Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lessons from Select Boards Past

The Select Board learned today that Amherst's privately sponsored Fourth of July Parade will not take place because of rising costs, which the organizers cannot absorb.

Over at Only In the Republic of Amherst, Larry Kelley—who, as residents know, has some strong feelings about the matter—reviews the history of the event: The publicly sponsored parade ended after the national Bicentennial in 1976 (well before my time here). In the wake of the September 11 attacks, a private group revived the parade in 2002, in part as a tribute to the military and local public safety employees. In Kelley's summary, the town persecuted the parade organizers because they focused on the celebratory and thus excluded political protesters. The dispute came to a head in 2008, when "then town manager Larry Shaffer arbitrarily decided the town would run a 7/4 parade and the private committee would not be issued a permit." After protest by locals such as Kelley as well as the ACLU, he says, "the town quietly backed down."

He concludes, "Last year with a new town manager and normalized Select Board, for the first time in our short history there was no controversy--no mention of anti war protests one way or the other. Like all the previous years, the parade itself went off without a hitch."

I appreciate the collective compliment, though we can take no real credit for a simple hands-off policy, and I make no comment on our predecessors, not least because I did not follow the intricacies of this controversy at the time.

It is, however, interesting to note that Select Boards can err in more than one way when dealing with the delicate question of political protest and public space. The old Amherst Town Hall seemed to insist on a parade that included protest. By contrast, fairly long ago and sort of far away, another Select Board saw its role as consisting in denying the right to protest.

On this date in 1971, protesting anti-war Vietnam veterans, anticipating the "occupy" movement, were arrested after refusing to abandon an illegal encampment on the Lexington Green, where the American Revolution began. In the view of the Lexington Select Board chair, Americans had in effect fought the Revolution in order to ensure that every local bylaw was enforced to the letter rather than to safeguard, well, the right to popular protest and revolution. Read my post from 2010 for the story behind what Mass Moments calls "the largest mass arrest in Massachusetts history"—and the aftermath, including the fate of that Select Board.

Now that Town Meeting is over, I've had more time to be out and about, and I invariably run into acquaintances at the grocery or garden store. In the past ten days, both Amherst folks and residents of the outlying towns have told me they watch Select Board and Town Meeting on TV, and asked: It looks so deadly boring. How do you stand it?

My answer to them is the one I've always given in these pages: that's the way we like it (1, 2, 3). As the collective chief executive of the Town, our job is to establish general policy directions and oversee the political process (as well as handle a lot of mundane—and yes, "boring"—tasks such as licensing and appointments). We don't need more drama. We don't want to be the main story, and we shouldn't be.

Just consider the alternative (see above).

This past Memorial Day weekend, we were grateful that we could avoid needless controversy and instead focus on the real significance of the occasion: take part in the parade and ceremony honoring our living veterans and our war dead—including, during this sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the African-Americans and other residents who fought to preserve the Union and end slavery. (a post on that is forthcoming).

Indeed: that's the way we like it.


• Scott Merzbach, "Fourth of July parade in Amherst to be cancelled due to insufficient funds," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 31 May 2012
• Diane Lederman, "Amherst July 4th parade off because of funding woes," The Republican, 31 May 2012

Amherst Politics and Podunk

"`Where is Podunk?' we asked, failing entirely to suppress a quiver of anticipation.
"`This is Podunk now,' said the small boy.

Just one final piece on our political culture in the wake of Town Meeting.

Much of the recent debate on the floor of our venerable assembly involved the proposed village center rezoning: how to focus growth in existing built-up areas in order to prevent sprawl, but without compromising their existing look and feel. Much of the debate outside the hall involved the frustration felt by each side regarding the presumed intransigence and narrow-mindedness of the other. Some proponents of the zoning changes, for example, blamed the defeat on "naysayers" allegedly resistant to any change, many of them new to and unfamiliar with the intricacies of both town planning and the political process. Some rezoning opponents (particularly the newbies), by contrast, saw themselves as waging a heroic fight against entrenched interests, high-handed practices, and old ways of thinking.

As I was looking over my book collection last week, I recalled that one volume contained the humorous old story, "The Politician of Podunk," which involves another such tale of political ideals and frustration from nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The average reader is familiar with the term "Podunk" as a synonym for rural backwardness, but few know where it comes from. In fact, even supposed experts have long disagreed.

In the view of many, it does not exist, though that has not stopped others from trying to find it, or at least a plausible connection between the idea and a real place.

The Oxford Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (OED) lists both an adjective and a noun corresponding to the general understanding of the term: "Of or designating an obscure or insignificant town; out-of-the-way, small-town, provincial; insignificant" "A name for a fictitious, insignificant, out-of-the-way town; a typical small town." Examples:
1846   Daily National Pilot (Buffalo, N.Y.) 13 Jan. 3a,   Messrs. Editors: I hear you ask, ‘Where in the world is Podunk?’ It is in the world, sir; and more than that, is a little world of itself. It stands ‘high up the big Pigeon’, a bright and shining light amid the surrounding darkness. I look back, sir, with pride upon the day when I located in the then unincorporated burgh of Podunk. 
1846   Daily National Pilot (Buffalo, N.Y.) 6 Mar. 2b,   Podunk is a huge town, not distinguished exactly as the geographies have it, for its ‘fertile soil, salubrious and healthy climate’, but for some of the characters that here do congregate.
But it also lists Podunk as both an adjective and a noun associated with "a North American Indian people formerly inhabiting an area around the Podunk River in Hartford County, Connecticut."

Perhaps for the latter reason, efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery focused on our own central New England. In a 1988 piece, columnist "Cecil Adams" reviewed the evidence. He explains, "In 1925 philologist G.P. Krapp noted that no Podunk was to be found in the list of American post offices" but did find a connection with Native American geographic names. In 1933, the Boston Herald declared that the place did not exist. Soon thereafter, etymologist Allen Walker Read found the term applied to meadows, ponds, and small bodies of flowing water in the Hartford and Worcester area, as well as "throughout New York State." He "opined that Podunk derived from an Algonquin Indian word meaning 'a boggy place.'"

In 1941, the Herald thereupon resumed the quest, but as Adams explains, fobbed the job off on the Worcester Telegraph, whose dramatic quest led to the prosaic conclusion that it was (in his words) "an unincorporated area about six square miles in extent containing about 100 families" "located mostly within East Brookfield, a town about 15 miles west of Worcester."

Satisfying and plausible, but there the story does not end. Perhaps the clue, like the purloined letter, was right in front of our faces. One of the leading entries in the always entertaining though not necessarily reliable (or serious) Urban Dictionary traces the popularization of the term to the 1971 film, "The French Connection," via a reference to the backwardness of Poughkeepsie. Indeed, as the OED shows, the term seems to have a New York association, but it in fact goes back to the 1840s. However, few have looked hard enough and far enough back. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)—a product of my  alma mater, The University of Wisconsin, I am proud to say—correctly traces the first known use to my aforementioned little story, thus reinforcing the connection with a New York location; there is in fact a real Podunk, a hamlet in the town of Ulysses.

"The Politician of Podunk" appeared in The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, a "gift book" published in Boston in 1839.

Gift books flourished in the UK and US from the early 1820s until circa 1860, and derived from the tradition of French and German literary annuals and almanacs, which arose in the second third of the eighteenth century. Containing a variety of literary pieces, usually embellished with engravings and elegantly bound, they were issued around the autumn season and intended, as the name suggests, as gifts for the Christmas and New Year holidays.

The editor of The Token was one Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793-1860), a Massachusetts and Connecticut bookseller and publisher (later: diplomat) who also wrote under the pseudonym, "Peter Parley." (As chance would have it, some of Goodrich's papers are also housed in Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.)

At any rate, here, without further ado, is the story itself:
SOLOMON WAXTEND was a shoemaker of Podunk, a small village of New York, some forty years ago. He was an Englishman by birth, and had come over the water to mend the institutions, as well as the soles, of the country. He was a perfectly honest man, and of natural good sense; but, having taken pretty large doses of new light from the works of Tom Paine and the French Revolutionists, he became, like an inflated balloon, light-headed, and soared aloft into the unknown regions of air. Like many of his countrymen brought up under monarchical institutions, he was slow in understanding the mysteries of our political system; and, wanting the ballast of Yankee common sense, he nevertheless thought himself specially qualified to instruct the people of Podunk in every thing relating to civil liberty.

Accordingly he held forth, at first, over his lapstone, then at the bar-room, and finally at a caucus. He had some gifts, and more of the grace of assurance. He set up for a great man, became a candidate for representative, and was [110] triumphantly elected a member of the General Assembly of New York. With all the spirit of a true reformer, he set forth for Albany, to discharge the high functions of his official state. He went. He rose to make a speech. His voice failed, his knees tottered, he became silent; he sat down. The whole affair was duly reported in the papers. It was read at the alehouse in Podunk!

Solomon Waxtend came back an altered man. He went away round, ruddy, and self-sufficient; he returned lean, sullen, and subdued. He shut himself up for a month, and nothing was heard in his house by the neighbours, save the vigorous hammer upon the lapstone. At length, one evening, he appeared at the village inn. It was a sort of holiday eve, and many of his partisans were there. They looked at Solomon, as if they saw a ghost; but he had that calmness of countenance which betokens a mind made up. His late friends crowded round him; but Solomon, waving his hand, bade them sit down. Having done this, he spoke as follows.

"I trust I am duly sensible, my friends, of the honor you intended me, in sending me to the Assembly. If I have disgraced you, it has, at least, been a lesson to me. I find, that in order [111] to understand your institutions, and to cope with your Yankee people, it is necessary, like them, to live long in the country, and to study its history, and become familiar with its political system. I find that an Englishman, with his Tory notions, his hereditary love of monarchy, his loyalty, woven in with his first lessons of life, is like a 'fish out of water' in one of your democratic assemblies. I have, therefore, only one thing to say, and that will be told in the way of a story.

"Some people, digging in a sandbank by the seaside, in search of Kid's money, came to a chest, with the following inscription, —' Take me up, and I will tell you more!' This gave them fresh courage, and they continued their efforts. At length they dug up the chest, and on the bottom, they found the following inscription, —' Lay me down as I was before.'"

Having told this story, the cobler departed, leaving his hearers to apply the obvious hint conveyed by the legend.

No specific lesson for Amherst intended here.

Rather, it's just a useful reminder that the collision of ideals and desires with reality, and the mutual frustration of old hands and newcomers are nothing new.

the shoemaker as political amateur
The illustration accompanying the story:  "The Politician," by Henry Liverseege (1803-32), steel engraving by Oliver Pelton (1798-1882) of Hartford. As the record in the holdings of the American Antiquarian Society indicates, the engraving appears in several American literary annuals issued between 1839 and1853.


• The 1840 volume of The Token via Google Books

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Don't Like Our Town Meeting? It Could Always Be a Lot Worse

I recently mentioned a new rubric, entitled, "it could always be worse."

Well, it could. This is not to say that we should stop trying to make things better—but some perspective can come in handy.

For example, Town Meeting recently considered a proposal to restore a small funding line for social services. There was a heated debate, and two such amendments to the draft budget were defeated. But those voting "no" did so on grounds of budgetary process and moreover argued that the Town had in fact increased its overall expenditure on social services, for example, through the funding of a new homeless shelter. This was a narrow disagreement among people with shared values.

Just contrast that with the policies of our Puritan/Congregationalist ancestors.  As Mass Moments reminds us,
Town Meeting Auctions Poor Woman to Lowest Bidder
October 18, 1786

... Malden's selectmen put up for "vendue" Mary Degresha, who was unable to support herself. They auctioned her off to the lowest bidder, who agreed to accept payment of six dollars a week for housing and "taking proper care" of her. For two centuries, Massachusetts towns were responsible for supporting those who could not support themselves. Sometimes this meant providing necessities, such as clothing, firewood, or food. Other times, a household was compensated for taking in an indigent man, woman, or child. In the 1820s, a gradual shift began toward institutionalizing the poor in almshouses or workhouses. (read the rest)
It could be a lot worse.

Some propose "charter reform": get rid of that Select Board and Town Meeting, and give us a mayor and city council.

That would certainly streamline the political process, but if anyone thinks it could eliminate lunacy and obnoxiousness, well, . . . just watch the wonders of this video from the Lincoln City Council, in which a "Nebraska Woman Gives the Most Amazingly Anti-Gay Rant Ever" (h.t. Snoopy the Goon)

Yeah, it could be a hell of a lot worse. (Think of it as a sort of negative corollary to "My Favorite Things" from "The Sound of Music.")

I expect that we'll go through the usual cycle: people will complain and vent a lot in the wake of Town Meeting, summer temperatures will rise, emotional temperatures will cool, and . . . nothing much will change. Then we'll start all over again in the fall.

Stupidity is a fact of life, no matter what the form of government.

Deal with it. In the meantime we've got plenty of work to do.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Town Meeting: A Manner of Speaking (an uncommon House)

Town Meeting has been a rollicking rollercoaster of a political ride (to paraphrase "Blackadder") this season. Petition articles on national social and political issues generated speeches but no controversy and sailed through (1, 2), while zoning articles proved (as predicted) extraordinarily contentious. It has also been an unusually rude season.

Because of the census and reapportionment, all seats—rather than only one third of them—were up for grabs this year, and there are many new faces (new precinct map here, along with an explanation of that great Massachusetts invention, the Gerrymander; elected member roster here).

An infusion of new political blood is generally a healthy thing, but one never knows quite what will happen when old and new encounter one another. On a purely technical level, the rules of Town Meeting—in the sense of both formal procedures and etiquette—can take some getting used to. I think I still recall wondering, in my early days, why the proposal to come to a vote is referred to as calling "the previous question" when it in fact refers to the only question before the meeting at the moment.

Etiquette is another matter. Unless one studies the Town Meeting Handbook produced by the League of Women Voters, one may not realize that not only personal attacks, but even normal expressions of approval or disapproval following a statement or vote are strictly forbidden by the rules of the house:

The pattern of formality observed at meetings helps to preserve the Moderator's position of impartiality and to maintain an objective approach if serious divisions arise.

The Rules of Decorum require that speakers

• confine all remarks to the merits of the question pending,
• refrain from characterizing a member's motives or impugning the character of other members,
• address only the Moderator and address each other through the Moderator,
• as much as possible, avoid using the names of members and other participants, substituting, when available, titles and such terms as "the previous speaker,"
• refrain from profanity and vulgarity,
• refrain from making motions with the intention of opposing them,
• refrain from disturbing the assembly by whispering, talking, or walking about,
• refrain from audible signs of approval or disapproval such as applauding.

Amherst Town Meeting has a long tradition of civil debate. The occasional member who breaks a rule is usually called to order by the Moderator. (printed edition: p. 16; pdf: p. 23 ) 
Town Meeting members receive orientation training and are supposed to familiarize themselves with the rules and procedures of the house, but most are focused on the struggle to master the complexities of budgeting and zoning.  There was a noticeable learning curve this year.

On the first night, for example, after a proposal to restore some social services funding (1, 2) was rejected, a few disappointed proponents were heard to cry, "Shame!" and hiss or boo.  The Moderator tried to make his correction gently, reminding the assembly of the rules, and lightening the lesson with the humorous observation that Town Meeting is not the House of Commons. Some members later took moral pride in the little disruption, stating that Amherst is indeed not the House of Commons, and rather, the place "where only the 'h' is silent" (as the saying goes). Evidently, they missed the joke as well as the message: the British Parliament is known as an extraordinarily rowdy political body (perhaps they have never watched Commons Question Time? It used to be on PBS; it's still on C-SPAN.)

On another evening, when normally popular Town Manager John Musante responded to a question from the assembly about North Amherst Village Center rezoning, he ran over the allotted three minutes' time. The Moderator did not cut him off, and some members exclaimed loudly in outrage at what they perceived as a double standard, giving a town official an unfair advantage in arguing for the measure.

Another uproar came a short time later as discussion of the same zoning article ground on. As the Handbook says, "The occasional member who breaks a rule is usually called to order by the Moderator." This is precisely what happened to a new member (a student at the University of Massachusetts) who not only violated the rules regarding characterizations of others and their motives, but even presumed to challenge the judgment (and education) of the Moderator. (video via Larry Kelley's blog)

This may be "Amherst, where only the 'h' is silent," but even voluble Amherst has a few basic rules about behavior in Town Meeting. And as the great Renaissance educator Pier Paolo Vergerio said some 600 years ago:  "a youth who is silent commits at most but one fault, that he is silent; one who is talkative probably commits fifty."

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hog-Wild (Animals and Politics): More Rural New England Fun

A story about the town of Goshen in today's Gazette reminds me of some lesser-known facts and lighter moments of Amherst and rural New England history.

According to the paper,
After a history of complaints about wandering livestock causing damage to property and posing potential dangers on roadways, a tenant farmer is being ordered to get his cows and pigs out of town.
 . . .
According to the order, complaints were received by the police, the Board of Health and the Select Board on numerous occasions in November and December of 2011, as well as April and May of this year.
The complaints state that cows and pigs have been entering the public way on Spruce Corner Road and Route 9 and have also entered private property, causing damage to lawns and posing a threat to septic systems and wells.
The order says that on April 30, 15 to 20 pigs caused damage at a property at 116 Spruce Corner Road. In addition, there were five days in March, five days in April, and thus far, five days in May when cows have been reported on public roads. Most recently, employees of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation reported cows on Route 9 on the morning of May 11. 
The story is no laughing matter because Town governments are required to ensure public safety.

But such stories are news in part because incidents of runaway livestock are so rare nowadays. A century and a half ago, they were common. This is one reason that so many Amherst properties had fences, most of which have, regrettably disappeared.

Amherst, still a town of fences in the 1873 Beers map
Fences not only helped to keep the animals on their own property, but also protected the property of others from animals that strayed. And when they strayed, they had to be rounded up and kept someplace: hence, the Town Pound, an institution that in Massachusetts dates back to 1635, and survived in many locales until the late nineteenth century. The early ones, as well as many others, used wooden fences or palings, but still others were of stone. One of the latter survives in nearby Leverett. In Amherst, the Pound was located on what is now the southwestern portion of Triangle Street near Main. A sliver of it—about an eighth of an acre—apparently extended down past the northern boundary of the Dickinson property. The Town conveyed that portion to Dickinson in 1857 for $ 5. (In the deed, today's Triangle Street was then described only as "the road leading to J.P. Gray's dwellinghouse." in the 1836 plan below: "Sunderland Road.")

from the historic structure report on the Dickinson Homestead
Of course, someone had to get the miscreants from the streets and yards to the pound, so there was even a special officer in charge of tracking down the miscreants.  In hopes of coping with its problem last summer, Goshen took a page from the past:
After months of responding to complaints of loose cattle ruining lawns, milling about parking lots and roaming down Route 9, the Goshen Select Board has decided to resurrect the traditional position of "field driver," one of the oldest traditional jobs in many rural towns. 
Except for residents of rural New England, most people have never heard of a field driver. Once a common job throughout the Northeastern states, a field driver is an appointed official charged with rounding up any stray livestock and impounding the animals until their owners can recover them. 
Ironically, Goshen removed the post from the books at a Town Meeting in 2010, as the town hadn't needed a field driver in several decades.
Another variant for dealing with what we would nowadays call "Hogs Gone Wild" was: the "Hog-reeve." He and his office became something of a running joke: one more of the funny (in the sense of both peculiar and humorous) aspects of our quaint town meeting form of government. Histories of New England sometimes allude to the humor without explaining it. One volume, for example, refers to "the annually-recurring joke about the hog-reeves."

Wondering what was so funny about that?

Find out by reading last year's post, "New England Elections: Town Meeting, Select Board. . . Hog Reeve?!"

At least Town Meeting doesn't have to deal with that nowadays. Then again, it might just lighten things up a bit.


• A judge will now decide the fate of the offending cows and pigs: Bob Dunn, "Judge eyes wandering livestock," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 1 June 2012

• And decide he did: Bob Dunn, "Judge rules Goshen cows must find another pasture," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 2 June 2012

• Saga at last concluded? Fran Ryan, "Goshen's errant cows relocate to Ashfield," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 19 July 2012

Town Meeting: Time to Express the Love-Hate

As noted, I haven't written about specific warrant articles in advance of Town Meeting this year, preferring to deal with them on the Town Meeting listserve (a fascinating and revealing window into our deliberations) and at Select Board or on the floor of the assembly itself.

It's been a fairly long Town Meeting, though not nearly as long as some others in the worst days of the economic and budget crisis; things are actually looking pretty good this year. We should be able to wrap up tomorrow (Monday) night.

As I anticipated, the petition article endorsing a constitutional amendment to reverse the "Citizens United" decision allowing essentially unregulated corporate expenditures in political campaigns, a measure that in another locale might have proven contoversial (or at least provoked some debate), sailed through here on a unanimous vote. (In this case, at least, "the 'h' was silent.")

As I also expected, Articles 24 and 25 on Village Center rezoning of Atkins Corner and North Amherst, faced uphill fights. They lost, very narrowly failing to acquire the steep two-thirds majority required for zoning articles. The Town—including Planning Board, Select Board, and Town Manager—had strongly backed these articles as crucial smart-growth and sustainability measures implementing the principles of the Master Plan. Opponents, first and foremost, a vocal residents' group in North Amherst, considered them too intrusive and broad in scope, a dire threat to neighborhood character.

Some on each side in effect extended their complaints about the articles and vote to the political system as a whole.

For some opponents, this was a fortunate but narrow victory for the will of the public over the high-handed tactics of Town staff and government insufficiently attuned to residents' wishes. They are now complaining about the way that boards and committee positions are filled (see the handy diagram of the flow of Amherst power). A frequent charge is that the Town staff and —appointed rather than elected—Planning Board are automatically "pro-development" and too closely aligned with commercial rather than popular interests.

For some proponents, by contrast, the two-thirds supermajority required by state law for zoning and similar articles has become an obstacle to good government, allowing a minority of what they called "NIMBY's" and other naysayers to block not just "progress" but all serious action on planning and zoning, resulting in gridlock. To their mind, complex legislation, crafted by dedicated citizen-politicians in the course of an extended and deliberate process, nowadays has two options: either to go down to defeat or to pass only at the price of being mangled by last-minute, ill-conceived amendment on the floor.

Some feel that we should significantly reduce the size of Town Meeting (currently 240 members from 10 precincts) in order at least to ensure competitive races and real commitment on the part of members. Others prescribe stronger medicine. We have therefore started to hear the old, familiar calls for "Charter reform," which in plain English means: revising the Town Government Act so as to replace Select Board and Town Meeting with a mayor and city council. (Amherst blogger Larry Kelley makes this case again.) I was going to say: "not surprisingly," but then, I was not sure this was accurate. Although I could have predicted even more than the usual amount of grousing over the vote, I was somewhat surprised that the Charter meme surfaced so soon. I was likewise struck by the fact that some new Town Meeting members so quickly expressed a sense of demoralization and began to ask: "What's the point? Why do I bother doing this?"

Pessimism sometimes sets in too fast. Town Meeting is certainly not the worst thing in the world; it just feels that way on bad days.

In this context, and in hopes of lightening things up a bit, I refer my reader to an older post about the joys of New England town meeting. It just goes to show you: it could always be worse (in fact, I've decided to add a new rubric of that title).

And for the sake of simplicity and amusement I'll also re-embed a clip that I included there from the classic "Newhart" sitcom about life in small-town Vermont. In episode 3 (full video here) newly arrived innkeeper Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) complains about a dangerous intersection in front of his establishment, and wants the town to install a stop sign.  Local political honchos persuade Dick that, as a man of civic spirit who does not only complain but also proposes solutions, he should run for Town Council. In the excerpt, newbie Dick attends his first town meeting, confused by the procedures and embarrassed at having worn a yellow sweater to the assembly.

So, enjoy. Or as all the faddish retro merchandise says:  Keep calm and carry on.

Monday, May 14, 2012

To Sing or Not to Sing? My debut piece in the Times of Israel

As I recently noted, I was recruited to write for the new born-digital newspaper, The Times of Israel, a comprehensive, non-partisan publication covering all aspects of that area of the Middle East and much beyond.

Many modern states have an ethno-national origin and character but multiethnic populations. How do they deal with the complex cocktail of political symbolism and social reality? And what is the true nature of patriotism?

I took the occasion of Israel's Independence Day to reflect on a controversy that had occurred a few months earlier, not long after the Times of Israel began publication.

Should an Arab justice on the Israel Supreme Court be required to sing the national anthem ("Hatikvah")?  I don't think so. Here's why. (And you might be surprised at who agrees.)

As chance would have it, several other publications (on their own, not responding to my piece) returned to the story at the same time:

• The editors of The Forward urged a change in the national song: "An Anthem for All?" 26 April 2012
• The editors of Israel's Haaretz agreed: "Israel needs national symbols all citizens can identify with," 27 April 2012
• Neshama Carlebach and an African-American Baptist Choir provocatively sang the new text of "Hatikvah" proposed by The Forward at the annual Jerusalem Post conference a few days after the national holiday.
• Back at the Times of Israel, Haviv Gur offered some words of caution in "Before you go changing Hatikvah," 29 April
• Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Seth Franzmann went further, mocking the whole controversy and chiding the left for paternalism (among other things): "Terra Incognita: Falling Out of Love With 'Hatikva'," 1 May 2012
• Martin Sherman took an even dimmer view of the controversy and the would-be reformers (and much more) in "Into the fray: 'Haaretz' vs the Jews," Jerusalem Post, 3 May 2012

Evidently the story still had some legs.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I've Got a New Journalistic Gig

This business of writing for the web and using other new and social media is an intriguing one: one makes new contacts (even friends) and wins new readers in ways that one cannot anticipate.

At the start of the year, I was therefore delighted to be invited to participate in the launching one of the most exciting new journalistic enterprises in the Middle East, The Times of Israel.

Why yet another publication in that region, print or digital?

As founding editor David Horovitz, late of the Jerusalem Post, explains, the ideal was to create a born-digital paper that would be lively but non-partisan in its politics, comprehensive in its coverage of the broader cultural realm, and technologically and graphically absolutely up-to-date and user-friendly (and free of obnoxiously intrusive advertising):
Fair-minded journalism, based in Israel, and read both here in Israel and among those who care for the Jewish nation around the world, has a vital, even noble role to play in enabling informed debate over the challenges and the choices that face the Jewish state. Informing that debate is one of the prime goals of The Times of Israel.

In support of this goal, our reporters, including many of the most respected names in the field, will be writing rich and enthralling original content. Our “breaking news” editors will be keeping readers up to speed on latest developments. We’ll constantly draw our readers’ attention to other compelling material elsewhere on the web. We’ll also be carrying a daily Hebrew media review and a daily Arabic media review – a guided tour around the headlines and most interesting content in the Hebrew and Arabic press. The aim again, quite simply, is to contribute to a well-rounded picture of our fast-changing, unpredictable regional environment.

Our Ops & Blogs section – our “marketplace of ideas” – is already attracting a colorful cast of writers on a remarkable range of themes – from flip to existential. Diversity is the key. Access to a diverse range of argument is critical to the understanding of Israel’s challenges and choices. And given our aim of fostering constructive debate, we will not host anonymous reader comments that can reduce discussion to toxic lows. We absolutely want our readers to debate the content on our site, but they – you — can post comments only via your Facebook identity, in your own name.

The Times of Israel will also showcase a richer, livelier mix of content than the traditional default focus on the politi, medini, bit’honi – politics, diplomacy and security. Obviously, often, those issues must dominate our headlines. But often, indeed always, there are extraordinary stories to be told from other spheres — of the people, the brainpower, the culture and lifestyle of this land. And we’ll tell them – high on the site, too, not relegated deep in inside pages.
(read the full manifesto)
The offer was enticing in all regards.

Since the paper launched this winter, it has more than fulfilled those expectations. I regularly happen across stories that I would not have encountered anywhere else or that were not covered as thoroughly elsewhere, and I find myself bookmarking and sharing them. To me, that is the clearest evidence of success in the necessary filling of a gap.

And the born-digital technological and graphic modernism are no little attraction either. One need simply compare the cluttered look of the Jerusalem Post with the clean new look and interface of the Times of Israel.

I was recruited for the Ops and Blogs section and I've been given a free hand to write about pretty much whatever I choose (hoping I'm "colorful"; still trying to decide whether the posts will be "flip" or "existential"). I will probably focus on cultural and historical issues. I have no particular interest in writing about politics, as such (others can do it better, anyway), except to the extent that it intersects with the preceding.

Because of the various obligations of the proverbial day job, town business, and other distractions, I wasn't able to contribute to the inaugural issue. I have now begun to write for the paper, it feels good to be underway, and I'm excited at the prospects.

More to come. L'hitra'ot, as we say: I'll be seeing you.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Time for the Quarterly Mea Culpa: Been Busy

Although I am a strong believer in the general principle that entering into the world of social media means a sustained commitment to that activity, I am also all too aware that life sometimes intervenes, and blogging activity therefore waxes and wanes. And sometimes, even within that natural cycle, there are spikes: the equivalent of tonight's so-called (and over-hyped) "Supermoon." Admittedly, we are more likely to notice the lows rather than the highs.

The fact is: most of us have other commitments, many of which legitimately take precedence. I have a good many acquaintances in the blogosphere. Some drop temporarily out of sight when busy with daily work or completing a book or other project. Some, exhausted from publishing multiple posts per day on current events month after month, in addition to their paying day jobs but for no material reward, decide to call it quits or "go on hiatus" for an undetermined period (which probably helped many a career and yes, perhaps, marriage). Yet others, by contrast (God only knows how), just keep going on all cylinders and all fronts.

In my case, it's simply been a matter of first things first. 2012 has proven to be unexpectedly busy: mainly in good ways, I am pleased to report.

For the most part, it has been the "day job" that has kept me busy: some travel during winter and spring breaks, completing the search for and hiring a stellar new library director at Hampshire College, wading through a resultant backlog of student work, and then mainly just teaching classes and (this being the spring semester) supervising theses of graduating seniors: some great ones; reading them, at once pleasurable and instructive.

At the same time, I've been busy with related academic activities:  writing the introduction to an intriguing memoir of women's experience in interwar Belgium and World War II Britain (1, 2), and several book reviews. In addition: revising plans for our Hampshire College field study program in Prague and Kraków and developing a new one with a focus on historic preservation and heritage studies at the Master's level in collaboration with Rutgers University.

Then there is the Town of Amherst. The first half of the year is also when your Town government moves into high gear in preparation for annual Town Meeting. The Joint Capital Planning Committee, on which I serve with Diana Stein as one of two representatives from the Select Board, begins meeting in the fall but turns to a detailed review of new spending proposals from January through April, in preparation for debate on the budget at spring Town Meeting. The Select Board itself has to review and take positions on the articles on the warrant.

Although there are a number of "political" petition articles on the warrant this year—i.e. those that take stands on supra-local issues such as national security and human rights, my bet is that those that meet basic standards of legality and administrative pragmatism/fiduciary responsibility will pass easily. The most controversial articles, by contrast, are likely to be those dealing with the rezoning of Atkins Corner and North Amherst village centers (Articles 24 and 25), and the proposal to create a "local historic district" in the Dickinson historic district downtown (Article 27). All are vital to the future of a sustainable Amherst, and all require a steep two-thirds majority.

At any rate, I take solace in the fact that this blog is not primarily concerned with news and contemporary events, and so, most of what I have to say can usually wait. (To the extent that I do need to comment on pressing political issues, I do that at Select Board and Town Meeting [video here], or on the Town Meeting Listserve—also known as the "Yahoo List.")

And in the interim, I have all along continued to share information and views with my friends on Twitter: that's where one finds real immediacy. It's the daily bread of social media for me, which I attend to religiously (more on that later). Just follow me at @CitizenWald.