Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christmas Decorating With the Nazis: Literary Tree Ornaments

The Nazis were nothing if not culturally acquisitive. Although harshly critical of modernist art and literature, they portrayed themselves as the heirs and custodians of the great European and German national cultural traditions (the mirror image of the German Marxist claim). In some cases, the appropriation was easy. In others, a certain amount of manipulation or disingenuous treatment was required.

In the literary realm, the great Weimar Classicist writers and friends Goethe (1749-1832) and Schiller (1759-1805) stood at the center of the effort, though not all the works of these humanistic authors readily lent themselves to the messaging of a racist and dictatorial regime. Although Goethe's "Faust" could, with some gymnastics, be held up as the portrait of the archetypal "Germanic" soul, Schiller's drama Don Carlos proved awkward when audiences applauded the line, "Sire, give us freedom of thought!" And in 1941, Hitler requested that Schiller's anti-tyrannical drama Wilhelm Tell no longer be performed. Be that as it may, a general emphasis on the Nationalliteratur, reinforced by selective quotation, remained an effective overall policy.

The glorification of the national cultural tradition extended to Kitsch and collectibles. These small glass Schiller Christmas ornaments (c. 30 x 35 mm) were given to donors at street collections for the Winter Relief Work effort in March 1941.

Some recipients may actually have used them as tree decorations, but the Winterhilfswerk also offered an album for collectors.

Source: Antiquariat Wolfgang Friebes, Graz

The series,"Heads of Famous German Men," included Hitler (featured on the album cover above), historical military leaders, and artists and composers from Dürer to Wagner. Goethe and Schiller were, along with philosopher Immanuel Kant, the only literary figures.

It was a travesty of the German intellectual tradition. On the other hand: if only other countries took their literary heritage so seriously that they felt the need to co-opt and distort it.

[updated images]

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas Decorating With the Nazis: From the War Diary of a German Girl

This is a document that my father acquired during his service with the US Occupation Government in Germany after World War II: confiscated, or just found in his office or quarters—I don’t know. It is described as a “war diary” for a young girl. Normally speaking, a war diary (Kriegstagebuch) is an official German record of a military unit or department, or occasionally, a private record kept by a combatant. The extension of this term—rather than, say, scrapbook—to a gift made for a child is indicative of the culture of militarism and indoctrination under the Third Reich. (more background at the bottom of the page)

* * *

The Christmas entries are particularly instructive.

Weihnachten with the Wehrmacht

24 December 1940

"Our soldiers, too, decorate the Christmas tree, for it connects them
with the homeland and recalls many a pleasant hour."
In one of the most famous military broadcasts of the War, German radio shared transmissions from the Arctic Circle and Stalingrad to Africa as soldiers sang "Silent Night."

Of course the tendency to seize upon Christmas as a respite from combat was not unique to Germany. 101st Airborne veteran Art Schmitz recalled being surrounded by the Germans at Bastogne in 1944. Hearing "Radio Berlin doing a request broadcast: German civilians asking for Christmas carols to be played for their soldiers serving in Narvik, Norway; Italy; or Novosibirsk, Russia," the Americans decided to sing their own Christmas carols. "There was 'The First Noel,' 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' and others before we began 'Angels We Have Heard on High.' What we heard was the sound of angels of death overhead." A Nazi air raid began and the singing ceased, but the memory remained.

The diary pages for the two days of Christmas (celebrated for two days in Germany) epitomize the blending of the military-propagandistic and bourgeois-sentimental.

25 December
The Führer on Christmas with his personal Guard Regiment
The Commander of the Guard Regiment
SS Lieutenant General Sepp Dietrich, greets the Führer
26 December
Santa Claus with the Führer's escort team
The sketch of the evergreen branch with a candle (a tree-decorating tradition maintained up to the present in some circles, though not without risk) is the only original art work in the book.

* * *

Compromised Christianity

Nazism was ideologically anti-Christian, but it readily availed itself of Christian imagery and symbols not only because they were familiar, but also because they were particularly well suited to convey the fascist message of "palingenetic" ultranationalism, or the urgent need for national regeneration: the propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" begins, after all, by speaking of Germany's "crucifixion" by the Versailles Treaty and "rebirth" after the advent of Hitler.

Christmas was in many ways the ideal holiday for the Nazis: a convenient means to affirm their connection with mainstream society (for even their most barbarous acts were committed in the name of decency and middle class values) as well as to impart their own inflection to it. Christmas was of course common to both Catholic and Protestant Germans, but the latter connection was most fruitful, for Lutheranism was associated with the national identity and heritage: the revolt against Rome; the translation of the Bible, which laid the foundations for the modern German language; and (at least according to popular tradition) even the introduction of the Christmas tree. Further, the natural-seasonal aspects of the holiday, which coincided with the winter solstice, were multivalent, allowing for easy identification with either a Christian or a Nordic-pagan message (or some combination of both), as the need dictated.

Finally, the holiday, with its themes of both domesticity and light versus darkness, could incorporate varying ideological messages about the relation between battle front and home front, depending on the course of the war: from the early expectations of peace and national renewal, to later, increasingly bitter denunciations of the barbarous enemy--whether the advance of the Red Army or the allied air campaigns against German cities--as a motivation to fight for the preservation of the innocents at home.

Thus, the page facing the photo of the soldier trimming the Christmas tree was devoted to a an address by Hitler.

The Nazis as the Peace Party?

24 December

Prepared for the Final Call!

When this war will have ended, then there will begin in Germany a great process of creation, then a great "Awaken!" will resound throughout the land. Then the German people will cease the manufacture of cannons and begin with the work of peace and task of reconstruction for the masses in their millions!

And then from this labor will arise that great German empire of which a great poet once dreamt.  It will be a Germany to which every son is attached with fanatical love, because it will be a home even for the poorest.

Adolf Hitler!
If this strikes us as preposterous as well as utopian, it is because we are so detached from the perceived reality in that time and place. Today we associate Hitler and Nazism primarily with war, but we need to recall that this was not always the case, at least domestically. Another book that my father acquired was a propaganda album of cigarette cards issued to commemorate the first year of the new regime (1934), which it praised as "The State of Labor and Peace."

Indeed, as Ian Kershaw so clearly demonstrated in his modern classic, The Hitler Myth, Hitler succeeded for so long precisely because he was credited not only with achieving domestic recovery but also securing--without war--the consensus international goals of the military and geographic revision of the Versailles Treaty. This presumed evidence of his genius as a leader reinforced his standing among the loyal and cut the ground out from under the would-be critics. When war finally broke out in 1939, the German people, fully aware of what had happened in 1914, were more sober and anxious than enthusiastic, but the relatively easy victories in Poland and then in the west following the end of the "Phony War" in 1940 merely reinforced Hitler's reputation for wisdom and infallibility.

What the mother writing this diary--and the rest of the public--did not know was that peace was in fact further away than ever: on 18 December 1940, Hitler had ordered the military to prepare for the invasion of the Soviet Union, even if the war against Britain was not brought to a conclusion.

From Peace Party to Pagan Turn

Thus, when Himmler greeted the SS and their families in the 1943-44 volume of the holiday annual Weihe Nacht (a deliberately archaic spelling of Christmas, connoting pagan origins), it was in a very different tone:
Women and mothers! Men of the SS and Police!

Implacably harsh is the enemy power, against which we have to defend and augment the Reich as the legacy of our ancestors and obligation for our children. Once again the season of the solstice and Christmas summons us to the gathering of clans [a term with a pagan-racial tinge] and families. Once again the task in the longest night of the year is to yearn for the victory of the sun with the faithful trust of our ancestors. May this deep faith in the victory of the light characterize us more deeply than ever today, when we in the privacy of the family or comrades kindle our lights. The lights on the green boughs will, spanning the distances that separate comrades in the front lines and the women and children at home, form bridges between hearts.
You mothers and women truly stand, as in all the great hours of destiny of our Teutonic-German past, truly also personally in battle. The enemy's dishonorable conduct of the war has reduced to rubble the homes of many, and yet you have lost neither courage nor faith. The harsher the struggle, the more cordially the clans must close ranks . . . .

* * *


The culture

About a generation ago, there was a rather sterile but revealing debate among scholars of women’s history. One view, which passed for a radical political and feminist stance of a sort, maintained that, because Nazism was a masculinist racial system, women could not have been complicit in the crimes of a regime that also oppressed them. A countervailing and more plausible view called attention to their neglected role as “accomplices,” providing the stable private sphere supportive of the tasks of the politically and militarily active males. As others pointed out, one does not have to choose between victim and accomplice: it was entirely possible for Aryan women, individually and collectively, to be both.

In 1935, Hitler declared, “I would be ashamed to be a German man if only one woman had to go to the front. The woman has her own battlefield. With every child that she brings into the world, she fights her battle for the nation. The man stands up for the Volk, exactly as the woman stands up for the family.” The continuation of that battle meant raising girls to understand the culture and course of warfare.

The bibliographic object

The document takes the form of a notebook of blank pages (c. 16 x 25 cm, with lines ruled in with pencil), bound in faded purplish boards with a black cloth spine. A handwritten label (in an indeterminate hand) on the cover calls it “Kriegstagebuch For [name],” whereas the title page, in the large printing of a child’s hand reads, “Mein Kriegstage Buch [sic].” By contrast, the text entries are all in an immaculate version—thus evidently an adult hand—of the Sütterlin German script taught from 1915 through 1941: under the Nazi regime, the only one from 1935 on. The contents consist of dated entries—generally excerpts from or summaries of press reports, speeches, and the like—accompanied by photographs clipped from newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately, the book covers only the period November 1940 to early February 1941; the reason for that choice is unclear.

An 18th-Century French Nativity

Since we've been on the subject of Baroque Christmas art and depictions of the Nativity, I'll share this little piece from my collection.

It's a French eighteenth-century pencil sketch with sepia wash, on laid paper (c. 40 x 25 cm, with no apparent watermark).

The geometry suggests to me that it was a sketch for a wall painting, but that's just my best guess.

Oddly enough, the depiction of the central figures of the Virgin Mary and Christ child seems somewhat awkward in comparison with that of the flanking shepherds, who observe the miracle in quiet dignity.

In any case, the piece just radiates the spirit of the period.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas, 2016

Wishing a merry Christmas to all my readers who celebrate the holiday!

Here, from a past post, are two images of the Nativity from southwest German eighteenth-century bibles. (Full story.)

Happy Hanukkah, 5777

Wishing a happy Hanukkah to those of my readers who celebrate that holiday.

In lieu of writing a new piece, I'll just share this image of a menorah from last year.

Israel Hanukkah coin, 1973, depicting eighteenth-century Iraqi menorah

Full background on the coin and its subject matter here.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Human Rights Day 2016

This year, as every year, Amherst celebrated Human Rights Day, marking the anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948).

Members of the Amherst Select Board have few ceremonial duties, none of them obligatory. Still, I do relish the ones that have both historical and civic meaning. Participating in this commemoration, like those held on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and the 9-11 anniversary, is among such quasi-obligations that I value most. The others are held in spring or summer weather. This one, by contrast, is the most universal in significance but the least well attended, held on what invariably proves to be one of the most frigid days in December, as we remind ourselves that winter has not even begun. The fact that the event usually takes place after dark, by electric candle light, only adds to the sense that we are doing something important, keeping something very important alive.

"Many of the assumptions about who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are wrong"

Attendance is also low, however, because, whereas the other dates are established US holidays, this one is not. Few of us know of the Declaration, and even among those who are familiar with it, few are aware of the real story. At best, we "know" that Eleanor Roosevelt had something to do with it. Well, not that much, and she certainly was not the only one.  I always refer people to an admirable article by the equally admirable and courageous Gita Sahgal, a founder of the Centre for Secular Space. She reminds us of two crucial points:

(1) "Many of the assumptions about who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are wrong. The less known story of the men and women who wrote this foundational, emancipatory and anti-colonial document must be told in today's world."

(2) That in turn should serve as a rebuke to those on both right and left who dismiss the notion of human rights as, respectively, a sign of liberal elitist weakness or a reactionary bourgeois affectation, not to mention those who claim an exemption from these universal standards for a particular culture or faith.

Universal Human Rights--and now, more than ever, the rights of immigrants

This year's ceremony was a little bit different. Because the anniversary fell on a weekend, Human Resources and Human Rights Director Deborah Radway and the Human Rights Commission decided to begin in the afternoon and daylight, at 4:00 p.m.

And, given the toxic climate surrounding the recent presidential campaign and the rise of new nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment, the Select Board proclamation of the holiday explicitly reaffirmed the Town's decision (represented by a Town Meeting vote of 2012) to do the utmost to protect the rights of immigrants, including the undocumented, from what was regarded as unnecessary and excessively aggressive government intervention:
Key excerpt:

Then THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Town of Amherst and its officials and employees,

to the extent permissible by law, shall not participate in federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration enforcement, including but not limited to, Secure Communities, and cooperative agreements with the federal government under which town personnel participate in the enforcement of immigration laws, such as those authorized by Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Should the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enter into an agreement or Memorandum of Agreement regarding Secure Communities, the Town of Amherst shall opt out if legally and practically permissible. To the extent permissible by law, immigration detainer requests will not be honored by the Amherst Police Department. Municipal employees of the Town of Amherst, including law enforcement employees, shall not monitor, stop, detain, question, interrogate, or search a person for the purpose of determining that individual’s immigration status. Officers shall not inquire about the immigration status of any crime victim, witness, or suspect, unless such information is directly relevant to the investigation, nor shall they refer such information to federal immigration enforcement authorities unless that information developed is directly relevant. The use of a criminal investigation or arrest shall not be used as a basis to ascertain information about an individual’s immigration status unless directly relevant to the offenses charged.”

(Full text here)

Above: Amherst political notables take part in the reading of the Declaration. At left: Select Board Member Andy Steinberg, State-Representative-elect Solomon Goldstein-Rose, Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

For the record, this is the first time that I (or anyone else, as far as I can tell) can recall a Town Manager taking part in this event: big props to Paul, who doesn't even live here yet on a permanent basis and is still commuting from Somerville.

Human Rights Commission Chair Matthew Charity gives the nod to the next reader.

Amherst Health and Community Services Director Julie Federman and Amherst Survival Center Director Mindy Domb read the first two articles of the Declaration.


Human Rights Day in Amherst: the 2015 post, describing the origins of the Declaration, with still and video footage from Amherst commemorations, 2011-2014.

18 December 1916: Battle of Verdun Ends

The Battle of Verdun, which had begun on 21 February 1916, at last came to an end on 18 December. The meat-grinder, as it came to be known, occasioned some 700,000 to 900,000 French and German casualties--among them at least 300,000 dead.

The medal below was issued by the city to the defenders. As historian and security expert John Schindler notes in a piece written on this week's centennial: because of the French system of rotating units in and out of Verdun, "virtually every division in the French army fought at Verdun at some point in 1916."

Details in the post from the February anniversary.

* * *


"The Butcher’s Bill of 1916: Europe’s Blood-Drenched Year of Horror:
A century ago, Europe was busy killing itself—a nightmare we still live with today," Observer, 17 Dec. 2016

John Schindler (@20committee) places the Battle of Verdun in the context of other bloody operations of 1916, including the Somme (intended to relieve the pressure on France arising from Verdun), and the lesser known battles in other theaters: Isonzo, on the Italian Alpine front, and Russia's Brusilov offensive against Austria-Hungary.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Rally Against Veterans' Flag Convoy and in Support of Hampshire College.

As noted in the previous post, Hampshire College's decision to resume flying the American flag in the wake of the protest by a veterans' group led the organizers to cancel the  second demonstration scheduled for a week later. However, another group, the "American Flag and Thin Blue Line Convoy," decided to go ahead with their showing of the flag along a route running from UMass via Amherst College to Hampshire. In the meantime, a group of leftist Pioneer Valley activists hurriedly organized a counter-demonstration on the Amherst Common.

Raise our struggle! (We have markers)

Both events were small. The Convoy claimed just over 200 participants. The counter-demonstration was even smaller. When I arrived fewer than 10 minutes before the announced start time of 10:00, there were only three people there, just starting to make signs. "We have magic markers if you want to help," one of them told me ("and glitter," another helpfully added). Even when the event got going, between 10:15 and 10:30, there were only between about two and three dozen people present. By the end, the total was over 100, and perhaps around 150 by my count--still a far cry from the 1500 that the organizers claimed for their veterans' protest at Hampshire a week earlier.

Whereas the veterans' protest was sharply focused on a single issue and a  clear outcome --"Raise the Flag!"--the program of the present event, called "Raise Our Struggle," might best be called eclectic: a counter-demonstration against the convoy, combined with wide-ranging demands for social justice and denunciation of the bigotry and racism associated with the election campaign of Donald Trump, as well as a call for "hands off Hampshire College," in response to the abuse that the latter was suffering for its flag policy.

The event announcement epitomized the grab-bag approach and generalized, flailing, post-election anguish:
A rally and gathering in defense of our plural and diverse communities in Amherst and beyond.

In Amherst and communities across Western Massachusetts, some of us are proud of our country and the flag, and others are not, but all of us recognize that Hampshire College has been subject to an unprecedented attack on their community's autonomy and character as a progressive and critical space. Reactionary nationalist forces have invaded their community with direct racist and xenophobic threats to impose a political vision that erases the experiences, voices, and history of immigrants, people of color, women, LGBTQ communities, youth, Muslims, indigenous people, Jews, other marginalized and oppressed communities, and the working class. Elected officials and politicians, from local Democrats to Donald Trump have spurred on and defended this assault, more concerned about the American flag than the proliferation of hate crimes and open bigotry in our communities.

This is not about any symbol. This is about human beings. The assault will not stop at Hampshire College. The same forces want to lay siege to communities of color, college campuses, and progressive institutions of the marginalized and the working class. They fly the thin blue line and celebrate the police, not for their own safety or peace, but to shield police and the state from scrutiny, from checks on the violence daily inflicted on black, brown, and working class neighborhoods. Forces of reaction wish to wrench apart our communities , not in the name of freedom, liberty, or patriotism, but dominance, blind authority, vulgar power, and profit.

We humbly recognize that we are on stolen land, and we need to respond with stewardship in solidarity with indigenous peoples, not to reclaim territory for nationalism and imperialism. We must do our part in Amherst, but free our hearts, minds, and bodies to support the struggles of frontline communities across this country and the world. We will not forget our past, our history, our struggles for liberation and freedom.

An Injury to one is an injury to all!
The first remarks by a Springfield activist addressed the theme of social justice in the age of Trump.

"What do we want? Free speech!"

About 20 minutes later, demonstrators took up positions along the sidewalk and in the crosswalk at the intersection of Pleasant and Spring Streets as the convoy approached.

The convoy organizers had asked "that there only be american flags, thin blue line pro police flags, gadsen [sic] flags, or flags pertaining to any branch of military. No confederate flags."

Blocking the street (a violation of the law) in order to stop the convoy, they shouted, "What do we want? Free speech!" (Other chants included: "No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.")

A sheriff's car accompanying the convoy (a service the convoy organizers paid for) halted and prudently allowed the protest to go on for a few moments. Frustrated, the convoy participants made u-turns and found an alternate route. A moment later, an Amherst police vehicle arrived. The officer advised the demonstrators that they were not allowed to block a public way, and they returned to the Common.

"We're badass!"

Jubilantly proclaiming that they were "badass" for having briefly interrupted the progress of convoy, they continued with their program.

School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage, the only Amherst elected official to participate (though in a private capacity), spoke of social justice, denounced the outside politicians who had taken part at the Hampshire College protest last week, and criticized Amherst's government for not intervening.

(The Business Improvement District had nothing to do with the rally.
The sign was presumably left over from the "Merry Maple" celebration.)

"Hands off Hampshire College"

Hampshire College professor Uditi Sen (my colleague in history) defended the institution's decision to remove the flag, offering what might be characterized as the predominant view among the faculty and administration.

Few outside the academy may share this view (or even understand the argument that she was trying to make), and that is their right--but the nature of that disagreement makes all the difference.

Mount Holyoke student and conservative activist Kassy Dillon covered the convoy and the demonstration on the Common on social media, mocking the College and the protesters. That, of course, is her right, as well. Part of her coverage included live commentary of the rally via Periscope.

Unfortunately, some of the respondents to the feed chose to offer particularly hateful responses (for which, it should be stressed, one cannot hold Ms. Dillon responsible). They ranged from the childish to the racist and full-blown neo-Nazi.

It was a perfect illustration of the toxic political landscape at the intersection of internet journalism and social media. Often it's not even so much the actual reports as the unmoderated responses and "talkbacks" that are the problem. Here, the problem is all too evident.

And 2017 is not even upon us.

* * *

Press coverage

In contrast to the brief and bland report on WLLP Channel 22, the Springfield Republican's Mary Serreze (@maryserreze) did a notably thorough job of covering the event from the standpoint of both parties.

From the Protest Rally Against the Hampshire College Flag Policy

In response to students' anger and fear in the wake of the presidential election and their protests that the American flag represented racism and oppression, Hampshire College controversially decided on a temporary removal of the national symbol in hopes of calming the situation and fostering dialogue.

The public reaction surprised the College (but hardly anyone else): incredulity and outrage.

"Peaceful Demonstration of Freedom--Stand With Old Glory"

Amherst’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 754 organized a mass protest on the Hampshire College campus for the Sunday after Thanksgiving (November 27). A large crowd from around New England--particularly but not exclusively veterans and their families--gathered at the entrance to the College on Route 116. Although the press put the size of the crowd at around 400, the organizers, who issued over 5,000 invitations via social media, estimated attendance at 1,500 to 2,000: which is to say, greater than the annual enrollment at the College.

I was present, along with a few other members of the faculty and student body.

 Veterans represented multiple generations and wars.

Not exactly the alt-right

In the wake of the presidential election and the tensions that it engendered, many in the Hampshire and wider Amherst community (who did not bother to attend or were scared to do so) leaped to the conclusion that the event was a gathering of right-wing extremists and hatemongers. On the contrary, the organizers took care to avoid giving the formal program any particular political slant. In fact, the most prominent speakers were centrist or left-liberal Democratic politicians: State Rep. John Velis (Westfield), Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Councillor Kateri Walsh, and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. Several of the speakers were non-white and immigrants. A member of the local veterans' color guard was transgender.

not exactly the "alt-right"

Outside interference?

The presence of the regional political figures caused no little consternation among the Hampshire faculty, who complained in high dudgeon that outsiders were interfering in our internal affairs and attempting to intimidate the College. It is an ironic argument. The politicians were simply exercising the same right of free speech about an issue of deep concern as the students who burned the flag and the President who banned it. (And, for the record: in my many years of working here, I had never known the College to bow to the wishes of any outside force, least of all, provincial politicos.)

Still, even neutral outsiders remarked on the unusual presence of these visitors. (Most expressions of surprise focused on the presence of Mayor Sarno, who, as a friend of mine from beyond the walls of the academy drily observed, "has never even come to pee in Amherst.") The most parsimonious explanation is, however, generally the most plausible. (It is possible to overthink an issue.) The cynical consensus among outside observers was that the aim was grandstanding rather than intimidation. Seeking to score easy points with their base is, after all, what politicians do. But politicians also have convictions. The idea that the flag had powerful emotional meaning for them, and that they therefore cared sincerely and deeply about its presence or absence, is a difficult one for the academic mind to grasp.

Rep. Velis is not just a politician from the Pioneer Valley, but also an Afghanistan veteran. As for DA Sullivan, he is a frequent attendee at events in Amherst, and he moreover has extensive professional experience in military affairs, having served as a civilian lawyer for service personnel and most recently, working to establish a new veterans' court providing treatment for trauma disorders and substance abuse. Mayor Sarno, too, paid tribute to the veterans, but he explained that the flag had further personal significance for him.

The flag of a nation of immigrants

Sarno was one of several speakers who highlighted the role of immigrants. The flag had special meaning for him as the son of Italian immigrants who had experienced Fascism and survived the Nazi occupation of Italy in hiding. To them it had been a symbol of hope and freedom.

Event organizer Victor A. Nunez Ortiz came to the United States when his family fled the Salvadoran civil war. He served in the Marines even before becoming a US citizen. He refers to this experience when introducing the next speaker.

Another veteran who had served in the US military as an immigrant non-citizen was Veasna Roeun of Connecticut: a survivor of the Cambodian genocide.

A Progressive Speaks

Here, well known local civic and political figure Bonnie MacCracken speaks. She read a poem about Blue Star Mothers. Bonnie, a candidate in the recent Democratic primary election for state representative from the third Hampshire district, is a member of the Democratic State Committee and has long been active on behalf of progressive social causes, among them racial and economic justice (especially housing issues) and early education.

And the right?

The red meat right-wing exception in this program was the brief address by Mount Holyoke student and conservative activist Kassy Dillon, who focused her remarks on a critique of the College and its students. She explained, "I wrote the first story" about the flag flap, adding that the Hampshire student who had passed on the news to her was now "being bullied by other students."

Racism and extremism?

Despite repeated assertions that Confederate flags and other racist symbols were on display, neither I nor anyone I subsequently spoke with saw them--and no one has to date produced any photographic proof. It does not seem unreasonable to conclude--given the nature of the controversy, and what I saw--that many in the crowd were to the right of center, but that is not the same thing as "alt-right" "white supremacists."

To be sure, there were a few displays that I could I could have done without: this anti-UN flag, for example (though without talking to the owner, it was impossible to tell whether it represented standard arch-conservative gripes about "anti-American" multilateralism or something notably more rancid).

I also spotted several "Don't Tread On Me" flags. The right-wing "Tea Party" movement adopted the Gadsden Flag (as it is more properly called) in 2010, though as everyone should know (and Mount Holyoke historian Joseph Ellis explains), it is a venerable emblem of the American Revolutionary era, appropriated in the meantime by various groups as a symbol of protest.

On the whole, the tone was respectful of the College. Of course, the organizers could not regulate who showed up, and a few of the signs were obnoxious and juvenile. One placard (referring to Vladimir Putin or just left over from the Cold War?) advised Hampshire students: if you don't like it here, go get an education in Russia. Another, in what the creators no doubt considered a masterpiece of wit, relied on hackneyed scatological imagery.

By contrast, this sign, playing on the Hampshire College motto, took a lighter approach, and was perhaps marginally more effective.

The organizers had stressed the need for civility prior to the event:
this a PEACEFUL DEMONSTRATION OF FREEDOM as citizens of our United States of America. . . Families will be present and order is to be expected.
At the rally itself, they reiterated this request and moreover made a point of thanking the College for allowing them to meet on campus property. Here, veteran and Purple Heart recipient Micah Welintukonis of Connecticut, who presided over much of the event, offers to provide microphone time to the President or any other administrators who might be present (none were) and then leads the crowd in the chant, "Raise that flag!"

A confrontation

At one point, though, one saw how things might have taken a more dangerous turn. Toward the end of the event, the organizers wanted the participants to assemble near the large Hampshire College sign for a group photo that they hoped would go viral. As they asked people to move away from the sign so that the wording would be visible, we saw a young man sitting on the ledge in front of it, giving people the finger with both hands. The organizers, at first thinking he was one of their own, mocking Hampshire College, chided him for his vulgarity. It turned out, however, that he was a Hampshire student flipping off the demonstrators rather than the College and seeking to spoil their photo op. The crowd became more agitated. Several people seemed prepared to remove him by force and others tried holding a flag in front of him to block him from view but the speaker urged them to remain peaceful and let the campus police provide order. The speaker engaged in some mild taunting of the hapless student but also offered him the microphone. After a few minutes of this standoff, things quieted down. Subsequent press reports described some uglier aspects of the confrontation, but from where I was standing at the time, near the podium, I could see and hear none of that.

Coming to a close

As the rally wound down, attendees sang "God Bless America."

In the low-key conclusion to the event, the speaker reminded attendees that "we are all Americans" and urged them to tell the College: "raise our flag!"


The veterans had planned to return a week later for a second rally, but when the College suddenly announced on December 2 that the flag was going back up, they canceled the event as what they called an "act of faith":

Indeed, the best outcome of this sorry mess would be a dialogue between veterans and campus community, and there are some signs that this may in fact occur.

Hampshire Flag Watch: Going, going, . . .gone?! and . . . now back?

By now practically everyone in the country has heard the story, regardless of whether you read the New York Times or watch Fox News. It was with a mixture of fascination and horror that I watched the slow-motion political train wreck that was the Hampshire College flag controversy unfold over more than a month. 

Another metaphor that we use for a self-inflicted, completely avoidable disaster is: own goal.

For anyone who has been in a coma or perhaps just shell-shocked by the Trump victory and therefore unable to read a newspaper, watch TV, or surf the web, here's the elevator-speech version.

Take Down the Flag!

Hampshire student chalk protest: Take Down the Flag
The election of Donald Trump as President on November 8 prompted some Hampshire College students to express their opposition to the institution’s flying the US flag, which they denounced as a symbol of racism and oppression. College President Jonathan Lash listened politely but did not act on their demand. The next night, a group of students lowered the US flag to half-staff. On the night of 10 November, parties unknown burned the flag. It was the eve of Veterans Day. On November 12, the Trustees, having restored the flag, announced that they would fly it again at half-staff in deference to student concerns: “both to acknowledge the grief and pain experienced by so many and to enable the full complexity of voices and experiences to be heard.”

It was immediately clear to me it was an untenable policy: it simply could not last. I decided to watch what happened, for the historical record.

Day 3 (14 November)

For Day 4, the middle of the first week, I thought three shots were in order: 
general, close-up and night-time

Day 5 (16 November)

Day 6 (17 November)

Day 7 (18 November)

This is the only "dialogue" or "conversation" about the flag that I personally witnessed. (Evidently, the promised process happened in a series of "focus groups," but the vast majority of us were not involved. I certainly heard nothing.)

Negative space

Well, that didn't take long. The only thing more peculiar than the decision to fly the flag at half-staff for an extended period was the policy that soon replaced it. After only a week, on 18 November, the College announced, “we will not fly the U.S. flag or any other flags at Hampshire for the time being.” This, we were told, was so that we could discuss the meaning of the flag without the disturbing presence of (wait for it . . . ): the flag.

19 November: naked and alone

Raise the Flag!

A few days later, the press descended on the College.

November 22: filming an absence

When the outside world learned of the decision, the most common reaction was one of anger and incomprehension. The only surprising thing was that the College, with all its intellectual wattage, was, well . . . surprised. Any ordinary person would have seen this coming.

Amherst’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 754 organized a mass protest on the Hampshire College campus on 27 November, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. People from around New England--particularly but not exclusively veterans--gathered at the entrance to the College on Route 116. The organizers estimated attendance at over 1,500 to 2,000: which is to say, greater than the typical annual enrollment at the College.

The event was nonpartisan in intention (and largely in practice) and the speakers included several left-liberal Democrats. I attended the rally to observe for myself. Although some subsequent press reports described at least one confrontation involving aggressive or offensive behavior, what I saw was by and large respectful and disciplined. The organizers stressed the need for civility and made a point of thanking the College for allowing them to meet on campus property. They offered to provide microphone time to the President or any other administrators who might be present (none were).

Press coverage, both local and national, was heavy.

The College soon faced a torrent of abuse in the form of angry phone calls and emails, as well as far harsher talk on social media--much like what the Town itself has experienced in the wake of controversies over flying the 9-11 commemorative flags or other contentious debates.

November 29: I have no idea what these temporary fences near the flag were intended to accomplish.

Back to normal?

On 2 December, the the College suddenly announced that the flag was being returned to its customary position on the main campus flagpole. Crisis over, but no problems solved.

After I took my pictures, a woman passing by said, "a lot of people doing that today."

There is a well known political dictum: when you're explaining, you're losing. The College has created a dedicated web page to explain its recent flag policy to the public.

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Coming attractions 

- photos of the protest rally against the College
- a more detailed look at the controversy