“The Prince” and Pandora’s Box

“The Prince” and Pandora’s Box

As I watched the second presidential debate, I turned to my husband and said, “This may not sound appropriate in a democratic republic—but when Barack Obama sits on that stool don’t you think he looks like an Eastern Prince?  You know?  The kind shown in Buddhist images of figures in the lalitasana, the ‘pose of royal ease’?  Look at how peaceful and serene his face looks.”  

Now some folks who are already whipped into a xenophobic frenzy about Obama being “too foreign” and “too exotic” for America would OF COURSE take that kind of a remark as an unforgivable lapse in judgment from an elitist East Coast academic such as myself.  To them, I can’t really offer an excuse, nor an apology.  A peaceful, relaxed figure exuding intellect, confidence and poise is something I desire in a world leader. ‘Nuff said.

But, it only occurred to me later—in re-reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980) this week—that McCain, too, reminds me of a prince.  Machiavelli’s prince.

Last week’s dismal news that the McCain-Palin ticket began encouraging race-driven insults and worse from their socially and economically panic-stricken audiences forced me to realize that the Republicans are not beneath any scorched-earth tactic (ahem, strategy) to help them gain the White House. They found loads of company on the low road, and discovered it makes for easy travel.  This was as true in Renaissance Italy as it is today.

As Greenblatt points out, “For Machiavelli, the prince engages in deceptions for one very clear reason: to survive.  The successful prince must be ‘a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.’…The initiated observer can always see beneath the surface and understand how appearances are manipulated by the cunning prince.”1  As Machiavelli explains it, it is in politics as it is in nature, the fox always eats the hens; yet, the sheer willingness of the victims still inspires outrage among the socially-responsible in society.2

In response to the troubling development in the Republican campaign, Georgia Democratic representative John Lewis publicly issued a condemning statement likening McCain and Palin’s tactics to George Wallace’s segregationist vitriol.  “What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse,” wrote Lewis.  McCain’s response was to voice disappointment in his one-time hero for stifling the national political conversation with his accusations.

I have to ask: If we are routinely asked to praise John McCain for his veteran-of-foreign-war status, should we not also exult  John Lewis for his service in another kind of war?  Did Lewis not also suffer physical and mental anguish in the service of ensuring American freedom and liberty?  Unlike McCain, Lewis suffered at the hands of fellow Americans instead of foreign armies, having his skull fractured by police in the “Bloody Sunday” March on Selma, Alabama.  But, I believe that a hero like Lewis deserves every bit as much respect for his exceptional, patriotic experiences.  And, I also trust that he knows racist rhetoric when he sees it, and that he does not wield his opinion on the subject lightly.

For now—after the outright public disgust and outrage with the tactics of McCain and Palin—they have reined-in their poisonous rhetoric out on the campaign trail.  But, it’s incredibly frightening to imagine that they’ve already opened a post-modern Pandora’s Box, that they’ve loosed rapacious greed, envy, vanity, slander, and lying into the midst of our revered political process.

The optimistic news is that—in the original myth—a once-curious, now terrified Pandora slammed the lid closed before “hope” could escape, which would have left mankind utterly inconsolate.

Ah, HOPE.  Thank heaven for it.  And, thank heaven we have another campaign inextricably linked with that very same saving grace.


1. Greenblatt, 14.  Machiavelli quotation, The Prince (NY: Modern Library, 1950), 64-65.

2. Greenblatt, 259, n. 3.

One Response to ““The Prince” and Pandora’s Box”
  1. Anne Deneen says:

    I love it that we have many of the same books on our shelves.

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