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Obama vs. Othello: A Question of Character

Increasing ignorance of great works of art has left Americans less capable of fully evaluating their leaders.

by
Mary Grabar

Bio

January 6, 2010 - 12:00 am
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At the end of the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, Joe Biden’s prediction that he would be tested has come to pass.

Obama has failed these tests, especially on national security. The year has ended with a terrorist attack on one of our own military bases and one thwarted on a domestic airline on Christmas Day.

But criticism of Obama’s delayed response to the Christmas Day attack by Republican Congressmen Pete Hoekstra and Peter King is unfair, says Josh Gerstein at Politico. George Bush after the similar attempted shoe bombing months after the 9/11 attack received almost no criticism, claims Gerstein. Obama’s prepared statements had more force and he came out with a public statement in three days as opposed to Bush’s six days.

Such analysts overlook very important factors when it comes to criticism of Obama.

Critics of the critics of Obama overlook the very important issue of character. Many conservatives, especially the younger ones, also ignore character and the complexities of the situation in favor of a kind of mathematical comparison, as Gerstein does. Amazingly, Kyle Wingfield, the lately installed “conservative” at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, claims that Obama, though still a “blank screen,” has “intelligence, charisma, gravitas.” The normally astute Linda Chavez, in recounting Obama’s major failures, casts him as “clueless” and chalks up the ineptness to inexperience.

In this age of moral relativism and instant factoid, pundits display a squeamishness about examining character.

Our educational system encourages such an outlook. As I attend teaching workshops and read the literature, I am amazed by the discouragement of reading and contemplation. Every technique and gimmick coming down the line by pedagogues discourages literacy or the act of sitting quietly for extended periods and following a train of thought without the assistance of pictures, sounds, or actions.

Each semester I find myself faced with college students schooled in the search for the ready-made answer at the keyboard for a literary analysis.

Most of these recent analyses offer not thoughtful examinations of character, but formulaic diagnoses by race, class, and gender. Any “text” is plugged into the formula and the same result comes out: white, heterosexual males as authors or characters are oppressors. So this semester, for Othello, I’m going to assign reports on literary analyses published before the 1980s, on reserve at the library desk.

As I was plotting, er planning, this strategy and reviewing the materials, I found myself amazed at the number of words written about the characters in this one Shakespearean play, from William Hazlitt on. Building on each other’s work, each critic brought new light onto characters like Desdemona, Emilia, Cassio, Iago, and Othello. Of course, their positions in terms of class, race, and gender are acknowledged as helping to shape character. But character is not simply the byproduct of environment. It is assumed that each character, with a combination of good and bad traits, has a will.

Not so today, where the focus is on Othello’s status as a black man, Desdemona’s as a woman, and Iago’s as someone from a lower class.

So it is in politics. Liberals, true to form, have lobbed charges of racism against any criticism of Obama and have ignored his character. Obama too has exploited race in the Henry Louis Gates incident and in his appointment of Eric Holder and Sonia Sotomayor.

But I think an understanding of Othello’s position and character can shed some light on the political situation.

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