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SLAYING PENTHEUS

BARACK OBAMA AND THE PIOUS MOB

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By Michael Peter Bolus

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The Montréal Review, January 2017

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Death of Pentheus, torn apart by Bacchantes.

Fresco on the central wall of the exedra of House of the Vettii in Pompeii. 60—79 CE. Pompeii, House of the Vettii (Pompei)

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It is an ancient tale, born thousands of years ago in a remote and shadowy epoch — a story which would be codified many centuries later by the great poets and dramatists who helped compel their culture’s emergence from a frightening and dark age.

Dionysos, the ancient Greek god of wine and revelry, arrives in Thebes and demands both acknowledgment and acquiescence from human supplicants. But when the jealous, vengeful god finds his divinity denied by the arrogant King Pentheus, he quickly marshals the primal energies of his followers and exacts the most horrific of punishments.

The story was dramatized for the stage most famously in The Bacchae, the masterful Tragedy by the Greek dramatist Euripides. It was first performed in Athens in 406 B.C.E. For much of the preceding one-hundred years, Athens enjoyed cultural, economic, and military hegemony throughout the Mediterranean world, but was now in the midst of a self-conscious decay. Euripides, arguably the most subversive of the Athenian playwrights, was at the forefront of confronting Athens’s moral and political disintegration, and was roundly criticized for a perceived lack of loyalty and patriotism. Euripides, in turn, decided to leave Athens in self-imposed exile in 408 B.C.E., ostensibly distraught over the corrupted state of Athenian society, and its perceived failure to sufficiently acknowledge his contributions to its exalted cultural status. Two years later, Euripides died in Macedon, and The Bacchae was posthumously produced in Athens, where it won first prize in competition at The Festival of Dionysos. 

There is a startling and haunting image at the center of The Bacchae: Pentheus emerges from his palace — he is now dressed as a woman, in a flowing dress, and a long wig of curling blonde locks. He is dazed and possessed, feminized and subjugated by the sensual Dionysos, who has usurped his power, and subverted his authority in the most public of forums.

Pentheus moves gently, and speaks softly, while Dionysos observes that he now looks like one of the daughters of Cadmus, the original founder of Thebes. The public humiliation intensifies as Dionysos helps Pentheus daintily adjust his straps, gown, and dangling curls before Pentheus coyly asks if he looks more like his mother or his sister.

The events leading up to this moment are narratively straightforward, but thematically complex. Dionysos, the son of the great god Zeus and Semele, a mortal woman, arrives in Thebes to assert his rightful place amongst the pantheon of the Olympian gods. His followers are known as Bacchants — women who have been compelled into an orgiastic frenzy by the divine and seductive power of the young god. They have been rendered ecstatic, rapturous, irrationally and completely subservient to Dionysos, blindly loyal to his godly transcendence and wholly pious in their unexamined reverence. Their primal devotion to Dionysos is hypnotic, passionate, visceral — completely devoid of reason or rationality.

Upon his arrival in Thebes, Dionysos encounters Pentheus, the embodiment of the cerebral, humanistic, cosmopolitan man of the material world. Pentheus’s proud, defiant refusal to acknowledge Dionysos’s divinity is rooted in his intellect’s inability and/or unwillingness to surrender his powers of reason with regard to his understanding of Man’s place in the universe and the nature of the gods. The confrontation between divine and earthly stubbornness results in Dionysos punishing Pentheus’s defiance. By deploying his raw, hypnotic, and brutal power, Dionysos overtakes, subjugates, and publicly humiliates the arrogant King before his subjects.

The moment is astounding on a number of levels: the jarring juxtaposition of the defiantly confident Pentheus, who we meet at the top of the play, against the now-subservient and emasculated King, at the hands of a divine vengeance, serves to highlight the nature of the power dynamics which led to this defining encounter. The play has been interpreted in many ways, but central to any informed exegesis is, in the words of William Arrowsmith, a violent confrontation between the following dichotomies: “reason vs. the irrational; aristocratic skepticism vs. popular piety; civilized order and routine vs. the eruptive force of nature and life.”

The story ends with the Bacchants — led by Agave, Pentheus’s own mother —  whipped into a primal, animalistic frenzy by the divine powers of Dionysos, and ripping Pentheus to shreds with their bare hands. It is interesting to note that the Bacchants, while under the irrational, hypnotic spell of a divine spirit, align themselves with the newly-minted god and the violent currents of their collective Id, rather than their own King, who they demonize as a malignant force amongst them.

Barack Hussein Obama was born on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His mother, Ann Dunham, a white woman from Kansas, and his father, Barack Obama Sr., a black man from Kenya, were married on February 2, 1961. Both were cultured and well-educated, and went on to earn graduate degrees — Dunham a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Hawaii in 1992; Obama Sr. a M.A. in Economics from Harvard University in 1965. After the dissolution of his parents’ marriage in 1964, young Barack was taken to Indonesia by his mother, where he was educated between the ages of six and ten, first at a private Catholic school, then at a public Indonesian school, both supplemented by his mother’s rigorous home-school regimen which was rooted in the Calvert School tradition.

In 1971, Obama returned to Hawaii where he lived with his maternal grandparents and attended a private preparatory school from which he graduated in 1979. Later that year, he moved to Los Angeles to attend Occidental College, where he made his first public forays into politics with strong denunciations of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and passionate arguments in favor of the burgeoning divestment movement.

From Occidental, Obama transferred to Columbia University in New York City, where he studied Political Science, International Relations, and English Literature. Upon graduating in 1983, Obama got his first taste of community organizing, campaigning on behalf of the city’s crumbling public transit system. This was followed by the Directorship of the Developing Communities Project, a community organization in Chicago sponsored by several local Catholic parishes, where he worked on a variety of social and educational programs designed to support underserved urban communities.  

These years were peppered with intermittent travel to Europe, Kenya, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India.

In 1988, Obama entered Harvard Law School where he was elected President of the Harvard Law Review and served as a research assistant to the highly-esteemed constitutional law professor, Laurence Tribe, who once said of Obama, “He displayed the ability to see a multifaceted problem in all of its complexity…he certainly saw every side of everything – and deeply. He really has deep insight into a number of things, including physics, and history, and political science, and seemingly a lot of law, though this was before he [finished] law school.”

The purpose of the preceding, potted biography of Obama’s early life should be self-evident: regardless of one’s political persuasion, thoughts on his character, moral integrity, social agenda, and/or preparedness for assuming the nation’s highest office, it is clear that Barack Hussein Obama is a man of the world, familiar with — most likely informed by — a wide variety of cultural, racial, religious, social, political, literary, scientific, and geographical influences. He is the very definition of the Cosmopolitan Man, unbound by the restrictions of provincial chauvinisms — this is not necessarily a virtue, nor is its opposite necessarily a deficiency, but it is an apt description insofar as these types of generalizations apply.

From the moment Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee for President of the United States in 2008, his worldliness, sophistication, and hybrid background were used as weapons against him — evidence that he was not one of us, but, rather, an exotic “Other” (to use that now-ubiquitous term meaning a state of being alien to the socio-political identity of the hegemonic culture; the opposite of the Self, of Us; belonging to a subordinate group that is foreign to the codified norms with which we identify).

Many of the criticisms were silly and benign: conservative radio and television personalities like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingram, for example, ridiculing Obama’s request for Dijon mustard on his hamburger. But even such trivial, mocking observations were rooted in a desire to cast Obama as different, both culturally and socially. Hannity’s patronizing use of the word “fancy” to describe Obama’s burger was designed to mark him as an “elite,” which in modern political jargon is a harsh term of derision, meaning someone who is arrogant, who harbors phony pretensions and a false sense of superiority (perhaps ironically, the true definition of the term — careful selection and the maintenance of high standards — is one that former leaders of the modern conservative movement would have publicly and wholeheartedly championed). But in the face of Obama’s resounding victory in the 2008 election, the default response in right-wing circles featured a strong reliance on the tribalistic idioms which superficially define certain subcultures and sociological demographics. The attack on a newly-elected President’s burger choices was akin to an attack on someone questioning the virtue of, say, John Wayne’s screen persona — in other words, it was viewed as a defense of qualities regarded as representative of uniquely American traditions and values.

But not all the criticisms were so ostensibly mild.

In the run-up to the 2008 election, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin invoked a much harsher and slanderous tone. Referring to Obama’s loose relationship to Bill Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground (a self-described revolutionary organization which had conducting a bombing campaign against public buildings in the late 1960s/early 1970s in protest of the Vietnam War), Palin insisted that Obama was “pallin’ around with terrorists.” Although Ayers had since become a well-respected educator, author, and theorist in curriculum development and elementary instruction, the use of the word “terrorist,” especially in a post-9/11 environment which featured national security as a top priority, obviously provoked strong and visceral reactions. To apply it to a presidential candidate with brown skin and an odd, foreign-sounding name that includes the Middle Eastern appellation, “Hussein,” was an aggressively combustible move, one which predictably stoked increased fear, suspicion, and contempt. For now Obama was being drawn not merely as different and foreign, but actively hostile toward American lives, property, and political institutions. When one attendee at a Palin rally shouted “Kill him!” — in reference to Obama — one wondered to what degree he was speaking for many more Americans with less aggressively vocal demeanors (according to the Secret Service, death threats against President Obama increased exponentially when compared to those levied against previous Presidents).

The mob-like atmosphere of many of these rallies betrayed a latent but unmistakable tendency toward violence — that brand of aggression which lies dormant, but is unleashed when the individual is allowed to be subsumed by the eclipsing energy of a riled mass. The mob provides cover to the individual by wrapping him/her in a cloak of anonymity, with a now all-encompassing group-think emerging as the animating life-source driving the aggression.

Palin is a key figure in the galvanization of the base and primal forces which stood steadfast in their rabid opposition to Obama and his socio-political agenda. Her self-cultivated image as a product of small-town, “traditional American values,” and her willingness to refer to a particular portion of the American electorate as “real Americans” — in apparent opposition to Obama and his urban-heavy constituencies — were well-suited to her newly-acquired role as spokesperson for increasingly disenfranchised swaths of the nation; Americans who resented the profound cultural shifts which they interpreted as an assault on their traditions, beliefs, and way of life — a way of life which prizes insularity and a perceived purity.

Palin’s broad appeal was not built on reasoned argument, rational thought, or practiced logic — it was built upon sweeping emotional currents dictated by instinct and decidedly visceral responses to real-world transformations. The posture was aggressive and defensive, much like a threatened animal in the wild. The use of the animal analogy is neither dismissive nor arbitrary — Palin herself invoked the animal imagery when describing herself and her like-minded female followers. The term “Mama Grizzly,” a self-imposed term of endearment, was repeated ad infinitum during the campaign, and hinted at the frighteningly violent and unremitting response of a female grizzly bear protecting her cubs. Just like the frenzied Bacchae destroying the perceived threat, the Mama Grizzly acts on nothing but instinct when tearing apart the interloper, whom she can only regard as a danger within the rules and boundaries of her natural domain. Obama and his “ilk” represented the threat — the response of the Mama Grizzlies was swift and harsh.

In the spirit of the Dionysian Bacchants, a part of the assault was religious in nature. Questioning the foundations of Obama’s faith became an integral component of the fierce resistance to his political rise. Palin, and the self-proclaimed pious Christians who rallied against him, were openly skeptical of his religious affiliations. While his alignment with Christian organizations and consistent church-going were well-documented, the character, authenticity, and legitimacy of his beliefs came under assault. His association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, became fodder for attacks when Wright was found to have thundered during a sermon, “Not God Bless, America! God damn, America!” The implication was that Wright (Obama’s spiritual leader), and Obama by extension, were inherently and irredeemably anti-American. Obama’s attempts to explain — if not defend — his church in general, and Wright’s comments in particular, in a subsequent speech on race relations, did nothing to assuage the deep fears and suspicions harbored by significant portions of the American electorate (many of whom still believe that Obama is actually a secret Muslim dispatched to fundamentally subvert our national character, a charge so absurd and demonstrably false that this writer will not surrender space to address it).

Meanwhile, a tape surfaced of Thomas Muthee, a Kenyan pastor who claimed to have defeated a witch in his hometown of Kiambu, praying over Palin at the Wasilla Assembly of God Church, and calling upon Jesus to both help Palin win Alaska’s Governorship and protect her from “the spirit of witchcraft.” Despite the fevered, euphoric pitch of the ceremony, and Muthee’s own questionable past, Palin’s supporters remained unfazed and fiercely loyal to the Vice-Presidential candidate, and continued to draw clear distinctions between the purity of Palin’s faith and what they regarded as the seemingly corrupted lineage of Obama’s. 

The volcanic energy of this pious mass was formidable. And while Obama handily won the election against John McCain and Palin, the oppositional forces, fueled by a kind of stubborn certainty that’s indicative of willful, unapologetic provincialism and rabid tribalism, proved unrelenting in their goal to destroy this upstart interloper.  

Another part of the assault relied upon traditional memes regarding “strength” and “manhood.” The primal, animalistic currents which inform stereotypical notions of masculinity were appropriated to ridicule, by contrast, Obama and his supposedly reactionary posture toward the rest of the world. His subtle and nuanced responses to perceived threats, and his alleged acquiescence to ostensible enemies, were offered as evidence of his weak and feckless nature. Like the feminization of Pentheus at the hands of Dionysos, the right’s attempt to emasculate Obama was designed to humiliate and subjugate him in the eyes of a gullible public weened upon simplistic and pseudo-archetypal understandings of manhood.

The attempts at emasculation were manifold.

Allen B. West, the one-term Congressman from Florida’s 22nd Congressional district, for example, turned the Obama-shaming campaign into a cottage industry of sorts, suggesting through a variety of social media outlets that Obama was not “man enough” to be our Commander-in-Chief. By posting a series of side-by-side visual comparisons of Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin (and other world leaders), West attempted to portray Obama as weak, soft, deferential, even girlish. In one we see a shirtless Putin riding a horse, with the caption, “Putin Rides Horses,” juxtaposed against a nerdy-looking Obama riding a boxy bicycle wearing a safety helmet, with the caption, “Obama rides girly bicycle with helmet.”  In another we see Putin throwing a competitor on a Judo mat with the caption, “Putin: black belt in judo,” next to a photo of Obama daintily recoiling at a martial arts demonstration, with the caption, “Obama winces like a girl at the sight of Judo.” It should be noted that the latter photo features a dialogue bubble issuing from another spectator which reads, “Manly Michelle doesn’t flinch at all” — this, of course, feeds another disturbing trope deeply embedded in traditional portrayals of subverted manhood; namely, the subjugation of a male at the hands of his own wife. This idea is reinforced with yet another questionable juxtaposition of images: one of a young and demure Lyudmila Putina (Putin’s wife of thirty-one years — they divorced in 2014), with the caption, “Putin married this soft-spoken beauty,” against a decidedly harsh and unflattering photo of Michelle Obama, with the caption, “Obama…well…”

While the sophomoric superficiality of West’s examples defy any reasoned, rational, mature response, the images featured in the posts do strike at the time-honored expectations of a practiced machismo — the attempts at public emasculation are rooted in an entrenched misogyny which demands strict adherence to traditional notions of gender roles, and the manner in which the masculine and feminine are distinguished and manifested. Palin's description of Obama’s dungarees as “Mom jeans” only drives home the general point.

By stark contrast, an interesting example of the right wing’s ideal man and patriot was manifested by Christopher Kyle (1974 —2013). Kyle, a Navy Seal, accomplished sniper, and Iraq War veteran, was author of the best-selling autobiography, American Sniper, and the subject of the Clint Eastwood film of the same name. To the pious mass, Kyle represented everything that Obama did not: a man of action, not a cerebral egghead; a steadfast patriot, not a nuanced “man of the world”; a devout Christian, not a Muslim-sympathizer; a decisive leader, not a deliberative intellectual; a brave soldier defending “American values,” not a wishy-washy cosmopolitan willing and interested in considering all sides of complex issues before codifying an articulable position. Kyle saw the world, and his place in it, in crystal clear, black-and-white terms: Good vs. Evil. Moral vs. Immoral. Christian vs. Non-Christian. Right vs. Wrong. Obama, by contrast, understood the world to be a place of messy ambiguities, and its conflicts rooted in gray, moral complexities, with no easy, pure, or definitive solutions.

In a short but especially penetrating essay in The Guardian, Lindy West outlines the frightening pathologies at the root of Kyle’s character. West writes, “In his memoir, Kyle reportedly described killing as ‘fun’, something he ‘loved’; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a ‘bad guy.’ ‘I hate the damn savages,’ he wrote. ‘I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.’ He bragged about murdering looters during Hurricane Katrina, though that was never substantiated.” 

And of the moral and emotional ambiguities found in Eastwood’s film, West wonders to what degree the pious mass might misinterpret the ideas being explored as merely simple, self-evident, and familiar platitudes. She writes, “much of the US right wing appears to have seized upon American Sniper with similarly shallow comprehension – treating it with the same unconsidered, rah-rah reverence that they would the national anthem or the flag itself. Only a few weeks into its release, the film has been flattened into a symbol to serve the interests of an ideology that, arguably, runs counter to the ethos of the film itself. How much, if at all, should Eastwood concern himself with fans who misunderstand and misuse his work? If he, intentionally or not, makes a hero out of Kyle – who, bare minimum, was a racist who took pleasure in dehumanising and killing brown people – is he responsible for validating racism, murder, and dehumanisation? Is he a propagandist if people use his work as propaganda?”

Like the mob, Kyle was driven by an unshakeable certainty; a certainty in himself, his belief systems, and his subsequent actions — all of which he justified with an easy, if unexamined, clarity of thought. But even cursory readings of Kyle’s own words in American Sniper reveal a much darker, troubling reality. The complete lack of self-reflection, absence of nuanced thinking, and apparent ignorance of historical context would be disturbing enough if harbored or deployed in a manner that was devoid of any real-world consequences. But Kyle was a self-professed killer, and it seems the U.S. Military, and the adulation of tens of millions of Americans, provided him with a legitimizing forum for his violent pathologies, profound ignorance, cultural chauvinism, and bald-faced racism.

The simplistic and naive world-view espoused by Kyle and his admirers has been disseminated by high-profile political figures for generations. During the Obama administration, these two-dimensional, binary characterizations intensified. Mike Huckabee, for example, former Governor of Arkansas, failed Presidential candidate, and ubiquitous political pundit, has likened a preferred American foreign policy to attitudes found in the aforementioned John Wayne films. He once observed that Wayne (we may assume that he means the characters Wayne portrayed in Hollywood movies) would never have had an issue with clearly identifying and dispatching the “bad guys” — this is a relatively accurate assessment, as the generic Westerns in which Wayne appeared, and which made him a star, issued from a form of theatre and literature known as melodrama. One of the key characteristics of melodrama is the creation of a clear line of demarcation which separates good from bad, right from wrong, hero from villain. This absence of ambiguity is attractive to the mob, because not only does it relieve it of the responsibility of focused, critical thinking, and the sometimes difficult process of self-examination, it actually rewards it. There can be no hesitation, no prolonged deliberation, no lack of…certainty. It is no accident that the Western has emerged as the Hollywood genre most inextricably link to our self-conception as Americans, because it features those characteristics we’d like to think are emblematic of our national character: bravery, self-reliance, strength, industry, faith in God, moral fortitude, and an unflinching loyalty to one’s community (read tribe). To oppose these things is an affront to God himself, and the pious mob will have none of it.

One can view the educational videos produced and distributed by LearnOurHistory.com — Huckabee’s company which specializes in “unbiased” history lessons for children — to examine this melodramatic, dangerously over-simplified world-view in action. In what can only be charitably described as laughably reduced, sanitized, provincial takes on historical events, LearnOurHistory.com is, in actuality, a blatant attempt to force-feed impressionable minds a particular ideology, rather than teach them how to think critically. Once again, the mob relishes this version of events, because it requires no effort; it offers only the opportunity to relish in the comforting certainty that “we are the good guys,” while extending the admonition to submit to pre-fabricated stereotypes of what it means to be an American and a patriot. Any divergence from this narrative will be deemed a threat, and any individual with power who is perceived to be challenging these orthodoxies will be viciously attacked, like the Bacchants slaying Pentheus.

Of course, the most recent and conspicuously galvanizing event in this cyclical phenomenon is the emergence of Donald J. Trump as a political leader. By appealing to the most base, primal, and fear-based of human instincts, Trump managed to whip his political base into a tribalistic frenzy, evidenced by the tone, timbre, and pitch of his many raucous rallies. The melodramatic distinctions of his “Us vs. Them” rhetoric, combined with his assurances that “America will win again,” appealed to the binary model to which the mob necessarily submits, and struck the visceral chords of mass frustration. Underlying the profound emotional responses to Trump’s perceived message was the threatening note of vindictive violence; a marshaled vengeance masquerading as deferred justice.  

The degree to which self-professed Christians — the Evangelical community in particular — were willing to forgive and forget the sum total of Trump’s well-documented moral and ethical deficiencies over the course of his adult life is nothing short of remarkable, given their practiced insistence that moral integrity and public expressions of faith were crucial in determining the character of one’s prospective leaders. Trump’s flippant proclamations of his Presbyterianism, and his clear ignorance of scripture, did not seem to bother the pious mass, who clearly chose to apply a different set of criteria when considering Trump against his rivals, both Republican and Democratic. If religious purity and moral fortitude were no longer defining factors in making one’s choice for the nation’s highest office, one must wonder which character traits and/or policy proposals filled the void. Clearly, they saw in Donald Trump a set of qualities which eclipsed the importance they once placed in “Christian values,” which they stubbornly, and mistakenly, believe to be the foundation of the Constitution of the United States. Their Manichean anticipation of the great Battle of Armageddon (about 90 kilometers north-east of Tel Aviv), and subsequent Rapture, clearly includes the belief that Trump is a part of the pre-ordained path to the Apocalypse — one that is a part of God’s much-touted plan. The fervor of their beliefs seems to blind them to the demonstrable moral character of their preferred candidate.

It is clear that Trump’s rise was predicated on virulent attacks upon the establishment of both political parties — but it is not irrelevant that he first found his political footing by casting doubt on Obama’s provenance, legitimacy, and capability. His multi-year campaign to undermine the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate was rooted in a strategy designed to subvert the President on a number of levels. Calling his birthplace into question did not merely cast doubts on Obama’s Americanness, but also on his honesty, integrity, and legality. The fact that his mother was an American citizen — a fact that was never challenged — did not play into the equation. The driving issues for the so-called “Birthers” were whether or not Obama was Kenyan-born (with its attendant implications), and his birth certificate falsified. Was he a foreigner and a liar? To what degree would the answers to these questions undermine the legitimacy of his entire presidency?

Attendant to these accusations were Trump’s insinuations that  there was something suspect about Obama’s educational records. Trump claimed, falsely, that nobody remembered Obama from his schoolboy days. Trump also demanded to see Obama’s college transcripts, implying that his grades did not warrant his acceptance into Ivy League schools (Columbia and Harvard, respectively), or that he had claimed special status as a foreign-born applicant. Glowing assessments from his college professors and his election to the Editorship of the Harvard Law Review were not sufficient to convince Trump or the Birthers that Obama’s academic record was merit-based.

During this prolonged smear campaign to destroy a sitting President, Trump claimed that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to dig up evidence which would challenge Obama’s veracity on the subject. In a television interview, Trump insisted that the effort was proving fruitful, claiming, “I have people that actually have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding.” When the interviewer, Meredith Vieira of NBC News, allowed Trump to clarify by asking, “You have people now down there searching, I mean in Hawaii?”, Trump replied, “Absolutely. And they cannot believe what they’re finding.” Trump never revealed their “findings,” nor was any evidence ever offered that investigators had even been dispatched in the first place.

Slightly more subtle, but no less malevolent attacks were also waged. Issuing from the fact that Obama had spent two years in an Indonesian public school, which he described as “predominantly Muslim,” conservatives pounced and characterized the school as a “madrassa,” a Muslim religious school, many of which teach an extreme form of Islam called Wahhabism, and which many Taliban fighters attended in Pakistan. The claim was, of course, demonstrably false, but the seeds of doubt concerning Obama’s attitudes and allegiances were being cultivated, and the disturbing phenomenon of detractors believing what they wanted to believe, rather than what the facts established, was reaching fruition. Like the Bacchants, they were hypnotized and seduced into beliefs and actions not rooted in rationality.

The most reasonable of the arguments concerning Obama’s alternate global perspective did not question verifiable data regarding his birthplace or academic legitimacy. Instead, they questioned the degree to which Obama’s bi-racial background, his father’s anti-Colonial attitudes, his liberal education, left-wing influences, and peripatetic life governed his world-view with respect to the United States’s role, status, and culpability in some of the world’s more momentous historical events. Aspiring Presidential candidates like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Florida Senator Marco Rubio did not openly float conspiracy theories, but instead suggested that Obama does not interpret history, and America’s role in it, in the way most Americans do. They maintained that Obama was informed by ideas which questioned the United States as a force for good in the world. They proffered the notion that Obama’s moral and intellectual relationship with America was out-of-step with our traditional understanding of “American Exceptionalism” —  an idea which drifts dangerously close to Manifest Destiny, another concept which was wielded to justify some of the most horrific abuses and moral outrages in our country’s history. But the mere perception of Obama, the strange, inscrutable interloper in our midst, questioning America’s greatness, centrality, and moral authority excited the passions of the pious mass in deep and profound ways. The seemingly reasoned argument gave intellectual cover to the bubbling cauldron of misdirected indignation which floated just below the surface.

The raw explosion of hate and anger directed at the President was resounding and infectious — it was an ecstatic and communal roar, a guttural cry, a violent manifestation of cumulative frustration. Emotional. Visceral. Animalistic. Irrational.

Pentheus was torn to pieces. By his own mother. Because in those moments of spontaneous but fleeting insanity, driven by rage and fear, and blinded by religious fervor, she could not see who he actually was.

Cadmus, Pentheus’s grandfather, observes the gruesome aftermath of the slaughter: Agave and the frenzied Bacchants dance with the mutilated body of Pentheus, their former King.

A brokenhearted Cadmus laments:           

            When you realize the horror you have done,

            you shall suffer terribly. But if with luck

            your present madness lasts until you die,

            you will seem to have, not having, happiness. 

When the spell of Dionysos recedes, Agave and the Bacchants are forced to confront the carnage they have unwittingly wrought. Looking upon the decapitated head of her son, Agave grieves:

                                    Now, now I see:

            Dionysos has destroyed us all.  

As Euripides understood, the disintegration of Athens was fueled, at least in part, by a community’s willingness to surrender to its darker, subconscious instincts, rather than commit to the steadying rudder of cold, hard reason and the long-term interests of the commonweal. The latter course requires much more effort, because it is predicated upon a challenge to what is natural. But the path of least resistance will prove fatal if it leads to the dismantling of everything that comprises the very nature of a civilization. And the pious mass, freed from the shackles of practiced decorum, reasoned discourse, and the demands of a common good, will run roughshod over the hard-earned pillars of a more decent nation.

And the mutilated, decapitated body of  Pentheus will lie lifeless in the bloodied street.

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 Michael Peter Bolus currently serves as Department Chair of Liberal Arts across all Programs at The Los Angeles Film School, and is an Adjunct Professor of Film Studies at Santa Monica College. His articles, interviews, and criticism have appeared in the scholarly journals Theatre JournalTheatre SurveySlavic and East European PerformanceNewsweek (Japan) and Modern Mask, and his poetry and prose were featured in the e.e. cummings Pre-Centennial Tribute. (www.michaelpeterbolus.com)

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