Alan Dershowitz: A Hypocrite Grows In Brooklyn

Alan Dershowitz has long perfected the art of throwing a toddler’s tantrum  – especially in his fulminations against the academic freedom that his fellow academics and he himself enjoys. Last year, when Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler spoke at a BDS-themed event at Brooklyn College,  our esteemed academic hygienist threw a particularly epic fit. He held his breath till he turned blue, he wailed, he screamed, he kicked and flailed, he gnashed his teeth, he threatened alternately to call mommy and papa. He demanded that the speakers be ‘balanced’ by opposing counterpoints; he insisted that inviting one speaker, without inviting his or her intellectual and political antithesis, was an act of gross intellectual dishonesty. To use a pair of particularly appropriate Australianisms, he spat the dummy and threw his toys out of the pram. (My apologies to all the little ones who do so much else that justifiably provokes affection and care from us; they are more far more interesting and diverse and I daresay, nuanced, in their personalities.)  A Harvard Law professor was rapidly transformed into something far more undignified: all unsatisfied Id, no Ego, no Superego.

Long-time observers of this torture-advocating, plagiarizing, walking embarrassment to Harvard Law School–whose batting average these days has been particularly stratospheric thanks to the diligent efforts of Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz–thought they immediately detected a certain sadness, a hurt, manifested in this spectacular display of an underdeveloped psyche. Why, oh why, hadn’t Dershowitz’s alma mater, Brooklyn College, or anyone associated with it, invited him to speak at Brooklyn College? Why this rejection of its son? Why this turning away from the door? Indeed, Dershowitz himself said as much, expressing a febrile mix of disappointment and rage in his queries into the lack of a standing invitation from the Political Science department to come speak to their students – and to allow their students to see, at first-hand, how an expensive education and an Ivy League professorship are no guarantee of even a modicum of intelligence or reasoning ability.

The Greeks–or perhaps it was someone else–might have thought the gods pay no attention to our piteous bleating about our misfortunes. But such is not the case with Brooklyn College and Dershowitz. For an invitation was extended to him by a student group–the Brooklyn College Israel Club–to speak here, and so he did this past week. His talk was sponsored by four departments–including Political Science, the department that bore the brunt of his tirades the last time, and mine, Philosophy. (I voted in favor of the sponsorship decision.)

Dershowitz spoke at Brooklyn College and talked about the need for ‘nuance’, for the need for ‘balance’ in campus discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict; he criticized departments that sponsored events like the ones that so infuriated him last year. He did so alone. His only companion on stage was an empty chair. (There is no indication of whether Dershowitz pulled a Clint Eastwood.) There were no speakers to provide ‘balance’ – like say, Norman Finkelstein, who once said that Dershowitz’s books were not good enough to be used as schmattas, rags to clean windows with.

To paraphrase Nietzsche ever so slightly, “A man far oftener appears to have a decided character from persistently following his temperament than from persistently following his [professed] principles.”

Clint Eastwood Could Make Our Day Yet

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about the necessity of not paying attention to political conventions in this day and age.  Two days and an ageing Hollywood star and his bizarre talking-to-a-chair and invisible president-routine later, I am going to disdain the usual I-told-you-so’s and move on. But to where? Not to the world of  @InvisibleObama Twitter accounts and YouTube parodies that have sprung up in the fertile ground plowed by Mr. Eastwood, I can assure you. Rather, sadly, it is to the debris of our political discourse that I return. What is it, I ask, that made Mitt Romney, his ‘helpers,’  and his followers think that an incoherent–and sadly, one must say, apparently senile–Dirty Harry was going to play the role of vote-getter? (Rachel Maddow’s hunt for refuge in Clint Eastwood’s eighty-two years was simultaneously comic and tragic. Senility as an explanation for an embarrassing performance? There are times, all too often I reassure you, that I wish I could seek refuge in such generic bases.)

One answer might be found in the usual celebrity culture that surrounds politics, a culture that suggests that politics and its attendant players are to be treated like show folks: they might spout nonsense occasionally, but those emanations should be excused because, well, their primary gig is showtime. This answer tells us that we are mistaken in expecting sense–linguistic or otherwise–from our politicians, that they cater to the lowest common denominator. We are closet politicians, it tells us, ones so reconciled to the intellectual emptiness of their culture, that when we confront colossal, breathtaking stupidity like Clint Eastwood’s, we are inclined to wax sympathetic, to find ways to make Eastwood’s political ‘discourse’ reconcile with ours. In excusing Dirty Harry, we excuse ourselves. (By this I mean we excuse his performance, and not those who put him up there.)

This answer then, suggests cynicism on the part of the Romney campaign: ‘Put anyone up there, no matter how idiotic, it’ll work.’ And who could blame them if such indeed was their attitude? Were they, for instance, exposed to a hostile blowback after Paul Ryan’s my-nose-is-growing-longer-by-the-second-speech? (A speech that had Fox News correspondents call it out for its remarkably fragile connection with reality, if I may say so.) Such cynicism would not be overly bizarre or out-of-place: where else would one go for cynicism if not a presidential election campaign?

But the disastrous reception accorded Mr. Eastwood’s speech–internally, within the campaign, in particular–suggests there might be a limit to such cynicism. There was nothing remotely edifying about watching an old man talking to an unoccupied chair (and about professional comedians mocking him as they mimicked him). Perhaps, one might hope, the Republicans will have a heart, and not subject any other old men to the indignities Dirty Harry was put through. In doing so, they might start to cultivate that particularly bizarre emotion and sensibility termed ’empathy,’ which so many of their countrymen–of opposing political persuasions–seem to deem necessary for ‘ruling’ this nation.