IN THE HEIGHTS — OF INANITY

Four years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda portrayed Salman Rushdie, opposite F.Murray Abraham as Ayatollah Khomeini, in the hilarious Curb Your Enthusiasm “Fatwa!” episode.

Sometimes life imitates art. The real Rushdie apologized in a futile effort to evade a death sentence. Last month, the real Miranda apologized to evade a cancellation decree.

Salman Rushdie’s trouble arose from the publication of The Satanic Verses. Miranda’s arose from the broadcast of In the Heights, the movie version of the stage musical of the same name.

In the Heights follows a group of residents of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, as they pursue their individual dreams. The story is uplifting, even patriotic. The central character, Usnavi, dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to revive his late father’s bodega. But ultimately he chooses to remain in Washington Heights and remodel his local bodega there. His decision is based on the realization that his true home is America.

The highly successful stage musical established Miranda’s reputation, winning Tony Awards in 2008 for Best Musical, Original Score, Choreography, and Orchestrations. But the world changed between 2008 and 2021. When the movie version was released, Miranda was immediately condemned for “colorism;” namely, favoring light-skinned Hispanics over darker-skinned ones for the leading roles.

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BARRETT v. SOTOMAYOR

Occasionally, the stars align to illuminate important civic matters for all to see and understand. Such an alignment occurred last week in the June 18 hard-copy edition of the New York Times, in the form of two articles running just pages apart.

The first was a front page news story on the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in California v. Texas, upholding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) from a challenge by 18 states and two individuals. The second was an opinion piece in the same edition entitled “Justice Sotomayor, the Supreme Court’s Truth Teller,” authored by Linda Greenhouse, the retired legal affairs writer for the Times.

Taken together, the two stories illustrate the difference between the philosophies of judicial restraint and judicial activism.

Adherents of judicial restraint see the judge’s role as modest. Judges should be umpires, calling balls and strikes, regardless of who wins the game as a consequence of their calls. Judges should recognize the boundary between judging and legislating, and take care not to cross it. Judicial activists, on the other hand, expect judges to do more than merely apply the law to the facts, disregarding the result. Instead, they believe judges should strive to reach the “right” result; i.e., the result embodying their vision of a just and moral society.

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THE EQUIVALENCY MYTH: ISRAEL AND HAMAS IN THEIR OWN WORDS

As fighting flares in the Middle East, many in the American media establishment and commentariat  have adopted the familiar crouch position known as “equivalency.” The New York Times, for example, faithfully includes both sides’ latest casualty figures, and carefully juxtaposes photos of bombing damage in Gaza with rocket damage in Israel — as if efforts to kill civilians are equivalent to retaliatory efforts to prevent the killing of those civilians.

In that same newspaper, Hamas terrorists are never called “terrorists” because that would undermine the equivalency narrative. Instead, the terrorists are called “militants” –to distinguish them, one supposes, from the imaginary Hamas “moderates.”

The problem with equivalency is not that it adds extraneous information to the mix. Arab lives do matter. Destruction in Gaza is newsworthy. It is proper to report on those subjects.

Rather, the problem with equivalency is that it doesn’t report enough information. It provides no perspective. It doesn’t tell the reader anything about the actors, other than their respective suffering. It would be acceptable for media outlets to present both sides’ casualty figures, and both sides’ property damage — IF those outlets also presented both sides’ values, motives, and aims.

But they do not.

Fortunately, that information is readily available. One need not guess or argue about it because it is there, in the parties’ own words.

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THE SHAMING EPIDEMIC

An epidemic has swept over the country, spread by the cancel culture. It is called “shaming.”

Shaming comes in many forms. Some are acceptable, even wholesome. For example, long before they were prosecuted in court, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were shamed in the public arena for their deeply immoral, as well as criminal, conduct.  

Other forms of shaming are troubling, such as shaming for obnoxious statements made years earlier, when the speaker was young and immature.

Mimi Groves was 15 years old when she sent out a private snapchat video of herself celebrating her driver learner’s permit. The video contained a racial slur which, as she explained later, “was in all the songs we listened to, and I’m not using that as an excuse.” When the video surfaced, the University of Tennessee rescinded her admission.

Alexi McCammond was 17 years old when she tweeted messages with anti-Asian and homophobic content. She later apologized, and deleted the tweets. But screen images of her tweets remained. When she was named editor of Teen Vogue, at the age of 27, those ten-year old images resurfaced, and McCammond was forced to resign.

Shaming for youthful indiscretions is relatively rare. It runs counter to widely accepted beliefs in forgiveness and redemption. It also exposes the stone-throwers to the peril of being outed as glass house inhabitants. Christine Davitt, the Teen Vogue senior social media manager who led the shaming campaign against Alex McCammond for her 2011 tweets, now faces demands for her own ouster after her own tweets containing anti-black racial slurs, dating back to 2009 and 2010, surfaced.

But the most widespread and pernicious variant of shaming involves punishment for insufficient wokeness.

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FREEING AFRIDI

President Joe Biden came into office promising to unify the country. So far, unity has proved elusive. On confirmations, immigration policy, Iran, and countless other issues, the parties seem as combative and disunited as ever.

But if unity is elusive, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s just a matter of finding issues on which both parties can unite.

Here is one: Freeing Dr. Shakil Afridi.

His is not exactly a household name. But it should be. Millions of Americans who watched the 2012 Academy Award winning Zero Dark Thirty caught a glimpse of a Pakistani doctor who set up a polio vaccination program in an effort to secure DNA samples from the residents of the compound which the CIA suspected housed Usama Bin Laden. That character, unnamed in the movie, is based on Dr. Afridi.

Dr. Afridi as depicted in Zero Dark Thirty
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THE REPUBLICANS’ DANGER — AND OPPORTUNITY

John F. Kennedy famously (and incorrectly) observed that the Chinese word for “crisis” consists of two brushstrokes: one signifying “danger” and the other “opportunity.”  As the dust and debris of the desecration of the Capitol subsides, the Republican Party confronts just such a two-faceted moment.

Since 2016, when he accepted the Republican nomination for the presidency, Donald Trump has been the Party leader. And not just in a titular or ceremonial sense. He has demanded and received almost complete loyalty from Party members. He effectively engineered the early retirements of critics and of supporters whose support was merely tepid, including, to name just a few, Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee, and Luther Strange of Alabama.

Now, as the nation reacts in shock and revulsion at the mob violence, the Republican Party faces a grave danger due to its association with Trump.

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WER IST STEINER? THE GENERAL WHO LET HITLER DOWN

Thanks to the movie Downfall, if Americans were asked to name the most famous German general of World War II, the winner would probably be Waffen SS General Felix Steiner.

Steiner has no lines, and does not even appear in the film. But he is the catalyst of one of its most dramatic scenes. In it, Hitler confers with his generals in his bunker as the Red Army surrounds Berlin. Despite the danger, Hitler believes that salvation is at hand. Once Steiner attacks, he will cut off the Russian salient, ending the encirclement and saving the Reich. Hitler’s staff exchange nervous glances before one haltingly informs the Fuhrer that Steiner has not and will not attack. A 4-minute rant follows, as Hitler rages against the Army and the SS. His fury gradually cools down to melancholic resignation as he sees that the end is inevitable.

The scene has spawned a thousand parodies, elevating Steiner to a level of fame few if any other German commanders can match.

But who was this Steiner who so infuriated the Fuhrer?

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DON’T CRY FOR HIM, GRAND OLD PARTY

The Republican Party had a good 2020 election. And prospects are bright for an even better 2022. But as Donald Trump files suit after suit challenging the election results, an impediment to Republican hopes is taking shape.

The impediment might be labelled the myth of the “Lost Cause.”

In American history, the “Lost Cause” refers to the myth that emerged in the wake of the Civil War. According to this lore, the South’s attempt to secede from the Union was a great, heroic epic fought, not to preserve slavery, but to protect a higher, gentler civilization. Outnumbered and outgunned, the South relied on skillful, chivalrous commanders who waged a noble, but ultimately doomed, struggle against an enemy with far greater economic and military resources.

Today a different Lost Cause myth may be arising from the ashes of Donald Trump’s defeat.

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THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IN THE YEAR ONE A.D. (After Donald)

The era of Donald Trump will be ending soon.  It may end this week, if, as nearly all polls indicate, he loses the election. Of course, the 2016 presidential election, and many other elections here and abroad, teach us to be wary of polls. A Trump defeat is not certain. But even if Trump pulls off another surprising win, he will become a lameduck President as soon as he takes his second oath. Maneuvering within the Republican Party for succession in 2024 will begin immediately. One way or another, Donald Trump will soon be history.

Now is as good a time as any to speculate on the state of the Republican Party in the Year One A.D. (After Donald).

Fifty years ago, in a book entitled The Emerging Republican Majority, a nerdy 28-year old White House staffer named Kevin Phillips expounded the proposition that American politics progresses in 32 or 36-year stages, during which one party dominates the other. Thus, 1896 – 1932 saw the Republican Party in control, with the single exception of the Wilson administration.  The period of 1932 – 1968 saw the Democratic Party ascendant, with the single exception of the Eisenhower years.

Phillips argued that 1968 would usher in a new era of Republican dominance. His book was dedicated to President Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell, the two supposed “architects” of the emerging Republican Majority. Unfortunately for his thesis, Watergate occurred. Five years after the Republican majority was supposed to emerge, one “architect” had resigned in disgrace and the other was headed for prison following his conviction for obstruction of justice and perjury.

Considering the GOP’s problems, it is tempting to predict that the Year One A.D. will witness the advent of an Emerging Republican Minority. If Trump loses, he will likely take down a number of Republican candidates with him, and the GOP will almost certainly lose the Senate. With Democratic control of the House already assured, that means that the Party will have the White House and both Houses of Congress for the first time since Barack Obama’s election.

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THE ACADEMY FLUNKS OUT

The dominant trend in modern American culture is identity politics: the obsession over one’s skin color, genitalia, or sexual orientation, and the belief that those immutable characteristics somehow determine one’s values and attitudes. 

One might expect Hollywood to defy that trend. After all, the entertainment industry encourages individual creativity and personal liberation. We know this to be true because every year, when Hollywood’s luminaries gather for the Oscar presentations, they tell us so.

In fact, Hollywood has always been more cowardly and conformist than confrontational. It will produce a Mulan but it will never again produce a Manchurian Candidate – at least not as long as the Chinese Communist Party controls the hugely lucrative Chinese market.

The latest affirmation of Hollywood’s conformity is the adoption by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of so-called “Inclusion Standards.” The Standards are lengthy and incredibly convoluted. But it pays to take the time to examine them because their very complexity reveals much about the politically correct bean-counting mindset impelling their creation.        

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