Our New Pentheus
Long before Sigmund Freud wrote about repression and the subconscious, Euripides the fifth-century B.C. Athenian playwright explored the frenzy of the human mind—whether Medea’s homicidal rage, Hippolytus’ smug self-righteousness, or poor Pentheus of his masterpiece Bacchae.
In that latter tragedy, the young king vows to stomp out the new cult of Dionysos, with its celebration of wine and, more darkly to Pentheus, sexual liberation, particularly of women.
But after spending the first half of the play, mustering the forces of decency, in an eerie exchange with the disguised god, Pentheus himself shows a dark curiosity about what he wants to drive out. Soon he is cross-dressing, engaging in voyeurism, and ends up torn apart by the wild Bacchant women, among them his own mother. Euripides reminds us to seek balance in life, and to moderate our passions, especially the zealotry that may masque inner desires for the forbidden. Bacchae is a great play, Euripides’ last, and timeless in its wisdom about human frailty.
And never was there better proof of Euripides’ warning than the sad case of Reverend Ted Haggard. His simultaneous effort to curb homosexual marriage and the so-called gay lifestyle, coupled with serial half- and three-quarter- confessions that the married father of five, and pastor of the tele-evangelical New Life Church, is not merely an adulterer, but perhaps as charged, a frequenter of prostitutes, a user of illegal drugs, and a participant in anonymous gay sex (he apparently used the pseudonym “Art”) . Or as Haggard most recently put it, “There is part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it all my life.” But like Pentheus he found the struggle too much, as the more he protested, the more he was attracted to the darkly prohibited.
A few other thoughts: Is it almost de rigeur that when champions of traditional morality are caught (cf. Congressman Foley or the Jimmy Swaggert chronicles), they either plead substance abuse (Foley’s alcohol or the subtext of meth in Haggard’s case) or the power of Satan to reach even the once pure (so Haggard’s evocation of the imagery of the “dark”, and Swaggert’s elemental battles with Lucifer).
And how do the Democrats’ play the homosexual hypocrisy card in the long run? So some questions: if in this age of exposing all sorts of hypocrisy it is past time to out gay (rather than just gay conservative) lawmakers in the closet, do Democrats really wish to have their own (and there must be some) so exposed, some of whom, after all, might lead lives at odds with their appetites?
And if explicit gay sex talk or visits to prostitutes are to be condemned, to what extent have such increasingly common activities come as a result of greater liberalization in society at large (e.g., suggesting prostitution might be liberalized, law suits against the Boy Scouts or tolerance for fringe groups like the man/boy pederastic groups) that has been urged not to judge alternative lifesytles and reminded that morality is subjective not absolute?
Aside from the obvious hypocrisy, there are other disturbing questions not widely raised. The HIV-virus is endemic among promiscuous homosexuals, and contacts with a gay prostitute put his own spouse at risk. Part of the entire futility of the war against drugs is the failure to curb demand. That is, the criminally-inclined or merely poor, grow, traffic, and fabricate drugs because there is preexisting demand for it among wealthier Americans with disposable cash and profit to be made. So the Reverend was not merely indulging in the purported pleasures of drug use, but perpetuating an industry that destroys lives and undermines the law. And the money Haggard had at his disposal to buy drugs and sex came, in part, from donations to his Church, funds that were solicited to fight the very vices that they ended up subsidizing.
All of which raises the eternal Euripidean question: was Reverend Haggard drawn to the frontlines of the evangelical moral crusade in the first place because it was precisely there were to be found his own desires?
The Greeks also warn us about Nemesis, and its multifaceted faces of divine, slow, but ultimately humiliating retribution. Nemesis stung Haggard in the most fitting fashion because he had been so prominent in opposing open expressions of homosexuality, thereby inviting scrutiny of both his own motivations and private behavior.
Similarly John Kerry might have been left alone by veterans, as he was for most of his senate campaigns. But once he strutted out at the 2004 Democratic convention and preened, “Reporting for duty!” then he was open season for veterans, who might have been willing to forgive (but not forget) his earlier slanders, given that Kerry was a pronounced anti-military politician, a class, of course, that must say the sort of things Kerry had. But when he reinvented himself into a proud veteran of a lost war that he had once demonized, in an obvious and crass effort to reestablish his fides to red-state America, then the veteran understandably became re-enraged.
I wrote this about Kerry and Nemesis two-and-a-half years ago on February 20, 2004 (http://victorhanson.com/articles/hanson022004.html), and that take on Kerry and Nemesis seems still relevant today in light of his most recent slurs, if not overly magnanimous and too understanding of Kerry’s self-destructive propensities:
Take the recent controversy about President Bush’s military record. Heretofore, Mr. Kerry had wisely decided to let the sleeping dogs of Vietnam lie, perhaps cognizant of how the “bloody shirt” had once tainted and polluted 50 years of late-19th-century American presidential campaigns. Besides, the Republicans had not looked good in questioning the fine character of Max Cleland, whose service to his country deserved better. In the primaries, the genuinely war-heroic Mr. Kerry seemed to realize that it was not wise to question Howard Dean’s skiing in Aspen under the aegis of a medical deferment. After all, most Americans were more interested in talking about winning the present war rather than crying over losing the past one — and Vietnam was a morass that tarred everyone who lumbered in.
In 1992, Mr. Kerry had, quite soberly, called for an end to recriminations about Mr. Clinton’s draft record. And that was wise. From time to time he had gone on record to emphasize how tumultuous the late 1960s and 1970s were — and that what was said and done then was often a result of passion rather than reason. Kerry seemed to remember — and for that reason he was rightly cautious — that many Vietnam veterans against the war at the time had left a paper trail of greater respect for the resisters and draft-evaders who chose not to participate in an “immoral” war than for some of their fellow warriors who went over to serve and “kill.” Indeed, up until about 1980, the popular mythology for millions was that a Vietnam veteran deserved less respect than a draft-resister. Of course, we forget that absurdity now in the days of the bloody shirt, but it was nevertheless true and explains the near inexplicable contortions and subsequent reinventions of that generation that we witness today.
So Mr. Kerry rightly sensed that, while his own combat record was beyond reproach, his subsequent strident antiwar activities surely were not — ranging from confessionals about war crimes to throwing away someone else’s medals before the cameras. And Kerry was even wiser in appreciating that while a sort of mytho-history had emerged, asserting that Vietnam-era protesters once attacked the government only, never the soldiers themselves, most Americans of the era remembered a very different reality: Veterans in fact routinely and unfairly were accused of atrocities, and were slandered. Returning GIs were sometimes divided between those who felt that their service was honorable, and those who sought exculpation or popular acceptance from the protest generation by maligning fellow soldiers as agents of immorality.
Thus it was prudent to let all this alone, and not take the bait of thinking a decorated veteran who opposed the war could score points against a supporter of it who did not serve. But the Democrats were not content.
Instead, they floated old accusations that a twenty-something George Bush, who strapped himself into something as dangerous as an obsolete, fire-belching, and occasionally explosive F-102, was somehow near treasonous. Young Bush may have been impetuous and he apparently missed some roll calls, but anyone who rides the stratosphere a few inches above a jet engine is neither a coward nor a man who shirks either danger or responsibility.
Now the Democrats who thought up this low hit on the president will reap what they have sown — as Kerry’s entire (and ever-expanding) record of ancient slips and slurs will unnecessarily go under full scrutiny, the sometimes shameful words of a rash and mixed-up youth unfairly gaining as much attention as once brave deeds. By August the American people will be sick to death of Kerry’s pandering to veterans — or perhaps as indifferent to his medals as they were to the equally stellar record of sometimes-failed candidates like Bob Dole, Bob Kerry, John McCain, or Gray Davis.