The fascists among us make confusion their masterpiece and freedom their victim...
“Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches.''
In the latest version of life imitating art, the invasion of Ukraine seems to borrow from the canon of histories and tragedies recorded by the Bard of Avon. The famous opening stage directions for his Macbeth signal the foreboding of the events that will follow. Shakespeare knew fascists and often wrote about their demise. If only he had lived to write the histories of our present crop of bad actors in our modern dramas.
Vladimir Putin --before he went all Elizabethan on us— was a rather diminutive and shy former KGB officer whose unlikely rise to power surely surprised even him. Somehow, this former nobody has heard a prophecy that convinces him that he alone has the authority to reassert an imperialist Russian Empire which had fallen on hard times since the tsarist days. Putin has cast himself in a real-life drama that has all the spellbinding horror of a tale “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” --but with nukes and real suffering. In many ways, the direction for the impending war that threatens to engulf the world reminds us that most despots start off as nobodies who desperately want to become somebody before they exit the world stage. Shakespeare chronicles the role, finding ample examples of the monsters living among us and who somehow reach their goal. In Richard III, he creates the monster who murders his own nephews to gain their throne. Claudius, Hamlet’s bete noire and stepdad, murders Hamlet’s father and marries his mother to take his throne. Macbeth, perhaps the most notable of Shakespeare’s tragic losers, is guided by misinterpreted prophecy—a witches’ brew— to claim his undeserved throne. The darkened stage invites Shakespeare’s audience to a world troubled by war, death, confused evitability of destiny. The witches call it “the hurly-burly”. Putin wants in on this.
“What! Can the devil speak true?”
Here we are centuries beyond the musings of the Bard, and still, he informs our world with his art. Turn on the television and tune to the news and there they are, men strutting and fretting, wasting their time on the world stage. In the recent past, as Donald Trump auditioned for the role of a forever gobsmacked Macbeth, always surprised by the consequences of his actions, but never sorry for them, had his pick of ambitious sidekicks—his Lady Macbeths. And now, Vladimir Putin, romanced by the notion of restoring an empire hollowed out eons of corruption, leads a futile war and threatens unthinkable consequences that could potentially wreak more death and destruction on his own people. For Trump and Putin, the dimness is within them. Like characters in a personal drama, their ambition exceeds their grasp. Fools of fate, both men are taken with an outsized opinion of their importance, mistaking cleverness and cunning for brains.
Like a Shakespearean antagonist, the power they crave is at the root of their destruction. We need no other historical examples than the men who formed the Axis powers of WW II. For all his notoriety Hitler borrowed his version of toxic fascism from the father of the fascisti, Benito Mussolini who famously stated:
“If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and those who claim to be the bearers of objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, we Fascists conclude that we have the right to create our own ideology and to enforce it with all the energy of which we are capable.”
― Benito Mussolini
Mussolini’s doctrine is proof that evil can be prompted and that men are susceptible to suggestion as long as they benefit. Hirohito, the third leg of the Axis stool, stated it differently, and in hindsight, clearly stating the fascists’ contempt for liberty:
“Our people believed in the imperial state too much, and despised Britain and the United States. Our military men placed too much significance on spirit, and were oblivious to science.''
- Letter to his son, Prince Akihito, 1945 as quoted in The New York Times
“…our fears do make us traitors.”
What Shakespeare knew was that human nature has illiberal tendencies contrived from the basest of rationals. Greed, jealousy, and an inflated sense of self fuel delusions of grievance. Taken at his word, Putin feels aggrieved that Russia is not a great nation, which he believes it once was. Truth be told, the Russia of the Romanovs, of Peter, Catherine, Lenin, Stalin, and now Putin was never that. Like the witches of Macbeth, the whispered prophecies of greatness and grandeur heard by Putin are a cruel joke. The difference between the fascism they crave and freedom is not found on the same continuum. The freedom of the NATO alliance that so aggrieves the fascists among us is not the antipathy of imperialism. Putin doesn’t covet what Poland, Germany, France, et.al. have, just as Trump doesn’t particularly care to be a small “d” democrat. They want what freedom is capable of producing ---“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”-— but for themselves and not to share. As most despots come to realize, those benefits are only inclusionary, reserved for those who fight for freedoms for others in order to preserve them for themselves. To share in them one must promote them for others. It is a misconception at the heart of racism, bigotry, and intolerances we suffer despite our own freedoms. It explains the recent attacks on Democracy that are suddenly upon us from without and within.
There are fascists among us. As Macbeth states in the very first line given him by Shakespeare after he meets with the witches,
“So foul and fair a day I have not seen”
“…blood must have blood”
But final words seem more telling when we speak of tyrants. For some, they display an awareness near death that they avoided in life. Hirohito’s final words stand in contrast to those of other dying despots. For example, Hitler’s final words in the bunker he chose to die in are tinged with self-pity and defiance. According to a diary written by an aide who was with him at the end, Hitler feared the Russians:
“The Russians know perfectly well that I am here in this bunker, and I'm afraid they'll use gas shells. There are gas-locks here, I know, but can you rely on them? In any case, I'm not - and I'm ending it today.”
His words are in contrast to those of the former Emperor of Japan who lived long enough to regret his aggression, whose final thoughts were more profound:
“It is according to the dictate of time and fate that we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering the insufferable.” Jan 7, 1989
We pray that when their time comes our current fascists will share a similar awareness at their end. Today, because of Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is enduring the unendurable, suffering the insufferable. We can only hope that the Russian tyrant’s final words are spoken somewhere in a darkened bunker surrounded by his enemies---with words spoken much sooner than later.