In today’s age where communications technology has created a vast and complex public sphere, a new era of “celebritizing” has been ushered in. While there are plenty of celebrity chefs, psychologists, and business magnates, there are very few celebrity lawyers.
Alan Dershowitz has for decades been a household name. His 50-year career has brought him recognition not only as a skilled attorney, but also as one of the most ardent proponents of civil rights. And that’s another thing unique about Dershowitz. Unlike many of our celebrities, his fame is well earned.
Arguably Dershowitz’s strongest quality is his intellectual honesty. He is a principled man. He does not tow a party line. I personally came to recognize this about Dershowitz when studying American legal history several years ago. It was then that I first came across the strange episode of State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the case that came to be known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. Tennessee public school teacher John Scopes had been accused of violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of human evolution. The trial quickly became a national debate on religion versus science. During the case, defense attorney Clarence Darrow took the unorthodox step of calling William Jennings Bryan, counsel for the prosecution, to the stand as a witness in an effort to demonstrate that belief in the historicity of the Bible was stupid. One of the analyses I studied was Dershowitz’s 2005 article on the trial. Dershowitz argues that upon examination of the transcripts, Darrow took a bad move trying to frame Bryan as a crazed radical and ended up undermining his own position. “Bryan [did] quite well defending himself, while it is Darrow who comes off quite poorly, in fact, as something of an anti-religious cynic,” Dershowitz wrote.
Here was Dershowitz, the secular humanist, calling out Darrow for his undue attacks on a believer. He had the clarity to call a spade a spade. Even if that meant giving “points” to a side he otherwise would naturally oppose.
It is this principled stance that has produced Dershowitz’s eclectic history from defending violent criminals, to Israel advocacy.
While his history has been slightly non-conformist in many ways, Dershowitz has always been a darling of the Left. A registered democrat, the revered lawyer has for the most part come down on the correct side of the issues in the eyes of most liberals.
In the recent period, however, serious controversy has been stirring around Dershowitz. The first attacks apparently came from his friends and close colleagues. The controversy has come in intervals, but is proving to be relentless. What is emerging are nothing less than waves of criticism targeting the lawyer’s political positions.
What is the crime that seemingly triggered this continuous volley of attack? The cardinal sin of supporting Donald Trump. While some of Dershowitz’s questionable positions could be overlooked, this one was unforgivable.
Dershowitz offers his “support” to the president, not by backing particular decisions, but on defending his powers as commander in chief, and rebuking those who seek to undermine them.
His point is that despite bad decisions on the part of policymakers and executives, not all measures are appropriate to prevent them. Maintaining the integrity of the American political system is more important than any one issue.
Dershowitz wrote a book not so long ago entitled Trumped Up: How Criminalization of Political Differences Endangers Democracy about what he describes as the political vendettas by the president’s opposition. The book deals a lot with the Special Counsel investigation of Robert Mueller. As the book lays out pretty strongly, and as Dershowitz himself has articulated in numerous interviews over the past year, Mueller’s investigation is a witch hunt, and although he doesn’t think Trump should fire Mueller, the president would be within his rights to do it. The pillar of the argument is purely intellectual, namely that special prosecutors like Mueller are a really bad idea. They have enormous power, and to justify their existence they’re prone to dive down rabbit holes, taking investigative directions completely outside their original mandate. A great example was the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton for perjury regarding his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The knowledge of his affair with Lewinsky stemmed from an investigation into a real estate deal begun by special prosecutor Robert Fiske in January 1994—almost five years earlier. Another important point is Dershowitz does agree Russian election interference should be investigated—just not through special prosecutors who, according to Dershowitz, have a record of being really bad at getting an answer to a factual question. The author suggests a much better option would be a select congressional committee or an independent commission.
The most important thing to highlight is that Dershowitz has been advocating this position for years. Twenty years ago, in his 1998 book Sexual McCarthyism: Clinton, Starr and the Emerging Constitutional Crisis, Dershowitz wrote “The subjects of such investigations [of special counsels] are often hounded and bankrupted. The independent counsel have no accountability or continuity.” He is far from a lone opinion on this point. Former national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and NYU professor Burt Neuborne, for instance, has said that special prosecutors are “like dinosaurs roaming the Earth in search of prey.”
From this perspective, it would be clearly inappropriate to write Dershowitz off as a blind Trump supporter that has lost his former identity as a civil libertarian. On the contrary, Dershowitz does not support Trump’s policies and is merely trying to stay consistent with his core principles, agree with them or not.
The latest development in this interesting sage has been reports on Dershowitz actually being socially shunned within circles of the liberal elite—circles that for years he has been affiliated with—in response to his defense of the president.
Dershowitz recently penned an op-ed in which he laments how former friends and associates have distanced themselves from him and are systematically excluding him socially. Admittedly, this is an easy piece to make fun of and Dershowitz’s opponents have jumped on it. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough mocked Dershowitz for complaining that he has no more friends in Martha’s Vineyard. “As my grandmother would say, Alan, when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas,” Scarborough concluded. Chris Hayes suggested that if Dershowitz can’t find anyone to associate with in his usual spots, “Mar-A-Lago is lovely this time of year.” Some went so far as to set up a GoFundMe campaign to buy Dershowitz new friends.
If the cynics could put aside the jokes for a moment and pay attention to the actual content of the article, they would see that Dershowitz’s point was not to complain about his lack of invitations to dinner parties. Rather, Dershowitz’s main message was to lament the trend of Americans becoming extremely intolerant of opposing political views. He mentions the rants of Maxine Waters and Sarah Huckabee being kicked out of the Red Hen for instance. The bit about Martha’s Vineyard was meant to give his own personal experience of political-based discrimination. But instead of focusing on what the piece actually said, these journalists and others chose to lie to their audience (which is what taking something out of context is) by portraying Dershowitz as a petulant complainer. Why? Well, because they disagree with him politically, of course.
Pretty ironic reaction to an opinion piece all about political intolerance, don’t you think?.
In a very powerful way, the unrelenting critique of Dershowitz over the past year, culminating in the recent series of scoffs, is strongly reflectant of the very thing he was trying to highlight. Polarization has driven many on the Right and the Left to a mad intolerance. For some, it’s not quite madness, rather something far worse has infected them. It’s perhaps best described as: the tendency to systematically warp the message of the other side in order to portray them as vile. This is the real threat of the so-called “fake news” trend.
With any luck, enough people, regardless of their political affiliation, will slowly but surely become fed up with being lied to.