An essay on corresponding Models of Autocrats, now and then-
My title for this essay was chosen to suggest the relationships and similarities between our current lives, politics and world leaders with those of dramatic productions in London in the 17thcentury, ancient Rome and in the last century. These insights in corresponding characteristics were gleaned from several books that I’ve been reading about Cicero, Seneca, Shakespeare, American founders and fathers and a new book about fascism.
The painting below that I have chosen to illustrate the text is an interpretations of Peter Bruegel's tempera painting of 1568, "The Blind Leading the Blind." In this case I've titled my oil painting, "The Allegory of the Slippery Slope- Blind Leading the Blind." It incorporates racist characters and fascist personages and those lulled into accepting the abhorrent diatribes of the fellow in the long red necktie.
Above " The allegory of the Slippery Slope- Blind Leading the Blind" 26" x 30" oil painting on linen, by Brian Keeler was conceived to illustrate how autocrats and tyrants can lead those- (who are willing to be lied to), into an abyss. The painting is based on Peter Bruegel's painting of 1568 titled the Blind Leading the Blind.
The tyrannical impulses that run through the protagonists of Shakespeare’s plays and those of contemporary autocrats have been brought to high relief in an amazing new book, “Tyrant” by Stephen Greenblatt. I first noticed the book’s scarlet cover and simple typeface in a bookstore in Greenwich Village this spring. Just reading the first few paragraphs as I stood there, I was impressed by the corollaries between the 21stcentury and those dramatic characters of the 17th century bard.
Greenblatt is a world-renowned expert on Shakespeare, but he has been one of my favorite authors for several years for his other interests. His book, Swerve was an amazing account of Renaissance manuscript sleuthing with the results of bringing back the work of Lucretius from the brink of moldering demise in a dark castle. His more recent book, the Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, is an equally engaging journey through art history, religion and politics.
Greenblatt points out in his new book an observation by the 16th century Scottish scholar, George Buchannan; “A king rules over willing subjects, a tyrant over unwilling.” We have seen an exception to this and Shakespeare wonders too, “Under what Circumstances do such cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to?” Such a disaster, Greenblatt points out, that Shakespeare believed could only happen with complicity. Sound familiar?
Boy does it! There is a veritable blizzard of lies each day from the orange fellow of varying degrees of loathsomeness. He lies about stuff he said two minutes ago or two decades ago. He lies continually until they are debunked then moves on to a new unsubstantiated claim. Not even the latest, but that double negative BS after meeting with Putin must vie for the whopper of the year. As a reviewer in the NY Times Book Review points out; “ He lies about matters of utmost consequence (nuclear diplomacy) and about the most trivial (his golf game). He lies the way a woodpecker attacks a tree: compulsively, insistently instinctively. He lies until your temples throb.” This review by Chris Hayes covers a new book, “The Death of Truth” by Michiko Kakutani.
Much to Greenblatt’s credit, in his new book, he never mentions the name of the current buffoon/tyrant in the Whitehouse but the relationships are unmistakable, timely and pertinent. It is amazingly prescient of the characters that populate the tragedies of Shakespeare as to how they suggest timeless tendencies. Disdain for the middle class in the character of Coriolanus, megalomania in Richard the Third, narcissism, power hungry ambitions in Henry IV and deception on a grand scale in King Leer and others. Sound familiar? By the end of the book the reader will think Shakespeare had a looking glass into the personality profiles of demagogues and perceived a direct link across the centuries. This is evidence for great art being timeless and relevant, regardless of the era.
The New York Times review of this book points out that Greenblatt has discerned a pattern chillingly reminiscent between the centuries. That review by Simon Callow also points out that in Henry VI there is an eruption of group solidarity and group loathing. Nobody is listening to anybody else then, as now, only shouting invective in their own echo chambers of political rhetoric. History repeats itself. But to know this or appreciate it, one would have to read, just a little bit. And even if certain autocrats cared for something other than venal stereotypes and trafficking in the worst racist policies, there might be a glimmer of hope.
Greenblatt has a special chapter for those enablers of Richard the Third and we can easily relate to the spineless republicans and sycophants like Mike Pence who sit back silently, and condone one egregious tweet, policy or cabinet apointee after another. There are signs of spine growth and integrity in GOP however, with notable exceptions like the late John McCain or Jeff Flake. Most recently, Peter Wehner, a republican opined that “the President rots everything he touches.”
Speaking of spines, it is the twisted deformed spine of Richard the Third that supposedly marked him as being morally depraved too. Fortunately we have come along way from relating turpitude to deformities and would no longer assign handicaps as marks of inner failings. Not with the DT however, can we forget his mocking a handicap reporter? Why that wasn't the end of his political career is beyond the pale, yet he continues to appeal regardless of his offenses to his faithful attending his rallies.
I am also just finishing three other books that are oddly related to Shakespeare, and the current state of affairs. The first, of course is extremely relevant to current events and somewhat to the 17th century plays at London's Globe Theatre. This is the new book, “Fascism, A Warning” by Madeleine Albright, our former Secretary of State and who survived the Nazi oppressions in Europe in the last century. A biography of the ancient Romans, Cicero and the philosopher Seneca are just being wrapped up too. They may seem like disparate subjects but they have many connections.
Albright brings us up to date with compendium of the various aspects of fascism throughout the world over the last century. I first heard her speak on Terry Gross’s NPR show Fresh Air as she shared insights about her career as a diplomat. From Mussolini, Stalin, Kim Jung Un, Chavez, Erdogan and including Viktor Orban in her native Hungary. So in short, we don’t come across statecraft with more experience and family history more emmeshed in totalitarian govenments. Albright points out that America was the rock against which fascism crashed in the last century, as we were a bulwark against tyranny. Not so anymore, with the current administration we have become as natavistic, nationalistic and fear-mongering as with the other rising dictators of the world. A league of kakocracy has developed around the globe, or rule by the absolute worst. Institutions of cooperation like the United Nations are continuously under attack by the likes Viktor Orban, Trump and the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Salvani. Its odd how all these exaggerated, selfish and extreme calls for nationalism are dividing once cherished institutions that were intended alliances for the greater good. And lets not forget Brexit, another aspect of the devolution into selfish little fiefdoms. I can imagine them scurrying back to the alliances after threatened or invaded as happened in Ukraine.
In Madeleine Albright’s new book she quotes Harry Truman as he addressed the newly formed United Nations in 1946; “ Hitler is finished, but the seeds spread by his disordered mind have firm root in too man fanatical brains. It is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps than to kill ideas that give birth them birth.”
We can see this here in the US with rise of thugs like Steve Bannon and KKK/neo- Nazi rallies. Our President infamously stated that there are some very good people in those organizations. It has really come to this, as impossible as it seems. Our parents of WWII generation must be rolling over in their graves. The president actually subscribes to these racists policies, the most recent being his finding common cause with apartheid figures in South Africa.
It has been pointed out by others, how the correspondences between ancient Rome and today are almost too similar at times to believe. The Roman revolution, unlike the idealism of the American or French Revolution was a slow unraveling of a constitution and governance developed over centuries, from 753 BC to the first century BC, and the flaunting of traditions. Cicero had a front row seat on the final chapter of this. One of the most horrendous outcomes of the Roman Revolution was the institutionalized murder of political opponents by the Triumvirs, called proscriptions. Although no one has been murdered in the autocracy of the current policies of the Whitehouse fellow, we can see a purposeful disregard for decency, due process, institutions of governance like our courts and justice department, FBI and the CIA. The corollaries between autocrats, opportunists and dictators from the first century BC, theatrical versions of the 17thcentury AD or in politics now are rampant around the world in the 21stcentury are unmistakable.
With the book on Seneca, “Dyeing Everyday, Seneca and the Court of Nero” by James Romm, a poignant but even-handed portrayal of the Stoic philosopher as a teacher and advisor to a tyrant is offered to us. It’s hard to top Nero for depravity or megalomania but it seems that some are trying. One passage in the book mentions how Seneca was a voice of reason and intelligence attempting to check the worst impulses of Nero. We can think easily of the cabinet and advisors in the Whitehouse in the past year who have attempted the same, only to have screaming bouts, then be sidelined and fired. There are no adults left in the president’s cabinet only adulatory confirmers. The Wall Street Journal recently mentioned that the Chief of Staff and others who normally should be respected and listened to have been reduced to irrelevancy. The man in orange apparently listens to no one, but of course admires other slugs, crooks and other world tyrants.
So this brings us back to Shakespeare’s contention that tyrants need complicity and enablers who believe their howlers, and ignore their scandals and corruptions. To what end, we may ask as well, and for all intents and purposes those lofty ideals the right wing supposedly has, are just god-awful policies and cabinet members hell bent on destruction.
So I have been availed a window into the thinking of the enablers and minions by occasional glimpses of their leaders but also the stuff promulgated in the press and on social media. For example, I read on a Facebook thread by a follower that it was believed that the president was not a racist. I wondered if this were a Russian troll purposefully trafficking in divisive rhetoric. Probably not. My reaction was that if you don’t think someone is a racist whose entire campaign was waged with divisive and offensive and outright racist invective, than you probably would not even recognize a racist if they were observed lynching someone on the courthouse steps.
The last book that I’d like to mention, that was also recently read is titled, The Founders and the Classics, by Carl J. Richard. It is an engaging read, that provides a window into the American Enlightenment and how the framers of the Constitution emulated and admired the Greco/Roman heritage. They had ideals and altruism and patterned and modeled our country as a republic in the tradition of those predecessors. They also had a disdain for those tyrants like Julius Cesar who undermined those governments. The dye is cast and the Rubicon is crossed, then as now. So it is with dismay that we see our traditions and policies, as noted to be so fragile, to be corrupted and perverted. The most recent one, of dozens is the emolument transgression. Never before in our nation's history has there been a legitimate cause to elicit this part of the constitution until now.
As we also saw the Electoral College effectively giving up their mandate and allowing just the sort of demagogue into the office that they were supposed to prevent, we can again see corollaries between ancient Rome.
Now we are stuck with a horse’s ass, as he continually violates our trust and besmirches our heritage. But he will not be there forever, as life is always in flux. However, the fact that ignorance has been given such a public and wide audience is cause for alarm. A retired teacher from my hometown recently penned a letter to the editor, stating her dismay at such a character, being offered up as a roll model for America. This teacher had spent her entire career living up to ideals, imparting knowledge and being a model by her example. Now America is embracing the worst of the worst with virtue in short supply and a vacancy of exemplars.