The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The Rule of Reason

Bill Moyers talks to Bruce Fein, a lawyer, and John Nichols, a journalist, about impeachment. Every time Moyers puts something on air it reminds me what “discourse” is actually supposed to look like.

If you didn’t see it, the first episode of his new show, about the lead-up to the Iraq war, is gut-wrenching. It’s all stuff you know and remember, of course, but it’s still pretty terrible to see it all laid out so starkly.


The “Buying the War” segment is really powerful. Its a compelling portrayal of the way in which major news organizations, intelligence agencies, and the administration could so effectively be entrapped in their own imagined reality, and a reminder of the importance of diverse voices and independent research.

The most telling moment comes near the end when Dan Rather tells Moyer: “In the end, it was, look, the President himself says these things are so. He– he stands before the Congress with the question of war and peace hanging in the balance and says these things. And there was a feeling, not just with myself, given all that, who am I to say; you know what, I think it’s all– a Machiavellian scheme to take us into Iraq.”

This was the genius of the administration and the cause of its humiliation: the Bush administration and its media allies created an environment in which only two choices existed: either Bush was right, or he had to be accused of deception; either you agreed with Bush, or you questioned his integrity. Dan Rather misses a third option: that Bush and cronies sincerely believed that Saddam Hussein was a terrorist threat and at the center of terrorist networks, and thus were willing to latch on to even the weakest evidence to support this. I still hold this to be the most reasonable, and clearly tragic, interpretation. Were Sophocles to write the story, Bush would be Creon.

The failure of the media and the democratic opposition was in not bursting the anti-reality bubble that created the uproar leading to the war. Dan Rather had another choice: he could have said the administration was making mistakes and that it was the duty of the media to help it do its job better.

Hey Dan, what’s the primary tragedy of Creon? Am not well-versed in the classics and Wikipedia is telling me all sorts of stuff.

In the New Yorker, George Packer was speculating about what kind of play might be written in ten or twenty years about Bush, Cheney & company… and I’m not sure if this is what he meant, but a movie, a play, or a book that aimed not for caricature or demonization but for true, deep empathy — really teasing out the tragedy of it — could be pretty phenomenal. And useful.

I’m pulling Creon from Sophocles’ “Antigone.” Creon is the ruler of Thebes who offers a proper funeral rites to Eteocles (a son of Oedipus), but denies such rites to Polynices (Oedipus’ other son). They had killed one another in battling over control of the city (they had a difficult family life).

When Antigone begs that Polynices be buried properly and is denied, she takes matters into her own hands. Creon is unrelenting. Antigone is sentenced to death, and Creon’s son kills himself in sympathy for the execution of his love. Creon is left alone and distraught.

The parallel with Bush isn’t tight. I guess it’s this: both refused to admit that their decisions, though based on what they thought were best and right for the city/nation, were not actually the best/right moves when faced with outside criticism. Instead they ignored the plaints of conscience from others, and reaped the punishment.

Aside from the specifics, though, I think the story of Bush has to be a tragedy. He is the most clearly tragic figure that I can think of: invested with great power, espousing deep convictions, and proud of making bold moves; yet finally subject to abject failure and disgrace because of all those things.

I really liked that bit of George Packer speculation, by the way. And Frost/Nixon sounds intriguing. But who would be Bush’s journalistic foil?

Actually, though, from the WaPo‘s much-ballyhooed series, I think Cheney might make the more tragic figure. Bush, after all, seems to have fairly clear-cut motivations, tendencies and influences — He is a sincere follower of his brand of Christianity, and a true believer in latter-day conservatism. He values his decisiveness, borne out of the ability to cut through a fog of data and seize on the essentials. In others, he values loyalty above all, and he heeds counsel according to a strict hierarchy of trusted advisors, atop which sits Cheney, then Rove.

But Cheney’s motivations, tendencies and influences are much murkier and — from the puzzle pieces that are slowly coming together now — much grander. His domestic prerogatives are limiting corporate regulation and taxation, but national security is his obsession. He’s given very little thought to his own legacy, and seems as though he’d be perfectly happy if none of his many Herculean maneuvers ever came to light. He came to office vowing he would not run for President, and has expended most of his capital trying to secure impossibly broad powers for the executive branch. All available evidence indicates that he’s done this because he firmly believes future Presidents will need these powers to combat America’s enemies. The ideology he shares with Rumsfeld was forged in the pressure-cooker of the Cold War, and he hasn’t wavered from his conception of the world as caught essentially between two great powers, each with a hand on a deadly trigger.

Bush seems almost one-dimensional next to Cheney. But who would be a good foil? My nomination would be Powell, although Powell/Rumsfeld is probably a more historically accurate pairing than Powell/Cheney.

The classic reading of Antigone is that Creon represents the authority of the state — which is positive, real, and rational, concerned with the public good, but veers into tyranny — while Antigone represents the more ancient, universal, religious moral laws. Creon refuses to let Polynices be buried because he sees him as a traitor to the city (Polynices gathered a foreign army to attack Eteocles in Thebes), while Antigone insists that the gods demand that every body receive a proper burial. Creon is loyal to Zeus and Apollo (the gods of male authority) while Antigone is “in love with death/Hades.” Creon refuses to let anyone, either the woman Antigone or his son Haemon, challenge his authority, especially in defense of Thebes.

There are two competing and equally stiff-necked and unrelenting theories of justice. Creon only realizes that he’s been wrong — or rather, that his decisions have been wrong, not necessarily his principles — much too late. Hegel said that this objective competition between these two visions of justice, and the subjective failure to see in all directions at the same time, is the essence of tragedy.

(Oops — it was Hertzberg, not Packer. Link.)

(Packer wrote about Bush and Frost/Nixon, too. Link.)

I saw a wonderful staging of Antigone last year at Minneapolis’ superlative Children’s Theater. This reading played up the suggestion that Creon wasn’t the only character with a tragic flaw; Antigone too is culpable in the tragedy.

It was clarifying to see the work with a full-grown man in the role of Creon and a teenager playing the [15-year-old] Antigone. There’s a youthful obstinacy in her that fights for its own sake against the urgings and capitulations of her sister Ismene. I had seen Antigone once before, a college performance, and that didn’t transfer at all. It was a straightforward reading of Antigone as righteous wounded dove, and after seeing the Children’s version, I don’t think it does the character justice. This essay argues pretty persuasively for Antigone’s flaw.

If only Michael Moore were a head of state, or at least did something more than make funny little condescending choir-preachy “documentaries.” There’s a guy with enough of a tragic flaw to make a great match for Cheney, along the order of Antigone/Creon.

Bam! Matt’s back!

That Lines essay is terrific — and I haven’t even read or seen Antigone. I love this graf (and the whole section it kicks off):

Antigone, on the other hand, has found a higher justice. Most commentators agree that she is right. But she will not discuss her judgment; she remains unyielding. She never doubts the wisdom of her course. She isolates herself. She acts under the illusion that only she is able to grasp the meaning of higher justice. She can only conclude that she does not belong in this world, which so misunderstands the nature of right action.

The last line in particular is great. It damns those too pure, too righteous for politics — for compromise.

Another possible candidate for Bush=tragedy is Pentheus from Euripides’s Bacchae. He’s a lot like Creon — opposed to superstition, keen on asserting his authority — only much younger, and less wise.

Instead of Antigone, he’s up against Dionysus, which is hardly a fair fight. He ignores his father’s friends’ advice and takes a hard line against Dionysus’s maenads, who are bringing disorder to Thebes. Dionysus is mad at Cadmus (Pentheus’s father) and his family for dishonoring/disowning his mother after she claimed she had been impregnated by Zeus. So he lures Pentheus out into the woods to see his famous wild Maenads, and… um… Pentheus’s own mother tears him to pieces with his bare hands. Cadmus is left to weep over his body.

Oh, Antigone is flawed as hell. She’s Ahab. And there’s a big gap between the public justification of her actions and what seem at times like her private motives.

I really admire her controversial speech about how she wouldn’t go to these extremes for her husband, or her child, because those could be replaced, but her brother is irreplacable, now that her mother and father are dead. She abandons her moral ground, but she gets at something that in some ways is much more deeply primal — these bones, these bones will never live again, will never breathe, and I will never have another.

The Greeks had a profound sense of a filial bond, much stronger than the one between parents and children — Antigone at her brother’s body, Orestes and Electra stepping into one another’s footprints. There’s a feeling that the very flesh you share is identical, and that everyone else is, in, some sense, a stranger.

Jean Anouilh’s recasting of Antigone from the depths of occupied France tries very hard to make Antigone and Creon characters bearing equal fault for the end result. When I first saw it I found it sickening,and I think that would still be my reaction. I’m in with the notion that Antigone bears the marks of tragic flaws, but Anouilh’s decision to make that flaw simply petulance against authority is lame. If Antigone’s actions are stripped of some sense of higher justice—no matter how incomplete or flawed—there is no point in staging the play.

I’ll have to read Bacchae now too.

The Greek notion of hamartia is less a “tragic flaw,” in the sense of some character trait that leads to a character’s downfall, than it is a mistake — a bad decision (or series of decisions) with horrible unintended consequences. I think it’s Aristotle who points out that hamartia is used by archers to describe missing a mark.

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