In the light of the recent early July festivities here in Omaha (Did I ever comment on the fact that Omaha seems to have at least as much enthusiasm for fireworks and loud noises as it does for decorative Xmas lights?), I find myself doing a lot of thinking about two recent books which I found to be quite interesting, and, perhaps, a bit disturbing. The recent holiday does, after all, tend to lead one to political thought, as our Founding Fathers were well aware of the fact that they were taking a highly political action which had never before been attempted. And, with which we still struggle. In any event, I found these two books to be useful in my own efforts to figure out what’s going on. Let me tell you a bit about each of them.
The first of these books is Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt (published May 8, 2018). Now Greenblatt is an established Shakespearian scholar, a literary historian, general editor of the Norton Shakespeare and a Professor of Humanities at Harvard. I have several of his books: (Shakespeare’s Freedom, Hamlet in Purgatory, Will in the World) and have found them worthwhile in pursuing my own Shakespeare “studies.” This being the case, when this new book was released last May, I heard about it, looked into it, bought a copy for my library, and rather promptly read it.
We all should know that Elizabeth I and James I were both pretty close to absolute monarchs. Although they did have to contend with Parliament, real power was, in large part, concentrated on the throne. (That would change a few years later, but it seems largely true during Elizabeth I and James I’s time.) The fact that both were reasonably benevolent monarchs (at least for that period) doesn’t alter the fact that they had the authority to do almost anything they wished. And they pretty much did just that. They spied on their own people through their secret police, they controlled the only publicly acceptable church and pretty much dictated how it functioned (Remember the King James Bible?), they put people who annoyed them into prison (and worse), they censored the press, including the theatres, etc. They were, in fact, tyrants (from the Greek tyrannos: "lord, master, sovereign, absolute ruler…").
Of course, even if one thought that, it was extremely unwise to actually say it at that time. So, we really don’t know what Shakespeare really thought about Elizabeth or James. Suffice to say that he never attacked either of them and he was, of course, under the indirect patronage of Elizabeth (through her Lord Chamberlain) and the direct patronage of James as a member of the King’s Men, so he must have gotten along with both of them fairly well.
On the other hand, a number of his plays, especially, but not limited to the “Histories,” explore the psyche, social causes, psychological roots and the results of tyrannical rulers out of Britain’s past (historical or mythological). The plays about Richard II and III, the various Henrys, Macbeth and Lear all deal with this pattern (as do others) and a good many of these characters do not come out as great examples of the noblest leadership, nor do their societies seem ideal, even by those day’s standards. In these plays, and some others, Shakespeare looks at the desire for absolute power and the catastrophic results of some of these characters achieving it. Basic institutions appear fragile; there is political & social upheaval; economic anger creates populist anger; people knowingly accept lies; partisan conflicts dominate; and, above all, massive indecency is shown to reign throughout many of these plays.
But Shakespeare seems to deny that this is the only way things can be. He shines light on the infantile psychology and unquenchable narcissistic appetites of the demagogues he creates, and the cynicism and opportunism of the various enablers and hangers-on who surround them. Then, he imagines how they might be stopped. I’d go so far as to suggest that he even shows us, right there in his plays (although it may take several of them to tell the whole story). Greenblatt discusses this far better than I have, but I found his work a fascinating study, well worth my time to read and consider. Even if you aren’t the Shakespeare “nut” that I am, see if you can get a copy from your library. I think it’s very much worth reading.
Another book I read recently is Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright (released April 10, 2018). I confess that I have been interested in Fascism ever since I was a child trying to figure out the difference between fascists and Nazis when I was playing “soldier” as a kid before the Korean “war.” I’m still not completely sure that I can properly differentiate between the two, but I figured that the former Secretary of State probably would be able to explain what this word meant clearly enough for me to understand.
Albright states that a fascist “… is someone who claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use violence and whatever other means are necessary to achieve the goals he or she might have.” That seems straightforward enough, but didn’t seem to me to be complete, so I looked a bit further.
The dictionary app on my Mac (based on the New Oxford American Dictionary) comes up with “Fascist: 1) an advocate or follower of the political philosophy or system of fascism;2) a person who is extremely right-wing or authoritarian; 3) a person who is very intolerant or domineering in a particular area.” Here, I felt the first definition helped, but remained unclear without defining the term “fascism.” So, I went on to look that up in the same source. Here, I felt that I was on to something: “The term Fascism was first used of the totalitarian right-wing nationalist regime of Mussolini in Italy (1922–43); the regimes of the Nazis in Germany and Franco in Spain were also Fascist. Fascism tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach.” Better, I felt, but it could, perhaps, be clearer yet.
The Miriam Webster Dictionary’s first definition of fascism says: “often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition….” That seems somewhat more complete and, while even this could probably be clearer, I felt satisfied that I had some sort of handle on the term.
Anyone who knows me at all would know that I do not favor autocracy, dictatorialism, economic or social regimentation, nor forcible suppression of opposition. I like to think that I have always been willing to at least listen to opposing points of view which are based on fact, reason and logic, although I confess that I have never accepted the idea that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. Expertise, experience and knowledge of the best available information (facts) do make a difference, in my opinion. Yes, Virginia, there IS such a thing as a fact. So-called “alternative” facts have another name, or two. One name is “lie.” The politer one is “unsubstantiated (or unsubstantiatable) opinion.” A “fact” is demonstrably true. (See #82 in the archives of this blog.) But, I digress ....
It would be easy to simply write Albright’s book off as just another “liberal attack on our current president” if she didn’t spend so much time exploring the whole notion of how Hitler and Mussolini (generally accepted as fascists, see above) came to power, then go on to spend a good deal of time and space talking about their similarities with several of today's authoritarian rulers in Eastern Europe, North Korea, Turkey and Russia. In fact, Albright resists calling Trump a fascist, although she doesn’t say a lot of nice things about him. And, she seems to imply that many of his ideas and practices are not all that dissimilar from those of people she does consider to be of that stripe.
As she is a former US Ambassador to the UN, Secretary of State, Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown, etc., it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that her opinions and interpretations of events in the field of foreign affairs/policy and political systems have a certain validity. She does point out that, at least in her opinion, “… the United States has traditionally been viewed as a nation that opposes authoritarianism and supports democratic principles and human rights, but that perception is changing — in part because of President Trump.” She does state that he is “… the most anti-democratic leader that I have studied in American history.” That’s a pretty straightforward statement of her opinion, so it really can’t be disputed.
While I do not claim real expertise in American history (interest is not expertise), watching the news does seem to suggest that “Big D” does not behave in a manner which appears to truly support democratic (NOT Democratic [as in the party], democratic [as in the political system]) principles. Certainly his seeming habit of simply establishing policies off the top of his head with no clear plan, foresight or consultation; his claims that such things as trade wars are easy and cheap to win; that North Korea is no longer any threat because he gets along so well with Kim; along with his constant bragging about how smart he is (as opposed to everyone else); how strong he is (after all, everyone else is just weak and low-energy); and his habit of making up ridiculing names for anyone who opposes him in any way, does not suggest a smart, strong, “stable genius,” but a weak, egocentric, insecure and immature individual, at least to me.
Merely constantly repeating that he has done no wrong at any point in his history and that “everyone” is out to get him certainly does not make that a fact. The fact is that there does appear to be clear evidence that the Russians may have helped get Trump elected (it’s not yet proven, but it’s not really settled, either). Simply releasing his tax records (as every other candidate for his office has done in recent memory) could, in fact, prove that the accusations of corrupt business practices are false, so the refusal to do so invites speculation that there is something to hide. Let me say it again, just stating (even many times) that “Trump is completely innocent” does not make that true. Since the means to establish the facts do exist, they need to be used. Reasonable people (who might like something resembling factual evidence, rather than just declarative tweets) could then have some confidence in the democratic system, which now appears broken.
To get back to the issue at hand, however, Albright makes some interesting points and poses some questions worth considering regarding the current state of our national and international politics. Greenblatt, while discussing Shakespeare’s treatment of tyrannical leaders in his plays, also adds some ideas into the mix which seem relevant to the current state of affairs. Both provide quite an interesting mixture of clearly supportable facts with well qualified opinion and it’s generally pretty clear which is which. Both, I think, are worth reading, although I think that Albright’s book is more easily suited to the general public. Greenblatt’s, while not really requiring an in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays, seems to me to be enhanced by something more than just a passing familiarity with a few of the most popular of Will’s works.
If you have an interest in current affairs (and I hope everyone does) and are willing to spend a little time on the task of reading an interesting book, or two, I would suggest that you could do far worse that to check these out. I found them well worth the time and effort.
By the way, Nazi and fascist do NOT mean the same thing, although there are similarities. I’ll let you look into the differences for yourself, however.