Category Archives: Culture

HARVARD’S BILL OF RIGHTS PROBLEM

On May 5, 1941, in the bleakest days of World War II, with most of Europe under Nazi or Communist domination, Life Magazine devoted its cover story to Harvard University. The article began portentously:

The names of Alexandria, Padua, Paris, Heidelberg, Gottingen, Oxford and Cambridge are deathless, because each in its time has been a world center for man’s learning and his search for truth. To that roll has been added the name of Harvard, America’s oldest, the New World’s greatest and the world’s richest university. Today it stands alone. On the European continent the universities have been engulfed by a tyranny that recognizes no truth but the perversion of propaganda …. In the fourth year of its fourth century, Harvard must re-examine the purposes that justify its existence, count its resources and consider how it shall serve man in his unknown future.

The article deemed Harvard mankind’s academic beacon, its last best hope to preserve the flame of free inquiry in a darkening age.Life Magazine

Things haven’t quite worked out that way.

Visit Harvard today and one sees, not the last best hope for free inquiry, but an environment hostile, if not toxic, to the Bill of Rights and the values underlying them.

The latest symptom occurred in the aftermath of a demonstration calling for the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The demonstration was staged by Harvard College Act on a Dream, an immigrant advocacy group. It attracted a crowd of about one hundred people. The Harvard Crimson, the main campus newspaper, published a generally sympathetic story, quoting several of the organizers, one of whom happened to be a Crimson editorial executive.

And there the story, like the event, would have quickly faded — but for the inclusion in the article of one, seemingly routine sentence: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.” Continue reading

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LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS NAMES

Pumpsie Green has died at the age of 85. He was famous as the first black baseball player hired by the last major league baseball team to integrate its roster. That team was the Boston Red Sox, and its delay may explain why it suffered an 86-year drought without winning a World Series.

Pumpsie Green

But Pumpsie Green deserves remembrance for a different reason: his name.

In ancient times, the names of gods and heroes revealed some quality of their divinity. For children, to whom professional baseball players rank with gods and heroes, athletes’ names perform a similar task.

From 1959 to 1966, the Red Sox never had a winning season. Pumpsie Green was signed during that drought, and before one saw him play at Fenway Park, his talents were predictable. He would be loose-limbed and agile. He would prowl the infield and nothing would get by him. A man named Pumpsie would not be a power hitter. But he would be fast on the bases. And so he was. On his first time up in the majors, he tripled.

Pumpsie Green was not unique. Other gods of that age also bore names befitting their personae.

Frank Malzone played third base. His name told you that he was all business. One pictured him playing with a cigar clenched in his mouth, never smiling. A man named Malzone was not to be trifled with. If you hit to third, you had no chance to reach first.

There was their Bill Monbouquette, a four-time all-star. On hearing his name, one imagined him dancing on the mound, befuddling hitters with his variegated rhythm. His teammate Dick Radatz was another, more frightening story. He stood 6’6” and simply obliterated hitters. His name evoked a creature from science fiction, emitting deadly gamma rays.

In 1967, the world changed. Dick Williams took over a team that had finished next to last, with a dismal 72 – 90 win/loss record, a team that ranked 8th out of 10 in League attendance. Under Williams, that same team would win the American League Pennant and boast the highest paid attendance despite playing in the smallest stadium.

There were legends like Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli, and Jim Lonborg. But the more ordinary players with the resonant names deserve to be remembered.

Jerry Adair. Of course, anyone named Adair would play with agility and grace. And you could count on his audacity at the plate. Yastrzemski called him the coolest clutch hitter in the game.

Joe Foy. An infielder with that name would be a happy warrior, playing with flair and joy.

Billy Rohr. The name was meant to startle. And so he did. In his debut game against the Yankees, he was one strike away from an unprecedented no-hitter when Elston Howard blooped a single to right. He retired the next batter for a one-hitter. He won one more game, and then his growl faded and he vanished from the game.

Elston Howard

Speaking of Elston Howard. The same player who spoiled Rohr’s debut, joined the Red Sox in August 1967. He was 38 years old – ancient by professional baseball standards – and his career already spanned 19 years in the Negro Leagues and major league baseball, where he became the first black player hired by the New York Yankees. He was, in other words, an elder statesman whose very name evoked the stature and dignity of a British nobleman. And the veteran catcher lived up to it. In one storied night in Chicago, Boston held a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, and the speedy Ken Berry at third, pinch hitter Duane Josephson hit a fly ball to short right. Jose Tartabull, a man not known for his arm, caught it. As Berry tagged, Tartabull sent an arcing throw to the plate. There stood Elston Howard, solid and imperturbable, the very embodiment of his lordly name. Sir Elston leapt high to catch the throw, blocked Berry, and swept the tag to complete a game-ending double play.

Chicago Manager Eddie Stanky rushed from the dugout to protest, in vain. Eddie Stanky. Of course, legendary villains bore revealing names too.

Another villain was Harmon Killebrew, one of the most feared sluggers in the majors. His name oozed mayhem and murder. Of course he was nicknamed “The Killer.” In the final weekend of the 1967 season, Killebrew’s Minnesota Twins led the Red Sox by a single game. The teams were slated to play two games, so Boston had to win each one. Killebrew homered in the first game, and got two hits in both games. But Boston, powered by Yastrzemski (7 for 8) prevailed, winning both games, and the Pennant.

Were the baseball legends of the 50s and 60s actually graced with names more revealing of their talents than modern athletes are?  It seems so, but perhaps it was just a matter of being less visible. Since fewer games were televised, many youngsters “watched ” night games by smuggling transistor radios beneath their pillows. Baseball players were not as much seen as they were imagined. And their names lent guidance to their young fans’ imaginations.

Farewell Pumpsie Green. Your name will be forever remembered and honored. Farewell to all the legends whose names evoke their stories.

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HISTORY AND ITS DISCONTENTS

In 1940, when Great Britain stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut, France lay conquered, the United States was officially neutral, and the Soviet Union was tied by treaty to Germany, Winston Churchill recruited history to cheer his countrymen and stiffen their spines. In a September 1940 radio broadcast, as invasion loomed, Churchill said:

We must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne. We have read all about this in the history books; but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the world and its civilisation than these brave old days of the past.

Churchill could speak in this fashion because, not only was he well versed in British history, he knew his listeners were too. He knew that they knew who Drake and Nelson were.  And he knew that British schoolchildren found pride and inspiration in their country’s long history.

Churchill

It’s harder for American leaders to follow his example. For one thing, American schoolchildren do not learn much history, and their ignorance follows them into adulthood.

A recent study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only one in three Americans (36 percent) can actually pass a multiple choice test consisting of items taken from the U.S. Citizenship Test, which most immigrants pass easily. (Example: “Identify whether Rhode Island, Oregon, Maine, or South Dakota is a state that borders Canada.”)

Only 13 percent of those surveyed knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, even on a multiple-choice exam similar to the citizenship exam. About 60 percent didn’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II. Seventy-two percent of respondents either incorrectly identified or were unsure of which states were part of the original 13. Only 24 percent could correctly identify one thing Benjamin Franklin was famous for, with 37 percent believing he invented the lightbulb. Twelve percent thought World War II General Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War, while 6 percent thought he was a Vietnam War general. Fortunately, only two percent identified climate change as the cause of the Cold War.

If it’s any consolation (and it isn’t), the situation is no better in Great Britain. If Churchill were alive today, he would have to find something other than history to leaven his oratory. In a 2008 survey of British teenagers (cited in Andrew Roberts’s excellent biography of the man), 20 percent thought Churchill was a fictional character, while 58 percent thought Sherlock Holmes and 47 percent thought Eleanor Rigby were real people. Continue reading

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CHERNOBYL’S LESSONS

Socialism, an economic system with an unbroken record of failure, still succeeds in attracting adherents. One recent poll reveals that among members of Generation Z, slightly more have a positive reaction to socialism (61%) than to capitalism (58%).

In our hemisphere, Cuba and Venezuela stand out as stark monuments to the miseries inflicted by socialism. In Cuba, thousands of opponents were put “up against the wall” to be shot by firing squads, and thousands more are in prison today. In Venezuela, the government recently ordered the military to run over its own people, as they protested in the streets. But this is not what young people have in mind when they profess admiration for socialism. And, in fairness, they have a point. All socialist systems fail, but not all socialist regimes murder and imprison their people.

A better illustration of how socialism works — or doesn’t work — appears in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl.

Chernobyl gas mask

The city of Chernobyl is not Havana or Caracas. Rather, it brings to mind the reaction of the heroine in Ayn Rand’s We the Living  upon first hearing the words of the “Internationale”: “They were not intoxicating as wine, they were not terrifying as blood. They were gray as dishwater.” Chernobyl is a dishwater city. The buildings are decaying. Paint peels from the walls.  Everything rusts and corrodes. Men’s suits, even those of high ranking government officials, are dowdy and ill-fitting.

These physical attributes match the mental characteristics of the Party apparatchiks who run the place.  These are gray dishwater men, whose primary purpose in life is to avoid doing anything for which they might possibly be blamed. Continue reading

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GAME OF THRONES FOR DUMMIES AND POLITICOS

Game of Thrones concluded last Sunday as the most watched HBO show in history. But it wasn’t watched by everyone. Many people are more interested in politics than fantasy. While millions waited anxiously to learn the fates of the candidates vying for the Iron Throne, millions more were closely following the candidates crisscrossing Iowa.

On close inspection, there is no conflict between fantasy and politics. They’re both there in Game of Thrones, which, like The Wizard of Oz, is actually an allegory about contemporary politics. It’s not easy to discern the political messages. You have to watch carefully.  If you do, here’s what you find.

Westeros map

At the outset, the Isle of Westeros (the United States, of course) is facing an environmental crisis. “Winter is coming,” warns one character after another, predicting that the realm is facing climate change, and complaining that no one is doing a damn thing about it. At the same time, the country – or the Isle – is facing an immigration crisis. The Free Folk are pouring over the northern border. And they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing crime. They’re bringing milk of the poppy. They’re bringing rapists – which, in this milieu, is tantamount to bringing coals to Newcastle. Some Wildlings, one can assume, are good people. Continue reading

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HARVARD’S FAILING GRADE

Something troubling has happened at Harvard.

For the past ten years, Professor Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., in addition to teaching at the Law School, has served as Faculty Dean of Winthrop House, one of the twelve houses where Harvard undergrads live after their freshman year. He has held that post along with his wife Stephanie Robinson, a lecturer at the Law School. (Traditionally, a person in that position was given the title “Master,” but in 2016 that honorific was removed because of its alleged association with slavery – an association that may surprise the hundreds of graduate students upon whom Harvard annually bestows Master of Arts, Master of Business Administration, Master of Public Administrations, and Master of Science degrees.)

In addition to teaching law, Faculty Dean Sullivan has had a notable career as a practitioner. Over the years, he has represented Michael Brown, a black man shot by the police in Ferguson, Missouri; Aaron Hernandez, the late New England Patriot convicted of murder; and the family of Usaamah Rahim, a suspected ISIS terrorist killed by the Boston Police.

Last January, Sullivan got involved in another high profile case, when he joined the defense team of Harvey Weinstein.

Sullivan

As soon as he announced his association with Weinstein’s defense team, Sullivan came under attack. Continue reading

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TAKING ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ SERIOUSLY

“I do think that a system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, N.Y. Times, February 10, 2019

When dealing with statements by Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, the maxim coined by journalist Salena Zito about President Trump is equally applicable: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, it tends to be Republicans who take her literally but not seriously. The press and her supporters (the two often overlap) take her seriously, but not literally.

Taking her literally, the statement makes no sense. Ringworm is a common skin disease, similar to athlete’s foot or jock itch. It’s easily treated by over-the-counter antifungal ointments, and incidence of the problem has little or nothing to do with access to health care.

Apprised of this, Ocasio-Cortez clarified her statement, tweeting: “For what it’s worth, I  meant to say hookworm.”

Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez-1-e1534170511949

For what it’s worth, hookworm, a gastrointestinal parasite, is a serious problem, unlike ringworm. But contrary to a report in a leftist English publication claiming that the diseases is “rampant” in the American South — a report she apparently relied upon — the Alabama Department of Public Health released a later study showing “no evidence of an increased incidence” of the disease.

So it’s best to weigh her statement by taking her seriously, but not literally. Read that way, her message is: “A system that allows billionaires to exist while there is extreme poverty is wrong.”

Is it? Continue reading

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