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Elizabeth on Smoking Out America

I’ve long believed that this is the election that will smoke out America for what it really is, both in the eyes of itself and in the eyes of the rest of the world, and nothing that has happened in the last two weeks has shifted me from that opinion. Indeed, the events of last week in particular have merely cemented my thoughts on the subject. Where we are today, this moment, in America….William Shakespeare could not have written it better.

I love the works of Shakespeare. I was introduced to them when I was fourteen, through The Merchant of Venice, taught by the indomitable Sister Laurinda at Holy Cross High School in Mountain View, California. I loved the language of Shakespeare, but more than that, I loved the characters. These were Good Guys writ Good and Bad Guys writ Bad, and if the stage was littered with corpses by the end, it stood to reason that someone in the play and possibly everyone richly deserved to die. The sword tip was poisoned, the drink was deadly, the tyrant was beheaded, the hero plunged a dagger into his own heart. You name it, and it happened, but the end game was always the same in that Good triumphed, Justice prevailed, Wrongs were righted, or Greater Understanding was achieved.

We have a fascinating Shakespearean situation going on right now in America, and watching it unfold on television would be something between grippingly fascinating and wildly entertaining if it were not also so deadly frightening. For there is at work upon our country a force that is Evil writ large: terror in its most virulent form. It’s a terror hiding behind a dozen different masks, described in a dozen different ways, from “He’s not someone who sees America as you and I do” to “that one” to “we don’t really know him” to “palling around with terrorists.”

Now when terror is concerned, I’ve long believed it’s wise to take a good look at the people who are trying to frighten me because it’s been my experience that when someone wants to frighten me, they have a reason for doing it and that reason usually doesn’t have anything at all to do with keeping me safe. It also usually has little to do with whatever they’re using to frighten me in the first place.

Let me try to explain my belief about how terror works: If I believe a house is haunted and I come upon someone inside that house who is flitting around the dark in a bed sheet, I jump and scream out. But am I frightened because there’s a person covered by a bed sheet in the room or because I personally believe something about that bed sheet? The answer is rather obvious, isn’t it? My fear comes down to what I believe. The person in the bed sheet is using my fear against me, to frighten me more. Why is he doing this? Well, fear isn’t pleasant and when I’m afraid, I want the fear to end as soon as possible. If you tell me that the fear will end only if I do what you suggest, I’m very likely to do that.

Presidential candidates generally know this about fear. Often and unfortunately, they use it, because if they can make you frightened enough, you’re going to go along with what they demand of you—like voting for them—no matter how utterly crazy it is. What’s worse, you’re going to do this without stopping to say, “Hey, wait a minute, buddy” about what they’re proposing
In our election this year we have one party using terror, and another party talking about hope. And this is where Shakespeare comes back in. For if we were all part of a play that Shakespeare was writing, the guy talking about hope would win the day. He would suffer a few slings and arrows along the way, but he would win because the guy talking about fear is using people’s baser natures against themselves and Shakespeare was optimistic enough (or at least realistic enough about his role as a dramatist) to know that the forces of Right had to win and the forces of Wrong had to be defeated and punished.

Because Shakespeare was writing for a disparate audience that included people who were not highly educated and for whom subtleties might well go unnoticed, he had to make things more or less obvious. So the bad guys, in poetic asides, often told the audience they were the bad guys and the good guys often mused aloud about lofty subjects like having a conscience to illustrate that they were the good guys. And in this situation of our national election, we have much the same thing going on.

Just in case people aren’t certain about who the Bad Guys are, they’re out there rousing up the rabble, who in turn are yelling, “Kill him!” and “He’s a terrorist!” and “He’s a traitor!” and holding up signs reading “Obama bin Lyin’” in the middle of their campaign stops. Meantime, the Good Guys are tucked up in Ohio studying the issues for a coming debate, making appearances to talk about their plans for the economy and taking breaks by walking in neighborhoods to explain their position to homeowners and ask for their votes.

Thus figuring out the Bad Guys from the Good Guys in Election 2008 isn’t exactly rocket science, nor does it require a meticulous sifting through mounds of details. Frankly, it barely requires a brain. Indeed, in any other election, it would actually be a landslide for the Good Guys, and, let’s face it, everyone knows that. But that’s not how things are playing out, and to understand why, we have to turn back to Shakespeare and put Election 2008 into his more than able hands. For, you see, while Election 2008 is about the Presidency, it’s also about holding a mirror up to America so that America has to take a long and sober look at herself, and getting people to take long and sobering looks at themselves was pretty much what Shakespeare did best.

Shakespeare begins by making the Good Guy in this play an African American. Better yet, Shakespeare makes him an African American in the purest sense of the word: He is half African in that his father was born and lived most of his life in Kenya, a member of what was once called the Negroid race. He is also half American in that his mother was born in Kansas (Kansas of all places!), a member of what was once called the Caucasoid race. Shakespeare loves this sort of thing. It puts people into a position of having to make moral decisions, and he loves doing that to his characters because moral decisions reveal people as they really are.

Upon this Good Guy, then, Shakespeare starts piling on the details because, remember, his audience is disparate and some people will not understand his point unless they’re given it in the most obvious fashion. Here’s what those details look like when we consider the Good Guy: Although we’ve seen that he’s half one race and half another, he looks more like a member of the Negroid race than he looks like a member of the Caucasoid race, but Shakespeare likes irony, so he has him spend every one of his formative childhood years growing up in the Caucasoid family! This gives him an entirely white experience while encasing him in a black identity. Like any good character in a Shakespearean drama, this puts the Good Guy in a unique but trying position. He can relate completely to the white experience in America while at the same time can never, ever be mistaken for a white person. Since he can never, ever be mistaken for a white person, he becomes compelled to seek out and claim that part of himself that is also a member of the black community. Thus he goes on a journey of discovery—as all Good Guys do—and finds and embraces in Kenya and then on the south side of Chicago that part of himself that is African. Now he has a bit of peace, so he goes to Harvard Law School, where he becomes the first African American to edit the Harvard Law Review, which causes a publisher to seek him out and ask if he will write his story. This he does, turning it into Dreams from my Father, which paints a picture of his struggle to embrace both parts of who he is. Part black, part white. Part Negroid, part Caucasoid. Part African, part American. Call it what you will. He works in the community in which he lives; he teaches Constitutional Law; he serves as a state legislator; he goes to Washington. He’s bright, articulate, and charismatic. He knows this about himself—who wouldn’t?—and he thinks he might put these qualities to some good use. So he runs for President. He has a wife and two small children and there can be no doubt that this is not an easy decision to make, especially considering the racial history of this country in which he’s running. This, after all, is a country that enslaved people with whom he shares one-half of his racial identity. This, after all, is a country where little girls the same age and racial type as his daughters were killed in church bombing brought about by two white—dare I use the word?—terrorists. This, after all, is a country where assassination is part of the political landscape, so to run for the most exposed office in the nation…God knows what courage it might take. But Shakespeare likes his Good Guys to have courage in bucketfuls, so he gives him that and along with it, he gives him calm, serenity, intelligence, and wisdom. He gives him ideas to share and a course of action to propose. And then…Shakespeare introduces the Bad Guy.

Here again, Shakespeare knows his audience. The people who stand right at the front of the stage (they’re called the “groundlings”) aren’t going to get it if the Bad Guy is subtle, so Shakespeare makes him a faux military hero. His real heroism is that he was a prisoner of war shot down from the sky for dropping bombs on people who didn’t actually want bombs dropped on them, and from there he has gone into politics. He’s an old fellow with a face that’s been misshapen by disease, he’s deserted his injured wife to marry a millionairess, and he’s spent a great deal of time consorting with lobbyists and bankers, having 177 lobbyists working for him on his campaign, having also been called in front of the ethics committee in the Senate for consorting with a particularly shaky banking character called Charles Keating. Time and again, he’s voted to hurt the common man: the worker, the soldier, the old person, the children, the veteran of war. Time and again he’s voted to support banking, big business, big insurance, big oil. He’s chosen as his running mate (and here, I do think, Shakespeare is perhaps pouring it on a bit thickly) someone whose ignorance and lack of education make her the laughing stock of educators, historians, scientists, journalists, commentators, etc, (including even those in foreign countries) and not only do her beliefs run counter to science, to education, to ethics, and to the very Bible that she claims to embrace, she also threatens to reduce or eliminate altogether women’s rights, civil rights, children’s rights, and animals’ rights. She refuses to answer questions in a public debate, winking and mugging at the audience like Richard III, and whereas she previously vowed to have an open examination of her conduct as governor of her small state, when push comes to shove about the matter, she decides that silence and stonewalling are indeed the better part of valor, at least in this case.

Shakespeare, as you can see, is capable of painting with a very thick brush stroke. But again, he has to because not everyone will see the point if he uses characters with more subtle qualities.

So the question is: With the Good Guy being an obvious Good Guy and the Bad Guy being an obvious Bad Guy, why isn’t this election a rout? A slam dunk? A landslide?

And the answer to this goes back to the initial irony that Shakespeare threw in. The election is not and cannot be a slam dunk because Shakespeare made the Good Guy look black, look African American, look like a member of the Negroid race, despite his background as a member of a white-as-Wonderbread family.

That’s the beauty of this election, you see. If people reject Barack Obama because of his racial background, because they “can’t see themselves voting for a black man,” they are rejecting someone based only on two physical details about him: curly hair and skin the color of milky coffee. They reject him not for his culture, not for his ethnicity, not for his religion, not even for his experience. For his formative experience was white, not black. His nuclear family was white, not black. His early education was among children who were Hawaiian and Anglo, and not black at all.

And that, in the end, is how America finally gets smoked out into the open in the eyes of the world. Amazing, isn’t it? For my money, Shakespeare himself could not have written it better.

- Elizabeth George
Whidbey Island, Washington

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