Whether censoring Shakespeare, killing civilians or degrading nature, it all stems from the same mind-set.
This Year, Santa left me a gift I actually wanted: The complete works of Shakespeare on DVD, all 37 productions from the BBC. I tore open the box and plunged into the glossy Viewing Notes, with its details on the conception of the series and the source of finance. The “big money” came from Metropolitan Life, J.P. Morgan’s bank and Exxon Mobil. “There were strings attached”, notes the BBC, “the backers insisted on a conservative artistic policy of broad acceptability to the widest possible audience”. Come again? It gets worse. The financers demanded the plays be set “either in the historical period of the action or in Shakespeare’s own time. In no event should the directors and designers stray beyond 1616”, the year of the Bard’s death. How odd. Over the years, some of the best productions of Shakespeare have transcended their original time zones. So why did the BBC accept this philistine edict?
In our corporatised culture, perhaps there is no other choice. Exxon is said to produce 1 per cent of global emissions. Its former boss, Lee R. Raymond, was paid a million dollars a week. Whether plundering resources, soiling the skies or degrading Shakespeare, it’s all in a days work for Exxon. But why should they bother? Could it be that his tongue is dangerous, especially when given a modern context? Shakespeare in a suit in every schoolroom is a radical with a license to alert innocent eyes to the criminality of rulers and the perfidy of power elites. (Will Murdoch play Iago to Barack Obama, is Cheney a kind of Richard the Third, could Condi be Lady Macbeth?) Justice, honour and the natural world are exalted the Bard’s consciousness, while corruption, greed and the hoarding of power are condemned. At heart, the attempt to imprison Shakespeare in the past is a political act. Silently, behind the scenes, corporations often try to kill us softly with their wiles, but we still wear their brands on our underwear.
In a dramatic editorial on New Years Eve, 2008, Looking at America, the New York Times paraded the underwear of the Bush administration, citing its “shocking abuses” and “acts of lawlessness”. Yes, American soldiers tortured and murdered those in its custody and, yes, its mercenaries gunned down “Iraqi civilians with no fear of prosecution” (which is still happens in secret each day from the air). The murdering mercenaries in Iraq are employed by global corporations linked to Washington at the highest levels. Their powers match those of wicked Kings in the era of Shakespeare, and their weapons are deadlier. The boom times for Blackwater USA & similar goon squads are enriching Wall Street investors, few of whom face up to the fact they are financing serial homicide.
The Times editorial was welcome and long overdue, but it lacked a call for action. The paper felt, perhaps, its readers were too well fed, complacent and over-entertained to march to Washington with lighted staves. The editors did not even call for Cheney and Bush to be impeached. It was as if at the final moment the masthead notables lost their courage, and yet, being New Yorkers, they were swamped with feelings of guilt. This was clear from the quote they chose to highlight online, emanating from the first wave of its readers responses: “Let us not go down in history as infamously standing silent in the face of grave crimes the way the Good Germans allowed the Nazis to carry out their atrocities." (An apt description of the US media mainstream.)
It’s as though, by breaking out this quote, the NYT was outsourcing the task of bringing Bush & Co to justice. “You do it, please, we are compromised. Defense industries sit on our board. We are part of the network of six conglomerates that supply media and entertainment for over half the world’s population. Occasionally we can expose high crimes, but the rest is up to you, Okay?” Not exactly. It seems harder than ever for individuals to act effectively against the state. The demographic with a thirst for justice and a flair for dissent, with a vision of community self reliance, is still short of reaching critical mass.
In Search of Self Reliance.
Thirty years after the death of Shakespeare, a wandering Zen Buddhist Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote a luminous guide to the martial arts and life, The Book of Five Rings, which is still in print. Later, on the eve of his death, he wrote The Way of Self Reliance, a scroll of 21 precepts to assist future students. Most of his precepts are at odds with today’s accepted wisdom, for example: “Do not ever think in acquisitive terms”.
Are you laughing?
Amex brochures thunder on my doorstep with mounting frequency and their product offerings are a parody of consumer excess, ranging from 7 star holidays on virgin atolls with celebrity chefs to, oh, I don’t know, stuff like home delivered Ferraris fitted with espresso machines. Bikini clad models rise from turquoise spas in the promo booklets, adorned with a one word headline: RECYCLE! Just kidding. The word is INDULGENCE! Our reward for thinking acquisitively.
Today’s rich and powerful can do anything they like, anytime. Acquisition + indulgence is behind soaring Lear Jet sales, facelift fever, $60 million annual bonuses, ski resorts in the desert. It explains why Presidents can torture at will and why US soldiers feel free to shoot Iraqi civilians at random. It is behind price fixing, cluster bombing, even the sub prime scandal (arising as it does from the dodgy “financial products” invented by Wall Street to fleece desperate home buyers).
I write this from a generation touched by Jack Kerouac’s incredibly flawed, sexist, yet thrilling On the Road, in which the author laments the spread of log cabins built from “poor trees felled by chain saws”. Today’s defining tract is starker, Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, in which all the trees are dead or dying, like the humans in his charred landscape. This scenario is entirely plausible, unless humanity re-discovers its ecological self. Shakespeare understood the importance of nature and its power to heal – King Lear’s madness was soothed by herbs – and current research confirms this insight. The Arts, social justice and community self reliance are the lodestones of the future. “Consider yourself lightly”, Murashi wrote, “consider the world deeply”. Yet we are forever urged to do the opposite, which endangers the future.