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Shunning and shaming in the age of Trump

Alan Dershowitz’s complaints of life on Martha’s Vineyard merit derision. Still, a country where you can’t socialize with political opponents isn’t good for democracy.

Professor Alan Dershowitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, Dec. 11, 2016. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Professor Alan Dershowitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, Dec. 11, 2016. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Is there anything more ridiculous than celebrities that take themselves seriously? Unfortunately, for Alan Dershowitz, that’s been the main response to his complaints that Martha’s Vineyard has become a hostile environment for him since he took to defending U.S. President Donald Trump on cable TV.

Professor Alan Dershowitz speaks at an event co-organized by Tel Aviv International Salon at the annual “Globes Business Conference,” held at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv on Dec. 11, 2016. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

The world of social media has been having some fun with the ubiquitous former Harvard Law School professor. By drawing attention to the fact that some of those who summer on the swank resort island want nothing to do with him, as described in an op-ed published in The Hill, an inside politics journal for those in the know at the Capitol, he exposed himself to an avalanche of derision.

Suffice it to say that not being able to dine with some of your old companions who don’t like your current political stands is not remotely the same as “McCarthyism,” as Dershowitz claimed in his article. It’s also not exactly a hardship.

After reveling in his insider status for years, it’s a little difficult to sympathize with him for being relegated to the ranks of those out of step with the liberal elites on the island. Those who take public pride in hosting the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton—he famously schlepped the “first family” to synagogue on the island one summer when Rosh Hashanah fell in late August—shouldn’t be surprised when that same crowd turns on you for expressing heretical views. There is, after all, no constitutional right to be accepted in the best social circles of Chilmark, Mass., the island town where the 79-year-old professor moved after retiring from teaching.

It also seems a bit odd for a public contrarian and controversialist like Dershowitz to be making a meal out of the fact that some people disagree with him. But I suppose it says something that a person like Dershowitz, who has taken some unpopular positions in the past, can suddenly find himself placed in cherem because of Trump. This is, after all, the same person who championed the cause of Claus von Bulow and was a key member of the “dream team” of lawyers who worked on the defense of O.J. Simpson. After helping two celebrities accused of murdering their wives (whom most of the general public thought were as guilty as sin) get off the hook, what could be so awful about his comments criticizing the special counsel investigating Trump?

Nor is the situation Dershowitz described anything like the nastiness we’ve seen pop up lately with respect to officials who work in the administration. Not being invited to parties isn’t the same thing as thinking there’s nothing wrong with harassing people like White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders when she’s out for dinner with her family.

But Dershowitz is on to something when he notes that the self-righteous defenses that are being made for the attempt to shame or shun political opponents is a sign of how intolerant Americans have become of opposing views. We should be questioning why so many of us cheered not only those who harassed Sanders and other Republicans, but the suggestion by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) that anyone who works for Trump should be harassed by crowds wherever they go.

A big share of the blame here belongs to Trump for the way he abuses opponents to the cheers of his supporters. Social media—that insulator from opposing views—is also a big part of this trend. But the notion that there is something peculiarly shameful about supporting the administration or even, as in Dershowitz’s case, pointing out the shortcomings of some of his critics says more about liberal panic about Trump than it does about the president and his defenders.

As hard as it may be for those who consider Trump to be the epitome of evil and who have swallowed the absurd calumny that we are on the brink of fascist tyranny, Dershowitz’s criticisms of the probe being led by Robert Mueller are actually in line with his record. Just as his past legal advocacy centered on protecting the rights of anyone who is accused of a crime, the same principle applies to Trump. Many of those who can’t abide any criticism of Mueller were quick to abuse a special prosecutor who targeted a Democrat, as was the case 20 years ago with Ken Starr and President Clinton.

Nobody has to associate with anyone they don’t like or with whom they disagree. But we should all wonder at the way we’ve become a country where we judge people as beyond the pale because we don’t like their politics. If Democrats think Republicans are Nazis—and are sometimes answered in kind—then the problem is not just about civility, but about tolerance.

In the last few weeks, we’re learned that the American Civil Liberties Union, which always prided itself on defending anyone’s rights no matter how unpopular they were, won’t take the cases of people who offend their liberal donor base anymore. Other liberals complain that conservatives are “weaponizing” the First Amendment and have begun to sound like Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse, who influenced the New Left in the 1960s with his critiques of tolerance and called for taking away the right of free speech for those with whom he disagreed. Such views have become mainstream on college campuses where some students, like Dershowitz’s ex-friends on Martha’s Vineyard, need “safe places” to shield them from opposing views.

The fact that such ideas and critiques of the First Amendment are now becoming mainstream is what should really worry us. But as much as we may chuckle at his discomfort, the kind of shunning and shaming that Dershowitz describes helps legitimize those anti-democratic sentiments. If you care about democracy, try to tolerate and listen to friends whose ideas offend you. Isolating them or yourself is the first step towards a culture war that will harm everything about American democracy that we love.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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