Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Covering Amherst 100-Percent: With the 99%

As I've mentioned, Sunday, October 16, proved to be a busy day on the civic calendar. While Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe was serving the "99 percent" by helping to oversee the annual Shelter Sunday fund drive, I was representing the Town before the "1 percent" at the inauguration of the Amherst College President. As it happened, it was also the date of the first "Occupy Amherst" gathering on the Common.

Unwilling to miss two populist opportunities in one day, I headed over to the rally as soon as I could.

I arrived in time to hear the crowd chanting, "We are the 99 percent." It was metaphorical, or a statement of values and desires, of course, for it wasn't much of a crowd: far fewer people than at the inauguration. In fact, there didn't seem to be even 99 individuals there, let alone any significant percentage of the population. But it's the thought that counts.

To be sure, I had no idea what to expect. I had read about the loopiness and extremism of some adherents of the "occupy" movement. So, when I spotted yellow banners with a vertical emblem in the center, I just naturally assumed that they were the flags of Hezbollah (after all, Judith Butler  calls it a "progressive" social movement"). Turned out this was instead a counterdemonstration by the local Tea Party. (Who knew we even had such a thing?)

The Tea Party-ers were a small but dedicated bunch. They came well prepared, with neatly lettered signs and strong messages.

Can't say these people don't know their own minds. (I can say they know nothing about socialism or communism, if that's what they think we have here now.)

They were even passing out free books.

As for the actual "Occupy" rally, it was a sedate and eclectic affair, promoting various causes, from a general longing for social justice to pacifism and local agriculture. One red flag, one American flag. Some gray hair, some pink hair. Something for everyone.
the 99 persons (or close to it)

Food, Not Bombs

Gray Hair, Pink Hair

Dissent IS Patriotic
My Tweep @amymittelman makes a statement

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Select Board Welcomes the Amherst College President, Anno 1994

As I noted in my last post, I would, on the occasion of the inauguration of the Amherst College president, have preferred to offer just some pithy and witty remarks.

Problem was, a predecessor, Brian Harvey, beat me to the punch in this pitch-perfect greeting to President Tom Gerety more than a decade and a half ago:

Town Greetings

From Brian C. Harvey
Chair, Amherst Select Board

On behalf of all the people of Amherst, I congratulate Tom Gerety and welcome him—officially—into our community. In preparing for today's festivities I tried to think of an appropriate presentation I could make on behalf of the Town. I wanted something that would capture, at a stroke, the special place of higher education in our community, and that would symbolize the role of the President of the College as a leader both of the campus and of the intellectual life of the community.

So I am happy to present to you, Tom, in token of your high calling and in recognition of the awesome responsibilities that you now undertake, the following touchstones of academic leadership:
  • the Town's keg-licensing by-law;
  • its noise ordinance
  • the caution that no person shall play at ball or any similar amusement in any street of the town;
  • our local regulations regarding the application of Recombinant DNA Technology; and perhaps most important,
  • our requirements concerning the control of cattle and other animals in the public way
So welcome, Tom. Please accept our congratulations and best wishes, and remember: there is no overnight parking on the public streets between December 1 and April 1.

It's what I wish I could have said. Damn, Brian. You scooped me.

Then again, any mention of kegs and noise ordinances would have brought up the ultra-sensitive current topic of "students" and their antisocial behavior (alleged or real), and then I would have been in what former President Bush called "deep doo-doo": rowdiness and party houses, as well as the ongoing debate about "student housing."

Not exactly the thing for a festive occasion. Might as well just lick the third rail of the IRT.

Or, as I decided: talk about history and education and that sort of thing. In the past. Much safer.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Town Greetings: Inauguration of Carolyn "Biddy" Martin as President of Amherst College

As noted in the previous post, I was deputized to represent the Town at the inauguration of Amherst College President Biddy Martin. Because several people requested that I share those remarks, it seemed simplest to post them here.

The event, as one might expect of the sponsoring organization, was a dignified and immaculately organized affair. Inauguration Coordinator Pat Allen saw to it that everything ran like clockwork (do we still say that in the digital era?). Nature, history, and a sizable endowment combined to provide the ideal setting: the southern end of the quad at the War Memorial, looking out over acres of protected land, with the magnificent Holyoke Range as backdrop. Even the weather cooperated, granting us a crisp and sunny morning after a stretch of rainy days.

musicians arriving for the ceremony: barely 20 minutes to go, and most seats still empty
The only thing that proved beyond the limits of planning and organization was: the students. Not only as we arrived for assembly in Pratt Hall (originally the wonderful old natural history museum, since refurbished as a dormitory), but even as we finally "processed" to the dais, young scholars were few and far between, as the rows of empty seats testified. It was, after all, 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning, which, as we know, follows Saturday night. (In fairness, some could plausibly plead to having stayed up too late at the inaugural dance, which President Martin herself visited until the wee hours.) At any rate, they eventually drifted in.

dignitaries line up in their regalia
outgoing President Anthony Marx pauses to greet a young well-wisher
The ceremony was complex, and if anything, threatened to burst the bounds of the schedule if not tax the patience of the audience. Careful planning and careful instructions prevented that. Speakers were given strict instructions on time limits, which most managed to obey. There was a lot to get done.

After a slightly wobbly rendition of the overture from Händel's Royal Fireworks music by the college orchestra (one could almost hear the waves rocking the barges), things got underway. There were numerous "greetings": from Amherst College and its alumni, trustees, staff, and students; from other institutions of higher learning; from the town (I represented the Select Board, and Superintendent Maria Geryk, the public schools). There were honorary degrees and various ceremonial gifts, from the symbolic keys to the College (many or most from buildings that no longer exist) to a volume (just on loan) from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington; few outsiders know that it belongs to Amherst College. There was music, old and new: in the latter case, an original piece by composer and faculty member Eric Sawyer. Among the highlights—in addition, of course, to the actual inauguration act and the address by President Martin—was Richard Wilbur's (Class of '42) reading of his poem, "Altitudes," which, concerned with spirituality and art, references both classical Europe and the nineteenth-century Amherst of Emily Dickinson.

(the full program booklet—all ten pages of it)

As on most such occasions, you ponder what to say—only more so. You don't know the audience and its tastes. The only thing you do know (and had better remember) is that they're not there mainly to hear you. Given my choice, I would have preferred to come up with something brief and witty.

In the end, lacking sufficient inspiration and creativity, I decided to stick with what I knew best: Amherst history and the Five Colleges. It proved to be the right choice. As chance would have it, several of us, including Dean of Faculty Greg Call and President Martin herself, gravitated, independently and in complementary ways, toward similar themes. We all dealt with the pattern of experimentation and change: Amherst College, despite its elite status (and at times, marked awareness of same), always had a democratic streak that made room for or even encouraged visionary change. We all mentioned the educational innovator and gadfly Alexander Meiklejohn, who served as president from 1912 to 1924. We all noted the College's tradition of assistance to students of merit rather than means, and we all noted the eventual and essential acceptance of diversity, and the significance of selecting a woman president.

* * *

Remarks for the Amherst Select Board, on the Occasion of the
Inauguration of Amherst College President Carolyn (“Biddy”) Martin
16 October 2011

When Noah Webster—whose birthday it happens to be today—spoke at the laying of the cornerstone here in 1820, he praised the location in part by virtue of the townsfolk, “whose moral, religious & literary habit dispose them to cherish the cultivation of the mind.”

The town seal depicting “the book and the plow,” invented by an Amherst professor [for our Bicentennial] in 1959, reflects our self-image. None of the pioneering institutions of higher learning in Amherst would have come into being were it not for the peculiar passion for learning evinced by the residents of this rural community.

It was the people of Amherst who created the Amherst Academy in 1814, to provide a modern secondary education for women as well as men. Citizens associated with the Academy in turn created Amherst College, to provide future Christian clergy with a new liberal-arts education, regardless of financial means. The ordinary citizens of Amherst were no less enthusiastic, donating not only money, but also stone and lumber: laboring day and night, we are told, “like the Jews in building their temple.”

When the Morrill Act of 1862 created land grant colleges to advance democratic education and scientific agriculture, our residents fought to win a charter for the new Massachusetts Agricultural College. To be sure, Amherst College, with its, shall we say, typically complex mixture of altruism and acquisitiveness, unsuccessfully sought control over the new institution—but its intellectual elite both shaped and led it.

A century later, the four area colleges—led by visionary Amherst administrators and alumni—created Hampshire College, which offered an experimental interdisciplinary education suited to a coming information age and global community.

Amherst College was conceived of as a bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy, and yet from the start, it grew and adapted. It never imposed a religious test on students or faculty. It graduated its first African-American student in 1826. It (finally) admitted women in 1975.

Vice President Webster envisioned a college shaping a world devoted to learning rather than destruction:
Too long have men been engaged in the barbarous works of multiplying the miseries of human life. Too long have their exertions been devoted to war and plunder: to the destruction of lives, and property; to the ravage of cities; to the unnatural, the monstrous employment of enslaving and degrading their own species. Blessed be our lot! We live to see a new era in the history of man . . .
In welcoming President Martin, we also mark a new era: in the history of men—and women.

Amherst College has not always been kind to its presidents: in the 1920s, when Alexander Meiklejohn tried to update that vision, he was forced out for being too radical. Today, his vision of progressive, interdisciplinary education and community-engaged learning seems, well, visionary. He left for the University of Wisconsin. In a happy irony, we today install as President a graduate of that great institution.

On behalf of our government and residents: Welcome! May we always embrace rather than fear new ideas and approaches. May your efforts be crowned with success as the partnership between the Town and College of Amherst approaches its third century.


Information on Biddy Martin (including her inauguration) (official Amherst College President website)
Video of the inauguration and text of President Martin's address (official Amherst College website)
Video of the inauguration (YouTube)
• "Carolyn Martin inaugurated as first woman president at Amherst College," Hampshire Gazette, 17 Oct. 2011
• "Amherst College president inaugurated," Boston Globe, 16 Oct. 2011

Your Select Board: Covering Amherst 100% (another example)

Even two weeks before the premature blizzard caused the Snowpocalypse last month, your Select Board had the town covered 100-percent, in a manner of speaking.

All members of the Select Board were invited to attend the inauguration of new Amherst College President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin on Sunday, October 16.

As it happened, that was also the date of the annual  Shelter Sunday, on which volunteers fan out into the town, raising funds for service organizations that help our neighbors in need. (In 2010, they raised over $ 34,000.)

Because Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe was committed to her customary service on behalf of that effort, I was deputized to represent the Town at the celebration of the gown.

And so it happened that, while Stephanie was going door-to-door on behalf of the "99 percent," I was wearing a suit (for the first time in ages) and sitting on the dais among and for the sake of the "1 percent"—not exactly a role I'm accustomed to.

Between us, we covered the town 100-percent. As in the case of so many political issues, I guess that's all that counts: compromise, teamwork, and getting the job done.

Details to follow.

Snowtober Postmortem

We're finally clearing away the last debris from the great October snowstorm, but the ultimately more important work is the assessment of how we coped this time and what we can do in order to be better prepared in the future. Town Manager John Musante reported on this to the Select Board last Monday.

Although the Town generally gave itself satisfactory marks on the report card, it also checked a few boxes labeled, "room for improvement," mainly (as noted earlier) in the areas of communication and outreach.

  • "Expansion of use of interactive social media to transmit messaging during emergencies": high time to make use of Twitter and the like
  •  Expanded use of emergency staff "in non-traditional roles to assist in emergencies": checking in on residents, communications, and so forth
  • Providing warming or cooling places as sites of relief during extreme weather, but also as places for social interaction and information-sharing
Concrete action steps:
  • Install an emergency generator in Town Hall, and outfit the Town Room as an Emergency Operations Center
  • "Campaign to add citizens to the emergency alert list. Include interactive social media." [Note: the current system automatically subscribes all residents via their landlines, and they have to opt out if they wish not to take part. However, subscription by cell phone is opt-in {voluntary}, and relatively few residents have added themselves in this way. They can do so here.
  • Expand the Police "Are You OK" program by adding other constituent groups such as Elder Services and the Health Department Medical Needs Registry
  • Complement existing Medical Reserve Corps by creating a new Citizen Emergency Response Team, for which FEMA/MEMA funding could be sought.

I've uploaded the complete document, along with the chronology of the snowstorm response.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Veterans Day in Amherst

flags at half-staff in the morning, before the ceremony

I was unable to attend this year's Veterans Day ceremony at the Town Common, but here is the program:

Veterans Day Program November 11, 2011

Call to Order: 10:45 A.M. American Legion

Invocation Fr. Gary Dailey of the Newman Center

Pledge of Allegiance Commander from American Legion and VFW

Welcoming from Town Manager John Musante

Words from Select Board Stephanie O’Keeffe

Reading of Heroes on the Home front Written by John Paradis; Reading by Jeannie Joy - Amherst Resident

National Anthem /Flag Raising VFW and American Legion
Performed by Student from Wildwood School Guest Speaker Capt. Colleen Caulley (Marines)

Reading of In Flanders Fields Arthur Quinton - Amherst Resident

Benediction Fr. Gary Dailey

Refreshment after Ceremonies at VFW

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Amherst Village Center Rezoning: A Conversation

As the final day of Annual Town Meeting approaches, there are still plenty of questions about the proposed rezoning of the North Amherst Village Center and the emerging Village Center at Atkins Corner in South Amherst.

Those questions concern both the general proposed uses and the new overlay of "form-based codes," which are an established planning and smart-growth tool but not one that is yet familiar to the general public.

Last week, Amherst Media invited several of us involved in the process to engage in a brief conversation about the process, for the benefit of Town Meeting members and other residents.

The task was, briefly, to explain at once the general logic behind rezoning of village centers, the specifics of the proposed uses for these two areas, and the nature of the new "form-based codes," which take the place of traditional dimensional regulation.

Taking part were:
• Rob Crowner, member of the Planning Board, who will make the motion at Town Meeting. (Rob is a past Chair of the Public Works Committee and member of the Comprehensive Planning Committee.)

• Laura Fitch: architect and North Amherst resident (Pulpit Hill Co-Housing). In her professional capacity, Laura is employed by fellow North Amherst resident Barbara Puffer-Garnier to design plans for one of the proposed new developments in the village center.

• Me: I, too, am a North Amherst resident, as well as a member of the Select Board (I will be presenting our official position on the article at Town Meeting). As the former Chair of both the Comprehensive Planning Committee and the Historical Commission, I am also very much engaged with issues of sustainability and how they relate to historic and neighborhood character.

• Sarah LaCour: a professional planner and historic preservationist, currently employed in North Amherst as Director of Conservation and Planning, W. D. Cowls, Inc. Land Company. W. D. Cowls is among the property-owners proposing new development in the district.
 Further coverage: meetings and interviews relevant to the zoning article, from Amherst Media (ACTV).


Snowtober Snapshots

Just a few scenes of damage and continuing clean-up:
outside Police Station

Sweetser Park

Hampshire College clean-up

Hampshire College clean-up

Hampshire College: broken apple tree outside my office

Hampshire College: the weight of the snow uprooted this tree outside my office

all that is left

crews still at work in North Amherst November 14

crews still at work in North Amherst November 14

crews still at work in North Amherst November 14

crews still at work in North Amherst November 14

Snowtober: Covering Amherst 100% (eventually)

Well, at any rate: 37% with power and 63% without on Halloween; 65% with power and 35% without by November 2; 98% with power and 2% (278 households) without on November 5; 99% restored by November 7. Then, finally, 100%.

Anyway, we survived Snowtober, the Snowpocalypse—whatever one wants to call the unexpected and disastrous early snowstorm.

To be sure, there was much frustration and anger: most of it directed against the utility company, Western Mass. Electric (WMECO), less (though still a fair amount) directed at the Town, in the sense of Town departments and elected officials. (At least one irate resident stormed into Town Hall, announcing that she would "remember" us, come election time.)

Restoration of electrical power, we should make clear, was indeed a matter entirely in the hands of the utility companies. Town staff and government were responsible for emergency services for residents, though as the crisis wore on, we did try to remind WMECO of particular needs and priorities.

It's no fun being the target of abuse, especially when you yourself are in the same boat with the person doing the complaining. Just for the record (in case anyone is wondering): your Select Board and administrators suffered along with you after the lights went out on Saturday, October 29. Select Board member Alisa Brewer was evidently the first to get power back, on Tuesday. Town Manager John Musante, although he lives in a modern development with underground electrical cables in northern Amherst, was without power until Wednesday, as was Select Board member Aaron Hayden, in rural South Amherst. Select Board member Diana Stein, in central Amherst, found that her lights came back on by that evening. Meanwhile, Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, although she, like Ms. Brewer, lives near the University, was without electricity through Thursday. Our power came back only on Friday. For good measure, both John Musante's wife and mine celebrated their birthdays in the cold and dark (though not together as they did last year).

We can therefore empathize with the residents who felt frustrated or ignored.

I myself certainly felt frustrated. It's not terribly reassuring to learn that 99% of your town has power back, when you are still in the 1% without. I live in a semi-rural area at the far northern end of Amherst (the traditional "dirty hands district"): what is more, in one of a stretch of houses that, by some quirk of wiring layout, is both distinct from its neighbors and more prone to outages. Whenever we have an unusually heavy snow or an ice storm, we know that, soon after we hear the pine branches start to crack, one of them will hit the wires, which we will learn , because the transformer will go out with a bang, and the house will go dark. Whenever there is a winter weather emergency, our neighborhood is among the first to lose power and (because it is either unknown or less important to the repair crews) the last to get it back. It has been a source of constant frustration over the years.

Part of the problem—or complication—was that, when the storm hit and power began to fail, WMECO decided to kill power to the entire town, in order to deal with the crisis more systematically and rationally.  A hierarchy was established, and main lines were gradually restored, after which side lines were carefully tested for safety and brought back, one stretch at a time. The process was slow because Department of Public Works crews, eventually assisted by others, had to clear fallen trees branches from roadways and and carefully remove them from snagged or downed electrical lines.

Part of the frustration derived from the fact that, although the system was rational from the standpoint of WMECO, it was not necessarily so from the standpoint of the customer.  I myself was disappointed (but not very surprised) to come home on Wednesday evening and see most of North Amherst, from the Center north along Montague Road, lit up, only to find that nearby houses just to the south and north of us had electricity whereas our little group was still in the dark (and would remain so for another two days).  For some reason, as Ms. Brewer's neighbors did not fail to note, she had power back before they did. Power was restored on the central portion of the Hampshire College campus by Wednesday, but the buildings along Route 116--which one would have thought would be part of a main line restored early--got power later. And some Amherst residents just across the street, east of Route 116, did not get power back until Saturday.

What looks rational to WMECO looks a lot less rational to the person sitting in the cold and dark, gazing covetously at the warm yellow glow emanating from the windows of a neighboring house. It might (as in politics) be worth weighing the benefits of absolute and abstract rationality against those of popular satisfaction and a reasonable share of the greater good. That is: how much is objectively gained and subjectively lost by adhering to such a rigid policy? Might not more, overall, be gained by restoring power to entire neighborhoods at the same time? After all, it is not as if utility companies and other established agents of power and wealth enjoy particularly high public esteem these days.

As the days dragged on and everyone else seemed to have power, I finally tweeted on Thursday night that we were getting desperate and could not hold out much longer:

That seems to have done the trick:

 WMECO took it all in the proper spirit:

All's well that ends well, I guess.

On balance—again, though some residents may not feel that way—we actually did reasonably well. I was not part of the emergency team handling the crisis, but I know from the regular reports that Town Manager John Musante and Acting Town Manager/Director of Conservation and Development Dave Ziomek sent us, as well as Select Board agenda meetings and periodic personal visits to Town Hall, that the team worked around the clock with real determination, considering all eventualities, noting complaints and problems. For example, the Town opened the homeless shelter two days ahead of schedule and arranged to transport other Amherst residents in need to the Red Cross shelter in Northampton. The Department of Public Works soon sought help from private contractors in order to expedite removal of fallen trees and branches. The Town set up power strips in the public areas of the Police Station so that residents could charge cell phones and laptops. And when—despite the arrival of additional electrical crews from Louisiana—the outage dragged on for more than a few days, the Town began compiling lists of addresses and residences still without power, in order to be sure that they were on WMECO's action list and had not simply been overlooked or forgotten. The Fire Department sent volunteers to check on people in outlying areas lacking power and cut off by downed trees and wires. Unlike some of the neighboring towns, where four people died, Amherst suffered no fatalities or serious injuries.

Longmeadow, Massachusetts, a very prosperous community less than half our size, went longer without power. And if you want to hear from some really unhappy campers, let me put you in touch with my tweeps in Connecticut, who did not get power back until the end of the second weekend.

This is not to say that the response was perfect, by any means. There is always room for improvement, and each crisis reveals lacks and gaps. For instance, Town Hall had no emergency generator. We had discussed and then deferred such a request at the Joint Capital Planning Committee (although, as Town Manager Musante pointed out at a recent Select Board meeting, even if we had recommended the purchase, the funding would not have been appropriated in time and the equipment thus would not have been available before the storm). But you can bet that it will be in the next budget proposal.  On balance, we think the Departments of Public Works, Fire, and Police did an admirable job of coping with the crisis, under the circumstances.

An informal web/Facebook survey at MassLive produced a compelling list of likes and dislikes of the emergency response in local towns. In our case:

Like: Town Manager John Musante posted daily messages to the home page of the town website, including listing information such as impassable streets. The town established a special email address to allow residents to report where power was out; emails were used to compile a list for Western Massachusetts Electric Co.

Dislike: The list of blocked streets noted that even many open streets were limited to one lane and were dangerous at night. An online mechanism allowing residents to share their own observations about problematic areas could have helped the Department of Public Works focus efforts and assist drivers to find detours.
That strikes me as a reasonable assessment. In fact, we can elaborate on it. There were limits as to what we (as distinct from the utilities) could do to change the situation. Where we arguably could stand the most improvement was thus in the area of communication. Even here, we had a good basis: Town Information Technology kept things up and running (and our servers are located far out of state, so they were not affected). Emergency updates from the Town Manager via so-called "reverse 911" emergency calls and emails worked well. The problem was: those of us who have cordless phones served by broadband providers (as I do) were out of luck: no Comcast cable service. I happen to have a smartphone, but (1) not everyone does; (2) not everyone who does signed up for alerts via cell phone; and (3) even those of us who had them found it difficult to charge them in the early days. We did not make use of radio as a prime means of communication (though it should be noted that some stations, such as the local NPR affiliate, were temporarily also without power). And as the respondents noted, we should also take into account the desire for two-way communication, and incorporation of ongoing public feedback.

We are also still eager to have feedback about the recent incident: Residents can address it to: (and of course to the usual organs of Town government).

On balance, then, we are generally satisfied with the response, even as we perform our postmortems and attempt to improve the response next time. To the extent that we enumerate our accomplishments, it is not in order to deflect criticism, and rather, simply in order to put the situation in perspective: things were not perfect, but they could have been much worse. Given what we have been through this year—tornado, hurricane, and blizzard—we came through better than expected.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Interfaith Relations and Genuine Multiculturalism: 2011 vs. 1723

It is all too easy to dismiss our modern gestures of religious pluralism as just that: empty and often automatic if not altogether cynical gestures. Want to show you are a good person and inoculate yourself against all criticism without having to think (or even acknowledge what you yourself believe)? Hold an "interfaith" service, of the sort that we saw here and all over the country on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Much easier to invite your Muslim and Jewish neighbors to a one-off politically correct lovefest than to take the trouble to get to know their actual beliefs and engage in real and sustained dialogue.

We are entitled to an ounce of skepticism or cynicism today because those gestures are cost-free and thought-free. That was not always the case. It is good to remind ourselves that even these hollow or pro forma acts are far preferable to what came before (and, for that matter, still exists in all too many places and minds).

The two illustrations of Jewish holidays that I used in a recent post are a case in point. They come from a book published in London in 1780: William Hurd's immensely influential, A New Universal History of the Religious Rites, Ceremonies, and Customs of the Whole World: or, a complete and impartial view of all the religions in the various nations of the universe.

They did not attract our attention precisely because they were neutral or positive in tone. The figures depicted therein look like, well, "ordinary" Europeans. They are not caricatures. Their activities are rendered realistically and without satirical or hostile intent. However, therein lies a tale.

Hurd basically ripped off the illustrations from a famous and pioneering predecessor, the nine-volume Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (1723-1743) by Jean Frederic Bernard and engraver Bernard Picart. (That's one reason that I was able to afford these engravings. The originals by Picart are much more sought-after and thus a good deal more pricey.) In their recent provocative study of that work—The Book That Changed Europe...(Harvard, 2010)—Lynn Hunt, Margaret Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhart describe Hurd as "The English hack" who produced "a clever plagiarism" because "almost all his plates were crude copies of original Picart engravings" while "The text told a completely different story": the victory of Protestantism and the basic denigration of other beliefs and traditions, from the antiquated Jews, Greeks, and Romans, to the irredeemably superstitious savages. (pp. 306-7)

It was a far cry from the radical original, which, they argue, "made readers . . . see religion in a new way":
Despite being the work of two French Protestant refugees who had fled to Holland, the book attempted to accurately depict even Catholic customs, and it gave more favorable and extended attention to Islam than anyone had before. Picart and Bernard devoted so much space to the “idolatrous peoples” of the New World, Asia and Africa because they sought in comparison of the world’s religions fresh evidence for new universalist arguments about the origins and development of religion. They themselves were more interested in what religions had in common – and perhaps even in an heretical religious syncretism – than in how they differed.
Peter N. Miller recently wrote a nice review of this study as well as a complementary one, Guy Stroumsa's A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason (Harvard again), for the New Republic. (Because the piece is behind a paywall, I'll quote the relevant passages.) There, he analyzes the authors' research agendas and conclusions in the context of both cultural history and the history of the book.  The authors persuasively argue that the Picart volume “helped create the field of the comparative history of religion." Miller does not disagree:
By approaching the book as a world in itself, and then leading out from it back into the wider world, they make a strong argument for the significance of this work and its makers. Contextualization and celebration do not always go hand in hand, and while the larger claim—changing the world—does not always come off, it is incontrovertible that the process in which this book participated, if not the book itself, did indeed change the world. For this book represents, in microcosm, nothing less than our scholarly generation’s answer to the old question, “What is Enlightenment?” . . . .
Toleration is central to this new vision of enlightenment. Its motto is not “dare to know” so much as “dare to allow others to know in their own way.” And so we are told that Religious Ceremonies of the World “marked a major turning point in European attitudes toward religious belief and hence the sacred. It sowed the radical idea that religions could be compared on equal terms, and therefore that all religions were equally worthy of respect—and criticism.” The importance of religion in our current world, and the presence in it, or absence from it, of toleration, is what on some level makes works such as this, or Jonathan Israel’s series of mega-tomes on the Enlightenment, monuments to our own concerns. Not only did Religious Ceremonies win a wide readership—and make a lot of money for Bernard the printer—but it also, according to Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt, “helped create the field of the comparative history of religion, and to this day its engravings still appear in museum exhibits as documentation for religious customs.”
At the same time, he finds in Stroumsa's book "a useful corrective" to the ghost of the old "secularization thesis" in the work of Hunt, et al.:
By focusing on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century antiquarian scholarship on religion, which swiftly moved to incorporate the latest ethnographic data on the principle that going far away in space helped one go back far away in time, he shows that Picart and Bernard were in fact the end point of a much longer transition. And this was a transition spearheaded by the Casaubons of European scholarship, the “dead from the waist down” researchers who wrested all sorts of obscure details from the claws of ever-ravenous time. To understand Picart, Stroumsa implies, we need to understand the revolution in Renaissance philology and comparatism. And Stroumsa makes the point that the philological comparison comes before the comparison between manners and mores, and that the sequence is necessary.
The specific way in which Religious Ceremonies of the World functioned as an agent of change was by focusing on rituals—and hence depiction becomes not only possible, but desirable. If everyone has some ritual for birth or death or marriage, then religion appears as a universal phenomenon, and a given religion but a local manifestation of it. Comparison could work to diminish feelings of uniqueness and superiority. Toleration, we are told, followed from this.
He thus concludes by praising Hunt, et al. for providing a new "model of how historians may read images." (one wonders: Is he familiar with Lynn Hunt's earlier work on the French Revolution and similar endeavors?).
The view of its authors is that the engravings are linked to the text, “but they are not just auxiliaries to it.” Hunt and her colleagues are very good at reading Picart to show the subtlety involved in how he chose the image to give to readers. His approach is essentially to “Europeanize” the natives. Even where the text went down arcane byroads, the images stayed focused on the high road: birth, marriage, death, and processions. Thus, in the section on Islam, twenty-two of the twenty-six folio-page engravings illustrate customs and religious ceremonies, even though they cover only 47 of the 291 pages. In this way the images shifted the discussion from a question of truth revealed to a select few to an issue of wider comparative practices.
Why are the images so necessary? If we compare this book to the seventeenth-century literature discussed by Stroumsa, the answer becomes clear. The same project of popularization that moves away from a learned language (Latin) and audience (professors) makes the use of images desirable: they offer a direct connection to the imagination. The broader social process that gave birth to what people today call the “public sphere,” “civil society,” or “commercial society” broadened the reading public, and gave a new meaning to “society.” Publishing was a huge engine of this development. New literary genres such as travel writing, biography, and the novel, and new kinds of books, especially illustrated ones, were essential means of communication.
Here is the illustration from the introduction to the Bernard-Picart book (from my collection; this one, I was able to acquire). It depicts members of four religions worshiping the divine, each in his way. From left: the Jew (with prayer book and what is presumably  a Torah scroll; though none could ever be read in that manner), the Catholic priest before an altar, the "Mohammedan" (shoes removed and holding prayer beads in an attitude of worship), and the "Idolater" praying to the sun and nature. The engraving, by F. Morelon la Cave, lacks Picart's vaunted accuracy but is faithful to his respectful spirit.

If it is good to recognize that many of our multicultural and interfaith activities are less than profound, it is likewise good to remind ourselves of the predecessors who helped to make even such slight gestures cost-free rather than life-threatening. Not least, it is worth realizing that those pioneers of the eighteenth century still just may have something to teach us in the twenty-first.


the web site devoted to the book by Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhart, which includes explanatory material, bibliography, illustrations, and a digital reproduction of the early editions in Dutch, French, English, and German.

• the electronic, searchable Dutch text, from the Digital Library of Dutch Literature

Intolerance Update

As if recent reports of inter-religious desecration of places of worship were not bad enough, we now learn that ultra-orthodox Jews ("Haredi") in Jerusalem have been demeaning and intimidating Armenian Christian clergy: typically, by spitting on them. It's not a new phenomenon; witness this report from 2004.

Old or new, it's a disgrace. It's also a shame that the thuggish young perpetrators do not sufficiently know and value their own tradition. Or to be more precise, they unknowingly perpetuate only part of it.

Although Jews at first understandably tended to regard members of the dominant and hostile Christian culture as idolaters (because of the Trinity and graven images), that eventually changed. And in any case, Judaism, unlike Christianity, did not insist that it was the only path to salvation. It had long held that anyone—even a pagan—who observed the seven moral commandments dating from the time of Noah would earn a place in the "world to come." As Israel Abrahams told us over a century ago in his marvelous compilation on Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1896):
Such tolerance goes far back in Jewish history. 'He who communicates a word of wisdom, even if he be a non-Jew, deserves the title of wise.' [a citation from the Talmud; JW] 'Christians are not idolaters' was the burden of many Jewish utterances . . . 'He who sees a Christian sage,' says the Shulchan Aruch [code of ritual law; JW], must utter the benediction: 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord, King of the World, who has bestowed of Thy wisdom on man.' (415)
He notes: "though the greatest Jewish authorities of the middle ages unanimously declared that the term 'idolater' did not include Christian or Moslem, many of these ceremonial laws remained in force with the masses." (411) Ironically, "the Christian masses were on the whole more tolerant than their priests and rulers. But the Jewish masses were less tolerant than their spiritual and intellectual heads." 

The authoritative tradition thus commands that one should respect and honor a priest. Spitting on "idolaters"? Truly, a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance.


O Rosenberg, "Israeli public figures apologize to Greek patriarch for ultra-Orthodox spitting incidents," Haaretz, 23 Nov. 2011

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Breaking News Broken: Planning Board Decides to Do . . . Nothing

I had hoped to be able to post a fuller report of the four and a half hours of deliberations by the Zoning Subcommittee and Planning Board last night. However, fate is not cooperating. The latest bulletin from Town Hall announced that 99% of Amherst residents were expected to have power by 6:00 p.m. Unfortunately, I find myself in the 1 percent. For Occupy Wall Street, I'd be part of the 99%, and I'd much rather be in that category in this case, as well.
In any case, since I am forced to give an abridged report: Jonathan O'Keeffe of the ZSC, working with Planning staff, had crafted a set of proposed compromise amendments to the North Amherst warrant article, addressing the strongest objections by a vocal group of Amherst residents, as well as other likely concerns of Town Meeting members.
The Planning Board, after much back-and-forth, rejected these recommendations, mainly on the grounds that they seemed to undo the Board's previous stance, taken through due process and at the appointed time. Mr. O'Keeffe withdrew the motion. The Board then likewise declined to consider an alternative motion that would have signaled the Board's willingness to endorse any hypothetical Town Meeting amendment in the spirit of the recently withdrawn motion. (Got that?). And so it went.
As the hour grew late, a hopefully offered move to adjourn found no second. This allowed time for debate on changing the current "date certain" on which Town Meeting was to take up the Rezoning article. The result: another discussion that in the end left things exactly as they had stood when the meeting began.
It's a shame, really: each argument had some merit. The proponents of the amended article hoped to address significant resident concerns, and thereby to give the controversial measure a better chance of success. Of course, the initial endorsement by the ZSC irritated the originators of proposed new denser development projects. The Planning Board's refusal to endorse the amendments, although rooted in an avowed desire to uphold the integrity of that body's process and preserve the full and proper deliberative rights of Town Meeting, irritated already restive residents.
As a result, both contending parties--the protesting petitioners and the prospective builders--were angered. And everyone who attended the meeting (I wager) went home frustrated as well as tired.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Breaking: Zoning Subcommittee Recommends that Planning Board Backtrack on Controversial Intensified Use in North Amherst

Responding to an outcry from a group of North Amherst residents, the ZSC tonight recommended that the Planning Board keep a portion of Montague Road under its current residential neighborhood zoning, rather than the proposed marginally more intense village center residential. In addition, it bowed to residents' wishes in proposing that not only apartment buildings, but also townhouses be allowed only by special permit rather than the less stringent site plan review. The Planning Board meets at 7:00 to take up this issue as well as hear a presentation by the Cecil Group, the consultants for the rezoning of both North Amherst village center and Atkins Corner, an emerging de facto village center in South Amherst.
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