Author: Omar

Complex and Sometimes Contradictory

I think Kushner does a good job of presenting many of his characters as human, that is to say complex and sometimes contradictory. In a play that is predicated in many ways on the clash between conservatism and progressiveness, we see a lot of compromise between the characters. For example, Hannah is a devout Mormon who is uncomfortable with homosexuality but helps and cares for Prior as a human being and begins to critically assess her own beliefs which prevents her from being easily categorized in a neat little box. Much to Prior’s frustration who exclaims ‘ I wish you would be more like your demographic profile’ (p.240).

A large part of modern political discourse can be characterized by a refusal to view people of the other side of the spectrum as complex which leads to greater polarization. There is a tendency to categorize ideas into an absolute right or absolute wrong and when we view the people who espouse those beliefs as simple manifestation of the most basic elements of these principles, we begin to categorize individuals in absolutes: people who are innately evil and those who are innately good.

Kushner challenges that notion with characters like Roy Cohn who is often repulsive but also sympathetic. Thus, even Cohn, with his lack of regard for other human beings, motivated by his greed and personal ambition at the expense of everyone else, evades a simple good and bad categorization. However, where do we draw the line? Can we and should we really disassociate individuals from their beliefs and principles, especially when we find those beliefs to be harmful and abhorrent?

In the video above, Hank Green (one half of the vlogbrothers) explains how maybe we can learn from the example of the sitcom Parks and Rec. Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope are two characters who agree on little about politics, government and pretty much everything else, but manage to cultivate a meaningful friendship. I haven’t actually seen the show but if it can offer some insight into how to navigate an increasingly politically polarized world in the age of Twitter, maybe it’s worth a shot.

Morality? Church of England Problem.

Yes Minister (and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister) is a British political satire sitcom that ran from 1980 to 1988 with a short-lived revival in 2013. The show follows the fictional political career of the, often naïve, elected minister Jim Hacker and his constant struggle to implement effective policy against the wishes of his permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, a career civil servant, who is committed to maintaining the status quo at any cost. An allegory for the tension between idealistic politicians and the established bureaucracy.  

Sir Humphrey is portrayed as a seasoned political operator who attempts to outmanoeuvre his opponents, and indeed the minster, through his use of obfuscation, jargon and outright manipulation to maintain control and ensure the perpetuation of the political system which he considers sacrosanct.

In the video attached, Sir Humphrey and Minister Hacker debate the role of morality in government and whether or not the civil service should give precedence to morality over political interests. Sir Humphrey puts forward the argument that government isn’t in the business of morality but rather its purpose is to guarantee the continuity of government so that it can maintain order and prevent anarchy.

How can we understand this argument in the context of Camus’ The Plague and other plague literature we have read this semester? Can it help us understand the motivations and rationale of a government that implements a quarantine or prevents external communication from within even when these policies cause so much grief to the citizens that government ostensibly serves? Does being in government necessarily mean trying to preserve order at the expense of the individual?

Once the plague comes into full force, we see the degradation of the individual as government policy becomes a numbers game and the citizens of Oran become a collective (e.g. no individual favours, no consideration of individual circumstance). All this in service of the greater good: ensuring the continuity of society. Does morality have a place in government when it conflicts with the perceived purpose of government? Perhaps more importantly, what is the purpose of government, especially in a time of plague?

I leave you with a quote from the perennially razor sharp and quick-witted Sir Humphrey: ‘ well, government doesn’t stop just because the country’s been destroyed! I mean, annihilation’s bad enough without anarchy to make things even worse! ’