The American Tragedy

Greek tragedy was a popular and influential form of drama performed in theatres across ancient Greece from the late 6th century BCE. Because the festival was held in honor of Dionysus, it was held at the end of March when all the grapes had fermented into wine. The presentation took the form of a contest between three playwrights, who presented their works on three successive days. The plays were judged on the day by a panel. The tragic hero’s powerful wish to achieve some goal inevitably encounters limits, usually those of human frailty (flaws in reason, hubris, society), the gods (through oracles, prophets, fate), or nature. Aristotle says that the tragic hero should have a flaw and/or make some mistake. Focus is on psychological and ethical attributes of characters, rather than physical and sociological. The main goal of the festivals remained true to the original Dionysian purpose: catharsis.

Performed in an open-air theatre such as that of Dionysos in Athens and seemingly open to all of the male populace the plot of a tragedy was mainly constructed from Greek mythology or history, which we must remember were often a part of Greek religion. The aim of tragedy, Aristotle writes, is to bring about a “catharsis” of the spectators – to arouse in them sensations of pity and fear, and to purge them of these emotions so that they leave the theater feeling cleansed and uplifted, with a heightened understanding of the ways of gods and men. This catharsis is brought about by witnessing some disastrous and moving change in the fortunes of the drama’s protagonist. Both the audience and performers were able to purge their emotions during the course of the festivals, through the group reaction to the events onstage, thus achieve catharsis.1

By the early 400s B.C., Greeks had come to believe that the polis (the Greek city-state or community) was the perfect form of government, so its laws and customs were perfect guidelines for human behavior. But the laws of a city could not cover all of the rules. In some areas, the rules of life were uncertain. It was these ‘gray areas’ that became the subject of tragic plays. Writers tried to explore these areas to help other Greeks understand the rules governing the human condition more fully. Playwrights served the city by examining the work of fate in human life and the kinds of actions that would bring a bad fate. Tragedy centers on the action of a main character or protagonist. He is a person of many outstanding talents and achievements. But despite his merits, he also possesses a hamartia, a tragic flaw; a character fault or blind spot that prevents him from realizing that he has human limitations.

Events occur that cause this flaw to emerge and grow until the protagonist commits an act of hubris. He violates the natural, moral limits placed on human action. When he does, the gods step in and inflict nemesis, punishment on him (divine retribution), thus illustrating that the gods are just and that such immoral acts will bring divine retribution. They viewed fate as just by definition because it is part the world order. It did not have to conform to human standards of fairness or rightness. Besides, the main point of tragedy was that man could not resist his fate. In making that point, tragedy served two purposes. Intellectually, it simply informed the audience that order exists, and humans could not change or resist it. Emotionally, it instilled intense fear and pity at this fact. The deep emotion produced a catharsis or cleansing, not unlike that produced by participating in the mysteries of Dionysus.

The elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 can be viewed as inaugurating the formal period of neoliberal economic policy dominance at the state level. A financial elite set in motion a process to reinvent government and have the market to serve as a model for structuring all social relations. The idea is simple: The more money the people on top make, the more the people below will benefit from the dripping down of that prosperity, so-called trickle-down economics. The hidden agenda here, of course, is the rationalization of inequality. By linking the welfare of working-class Americans directly to the prosperity of the rich, the neoliberals protect the insulated interests of corporations and the wealthy without the fear of backlash. Inequality is not only the natural state of market economics from the perspective of neoliberal ideology, but it is believed to be one of its strongest motor forces for progress.

Neoliberals treat the market as natural, which allows natural science metaphors to be integrated into the neoliberal narrative. The market was replaced with competition as the defining character of human relations including redefining individuals as consumers. Today the market is considered an instrument of ‘natural selection’ that judges not on the basis of an individual’s ability to contribute to society, but on the basis of the individual’s ability to contribute to the production of surplus value and the accumulation of capital. Neoliberal ideology claims the market ensures everyone gets what they deserve. The myth of the market as an evolutionary device serves as an explanation and a justification for, the presence of competition in all parts of social activities. For the past forty years, we believed this evolutionary process to be a source of progress, but now we realize we bought into an illusion.

The United States constitution guarantees citizens the fundamental freedoms derived from the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Free elections are mandated every two years with replacement of the legislative branch, one-half the Senate and Congress every two years and the executive branch – president and cabinet – every four years. Americans believe their republic is the best system in the world and turn out to elect candidates who they believe will best protect their values. There are gray areas the laws of the constitution do not cover. The first institution to suffer is the House of Representatives as Republican Governors developed a systematic process of gerrymandering districts to ensure their candidates were elected. Voter restrictions represent ongoing efforts to disenfranchise poor people who tend to vote for Democrats. The Supreme Court 2011 decision in favour of Citizens United opened the campaign spending floodgates allowing economic elite to control who is elected.

When President Obama became president in 2008, Republicans were complicit in a plan to block his entire agenda during his time in office. President Obama was elected on promises that included economic change, which never materialized. Since the Great Recession, more and more voters are disillusioned with the system, with the disappearance of good paying jobs as manufacturing was outsourced to lower cost labour sources, while legislators in Washington remained gridlocked and unable to introduce new policies. The 2016 election was dominated by Donald Trump who was successful in tapping into the anger of workers who felt the system no longer understood or represented their concerns. The media failed miserably at their job vetting Donald Trump during the 2016 primaries, rather they made decisions based on viewership (and money). Consequently, Trump, one of the least qualified candidates ever, won.

With Trump’s election workers who voted for him see an opportunity for change – to bring back well-paying manufacturing jobs – promised by Trump. As an outsider unencumbered by ideology, and few IOUs to the party establishment, Trump appeared poised to deliver. However, the hero of any tragedy has flaws. He is a shape shifter who gives the audience in front of him what it wants, while not sweating the details of policy. Trump’s choices for cabinet posts indicate the true direction his administration is going. The workers will be deceived; he can not make good on his promises. Maintaining the Wall Street-Washington corridor ensures wealth continues to be distributed upward. The consequences of these decisions, the poor and people on minimum wage will continue to suffer. The economic divide between the wealthy and the rest of society will continue to grow.

A real life tragic hero has appeared in America. President Trump aspires to help those who have fallen behind, but he has a tragic flaw in his character – extreme individualism that leads to narcissism. With narcissism, the greatest problem is profound disconnect from reality. Such a person lacks empathy and does not recognize boundaries: personal, corporate or legal. The world viewed from an emotional rather than a rational perspective allows personal feelings to override the distinction between right and wrong. With self-tolerance, such an individual tolerates errors and flaws in their actions, thus influencing decision-making that creates the chaos that can bring them down. Typically when a tragic hero falls, the events evoke feelings of pity or fear, depending on the observer.

Will there actually be catharsis in America?  No, because people are divided. The neoliberals, without anyone knowing, have penetrated and restructured the identity of workers by pitting different segments of the working-class against each other. This polarization distracts workers from the activities of the economic elite. The so-called truth the people hear are beliefs developed by the oligarchs and their proxies to perpetuate the existing power structure regardless of who is president. The American tragedy is the fact that the constitution now protects the interests of corporations, not individuals.

Cartwright, Mark. (16 March 2013) Greek Tragedy.



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