Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

One of the things that has troubled me about this election season is the degree to which many of my conservative friends have gone full Ayn Rand on fiscal issues. That’s one reason why I decided to read this book. (Also because it was on my list and checked into the library at a convenient time.) At the same time, I made the decision that I was going to re-read the book of James. About this, more later. 



Nickel and Dimed has a lot in common with The American Way of Eating (reviewed here) in that the author goes undercover and works in low-wage jobs. While Tracie McMillan focuses on the food industry, Ehrenreich chooses a wider variety of service jobs, from healthcare, to housecleaning, to foodservice, to retail. In both cases, however, it is readily apparent that for most of those in low wage jobs, a reasonable standard of living is unattainable under the current system, and they would be below starvation levels without social programs. As Ehrenreich puts it in the introduction:

But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home.

This book was researched in 1998, so nearly 20 years ago, so the raw numbers are going to be lower across the board, from minimum wage to housing costs. (If you want to see more modern numbers on housing costs for a basic two bedroom apartment, this is a good place to start.)

I’m not going to rehash the book, which is short enough to read in a few sessions. If I were to summarize, I would say that it brings to light some significant problems in our society, namely the disconnect between wages and housing costs, and the vast power differential between low income workers and their employers, such that any idea that wages are “bargained for” rather than dictated is pure fantasy.

But anyone with friends who have worked service jobs could tell you that as well. One of my frustrations in discussing economics with conservative friends and family is that although they may well have briefly worked low income jobs, they did so in an era (or place) where housing was affordable, they had no need for health care, and they had a direct and fairly quick route to a middle class income within a few years. That is much less likely to be the case now for a number of reasons, none of which my older conservative friends are the least bit willing to acknowledge. Sure, they worked hard. But they also were able to afford a house on one income in their mid-20s, with a mere high school education. So there is a tremendous amount of condescension toward lower income people now, who clearly could become middle class if they weren’t so lazy/stupid/immoral.

Ehrenreich captures the essence of this in a series of conversations she has with acquaintances who were startled that it wasn’t obvious to her co-workers that she wasn’t “one of them,” the implication being that she should have been obviously superior to the “workaday drones,” as she puts it.

But this never happened, I suspect because the only thing that really made me “special” was my inexperience. To state the proposition in reverse, low-wage workers are no more homogenous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright. Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.

Yes! Every time an acquaintance - or friend or family - says something insulting to the poor or to, say, African Americans, I find myself saying that last sentence: “If you actually were friends with people outside your race and economic stratus, you wouldn’t say obviously false things like that.”

I want to mention a few other things that I found interesting. One is Ehrenreich’s experience as a waitress, one of the “higher status” jobs she did. She quickly learned to identify certain difficult customers. The “traditional asshole types - frat boys who down multiple Buds…” The disabled who needed extra assistance; not their fault, but they can suck up precious time that the waitress needs to get everyone else served. But one other:

The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians - like the ten-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill. Or the guy with the crucifixion T-shirt (Someone To Look Up To) who complains that his baked potato is too hard and his iced tea too icy (I cheerfully fix both) and leaves no tip at all. As a general rule, people wearing crosses or WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do?”) buttons look at us disapprovingly no matter what we do, as if they were confusing waitressing with Mary Magdalene’s original profession.

I’m afraid this is entirely too true. I learned early in my professional life that the more a person wore their religion openly, the worse of a client they would be. Uncooperative, rude, and tried to cheat you on the bill. Sorry, just stating the truth. One reason why I will never have a Christian bumper sticker, jewelry, or wear a shirt publicly. I know the kind too well, and don’t really want to create that impression.

I also want to mention that after reading the chapter where she works as a maid for one of the big companies (which charge clients $15 an hour while paying the workers $6), I would never pay someone to clean my house. (Okay, maybe a freelancer. But probably not.) The emphasis is on making things look clean, without actually using much water. Look, I was raised doing housework - there was no such thing as women’s work in my family - so I know how to clean stuff. And you have to use water or you are just spreading dirt around. Ehrenreich summarizes the approach as the point “is not to clean so much as to create the appearance of having been cleaned.”

Another thing that Ehrenreich points out is that most of these jobs do not have paid leave of any kind, including sick leave. (This is different in some states, like my native California - but we just applied the law to all employers last July!) In practice, this means that her coworkers have to work sick, because otherwise, they will lose their housing or have to skip food. The author comes to suspect (after cleaning the house of a woman with a whole bookcase of childrearing books - at the same time that a coworker with dreadful morning sickness passes out at work) that there is “some secret division of the world’s women into breeders and drones, and those at the maid level are no longer supposed to be breeding at all.” (Shades of The Handmaid’s Tale?)

Actually, this is one of my pet peeves about discussing economic issues with most conservatives: yes, this division is real. They truly believe that some people have no business reproducing at all.

And this brings me to what I decided I wanted to say about this book.

Over the last decade or so, I have become progressively less “conservative” in the political sense. There are a few reasons for that. I’ve already noted on multiple occasions that the GOP has moved sharply to the right since I was a kid. I also have read a more broad range of books, which does tend to expand one’s view of the world.

But I would say that there are two factors that have pushed me away from conservatism. The first is that personally and professionally, I have become acquainted with more and more people who work damn hard for a living, and yet would be unable to survive or feed their children or access basic healthcare without the subsidies that our government gives them. And it’s not because they are lazy; they work harder than I do. It’s not because they are dumb either. And it isn’t because they are somehow immoral.

And that leads to the one single thing that has driven me away from American Conservatism in the 21st Century:

The things that my conservative friends and family say.

It isn’t just the regurgitation of talking points. It isn’t just belief against all evidence that a few more tax cuts will make things better. And it isn’t just the out-and-out contempt for the poor that has become ever more unmistakable.

It is that I have discovered that a basic assumption that I thought we shared isn’t something that they believe anymore.

See, I always assumed that basic justice in a wealthy nation - the most wealthy in history - meant that anyone who is willing to put in a hard 40 hour week of honest labor should be able to afford the basics to live and have a family.

It appears that my conservative friends and family no longer share that belief. How do I know this? Well, start looking at what they say about policy. It starts with “we need to cut benefits.” Why? Well there are too many freeloaders. Cut food stamps, cut housing subsidies, and for goodness’ sake, get rid of Obamacare! Okay, one then says, perhaps we should raise the minimum wage significantly so that wages replace the subsidies? Well, you can’t do that, they say, because prices will go up and there will be fewer jobs. (Although prices would rise less than they usually claim - labor is only one cost - and many jobs won’t go away because they still need to be done.) Or, in a better argument, they might argue against a single minimum for all areas. Fair enough, costs differ. So maybe we could just push for full unionization of service workers so they can actually bargain for a fair wage? Horrors no! We need to break the unions once and for all! How about we make employers cover sick leave and health insurance? No way! They can’t afford that! And on and on it goes.

And at some point the eyes glaze over, because there is never an idea that is acceptable. Only more tax cuts. (Just for fun, I will note that Kansas actually did take the step of drastically cutting taxes. No, it hasn’t created an economic boom. No, wages have not risen. But budgets have been gutted to the point where the Supreme Court court found the underfunding of schools to be in violation of the state constitution - because of the disproportionate effect on schools in poor areas. Oh, and they are closing schools early due to lack of money, and can’t find enough teachers now, because of low pay…) 

The bottom line remains: if you believe that a person willing to work hard deserves a wage that will support them and a family, then there are only a few ways to get it. You can pay them a fair wage (which will require either a higher mandated wage or a change to the power differential between employer and employee by unionization), or you can subsidize. The alternative is a return to the past, when the poor had astronomical  infant and child mortality rates due to malnutrition and lack of health care.

And I am coming to the inescapable conclusion that many of my conservative acquaintances would be just fine with that.

After all, they are so very quick to say that poverty is just caused by laziness, lack of ambition, and, of course, “people having babies they can’t afford.” Meaning, if you think about it, that Ehrenreich is correct, they have separated the world into Breeders and Drones.

I have mentioned that I grew up in a culture that believed that women were to stay home with the children. In other words, families were to survive on one income, because that’s what God wanted. Thus, in theory, this belief should mean that a single parent should be able to support a family. Apparently, not so much these days. What it turns out to mean is that there is the “godly” white middle class, and the “ungodly” poor people, who should just stop having sex and having babies and focus on serving the breeders.

A few things in summary that I think Ehrenreich states so well:

Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.

   

I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that “hard work” was the secret of success...No one ever said that you could work hard - harder than you ever thought possible - and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.

And later, she makes a point that I have been trying to make to my conservative acquaintances, friends, and relatives for some time:

I have seen the rise of language pulled straight from Ayn Rand about how there are the producers and the consumers - and the poor are just a bunch of consumers, living off the hard work of others. (And basically, this includes anyone who receives any sort of public benefit - except for the elderly, of course.) The problem is, this assumes that what a person has “earned” is what the market pays for their time. In reality, people trade their lives - time is a measure of our lives. And that time has a value, whether the market gives just compensation or not.

Ehrenreich puts it thus:

When someone works for less pay than she can live on - when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently - then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor to everyone else.

And it’s true. Employers are receiving more time than they are paying for. The slack is picked up in part by government subsidies - but also by the workers who endure hardship so the employer can pay less than a just wage. Once upon a time, I believed that there was a genuine agreement about the basic social contract: work hard, and you can support yourself and your family. We just disagreed about the best way to make that possible for everyone.

I no longer can legitimately believe that to be true.

There is so much more I would like to say about the issues raised in this book, from wages to housing to health care. Perhaps in the future. I’ll just end with the observation that - according to what my most conservative friends and relatives have said over the last few years - they truly believe that the poor need to have far less than they do now, both in income and relative power. This belief is so clearly based on contempt for the poor, and that attitude is what has driven me from my previous beliefs more than anything else. Look, I understand that these problems are hard to solve, and evade simple answers. I get that. But what I don't get is the idea that these problems aren't actually problems, and that our goal should be to take away what the poor have, rather than seek to elevate them. 

***

I went into a bit historical detail in my review of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems about how close the United States came to going communist in the early days of the 20th Century. Fortunately, the US - and Western Civilization in general - realized that there needed to be a fundamental change to the social contract. (I also discussed this a bit in The Taste of War in the context of the science of nutrition and the realization that it was lack of food and money, not lack of thrift that caused malnutrition.) 

I believe we are seeing the start of a similar revolution at this time as well. Both major parties are looking at a serious division, and at the heart of it is the realization that there is a problem with wages and housing that is causing the loss of a true middle class. In particular, middle class whites are staring at a sea change, where they are no longer guaranteed success, and might have to deal with the poverty that their brown skinned fellow citizens have known for decades. The response has been different depending party. For the Republicans, we have seen the rise of the Toupee, who has tapped into the fear and anger - and directed it at brown skinned people. He has sold the lie that if we just get rid of the brown skinned people, wages will rise. That this is both morally despicable and delusional should be evident. For the Democrats, they have a genuine democratic socialist in the mold of Sweden, calling for policies which would be a radical remake of our entire economic system.

Neither of these should be surprising.

When the social contract fails to work, people will want to change it. In the past, this often took a violent turn. One monarch assassinated another, and the wealthy of that society got whacked. More recently, there were the French Revolution and Communist revolutions around the world. It is easy to forget that these revolutions didn’t happen just for fun, and the idea that they happened just because the poor of those nations were a bunch of atheists either. The West has escaped those (except for France) for a simple and seemingly obvious reason: democracy has worked to renegotiate the social contract without requiring violence. What we are seeing now is the beginning of such a renegotiation. To quote Ehrenreich again:

Someday, of course - and I will make no predictions as to exactly when - they [the working poor] are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they are worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruptions. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.

If history has proven anything, it is that it is far better to deal with problems before they become violent. And let me add this: dissing the poor is a really bad way to start.

***

On that note, let’s talk just a bit about the OTHER GOP candidate. After I posted about his significant Dominionist connections, [link] a few uber-conservative supporters among my friends came back with “no, he’s just a ‘Constitutionalist.’” Which means that he believes that if the writers of the Constitution didn’t provide for government to do something, it cannot legally be done. Which means ZERO social programs. Yeah, that’s really going to be a good thing, right?

Oh, and as I pointed out, the head of Cruz’s Super PAC has actually said in public that God Himself says there should be no minimum wage, no progressive taxation, no capital gains tax, and no social programs. I am not making it up.

As I said, this is the Gospel of Ayn Rand, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

***

I mentioned the book of James at the outset, and I wanted to circle back to it a bit. I memorized the first chapter as a kid, and I know my Bible fairly well. Still, one brings different things to it at different times, and it was really interesting to re-read it.

One of the problems with how we tend to read our Bibles is that we look for little verse nuggets - proof texts - without necessarily reading the whole context at once. I think this is very much the case with James. Any good Evangelical knows that “faith without works is dead,” and that we should use the word of God as a mirror, putting it into practice, and that we should tame our tongues, count it as joy when we have trials, and so on.

But what is the context of all this?

It starts in chapter 1 verse 9, with a note that the poor have an elevated position in the Kingdom of God. (Echoing Christ’s teaching in Luke, by the way.) It continues with the admonition that true religion is helping widows and orphans. In chapter 2, it starts getting really interesting, with a whole discussion on not showing favoritism to the rich. (If you don’t believe this plagues modern churches, look at the socioeconomic status of the elder board.) And right in the middle of this discussion, there is the famous line that whoever keeps the law but misses at just one point is guilty of breaking it all. Guess what comes right before it? “Love your neighbor as yourself” in the context of favoring the wealthy. Wow. I hadn’t heard it taught like that before - but there it is. And guess what comes right after that? Faith and works. Here’s what it really says:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (2:14-17)

Wait a minute. Is that actually saying that the proof of our faith is how we deal with those who lack basic resources? I believe it is.

Skipping to the last chapter, James brings it home:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.  Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.  Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.  Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.  You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. (5:1-6)

I think we also need to realize that the Bible doesn’t just address individual sins. You can see the same calls for justice to the laborers in the Old Testament, where the nation and the leaders are condemned for the injustice. Here in a modern democracy, this implicates all of us, because we govern ourselves. And what we allow to happen to the working poor isn’t something we can blame on other people. Our votes - and how we speak and act toward the poor - implicate us.

One final bit is relevant I believe. In the discussion on favoritism in chapter 2, James notes that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and inherit the Kingdom, and then says “But you have dishonored the poor!” Some translations use “insulted.” From what I can tell, both senses are in the original Greek. It is an insult, but it is an insult directed at the honor of the poor.

Maybe like “lazy, stupid, immoral” and things like that. Or perhaps “consumers,” mooching off the wealthy “producers.” To me, this has gotten perilously close to the “useless eaters” that became the target of extermination.

Just saying. And James has no words of comfort for such people.

***

Just a note on some of the criticism the book has engendered. Much of it is the typical “well, you should have spent your money more wisely” sort of thing, which misses the author’s point that lack of resources force you to make bad choices. It is hard to eat frugally and healthfully without a stove and refrigerator. It is hard to get an affordable apartment if you can’t save first month’s rent and can’t wait 6 months for one to open up. (These are real life issues I have dealt with in cases.)

One that I do think warrants a look is the claim of a man who said that he tried it and was able to work his way into a higher paying position in a few months. (Namely, management.) Ehrenreich actually notes this tendency in her book, which is that the males are promoted to management. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why. Sexism is real, as is the belief that only men truly work to support families. Women are just in it for a hobby, so you can exploit them all you want. Seen that one in real life too. Not to mention the fact that female-dominated professions tend to have lower wages for the same level of education than male-dominated one. Gee, I wonder why?

It also ignores the obvious that our world needs, as my father-in-law likes to say, “fewer chiefs and more indians.” Not everyone can be a manager. Someone still has to do the work - and those people should be paid a just wage too.

***

I forgot to put this in when I posted it, but this great song, written by the recently departed David Bowie fits well: 

 

My eldest daughter is a huge Queen fan - and loves this song.

***

Since this is a politically charged post, please review my Comment Policy. In particular, I am not interested in the regurgitation of talking points. Such comments will be deleted. Feel free to go call a talk radio show or something.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling

Source of book: I own this.

I first read Captains Courageous in my high school days. In fact, it was one of the first in my collection of Readers’ Digest hardbacks. (Not condensed, this is a set of classics that they put out a while back.) I had looked forward to reading this to my kids for some time, as I enjoyed it a lot back in the day. 


First, the bad part. I had forgotten how racist Kipling was. Probably, when I read it, I didn’t notice as much, both because I was caught up in the story, and because I wasn’t as aware of the more subtle instances. Sure, there were too many uses of “n____r,” but Mark Twain and many others from the Victorian Era used the word. But I had forgotten - or not noticed - the general condescension toward all people of color. Even the Portuguese aren’t “real” whites in this book. So, there is that issue, which is a problem throughout Kipling - and a number of other Victorian authors to one degree or another. (And beyond. Conrad is problematic in some of his books for the same reason.) Realize this going in, and discuss it, I guess.

That out of the way, there is a good reason why I loved this book. It is a truly classic coming of age story, and one in which an arrogant young man learns to recognize true character.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, here is the setup: Harvey Cheyne, the teenaged son of a millionaire railroad magnate, is traveling with his mother to Europe on a steamer. He annoys the crew with his bragging, so when he bums a cigarette, they give him a super strong cigar. He can’t handle it, is sick, and falls overboard. He is rescued by Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman employed on the We’re Here, a schooner. After he comes to on board, he is unable to convince the crew that he is wealthy, so he has no choice but to take the captain’s terms: a job on the boat in exchange for a fair wage for a novice.

I’m not much of a fan of violence against children or teens, but I have to say, even now, there is something immensely satisfying when the captain, Disko Troop, bloodies Harvey’s nose. Harvey is a little snot, and he needs a comeuppance in the worst way. It is also clear that nothing is going to get through to him short of a complete reordering of his world.

Kipling spins a tale, then, of Harvey’s transformation as he learns what real work is, and of the nobility and honor that is contained in honest workers everywhere. Although Kipling retains his respect for the wealthy, he truly conveys in this book the truth that “the shoes don’t make the man.” And likewise that there is no shame in honest labor even if the pay is low.

The other thing that I love about this book is the characters. Disko Troop, of course, as the stern but steady captain. He is perhaps the most skilled captain in the fleet, and men - even his competitors - respect him. Harvey underestimates Disko - and Disko underestimates Harvey - not that anyone blames Disko. And both are able to admit their faults eventually. And there is Long Jack, who served on a man-of-war, and thus knows plenty of battle, even if his grasp of politics is a bit shaky. Dan, Disko’s son - about Harvey’s age - who does his best to give Harvey the inside information necessary to keep out of (at least most) trouble. Uncle Salters, Disko’s brother, who is both unlucky and unskilled. Taken on as a charity case, he is more at home discussing his own pet theories of agriculture. However, her has another advantage, in that he is good with another charity case on the boat: “Pennsylvania Pratt.” Pratt was formerly a minister, but went insane after his family was killed in the Johnstown Flood. Kipling deals gently with this gentle and troubled soul - as does the ship’s crew. There is the superstitious cook, African by way of Scotland. Alas, he gets the short shrift and a bit of condescension. And finally, there is Manuel, who, despite Kipling’s casual racism, comes off as one of the best characters after all. He is unquestionably the best fisherman on the boat, and has every bit the moral compass that Disko has, with perhaps more compassion. If I had to partner with one of the characters, it would be Manuel.

There are a few other interesting bits in this book. One whole chapter is devoted to the madcap railroad trip from California to Massachusetts that Harvey’s parents make after he is able to contact them on his arrival. Kipling researched this book extensively, both the sailing and fishing, and the railroad episode. It shows, as the specifics make sense (if you care about that sort of stuff…)

Another interesting thing about this book is how Kipling portrays the changing times. The sailboats are on their way out, as anyone can see. Steam is the future, just as it is the present on the railroads. Kipling doesn’t seem happy about the change, but he accepts it. Likewise, there is a changeover from British dominance to American. Kipling may have seen the writing on the wall, even though this was written at the peak of the British Empire. Things would change, and the English way of doing things would give way to the American.

One way this shows itself is in the story of Harvey’s father, who is a “self-made man,” in the American tradition. He started at the bottom, and worked his way up, becoming a millionaire through a combination of hard work, the ability to read people, and some good luck at crucial junctures. (This is both realistic and the way that even American mythology read back then. The idea that luck is irrelevant is a newer idea, probably connected with the need to give an explanation for the poverty of African Americans without having to admit systemic racism.)

Again, Kipling notes the change that is coming, even if he isn’t thrilled about it. He respects it, however, and gives the usual stiff upper lip.

Captains Courageous is one of Kipling’s best books, despite its flaws. The kids enjoyed it, and I enjoyed the re-read. Maybe in a few years I can introduce them to Puck of Pook’s Hill.

***

This is one of those books that puts me in mind of music. I’m a bit of a musical omnivore, so I have a few Country artists that I like. One of those is Clint Black, who is one of the better songwriters of his era. The best of his albums (in my opinion) is Nothing But The Taillights, which remains in my regular rotation.

A great track from that album is this one, which captures the ideal of the American egalitarian instinct. Never disrespect a man because of his occupation, and never give up looking for ways to keep on seeing our better days.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Othello

Properly performed, Othello should be a momentary trauma for its audience. ~ Harold Bloom

As in the case of King Lear, one walks out of a good performance of Othello feeling lacerated and even a bit ill. Bloom has it right. It is a trauma. Such is the power of Shakespeare’s tale of revenge, manipulation, and jealousy. Such also is the power of a villain who inspired a later writer in his depiction of the Devil himself, one who so deserves hatred, but who is so fascinating and convincing that one cannot entirely help rooting for his dastardly schemes for their perfect execution and infinite adaptability to circumstances even as one stares in horror at the ghastly consequences. You don’t want to look, but you can’t turn away.

I’m going to assume that the story of Othello is well known enough that spoilers shouldn’t be a problem. But if you are one of those who hasn’t seen this play - or at least read it - serious, go read it first. You won’t be disappointed.

I’ve reviewed a few plays from our local theater group, The Empty Space, before. (See reviews of Twelfth Night and The Glass Menagerie) It is the site of my first date with my wife, and features local actors like Brian Sivesind (Iago in this play) who we have watched since that time. This play runs one more weekend, should you get a chance to see it.

Othello is the titular character. A “Moor,” he is actually a black African, as the many lines about his color and features within the play reveal. He has risen to the rank of general in the Venetian army due to his outstanding qualities as a commander and soldier. Like many a soldier, he is a master of his craft, but more than a bit naive and awkward in civilian life. His tales of adventure have infatuated Desdemona, the daughter of a prominent senator, and she has thrown herself at him until he, grateful for her attentions, marries her secretly.

Meanwhile, Iago, Othello’s ensign, is fuming. He has devoted his career to war, and has been as devoted to Othello as any man. He has risked life and limb, and been with Othello through thick and thin. Othello, however, when given the opportunity to choose a new lieutenant, has skipped over Iago, and appointed the young Cassio, who Iago derisively dismisses as a mere “mathematician,” someone full of book learning, but lacking the experience of combat. Iago, who has hithertofore admired and loved Othello, feels deeply betrayed, and his love has turned to smoldering hate.

Iago is determined to have his revenge on Othello, and chooses to attack at the weak point, the secret marriage. Because Iago knows human nature, and has the wit and ingenuity to adapt his plans to the circumstances as they unfold, he is able to play upon the various characters in the play. Cassio is made drunk, and incited to a fight. Thinking Iago to be his friend, he takes the advice to apply to Desdemona to soften Othello’s heart after this disgrace. Meanwhile, Iago preys on Othello’s insecurities regarding his marriage, until Othello believes that his wife is having an affair with Cassio. Eventually, this being a tragedy and all, bloodshed and destruction result.

Whenever Shakespeare tackles racial issues, there tends to be an undercurrent of discomfort simply because he doesn’t rise above the anti-Semitism of his time. (Best case in point is The Merchant of Venice, but there are other places where Jews are played for laughs or stereotypes.) In a few other instances, the “exotic” dark skinned person is played according to type, the “other,” assumed to be sinister by nature. (This was the 1600s, so it’s what you got…)

Othello, however, takes a different tack. The Moor is another archetype we can see today: the sexually exotic brown skinned person. And, along with the dangerous virility, you have the fear of the enchanted White Girl absconding with him. (This fear of Black male sexuality drove the lynchings of the past and still haunt us today. Just hint to the average middle-class white woman that her daughter might date a black man, and watch for the flinch…)

Iago first appears on the scene to fan the flames of this fear, as he wakes up Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, to inform him that his daughter has run off with Othello. In one of the iconic lines of the play:

I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

I snicker when I hear this line, because in her college days, as a young and sheltered homeschooler, my wife was the one in her Shakespeare class who got the metaphor. Word to the wise: you never know with the “good girl” sorts…

And on that note, Brabantio is sure that Othello must have used some sort of black magic (in both senses of the word) to enchant Desdemona. After Othello claims that he won her fair and square, he replies:

A maiden never bold,        
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself. And she, in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, everything,
To fall in love with what she feared to look on?
It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err.
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practices of cunning hell
Why this should be. I therefore vouch again
That with some mixtures powerful o'er the blood
Or with some dram, conjured to this effect,
He wrought upon her.

Hearing or reading this is harsh - and timely. The very words found here have been at the heart of the pro-segregation. “Against all rules of nature.” “To fall in love with what she feared to look upon.”

And yet, it is clear from both Othello’s tale and from Desdemona’s actions throughout the play, it is she who is the aggressor in this relationship. He, in fact, was not inclined to marry before she sought him, and it sure looks as if she is the one who - for all intents and purposes - proposes. Later, it is she who keeps attempting to woo him to bed and to love, while he seems, well, less inclined.

But the seed has been planted. Othello is never quite secure in his deepest feelings that Desdemona loves naturally and purely.

Iago, of course, picks up on this dynamic, and uses it to his advantage. He hints and feints and dances around the issue of cuckoldry, all the while hinting that Othello could verify things for himself. To our modern ears, this doesn’t necessarily register. I puzzled a bit about it, and looked up a few commentaries, and I think I found a plausible answer.

It is clear from the play itself that Cassio has had no opportunity since the marriage to sleep with Desdemona. So any illicit activity must - by definition - have occurred before the marriage. Iago hints as much - and eventually invents a “sleep talking confession” from Cassio that confirms this.

Now, given the belief in Shakespeare’s time that virginity can be confirmed by an intact hymen, it would seem that Othello should, well, know if he got an untainted wife or not. But he doesn’t. And he seems terrified to make the trial and find out.

And then, there is a line at the end, when Othello, realizing how he has wronged his now-dead wife, says, “Cold, cold, my girl! / Even like thy chastity. -”

Shakespeare is nothing if not careful with his language. This is a devastating line. For whatever reason, Othello has never consummated this marriage (Iago’s taunt notwithstanding). Is he impotent? Does she not turn him on? Interesting question.

Given Iago’s perception and his words to Othello, I think he knows this is an unconsummated marriage, and he works that fact to perfection. Othello must, to save face, listen to Iago’s insinuations and feed his own fears rather than face what he cannot face.

Iago is, truly, one of the most fascinating villains ever. Unlike Macbeth, he isn’t conflicted. While Richard III is delicious, he is a fairly stock melodrama villain. (Physical deformity, evil cackle, the whole works…) Hamlet’s uncle is terrified of the afterlife. Most of the others in Shakespeare - and in classical tragedy are the playthings of the gods. Their fates are set and they act accordingly. Even Edmund (in King Lear) is logically selfish, if short-sighted and Machiavellian.

But Iago.

He takes delight in the pure ingenuity of his evil schemes. He may start out looking for a little (fairly harmless) revenge, but as things go on and the stakes - and the damage - get higher, he seems to marvel at his own wit and diabolic ideas, and seek the thrill of the descent into greater evil. He is the sort who kills just to escape boredom. And he is frightening because he is compelling. As I said before, you don’t want to watch him destroy everyone around him, but you sure as heck can’t look away.

Iago has reminded many of another villain, in a work written roughly 65 years later. In Paradise Lost (reviewed here), Satan himself reflects much of what Shakespeare put into Iago. (It has been said that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost - and there is no doubt that he is the best and most compelling character.) Just as Satan fumes that Christ has been promoted ahead of him, Iago is fueled by this jealousy and sense of betrayal. And as Iago destroys his “god,” Othello, so Satan seeks to destroy the great work of God himself.

There were a few of Iago’s lines which were so good that I remembered them to look them up after the play. The first is the way he does the lawyer thing and takes both sides of the same issue. Unlike a lawyer, however, he isn’t arguing for his clients, but against them. In talking to the disgraced Cassio after his dismissal for drunkenness, he talks of reputation thus:

CASSIO:
Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!

IAGO:
As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound. There is more sense in that than in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all unless you repute yourself such a loser. What, man, there are ways to recover the general again. You are but now cast in his mood, a punishment more in policy than in malice, even so as one would beat his offenseless dog to affright an imperious lion. Sue to him again and he’s yours.

This is to Iago’s interest at the time, of course, as he has to persuade Cassio to press his suit to Desdemona. Later, however, when addressing Othello, he must convince him that the mere rumor of his cuckolding is such a grave offense to Othello’s reputation that he must react with violence to recover it.

IAGO:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Tis something, nothing:
'Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

Iago uses his own “reluctance” to say more to bait Othello into assuming the worst, on mere insinuation. It is a masterful play, as a virtuoso plays on an instrument. As played by Sivesind in this production, Iago’s power was palpable. If we did not already know Desdemona was innocent, Iago would convince us of her guilt as he does Othello.

In the same dialogue, Iago delivers what is probably the most famous line in play. It is not an exaggeration to say that Shakespeare invented the English language. So many of our common phrases today - 400 years later! - originated with him. (This BBC article lists a few of them.)  This line is one of them.

IAGO:
Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger,
But, oh, what damn├Ęd minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts— suspects, yet soundly loves!

The green-eyed monster. What is Shakespeare referencing here, if not the cat, who plays with its prey? But Iago speaks not just of jealousy - although this is a singularly apt description of the way jealousy pretends to let its prey escape, only to pounce anew.

Iago is describing himself as well. He is indeed mocking the meat he is feeding on, toying with his victims with every bit as much slit-eyed malice as cat, snake, or demon ever did.

It is lines like this that are the reason Shakespeare has not merely lasted over 400 years, but has grown in reputation with time. Very, very few authors have so pierced the human psychology the way he did, and the fact that Iago is still terrifying and yet fascinating. One of the deeply disconcerting things for me was to realize that I love the Count in The Count of Monte Cristo for the same reasons that I hate Iago. Both use cunning to enable others to destroy themselves, and both are motivated by revenge for wrongs. Perhaps the only difference is that Iago’s revenge harms the innocent with the guilty.

This too is the power of this tale. We all are both Othello and Iago. We too can be so easily manipulated by our own fears, carried away by any idea which confirms that which we fear to believe. And likewise, our own pride can lead us to desire to be Iago, even while we lack the skills and opportunity.

Whatever the case, Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, and nearly everyone else is completely overmatched by Iago. He is above their weight class, and they never see the haymaker coming until it is too late.

Except for one person.

Iago has failed to account for the one who will eventually bring him down. His wife Emilia has been easily manipulated as long as she cannot see what Iago is doing behind the scenes. She unwittingly aids his schemes, but it is not through naivete so much as ignorance. While others cannot see, she just does not know.

But she is the closest to a real foil for Iago that there is in this play. Her banter with Iago shows she is no fool, and sees through him more than the others. She too has her opinions of jealousy - and men. She notes that Othello appears to be giving in to jealousy, and makes a snide comment about men.

EMELIA:
'Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food.
To eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
They belch us.

And then she echoes Iago’s speech on jealousy:

DESDEMONA:
Alas the day! I never gave him cause.

EMILIA:
But jealous souls will not be answered so.
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself.

Again, Shakespeare’s way with words. “Monster” in both, and “mocks the meat it feeds on” contrasted with “Begot upon itself, born on itself.”

In the final conversation between Emilia and Desdemona, Desdemona asks if women ever abuse their husbands with false accusations. Emilia replies in the affirmative - but also adds that (unlike Desdemona) there is a price for which she would cheat on her husband. (If someone offered her the world - the world is pretty darn big, after all.) Desdemona cannot even conceive that such a woman would exist. But she is still naively in love with her husband, and cannot truly know what Emilia knows. (Hey, she is married to Iago…) Her statement is amazing, and corresponds with a number of other proto-feminist statements by Shakespeare which take on the idea that women lack the fortitude and virtue that men have. 

EMILIA:
But I do think it is their husbands' faults
If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us. Or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite.
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them. They see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well, else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

Yes, women too have sense. And affections, desires for sport, and frailty. Just like the men. And sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

This speech is particularly poignant in light of the fact that Othello has slapped Desdemona in public - causing a great scandal.

In this particular production, all the fights and violence are done in slow motion. Really, an excellent choice, with appropriate lighting. It highlights the violence without making it comic.

And this leads to the final scene, and what I think was the most powerful moment in this production.

There are some interesting choices in the casting. Sivesind is a theater veteran - I’ve greatly enjoyed his work over the last 17 years. He’s been amusing as Bottom (my kids loved him in that production), and probably the best Jaques (from As You Like It) I have seen. But this was a command performance. He switched from personality to personality as the scene demanded, enough to deceive the other characters - and be worrisomely convincing to the audience. At the end, where he refuses to speak, even under threat of torture, it is obvious he will say nothing.

In contrast, Trayvon Trimble is a novice actor in his first major role, playing Othello. He does a fine job, but the choice makes for an interesting Method choice. The inexperienced actor playing straight sincerity matched with the veteran with all his wiles and cynicism. It fits well, as there is no denying that Trimble’s earnest virtue will be no match for Sivesind’s experienced malignancy. Great choice, and well directed.

Sivesind’s real-life wife Ellie plays Desdemona. In contrast to Brian, who has always played the cynic well, Ellie has done well as the naive and pure girl. (Her turn as Miranda in The Tempest a few years back was excellent.) In this production, she is entirely believable as a woman who has no guile and thus cannot imagine it exists in anyone else. Perhaps if she had been more like Beatrice, she may have defused Othello’s fears with her wit before they metastasized, but she has no such skills. Perhaps another factor here that works is the fact that Brian has his Method motivation in seeing his wife kiss another man. In any case, it works.

 Desdemona (Ellie Sivesind), Iago (Brian Sivesind), and Othello (Trayvon Trimble)
Promotional photo - The Empty Space

The rest of the cast is fine enough, with the others filling in their parts as the script demands. Cassio and Bianca were played by regulars in local theater with aplomb. 

 Bianca, Cassio's mistress (Rachel Sanders), Cassio (Carlos Vera) 
Promotional photo - The Empty Space

But one more deserves note, and it relates to that final scene referenced above.

At the end, Emilia realizes what her husband has done, and knows that her mistress and friend Desdemona is dead because of him. Iago has bet his game on his belief that she will, if pressed, shut up when commanded and/or threatened. She, however, is made of sterner - and more moral - stuff than he realizes. She determines to speak even though he has threatened to kill her. After she has spilled her guts, he runs her through with his dagger.

In this production, this is done in slow motion, and Emilia, played by Amy Hall, fixes Iago with such a look of hatred that time stood still for me. Oh. My. Goodness. That’s some acting chemistry. It’s the apotheosis of the play. Iago has won, as far as he knows. But Emilia can look him in the eye and without a word, undo him.

I’ve read Othello before, but this is the first time I have seen it live. Truly a powerful play, one of Shakespeare’s best - and darkest - works.

***

I've mentioned these before, but I need to add one to my collection. In researching my Shakespeare reviews - and aiding my enjoyment of the plays - I have relied on some outstanding reference works. 

The first is The Shakespeare Lexicon, published by Dover. This two volume set is an amazing resource on Shakespeare's language and its meaning in its time. 

The second is The Asimov Guide to Shakespeare, which is my go-to source for the historical and literary references in the plays. You want to know about the battle for Cypress between the Venetians and the Turks which is the setting for Othello? Asimov has it. 

The third, and newest addition is Harold Bloom's epic work, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which my wife found for me recently. I'm not sure I entirely agree with Bloom's thesis, or his denigration of earlier authors to prove it. However, his insight into the personalities of the characters in Shakespeare's works are worth reading in and of themselves. 

***

Hey, a chance to link some music! Giuseppe Verdi, arguably the greatest composer of Opera of all time, came out of retirement twice to write operas based on Shakespeare. The final one was The Merry Wives of Windsor, one of only two comedies he composed. The first, however, was what many consider to be his most revolutionary opera, Otello. Enjoy the overture.