Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Merry Christmas from Maximilien Robespierre (with a side-note on that Newton business)

From the vaults via last year's Tumblr post:

Understandably enough, we tend to think of December 25 primarily as Christmas, thereby ignoring or forgetting other events that occurred on that date. Among the latter is the birthday of Isaac Newton (1642).

Neil deGrasse Tyson caused a stink this year when he made what he thought was a witty tweet about this coincidence and aroused the ire of some who thought he was anti-Christian. In fact, he was doing nothing new or particularly clever: advocates of science have for some years promoted celebration of the 25th as Newton’s birthday as a light-hearted way of increasing awareness of scientific knowledge.

I always honor the birthday of the scientific revolutionary Newton, but also the occasion of a major address by the political revolutionary Robespierre.

read the rest

Friday, December 25, 2015

Traditions of Christmas Past: from boisterous to banned to bourgeois

From the vaults, via last year's Tumblr post:

“‘At Home’ in the Nursery, or The Masters and Misses Twoshoes Christmas Party,” by George Cruikshank (1792-1878)
Etching with hand coloring.
Image dimensions: c. 214 x 267 mm (approx.  8.4 x 10.5 inches)
Signed in the plate, “G Cruishank fect” (left) and “Pubd. Augt 1st 1835, by Thos McLean, 26, Haymarket.” (right)

This is the second issue. The print first appeared in the 1826 collection, Holiday Scenes, published by Samuel Knight (active 1805-41). Thomas McLean (1788-1875) reissued it 9 years later in Cruikshankiana, an assemblage of the most celebrated works of George Cruikshank. He largely effaced the original Knight signature, but it survives as a ghost imprint above his own, at lower right:

“London Pubd Jany 3d 1826 by S Knight, 3 Sweetings Alley [{Roy[a] X'Change’}]
Not yet "Victorian” in the strict (or any other) sense, the etching nonetheless lacks the ribaldry or bite of Cruikshank’s other early (especially political) work: it manages to be satirical and sentimental at once. We can already recognize in it our received image of Christmas as domestic idyll, familiar from Dickens to “The Nutcracker” (though the evolution of the latter is a tale in itself).

The fourteen (count 'em!) children–this, at a time when the average British family size peaked at around 6 children (1, 2)–play with a mixture of sedate enjoyment and abandon as a stout serving-woman brings in a tray of treats. The image is rich in period detail, from the toys and the copy of the Eaton [sic] Latin Grammar abandoned on the floor, to the delicate jelly-glasses (whatever possessed the parents of that day to put them in the hands of youngsters?) and the faux-bamboo “fancy chairs” on which the children sit or climb.

The etching also also suggests why the Calvinists and their American descendants held no truck with Christmas. Theologically, it was a problem for them because its celebration was not biblically mandated, and the date of Jesus’ birth was in any case unknown. The holiday was moreover associated with revelry–whether heavy drinking by adults or just boisterous behavior, as shown in our print–that seemed incommensurate with the spirit of a holy festival.

Such was certainly the attitude here in Massachusetts, where Christmas celebrations were banned in 1659, as the legislature put it: “For preventing disorders … by reason of some still observing such ffestivalls as were superstitiously kept in other countrys, to the great dishonnor of God & offence of others.” The state lifted the ban in 1681, but it took more than a century and a half before things really began to change. Under the influence of shifting national tastes, Christmas began to assume its familiar lineaments of wholesome domesticity and consumption. (In Massachusetts, Irish immigration also contributed to the shift.) The 1855 Christmas celebration at the Worcester Free Church under minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a symbolic turning point. The following year, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, “We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so,” and the legislature officially recognized the holiday.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Happy Hanukkah To My Readers (and a reminder of the legacy of the Jews from Arab countries)

Wishing a happy Hanukkah to all my readers who celebrate the holiday!

Israel Hanukkah coin, 1973

Nominal value: 5 Lirot [pounds], Silver proof (34 mm., 20 g)
Catalogue C/177; quantity: 45,000

The coin, the eighth in the annual series, depicts a menorah from eighteenth-century "Babylon[ia]" (Iraq) from the Israel Museum.

The choice might at first seem surprising to Americans, accustomed as we are (because of immigration patterns and cultural assumptions) to associate Judaism almost exclusively with eastern Europe. In fact, as late as the fifteenth century, the majority of Jews lived in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

That situation changed as a result of improvements in social and political conditions in Europe. By 1880, fully 75 percent of world Jewry lived in eastern Europe alone, and only 8 percent in the Near East. Those 8 percent comprised some 620,000 Jews.

A century later, the picture had radically changed again. By 1992, MENA accounted for over a third of the world total. The Holocaust had murdered some 72 percent of European Jews, and immigration to Mandatory Palestine and then the new State of Israel had shifted the balance. Although we instinctively think of Holocaust survivors, that group and immigrants from MENA in fact each accounted for roughly 48 percent of the total in the first three years of statehood.

Whereas the plight of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees from the War of Independence is deservedly familiar to any educated person or reader of the news, it is less well known that some 850,000 Jews--almost the entirety of the populations from Arab lands of the Near East--were forced to emigrate since 1948. This unacknowledged, involuntary exodus has gradually been gaining attention, for example, through the work of organizations such as Justice for Jews from Arab Countries and the blog, Point of No Return: Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries. Whether it will become a factor in regional peace talks remains to be seen. Justice for Jews from Arab Countries stresses that its effort "is not a campaign against Palestinian refugees" and, rather, simply seeks to "ensure that the rights of hundreds of thousands of Jews displaced from Arab countries be similarly recognized and addressed."

The middle of the twentieth century thus witnessed the destruction of both traditional cores of the world Jewish population, and all that they had contributed to the nations in which they had lived. The depiction of the menorah on the coin was, in the words of the Israel Coins and Medals Corporation, intended as a tribute to the legacy of one of those lost cultures and its descendants:
It has been chosen as being symbolic of the spiritual strength and belief of Jews, in Arab countries, in their return to Zion and in our days of their leaving "the rivers of Babylon", from dark to light, from oppression to prosperity and from bondage to redemption in the Land of Israel.

* * *

A footnote about food:

Fun facts about food: Not just populations, but also Hanukkah culinary traditions vary from region to region. Although Americans think of latkes (potato pancakes) when they think of Hanukkah food: well, . . . think about it.

1) The origin of the festival derives from the supposed miracle of the oil. Therefore, the essence of the festival foods is not their basic substance, and rather, the fact that they are fried in: oil.

2) In any case, the potato could not have been part of that tradition because it is indigenous to the Americas, reached Europe only after the Spanish and Portuguese voyages of discovery as part of what Alfred Crosby famously called "The Columbian Exchange," and did not become popularized until much later. It is therefore a nineteenth-century addition to the menu (however welcome).

In the Near East and premodern Europe, the festival food was thus fried dough (in some cases: cheese), typically, a kind of proto-doughnut known as sufganiyot. In the Sephardic tradition: fried batter with syrup (bimuelos in Spanish: [recipe]); in modern Israel: jelly doughnuts (recipe).

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Trump and Perverse Pearl Harbor Analogies

Normally, I would reserve the time around the anniversary of Pearl Harbor for posting about the attack itself, rather than the dismaying consequences for US domestic history (there is plenty of time for that at other times of year, especially the Japanese American Day of Remembrance).

However, I'll bend that rule this year.

In the wake of Donald Trump's demand that the government "shut down" entry to the US by Muslims (see previous post), some of his enthusiastic supporters helpfully sought to justify the proposal by likening it to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Pressed on the matter, Trump, who usually doubles down on every claim, only half-owned this position, citing FDR's anti-naturalization proclamations against German and Italian as well as Japanese aliens. Pressed still further, Trump waffled. When asked whether he was praising the World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans, he told both Joe Scarborough and George Stephanopoulos that he was not, but he was less definitive in replying to the question from Time:  "I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer."

In point of fact, of course, the issue turns less on the treatment of enemy aliens than of American citizens whose ethnicity was their only link to the Axis powers. And here, our citizens were treated very differently. Although the large German and Italian American populations had significant elements sympathetic to fascism, whereas--in the words of the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives--"No Japanese American or Japanese national was ever found guilty of sabotage or espionage," it was the latter who were singled out for collective internment.

That didn't turn out very well.

Whether you are familiar with the story or need a refresher, here's a little piece from the vaults, discussing the climate of fear that led to the internment order and caused many Americans to applaud or at least acquiesce in it.

* * *

Other posts on the Japanese American internment camps and related topics.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Donald Trump vs. George Washington on Muslim Immigrants

"Religious Freedom in America" canceled?
stamp commemorating the
Flushing Remonstrance, 1957

The bizarre political candidacy of billionaire developer Donald Trump continues to generate amazement: After each outrageous statement, pundits declare him politically dead, only to see his popularity continue to grow. If his mocking of Vietnam War hero John McCain did not do him in, what could?

A gaffe too far?

It was bad enough when Trump assented to a reporter's goading suggestion to establish a database to register Muslims. And his comment about Syrian migrants as potential "great Trojan horses" was among the flood of nationwide anti-refugee sentiment that prompted the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to make a rare entry into the political sphere and issue a sharp warning. This week, commentators are wondering whether he has finally gone too far.

Yesterday's call for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" provoked outrage across the political and cultural spectrum. Fellow Republican candidates Christie, Graham, Rubio, Kasich, and Bush castigated the remarks as "ridiculous," "dangerous," "offensive and outlandish," "outrageous," and "unhinged." Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley for the second time branded Trump's ideas as "fascist." (1, 2Jewish groups joined in the condemnation. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, not known for being squishy on issues of national security, said, "this whole notion . . . goes against everything we stand for and believe in. I mean, religious freedom has been a very important part of our history and where we came from." This morning, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan made an unusual intervention, saying Trump's plan "is not conservatism . . . is not what the party stands for and more importantly is not what the country stands for."

"to bigotry no sanction"

What else need one add? Perhaps it will suffice to contrast Mr. Trump's views with those of the first man to hold the office he seeks.

George Washington, though a slaveholder, to be sure, was celebrated for his commitment to both Enlightenment values and democracy. In 1790, as the states were debating the amendments that would constitute the Bill of Rights, he received a letter of greeting from the Jewish congregation of Newport. The new President responded:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. . . .

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
The letter is today an iconic document of pluralism: oft-cited, and ceremoniously read from the pulpit of Newport's Touro Synagogue each year.

"They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of an Sect, or they may be Athiests"

By contrast, Washington's attitudes toward Islam and Muslims are less familiar. There were no large formal Muslim American congregations akin to the Touro synagogue, but there were Muslims aplenty among the captive African workers of the South, a fact now coming to be recognized in the interpretation of historic sites such as Mount Vernon, but only gradually making its way into popular consciousness. Diversified agricultural enterprises such as Mount Vernon depended upon a large labor force, free as well as slave, and Washington, for whom this property was his life's work, was ever on the lookout for skilled artisans. Upon learning that German immigrants ("Palatines") were arriving, he wrote to Tench Tilghman in 1784:
I am informed that a Ship with Palatines is gone up to Baltimore, among whom are a number of Trademen. I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner and Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) and you would do me a favor by purchasing [=hire on contract; JW] one of each, for me. I would not confine you to Palatines. If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of any Sect, or they may be Athiests. I would however prefer middle aged, to young men.
Washington may have been exaggerating in order to make the point that he judged a man only by his skills, but it was clear that the principle of toleration would extend to free Muslims including voluntary immigrants. When Washington wrote his letter to the Newport congregation, the United States was unique in guaranteeing full civil and political rights to citizens of all faiths (even the French revolutionaries were still grappling with the issue). Traditional New Englanders had worried that religious "toleration" "opened a door for Jews Turks & infidels" as citizens, but that was exactly the point. Richard Henry Lee, though an advocate of tax-supported religion, wrote to James Madison in 1784: "True freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion." And, addressing Irish immigrants the previous year, Washington declared, "The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions."

Now, which attitude seems more presidential, more American?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Is Your Restaurant Breeding Bolsheviks?

When we visited Boston earlier this fall for a little family gathering, we stayed, for sentimental as well as practical reasons, at the classic Parker House (now, technically, Omni Parker House).

As I had my breakfast and glanced across the room at a couple of the friendly and accomplished restaurant staff, I could not help but wonder what brought them here and where they might end up in 20 or 30 years.

Home of . . .?

The Parker House, founded in 1855 and now celebrating its 160th anniversary, is famous for many things, from the foods that it introduced to the American table (Parker House rolls, Boston Creme Pie, Boston sc[h]rod) to its distinguished clientele: from the "Saturday Club" of Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Agassiz, Dana, et al., to occasional visitors such as Charles Dickens.

However, I could not help but think of the famous figures who worked there long before they attained world renown: namely, two of the most influential radicals of the twentieth century. Future Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh worked there as a baker from 1911 to 1913, and in the early 1940s, Roxbury resident Malcolm Little worked there as a busboy. It was only after going to prison in 1946 that he converted to Islam and became Malcolm X.

A kind of long but indeterminate period of time which will live in infamy?

Because it's December 7 today: Admittedly, the Omni Parker House website screws things up, saying, "Malcolm X was a busboy in the early 1940's during the Pearl Harbor invasion." Sorry: there was a Pearl Harbor attack on one Sunday morning, but the Japanese invasion--as I thought everyone knew--failed to materialize. There is after all a reason that we still use FDR's phrase, "a date which will live in infamy." Not a week or a couple of months or several years. A date.

"So Ho Chi Minh conceivably could've baked a Boston Cream Pie?"

Just before Thanksgiving, even CBS News alluded to the political connection:
"Malcolm X was a busboy," he said. "Ho Chi Minh worked in the bake shop."

"So Ho Chi Minh conceivably could've baked a Boston Cream Pie?"

"Yes, he could." And Malcolm X presumably could've cleaned up after somebody that had just eaten one.
Who's biding his or her time in the restaurant that you patronize, while dreaming of greater things? Treat them respectfully and tip generously. It's the right thing to do. And besides: who knows?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

An Old Picture About Race in Amherst

A year ago today, I put up a little post about a picture involving attitudes toward race in Amherst.

With renewed discussion of problems of race and race relations on our college campuses among other places (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4), it still seems relevant.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Amherst NOT "only the 'h' is silent" caption contest

As almost all readers of this site will know, the unofficial motto of the town, popularized at the time of our 250th anniversary in 2009, and since disseminated throughout the world (well, New England, anyway) on t-shirts and bumper stickers, is:
Amherst, where only the 'h' is silent
a reference to our irrepressible civic spirit and love of democratic debate (some might characterize it slightly differently).

Well, in any case, when I wandered past one of our local establishments this week, this sign caught my eye, and it occurred to me that it, too, might in some small way be representative of our community character (as well as lack of proof-reading ability).

My first reaction was:
Amherst: where not only the 'h' is silent, but also the placement of the possessive apostrophe is completely up to the conscience of the individual believer.
Or how about:
Amherst: Forget chickens. We're so damned liberal that even the apostrophes are free-range.
I'm sure there's more potential out there. Your suggestions?

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Best Columbus Bio You Never Read (and it's German)

Every year, as Columbus Day rolls around, it seems that the critique of the explorer and reluctance to celebrate his holiday grow. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, though if carried to an extreme, it can lead to a rather impoverished understanding of what is in fact a very complex history. It's a complex historiography, too: appraisals of Columbus's actions and importance have fluctuated. His elevation to true heroic status is a relatively recent development. What is more, even in that phase, not all biographies were hagiographies.

A mid-century modern German Columbus bio

It therefore seems a good moment to recall one of the more intriguing books on Columbus, today largely forgotten. In 1929, German novelist and journalist Jakob Wassermann (1873-1934) published his Christopher Columbus: the Don Quixote of the Seas [thus, the English translation; the German original uses: Ocean], the result of more than two decades of attempting to penetrate the mind and character of the explorer.

In developing his portrait, Wassermann assiduously studied all the contemporaneous published sources. The opening of the book is a subtle meditation on the challenge of taking the historical past on its own terms. As he explains, our natural instinct is to impute to the character all the traits and accomplishments that become visible only in retrospect, when he has achieved fame--whereas he can in fact only be understood through the constraints of his own time and existence. Fame, Wassermann said, is "a process of crystallization," in which much "dross" is necessarily removed. He also likened judgments on historical persons and epochs to badly worn old coins, whose value we only rarely pause to investigate.

The age is revealed to the reader in all its splendor and horror

In a review of multiple authors, under the heading, "Imaginative Biography from Germany," the New York Times wrote:
Jakob Wassermann frequently stresses the fact that we of today are quite unable to conceive how great the Genoan's imagination must have been, how enormous the courage which enabled this man and his companions to venture out into dreadfully mysterious wastes of the sea with a few ships and inadequate instruments. Whether his character study of that extraordinary man, a study based on modern psychological methods, is even approximately accurate, Wassermann modestly points out, it is impossible to determine. But from the description given by this expert prober of souls the reader gains a clear picture of Columbus. He must have borne a close relation to Don Quixote -- a magnificently imaginative dreamer and yet narrow-minded, stubborn and quarrelsome, absolutely unshakeable in his pursuit of his life's aim, but often losing in a moment because of the disagreeable traits of his character, everything he had gained. Thus Jakob Wassermann describes him, not as an unsullied hero and a martyr to his great idea, but as a human being with all the failings of humankind, with all the narrowness and lack of understanding of his age; and this, coupled with his immortal deeds, brings him closer to us. The age is revealed to the reader in all its splendor and horror, in its mad desire for gold, in its childlike piety and the terrible but also childish cruelty which enabled its people to massacre a nation as a boy pulls off the legs of a frog.
Not so dumb, then, after all.

The book does not seem to be in print or available online in the 1930 English translation, so you'll have to inquire at a good library. If you read German, it's not only in print, but also available online via Spiegel. Check it out.


Past posts on Columbus Day:

Removing Columbus from the Calendar (2014)
My Two Cents' Worth for Columbus Day. A Postage Stamp as Metaphor (2012)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Placeholder for an Absence: Amherst Town Manager John Musante, 1961-2015

the large flag on the Town Common at half-staff following the funeral for
Amherst Town Manager John Musante, 26 September 2015

Friday, September 11, 2015

9-11 flags fly in Amherst. Now, annually.

It shouldn't be news, but it is. Controversy over the special additional commemorative flags --for we always commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks--ends as we now fly them annually from utility poles in downtown Amherst.

Tired of this controversy, glad it is over. Maybe I'll write about it, maybe not.

* * *

Previous posts on this subject.

The Other 9-11 (s)

Since we have so many flag controversies here in Amherst, let me make clear that Hampshire College, like other major institutions in town, lowers the flag to half-staff on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

That said, the main commemorative event in recent years actually memorializes something totally different: what the organizers call "the other September 11," namely the coup that toppled the socialist regime of Salvador Allende in Chile on that date in 1971.

The organizers generally issue a disclaimer explaining that the purpose is not to minimize the tragedy of the September 11 attacks of 2001, although the juxtaposition certainly serves to contradict the simplistic notion of an "exceptionalist" United States as unalloyed force for good--and, on 9-11, innocent victim. In any case, on a practical level, the programs serve as a way of getting students interested in Latin American studies as the fall semester begins.

I mention all this because it underscores the fact that a given date is often the occasion for many anniversaries, which one momentous event tends to eclipse.

A few years ago, I posted a list of these other 9-11's, and they include some events that were arguably of equal or greater world-historical significance: from the victory of William Wallace at Stirling Bridge (1297), and the opening of the battle in which the Turks were stopped at the gates of Vienna (1683), to the British victory at Brandywine in the American Revolution (1777) and the American victory at Plattsburgh (Lake Champlain) over the British in the War of 1812 (1814).

How many do you recognize?

Pentagon 9-11 flag

Not the least of the many strengths of the National Museum of American History in Washington is that its scale allows it to house and display some immense objects from its collection of some three million items--from the Star Spangled Banner (originally 30 x 42 feet; now 30 x 34) to an entire Ipswich, Massachusetts house.

Another of the largest was just a temporary guest: the great garrison flag that hung from the façade of the Pentagon from September 12 to October 11, 2001. Fittingly, the installation was in Flag Hall, where the Star Spangled Banner was formerly displayed.

I was lucky enough to see it when it was on display from 2002 to 2006.

It was a striking sight whose power the photo can barely convey, though the visitor's head and top of the Christmas tree at lower right give you some sense of the scale.

It is now back home in storage at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair.

* * *

National Museum of American History online exhibit, September 11: Bearing Witness to History.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Town Meeting Follies. The New Hampshire View (2): Quaint Characters

As noted in the previous post, a chance historic preservation and genealogy conversation on Twitter some years ago about antiquated New England town offices led me to a humorous piece on the character of town meeting in New Hampshire Magazine. As I also mentioned, the URL for that piece has vanished, a victim of link rot. But, as they say, when God shuts a door, he opens a window: and so, my recent, unsuccessful search for that piece brought me not only further information on weird and vanished town offices, but also more commentary on the institution of town meeting.

The article is entitled, "Town Meeting and Other Relevant NH Government Relics" and moreover has the descriptive and charming subtitle, "Like programs on the History Channel, some civic traditions are profound while others are ridiculous, and just like the folks who preserve them, they all have stories to tell."

As I said last time: to share this material is not to voice an opinion on the move for a "Charter vote" that would conceivably abolish Amherst Town Meeting (and my own prestigious and lucrative position on the Select Board: as former Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe used to say on bad days: "82 cents a day."). The purpose is only to share more comparative material on our civic and political institutions. On the whole, I think Amherst comes off looking pretty good. As I like to say: "it could always be worse."

Still, you may see some things that you recognize here. Take a look at this "Town Meeting Cast and Crew" and see what you think. Any familiar types?

Town Meeting Follies. The New Hampshire View (1): "I Hate Town Meeting"

Given that we have launched into the great debate over the proper form of local government, I am hauling pertinent past posts (or parts of them) out of the vaults.

Several years ago, in the course of a Twitter conversation with a fellow historic preservationist about obscure or obsolete New England town offices (the one in question was that of "hog reeve"), I came across this humorous portrayal of a mildly undemocratic, corrupt, and dysfunctional town meeting. It was originally published in New Hampshire Magazine back in 2008, and the URL appears to be a victim of proverbial "link rot," so I am glad I grabbed a portion of the text at the time and can share it here again.

Lest anyone leap to any invidious conclusions: I am doing so simply to illustrate the range of character of and opinion about New England town meetings. As one of the labels for the post should suggest, we in Amherst are fortunate to have a Town Meeting that--whatever one thinks of the views expressed at any given time--is serious, ethical, and managed by skilled Moderators. We should be grateful for that, because: "it could always be worse."

Still, you may see a few traits that you recognize.


I hate town meeting.

Town meeting is a laboratory sink for psychologists.

Every dreadful facet of human nature reveals itself at these gatherings. One must have the emotions of a sociopath to escape town meeting with one's soul intact.

I remember a town meeting in Temple years ago where the Police Chief, Russ Tyler, was attacked for using his cruiser too much. Poor Chief Tyler used his own car as the cruiser. He saved the town a lot of money using his own car.

But the mob at the meeting was sure he was getting away with something.

I remember thinking, "You people are crazy to be yelling at the Chief like this. He has a gun."

But Chief Tyler also had great heart. He was a straight shooter and a nice guy (although he did look like that sheriff in the old TV ad who says, "Boy, you're in a heap of trouble.")

In the end, the meeting vented itself and the Chief got his budget. But what heroic self-restraint that man showed.

Towns are made up of people who do not trust one another. It is and has always been "us and them."

The "new" people settle here with an idyllic view of living in a small town. They come from places where no one knows each other. Here they expected to find love.

What they find, of course, is resentment. The old Yankees don't trust the newcomers. Usually the newcomers are Democrats.

Some newcomer always stands up at the meeting and says something like, "My name is Ralph Lumpman and Loraine and I moved up here last fall from Darien. We bought the old Cosgrove place on Swamp Road. And I'd like to say that our moderator tonight is doing a bang-up job and I think we should give him a round of applause."

Then all the people, who recently moved to town, clap.

And there is always someone who informs the moderator that the flag is on the wrong side of the stage.

Town meeting gives people license. No one is expected to practice restraint.

Everyone is there to tell it like it is.

For 24 years of my life I was a small-town newspaper reporter and did news on the radio station in Peterborough.

I have attended over three hundred town meetings.

In my 50-plus years of going to town meetings I've seen a lot of changes. Years ago most towns were controlled by the families who owned the mills. In Milford it was Charlie Emerson; in Jaffrey it was D.D. Bean; in Wilton it was the Abbots; in Dublin, Robb Sagendorph.

If you didn't work for these men, someone in your family did. I used to watch D. D. Bean sit in the front of the hall at the Jaffrey Town Meeting.

Mr. Bean owned the match factory, in Jaffrey. When an article important to him came up he would turn and look back over his seat and note who voted "for" and who voted "against" the article.

Robb Sagendorph was the publisher of Yankee magazine and the Old Farmer's Almanac up in Dublin and he had double clout. Robb Sagendorph was also the moderator. If he didn't like an article he would close down discussion.

"We have had enough jawing about this matter," he'd say. "It's time to vote." 

Artifact of the Moment: "Souvenir de la Libération": France, 1944

As the anniversary of the start of World War II draws near, time to squeeze in one more piece on the endgame. Recently, it was Okinawa and Hiroshima in the spring and summer of 1945.

This time: the liberation of Paris, August 25, 1944.

Dia.: 40 mm. Rim dia: 61 mm. Length: 311mm
It is a British brass shell casing, decorated and inscribed, "Souvenir de la Liberation." I bought it from an English antique dealer couple who were visiting a colleague here in the US and had brought a few items to sell during their trip. I haven't researched is as thoroughly as I would like, but unless I am way wide of the mark, it is a shell from a 40 mm Bofors L60 gun (1 , 2) which was widely used by both sides.

As a piece crafted to celebrate and recall the "Liberation," it presumably dates from sometime between D-Day and August 27, when De Gaulle told the Resistance that their work was done, or soon thereafter.

Many would term it "trench art," which Paul Cornish's photo essay on the Imperial War Museum website defines as "objects made from the debris and by-products of modern warfare": originally applied to works by soldiers of the First World War, but now even beyond that period. He further notes,  "Many examples of trench art were also made by local civilians for sale to soldiers" and "after the war. . . for sale as souvenirs to the visitors to battlefields and cemeteries." Given that this one is French, and taking the inscription into account, I would assume that it falls into that latter category of works made by civilians for the general market. That said, the fact that the word, "Liberation" lacks the appropriate accent aigu on the "e" (é) could perhaps (though probably not?) suggest a foreign origin.

a flower

the dove and dawn of peace
Although it was sold as a topical item tied to the events of the day, it has somehow survived for over 70 years, thus indeed preserving the memory of a moment that seemed to herald the dawn of a new world.

Naive, we may think. Barbarism and intolerance have not disappeared. Europe was powerless in the face of the genocide committed against Bosnian Muslims and has also failed in the face of subsequent horrors. And yet, as this stamp issued for the 50th anniversary of the end of the war reminds us, something of that hopeful moment did become a reality.

[updated images]

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Town Meeting: "We’ve been at this since 1780, we kind of have it down by now"

Or in our case: 1759. (Well, 1735, if you date the history of Amherst Town Meeting from the time when this was simply the Third District of Hadley.)

Given that a Charter vote to reform our system of government is now on the table (if not yet the ballot), I'll dig up some goodies from the vaults.

As noted recently, one of my favorites is this clip from the classic "Newhart" show in which comedian Bob Newhart plays a man who, with his wife, moves to rural Vermont and fulfills their dream by purchasing a classic country inn.  In this 1982 episode--"All Hail the Councilman"--set soon after his arrival, he seeks a stop sign for a dangerous intersection near the inn (more on that in a later post) and is encouraged to run for "town council."

Although the gathering that he attends is called a "town council," it actually functions like a traditional open town meeting except that the members elect one another (what? they couldn't get any real New Englanders to advise them on this?!). Then again, perhaps that confusion or hybrid form is completely apropos, given the choices now (or soon?) before us.

In any case, although one complaint about Amherst Town Meeting is that we spend too much time talking, part of the humor here nonetheless also rings true: the speed with which we approve most budget articles, and our inveterate tendency to take stances on foreign policy matters on which we cannot possibly have any practical influence. Oh, yes: and there is the crank in the back of the room who always brings forward his pet motion (I'll leave it to you to decide whether we have an equivalent here). And a bonus: dress code.

Questioned by Bob as to why the votes on expenditures proceeded so quickly, handyman George Utley (played by real-life close friend Tom Poston; see below) responds:
We’ve been at this since 1780, we kind of have it down by now.
When Bob is surprised that "town council" meets only once a year rather than once a week, George responds:
What would we talk about every week?
Do we "have it down"?
Once (well, twice) a year--or once a week?
What do you think?



* * * 

Fun facts to know and tell:

Tom Poston--said to have "appeared in more sitcoms than any other actor"--was a World War II pilot whose aircraft carried paratroopers on D-Day. In addition, he was married to Suzanne Pleshette, who played Bob Newhart's wife on the predecessor series, "The Newhart Show."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

And so it begins: Charter proponents seek change in the form of Town government

On Thursday afternoon, members of a new group, whose existence had long been predicted, rumored, or mentioned in hushed conversation, came out into the open. "Amherst for All" officially announced its presence by filing papers for a ballot initiative that would create a Charter Commission to review and (presumably) change our form of town government.

Charter supporters gather before visiting the Town Clerk (blogger Larry Kelley at right)
Front row: Yuri Friman, Michael Alpert, Andrew Churchill, Niels la Cour (and son: behind, left), Adam Lussier (with clipboard), John Kuhn, Richard Morse
Rear row: Jerry Guidera, Jackie Churchill, Peter Vickery
at the Town Clerk's office
Town Clerk Sandra Burgess explains the signature-gathering process

Poll positions

Town Clerk Sandra Burgess took the time to explain in great detail to the group (joined by Town Meeting member Clare Bertrand, who arrived later) what constitutes a legal and verifiable resident signature. 3,215 such signatures would be required to get this measure on the ballot next year. As Larry Kelley notes: last time, that took nearly two years, whereas this time, the organizers are shooting for the spring election, which is but seven or eight months away. But as he also notes, we now live in the age when internet access is taken for grant and new social media amplify and speed up the conversation.

A side-issue is the date of the spring election: traditionally, it takes place between the last days of March and the opening days of April, but this year, another option is to make it coincide with the presidential primary, whose date of March 1 is mandated by State law. There are arguments on both sides. Some think it would make sense to combine them, for the sake of efficiency and better turnout. Clerk Burgess expressed strong support for keeping the two elections separate, arguing that combining them would (because of the technical requirements of local and state ballots) in fact not result in any monetary savings and, rather, simply overstress Town staff. (The last time such elections coincided was in November 2008, when, however, the presidential contest caused more residents to volunteer at polling places.) The issue will soon come before the Select Board, which has the authority to set the date.

Scrap Town Meeting or throw all the bastards out?

Everyone "knows" that this pro-Charter movement is primarily an anti-Town Meeting movement, and that it would replace our current system of government with a mayor and city council, right? The first is clear. The latter, not so much. 

The desiderata, according to the website, are:
Accountability, Representation, and Year-Round Decision-Making.
The last of these looms largest in the explanation, but the former two are the proverbial elephant in the room. Clearly, Town Meeting is the main target of all three:
Our government structure isn’t built to keep up with these challenges and maintain our great quality of life. We have a Town Meeting that meets twice a year.  We have a five-member Select Board and a Town Manager.  Too many issues have to wait until the next Town Meeting to be addressed – and if a proposed solution needs some tweaking, maybe the next Town Meeting after that. 
Another passage at least implicitly references former Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe's editorial on the problem of executive authority and accountability:
with leadership diffused across the Select Board and Town Manager, it’s hard to know who’s in charge.  Who represents us with the state, the colleges, businesses, and citizens?  Who can we hold accountable for meeting the many challenges of maintaining our quality of life?
On the other hand, the organizers claim to be agnostic about the precise nature of the alternative arrangement:
We don’t know what the right government structure is for Amherst.  That’s why we support electing a representative study group to take a look at it.  Whatever the final proposal looks like, we think it should meet a few clear standards – it should be year-round, representative, and accountable.
I think we can take them at their word. We should after all remind ourselves that the last (unsuccessful) Charter proposal indeed proposed replacing Town Meeting and the Select Board with a mayor and council--but also retained the institution of a professional, appointed Town Manager, which Amherst has had since 1954.

What are the issues?

I wouldn't presume to analyze this in depth here: just a snapshot and some guesses.

We've been through this before, in 2003 and 2005, when Charter initiatives came within a hairsbreadth of winning. Many of the underlying issues are the same, though the dynamics as well as the players are, I suspect, somewhat different.

Last time, it seemed, Town Meeting was the focus of much of the dissatisfaction. Critics charged, for example that it was inefficient, consumed with process and deliberation rather than action (and too eager to take on issues beyond the local realm). The Select Board was unpopular in many quarters, as well. Critics accused it of the double sin of inefficiency and intrusiveness: it was seen as meddling and micromanaging.

This time, I think, the active hostility is directed principally at Town Meeting. There is the perennial complaint that it spends too much time talking and is too slow to reach decisions, but I think it is more about the substance. In the last three to five years, Town Meeting has become increasingly polarized around a set of issues that could be broadly grouped under the rubric of "development": from zoning changes to the permitting of major new downtown construction projects (and of course, the ill-conceived and stillborn "Retreat" proposal for commercial student housing). Only the zoning changes strictly fall within the remit of Town Meeting, but ill will over the other issues clearly shapes the course and character of our debates.

At the risk of oversimplifying for the sake of clarity:

One faction sees large new downtown construction projects and measures promoting greater density in village centers as jeopardizing Amherst's comfortable "rural" or "small-town" feel. It accuses Town Hall (especially the Planning Department, and to some extent the Town Manager) of turning a deaf to ear to residents' fears over loss of neighborhood character and instead catering to the interests of developers. The role of the University and the problem of off-campus student housing is a closely related concern. Among some, the distrust extends to all at the "front of the table"--i.e. the appointed Planning Board and Finance Committee and elected Select Board--accused of thinking and voting in lockstep. As a result, this faction sees Town Meeting as a watchdog that should view major planning and economic development proposals with great skepticism, and in many cases, block them.

The other faction sees economic development and increased density in village centers as a form of smart growth: the only way to begin to shift more of our tax base from residential (currently: 90%) to commercial property and to address the housing shortage that is pricing many would-be residents--including young families--out of town. It sees the other faction as creating a toxic atmosphere characterized by incivility and lack of trust between residents and government. As a result, it despairs over the possibility of change, believing it has become nearly "impossible to get anything done," meaning, for example: pass comprehensive as opposed to incremental legislation in crucial areas such as planning and zoning.

As a result, following last spring's Annual Town Meeting, one heard increasing concerns that our system of government was caught in a sort of gridlock with no solution in sight.

Obviously, Town Meeting encompasses a wide variety of individuals and people, including many who belong to no "faction," and even those associated with one of the aforementioned groupings do not necessarily vote together on all issues. Still, these seem to be the dynamics driving much of the renewed interest in a Charter vote.

Then again, I am not part of this Charter movement, so you'd have to ask them. I'm sure we'll soon find out.

I don't intend to provide detailed coverage of the issue in these pages (hyperlocal blogger Larry Kelley seems to be taking care of that). Rather, I just want to note it, because I've been talking about Town government, and this could radically affect what all of us do in the civic realm (including my own post as an elected official).

For the record: no one on the five-member Select Board has publicly discussed or taken a position on this initiative. We have been elected to carry out the duties of our office, we have a great deal of work to do, and it is on that work that we are focused.

*  *  *

Fun facts to know and tell:

Contrary to concerns raised in a recent op-ed piece by veteran Finance Committee member Marylou Theilman, the Town would not be obligated to pay present Town Manager John Musante half a million dollars (or whatever fearsome sum some have in mind) in the event that a Charter change occurs. Town Counsel confirmed to the Select Board, and we stated in our press release on his contract renewal and salary, that our original interpretation of the original 2010 contract holds: 9 months' severance pay if the contract is terminated.

So, at least you can cross that issue off your list as you ponder the change in form of government. Debate away, in the confidence that the determining factor will be the effectiveness of government rather than the bottom line.

Footnote (can't help myself):

Props to the Amherst for All website designer (whoever he or she may be) for a clean aesthetic and good navigation (you can't always take those essentials for granted, even nowadays)--and some interesting image choices.

Start with the organization's logo:

Smart choice: not just the iconic 1889 Town Hall (as both landmark and seat of government, with the word, "Amherst," mostly but not entirely below it), but also individual houses: underscores the "for all" and "for everyone" message. And, given that much debate in and around Town meeting has focused on both affordable housing and the threats posed to existing neighborhoods by predatory rental conversions, it reminds us of the substantive issues under debate.

Finally, although the length of the image series is dictated by the need to match that of the text below, there is just something about the two-tiered horizontality of the icons that to me subtly underscores the message, "for all" and "everyone."

(Of course, one might instead choose to read the Town Hall and houses as the Town Manager and five Select Board members, since that's one theoretical outcome of a Charter Commission, as well. Okay, clearly time to stop this.)

Another example: the top of the page borrows from the Town's promotional slogans: a great place to live, study, work, play.

But for "a great place to study," the image used is that of the beloved Jones Library, thus referencing a Town civic institution rather than having to choose between the University of Massachusetts and the private Amherst and Hampshire Colleges. Smart move.

On the other hand, inclusion of that atrocious hippie-flavored student mural near Rao's and the Bangs Center (admittedly, I think I know some people who took part in creating it) toward the bottom of the page? Not so much. Or maybe that is a very subtle way of indicating the need for a break from the ways of the past?

{corrected; apologies: a trackpad error caused the post to go up before it was complete}

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Follow-up on the Town Manager Evaluation

Citizen blogger Larry Kelley was kind enough to respond to my piece on the Town Manager evaluation (since I had referenced his).

I started a long reply, but then it occurred to me that both halves of the exchange might serve the public better as a separate post.  So here goes.

Larry Kelley said...

Well I did use a question mark with my title "Trouble at the top?"; and notice I went out of my way to find a photo where both the Town Manager and SB Chair Alisa Brewer seem to be sharing a lighthearted moment.

A fighter pilot is trained to scan the horizon and ignore everything that should be there making it easier to spot a tiny dot -- enemy fighter or incoming missile -- that should NOT be there.

When LBJ won the NH primary in 1968 by 49% to 42% over Eugene McCarthy, the headlines could have stated: "LBJ wins by decent margin" or "Is LBJ in trouble?". I of course would have used the latter.

After the tumultuous years for the Select Board during the reign of Anne Awad and Gerry Weiss the institution has become, for lack of a better word, boring (other than the 9/11 commemorative flag fiasco of course). So any hint of discord or friction is made even more newsworthy.

If UMass or Amherst College were to suddenly address grade inflation with new stricter criteria it would shock the first transitional generation of students to come under the new evaluation methods.

Perhaps now that average citizens and town employees know the Select Board takes its job of evaluating the Town Manager so seriously, and that he is not above criticism, the number of people submitting evaluations will increase next year.

* * *

Citizen Wald replies:

No problem, Larry. As I said, I assumed you stressed the negative because it was more newsworthy (dog bites man is not much of a story).

the options should not be just either a pat on the back or a pink slip

I just wanted to clarify for the public that the Town Manager (unlike LBJ) was not in trouble, for that's the point: the options should not be just either a pat on the back or a pink slip. The possibility for strong, constructive criticism should be something that we accept as normal and healthy. In fact, it also lends more weight to the positive things we have to say. 

Amherst has been served well by the institution of Town Manager--and the evaluation process

Speaking more generally, I might add: Amherst has been served well by the institution of Town Manager ever since it was introduced in 1954. The evaluation process is intended to ensure that this continues to be the case.

Since you bring it up: I would like to stress that, in each of the six years during which I have been involved in the process, the evaluation was performed with great care and seriousness. Obviously, the views and manner of expression of each Select Board member will vary. It is, for example, quite possible that one member issues a "needs improvement" rating while another chooses "satisfactory," and yet they may be offering much the same judgment in their prose remarks.

This is why it is so important that residents consider the full evaluation process and documentation and not just the composite grid, which can give a false sense of numerical precision. Now, obviously, not everyone has the time or inclination to read the (this year) 11-page Evaluation Memo or even to watch the discussion on television, not to mention, plow through 91 pages of total material. And that is why we look to the press to provide thorough and nuanced coverage.

These newspaper reports are pretty much bare-bones stuff. As I said, I completely understand the pressure to get out a prompt summary of the evaluation text and meeting: that is the nature of the trade. But does that have to be the end of the story?

Consider these numbers: Scott Merzbach's piece on the Town Manager evaluation came out with characteristically admirable promptness and clocked in at around 950 words. By contrast, Matt Vautour's piece on the UMass basketball team's trip to Europe (and I like basketball and the Eiffel Tower as much as the next guy) ran to about 1100 words, and Cheryl Wilson's nice feature on the renovation of the landscape at Edith Wharton's home, "The Mount" (you all know I am a fan of both gardens and historic preservation) weighed in at almost 1700 words.

Given the importance of the role of the Town Manager in our political system, would it not be helpful to have a follow-up on the evaluation, which, written without the pressure of the looming deadline, could use a few more column-inches to add some depth and detail?

PS As for the Select Board being boring, I take that as a compliment: as I tell people, that's the way we like it. We should not be the news.

[correct text: accidentally had two editing panes open before]

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

August 2002: Julia Child's Kitchen Becomes Historical. And stray thoughts on the period room (not necessarily in that order)

Traditional "period rooms," once a staple feature of the museum of history or fine arts, fell into disrepute in recent years for a variety of reasons. As one curator puts it, they often incoherently (re)presented "decorative arts displays" or "local history" or "confusing combinations of both approaches." Still, there is certainly a value to preserving the individually significant interior as well as the exemplary collection for the study of material culture in general.

In its original incarnation as the spanking new but architecturally retrograde Museum of History and Technology (1964), the National Museum of American History (as it is now known) still featured old-fashioned period rooms (e.g. for showing off the dresses of First Ladies), considered at the time "a certain crowd-puller."

"history happens in parlors and kitchens as well as in the halls of Congress"

Still, this is not to say that everything was choked in conceptual cobwebs. My favorite example: in 1963, activists saved an 18th-century Ipswich, Massachusetts, house from demolition literally at the last moment by arranging to have the Smithsonian acquire it. So, instead of yet another Colonial period room, we have an entire home (the largest--some say: greatest--artifact in the collection) which tells the story of both structure and inhabitants from its origins to its abandonment. As the Smithsonian puts it, "The five families whose stories are told here were not famous, but they remind us that history happens in parlors and kitchens as well as in the halls of Congress." In the most recent interpretation (2002), portions of the walls have been opened up to reveal the timber-frame structure, thus doing justice to the original focus on the evolution of technology.

The Museum continues to think innovatively in its acquisition and interpretation practices regarding historic interiors and objects. To be sure, you can still find such things as a 17th-century chair-table (nothing wrong with that!)--but also Archie and Edith Bunker's chairs, from the TV series, "All in the Familly"--which a curator boldly calls "the equivalent of the "Appomattox chairs" used by Grant and Lee when the Confederacy surrendered.

Equally interesting are the larger interior ensembles. For me, one of the most memorable and moving is the famed Greensboro desegregation lunch counter. As of 2008, it is also part of a new series of "landmark objects" anchoring and highlighting the themes of a given wing.

One kitchen that made history

As the Smithsonian says of the Ipswich House, "history happens in parlors and kitchens as well as in the halls of Congress." And so, it seemed but fitting that at least a portion of another Massachusetts house should enter those galleries. It didn't make the cut as a "landmark object," it didn't date back to the 18th century, and it didn't play a role in the triumph of human rights, but it did change America in its own way, from foodways to women's history, and it has proven extremely popular. I am speaking of Julia Child's kitchen.

It opened at the Smithsonian on August 19, 2002, only shortly after the updated installation of the Choate House from Ipswich. When Julia Child (1912-2004) decided to relocate from Cambridge, Massachusetts to her native California at the end of her public career, she gave her kitchen to the Smithsonian.

"A Place for Everything"

"While kitchens of the 1950s and 1960s were often designed to keep everything hidden from view, Julia and Paul preferred to hang their pots and pans on a pegboard for quick and easy access. Nor would there be any confusion about where that pan belonged after it had been used, thanks to the outlines Paul traced on the pegboard. Later, for the benefit of student and guest cooks working in the kitchen with Julia, snapshots were added." (Smithsonian)
"Work zones"

"Julia organized her kitchen around work zones, making sure tools and equipment were placed near the surfaces where they would be used. Her pots, pans, and utensils are near the stove, her knives are near the sink, and her small appliances are set on solid work surfaces, ready to use." (Smithsonian)

As Mass Moments puts it:
Designed by her husband Paul in 1961, the room was specially tailored to his wife's particular needs, with high countertops to accommodate her six-foot two-inch frame. In her ten cookbooks and eight television programs, several of which were filmed in her own kitchen, Julia Child demystified French cooking for American audiences. She became, in the words of the New York Times, "the French chef for a Jello nation." The exhibit is titled "Bon Appétit!" — as she signed off at the end of every show she hosted during her 38 years as a television icon.
Viewers of the film, "Julie and Julia" (the former was a whining Amherst College graduate: nuff said) will be familiar with the backstory behind the first great cookbook, but just in case, Mass Moments explains:
She fell in love with French food and enrolled in the prestigious Cordon Bleu culinary school. In 1952 she and two Frenchwomen formed a cooking school and began writing a French cookbook for American readers.

In 1956 the Childs returned to the U.S. and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Julia Child continued work on the book, communicating frequently with her French partners. When Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, with 734 pages of detailed but unintimidating recipes, it was a critical and popular success. In an era when American "cuisine" consisted of cake mixes, TV dinners, and health food crazes, the book made sophisticated French food not only appealing but accessible. Child ignored fads, and Americans embraced her "cuisine soignée: long, caring cooking."

My mother was a good cook, but by no means a gourmet. Still, Julia Child's first great book was one of the main cookbooks in our kitchen. I believe it was a present from my father.

When I learned to cook (mostly while I was a grad student: it seemed preferable to bankruptcy or starvation), I bought myself a copy, too. (Later, my mother gave me more recent Julia Child books as presents.)

The original installation, pictured above, closed in early 2012 and, to mark the centennial of Child's birth, was reinterpreted later that year as the focus of a new exhibition, "FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000."

It seems fitting: just as the Choate house chronicled the lives and material culture of ordinary people "who were not famous," so, too, her kitchen helps to chronicle the transformation of the way that all of us eat and think about food.  There is more than one way for history to happen in the kitchen.

Bon appétit.


Local connection: The pioneering chef was a graduate of Smith College (history major, I am proud to say), which celebrates a Julia Child Day. In fact, I recall meals at the former Faculty Club where we were served a special "Julia Child" label house wine.


Bon Appétit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian
10 Crucial Facts About the Julia Child's Kitchen Exhibit, Reopening Tomorrow, Washington Eater staff, 14 August 2012 (includes video of the conservation and reinstallation process)

[updated 26 August; full piece did not post the first time]