"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Brutus and the NeoCons


I began reading Shakespeare’s Histories because I felt that they would give me fundamental insights that no factual history could give.  I felt that a poet/dramatist’s insights into those aspects of human nature that underlie the persistent cycles of history would be worth more than simply observing current events in these cycles.

I have not been disappointed.  As Jan Kott has observed, if you laid all the Histories down in chronological order, you would find the same pattern of incessant and insistent plotting to accede to power; the same venality and brutality to retain it; and the same inevitable mistakes and errors that lead to fall, usurpation, or transfer of power.   Human nature – aggressive, determined, willful, purposeful, and blood-oriented – is the common denominator to all.

Granted this inexorable pursuit, retention, and loss of power, there are still some interesting political constructions in Shakespeare which shed light on current events.  As A.D. Nuttall (Shakespeare The Thinker) writes about Julius Caesar:

Some historians have described the assassins of Caesar as young men “high” on Greek political theory, on stories of tyrants justly slain, who mistakenly thought there would be popular acclaim for their action.

Does this sound familiar?  The NeoCons in the George W. Bush administration had exactly the same thoughts, reading of history, and political intentions.  Led by Wolfowitz, these young politicos were convinced that the tyrant (Saddam Hussein) had to be overthrown, that democracy had to be instituted for the public good, and that once he was, there would be popular acclaim for United States action.   We know now (and some of us then) that these assumptions were flawed.

Brutus (II.i. 10-34) attempts to make the case, but hedges his bets:  Caesar must go because absolute power corrupts absolutely (Shakespeare anticipating Lord Acton) as foreseen by the Greeks.  Yet, he is a good man, and who is to say whether all men in power will become corrupted? In response to the committed and unwavering Cassius, Brutus wonders:

I know no personal cause to spurn  at him/But for the general.  He would be crown’d;/How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

Antony, of course, the most canny politician of them all (and most eloquent orator) is behind the plot for his own personal ends (Brutus, it seems, is indeed honorable in his willingness to sacrifice his friend’s life for the Republic; and Cassius is more practical and Stoic in his approach to the matter).

In any case, when reading these passages describing the debate before the murder of Caesar, I was reminded of Wolfowitz and his arguments for the establishment of a liberal democracy as a higher good.  He and his colleagues believed – that their ideas were not simply political theories, but anointed truths, not very different from the Biblical beliefs of the legions of Christian missionaries now and since the time of Pizarro.

Modern American and European history, not to mention recent and ancient Asian history, is replete with examples of leaders constructing arguments to go to war – the search for a casus belli.  Lyndon Johnson distorted the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin because he was influence by his own NeoCons – McNamara et. al. – who believed that the establishment of American-style liberal democracy was a higher good, an anointed political ideal.

Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of that name goes through historical and intellectual gymnastics to show that he had a legitimate reason to attack France and by so doing to distract attention from the internal, national disputes that were raging.  Henry V has his casus belli, however, flimsy, with the French ambassador’s insult with the gift of the tennis balls. Does this sound familiar? 

Bolingbroke goes through the same gyrations to show that he is the legitimate heir to the throne and not Richard II.  York is no different when he presents his complex claim to power urging supremacy over the Lancastrians.  In fact, his claim has more validity than that of the Lancastrian Henry VI; but the ensuing War of the Roses is fought more over emotive symbols and allegiances than rational claims.  In 1 Henry VI the claimants exhaust their intellectual and historical arguments and pluck roses from the garden – white of York, red of Lancaster – to symbolize the claims of their families.  From then on, rational legitimacy is forgotten, and the Civil War is fought over symbols and primitive allegiances. How different is this from modern history?  Nuttall cites the case of Nazi Germany where the populace was moved by Hitler’s National Socialism, and whereas he may have made rational cases for the reincorporation of the Rhineland, and other German-populated territories, the public was was soon emotionally behind the symbol of Nazi-ism.  In American, politicians have always “wrapped themselves in the flag” and have drawn on public reserves of patriotism to fuel their wars and adventurism.

It is sometimes said that political leaders require “a demonized Other” to retain control of their citizens.  If the people are to be ruled they must first be scared.  This is very nearly the situation at the beginning of Henry V.  The King desperately needs a war with France if he is to control such as Scroop and Grey. So far, so cynical.  Richard II lost control of Mowbray and Bullingbrook; Henry VI will lose control of Yorkist and Lancastrian nobles.  If civil war really is the worst thing of all, and if picking a fight with France is the only way to avoid civil war, we may have moved from cynical power politics to an obscure, unlovable duty.

Nuttall analyzes this phenomenon, illustrated in Shakespeare (as above in the War of the Roses) where emotions dictate action, rather than the other way around:

Perhaps Shakespeare  is actually truer to the general character of such movements – i.e. not what happened, but what would happen – than the academic historians are.  Historians are pre-set to find the causes of events and are perhaps too little prepared to recognize where movements are not so much the product of precedent conditions as self-energizing…Think of the difference between sober historical accounts of the start of WWI, and Bertrand Russell’s observation  that his compatriots had become irrational, as if they wanted to die…

Another incident relevant to today is found in Julius Caesar when after Brutus’ speech, a Plebian says “You be our Caesar!”, a presaging echo of the later Civil War when after Oliver Cromwell has been successful in establishing a democracy, his colleagues say the same thing – You be Ruler. There seems to be, according to Shakespeare and modern history, a tendency of the citizenry to acclaim and vote for dictatorial rulers.

Truly frightening powers were  given to Adolf Hitler by due democratic process.  Democracy can do many things.  It can even commit suicide.

Julius Caesar is set at a turning point in Roman history.  We watch the process, as the Republican period gives way to the Imperial.  We see these [democratic] rights forming in a later play, Coriolanus.

This is all no different than today.  Modern American history has reflected this same ebb and flow, and while there have been no such extremes of Empire vs. Democracy, the power of the Presidency vs. the Congress/Parliament/People has continued.  Currently in the United States with the Congress (the People’s representatives) shown to be venal, partisan, and irrational, there may be a move towards a stronger Presidency (although not in the coming 2012 election).

So, once again, Shakespeare has, 400 years ago, described and illustrated through his plays, the recurrent, predictable, and irresistible themes of world politics.  Reading Shakespeare is a must for all idealists, One World Utopians, and political optimists.  Until human nature has been changed through recombinant DNA and interface with the computer, thus creating a totally new human being, we are destined – or doomed – to repeat history.

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