Reflecting on the fact that this is my last column, I was tempted to try my hand at writing something of a masterpiece. Like a siren, this column had been calling out for me to attempt a grand reflection, either of my own work, that of my fellow columnists, or of something even more general. It would be nice, I thought to myself, to end the semester with a bang—to write something that might leave a lasting mark and affect the discourse of our little Harvard world. But the profound thought that such a column requires eludes me, and besides, I don’t think I am competent enough a writer to accomplish such a magnificent task. Instead, I found my head filled with a number of observations—columns waiting to be born, if you will—and I thought I would use this opportunity to share them.
First, my writing coincides with Hanukkah, perhaps the most visible Jewish holiday here in America. But this is strange, because Hanukkah is, from a traditional Jewish perspective, not a major holiday. It pales in comparison to Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Sukkos, and a host of others. So why is Hanukkah always one of the first things associated with Jews in the public imagination? The answer turns out to be, in part, that American Jews used Hanukkah to assimilate into America. Because of its calendrical proximity to one of America’s most celebrated holidays, Christmas, American Jews promoted and even added to the holiday to associate it with Christmas. For example, the institution of gift giving, which American Jews used to associate with Purim, was shifted to Hanukkah. (Although it is a long standing custom to give children gelt, or money, on Hanukkah, gifts seem to be something altogether different.)
This has had the dual and perhaps paradoxical effects of allowing Jews to better assimilate into America and embrace—or for some reconnect to—their Judaism. Hanukkah is light on rules and heavy on food and games. It is an easy way to connect with a tradition that at times may seem onerous. Hanukkah can be both a symbol of assimilation and a beckoning of tradition. This is, of course, ironic. But it is all the more ironic when one considers the meaning of Hanukkah, that is, the events it commemorates. Hanukah is a celebration of a revolt lead by Judah Maccabee against the Seleucid Empire, which tried to force Jews to Hellenize. The Maccabee Revolt did not only target the Seleucids, but also a group of Jews—the Mityavnim—who acquiesced to the Seleucids and accepted their ways. Hanukkah, in other words, is a celebration of Jewish resistance against assimilation, and of Jewish insistence to keep its practices.
I do not bemoan Hanukkah’s status as a tool of assimilation. Nor do I reject Jewish assimilation, or any assimilation for that matter. In any state as large as America, assimilation is a necessary and productive force. The irony, without needing to be a criticism, is interesting, and should give us a moment to pause and think about what other things change dramatically over time.
Second, after the recent tragedy in San Bernardino, there has been a lot of talk about gun control, or the lack thereof. As the token conservative for many of my friends, I have been asked several times about my thoughts on the issue. I think a lot of the dialogue on the issue here at Harvard is one sided in favor of more gun control. Before having any conversation on the issue it is important to point out what Senator Marco Rubio said (and what was confirmed by the Washington Post’s famed fact-checker Glenn Kessler) that no recent mass shootings would have been prevented by proposed gun laws. People on either side of the argument can go to their favorite blog, memorize a set of statistics that supports their position, and rattle them off when challenged. I am not saying that there is no right answer, only that we all should be more cautious and open-minded when debating such a polarizing issue.
It might be helpful to think about the issue in different terms. David Foster Wallace, in a short piece for The Atlantic, asked us if “some things are still worth dying for.” He offered a thought experiment: Let’s assume that there is no way to prevent terrorist attacks without encroachments on our civil liberties, but without those encroachments we can get by with “a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism.” Would the deaths that arise from that vulnerability be a price we can stomach paying for the sort of freedom Americans were once accustomed to?
After the recent string of tragedies, I found myself coming back to that piece. We can run the same thought experiment for guns. Note, this assumes a lot: that guns are to blame; that gun control laws would work; that there exists a right to own whatever gun one wishes. Despite those assumptions, it gets at something crucial that is often overlooked. Gun ownership is part of large swaths of American culture, and many Americans cherish their guns. To take them away is to do violence to their way of life. At the same time, guns menace, maim, and kill. A thoughtful dialogue on the subject should acknowledge both facts. And it is interesting to think about how those on the right and those on the left answer these questions, both Wallace’s experiment and my spin on it, in perhaps inconsistent ways.
As Kanye West said of the beat for his collaborative song with Jay-Z "The Joy," it deserves “the Holy Trinity.” What for him constituted that Trinity is not fitting for the eyes of polite readers, but the point comes across loud and clear: The best things come in threes. So, for a third and final reflection, I want to talk a little bit about Donald Trump.
Much has been said about him and his controversies, and I do not want to write what has already been written just for the sake of seeing myself write it. Instead, I want to briefly focus on a point that has been underemphasized: Trump is no Republican. The Republican Party, at least since Reagan, has been a conservative party. It supports a limited federal government, free markets, and a proud America. And it cleaves to God, championing faith. Nothing about Trump is consistent with those principles. Take some of his most controversial positions.
Immigration: Trump’s plans to deal with illegal aliens—a real problem—will cost hundreds of millions of dollars (if not more) and dramatically increase the size of the federal government. His support of mass deportation would require a Washington behemoth. The impulse, when examining a problem, to first look to Washington and have faith in an expanded federal bureaucracy is foreign to Republicans.
Islam: In the wake of September 11th, and throughout his presidency, Bush took pains to make clear that America was at war with radicalism, not with Islam. Why I am most proud to say I am a Republican is because the GOP is the party of that bedrock American principle, religious liberty. Trump’s remarks critical of all Muslims run against that sentiment, and his vision of a federal database of Muslims is not only repugnant to the Republican religious impulse, but it is also an anathema to the party’s vision of a smaller federal government.
Looking back at these observations, I think something of a common thread emerges. They all, to some degree, deal with things that are unexpected or unusual: the irony of Hanukkah; the incommensurable tensions of the gun-control debate; the anti-conservatism of Trump. The lesson I derive from all this is to be cautious and humble. I often find things to be a lot more complex and subtle after I have thought them over for some time than I do after examining them one or even several times. I wonder if our dialogue would be more productive and less harsh if there were less of an impulse to say we understand things to the fullest.
Isaac G. Inkeles ’16 is a government concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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