A rumor is circulating. Someone in our inner circle – a figure we know and trust, a person we believe to be on our side — has cast suspicion over someone else that we know. A doubt has been put in our minds.
Truth be told, the doubt was always there, latent. We had always suspected, deep down, that we were being deceived – that we could be deceived. What we now demand is concrete proof, one way or the other.
“…give me the ocular proof…
…Make me to see’t; or, at the least, so prove it,
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on” (Shakespeare, Othello 360-66)
Yesterday, President Barack Obama tried to oblige. His staff has posted “proof” – the proverbial missing handkerchief, we might say — on the White House webpage.
Given the personality-driven nature of American Presidential politics, it has always been tempting to see the fates and actions of Presidents (and other world leaders) through the lens of Shakespearean drama. After all, it’s Shakespeare who, as G.W.F. Hegel put it, gives us the finest examples of “characters who come to ruin because of [a] decisive adherence to themselves and their aims.”
For some, George W. Bush resembled the wayward Prince Hal of the Henriad – the man who later became known as the “warlike Harry,” once he took over his father’s position. For others, the Clintons seemed uncannily like the couple in the Scottish Play. In his new book, Shakespeare’s Freedom, the Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt even tells of an audience he had with Bill Clinton in 1998, just as the first rumors of the Lewinsky affair were circulating, during which the President himself remarked, “Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”
Barack Obama has been thought by some to resemble Shakespeare’s “moor” Othello. Peter Sellars’ 2009 production of Othello, for instance, sought to reframe the play for what he called “the age of Obama.” Certain parallels, however superficial, are not difficult to see. Here we have someone who is at once central to the body politic he serves, a respected and heroic leader — but he is also seen as foreign, and his origins give rise in some quarters to prejudices and suspicions. As the Editorial page of the New York Times writes this morning, “It is inconceivable that this campaign to portray Mr. Obama as the insidious “other” would have been conducted against a white president.” Certainly this last statement is true, regardless of what we make of Othello’s place in Venice.
However, when I learned that the White House had posted Obama’s long form birth certificate, I was reminded not of Othello’s standing in Venice, but of the way in which Othello’s murder of Desdemona followed, like night upon day, his demand for evidence of her infidelity. “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore” (3.3.359). No one has yet accused this President of sexual infidelity or perjury – though some are now questioning his academic credentials, and it is clear that the Iago-like “carnival barkers” aim to undermine our trust and recognition of him, the man. As with Iago’s insinuations about Desdemona and Cassio, Obama is suspected of not being who he claims to be. And, as happens in Othello, this suspicion leads to a demand for proof, for concrete evidence.
Part of Iago’s trick, of course, is to discover and then exploit Othello’s desire for “proof.” Hence, the business about the handkerchief, a simple prop. Once Othello’s trust in Desdemona — his recognition of her — is turned into a matter of possessing the right evidence, into a search for proof that would legitimate or justify his trust, he is wrecked. As the philosopher Stanley Cavell points out in his book on Shakespeare and the ‘truth of skepticism,’ the relationship and its participants are doomed as soon as Othello starts demanding proof. Both Iago and Shakespeare knew this full well.
To recognize, or to trust, another cannot be an epistemic achievement — like classifying apples and pears, or checking a document, or distinguishing certain qualities from others. To search for evidence that one can trust is not only bound to fail, it is to admit that a failure of recognition has already occurred. The sad search for proof, evidence or documentation is just the destructive unfolding of that failure.
Is not what the so-called “birthers” suffer from most a deficiency of trust, a failure to recognize another, an “other”? Just as nothing is going to count for Othello as evidence that Desdemona loves him, nothing will “prove” to the “birthers” that Obama and the civic world he represents are trustworthy.
No amount of evidence you can give me to prove that you are ‘you’ is ever going to be enough. That is the truth of skepticism.