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Genius of Winding Paths

Lovely essay by Professor Michael Lewis about Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park.

Olmsted’s work is so lovely and unassailable that one is surprised to realize how unoriginal it was. His entire repertoire of motifs—pleasing juxtapositions of trees and meadows, serpentine paths that hug the contours of the land, rustic bridges and pavilions, sudden passages of rugged terrain and ravines—was thoroughly conventional. So too were his aesthetic values, which might be summarized as variety, contrast, and surprise. These were the principles of the picturesque, which erupted onto the scene suddenly in eighteenth-century England and with worldwide consequences. They were already old long before Olmsted’s birth. Whatever his achievement was, and it was spectacular, it did not consist in the invention of a new approach to landscape. What then, exactly, did Olmsted do?

If the basic American understanding of land was the unsentimental utilitarianism of a colonial mercantile society, there was also a latent residue of idealism. This was the legacy of the religious refugees of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whose town planning was saturated with biblical ideas of a perfect ordered society. Olmsted himself was a product of New England Puritanism in its final manifestation, having been born just as its Calvinist core was dissolving into Transcendentalism and releasing its moral energies into American political and social life. Had Olmsted never existed, someone else surely would have applied the moral force of this ethic to landscape design, making parks the vehicle of social reform. But it is inconceivable that anyone else would have had the same deep cistern of human sympathy to drawn on. It was a cistern patiently filled during walks in England, ramblings through the South, urgent work for the Sanitary Commission, and all the other restless divagations that make up the career of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Read the whole thing.

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Lewis Slams Falk Over Derbyshire V

Let’s spend five days reviewing Professor Michael Lewis’s surprisingly sharp attack on President Falk concerning the banning of John Derbyshire from Williams. Today is Day 5.

Here’s where Uncomfortable Learning comes in. Having recognized that there is a growing uniformity of thought here (and elsewhere), its leaders invested a great deal of effort in bringing to the College points of view that typically go unheard. Twice their events have been canceled events. Perhaps Hopkins Hall can save them the trouble by showing them the blacklist of speakers who are persona non grata. And, while they’re at it, they might explain why it was a dreadful thing to have a blacklist in 1952 but it is morally correct in 2016.

Of course it isn’t called a blacklist. It is a symptom of the fundamental dishonesty of this day that we hesitate to call things by their right names. Back in the 1930s, that age of international fascism, the Louisiana populist Huey Long was asked if he thought fascism could ever succeed in the United States. “Sure,” he replied, “just so long as they call it anti-fascism.”

1) “events have been canceled events” Don’t the Record editors even read these articles?

2) The blacklist of 1952 was horrible because it targeted people on the left. Those are the good guys, as every Williams student is taught. The blacklistees of today — people like Venker and Derbyshire — are of the right. They are evil and should not be heard. At least, that is how Adam Falk sees it.

Again, I can’t recall a Williams faculty member even being so publicly critical of a Williams president. The question now, however, is: Will Professor Lewis and other faculty fight for free speech and open debate on the Williams campus?

I have my doubts. Lewis is a busy guy with many interests. Does he even live in Williamstown? Is he really willing to engage in the local faculty/student politics that taking Falk would require? I hope so! And EphBlog has some suggestions for when the fight begins . . .

Uncomfortable Learning is now in a stronger position than ever because now the College must decide, ahead of time, which speakers it is going to ban.

Imagine that UL leaders want to make life tough for Adam Falk. All they need to do is ask him (or the “Assistant Director for Student Organizations & Involvement in the Office of Student Life”) if they may invite person X to Williams. That is what the policy requires of them. They don’t have to — in fact, they are not allowed to! — invite person X before getting this permission. But this procedure (permission first, invitation second) means that they can endlessly torture Adam Falk by asking for permission for speakers that span the continuum from John Derbyshire on leftward.

The College is then trapped. Either they allow Uncomfortable Learning to develop a long list of all the speakers that Williams has banned (imagine the Washington Post article that would come out of the leaking of this list!) or they have to draw the line at Derbyshire and allow just about everyone else in. With luck, they will be smart enough to choose Door #2.

Does Uncomfortable Learning have the necessary student leadership to take advantage of this opportunity?

Professor Michael Lewis could do this as well. He could, easily, send an e-mail to Falk asking if it is OK for him to invite Jared Taylor or Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter or Charles Johnson or . . .

Either Falk says “No” and we crucify him on a cross of open debate or he says “Yes” and the problem is solved.

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Lewis Slams Falk Over Derbyshire IV

Let’s spend five days reviewing Professor Michael Lewis’s surprisingly sharp attack on President Falk concerning the banning of John Derbyshire from Williams. Today is Day 4.

Homogenous intellectual environments are not good at responding to new factors or conditions, as I learned from my own college experience. I went to Haverford, a Quaker college known for its extraordinary moral probity (with the country’s most rigorous honor code). I was there during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, throughout which time, in all my courses in political science, history and economics, I never heard the slightest suggestion that mighty shifts in American public opinion were underway that would lead to the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1980. My professors probably were unaware of their omission. But by being unable to give students a fair and well-informed summary of the basic tenets of the Reagan platform, other than a mocking caricature of it, Haverford failed in its duty to prepare its students for American life.

Something similar seems to be happening today with Donald Trump. We may write him off as a laughable neo-Napoleonic carbuncle, but if a sizable portion of the American population thinks otherwise, then our students need to hear the most articulate case for Trump – and hear it here, without having to drive to Renee’s Diner in North Adams. And if they cannot hear it from their professors, then they ought to be able to hear it regularly from outside speakers.

“[L]aughable neo-Napoleonic carbuncle” is great writing!

Recall that Lewis was writing in February. The case for Williams students being exposed to “the most articulate case for Trump” is even stronger now, obviously.

Is Lewis suggesting that his Williams colleagues in political science — like EphBlog favorites Sam Crane, James McAllister, Justin Crowe ’03 and Cheryl Shanks — can’t (or won’t) give the best case for Trump in their classes? If so, he should come right out and say it. That has never been EphBlog’s position. The problem is not that Williams faculty can’t teach or that their classroom teaching is biased. The problem is that the collection of speakers that Williams has invited to campus over the last few years includes exactly zero conservatives/libertarians/Republicans/Trumpians.

John Derbyshire, by the way, was one of the first Trump supporters among the chattering classes, back in July 2015. If Williams had more speakers like him than students/faculty/Falk would have been less surprised by the rise of Trump.

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Lewis Slams Falk Over Derbyshire III

Let’s spend five days reviewing Professor Michael Lewis’s surprisingly sharp attack on President Falk concerning the banning of John Derbyshire from Williams. Today is Day 3.

All this takes place against the background of a college that proclaims, ceaselessly and fervently, its commitment to diversity. But, as defined at the College, diversity seems to mean embracing the full variety of individual human differences – except for ideas and opinions. Here is why the Derbyshire and Venker incidents are so alarming. The College is fast approaching a state where the genuine exchange of serious ideas – in open public debate, with good will and mutual respect – is made impossible because a growing number of opinions are considered out of bounds. As Mary Detloff, the College’s director of media relations told The Berkshire Eagle, Derbyshire’s views on race, women’s rights, gay rights and sexual harassment render him “unsuited to discussions at Williams College.” Of course, once everyone’s views are homogenous, it’s hard to imagine what would be left to discuss.

Indeed. Lewis is exactly right about the danger and about the direction in which the College might go, might even be going right now. Recall the student who reported that although he supported Trump, he didn’t want to tell people that for (reasonable!) fear as to what that would do to his “social standing.” That seems like a problem to me! If the Williams student community chooses to ostracize someone merely because he will be voting for Trump, then honest discussion and debate becomes impossible.

But Michael Lewis, tenured member of the Williams faculty, is in a good position to do something about this! He could invite a series of speakers that agree with Trump (if not Derbyshire) on a variety of issues, thereby expanding the range of acceptable opinion on the Williams campus. If several Trump-supporters were to speak this fall, students who also support Trump would be less likely to be ostracized and more likely to speak out.

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Lewis Slams Falk Over Derbyshire II

Let’s spend five days reviewing Professor Michael Lewis’s surprisingly sharp attack on President Falk concerning the banning of John Derbyshire from Williams. Today is Day 2.

The excuse is the familiar platitude that “there’s a line somewhere” that divides free speech from hate speech. And speech that crosses this line must be squelched, even at the point of covering the ears of the listeners. But the notion that there is a line between free speech and hate speech is a curious one. Free speech is a principle that you can define in absolute terms. Hate speech is an accusation – frequently a moving one – which doesn’t lend itself to the drawing of neat lines. The only stable definition for hate speech is speech that makes someone hate you.

Isn’t that exactly backward? At Williams, and places like it, hate speech is not “speech that makes someone hate you.” Hate speech is speech that you hate. Perhaps I am confused by what a “stable” definition is? Perhaps I am defining hate speech descriptively — meaning a definition that an outsider could apply to Williams and use to predict what speech the community would define as “hate” — while Lewis is being more prescriptive, trying to come up with a new definition which we might all agree on and then use going forward.

You don’t have to agree with Derbyshire to believe that the College did something wrong in forbidding him from speaking here. Administrators can make blunders, but this isn’t a blunder; rather, it’s part of a larger and ominous pattern. Last October, the same students who invited Derbyshire were pressured into rescinding their invitation to Suzanne Venker. This itch to censor is not even limited to the present. Right now, a committee is tracking down “potentially problematic” historical art on campus. Its mission is encapsulated in a remarkable leading question (a question so artfully constructed as to yield but one answer): “What should be done about historical images that portray the College as less welcoming than we are or aspire to be?” Framed that way, it’s hardly a surprise that the mural in the Log depicting Chief Hendrick – the Mohawk ally of Ephraim Williams – has been found objectionable and whisked behind plywood.

Lewis was much too pessimistic with regard to the mural. Williams (and Falk, to his credit) has decided to keep the mural at The Log. Is Lewis also wrong about the “larger and ominous pattern?” I hope so! Certainly, across higher education, there is a move to greater censorship, especially of “conservative” views. But Williams has always been more mainstream than other elite liberal arts colleges and so, one hopes, less likely to slide down the censorship slope. Remove the Venker rescission (which was truly the decision/fault of the students who invited her) and the mural controversy, and the pattern becomes the single instance involving Derbyshire. Perhaps things are less dire than Lewis makes them out to be?

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Lewis Slams Falk Over Derbyshire I

Let’s spend five days reviewing Professor Michael Lewis’s surprisingly sharp attack on President Falk concerning the banning of John Derbyshire from Williams. Today is Day 1.

The title (chosen by Lewis?) of this Record op-ed is “A new blacklist: How the disinvitation of John Derbyshire reveals a troubling pattern of censorship on campus.” I can not recall a harsher public criticism of a Williams president by a Williams faculty member. Can anyone?

No one who really believes in free speech ever says, “Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard,” as our College’s president did last Thursday in a campus-wide email. If you believe in free speech, you simply practice it, which means going through your life listening to a good deal of cant, nonsense and occasional sheer vileness. One can always walk away; this is what it means to be an adult. But when someone sings a song of praise for free speech, you can reckon with mathematical certainty that there is a but circling in a holding pattern overhead, waiting to drop. It didn’t take long. President Falk’s paean to free speech ended with the inevitable: but John Derbyshire is not free to speak here.

I could not agree more. However, this being EphBlog, let’s engage in some small-minded editing suggestions. First, the “but” in “but circling” definitely needed quotation marks. Otherwise it reads too similar to “butt circling.” Second, planes don’t “drop” from a holding pattern, they “land” from one. Bombs drop but, when they do, they come from planes, not from holding patterns. Third, it is interesting to look at the Google search for Falk’s phrase. Turns out that no one has ever said this exact phrase before, which is not a critique of Lewis since he was obviously referring to sentiments like this in general.

But the uniqueness of the phrase makes it easier for us to find all the other critiques of Falk, like this one from Ken White at Popehat and this from Jonathan Adler at The Volokh Conspiracy. Lots of excellent material to get us through the dog days of August!

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Lewis Interview

Interview from 2007 with Professor of Art History Michael Lewis.

Best line: “A monument is not a Russian novel.”

UPDATE: Also an interesting discussion of Williams admissions around the 4:50 mark. More on that some other time.

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Professor Michael J. Lewis is Now Blogging!

Art History Professor Michael J. Lewis is now blogging at Commentary Magazine‘s new blog, Contentions. Interested readers can also view only Prof. Lewis’ contributions.

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Art History Professor Michael Lewis

Art History Professor Michael Lewis has a nice quote in a Boston Globe article on the new student center at UMASS-Boston.

“I suppose students are comfortable with malls, but at a certain scale I think it defeats the purpose of a community building,” said Williams College art department chairman Michael Lewis, who has written about student centers, but had not seen the new UMass building. “In many cases, they’re recruiting objects, meant to be seen in an hour, and to leave an impression.”

If Lewis’s writings on student centers are on-line, I would appreciate a pointer. Of course, the classic example of a “recruiting object” at Williams is the Chapin collection of founding documents. Or has that become a hot spot of undergraduate activity in the last few years? In my era, only the tour guides knew about it . . . ;-)

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Michael Lewis, chairman of the

Michael Lewis, chairman of the Art Department, has an article in the Wall Street Jornal on memorial designs for the World Trade Center. Lewis suggests that:

Perhaps the greatest threat to the memorial is that it will be too laden with visual imagery: the slurry wall, the sunken pit, even twisted shards of the buildings themselves. The site should be allowed to speak for itself. It should be enclosed in such a way that its immense scale can be grasped in its totality, giving the visitor an abstract impression of the magnitude of the attacks and of the tragedy. It should be a solemn enclave, screened from the bustle of the city–perhaps through an arcade, which defines space without blocking it.

Above all, the World Trade Center Memorial must be lapidary, a useful term that literally means the terseness appropriate to carving on stone. It would be wrong to communicate anything other than the simplest of declaratives: We mourn, we persevere, we continue.

It may be that we cannot take the true measure of 9/11 until a generation has passed. After all, the monuments to Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson on the Mall came at least a half century after the deaths of their subjects. We should not be bullied by well-meaning intentions into something we will regret. In that case, it would be better not to build at all.

But if we are to build, we should agree on first principles. We cannot go too far wrong if we pledge ourselves to no violence, no swagger, no clutter, no despair.

Some on the Right don’t like the way that Lewis looks at things. James Bowman, in the context of an article on war and masculinity, writes:

By coincidence, I notice that one of the “four cardinal principles” enunciated by Michael J. Lewis, head of the art department at Williams College, in the Wall Street Journal for the memorial to the victims of September 11th at the World Trade Center site is that it must portray “No violence.”

The memorial must not perpetuate the violence of the attacks, nor imply it by fractured form. It must heal the wounds, not pick at the scab. Most of us experienced 9/11 on television and have a storehouse of visual horror to draw on. As vivid as those visual images were, they have no place in this design.

Ah, yes. Shades of the “cycle of violence” that those Middle Eastern primitives, unlike our very clever American columnists, haven’t the wit to escape from. It’s all very well their taking the high moral ground about somebody else’s quarrels, but I wonder if the widows and orphans of 9/11 will be equally keen on refusing to “perpetuate the violence of the attacks”? They, at least, will be harder to persuade that “violence” is not a perpetual feature of the human condition — like the masculine virtues (and vices) which it has always elicited.

I would guess that Bowman more misunderstands Lewis than disagrees with him.

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