Ronald Dworkin, a legal philosopher and public intellectual of bracingly liberal views who insisted that morality is the touchstone of constitutional interpretation, died Thursday in London. He was 81.
I had the pleasure of spending several hours with Professor Dworkin over lengthy dinners, in Berlin in 2005 and in Lincoln in 2008. On both occasions, Dworkin was an engaging conversationalist, who took more interest in my work than I could have anticipated he would … especially since some of the work we discussed was my criticism of his ideas on human dignity.
Celebrate Dworkin’s life and career by reading Law’s Empire or Taking Rights Seriously this weekend.
Rabbi David Hartman, the American-born director of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, passed away on Sunday. He was 81.
Hartman was one of the world’s leading Jewish philosophers and a promoter of diversity among Jewish theological trends.
Menachem Lorberbaum, a professor at Tel Aviv University who worked closely with Hartman at the institute, said he “inspired a whole new generation of teachers in Jewish philosophy and theology.”
Lorberbaum said Hartman will be known for his accomplishments on religious ethics, and as “a pioneer of interfaith dialogue.”
“He was committed to the notion that morality precedes Jewish law,” he said.
I teach David Shipler’s book Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land every year in my class on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and quotes from Rabbi Hartman are featured throughout that book; they are most often presented as a counterpoint to some of the virulent statements in opposition to pluralism that Shipler unearths in conversations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, citizens, and students.
It’s fortunate that Hartman inspired a new generation of Jewish teachers because his position on interfaith dialogue is a necessary corrective to the potential polarization that comes from a deep immersion in one’s own religious faith … especially in the midst of a conflict that is often cast as occurring between religions.
GOPers on Facebook never let me down.
Robert Bork passed away today; one Republican Facebook friend of mine shared the news and the very first response from some other Republican friend of my friend was about how it’s just as well that Bork never made it onto the Supreme Court in the 1980s because President Obama would now be able to replace him with someone more liberal (which, incidentally, would be just about anyone).
That’s one heck of an obituary for an old conservative warhorse.
How many of you dreamed of becoming an astronaut?
“MCA was with it and he’s my ace”
Yesterday, Adam Yauch passed away. I heard about it, saw all the tweets and Facebook status updates, but couldn’t write anything that would really capture how I felt. There are a whole lot of people (for example, the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, Grantland’s Amos Barshad, and the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones) who have already written excellent obituaries for both Yauch and the band. I’m just going to write about my relationship with The Beastie Boys’ music, which stretches back to 1987.
Licensed to Ill was the first album that I owned, on cassette. My mother bought it for me and gave it to me when I came home from a two-week sleep-away sports camp that I didn’t much like. And then she bought me Paul’s Boutique, also on cassette, when it came out. There is no chance that she knew what she was buying. For as long as I could find them, I bought subsequent albums on tape too … all the way through Hello Nasty, after which I couldn’t find tapes. When I was in college, I bought the CDs of those older albums and, still later, I burned those CDs so I could carry the MP3s around with me.
My neighborhood friends and I used to put Licensed to Ill in the boombox and then hang out in front of one of our houses, trying to learn skateboarding tricks; we were too young to really know what we were listening to, but we memorized all the words. I still know every word to every song on Licensed to Ill.
I saw The Beastie Boys live twice in the early 1990s, when I was in high school. The first time, at the State Fair Coliseum Detroit on New Year’s Eve 1992, is probably the best concert experience I’ve ever had. I went with a bunch of my new friends from high school; they were all at least two years older than me. I can’t imagine what I told my parents I was doing, but I’m sure I didn’t say that I was going downtown to see The Beastie Boys. I also can’t remember if I borrowed someone’s ID, but I can’t imagine it was an all-ages show and I’d just turned 15. At midnight, they played “Time for Livin’” and the place went crazy.
I chose the above picture because it’s the poster I had on the wall in my room in high school and in college. I’m pretty sure I still have it, rolled up in a tube in the attic in my house. The music of The Beastie Boys runs through my life, from my skating days in the mid-’80s to my contemporary political theory class, where I use “In 3’s” to illustrate a point from Foucault’s The Order of Things. Whenever I wanted to smile or sing or yell, I put on a Beastie Boys album from the ’80s or ’90s.
What was it about The Beastie Boys? They weren’t the best rappers — though I maintain that Check Your Head is still one of the best rap albums — or the best songwriters. But they were smart, funny, and pretty edgy. Their jokes and swagger appealed to the nine-year-old who first heard them in 1987 and then later their concern for the rights of others (and for those they’d disrespected on early albums) continued to appeal to the thirty-year-old who was passionate about human rights. And, of course, they were Jewish, a fact that was undeniably a large part of what drew my friends and I to them in the first place.
There’s a tremendous sadness at the loss of Adam Yauch that I didn’t really expect and didn’t know what to do with. It felt odd to mourn someone I didn’t know until I reflected on it for a day or so. It’s a sadness for his family and friends, people I hope are comforted in some small way by the obvious impact that Yauch and his music had on the lives of millions. But, selfish as it might sound, it’s also largely a sadness at my own loss, at the rupture of a connection with my childhood that had held pretty firm until yesterday.
Our childhoods disappear in such little pieces — Star Wars action figures given away to a neighbor, artwork lost in the move to a new house, stuffed animals packed away in boxes — that we often don’t really notice. This piece, for me, was a terribly big one.
The story of Demjanjuk’s various arrests, imprisonments, trials, convictions, appeals, and even exonerations is a fascinating one; it’s filled with mistaken identity, legal wrangling across decades and continents, and — of course — some of the worst crimes one group of people ever perpetrated against another. Though he spent most of his life at liberty, Demjanjuk ended his life as a convicted criminal, found guilty of being an accessory to the murders of tens of thousands of people as a guard at the Sobibor death camp.
This quote, from a BBC piece written during Demjanjuk’s trial in 2011, really captures what is at stake for victims and co-victims in the aftermath of systemic, gross violations of human rights:
The public benches are full of the relatives of those who died, and if you talk to them, they often do not express certainty that the man in the corner with the baseball hat is the man who herded their family members to their deaths.
For them, often, the important thing is that the trial has taken place. They feel that Sobibor and the sufferings of those murdered there need to be recognised. You detect that they think it is an under-reported horror story.
Most important for the survivors and for the families of those who died, Demjanjuk’s trial in Germany offered an opportunity for a fuller accounting of the crimes committed by the Nazis at Sobibor. It’s very likely to be the last major public trial of crimes from the Nazi period.
On Joe Paterno’s Passing
When I read about Joe Paterno’s passing this weekend — on two separate occasions, strangely — I found it impossible to separate the coaching legend of so many decades from the sexual abuse scandal of recent memory. For good or ill, one event or choice can fundamentally alter public perception of a person’s life and legacy.
Indeed, this is a central element of the book project on classical heroism that I just finished. The image of ourselves that we want to present to the world isn’t necessarily the one that will actually be presented or accepted, especially if there is some sort of anomalous behavior that doesn’t fit with that image. At bottom, there are only so many decisions we can make in a short lifetime, which is why each decision we make matters a great deal.
Now, it’s almost certainly the case that few people will be able to line up every single decision and say, “Everything you see here tells one complete, clear, and consistent story about me.” But it’s so important to think critically about what we do and say because of the basic fact of our existence. As Shakespeare (5.5.27-29) pointed out, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more.” Macbeth, into whose mouth Shakespeare puts these words, is nearing his own death and is correct that the most basic fact about human beings is that their lives are brief.
But he is wrong about the very next line that he utters, for life is not necessarily “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.29-31). Macbeth might be somewhat consoled by this conclusion; he has done terrible things to others in his pursuit of power so that his life has turned out to be one that has been lived badly. But each life, however brief, can have great significance if lived well. As Janusz Korczak wrote, “The lives of great men are like legends – difficult but beautiful.”
That the best lives are filled with hardships whose navigation or endurance contributes substantially to their virtue is an idea that runs throughout the stories handed down to us from the Greeks. This is why we continue to find these stories so compelling. And it’s also the reason why we still find the lives of contemporary moral heroes to be so compelling: These are people who assign more weight to living a good life than they do to living a long life and who, as a result, end up risking more than most other people.
In no small part, they do this because they understand the stakes.
If we cling to the false hope that we might somehow stretch out our lives, we fail to recognize the finitude of our choices and thus we fail to imbue each decision or action with the importance that it rightly ought to have. When human beings face the fact of their mortality, when they give up all hope for continued existence, then they are able to think most clearly about the sort of life they want to have lived. It is only in doing so that morally heroic action becomes a possibility.
Telling It Like It Is
I suppose that today is the day to officially admit that I never really “got into” the whole phenomenon that was Christopher Hitchens, even though I’m generally quite interested in the concept of the public intellectual. I’ve been reflecting a bit about this today and discussing it with friends. Whether or not I agreed with Hitchens wasn’t ever the issue, though that seems to be the thing that most people are talking about today.
For my own part, I can recognize that he was clearly brilliant, witty, and an excellent writer; he also clearly never pulled any punches. But I didn’t usually see a purpose in the pieces that involved him doing things that didn’t much interest me — like getting a makeover — and then explaining his experience. And I often found his best writing — the stuff that should have been most interesting to me — to be overly nasty toward others, sometimes unnecessarily so, and this made reading it less engaging for me. I always wanted more of a separation between the smashing to bits of someone’s argument and the smashing to bits of someone.
That said, I did once engage in a serious way with Hitchens’ work, this time on the death penalty and the role of religion in the public sphere, back in September. You can find that post here. I think it’s a good one and I think having Hitchens as my imagined interlocutor made me put as much thought into it as I could.
There were a few other times when Hitchens’ ideas appeared on my blog. Those are here (on Amnesty International’s strange bedfellows problem), here (on Noam Chomsky’s wrong-headed ideas about Osama bin Laden), and here (on whether Hitchens’ brand of angry atheism might be supplanted by a kinder, gentler version). And, of course, I recently made good use of the video of Hitchens being waterboarded in a post about how the GOP candidates have embraced torture again.
Maybe I’ll go back and read some of Hitchens’ work again to see what I missed or what I might understand differently now. Happily, there’s a great deal of it.