Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Reading Antigone

I'm reading Antigone right now with three English classes, and it is frankly appalling how similar life in America today is to a Greek tragedy. Even the New York Times sees it:

After President Bush's disastrous visit to Latin America, it's unnerving to realize that his presidency still has more than three years to run. An administration with no agenda and no competence would be hard enough to live with on the domestic front. But the rest of the world simply can't afford an American government this bad for that long.
Of course Katrina has exposed our President's hamartia, but as in any tragedy, it is the people who depend upon the tragic protagonist who suffer for his weakness. And, of course, there is the issue of "where have you been, NYT editorial board?" But that, too, is an issue in Antigone. Creon confronts her the way Cindy Sheehan was confronted back in August (does anybody remember August?):

ANTIGONE: Lucky tyrants--the perquisites of power!
Ruthless power to do and say whatever pleases them.

CREON: You alone, of all the people in Thebes,
see things that way.

ANTIGONE: They see it just that way
but defer to you and keep their tongues in leash.

CREON: And you, aren't you ashamed to differ so from them?
So disloyal!

This is where the New York Times, and others, have "been." This is an old line of defense by those in power, and it was used against all critics of the Bush Administration, until Katrina. After the scenes of New Orleans, and all the revelations that have poured out since, Bush can no longer claim any of the perquisites of power. Now even the defender of the status quo, the New York Times, says the fish is rotting from the head:

The White House is in an uproar over the future of Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, and spinning off rumors that some top cabinet members may be asked to walk the plank. Mr. Bush could certainly afford to replace some of his top advisers. But the central problem is not Karl Rove or Treasury Secretary John Snow or even Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary. It is President Bush himself.
Just as the problem in Thebes was not Antigone, but Creon.

As evidenced in that exchange, Creon was living in a bubble of his own devising. That, too, is true for this administration.

Time magazine reports the rumors of a shakeup (Rumsfeld, McClellan, and Rove out?) and frustration of Bush's supporters: " 'It's like it's twilight in America,' says one frustrated conservative." And they say of Bush: "The sunny optimist who loved to think big is now facing polls in which for the first time a majority of Americans say they do not trust him."

But all I hear is Haemon speaking to his father Creon:

HAEMON: Of course, it's not for you,
in the normal run of things, to watch
whatever men say or do, or find to criticize.
The man in the street, you know, dreads your glance,
he'd never say anything displeasing to your face.
But it's for me to catch the murmurs in the dark,
the way the city mourns for this young girl.
'No woman,' they say, 'ever deserved death less,
and such a brutal death for such a glorious action....'

Creon's response is to accuse his son of siding with Antigone against him. Their argumetn leads to Haemon's death. But, of course, Creon's sin is hubris, is setting himself above all standards and norms, and insisting that his word must be law, and his law must be just.

CREON: Imagine it: I caught her in naked rebellion,
the traitor, the only one in the whole city.
I'm not about to prove myself a liar,
not to my people, no, I'm going to kill her!
...whoever steps out of line, violates the laws,
or presumes to hand out order to his superiors,
he'll win no praise from me. But that man
the city places in authority, his orders
must be obeyed, large and small,
right and wrong.

Just; or at least accomplish the purpose which was intended. But as Creon and Bush exemplify: "Never underestimate the power of denial". " 'A President who loves to hit home runs and wants to be remembered for swinging for the fences is being forced to take base hits,' says a former White House official."

And which "home run" would that be? The economy? Iraq? New Orleans? Social Security? War on Terror?

The NYT is right; we cannot afford three more years of this.

But they are wrong, too. They are not brave or resourceful now, and their power is diminished even as they lend gravitas to the debate with this clear and ringing denunciation. We had the words all along, and we knew how to read them. Indeed, Harper's Magazine presented the words of this Administration to us two years ago.

At least the rest of us are finally ready to listen. Too bad the tragedy has already reached the point of inevitability, and now there is no changing course, no turning back, no way to avoid the brutal and bitter end.

As I was saying: Bush is not that kind of leader.

(Sophocles, Antigone, tr. Robert Fagle, X.J. Kennedy and Diane Goia, Literature (New York: Pearson, 2005) pp. 1435-1488)

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