Category Archives: Culture

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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THE TWO HOUSES OF THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL

Two houses, quite unlike in dignity, in fair Manhattan, is where we lay our scene.  One is the House of Weissman, whose patriarch serves as an esteemed tenured professor of mathematics at Columbia University. The other is the House of Maisel, whose patriarch operates a garment factory, a profession commonly known as “the rag trade.”

We are of course in the milieu of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the award-winning series about Miriam Maisel, née Weissman (played by Rachel Brosnahan), an affluent Jewish girl, circa 1958, who seems to have it all: Upper West Side apartment, supportive husband, a toddler and a baby, and two very sophisticated and cosmopolitan parents. But by the end of the first episode, her husband has left her for another woman, and she is forced to move back in with her parents. Miriam decides to pursue a career in stand-up comedy.

Critics have seen Mrs. Maisel as an Eisenhower Era precursor to the Modern Woman.  A review in the New Yorker notes that her “routines feel like feminist TED talks, with some ‘fucks’ thrown in.” The New York Times  proclaims  that Brosnahan’s star turns “comes at a time when it’s crucial to reclaim women’s place in stand-up history.”

But something deeper than feminism seems to be at work in the series. Consciously or not, it touches upon a historic division within the American Jewish community:  the chasm between American Jews of Russian or East European descent and those of Germanic descent.

maisel photo weisman photo

Continue reading

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LOOKING BACKWARD ON HARVARD’S DIVERSITY PROBLEM

Last week witnessed two events, both involving Harvard University and the enigma of ethnic diversity. On October 15, the trial of Harvard College began in a Boston federal courtroom. The institution stands accused of racial discrimination against Asian-Americans in admissions. On the same day, in the courtroom of public opinion, former Harvard Law Professor, now U.S. Senator, Elizabeth Warren released a DNA report supposedly corroborating her claim to Native American heritage.

Both events are surrounded by controversy, with partisans lining up along predictable lines. And both events take on added significance when viewed against the background of Harvard’s first experiment in what might today be considered affirmative action: the establishment of an “Indian College” in 1655.Old-Harvard-Yard-according-to-Anthropology-1130-e1419632116650 Continue reading

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DisRESPECT IN DETROIT

Funerals are meant to be dignified occasions to honor the dead and to remember their deeds. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, led a life that certainly deserved honor and memory. The first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she was also inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and received the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It was therefore distressing – in fact, disgusting – to see the occasion stained by the presence of Louis Farrakhan.  Not just present, but in the front row, next to former President Clinton, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton.Farrakhan

We live in age in which terms like racist, sexist, and anti-Semite are bandied about so freely, that they have almost lost their meaning. Watch cable news. Listen to talk radio. Nearly anyone with whom one disagrees is labelled a “hater” in today’s over-heated climate. If one wants to witness true, sincere hatred – not the ersatz version paraded in the media – one need only read the words of Minister Farrakhan. Continue reading

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A NATION OF RAGE BOYS

He is largely forgotten today, but ten years ago, a furious, wide-mouthed Kashmiri protester caused a stir in social media. His name was Shakeel Ahmad Bhat, but he became known as “Rage Boy.”  Whenever cameras were present to record angry mobs protesting Israel, Pope Benedict, Salman Rushdie, or the Danish Muhammed cartoons, there was Rage Boy, demonstrating, in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “his piety and pissed-offness.”

Rage Boy II   Rage Boy I

 

 

 

After his identity was ascertained, Rage Boy became something of a cult figure. He was widely interviewed. His visage adorned posters, bumper stickers, and even boxer shorts.

Then he disappeared. No one knew what happened to him. Until now. We now know that Rage Boy emigrated to the United States, cloned himself, joined both political parties, and became the guiding spirit of American opinion.

Thanks to the absorption of Rage Boys into the body politic, rivalries today are less contests over ideas or ideology as they are competitions over who can lay claim to the sincerest, most deep-seated sense of rage. We have become a nation of Rage Boys. Continue reading

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CULTURAL INTEGRATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS

“Cultural appropriation” is the latest vehicle for those thumbing a ride to victim status. Unlike Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement, one needn’t have experienced injustice or discrimination to sign up. Practically anyone, from any culture, may proclaim his, her, or their victimization.

The most common definition of “cultural appropriation” is: The act of taking or using things from a culture not your own, especially without showing that you respect or understand it.

Acropolis

Now some cultures – those that sanction slavery or female genital mutilation, for example – deserve disrespect.  But as a general rule, showing disrespect for or lack of understanding of another culture deserves condemnation. Still, many of the most recent examples of alleged cultural appropriation suggest that those complaining most loudly have the least understanding of the cultures they purport to defend. Continue reading

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