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A Story Out Of Shakespeare

Following up on last night’s post [1], there were a couple of other points that I would like to make. At one point, Ross wrote [2]:

The narrative of the Iraq invasion, properly told, resembles a story out of Shakespeare.

I doubt this, not least since the “properly told” version is nothing so much as an airbrushed version of the standard pro-war misrepresentation of events, but suppose for the sake of argument that it is right. Some of the histories were little better than acts of propagandistic vilification. The history/tragedy of Richard III comes to mind. It was a political necessity under the Tudors to portray Richard III as a monster, but the truth was never so clean-cut as that. After all, the Tudors were originally usurpers, and this was an inconvenient detail that needed to be obscured by the greater crimes of the other side. The vilification seen in the play was a leftover product of a succession struggle and a bitter struggle for power, and it had been necessary to affirm the legitimacy of the ruling dynasty by showing the previous defeated rival dynasty to be evil. In producing such a work that repeated earlier vilifications of Richard, Shakespeare was accommodating himself to the political demands of his time.

Despite a remarkable lack of sympathy for Richard, Shakespeare nonetheless produced a significant work of literature that is still read and performed to this day. Of course, Shakespeare had the luxury of writing Richard III over a century after Bosworth Field rather than writing while the struggle was ongoing. It would be interesting to ponder how much distance from contemporary conflicts and controversies any artist can achieve or should be expected to achieve. If the passage of a century served to magnify the vilification of Richard, how much sympathy for a discredited, failed political leadership can one realistically expect from opposing partisans when the war the leaders started has not yet ended?

Another point that is vitally important is that the kind of concentrated, unchecked and arbitrary power that the executive branch can effectively wield when it comes to the use of force abroad is more power than any person or group of people should ever have. There may be better or worse officials, but I doubt that anyone is virtuous enough to refrain consistently from wrongly using the enormous power the executive has. We are supposed to have a system in which power counters power and one institution restrains another, but this system does not work properly, especially in the wake of attack. On matters of national security, the executive has far more latitude than any institution should ever have, and it commands a frightening degree of automatic deference from Congress, the media and the public. This deference becomes even greater when the media and the public assume the executive is acting in good faith. The potential for abuse is staggering, even, or perhaps especially, when the government is staffed by “decent” and “well-intentioned” people. There are very few people in the world who consciously acknowledge that they are doing truly wrong and evil things when they do them. Most people believe that they are doing the right things in a good cause. In this way, the “decent” and “well-intentioned” people working in the context of a dysfunctional constitutional system can sometimes be just as dangerous as willfully malicious people, if not more so.

Then again, as Shakespeare’s Gloucester reminds us, those who seem “decent” and “well-intentioned” may be quite the opposite:

But then I sigh, and, with a piece of Scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "A Story Out Of Shakespeare"

#1 Comment By R. Justin On March 15, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

On matters of national security, the executive has far more latitude than any institution should ever have, and it commands a frightening degree of automatic deference from Congress, the media and the public. This deference becomes even greater when the media and the public assume the executive is acting in good faith. The potential for abuse is staggering, even, or perhaps especially, when the government is staffed by “decent” and “well-intentioned” people. There are very few people in the world who consciously acknowledge that they are doing truly wrong and evil things when they do them. Most people believe that they are doing the right things in a good cause. In this way, the “decent” and “well-intentioned” people working in the context of a dysfunctional constitutional system can sometimes be just as dangerous as willfully malicious people, if not more so.

A church I used to be a member of just saw its pastor resign after having convinced a poor young woman to have an affair with him, she having been “counseled” by him after depression. My wife and I, along with a number of other families, had warned the elders in years past of this pastor and of his manipulative (though at that point not quite so severe) nature. But they assured us that he was a good man, and that all in the church were “good people,” and that it was a “great community,” and everything would be OK.

Interesting, in light of this, to read the above. Church and state may be separate — and should be — but they can certainly resemble one another. And if a church can go so astray, what surprise is it to see our governments do so too?

#2 Comment By Randal On March 16, 2010 @ 3:14 am

“I doubt that anyone is virtuous enough to refrain consistently from wrongly using the enormous power the executive has”

When it comes to the use of force abroad, you are far too generous here. A matter, I suspect, of the usual human failure to transcend your own perspective.

Were you a member of a foreign community opposed to collaboration with US forces interfering in their nation, and had you seen how US invasion and occupation rips apart your society, hands power to the worst parts of it (those willing to collaborate) and routinely abuses and slaughters the best (those willing to stand up and resist), as well as numerous innocent bystanders, you might recognise that the more accurate statement in this context would be:

“I doubt that anyone is virtuous enough to refrain from consistently wrongfully using the enormous power the executive has”.

To the average American, those distant injustices are just numbers – of people arbitrarily detained and brutally treated, of people killed, of people forced to flee their homes and lose everything. To the substantial proportion of Americans who are positive promoters of evil, these people are mere collateral damage in their government’s great project (whether “defensive” or “humanitarian”). Even to most of those Americans who recognise that their government’s actions are wrongful, the victims are bloodless statistics worthy only of theoretical disapproval or minor political debate.

In fact each and every one of them represents another indelible stain of foul guilt upon America and Americans, and a cause of burning, frustrated hatred of the US amongst their relatives and friends.

If the price is not paid in this world, we can hope it will be paid in the next. Americans should indeed tremble for their country, if and when they reflect that God is just.

#3 Comment By firefall On March 16, 2010 @ 7:44 am

The narrative of the Iraq invasion, properly told, resembles a story out of Shakespeare.

Oh it does resemble a tragedy…. if you don’t consider the Americans as the protagonists, but as the Other. Think of Bush as the Dauphin from Henry V, perhaps