I just saw a wonderful version of Othello at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and I understand Bobby Jindal yesterday formally announced he is officially thinking about running for president, and I thought I’d post about the two at once.
I’ve always found the character of Othello one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant creations. I just don’t accept this idea that a character of his depth and pathos can be dismissed as a product of Shakespearean racism–look how idiotic the Moor is. Yet at the same time, it seems to me, as a Muslim living in a strange land, that his Moorish background is important, perhaps more important, or at least important in a different way, than brilliant critics as disparate as TS Eliot and Harold Bloom might suggest. (I’m not suggesting the great literary critical giants of our time and those before us are wrong. I am suggesting that as an avid and professed devotee Shakespeare, I have an opinion, borne of my own circumstance, that is different). That is, I fully agree that he is a person who stakes his entire life on his reputation, who thinks highly of himself and who considers it of the utmost importance that others think highly of him. I even agree with Eliot that the self-deception continues to the very end, that he is better than the person who, perplexed in the extreme, killed his wife on a suspicion of adultery that was on balance built on evidence so flimsy an actual court would hardly ever take it seriously. Eliot is a little unfair that Othello is merely cheering himself up, his final words are heart wrenching, for we know how deeply he felt for Desdemona, but clearly, his reputation, to the very end, matters, and he is seeking to some extent to rescue it from complete and utter depredation.
But the question of why it is that Othello is so obsessed with his image is important, and to me this tragic, fatal, devastating flaw to him and Desdemona alike relates to his Moorish background. He’s a North African Moor, he may be a Christian, but his people are certainly not, and he is, quite obviously from the opening scene of the play, subject to the torments large and small of all of us Others living in worlds and peoples our grandparents could scarcely have imagined. Large–the public comparison by Iago of Othello to a Barbary Horse, and his coupling with Desdemona leading to nephews neighing to her father. Small–Desdemona’s father, in fact in classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner fashion liking Othello, indeed inviting him to dinner, and finding all well and noble in the chap–until, that is, he wants his white girl. I don’t suppose you’ll find many of us people in color living in America who couldn’t fill an entire dinner conversation with such stories, should you ask us.
So Othello sets out on an endless quest to win their approval, as that is all that seems to matter–his reputation, to them. He sets out to be the noblest in battle, the bravest, the most honorable, everything he can do all just to prove, to them, he’s just as good as they are. His insistence on preserving a sterling reputation derives, fundamentally, I argue, from the fact that he has been treated his entire life as a different, alien and inferior being, a Barbary horse, and he somehow thinks, tragically enough, that one more thing might turn them. Yet the desperate plot to win approval obviously is not only entirely in vain, but it also necessarily masks a deep insecurity, borne of a lifetime of slights. So it really is rather easy to turn him as Iago does, for the deep and broad social belief among the Venetians that no daughter untouched by sorcery would or could ever love him, a Moor, is one that deep down in his own bosom, he feels and senses, and it affects his judgment. He’s not just a fool, in fact it’s not just his claim that he’s not jealous, it’s the subject of conversation beyond his presence as well. But he’s made into a jealous fool, because of this insecurity.
And what are his last words, on which Eliot puts so much deserved emphasis. That he loved Desdemona? That he made a terrible error throwing away such a rich pearl? That he was perplexed in the extreme even if not easily jealous? None of these, though he does say them. The very last ones are that he once found a “malignant and a turbaned Turk” beat a Venetian, at which offense he slit the throat of “the circumcised dog.” Poor, tragic, pathetic Othello, to the very end and at the very end his life, desperately needing to show he was in fact noble, not a malignant Turk but a loyal, Christian Venetian.
So obviously Bobby Jindal is neither so noble nor so tragic, though his story is a sad one nonetheless. A young Indian American and rising Republican, he had a chance I suppose to portray himself as a new face for the Republican party. Opportunity oriented, diverse, ambitious, looking forward. Alas, however, the need of the brown man to ingratiate himself to the white superstructure to which his party was affixed proved too strong. He has set out to show he is a better white Christian conservative than any other white Christian conservative could imagine. I don’t mean he converted to Christianity, personal decisions like that are none of my business, and best left to each person and their own conscience. But the call to religious liberty came strong, so strong that he now calls for a special Louisiana law that specifically and by its terms permits people to deny homosexuals service in a restaurant, or employment in a factory, so long as they do so for religious reasons. Yet, of course, it calls not so strong for him to be the biggest anti-Muslim baiter in a rather loud Republican circle of Muslim baiters because, apparently, in his words, “Islam has a problem.” Christianity, in its homophobia, at least in his version of it, apparently does not. Those puzzled as to why a religious liberty extremist would have such a problem with a different religion, or to paraphrase the good Dr. Johnson, “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for (religious) liberty from the baiters of Muslims”, it’s for the same reason that the Moor needs to spout a bunch of racist things about the malignant Turk. Because otherwise, the white guy might actually confuse the two of them, and think it’s the Moor who’s the circumcised dog. Those who don’t remember can find a similar phenomenon in what I found one of the most telling scenes in the movie Crash. The Iranian mother whose husband’s shop was spray painted by hoodlums with racist material turns to her daughter and expresses absolute shock that were referred to as “towelheads” because, they think we are Arabs. Jindal isn’t a Muslim, never was, and a Moor isn’t a Turk, nor an Iranian an Arab but if it’s the approval of a certain sort that you need, then you really, desperately need to make that clear.
It’s sad and pathetic, but it’s a tale as old as Shakespeare I’m afraid.