Monday, November 2, 2020

Journal of a Plagued Year: an election day...good leadership...Macbeth

 Four years ago, on the day before the election, I wrote with optimism that soon the Trump candidacy would be over. I imagined we would be celebrating the election of our first female president, a very highly qualified candidate.  I woke up election day morning to The NewYork Times polls telling the public she had a 95 percent chance of winning. By that evening, her poll numbers had slid to five percent.

Malcolm in Macbeth puts Scotland ahead of personal loyalty to him.

Four years later, older and more sobered, I face tomorrow's election with dread--as I am sure most do on both sides of the aisle. Yes, the polls tell those of us center and left that Biden is ahead, but we've been down that road before. We're told this time the polls are "different." My sense, living amid a sea of Trump flag and banners, is that hardcore Trump supporters don't talk to pollsters, so perhaps the situation is not different. 

I fear, too, that a close election will be quickly contested and end up in a Supreme Court that now contains three justices handpicked by a man who puts personal loyalty to him ahead of all else. I wonder whose side they will be on? One is an entitled imbecile who joined the right Clinton-hating boys' club at the right time, while another is a cold-hearted cult member who recently ruled that a supervisor calling a Black the N-word is not evidence of a hostile work environment. The mind reels.

Still, one hopes. Hope is this and that: I won't rehearse the cliches. To look at the bright side, the current situation has galvanized many people out of political apathy. . 

But what I really wish to talk about is good governance. From the time of Sophocles, who lived in the 400 BC era, thoughtful and ethically grounded people have understood that responsible leaders have a responsibility to put the good of the people ahead of their own self-interest. Oedipus, for example, though an arrogant man, voluntarily exiled himself from Thebes so that his people would no longer suffer a plague. He gave up his power for the benefit of the governed.

In Macbeth, written some 2,000 years later, the same ethic applies. Macbeth, who cares only about his own power, has increasingly thrown his country into chaos, to the point of civil war. He is indifferent to the fact that he has proven himself divisive and unfit to rule. He simply wants to win, no matter how. He makes personal loyalty to him all important: he assassinates those he perceives as a threat.

In contrast, Malcolm, the rightful heir to the kingdom, places loyalty to country ahead of loyalty to self. He tests Macduff in Act IV, scene iii,  pretending to be an evil, greedy, rapacious, and self-interested would-be king. He sums up this false self to Macduff, saying he is:

But I have none: the king-becoming graces,

As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,

Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,

Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,

I have no relish of them, but abound

In the division of each several crime,

Acting it many ways. Nay, had I power, I should

Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,

Uproar the universal peace, confound

All unity on earth.

In other words, Malcolm paints a picture of a poor leader as a man almost exactly like Donald Trump. Malcolm claims not to care about justice, truth, moderation, stability, mercy, humility, devotion, or patience. He says he will do what he can to create disunity and chaos in his country and on earth.

Macduff, as Malcolm hopes he would, recoils in horror. He refuses to have anything to do with such a person, stating that Malcolm is not:

Fit to govern!

No, not to live. 

One of Blake's illustrations of Dante's hell

 Malcolm is well pleased with this answer. As a good king, he wants followers who put loyalty to Scotland ahead of loyalty to him. A person like Macduff  who tells him the truth  is a person he wants behind him.

We might contrast this to what those close to Trump have repeatedly said about him, as reported by Ron Suskind  in The New York Times (

  It all came back to loyalty. He needed to get rid of any advisers or senior officials who vowed loyalty to the Constitution over personal loyalty to him. Which is pretty much what he proceeded to do.

That we might vote in such a man shows we are a country, like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno, that has lost its way. Part of this arises from being propagandized in dramas such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Westworld. Here we see ruthlessness and sociopathology valorized as central to success, not as the unfortunate and evil shadow that sometimes dogs and destroys assertive leaders. We need to go back to a world in which these traits are understood as evil. 

Like Dante, we are now on the brink of the last circles of hell, having spent four years in some of the outer circles. I hope we have learned enough to avoid the rest of the tour, but the future seems very much in the balance.


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