Today is Shakespeare’s 451st birthday. Around the world, performances and recitals will be put on in a host of languages, and in a multitude of countries. There is something in Shakespeare’s art wherein everyone tends to find a positive reflection of their community and values, which explains the ease with which various cultures claim the poet as their own.
As Americans, what, if anything, is our special relationship with Shakespeare? Do we even have one? If so, what is the nerve of his particular appeal?
In honor of his birthday, and in quest for an answer, I spoke with Dr. Michael Witmore, current Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection.
The first thing to observe, Witmore notes, is that “Shakespeare’s language made us who we are.” The men who shaped this country were great lovers of the Bard. According to Abigail Adams, when Jefferson and Adams reached Stratford-upon-Avon in 1786, Jefferson “fell upon the ground and kissed it.” George Washington, in a letter written as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, parallels the British defeat to a scene in The Tempest. Tocqueville, surveying the American experiment in 1831 noted “there is hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” adding, “I remember reading the feudal drama Henry V. for the first time in a log house.” Lincoln, who may aptly be described as a second “Founder,” had a (now) well-publicized love of Shakespeare. The list goes on.
But what accounts for Shakespeare’s popularity over, say, Milton or Marlowe? Witmore believes the answers are tied to values that are central to all Americans. Two stand out above the rest. First, Shakespeare’s characters exhibit ”exuberance in daring,” which appeals to Americans who pride themselves in their “abilities to invent the world they want.” Prospero fits right in line with the “American Dream” when he take charge of his island; Romeo and Juliet, when they defy their parents to follow their hearts; and even Richard III, in his own dark way, did not let his “rudely stamp’d” appearance keep him from chasing his dreams!” Second, Witmore makes the case that the Bard, for all his use of the aristocracy, really was a “democratic writer in scope [who] felt there was drama in the mixing of the classes.” (Prince Hal did not spend his formative years at prep school.) This does not necessitate that Shakespeare be a democrat, but it does suggest that he considered life much improved—and much explained—through the interplay of a variety of human types. He would have been right at home in America.
Finally, and with the Beltway milieu in mind, I could not resist the temptation to ask Dr. Whitmore which play would benefit presidential candidates to study for success. His answer was quick—Richard II—a play above all others in the corpus that “shows [the] mechanics of how political power is lost and won.” Of course, many of Shakespeare’s works portray this dynamic, so to understand what Whitmore means we might treat ourselves to a re-reading. Today seems like as good a day as any.
Growing up blind and poor in rural China, Chen Guangcheng had few prospects. Yet before he turned 40, Chen was one of China’s most famous human rights activists, known around the world after he became the subject of a dramatic standoff between the American and Chinese governments. Chen's new autobiography,The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man's Fight for Justice and Freedom in China, recounts his 2012 journey from rural Shandong province to the U.S. embassy in Beijing -- to him, the only “absolutely safe” place in China.
The title of Chen’s book alludes to the “barefoot doctors” that China’s Communist Party sent out into the countryside to deliver basic healthcare during the Cultural Revolution. The title is a not-so-subtle dig at the regime that has crushed efforts by self-taught lawyers to use the law to advance individual rights in a one-party communist state.
Even before he chose a career in law, Chen defied the odds confronting disabled people in China, marrying the woman of his choice and graduating with a degree in Chinese medicine. Gravitating to law, Chen took on local corruption and the One Child Policy, which uses forced abortions and violence against women to limit family size.
Inevitably, Chen went to jail. Like political prisoners everywhere, he found support from the U.S. -- or the lack of it -- extremely important. When congressmen sent a letter of support, he writes, his condition in prison improved. President George W. Bush’s decision to attend the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008, says Chen, undermined the effort to use China’s pride in the games as leverage for rights improvements.
Chen’s life illuminates some persistent truths that western policies out to take into account. For one: The system is rotten, but there are some decent people in it nevertheless. “I know you haven’t done anything wrong,” a prison warden named Wang Guijin told Chen, whose acute sense of hearing is a survival tool. “From the gentle rhythms in the depths of his voice I could tell he meant it.”
Indeed, the warden delivered extra coal burners to enable prisoners to boil water for safe drinking. The U.S. Congress, which is now considering adopting legislation to enable sanctions against human rights abusers around the world, might find ways to quietly recognize people like the warden and other “soldiers of the enemy” (in Vaclav Havel’s phrase) whose acts of defiance and humanity are vital to decisive political change.
For now, the incentives work the other way. After four years in jail, Chen was released into illegal and nightmarish house arrest. The Party’s repression has spawned a “miniature security economy” around Chen’s home.
This nightmare seemed to be about us, but it also had a lot to do with the 100 Yuan daily salaries paid to the guards,” he says. Expensive surveillance equipment generated kickbacks to corrupt officials. Chen estimates more than $9 million was spent on his house arrest. At least, Chen notes some of the guards quit after Chen discussed the law with them.
Kellie Lunney at Government Executive writes, in a report on yesterday’s hearings into mismanagement at the Veterans Affairs Department, that:
VA’s inspector general substantiated several allegations during its investigation of the Philadelphia and Oakland facilities. Among the problems in Philadelphia: mail mismanagement, data manipulation, $2.2 million in duplicate payments to veterans, and alleged bullying and retaliation against employees. The facility did not provide responses to more than 31,000 inquiries from vets; the requests had been pending for an average of 312 days. VBA’s policy is that 90 percent of inquiries should receive a response within five business days. In Oakland, the IG found that the staff had not processed thousands of informal requests for benefits dating back years, and had improperly stored formal claims.
One whistleblowing employee at the Oakland VA office testified that
… veterans’ claims were left to collect dust for decades, many of them deemed “no action necessary.”
... told the story of a vet’s widow writing to the department about her deceased husband’s benefits: “She was dead six years by the time we got to that letter.”
Also on the agenda, further questions regarding the senior VA executive who received:
... more than $300,000 in relocation expenses from the federal government … to move ... from Washington to Philadelphia last year, including $211,750 to a contractor through the Appraised Value Offer program, and $84,643.70 ... for expenses including storage of her household goods, subsistence, and shipment of personal items.
Wednesday was not a good day for the VA. In another Government Executive story, Lunney writes that the hearings also dealt with allegations that:
Lucy Filipov, assistant director of VA’s Philadelphia Regional Office ... threw a party at her house that included Gary Hodge, head of the pension management center, his wife, and several employees. So far, okay. Except Hodge’s wife professed to be a medium who could help the living commune with the dead. And the invited guests (employees) allegedly were encouraged to pay her $30 each for that experience. Soliciting money from subordinates in the federal government is a no-no.
Filipov was at the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing…
And when asked:
… directly about the supernatural soiree. She said she was told by an employee of the inspector general’s office that she could not discuss the matter as it is “part of an ongoing investigation.”
In one of his gag appearances, this one as a 2000-year old man, Mel Brooks was asked to name the greatest invention he had witnessed in his long life. “Saran wrap,” he shot back. A useful product, surely, but if environmentalists had the power they now have, unlikely to have emerged from the lab into lunch boxes. And if the candle lobby were as powerful as the one that forced the repeal of Britain’s candle tax in 1831, Joel Spira, who died last week, might never have become the successful entrepreneur-founder of Lutron Electronics, the company built around his first invention, the dimmer switch. No longer did hostesses have to rely on candles for the soft lighting appropriate to the day when dinner parties were formal affairs at which diners spoke with one another -- this being the time before checking one’s e-mails and Facebook pages became standard activities at dinners, where people now gather to dine alone.
We have these conveniences because they were developed before powerful affected groups found ways to hold back the tide of change. As Texas doctors, pledged to do their all for their patients, have done by making telehealthcare illegal. Opponents of Uber’s urban transport revolution, masters of the art of stifling change and of protecting an obsolete business method threatened by disruption, have nothing on the healing profession. At least not the doctor/believers in Texas’ free-market, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism. The Texas Medical Board has decided it’s a bad idea for the not-very sick -- sore throats, rashes and other minor (although not to the sufferers) ailments to be able to dial-a-doc or nurse instead of showing up at an emergency room or retail clinic, or trying to see a real live doctor during his office hours, which generally coincide with the hours at which they have to be at work. In Texas, doctors must establish a relationship with patients before diagnosing or prescribing for what ails them. Sounds reasonable. But according to the report in the New York Times that relationship cannot be established via telephone, e-mail, electronic text or chat. Like all rules, there will be exceptions: a doctor may still treat patients by phone or video if the patient is at a hospital and a health care provider is there to “assist”. In short, Texas doctors have no intention of competing with a service that is instantly available, at a charge of $40 in cases in which the patient’s employer or insurer doesn’t cover this sort of thing. Teledoc, which employs 700 board-certified physicians specially trained in how to conduct these consultations, claims that health care in Texas has been set back by “more than a decade.” That’s what successful cartels do to impertinent disrupters who threaten their members’ livelihoods.
In the past I've wondered about the obsession with Israel by Human Rights Watch. Now I wonder again, due to the organization's new 74-page report entitled, "Ripe for Abuse: Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank." Check out the HRW web site to see what subjects merit such lengthy coverage, and one finds that the answer again and again is Israel. In a world sadly filled with oppression, aggression, human rights abuses, and tyranny, HRW focuses on Israel to a degree that cannot be explained or defended. Like the United Nations, HRW seems dedicated to condemning Israel--and occasionally other countries. If you think Israel is not responsible for the bulk of worldwide human rights abuses, well, they seem not to agree.
The substance of the report consists of interviews with Palestinian laborers at Israel settlements in the Jordan Valley. That's problem number one: where are the interviews with the Israelis, who are accused of various crimes and abuses--and who might wish to comment on, deny, or cast a different light on some of the allegations? HRW did not consider that necessary. In fact there was an unofficial or semi-official Israeli response, published in The Times of Israel:
David Elchaiiani, head of the Jordan Valley regional council, angrily rejected the findings, claiming the testimony in the report was fraudulent. He said the council employs 6,000 Palestinians every day, but no minors. “It is a horrific lie,” Elchaiiani told Army Radio. “There is no justification for employing children, not just morally and legally but financially as well.”
So, there are accusations, and there are denials--but HRW does not bother hearing the denials. It relies on the accusations, for which there is no documentary evidence. That does not disprove the charges, but neither does HRW prove them. It simply presents one side, and the report does not present evidence that HRW worked to prove or disprove accusations made against Israel. It accepted them. As NGO Monitor (on whose international advisory board I am happy to serve) and others have noted,
the original cover photo for HRW’s report, consisting of a child working on a date palm tree, was of a young Palestinian child working on a Palestinian farm. (Following criticism, HRW “removed the misleading image and published a new photo.” )
Fox News's Bret Baier previewed his Clinton Cash special this morning by highlighting how Kazakhstan invested in the Clintons -- and was then sold to the Russians. More specifically, it was a uranium company, which might now supply the element to Iran.
New York Times reporter Jo Becker, interviewed by Fox for the special, says she asked the Clintons about the meeting between the former president and the uranium company. The Clintons claimed the meeting never took place. But Becker had seen photographic proof -- and finally the Clintons admitted not to be telling the truth.
The Fox special will air in full tomorrow at 10 p.m. EST.
As always, Winston Churchill said it best. Here he is on March 24, 1938, speaking less than two weeks after the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria:
"For five years I have talked to the House on these matters—not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet. ... That is the position—that is the terrible transformation that has taken place bit by bit."
Churchill, needless to say, didn't resign himself to this transformation. "Now is the time at last to rouse the nation. Perhaps it is the last time it can be roused with a chance of preventing war."
Churchill failed. The government policy remained one of appeasement. The nation was not roused. Six months later was Munich. And then, a year later, war.
This week, for the first time since President Obama abandoned, after his reelection, the traditional bipartisan and international policy of pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, the United States Senate will have a sustained debate on the administration's Iran policy. For the first time! The op-ed pages and the journals have been full of arguments about the path the administration has been proceeded down. Indeed, what's remarkable is how many serious observers, including many sympathetic to the notion of a negotiated deal with Iran, have been critical of the administration's repeated cascades of concessions.
But Congress? No. The administration has succeeded in averting votes on various pieces of legislation, and therefore in preventing a real and sustained Congressional debate on its Iran policy. So the elected representatives of the American people haven't weighed in.
Now they have a chance to do so. The occasion is the Corker-Cardin bill, reported out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which establishes a process for congressional review of whatever deal the administration reaches. It's a toothless bill, setting up a process which allows Congress, in reaction to a deal, to stop the president from waiving or removing sanctions on Iran—which is of course something Congress could do in any case, at any time. So the bill sets up a process that allows Congress to do something they can do without that process.
There is no reason to think that passage of this bill, as it now stands, significantly increases the chance of reversing such a deal once it is agreed to. There is every reason to think, if the bill passes without serious debate, that it will have the opposite effect—of giving the illusion that Congress is really doing something to stop or slow down a bad deal when it is not.
Chelsea Clinton was asked about the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation taking money from countries with terrible women's rights records. Clinton was also asked about the New York Times report today on shady payments to her family. She dodged the questions.
As Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton comes under fire for shady financial dealins, Jim Webb is calling for a "new leadership model for our country." Webb, also a Democrat, is considering a presidential run.
Webb writes in a fundraising email:
Last Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union I made the following comment:
"We are never going to have this financial leviathan machine that's going to pull in 2.5 billion dollars as some people do. I am never going to have a political consultant at my side whispering what I should say or how I should dress or whether I ought to go to Walmart or not. What we do have is long experience on the issues in and out of government, strong beliefs about where the country needs to go, and the kind of leadership where we can govern. We can pull in people who love our country and develop strong positions on fairness at home and a common sense foreign policy."
Then Webb takes a veiled shot at Clinton. "Given the lax rules that now govern campaign finance, other well-heeled candidates are amassing vast amounts of money, much of it from special interest groups that will continue to disregard the well-being of the average American. They all know -- and fear -- that with the right financial support, we can turn this election cycle around, to the benefit of those Americans who are doing the hard work and carrying the burden of of maintaining our unique society."
A new poll finds that a majority of voters believes President Barack Obama is "being too soft" on the terror-sponsoring Iranian regime. Only 2 percent believe Obama is "being too tough."
The findings come from a new poll conducted and released by Fox News.
"By a 51-34 percent margin, voters think Obama is 'being too soft' rather than 'striking the right balance' in talks with Iran," reports Fox.
"Democrats think Obama is striking the right balance by a 27-point margin. Republicans (by 69 points) and independents (by 17 points) say he is being too soft.
"Almost no one thinks Obama is “being too tough” with Iran (two percent)."
Half of American voters "don't think the deal will work" and disapprove of the president's job on Iran. "Voters don’t think the deal will work. Half say negotiating is the wrong thing to do because Iran can’t be trusted to honor any agreement (50 percent), while 40 percent think negotiating is the right thing to do because it’s the best way to prevent a nuclear Iran.
"Just 32 percent of voters approve of the job Obama’s doing on Iran, while 57 percent disapprove. Last month (the previous low) was 33-58 percent."
Hillary Clinton's campaign is criticizing the author of a forthcoming book, Clinton Cash, which details the shady financial dealings of the Clinton family, as being "backed by a Koch Brothers-linked organization." But today the Democratic presidential candidate is speaking on a Koch Brothers-backed stage in New York City.
More specifically, Clinton will later today take the stage at the David H. Koch Theater.
She will be appearing as part of the sixth annual Women in the World Summit. The event is hosted by Tina Brown, as well as Meryl Streep, Diane von Furstenberg, and longtime Clinton friend Melanne Verveer.
Clinton will be introduced by Beatrice Biira, the community engagement coordinator at Heifer International. Heifer is a participant in the Clinton Global Initiative. Clinton will be the second to last speaker of the day.
While it's unlikely Clinton is getting paid for the event, as she officially announced her candidacy for the president of the United States just weeks ago, the event is not free to attend. Tickets for Thursday's event alone cost $300 (for orchestra seats) and $150 for balcony.
The Democrats have made it a habit of knocking the Republican-aligned Koch brothers in recent elections. It's not known whether Clinton will use her speech on Koch Theater stage to continue her party's tradition.
As the theater's website states, "In July 2008, philanthropist David H. Koch pledged to provide $100 million over the next 10 years for the purpose of renovating the theater and providing for an operating and maintenance endowment. It was renamed the David H. Koch Theater at the New York City Ballet Winter gala, Tuesday, November 25, of that year."
State Department deputy secretary Heather Higginbottom testified on Capitol Hill today that the State Department is routinely cyber-attacked. “We are attacked every day, thousands of times a day,” Higginbottom said in response to questioning from Georgia senator David Perdue.
Perdue asked, "Today, I'd like you to focus on this I.T. issue with me just a minute. You know, it looks like there are thousands of administrators that work for State, who might or might have access to independent investigations, as well as it looked to me like yesterday when we asked the question if there was a breach in the state system, the I.G. wouldn't necessarily know it immediately.
"Mr. Linick actually testified yesterday that the State network has actually been attacked and that it affected the Office of the Inspector General. He also told us that it took over six months to get an agreement with Diplomatic Security. Going forward, they'll notify the OIG when they go on their I.T. network. That's a Memo of Understanding, as I understand it. And with the change of administration, that may or may not be continued into the next administration. Would you comment on this I.T. independence issue and also Right of First Refusal, as well as this potential breach issue?"
Higginbottom responded, "Yes. Thank you, Senator. And I have enjoyed our conversations. Look forward to continuing them. I meet, as you know, with the I.G. every week. We discuss issues, like the ones you just raised. We worked through the issue of trying to get an MOU so that there was notification of any entry onto the system.
"Just recently, the I.G. has brought to my attention, as well as to the secretary's the request for a separate I.T. system. We're looking at that very carefully. We're seeking to understand how it would work. They need to have as he testified yesterday, some access to the systems they currently have. The architecture, we have to make sure our system is as secure as it possibly can be, given -- we are attacked every day, thousands of times a day. So we have to work -- those are difficult issues, but we're looking at that now and examining it. It's also important that we understand the costs."
Perdue responded, "I'm sorry to interrupt. Have you actually had a breach that you can talk about?"
"I can tell you, Senator, that we have been breached, this has been reported. Any further details of that, I’d be happy to have in a different setting," said Higginbottom.