Saturday, March 10, 2012

"the British as a nation had no great opinion of the French": evolving sensibilities in World War II histories

Trying to write history with a touch of humor or irony as well as analytical rigor can be a tall order: all the more so, in the case of deadly serious topics such as war and mass death. Here is one such attempt by Peter Calvocoressi.

As he notes in the second edition of his history of the Second World War, attitudes change, and scholarly needs and perspectives along with them. He is eminently qualified to do so, for not only was he a historian: he was also involved in British intelligence work at Bletchley Park during the war. (Indeed, the analysis in the first edition of his book was hampered by the fact that he still could not legally reveal that the Allies had broken the German "Ultra" codes.)
The first readers of this book were prompted, I surmise, mainly by wonder. They wanted to know how and why this terrible war, which they had experienced and survived, had come about; and how it ran its course, with what shifts and turns, what inventions, skills and pieces of luck. This curiosity was allied with the simple convictions of right and wrong which had ruled during the war; wartime loyalties persisted for a time in post-war exhilaration and relief, equally unquestioning, providing their own scale of values. A later generation has other needs. The curiosity is still there, but an audience further removed from the intensities of war is more critical. It takes less for granted and sees no reason not to query particular reputations or general strategies, ours as much as theirs. War leaders, military and civilian, are subjected to the beady eye of posthumous inquest, which is sometimes justified by the resulting verdicts although it may in some cases smell of a distasteful iconoclasm. Strategies which, during the war, were judged purely in terms of their war-winning efficacy are reviewed and censured in moral terms which the warriors themselves would have dismissed as a luxury rightly banished from the calculation of their wartime exigencies.

Total War: The Causes and Courses of the Second World War. Volume I: The Western Hemisphere, second revised edition (NY: Pantheon, 1989), xvii-xviii
Here, then, is part of his characterization of the mood and stance of Great Britain in the early months of World War II:
While prognostications of an unimaginable rain of death proved ill founded, the British found themselves spectators in a phoney, unnatural and yet humiliating war: no help was given to the Poles, no help reached the Finns, whose gallantry was at least equal to that of the Poles and more effective; Norway, a much respected country, was occupied by the Germans under the British nose. When the campaign in the west opened, the bombing of Rotterdam revived the German reputation for Hunnish atrocities in the First World War. France collapsed--a shock but in a sense also a release, since the British as a nation had no great opinion of the French and were as happy to fight, if need be, without a French ally as with one. Whereas Munich and the occupation of Prague and the growing evidence of Nazi barbarity had braced the younger generation for a fight, the bombing of Rotterdam stirred an older stratum of anti-German patriotism which, inclined also to be contemptuous of France, was undismayed at the prospect of single combat. And old and young were equally fortified by the retreat from Dunkirk which with a glorious perversity they regarded as a victory. (426-27)
Long before "The Simpsons" popularized the characterization of the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," the British held their erstwhile allies in disdain, and this obvious fact is nowadays discussed frankly in the history books. At the same time, as Calvocoressi gently but firmly points out, the behavior of the British prior to the German invasion was less than glorious, and he cannot help noting the desperation behind the need to make a silk purse from the sow's ear of the Dunkirk débâcle. (He could have added that even that perverse victory was made possible in part by the French soldiers who were ordered to remain behind to secure the evacuation, and paid for their devotion with death or imprisonment.) Almost no one comes off without a blemish here, and that's precisely the point—or part of it. The larger point is that, despite everything, in the end, the nation came together and the job got done.

He goes on to note why this was the case. In essence: there was a broad consensus of purpose behind both the war effort and government, as such. Most intriguingly, among the factors that he identifies: British society was not necessarily fair—in fact, not at all by our standards, or even the rather lower standards of the day—but it was stable because it benefited from a pragmatic consensus:
Although socially stratified to an extraordinary degree, this society was ideologically more coherent than most in Europe, less distraught by fascist or communist fissures, readier to respond unitedly to the generous humanity, the aristocratic chauvinism and the courage of a Winston Churchill. Furthermore, Britain was a singularly law-abiding, government-conscious and well-governed country. It was well governed not in the sense that the government was good for the people as a whole, but in the sense that the government worked well within the limits set for it by the people who did the governing. Great Britain between the wars was not an agreeable place to live in. It was crowded with misery and injustice: estimates of the underfed in the worst years in the thirties go as high as twenty million. Little was done by government to help this large section of the nation and much of what was done was silly, for the governors were for the most part men of limited awareness and only moderate intelligence. Yet the temper of Great Britain did not become revolutionary. Rather did it become resigned in the face of chronic unemployment, killing poverty and the obscene slums which were among the most frightful places in which Europeans had ever been expected to live; and one of the main reasons for this resignation may be found in the fact that Great Britain had strong government. Strong government does not in this case mean repressive government but a government which never looked like breaking down or running down and which remained fully competent to perform its allotted tasks and preserve the formal framework of a nation's life. Although government was bad in the sense that it was inadequate in conception and performance, it worked. It accepted a deplorably narrow view of its functions, but this view was traditional and excited little rebellion (except for the intellectual kind) with the result that the machinery of government did not become discredited. (427)
Another fine, dense paragraph: analytical yet opinionated, informative, yet marked by wit. I wish my students could write like this.

It sounds dreadfully familiar in some ways (at least the part about limited awareness and intelligence). Today we are (so one hopes) no longer willing to "become resigned" and accept that stability at that price. Still, as we tear ourselves apart in the current presidential campaign (which will presumably get only nastier after the Republicans select a candidate), it's worth noting the importance of a consensus on the legitimacy of government, even as we strive for a society characterized by greater equality and fairness.

Friday, March 9, 2012

International Women's Day--and Portaits of Twentieth-Century European Feminists

Let a joyous sense of serving the common class cause and of fighting simultaneously for their own female emancipation inspire women workers to join in the celebration of Women's Day.
 Alexandra Kollontai, "Women's Day" (1913)

Down with the world of Property and the Power of Capital!
Away with Inequality, Lack of Rights and the Oppression of Women – The Legacy of the Bourgeois World!
Forward To the International Unity of Working Women and Male
Workers in the Struggle for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
– The Proletariat of Both Sexes!

Alexandra Kollontai, "International Women's Day" (1920)

To many today, these words of the Russian socialist and feminist may well seem stilted and the categories and concepts outmoded, and yet they can serve as a powerful reminder in several regards:  First, that women's rights were once an idea as radical as gay rights were for many people a generation ago. (Let us remind ourselves that it was only in 1920 that women received the vote in the United States, through the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.) Second, that it was thus the "radical" or fringe groups that were the most consistent advocates for women's rights, arguing that even formal-legal equality through suffrage would not bring about true equality between the sexes. Third, and consequently, that they also saw an intimate connection between (though not absolute identity of) issues of gender and class, long before these became part of the obligatory (and, truth be told, sometimes far less conceptually sophisticated) "mantra" of "race, gender, and class" in the academic culture of our own day.

When I began my introductory historiography class yesterday, I decided to ask my students whether they knew the significance of that date in history. An open-ended question, to be sure, but not unreasonable, given that they would be unlikely to know some of the more minor anniversaries. (I did not expect that they would know, for example that, on that date in 1658, "After a devastating defeat in the Northern Wars, the King of Denmark–Norway was forced to give up nearly half his Danish territory to Sweden to save the rest," much less that, in 1924, "Three violent explosions at a coal mine near Castle Gate, Utah, US, killed all 171 miners working there," or even that in 1978, BBC Radio transmitted the first episode of "The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy." Neither did I, truth be told: one reason that Wikipedia Articles of the Day can be useful.)

What I was looking for, of course, was International Women's Day. A handful actually did know, and I gently teased those who did not (after all, in a "progressive" setting such as Hampshire College, who would or should not know such a thing? For shame, right?). One student actually knew some related details: that it was a demonstration for International Women's Day that was the nominal precipitant of the "February Revolution" in Russia in 1917 (still using the "old" calendar, which placed the date in that month rather than in March as in the west). However, that involved the celebration rather than the origin of the holiday.

The idea behind the celebration, as I explained, originated with nineteenth-century German socialists, who had long been advocates of women's rights. In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Working Women, Clara Zetkin proposed an annual holiday. The original date chosen was March 19, as the anniversary of the (mostly unfulfilled) concessions by the Prussian King to the revolutionaries in 1848. The first celebrations took place in 1911, and in 1913, the date was changed to March 8. Initially, the event was the focus for efforts on behalf of women's suffrage, but the scope has steadily expanded, and the United Nations officially embraced the holiday in 1975.

For this year's contribution, I thought I would share some portraits of modern European feminists and women politicians. In the mid-1920s, one Max Bindernagel, evidently an amateur artist active in Erfurt, produced some 200 sketches of world political and cultural figures: mostly contemporary; a few, historical (mainly marking their birth or death anniversaries). They are done in pen and India ink on cheap paper of about 13 by 20 cm. Most are vertical in orientation, but some are horizontal and contain double portraits. Most bear only the name of the person depicted, the artist's initials, and the date with no explicit connection between the choice of subject and date of work. A few do refer to current events, such as notable activities, honors, deaths, and the like, and contain explanatory captions. One assumes that the sketches were modeled after photographic images. Most are conventionally representational-realistic in nature, though one, of Mussolini, employs a markedly different Expressionist character to convey a message of pointed criticism. Some are rather accomplished, while many betray their amateur character or are downright awkward in execution.

I was struck by the overall range of the enterprise (apparently a purely personal endeavor), and not least, by the inclusion of figures from across the political spectrum and the representation of female subjects. Among the handful of specimens that I acquired a few years ago are the following portraits of notable women.

Pioneering Swedish "difference feminist" Ellen Key (1849-1926), who moved from radical liberalism to socialism, and wrote about issues of family, sexuality, and education, in particular. I first encountered her as a graduate student when I was studying the German socialist periodicals of the late nineteenth century.
Bindernagel's caption:

Ellen Keÿ has died.
(Stockholm, 25 April 1926.) The author Ellen Keÿ, who for some time has been grievously ill, died the preceding night in Strand (on the Vättersee).

The indomitable Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), late in life. The founder of International Women's Day went on to organize women's opposition to the First World War, which earned her several stints in jail. She was a co-founder of both the radical Spartacist League and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which broke with the majority socialists over their reformist policies and support for participation in the war. Soon afterward, she joined the new Communist Party, serving in a number of its top posts and as a deputy in the Reichstag. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, she went into exile in the Soviet Union, where she died soon thereafter. Zetkin became part of the secular pantheon of communist East Germany.

(Zetkin was certainly one tough character but even she didn't look quite this grim. The artist apparently tried—without quite succeeding—to capture the spirit of this photograph.)

Marie Juhacz (1879-1956): socialist, Women's Secretary in the Social Democratic Party, deputy to the Reichstag. She has a number of "firsts" to her credit:  the only woman on the commission that drafted the constitution of the Weimar Republic, and the first woman to make a speech in a German parliamentary assembly. The  founder of the "Workers' Welfare Organization" (AWO), she emigrated from Germany after the Nazi seizure of power and spent the war in the United States.

Else Lüders (1878-1956) Already in 1908, at a gathering of women's associations, she argued that female servants, like other workers, should adopt a union model of labor organization. Like Juhacz, she achieved a number of "firsts" for women: first German woman to receive a doctorate in political science, first woman to serve on the standards commission of the Association of German Engineers. She was among the co-founders of both the League of German Academic Women and the centrist German Democratic Party (DDP).

Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952), the great Russian left revolutionary and feminist, still known for her frank writings on women's rights, women's experience, and sexual as well as social equality. As People's Commissar for Social Welfare and founder of the the Zhenotdel (Women's Department), she sought to foster women's education and improve women's status under the new regime in keeping with the commitment to socialist rather than "bourgeois" feminism. The child of a Ukrainian Tsarist general of noble descent (but liberal political views) and a Finnish peasant mother, this former Menshevik-turned Bolshevik was never easy to classify—or control. After being marginalized as a member of the left opposition to Lenin's new order, she occupied various diplomatic posts: beginning with the portfolio for Norway, which made her the first woman ambassador. This "first" was thus a genuine one, but occasioned in part by the regime's desire to put her where it could benefit the most from her status and she could cause the least trouble. (Subsequent posts included the ambassadorships to Mexico and Sweden and service on the League of Nations delegation of the USSR.)

Bindernagel's caption:
The only woman diplomat in the world.

Frau A. Kollontaÿ, the Soviet-Russian Ambassador in Oslo (Norway), not only a very elegant but also a very skillful representative of the interests of her homeland.

The great socialist and pacifist artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), celebrated above all for her depictions of social misery and message of political protest. Some have seen in the social thematics, cautious distance from formalistic artistic isms, and emphasis on the "secondary" form of the graphic arts a particular feminine choice or destiny of the era. Although perhaps best known for her drawings and prints in various media, Kollwitz was also a distinguished sculptor, a fact that Bindernagel highlights in his caption (though he seems to err in point of fact, for the one-woman show featured graphic works):
Käthe Kollwitz.
On [the occasion of] her great successes in America.
The famous artist Käthe Kollwitz, whose talent in painting and drawing in particular long ago placed her in the first rank of German creative artists, has now arranged a special exhibition of her works, first and foremost including sculpture, in New York, and enjoyed an extraordinary success. 20 February 1926 M.B.

And finally, to return to our own neighborhood:  As chance would have it, Smith College was in effect created on the date that would become International Women's Day when, "in 1870, a shy but determined woman from Hatfield willed that her fortune be used to establish a women's college in Northampton."

Hereby, selected links on this year's commemorations:

International Women's Day
"What is there to celebrate around the world on International Women's Day? – interactive. Women from 11 countries give their thoughts on achievements where they live (The Guardian)
• Kate Freeman, "International Women’s Day 2012 Tweets Flood the Twitterverse" (Mashable)
• John Kennedy, "Google reveals colorful International Women's Day Doodle" (Siliconrepublic)
• "World Marks International Women's Day" (Voice of America)
• "International Women's Day celebrated around the world" (Washington Post)
• Hibaaq Osman, "Arab Women Shaping the Future--Now, More Than Ever" (Huffington Post)
• "Myths and Facts: Women Do Not Have Equal Rights in Israel" (Jewish Virtual Library)
Women's guided tours: by women, for women, about the women in Friedrich Schiller's family (in German) at the Schiller House in Marbach


2010 post
2009 post

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Winston Churchill: Smoker, Drunk, One Tough Dude--With Good Judgment

In the course of writing an introduction to a World War II memoir (one of the projects that got in the way of blogging in recent weeks), I had occasion to read a generous body of historical literature on the war, which inevitably yielded a few choice and sometimes humorous passages. (And in the meantime, as issues of war and peace suddenly again become the subject of national conversation, these quotations about policy and leadership perhaps acquire additional significance.)

Here, a description of the military and political situation upon the outbreak of World War II on the western front:
Hitler was riding high; his goals within reach. Life was good. The sight of German troops marching down the Champs-Elysées assuaged the humiliation of Versailles. Only two vexing matters remained: an ally he loathed to the east—the Soviet Union—and a foe he admired to the west—Great Britain. Contrary to expectations and against all odds, Britain had not folded. Neville Chamberlain, with whom he had done satisfactory business in Munich in 1938, had stepped down as prime minister on 10 May 1940. Winston Churchill, cut of another cloth entirely, was now in charge. It was perturbing to have so equal an adversary. Fortunately, Churchill was a heavy smoker and a drunk, the teetotaler Führer consoled himself. Surely he would either drop dead or, in an inebriated stupor, err egregiously.
Churchill did smoke heavily and drank a bottle of whiskey a day. But he did not err egregiously. His vivid historical imagination gave him a moral and intellectual compass to guide him through the turbulence of the moment. A great nationalist, Churchill was proud of Britain's past and hopeful for its future. It seemed to him that a historic moment was upon them. Thus, as Belgium fell and France teetered and Britain's foreign secretary Lord Halifax suggested a negotiated peace with Hitler using Mussolini as a negotiator, Churchill stood firm.
—Debórah Dwork & Robert Jan van Pelt, Holocaust: A History (NY: W. W. Norton, 2002), 166

[update: image]

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Just the facts, ma'am: historians and their history (controversy! fetishes! nudism! even the Ark of the Covenant!)

Over the years, among the courses I've come most to enjoy teaching are (believe it or not) those involving historical method and historiography, the history of history, as it were. Sounds boring, I know—for teacher and student alike—and it could be. But it's actually essential if students are to understand what the study of history is supposed to accomplish—especially given that many have such a bad experience in high school history class.

There is a classic type of methods or historiography class that entails either a whirlwind survey of historical writing from Herodotus to the present (or within a given field as the case may be) or heavy-duty theory, focusing on the abstract. They have their place (mainly in grad school, if there), but that's not what average undergrads need. Rather, they need to learn that history is not just about "the past" (things that have already happened is not really a meaningful field of study), much less a random collection of facts about that past. What history really involves, as the great historian Marc Bloch pointed out, is "the science of men in time": how the human being behaves in different settings. That means, among other things, understanding just how people in earlier periods were both like and unlike us: in other words, gaining a sense of historical perspective.

To be sure, the notion that high school history consists of nothing but memorizing meaningless strings of names and dates is an outdated caricature. Still, the problem is that high school courses, even when employing up-to-date insights and works (some of the same ones that I use) still fall short of the mark. For that matter, so do many in colleges and universities, but perhaps not for the expected reasons.

What did you say we were supposed to do?

Cognitive Psychologist and Professor of Education Sam Wineburg has made this problem a central task of his career: Historians are experts at what they do and therefore know it so well that it never occurs to them to stop and explain it. (An analogy might be starting up a car or using word-processing software. These are second nature to us: we don't reach for the owner's manual each time; indeed, we could not accomplish the task if we had to. But imagine trying to explain these activities to someone totally unfamiliar with them.) Students, by contrast, have no such expertise and experience, and are therefore often mystified or frustrated in the classroom: in effect, we ask them to produce something without quite telling them what it is, what we are looking for, and how to do it. (Hell, I'd be frustrated, too.)  The essence of the historian's expertise, as Wineburg sees it, is the interpretation of evidence, entailing "sourcing" (who created the document under what circumstances for what purpose or audience?) and "corroboration" and "contextualization," which allow us further to assess its accuracy and contemporary significance.

In his view, students tend to view faculty as generating neat "finished products" in their teaching and their writing. The solution, he says, is for professors to demonstrate how they work, primarily by making explicit the messy process of interpreting texts, including not just the aforementioned skills, but also very tentative nature of conclusions. Students would then come to see that both they and their professors are engaged in the same tasks and struggling with the same dilemmas, simply at different levels.

This semester, as it happens, I am teaching two such historiography courses, one aimed at beginning students, the other, at concentrators in the field.

The first course is built around the notion of debate. After some general and introductory material about the task of history and the nature of historical writing and thinking today, we launch into exploration of a series of concrete topics that allow students to see just how interpretations are formulated, criticized, and defended:
Many people have learned and are accustomed to thinking of history as an authoritative account of the past, based on indisputable facts. Scholars of history, by contrast, understand history as a matter of contested and evolving interpretation: debate. And they argue not just over the interpretation of facts, but even over what constitutes a relevant fact. This course will use some representative debates to show how dynamic the historical field is. Topics may include: Did women have a Renaissance? How did people in early modern France understand identity? Why did eighteenth-century French artisans find the torture and slaughter of cats to be hilarious rather than cruel? Were Nazi killers who committed genocide motivated by hatred or peer pressure? Are European Jews descended from medieval Turks rather than biblical Hebrews? Students will come to understand how historians reason and work. In so doing, they themselves will learn to think historically.
I have found that it is particularly fruitful to focus on these cases in which the basic "facts"—objectively established information, directly pertinent documentation, etc.--are limited and known, and yet historians disagree as to their interpretation. Just what, then, do the sources "mean"? To what extent do we need to understand other, contextual evidence? Where is the boundary between legitimate "interpretation" of the sources and rampant speculation or bias? Is everything just a matter of "opinion" Or, can we establish objective criteria for measuring validity?

And since we find ourselves in an election year, it's worth pointing out that these are skills that apply equally well to the political realm. In a sense, what we all do as citizens and voters is very much the same: Although no ordinary person can be an expert on everything from climate change and budget deficits to questions of war and peace, we are nonetheless required to judge the arguments of those who propose policies in these areas based on our best understanding of the relevant "facts" and general logic.

Facts, Fishmongers, Fetishes

Part of the challenge is not only that students think history is about "facts," but also that it does not occur to them (or sometimes: their teachers) to ask what a fact is. We therefore start with a selection from E. H. Carr's classic What Is History? originally delivered as the George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures at the University of Cambridge in 1961 (NY: Vintage Books, 1961). The first chapter, "The Historian and His Facts," not only lays out the underlying assumptions of the project but also contains a host of choice quotable passages revealing his inimitable style as well as incisive reasoning.

There, he attempts to explain how a justified reaction against moralizing and philosophizing history in the nineteenth century inadvertently led to an equally distorted "cult of the facts," which unfairly limited the historian's domain.

Citing the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of a fact as "a datum of experience as distinct from conclusions," Carr dismisses this as "the common-sense view of history" and introduces his ichthyological/culinary metaphor as a criticism:
The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions, and so on, like fish on the fishmonger's slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him. (6)
He goes on to explain why this notion of the fact is inadequate for our purposes. For example, that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and that there is a table in the middle of the room are both "facts" but not of comparable importance. '[A] mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history" when a historian cites it and it is then "accepted by other historians as valid and significant" and becomes a part of their ongoing dialogue and debate. (11)

Carr defines the genuine "dual task of discovering the few significant facts and turning them into facts of history and of discarding the many insignificant facts as unhistorical" by contrasting it with the nineteenth-century "heresy that history consists of the compilation of the maximum number of irrefutable and objective facts":
Anyone who succumbs to this heresy will either have to give up history as a bad job, and take to stamp-collecting or some other form of antiquarianism, or end up in a madhouse. It is this heresy, which during the past hundred years has had such devastating effects on the modern historian, producing in Germany, in Great Britain, and in the United States a vast and growing mass of dry-as-dust factual histories, of minutely specialized monographs, of would-be historians knowing more and more about less and less, sunk without trace in an ocean of facts. (14)
He continues this argument, reinforcing it by continuing to employ the religious imagery:
The nineteenth-century fetishism of facts was completed and justified by a fetishism of documents. The documents were the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of facts. The reverent historian approached them with bowed head and spoke of them in awed tones. If you find it in the documents, it is so. But what, when we get down to it, do these documents—the decrees, the treaties, the rent-rolls, the blue books, the official correspondence, the private letters and diaries—tell us? No document can tell us more than what the author of the document thought--what he thought had happened, what he thought ought to happen or would happen, or perhaps only what he wanted others to think he thought, or even only what he himself thought he thought. None of this means anything until the historian has got to work on it and deciphered it. (16)
It is in fact (no pun intended) precisely this point the that the oft-misunderstood quotation that serves as the motto of this blog—from the writings of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), a "liberal" and "whiggish" historian if ever there was one, and great-uncle of the historian after whom Carr's lecture series was named—sought to make.

Carr goes on to show how the selection process of survival and publication of documents further constrains the value of the "facts" themselves. Finally, he argues that the satisfaction of the traditional elites with the social order reinforced the tendency to focus on the facts at the expense of a philosophy or concept of history:
The liberal nineteenth-century view of history had a close affinity with the economic doctrine of laissez-faire--also the product of a serene and self-confident outlook on the world. Let everyone get on with his particular job, and the hidden hand would take care of the universal harmony. The facts of history were themselves a supreme demonstration of the supreme fact of a beneficent and apparently infinite progress towards higher things. This was the age of innocence, and historians walked in the Garden of Eden, without a scrap of philosophy to cover them, naked and unashamed before the god of history. Since then, we have known sin and experienced a Fall; and those historians who today pretend to dispense with a philosophy of history are merely trying, vainly and self-consciously, like members of a nudist colony, to recreate the Garden of Eden in their garden suburb. Today the awkward question can no longer be evaded. (21)
And there we are (or were): naked in our own inadequacy. One hopes that the image will leave a memorable impression on the student mind.

March 7: A Date That Will Live in Irony

[revisions underway; back up soon]

Monday, March 5, 2012

"History Bites": Amherst History Lunchtime Lectures

The lunchtime lecture series of the Amherst Historical Society and Museum (also posted on the calendar associated with this blog) is now underway. All talks take place in the Museum (Strong House, 67Amity Street, Amherst).

Here, the description of the program and a schedule of topics:
History Bites Lunchtime Lecture Series
The Amherst History Museum is pleased to announce History Bites, a brown bag lecture series...
Short, informative and entertaining--these lunchtime presentations will provide just the break you need. The 30-minute lectures are scheduled every other Friday through May 11. We are pleased to have the participation of distinguished teachers and/or scholars as the presenters.

The first talk in the series will introduce you to Amherst in the 1770s. Streets you walk and drive everyday were the streets used over 200 years ago. Want to learn what it was like to be an English Puritan woman held captive by Native Americans during King Philip's War (1675-76)? Or how lavish the Simeon Strong House was in the early 1800s? Or learn about the travel experiences of Prof. Hitchcock's wife? We have the just the talk for you. Perhaps you are interested in the influential Northampton abolitionists, or how during the Civil War black soldiers and white officers worked together, or what wartime medicine was like during the Civil War? All of these are topics being presented.

Join us with your lunch in hand. We will provide coffee, tea or cider for you as you listen to the presentations. The program will begin promptly at 12:15 and seating and beverages will be ready just before noon. The lectures are free and everyone is welcome to attend. For updated information, check our website at
• Feb. 17 Martha Noblick Amherst in the Era of the American Revolution: A Social History

• March 2 Robert L. Herbert A Woman of Amherst: The Travel Diaries of Orra White Hitchcock, 1847 and 1850

• March 16 Bruce Laurie Rebels in Paradise: Sketches of Northampton Abolitionists

• March 30 Neal Salisbury Mary Rowlandson and Other Captives During King Philip's War

• April 13 Paul Berman Civil War Medicine

• April 27 Robert H. Romer Black Soldiers, White Officers- Amherst College and the Town of Amherst in the Civil War

• May 11 Marianne Curling Simeon Strong's Material Life
Admittedly, the series title—"History Bites"—is less than felicitous. I wonder: Were some of the more mature fellow Board members, perhaps trying, in their way, to echo the Gen X trendiness of "Reality Bites" (though that film is already nearly two decades in the past)? If so, they may not have understood the irony of that title, in which, among other things, the second term is a verb (sometimes connoting even worse than: sucks) rather than a noun. Oops.

Sometimes, it's hip to be square. Sometimes you're just out of touch.

Sometimes that doesn't matter.

Good talks on important topics in a congenial setting: always a good thing.

As they used to say in the '70s:  Be there. Aloha!

The Shape of Our Politics (candidate statement deadline today, and more)

Speaking of deadlines: As most Amherst residents know, the 2010 census resulted in a redistricting not only of congressional seats, but also of Town Meeting. The office of the Town Clerk, GIS staff, and a citizen Districting Advisory Board worked hard to come up with new districts that meet that met the daunting legal standards of proper proportions and shape.

Just over a year ago, there was one unrelated glitch, when the Select Board and Clerk's Office, misinterpreting news stories on the closing of North Church as the home of regular worship, inadvertently reassigned the voting site for Precinct 1 from that congregation's parish hall to Immanuel Lutheran Church in the neighboring precinct. (For better or worse, I was stranded out of town on that Monday and was thus unaware of the screw-up until I returned home and began to receive irate emails from fellow residents of my hyperboreal precinct.) Soon thereafter, the Select Board rectified the mistake.

But back to deadlines. Because of the redistricting, all 240 seats representing the 10 precincts in Amherst Town Meeting are up for grabs this year, rather than being distributed over a triennial cycle. (In order to restore the triennial system, highest vote-getters in each precinct will get three-year terms, the next-highest will get two-year terms, and the remaining winners will get one-year terms.)

Citizens had to submit nomination papers by Valentine's Day (love that).

Meanwhile, the last deadline is upon us:  candidates are asked to submit brief statements about themselves and their reasons for running to the League of Women Voters by the end of the day today (these will also appear in the Amherst Bulletin shortly before the election). It's especially important this year, and yet, because of the larger-than-usual number of candidates, statements will have to be shorter than usual. The cunning of reason again, I guess. The winners will get plenty of chance to talk in Town Meeting, and having to distill one's personal-political "mission statement" into a mere 40 words (only about 40 percent more than a "tweet," if we reckon a word at the traditional five characters) is good practice for having to give a speech in two to three minutes.

And history?

One reason that we are mandated to come up with basically compact and contiguous districts of roughly equal population with a compelling rationale is that redistricting was, historically, abused: at first for mundane partisan-political purposes, and more recently, for racist or other discriminatory purposes. The mother of all cynical redistrictings was of course the "Gerrymander," celebrating its 200th anniversary this year (one of the February anniversaries I was not able to note in time), named after (sad to say, yes:) our Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry (last name pronounced, by the way, with a hard "G" rather than a "J").

As the always informative and often entertaining Mass Moments (a project of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities) explains: 1812, a political monster — the "Gerrymander" — was born in the Massachusetts State House. Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that created oddly-shaped voting districts in several parts of the state. The lines of these districts gave Gerry's party an advantage in the upcoming election. An artist added a head, wings, and claws to the strange shape that was the governor's new home district and declared it looked like a salamander. A quick-witted friend decided a better name was "Gerry-mander." Within a month, the image appeared as a cartoon in the local papers and gerrymander, later gerrymander [with a soft "g"], entered the language. The term has referred ever since to any deliberate redrawing of voting districts to influence the outcome of an election.
None of that stuff here.

Turn in your statements.

Vote early, vote often.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Backlog and Back to Blogging

As always, there are good intentions and there is reality (or at the least: competing claims on those good intentions). Although I had planned to slow down over January term, I hadn't planned to cease posting for such an extended period.

Mostly, it has just been a busy time at work, as the new semester starts. But not only were we preparing new classes. We also hired a wonderful new director of the Hampshire College Library and are in the process of hiring a new instructor in Middle Eastern studies. We have several new digital humanities projects in the pipeline. Work on the accreditation task force is moving ahead.

In addition , there is the civic world: politics and administration: Town government continues to run smoothly, and we are easily moving into high gear as the budget process begins in earnest in the four months prior to Town Meeting. 

I was also busy on some outside work-related projects—as well as some further activities in the blogosphere/world of social media (more on those in due time).

I'll start to catch up now, including: a few items that would have been ideal for Black History Month but are not time-specific, some shorter pieces under running rubrics, as well as the usual news stories, as they arise.