Monthly Archives: November 2011

Bahrain: Another opportunity squandered?

The report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was
published on November 23, and the Cabinet Statement of November 21
acknowledging many of its more embarrassing findings represented the
most significant opportunity for progress in Bahrain in many months.

But it appears that neither the government nor opposition groups are
moving quickly or decisively to take advantage of it and instead are
continuing with the confrontation that has been simmering since the
uprising was crushed last spring. I described this confrontation in
detail in a briefing paper on “The Bahrain Uprising: Towards
Confrontation or Accommodation?” published on the same day as the
commission report.

Particularly disturbing was the use of force against Shia protesters
on November 24, the day after the report was published, which was part
of a now-familiar pattern of controversial deaths and violent clashes
and funerals. It suggested that the modus operandi of security forces
had not been affected by the commission’s findings.

While the cabinet says that at least 20 security officers will face
prosecution for their role in the crackdown, there have been no
high-level resignations and no dramatic reorganization in the security

On November 28, the king did decree that security forces would now
have to refer cases “requiring arrests” to the Interior Ministry. And
there have been some changes in the top security personnel in Bahrain.
Major-General Adel bin Khalifa bin Hamad Al Fadhel has been appointed
acting National Security Agency chief. He replaced Shaikh Khalifa bin
Abdulla bin Mohammed Al Khalifa who has hardly been demoted, and will
now serve as “Supreme Defense Council secretary-general and advisor to
HM the King for national security affairs with the rank of minister.”

None of this is likely to reassure anyone that a major transformation
is underway.

The primary government response has been the creation of a National
Committee to examine the commission’s recommendations and report back
to the king by February. This sets up a potentially endless cycle of
commissions referring to committees that in turn refer to working
groups and so forth, with a large amount of process and little

Opposition groups pointed out that the commission had suggested any
follow-up committee should be jointly appointed, not created by royal
decree. Indeed, the charge of unilateralism was among the most serious
complaints leveled by the opposition against the commission from the

Reportedly the largest opposition group, Al Wefaq, has had at least
two members invited to join the new committee but has refused to
participate. This mirrors its stance of boycotting parliamentary
balloting in September and refusing to participate in the legislature
under the current circumstances.

One can readily understand the opposition’s skepticism about the
government’s intentions and this entire process. However, the
commission report was hardly the whitewash that many opposition
figures had predicted. To the contrary, it was surprisingly blunt
about the excessive use of force and other abuses on the part of
security services, even though it did not go as far as many would have
wanted with regard to the systematic nature of abuses.

Without being in the least naïve, it’s important to recognize that for
all its failings, Bahrain’s government has gone further than any other
Arab regime currently facing a popular uprising in what in effect
amounts to self-criticism: sponsoring and welcoming a report that is
frankly critical of the crackdown.

As they have several times since the protest movement began early in
the year, moderates in both the government and the opposition appeared
to be allowing themselves to be outflanked by more hard-line elements.

Rather than taking advantage of whatever opportunity might have been
presented by the commission report, opposition figures can continue to
insist that no real reforms are on the table, and government
supporters can continue to claim the opposition are simply subversives
and continue on the path of confrontation rather than accommodation.

Nothing in the aftermath of the commission report suggests either side
is seriously adapting its approach and both are behaving much as they
did before it was published. Most troublingly, there is still no
working mechanism or venue for meaningful dialogue between the

But this pattern cannot continue, since it is inherently unstable and
volatile. The simmering tensions and barely-contained violence of
recent months could boil over at any moment, to the benefit of neither
the government nor the mainstream opposition. The opposition would no
doubt correctly note that the government holds most of the cards, but
they too have agency, responsibilities and a major role in determining
the future of their country.

Neither the government and the Sunni minority on the one hand, nor the
opposition and the Shia majority on the other, can hope for any kind
of decisive “victory” over the other in the long run, even in a
political war of attrition. At some point if Bahrainis of all stripes
are to face a reasonable future, they are going to have to achieve a
political accommodation, undoubtedly involving much greater forms of
constitutionalism and wider social and political enfranchisement than
currently exists.

This means serious-minded, reasonable forces on both sides will have
to move quickly and decisively to take advantage of any opportunity
for significant progress. Unfortunately, precisely such a potential
opportunity has just presented itself and appears to have been
squandered in favor of business as usual.

Bashar’s Western water carriers

The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, while the brutality of the regime, which has killed over 3,500 people and tortured even children, has escalated. Meanwhile, a motley crew of Western commentators continues to carry water for President Bashar al-Assad.

These commentators cannot be immune from responsibility for their words. Their defense of a brutal dictatorship cannot go unchallenged or unexamined. While they have every right to their opinions, the rest of us have not only a right but a responsibility to draw the conclusion that these individuals, in fact, oppose freedom for the Syrian people by supporting a regime denying Syrians their freedom.

The essentially pro-regime stance of Professor Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma is well-established. To mention one small example, last April he praised what he called “the stability that the Assad family has enforced in Syria and… the vision of tolerance and secularism they have promoted.”

But there are a number of other commentators whose support for the Syrian dictatorship deserves more careful scrutiny. Probably the most relentless is Alistair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer who is a strong supporter of official Iranian ideology and foreign policy, as Michael Weiss and I have demonstrated. It is surely Assad’s alliance with Tehran that has prompted Crooke’s enthusiasm for the Syrian leader.

Crooke initially claimed that Assad was immune from any popular uprising because of his opposition to the West and Israel, and his support for “resistance.” In April, he actually predicted, “Assad will emerge with his stature enhanced, and Syria will be… resuming its traditional place at the center of Arab politics.”

In July, Crooke claimed the protests were led by followers of the late al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Moussab al-Zarqawi, applying the most terrifying image possible to the opposition. According to Crooke, the uprising he predicted was impossible was in fact a plot by the West and Qatar to install the most extreme Sunni Islamists in power in order to “weaken Iran.”

Columbia University professor Joseph Massad has also condemned the Syrian and other Arab uprisings as having been engineered or co-opted by an imperialistic “US-British-Saudi-Qatari axis.” He even argued that the United States had engineered the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in order to install “a more pliant dictator,” as if post-Mubarak Egypt is friendlier toward Washington’s foreign policy.

Massad has also condemned NATO’s role in Libya in the harshest possible terms, saying it was all based on lies. Again, he pointed out, the intervention was designed to impose a more “pliant” government in Tripoli. This is the mirror image of the hysterical arguments that al Qaeda now rules in Libya. In truth, Moammar Qaddafi was not posing any problems to the West when the uprising began, happily selling his oil at market rates. There’s no reason to believe that the new government in Tripoli will be “more pliant” then Qaddafi was. In truth, the West has little leverage to ensure how Libyans will behave in the future.

As for Syria, Massad has concluded that the Syrians should abandon their struggle for freedom because it can only lead to a “US-imposed pliant and repressive regime à la Iraq and Libya,” given that the West “has destroyed the possibility of a democratic outcome.” Naturally, he does not explain how this is the case. The bottom line is that Massad is urging Syrians to keep Assad in power, then to go home and shut up.

But perhaps the most surprising Western backer of the Assad regime is Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. In August he described the prospects of overthrowing Assad as “so small” as to be irrelevant. He also argued that more people would be killed in a civil war than by the crushing of the uprising (a line used by Qaddafi backers as well), before concluding, “At present Mr. Assad remains the least worst option.”

Husain also wrote that “Assad has been good news for Israel’s security and borders,” and he predicted that Islamists would be the inevitable rulers of a post-Assad Syria and more unfriendly to the West. Husain has also come out strongly against the policy of sanctions, arguing, “The West would be mistaken to continue developing policy measures that harm Syria and Syrians.” He suggested that support for the uprising could provoke a “campaign of suicide bomb attacks against the West in our cities.” Husain’sprescription was for the West to do absolutely nothing in response to the brutality of the Assad regime, and “leave Syrians alone to put their complicated, sectarian house in order.”

With varying arguments, Crooke, Massad and Husain have joined the notorious Landis in arguing that the Syrian people should be left to the tender mercies of their regime. The alternatives are worse, they say, and Assad’s leadership isn’t really as bad as people think.

Diversity of opinion is a fine thing, but organizations can and should take responsibility for what they choose to sponsor or permit. The Council on Foreign Relations needs to ask itself some serious questions about its role in promoting Husain, one of the most zealous Western opponents of the quest for freedom in Syria.

All of these individuals claim to respect freedom and human rights, but how can that be squared with their eager defense of the Syrian regime? Crooke’s obvious allegiance to Iran, Massad’s knee-jerk anti-Western attitudes and Husain’s fears of an Islamist takeover have all led them to adopt indefensible, and in some cases dishonest, stances that effectively mean they are backing the most brutal repression taking place in the Arab world today. Nothing can justify the outrageous conduct of the Assad dictatorship and no agenda is sufficient to excuse it.

Islamism and misogyny

While there is no reason to panic, concern about the rise of Islamists
in post-dictatorship Arab societies is warranted, especially as the
rights of women are particularly and immediately open to attack.

No sooner had the Islamist Al-Nahda party secured its status as the
largest group in Tunisia’s new Constituent Assembly, than we saw a
misogynist agenda rearing its ugly, familiar head. The party’s iconic
spokeswoman, Souad Abderrahim, called single mothers a “disgrace” and
declared that they “do not have the right to exist.”

It is irrelevant that many Arab Christians, or other religious
fanatics of whatever faith, might have agreed with her. And it’s not
reassuring that Al-Nahda leaders, in what was clearly a tactical
measure, rushed to contradict Abderrahim in order to quell the uproar.
What’s important is that Abderrahim’s comments demonstrate where
Al-Nahda, one of the least extreme among Arab Islamist parties, is
coming from on the issue of women’s rights. Abderrahim, of course, had
no comment about the role of men in creating single motherhood.

The head of Libya’s transitional authority, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, added
to the alarm by proclaiming that Islamic law, or Sharia, would be the
principal source of legislation in post-Qaddafi Libya. He implied that
polygamy, a practice almost entirely suppressed under the deposed
dictator, Moammar Qaddafi, might be reintroduced.

Abdul-Jalil was no doubt seeking to distance himself from the former
regime, demonstrate that he is independent from the West, and placate
Islamist elements in the Transitional National Council. It is
heartening that in recent council meetings, large majorities have
apparently coalesced around secular candidates, as opposed to
Islamists, for key transitional leadership positions.

Several Libyan officials have also denounced Qatari support for
Islamist groups. Rather than dictating the post-revolution agenda,
Libyan Islamists may be feeling sidelined enough to require a nod to
their conservative social agenda from the rest of the Transitional
National Council, in order to keep them on board.

Abdul-Jalil’s comments were so vague as to be practically meaningless.
However, they do reinforce the fact that Islamism generally promotes
misogynist attitudes, since his efforts to placate Islamists implied
restrictions on women’s rights. Indeed, wherever Islamists have seized
power, whether in Iran, northern Nigeria, Afghanistan, parts of
Pakistan, and Gaza, their exercise of power has immediately and
intently focused on restricting women’s rights.

This behavior ranges from the unspeakable, and thankfully rare,
practice of stoning women, largely in rural Iran, to the sexually
paranoid restrictions by Hamas on women smoking water pipes
(cigarettes are fine) or riding on the back of motorcycles. It really
does take a hyperactive pornographic imagination to read impropriety
into those latter acts.

Another serious concern is that some of the Arab world’s deposed
secular dictatorships held up their purported advocacy of women’s
issues as a false sign of progress, thereby tainting the agenda.

In Egypt, for example, the Mubarak regime was associated with efforts
to strongly discourage female genital mutilation. While this practice
has absolutely nothing to do with Islam, and is enforced as
enthusiastically by Egyptian Coptic Christians and some African
animists as by some Muslims, the Muslim Brotherhood was always in
practice opposed to official efforts to suppress it.

The Brotherhood’s official position is that female genital mutilation
is neither “halal” (required) nor “haram” (forbidden). Therefore, it
should be religiously permissible, and, indeed unobjectionable, from
their point of view for a government to outlaw it.

During the Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood objected to the
distribution of leaflets calling female genital mutilation
“un-Islamic.” This suggests that the Brotherhood is more sympathetic
to genital mutilation than it cares to admit, or is more socially
conservative than its theological positions require. Efforts to
suppress this unspeakable atrocity will be difficult to resurrect in
the near future, as opposition to female genital mutilation is now
closely associated with the hated former regime, especially the former
first lady.

Conservatism the world over instinctively holds that tradition
contains wisdom. Even some American neoconservatives who originated on
the left like Irving Kristol eventually came to champion tradition for
its own sake.

Among contemporary Islamists, this impulse is compounded by the
tendency to privilege anything that has a chronological proximity to
the era of Revelation. This suggests that anything that happened in or
around the time of the Prophet Mohammed is, by definition, closer to
authentic and proper religious and social practice than anything that
emerged later. This, of course, derogates the overwhelming bulk of
Islamic civilization, not to mention much of contemporary Arab

Religious conservatism invariably focuses on social and sexual
control. Women are the most immediate targets and primary focus of the
authoritarianism of the religious right, wherever they may be. As
Islamists seem to be finally getting their chance at gaining a share
of power in the Arab world, the greatest and most immediate danger
they pose is to women’s rights. That is why it is up to everyone else,
including both secularists and religious moderates, to insist on the
introduction of inviolable constitutional principles protecting the
rights of individuals, women and minorities.

Socially conservative Arab parties have a right to participate in
government, but not to reduce women to second-class citizenship.

Two cheers for the Tunisian election

The recent preliminary Tunisian election results provide legitimate
causes for concern, but overall the process and even the outcome are
grounds for more optimism than pessimism. There are a number of
crucial positive aspects that cannot be downplayed.

First, the fact that the vote took place and appears to have been free
and fair is a milestone. Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab uprisings, is
also the furthest along in the transition toward genuine
post-dictatorship democracy.

Second, the exceedingly high voter turnout, over 90 percent, and the
large number of participating parties, means the citizenry was
genuinely engaged at a broad level. This can only be a good thing for
genuinely representative government.

Third, the army appears to have taken a genuine decision to retreat
from the political process and allow a popularly-driven system to
shape the outcome of regime change.

Fourth, the election was for a Constituent Assembly that will draw up
a new constitution for the country, meaning that a broad-based process
will be shaping the structure of the new Tunisian system rather than
top-down dictates. The outcome of such a process will almost certainly
have more legitimacy than anything imposed by an elite and will have
greater prospects for long-term stability.

What is less reassuring is the strong performance of the Islamist
Al-Nahda Party, which garnered approximately 40 percent of the vote
and will be by far the largest in the assembly. The party is often
described as a “moderate Islamist” one, and compared to many others in
the Arab world, that might be a plausible relative description.

But in fact, Nahda almost certainly remains quite radical in its
ideology and long-term ambitions, so its prominent role in the new
Tunisian political scene and constitution-crafting process is a
legitimate source of concern.

Two important factors are significant grounds for reassurance, however.

First, collectively secularist parties garnered over 50 percent of the
vote, meaning that Tunisia has not demonstrated an Islamist majority.

Nahda clearly knows that its core Islamist agenda has certainly not
carried the day in any definitive sense. The statements of its leaders
reflect an understanding that its future depends on recognizing that
overreaching would be a kiss of death, and they have done their best
to put the most moderate possible face on their program and

Second, Nahda appears set to form a coalition with a much smaller but
influential secular and moderate socialist party, Ettakatol.

Critics complain that the upcoming marriage of convenience between
Ettakatol leader Mustapha Ben Jaâfar and Nahda is a cynical move by
both that makes no ideological sense and is simply about gaining power
for both within the new system.

This is exactly right, but should be seen as a positive development
rather than a negative one. This is what parliamentary democracy looks
like in practice everywhere: Parties make deals across unlikely
ideological lines in order to create majorities, as currently seen in
Britain, Israel and many other countries with strange-bedfellow
coalitions. It means Tunisians are recognizing that compromise is the
essence of this democratic form of politics.

Everyone will be watching the constitution-writing process carefully
to see who is favored by its electoral systems and what limitations
are placed on government powers, especially with regard to the rights
of individuals, women and minorities. But the process of compromise is
already underway.

These are very early days, but the Tunisian election suggests that
post-dictatorship Arab democracy even with the powerful participation
of Islamist parties is indeed possible.

Nahda’s strong performance seems to have been more linked to its
emphasis on social justice and economic issues than its reactionary
religious agenda. Secular parties, by contrast, in spite of their
strong showing overall, remain deeply divided and disorganized, and
wasted most of the campaign maligning Nahda in terms that recalled the
rhetoric of the former dictatorship rather than articulating their own
vision for Tunisia’s future. They especially failed to adequately
address Tunisians’ urgent economic concerns.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has obviously noted this element of
Nahda’s strong performance, moving to ramp up its already robust
social services program and distribute cheap food for the recent Eid
al-Adha festival.

The conclusions from Tunisia’s election are that emergent Arab
democracy seems more plausible than ever, even with robust Islamist
participation. Islamists are better disciplined and organized than
secularists but do not command automatic majorities, and secularists
need to focus on articulating their own vision, organizing themselves
as an alternative, and appealing to people’s social and economic
needs. Western societies that wish to see secularists and modernists
do well should also move more robustly to help them overcome these

These are tentative baby steps toward the emergence of a real Arab
democracy, but they are indispensable ones. So, in spite of the real
grounds for concern about Nahda’s future role, two cheers for the
Tunisian election.

Cirque du Shakespeare: the Folger’s new Othello and the problem of performing Iago

The new production of Othello at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC is in many ways good fun, but it's deeply flawed and some of those problems illustrate much deeper issues inherent in the play itself. At the Folger, director Robert Richmond has basically blown (and I use that term advisedly) a huge amount of time, effort and, I'm guessing, money as well, on very elaborate special effects that make his Othello a multimedia extravaganza, even in the small space he had to work with. It's certainly a unique take on the play visually, with random contemporary influences ranging from Cirque du Soleil (of all things) to slow motion fighting sequences as originating in East Asian action movies. The problem, predictably enough, is that rather than enhancing the drama of the play, these pyrotechnics detract or at least distract from it, so that what can be a devastatingly terrifying experience becomes about as substantial as a handful of cotton candy.
Mr. Richmond has also gone to a great deal of trouble to rewrite and reorder much of the play, especially at the beginning, and I hate to break it to him, but he's not improving it. It's perfectly acceptable theatrical and literary practice to do this, of course, but one runs the risk of unfavorable comparison with something closer to the original, which in this case is unavoidable. The changes make the action harder rather than easier to follow, the characters more rather than less obscure, and in the confusion the complex psychological timeline of the play is also lost. Othello relies on a kind of double time register (as do several other Shakespeare plays), in which the diegetic timeline of the action does not correspond to what's happening psychologically within and interpersonally between the various characters. This deep structure within the play has been noted by critics since at least the middle of the 19th century, and its widespread recognition does nothing to blunt its powerful impact.
From a psychological standpoint the diegetic narrative of the play seem to careen forward with an impossible rapidity and this is crucial to subtly, and in many cases probably unconsciously, communicating to the audience a sense of a social order and lives spiraling out of control. The very first thing we see at the Folger, unfortunately, is a modestly shrouded set of images of Othello and Desdemona in a full-blown sexual encounter. This, rather than a marriage scene or merely implied news of the marriage, is what kicks off the opening argument between Iago and Roderigo. There are many ways of rationalizing this staging, of course. Is it their imaginations being manifested, etc.? But it does play merry havoc with the later lines, some of which are not removed, which suggest that this couple has not had time to have sex after they were married because Othello was immediately dispatched to Cyprus. As written, the play adds up although it operates on jarringly contradictory perceived timescales. As rewritten in this way, it doesn't.
And for all the effort and attention that was spent on the set, it seems extraordinary that the famous handkerchief that went flying around the stage of the Folger was white with an intricate black geometric pattern, quite clearly not “spotted with strawberries.” When I first saw it, I thought they would certainly remove the reference to its design in the dialogue, but amazingly they did not. It's all the more ridiculous because any piece of white cloth with red or pink splotches would have served the purpose adequately. I focus on this minor but elementary flaw in the production because of the amount of effort that was put into the rest of the set, and because this was so easy to avoid.
A quite talented cast works hard to get around all of the special effects bling with which they are smothered, especially Karen Peakes' fine performance as Emilia. But you feel for them because they are figuratively, and at times literally, weighted down with a burdensome production. And nobody suffers more than Ian Merrill Peakes, an obviously talented performer, who is left almost entirely adrift in his crucial role as Iago. I'm confident that with better direction and a more insightful, focused production, Peakes could have produced a very interesting Iago. Unfortunately, the biggest single flaw of the Folger's new production of Othello is that it has given us something I would not have thought possible: a bland and boring Iago. There's just no edge to him at all and I don't think that's the fault of the actor. The whole Cirque du Shakespeare routine just dulls the blade too much. Peakes is left with almost nothing really to work with, except repeatedly telling us how really, really, really pissed off he is. Well, so am I. Frequently. You too. So what? It's really not good enough.
There are lots of ways of playing Iago to powerful effect. Just to stick to the well-known, readily available film versions, there's Kenneth Branagh's ice-cold, steel-eyed sociopath (his best film performance to my mind); Bob Hoskins' giggling psychopath (with an emphasis on Iago's working-class consciousness as well); Micheál Mac Liammóir's slimy, aging creep; Frank Finlay's understated, reserved schemer; etc. I suppose I just listed those in a certain order of preference. But however he is interpreted, Iago must have an edge to him.
His power is not only that of a master manipulator, but also a master of language. He swings wildly back and forth between the most ornate and obscure verbiage to the most crude and direct. His often overlooked and usually cut (the Folger removed almost all of it in this production) banter with Desdemona and Emelia in Cyprus when they fear Othello may be drowned begins as risqué and playful but ends up downright obscene. That he's egged on in this “dirty talk” by Desdemona herself proves again how little her father really knows her (“a maiden never bold,” etc.). Iago's specialty is debasement, and his favorite storehouse of metaphors and imagery is the bestiary. From the outset, his tropes routinely transform people into animals, especially in order to emphasize their sensuality and sexuality in a particularly repulsive manner in order to alienate them from each other. These manipulations not only transform Othello's perceptions of Desdemona, they also transform his own command of language. Very few, if any, characters in Shakespeare's canon are such powerful poets as Othello and Iago. But when Iago is done with Othello, the eloquent speech of the orator and storyteller who won over not only Desdemona but also the Duke and his counsel with his tales of war and hardship (which Iago dismisses as “fantastical lies”) becomes choppy, convoluted, repetitive, and as fractured as his mind.
This also presents a challenge in the interpretation of Othello's own role. He can be performed as serenely calm at the outset, descending rapidly into uncontrolled and animalistic passion at the hands of Iago's “medicine,” or he can be presented from the outset as having the rough edge of a professional soldier. At the Folger, the capable Owiso Odera essentially performs the second version of Othello, rough and passionate from the outset, and this is a perfectly legitimate and common interpretation. But it misses the transformation in not only his language but his character effected by Iago's own manipulative dialogue. What it adds is the interesting prospect that Othello's marriage is more of a mismatch from the outset than might otherwise be supposed and that it is not only Iago's plotting that dooms it, but also that there really is a profound incompatibility between the couple. It's a legitimate choice, but I'm not sure the trade-off is really worth it.
The manner in which Iago is interpreted goes directly to the central problem of his character: motivation. It is a hallmark of Shakespeare's art — and one that he pioneered in a most extraordinarily innovative manner — that all characters “have their say.” They all get a chance to explain why they're doing what they're doing, even some of the most minor figures. That these explanations often reflect the human tendency to self-deception in no way undermines this achievement. For even in their delusions, as certainly could be ascribed to Othello at several key passages in the drama, particularly in the moments before he kills himself, the characters reveal much about what drives them, consciously or unconsciously. Iago alone remains an absolute cipher. The only other Shakespeare character comparable to him in villainy, Iachimo in Cymbeline, is not nearly as mysterious or threatening.
For centuries critics have grappled with this conundrum (perhaps most famously Coleridge), and argued about whether Iago has “too many” or “too few” motivations for his malevolent rampage. The “too many” school notes that he professes at least four justifications or grievances at different points in the play: 1) he has been passed over for promotion unjustly, and harbors a deep-seated class resentment against privilege; 2) he suspects both Othello and Casio of sleeping with his wife and is enraged at the thought that others do as well; 3) he wants to replace Casio as Othello's lieutenant for personal advancement; 4) he enjoys the malicious plotting a great deal (leading Coleridge to conclude that he is really driven by a desire to demonstrate his intellectual superiority and power over others).
Most critics agree that none of these motivations separately or together seem sufficient for his extreme wrath and vengefulness, and, perhaps more importantly, that they do not sit well together (there's also an easily-accessible homoerotic quality to his relationship with Othello that productions have increasingly been exploring, casting his jealousy in yet another light, but no more satisfactorily). Iago's explanations and professed outrage often seem exaggerated, especially in his opening-scene tirade to Roderigo about the injustice of his rank. The “too few” school considers all of these to be absurd rationalizations and excuses that are dismissible out of hand, and does not bother with whether or not they compliment or contradict each other. Either way at the play's close, like Othello, we are simply dying to know, "Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?" His answer is surely the most chilling moment in all of Shakespeare's work: "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know; From this time forth I never will speak word."
But of course we don't “know” anything for certain, least of all about Iago's "real" motivations. The whole play revolves around the question of how we “know” what we think we know, and the distance between what we believe and what is "true." Instances of deception abound: Desdemona deceives her father in eloping with Othello; she deceives Othello that her handkerchief is not lost; Othello almost certainly engages in a degree of deception with Desdemona and the Duke about his life's story; and Roderigo assumes “an usurped beard” metaphorically, and in many productions literally, to name but a few examples. And, of course, there is all of the self-deception alluded to above (Othello's final speech and possibly many other instances in his case, Brabantio's misreading of his daughter, Desdemona's misreading of Othello as incapable of jealousy, Emelia's almost willful blindness about her husband's villainy, etc.) But in none of these cases are motivations an absolute cipher.
Iago, by contrast, who is the author of most of what transpires during the drama, is exactly that: an enigma, an impenetrable mystery. The explanations he offers other characters and the audience directly are plainly unsatisfactory from either the “too many” or “too few” perspectives, and his absolute refusal to offer any accounting whatsoever when confronted is palpably horrifying. There is no other instance in Shakespeare's work in which the audience is invited to retreat into a facile explanation of “pure evil.” Even though Iago is plainly drawn from the stock Morality Play characters Vice and Devil, he's clearly not a simple allegory. Therefore dismissing him as inherently evil is no answer either. All other Shakespeare villains have their reasons, grievances and, usually, mitigations. Iago's refusal to offer any satisfactory accounting for himself in spite of his huge role (he is almost as much a main character as Othello and in many productions ends up having more lines) confronts the audience or the reader with the awful truth that we can never know what really prompts anyone else in their actions, no matter how extreme, and maybe never fully understand our own either.
Many commentators, including Sigmund Freud, have considered Shakespeare among the most perceptive observers of the human psyche. Perhaps this is his most horrifying insight: Iago offers no explanation at the end of Othello because he does not have one. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the character himself does not really know what drove him to these extremes. Reading Iago against the rest of Shakespeare's work, precisely because virtually all other characters “have their say,” strongly suggests this is the case. Iago is a cipher, not only to us, but to himself. What's most appalling is the implication that, all too often, we are ourselves driven by “too many” or “too few” reasons for our actions and in the end may not really know why, exactly, we do much of what we do, especially as we are doing it. It's a terrifying concept that directly attacks the ego or a fundamental sense of self-awareness with the suggestion that these are illusory constructs, and beneath them may lie an empty abyss.
This is all the more unsettling because Iago not only plays to others' sense of the animalistic within the human, he also unnervingly is the most eloquent and persuasive of all of Shakespeare's characters about the importance and power of reason. On numerous occasions he boasts that what he's saying in the course of his manipulations, whatever his intentions, makes sense or at some level constitutes genuinely good advice. These claims are uncannily hard to dismiss. His lecture to Roderigo against the thought of suicide over Desdemona is a kind of Renaissance — almost proto-Enlightenment — sermon on the power and primacy of reason: “If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions,” etc. Yet he employs appeals to reason and apparent logic in the same way he brutally attacks the reptilian brain, precisely to drive people towards "preposterous [and disastrous] conclusions." As with invocations of passion, the championing of reason is just another weapon in the arsenal of the most malevolent character Shakespeare created. And, just like our attachment to our sense of self and our egos, the human, and especially modern, faith in reason (the impact of this irony has only deepened over time) proves to be dangerously and frighteningly illusory.
For all of these effects to work fully on an audience, Iago's edginess, whatever form it might be given in any production, is crucial to the interpretation of the role. As he engages us in his playful but vicious plot, we become, to some extent, complicit in his crimes at an emotional level, no matter how horrified we are at them. Unwilling identification with Iago is essential to creating this sense of horror at the emptiness inside of him — the perfect vacuum through which his actions are propelled — with which we are confronted at the end of the play.
The one thing the Folger production gets exactly right about Iago is clearly communicating to the audience the extent to which, unlike almost all other Shakespeare villains, he has no clear plan or even fully set goal at the outset (contrast that with Richard III, for example). He's angry, and he wants revenge, but that apparently could take many forms. His plot unfolds piecemeal, constantly adapting and changing almost like a game, and he invites the audience to think things through with him in real time. At one point he is so unsure of his next move that he observes, "'Tis here, but yet confused: Knavery's plain face is never seen, till used." So not only is the motivation unclear to both us and, apparently, him, Iago's goals are shifting and negotiable, and his schemes are jerryrigged and tactical at best. There is no hint of a broader strategy at work.
Not only does this underscore Iago's fundamental hollowness, it powerfully draws the audience into the process of his plotting and implicates us as secret sharers no matter how strongly we object or resist. Or it least it should. But the bland and boring Iago presented at the Folger just doesn't give the audience enough to hook ourselves to him throughout the drama, and we end up identifying with him about as much as a viewer of the Silence of the Lambs will emotionally connect with Hannibal Lecter. It's an engaging spectacle, but not a harrowing revelation.
This production also omits one of the most telling passages in Othello, in my view, but also one of the most frequently overlooked. The second song that Iago sings during the revels, as his plot to get Cassio drunk and instigate a crisis moves steadily forward, reveals a great deal about both his own character and the deepest concerns in the drama:
King Stephen was and-a worthy peer,
His breeches cost him but a crown,
He held them sixpence all too dear,
With that he called the tailor lown.
He was a wight of high renown
And thou art but of low degree,
'Tis pride that pulls the country down,
Then take thine auld cloak about thee.
It's usually either left out of productions entirely, or raced through as a quick-paced soldiers' drinking song. This is unfortunate because, even though Shakespeare was adapting what appears to have been an already fairly well-established song usually referred to as "Bell my wife," his version is unique and in this context it neatly summarizes much of what drives the plot of Othello.
The whole scene is important for obvious reasons, but also because it shows Iago very comfortably in the role of the rough, earthy soldier. It seems to confirm his opinion of Casio as effete and Casio's of him as decidedly downmarket (“you may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar” he dismissively tells Desdemona, and on several occasions lectures Iago about his manners and breeding and the proprieties of social hierarchy). Some critics have wondered whether Iago's song is directed specifically towards Casio, to subtly critique or even annoy him in preparation for the instigated brawl. If it's intended to annoy him, it certainly doesn't seem to work, as Casio declares it “a more exquisite song than the other.” But by attacking the arrogance of privilege, it certainly works well as a critique of Casio's attitudes and fits perfectly with Iago's numerous other bitter rhetorical attacks on the wealthy and the powerful.
More than anything, though, the song is a warning about the sin of pride, which seems to be at the heart of the tragedy. The play is usually associated, and quite rightly, with patterns of jealousy, most notably Othello's own jealousy over Desdemona, but also of course Iago's almost boundless jealousy against virtually all the other characters. Both are evidently extremely ambitious, although in different ways both pretend to be simple soldiers. Iago is jealous of Casio for his promotion and his apparent higher social status. He's jealous of Othello's power and rank as well. He's jealous in fearing that both of them have slept with his wife. And he consistently and repeatedly attacks social privilege and rails at his own relatively lowly status.
But what lies behind this jealousy is pride. Othello attributes his serene (over)confidence to his pride in his achievements, his character and his allegedly royal lineage. His extreme rage depends on Iago quickly flipping this vainglorious overconfidence into unbridled panic and male hysteria, an attack on his essential masculine pride. While neither Othello nor Iago share the arrogant haughtiness of the aristocrats Brabantio, Casio and Roderigo, their pride seems to run deeper and be more brittle. Both characters appear to be driven in their extreme anger by jealousies based on attacks on their pride. It's easy to imagine a daytime TV soap opera parody of Othello with a cheesy title like “The Proud and the Damned” (by the way, the noted critic Prof. Richard Burt, author of the book "Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares," wrote the script for a porn video version of the play called "Hotel O," which I have not seen and apparently even had two sequels). At any rate, in this world pride certainly does bring the country down, and no one is satisfied with their old cloaks. Of course this all comes through anyway in the play, but the song sums up its biggest themes perfectly, if obliquely. It's a pity that it's so rarely given its due.
One can't be too tough on the Folger or Mr. Richmond for leaving the King Stephen song out, since cuts obviously have to be made for any performance and this is typically one of the earliest casualties, along with most of the “dirty talk” banter between Iago and Desdemona. And again, when it does appear, it is most frequently performed so quickly that no audience is likely to have an opportunity to gauge its deep significance. The Folger Theatre production is fun and entertaining, but it just doesn't reflect a strong grasp of the play. It does help illustrate much about Othello, but more by calling attention to these profound questions through mistakes and omissions, both common and inexplicable, rather than through presenting any insight of its own.

Stop jumping to conclusions about the “Arab Spring”


The Middle East commentariat needs to check a growing pattern of
premature handwringing and jumping to conclusions about the outcome of
the ongoing Arab uprisings. Here are a few, I hope, sobering
reflections about what has and has not happened thus far.

First, the broader regional order is being reshaped along troublingly
sectarian lines, but this is by no means clear-cut or irreversible.

For now the biggest winner regionally is Turkey and the biggest loser
is Iran, in part because Turkey has been able to play its Sunni and
“moderate Islamist” card against Iran’s Shia and “radical Islamist”
identity. But these gains and losses are highly contingent and
vulnerable, and everything is in play both regionally and within those
Arab states undergoing transformation.

Second, Islamists are not “taking over” anywhere yet. Far too many
observers are leaping to this conclusion because inevitably Islamist
parties, which in most Arab states have been the only well-organized
opposition groups during dictatorships, were poised to take early
advantage of newly-opened political space.

In states that have seen revolution, most notably Libya, and those
undergoing managed transitions, such as Tunisia and Egypt, it’s no
surprise that the biggest single challenge is negotiating the
relationship of Islamist groups with the emerging new systems and
other forces in those societies.

The strong performance of Islamists in the preliminary Tunisian
elections, the advantageous position they seemingly hold in the run-up
to Egyptian elections, and their clear influence in the new Libyan
leadership does not mean the Arab world is entering a phase of
Islamist rule.

It does, however, reflect the fact that at the moment Islamists have
significant constituencies that will be reflected in more pluralistic
systems, and that they are well-organized, while secularists are not.

But nowhere has there been an Islamist “takeover,” and there are other
powerful forces at play.

Theoretically one would’ve expected Islamist influence to be at its
apex in the earliest stages of transition toward more democratic
systems in post-dictatorship Arab societies, and that’s exactly what
we’re seeing. There is also every reason to both hope and expect that
this influence will be held in check by other social forces and
quickly either plateau or decline.

Third, there is an intellectually and politically indefensible rush to
recast the leading Arab Islamist parties as more moderate or
pluralistic than they actually are. Almost all of them remain Muslim
Brotherhood or Salafist groupings, not Arab equivalents of European
Christian Democratic parties or even the Turkish AKP. If
constitutional restraints on government powers are strong, as they
must be in any democracy, eventually some Arab Islamist groups will
probably move in that direction, but they have not yet.

While there’s no reason to think Islamists are in the process of
consolidating absolute power anywhere, it’s simply foolish not to
recognize that they remain in every meaningful sense radical and
retain their totalitarian impulses. That they would like to broadly
and severely restrict the rights of individuals, women and minorities
in the name of religion is obvious. It’s hard to see them developing
such unrestrained power, but there is also no use in kidding oneself
about their evident intentions.

Fourth, some Arab secularists, whose orientation and values I share
and whom I usually agree with, are indulging in a widespread
conspiracy theory that the United States is deliberately promoting
Arab Islamists. There is no basis for such an assertion, unless
accepting that pluralism means these parties will be able to vie for
the limited powers of a constitutional government equals support for
their agenda.

Actual material and financial support for Sunni Islamists in the Arab
world in fact comes mainly from the Gulf, particularly Qatar, but also
other governments and wealthy individuals.

Blaming the United States for the predictable facts that Islamists are
among early beneficiaries of newly-opened Arab political spaces and
that Arab secularists are struggling to organize themselves and
articulate their vision seems utterly groundless.

This conspiracy theory indulges in one of the most powerful forms of
Arab political mythology: the omnipotent United States, which is often
held to be deliberately engineering whatever is transpiring in the
Middle East. This was never true, and the limitations of American
influence are more obvious now than ever.

From the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” the tendency to rush to
judgment has been almost overwhelming. Yet in every Arab society under
transformation—or those like Syria and Yemen that are facing ongoing
uprisings—and also in terms of the emerging new regional order, the
outcomes remain profoundly uncertain.

What’s clear is that Arab democracy will require pluralistic systems
open to peaceful Islamist parties while protective of individual,
minority and women’s rights. What’s not clear is how, or even if, Arab
societies are going to get there.

Snap judgments don’t explicate much about where we are, and illuminate
even less about where we’re going.