I was AWOL last week because of a trip to Chicago, followed by preparing for the Jewish New Year, followed by the thing itself. Last night I thought I’d get back in the swing, though, and start making up for lost time. Start the new year on the right foot and all that.
Instead, I spilled bourbon all over my keyboard.
I expect to spend a chunk of today at the Apple Store. Apologies.
Bertolt Brecht‘s best-known, possibly least-understood, certainly least-faithfully-implemented “big idea” was the Verfremdungseffekt, usually translated as “alienation effect” or “defamiliarization effect.” I count myself among those who at best imperfectly understand what Brecht was getting at – but inasmuch as I do, it’s that I understand what he was fighting against and not that I know exactly what he was aiming for.
What he was fighting against was catharsis, Aristotle’s theatrical “big idea.” (Or perhaps more properly, Sophocles’s, since Aristotle’s theory is based substantially on his understanding of what Sophocles was up to.) For Aristotle, the function of tragedy was the purging of the audience’s souls of dangerous passions through the vicarious experience of pity and fear. But of course, for Aristotle (and for latter-day followers like – I would argue – Freud) tragedy was a feature of life, something we have to learn to live with. For Brecht, on the other hand, theater aimed not at a healthy accommodation to reality, but at raising the consciousness of the audience so that reality could be changed. And tragedy was, generally speaking, not a feature of existence but a consequence of human beings being crushed by social forces that are – theoretically at least – subject to human control.
The aim of defamiliarization, then, was to short-circuit easy identification with the characters and action on stage. Direct address to the audience, songs that broke up rather than advancing the action, actors leaving character to comment on the action – all of these techniques are intended to stop the audience from feeling that it was being taken on an emotional journey with a “satisfying” destination, and instead focus their consciousness on the social cause of the events taking place, and leave them dissatisfied. The point was not to dull the emotional response but to turn pity and fear into anger – but wise anger, anger focused on the proper target.
The techniques described were not invented by Brecht. Shakespeare, for example, used all of them at one point or another. Direct address to the audience was common in Elizabethan theater, and no playwright used soliloquy more variously or with greater complexity than Shakespeare did. Anticipations of Brecht are not hard to find throughout the canon - Macbeth‘s porter; the minstrel, Autolycus, from The Winter’s Tale; pretty much the entirety of Troilus and Cressida. Rosalind, Puck and Prospero all break character at the end to acknowledge that we have been watching a play, and even Bottom’s character-breaking interjection to Theseus -
No, in truth, sir, he should not. ‘Deceiving me’
is Thisby’s cue: she is to enter now, and I am to
spy her through the wall. You shall see, it will
fall pat as I told you.
- is a comic “defamiliarization” of drama; how can we experience catharsis in King Lear once we recall that “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” also comes on cue?
Brecht’s plays, meanwhile, don’t always achieve the effect he describes, even when they are played with some fidelity to his theories. I attended an astonishing and invigorating production of The Good Person of Szechuan at the Public Theater last year that, among other things, did a brilliant job of marrying Brecht’s distancing to conventions out of drag performance. But I certainly experienced an emotional journey. I didn’t leave the theater ready to smash the capitalists. I found the play, well, cathartic.
So perhaps it is not so paradoxical when I say that, though Stratford’s Tom Paterson Theatre is having a very Brechtian season this year, the least-Brechtian show of the three currently playing is the one Brecht himself wrote.
* * *
That play is Mother Courage and Her Children, which, I’m embarrassed to say, I’d never actually seen before, only read. From reading it, it struck me that it would be difficult to do a properly Brechtian production. How can you see Mother Courage viewing the body of her bullet-ridden Swiss Cheese, or the mute Kattrin banging on her drum, and not be moved – to pity and fear. It reads as a play about survival in extremis, an anatomization of human beings under the pressure of endless war, and the personal toll that struggle to survive takes on them. You can imagine it having been written by Primo Levi.
It feels like director Martha Henry agrees, because she plays the drama very straight, as the story of a bunch of people with whom we are emphatically supposed to identify. And to a person the cast makes that identification easy. E. B. Smith’s Eilif is more eager to please than I imagined him, and hence more sweet – he’s not a thug who found his proper metier in war, but just a big, strong guy who adapts to circumstances. Antoine Yared’s Swiss Cheese is less dim than deeply conscientious. Geraint Wyn Davies has a grand old time as the randy Cook; you can hardly find it in your heart to hold against him all the wrongs he did Deidre Gillard-Rowlings’s nimble Yvette. And Ben Carlson does a solid turn as the cowardly, critical Chaplain.
The heart of the play, meanwhile, is the relationship between Mother and daughter, and that heart beats fiercely. Seanna McKenna and Carmen Grant are really ideally cast for their respective roles; McKenna in particular gives an effortlessly modulated performance, while Grant’s every move has the painful transparency that is the soul of Kattrin. It’s a pair of performances, and a production, that pulls at our heart strings just the right amount to actually make us tear up, not so much as to feel like we’re being manipulated. Exactly the opposite, in other words, of what Brecht claimed to want.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there was something missing from the play, and I think it comes down to that word that Brecht used to describe his theater: epic. Though it ranges across battle-scarred Europe over years and years of war, the play felt distinctly small. I never felt the proximity of the war, never smelled the cannon. The stage is spare and remarkably neat and clean. Even the mythic cart seems small; I feel like Tevye pulled a heavier load in last year’s production of Fiddler.
Some of this is in the nature of this particular stage – but not all of it. Last year’s Mary Stuart was staged in the same space, and a very simple concept – ringing the stage in barbed wire – brought home an essential quality of the drama in a visceral way. It felt like this production didn’t have any real view on what that essential quality might be, where its viscera might still be bleeding.
I found myself thinking about another, very Brechtian war play, of more recent vintage: Black Watch, about the deployment of the Scottish regiment to the area around Fallujah in 2004. That play didn’t stint on bringing home the individual stories of these soldiers. But its anger was visible, and genuine, and infectious. Mother Courage and Her Children is set during the Thirty Years’ War, proportionately the bloodiest European conflict of the last 500 years, a war fought on all sides under the banner of God, but with the omnivorous ferocity of hellhounds. That’s the monster that devours Mother Courage’s children, even as it provides her her livelihood. That’s the kind of scope the play needs, to really hit home.
Perhaps, instead of performing it into English, Stratford should have translated it into Arabic.
* * *
Antony and Cleopatra is usually thought of as one of Shakespeare’s great love stories – a doomed, tragic love, like Romeo and Juliet’s, or Othello and Desdemona’s, but, like them, an authentic love that is supposed to inspire us to, yes, pity and terror. We want to be swept up with Antony’s rapture, to feel just why he can’t let go of his Egyptian love, even though, when Roman thoughts strike him, he knows he should. Maybe if we experience such a dangerous love vicariously, we’ll cathartically slake the thirst to find it in reality.
The thing is, the play knows better. Those Roman thoughts are mistaken. In Act II Scene 3, the Soothsayer and Antony engage in this dialogue, right after Antony has made his marriage to Octavia, Octavius’s sister, so as to mend the growing rift in the triumvirate:
Now, sirrah; you do wish yourself in Egypt?
Would I had never come from thence, nor you Thither!
If you can, your reason?
I see it in
My motion, have it not in my tongue: but yet
Hie you to Egypt again.
Say to me,
Whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar’s or mine?
Therefore, O Antony, stay not by his side:
Thy demon, that’s thy spirit which keeps thee, is
Noble, courageous high, unmatchable,
Where Caesar’s is not; but, near him, thy angel
Becomes a fear, as being o’erpower’d: therefore
Make space enough between you.
Speak this no more.
To none but thee; no more, but when to thee.
If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose; and, of that natural luck,
He beats thee ‘gainst the odds: thy lustre thickens,
When he shines by: I say again, thy spirit
Is all afraid to govern thee near him;
But, he away, ’tis noble.
Get thee gone:
Say to Ventidius I would speak with him:
He shall to Parthia. Be it art or hap,
He hath spoken true: the very dice obey him;
And in our sports my better cunning faints
Under his chance: if we draw lots, he speeds;
His cocks do win the battle still of mine,
When it is all to nought; and his quails ever
Beat mine, inhoop’d, at odds. I will to Egypt:
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I’ the east my pleasure lies.
The Soothsayer has already predicted (whether by hap or art) the futures of Cleopatra’s waiting women, and though we don’t know their fortunes yet, by the end of the play we know he was a true prophet. Antony’s star is fading. Octavius will be lord of the world. The only question is how Antony will respond to this inevitable turn of fortune.
Antony thinks his is a story about a man losing his manhood, his power, his very sense of self, because he has fallen under the spell of a particularly desirable woman. That’s what Enobarbus thinks as well. The other Romans hope that Octavia will “settle the heart” of the hard-partying Antony, and Enobarbus thinks he knows better, but they’ve all got it wrong, and the Egyptians have it right. This is not a story about a man losing himself because he has fallen for a woman. This is a story about a man who falls for a woman because he is terrified that he’s losing himself – that he’s growing old, being surpassed by a younger man who isn’t a patch on him as a soldier or a lover, but who has the grace of fortune, and will rise inevitably as he falls.
It’s Cleopatra who’s desperately in love, and who truly throws it all away for love. The Soothsayer did not say her spirit quaked before Caesar. Her peace with Octavius was secure, before she threw her lot in with his rival triumvir – and if she would only throw him over she could live secure again. She knows that Antony is holding a losing hand. Perhaps that’s why she tries to save her navy. She’s genuinely surprised when he follows her, disastrously – perhaps she really thought he was a Roman, still and all. When I read Act III Scene 13, I read a woman, a queen, realizing belatedly just how far gone her lover is – how far from fortune’s favor, how captive not to her but to phantom gestures of chivalry – and trying to figure out what to do. How to survive. How, if possible, to save him. How to buck him up, help him be himself in death if he cannot be saved. She’s more like Mother Courage than we knew, he more like one of her poor, hopeless children.
It is a great love story, one of the greatest. Just not the one that Antony thinks it is.
But what if the love story doesn’t really play? What’s left then?
Well, if you want to know, you can check out Stratford’s current production, which has many virtues but, if not a lump of lead as cold as steel, then a hollowness, not where a woman’s heart should be, but where Antony’s should. Geraint Wyn Davies would seem, on paper, to be perfect for the role: charismatic, sexually potent, fleshy, both a man’s man and a ladies’ man – and at just the right age to seize the part by the testicles. And he’s worked wonderfully well with his Cleopatra, Yanna McIntosh, before. But his performance suggests a man who’s cut just a little too close by precisely the themes I harped on above, and an actor trying very hard not to see just who he’s actually playing. There’s an air of distraction about him; he doesn’t seem really to be feeling either the sting of his defeats or the desperation of his passions. He’s strongest in the early Roman scenes, deploying his contempt for Caesar along with his charm, and in the scene where Enobarbus, who has just left his service, receives his share of the camp’s treasure – but in that scene he’s not really himself, but Enobarbus’s noble image of his once-great master. And that, I think, is telling.
So what happens as a result? What does this absence do to the play? Well, Antony and Cleopatra can read as a very cold, even Brechtian look at how politics works in a world where there is no natural order, no proper right to rule. The two competing principles, then, are love and interest. The cold and calculating Octavius, played by Ben Carlson with his trademark dyspeptic rectitude, stands for interest. He’s not much of a general; he inspires no natural loyalty. But he’s run the numbers; he has the votes; he knows he’s going to win. He’d like to win at the lowest possible cost. But his pursuit of Antony is ultimately nothing personal, not even with his sister (a sincerely sweet Carmen Grant) in the middle. It’s just business.
Antony, meanwhile, is the brilliant soldier, the man of chivalry, who inspires an instinctive loyalty in his followers. They follow him for love of him. And so they can’t, on some level, fault him for following Cleopatra in his love of her (though, as I say above, I think Antony is a bit deluded about what’s really going on in that relationship).
Between the two stands Enobarbus, the Brechtian alienation figure, played by the incomparable Tom McCamus with a perfect autumnal rue. He’s our cynical voice of reason, who sees through the drama to the forces beneath, and tells the audience the truth about what they are seeing. He’s a marvelous character, and can seize control of almost any production, but in this production he is exceptionally prominent. We agree with his choice when he leaves Antony. And we want to die with him not because this Antony really deserved his love to the end, but because leaving meant renouncing love as such. And who wants to live in a world where that’s the only sane course?
And what about Cleopatra herself? Notwithstanding her lover’s distraction, I was grabbed by McIntosh’s Egyptian queen – but primarily by the quality of her regal mind. Her passion burned stronger in her anger than in her ardor, but more powerful than both was the sense I got that she understood the drama she was in, that she was observing her own emotions along with everybody else’s. I owe a good deal of my understanding of the play as articulated above to her performance.
And I give her the credit, because she is helped very little by her larger surroundings. By which I don’t mean to say the cast, which is excellent down to the minor roles, but the design and direction. The Egypt conjured up by director Gary Griffin and designer Charlotte Dean is a compendium of cliches. It doesn’t feel ill-thought so much as not thought at all. McIntosh and her attendants slink winningly in their peek-a-boo sheathes, but it’s an exceptionally stale exoticism that they’re pitching. One would be hard-pressed on any stage, much less the narrow runway of the Paterson, actually to show the Egypt of Enobarbus’s rapturous description – that’s part of the point of his speech. But we shouldn’t be conscious of such a yawning chasm between what we’re told and what we see; we need the right visual hints to carry our imagination to the full heights of wonder that Shakespeare’s language evokes.
This problem – the lack of a sense of wonder – is a problem throughout, but never more so than in the climactic death scenes. Antony is hoisted not up to a tower, but onto a bare, nondescript platform. It’s a serious anti-climax, and having attendants carry him as though he were crucified does not improve the situation, either visually or poetically.
When Caesar finally arrives, and bears perfunctory witness to the passing of greatness, there’s supposed to be an air of “oh, well; that didn’t work out the way I hoped, but at least it’s done. Now down to business.”
But I don’t think I’m supposed to agree with him.
* * *
The most compelling of the three Brechtian dramas on this year’s program is the least-familiar, at least to me – so perhaps it required the least defamiliarization. King John is one of Shakespeare’s relatively early plays, believed to have been written after familiar early plays like Richard III, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but before he launched on a deepening period that ran from The Merchant of Venice through to his breakthrough tragedy, Hamlet. It’s yet another play about war, politics and business, and yet another with something of an enigma at its heart. And it’s yet another play with a key character who performs an alienation function: Philip the Bastard.
Philip, played zestily by Graham Abbey, is a very different sort of bastard than King Lear‘s Edmund. Where Edmund calls on his natural god to “stand up for bastards,” Philip begins the play protesting his legitimacy to defend his inheritance against his younger brother’s claim. But everybody on stage – including Philip himself – seriously questions that kinship, and when the King (Tom McCamus) and his mother, Queen Eleanor (Patricia Collins), recognize the resemblance to the late King Richard, they make him an offer Philip has no desire to refuse: proclaim his own bastardy, and they will avouch his Plantagenet blood and join him to their court.
Philip is a Brechtian alienation character par excellence, speaking directly to the audience and commenting on the action. And the action, at least in the first half, is Brecht-worthy scabrous comedy. John, you see, is at war with France over his title; the King of France (Peter Hutt) is sheltering a pretender to the throne, the teenaged Arthur (a precocious Noah Jalava, who I expect we’ll be hearing from in the future), and the two Plantagenets square off before the town of Angiers to dispute the question. Or, rather, their mothers do; Seana McKenna, playing Arthur’s mother, Constance, like Mama Rose at an audition, and Collins, playing the Queen Mother as an elderly coquette – Kate Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine from “The Lion in Winter” crossed with Aunt Alicia in “Gigi” – so thoroughly and hilariously overbear their sons that I’m not sure I’ll be able to take Coriolanus seriously ever again.
Alternating with the cat fight, the two armies go at each other, inconclusively except for the poor sods on both sides who are slaughtered. The mayor of the town won’t let either of the claimants to the throne in until one has proven victorious, so the two Kings decide to join forces and make war on the town instead – at which point the mayor comes up with a perfect, and thoroughly dishonorable, compromise that costs John’s heirs a bit of their kingdom and Arthur and Constance the whole gamble. To my mind, nothing in Mother Courage is quite so effective as this comprehensively cynical crew.
From that point, the plot gets a bit twisty and unsatisfying. John makes a stab at playing Richard III after all, ordering his teenage rival murdered, but he doesn’t really have the stomach for that level of villainy, and has a quite picturesque nervous breakdown on stage when he thinks the order has been carried out. Which, it turns out, it hasn’t – which news sparks a remarkably swift recovery, until we learn that Arthur is dead anyway, from a botched escape attempt or a successful suicide, depending on how you read the scene. John has troubles retaining the loyalty of the nobility, who can’t believe he isn’t implicated in Arthur’s death, but nothing a bit of luck and base bribery can’t bring to amends. And then he dies, still an enigma, to us and, perhaps, to himself.
The play, ultimately, feels like a portrait of a leader utterly lacking in charisma. John isn’t Richard II; he isn’t stupid, or vain. He’s not Richard III; he isn’t deeply evil, or a master of manipulation. He isn’t Henry V either, the charismatic machiavel. He’s weak but clever, unpopular but willing to buy loyalty. He earns our grudging respect, ultimately, by proving clever enough to convince everyone else that he just isn’t worth toppling. John Boehner might well tear up in recognition.
The production, meanwhile, is the only one of the three that really suits the space. It makes the most of its Elizabethan costumes and the other trappings of original practices favored by the director, Tim Carroll (you can read my larger thoughts on this approach to Shakespeare here). And, again in keeping with that approach, doesn’t fuss much about set. And there’s no need to: the language moves us along vigorously, bringing us in close when we need to be, conjuring the vasty fields of France or the confines of a cell when either is called for.
Of the three Paterson plays, it’s also the one I’ve meditated on the most since seeing it. And what I’ve reflected on most is the friendship between Philip the Bastard and King John – and I don’t think that’s the wrong word to use. After the battle before Angiers, and its ignominious aftermath, Philip the Bastard learns a thing or to about politics, and the low behavior of these high-borns whom he longed to join – and he then teaches us. He has no illusions about this world he’s joined, or the King he’s bound to. King John isn’t much like the fabled Coeur de Leon, Philip’s biological father. He’s a shifty, changeable schemer, with a fragile claim on the throne to boot. Philip the Bastard represents, on one level, everything he isn’t: he’s a natural man and a natural leader, one who eagerly spoils for a fight, makes decisions quickly and sticks to them once made. In another play, this would breed a species of contempt. But the two of them share a remarkable bond. The King obviously likes him the moment he meets him – and the feeling, notwithstanding the fairly pathetic displays that his Highness indulges in later on, remains mutual to the end.
And, in the midst of so much cynicism, there’s something restorative, if not cathartic, about that.
Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.
- James Joyce, Ulysses
The Stratford Festival doesn’t usually mount more than one production of a given play in the same season. I was going to say that this year has been an exception – but not really. Because, while there are two productions called A Midsummer Night’s Dream currently on stage at Stratford, the second, subtitled, “A Chamber Play,” is really another play entirely, albeit one that uses Shakespeare’s text as its basis and starting point.
Created and directed by Peter Sellars, this Dream, like Chris Abraham’s, recognizes that this is a play that needs to be “made new” in order for us to really hear it and see it again. Abraham’s departures are all intended to restore to Dream the spirit of love, to make us care, once again, about the fate of young lovers seeking their destined partners. Sellars’s method is far more radical. His aim, it seemed to me, was not to remind us what it’s like to care about these jejune young lovers, but to see how much the play, and its language, can mean once the lovers are no longer so young, in years or in experience.
Sellars has cut the play radically it so that four actors can play all the roles. Actually, that’s not right: Sellars has created four roles, each encompassing several parts from Shakespeare’s play. It’s not that the actors move in and out of characters, as in the Fiasco Theater production of Cymbeline. Rather, the characters display different sides of themselves by way of different characters in Shakespeare’s comedy. Some of these feel closer to their “social” personae, while others feel like deeper archetypes, erupting as a consequence of the pressures of the claustrophobic quadrangle that plays out on stage. The result is closer to Bergman than to Shakespeare, and absolutely riveting.
The story, as I understood it, is something like this. Some time before the beginning of the play, there were two couples. Helena/Puck/Hippolyta/Thisbe (Sarah Afful) and Demetrius/Bottom/Theseus/Pyramus (Dion Johnstone) are one couple. Hermia/Titania/Wall/Lion (Trish Lindstrom) and Lysander/Oberon/Moonshine (Mike Nadajewski) are the other. But these “proper” pairings have broken; Johnstone’s character and Lindstrom’s are having an affair, and Afful and Nadajewski, devastated, assay a variety of responses: pleading, raging, threatening, manipulating, even seeing if they can make a go of it as an alternative couple (they can’t). They must play the hand out fully, inhabiting their various roles, finding their various ways back to their proper selves and their truest, deepest loves, before they can reach reconciliation and forgiveness, as individuals, as couples, and as a quartet now bound together by something more than mere friendship.
What springs the recombination? Johnstone’s character is the Proteus of the group; he’s terrified of being defined. Ordered to play Pyramus, a lover, he would rather be the tyrant – or a ravenous lion – anything but the lover, which he plays only under duress. Whether it is Afful’s aching need that drives him away, or whether that gets the causality of her longing reversed, we don’t know – but his is a flight from commitment that is ultimately a flight from himself. Lindstrom’s character, on the other hand, has suffered some kind of terrible loss, involving a child (the changeling boy). Infertility, miscarriage, abortion, the loss of a born child – we don’t know what happened, needless to say, but it has left her numb, around a core of confined rage – a Lion surrounded by a Wall. Nadajewski’s dominant response is bitter, sarcastic and controlling.
The lovers journey passes through a much darker wood than the one Shakespeare placed outside Athens, one more than a little reminiscent of Sondheim’s; “Last Midnight” could easily serve as the theme song of this belated walpurgisnacht. I also heard an echo of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, particularly given the prominence of the missing child in Lindstrom’s character’s psychology, but more generally for the sense that the use of Shakespeare’s language is the most elaborate party game George and Martha have come up with yet.
And the great delight of the play is hearing just what a fecund game that is. The most surprising and heart-warming moments are the ones where Shakespeare’s comic scenes are suffused with deep emotion. Oberon’s observation of Titania with Bottom often reads to me as quite ugly – his latter pity irretrievably tainted by the fact that he has “won” the child by trickery. But in this play, he and Puck observe their partners entwined in love with each other, and his pity is the spirit of true forgiveness, a man seeing that the healing his lover needs (and therefore the only way he’ll ever get that child) can only come in the arms of another. Or later, when he has taken the form of Moonshine, and proclaims to his once and future love: “All that I have to say is to tell you that the lanthorn is the moon; I, the man in the moon; this thornbush, my thornbush; and this dog, my dog.” If you don’t cry at that, you are more Wall than she.
The juxtapositions created by cramming these particular characters together also revealed patterns in Shakespeare’s play that I hadn’t noticed before. I seem to be stuck on Nadajewski’s character, but nonetheless: playing both Lysander and Oberon brings out just how controlling Lysander is in his relationship, a quality one always sees in Oberon but that I’d never focused on in the young lover. Juxtaposing Bottom and Demetrius, meanwhile, gives Demetrius more of a motivation for abandoning Helena for Hermia than mere fickle fancy. The racial politics of the recombination – “Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt” and “Away, you Ethiope!” – are also played very loudly (Johnstone and Afful are both black actors, Lindstrom and Nadajewski both white), and for once to powerful effect (in most Shakespeare productions, I find calling attention to the Bard’s casual color prejudice to be something of a distraction).
As I say, I read a clear, powerful, Bergmanesque story, and I read the performances, both in terms of specific line readings and the integrated characters they were playing, in light of that story. But the performances are uniformly so visceral that even if I hadn’t seen a story, I would have been held by the individual moments. That was my wife’s experience of the play; she didn’t catch much of a story, and talked about the play more as akin to a concept album. And other theater-goers I talked to all saw different plays. So perhaps it’s a bit of a Rorschach blot, reflecting back the stories the audience brings to it.
But then, we always do that at the theater. And we should.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a Chamber Play runs at the Stratford Festival’s Masonic Concert Hall venue through September 20th.
When I joined TAC back in 2012, I explained in advance, first to the editor and publisher and then to my prospective readers, that I was “off-side” on a host of issues relative to where TAC‘s readership was. I wanted to be sure that everybody understood what they were getting before I agreed to give it to them.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that nobody cared.
Nobody cared whether I held the “house” opinion on any particular issue, or whether I would be appropriately deferential to “members of the family.” Nobody even cared that I used the phrase “off-side” in a manner that betrayed comprehensive ignorance of the rules of both association football and cricket. Because they cared about something much more important for the future of American intellectual life.
Journals of opinion are generally founded to advance a backer’s particular intellectual agenda. That agenda may be closely tied to the fortunes of a political party or faction, or it may not, but people generally don’t spend the kind of money it takes to put out a serious magazine, an enterprise that hemorrhages cash in the best of circumstances, unless they have something specific to say.
Well, TAC, when it was founded, did have something specific to say. It was founded in opposition to one of the most colossal blunders in the history of American foreign policy, and in defiance of the determination by the mainstream American Right to expel from its company anyone who voiced that opposition. It was founded by people who, at the time, I thought were wrong about just about everything. But on the most important issue of that time, they were right, when much of the rest of the intellectual class was solidly wrong.
Now, that experience could have led TAC to champion a conservative counter-movement, a faction determined to “win back” the America for a set of views that all “right-thinking” sorts already believed in their hearts. After all, they had been right when it counted, weren’t they? Surely the thing to do was to push the line that was “right from the beginning,” as hard and as fast as possible.
But that isn’t how TAC developed. Instead, TAC grew into something much more precious than another factional rag. TAC is that very rare journal of opinion that is more interested in exploring and developing ideas than in promoting them, more interested in getting people to think well than in getting them to think “correctly.” There is unquestionably a TAC sensibility – a gut-level skepticism about grand projects and schemes; and a conviction that the core political principle is love, and that we love best what we are closest to and know best. But there is no TAC ”line” on any issue. Even on matters closest to the heart of the magazine’s founding, TAC has been willing to publish articles – even cover stories by the editor - that, instead of flattering its readers’ views, challenge them on a deep level.
TAC is currently in the middle of a fundraising campaign, the catch phrase for which is “realism and reform.” And, as catch phrases goes, it’s not bad. Who, after all, is going to come out in favor of “delusion and sclerosis”? But realism, before it narrowed to mean a particular theory of politics and foreign affairs, meant seeing reality with open eyes, and analyzing it with an open mind. And reform, before it was corrupted to mean progress in a politically predetermined direction, meant the restoration of form to what had fallen into chaos, the restoration of peace after a period of conflict. These are not really liberal or conservative concepts, because they are not about what to think. They are about how to think.
TAC doesn’t measure its effectiveness simply by number of page views. Those matter, to advertisers and as some measure of the breadth of our readership. But fundamentally, we measure our effectiveness by looking at whether we are in the conversation, nationally, and whether we are shaping that conversation in a more considered, thoughtful direction.
By writing in this space, I’ve tried to do my small part to promote that kind of thoughtful conversation, about matters great and small. Partly because I still believe that the deliberative faculty is essential to a republic’s function. And partly because I just find a thoughtful conversation a lot more interesting than the bloodsport that passes for discourse in so many corners of the internet.
But like everything else on the internet, our conversation here isn’t really free.
As I said, most people who fund journals of opinion do so to advance their preexisting views. If you are reading this, you’re the sort of person who wants to have their views challenged, complicated, deepened. Somebody other than the typical backer needs to provide the funding to make that experience possible. Ultimately, that somebody is you.
So: if you like what you get to read, in this space and elsewhere on the site and in the magazine, please give what you are able, so that we are able to keep publishing the kind of work that brought you to TAC in the first place, and continues to bring you here today.
Niall Ferguson is predictably against Scottish independence, which isn’t particularly interesting. However, there was something he said about American views of the referendum that deserved a short comment:
Even to the millions of Americans whose surnames testify to their Scottish or Scotch-Irish ancestry, the idea that Scotland might be about to become an independent country is baffling [bold mine-DL].
I am part Scots-Irish on my mother’s side, and I don’t find it the least bit baffling. It isn’t up to me or any other Americans what happens later this week, but it would be extremely easy for me to understand if a majority voted for independence on Thursday. Nothing could be easier to understand than the desire of a people to try to get more control over how (and by whom) they are governed. [bold mine-NM] This impulse never seems to baffle anyone when we see it in other parts of the world.
I want to call attention to how much work is being done by the word “a” in Larison’s sentence. To whit: who is getting to decide how and by whom they are governed in the upcoming referendum? The “Scottish people,” as Larison’s “a people” would seem to imply? Or the “people of Scotland,” whose identification would not seem to require an article?
I think the answer is pretty clearly the second: that the people of Scotland, not the Scottish people, are the electorate. That is to say: British citizens, and some Commonwealth citizens, who are resident in Scotland and registered to vote there can vote on the question of independence. You don’t have to have Scottish ancestry, or otherwise demonstrate Scottishness, to have a proper say in the question. An independent Scotland is not going to Scotify the citizenry, or establish Scots Gaelic as the official language of government. The “Yes” campaign explicitly talks about how an independent Scotland would be more welcoming to higher levels of immigration than a united Britain is, and disclaims any ethno-nationalist basis for the desire for separation. The SNP has always been to the left of its voting base; now it’s just capturing a greater share of the Scottish left than it used to. The cosmopolitan values that Ferguson advocates as a way of weaning Scotland away from nationalism are also the values that the “Yes” campaign is running on: they just think that Scotland would be more liberal, open and cosmopolitan alone than as part of Britain.
None of this is intended as criticism of the SNP’s ambition. It just doesn’t look much like the nationalism that was at play when the Greeks sought independence from the Ottomans, or when the Czechs sought independence from Austria-Hungary – or, for that matter, when the Irish sought their own independence from the United Kingdom. It’s not even the way Flanders or Quebec talk – Flemish independence is a right-wing cause that is correlated with opposition to immigration, and advocates of sovereignty for Quebec voice a vigorous nationalism based on language (though not on ethnicity or race – it’s all about the francophonie).
That’s why, I think, it reads as “baffling” to some. In a multi-cultural age, nationalism makes sense as a response to collective oppression, which Scotland does not suffer from, and/or some sense of profound and unbridgeable difference, which Scotland does not really manifest. Nationalism as an ideal in itself, as a way for a people to establish itself as a force in the world, romantically actualizing their ethno-historical essence, frog-marching their people into modernity and/or purifying themselves of foreign influences – all elements of nationalism when it mattered for Germany, or Italy, or China, or Japan, or Egypt, or Israel – is more than slightly alarming to contemporary cosmopolitans. But on that score Scottish nationalism doesn’t look much like nationalism at all. And, okay, maybe it’s just more practical for New Zealand not to be governed from the other side of the world. But is Scotland really “necessary” or “inevitable” in that sense? Not really. So why vote yes? Isn’t it setting the requirements for divorce rather low?
Scotland has its own distinct history, customs, and so forth. But Scottish independence would still be more like independence for Alaska or Vermont than like independence for Kurdistan or Tibet. The “idea” of Scottish independence is the idea of smallness, along with the notion that any organized group can always plausibly pack up their marbles and leave a larger group that they don’t find congenial. It’s the idea, ultimately, that there’s nothing particularly sacred or special about the state; that the state is something any community – a more apropos word than “people” for a multi-cultural age – can choose to adopt or discard at will.
One can understand why people who are enamored of other, “bigger” ideas find that idea itself uncongenial.
As for me, I still think the key question is: if the goal is truly to maximize a community’s ability to govern itself, without inordinate sacrifice of goods like prosperity that matter to the ability of the individuals therein to live the lives they want, what’s the “optimal political unit” for such governance? Maybe it’s gotten smaller in the last 100 years on account of information technology, etc. Maybe it’s gotten bigger on account of the globalization of finance, etc. I’d like to see the evidence for both sides.
I don’t expect to see it before Thursday.
A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a rabbinical friend of mine about the prospects for the Conservative Movement of Judaism to approve some kind of marriage ceremony for gay couples. This friend was favorably inclined toward such a move, and so I asked him what he would imagine such a ceremony would actually look like – what the ceremony would actually consist of if it were to be taken seriously as a wedding.
A variety of trappings could, he thought, be unproblematically adapted from the traditional ceremony. The huppah, representing the creation of a sheltering home together, is pretty unproblematic; no reason a gay couple couldn’t make a home. The mingling of two cups of wine into one, to be drunk by the two celebrants, similarly; any children the couple might rear won’t have mingled genes, but two lives are certainly blending into one. The breaking of the glass – well, there are sexual overtones to breaking anything that wouldn’t be apropos, but the other meanings – superstitious (driving away evil forces), national/religious (remembering the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple), psychological (the broken glass cannot ever go back to being unbroken, so this couple can never go back to never having been wed) – all work reasonably well.
Very well – but what would you say? The traditional blessings, after all, are as highly gendered as you would expect them to be – they are all about brides and grooms, Adam and Eve, complementarity and fertility.
My friend thought for a bit, and concluded that a creative ceremony would find a way to link to that Edenic origin of marriage notwithstanding the absence of sexual complementarity – would focus on ahavah v’achavah, shalom v’rei’ut without saying that these can only be rooted in the union of a chatan and kallah. Which sounds laudable, but on a mythopoetic level it’s still a considerable challenge.
* * *
I thought about this challenge after attending a performance at the Stratford Festival Theater of their delightful current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director Chris Abraham has decided to use Shakespeare’s Dream as a vehicle for undertaking precisely that challenge. Adding yet another layer of meta-theatricality to a play that already abounds with it, he’s set the play at a wedding. Not Theseus and Hippolyta’s, but two men – unnamed members of Stratford’s acting company – whose guests, fellow company members, decide to put on a play for the entertainment of groom and groom. Since an impending wedding at which a play will be performed is already the outer, meta-level of Shakespeare’s Dream, adding this additional layer sends kind of an explicit message: this production will explore what actually changes when the wedding we’re celebrating is for two men.
Before getting into how well this “works” on a message level, I want to start off by reiterating just how delightful the show is as a piece of theater. This is the most simply joyous Dream I’ve ever seen, and the joy suffuses every aspect of the production. These actors, playing some version of themselves in the frame story, seem like they are having an absolute ball, and you’d feel peevish not to join in. Little touches that perfectly suit the wedding theme – dressing the aisles of the theater with nuptial ribboning; having the underage wedding guests play the fairies (and having them sing a Bruno Mars number for the other “guests”) – all facilitate an atmosphere of celebration that’s infectious. You really do feel like you’re at an especially awesome wedding.
And there are clever connections made between the casting of the frame story and the play. The superlatively suave Scott Wentworth is supposedly hosting this wedding in his backyard, so of course he plays Theseus in the play. Mike Shara’s goofy bro persona is already familiar to audiences, and that’s the actor he plays in the frame – and of course he plays Demetrius. It even feels appropriate that the ever-game Barbara Fulton gets cast as the Moon’s dog.
As for the concept, Shakespeare’s play is a fecund text to put to this purpose. Dream is, on one level, all about the pagan fertility rites that express the primal mythical importance of complementarity. When Titania and Oberon are harmonious, vegetation grows properly; when they are at odds, the seasons themselves are thrown into disorder. Their love is cosmically generative. On the other hand, those self-same spirits have the power – and the inclination – capriciously to disorder a host of categories as they see fit. They can make a man an ass. They can make a fellow spirit love that ass. And, in a more serious vein, they can make a man love the woman he’s “supposed” to love – or, when they screw up, the woman he isn’t.
As well, the story of Theseus and Hippolyta suggests simultaneously that the determination to love without regard to social convention is a threat to the state (Theseus confirms: Hermia must die, or enter a convent, if she refuses to marry the man her father, Egeus, chooses), and that the inability or unwillingness to accommodate love where it happens to flourish is also a threat to the state (Hippolyta is routinely played as none too pleased by Theseus’s firmness with Hermia, so the happiness of Theseus’s own marriage depends on his ability to get Egeus to see reason, and accept his daughter’s choice). The arc of the play is from threatened order, through disorder, to a re-founded order based on properly reciprocated love rather than force and custom. It should be obvious how that arc would play well in this particular production’s context.
Abraham – or, perhaps I should say the company; this may be a decision we’re supposed to read as happening within the meta-theatrical frame – makes explicit the “progressive” reading of this arc by playing a bit with the gender of the casting. Lysander is played by a woman (Tara Rosling) – and also as a woman, one improbably mistaken by Puck for a man (Rosling isn’t nearly that butch), but more to the point: a woman in love with another woman (Hermia, played with exceptional sincerity by Bethany Jillard). Needless to say, this sharpens the conflict between Hermia and her father, a conflict that, in most productions, feels rather pro-forma rather than deeply felt. (It also makes nonsense of Theseus’s warning that, if she will not marry Demetrius, she must “abjure forever the society of men,” but them’s the breaks; that beat rarely connects with a contemporary audience anyway.)
Titania, meanwhile, is played by a man (Jonathan Goad or Evan Buliung, depending on which performance you see; they alternate playing Titania and Oberon), but as a – well I was going to say a woman, but of course Titania is not a human being at all, but a spirit (of no common rate). But she is unequivocally female. Finally, Puck is also played by a woman (Chick Reid), but that barely counts as cross-gender casting – certainly less so than having a woman play Peter Pan, as is done often enough.
These cross-gender casting choices struck some interesting sparks. Titania in particular was exceptional – both Titanias. Neither Goad’s nor Buliung’s performance is drag-y. They aren’t “signifying” woman in their performances in a campy way, nor are they trying to fool us; we we can see that these are men. The right way to put it, I think, is to say: they play Titania straight. What I saw in each case was a man showing us the woman inside him – not the woman he would play but the woman revealed. The result was two exceptionally affecting (and quite different) Titanias, with deeply felt (and conflicted) relationships with their respective Oberons. I saw the play twice, and will admit, I somewhat preferred Buliung as Titania opposite Goad as Oberon, partly because of Buliung’s fierce affection for the changeling boy she won’t surrender, and partly because his Titania was positively statuesque, and made Goad’s horned Oberon look like a cranky, frustrated little ram. But the other way worked marvelously, too; Buliung’s Oberon is fiercer than Goad’s, Goad’s Titania gentler and more queenly in her control than Buliung’s.
The lovers also work wonderfully well. There was little of the sense that one often gets in Dreams that these are a bunch of spoiled children, or that they are thin excuses for characters being put through conventional plot paces. Indeed, the meta-layering of the production actually served the lovers – when they appeared to be a bunch of actors engaged in romantic recombination, well, that works. Their bits of comic business actually play better because we know they are actors – because actors (most of them, anyway) fool around and do schtick on their own and for each other all the time. Lampooning the conventions of the play works better, sometimes, than playing them straight. Has anyone ever really believed that Demetrius would try to kill Lysander, or vice versa? Not really. So why not let them chase each other with cake knives?
The meta-ness of the production is a bigger problem for the rustics. Now, I will not hear a word said against Stephen Ouimette’s delightful Bottom – less self-aggrandizing than usual, more of the sort of guy who just wants everybody to feel good; one imagines him clowning about to distract Egeus from his rages. (Incidentally, in this production Egeus is played, by Michael Spencer-Davis, as a deaf man. It’s a choice I initially found random – until I saw how it made those rages play more poignantly because more apparently impotent. Here’s a man furious that no one will harken to him – but he does not speak, because he can’t.) Nor will I hear a word against Karl Ang’s dentally-challenged Snug, or Victor Ertmanis’s big-bearded Flute. Their “business” in the play-within-a-play is all delightful. But it’s stepped on, to some extent, by the frame. The whole play has been calling attention to the fact that it’s just a play; the actors have been clowning around the whole time, mocking the conventions and requirements of Shakespeare’s comedy in a warmly affectionate way. The rustics’ play, though still funny, is too close to more of the same to really slay ‘em. (I’ve seen this problem with the rustics before, but Abraham’s production doesn’t run into anything remotely like the problems that Tony Speciale’s did.)
And Flute presents a distinct challenge. Broadly speaking, I’ve seen his assay at Thisbe played either of two ways. Either Flute is absurd playing a woman, and that’s the joke – or he’s surprisingly good at playing the woman, and that’s an even better joke. You can even do both simultaneously if you cast someone who is physically ridiculous as Thisbe and then have him play her straight. Given that Titania is already being played that way, the only option left is to lampoon Thisbe, and that’s the direction the production goes. (I did mention that big beard, didn’t I?) But I wondered what that particular choice meant in light of the larger frame. In this play-within-a-play-within-a-play, Thisbe is played by Flute, who’s played by one of the Stratford actors at this wedding, in a production intended to celebrate this gay wedding. Well, who is Flute in this scenario? He’s playing Thisbe as if he were Robert Preston at the end of “Victor, Victoria.” But is Flute Carole Todd? Is “Victor Ertmanis” (as played by Victor Ertmanis) Robert Preston.
I don’t mean to belabor this, but I did feel like this was a funny joke that could have been much funnier, and deeper, if we had been given a couple of hints about the character in other layers of the meta-narrative. I wanted Flute to be as real as Titania – different, but still real. Titania’s reality said something – something important – about how printed our gender is on our most essential selves: not as deeply as we sometimes assume, because we contain more variety than we represent. Which would seem to be an important idea for this production in particular.
But you know, I started out by saying that this was a “message” production that was making a point by setting the play at a gay wedding. And in the end, I’m not sure that the “message” was anything more than: here you are, and how does it feel? By the time the play-within-a-play-within-a-play is done, and the cast is up and dancing, and inviting you to dance with them, all these quibbles are forgotten. It’s a party. Go dancing. It’s only natural.
One last note: I hope this production has a life beyond this staging. Among other things, I think it would benefit from being staged in a space where it could be even more immersive. I know that’s kind of my thing, but, as I said, I saw the play twice, the first time from a prime center orchestra seat, the second time from cheap, partial view seats that were on the stage, in the middle of the action. And while it was a lot of fun from the orchestra, it was another order of wonderful from the stage. Now, I don’t know if it would have been as good if I hadn’t already seen the whole play – you miss a lot of visuals from the stage. But I think it’s actually essential to the full experience of the production for the audience feel itself actually to be at the wedding. So I hope Abraham gets an opportunity to stage this production again in a venue where that would be possible for everyone in the audience to join the dance.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at Stratford’s Festival Theatre through October 11th.
Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir explain Israel’s “strategy” in Gaza earlier this year:
Israel’s current strategy against hostile non-state actors such as Hamas reflects the assumption that Israel finds itself in a protracted intractable conflict. The use of force in such a conflict is not intended to attain impossible political goals, but rather is a long-term strategy of attrition designed primarily to debilitate the enemy capabilities. Only after showing much restraint in its military responses does Israel act forcefully to destroy the capabilities of its foes as much as possible, hoping that occasional large-scale operations also have a temporary deterrent effect in order to create periods of quiet along Israel’s borders. . . .
Those who forlornly ask “when is this going to end?” and use the cliché term “cycle of violence” have psychological difficulties digesting the facts that there is no solution in sight and that the violent struggle against Hamas is not going to end anytime soon (not as long as the enemy’s basic ideological motivations remain intact). But still, important periods of quiet are attainable via military action, and this is what explains Israel’s current offensive.
The Israeli approach described here is substantively different from current Western strategic thinking on dealing with non-state military challenges.
Western thinking is solution-oriented.
This explains part of the lack of understanding in the West for what Israel is doing.
Against an implacable, well-entrenched, non-state enemy like the Hamas, Israel simply needs to “mow the grass” once in a while to degrade the enemy’s capabilities. A war of attrition against Hamas is probably Israel’s fate for the long term. Keeping the enemy off balance and reducing its capabilities requires Israeli military readiness and a willingness to use force intermittently, while maintaining a healthy and resilient Israeli home front despite the protracted conflict.
The President of the United States explains American “strategy” in Iraq and Syria last night:
Over the last several years, we have consistently taken the fight to terrorists who threaten our country. We took out Osama bin Laden and much of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve targeted Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and recently eliminated the top commander of its affiliate in Somalia. We’ve done so while bringing more than 140,000 American troops home from Iraq and drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, where our combat mission will end later this year. Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is safer.
Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge. At this moment the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain. And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the Islamic State. . . .
I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners’ forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years, and it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.
The only question in my mind is whether the President is “solution-oriented” in the “Western” manner, or whether he merely feels the need to pretend (however unconvincingly) to be so because he assumes his audience requires it. Because it’s pretty clear to me that these respective “strategies” are well-nigh identical.
It’s that time of year again, and I don’t really have anything new to say. What I had to say, I said best on the ten-year anniversary.
But we’ve got a blog to write. If I don’t write something, the terrorists will have won, right?
Well, I’ve got a big backlog of theater stuff to write up . . .
* * *
Aladdin is a funny show to see in 2014, after all the water under the bridge (and other, more viscous fluids spilt) since the film debuted in 1992, and you can tell, right from the opening, that everyone involved in creating this diversion is fully aware of the potential sensitivities on all sides. Extreme care has been taken to make sure that no one could possibly think that Agrabah (the setting) is remotely real. The costumes are Las Vegas parodies of orientalism; the music gives only the barest nod to the east; and the jokes come soaked in borscht.
Moreover, there’s not a moment that you ever worry that something might actually be happening. The chases and fights are staged to maximize the impotent incompetence of the bad guys, and minimize any possible fear that our hero will be caught. And he doesn’t seem too worried himself. Though nominally the fate of the kingdom lies in the balance, and, on a more personal level, Aladdin fears starvation and Princess Jasmine fears an arranged marriage, no actual emotions are on display that might hint that these are real possibilities. The story is just so much scaffolding on which to hang frame-breaking mugging and elaborate numbers.
And to be fair, some of those are pretty amazing. The magic carpet is pretty extraordinary, and executed with real elegance; it reminded me of an excellent production of Peter Pan that I saw at Stratford a few years ago. And the top-this-no-top-this extravagance of the dance numbers is pretty spectacular. But it’s clear from pretty early on that part of the point is to distract the audience from a story that nobody wanted to commit to, because committing to it would mean doing something real.
(“Real,” by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean authentic. The Africa of The Lion King is pretty comprehensively phony, for example. But the show believed in the story it was telling, and so the story itself was real.)
The only character who actually felt solid was the genie. And that, I think, is the real secret to his success. It’s not just the snappy camp energy that James Monroe Iglehart brings to the role (though he sure brings it, and then some), and its not just the fabulousness of the dance numbers he conjures up (though they are truly fabulous). It’s that here’s a character somebody involved in the production understood and committed to, on an emotional level: a fellow of infinite jest and, because of that, essentially unlimited power. He’s the spirit of the play in a literal sense: his purpose – to make us laugh and gasp and, magically, make us seem more powerful and important than we are – is the purpose of the production as a whole.
And, of course, he’s a slave to whoever happens to pick him up.
There’s a metaphor there somewhere, about the Disney entertainment machine at a minimum, but perhaps also about ourselves in the audience, thirteen (or twenty-three) years on. Does it take more and more effort to distract us as the years go by? Or does it actually get easier?
Get tickets if you feel like it, but I don’t think there’s any rush. I predict a nice long run.
Conor Friedersdorf has a very good piece up this morning about how one might talk about sex out of a traditional Christian framework without being tuned out by a non-believing audience of young people.
He begins by raising real and important questions about the traditionalist case against sexual modernity – and that portion of the essay is very worth reading – but that’s not the heart of his argument. He gets to the heart when he imagines a minister or priest being given the opportunity to speak to an incoming freshman class as part of a larger orientation on sexuality, and imagines what he’d like that person to say:
I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.
The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them.
Say you’re dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can’t help but sense that they’re not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you’d rather go ahead.
If you really try to be good to one another, if you earnestly question what that moral code demands and grapple your way toward answers, you may not always like what your reason and conscience tell you. It may tell you to stop slowly taking that person’s clothing off even though they haven’t said to stop. It may tell you that you need to stay in the room with a friend who’d clearly rather be alone with an intoxicated date. Students are at greater risk of sexual assault at parties where there’s drinking going on. Does that mean anything for your behavior if you’re obligated to be good to your fellow students? Do you stay sober, or drink less and keep an eye on those who drink more, or serve only beer, not hard alcohol, when you host, or throw a substance-free party?
You’ll need to decide. What’s truly best for my classmates, and what does it demand of me?
Some students will become depressed after hooking up with someone who doesn’t reciprocate the emotional intimacy they sought. Does that fact affect you? How? There’s always a chance that sexual intercourse will result in a sexually transmitted disease or the creation of a new life. What does that imply, if anything, about your own sexual behavior as you try to be good to one another?
There are so many situations you’ll face—so many more questions I could pose.
I don’t pretend that confronting these situations with the question, “How can I be good to others?” will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers, though I hope that you’ll keep your hearts open to the possibility. But if you really wrestle with that question in every situation that involves sex, romantic intimacy, dating, hooking up, whatever you kids call it these days—instead of thoughtlessly acting in whatever way most people seem to be acting—you’re much more likely to do right by others, much more likely to be proud of yourselves, and much less likely to remember your time here without the regrets that haunt some people, people who look back at their younger selves ashamed of how they hurt others. You’ll also bring about a community with fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer sexual assaults, less depression—just by trying your very hardest to be good to one another!
Friedersdorf explains why he finds this kind of talk appealing:
I won’t say I’ve never seen a traditionalist Christian talk about sex on campus, or in America, like that. . . . But the approach I’ve sketched is very different from the most prominent messages on sex I’ve heard from traditionalist Christians, and different from any message I ever heard at a Catholic high school or from orthodox friends I know. To me, that’s a shame. In theory, “do unto others” is a moral message that secularists could and sometimes do adopt, but it isn’t the focus of secular sexual norms or mores. We’re more likely to talk about consent or pleasure or self-actualization or gender equity—all important goods, but not the only ones to consider.
Christians would seem better prepared than many to raise and press thorny questions about what “do unto others” implies, and better prepared than most to speak in explicitly moral language about our obligations to one another in the sexual realm.
A few thoughts.
First, before anyone jumps up and calls this weak tea, let me just say that following the precept, “do unto others” is extraordinarily hard. Like, really insanely difficult – much more difficult, I would argue, than following a set of explicit prohibitions – which is hard enough. Because we all want to be treated well all the time. We never want to have our feelings ignored, to be taken for granted – to say nothing of being the subject of outright cruelty or abuse. Moreover, before we can even get to the point of treating everybody well, we have to be mindful enough, aware enough of them, to hear how they actually want to be treated – specifically. Taken absolutely, “do unto others” is positively Tolstoyan, a moral standard for saints.
For that very reason, I’m glad Friedersdorf wrote that this objective – being good to others – is only one of several legitimate concerns, that pleasure and self-actualization are also important. Unfortunately, I have a funny feeling that the very people who would be most receptive to a message about the importance of being good to others are the ones who need to pay a bit more attention to the actualization of their own selves, while the ones who most need to hear a message like this are the ones whose selves are, shall we say, a bit too actualized.
Second, since Friedersdorf has written before about how we shouldn’t belittle consent as an ethical touchstone, I’m glad that, in this piece, he seems to recognize that there’s something cold and contractual about stopping at that point in your ethical analysis. A society that took consent seriously would be a much, much better society than one where consent was regularly ignored – and we aren’t anywhere near there yet. But it also wouldn’t necessarily be a particularly caring society. And that’s before we get into all the ways that consent can be manufactured.
Third, I think Friedersdorf’s argument deserves a bit of a feminist gloss. Specifically: to practice “do unto others” in the sexual realm, you need to be able to imagine yourself in the position of the “others” in question. That’s not always easy for anybody – but gender is a particularly common fault line here. To follow some of Friedersdorf’s hypothetical minister’s advice, a man would need to be able to imagine what it would be like to be a woman. That’s a big challenge for a lot of men (particularly men in the heat of passion). I know it has been for me, at many times in my life. The typical traditionalist approach to this problem is to say, “imagine she was your sister.” Personally, I think that approach has real limitations, and the feminists have the better of this particular argument. What would Friedersdorf’s hypothetical traditionalist think, though? I wonder.
Finally: Friedersdorf’s hypothetical traditionalist says something towards the end of his speech that I need to pick at a bit. He talks about how following “do unto others” will help you avoid “the regrets that haunt some people, people who look back at their younger selves ashamed of how they hurt others.” I know that shame, from personal experience. But I can also say that I haven’t run into a lot of people who talk that way. By contrast, I’ve run into a lot more shame on the other side of the equation – people, particularly women, who feel crushing shame for allowing themselves to be hurt. And we’re, to some degree, aware of that; we have a whole therapeutic infrastructure (insufficient, but it’s there) for helping people who have been hurt talk about that kind of shame, and work to overcome it.
The predominant language we use for talking about having hurt other people, though, is the language of addiction, a language that, to my mind, complicates the question of personal agency in a way that makes the “do unto others” moral language that Friedersdorf’s traditionalist is advocating somewhat harder to hear. In other words, I think it may be problematic to have to admit to being powerless in order to admit that you have done wrong, and hurt other people. In any event, I’d be very interested to hear from Friedersdorf specifically whether he feels the same way, or disagrees.
The core argument Friedersdorf is making, though, I think is an important one. A lot of traditionalists I talk to think that the most important argument to be having with the larger culture relates to natural law. If we cannot agree on absolute standards for right and wrong, rooted in Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of human nature and the divine, then the only alternative is a swirling ethical void. This is a repeated theme in Rod Dreher’s writing, particularly when he asks what Christianity is for:
If Christianity teaches us to love, well, what do we mean by love? Caritas — charity — is a love in which we connect love of others to our love of God. Who is God, and what does He want from us? Does the Bible tell us so? How can we tell?
Well, perhaps we could start by listening to those others, trying to hear what they are saying, and not saying, about what would feel like love, and caring, to them. I suspect that’s actually harder than reading the Bible – or any other book, frankly – to find out a universally applicable answer. And maybe that difficulty is a sign that what looks on the surface like weak tea is actually a pretty stiff prescription.
Yesterday, I said I hoped Jim Webb will challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Presidential nomination, in spite of his very poor prospects for victory. If he did so, he’d almost certainly be perceived in some quarters as a more “right-wing” alternative because, in a cultural sense, that’s where he belongs. But from my perspective, his most important attacks would be functionally from the left: particularly on foreign policy, but also on Executive power and on some economic questions, such as reining in the influence of Wall Street. Plus, his stubborn independence of mind would by definition be a challenge to the drearily calculating establishmentarianism of the Clinton machine. I also said that Webb is “not Elizabeth Warren or Zephyr Teachout.” Which might have led some people to believe that, if I like Webb, I must not like Warren or Teachout. But that’s not the case. Teachout in particular is the real deal, and has been running a highly principled race for Governor of New York that has already forced Governor Cuomo to move to his left on the issues that matter to her. I give Cuomo credit for running a tight fiscal ship – that record is a big reason he’s running as strongly as he is in the general election. But I also think there’s a difference between running a tight ship and steering the ship where monied interests want it steered. Teachout is pointing out that difference. She’s run an old-fashioned and completely sincere left-wing good-government campaign. We could use more of them. They can help keep the ship pointed in the right direction even if they aren’t electorally successful.