Today's guest, renowned civil liberties attorney and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, raises the bar and exceeds the highest standards. Professor Dershowitz has published over a thousand articles and 50 books, including several national bestsellers. His autobiography Taking the Stand was a New York Times bestseller. Other notable books include The Trials of Zion, Rights From Wrongs, The Case for Israel, and Chutzpah.
His forthcoming book Dershowitz on Killing examines the complex issue of determining rules regarding life and death decisions. Following the principles that have guided his long, distinguished career, he argues these rules should reflect the irreversibility of death.
In this episode, Dershowitz explains how he became unfairly "canceled" for adhering to his principles, and what upholding these principles has cost him.
His most recent book, The Price of Principle: Why Integrity Is Worth the Consequences (July 2022), takes a broad stance against the dangerous trend of cancellations—both of specific people as well as the very idea of neutral justice. It’s not only right-wingers provocateurs being cancelled on college campuses anymore. Liberal ideas, including some of the most cherished principles of American government, are now being cast aside.
Take the presumption of innocence. It’s the bedrock of our adversarial legal system. We all pay lip service to the idea that everyone is entitled to a vigorous defense. Yet the principle seems to go out the window whenever the person being defended is unpopular, as when Dershowitz pointed out the shaky legal grounds for impeaching former President Trump.
In recent years, Dershowitz himself has suffered the ‘price of principle’ as the latest victim of cancel culture. Former friends like Larry David refuse to talk to him; he’s been shunned from events at which he used to be top-billed speaker. And his principled defenses of unpopular figures like Trump have been used against him in the court of public opinion.
Unlike most celebrities whom the “cancelists” go after, Alan was exonerated. Still, Dershowitz has found few defenders. He has had to defend himself.
Furthermore, he writes that principles have taken a backseat to partisan identity politics. Partisan Democrats forget that his defense of Trump was based on the same principles he had used to defend Clinton against partisan attacks. He argues that too many people abandon their principles in favor of whatever stance benefits their political party or social group, and believes we are heading towards a "dystopia of partisanship and discrimination" if this trend continues.
Purchase the book, and subscribe to Alan’s Substack:
The Case for Neutral Principles
Bob Zadek: Alan, your recently published book The Price of Principle: Why Integrity Is Worth the Consequences differs from your 50 other methodically persuasive books on topics like censorship, equality, vaccine mandates, and law. This book is more personal. What goal did you have in writing it?
Alan Dershowitz (02:54): I wish to criticize cancel culture. I desire to push back against those who would censor views they disagree with. I wanted to express my disapproval for free speech for me but not for thee—due process for me but not for thee. If I can be canceled because I stood up for principle, then anyone could be canceled. If I can be attacked, then any American can be attacked.
I feel a special obligation because I do have a platform to fight back against what I regard as some of the greatest evils of today: the substitution of partisanship for principle. People just pick sides and try to do justice not based on any evidence or principles, but based on which side you're on.
In the Bible and the Torah, God tells judges there are only two rules. One, don't take bribes. That's obvious, but that's the second rule. The first rule is low tech: Do not recognize faces or do justice based on who the individuals are. That is why the statue of Justice is blindfolded. But today everybody is peeking under that blindfold and administering justice based on race, political party, gender, ethnicity, religion—everything but the merits.
This is a call to return to principles. It is difficult, because I have obviously been censored, criticized, threatened with disbarment proceedings, and subjected to every possible type of attack for insisting on prioritizing principles over partisanship. But I will continue doing so and fighting back.
Bob Zadek: Most partisans believe they are advancing a principle through their actions. So are we really talking about the methods used to promote a principle? Because one influences the other, doesn't it?
Alan Dershowitz: Yes, but remember everybody claims to have principles. The Nazis claimed the principle of trying to destroy the Jewish people. Stalin claimed the principle of communism over capitalism. Just because you claim to have a principle doesn't mean that you're a principled person, that you are actually basing your ideas and your actions on neutral principles. I call for neutral principles. I was friends with the philosopher named John Rawls from when we were at Harvard together who always said, you decide moral issues behind a veil of ignorance. You don't know whether you're going to be a Democrat or Republican, white or black, Jewish or Christian. You have to come up with moral rules, rules of principle that would satisfy you and everybody else without regard to who you were and who you become. It's that kind of principle that I'm talking about.
As the lawyer Felix Frankfurter once said, the history of liberty is largely a history of procedures. What concerns me today is that the procedures are no longer neutral. You get different due process depending on ethnic backgrounds or on religious backgrounds. A democracy is a neutral principle. Due process is a neutral principle. I'm looking for a return to neutral principles, which means sometimes you lose, sometimes you win.
Tactics vs. Principles
Bob Zadek: Let’s discuss the principle which itself drives the censorship.
There are two topics: First, the principle. Second, The tactic.
Censorship is a tactic, not a principle. It is a tactic used by those who disagree with your point of view to ensure your point of view is never expressed, and pushes it into the shadows.
Now you spent a lot of time appropriately in your book on cancel culture. Let's assume, playing devil's advocate, we don't disagree with the principle. You'd still write a book criticizing cancel culture, focusing on the tactic. So help us understand why the tactic itself deserves so much attention.
Alan Dershowitz: Well, for me the tactic follows the principle. The principle is that the ends do not justify the means. The principle is neutrality. The principle is fairness. The principle is due process; the principle is the adversarial system.
There are two kinds of principles, you're right. There are principles like Nazism, communism, fascism, and antisemitism. Those are all claimed to be based on principles. But all of those principles have one thing in common: they won't tolerate counter-principles. They won't accept the opportunity to challenge, debate, and allow other points of view to be expressed.
In the last chapter of my book about principles, I point out that just because it's a principle doesn't mean that it's right. There are wrong principles too. So for me, the focus has to be on process. You call it tactics. I call it process. In order for principled people to be able to dominate the discussion, there has to be a process. And in a democracy, the people decide subject to checks and balances and judicial review. Those are the principles I'm most interested in: the principles that deal with procedure and process and fairness and the marketplace of ideas and the hope of the marketplace of ideas.
Jefferson said that as long as there are opportunities to respond, there is nothing to worry about by allowing wrongheaded ideas.
What's important is that the free exchange of ideas remains open to all viewpoints. Hopefully, this will lead to reasonable conclusions.
However, it doesn’t always work out. In 1930s Germany, the marketplace of ideas was initially open between 1930 and 1932, resulting in a plurality of votes for the Nazis. The marketplace of ideas was never open in the Soviet Union or China, so we can't judge those cases. We have a few examples of the free exchange of ideas leading to bad outcomes, like early 20th-century Spain and Italy. There was some degree of a marketplace of ideas and they chose fascists. So you never know who the marketplace will help or hurt, but for me, the marketplace is a principle in and of itself.
Dershowitz’s Cancellation Story
Bob Zadek: You share your personal experience of being "canceled" intimately with readers from the start of your book. Tell us about going through cancellation so people understand what fueled your passion for writing this book.
Alan Dershowitz: Well, let me start with today. The New York Times has a lead story, and the lead story is entitled “American Jewish Leaders Active in the Debate over Israel Judicial Reform.” Well, that seems to describe me. I'm an American Jewish leader. I've been a leader of the American Jewish community for 50 years.
I am the most knowledgeable American on the Israeli judiciary. I have written more articles on that subject than anyone else, but The New York Times chose not to interview me. They chose a whole bunch of people that some people have heard of, some have not. But the Times made a willful and deliberate decision to eliminate me, to cancel me from a debate in which I am deeply involved.
Having a discussion about American attitudes toward Israeli judicial reform without including me is like staging the play Hamlet without the prince. It may sound egotistical, but it's just an accurate truthful description. I am the most qualified person in America to discuss that issue, and yet The New York Times deliberately and willfully omitted me. The same thing has happened on a number of other occasions.
Temple Emanu-El in New York used to have me every single year putting a biblical character on trial—Abraham, Moses, David. They would gather 1,600 people. It was the biggest event of the year. The rabbi used to say, "We have more people here than on Yom Kippur."
And then when I was falsely accused by a woman I had never met, the 92nd Street Y canceled me, as did Temple Emanu-El, as did the Ramaz School.
Now the woman eventually admitted after eight years that she may have mistakenly identified me for somebody else. But the cancellation still continues.
When I defended President Trump on the floor of the Senate, even though I've disagreed with him and voted against him, and plan to vote against him again, my wife and I, and my whole family were canceled on Martha's Vineyard. Nobody would speak to us.
People were told, “if you're seen speaking to Alan Dershowitz, you'll never be part of our social group.” We weren't invited to any events.
And so there was a massive attempt to cancel me. And as I've said, I have the resources, I have the ability, I have the energy to fight back—and therefore I have an obligation to stand up for all the other people who have been canceled for no good reason or for very bad reasons, but don't have the resources, the ability to fight back.
Cancel Culture show you who your real friends are
Bob Zadek: Did accepting that role make you question your relationship with the “cancelists?” Did you discover something about them you didn't know before? Or is this just a sign of what's happening in some circles?
Alan Dershowitz: A bit of both. Their behavior showed they weren't real friends. People behaved so obnoxiously. My wife was at the gym when a woman said, "Oh my God, this is Alan Dershowitz's wife. I can't be in the same room with her."
Caroline Kennedy, who'd invited us over many times, sat down next to me at a dinner party and said, "Had I known you were coming, I'd never have accepted the invitation to sit with you." She's the ambassador to Australia, and is supposed to talk to Chinese leaders, but can't speak to someone who defended Trump on constitutional grounds.
Many of the residents of Martha's Vineyard whose children I represented pro bono—staying up late at night to help them when they got arrested for drunk driving or, in one case, cheating on a test—then refused to speak with me.
Larry David and I used to work out at the same gym. He'd come over for dinner sometimes too. But one day he walked up to me in front of a store on Martha's Vineyard and said, "You're disgusting, and all your people are disgusting. All these Republicans are disgusting." So it's partly a function of what's going on in society today—people choose sides, and if you're not on their side, they don't want to have anything to do with you. But it also showed the superficiality of friendships.
A couple people contacted me, but I refuse to reach out to them in return. I have no interest in being friendly with or associating with anyone on Martha's Vineyard who was involved in canceling me.
In some ways, I'm glad these fake friendships are over and I don't have to deal with some of these bigoted, biased people anymore. It was hard for my wife and kids too. They lost friends because of my views and the false accusation against me. Now that the woman basically withdrew the accusation, saying she may have mistaken me for someone else, legally withdrawing all charges, some people have apologized. But others still have it out for me.
When canceled by the 92nd Street Y, Temple Emanu-El, and Ramaz School, the heads and rabbis said they didn't believe the charges but wanted to avoid trouble, reminiscent of McCarthyism.
Growing up in the 1950s, the anti-communist fervor known as McCarthyism was rampant. People would say, "We don't actually believe you're a communist, but others have said you are. So to avoid trouble, we're going to as if you're a communist." And people were canceled.
It's interesting that Chilmark, the center of today's "cancel culture" on Martha's Vineyard, was itself a target of McCarthyism.
Many left-wing people lived in Chilmark and were subject to McCarthyite tactics.
You'd think Chilmark residents would understand modern McCarthyism better, but they're the worst offenders. For them, it's "fairness and due process for me, but not for thee." If you're hard-left, they want fair treatment, but if you are somebody who tries to be neutral and principled, they have no interest in you. And so it did teach me a lesson.
The hypocrisy of cancel culture
Bob Zadek: It is an oversimplification to dismiss "cancel culture" as merely rude or insincere behavior. That does not capture it accurately. What do those who condemn others - so-called "cancellers", have in common? Certainly not all of society cancels people. Most do not, in fact. Give us insight into what makes them different in a negative way from those in society who are more open to opposing views.
Alan Dershowitz: Yeah, it's the one word of course, intolerance. They just can't tolerate opposing points of view.
Some of the people on Martha's Vineyard who canceled us lack the intelligence to understand neutral principles. They wrongly assume that if you defend someone, you must support them politically. They're too dumb to understand otherwise. A third group believes Trump is "worse than Hitler." Supporting Trump's legal case makes you like Goebbels—a helper and enabler, so they'll treat you like a Nazi war criminal. It's an absurd extremism that happens on the extreme and far left.
Look, I oppose woke culture and extreme leftist ideology. People should know I'm a centrist liberal. I align more with centrist libertarians than with woke leftists or far-right neo-Nazis.
For me, tolerance is key. I used to debate William F. Buckley frequently. Though we held opposing views, we could argue passionately then share a drink and learn from each other. Those days are gone forever.
Larry David doesn't want to learn from me. He wrote blurbs for some of my books, calling me brilliant and saying my arguments were terrific. Now, he doesn't even want to listen to anything I say because I defended Trump. And that's true of people like Caroline Kennedy as well, the whole Kennedy family. She has tolerated so much on behalf of people within her family, within her social circle, but draws the line at anybody who would defend the legal and constitutional rights of Donald Trump.
Larry David no longer wants to learn from me. Though he once praised my brilliance and called my arguments terrific in book blurbs, now he won’t even listen because I defended Trump, and that's all that matters for him. For him, the ends justify the means.
So there is immense hypocrisy here too. People aren't even embarrassed to be hypocrites. If you're a hypocrite for the "right" side, that's apparently fine.
Bob Zadek: I have found brief chances to argue against cancel culture by comparing it to our judicial system, particularly the criminal law aspect.
A system without a defense would lack fairness. Though some may assume guilt proves arrest, our principles say the opposite. Imagine a judicial system where the defense was not allowed to speak. Would society be pleased with the result?
Alan Dershowitz: You don't have to imagine it. It happened in the January 6th commission where every member of Congress on that commission was partisan, and nobody was permitted to make a counterargument on behalf of Trump.
For example, when they purported to show Trump's speech on January 6th, they deliberately and willfully edited the tape and omitted the words of President Trump, where he said, "I want you to go and demonstrate peacefully and patriotically."
If there were an adversarial system with fair representation of both sides, they would never have eliminated those words. Under cross-examination, they'd be terribly embarrassed when asked, "Didn't you eliminate those words? Why did you eliminate those words? Doesn't it show your bias?”
I went to China in 1979 at the request of Ted Kennedy to observe emerging democratic groups, like the Democracy Wall movement. I attended my first trial there and sat through the whole thing. It was a minor trial of someone who had stolen building equipment from a government institute, punishable by maybe 10 years in prison.
The prosecution presented a compelling case. Then the judge said, "Before I decide, let's hear from the people." They opened the doors and 25-30 people rushed in, shouting "He's guilty! Maximum punishment!"
The judge said, "I've heard all sides.” It was Alice in Wonderland: , conviction, sentence, and execution, then trial. The only difference from the January 6th congressional hearings was that there was no trial at all, either in that Chinese courthouse or in Congress.
So today in the U.S., we see this happening. We see it in some of the attacks on Trump. Lawyers present only one side, yet judges rule against them. I don't say Trump's arguments are right. I just want to hear all sides of all arguments before rulings, and that just isn't being done today in the court of public opinion or in the rooms of Congress or tragically even sometimes in the courts of law.
Bob Zadek: One example proves the point about bias in the process: The January 6th commission. It was purely political, with no pretense of finding the truth. All knew it was political theater, with no sincere attempt to determine facts.
For instance, the Warren Commission on JFK's assassination or the 9/11 Commission at least sincerely tried to find facts.
Persuading the Public about Principle
Bob Zadek: Now, in your books and in others who write persuasively, they aim to change a law, alter an election. Though it's a tough road, their goal is reasonable: some benefit, some change.
If you write persuasively, I ask myself, what could you hope to change in your book? Once your book was done, did you not hold that hope? If so, what did you aim to do? Or was it as personal? Explain what happened to you.
Alan Dershowitz: By the way, I have now completed my 53rd book, The Preventive State. Though I had only written 30 books a few years ago, I hope to reach 60 books total. That's my goal, and I’m 84 years old now. With each new book, my experience grows. I aim to continue writing as long as I'm able, using the strength and ability I have.
To answer your question, a little of both. If they were conservatives, I'd want to make them more critical and analytic in their thinking. If they were liberals or libertarians, I'd want them to improve at what they advocate for.
I didn't really aim to change people's views, but in my books, I do want to change minds. I want to open them. I want them to oppose cancel culture. I want them to try seeing through the lack of principle.
You say everyone knew the January 6 committee was overtly political. Some of my friends and colleagues didn't. They listened and said, "Oh wow, did you hear that evidence? Aren't you convinced?"
I said, "No, I'm never convinced until I hear both sides of an issue."
Many fell for the idea that since there were videos and testimony, it must be true, failing to realize the evidence was selectively edited.
I believe it was [John Henry] Wigmore who once said cross-examination is the greatest tool for finding the truth ever created by humans. And of course, it originates in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel. There, Daniel confronts two witnesses trying to frame a woman. He questions them separately, not allowing them to hear each other's answers. He gets them to contradict each other and admit their lies.
I think many people don't understand that when they hear only one side of the case, they're satisfied. And many people make up their minds even before they hear the evidence. As you say, if you're not guilty, why would anybody have arrested you? The prisons are filled with people unfortunately, who were ultimately proved innocent by DNA evidence and by other evidence. And also the streets have with guilty people who were never convicted. Our system is far from perfect.
I think many people accept what they hear without question, satisfied with only one side of the story. Some even make up their minds before considering the evidence.
As you say, if you're not guilty, why would anybody have arrested you? Well, the prisons are filled unfortunately with people who were ultimately proved innocent by DNA evidence and other evidence. Also, the streets have guilty people who were never convicted. Our system is far from perfect.
Bob Zadek: I should have invited those friends of yours whom you referred to come to your house to watch 12 Angry Men. It's a very short film, as you know, considered to be the greatest courtroom drama ever made.
Alan Dershowitz: It's not a courtroom drama, though.
Bob Zadek: True, it takes place entirely in one room, the jury room, and it's must-watching for every law student.
To this day, whenever I watch it, tears fill my eyes. I can't stop. I have to watch that movie more than once a year. There have been attempts to remake it, never successfully. It won't happen. Henry Fonda made it for $700,000, starring alongside many famous actors before they were famous in their twenties, and it was magnificent. Sorry, I digressed. I don't mean to take up our time with a movie review.
Alan Dershowitz: I'm glad you did.
Merit vs. Identity
Bob Zadek: Your book describes your personal experience with cancel culture. Who is your primary audience? Did you write it for those who practice cancel culture, for the rest of society, or both?
Alan Dershowitz: The target was people who could make the “cancelists”—people who engage in cancel culture—feel guilty, and hold others accountable. The goal is to make it very difficult for people to justify cancel culture. Remember when I wrote the book, there were those on television, in the media, and writing for newspapers defending cancel culture, saying it was a good thing.
I wanted to make it clear that if you're going to continue to engage in cancel culture, you do so in the face of significant criticism. For the most part I would understand that people who have been canceled would probably read the book more sympathetically. But I tried to write it in a way to make it acceptable to people who were cancellers as well.
Bob Zadek: Most of my audience are people who go about their lives without spending time, energy, or power on canceling. To those outside of the Martha's Vineyard part-time resident, what message do you hope this book conveys to them about how they can reduce the influence, or perhaps eliminate, this hopefully transient phenomenon of cancel culture?
Alan Dershowitz: I don't believe it's transient. I think it's getting worse. It's being taught in universities today. I think many young people and their teachers support canceling others. My goal was to convince young people that canceling people shuts down your mind. It prevents you from learning and growing. It makes you close-minded. If you want to develop and learn, you can't cancel people. You must engage with them, listen to them, argue with them. Only by confronting different views can you avoid becoming static and rigid in your thinking.
Having taught for 50 years at Harvard as a teacher, you have to be open to new ideas.
I would come home from class every day, and instead of asking me, "What did you teach the students today?" my wife would always ask, "What did you learn from the students today?" I would always be so happy to share an insight that I didn't have, explained to me by a student so different from me. While I may still disagree, at least I understood them better.
Bob Zadek: I've had a similar experience. My version of that is when I have guests on the show or when I'm just having a conversation in Starbucks, find somebody next to me, I love to be proven wrong because it's only then that I learned something. To reaffirm what I already know, even if it's incorrect, does not help me in the slightest. So the sign of becoming more intelligent is how often you're proven wrong, because each time it's like you graduate to the next level.
Alan Dershowitz: The close-minded - the cancellers, the Martha's Vineyard elite - never learned anything because they shut themselves off from opposing views. If you differ, they don't want to listen. This was like McCarthyism. That's what fascism was like. These folks call themselves liberal, but they're the most reactionary people on the face of the earth. They're so bound by their supposed leftist principles that they're unwilling to do anything politically incorrect.
People often forget that the phrase "political correctness" originated with Stalin. He would execute those who expressed views that contradicted the communist party line. That was the original meaning of "politically incorrect." Today, some invoke that phrase as if it signifies something positive.
Bob Zadek: In your book, you devoted at least one entire chapter and parts of other chapters to discussing identity politics, a subtopic of cancel culture. Please explain what people generally mean by "identity politics" and why it is significant.
Alan Dershowitz: As I see it, identity politics is a cancer in our country. Let's distinguish between identity groups and identity politics. I strongly identify with my heritage, being a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, the son of first-generation Americans and the grandson of immigrants from Poland. I have a strong connection to that identity, but I don't want to be judged solely based on it. That's personal. I want to be evaluated based on my own merits. I was at Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic speech in August 1963, though I struggled to hear his words from so far away, where he proclaimed, "I dream of a day when my children will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.”
It's not so much the positives of identity politics as the negatives of doing away with meritocracy. Today, some universities admit medical students based on identity rather than grades, and are eliminating grades altogether.
Look, if you want to eliminate meritocracy for law students or talk show hosts, fine. But never dare eliminate it for airline pilots, surgeons, or anyone else who holds lives in their hands. Then that's in my book as well Dershowitz on Death when it comes to issues of life and death.
You must hire the most highly qualified people. If you show no discrimination, you'll achieve real diversity.
Let me tell you a story. I needed an exceptionally skilled doctor for a particular procedure after experiencing some health issues. And so I searched all across New York City for the finest surgeon to perform the procedure. Everyone recommended the same physician. At first, I assumed it would be a stereotypical affluent white man from an elite background, perhaps a six-foot-two fellow from Groton who attended Yale Med School. But when I entered the operating room, there was this short African American surgeon with a thick Brooklyn accent—and everyone said he was the absolute best. Yes, there was diversity, but it was diversity based on skill and merit rather than identity politics. I was thrilled to have the best surgeon in the world operate on me. I like the fact that he was Black, but ultimately I just wanted the most skilled surgeon.
Bob Zadek: I knew legacy admissions and favoritism existed, but confronting it made me question my own biases. I claimed to value meritocracy but didn't object to unfair preferences for children of alumni. Why did I get angrier at efforts promoting diversity and inclusion? I realized I needed to reflect on my prejudices and hypocritical standards.
Alan Dershowitz: Yes, I agree. I have opposed legacy admissions, geographic distribution in admissions, and admissions based on family connections since the 1960s. In fact, I proposed something quite radical then: removing the applicant's name from Harvard's admission form. Their name—whether Crawford, Smith, Dershowitz, Bernstein, etc.—would not matter. Nor would the form contain the name of their college or high school. Instead, it would list the quality of the college, divided into five groups: the top colleges (number one); the second-best colleges (number two); and so on. So if you attended Harvard or Yale, you'd get a number one rating. But you'd get the same rating if you went to Wash U or another school like Brooklyn College, which is just as good as Harvard.
So Admission would be determined by merit alone.. The application would contain only information relevant to the role: work experience and qualifications. It would not include race, religion, gender, or other personal details.
You can say where you came from in terms of whether you grew up poor and had to struggle to achieve what you wanted, as long as it does not include invidious things like racial slurs. Remember, when I was growing up, if you wanted to get into Harvard or Yale, not only did you have to submit a picture, you had to provide your mother's maiden name so that if you changed your name from Goldberg to Gold, they would know that your mother's name was Schwarz. They would do everything possible to determine whether you were Jewish, to determine whether you fit their criteria or not.
I vigorously fought in the sixties to abolish that. I have consistently opposed non-merit-based admissions my whole life. If you want random admissions, that's fine. It means elite schools end—anyone can apply anywhere and picks go by lottery. But that would end elite colleges and universities.
Maybe in a socialist society you’d want that. By the way, in a socialist society in communist Russia, they had quota systems. That is, the class consisted of ethnic divides. So if they were 3% Jewish in the population, they would get 3% Jews in the class. There were 5% Crimean, you get 5% Crimean. The class had to represent the ethnicities and sub-ethnicities of everybody in the Soviet Union.
That's one approach, but it's not ideal. Soviet universities that admitted students this way were not particularly strong schools. Schools that admit based on merit tend to be much better, which is why MIT is such an excellent school. At least until recently, MIT focused more on scientific ability than identity politics.
Dershowitz on Killing
Bob Zadek: We’re discussing Alan Dershowitz's book, The Price of Principle: Why Integrity Is Worth the Consequences—a must-read.
Alan invites you into his mind, into his point of view, and shares personal experiences with you in a way that you're not often going to find in contemporary nonfiction.
Alan, as promised, I wanted to spend time discussing your new book, Dershowitz on Death: How the Law Decides Who Lives and Dies, published next month. This topic is complex and troubling. Though capital punishment comes to mind immediately, the issue is much broader. The fact that a government can take a life in my name is difficult for me to accept. Given our limited time, please give us an introduction to your book on how the law determines who lives and who dies.
Alan Dershowitz: Well, first I came up with the idea during Yom Kippur services at the synagogue. The central Yom Kippur prayer says that on this day, it's essentially determined who will live and who will die. And then there's Leonard Cohen's song, which deals with the same prayer. I had those things in mind when I wrote the book.
And death is different. I have opposed the death penalty for 70 of my 84 years, likely even longer since I remember the Rosenbergs being executed in the early 1950s when I was 13. My cousin, Rabbi Koslow, was the rabbi who administered the Jewish equivalent of last rites to them. So the death penalty has always been essential to my thinking about the law.
But I also deal with other issues in the book. When you die, do you have the right to take your lifesaving organs with you, or should you be obliged to donate your kidneys and heart and any other parts that can save lives?
I deal with assisted suicide. I deal with the Holocaust. And actually I have a libretto that I've been working on of an opera based on the Holocaust. I have in it a letter that I've written to be published the day after my death—a letter to the editor complaining about my obituary. So there's a little bit of gallows humor there too.
But to me, the most important thing the law ever decides are issues of life and death. And so every chapter in the book deals with an issue of life and death and how the law sometimes badly, sometimes poorly, sometimes better, deals with issues of life and death.
Bob Zadek: When writing this book, what were your primary sources of information? Since the book references Judaism and religious culture frequently, as well as topics like assisted suicide law, which is currently being debated, what materials did you rely on?
Alan Dershowitz: A book like this is so personal that you have to look to your own life experiences. So I look to my life experiences as someone who grew up as a Jew. I look to my life experience, someone who's fought against capital punishment. I am an organ donor and I want everybody else in the world to be an organ donor, not to take their organs with them so the worms can eat them. I'd rather have my organs be used to save another human life or to give somebody sight who is blind. And so a lot of the book is based on personal experiences, but my personal experiences include reading widely.
I never write without reference to Dostoevsky and Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Philip Roth. These are people whose contributions to my values have been immense over the years. So I don't separate or distinguish, particularly at my age now, between what I've read and lived. I don't go and look to the library when I write because I know what's in my library. It's now part of my life and my experiences.
Bob Zadek: The way I see it, I've had 81 years of continuous immortality that hasn't been interrupted for even a day. So I'm on a roll. I'm optimistic it will stay that way.
Alan, thank you so much for giving us your time. I know how valuable it is, and I appreciate you sharing it with us. I wouldn't dare ask how you write your books or what you'll write next. That's for you to discover! But I suspect there will be many more stories after writing about death. Thank you again for your time and insight. I know my audience will appreciate it as much as I do.
Alan Dershowitz: Thank you.