Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Shakespeare on YooTube

George II, Henry V, and William the Conqueror.

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

That's a line from Henry VI, not Henry V, so the folks at the Federalist Society didn't have to say it at their Shakespearean fête for Andrew Card and John Yoo last Tuesday at the Cutler Majestic, which was titled "Shakespeare's Henry V and the Law and War."

But they might have kept it in mind, as it suggests the author they revere didn't return the favor. But then the Federalists also never seemed to consider whether Shakespeare, though able to parse an argument with the precision of Oliver Wendell Holmes, could really be interpreted through, or even constrained to, the prism of jurisprudence. Indeed, you got the sense as the evening proceeded that it had never occurred to these august professionals that Henry V might instead be holding a prism up to them.

But then the Federalist Society seems confused about a lot of things these days. It was founded in the Reagan years to provide cover for trendy "isms" like "originalism" and "libertarianism" - which have since come up a cropper in the reality-based community. Bush v. Gore and Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission revealed "originalism" as a transparent sham, and the recent financial crisis shredded the pretensions of libertarianism. But shorn of its intellectual pretexts, the Federalist Society still soldiers on, just like nothing's wrong, as a kind of Slytherin-style neocon frat for the likes of Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, John G. Roberts, and Clarence Thomas.

I know - that's quite a rogues' gallery, and when you consider the Federalists think of themselves as disciples of James Madison, you kind of throw up in your mouth a little. But like a lot of people, I've got a jones for evil as an aesthetic, particularly intellectual evil; I get a kind of sleazy thrill whenever I'm in close proximity to articulate apologists for atrocity. Indeed, my guest list for the perfect dinner party would probably include the likes of John Yoo, Henry Kissinger, and Pope Benedict.

So I had to be at the Federalist show. I knew their claim that Shakespeare could serve as a source for some sort of debate over war crimes was preposterous, but the evening promised not just Andrew Card, Dubya's chief of staff, but also John Yoo, Mr. Mistoffelees himself, the legal mind behind Guantánamo and so much more, in the flesh. And I don't think I was alone in finding him an irresistible draw. The Federalists themselves seemed startled at the size of the crowd their event attracted; they've been doing these Shakespearean shindigs for years, but had never scored a hit like this one. But they had some inkling as to the reason for their sudden popularity; cannily, they kept their star under wraps for a big reveal late in the show.

So - what's Yoo like in person?

Well, anyone hoping for the thick atmosphere of jovial, self-satisfied evil that steams off Henry Kissinger was bound to be disappointed. Yoo isn't particularly charismatic, although he's a coolly accomplished charmer, and knows when to be self-deprecating, even self-effacing. Indeed, he's oddly blank, if intriguingly sleek, with a sense of the agile versatility one expects in a digital utensil from Apple; in short, not so much Old Scratch as Old Scratch's iPad.

And he did prove quite the serviceable villain, as Edgar might have said, during the Bush administration's strange, eventful history; Yoo crafted secret memos justifying detention, extradition, and torture of "enemy combatants," as well as the arguments behind what amounted to our modern surveillance state. His stated excuse for these assaults on the Constitution and Geneva Conventions was a novel legal gambit, largely of his own devising, called "The Theory of the Unitary Executive." This "theory" essentially placed the President above any check or balance, or indeed above any constraint or law whatsoever, in time of "war" (a state which the President could declare himself), and its intellectual shelf life was short once it had been fully revealed. Indeed, when pressed, Yoo was forced to admit his theory gave the President the power to bury people alive and crush the testicles of innocent children.

Now to my mind, bending Shakespeare to the service of this kind of thinking is an atrocity in its own right. But I was still game, in a sporting kind of way, to entertain a little sympathy for the devil, largely because the Federalists had enlisted a few libruls to speak on its panel and act in its drastically abridged version of Henry V. I didn't even mind that director Steven Maler had tailored his text to avoid too deeply discomfiting his guests of honor. After all, I figured, if you're going to get Goering and Goebbels to your production of The Merchant of Venice, you've got to play Shylock a certain way.

Of the performance itself, let no more be said; there's a popular impression that lawyers are akin to actors, but based on this experience, I'd say that may be a delusion. Fans of bipartisanship can take heart, though, in the fact that the Democratic actors were just as bad as the Republican ones. Here and there hints of actual personality flickered in the readings of J.W. Carney, Jr. , and Patti B. Saris. And there was one exception to the general rule: Kerry Murphy Healey brought real wit to the role of Katherine in the play's charming final scene, and this seemed to loosen up Jay B. Stephens - who had clearly been cast as Henry because of his resemblance to Dubya - who began to have a little fun, too. The legalese of the period was spoken clearly, that's for sure - and there was a kind of meta-wit in some sequences that may have been unintentional, but was nonetheless striking; the opening scenes, for instance, in which the archbishops and advisors dream up convoluted rationales for Henry's invasion, are usually played as satire; here they were delivered with naive earnestness. After all, this is what lawyers know; it's what they do.

Of course no one in the audience expected a viable theatrical performance here; but did the intellectual performance have to be so mediocre, too? Because it turned out there was really nothing to be said for Mr. Yoo's "theories" and memos, either. Or at least Yoo didn't really say much of anything in their defense. Of course by now his "unitary executive" snow job is widely scorned, and his memos have been repudiated by the executive branch and invalidated by the Supreme Court. The party's over, and to his partial credit, you could tell he knew it; he didn't bother with any kind of coherent justification for his conduct or his career. Now and then he attempted to put over the half-baked idea that the Bush administration was pursuing a moral policy - that somehow, unfortunately, affronted normal moral sensibilities; this was a transparently self-defeating ploy. More often, Yoo deftly dodged and parried like the clever Harvard grad he is, citing (as shady neocons tend to do) the malfeasances of liberal icons like Lincoln and FDR (and, of course, "Obama the First") to distract us from his lack of coherence.

His attempts to link his situation to Henry V were likewise unconvincing. Yoo tried to claim that Henry was unconstrained by "international law" - even though he'd just heard a long first act in which Henry solicited permission for his invasion from the Church, the international institution which was basically the UN of its day. Yoo likewise stumbled in his insistence that Henry was pursuing a moral rather than a legal case for war. That, of course, is what Henry says. But is that what Shakespeare says? Few scholars would agree; indeed, when Henry insists to his men (while disguised) that the king's cause is just and his quarrel honorable, he gets the unvarnished reply "That's more than we know." But seemingly John Yoo knows more than Shakespeare.

Fantasy vs. reality: George II as he was, and how his fans still see him.

But then again, how could Yoo defend the "theory of the unitary executive"? It amounts to "The President can do whatever he wants, because of, you know, terrorism and stuff." It's so dumb it makes your head hurt. But panelist Andrew Card (there were several former Bush appointees onstage) seemed unaware of its stupidity; he monotonously insisted that 9/11 "changed everything," although how (or why) this should be so, he couldn't explain; he seemed to imagine that the fact that he (and his whole incompetent administration) had been stunned by 9/11 meant that it counted as some sort of transformative moral and legal event. I suppose Card could be forgiven his moral tunnel vision; after all, it was he who tried to rouse Bush from his absorption in My Pet Goat (above) with the admonition "America is under attack!" (It famously took the President seven minutes to respond, and I don't think he then cried, "Once more into the breach, dear friends!"; "Once more into Air Force One, dear friends!" was probably more like it.)

But the central problem with Card's view, of course, is that however shocking the attack on the World Trade Center was, terrorism had existed long before 9/11; it existed in FDR's and Lincoln's day, and in James Madison's day; it existed in Shakespeare's day. The Constitution was devised in times of terrorism, and the consensus regarding its interpretation was achieved in times of terrorism. There was no need for Yoo's theory, and, in fact, claims that the abuses it unleashed protected us from various acts of terrorism have fallen apart under serious scrutiny.

The other neocon panelist on view - Bernard J. Dobski, of Assumption College in Worcester - was if anything less impressive, placidly babbling in a convoluted manner about just war theory, and proclaiming that Henry V "founded the modern British state." (Uh-huh. Quick, cue the War of the Roses!) But then the sole invited librul, Suffolk's brilliant Michael Avery, briefly turned everything around with a calm diatribe that left Yoo and Card's house of cards in ruins; by the time he was done, their flimsy arguments littered the field like the French at Agincourt. I think even if I weren't in agreement with Avery's politics, I'd have been impressed by his devastating competence - and the Federalists were, too; you could watch the color drain from their faces as he spoke (and the audience cheered, myself included).

For a moment, it looked like a real debate might begin, as the mask of courtesy dropped (I confess at that point I was hissing Yoo), even as the Federalists begged for "civility." But really - how do you remain civil with someone who argues for crushing children's testicles? ("So glad you could come!") Nevertheless, order was restored, and the faintly ghoulish garden party ground on.

Little that was enlightening ensued - although I do want to say a few more things about the very pretext of the evening, which everyone onstage seemed to think was a valid one. It was, after all, a kind of reprise of a famous debate in D.C. in 2004, and by now the Beltway identification of George II with Henry V has probably achieved the status of conventional wisdom.

But what is this wisdom based on? There are parallels, yes, between Harry and Dubya in terms of biography - both led wasted youths, both followed in their failed fathers' footsteps, both led foreign wars of dubious justification. But the idea that Henry V the play justifies, or even illuminates, the actions of the Bush administration is patently untenable. Indeed, on a point-by-point basis, there's almost no correspondence between the actions of Shakespeare's Henry V and our George II. Harry, of course, led his troops into battle personally (while Dubya's never seen combat) - and though Shakespeare dramatizes his underlings attempting to manipulate him, we never feel that Harry is out of touch, or in a bubble. Likewise Harry makes no claims to his nation that prove untrue - even Shakespeare would never have been able to hang onto audience sympathy through a scene like that - and of course there's no secretive vice presidential figure with an agenda of his own on the scene, indeed no one with power or connections to rival Harry's. In short, there's no Lord Cheney in Henry V. And while Harry makes plenty of ethically questionable decisions - he threatens townspeople with rape, and executes prisoners - these actions all occur on the fly, in the thick of battle. In short, they have obvious "sunset clauses," and however they complicate our view of Harry, to interpret them as a basis for jurisprudence is patently absurd.

Which brings me to a deeper problem with the Federalists' conceit: Shakespeare with the human bits cut out has no real meaning. Director Maler edited most everything (like the death of Falstaff) that couldn't be crushed a little into a legalistic brief; as a result, this Henry V lasted only about an hour. To be fair, Maler left in events like Henry's execution of his old drinking buddy Bardolph, but these were stripped of their thematic salience - in a word, that the war had made Harry inhuman. As a result, the sense that Shakespeare was mounting a complicated critique of his hero, that he was deconstructing his barnburner even as its flames grew brighter, was completely lost. But then Shakespeare's basic method would of course be a mystery to the legal mind: no contract could ever operate like Shakespeare's texts, which are often structured to point to at least two contradictory conclusions at the same time. This, of course, is central to his greatness; but it's also what makes his style the antithesis of legalism. You can't "debate" his competing perspectives; they can't be synthesized; they're embedded within each other.

Perhaps as a result of this peculiar form of literary blindness, the Federalists turned Henry V precisely on its head. I got the impression that they had the idea that somehow Shakespeare meant for Harry's military success to demonstrate the propriety of his various ethical lapses, that the Bard, and even God, agreed with his cause. But instead, Harry's crimes and misdemeanors are clearly meant to complicate and undermine, and perhaps even overthrow, our impression of his heroism. Make no mistake, the St. Crispin's Day and Harfleur speeches are the best pieces of battle propaganda ever written, combining as they do both masculine competition and community in flights of unparalleled poetry. Yet while their rhetoric rallies the grunts on the ground, it doesn't really connect to them; when Harry claims to his troops that their sacrifices will "gentle" their condition - that is, make them gentlemen - we and they know he doesn't mean it; it's just bullshit, only bullshit at a pitch that only Shakespeare could achieve. Don't get me wrong, it's stirring stuff - that's why it's neocon catnip; it's just not a brief for the War on Terror. And Shakespeare would have scorned the idea that it was, and would have laughed at the claim that his genius could possibly be in consonance with big, dumb, Jeff-Jacoby-style slogans (yes, the neocon mouthpiece was onstage, too) like "God is on our side!" or "The ends justify the means!" That kind of thing belongs in the cable series Band of Brothers - a show that the panelists seemed far more familiar with than Henry V. Maybe the Federalists should stick to a script from HBO next time.