Noah Millman

Three Steps To a More Restrained Foreign Policy

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Mark C. Schultz/Released
U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Mark C. Schultz/Released

I’d already added Barry Posen’s Restraint to my fall reading list before reading William Ruger’s review, which I heartily recommend. I’ll probably write more on the subject once I’ve read the book – but in the meantime, I wanted to respond to one point from Ruger in his review:

Posen’s insight into the destabilizing effect of rapid change in international politics shows in his preference for a slow, deliberate transition away from liberal hegemony. But one might be concerned that the U.S.—with an open political system responsive to domestic interest groups—will not be able to stay the course. Given the realities of American politics, it may then be better to err on the side of speed in moving towards restraint.

I understand where Ruger is coming from here, but assuming he’s characterizing Posen correctly, I’m strongly inclined to agree with his preference. It may be emotionally satisfying to imagine a sudden reversal of course, but ships as large as the United States necessarily turn very slowly.

Nonetheless, there are specific decisions that could be taken that could set America on a different course. Here are three that I’ve touched on before.

Ink a nuclear deal with Iran. As I’ve argued in this space before, we’ve long needed to reframe the way we talk about Iran. We should say, “our goal is normal, friendly relations with Iran, and the obstacles are a, b and c” rather than, “our goal is eliminating a, b and c, and we’d prefer to achieve that goal peacefully – but if we’ll resort to war if we have to.” The current nuclear talks provide the best vehicle for such a reframing, and for changing our posture towards the Middle East generally. A nuclear deal with Iran would remove the most substantial pretext for America’s overcommitment to the region. It would be absurd to squander the gains of such a deal by needlessly antagonizing Iran immediately thereafter over other, less-important issues. It is also far-fetched to think that any such deal would lead to a realignment in which Iran explicitly joins some kind of American “camp.” Rather, what such a deal would signal to the other major powers of the region – Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel – is that America’s overarching objective is stabilizing the region, which means getting these powers to keep their own rivalries within bounds. It would signal, in other words, that America is neither pursuing a revisionist agenda as we did with the Iraq War and the Libyan intervention, nor have we sided with a new counter-revolutionary axis explicitly opposed to Iran and Turkey. If the goal is “moving offshore,” it’s hard for me to imagine a better mechanism.

Negotiate a withdrawal from South Korea in exchange for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The rise of China is the most difficult problem the United States faces on the world stage, since China is very unlikely to assent to an explicitly American-led world order, but both precipitous withdrawal and a tightening encirclement present serious risks of war, which would be catastrophic. We need to strike a balance that makes it clear simultaneously that America is comfortable with rising Chinese power and influence, but has both the power and the will to resist efforts by China to “speed up” that rise through the use of force. Korea provides the best venue for pursuing a cooperative approach. South Korea is perfectly capable of defending itself against a North Korean conventional attack; it does not need American soldiers to defend it. The North Korean regime is one of the most horrible functioning regimes in the world, but the primary threat it poses to the United States relates to its nuclear arsenal and its potential willingness to share that technology with other powers. The greatest reason for Chinese nervousness about the future of the peninsula is the possibility that, should the North Korean regime collapse, American troops would wind up on the Chinese border. If encirclement of China is not actually an American aim, it would seem that there would be a deal to do, and such a deal would balance other American actions – like developing a working security relationship with India and maintaining a strong alliance with Japan – that might otherwise lead China to fear a hostile encirclement.

Adopt a pro-German line on Europe. For much of the history of the European Union and its precursors, America has adopted a “broader, not deeper” line on how the EU should evolve, encouraging Europe to be expansive in its efforts to bring in new states but opposing any move to create a unified executive with a coherent foreign policy. Germany has, historically, been on the opposite side of both questions, being more skeptical about bringing in states like Ukraine and Turkey that it would wind up subsidizing, and more supportive of creating central institutions that are directly accountable to the European electorate, which would make possible truly European foreign policy and defense organs (not to mention potentially resolving the fundamental contradictions in European economic policymaking). America’s vision is, ultimately, more consistent with the idea of keeping Europe institutionally weak and dependent on American involvement than with a goal of a functioning European partner. Germany is not only the primary European economic engine, it’s also the country with the most to lose from a deterioration in European-Russian relations, and therefore in the best position to weigh the relative costs and benefits of appeasement and confrontation. The simple statement that America no longer has any objection to the development of a common European defense, nor any independent interest in EU expansion, would open up space for the states of Europe to develop their union according to its own logic and their own needs.

 

Ultimately, America has a significant interest in a world characterized by major power concert rather than major power rivalry. Trying to preserve such a world through unipolar hegemony, as Britain did between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I, will likely lead us down Britain’s path to bankruptcy, notwithstanding our far greater relative power in today’s world. Precipitous withdrawal, though, runs all sorts of other risks – particularly, the risk that we’ll be drawn back into conflict as other powers take advantage of our withdrawal. The delicately balanced middle path between trying to maintain a brittle hegemony and disengagement is engagement that facilitates the rise of other powers within a context where their interests are better served by operating in concert than by revisionism.

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Bright College Days

In the continuing series of blog posts about things I meant to write about a while ago, I had meant to chime in on William Deresiewicz’s annoying piece in The New Republic about how you shouldn’t send your kid to an Ivy League school, but now, having dithered for so long, I can just recommend you start with Gracy Olmstead’s post from this morning on the subject, and the David Heller review of Deresiewicz’s book that she links to.

And I want to endorse, emphatically, this line of Heller’s:

Academe ought to focus on the one thing that it actually did well: letting scholars teach what they knew. That teaching might nurture intellectual skills that the students could use in the real world, but how it did so was mysterious and, anyway, beside the point.

As it happens, I graduated from an Ivy League school – somewhat too long ago, it’s true, to reflect directly on the state of things as they are. But it still strikes me how different my experience was from what I hear described.

I went to Yale University in the early 1990s (class of 1992, if you must know). I majored in history – the most popular major at the time (followed by English). Not every course I took was intellectually rigorous or well-taught, but the average level of instruction struck me as absurdly high, and the expectations for graduation were quite serious. I’m honestly still proud of my senior thesis, about the process of cult centralization in the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah in the late First Temple period of Israelite history. I was originally going to write about the Taki Uncuy movement in 16th century Peru, but decided I simply didn’t know enough about Inca and pre-Inca culture to say anything really intelligent, so I wound up writing a shorter historiographic paper about the limitations of inquisition records as sources, and switched topics for my actual thesis. I also remember fondly seminars on the Spanish Civil War, on popular culture in early modern England – there were so many great courses in the history department. And beyond: the lectures on Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, on constitutional law, on political philosophy. I took some excellent creative writing seminars.

Bottom line: my academic experience at Yale pretty well reflected that Heller quote above. I learned a great deal. I had no idea whether any of what I learned would be useful to a putative career. I also had no idea whether any of what I learned would help me “find” myself. To the extent that either turned out to be true, it’s because I continued to think about what I learned in new and different contexts – because I built on it.

Meanwhile, my social experience of college was kind of a disaster. I was anything but the “organization kid” – I had no idea what kind of future I was supposed to be preparing for, signed up for no high-profile internships, joined no prestigious clubs. Oh, I tried to do some of those things – my freshman year, I tried out for a couple of singing groups, joined the Political Union, that sort of thing. But none of it really worked out, and by sophomore year I’d kind of retreated into a bit of a cocoon, socially and psychically.

I was, in other words, almost the opposite of what David Brooks and William Deresiewicz fret about. My college years were centered on an academic experience that was serious and organized around the needs and requirements of the discipline itself. I don’t want to pretend that I was a grind – I wasn’t. I spent plenty of nights drinking and playing poker, or futilely pursuing my female compatriots, instead of studying; I slept through plenty of lectures; I wrote plenty of papers in last-minute all-nighters. In other words, I was a college student. But I didn’t have a plan for my life. When I graduated, I tried to become a novelist, and set myself up in a dreadful cockroach-infested apartment. After a year of that, with no novel to speak of, I decided I needed a plan.

And, basically without thinking about it – or even knowing what one was – I went to work for a hedge fund. Which led to a 16-year Wall Street career. Which is exactly the kind of choice that Deresiewicz’s laments his “sheep” are primed to make. Maybe they aren’t making that kind of choice because they are being raised wrong, but because that’s where the money is?

It’s increasingly the same point with me: if you’re troubled by the culture, follow the money. The incredible fortunes to be made on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, and the ruthless competition in traditionally genteel fields like law, are what have driven the increasingly frantic race for a place at the top – and to so much drift among those who have the right credentials to compete in that race, but lack the talent, temperament or simple luck to really be a contender. And that frantic race has infected everything. I mean, the same summer that Deresiewicz called for burning down Harvard, Reihan Salam called for closing Stuyvesant High School, which operates a very different kind of meritocracy.

And by the way: one of Deresiewicz’s suggestions is that many students who go to the Ivies might be better off at a big public university. He might be interested to read the following, from one of the commenters on my piece responding to Salam:

Just over a decade ago I was enrolled in a fantastically expensive and exclusive private school that treated my friends and I like hothouse flowers. From there, I went directly to an enormous urban public research university, a veritable boiler room of meritocracy. It was in many ways a rude awakening, but the rudest transition of all was in the kind of ethical attitudes I suddenly encountered for the first time. University brought a more diverse crowd in every way, in terms of ethnicity, religion, class, wealth, etc; that was all to the good. What wasn’t good was the toxic way in which the school’s “total sink-or-swim environment” interacted with people who genuinely didn’t care about anything but their score.

Why was this such a shock to me? Because at the private school NO ONE had cared about their score, or at least not enough to cheat. After all, the school’s academic standards were known to be generally high, and odds were good that every student would at least get into a safety school. There was little need to compete for scholarships; and if all else failed, students from wealthy families (i.e., almost all the students) had other options to fall back on.

For the most part, the “strivers” at the public university didn’t have those other options, and their potential future employers were not going to perform extensive background checks to see if they really earned their STEM degrees honestly. And yes, unfortunately, foreign students from developing countries earned themselves a particularly bad reputation for this; the incentives for them were stacked against integrity at every step.

In retrospect, I’d have been a lot happier at a more expensive private liberal arts college. Meritocracy without integrity is for the birds. If a sense of integrity can’t be maintained among the current crop of students at Stuy, then maybe it would be better for the school to close, rather than risk further darkening the general reputation of the kind of student who still goes there.

Yep: competition’s a bitch. The more I ruminate on it, the more I think I was just lucky to be born into a small generational cohort.

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You Gotta Be A Father To A Girl: Porn Edition

HBO, "Game of Thrones"
HBO, "Game of Thrones"

I’ve been meaning to opine on the piece by Damon Linker from a week or so ago on what he calls “moral libertarianism” – a non-judgmental attitude towards personal choices and pleasure generally, and towards sexual choices specifically.

Linker distinguishes this from a purely political libertarianism, which would hold that the state has no proper role in policing morals, but would not necessarily question the validity of private moral judgments. Our libertarian moment, Linker avers, goes beyond this, to a discomfort with such private judgments. But, he maintains, our non-judgmentalism is exercised in bad faith. None of us, he asserts, really believe in it in our heart of hearts:

This moral libertarianism even extends to pornography — not just watching it, but “acting” in it, too. That’s the subtext of discussions surrounding Miriam Weeks (stage name: Belle Knox), the Duke University undergraduate who has chosen to pay her way through college by performing in porn videos. At first she was subjected to harsh attacks on campus, but since her story went national, she’s become a breakout celebrity and folk hero to some libertarians and feminists who see her choice as an act of empowerment for women and sex workers.

There’s just one complication to this happy story: no one, or almost no one, actually believes it. People may say they see nothing wrong with or even admire Weeks’ decision to become a porn actress, but it isn’t unambiguously true. And our ease of self-deception on the matter tells us something important about the superficiality of the moral libertarianism sweeping the nation.

How do I know that nearly everyone who claims moral indifference or admiration for Weeks is engaging in self-deception? Because I conducted a little thought experiment. I urge you to try it. Ask yourself how you would feel if Weeks — porn star Belle Knox — was your daughter.

I submit that virtually every honest person — those with children of their own, as well as those who merely possess a functional moral imagination — will admit to being appalled at the thought.

Why would we be privately appalled? Linker dispenses with a couple of possibilities before moving on to what he thinks is the true reason:

Some will say that this is because sex work is “exploitative,” and it is. But so is working up to 100 hours a week as a junior analyst at Goldman Sachs. Most parents would probably be thrilled for their daughter to receive a job offer from a leading investment bank.

Others will detect a sexist double standard in the judgment — one based in gendered notions of feminine purity and fear of defilement. But I bet an awful lot of people would be equally appalled to learn that a son had gone to work in porn.

Why? Because at a level of thinking that we increasingly conceal from ourselves, we persist in making the same vertical moral distinctions that human beings have always made: high and low, noble and base, elevated and degraded. Of course precisely what is considered high/noble/elevated and what is thought of as low/base/degraded changes over time and varies across cultures. But what persists as a fundamental, ineradicable element of moral thinking is the act of placing some actions into the first category and others into the second.

And with a remarkable degree of unanimity, we supposedly non-judgmental, morally libertarian, 21st-century Americans judge having sex for pay and in the most public forum imaginable to be low, base, and degraded — and for that reason certainly not the kind of thing we want our children to be doing.

I think Linker is too quick to dismiss the double standard as a motivating factor here. Why does Linker say “not just watching it” – why does he assume that it is more less disreputable to consume porn than to create it? It is more less disreputable, unquestionably – but why? As I’ve argued before, whether you take a traditionalist moral perspective, or your concern is merely the question of exploitation and power dynamics, or even if all you care about is the humane nature of the connection between people, the viewer is arguably in a much more suspect position, morally, than the participant, just as a john is in a much more suspect position than a prostitute. If the act is morally wrong as such, he is the reason the act is happening; if the act is performed under exploitative conditions, he is the ultimate exploiter; and whether or not the act is performed with mutual respect and in a spirit of true freedom, his experience does not partake of that exchange: he is a solitary consumer, taking an experience, giving nothing of himself. But that’s precisely why we are more censorious toward the performer: because the consumer is presumed to be in the position of power. This should lead Linker to interrogate that “high/low, noble/base” distinction to make sure that he’s not really looking at a distinction between “powerful” and “weak.” (On a separate note, this assumption that the consumer is actually in a position of power itself deserves to be interrogated.)

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, meanwhile, questions Linker’s method of inquiry – “Linker knows that nearly everyone must feel appalled because… he thought about it and was appalled? That’s some pretty shaky logic.” She asserts that she would have no such qualms – but the core of her response returns to the policy realm that Linker wanted to distinguish from the moral. (Linker: “None of this should be taken to mean that I favor banning porn or making it illegal to work in the industry that produces it. In the end, I’m a libertarian, too. But only in politics. Not in morals.”) She retorts:

There’s nothing wrong with having certain expectations for your children—most parents want to see their kids live up to their fullest potential and achieve certain markers of normative success. All else being equal, I’d rather my own hypothetical daughter choose, say, engineering over becoming a Burger King cashier or a brothel worker, because the former seems to offer more security and room for advancement. But here’s the crux of the matter: Our best laid plans mean jack.

“It’s fine that you wouldn’t want your daughter having sex for money,” I told my friend yesterday, “but say she does anyway, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Would you want her to have to stand out on the street, get in cars with totally unvetted strangers, be arrested, get a criminal record? Or would you want her to be able to work in a safe environment? And go to the police if something bad happened? And not get thrown in jail?”

Decriminalizing prostitution is a means of harm reduction.

You could call this a “moral libertarian” version of Rawls’s veil of ignorance. We don’t know what our daughter might decide to do when she is of age. She might decide to have sex for money. Therefore, we should examine our political (and moral) attitudes with a view to who would be most harmed by them – and the person most harmed by a morally condemnatory attitude is the daughter who decides to have sex for money, and would be condemned for it.

As with Rawls’s own perspective, this makes perfect sense if you take the existing distribution is a given – in Rawls’s case, of wealth; in Nolan Brown’s, of life choices. If you don’t assume that – if you assume instead that redistribution of wealth will lead to less production of wealth overall, or that a permissive moral attitude will lead to an increase in objectively poorer life choices – then you can’t blithely say that the only thing that matters is harm reduction for those who make those choices. You have to weigh the costs on all sides of the equation. This much should be obvious.

But I still think Nolan Brown’s critique has teeth, because she’s drawing a distinction between the daughter as thought experiment and the daughter in reality.

Linker’s daughter-in-porn is a hypothetical. His attitude – he would be appalled – is rooted in the fact that his daughter is not involved in porn, and he hopes she never is. If a grown daughter of his actually were having sex for money, his attitude would unquestionably change.

How would it change? I’m going to assume that this (hypothetical) Linker would make a priority of his daughter’s well-being, so I can rule out reactions like killing his daughter for the sake of the family’s honor – or, for that matter, cutting off all contact with her for the sake of protecting the virtue of a (hypothetical) younger daughter. In other words, I’m going to assume that if his hypothetical became actual, Linker would actually take an approach something akin to what Nolan Brown hypothesizes. He would likely worry about his daughter being exploited – which might lead him to try to get her out of the business, or might lead him to fight to make sure the business is properly regulated, or any number of other reactions. But I strongly suspect that revulsion, which he previously felt, would no longer hold a place in his heart, not if he valued his relationship with his daughter. And that change, in turn, would change the baseline from which other people judged their own hypothetical daughters’ choices.

Don’t agree? Let me throw a slightly different hypothetical on the table: how would you feel if your daughter decided to become a professional screen actress – and suddenly got a big break to appear on a major, critically-acclaimed television show? I suspect most people would be very proud. But once upon a time, “actress” was a decidedly “base” profession – precisely because it was associated with prostitution. Well, we’re all beyond that identification today, aren’t we?

Okay: how would you feel if your daughter’s big break as a professional screen actress was her opportunity to appear fully nude in a sex scene on the popular cable television drama, ”Game of Thrones?”

I choose that particular show advisedly, because, on the one hand, it’s a very well-made and popular show, with a lot of impressive talent involved. You may consider it “base” but plainly a whole lot of people with a great deal of cultural power do not. But, on the other hand, “GOT” is infamous for its deployment of “sexposition” – using explicit sex to “spice up” what would otherwise be boring scenes transmitting information to the audience. In other words, one might question the “validity” of the nudity, whether it is truly integral to the artistic endeavor. In this hypothetical, assume your daughter is going to be in one of these scenes.

Do you have qualms now?

If you don’t, then I’d say all we’re doing is haggling over the price. You’re still bothered by the idea of her actually having sex on camera for money, but you have no problem with her performing fully nude and appearing to have sex on camera for money, for a largely prurient purpose. I have no doubt that, given a bit of time and cultural drift, you’d get over that remaining hangup about actual sex in due course.

If you do have qualms, then clearly you should recognize that your private judgments are not universal. There are just too many actresses competing for those kinds of parts, and too many of those actresses have fathers. You should be open to the possibility that our “morally libertarian” moment has already significantly changed what we actually feel to be base, and may change it further. And so you can’t just use your gut as a guide either to whether we’re all acting in bad faith, nor to what is “essentially” base or noble.

But now, to turn the screw one more turn the other way: how would you feel if HBO’s contract specified that your daughter, a young actress, had no right to refuse to do a scene such as described above? If, in other words, the price of admission to the game of “be a successful screen actress” is being willing to perform nude sex scenes. This is, as it happens, a reasonable approximation of the state of play these days – a young actress who refuses to work nude is essentially cutting herself out of entire categories of legitimate work (or so I am told by a number of young actresses who have had to make precisely that choice). My question to Elizabeth Nolan Brown would be: how serious does the question of “exploitation” sound now?

I don’t have the libertarian’s faith in the self-regulating capacity of the market. Decriminalization is sometimes an important harm-reduction strategy – but it isn’t the only one. It seems to me that, once money enters into the equation, and we consider the extreme difference in bargaining power between a young actress and a studio – to say nothing of a novice porn performer and the filmmakers in that industry – as well as the intense competitive pressures, it becomes problematic to lean really hard on “informed consent” as your only moral standard. And bear in mind, the film and television industry is a heavily unionized one.

Of course, as Linker points out, questions of exploitation are relevant to all industries – even high paying ones. The concern about sex work is that gut feeling Linker has that “sex is different.” I don’t think I’m dismissing that concern when I say that I agree with Nolan Brown that sex is also different for different people – different for someone who’s an exhibitionist from the way it is for someone who’s more body-conscious, different for someone who’s naturally promiscuous from the way it is for someone who naturally forms deep and exclusive attachments. Because these tendencies exist on a spectrum, and the opportunities that present themselves can push one in this or that direction in terms of what one is willing to consent to do.

And money is a particular kind of opportunity that presents a particular kind of pressure. It is entirely plausible to say that everyone should feel free to have whatever kind of weird and kinky or extreme experience they want, without fear of legal or even social sanction, and still to feel that bringing money into the picture raises real concerns, simply because consent to sex is more fraught and more fragile than consent to being a forklift operator.

We use the word “prostitute” not only literally, but also as a metaphor, and we are all faced with situations where we have to decide whether we will prostitute ourselves – that is to say, whether we will do something for money that, if money were not involved, we would not do not merely because we don’t wish to but because we don’t think it’s right – for us, or in general, or whatever. The doctor who bills for unnecessary tests or procedures, the writer who creates “advertorial” copy, the salesman pushing an inferior product – every single one of us, I venture, has put ourselves in a position where we have felt like a prostitute, in the metaphorical sense: that we have sold something – some portion of our integrity – that ought not be sold. And, if we had any integrity to begin with, we hate ourselves for doing it.

It would surprise me very much if there were no actual prostitutes, or porn performers, who felt similarly about their work. And it doesn’t strike me as weird to fear that, if your daughter entered into such a profession, she would be one of those who did so.

[UPDATE: typo fixed, but also the headline; it's bad enough that I'm addicted to often-obscure allusions, but inexcusable when I also mangle them.]

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Ai Weiwei and Swoon at the Brooklyn Museum

Swoon: Submerged Motherlands, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art
Swoon: Submerged Motherlands, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

I’m very fond of a line from Kenneth Clark’s testimony to the Longford Committee on pornography: “The moment art becomes an incentive to action it loses its true character.” Clark was testifying about the difference between how art and pornography treat sexual subjects, but he himself directed the distinction toward political “pornography” as well – art that took an explicitly Communist line, for example – which is the context in which I tend to apply it. When I am annoyed at feeling manipulated by a work of art, Clark’s line is my typical starting point for a response.

I’m fond of the line even though I’m not sure it works. In particular, I’ve been reassessing in my mind the dichotomy between action and contemplation that Clark sets up.

There are, after all, so many feelings one can be moved to by art, and that one might want to be moved to by art, that don’t properly fall under the rubric of “contemplation.” Catharsis, to pick an obvious example. Meanwhile, Brecht’s explicitly political theater abjures the simplicity of “moving” the audience to action by manipulating their emotions. Contemplation is perhaps the wrong word, but he certainly wanted his audience to think.

I’ve been turning all of this over in my mind as I recall two shows I saw at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this summer. One, a collection of works by the celebrated Chinese dissident and conceptual artist Ai Weiwei; the other, an installation by the wonderful young American artist known as Swoon. Both are plainly political artists, but they affected me very differently – and neither fit easily into Clark’s dichotomy.

*     *     *

As conceptual art often does, a great many of Ai Weiwei’s pieces derive the large part of their impact from the backstory. For example, one entire room is given over to the material possessions of a fellow dissident artist and activist who was removed from her home by the police in the middle of the night, and left with her belongings on the side of the highway. Boxes and bags cluster in the center of the room, arranged as they were by the road where she was stranded, and images of the contents thereof, laid out like forensic evidence, covered the walls of the room.

I looked around at all of this material, and wondered what I was supposed to glean from it. The contents of her baggage were entirely banal. Was that the point – to say, look, the regime is afraid of someone with “Hello Kitty” underwear? But would Lenin’s, or Mohammed Atta’s, laundry look any less banal, I wonder?

Another piece puzzled me in a different way. In a small glass case was displayed an intricate Chinese box, carved in the traditional style. It was lovely, and a note explained that the box had belonged to Ai Weiwei’s father, who had been subjected to reeducation for rightist tendencies. The box had been a comfort to him in his trials, and was also, obviously, a potent symbol of all that was mad about the Cultural Revolution – in and of itself, the box had no politics, but once you’ve declared war on the past even a decorative box becomes a dangerous political statement.

Next to this was a work by Ai Weiwei: a huge wooden cube, carved with the same pattern as the little traditional box. And this was the piece I puzzled over, for a long time, because I found it, well, not exactly ugly, but certainly not beautiful. I found it banal, boring. Its surface looked lumpy rather than luscious. The scale of the carving just didn’t work with the scale of the piece. I began to wonder: was that the point? Was he making an argument that modern, minimalist gigantism can’t marry traditional techniques? But he had other pieces on view that were more aesthetically successful (to my eye) that used traditional techniques, so that can’t have been his point. So what was it?

Then there were the works that had a very clear point, like the memorials for the victims of a catastrophic earthquake. Ai Weiwei was plainly incensed by the complicity of the corrupt regime in the loss of life, but I couldn’t help wondering where that anger was located in the memorial itself:

ai-wei-wei-according-to-what-exhibition-brooklyn-museum-6

 

The form on the floor is made of rebar from the collapsed buildings, painstakingly straightened, and organized into a form intended to recall fault lines. The victims names line the wall. I don’t mean to knock the image, but looking at it I could help feeling: I’ve seen this sort of thing before. This, the abstract visual representation of data, is how we do memorials these days. I wasn’t getting a feeling; I wasn’t getting a narrative. All I got was signification: enough people died to justify filling a room with rusted metal.

I began to wonder if it was just me – just a matter of taste, or of being too much of an outsider to a conversation that someone Chinese would have understood immediately. And then I saw the other exhibit, by Swoon.

*     *     *

Submerged Motherlands delighted me the moment I stepped into the vaulted atrium that it fills. The work is an installation, an environment that you, the patron, are invited to explore. Installation art bears ready comparison to set design, so already it’s playing a song a theater buff like me will like. But this installation was particularly enthralling.

Though integrated into a whole, the piece may be divided into four major segments. At the center is a tree, made (it appeared) of discarded nylons. You’d think its towering verticality would make it appear phallic, but its delicate layering created exactly the opposite effect, an overtly and exuberantly feminine form gathering the other forms to it – more convincingly feminine, frankly, than Judy Chicago’s famous dinner party (on view elsewhere in the museum). The two most important of these other forms were two boats, rusty buckets hung with more junk than Mother Courage’s famous cart. The last form was a cabin or hut, a shelter under the hovering protection of a nursing mother. Connecting all these are ribbons and sheets of delicately cut paper forming an abstract, watery design that periodically disgorges a more distinct organic form.

The moment I stepped into the atrium, I thought to myself, “I get it – it’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” I was close: right idea, wrong hurricane (Submerged Motherlands was inspired by Sandy, not Katrina). And Swoon’s piece can be criticized from many of the same vantage points that Benh Zeitlin’s film was. But so what? It’s beautiful; I “got” it; it moved me.

But moved me to what?

That’s what brought me back to Clark’s dichotomy, the whole contemplation versus action thing. Ai Weiwei’s pieces felt like they were intended to spark outrage and opposition to the regime in China. But to me they felt so cold and so literal-minded, that I found myself thinking instead about the limitations of the artist’s version of conceptualism. (And, as well, about the limitations of the language of political protest in the era when Ai Weiwei was in America – the 1980s.) Swoon’s work is much more directly emotional, and I was carried along by that emotion – and would have been moved to action . . . if I only had any idea what that action might be.

At all events, you can still catch Swoon’s installation if you hurry. I encourage you to do so.

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Savage Beauty: The Maids at City Center

Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett in The Maids at New York's City Center
Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett in The Maids at New York's City Center

At one point in the current production of Jean Genet’s The Maids at New York’s City Center, as Mistress offhandedly gifts her cherished red dress to her maid, Claire, she brags, “Alexander McQueen designed it for me personally, but so what?” Or something like that – I can’t check the quote because, obviously, Alexander McQueen doesn’t make an appearance in the original text; this is an interpolation by adapters Benedict Andrews (who also directed) and Andrew Upton.

It’s not a one-off; this a production determined to bring its material up to date, wrench it out of the class system and culture of mid-century France and situate it in our own, so that it “plays” once again, doesn’t feel like a period piece. So: Mistress’s bedroom is sleek and glass-walled; her commode, visible upstage, gleams whitely. And Mistress herself is played not as a wealthy matron, but as a strikingly beautiful young socialite, a woman not of the past but of the present, and the future, whose entitlement is all the more terrifying because her youth makes it more convincing that she will triumph.

So why, I wondered, were Claire and Solange, her titular maids, got up in the traditional French manner?

The Maids is, first and foremost, a play about role-playing. Claire and Solange, the maids, spend their days keeping Mistress’s world spotless, protecting her from the filth of life that they, inevitably, associate with themselves. By night, they take turns reenacting their own humiliation, taking turns playing maid and mistress in an recurring sadomasochistic ritual, culminating in the fantasy of finally doing away with their employer. When it works, the play simultaneously draws us into its games, making them feel real, and alienates us, makes us conscious of the degree to which we ourselves are playing out class and gender roles, and the degree to which the roles we wear trap and suffocate us.

Clothes are integral to those games, those roles; hence the rack of dresses and furs that crosses the entire stage, turning the whole apartment into a giant walk-in closet. But a French maid’s outfit, today, feels less like a signifier of class than a signifier of some kind of retro-kink, the kind of thing you might wear for a burlesque in Bushwick. Does he want us to take his whole story ironically?

Perhaps so. That would be one explanation for the acting style affected by Isabelle Huppert as Solange, which is all exaggerated gesture. Huppert skips about the enormous stage (nobody could quite feel trapped in this cavernous space, a real loss for a piece that should feel claustrophobic), waving her hands, wagging her head, and speaking in a thoroughly incomprehensible accent. It’s a thoroughly mannered performance intended, it would seem, to evoke the same past as her outfit.

But perhaps not, because we can also see Huppert’s face, thanks to another intrusion Andrews has introduced: roving cameras that project bits and snippets of the scene onto a giant video screen overhanging the stage. Now its a flower, now a shoe. And now it’s Huppert’s worn, lined, exhausted face, a face incompatible with irony. All that business, it seems, was acting – playing a part. The face is reality.

Or it could be Cate Blanchett’s face the camera catches, and then you’re really in for a treat. Blanchett plays Claire with a ferocity that recalls her bravura performance in “Blue Jasmine,” and then takes it way beyond. She careens from sneering condescension when Claire is imitating Mistress, to an almost Stockholm Syndrome-level submissiveness when Mistress arrives on the scene, without ever making us feel like she is “acting” – which is particularly scary because she, Claire, is acting, both when she’s playing Mistress and when he’s playing the meek mouse for Mistress. Apparently, says this play, we cannot even trust the most convincing performance of emotion.

Blanchett plays Mistress so well that, when the play opens, I was disoriented for a moment – because I knew that Mistress isn’t supposed to appear until about a third of a way through the play, and yet there she was. And then, when Mistress actually arrives, it becomes clear that her play-acting wasn’t generic; she captured her Mistress’s every tic and gesture. But there’s an extra layer here as well, because Elizabeth Debicki’s Mistress comes off as a younger, fresher, prettier, blonder, and, most alarmingly, taller (at 6’2″) version of Blanchett. Sometimes, it felt less like we’re watching a servant imitating her master, and more like a master of the art of acting imitating the latest hot young thing who’s taken all the good roles, and left her with the role of the maid.

In the end, I wasn’t sure what this production was trying to say – certainly not about the contemporary experience of class conflict in a domestic setting, which you would think would be an especially ripe topic at this moment in history. I don’t think the staging particularly served the performances; and though the video added an important layer to my perception of those performances, I also found it distracting.

But if I didn’t think too much about these directorial choices, and focused on the performances, particularly Blanchett’s, I didn’t worry anymore about what anyone was trying to say. Because it was being said so marvelously.

(That red dress, though? Didn’t look anything like an Alexander McQueen. Just saying.)

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Japan and Britain: Two Tales Of Over-Extension

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

I just finished reading two books I purchased at the World War II museum in New Orleans: Clive Ponting’s 1940: Myth and Reality, and Jeffrey Record’s A War It Was Always Going To Lose, the former about Britain’s entry into, and persistence in, war with Germany, the latter about Japan’s decision to attack the United States in 1941. Neither book is new, and I don’t intend to use this space to “review” either – they were both worth reading, and neither is some kind of definitive “must read” text.

What struck me, after reading them back-to-back, was the similarity between the two island nations’ situations on the eve of war, notwithstanding their radically different cultures and histories, not to mention the different points in development of their respective empires.

Britain, on the eve of World War II, had an enormous problem of over-extension. It confronted a rising Germany on the Continent that already far outclassed it in terms of industrial prowess. In Asia, it confronted a rising Japan. It had global military commitments that far exceeded its ability to meet. And it had no money. Once Italy sided with the Axis and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, it faced the prospect of a multi-front war with only France for an ally. Once France fell, it faced such a war in fact, with no real allies at all.

The obvious thing to do would have been to appease Germany, but of course even if it could have been appeased (if, in other words, Hitler didn’t actively seek war), Germany could read the tea leaves as well as Britain could (better, actually, since they had a better measure of their own industrial capacity than Britain did). Given Britain’s relative weakness, and given that the power differential was progressively shifting in Germany’s favor, it’s hard to imagine anything Britain could have offered Germany that would have sufficed that wouldn’t also have been cripplingly humiliating to Britain, effectively making the British Empire dependent on German goodwill for its very survival. Attempting to avoid war without preemptive surrender, instead Britain got a war it could not possibly win on its own, and from which it was only able to emerge victorious by putting itself completely at the mercy of the United States.

Japan, meanwhile, notwithstanding that its empire was still under construction, faced a similar situation vis-á-vis the United States to the one Britain faced vis-á-vis Germany. Its empire-building ambition brought it into conflict with the United States, an enemy it could not possibly hope to defeat. And America’s strength was only growing; time was not on Japan’s side. The logical thing to do would have been to appease the United States. But again, America could read the tea leaves as well as Japan (better, because we had a better appreciation of just how vast our industrial capacity was relative to theirs). Appeasement would have meant accepting permanent dependence on the United States, and a humiliating renunciation of Japan’s imperial ambitions. If this course was ruled out, then war was inevitable, and it was better for Japan to fight on its own terms, and hope for a miracle – perhaps the Americans were cowards; perhaps Germany would defeat Britain and the Soviet Union, and give the Americans pause about fighting – than to suffer slow strangulation.

None of this is news. But it felt instructive, to me, to focus on the objective situation of these two powers, and ignore factors – culture, history, regime ideology, the personalities of the major leaders, even geopolitical strategy – that are so often the focus when we think about war and peace. After the fall of France, a humiliating peace with Germany may well still have been possible for Britain. War, by contrast, meant the very real possibility of outright defeat by and subjugation to Germany – and if it didn’t mean defeat, it meant permanent dependence on America and a loss of the Empire. Britain opted to continue the war. How different is that behavior from the behavior of the Japanese leadership – whom we rightly anathematize as monsters, but wrongly consider to have been mad to even have considered war with America.

I think about this often in respect to what America’s situation is going to be in twenty-five or fifty years. I think Daniel McCarthy is right that America’s rise as a neutral power was substantially made possible by Britain’s insouciance. We were free-riders, in effect, on British liberal imperialism, and then we took over the job when Britain went bankrupt. Nostalgia for America’s position in the late-19th century, or the 1920s, is therefore pointless (as nostalgia usually is). But the position we find ourselves in currently is a precarious one, because every rising power implies our relative decline, and precisely the powers we will most need to accommodate (because of the objective fact of their power) are the ones that it will be hardest for us to accommodate (because they will have a clearer understanding of that fact than we will).

The central geopolitical question of the next few decades, it seems to me, is whether a liberal order – based on free trade and mutual nonaggression – can be sustained on a genuinely multi-lateral basis. I hope so. The alternatives don’t look very palatable.

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Back To Iraq

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway
U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway

And count me as extremely apprehensive.

It seems to me, the President is taking a gamble that a discrete application of force at just the right point will tip the balance in precisely the right direction to prevent catastrophe. I am very, very skeptical that this is a good gamble. It has almost never worked out in the past.

We do not have a political strategy for Iraq, or for the region, and so we cannot even say whether a given military outcome would serve that strategy. Are we encouraging the Kurds to seek complete independence, and the final collapse of a unitary Iraq? Are we planning to facilitate the ethnic cleansing of Iraq by helping Christians, Yazidis and other minorities get out of the country? Do we want Assad to defeat the ISIS-aligned groups within Syria?

I don’t think we have any idea what our answers are to these questions. We literally do not know what outcome we are trying to achieve, outside of the realm of fantasies about liberal democrats holding all the existing states together within their existing borders.

I am terrified by what ISIS represents. I think a case can be made that our top priority for Iraq and Syria should be defeating the group. Logically, though, that likely means accepting an Assad victory in the Syrian civil war and greater Iranian influence in Iraq. And accepting those two outcomes puts us on the opposite side from the major Sunni powers, particularly Saudi Arabia. What else will we have to sacrifice to mollify them?

Back when ISIS first came on the scene in Iraq, I argued that we have a moral responsibility to do what we can to ameliorate the situation in Iraq, but also that direct military intervention would likely prove counter-productive. As the situation in northern Iraq gets worse and worse, I stand by both views.

Even if our plan is simply to get the most vulnerable populations, like the Yazidis, out of the region entirely, there needs to be a much clearer articulation of how we are going to achieve that, and what is going to happen once that goal is achieved. Even more so if our goal is effectively to undertake a long-term commitment to Kurdistan. And in the absence of any kind of regional political process for containing and ultimately resolving the war, even the most limited operation strikes me as extremely risky.

I understand why we’re getting in. But we have no idea what we’re getting into here.

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Teaching Shakespeare, With Love

Meanwhile, sticking with Kevin Drum but returning to a more felicitous subject for this blog, a few weeks ago he asked: why can’t we teach Shakespeare better?

I remember enrolling in a Shakespeare class and looking forward to it. In my case, I actually had a fairly good high school English teacher, but still, Shakespeare is tough for high schoolers. This would be my chance to really learn and appreciate what Shakespeare was doing.

Alas, no. I got an A in the class, but learned barely anything. It was a huge disappointment. To this day, I don’t understand why Shakespeare seems to be so difficult to teach. Was I just unlucky?

Maybe – or maybe I was just lucky. I had an excellent, indeed, foundational experience learning Shakespeare in high school, and then another excellent experience with Shakespeare in college. And I’ve had a great time with Shakespeare ever since, going to the theater, reading the plays, and reading criticism.

I’m not sure I can put my finger on what made the experiences so great. My high school sophomore English teacher was a large personality, a very theatrical fellow (he was also my debate coach). The play we studied was Henry IV part 1. We read the whole play out loud, and Richard played the part of Falstaff – and played it to the hilt. That can’t have hurt.

But he also started off the class with a lecture on the history of the kings and queens of England, to provide us with the necessary political context to understand the story. That should have been deadly. And we spent a lot of the class doing close reading, looking in particular how particular words and images – son/sun, for example – recurred over and over in the text, weaving a pattern of meaning. Those are, in miniature, three entirely different approaches to the text.

The course I took in college was a lecture on the Histories and Tragedies. It’s been a long time, but my recollection is that a lot of the focus was on structure, but we also dipped into the various fashionable forms of literary criticism that were the style at the time (this was the early 1990s). Again, I can’t point to anything in particular about the approach that made me say: that was the key.

Books of criticism have similarly been all over the map. I really enjoyed Northrop Frye’s series of lectures, but also A.C. Bradley, Harold Bloom, Stephen Greenblatt, Frank Kermode, Marjorie Garber, Stanley Cavell - as well as books like Peter Saccio’s Shakespeare’s English Kings or John Sutherland’s collection of essays, Henry V: War Criminal. No one approach dominates in my consciousness. Shakespeare is too large; he contains multitudes.

We’ve been taking our son to Shakespeare plays since he was not quite five years old. He’s seen comedies, histories, tragedies and romances: As You Like ItTwelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard IIIHenry V, Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, Cymbeline. He’s seen several plays  - A Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s DreamRomeo and Juliet, possibly others I’ve forgotten - in multiple productions. Sometimes he’s been delighted and sometimes he’s been bored. If the productions are any good at all, he’s generally been able to understand what’s going on, notwithstanding the complexity of the language and the differences from modern usage.

So I don’t know why it should ever be hard to teach Shakespeare. Oh, I can understand why it would be harder to teach some plays than others – I wouldn’t start with Coriolanus - or what some of the barriers might be for students unfamiliar with theater, or terrified of verse, or what-have-you. But those aren’t the kinds of problems Drum is talking about, I don’t think.

It feels like the answer is right there in the Mark Kleiman blog post that prompted his comment originally, a post about Brutus’s “There is a tide in the affairs of men” speech and how it is mis-understood:

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

If I ran the zoo, students would first watch a good performance of whichever play they were going to read, and then act it out for themselves. That might actually give some of them a taste for drama. But it wouldn’t help them score well on standardized tests, so who cares?

See, here’s the thing: many of the most famous Shakespeare “quotes” are misused relative to their original context, and this isn’t something new. It’s not just “there is a tide;” it’s also “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” and “what’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,” or “now is the winter of our discontent” – to say nothing of outright misquotes like “where art thou, Romeo?” It is perfectly possible – indeed, easier – to be culturally literate without actually being cultured. Appreciating dramatic irony is much harder work than memorizing facts and quotes.

But here’s the other thing: Shakespeare works even if you don’t get any of that. If you don’t understand that Brutus is making a stupid decision? His speech is still great – and the moment still works in performance (or should). If you don’t understand that Juliet isn’t pining for Romeo, she’s wringing her hands about having fallen in love with a Montague? Her speech still works – because she’s also pining for Romeo, wishing he were there. These scenes work with and without that consciousness of irony.

And the layers of irony go deeper than Mark Kleiman acknowledges in his post. It’s not just that Brutus has the wrong strategy, and therefore we’re supposed to see “Brutus’s soaring oratory is entirely ironic; the scene warns against rash risk-taking rather than encouraging it.” The very reason we find Brutus attractive and Cassius unattractive, the very reason why Cassius needed Brutus in the first place for his plan to have a chance of succeeding, cannot be separated from the reason why Brutus makes the “wrong” move at Philippi. Brutus does what the noblest Roman of them all would do. Shakespeare isn’t teaching us a lesson about either military strategy or rhetoric. He’s showing us character and fate – reality.

More than anything, it seems to me, teaching Shakespeare requires love of Shakespeare, more than many authors, because Shakespeare’s greatness looms over him like an intimidating proctor, making us feel that if we don’t “get” that greatness then we’ve somehow learned nothing, prompting us to cut him down to our own size. None of that is necessary. Shakespeare comes in all sizes, rewards just about every level of engagement. That should mean shallower students come away with some emotional and intellectual experience that is meaningful, even if they never understood what the big deal was, while students capable of plumbing the depths get a glimpse of an author proper likened, like Julie’s love, to the Bay of Portugal.

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You Know What’s Murder? Politics Is Murder

The Texas Tribune / cc Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera
The Texas Tribune / cc Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Kevin Drum asks a frequently-heard question:

Do anti-abortion activists really think abortion is murder? Or is their opposition merely an expression of their broad discomfort with modern sexual and gender mores? . . .

If you look at actions, rather than words, it just doesn’t add up. Lots of people oppose abortion, but with very few exceptions, they very plainly don’t react to it the same way they react to a genuine murder. Their emotional response gives the game away, even if they’ve convinced themselves otherwise intellectually.

[Rep. Steve] DesJarlais [a pro-life politician who, it was recently revealed, encouraged his then-wife to have two abortions] is a good example. If he had encouraged the murder of two children—real murder, of kids who were a year or two old—he wouldn’t merely be having a tough primary. Regardless of whether he had managed to avoid conviction for his acts, he wouldn’t even be able to run for office, let alone be even odds to win. He’d be a pariah. That’s how people react to actual killing. But it’s not how they react to encouraging abortion.

I think there’s a real point here – but not the point that Drum thinks. It’s not that abortion opponents don’t really care about abortion as such, but only about sexual mores, but that political language is necessarily corrupt because its purpose is pornographic in the sense that it is intended to provoke action, not increase understanding.

So let’s be a bit more flexible in our language if we actually want to understand. “Murder” is categorically unjustified and deliberate homicide. But there are lots of other kinds of killing out there. There’s negligent homicide. There’s manslaughter. There’s justified killing – killing in self-defense, for example. There’s killing in war. Then there’s the killing of non-human animals – routine killing for food as well as the routine extermination of a variety of pests.

The shorthand way you say, “that kind of killing is just wrong” is to call it murder. As in “meat is murder” or “hey, hey, LBJ; how many kids did you kill today?” Or, for that matter, “abortion is murder.” Saying that doesn’t mean that you intend to treat everyone associated with the act as if they were literal murderers. It means you want to awaken people’s consciences to the fact that, if they really thought about the situation, they’d see that murder is not an inapt description. It means you want to change the world so that, one day, slaughtering a pig, or carpet-bombing a city, or having an abortion would be seen, socially, as an abominable act.

I know a man whose mother, when in the late stages of terminal cancer, wanted to commit suicide, and enlisted his aid to achieve her goal. Which he gave her. His actions were illegal in the jurisdiction in which they were committed. He’s clearly, at a minimum, an accessory to a killing; depending on what he did (I declined to learn the details), you might argue that he’s guilty of murder – under existing law, not some hypothetical future law. Am I obliged either to conclude that I have no problem whatsoever with assisted suicide, and be an advocate for changing the law, or to treat him as I would treat O.J. Simpson? Why? Who made that rule, and whose authority compels me to follow it?

Do some animal welfare advocates really believe that killing animals for food is murder? Maybe not – but clearly some of them really do believe that killing animals for food is profoundly unjustified killing, and that the conditions under which animals are killed in modern industrial agriculture are especially evil. That doesn’t make them hypocrites if they stay friends with meat-eaters.

Do some opponents of American foreign policy really believe that the Iraq War amounted to the “murder” of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians? Maybe not – but clearly many of them really do believe that the war was profoundly unjustified, that those deaths should be on the conscience of every American, and that we must radically change our ways and make national amends for committing a heinous crime. That doesn’t make them hypocrites if they debate on civil terms with people who see things much more hawkishly.

Do some opponents of abortion really believe that it is murder, as in, no different from breaking into your neighbor’s house and taking an axe to her children? I doubt it. But clearly some of them really do believe that abortion is profoundly unjustified killing – heck, plenty of people who are pro-choice have moral qualms about abortion, at least in some circumstances, qualms that have nothing to do with panic about women having too much sex and everything to do with worries about encouraging a cavalier attitude toward nascent life. And they aren’t hypocrites if they stay on good terms with people who have had abortions, or encouraged their partners to do so.

Of course, if they have no reaction at all, are completely unfazed by the revelation that somebody who they thought of as being profoundly opposed to abortion turns out to have gotten multiple women pregnant and then encouraged them to abort, well, that would say something. But there’s a whole spectrum of plausible reactions that are consistent even with believing that abortion is categorically wrong – in and of itself, and not as a proxy for disapproval of the behavior that led to pregnancy.

To me, the story about Rep. DesJarlais (assuming the summary above is accurate – I know nothing about him) says little about the sincerity of the beliefs of those who oppose abortion. It says a great deal, though, about the corrupting effects of partisan politics on moral crusades, something I’ve harped on before in this space. I really, really do believe that the more seriously you take the proposition that abortion is categorically immoral, the more morally imperative it is for you not to hitch your wagon to the star of either political party. Nothing is more corrupting of the anti-abortion cause than its subsumption into a culture war that is fundamentally – fundamentally – about making it easier for politicians to get re-elected.

I recognize that, as someone who does not vote pro-life, that position may sound self-serving. But I assure you: though I may be wrong, it’s what I actually do believe.

 

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Shakespeare’s Elusive Politics

I’m sitting on line to get tickets to John Lithgow in King Lear in Central Park, so maybe I’ve got Shakespeare on the brain, but it really does seem like a bunch of people are saying sweeping and questionable things about the Bard these days, not just Ira Glass. Via Steve Sailer, I see that Noah Berlatsky thinks we should respect Shakespeare’s art, but be prepared to criticize his politics, because “Shakespeare was a conservative,”

in the sense that he supported early modern England’s status quo and established hierarchy, which meant defending the Crown’s view of divine monarchical right and opposing the radicals, often Puritan, who questioned it.

For all the complexity and nuance of Shakespeare’s plays, his political allegiances were clear. James I was his patron, and Macbeth in particular is thought to be a tribute to the King. It even includes a reference to the Gunpowder Plot assassination attempt at James. That reference is made by Lady Macbeth as part of her effort to convince her husband to murder Duncan. The villainous traitors in the play are thus directly linked to traitors against James.

Macbeth isn’t a one-off to flatter the King, either: Rebels and usurpers in Shakespeare’s plays are always the bad guys. . . . Othello shows that Shakespeare’s sympathies are not just with kings, but with any authority figure, as the sneaking underling Iago attempts to overthrow his noble Captain. It is significant here, too, that (as many critics have pointed out) Iago has no real motive for his animosity. He does not articulate a critique, or even a complaint, about the way Othello exercises power. Instead, he simply says:

I hate the Moor
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Rebellion against one’s superiors is presented as a matter of misguided jealousy and intrinsic spite. Similarly, the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who aspires to the hand of a woman above him in social standing, is a hypocrite and a fool. The Puritan political resistance, or the Puritan ideological opposition to hierarchical norms, is never voiced, much less endorsed.

Jack Cade might beg to differ about the lack of voice for leveling rebels, though you would be hard-pressed to argue that Shakespeare ever endorsed his point of view. Nonetheless, I feel like this is far too pat. I have a strong sense that a cherry or two is being picked.

I don’t read Shakespeare as a political polemicist. He wasn’t Brecht or Ibsen. For that matter, he wasn’t Marlowe. But if that’s your standard, then Chekhov would also have to be classified as a conservative, which he most certainly was not.

I think it’s safe to say that Shakespeare accepted the social order as simply a part of his world. He didn’t write in order to change it. Did he endorse it, though? That’s harder to discern – among other things because essentially all the words Shakespeare wrote, he wrote not in his own voice, but for characters to say.

Take Ulysses’s speech from Troilus and Cressida, a frequent brief for the “Shakespeare is a conservative” proposition:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

That’s a pretty emphatic statement on behalf of maintaining the existing social order and structure of authority. But it’s not Shakespeare’s statement. It’s Ulysses’s. Ulysses, a character generally understood from Homer’s time on down as the tricky, political one, the manipulator. Shakespeare’s Ulysses makes the speech as part of an effort to convince Agamemnon to endorse his plan to trick Achilles into returning to the war. It’s hardly surprising that such a speech would help win the favor of the person at the top of the social hierarchy. Moreover, Ulysses is a Greek, and the English in Shakespeare’s time disdained the Greeks in favor of the Trojans, who they considered their legendary ancestors. Why, then, should we assume that Ulysses speaks for Shakespeare in any way?

Berlatsky bases his case more on Shakespeare’s plots than with his words, but his examples strike me as distinctly strange. Malvolio, yes, is a social upstart and an unflattering portrait of a puritan. But is Twelfth Night a play that argues against marrying outside one’s class? Why, then, are we to applaud when Sir Toby makes a love match with Maria? Malvolio never argues for tearing down social distinctions; he’s a snob and a climber. And yet – he’s still a sympathetic figure! At the end of the play, Olivia acknowledges that he has been treated very poorly, as indeed he has, and admonishes her people. That’s one of the extraordinary things in Shakespeare: even villains like Shylock, Edmund, Aaron the Moor, and comic butts like Malvolio, get their moments to defend their perspective on things, their moment to justify themselves – and their moment to earn our empathy. Which is not the same thing as approval.

And what, pray tell, does Berlatsky make, I wonder, of All’s Well That Ends Well? Are we supposed to believe that Helena is the villain of the piece, and that Bertram was right all along in scorning her for her low birth? The play can certainly be read as a caution to the Helena’s of the world to be careful what you wish for, but when every single character in the play, including the King himself, calls out Bertram for being ignoble in character for making so much of the difference in blood, it strains credulity to think that Shakespeare’s art essentially endorses Bertram’s view of the social order.

Meanwhile, sometimes Shakespeare’s rebels are heroes. Brutus is the hero of Julius Caesar, the “noblest Roman of them all” – certainly a more admirable figure than the rabble-rousing cynic Mark Antony. Now, he’s also a pretty conservative figure, though not in the sense that Berlatsky means. He exemplifies a distinct set of ancient, small-r republican virtues that existed in tension with the ideology of absolute monarchy in Shakespeare’s day. But he was certainly a rebel. And certainly a hero. He was a tragic figure, but to compare him to Macbeth is ludicrous.

Another Roman play cuts more deeply against Berlatsky’s argument: Coriolanus. The common people of Rome are portrayed as fickle and shallow, but Coriolanus, an authentic military hero as well as the scion of one of Rome’s leading families – in other words, an aristocrat of merit as well as of birth – is a violent-tempered militarist who would rather kill all his countrymen than admit that he can only properly rule with the consent of the governed, and who winds up getting himself torn to pieces instead. Are we supposed to believe Shakespeare agreed with him? It’s hard to discern where Shakespeare’s sympathies lie in this dark tragedy, but if this is a brief for the worldview described in Ulysses’s speech above – which Coriolanus would surely agree with – it’s a pretty strange one.

The histories would seem to be the strongest ground on which to make the case for Shakespeare’s essential conservatism, but even here we find a noble rebel: Hotspur. Far from being portrayed as evil, he is universally acknowledged to be noble, and guided by high motives rather than base ones. He may be foolish – well, he’s clearly foolish, and hot-headed – but the very king against whom he is rebelling bitterly wishes that he were his son, that’s how much he admires him.

Indeed, the arc of Shakespeare’s history plays tells a very different story about Shakespeare’s politics, inasmuch as he had any, than the one Berlatsky tells. It’s a complicated story, though, so I’m going to put it in a new section.

*     *     *

Shakespeare began his career with a series of history plays – the three parts of Henry VI – that recounted England’s vivid, recent and traumatic past: the War of the Roses. It would be comparable to a young Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill starting their careers with a massive three-part epic about the American Civil War. There’s a sitting Lancastrian king, Henry VI, of somewhat dubious legitimacy, and a rival faction – the Yorkists – with fairly comparable claims on the throne, aiming to supplant him (and eventually succeeding in doing so). Because it isn’t clear who is the legitimate ruler, the land bleeds. A fourth play, Richard III, completes the sequence, with Richard serving the function of the “scourge of God,” eliminating, one by one, everyone tainted by a century of usurpation, until the field is clear for Henry Tudor, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, to kill Richard, take the throne, marry the last survivor of the rival house, get crowned Henry VII, and end all dispute.

This isn’t particularly good history, of course; it’s Tudor propaganda (though, also, really effective drama). And if that were all Shakespeare wrote it would make Berlatsky’s case fairly well. But that wasn’t where Shakespeare stopped. Instead, some years later, he set out to pen a new tetralogy, the prequels to these early plays. And the politics that emerge from the “Henriad” – the sequence from Richard II through Henry V - are quite different, and far more interesting, than the politics of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays.

Richard II is, I would argue, Shakespeare’s most overtly political play. It’s rarely produced, because it isn’t one of his most dramatically effective. But it deals with precisely the kind of question that Berlatsky suggests Shakespeare avoided: what do you do when the legitimate monarch is a ninny? Not someone weak and vacillating, unwilling to exercise authority – someone who acts tyrannically and has horribly bad judgment. What do you do?

Shakespeare’s answer is, basically: I don’t know. Henry Bolingbroke is plainly a usurper; nobody thinks Richard is an illegitimate king. Just as plainly, everybody who is anybody in the kingdom is hoping that usurpation works – Richard, from the moment he leaves England to suppress a rebellion in Ireland, loses essentially all of his support, and never gets it back. As Richard himself comes to realize, and articulate, there is no concrete manifestation of the supposed charism of divine right. It’s all just “ceremony.”

Richard II was a dangerous play to write, because it exposed the hollowness of monarchy’s pretensions to right. Supposedly, it was used to precisely the political effect that any monarch might have feared, with a revival being staged in conjunction with the Essex rebellion, and Queen Elizabeth herself crying, “I am Richard II – know ye not that?” (Though, there are more recent questions as to whether this episode has come down to us in a distorted form). Whether Shakespeare intended it to cause or stir or not (I doubt it), and whether or not it actually did, what it manifestly shows is a writer grappling with a genuine political stumper that struck at the heart of his world’s political order. That’s not something Berlatsky’s Shakespeare would do.

The next three plays, depicting the rise of Henry V from youthful wildness to sober military chieftain, continue to follow this central question: what is a king, really? Henry IV, Hal’s father, knows his rule is illegitimate, and spends his years of rule crushing rebellions by the same people who put him in power, yearning to go on a crusade to try to win divine favor to overcome the stain of usurpation, and fretting about whether his son will lose it all. In his last breath, he suggests to that son that he get himself involved in a foreign war; nothing would do better to distract the people and disarm his domestic opponents. This, Henry V duly does, invading France on a trumped-up pretext (the scene with the clergymen who bless the venture is breathtaking in its cynicism, and hilarious).

But Henry V is, very clearly, the picture of a good king – of some sort. He cleans up his act, and stays clean. He ruthlessly cuts off and punishes his old friends when they break discipline and threaten order, even having one of them hanged. He prays to God, sincerely. But he knows, all along, that he’s operating without any guarantee of divine favor, precisely because his father was a usurper. He is constantly trying to push responsibility onto somebody else, somebody more worthy – he tells his clerical advisors that if the war in France is unjust, it’s their fault, because they advised him he had right on his side – and is brought up short when one of his own men, whom he chats with around the fire while reviewing his troops in disguise, bluntly tells him that the king is the one who will have to answer for all the death and destruction the war will bring. It’s too heavy a burden for a mere man, who doesn’t embody the nation.

And so King Harry sets out to embody the nation in a novel way, not by developing a second, political body in the form of the nation, but by developing a second ear, a second voice. When he was still the prince, he learned to “drink with any tinker in his language,” and now, on the field of battle, he proclaims himself a Welshman, unites English with Irish and Scots, and then claims France as well, wooing his bride in a fractured French. He wanders among the troops at night in disguise as one of their number, and proclaims that anyone who fights with him will be made a gentleman, no matter how lowly born.

This is a new kind of politics, one we can recognize: one based on popularity, the common touch, an identification between ruler and ruled that is personal, not based on a theory of divine right. It’s an incipiently democratic politics, very far from the ideology of divine right. And it’s a largely sympathetic portrait. Shakespeare’s King Henry V isn’t a populist riling up a mob like Mark Antony does at Caesar’s funeral. He’s just a good politician – better than his notoriously political father ever was. He may kill his friends – he may commit war crimes, for that matter – but we can’t help but like him, because he seems like one of us.

*     *     *

Of course, at the end of Henry V, Shakespeare reminds us that it all went to shit when he died (and that he already wrote four plays showing us just how bad things got, in France and then in England). His son, Henry VI, didn’t have his father’s personal qualities, or maybe nobody could have held together the kingdom, and incipient empire, that Henry V bequeathed.

A vision of politics that says that legitimacy is important, and that without it it’s harder to rule peacefully, may well be called conservative – but if so, we’re setting the bar for conservatism pretty low. (Am I supposed to believe that anyone who denies, or even qualifies, Mao’s dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” is now a conservative?) What you can’t say is that Shakespeare wrote plays that blithely assume a world in which right ultimately triumphs, authority must be respected, and the most important thing is for everybody to know his place, and stay there. The very plays that grapple most directly with these questions portray a very different vision – a much more realistic, pragmatic and complex one than Berlatsky implies.

Steve Sailer ends his piece by citing Robert Conquest that “everybody is conservative about what they know best,” and saying that Shakespeare must have been a conservative because he knew so much about so much. I’ll buy that. The thing about knowing so much about something, though, is that it makes it ever harder to be definitive; the more you know, the more you know about how little you really know. That’s my kind of conservatism, and I’m happy to say it was Shakespeare’s. But a vast imaginative sympathy that crosses all lines of social distinction, and a healthy skepticism, even cynicism, about the designs of power, sounds like a pretty good description of my kind of liberalism as well.

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