AMHERST, Mass. “You are being targeted for your political views.”
Theodore Hertzberg’s radicalism has drawn late-night phone calls, the destruction of his property and that warning from police at Amherst College.
Mr. Hertzberg, a 19-year-old sophomore from Long Island, is a staunch conservative in an area that embodies college-town liberalism a town that once built tunnels so migrating salamanders could avoid crossing a busy road.
Amherst is a community that flies the U.N. flag in the town common, a place where one local high school has no marching band because it is too “militaristic.”
“I make no secret of my views,” Mr. Hertzberg said with an iconoclast’s pride. “And sometimes, I pay a price.”
Despite the prevailing politics of this region’s college campuses five separated by no more than a 10-minute drive, with a combined enrollment of 30,000 students the bombing of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia wins approval from most students of all stripes.
For 22 years, a peace rally has been held every Sunday on the city’s main street, and the universities and colleges offer myriad forums with “peace as an alternative” themes. Last week at the University of Massachusetts was “Islam Awareness Week.”
So when U.S. bombing began in Afghanistan last month, no one could have predicted that a war could have forged a tenuous truce between politically minded students on both sides.
“I think everybody can get behind this one,” said Ben Baum, 20, the former head of the Student Democrats at Amherst College. “I am a liberal and a Democrat, and I also support the action in Afghanistan. Not everybody feels as I do, but there are a lot of views around here.”
“I am not a supporter of the Bush administration, but it is doing a good job concerning September 11,” added Maya Norton, past president and founder of Smith Democrats at nearby Smith College. “It took an appropriate amount of time to consider action.”
Few, however, are about to embrace the staunch, combative conservatism of Mr. Hertzberg.
The rebel Republican is still irritated that on September 11, classes at Amherst were not canceled as were most civic and public activities nationwide.
“I was appalled that after the massacre there was a panel of university professors who said ‘this is what we get,’ and that we have to be careful of what we do to the Muslims and Arabs,” said Mr. Hertzberg, a slight, bespectacled political science major who decorates his dorm room with an American flag flanked by large color pictures of President Bush and the president’s father, former President George Bush.
“They just killed our people, and this is what they could come up with. We are surrounded here, in this bubble.”
The “bubble” is the center of the Pioneer Valley, a wide expanse in western Massachusetts that is as picturesque as it is left-leaning. Amherst residents are proud of the Currier and Ives homesteads, the lush public parks and the town’s self-proclaimed status as a nuclear-free zone.
Town of 36,000 opinions
“Everybody here is expected to have an opinion,” said Nancy Newcombe, a 70-year-old retired reporter who covered city government here for 30-plus years. “The liberal voice is huge, the largest.”
She came here in 1965, when the population was roughly equally balanced between the student and the farming communities.
“Then the academics bought all the farms,” she said, making the town of 36,000 residents a breeding ground for intellectual discourse.
It would be hard to miss the impact of her pronouncement while sitting in the Black Sheep, a dingy, wooden, 1960s-era coffeehouse and deli. At tables, students on the lifetime plan mumble over notes and coffee, and J. Crew-draped students immerse themselves in daily newspapers.
“Tracy Kidder in his book ‘House’ said that Amherst is a town with a good public school system and its own foreign policy,” Miss Newcombe said. “I think that makes a lot of sense. That sums it up, in some ways.”
In September, Jennie Traschen forged her own foreign policy and put the town on the map in the process.
Miss Traschen is a 12-year resident of Amherst, serving on the Town Meeting, a board of 240 locals who, along with the five-member Board of Selectmen, enact town ordinances.
The 45-year-old physics professor is a pariah in some national circles for her remarks concerning the American flag. On the eve of the terrorist attacks, Miss Traschen announced at a Sept. 10 meeting of the Board of Selectmen that what the flag “stands for is a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and repression.”
She was speaking at a meeting over the public display of 29 flags that a local contingent of veterans had put up in August as a show of local patriotism. The display has taken on political overtones enhanced by the terror attacks.
Miss Traschen was bombarded with threatening phone calls, and she received 900 e-mails in the next 48 hours, as the country was attacked and her contact information was put out over the Internet.
Locally, however, there was very little outcry. Most of the repudiation came from afar.
“I could still go shopping in town, and I could go anywhere around here without being bothered,” said Miss Traschen, whose deceased father was a World War II veteran. “I received a lot of local support for my stance. I just hope that the treatment I received from people around the country doesn’t inhibit people here from saying how they feel.”
The denunciations didn’t inhibit 10 or so young protesters from crashing an Oct. 18 patriotism rally at Amherst College by burning two small flags during the rally’s Pledge of Allegiance. The action from the protesters, who refused to tell anybody who they were, drew support from part of the town and scorn from a smaller segment. The flag-burning and Miss Traschen’s remarks ignited a dispute that still rages.
The dispute continues to manifest itself in a traditionally intellectual way amidst the academic swirl that defines the region: letters to the editor, pages of them, almost daily.
In the Daily Hampshire Gazette last week, a letter from Ann Ferguson, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts, called the war “immoral and ineffective.” Her letter, she said, reflected the views of herself and 86 other faculty and staff at Five Colleges.
Their view took a hit last week, when town leaders voted to keep the flags up through Thanksgiving, a show of support for U.S. policy that elated the veterans and flag advocates.
At coffeehouses and bars, table conversation may meander, but eventually it ends up at current events which, in turn, brings up the flag. It also brings up Miss Traschen and her remark.
“I agree with her,” says Michelle Oliveros-Larsen, a 21-year-old Amherst student and self-described peacenik from Yorba Linda, Calif. “There are nations all over the world that do not see our flag as this great idea; they see it as supporting someone who brought them down.”
For Miss Oliveros-Larsen and like-minded students, Amherst and the surrounding towns are one big classroom, full of daily exercises in reasoning and debate.
She acknowledges, though, that the terrorist acts have thrown a wrench into the ideology of more than a few previous peace lovers. And the flag burning, which took place in front of hundreds of student spectators, also caused some of her peers to question their liberal commitments.
As a peace lover who previously thought she had nothing in common with the town’s self-professed patriots, she says, “I haven’t taken a stance on the war yet.”
Rod Raubeson is feeling emboldened these days, especially after putting together the town’s first Veterans Day ceremony in recent memory.
The Nov. 11 event drew 50 freezing people to the town common. A handful of protesters arrived halfway through, only to be largely ignored during the 35-minute memorial.
“Until now, the veterans have never assimilated here. I don’t know why,” Mr. Raubeson said last week, sitting at the bar of Delano’s, a linoleum-floored pizza joint that serves $1 slices and $5 pitchers of Miller Lite during Monday Night Football.
He did, however, have an idea about why the U.N. flag flies on the town common.
“This town is so liberal that it speaks with one voice,” said Mr. Raubeson, who also heads the town’s Veteran’s Services office and is commander of the local VFW chapter.
Despite its monolithic politics, he said the town “is actually a fine, all-American community that has no reason to hide its patriotic spirit. I think it has gotten a bum rap nationally.”
He looked outside at the sidewalk, filled with book-carrying students, and at the red-brick fire station across Pleasant Street. He gave the Chamber of Commerce pitch for New England.
“When did being Rockwellian become such a bad thing?” Mr. Raubeson said. “I kind of liked Norman.”
Dave Keenan, a former board selectman, says that if anything, the recent local events mean that people, even students, are now questioning the wisdom of the town’s legendary politics.
“Right now, the flag is a personal icon for people, even kids,” says Mr. Keenan. “A lot of the working class here was intimidated by the rhetoric of the academics. This is now like the leveling of the playing field.”
The result is that Amherst may someday have more in common with neighboring hamlets that surround the five colleges.
Most of those towns have prominent veterans memorials on their town commons; in Belchertown, just six miles from downtown Amherst, there are three monuments one each for Vietnam and the Revolutionary War and one for the two World Wars.
“We look at those college towns like Boston,” says Mark Cluett, owner of an appliance store in nearby Ware, which also has a downtown memorial to veterans. “It is a whole different world over there.”
Mr. Hertzberg, who looks to a career in politics and Washington, has made more political inroads through diplomacy than most other revolutionaries here.
His secret? “I don’t want people to think this whole town is off base,” he says. “We’ve finally got something, an issue, that can get people together.”