements offer advice to people whom they evidently but charitably regard as well-intentioned amateurs.

I'm not sure I'll be able to attend on the 16th, as I have to be at the inauguration of the new Amherst College president. It may be just as well. The incoherence of political activism, I can take. (God knows, we're used to it.) I'm not sure how long I could stand the political and rhetorical style, though. As most readers will know, use of microphones and megaphones was banned at many demonstrations (in New York, for example, a permit is required). The activists therefore improvised, creating what The Nation's Richard Kim calls "an ingeniously simple people-powered method of sound amplification":
After the mic check, the meeting proceeds:
with every few words / WITH EVERY FEW WORDS!
repeated and amplified out loud / REPEATED AND AMPLIFIED OUT LOUD!
by what has been dubbed / BY WHAT HAS BEEN DUBBED!
the human microphone / THE HUMAN MICROPHONE!!! (jazz hands here).
The aforementioned Israeli activist had other advice. In essence, if you want to be radical, then be radical, and pay the price:
Wall Street activists told Eidelman that police had threatened to arrest those who used megaphones. Eidelman thought: Why not buy a few hundred megaphones and dare them to arrest everyone? Apparently the idea hadn’t been raised.
Kim's characterization of the human microphone: "The overall effect can be hypnotic, comic or exhilarating—often all at once."

Only one of the three, if you ask me.  As New York Magazine put it,
As you might expect, the message can get a bit garbled, and basic sentences (AND BASIC SENTENCES!) can take three times as long (CAN TAKE THREE TIMES AS LONG!) to complete (TO COMPLETE!). And forget about clearly explaining complex economic arguments to the crowd. We're looking at you, Joseph Stiglitz. Also, as Michael Moore learned, jokes don't really travel well over the 500-person shouting telephone game. Watch our video for a quick primer on the human microphone that's repeated daily down in the crowds. Also, jazz hands!

Combine that with the pseudo-democratic ideal of operating on the basis of consensus, and you have a recipe for, well. . . just watch.

Here, Occupy Atlanta protesters were prepared to welcome civil rights hero John Lewis, who had followed protocol by requesting permission to address the throng. Then one young bewhiskered activist sought to block consensus on the grounds that, whereas Lewis had (to be sure, yes, yes) done much for the country, no one was better than anyone else, and Lewis and his remarks were not on the agenda of the general assembly. You really have to watch the whole thing to appreciate it properly. I confess that I can barely force myself to do so.

Conservatives, who shot and posted this video, of course had a field day. But even some leftists and liberals found the scene anywhere from silly to distasteful. Hip Hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons called the Atlantans "a bunch of (blank)heads." Former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young compared the protesters unfavorably with the civil rights movement of which he had been a leader: “There’s a difference between an emotional outcry and a movement.” “This is an emotional outcry. The difference is organization and articulation.” As for Lewis himself, he just politely said that he had wanted to help and was not offended by the treatment (though one wonders what he makes of the talkbacks on the article that reported this).

I have a friend with unimpeachable leftist and feminist credentials of long standing, and she once told me that she had only a few hard-and-fast political rules. One of them was: never again join any body that operates on the principle of consensus. One can see why (I mean: ONE CAN SEE WHY).

Friday, October 7, 2011

Jewish High Holy Days (and a whiff of antisemitism)

We recently noted the celebration of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The "High Holy Days" of the Jewish calendar—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—have now arrived. The first marks the new year, and the second, the Day of Atonement. The ten-day period is collectively known as the Days of Awe.

As in many other cases, there are striking similarities between the practices of the two religions. Many scholars have noted the direct connection between the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur and the Islamic fast day of Ashurah, derived from a Qur'anic commandment that believers observe "the fast as it was prescribed for those before you." As a distinct Islamic identity and practices crystallized, the focus of fasting and atonement shifted to the holy month of Ramadan. Ashurah became a voluntary fast day and later assumed a separate and higher significance among Shi'ites, for whom it commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala. Still, the parallels between the Days of Awe and Ramadan are apparent: a time of introspection, self-improvement, and acts of charity.

Although it is not generally known, Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish year, falls in Tishri, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. The first month  is Nissan, during which Passover falls. There are actually multiple Jewish "new years."  Rosh Hashanah marks the new year in the sense  of the birthday of the world—Creation—with which the calendar begins. By that reckoning, the new year will be 5772. Nissan marks the beginning of the year in another sense: the spring and advent of the agricultural season, and the birth of true Israelite peoplehood in the Exodus, leading to the covenant at Mount Sinai.

The liturgy for the Days of Awe is a particularly rich and complex one, focusing on the multiple roles of God as creator, king, and judge. The scriptural readings are likewise rich, and even perplexing, for they focus on difficult stories: challenging to the understanding, and in some ways, even seemingly subversive.

On Rosh Hashanah, there is first the surprising birth of Isaac to the aged Sarah and Abraham, followed by Sarah's seemingly cruel expulsion of Ishmael, the son of Abraham's handmaid, Hagar. God protects Ishmael and promises that both he and Isaac will become the ancestors of great nations. Then there is the story of Hannah, who prays desperately to God for a son and is turned away by a censorious priest who thinks her drunk.

In the words of the great scholar Ernest Simon, from 1955:
And so Judaism begins every new year with this victory of the mother over the institution and its soul-deaf representatives. Hagar the Egyptian, the mother of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs, and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, join hands as sisters in maternal suffering and maternal consolation.
The reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah describes the Akedah, or binding of Isaac, when God tests Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his own son.

Again, Simon:
After the suffering of mothers, passive feminine suffering, comes active masculine suffering; he must inflict it on himself. The paradox of his loyal readiness to sacrifice his son, understandable only as mystery, is rewarded; as God’s angel had reserved a well for Ishmael, so God has reserved something better for Isaac: a sacrificial lamb instead of his own sacrifice. The two half-brothers and foes run the same danger and are saved in similar ways; they too have become brothers, as Hagar and Hannah have become sisters.
The readings for Yom Kippur are equally challenging. Thus, for example, the Haftarah (scriptural reading that follows the Torah reading) is from the prophet Isaiah. Ironically, the passage (57:14-58:14) is one in which the prophet questions the value of precisely the fasting that looms so large on this particular holy day. The point, of course, is not to denounce the Day of Atonement or even modest self-denial, as such (though there is no room for asceticism or world-hatred in Judaism). Rather, he criticizes those who fast insincerely, neglecting the purpose of the rituals as a means to the end of reflection on the spiritual, entailing one's obligations to both the divine and one's fellow human beings.

The rabbis made these choices quite deliberately, and there are few better demonstrations of their provocative and open-ended approach to religion and society. The choices typify what Lutheran scholar Norman A. Beck called a "mature" religion, able to relativize its own position and incorporate into its very texts and doctrines a self-critical stance.

The image of the divine particular to this season (and especially interesting from the standpoint of book history) is that of God as scribe or bookkeeper, keeping records and rendering judgment on the lives of individuals in various heavenly ledgers and archives.  According to the rabbinic interpretation, he records the judgment for the preceding year on Rosh Hashanah, but the verdict is not final until it is "sealed" on Yom Kippur. Thus, the emphasis is on constant repentance during the ten days. Prayer, repentance, and good deeds, it is said, can still avert a negative judgment up to the moment that the gates of judgment close at the end of the Day of Atonement.

Accordingly, the traditional greetings for the New Year and Days of Awe are:

From Rosh Hashahah through Yom Kippur:
Shana tova: a good year
L'shanah tova tikatevu v'tichatemu: May you be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year
Leading up to/through Yom Kippur:
G'mar chatima tova: roughly, May you be sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year [literally just: a good sealing]
A week ago, a British rabbi, Naftali Brawer, attempted to explain the meaning of this season of introspection on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" page.
Why am I here? Why do I have the gifts and talents that I do? While the particular answers to such higher-order questions can be deeply subjective, Judaism at least provides a framework for considering them by asserting that every single life is imbued with unique purpose. Such as the following passage from the Talmud: "A human being creates many coins from the same die and they are all identical; the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed is He, coins all people from Adam's die and not one looks like another. This is why every person must say 'The world was created just for me'."

The Talmud is not encouraging narcissism. On the contrary, it is calling on each individual to recognise his or her uniqueness and as a result to make a distinctive contribution in life. It is not a lesson about taking; it is a lesson about contributing and doing something extraordinary with one's life. In other words, identifying that which is unique in us leads us to think less about what we need and more about what we are needed for.

Returning to one's true self through higher-order questioning is what the Sabbath of return is all about. One needn't be Jewish to appreciate its importance and recognise its potential positive impact on our lives and society. 
(The Talmudic passage is also known through a famous teaching of the Hasidic master Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, who said each person should carry two notes in his pockets as reminders on how to live: one reading, "For my sake was the world created," and the other, "I am but dust and ashes.")

What Rabbi Brawer said seems unexceptionable: we seek to identify our individuality and distinctive strengths in order to better the lot of all humanity.

Most of the nearly 100 comments were banal or slightly off-target at worst. Many, for example, questioned the religious assumptions behind the piece or tried to engage in philosophical subtleties regarding the purpose or lack thereof behind human existence rather than focusing on the essay's universal social message.

However, since Comment is Free, ironically, is known as a site that regularly attracts antisemitic talkbacks from its readers, it should come as no surprise that some of them gratuitously seized upon the column as an opportunity to attack Jews. The editors deleted a handful of comments, but CiFWatch, which monitors the site for intolerance and hate speech, managed to catch a couple of classics that were allowed to stand until this unwelcome attention led to their removal, as well. One asked whether "Jews believe they have been specially selected by God and are therefore 'superior' to everyone else?"

Charming, Maybe these scribblers, too, should be practicing some introspection and repentance this weekend.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Milan Kundera on Vandalism and Historic Preservation

When called upon to explain the philosophy and values of historic preservation to an outsider, I often liken it to environmentalism, and I invariably refer to humility and caution: the idea that we should not rush to take irreversible action, so confident of our own tastes and power that we presume to dictate the future shape of the world.

Thinking about history and historic preservation in that vein, I often recall a wonderful passage by Czech novelist Milan Kundera, from an essay of June 1967. In a sense, it is only nominally about historic preservation and really about other, much bigger things. Still, the fact that he uses historic preservation is indicative and hardly accidental.

Kundera begins with a point that he elaborates elsewhere, namely, that small nations, unlike large ones, cannot take their continued existence for granted. In the standard narrative, Czech identity was almost destroyed when political sovereignty was lost: first, under the three centuries of German imperial domination, and then again, under Nazi rule, separated by only two glorious decades of modern independence. It was the maintenance of a distinct Czech culture that kept peoplehood alive. Stalinism proved a threat of a different kind: the state remained, but the culture atrophied. Writing in the era of the post-Stalinist "thaw" that preceded the famous "Prague Spring" of 1968, Kundera is both optimistic and cautious: he acknowledges and applauds the relaxing of political controls, the achievements of the Czech New Wave in film, and a new freedom in literature.

At the same time, he worries, a true national culture is threatened in new ways both from without and from within. On the one hand, there are the homogenizing forces of what we have now come to call "globalization," which threaten, in an entirely new way, to limit the relevance or even existence of the languages and literatures of small nations. On the other hand, a vibrant Czech culture cannot be only inward-looking and parochial. Historically, he said, the distinctive Czech culture derived much of its strength from the rootedness in a wider European tradition, the consciousness of which is fast disappearing, and not only in his native land.

Provincialism, he says, is mental as well as geographical. "Provincialism doesn't only have its impact on the nation's literary achievements, but is a problem of the nation's whole existence, especially in its schooling, its journalism. and so on."

He illustrates this point with an example taken from avant-garde film that in turn takes him into the realms of history and art, and then back to party politics:
  A little while ago, I saw a film called Daisies. It concerned two splendidly repulsive girls, supremely satisfied with their own cute limitations and merrily destroying everything which they didn't understand. It seemed to me then that I was watching a profound and very topical parable about vandalism. What is a vandal? He certainly isn't an illiterate peasant who burns a hated landowner's castle in a fit of anger. A vandal, as I observe him around me, is socially secure, literate, self-satisfied, and with no very good reason for trying to get his own back on somebody. A vandal is an arrogant, limited person, who feels good in himself and is willing at any time to appeal to his democratic rights. This arrogant limitedness thinks that one of its basic rights is to change the world into its own image, and because the world is too big for it to understand, it chooses to change the world by destroying it. In exactly the same way, a youngster will knock the head off a sculpture in a park because it seems to insult him by being bigger than he is, and he'll do it with great satisfaction, because any act of self-assertion satisfies man.

  People who live only in the immediate present, unaware of historical continuity and without culture, are capable of transforming their country into a desert without history, without memory, without echoes, and without beauty. Vandalism today is not just something that is fought by the police. When representatives of the people or the relevant officials decide that a statue or a castle, a church, an old lime tree, is pointless and order it to be removed, that is just another form of vandalism. There's no substantial difference between legal and illegal destruction and there is not a great deal of difference between destruction and prohibition. In the chamber a certain Czech deputy recently demanded, in the name of twenty-one deputies, a ban on two 'difficult' films, one of them, by an irony of fate, Daisies, a parable about vandals. He uncompromisingly denounced both films and at the same time declared quite explicitly that he didn't understand them. There is no real contradiction in such an attitude as this. The biggest sin of these two works was that they were above the heads of those who did not like them and thus insulted them.
—"A Nation Which Cannot Take Itself for Granted," in Gale Stokes, ed., From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945, second ed. (NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 151-55; here, 153-54
For him, then, respect for the past, humility regarding the future, and freedom of expression go hand in hand. It is a potent mix.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

29 September: Birthday of Architect Henry Hobson Richardson

Richardson's muscular yet elegant style, derived from the architecture of the early Middle Ages, came on the scene at just the right time: as a variety of historicizing styles competed with one another and prosperous individuals, towns, and organizations confidently sought to display their status through new edifices.

Mass Moments tells us:
He designed nearly 80 buildings, including churches, libraries, railroad stations, and private homes, many of them in Massachusetts. His buildings were visually striking and beautifully proportioned. He used forms inspired by early medieval churches, including rounded arches, massive towers, and rugged stone walls, with blocks often laid in bands of contrasting color. Widely copied across the nation, "Richardsonian Romanesque" became the first and only architectural style ever named after an American. (read the rest
Here, some examples of neo-Romanesque buildings (though none by Richardson himself) in the Pioneer Valley:

Amherst Town Hall (H.S. McKay, 1889-90)

Hampshire County Courthouse, Northampton (Henry F. Kilbourn, 1884-86)

Forbes Library, Northampton (William Brocklesby; opened 1894)

"Richardsonian Romanesque" has become a term now known beyond the circles of architectural aficionados. Less well known is Richardson's work as a designer of interiors and furnishings, a topic that my fellow preservationist and tweep Anulfo Baez has written about here: "In Harmony with the Architecture: The Furniture of H.H. Richardson."