Category Archives: Culture

WHY WE ARE NOT THROWING AWAY OUR SHOT: A BRIEF HISTORY AND MODEST DEFENSE OF DUELING

 

The phenomenal success of the rap musical Hamilton has acquainted many theater goers with the custom of dueling.  Three duels take place in the story. To ensure the accuracy of their depiction, Lin-Manuel Miranda consulted Joanne Freeman, whose book Affairs of Honor he deemed “indispensable.” Dueling did not lead to a happy ending for the show’s namesake, or for his son Philip. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be said for the custom. A respectable – and not entirely facetious – argument can be made for its revival.

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IS FIST FIGHT THE HIGH NOON WE DESERVE?

“Every nation gets the government it deserves,” noted the French counterrevolutionary Joseph de Maistre. This elegant observation has been applied – and applied and reapplied ad infinitum – to popular culture. Thus, we read that every generation gets the James Bond, the Daredevil, the Sherlock Holmes, the Woodstock, and even the Counting Crows,  it deserves.

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The same is true for Marshal Will Kane, Gary Cooper’s Oscar-winning role in High Noon. The latest remake is Fist Fight.  But if that remarkably trashy movie shows us the Will Kane our generation deserves, then we have a lot to worry about. Continue reading

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FIRST THEY CAME FOR SAMBO

Since 1935, Ashland, Oregon, a scenic little city nestled in the foothills of the Siskyou and Cascade mountains, has been the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, showcasing the dramatic works of Shakespeare and other writers. For many years, Judi Honore, a friendly, slightly eccentric businesswoman, has owned and operated Shakespeare Books & Antiques on Ashland’s Main Street. Until recently, the store featured a window display of literary works whose only common element is the fact that every one of them, at some time and place, has been banned.

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Last summer, the Festival produced the musical “The Wiz.” Some cast members stopped by the store and noted that the banned books display included not only The Wizard Oz, the basis for the musical, but also Little Black Sambo. The latter is a children’s story about a little boy who outwits a group of hungry tigers. Although the story takes place in India (hence, the presence of tigers), the boy is African, and illustrations depicted him as an offensive racial caricature.

After the cast members complained, Ms. Honore rearranged the display so that Sambo was not visible from the street. But she refused to remove it from her banned books display. She told an interviewer: “I have windows filled with banned books, everything from The Lorax to Harry Potter to Mein Kampf to Brave New World. I did it as an educational process…. People stand outside the window and ask why the books are banned.”

Festival staff deemed the inclusion of Sambo in the display “hurtful and offensive,” and asked Ms. Honore to take it down. She refused. Cynthia Rider, executive director of the Festival, criticized the store owner for her “distinct lack of empathy for the experiences of people of color.” The Festival publicly announced a boycott of the store, objecting not only to Little Black Sambo, but also to the inclusion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird in the banned books display.

The store closed on October 31. Continue reading

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NO, THE SYRIAN REFUGEES ARE NOT JEWISH

For Jews, these are the Days of Awe, the ten days between with the New Year and the Day of Atonement, when Jews repent for past sins and make resolutions for the future. One topic Jews may ponder is the special place assigned them among the peoples of the world. This is a distinction most Jews would rather do without. Injustices to which they have been subjected over the millennia are constantly diluted and devalued into a kind of common currency of calamity, with which all may identify. On the other hand, injustices which they have (supposedly) visited upon others are constantly magnified into unique catastrophes,to which history offers no parallels.                                                                                                                                            723_small-shofar_1

One sees evidence of the first phenomenon in the comparison of the plight of the Syrian refugees with the Jewish refugees of 1938.  Pundits, and even a questioner at the second presidential debate, repeatedly mention the supposed equivalency.

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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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