It was already my plan this week to write something about the controversy over the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York City, in which the assassinated dictator is dressed and made up to look like President Trump. Amid outcry from Republicans, some sponsors have withdrawn support from the company that staged the play. That outcry echoed the outcry against Kathy Griffin's photoshoot, in which the comic struck a Judith of Bethulia pose with a bloody effigy of Trump's head. In both cases, Republicans -- and, presumably, some centrists -- made the plausible argument that the outcry from the left would be even louder and more unforgiving had anyone staged a play or photoshoot in which President Obama was treated the same way. Republicans have perceived a double standard in artistic representations or invocations of living politicians at least since the 2006 mockumentary Death of a President, which imagined the murder of George W. Bush. My feeling at that time was that Republicans took that particular project too literally, that it could not be argued that the filmmakers, in imagining the killing of the President, had advocated it. It is, however, fair to ask whether most observers would regard a fictional assassination of Obama or Hillary Clinton with the same objectivity. If there is a double standard at play, it's based on an assumption by liberals and progressives that they never, ever would raise a hand in anger against an elected politician, regardless of what they imagine under artistic license. That is, they believe themselves more capable of detachment from the anger they express or sublimate through art. Apologists for Griffin or the Julius Caesar director most likely would argue that these people don't even wish Trump dead, much less wish to kill him themselves. But were Republicans to imagine the murder of any Democratic or progressive hero as a work of art or entertainment, they certainly would be accused of personally wishing Democrats dead, or at least of irresponsibly provoking someone willing to act on that wish. Why care what Ted Nugent says about politics otherwise?
Into this debate this morning burst a man tentatively identified as a white senior citizen from Illinois, whose Facebook page indicates support for Bernie Sanders and skepticism toward Trump's entitlement to or fitness for office. This man apparently learned that a team of Republican congressmen would converge on an Alexandria VA baseball diamond to practice for a game against their Democratic counterparts. He opened fire on them with an assault weapon, wounding the House Majority Whip and three other people before a security detail mortally wounded him. That, presumably, will put an end to all "liberals don't do that sort of thing" arguments, unless someone wants to dismiss the would-be assassin as a mentally ill loner or more extreme than that Facebook page suggests. Those arguments may have been more nearly true a generation ago, but "liberal" attitudes seem to have degenerated along with political discourse in general, to the point where many people believe with hysterical certainty that the Republican party actually wants them to suffer or die, or that the republic stands today at the actual brink of dictatorship. Despite all that, I'd still argue that a Shakespeare play or a celebrity photo stunt have relatively little to do with this escalating violence of spirit. They are symptoms rather than causes and can't seriously be considered causes of violence unto themselves. Nevertheless, liberal culture now has no excuse not to extend the same license or courtesy to anyone whose artistic vision encompasses violence against liberal heroes. They can't claim that imagining violence against the right is inherently less dangerous than imagining violence against the left. True liberals, I suspect, would hold out hope that art can channel the anger of the time, as felt on left, right, and points both outside and in between, by providing a relatively harmless release. Unfortunately, we more likely live in a time when people see no art anywhere, but propaganda everywhere they go. Everything is with us or against us, and there is little tolerance for enmity (or ambivalence) with the stakes so high for everyone. In Julius Caesar Cinna the Poet is lynched because a mob mistakes him for another Cinna, one of the conspirators against Caesar. The old play about the ancient world may yet prove a prophecy of where the relationship of art and life is headed now.