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The bizarre media hoopla over Alan Dershowitz’s social life in Martha’s Vineyard, explained

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Coming soon to the Katharine Cornell Theater in the small town of Vineyard Haven, emeritus Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz will be answering questions about President Donald Trump.

Specifically, Dershowitz tells the Boston Globe, “I want to start a civil, serious dialogue on the Vineyard about the civil liberties implications of the current efforts to impeach or prosecute President Trump.”

It’s the latest twist in a bizarrely long news cycle about a well-known legal scholar’s summer vacation that touches on many of the flashpoints in American civic life today: Trump, the exceptional anti-Trump political mobilization of educated women, the ambiguous posture of the mainstream news media in the crisis, the sometimes perplexing nature of social class in contemporary America, contradictory ideas about “law and order,” and the growing substitution of celebrity grifting for actual politics.

The saga touches on many subjects of profound importance, but it began with something extremely unimportant — a Trump apologist whining about not getting invitations to dinner parties.

Alan Dershowitz’s old friends shunned him on Martha’s Vineyard

It all started with an op-ed in the Hill published on June 27 in which Dershowitz, like any good author, tried to promote his book by linking it to a currently hot topic of discussion.

At the time there was a lot of talk about “civility” in the context of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders being refused service at the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia. Dershowitz, who is currently trying to get people to buy copies of The Case Against Impeaching Trump, chimed in with an op-ed about how despite not favoring impeachment, he disagrees with many of Trump’s policies.

“But that is not good enough for some of my old friends on Martha’s Vineyard,” he wrote. “For them, it is enough that what I have said about the Constitution might help Trump. So they are shunning me and trying to ban me from their social life on Martha’s Vineyard.”

This fairly unremarkable claim ended up spurring a remarkable four New York Times articles with contributions from eight reporters which, in turn, spurred a well-reported Lloyd Grove story in the Daily Beast that revealed that even Times executive editor Dean Baquet felt things had gotten out of control.

“We are trying to increase our coverage of cranky white guys,” Baquet quipped in a text to Grove. “Seriously, it’s a big place and different desks made their own plans. We should have coordinated better and done fewer.”

But rather than ending the story, Grove’s reporting if anything confirmed that the story by now had its own momentum — if a celebrity is defined as a person who is famous for being famous, Dershowitz’s social life on Martha’s Vineyard is now being covered specifically for being overcovered. Now you can find him on CNN and The View talking about Martha’s Vineyard.

Those of us who’ve tried in the past to promote a book about public affairs can only gaze with wonder at Dershowitz’s stunning success here, especially because arguing that Trump should not be impeached at a time when nobody is actually trying to impeach Trump is on its face a not particularly interesting thesis.

What is Martha’s Vineyard?

Martha’s Vineyard is a fancy vacation spot close to the major Northeast Corridor population centers. Consequently, it’s so well-known to the people who run the major media outlets in America that stories that take place in or around it have often been covered as if the typical person knows what Martha’s Vineyard is. (Realistically, people might wrongly assume it has something to do with wine production and/or Martha Stewart.)

In reality, Martha’s Vineyard an island south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts whose geography makes it an isolated getaway (you can’t drive there after all) that is also reasonably close to the most densely populated portion of the country.

Historically, Martha’s Vineyard was a center of the American whaling industry (the harpooner Tashtego from Moby Dick was from Martha’s Vineyard), which is why the preppy apparel brand Vineyard Vines uses a lot of whale iconography. In the 19th century, a quirk of population genetics gave rise to a large deaf population on the island, many of whom (along with many hearing islanders) used a distinctive Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.

The widespread deployment of railroads and especially the rise of the automobile, however, greatly changed the economic geography of the East Coast’s off-shore islands. At a time when water-based travel was generally faster than land-based travel, islands were not particularly isolated from other coastal communities. Automobiles inverted that logic, and rapidly turned places like Martha’s Vineyard into essentially specialized vacation communities that made a virtue out of their relative isolation from the hustle and bustle of the Northeast Corridor.

All the various Northeast summering spots have a fair amount in common, but the Vineyard does distinguish itself in several ways. For starters, the town of Oak Bluffs has long specifically been the vacation destination of choice for African-American elites on the East Coast. Secondarily, as an island the Vineyard leans in the direction of being a tight-knit community with defined edges.

The heavy presence of academics among Greater Boston’s social elite and the relative paucity of truly super-duper rich people compared to New York also means that the Vineyard has a distinctly tweedier, less flashy vibe than, say, the Hamptons. This in turn makes it a good getaway spot for celebrities who prefer to stay out of the public eye, and both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama enjoyed the ability to vacation there in a low-key manner.

None of this is super relevant to the story, except to say that between the relative diversity, the association with Democratic Party presidents, and the disproportionate academic population, Martha’s Vineyard is more uniformly liberal in its politics than other places Dershowitz might have chosen to go on vacation. It’s also the kind of place that lots of journalists might like to go on vacation, which helps explain the media coverage.

Journalists sometimes like to report from vacation

There have been a lot of stories lately about the impact of Donald Trump’s trade policies on the lobster industry in Maine. While this is unquestionably an important story in its own right, as a person whose family has long owned a summer house on the Maine coast, I can’t help but notice that the East Coast media’s level of interest in the economic well-being of seaside Maine towns invariably seems to skyrocket in the summertime.

In a practical sense, the off-season would be a much better time to do this reporting since lodging would be considerably cheaper and a reporter could be confident that almost everyone he encounters is a bona fide local. But from the standpoint of wanting to get a little work done while on vacation, wanting to get work to pay for you to go on vacation, or simply spending or week or two “working from home” while remote in a scenic location, it’s better to report from Maine in the summertime.

Something similar, I strongly suspect, was at work in the overwhelming enthusiasm Times reporters exhibited for following up on Dershowitz’s social life.

To this one might add that while the question of which dinner parties Alan Dershowitz does and does not get invited to is fundamentally uninteresting, Dershowitz’s political trajectory over the years actually is pretty interesting.

Alan Dershowitz, civil libertarian turned prominent Trump ally

Dershowitz began his career as a very typical — albeit unusually successful — liberal legal academic, clerking for the chief judge of the DC Circuit and then for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg before joining the faculty of Harvard Law School in 1964 and becoming the school’s youngest-ever full professor at the age of 28 in 1968. Though primarily an academic, he did dabble in litigation work, including the successful 1976 appellate defense of Deep Throat star Harry Reems.

In 1984, Dershowitz became a legal celebrity thanks to his successful representation of British socialite Claus von Bülow, who’d been convicted of the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny von Bülow, who had fallen into a coma. Dershowitz got the conviction overturned on appeal, Bülow was acquitted in a retrial, Dershowitz wrote a successful book about the case, and the book was adapted into a very good 1990 film, Reversal of Fortune, that earned several Oscar nominations.

One particularly charming detail of the story, as told by Dershowitz, is that he was initially reluctant to take the case, believing Bülow to be guilty. But Dershowitz agreed to take Bülow on as a client when he agreed to also finance the defense of two African-American teenagers facing death penalty murder charges.

This kind of upstairs/downstairs class dynamic, where the famous law professor serves as an advocate for privileged clients while making the case that he is serving the core interests of the underprivileged, is at the core of a lot of Dershowitz’s most noteworthy legal work.

He served, for example, as an appellate adviser for O.J. Simpson’s legal team during the former football star’s murder trial. The Simpson defense team managed to use the considerable resources at its disposal to successfully wield the black community’s longstanding grievances with police and prosecutorial misconduct into an acquittal for their client without really accomplishing much of anything for less famous members of the community.

By the same token, Dershowitz insists he’s not defending Trump because he’s suddenly become a right-winger — he’s doing so because as a longtime progressive civil libertarian he’s concerned about prosecutorial overreach and the FBI running amok to persecute an enemy. The larger political context in which Trump is governing as the least civil libertarian president in a generation, mobilizing and implementing a massive political and cultural backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement, is not interesting to Dershowitz. So while the Trump advocacy is a bit of a new posture for Dershowitz it is, on another level, entirely consistent with the broader trajectory of his career, which has always been more focused on exonerating individual high-profile clients than on systemic reform.

Meanwhile, separately from his main academic work Dershowitz has over the past 15 years been increasingly involved in pro-Israel advocacy, writing The Case for Israel in 2003 and The Case Against the Iran Deal in 2015. For a liberal Democrat to also have stridently hawkish views on Israel was not uncommon in the recent past, but the sands have been shifting on this issue.

Dershowitz supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign in part over Israel-related issues, and Israel became a much more party-polarized topic during Obama’s administration with Democrats shifting to the left even as Israeli politics has shifted well to the right. Meanwhile, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been openly supportive of Republicans.

The point, however, is that when Dershowitz tells his Vineyard friends that they — rather than he — are the ones who have changed, he has a point. And that includes the fact that, fundamentally, he’s just a guy out there doing a good job of promoting a quickie book.

Dershowitz is trying to sell books

The really crucial point in all of this is that while Dershowitz would like you to think that we are talking about his social life because he is being shunned over his pro-Trump book, the truth is the opposite — we are talking about alleged shunning (or lack thereof) because he is out promoting a book.

Dershowitz writes a lot of books — indeed, The Case Against Impeaching Trump is his second book of 2018, following February’s release of The Case Against BDS — and he is a shrewd self-promoter. His impeachment book is on an interesting subject, but it suffers from several fundamental problems.

First and foremost, nobody is really trying to impeach Trump! Democratic congressional challengers aren’t running on impeachment, Democratic congressional leaders say the impeachment issue is a “gift to Republicans,” none of the incumbent Senate Democrats in tough reelection battles favor impeachment, and it’s overall a nonissue.

Secondarily, while the possibility of impeachment is obviously a subject of Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation, that investigation is not complete and Mueller himself has said almost nothing about it. Depending on what Mueller finds, it’s certainly possible that support for impeachment will grow (maybe even Dershowitz will be convinced). But it’s also entirely possible that Mueller will bring charges against a few more Trump associates and ultimately conclude that the president personally didn’t do anything wrong, and the currently very low levels of political support for impeachment will go even lower.

Whether or not to impeach Trump is not really a live issue in American politics this summer. What is very much on the agenda is how college-educated liberals who feel viscerally that Trump is much worse than the average Republican should react to Trump supporters they encounter socially.

Stories about Sanders’s trip to the Red Hen, White House adviser Stephen Miller’s misadventures in take-out sushi, and other day-to-day acts of civic disrespect for Trump figures have been widely trafficked and widely debated despite a lack of obvious significance. Among other things, even in a social circle where nobody would actually defend Trump on the merits, it’s easy to reach an equilibrium where reasonable people can disagree about exactly how much shunning of Trump supporters one should engage in.

By linking his book directly to a live controversy, Dershowitz has managed to secure oodles of coverage and sell books. And I, frankly, can only admire him for it.