A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
One of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays is The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. A spoiler alert is unnecessary, for the title character’s assassination at the hands of supposedly patriotic conspirators is central to the narrative.
Following Caesar's death, Marc Antony crafts a funeral oration. With words carefully chosen, Antony initiates the process of politicizing his friend’s death.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest, —
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men, —
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
By the time Antony has finished “burying” Caesar, the mood of the crowd has shifted ominously, and the assassins have become the hunted. It is rumored that in an early draft of the play, Shakespeare penned these words for a fleeing Brutus:
Antony, vile malcontent, thou hast crassly exploited this tragedy for political purposes.
The roots of “tragedy” in the modern sense extend to ancient Greece.
Tragedy (from the Greek: τραγῳδία, tragōidia[a]) is a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences. While many cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, the term tragedy often refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of Western civilization. That tradition has been multiple and discontinuous, yet the term has often been used to invoke a powerful effect of cultural identity and historical continuity …
In everyday terms, we use the word “tragedy” as a sort of catch-all, one describing unexpected, bad and destructive situations or events, which often involve someone’s death.
A tragic occurrence can be a simple twist of fate, or echoing the ancient Greek point of view, the victim may have suffered ill tidings owing to an inner flaw or moral weakness, as Anthony Weiner might well attest.
Moreover, we recognize the potentially collective nature of tragedy, in the sense that our flaws and weaknesses as a society can result in disasters, or abet them.
In 1988, tens of thousands died as the result of an earthquake in then-Soviet Armenia, often as the result of shoddy construction techniques and lack of preparedness. Of course, the earthquake itself was unpreventable, but not preparing for the eventuality of earthquakes in a region noted for seismic activity is a human variable. To an appreciable extent, Armenians tragically died because of choices made by a network of other persons, not Mother Nature.
The debate will continue as to the concept of collective responsibility in totalitarian systems, but we needn’t restrict our gaze to dictatorships.
In America, ostensibly a nation founded on rule of law and devoted to individual liberty, the period following the Civil War, from 1865 to the present, has been marred by tragedy in the specific form of discrimination, lynching and myriad affiliated acts of purposeful violence directed against African-Americans by dominant white supremacist culture.
These acts are neither random nor senseless. Rather, they occur within the framework of American politics, as opposed to inexplicable spins of a cosmic wheel.
Writer Matt Taibbi offers this working definition of politics:
“Politics at its most basic isn't a Princeton debating society. It's a desperate battle over who gets what.”
Taibbi’s reckoning matches what my poli-sci instructor said on the first day of class at IU Southeast in 1978, paraphrased: Politics is about power – what power is, how it is used, who gets to have it, and who doesn’t.
This is why Dr. Martin Luther King did not hesitate to crassly exploit tragedy for political purposes, as in 1963, when members of the Ku Klux Klan planted sticks of dynamite beneath church steps in Birmingham, Alabama and killed four African-American girls.
And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.
When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, his death was crassly exploited for political purposes. The cycle continued. In 1998, there was yet another tragedy, this time in Wyoming.
On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked and tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie, Wyo. and left to die. On October 12, Matt succumbed to his wounds in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The savagery of this young man’s death helped prompt a long overdue recalibration of America’s moral compass.
The horrific killing of Matthew Shepard in 1998 is widely seen as one of the worst anti-gay hate crimes in American history. Matthew was beaten by two assailants, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. They pistol whipped him with a gun then tied him to a fence in freezing conditions and set fire to him before leaving him to die.
The attack became a cause célèbre: it precipitated a national backlash against hyper-macho culture and tacit tolerance of homophobia. As a result of Matthew’s death, many good things have happened for the gay community.
This backlash following Shepard’s murder was knowingly spurred and intentionally politicized by LGBT activists, civil rights advocates, world famous celebrities, but also ordinary folks inhabiting a table at Denny’s. It was crass, exploitative and fully justified. I supported it then, and I do now.
Perhaps then we’re all malcontents, each and every one of us, crassly exploiting tragedy for political purposes, whether it’s Marc Antony, the grieving Armenians pointing fingers at the Kremlin, Dr. King, human rights proponents memorializing Shepard – or a citizen like Lori Kay Sympson, who doesn’t want you to forget that her friend Chloe Allen was killed trying to cross a dangerous street in New Albany, where streets are kept dangerous due to crass exploitation – that’s right, for political purposes.
Politics is power. For a prevaricating politician like Greg Phipps to selectively deny the efficacy of this statement by tarring others as malcontents is a tragedy in itself, and a misreading of history eligible for crass exploitation by those of us, malcontented or otherwise, who apparently understand his elected position – and his past – far better than he does.
May 19: ON THE AVENUES: Requiem for the bored.
May 12: ON THE AVENUES: A design for life.
May 5: ON THE AVENUES: Getting back, moving forward, drinking coffee.
April 28: ON THE AVENUES: You know, the two-way streets column I wrote -- 7 years ago, in 2009.