The greatness of the classical Greek tragedies lies in their humanising effect on the spectator or reader — “catharsis”, the purification or purgation of emotions, a metaphor first used by Aristotle in the Poetics to describe the effects of true tragedy on the mind. One doesn’t know whether the US President Donald Trump ever got around to reading a Greek tragedy.
Oedipus at Colonus, the drama by Sophocles written toward the very end of his life in 406 BC could be a good starter for its contemporary relevance.
It tells the tortuous story of Oedipus, king of Thebes, who blinded himself and went into exile in despair over his skewed identity after discovering that he had unwittingly killed his own father, the former king Laios, and had married his own mother, Jocasta, the widow of Laios.
The complete breakdown of America’s healthcare system should have triggered debates in the US about America’s spending priorities
There are no signs that the tragedy that has overtaken the United States has had any cathartic effect on the country’s political elites. This is certainly no “end of history” for American strategists. On the contrary, in an article in the Wall Street Journal last Friday, entitled “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order”, Henry Kissinger harked back to America’s exceptionalism, saw Coronavirus as a threat to the world order and exhorted Trump to protect the system, no matter what it takes — even launching, if need be, a Marshall Plan to unify and rally allies to “safeguard the principles of the liberal world order.”
Kissinger clings to the battered remains of a failed system at home and refuses to let go the arc of instability from North Africa, through the Middle East and into Central Asia that is the outcome of American strategies under the rubric of “exceptionalism”. Certainly, no catharsis for Kissinger.
Yet, a “third-world country type of scenario”, as someone put it, is playing out right in front of our eyes in America and Kissinger cannot be unaware of it. In an unguarded moment last week, even Trump admitted that he saw it: “I have seen things that I’ve never seen before. I mean I’ve seen them, but I’ve seen them on television and faraway lands, never in my country.”
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The root cause of this tragedy is to be traced to American hegemony cloaked as ‘exceptiionalism’, which was focused on imperial resource extraction on a massive scale and transfer of wealth from what used to be called the Third World to the Wall Street, despite decolonisation. Thus, American hegemony required a defence budget bigger than that of the next seven largest countries combined.
The US’s military hegemony is on display in the 800 bases in over 70 nations, by far exceeding that of any empire in history. This globe-spanning military and security apparatus organised into regional commands harking back to the “proconsuls of the Roman empire and the governors-general of the British” — an apparatus built to perpetuate hegemony.
On the other hand, this apparatus belongs to an entirely parallel universe to the one most Americans experience on a daily level. The complete breakdown of America’s healthcare system should have triggered debates in the US about America’s spending priorities. But they didn’t. Unfettered capitalism incapacitated America’s healthcare industry. With hospitals and pharmaceutical companies orientated toward profit, the healthcare industry is optimised for profit. Excess capacity erodes profits, so surge capacity does not exist.
The pity and terror aroused by Oedipus’ tragic fall brings about a catharsis. Will Covid-19 have a cathartic effect on the charioteers of US imperialism?
However, as Kissinger’s article shows, none of this registers on the consciousness of the elites who refuse to make connections between America’s power and domestic politics. They are still in denial mode about COVID-19’s explosive confrontation with American exceptionalism —although the prognosis is that the unemployment rate in the US may reach 32 percent, as has been predicted, and millions of people will not only lose their jobs but their health insurance as well.
Ironically, the Covid’s rampage of America is a picnic in comparison with the holocaust that US exceptionalism let loose in Mesopotamia. Independent studied by Americans show a catastrophic estimate of 2.4 million Iraqi deaths since the 2003 invasion. It is a many-fold tragedy if one cares to remember that each person killed represented someone’s loved one — mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters.
Worse still, no sign of catharsis here too. Even in the middle of the pandemic back home, American exceptionalism continues to be at work in Iraq, hoping desperately to instal a pliant regime in Baghdad which will not press the nation’s demand that US should withdraw its troops.
In the final scene of Sophocles’ epic drama, Oedipus appears on stage to explain his horrifying self-blinding with Jocasta’s pins. He explains in agony that he raked out his eyes because he could not look again upon the loved ones he defiled, especially his daughters Ismene and Antigone who he begat from his own mother.
The pity and terror aroused by Oedipus’ tragic fall brings about a catharsis. Will Covid-19 have a cathartic effect on the charioteers of US imperialism? It should.
In his famous 1955 essay Discourse on Colonialism, French poet and Afro- Carribean politician Aimé Césaire wrote that the racist and xenophobic justifications for colonisation — motivated by capitalist desires — ultimately result in the moral and cultural degradation of the colonising nation.
Imperialism is damaging, eventually, to the civilisations that participate as perpetrators, in a way that is internally harmful. The Covid-19’s ransacking of New York is profoundly symbolic.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in the Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.