No pollster or pundit can compete with an artist when it comes to analyzing mindsets or forecasting outcomes. In his 1980 book, Side Effects, Woody Allen foresaw the mental state of many 2016 American voters: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
World writers have always explored dangerous choices and disastrous consequences. Through humor and pathos, Sophocles, Shalom Aleichem and Woody Allen explain our current leadership crisis better than any political analyst. In Bananas, Tevye’s Daughters, and Antigone, they expose the forces that threaten our liberty from both the Right and the Left.
In his 1971 film, Bananas, Allen reveals how a crisis of leadership unfolds. It is unleashed by college activist Nancy (Louise Lasser) who is disappointed by her affair with indecisive Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen), just as today’s young liberals are discontented with President Barack Obama (who has neither forgiven college loans nor provided lucrative jobs). Nancy craves an authoritarian type this time, who can ignite her passions with his “true leadership potential.” To reinvent himself, Mellish flies to the banana republic of San Marco where he studies machismo with the fascist general Vergas and the communist rebel Esposito. The first tries to assassinate him; the second kidnaps and turns him into a guerrilla fighter. When the Esposito rebels overthrow the Vergas thugs, the liberator goes power mad and orders the liberated to change their underwear every half hour and wear them outside their clothes for checkups. The betrayed masses proclaim Mellish their ruler and he returns to America sporting a Fidel Castro beard. It lights Nancy’s fire and gets her back in the sack.
Woody Allen understood revolutionary fever better than Gloria Steinman who was shocked that it could burn the bonds of sisterhood and make young women choose Bernie over Hillary. But even Allen couldn’t have predicted that the fiery orator whose Marxist rhetoric would inflame millions of millennials would resemble the type that Alvin, in Annie Hall, feared he might age into: “One of those guys with saliva dripping out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria screaming about socialism.”
Allen’s literary grandfather, Shalom Aleichem, painted the Russian revolutionaries who steal the hearts of Tevye’s daughters as young and handsome.
But their speeches about class warfare sound remarkably like those of Bernie Sanders. “You seem to be somewhat prejudiced against the rich,” Tevye tells Perchik, who seduces Hodel (in Tevye’s Daughters, on which Fiddler on the Roof is based). “Those rich people can go to hell!” the young socialist replies, blaming them for all the world’s ills, just as Bernie blames “Wall Street” and “the billionaire class.”
No one can “literally do anything of significance for the American people,” Bernie warns the Los Angeles Times editorial board (March 23, 2016) “unless there is a political revolution” against “the ruling class.” When editor Goldberg asks Sanders what exactly he will do during the first 100 days of his revolution, Bernie answers that he will tell Mitch McConnell, “Hey Mitch, look out the window.
There’s a million young people out there, now!” When Tevye asks his future son-in-law how exactly his plans for wealth redistribution will pay the bills, the Russian Jewish socialist is as vague as the American one: “He becomes angry and tries to tell me that money is the root of all evil... the source of all falsehood... and he gives me thousands of examples and illustrations that make no sense whatsoever.”
Shalom Aleichem’s satire of political zealots and their reductive view of the world is gentle compared to Woody Allen’s darker brand of humor. Faced with the extreme injustices of Tsarist Russia, Aleichem totally got the appeal of a socialist paradise with “no rich, no poor; no master, no slave; no lamb, no shears; no cats, no mice....” But then Aleichem, unlike Allen, did not live to see the purges and famines and gulags that would destroy millions of lives in the Soviet hell.
In Antigone, written in 441 BCE, Sophocles tells us everything we need to know about crises of leadership.
During periods of uncertainty and anxiety, just as in America today, vulnerable citizens are tempted to trade freedom for security. At his first rally, Creon, the new king of Thebes, promises to make his citizens’ safety his priority: “When I see danger threatening my people/I shall declare it.”
Immediately, however, the autocrat proceeds to divide and conquer. “No man who is his country’s enemy/Shall call himself my friend.” He demonizes his nephew Polynices as an enemy of the people, scapegoating him as unworthy of basic human rights – just as Hitler did for “the parasitic Jews,” Stalin “the corrupt capitalists” and Trump the “dangerous Muslims.”
“He is to be left unburied, left to be eaten/By dogs and vultures, a horror for all to see,” is Creon’s decree.
Only Creon’s niece, Antigone, defies the ruler’s decree and buries her brother. Like Sanders and Trump, the strongman is a materialist who thinks money is at the bottom of all things: “Those men that did this, I’m positive/they were seduced with money.” Through her action, Antigone contradicts this low view of humanity and affirms Abraham Herschel’s higher vision: “Man is not man because of what he has in common with the earth, but because of what he has in common with God.”
Bravely, the young woman defends the inalienable rights upon which democracies are based: “I did not think your edicts strong enough/To overrule the unwritten unalterable laws/Of God and heaven, you being only a man.”
But when it comes to punishing those who disagree with him, Creon sets himself above the law: he sentences Antigone to death, heaping tragedy upon his family and proving that “tyrants love to have their own way/regardless of right and wrong.”
“As we look ahead into the next century,” Bill Gates once said, “leaders will be those who empower others.” By contrast, autocrats present themselves as powerful parents who will fix our problems and rebuild our lives. Sanders promises a government that will take control of our health, education and welfare. Trump promises a personality that will take charge of our wealth, power and safety. If we join his socialist revolution, Bernie will pay our bills; if we join his populist revolution, Donald will vanquish our enemies. Like Woody’s Allen’s Esposito, authoritarians want to infantilize us, treat us like children dependent on their protection and control.
“Remember, you all raised your hands, you swore. Bad things happen if you don’t live up to what you just did,” Trump uses the carrot and the stick on his audience. If freedom is, as John Stuart Mill defines it, “a condition of human affairs that brings human beings nearer to the best they can be,” or as Alexis De Tocqueville describes it, “the source of all moral greatness in man for it alone provides the sphere of action required by human individuality,” the security for which autocratic leaders, the enemies of freedom, tempt us to trade it diminishes and degrades us. As America’s savvy French friend warned in On Democracy, “Despotism often presents itself as the repairer of all the ills suffered, the supporter of just rights, defender of the oppressed, and founder of order. Peoples are lulled to sleep by the temporary prosperity it engenders, and when they wake up, they are wretched.”The author is English Department chair at Touro College, Los Angeles. She is the author of Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daughter Story.