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In a week when Republicans are rushing to pass the most consequential tax bill in a generation, when North Korea is celebrating the launch of a missile that could land in my neighborhood, when Britain just learned it’s getting an American princess and America found out that another of its trusted anchors is apparently a serial harasser, I find myself puzzling over something of far less gravity and substance.
Namely: Anthony Scaramucci.
Oh, it’s easy enough to poke fun at Scaramucci, whose career at the highest level of government was like an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — brief, loud and cringe-inducing. Way back in July, when we were all much younger, Scaramucci, the brash hedge-fund mogul in mirrored shades, showed up at the White House podium as communications director, although he made clear he thought he was effectively stepping in to run the place.
Then he called my friend Ryan Lizza and delivered a profane rant about something Lizza had written in the New Yorker, which somehow led to the firing of Reince Priebus as chief of staff, which in turn led to the hiring of John Kelly, who fired Scaramucci after less than two weeks on the job.
It was great TV.
But the Mooch, as he actually calls himself, was back in the news this week for another reason. And this time his story raised some serious issues, I think, having to do with free speech and modern liberalism.
If you missed it with all the other stuff going on, here’s what happened: Earlier this month, a few hundred students at Tufts University demanded that Scaramucci be kicked off the board of advisers at the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I should tell you that, like Scaramucci, I’m a Tufts grad, and I serve on an analogous board of advisers for the Tisch College of Civic Life.
The students said Scaramucci’s behavior embarrassed the school. They objected, specifically, to a tweet that emanated from a website he started, which had posed a bizarre poll question asking how many Jews the Nazis killed. The exact purpose of asking this question remains opaque, but as a general rule, nothing good is found at the intersection of Twitter and the Holocaust.
One of the Fletcher students leading this protest, Camilo A. Caballero, published a couple of op-eds in the Tufts Daily, blasting Scaramucci as “irresponsible, inconsistent, an unethical opportunist.”
Tufts did the mature thing, which was to invite Scaramucci to defend himself in a public forum on campus this week. He accepted, but in the meantime, it seems, Scaramucci fired back through his lawyers, threatening to sue the writer and the paper for damaging his reputation if the paper didn’t retract Caballero’s latest piece and apologize.
Now, I’m no attorney, but even with a passing knowledge of libel law, I can tell you that you it’s all but impossible to damage a reputation that’s already been publicly pilloried. Trying to defame Scaramucci’s honor would be like plotting to sink the Titanic in 1913. But anyway.
On Monday, after much drama, Tufts decided to “postpone” Scaramucci’s planned visit to campus that night. Tuesday, Scaramucci resigned his seat on the Fletcher board. The students got their way.
But at what cost?
As I’ve written before, we wrestle with these issues all the time now in higher education. Students are scared and angry and eager to strike a blow for social justice, and often that involves banning speakers or castigating alumni. School officials are so preoccupied with safe spaces and micro-aggressions that they sometimes forget what they’re there to teach.
Personally, I have no problem with Scaramucci having been on the Fletcher board. Sure, he’s indelicate, and he probably knows less than zero about international diplomacy. I certainly would have objected had Tufts invited him to deliver an endowed lecture on nonproliferation.
But, you know, if we went around purging college and nonprofit boards of rich donors with no real expertise to speak of, an awful lot of catered pasta salad would go uneaten.
As for his demonstrably faulty character, I’d object more to Sean Spicer, who knowingly lied from the same podium for the better part of a year and then laughed it up at the Emmys, than to Scaramucci, who seemed to genuinely believe whatever nonsense he was spouting.
No, the real reason for the students’ activism wasn’t Scaramucci’s qualifications, or an inexplicable tweet he didn’t write or even know about in advance. (I believe him on this.) It really comes down to politics, and his very visibly being on the wrong side of it for a liberal university like Tufts.
In the view of students who signed that petition, and probably many who did not, Scaramucci is guilty of having aided and abetted a racist, dishonest president. They do not see Trump as a legitimate spokesman for American values, and to them, combatively defending the president and his followers is something like a war crime.
But that’s hardly a legitimate interpretation of American values, either. Trump is an elected president, and all Scaramucci did was step forward to serve his country in a job for which he wasn’t remotely qualified. That’s not a crime, unless it turns out to have involved meetings with Russian agents.
I wish Tufts had held its ground and insisted that Scaramucci speak. He had a right to defend himself, and if his silly legal threat was what worried administrators, what better inoculation than to have given him his chance to address the community directly?
Universities have a lot of competing interests and demands right now, but above all, it seems to me, they have one imperative: to demand that their social-media-savvy students entertain perspectives that don’t always comfort them. (This is one of the guiding ideals behind Tisch College, which is why I volunteer my time.)
More broadly, though, this isn’t just about elite universities — it’s also about the fate of the American left.
There are a lot of reasons Trump won last year’s election — naked nativism, economic exasperation, a deeply distrusted opponent — and it can be hard to untangle them. But somewhere on that list, too, is the cultural elitism of Democrats who want to brand anyone who disagrees with them as immoral and intolerant.
When liberals lecture and try to silence their critics, they lose. Moreover, they manage to do what ought to be impossible, which is to give a guy like Scaramucci the high moral ground.
Making a martyr of the Mooch is no small feat, and nothing to celebrate.
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