Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Trump Does Not Care If People Get Hurt

President Trump's impromptu press conference today was a shocking display of his moral depravity and his allegiance to bigotry. There are so many things wrong with it, in so many stunning ways, that everyone is trying to digest it and focusing on different parts. But one particularly scary thing has not yet gotten much attention: Trump shows a nearly complete lack of interest in preventing more bloodshed like this. That is unprecedented, and extremely dangerous.

Every previous president of the United States has been deeply averse to civil violence and has always worked to prevent it. That's only natural. Civil violence and disorder are the opposite of government; our leaders' power is vested in exactly the order that civil violence disrupts. Our long national struggle over civil rights, which has often led to street unrest by various parties, has highlighted this. Every president, whatever their party loyalty or racial politics, has made keeping order and avoiding violence a paramount goal. Presidents who were sympathetic with angry segregationists, or who needed them for electoral reasons, still wanted to prevent any violence or lawbreaking by segregationist mobs. Even politicians who were themselves personally racist did not want racist violence in the streets, because preventing violence in the streets was always seen as crucial. In the same way, politicians who were for progress on civil rights were nonetheless very much against any violence by, say, the Black Panthers, or any riots in African-American neighborhoods. Preventing riots is central to the President's job, and to the President's authority.

In a real sense, you can say that JFK became a pro-civil rights president because it was eventually his only way to get peace in the streets. When he entered the White House, civil rights was not on his agenda. Whatever personal liberalism he had on civil rights issues was strictly abstract; he was not going to act on that. But then he had to deal with furious, angry segregationist mobs and with Southern politicians from his own party who refused to control those mobs. Some of his phone calls with Southern governors (which JFK taped) are desperate and frustrating. And the transcripts make it clear that, more than anything else, Kennedy does not want to see anyone hurt or killed. Eventually JFK moves to back the civil rights agenda strongly because it's the right thing to do but also because he can't get any cooperation from the other side, so he just has to beat them.

But today President Trump did none of the things American presidents do to calm things down and prevent violence. He excused provocative behavior, claiming that white supremacists were "quietly protesting" when they were actually shouting about hating Jews. Worse still, he made it clear that he favored one side, and justified their violence to the greatest degree he could. He even said that some of the white supremacists were "fine people" and not white supremacists at all. NONE of that is what you do when you want people to stop doing something. All of it was aimed at excusing what they had done and signaling them NOT to stop. Ask yourself white the alt-right knuckleheads think when they hear Trump talking like that. What they hear is, "Keep going, fellas, I'm on your side."

That is just crazy. It shows Trump's complete, depraved indifference to public safety. And it exposes his indifference, or actual hostility, to the rule of law which his office embodies. The President is meant to enforce public order, and that legal order is the foundation of the President's power. And so every previous president has put questions of order-vs.-disorder before pettier questions of right-vs.-left or party-vs.-party. Trump has no seeming regard for public order, and sees things instead in ideological or partisan terms, as Us vs. Them. (None of his predecessors ever, even once, thought of any street thugs as part of "us.")  Or, even worse, Trump owes his allegiance to chaos itself. He is a representative of disorder, and thrives on it. That is a terrifying thought.

I would usually say that this is the kind of behavior that could get someone killed. But it's too late to say that now. Someone is already dead.

(cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.)

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Three Myths of Reverse Racism in College Admissions

Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting in the tiny teacher's room of the little parochial school where I taught, talking to a few other people about the news. The principal's administrative assistant said something about affirmative action letting unqualified black students into Harvard, and I asked her if she thought that was a real worry. She actually gasped. "Don't you?" she asked, in shocked disbelief that I could not be concerned, nay scandalized, about such a well-known social problem.

But I had just graduated from Harvard the year before, and I had never seen these unqualified African-American students that everyone was always talking about. Was Harvard secretly running another secret campus, where they hid all these unqualified minority students people kept mentioning? Or, if the people I had met in college were the supposedly unqualified minority students, why had they kept kicking my ass in chess? It made no sense.

Where I'd gone to college didn't make any difference to my co-worker, who knew what she knew. After all, everybody knew it. The Unqualified Black Harvard Student was a truth universally acknowledged, something everyone accepted as a proven fact, at least among white people who had never been to Harvard.

Now it seems the Trump-and-Sessions Justice Department is planning to investigate American colleges and universities for their alleged racist crimes against white applicants. So the Myth of the Unqualified Minority College Student is going to get official government backing, reality be damned.

This changes the game from the past decades of anti-affirmative lawsuits, which have been brought by private individuals and have traditionally had a plaintiff problem, in that the applicants suing whatever school always turn out to be marginal candidates at best. We can call this the Myth of the Wronged White Genius, a necessary companion to the Myth of the Unqualified Minority. The implication is that there are a number of brilliant white students, who would obviously be accepted immediately into whatever school they apply to except that they have been done wrong by by those Unqualified Minorities. Everyone knows about these people, too: unmistakable stars who would be open-and-shut, slam-dunk admissions cases. But somehow when it's time to sue a college these applicants, the Wronged White Superstars, never show up.

Instead, the plaintiffs in affirmative action lawsuits are people who either would, at best, squeak in at the bottom of an admitted class (as in the case of Allen Bakke) or, as in the absurd case of Abigail Fisher, a student whose own lawyers had to admit she would not get into the university of her choice even if race were not an issue. Bakke v. California did eliminate quotas; UC Davis Medical School was setting aside 16 of its 100 med-school berths for minority applicants, in a system not terribly different from set-asides schools had reserved for veterans and other favored categories. So even in Bakke's best case for his argument he would be, at the very best, in the bottom 16% of the entering class.

Now, we have only Allen Bakke's own word that he would have gotten in if not for those 16 slots. He was convinced this was true. But even so, that makes Bakke at the very best 85th out of a hundred. And Bakke would only be 85th if  every single minority applicant were less qualified than Bakke on paper, an assertion with neither facts nor probability on its side. So the heart of Bakke's own claim is that, by his own lights, he should be in the bottom tier of admitted applicants, the 90-something best applicant out of 100.

Plaintiffs like Bakke (or Grutter, or Gratz) tend to be bubble applicants. Anti-affirmative-action lawsuits, by their basic logic, are about contesting the last slot admitted to a particular program. The argument is, and has to be, that the plaintiff has been done wrong by offering any affirmative action, because the affirmative action applicants booted the plaintiff out of that last available space. So the plaintiff is by definition someone whose best realistic hope was just barely to squeeze under the wire.

That means even the best anti-affirmative-action plaintiff is someone who might or might not get into a school or program any given year, depending on who else applied. The 96th-best applicant one year might be the 106th-best next year, because every year a different batch of people apply. And we should add that rankings like this don't work out transparently, so that one admissions officer might rank an applicant the 95th best and another admissions officer, equally qualified and equally well-intentioned, might rank the same person 105th.

The argument isn't just "If not for affirmative action, I would have gotten into medical school." It is, and has to be, "If not for affirmative action I would have just barely made it into medical school." That's not the world's most rousing chorus.

Lately, anti-affirmative action groups have tried to resort to finding Asian-American plaintiffs, as in this recent piece from the New York Times. Of course, the NYT piece leads off with an apparently very qualified student who is not actually suing Harvard, as the NYT only admits near the bottom of its story. The Times also mysteriously fails to mention that this is not the first time Harvard has been sued over accusations that it should admit more Asian-Americans; we actually know a good deal about Harvard's admissions processes because of discovery from that previous lawsuit. Oh, and Harvard won that earlier lawsuit about this issue, so that might have been something the Times story mentioned, too.

But in any case, the Asian-American-plaintiff gambit doesn't really advance the case that affirmative action is discrimination against whites. The heart of that argument is that colleges are allegedly depressing the number of Asian-American students, and that someplace like Harvard should be 40% Asian-American instead of a mere 20 to 25%. That would lead to fewer white students, not more. This argument is basically that so-called liberal schools are already discriminating in favor of white applicants.

Now, the new Department of Justice is going to go for the gusto and claim anti-white discrimination. This may get around the problem of white plaintiffs with mediocre test scores by making the federal government itself the plaintiff and rendering all of the issues more abstract. Instead of arguing in court for a real but not-overwhelmingly-qualified white person, they can make the case about the imaginary wrongs done to all white people and bring the strictly imaginary Wronged White Geniuses, who would be academic stars if not for those pesky minorities, back into the conversation.

The strongest anti-affirmative-action cases have been against public universities, which are arms of the government. The case that an outside party can dictate the policies of a private university, like Harvard or Yale or your local small liberal-arts college, is a lot murkier. Also, anti-affirmative-action suits have generally, although not always, done better in cases of law or medical school applications instead of undergraduate admissions. This is because professional schools look at a smaller and more quantifiable set of qualifications and leave out murky questions like "character" and "promise."

That brings us to the third big anti-affirmative action myth, the Myth of the Clear Ranked Order. This is the assumption that every stack of college or grad-school applications can clearly be sorted in order of quality, from #1 to #103 to #19,346. But it never works like that. No healthy college admissions pool is going to have an applicant who is clearly and unambiguously better than everyone else in the pool. (That would be a sign that your school is getting an application from a student it usually couldn't land, so you're probably having recruiting trouble already.) And there's never, ever a clear line demarcating the last applicant who gets in from the first applicant who doesn't. That's always a judgment call, and another committee another year might swap around who just made it and who just missed.

The more accurate way to think about applicants is in groupings. There's a group you'd be very happy to have, another group that will clearly get in. There's also a group, which you'd always like to be small, of people who have no hope at all of getting in, and a group of people who are okay but who you are clearly not going to find the space for considering who else is in the pool. But these groupings will never coincide perfectly with the number of spaces available. If you have 100 spaces, or 2000 spaces, or 4000 spaces, you are never going to get exactly 100 or 2000 or 4000 applications from people you obviously want to admit and then a sharp drop off to much less qualified people. There will always be a batch of people who might have made it in and might not have.

This is most obviously true when schools are looking like character, leadership, originality, and so forth, and when they are judging things like extracurricular activities, letters or recommendation, and personal essays. Those things have to be judged qualitatively. Are all those clubs the student is in just resume-padding, or is there something real and interesting going on? In the school orchestra because you think colleges would like that, or because you're really interested in music? That has to be a judgment call, but every admissions office also has to make it.

But this is also true of academic qualifications. If selective colleges reduced everything to a question of GPAs and scores, they would not be happy with who they got. They would believe that they'd let in some people who weren't actually as smart as many of the people they turned away. (There are colleges, of course, where it is just about grades and scores, but those are schools who aren't finding enough students they want at all; they are simply screening out people who are likely to flunk, and taking everyone else.) Take it from a white kid, with no legacy or athletic preference, who got into Harvard without straight As. Harvard took me over kids with better GPAs, including my own valedictorian and class president, for essentially academic reasons. Now, they may have been mistaken, and you don't have to agree with them. But other admissions offices made a similar mistake about me that year, and there's no sign of any nefarious motive. They just thought I would be a good college student.

This is all to say that suing a school like Harvard over alleged discrimination against white kids will get murky very fast.  It's not just grades and scores. It's also the classes the students took, the rigor of the school they go to, what their letters of recommendation say, the quality of their essays. You are not going to find that mythical Clear Ranked List running from 1 to 1600 or 1 to 2000. It just does not exist. Now, Harvard and schools like this certainly exploit the murkiness of this process to do what they want with admissions, including giving advantages to athletes and legacies, and even giving special preferences to academically undistinguished children of major donors. (Hint: rhymes with "Mar-ed Bushner.") But they also use that messy, murky process in pursuit of intellectual and academic excellence.

Now, my high school had a long drought during which we didn't get any applicants into Harvard at all, for something like 25 years, which really stings when you're a school in Massachusetts. It wasn't just my year's valedictorian that they turned down. They turned down years and years of our valedictorians. (I'm happy to say that my old high school now places some students at the Big H every year or two.) So, the year before I got in, some people decided that the only hope was ... affirmative action. A lot of hopes got pinned on one of the school's few (at that time) African-American students, someone whom I will call "Edward." Edward wasn't going to be valedictorian or salutatorian, but he was in the Honors Society, and ... you see where this was going. Some teachers and administrators, and some students, reasoned that although our white A students couldn't get in, a black A- student would. It was the Myth of the Underqualifed Minority, put into practice with the best intentions in the world. Everyone involved genuinely liked him, thought he was smart, and wished him the best.

Some people believed, as a totally self-evident fact, that Edward's race would make him a lock for admission. Once, when he was fretting about whether or not he'd get in, I heard his best friend tell him, in a get-real-already tone, "Edward. You're black." That simple. (The assumption baked into the Myth of the Unqualified Minority, of course, is that Harvard has to take A- students as the only way to reach its affirmative action goals. I mean, how many black A students could there be in America? No one at my school would have accepted that premise had it been presented to them explicitly. But that's what the Myth of the Unqualified Minority implies.)

Edward did not get in, of course. He went to another very good school, but he may never have been in serious competition for Harvard. But because so many people around him, including adults, had bought into the Myth of the Underqualified Minority and sold it to him, Edward was set up both for deep disappointment and, worse still, for guilt. After he got rejected, I literally heard him say, "I feel like I let everybody down."

You didn't let us down, Edward. It was the other way around.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Presidential Pardons and Obstruction of Justice

One thing is finally clear about the Russia investigation, thanks to Donald Trump, Jr.'s decision to tweet his incriminating e-mails: someone is going to prison over this. All three principals who took that meeting looking for Russian oppo research, Manafort, Kushner, and Trump, Jr., are likely in serious criminal jeopardy. Other figures (like Flynn, Sessions, and peripheral creeps Eric Prince, Carter Page, and Roger Stone) may be in danger of prison as well. But the Trump Tower Three certainly are.

The best advice any lawyer could give Donald Trump, Jr. is to flip, to make a deal with the prosecutors (immediately, right now) and agree to testify against someone higher up. But that is never going to happen, because it would mean turning on his own father, Donald Senior. Trump Junior is clearly unequipped for that. It would be hard for anyone to turn evidence on your mother or father, and Donald Junior isn't able to stand up to his father about much more trivial things. Not going to happen.

On the other hand, Donald Senior is not about to see his own son, or his favorite son-in-law Kushner, go to federal prison. So at some point President Trump may find himself overwhelmingly tempted to use his presidential pardon power. Pardoning people for crimes that helped put Trump himself in office would, under any of the usual American standards, be political suicide, but that does not mean Trump won't do it. He can't resist the temptation to tweet nasty things at cable TV personalities; he has nothing like the willpower or integrity to stay out of a Trump Junior prosecution. Trump does not believe the rules apply to him, which is what makes him so dangerous to the republic as a leader, but he also genuinely does not understand how rules, laws, or the Constitution actually work.

So Trump may trigger a genuine Constitutional crisis, triggering an unresolved problem in the Constitution itself: the danger that the President will use his pardon authority to carry out crimes against the Constitutional order, giving his accomplices impunity. Yes, the President would still be subject to impeachment and removal, but there would be no remedy short of that.

My (admittedly quick) glance at The Federalist (#69 and #74), doesn't help much. In #69, Hamilton concerns himself with plots for a military seizure of power, which is no longer necessary in an executive that commands a powerful standing army and security establishment. In #74, Hamilton is more concerned with Shays's Rebellion, which had after all helped prompt the Constitutional Convention, and focuses on the President's authority to pardon rebels as a tool for restoring domestic peace. (Hamilton is responding to the argument that the President should need at least one house of Congress to confirm pardons, and points to the Shays's Rebellion pardons as evidence for the benefits of the power to assure a speedy pardon.) You can say that the Framers did not quite plan for this situation, or perhaps more accurately you can say that the Framers gave Congress impeachment power to deal with it. But only the impeachment power.

So what happens if Trump decides to pardon his own confederates who are facing criminal charges for their work on his campaign? What if he pardons Kushner? Or what if he pardons Flynn and Manafort (both of whom are more likely to turn cooperating witness, because they're not related to Trump and might be looking at serious prison time)? Does he have the legal power to do that? The most likely answer is that he has the power, because it's one of the powers of his office, but using it would be a crime.

How can this be? Because doing something that is otherwise perfectly legal can become a crime when it is done to obstruct justice. Trump has the legal right to fire the FBI Director; firing the FBI Director to stop an investigation into his own advisers is obstruction of justice. Trump has the right to pardon federal criminals; pardoning one of his own flunkies to keep the flunky from testifying against Trump is criminal obstruction.

Put it this way: it is legal for me to buy a house. It is legal for me to pay more than asking price for a house (in fact, in some housing markets you have to). And it is legal to buy the District Attorney's house if he's selling it; public servants have to be allowed to sell their homes, too.

BUT, if I am under investigation by the District Attorneys office and I then offer to buy his house for, say, $100,000 more than the asking price (this is Cleveland; in San Francisco say a million over asking price) then it's attempted bribery and obstruction. Everything I did was legal, but I did it in order to obtain an illegal result. That is how the pardon power works, too. Chris Christie has the legal power to pardon criminal offenses in New Jersey; if he pardoned all of his own aides involved in Bridgegate, that's a new crime, because he would obviously be obstructing justice.

So if Donald Trump tries to squelch the Russia investigation by firing more investigators, or by pardoning his personal aides who are under investigation, that is obstruction and pretty clearly illegal. But the only remedy would be for Congress to impeach him.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog





Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ask the Blue States About Terrorism

Here are a few pictures from Copley Square in Boston, where the Boston Marathon ends:



But as you can see, they are not from April's running of the Marathon. They are from a January demonstration against Trump's Muslim Ban.

And yes, that means that Boston held a massive demonstration for Muslim immigrants' rights right next to the site of a shocking terrorist attack by two Muslim immigrants. Just for logistical reasons, a lot of protestors must have had to walk across the Marathon's finish line, and by the sites of the bombs themselves.

A sign that Boston has forgotten the Marathon bombings? Oh hell no. They are still all too fresh in that city's mind. A sign that Bostonians don't care about the victims, or aren't serious about fighting terrorism? Don't be ridiculous.

A small explanation is that Copley Square happens to be Boston's best place for large gatherings like this, so that you have the crowds of protestors in the same public square where you have the crowds of cheering running fans. But the bigger explanation is that Boston, like many so-called blue cities, is both anti-terrorist and pro-immigrant. If that seems not to make sense to you, let me just say: these people are literally standing in a place that they know terrorists have attacked. They are literally putting themselves on the line here, so you maybe you should hear them out.

One of the oddities of American political life today is that our approach to terrorism is being dictated by the people in the least danger of a terrorist attack.


Here are the top US targets for foreign terrorists:
New York City
Washington, DC
Los Angeles
Chicago
San Francisco

Maybe San Francisco makes that top tier, and maybe it belongs in the next one, with places like Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, Seattle, etc. etc. etc. But let's be honest: if Al-Qaeda or Daesh aka "ISIS" spends months planning a complicated attack on US soil, it's almost certainly going to be in one of those four or five top targets. Those are the places they care about; those are the places they've heard about. And those are the places that have large symbolic value overseas. International Islamist terrorists dream of destroying LAX and Times Square and the Capitol Dome. They are not interested in the so-called American Heartland. Islamist terrorists from overseas would never attack Oklahoma City, for example, because they don't really know where Oklahoma City is.

Now, that doesn't mean that Oklahoma City isn't a great place to live. It can be wonderful without being internationally famous. I've lived in a bunch of places that overseas terrorists have never heard of, and those places were nice. But the truth is terrorists aren't interested in underrated places that are nice to live. They're interested in attacking famous places. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but national security is more important than your feelings or mine.

Now one of the things animating our red/blue split is a deep division on what to do with terrorism. Everyone agrees that terrorism is a serious problem. The general Red Team approach to terrorism is that this is a deep national emergency that calls for shutting down immigration, increased military strikes overseas, and heavy ethnic profiling of Muslims: in some cases outright demonization of Islam itself. The Blue Team strategy calls for a mix of police and military responses with diplomacy, patience and outreach. The Blue strategy is built around trying to isolate the terrorists and sharpen the divide between them and everyday Muslims. The Red strategy considers that a hopeless cause, and demands that we use the hammer as hard as we can, everywhere. Sometimes it considers Islam itself the problem. Blue voters see making the fight about Islam itself as one of the worst and most self-destructive things to do: basically pushing people into the terrorists' arms.

Now, these strategies work against each other. You can only follow one. Either you're doing outreach to Muslims, or you're denouncing Islam. And both sides feel that the other strategy is dangerous and self-destructive.

Because we're a democracy, we resolve this conflict by voting. And over the last few elections, the Red voters have won, and we're following the Red strategy. But here's the problem:

The places that the terrorists target are overwhelmingly Blue, full of Blue voters. New York, Chicago, LA, DC, San Francisco: all super blue. Almost, like, ultra-violet. A lot of the second tier targets are likewise blue: either the Democratic strongholds of Democratic states, or the Blue island in a Red or Purple State. Boston. Miami. Philly. Seattle. If terrorists ever attack Missouri, God forbid, it will be in Democratic-voting St. Louis. If, God forbid, terrorists attack Georgia, it will be in central Atlanta. That's how the terrorists' strategy works. They want large, busy, and well-known urban areas.Those are the places that are pro-urban, pro-trade, and generally pro-immigrant. They are also the places where the most American immigrants are.

In fact, the Red strategy has one precisely because it's favored in less populated rural areas. More people vote for Blue candidates, both for President and for Congress, but our system builds in an advantage for rural districts so that a smaller number of voters defeat a larger, but more geographically concentrated, group of voters.

So we're following the Red anti-terrorism strategy, but the Blue voters are the targets. They are the ones at risk. If we try the Blue strategy and fail, it's Blue voters whose lives are at risk. But if we follow the Red strategy and it fails, most of the Red voters will still be safe in their rural areas. Their mistakes won't get them killed. Daesh (aka "ISIS") is not going to be launching any attacks on Youngstown, Ohio or rural Wisconsin. Not now, and probably not ever.

So let me suggest that maybe the Blue-state voters, and the urban-blue-pocket voters may know what they're doing. They may have actually thought this through. Don't tell them that they don't take terrorism seriously. A lot of them live in New York City. And even if they are wrong, they deserve to be listened to, because they have skin in the game -- sometimes all of their skin in the game -- in the way most of the rest of us do not. If you find yourself puzzled and frustrated by the politicians and the policies they vote for, the approach to fighting terrorism that they support, let me translate what those urban Blue voters are saying to the rest us:

Publicly hating Islam is not helping. Stereotyping people is not helping. You are making it worse. Please, please don't get us killed. Thanks. 

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, June 12, 2017

About Julius Caesar

So those literary geniuses, Fox News and Donald Trump, Jr., have decided to attack a "New York play" that they allege stages the assassination of Donald Trump. It is, of course, Shakespeare in the Park's production of Julius Caesar. And of course, Fox and Trump's loyal followers don't need to actually see the play to raise an enormous outcry, because denouncing people is too much fun for fact-checking.

It makes me sad, because Julius Caesar has been more important to America than any of Shakespeare's other plays. It was the play most taught in American schools for many decades, because it speaks about questions at the heart of the American experiment: about the nature of a republic and the duties we owe it, about the danger of tyrants and the dangers of civil violence. It's sad to see a public debate based on ignorance about this play.

So, alas, it's time for a special edition of Ask Me About Shakespeare, coming to you this time from Washington, DC, where I'm spending a month at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Let's take it away:

How much of this production was paid for by the NEA? (-Don T., NYC, via twitter)

None of it. Nada. Zilch.


When does a play like this verge into political speech? (-Don T., NYC, via twitter)

It's a play about the Dictator of Rome. It is and has always been about politics. Its central subject is politics. Every major male character is a Roman politician. Come on.

Does that change things? (-Don T., NYC, via twitter)

In that political speech has even more protection under the First Amendment, maybe. Political speech is a guaranteed Constitutional right.

Okay, but Shakespeare isn't about current politics.

Isn't he? Julius Caesar has been used to comment on current politics over and over again. It's been used to critique the rise of Mussolini. And at least once it's been used to implicitly comment on Obama in the same implicit way that Shakespeare in the Park is implicitly pointing at Trump.


One of the basic rules of understanding Shakespeare's history plays is that he is always more interested in the history of his own day than the history he is writing about. Always.

How is it still Shakespeare if it's in modern dress?

People have been doing "modern dress" Shakespeare for more than a hundred years at this point. Let's not act like it's some crazy novelty. And Shakespeare and his partners did "modern dress" themselves; they did Julius Caesar in 16th-century clothes, probably with a few "Roman" costume pieces thrown into the mix. People don't start putting Julius Caesar in togas until the 1800s.

The Public Theater, which stages Shakespeare in the Park, follows a standard rule about modern dress: they change costumes, in ways that are meant to work as visual footnotes, so that Roman senators for example dress like American senators. But they stick faithfully to Shakespeare's actual words and never add any modern language.

This play is not an adaptation of Julius Caesar. It really is Julius Caesar.

Why is Caesar killed by women and minorities? (-Fox N., NYC)

Because the Public Theater has, for the last fifty years or so, been a pioneer in cross-casting across gender and race. Fox News may object to this as political correctness, but it's a way of opening up parts to a wider range of American actors and ultimately making the pool more competitive. It's hard to find good Shakespeareans. Letting talented actors of color into the casting mix, and giving women a wider range of roles to play, definitely improves the overall standard of acting. This has now become standard practice; the last two professional Shakespeare plays I saw (one in DC, and one in Staunton, Virginia) cast across race and gender lines.

If you ever have a choice between seeing a mid-tier white male British actor do Shakespeare and seeing James Earl Jones do Shakespeare, by all means go with James Earl Jones. It's the American thing to do, and you won't be sorry.

But doesn't that look like Trump?

Yes, vaguely. Clearly, the Public is okay with people drawing that connection, which a lot of the audience was probably going to read into this play at this moment anyway. Much the same way that casting African-American Caesars during the last Administration let people draw the Obama connection.

But they aren't calling that character Trump, and Julius Caesar's lines are (how to put this?) deeply unlike the way our current President speaks.

But Shakespeare never depicted a living public figure on stage.

Didn't he? Actors and playwrights in his day were specifically forbidden to depict living people on stage, but they pretty clearly did it anyway. Loves Labors Lost is none-too-subtly about a particular king of France, and gives its King a posse of friends named after actual French noblemen.

Part of Shakespeare's costume inventory was clothing that various noblemen had gotten rid of once it went out of fashion. So there's always been the possibility that his actors could signal a topical reference by dressing like the political figure they were mocking, dressing in the man's actual clothes. Once, a while after Shakespeare died, his acting company bought a much-hated Spanish ambassador's sedan chair when that ambassador went back to Spain. When they carried one of their bad guys around stage in that chair, everyone knew who they meant.


So, they're endorsing Trump's assassination, right?

There is no way that Julius Caesar endorses Caesar's assassination. It is clearly a terrible thing to do, and all of the assassins are punished.

In fact, all of the conspirators except Brutus are clearly self-interested and immoral.  (As Antony says of Brutus:

All of the conspirators but only he
Did what they did in envy of great Caesar.)

Let's go to the Public Theater's own website to describe the play. In its director's words:

"Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means.
To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him." – Oskar Eustis

Eustis is right that the play presents both Caesar AND his assassins as dangers to the public. Caesar is a tyrant in the making, who is destroying the Roman Republic and replacing it with an autocracy. But his assassins are, well, assassins. They traffic in blood, and threaten Rome as much as Caesar does.

And this, of course, is why earlier productions could invite an Obama reading: that reading is that Obama is being attacked by these vicious politicians.

The joke here is that Julius Caesar depicts Caesar's enemies pretty much the way most of the people denouncing the play see Trump's critics: as a pack of conspirators who envy the great man's greatness.

Then who's the good guy?

Shakespeare's play doesn't have simple bad guys and good guys. That is why the play is still worth reading. It's morally complicated, just as the world we live in is.


But they show him being murdered on stage!

In the original script. It's been like this since around 1599. And that assassination scene is not designed to make you all excited about assassinations. Oh God, no.

No one treated Democratic presidents like this.
 
Maybe you should read Barbara Garson's Mac Bird! which specifically adapts Macbeth as a critique of LBJ.


Well, they should have left Trump out of it.

They can't. I couldn't be more sorry to tell you this, but there's no way to do that right now. People will make the Trump connection whether you want them to or not.

I just spent a semester teaching Shakespeare's history and tragedies, a semester that started about a week before inauguration. And I never discuss current politics in my classroom, least of all with undergraduates. I never said Trump's name in the classroom. But my students wanted to make the connection, over and over again.

Richard III reminded them of Trump. Hamlet's uncle reminded them of Trump. Macbeth reminded them of Trump. And those characters are much clearer villains than Caesar is. We got to an example of tyranny, or demagoguery or political dishonesty, and I had to keep students from talking about Trump. It got exhausting after a while.

Trump is on everyone's minds. He kind of insists on being on everyone's minds. And so people are going to connect him to plays like Julius Caesar.

Look, it's a play where a successful politician, who attracts huge rallies of the common people, is seen as a threat to centuries of democratic government. That politician has a band of dedicated enemies who are motivated by a mix of patriotism, rancor, and envy. 

You don't have to say Trump to get audiences thinking about Trump. (In fact, Shakespeare in the Park literally never says the word "Trump.") The audience is going to make the connection to Trump no matter what. It's inevitable. So there's a logic to just letting them do that and running with it. This has to be the Julius Caesar about the beginning of Trump's presidency, because no audience is going to let it be anything else.

Well, is Shakespeare really any guide to today's politics?

More than two centuries of American politicians have thought so. And Julius Caesar is also a play about the danger of propaganda and mob fury in politics. It's a play about lying to the people to get them angry. Mark Antony is a gifted orator and a smooth liar, who eventually whips the common people into a murderous frenzy based on falsehoods and distortions and then sends them out to do violence. 

In fact, one of the key scenes in the play has a mob murder a poet whom they've mistaken for someone else. That happens onstage too.

So, angry people on Twitter, remember: Julius Caesar is also a play about the dangers of being whipped up into an angry, undiscriminating mob. Maybe you should log off for a bit and give it a read.

(cross-posted from Dagblog, where comments are welcome. Comments are closed on this site.)