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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Acknowledging our complicities

None of us is confused about the moral character of those who drive the action in Shakespeare’s major tragedies — Claudius, Iago, Goneril and Regan and Edmund, the Macbeths. There are others, though, whose complicity in the evil most of us overlook. This is especially true in “Macbeth,” where “good guys” like Banquo keep silent about what they know because they hope to profit (see his soliloquy at the start of Act 3, scene 1). That’s why the bloody betrayals won’t end with Macbeth’s death.

The character with whom I’m the most impatient is Emilia, Iago’s wife. When Desdemona drops the handkerchief Othello had given her as a love token, Emilia picks it up and gives it to Iago “but to please his fantasy [fancy].” Then she remains silent as she witnesses Othello demanding from Desdemona the handkerchief and Desdemona’s distress after her husband leaves her in a rage (Act 3, scene 4). Had Emilia spoken up then, Iago’s plot would have unraveled and the tragedy been averted. What’s her motive? I think she’s afraid to look into the darkness of the man she’s lived with all those years.

Reflecting on this aspect of the tragedies — the unacknowledged complicity in evil that facilitates and perpetuates it — prompts us to search out our own complicities. Some of them are almost impossible to avoid. We have to support with our taxes our military and the CIA even knowing that they engaged in torture at Guantanamo and continue to run covert and overt assassination programs around the globe. And try as we may to be informed consumers, inevitably some of the products we buy are stained with the tears of abused workers.

Although we cannot claim that our hands are clean, we can muster the courage to look into the darkness. It’s hard to keep learning in detail about the widespread cruelty we humans inflict upon each other, but total immersion isn’t necessary to know how we should feel and act. The primary requisite is to rid ourselves of moral complacency.

I have enormous admiration for those who discover that they’ve been assigned the dirty work of their societies, come to recognize it for what it is, disengage and then try to educate others about the costs of their complacency. Just last week such a person spoke at SOU. For four years Cian Westmoreland worked on our military’s drone systems. “I kind of believed in what I was doing when I joined up ... And thought I’d be OK with it, but after four years, I burned my uniform.” His talks are sponsored nationally by Project Censored and ExposeFacts.org.

And then there’s Breaking the Silence, an organization of former Israeli soldiers who served in the occupied territories and speak up about what they saw and did. As the self-description on its website says, “Cases of abuse toward Palestinians, looting and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but these incidents are still described officially as ‘extreme’ and ‘unique’ cases. Our testimonies portray a different — and much grimmer — picture, in which the deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of the military orders and rules of engagement that the state considers justified in the name of Israel’s security. While this reality is well-known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society in general continues to turn a blind eye and deny what is being done in its name” (https://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/).

That’s another evil we support with our taxes.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.

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