Friday, September 28, 2012

Mudslinging Massachusetts Campaign in Full Swing

With only a month and a half to go until the general election, the Massachusetts senatorial contest moved into high gear last week.

On Saturday, the Elizabeth Warren Senate campaign formally opened its headquarters in Northampton. The organization extended a courtesy invitation to the Amherst Select Board, and three of us were able to attend, along with a handful of other area elected or prospective officials, including candidate for Registrar of Deeds Mary Olberding.

Amherst Select Board member Diana Stein
Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and D.A. David Sullivan confer outside the new HQ
It was a modest but spirited event, featuring a host of local and state officeholders and candidates: Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, outgoing US Congressman John Olver, US Congressman Jim McGovern, State Senator Stan Rosenberg, State Representative Steve Kulik, and District Attorney Dave Sullivan.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz

Although Warren has strong support in our area, the message of the event was that this was an especially important election, and that every vote counted. Speakers underscored the reasons they thought a Warren victory was essential on the national as well as state level, and therefore pointed to the need to take the campaign beyond the reliably liberal Happy Valley to nearby towns and cities where the contest was more nearly even or actually tilted against the Democrats.

Their bottom line was that current Republican Senator Scott Brown was not to be trusted:

• First, although he likes to portray himself as an independent thinker and social moderate, his centrist credentials were slim: As several speakers pointed out, he had voted 5 times with the Democrats/for progressive causes, but on 10 times as many occasions, he had sided with the Republicans and the right. In effect, they asked, why one would settle for that when one could have the real thing, in the person of Elizabeth Warren? Or, in the pithy phrase of Representative McGovern, "Don't be such a cheap date!"

US Rep. Jim McGovern
US Rep. John Olver
• Second, they argued, there was no guarantee that one could expect even those 5 progressive votes in the future. As the speakers portrayed things, Brown, facing an election campaign, had been prudently politic in order to attract centrist or independent votes: If he won the current election, he would feel himself under no such obligation. Moreover, they argued, his seat could make all the difference in the larger contest for the Senate. Given the age of the current Supreme Court justices, they noted, the next president would likely be able to nominate several candidates, whose fate one would not care to entrust to a Republican-dominated Senate. And as if to underscore the point, they reminded the audience that the seat up for grabs again this year was the one long held by progressive Senator Edward Kennedy: "the lion of the Senate," as Steve Kulik put it.  (Whether his description of Elizabeth Warren as a potential "lioness of the Senate" will fit remains to be seen.)

State Sen. Stan Rosenberg
State Rep. Steve Kulik
In the meantime, the campaign has only intensified. Each side was convinced that it won the at times heated first televised debate. Soon after that, the temperature increased again. Supporters of Senator Brown again attacked Warren's claim of Native American ancestry, arguing that genealogical research had debunked the family tradition. Warren supporters fired back by citing Brown's (to many, ignorant and offensive) assertion in the debate (which he denied having made) that she falsely claimed to be "a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she's not." That Brown supporters were filmed at a rally making "tomahawk chops" and other vulgar or bigoted displays alluding to Warren's alleged Native American ancestry did not help. (The Cherokee Nation even stepped in.) But the Brown camp found new ammunition in the charge that Warren had illegally practiced law in the Commonwealth. Back and forth, so it continues.

Another forty days and nights of this may be hard to take.

It's already shaping up to be a dirty campaign. Given our somewhat peculiar and less than salubrious climate, we in Massachusetts joke about having a fifth season, the "mud season," between winter and spring. At this rate, we might want to think about adding one between the fall and winter, as well.

Fortunately, we on the Select Board don't have to worry about elections until next spring.

* * *

Update,  September 29

Barely had I written the above when, confirming what we all were starting to conclude, Republican ex-White House staffer and campaign advisor Matt Latimer came out yesterday with a piece in the Daily Beast, entitled, "Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren Contest in Massachusetts: Ugliest Senate Race." As the subtitle put it, "Most candidates for high office have taken a page from 'Honey Boo Boo': focusing on spectacle, weird asides, and name-calling. And the worst example is the expensive and deplorable Senate race in Massachusetts."

Noting the irony that both candidates promised to run "clean" campaigns, and pointing to the examples I mentioned above, he summarizes the problem:
Neither [candidate] is an unknown entity to the people of Massachusetts. So what is this back and forth all about? And what do these charges and countercharges possibly mean about their capacity to govern?
Indeed. And what does that say about what they think of the voters' ability to make rational, informed decisions?

Brown began calling his opponent “Professor Warren” as often as possible. This was considered a brilliant political tactic. After all, why would the people of Massachusetts ever want to be represented by someone who shows any sign of being educated? Warren, meanwhile, worked to depict Brown as a right-wing extremist while others started to question everything she ever said or did. The most recent charge is whether she practiced law without a license 17 years ago.

So with weeks to go and a narrow lead for Warren in most polls, the race has turned to the core issues that really matter in a country where millions are jobless: Whether she is a liar and he is a racist. Well, good luck on that, Massachusetts.  At least the rest of us don’t have to deal with such nonsense.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Talk Like a Pirate Postmortem; But You Can Still Talk Like a Lumberjack!

The Germans and Scandinavians try to ban circumcision, a crazy Copt makes a film attacking Muhammad, and now this: National Geographic is saying that international Talk Like a Pirate Day is based on nothing but myths and movies.

Is nothing sacred?! And on the 10th anniversary, no less!

Some people take our fun much too seriously. As my tweep, ace reporter for the Springfield Republican Patrick Johnson (@paddyJ1325) said,
Leave it to to go all buzzkill on National Talk Like a Pirate Day. Arrr! Shiver me timbers, matey
Of course as another tweep, sharp-eyed Springfield librarian Donna Goldthwaite (@DLGLibrarian) observed, there is also the other extreme of "Taking 'Talk Like a Pirate Day' WAY too seriously." The Daily Beast (citing the Telegraph) reports that an Englishwoman, clearly three sheets to the wind, got it into her head to "commandeer a passenger ferry and ram other watercraft while hollering 'I’m Jack Sparrow' and 'I’m a pirate.'"

The official Talk Like a Pirate organization does not condone such anti-social behavior. (For that matter, I don't think Jack Sparrow would, either.)

For those accustomed to more sedate celebrations, the staid Guardian offered a children's quiz about pirates in stories.

Still, that National Geographic story kind of took the wind out of the sails for many who have come to look forward to this day with holy anticipation each year. Fortunately, even as we are still getting over the disillusionment (next, they will be telling kids that there is no Santa Claus; oops), Lumberjack Day—sometimes also referred to as Talk Like a Lumberjack Day—comes along to revive our spirits.

Ritual and the marking of sacred time are important in all cultures, so just as Easter follows Good Friday, and Yom Kippur follows Rosh Hashanah, Lumberjack Day (September 26) occurs exactly a week after Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19). There is order in the cosmos.

Of course, this year, those observing Yom Kippur were not able to observe Lumberjack Day in full, having to deprive themselves of all that delicious lumberjack food (some would have had to skip it anyway, due to all that bacon). And it wouldn't be appropriate to "Knock things over all day yelling TIIIIIIIMBER" or even just "just talk really REALLY LOUD!" when you're trying to get God to forgive you for your sins. But everyone else presumably had a roaring good celebration.

As one who comes from a long line of people involved in forestry and the wood-related trades (no pirates, as far as I know), I of course think we should act like lumberjacks and foresters all year 'round.

And we can start by talking like real lumberjacks.

The Lumberjack Day website offers a good selection of lumberjack expressions, but I would like here to draw on my own private stock. My favorite resource is Lumberjack Lingo (Spring Green: Wisconsin House, 1969) a classic in the field, from my native region.

Way back in the 1930s, when working at the logging museum in Rhinelander, Wisconsin (I heartily recommend a visit), Professor L. G. Sorden, University of Wisconsin Extension Service of the College of Agriculture, began to collect loggers' vocabulary, a task that continued for some three decades. The author claims authenticity but not completeness for the list, which doubled to nearly 2,500 terms by the time of the second edition in 1969. The book is ideal for me, for it focuses on terms "used from about 1850 to 1920 and only in the New England states and the Great Lakes area." My treasured copy is autographed by both the midwestern author and the anonymous illustrator, and moreover contains some annotations by a western Massachusetts logger, who ticked off the terms with which he was personally familiar.

I have already regaled my reader with a comparison of mobsters' nicknames with loggers nicknames derived from this book. So, here is a brief selection of basic lumberjack lingo:
  • Alibi Day: Payday in camp when many loggers developed toothaches or other ills requiring trips to town.
  • Bagnio: A girl house. Sometimes called a boarding house. A famous one in the upper peninsula was known as the Klondike, and the ladies were called Klondikes.
  • Ball the Jack: To travel fast.
  • Bark Eater: 1. A lumberjack. 2. A sawmill hand.
  • Belly Burglar: A poor cook. Same as a belly robber
  • Belly Robber: A name often given to the cook, especially if he was a poor one.
  • Cackleberries: Eggs. Same as hen fruit.
  • Cootie Cage: A bunk or bed in camp quarters.
  • Death Warrant: A hospital ticket. The lumberjacks’ “Blue Cross.”
  • Dude: One who starts work in street clothes.
  • Easy as Falling Off a Log: Expression said to have originated with the river pigs who knew how easy it was to get wet in cold water.
  • Fink: Anyone who does not carry an I.W.W. (International Workers of the World red card)
  • Flap Jacks: Pancakes or griddle cakes. Stovelids, flats.
  • Flea Bag: A cheap flophouse, a louse-ridden hotel, often infested with bedbugs.
  • Goldfish: Canned salmon.
  • Got E’er Made: Quitting the job. The lumberjack had his stake made. Saved some money.
  • Gut: Bologna.
  • Hackmatack: The hemlock or larch tree.
  • Hardtail: A mule.
  • Hay: Money in a pay envelope.
  • Indian Silks: Overalls.
  • Ink Slinger: A logging camp timekeeper.
  • Jag: Being drunk.
  • Java: Coffee.
  • Jerk the Hash: Serve the food.
  • Keister: A packsack, same as knapsack, duffle bag, kennebecker, tussock.
  • Kill Dad: An empty tin pail where all lumberjacks threw old and odd pieces of chewing or smoking tobacco. Anyone could borrow from it for his pipe.
  • Lank Inside: Hungry.
  • Logging Berries: Prunes. A cook was once heard to remark, For me, I’ll take the prune; it makes even better apple pies than the peach.
  • Macaroni: Sawdust in big shreds.
  • Makens: Cigarette papers and tobacco. Also spelled makins.
  • N.G.: No good, in reference to some cooks. A poor cook.
  • Nimrod: A popular plug tobacco of loggers.
  • Off His Feed: A lumberjack sick in camp.
  • Old Head: A jack who had been around logging camps many years; an old-timer.
  • Pants Rabbits: Body vermin. Lice, crumbs.
  • Pat Him On The Lip: To thrash or whip a person.
  • Pimp Sticks: Cigarettes. Loggers and lumberjacks despised men who smoked cigarettes, and many foremen would not hire them. Their other names for cigarettes are unprintable.
  • Quinine Jimmy: A camp doctor.
  • Rail Kinker: A Railroad brakeman.
  • Reefing Her: Pushing a boat with a pole.
  • Rest Powder: Snuff.
  • Safety First: A camp welfare man.
  • Salucifer: A match. Same as Lucifer.
  • Sand: Sugar.
  • Swamp Water: Tea. On early camps more tea was used then coffee.
  • Taffle: A cookee, a cook’s helper.
  • Tally Man: One who recorded or tallied the measurements of logs as they were called by the scaler.
  • Teamster: A man who drove a team in a logging operation. Same as hair pounder.
  • Uncle: A superintendent.
  • Up The Pole: A logger on the water wagon, that is, one who did not drink.
  • Van Books: Camp store record books.
  • Wade: One of the early drag saws.
  • Wampus Cat: An imaginary animal to which night noises were attributed.
  • X-Tree: In Colonial days, any tree marked with an X was to be saved as a spar tree for the queen’s navy [sic] and not taken by fallers. Similar to broad arrow mark.
  • Yannigan: A bag in which a lumberjack carried his clothes. A packsack.
  • Yaps: Crazy, out of his mind.
  • Zippo: Corrupt spelling for gyppo. A logger who operated on a small scale. Same as chin-whiskered jobber.
In fact, since I'm having so much fun with this, I may bring you additional lists in the future.

So, go on talking like a pirate, even the lingo is not real. The point is to have fun.

But rest easy: If you want to talk like a lumberjack, you can do so confidently, knowing that this stuff is historian-tested and -approved, guaranteed 100-percent authentic.

Related Posts

• "What's in a Name? Mobsters and Loggers." (27 March 2011)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No Brakin' Akin

Akin update

After all the uproar over Representative Todd Akin's astonishingly obtuse and insensitive comments about "legitimate rape," pregnancy, and basic science, I wondered, half-rhetorically, what else there was to say—and finally came up with a historical angle.

Now, just when I thought there was nothing more to add, Mrs. Akin has intervened, somehow managing to plumb new moral depths by portraying her husband as a rape victim, and in the process mangling American history.

The Washington Post reports:
Lulli Akin, the U.S. Senate candidate’s wife, has compared his abandonment by party bosses to rape.
In an interview with “The National Journal,” she first described the move to get her husband to step down from the Senate race in Missouri as “tyranny, a top-down approach.”
She went on to say, “Party bosses dictating who is allowed to advance through the party and make all the decisions – it’s just like 1776 in that way.”
That was when colonists “rose up and said, ‘Not in my home, you don’t come and rape my daughters and my … wife. But that is where we are again.”
This time, I am literally at a loss for words.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Tip for You: My Penis Piece

Those of you who were focused on the Olympics or the presidential campaign over the summer may be excused for having missed the other dramatic contest of the season: the great circumcision controversy.

A German regional court, considering a case involving a Muslim family, ruled that circumcision, as a form of grievous "bodily injury," violated the physical "integrity" of the child, and was thus a punishable offense. A legal expert expressed the hope that the verdict might now lead Islam and Judaism to reform their atavistic rituals. As attempts to extend the ruling throughout Germany and even other nations increased, Muslims and Jews came together to protest what they saw as an assault on their fundamental religious liberties and identities. (And they did so peacefully: no buildings were burned, no death threats issued.)

You want me to cut off my what?

Now, circumcision is indeed a peculiar custom, certainly worth considering from the detached standpoint of modern science and human rights. My former colleague, Len Glick, has written a provocative book detailing the history of the practice and arguing for its abolition (1, 2, 3).

Still, for better or worse, the reality is that our society accords non-rational religious beliefs and practices a deference that it would never extend even to less peculiar or problematic ones in the secular realm. Witness the daily and cretinous assaults on established scientific truths by powerful politicians. On a purely pragmatic level, religious beliefs are the subject of great sensitivity on the part of adherents, and the conflicts that arise from "offenses" against them at times threaten the social peace. (Just look at the reaction by outraged believers to the vulgar anti-Muhammad film, and the rush of western religious and political leaders to condemn it as well as the resultant violence.) Above and beyond that, the objective right to free debate of ideas may be tempered by the awareness of historical prejudice and risk of misappropriation of legitimate criticism by contemporary bigots (1, 2).

Even if some reactions to the circumcision verdict were intemperate, you therefore just knew it could not be a good thing when Muslims and Jews charged that it was becoming impossible for them to live in Germany and the Chancellor had to declare, "I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot practise their rites." Talk about a public-relations disaster.

Circumcision of Christ (1466)

I followed the unfolding controversy for several months. Finally, when a Norwegian children's ombudsman helpfully suggested that Muslims and Jews just devise a new nonsurgical ritual (damn! now why didn't Moses and Muhammad think of that?), I decided to share a few thoughts on the topic in my Times of Israel column: "The most unkindest cut of all? A modest proposal for the circumcision crisis."

Every possible angle of the question had already been thoroughly debated, so, rather than going again into the details of law and human rights, or the medical arguments for or against the practice (though new studies tip the balance in favor), I thought I would merely contemplate the wisdom of the secular authorities' precipitous and quixotic attempt to correct the centuries-old doctrines of religious communities, especially communities that are or have been the object of discrimination.

Basically, I just wanted to ask what would happen if we pursued the reasoning of the zealous secular reformers to its ultimate conclusion (maybe even ad absurdum) and applied it across the board.

Not Too Swift

Judging by the talkbacks and other responses, most people understood the piece in the spirit in which it was intended and found it reasonably amusing. The notable exception was one British dullard who accused me of engaging in an illogical argument, and above all, of attacking Christianity.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, this is ludicrous. I spend a good deal of time in the classroom attempting to teach students to take religion—and Christianity, in particular—seriously as intellectual traditions and forces in the history of world civilization rather than condemning them out of hand according to modern standards of intellectual sophistication and political correctness.

In any case, this otherwise amiable fellow must be "as thick as a whale omelette" not to have seen that the piece was intended humorously and satirically. The words, "a modest proposal," should have been a dead giveaway to the culturally literate. (I was freshly returned from a conference in Dublin, where I had made a pilgrimage to Jonathan Swift's cathedral and grave, so the phrase just came to naturally to mind.)

As for logic, that was exactly my point, and one that would presumably have been sympathetic to my critic: seen from the outside, many religious doctrines and practices seem (or can be made to appear) ridiculous or harmful. Taking seriously the charge that they are not compatible with our modern values, where would that lead? Those who applauded the outcome in the case of circumcision might not be so sanguine in others.

Still, could it be that the fault of these zealous reformers lay not in having gone too far, and rather, in not having gone far enough?

Anyway, you can see for yourself where I ended up.


Of course, the story just keeps growing.

• Even before the appearance of the latest reports supporting claims for the hygienic advantages of circumcision—especially in the fight against AIDS in the Third World: it is said to cut the risk by fully 70%—fringe opponents of the practice vented their ire on a book about HIV prevention that essentially blamed European imperialism for the problem (the discussion of circumcision accounted for only 10% of the content) and "launched a smear campaign to discredit the book and its authors by spreading misinformation on Amazon." Namely, in a concerted effort, they posted ultra-negative reviews and then rated one another's reviews as "helpful" in order to drive down the book's ratings.

Joya Banerjee, "Amazon Warfare: How an anti-circumcision fringe group waged an ideological attack against AIDS scholarship." Slate, 24 Sept. 2012.  (hat tip: Evgeny Morozov)

• And, as chance would have it, we appear to be ahead of the game. Writing on the eve of the first great matchup of the Presidential election, journalist and pop culture critic Virginia Heffernan's provocative and witty piece declares: "Obama and Romney should get a circumcision question at he debate. Really." (Yahoo! News, 2 Oct. 2012). Citing the aforementioned pieces on the foreskin controversy, she says,
For starters, neither candidate will mention it—ever. As long as he’s in politics. As long as he lives.

Circumcision is repressed as a subject because, at this very moment, it’s that hot to the touch.
What a tangled psychosexual web we weave. As with abortion, transvaginal this and that, or the dozen issues surrounding sexual orientation, what seems natural to one side horrifies the other. Religion and ethnicity come into play, and ancient rivalries, and lizard-brain subjects involving physicality and sex and death and what disgusts you and what makes you feel free
She moreover legitimately asks whether it is a right- or left-wing issue, a feminist or religious or human-rights issue, an ethnic or anti-ethnic issue, and so forth (even manages to work in Ron Paul and crypto-Nazi hostility to the pricks of the Federal Reserve).

Curiously, she has nothing to say about the European controversy that is the subject of this post. (I'll give her a pass on that one. We all have our areas of particular interest.) Still, she has a rather narrow view of what should be an expansive topic. It is therefore perhaps more curious that she frames the question as: "is circumcision a religious and ethnic issue, one that divides Jews and Americans from the rest of the world . . . ?"

Kudos and all that, but I guess an English literature degree gets you only so far. It is, as they say, a teachable moment, and not only regarding quantitative skills. There are approximately 14-15 million Jews in the world, and nearly 312 million Americans (though their circumcision rate has dropped considerably in recent years.) There are in addition, however, some 2.1 billion Muslims, whose religion also mandates circumcision.

A little multiculturalism, anyone? 

Wishing You a Pleasant 5773! (holiday greetings then and now)

A very happy 5773 to those celebrating Rosh Hashanah this year.

Or, as David Letterman said last year:
It's Jewish year 5772, and all day I've been writing 5771 on my checks. That's the 30th consecutive year I've told that joke. 

Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year (literally: head of the year), is an intriguing holiday for a number of reasons. To begin with (no pun intended), it falls not in the first month of the year, but the seventh, and is seen as the "birthday of the world": just one of four types of new years in the calendar. The name Rosh Hashanah as such does not occur in the Torah, which instead describes the day as "a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation." It is thus akin to the Sabbath, in addition marked by sacrifice and the blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn (1, 2) . (Many other customs and rituals evolved in the intervening centuries.) In addition, though, it constitutes the beginning of a period of introspection, repentance, and charity culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These ten days are referred to as the "Days of Awe" and thus bear a certain resemblance to Ramadan, which is in a sense historically derived from them.

German Jews at prayer on Yom Kippur in the 18th century

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

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

From Rosh Hashahah through Yom Kippur:
Shana tova: a good year
L'shanah tova tikatevu v'tichatemu: May you be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year
Leading up to/through Yom Kippur:
G'mar chatima tova: roughly, May you be sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year [literally just: a good sealing]
As has been the custom, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent greetings to Israel's President Shimon Peres: "Happy holiday and a Happy New Year to you and the entire Israeli nation." He also expressed the desire of the Palestinian people for peace, and the hope that the new year might bring steps in that direction. Peres, for his part, replied, "I know the past year has been a difficult year, but we mustn't give up… we must continue to strive for peace." In a separate Facebook message to the wider public, he said, “Peace is the greatest blessing to our children,” and warned against intolerance: “Don’t put up with racism or violence of any kind, with religious or political extremism, or discrimination based on race or gender.”

As chance would have it, such holiday greetings, personal as well as political, were the subject of several good articles in recent days.

In the cards

Hezi Amior, Israel Collection Curator at the National Library of Israel, traces the history of the Rosh Hashanah greeting. The first documented instance dates to fourteenth-century Germany. By the eighteenth century, the custom had spread to the new center of gravity of Ashkenazi Jewry in Eastern Europe. The development of the modern postal service coupled with new technologies of graphic reproduction in the late nineteenth century brought about the triumph of the greeting card in the age of mass print culture. In fact, he says, during the two decades before the end of World War I, "the vast majority of the mail sent by Jews in Europe and America consisted of New Year cards." They loomed large in the volume of mail in Mandatory Palestine and the new State of Israel, too, until the rise of the residential telephone and mass media in the 1970s finally led to the decline of the century-old practice and print genre.

Not surprisingly, as in other cases, the content of the cards reflected the very contemporary concerns of the societies in which they were produced. There were of course traditional religious and historical motifs. With the rise of political Zionism, the cards, around the world and particularly in the Land of Israel:
feature central Zionist values, such as agricultural labor, a return to Biblical paradigms, the local landscape, cultural and economic undertakings, milestones in reclaiming the land and founding of state institutions, the immigration struggle, the Haganah ("The Defense"), the settlement movement, and so forth.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus, famed victim of antisemitism at the turn of the century

pioneers in the old-new land: "Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy"

Following the War of Independence, and "especially between the Six-day War and the Yom Kippur War," the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) featured prominently in such greetings, often depicted at holy sites. In this 1967 example: victorious soldiers rejoicing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (which Jews had been forbidden to visit since 1949 under the Jordanian occupation):

As Amior observes, "these greeting cards recall a time of ideological unity and naïve and uninhibited national pride" in a nation still under construction.

Sacred, secular, and socialist
Matti Friedman, one of my favorite journalists over at The Times of Israel (full disclosure: I write for that publication, too), has a fine piece on a subset of this cultural tradition: "Bialik and Kipling, but no God: How kibbutz pioneers marked Rosh Hashanah." Few concepts cause more confusion than the notion of a "Jewish state." The typical American or other outsider, unfamiliar with an identity that comprises an ethnicity as well as a religion, mistakenly tends to assume that it either cannot dispense with or involves only the latter. Many of the early Zionists were not religiously observant, but they often drew upon elements of tradition in their efforts to create a "secular Judaism," a concept that is therefore perfectly logical in this context but may sound strange in others (it's virtually impossible to imagine a "secular Christian" culture). 

Matti's article tells the story of these efforts by "the deeply spiritual socialists who were responsible, more than any other single group of people, for creating the state of Israel." He focuses on The Kibbutz Institute for Holidays and Jewish Culture at Kibbutz Beit Hashita, whose archives "cover the better part of a century of Jewish holiday celebrations but are entirely uninterested in God, rabbis or law."
“For the first pioneers Judaism was very important, in addition to the ideology of returning to the land of the Bible, working the fields, agriculture, socialism, and humanistic values,” said Mordy Stein, one of the teachers at the institute. “In essence, they were creating the new Jew – the old Jew, the Diaspora Jew, was what they were rejecting, and they rejected Diaspora religion because it represented the old Jew.
“They didn’t want rabbinic Judaism, because they identified it almost mathematically with Exile. They wanted new ways of expressing Jewish values and holidays according to their new understandings about the new Jew, so they started to create traditions that were much closer to the biblical concept, the agricultural concept, the natural feeling of a Jew living in the land of Israel on the land, which had been forgotten over 2,000 years,” Stein said.
As Institute founder Aryeh Ben-Gurion (nephew of the first prime minister) characterized Rosh Hashanah: "These are borderline days between the end of summer, the season of death in the universe, and a new birth, the beginning of a new life cycle in nature and agriculture and new relations between the sky and the earth, between rain and soil." One of the typical cards from the pre-statehood 1940s thus emphasizes the synthesis of nature and culture: the sun of the seasons, bringing forth crops and heralding a national rebirth as it shines down upon a new agricultural commune protected by characteristic fence and watchtower.

As is often the case, perspectives change, and the Institute in the meantime includes some traditional prayer in its contemporary liturgies and educational materials. As Matti puts it, "God is no longer taboo." He also suggests that the Institute's program and vision are not passé. He  concludes by noting that, although the pure socialism of the kibbutz movement now seems a historic artifact, its approach to the holidays just might have a future among the many people who value ritual and tradition and crave community but are unwilling to cede the definition and practice of religion to the Orthodox.

The solemn day of Yom Kippur is, or used to be, the one holiday that most Jews, however, lax or secular in their practice, tend to observe in some fashion. In fact, it has been said, this was one reason it was relatively easy to launch an emergency call-up of Israel's reserves when Arab armies launched their surprise attack in 1973: one knew where to find the troops. Had the attack come on Rosh Hashanah, they would have been dispersed around the country on picnics and other outings. (New revelations about the intelligence and communications failures on the eve of the war came from the archives just this past week.)

Still, as a story in today's Times of Israel notes, even those who mark the holiday in some form or fashion may not do so in  traditional ways. Many secular Israelis may attend the opening evening service and then go cycling the next day rather than attend hours of services with which they are not familiar or comfortable. The article describes various organizations that, akin to the Kibbutz Institute, are attempting to craft meaningful forms of engagement with the holiday for the non-observant: including secular study of religious texts, liturgy drawing upon contemporary literature and music, confessional services "focusing on community and nation," and commemorations of the 1973 war.

As author Ben Sales notes, "Yom Kippur lacks an element of national heroism central to such holidays as Chanukah and Purim, which many secular Israelis observe," but "the ideas of self-improvement and forgiveness should resonate with everyone." In other ways, it is therefore easy to integrate the observance of Yom Kippur into modern secular sensibilities and lifestyles. "Green Prophet," an environmental organization that calls itself a "sustainable voice for green news on the Middle East" from all peoples and faiths in the region, offers tips to "Make Yom Kippur Your Day to Help Green the World."

Eventually, the standoff in the years after the Yom Kippur War led to the breakthrough that began the long, torturous, and still incomplete "peace process." As the example of Presidents Abbas and Peres reminds us, political leaders as well as individuals often exchange holiday greetings. The excellent new Israel Archives blog of State Archivist Yaakov Lozowick has been releasing a steady stream of new material. Last week, it shared exchanges of New Year greetings between Presidents Carter and Reagan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Responding to Carter's holiday wishes in 1979, Begin wrote:
In accordance with the ancient calendar the year 5739 had ended and, in ushering in the New Year 5740 we pray that it may, indeed, be blessed. The twelve months gone by will be remembered as the year in which the Camp David agreement was concluded and the treaty of peace between Israel and Egypt was signed. And as you rightly state, Mr. President: 'This new year finds the ties between our two countries stronger than ever.'
What a difference three decades make. But on to lighter topics.

Several cultural organizations, including the National Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College here in Amherst and the Magnes Museum in Berkeley, have resurrected and updated the old traditions by allowing web visitors to send e-greetings of vintage cards. A few examples from the Magnes:


Still, my favorite, which perfectly captures the combination of spiritual and secular, observance and irreverence, has to be this one. As a window into a cultural mindset, it just says it all.

I'm all out, so I'll stop here.


Last year's post
• Hemi Amior, "Shana Tova from Alfred Dreyfus," Ynet News, 17 September 2012
• "Rosh Hashana Greeting Cards in Jewish and Israeli Tradition," from National Library of Israel (a fuller range of examples, from which Amior selected his illustrations)
• Matti Friedman, "Bialik and Kipling, but no God: How kibbutz pioneers marked Rosh Hashanah," Times of Israel, 16 Sept. 2012
• Ben Sales, "The un-Orthodox approach to Yom Kippur in Israel," 23 Sept. 2012
• Miriam Kresh, "Make Yom Kippur Your Day to Green the World," Green Prophet, 23 Sept. 2012
• Yaakov Lozowick, "Jewish New Year Greeting Exchanges From Presidents Carter and Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Begin," Israel's Documented Story, 20 Sept. 2012
• "Rosh Hashanah E-Cards from the Magnes Museum," The New Centrist, 9 Sept. 2009

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Other 9/11's

1297? 1549? 1683? 1777? . . .

Take any given date, and lots of important things are bound to have happened on it since we began recording history.

For most of us in this time and place, September 11 has become synonymous with the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in the United States.

Fairly or not, it crowds out all the other September 11ths, some of which were quite important in their day and perhaps even remain so in ours.  Among those others, I naturally gravitate to the events that helped to shape European and US history, e.g. (culled from WIkipedia's convenient listing for the date):

• 1297: the victory of the Scots, under William Wallace and Andrew Moray, over the English at the  Battle of Stirling Bridge

• 1549: Ottoman forces occupy Buda, following their defeat of the Hungarians and the death of the Hungarian king at the Battle of Mohács

• 1649: the still-controversial bloody end of the Siege of Drogheda, in which Cromwell and the Parliamentarian forces capture the Irish town and execute the defenders

• 1683: beginning of the Battle of Vienna, in which the Turks for the last time threaten the heart of Christian Central Europe. A Polish relief army under Jan Sobieski turns the tide of battle on the 12th

• 1609: Henry Hudson reaches Manhattan Island

• 1777: Battle of Brandywine in the American Revolution. A large and influential battle of the Revolutionary war: a defeat that leads to the loss of Philadelphia, but the persistence of the Americans in its aftermath boosted their morale and helped to secure vital French support for the rebellion.

• 1989: Hungary allows East Germans who had taken temporary refuge there to leave for West Germany: one of the key practical steps that leads to the Fall of the Wall. It subsequently became clear that the Hungarian politicians were indeed aware of the possible consequences.

1941-2001; 1978

There are some ironies associated with the historical date, in the context of the 2001 attacks. Although it is not often noted, it was on September 11, 1941 that the US government broke ground for the construction of the Pentagon, exactly 60 years before American Airlines Flight 77 hit the building.

On September 12, 2001, recovery workers hung a huge garrison flag from the façade of the Pentagon on the occasion of the visit by President Bush. From September 2002 to September 2006, it was on exhibit in the National Museum of American History, in the same space where the "Star-Spangled Banner" used to be displayed. In September 2006, when the Museum was undergoing renovations, the Pentagon flag was returned to its regular home at the U.S Army Center of Military History.

the Pentagon flag in the National Museum of American History, 2006
And on September 11, 1978, Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin agreed on the basic framework for the Camp David peace Accords, which they announced a week later, raising unprecedented hopes of regional peace.

1973 and 1814

I'll close with just two more.

On September 11, 1973, elements of the Chilean military, led by General Augusto Pinochet, staged a coup against socialist Salvador Allende, ushering in nearly two decades of brutal right-wing dictatorship. Although the United States government certainly tried to prevent an Allende regime and then to destabilize it, it did not (contrary to some widely held beliefs) stage or actively participate in the coup.

In Latin American studies, events organized around this so-called "Other 9/11" have become almost de rigueur as a means of focusing attention on their region and the complex legacy of US involvement there, as well as recruiting new students at the start of the fall term. (And at least some faculty, one suspects, appreciate the opportunity to offer critical perspectives about the United States on a date normally devoted to the portrayal of the country as pure and innocent victim.)

Hampshire College faculty have for some years held what they call an "alternative 9/11" event. From the description of this year's program, which included a film and a discussion of political music:
The Other Sept. 11th Remembrance: CHILE 1973
On Sept. 11, 1973 the United States government participated in the overthrow of a democratically elected Chilean government and this coup led to a lengthy dictatorship that committed innumerable human rights abuses. As we mark another anniversary of the Sept. 11th tragedy on U.S. soil, we invite you to consider the significance of this date from a Latin American perspective . . . You will have an opportunity meet students and faculty who have an interest in Latin American studies, Latin@ studies, and Las Américas.
The other "other 9/11" that I have come to think about ever more in recent years dates from the obscure War of 1812, whose bicentennial we now mark (sort of): the unjustly neglected Battle of Plattsburgh, New York, on September 11, 1814.

Having just defeated Napoleon, the British were free to deploy additional forces to the New World. In an attempt to improve their bargaining position in the peace talks at Ghent, they launched new campaigns in New York and the Chesapeake. The naval victory of the outnumbered Americans at Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain, coupled with the successful defense of Baltimore on September 13-14 (made famous by "The Star-Spangled Banner") foiled that plan. They solidified wavering support for the war.  Above all, by repelling the British invasions, they guaranteed United States territorial integrity—keeping the northern states and former Northwest Territory (now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) under American control—and thus success in the treaty negotiations.

Those two dates—1814 and 1973—in some ways seem to represent polar opposites: a new democracy heroically defends itself against an imperial power interfering in the affairs of another region, only to commit the same sin itself once it has become a power to be reckoned with.

Yet, even in that first case, things prove to be more complicated. Upon closer examination, the War of 1812 starts to look messier, and, well, more "modern" and familiar. To begin with, it is worth remembering that it was long unpopular (Amherst, along with much of the Federalist northeast, opposed it, for example). That was in part because it was as much about domestic as foreign politics; not everyone perceived a mortal threat to the national interest. And even though it originated as a response to British aggression, it began with an ill-considered and bungled invasion of Canada. The Canadians, as we discovered to our surprise, were not particularly keen on being "liberated" by us. In fact, one of the consequences of the war was arguably to solidify a sense of a distinct Canadian identity. And, speaking of Canada, it was the American sack of the capital of York (Toronto)—including the burning of the legislature and the plundering of the town—that prompted the British to attack Washington, burning the Capitol, White House, and other public buildings (unlike the Americans, they left the private ones untouched). Nowadays, we'd call that "blowback."

None of this is to say that the war was entirely unjustified. Yet to say that it could be  justified is not to say that it was unavoidable or could not have been conducted in another way. The past isn't always "a foreign country."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

9-11 2012 in Amherst: We Do Mark and Mourn the Anniversary

As I recently noted, controversy over the commemoration of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in Amherst seems to crop up almost every year in the press (sometimes making headlines or national news), even as our small town does indeed mark the sad anniversary every year in sober and seemly fashion.

The normal venue is the central Fire Station, where our first responders mark the loss of both their brethren and the ordinary citizens who perished on that day.

bell readied for the memorial ceremony

Among those of us associated with local or state government and administration were four members of the Select Board, Town Manager John Musante, State Representative Ellen Story, Planning Director Jonathan Tucker, and Director of Conservation and Development Dave Ziomek, as well as other members of Town staff.

residents assemble prior to the ceremony
Town residents also marked the anniversary in their own way.

One here displayed a flag with the names of 9-11 victims.

After the ceremony, blogger and tireless 9-11 commemoration advocate Larry Kelley stood with his flag at the corner in the center of town and then trudged down the street to the intersection of Routes 9 and 116.

at the Fire Station

An unidentified mourner parked a large construction vehicle adorned with multiple flags in front of Town Hall.

And as always, Amherst Town flags flew at half-staff.

But I doubt that Fox New will cover any of this.

9-11 and Amherst: Why Do They Hate Us? (part 2)

Why do they hate us? (douchebags, turds, socialists, Muslims, libtards, Democrats)
Even though, as the previous post explained and the following one shows, Amherst annually marks the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks by lowering its flags to half-staff and holding a ceremony at the Fire Station, people persist in believing that we ignore the date or even that we never fly the American flag.
Strictly speaking, I suppose, Part 1 already explained why they hate us.

Here the question is, rather: How do they hate us?

Let me count the ways.

Along with those who simply disagreed with the Town's policy were those who expressed more hostile feelings. Many emphasized the strength of these emotions by threatening to boycott the town. (How many of them actually have shopped here as they claim is anyone's guess. I want to see receipts.) Many called us names. Some suspected we were trying to establish Sharia (or the Gulag). Some wanted us to move somewhere else (whether expressed as a general desire, or with reference to specific destinations, from just south of the border to the infernal regions). Some wished us bodily harm.

When I arrived at Monday's Select Board meeting, I saw uniformed police officers outside the Town Room and thought I had perhaps missed an earlier ceremony or failed to notice a public-safety topic on the agenda. As I later found out, the police were there for our protection: it was September 10, and we were to hear more public comment on the flag controversy. We never felt unsafe, but that gives you a sense of how high the tensions had risen.

The following is a little selection of the angry talkbacks and emails directed at us.

Impeach, hang, or exile the Prius-driving, weed-smoking hippie terrorist sympathizers

From responses to Conor Berry's piece in the Springfield Republican:

• Maybe the officials of this town secretly believe that the attacks were false and actually government I have heard from some people who also feel the government is poisoning us secretly and moving towards a new world order

•  Only figures from a town named after a genocidal maniac Amherst who by the way infected local Indians with small pox to steal their land , keep up the good work.....

•I've stopped doing any business with anybody connected to or in Amherst . . . . it's just a typical college town full of people full of themselves. I love all those Prius, Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Lexus owners trying to portray themselves as Americans.

• Maybe Northampton [sic] is taking it's cues from the DNC. The convention is starting with 2 hours of muslim prayers... Our country is going to hell.

• There is a perversion that patriotism, religious beliefs, marriage between a man and a women, and respect for life at conception is some how out of date and unpopular. Maybe in places like the people's republic of Amherst Massachusetts they are. Please Amherst, secede from the United States of America.

• Sounds like the town officials are oblivious to the pain of the country. May they should go live in Mexico.

• Speaking for my ancestors who fought for our country dating back to the Revolution, I am appalled that a minority of self serving small town politicians would be allowed to dictate to the masses when our US flag can fly on the town common. Impeach 'em!!

• Amherst is one of the most disgusting and unpatriotic cities in the U.S. How can a city not allow to fly the flag of its own country???? I just don't get it. The city councilors who banned the flag display should all be put on trial for treason. And then hanged in the city square in place of the flag display.

• Remember all those hippies from the 60s who were smoking weed, dropping acid, and denouncing everything that had to do with the government? Well guess what? Those same hippies got old and are now in positions of authority.

• HEY TERRORIST, please target Amherst, I'll supply you with a map.

Amherst: it's just un-American; Hell, it's not even in America

From the Daily Hampshire Gazette:
• This is the SAME community that said, pre 9-11, that the red in the American flag stood for "all of the blood of the innocent victims of American terrorism all over the world."
Can we really expect anything different from them?

• Thank God I don't live in Amherst.... It is questionable if it is part of the USA

Love it or leave it, you limp-wristed, spineless, namby-pamby, anti-American jackwagons, gay, Muslim-loving supporters of fluoridation and taxation

From responses to Diane Lederman's piece in the Springfield Republican:
Why would some one want to live in a country that offends them? I'm not suggesting we run them out of town. But, these people who find our flag "offensive" should ponder as to why they want to be here, and whether or not they would be happier elsewhere.

I am so sick of the spineless people in this country and our government who kowtow to every whiner who shows up with a gripe..We are Americans and our Flag is a emblem of freedom and pride--don't like that? Then go some where you do like


 • I suggest any person or community in America that finds the AMERICAN FLAG polarizing and a brazen symbol of might and oppression to pick up, pack up, and head to a country with a flag they find less polarizing and a brazen symbol of might and oppression. Any communist country should do.

To think hundreds of thousands of patriotic Americans died so that limp-wristed, namby-pamby, anti-American jackwagons could occupy space and vote in this, the best country ever to have been founded. Disgusting! 

•  It never fails to amaze me how stupid, ignorant or naive some people can be. You don't want fly old glory, our country's flag because you are embarrassed by it. Or is it because it might offend some Islamic residents of what 9/11 really means to real Americans. 3000 innocent Americans were murdered by Islamic radicals and you are afraid to respect their loss to our country by displaying the American flag. If you cannot respect what the American flag represents, you should move to a country that agrees with your perspective. Some suggestions: North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia as well as half the United Nations who laugh at us and disrespects what America has contributed to the world.

This in the all "inclusive" town where the flag of Puerto Rico was was torn down because it was mistaken for the state flag of Texas, home of a republican president. I guess that means you can be included, welcome, and vital to the community as long as you agree with the view of the few. Well at least Amherst will be spared Armageddon, as it was voted a nuclear free zone. No mushroom shaped clouds, or American flags allowed. The sign at the town line should read, "Welcome to Laughingstockville"

•Every city official who voted for this idiocy should be hit with a petition demanding they resign immediately. Vote every single one of them out of office at the earliest opportunity and replace them with true patriots.

From WWLP Channel 22:

• Do you even consider yourselves Americans?   Please drive your stereotypical green Subaru Legacy hippie wagons off a cliff while you listen to NPR on full blast.

• Bet they still fly the Muslim flag on Ramadan

• No problem flying the gay pride on any day of the year though

•  what a dumb thing to do. There is a small country in northern south america that wood love to have people like you. So move and let the flag fly.I served my country and flag, many have given their lives for it. I will never visit this town and hope others join me.

• The selectman should be removed from their positions for trying to dictate when and where the American Flag can be flown.

•  can we just ban amherst from the states already

•  What an abomination.....Amherst is a perfect example of everything wrong with our Nation.  Insane property taxes (to pay for all the welfare), a police state, fluoride in the water and hippiecrities running around destroying the Flag that represents our Republic.  Shame on you town of Amherst

• Amherst . . . you all should be ashamed to call yourselves Americans!!  This is why our Country is falling apart. Disrespectful, ignorant, naive people.  They don’t fly our Flag but they do have aPot Fest every year that forces the Police to let people smoke Pot and do nothing about it.
Something is wrong here.

 • Yup and they are always the first in line for welfare and food stamps with the amount of people that qualify there. Figures they had [hate??] the government except when they want that free hand out

• Only in the Socialist Republic of Amherst.

• What a bunch of pretentious d-bags.

• What a bunch of self righteous t*rds.

• Go to H3ll, Amherst.

Dear Assholes: You and your communist, Muslim-loving cesspool of liberals make us sick, you ingrateful spawn of elitist hypocrites

Oddly, perhaps, some of the nastiest comments came not in anonymous newspaper talkbacks, but in direct, signed letters to the Select Board. We certainly cannot complain about reticence:
• I am dismayed by the report that your town does not see fit to honor the singly significant event and heroes of that infamous day when we were viciously attacked by radical muslims. I believe that the 'politically correct' Massachusetts beliefs have brought a disservice to all involved.

• Any Board Member who votes not to raise the American flag in memory of 911 should be sent to Siberia. You people are like that idiot professor. Why do you liberal democrats have to appease a few? Doesn't the majority rule?
You idiots should be ashamed. I will make it a point to circumnavigate your cesspool of liberals the next time I need to pass through.

• Ever wonder why a lot of our kids show little to no respect for the flag,well, you sure show them the way.Bet you’d be happy to fly a Muslim flag everyday.Thanks for ruining our country.


• It is a blatant and outright disrespectful statement to this country and the men and women who have served in the past and continue to serve presently. They are the ones that will protect your pathetic, spineless self when the rubber hits the road since all you have done is welcome terrorists and illegals into my country. I am personally deeply offended and will not support your personal agendas.... I am ashamed of each of you, the select board as a whole and the town that you are supposed to be assisting in managing; representing the town as a whole and making decisions in the best interest of the community is a sham. I am disappointed that you all fail to do the right thing, time and time again. You sicken me.

•  I read your explanation on your ideas of displaying the American flags every five years to commemorate 9-11. As usual it's a ridiculous left wing argument....

I think for the most part the people of Massachusetts are very unfriendly and cynical. We visited there once and couldn't wait to leave, just the traffic showed us what nasty people were behind the wheels of the cars racing around cutting each other off.

I will be forwarding this to help get the word out that picturesque little Amherst is just another socialist city like Berkeley, Ca.


 • Hi!
I would like to fly the American flag everyday at my home. Will I be arrested and fined? Is this true?
• You are a disgrace to your office. Your entire board is a disgrace to the blood that has been spilled by those who have defended this country. Of course we should not be surprised as it is once again Massachusetts and the crazy loons on the left that are the disgrace of the nation.

• your town is a DISGRACE to this country. If your little ''Mayberry'' is that ashamed to fly the American Flag on 9/11, a symbol of hope and courage to millions of people around the world, then I strongly suggest you get the hell out of MY country. Leave it to a handful of hillbillies in the bowels of the northeast to make waves by your disrespectful actions.

• What country are you clowns from?.....,,You are appearing as clowns, trying to be politically correct. I’m not sure you are true Americans, especially in a state founded as one of the original colonies, you should have a clearer understanding of the symbols of this country and their meaning. Shame…
• If you don't fly the American flag every September the 11th it proves you are communists, bent on the destruction of the remembrance of that horrible day and wanting to undermine the destruction of America.
To even think of not flying the flag on September 11 of each year shows each of you are a communist.
You need to be proud of America, the greatest nation on earth and drop your communist principles.
We live in a republic form of democracy (just in case you were not taught that in school) and not in a commy country!

• Dear Assholes of Amherst, MA:

So you think the American flag is a "sign of oppression." Having lived through 9-11 in NYC -- I lived in Manhattan, I think there is nothing quite like a hijacked boeing burning in the worlds tallest office building with innocent people dying for not being deemed worthy to live and in that to be murdered any less painfully, since they were not Muslim.... Further, you may find that my US dollars to be derived from the oppressive American government. So I will keep mine, and you commie bastards can go fuck yourselves. I will further encourage all I know and meet to also boycott your little wonderland of derision, utter disrespect and to reject you, your town and ingrateful spawn of you elitist hypocrites.
As we keep telling ourselves: 82 cents a day. That's what we earn. At times like this, we feel overtaxed as well as underpaid.

Two seats open in the spring. Anyone want to run?