REGRETFULLY YOURS, DONALD TRUMP

The 2016 Republican and Democratic Party conventions are history, but nothing said there can be aptly labeled historic. Of course, partisans on both sides insisted that their favorites delivered oratorical performances that were one part Winston Churchill and two parts Hank Aaron. The preferred phrase was: “He (or, equally often, she) hit it out of the ballpark.” In fact, even though many speakers did creditable jobs reading the words others wrote for them, no one really hit it out of the infield.

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But if most of the noise was sound and fury signifying nothing inside the convention halls, at least one memorable statement was made outside. That statement was made by Donald Trump, and it was a statement that he, the nation, and the world, may live to rue.   Continue reading

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ELIE WIESEL, ENTEBBE, AND THE PARADOX OF POWER

In a strange coincidence of timing, the world marked two events of great import to the Jewish people during this past Fourth of July weekend. The first was the death of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, author of 54 books, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The second was the 40th anniversary of the Raid on Entebbe, in which Israeli commandos flew 2500 miles to Uganda to rescue 102 hostages.

The two events inform the way the world sees modern Jewry. But they do so from opposing poles. Elie Wiesel’s life and works embody the Jew as Victim. When he wrote about genocide or evil on a mass scale, Wiesel commanded respect because these were not merely academic issues for him. They were part of his personal biography. The Raid on Entebbe, on the other hand, symbolizes the Jew as Warrior. The Israeli soldiers stunned the world with their lethal military effectiveness.

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The differences have consequences. As the Jewish State’s image shifted from Wiesel’s world of suffering and oppression, to the triumph of the Entebbe operation, so did sympathy and support. Israel became perceived more as master than martyr. Continue reading

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MESSING WITH THE MIKADO

The latest battleground in the never-ending struggle of the social justice warriors to reform mankind is Titipu. Yes, the same Titipu from which Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado of Japan, fled to escape marriage to the domineering Katisha. And yes, the Nanki-Poo of whom we speak is the same swain who fell in love with the gentle maiden named Yum-Yum, the ward of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado ran for 670 performances following its 1885 London debut, and has been performed continuously ever since in theaters around the globe.  This summer, San Francisco’s Lamplighters will present a very different version of the gem. Instead of Japan, the setting will be Renaissance Italy. The switch follows pressure from local activists who asserted two contradictory criticisms.

First, they complained that the musical’s depiction of Japan was racist. Second, they complained that the cast did not have enough Asian actors.thmikado-hsthm848500_592

The activists seemed unaware of the schizophrenic nature of their indictment — demanding more Asian actors to perform roles deemed degrading to Asians. Their inconsistency is reminiscent of the Puritanical criticism of modern cinema: “Movies today are pornographic … and ticket prices are so high!”

Inconsistent or not, do the criticisms have merit? Continue reading

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THE PURSUIT OF IMPERFECTIONS

Andrew Jackson will soon be removed from the front of the $20 bill. The family crest of Isaac Royall, the benefactor whose bequest funded the first professorship at Harvard Law School, is about to be erased from campus. The seal of New Mexico University, which features an Anglo settler and a Spanish conquistador, is under attack. Woodrow Wilson’s name has survived a challenge to remove it from Princeton’s School of Public Policy and International Affairs, but just barely.1424959335741.Andrew Jackson

These, and many other comparable campaigns, constitute expeditions into the past in the relentless pursuit of imperfections. Why are these expeditions undertaken, and what  do they tell us about the searchers? Continue reading

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THE POLITICS OF JUDICIAL CONFIRMATION

In light of President Obama’s nomination of D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, partisans on both sides of the political aisle are shocked – shocked – to discover that the other side is playing politics. But there is an important difference. The Democrats are playing smart. The Republicans are playing dumb.

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That should not come as a surprise. After all, this is the year the Republicans have shown themselves hell-bent on ensuring that they lose the presidential election. While the Democrats proceed to nominate Hillary Clinton — a figure so shady that she is widely viewed by her own Party as untrustworthy —  the Republicans are en route to nominate Donald Trump, their one candidate who consistently lags well behind Clinton in the polls. And for good measure, he lags even farther behind Bernie Sanders.

That is dumb politics. But the Republican Party position on the nomination of Judge Garland is, if possible, even dumber. Continue reading

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WILL THE REPUBLICAN PARTY SURVIVE DONALD TRUMP?

The success of Donald Trump – until recently, a non-Republican – has caused panic in Republican Party ranks. Many are even wondering whether the Republican Party will survive. It may seem extraordinary that anyone could seriously entertain the notion of the Grand Old Party passing away. After all, since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans have gained 69 seats in the House, 13 seats in the Senate, 12 governorships, and over 900 state legislature seats. Yet the possible death of the Party has become a popular topic among pundits.

History provides ample precedent for third parties dying or fading away. Ross Perot’s Reform Party, the Progressives, the Prohibitionists, the Socialists, the Know-Nothings—all enjoyed their moment in the electoral sun, amassing impressive vote tallies and influencing the major parties’ platforms, before disappearing or dissolving into irrelevancy.

But examples of a major party — one capable of electing presidents – dying are very rare.

The last one to do so was the Whig Party.

The Whig Party was organized to compete in the congressional elections of 1834, not so much to advance an agenda as to thwart one. The Whigs opposed the policies and politics of President Andrew Jackson. They dubbed him “King Andrew I.” They saw themselves as the anti-establishment party of the time, and called themselves “Whigs” to invoke the English party which traditionally strove to limit the power of the King.

The Whigs were an odd amalgam of interest groups. They included remnants of the defunct Federalist Party, states-rights Democrats, Northern manufacturers, and Southern planters. The Whigs nominated not one, not two, but three candidates in 1836, in the hope that the resulting split in the vote would somehow prevent Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, from retaining the White House. Just as the only common theme among the candidates at the Republican debates of this election season has been an abiding aversion to Barack Obama, the only common theme among the component parts of the Whig Party was hostility to Andrew Jackson.

The Whigs lost the presidential election in 1836, but they developed new tactics which enabled them to win the next two out of three presidential elections. In 1840 and 1848, they nominated war heroes, men with outsized reputations but little or no political experience: William Henry Harrison (known as “Old Tippecanoe”) and Zachary Taylor (“Old Rough and Ready”). Unfortunately for the Whig Party, and for the men themselves, Harrison and Taylor both died early in office. Their Vice Presidents, who had been selected solely for their electoral value rather than for their positions on any issues, were shunned by the Party and accomplished nothing of note.

The Whigs lost in 1852, and their fortunes rapidly declined thereafter. The main reason was the rise of a new party, a party that actually stood for something. That party was the Republican Party, and the issue on which it was founded was opposition to slavery. Whigs opposed to slavery joined the Republicans; most others gravitated back to the Democrats.

The Republicans fielded their first presidential candidate in 1856. He lost, but their next candidate, an Illinois lawyer and one-term Congressman named Lincoln, won. His victory marked the the beginning of the most remarkable winning streak in American political history. In the course of 72 years, the Republicans occupied the White House for 56 years, winning 14 of the next 18 elections.

Now that same Republican Party might do well to consider the experience of the Whigs.

Parties capable of electing presidents rarely expire, but it has happened, as it did to the Whigs. It can happen again. The main reason for the demise of the Whig Party was that it never stood for anything clear or definable. The Party was skilled at generating noise. It achieved political victories when it nominated celebrity war heroes. But its successes were never based on any solid platform of ideas. They were spectacular but ephemeral.

History suggests that the Republican Party will probably survive Donald Trump’s candidacy. But political survival is not a given. If nothing else, the experience of the Whig Party cautions that there is danger in foregoing ideology for animosity, and substance for bombast.

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THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE TAPE IN THE NIGHT-TIME

Last Fall, faculty and students arriving in the Wasserstein Hall in Harvard Law School found black tape on the portraits of several black faculty members. The discovery caused an immediate uproar.  Stories appeared in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, CNN, and the Guardian, among many others.

By noon on the day of the discovery, hundreds of students and faculty members had gathered in a community meeting. Law School Dean Martha Minow announced: “Racism exists in America and in the United States and in Harvard and in Harvard Law School.” She called racism a “serious problem” at Harvard. The president of the student body called the incident “a pretty clear act of intolerance, racism.”  The President of the Harvard Black Law Student Association described it as “one of the most clear-cut, overt instances of very, very vile and disrespectful behavior.” A second year law student said: “I’m disgusted and outraged that it happened, but I’m also not surprised. Microaggressions and macroagressions happen every day, and that’s the reality of being a student of color at Harvard ….”black professor

Reaction among the black faculty members themselves was more restrained. Professor Charles J. Ogletree said that he was “still waiting to learn more about the incident before making too strong a judgment.” And in an op-ed column the following week, Professor Randall Kennedy cautioned:

The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined….  Perhaps the defacer is white. But maybe not. Perhaps the taping is meant to convey anti-black contempt or hatred for the African-American professors. But maybe it was … a hoax meant to look like a racial insult in order to provoke a crisis.

In the days following the discovery of the tape, Dean Minow stepped back, albeit subtly. In a statement to the Law School faculty and students immediately following the discovery, she had pronounced herself “outraged.” A week later, in a statement to alumni, her “outrage” had vanished, and she pronounced herself merely “shocked and saddened.” In the earlier statement to faculty and students, she had called the incident “a hate crime.” A week later, writing to alumni, she referred to it as “a possible hate crime.”  If these verbal modifications seem minor, remember that this is Harvard Law School, where students are taught to dissect the language of statutes and contracts, and to hunt for shades of difference.

Then last week, the Harvard Crimson reported that the University Police Department was shutting down its investigation.

There were no protests. There were no demonstrations.

What happened to the outrage? Continue reading

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