The other day, browsing through the English Dictionary of National Biography, I was rather surprised to stumble across the name…
The other day, browsing through the English Dictionary of National Biography, I was rather surprised to stumble across the name of Julius Caesar. The great Roman, I thought, could hardly have earned a place in that national shrine by invading England. It turned out indeed that the gentleman in question was Sir Julius Caesar, a lawyer of Italian extraction who held important judgeships under Queen Elizabeth and the early Stuarts. His descendants made the most of the family name by baptizing their sons Julius, Titus and Tiberius. The judge, I dare say, was far less pleased with his name. The wits of the time were notorious punsters and practical jokers and they must have made his life miserable by mistaking him for the dictator of Rome.
I felt an instant sympathy for Sir Julius, the sympathy of a fellow sufferer. These many years I have been walking in his very shoes. Between an Elizabethan judge and an American college teacher there is surely no greater gulf than between the “Unconquerable God” Julius Caesar and the Tammany Congressman Sol Bloom. My politics and my Weltanschauung being somewhat different from the famous statesman’s, I have been willing to consider our relationship as trivially nominal. But I have been in a minority of one. Friends and enemies alike—they are not to be distinguished from this point of view—have delighted in confusing me with the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives. Although we have never met, the Congressman and I have been receiving each other’s mail, inadvertently reading it on occasion, and answering each other’s telephone calls. Certainly I have been doing my half of the job diligently.
It was fun at first. The telephone directory used to list only a business address for the Congressman and immediately after it my own residence address and number. This innocent sequence brought me many an important call: from city editors in search of copy, from constituents brimming over with admonition and advice, from smaller-fry politicians hunting for favors. I became quite versed in the pompously vague style of statesmanship and learned to handle delicate situations with discretion and tact. I took my illegitimate responsibilities seriously and the record would show—if there were one—that in all these years the Congressman was not committed by me to anything dangerous or definite.
of course, with the satisfactions of power came its heartaches and disillusionments. Being fairly sentimental about people, I was saddened to find them so cynical in dealing with us politicians. Some fashionable seasons ago, I spent most of my time being brutal to dowagers who yearned to have themselves and their daughters presented to Their Britannic Majesties at the Court of St. James. It hurt me as much as if I were the real thing. And I remember with particular vividness a petition from one of my younger “constituents” for an assignment to West Point. He informed me thoughtfully that nine members of his family had been voting my way for years. I had to turn him down after the usual careful consideration. My letter to him was a most un-Sol-Bloom-like lecture on the superiority of the peaceful arts and ended with Dr. Samuel Johnson’s reflections on the last refuges of the scoundrel.
Gradually, an unearned sense of self-importance settled upon me. I began to fancy myself a Man of Power, a Pillar of State. Some people, I would say to myself, are born famous, others acquire fame in painful ways, and I was simply nominated to it. But one unhappy day, the Hon. Sol Bloom, looking around for new fields to conquer, trenched on my professional territory: he began to fancy himself a historian. He made his debut by announcing the discovery of a neglected figure in American history—name of Washington—and of a neglected document—the Constitution of the United States.
It was, I thought, time for action. Admiral Richard Byrd having returned from one of his poles, I naturally received Sol Bloom’s invitation, gold-embossed, to attend a banquet in his honor, and sit with the speakers. I had a good mind to read the distinguished assembly a withering attack upon my namesake’s hero in the hope that the ensuing controversy would establish my distinct and contrary existence. There was no room in the world for two Sol Blooms. But even the bravest soul weakens—and I must confess I did. At the last moment my resolution faltered. From then on, I was reduced to small revenges. I no longer took delight in clandestine political posturings. I no longer enjoyed the telephone calls from the great and near-great. I turned for relief to the New York Telephone Company.
That great institution assigned a whole Vice-President to study my problem. He spent several weeks collecting a dossier of memoranda, precedents and findings-of-fact. Then he invited my suggestions.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that the only way to end the confusion and stop people who want to talk to the other Bloom from calling me, is to print after my name ‘Definitely not the Congressman.’”
The Vice-President in charge of troubles demurred.
“That,” he announced with the solemnity of an Imperial Court Chamberlain, “would be decidedly against our policy. We may state what you in fact are, but we may not state what you are not.”
Under our American system of government, I replied, what I was in real life would not be incompatible with my being also a member of Congress.
“Of course,” the Imperial Court Chamberlain declared, after a brief study of his notes, “we can take your name out of the telephone directory altogether.”
I did not mean to withdraw defeated, and firmly rejected this idea. Finally, he pulled out of the dossier a compromise suggestion, which was that only the initials of my first and middle name be published. Such a listing, according to a study made by the appropriate department of the New York Telephone Company, would advance my name seventeen lines above that of the Congressman.
The plan worked. It worked so well that I never received another telephone call. Nobody, it seems, knew me by my initials. The Honorable Sol Bloom was taking all my calls.
I began to brood. The most elegant solution which suggested itself seemed also the most hazardous. There are severe penalties for assassinating important members of Congress. But strange as it may seem, a golden opportunity presented itself for doing the next best thing: removing the Congressman from public life altogether.
The history of the Ham War began with petty incidents, as do most wars.
Enter Lulu, the maid, who used to do my marketing and her own in a monster food store located in upper Manhattan at the edge of you-know-by-now-whose district. Dozens of employees of the market belonged to the local Democratic Club. They fairly worshipped Sol Bloom as the Protector of the People. Under the impression that Lulu was the Sol Bloom’s maid, they waited obsequious attendance upon her. She was favored with the best cuts of meat and the best smells of cheese. In the eyes of Lulu, who worked for me for nearly a year without discovering my profession, I rose to heroic proportions, and so did the bills. I was too self-important to disillusion her.
One day Lulu came home very disturbed. She had ordered a ham for herself and, unaccountably, the store was at once thrown into wild confusion. Word of her order spread quickly from salesman to salesman. They promptly left their various posts and gathered in noisy groups. It seems that the Congressman was prominent in Jewish religious life and had always been regarded as an orthodox adherent of the faith. The order for ham therefore came with the force of an explosion.
The sales force split into two irreconcilable parties. The Hamites argued that what a man eats is his own business, and that there was no evidence that the ham was intended for Bloom’s honorable consumption. The anti-Hamites were intransigent. An order for the forbidden meat defied all the proprieties. As fortunate chance would have it, Sol Bloom was then in the midst of a campaign for re-election. The anti-Hamites threatened to withdraw their support unless the candidate offered an explanation and apology. The Right Wing of the “antis” were for electing a delegation to wait on the Congressman, but the radical Left insisted on a heckling spree at the rally scheduled for that very evening.
I recognized in the scandal the means of my deliverance. I turned to Lulu:
From now on and until the first week in November, you will order nothing but ham and more ham.
She stared, incredulous. Her meat purchases during the following month, I attempted to explain to Lulu, were fraught with political, perhaps even international significance. They might spell changes in the Congressional committees, in the balance of parties in Washington.
“Don’t you see? You can eat Sol Bloom out of Congress.”
The Ham War broke out. As she and her family consumed one ham after another, ugly rumors began to undermine the popularity of my nemesis. Unfortunately Lulu, who was otherwise an excellent cook, had a limited ham repertoire and capacity. Her character began to crack under the cyclical strain of roast ham, grilled ham, boiled ham, devilled ham, ham salad, roast ham, grilled ham . . . Her gastronomic boredom persuaded me that perhaps she had eaten enough ham to unseat Bloom.
It was a fatal miscalculation. Long before the election, Lulu went back to stews, and Sol Bloom, as the whole world knows, went back to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and on to leadership in the United Nations Organization.
In that leadership, the Congressman may be able to contrive permanent peace for the world, but on the more immediate issues between us, it seems there can be no peace. The latest bulletin from our front came only the other day in the form of the following letter. I have changed the writer’s name.
Service Men’s Center
Dear Dr. Bloom,
Its [sic] been quite some time since I was in your class—a year to be exact. I think it best for me to tell you of myself so that you’ll know who I am. I’m Mr. Tuckow. I was in your history 2 class. I believe we met the second hour. I used to sit in the back of room right in the center. You may remember me by my english [sic]. You recomended [sic] I read so that I could learn to express my thoughts more clearly. I hope you remember me now.
You must be wondering why I’m writing? As you can see from my address I’m in service and stationed in Ill. I came accross [sic] a book which you wrote, The Story of the Constitution. I remember you told us you wrote a book on the constitution. I wasn’t sure it was yours till I saw your name. I just finished the book and I think it is excellent.
(Pvt.) Henry Tuckow.
Many thanks, Pvt. Tuckow. Only my little book is the World of Nations. The Story of the Constitution is by another hand—need I say whose? And if The Story of the Constitution is excellent, then I am Sol Bloom.
The war goes on!
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From the American Scene: My War with Sol Bloom
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.