Obama vs. Othello: A Question of Character
Increasing ignorance of great works of art has left Americans less capable of fully evaluating their leaders.
January 6, 2010 - 12:00 am
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.
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.
Othello is black, true, but is accepted by Venetian society. He has converted to Christianity and has demonstrated his patriotism and bravery on the battlefield. Those characters who still hold his race against him do not come across well in the play. Othello, like his white counterparts, is a tragic character, someone essentially good and noble (his lines are some of the highest poetry). But the very things that make him noble also lead to a flaw that brings him down.
A lifetime focused on the battlefield makes Othello susceptible to the manipulations of Iago, who acts in a cool, calculated manner, to plant the seed of suspicion about Othello’s wife.
Audiences identify with Othello, who realizes his error after he murders his wife and in regret kills himself. The play meets Aristotle’s definition of tragedy because it arouses pity or fear through a character “whose misfortune … is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment.” The cathartic moment comes from the sympathy for the hero.
There is no such feeling for Iago, who became the model for John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Iago is not a flawed character, but one without a conscience, an atheist who manipulates others in power plays — the sociopath.
Although the sum total of President Obama’s life has not been brought together in a literary work, Americans who have looked at his life, associations, books, and previous speeches see someone cool and detached — especially when it comes to love of country. They rightly see a political strategist.
And this is what Gerstein and many analysts don’t seem to understand. For all his flaws and mistakes, Americans largely did not doubt George Bush’s love of country. He acted immediately after 9/11 with harsh words and harsh actions against the enemy. In fact, he was criticized by the left for jingoism, or too much love of country.
Obama, on the other hand, has done what would be unthinkable for a commander-in-chief in an earlier time. His demeanor during the press conference after the foiled Christmas Day attack was without emotion. He has done what would be taken as treason by besmirching his own country on foreign soil. The year was filled with him bowing to America’s enemies and glad-handing with Hugo Chavez. His Department of Justice is persecuting the CIA, of which seven members just died in Afghanistan. He states his discomfort with victory in Afghanistan, while cutting the military budget and changing the rules of engagement to favor the enemy. Through his Justice Department he is according terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 of our citizens the same rights and conducting a trial in the midst of survivors who will pay for the defense through their taxes. The Department of Homeland Security instructed law enforcement to go after dissenting patriotic Americans, particularly military veterans, and displayed callous disregard of the facts and the fears surrounding the thwarted Christmas Day terrorist attack.
One of the most treasonous acts concerns the communist, antiwar group Code Pink, which has been aiding and funding the enemy and raising money for Obama. As our vulnerable soldiers awaited word about sending more troops to Afghanistan, Obama was meeting with Code Pink, as recent videos show.
Obama is not merely “clueless.” Even when he gives lip service about the regrettable necessity of war as he did in the Nobel speech, Obama’s words do not ring true because they lack conviction.
Iago, too, repeatedly professes his allegiance to Othello and has a reputation of being honest. Too many around him overlook evidence to the contrary.
But careful readers understand character.