WHEN OEDIPUS, the king of ancient Thebes, finally admitted the truth to himself, he gouged out his eyes with Jocasta’s brooch.
The plot of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is simple. Oedipus must root out the cause of a plague afflicting his people — a plague thought to be the result of a hideous secret. Nobly bearing his responsibility, Oedipus seeks the truth. Though he begins to suspect he might be the cause, Oedipus goes on and at last confirms his dread. In the end, he blinds himself and begs to be exiled.
Today we might look at this and say, “Ignorance is bliss, dumbass! You should have stayed in the dark and kept your eyes!” But to the ancients, Oedipus was a noble character. His story is a textbook example of Greek tragedy. In the Aristotelian model, a tragedy is a tale in which a great person “experiences a reversal of fortune,” ideally from good to bad, evoking emotions such as pity and/or fear in the audience. Through the experience of catharsis, we are cleansed.
Oedipus seeks the truth though it may hurt him. Courage and justice are two of the four cardinal virtues of the ancients. Combine those with diligence and humility and you have greatness. Oedipus gives no fatuous public apology. He does not blame Jocasta. He accepts his fate. He metes out punishment to himself. He does not blame the liberal media. He doesn’t even blame Obama (though I’m sure President Obama was somehow responsible. Isn’t he responsible for everything?) No, Oedipus seeks, accepts and moves on. As we watch Oedipus accept his punishment, we are healed. We aspire to be more noble. We aspire to greatness.
While we’re on the subject of self-mutilation, let’s talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Earlier this week Todd Akin (R), the U.S. Representative for Missouri’s 2nd congressional district, who NOT incidentally sits on the Federal House Science and Technology Committee (think about that as you read on), committed political suicide. I’m sure you’ve heard about it by now but, for the sake of accuracy, here is the quote:
“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy resulting from rape is] really rare…If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. You know I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
Akin’s perspective (if it can be called that) on rape has been a viral topic all week, spinning through a news cycle infinitesimally shorter than the three-century span of the American women’s rights movement set in motion by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. After Eve Ensler’s dagger-sharp retort in the Huffington Post, I don’t feel there is anything more that can be said on the rape chapter of Akin’s missing education. Ensler’s letter to Akin is the last word on the subject.
What offends me for all of us, entwined with Akin’s confused misogyny, is the willful ignorance that is the benchmark of current politics. The fight for equal rights as guaranteed by our Constitution is caught in a tangle of stupid dragged about by our elected and campaigning officials. Whatever you feel about abortion – whether or not you believe life starts at conception or that “every sperm is sacred” – scientific evidence is pretty clear on this issue: The uterus cannot do algebra, shop for groceries, or choose its favorite spermatozoon.
When last I skimmed the The Bill of Rights, “Freedom from Facts” was not listed. Though it could be argued that you are free to live in complete ignorance, why would you want to? I once read that if you believe the saying, “When ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,” you are indeed the fool.
Oedipus was no fool. If you refuse to accept facts, you’re worse than a moron. You are without honor.
Noblesse oblige (from the French for nobility obligates), used without the irony often ascribed to it, calls upon noble persons in a society to conduct themselves with honor. They are obliged to do good works, to be models of society, and to uphold the standards of that society. Oedipus would have been compelled by the ancient ideals. When his state began to fail, he as king was forced to accept responsibility and seek out the cause. It was an honor and a duty to work for the good of his people.
At the root of his struggle was the search for truth.
In this century we have seen an attempt to rewrite the history of the Civil War. We have seen the pretense that climate change is not happening. We have seen a whole faction of people ignore scientific data indicating our world is older than the Bible claims it to be.
“Sorry, Columbus, the world is flat.”
“Are you kidding, Galileo? The Earth is the center of the universe! Everyone knows that.”
“Really, Isaac, a color spectrum? Next I suppose you’ll want to be a decorator!”
We’ve even started attacking the educated. And teachers! (Really? Suddenly education is elitist?) On the subject of education, I agree with John Waters.
I don’t want to fuck you if you think the world is flat. But, more importantly, I don’t want your leadership if you are not curious about our community, our world, our universe. It is now acceptable to ignore facts and proclaim your stupidity from the highest point on the mountain of internet misinformation. Where is the honor in defending your ignorance?
If you don’t know how a woman’s reproductive system works, especially if you are sitting on the House Science and Technology Committee, you’re a fucking dumbass. And you shouldn’t be leading our country.
If you believe, like Tennessee Senator Stacey Campfield (R), that HIV is almost impossible to spread through heterosexual sex, then you ought to visit Africa before running for US office. You are ignorant and without honor if you declaim your stupidity with such brazen confidence.
If like Iowa’s Rep. Steve King (R) you say something like this…
“I went to the Iowa State website and … I typed in ‘multicultural’ and it came back to me, at the time, 59 different multicultural groups listed to operate on campus at Iowa State … and most of them were victims’ groups, victimology, people that feel sorry for themselves and they’re out there recruiting our young people to be part of the group that feels sorry for themselves.”
…then your hubris has outlasted your usefulness.
If you pretend that the health care mandate was not first introduced by your party 20 years ago and then waste taxpayer time and money to challenge it before the Supreme Court, you are a liar and WITHOUT HONOR.
If you are running for President and pretending that your “joke” about Obama’s birth certificate is all in good fun, even after Linda Lingle, former Republican Governor of Hawaii, issued a statement proclaiming Obama’s birth actually DID take place in Hawaii, then you’re just a flip-flopping, ignoble liar.
If you think, like Michele Bachmann, it is acceptable to accuse Huma Abedin of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood – based on NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER – then you are not only xenophobic, you are an asshole. And without honor.
Todd Akin claims that the magic uterus can separate good sperm from rape sperm to make happy no-rape babies. Huh? (I happen to think vaginas are pretty magical, but not for the reasons Mr. Akin believes. We’ll leave that for another essay, though.) If you have not read your biology, but defend your make-believe science, you should be on a playground — or on a reality show with that dingbat — not on the political playing field.
Facts are easy to check these days. It’s also easy to refute denials. There is so much footage of so many pols, pundits and regular ol’ people talking about stuff on the interwebs that a few simple clicks will usually take you directly to a video of a pol saying the very thing he or she has denied. And you can get to it with very little effort. Jon Stewart manages it daily.
Saving face has replaced the cardinal virtues. As long as you look good in the public eye – as long as you get what you want without getting caught – all is well. “I misspoke” has become code for “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” To actually misspeak, as some people do and have, is to accidentally flub, stumble or use a malapropism. In conversation this would be followed by an immediate correction. It might even be acceptable if you correct yourself a day, even a week or more later if, through one of those peculiar flashes in the brain, you are suddenly reminded of your slip. Whenever it happens, the correction must come from you, not be predicated by backlash. Backpedaling into an apology is meaningless.
I can’t help but wonder if Anthony Weiner’s career would have come to a screeching halt if he had admitted to his situation early on. If he had just faced the music, he might still be dancing. Instead, he lied about it, attempting to fend off damage control with an elaborate but not very carefully constructed story about hackers and things being “dropped in” to his Twitter account, then issuing a limp apology. Of course, the late Andrew Breitbart should have been ashamed of himself for pretending that a personal sex scandal was more important than government corruption – or willful ignorance.
Assuming Akin does not give up his Senatorial bid, he will surely continue down the path of most denial by blaming “the liberal, elitist media,” Washington “elites” and every other kind of elite, including the members of his own party who value education and self-awareness.
Let’s, for the sake of argument, assume Todd Akin is noble. What does a noble man do in this situation? Concede? (Akin’s comments are too dumb even for the GOP. Though I fear it is not Akin’s being fact-free that so bothers the GOP, rather it is that Akin has angered millions of female voters and may therefore hurt GOP chances of “making Obama a one-term President.”) Giving in may benefit his party but bowing out of the race is not the same as accepting responsibility. The ubiquitous, gas-baggy apologies which follow this kind of shameful public spectacle are a far cry from looking into your own heart. Akin may prefer to remain ignorant of his ignorance. Denial is a powerful tool for the ego but it eats away at the self and at the foundation of society. Admitting wrongdoing and accepting responsibility mean looking within, and for some that it too hard to bear, but with self-examination there is healing.
It is time to start looking at ourselves.
If you don’t have the strength of character to face the truth, why are you a politician? Take some fucking responsibility for yourself. Be more responsible than the people you represent. I don’t want my neighbor to be President. I want someone smarter than me in that office. Someone of honor. Someone great. Someone like Oedipus.
Oedipus, who had been metaphorically blind to his own life, had to gouge out his eyes in order to look into his own heart. In a nation where we hold ourselves to the highest standards of conduct, but where saving face is more important than legitimate honor, we may need to sharpen our brooches and make sure there are enough to go around.