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Est. April 5, 2002
Apr 30, 2020 - Issue 816
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Would-Be-Tyrants and Tyrants

"Change is happening. The witches are stirring,
things are brewing outside the seats of power.
Even in our own homes and apartments. Underfoot,
the people are thinking critically and wisely about the
immediate future of this planet, about capitalism’s
fostering of heartlessness of racism and fascism. The
stamping out of life by the heartless is destroyed,
once and for all, on the battlefield."

“Why I can smile and murder while I smile.”

Richard III, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

In a corridor at the Democratic Convention are three witches, huddled together, exchanging pleasantries. Representing marginalized agitators—a student demonstrator, a black American, and an old communist—the threesome are as if invisible to others. But very real, the three agree to met again—with Mac Bird in toll.

In a hotel room at the convention, are the Ken O’ Duncs—John, Robert, and Teddy. John commences to share his vision of a Ken O’ Dunc dynasty. And although it’s time to select a VP, he assure Robert that he will always be second in power.

John is thinking of asking Mac Bird to join the ticket.

Robert, not pleased, points out that the “fat” and “hungry” look about Mac Bird makes him “dangerous.” But John is unwavering: Mac Bird it will be! “There’s much that must be seen and done and/heard/Let’s first bestow the title on Mac Bird.”

The Ken O’ Duncs exit and the witches take the stage. (Yes, it’s a play).

Reporting in from the streets of America were unrest is beginning to unsettle the established order, we learn from the witches that things are brewing outside of the action on stage. There’s a train of troops headed for “Viet Land,” for one. The first witch explains how he tried to sound the alarm by throwing leaflets, warning the men to “turn back.” They will fight and die in vain, otherwise.

But no one listens.

In LA, reports the second witch, economically poor and forgotten black Americans are protesting in the streets while the third witch reminds the other two to stick to our principles. Remember why we struggle. We must remember “lasting lessons.” While he proceeds to recount these lessons, they hear footsteps and are forced to retreat behind furniture that really doesn’t quite conceal them.

It’s Mac Bird.

They rise and face Mac Bird.

“Why, it’s a nigra and a filthy beatnik,” say Mac Bird to which his Crony responds, “And there’s a bum done up in worker’s duds.”

“All hail Mac Bird! All hail the Senate’s leader!”

“All hail Mac Bird, Vice-President thou art!”

“All hail Mac Bird, that shall be President!”

Having delivered their prophesy, the witches leave Mac Bird and his Crony to consider the implications of their words. But not for long are the two left to contemplate before Robert arrives to inform Mac Bird that he’s been chosen for the role of VP. He’s been chosen for the mere “honorary position”--it’s the one closes to the seat of power.

And, Mac Bird, in an aside, see that power: It’s himself! His image as president that he sees!

Thank John. “I do accept with deep humility.”

And the rest is history.

Or not quite.

It’s a play, written in 1965 by Barbara Garson. It began with a slip of the tongue. At an anti-war rally in Berkeley, California, she accidentally referred to Lady Bird as Lady Mac Bird Johnson.

Last week, a friend in Philadelphia sent this slim volume she stumbled upon it while cleaning her bookshelves. I was reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, the chapters of Richard III. The stay-at-home order during this Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has many of us thinking back to missed opportunities. What could have been prevented if only…

But we are here.

I missed this gem of a play, back in the day. I never heard of it before reading it. I would have been twelve at the time it’s written. But I remember the Kennedys.

The day of JFK’s assassination, I was sitting in a grammar school classroom and the crackling of the intercom made everyone look up at the dark brown box on the wall at the front of the classroom.

Kennedy… shot…

Our teacher sat down. I don’t think that a word was uttered as we waited for Mother Superior to return to the intercom and give us further word on the condition of the president.

I remember the following days, a series of events, each more surreal than the previous event that weekend. First the president shot dead in broad daylight. With witnesses and cameras looking on and one special piece of film that becomes the definitive film, capturing the very moment JFK is fatally wounded. Then the supposed single gunman, with single rifle, is shot dead—on television. With witnesses and cameras looking on as one special photo shows the moment Oswald is no longer eligible to testify anywhere.

Aboard Air Force One, Lyndon Baines Johnson is sworn in as president while Jacqueline Kennedy, still in blood-stained dress, looks on. Personal grief and national sorrow is on display and magnificently staged. I’ll never forget the single restless horse carrying the single soldier’s boot and the mournful bagpipes. At the top of the steps, there’s the widow and the two children, little John John, saluting the coffin.

Like yesterday! Searing images you never forget.

In 1972, I was old enough to be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, just as my uncle was drafted for the Korean War. I was certainly black enough to serve in combat—had I been born a male. But I grew up hearing the chanting of young Americans saying, “Hey, hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?”

I followed the war on television as CBS, NBC, and ABC had war correspondents interviewing soldiers and generals on the battlefield. In those days, Walter Cronkite guided Americans through the footage showing villages engulfed in flames as a result of napalm released from US aircraft. We witnessed, at home, miles away, burning bodies of children and their parents and grandparents. We saw the bombs fall and send up plumes of fire. We were angry when little children were left to cry alongside the dead bodies of their mothers.

Were they combatants?

Were the old men and women combatants?

You could smell the napalm in the morning, long before an actor in a Hollywood film alerted us to his peculiar love for the smell of victory.

We didn’t know JFK got the ball rolling, taking over the job from the defeated French, and Ho Che Min had to remind the Americans, too, that they had time. Patience. But Vietnam will not roll over and play dead for the US capitalists, either.

But it was the Southerner with the twang and arrogance and cockiness who exchanged a victory against poverty for a defeat in war. Ensuing at home, is a war to kill black activism, social justice, equality. Democracy.

It appears that a US president can smile and murder while at it!

Expand the poverty, LBJ!

“No honorable intentions in Vietnam,” King said to America.

“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong,” Muhammad Ali said to America.

Was anyone listening?

All total, 58, 200 Americans were killed, some 1, 690 were MIA, while another 303,630 sustained injuries, many of them lifelong.

In Vietnam, over 40,000 civilians were killed by the North Vietnamese army while over 250,000 lives were lost in combat.

Johnson took the heat.

When years later, I viewed the video of a tired and seemingly old Johnson on those phone calls with Robert McNamara, Johnson anguishing over the war, I could hear all the arrogance and cockiness of the chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” Not enough! Humans still died, and Americans went back to business as usual.

In Garson’s Mac Bird, Johnson and his wife are the Macbeths. Not complimentary but then you had to have been there when it all seemed to be falling apart. No foreseeable future in sight. Just death in Vietnam, on that ballroom floor in New York, on that balcony in Memphis, in a corridor at that Democratic Convention.

Lady Mac Bird and Mac Bird are two of a kind. Once he’s told he will be president, King, he precedes to that end. Nothing else matters. Oh, but do the witches not bring out the worst instincts in Mac Bird? They seem to concede power to him. Don’t they? Look at them, dregs from the lower rungs of American society, Mac Bird thinks.

Power means removing the sitting King, ending the potential dynasty from forming a session of Ken O’ Duncs!

On the way to becoming a king, Mac Bird becomes a murderer. And so it was with the Duke of Gloucester.

Shakespeare, Greenblatt argues, insisted that the “tyrant” was as human as the gentlest of souls among us. We create tyrants. And the tolerance of tyrants is our doing. We can’t seem to step aside from a system that makes us create and bow to tyrants.

Richard, writes Greenblatt, “is quite unprepared to unite and run a whole country.” He has his enablers, men who figure he’s their best bet for staying close to power if not achieving power, each for themselves. So for a time, these enablers, the only segment of the country Richard recognizes because, in turn, these are the men who he knows will help him ascend to the throne, all perceive in Richard and themselves a kind of kinship.

I’m reminded when Malcolm X talked about how blacks, unprepared you could say, to be human and free in mind and spirit from that of the master, referred to themselves and the master as “we.” As in, “what are we doing today, Master?” Or, “How do we feel today, Master?” The enablers see little to distinguish themselves from the Master, or in this case, Richard, except that he is first in line for the throne, and any one of them, Hastings, Catesby, or Buckingham, could be King after Richard.

The enablers “are people forced to choose among flawed alternatives.” Richard is okay, no better or no worse than anyone of them. They are certainly not competing with each other to become the next monk to enter a monastery. They are as human as is Richard. So all thoughts turn to the tower where Richard brother Clarence will be betrayed, that is, killed, as will the sons of Richard’s brother, the current King. Once King Edward dies, his sons will be next in the execution’s queue.

As for the people, elections matter, says Greenblatt. At a rally, Buckingham stirs the crowd: “Long live King Richard, England’s worthy King!” Who doesn’t want King Richard, candidate for King! Richard! (In Mac Bird, the ideas offered by resisting tyranny are squashed, marginalized. Silenced). In Richard III, the people will vote. “‘If you’ll have me...’”

And so, few of those valued by Richard are surprised by these murders, except for the men themselves. That is, Hastings, the first to go among them, is shocked that his head would be on the chopping block. He doesn’t even bother to try and escape the realm of King Richard, when it’s clear nothing will stop Richard from killing.

Hastings is killed. The others still follow Richard, obediently. Only Buckingham escapes when ordered by Richard to kill the children. Of course, he’s tracked and executed. No one of those valued members of King Richard’s country ascends to the throne in the end.

Richard himself is killed on the battlefield by the Earl of Richmond—the one who leads the “invasion force that will cast the tyrant down from the summit he should never have been permitted to climb.”

Tyrants, Shakespeare shows, are a pitiful lot. Shakespeare has Richard express his love and self-loathing, a “psychological conflict,” that forces the tyrant to recognize his “painful emptiness.” Finally, writes Greenblatt, “it is as if we look inside the tyrant and find that there is virtually nothing there, merely a few shrunken traces of a self that had never been allowed to grow or to flourish.”

What was Richard III if not a human without a heart?

In Mac Bird, Mac Bird doesn’t wait; he’s in a hurry to possess power. The prophesy of the three witches guarantees his right to hold the throne.

He and Lady Mac Bird invite John Ken O’ Dunc to their range in Texas. There will be a parade, folks there will love the new King. They do—love him. Ken O’ Dunc agrees to come and is charmed by the milieu. The parade route is all planned out.

Then, the scene. A voice in the crowd shouts, the car is coming! “Heads turn left and follow the path of an imagined vehicle across the stage.”

Then, all voices chime in: “He’s coming… he’s coming… he’s going… he’s going…”

“A shot rings out.”

Mac Bird is president!


What do we do based on what we suspect—because he had to be behind it! It had to be him! Robert is convinced! Evidence: Look at how he abuses power. No criticism “from within” is permitted. “He draws the line and all are forced to toe./ You’re with him or against him, get that/ straight.” Everyone’s “safety” demands the “overthrow of Mac Bird!

In Richard III fashion, Mac Bird resorts to organizing a series of incidents to eliminate the remaining Ken O’ Dunc brothers. In anticipation of Ted’s demise in a mysterious plane crash, Robert receives a wreath. But Ted survives.

Robert, conversing with one of his enablers, notes that Mac Bird is bold. The enabler points Robert’s attention to all the President’s men: They are terrified of Mac Bird! They “fear his one-man rule, his arrogance;/His secret slaughters stink upon his hands.” The country is calling for Bobby. Bobby, Bobby, Bobby!

Bobby is our savior! Bobby must win the Democratic nomination! Bobby is our man! Bobby, says one aide, “is the man who can unite/The tyrant’s foes, though they be left or right.” An open coup! Bobby can take out Mac Bird, bloodlessly!

In the end, Mac Bird, so overly confident in his victory, see it in full reign, already happening; and as such, he insist that nothing can stop him now—not the “peace paraders,” “Beatniks,” “Negroes,” “Latin rebels,” “Asian peasants” or complaining congressmen. Not even Robert Ken O’ Dunc!

No matter how many monks set themselves ablaze—now “I fear no foe with human heart.” Even though the “liberal power” has thrown their might behind Robert. “The lords of Eastern Industry and Banks” are willing to be led by him. And joining the industry and the banks are the unions in the middle and Negro troops, “bringing up the rear.”

And the tyrant! What about the tyrant!

Finally, Mac Bird and Robert Ken O’ Dunc met. Mac Bird repeats to Robert’s face what he’s been telling his own enablers. Victory isn’t for you, Robert Ken O’ Dunc! “I have a charmed career./ Now be it known/No man with beating heart or human blood/Can ever harm Mac Bird or touch his throne.”

End of narrative! Or so thinks Mac Bird. Robert is forced to make a reveal: Listen up, Mac Bird, the Ken O’ Duncs are without hearts! “Prepare to hear the/worst.”

At the birth of each son, our great patriarch, my father, “envisaged greatness” for each of us, his sons. To take over our roles among “world authority,” “our pulpy human hearts were cut away”! Don’t be alarmed! What, Mac Bird, seeker of power, did you expect? Without hearts, we powerful are destined to “rule” over other humans. It’s what the heartless do, Mac Bird.

How could anyone think otherwise?

Heartlessness is the marker. You are not up to it, are you? Robert Ken O’ Dunc to Mac Bird: “Your heartless, bloodless foe now lifts his spear.”

“My heart, my heart!” And Mac Bird falls, not before declaring his heart, “noble.”

Robert Ken O’ Dunc lifts “a fallen Mac Bird banner,” and off he goes, leading the way, “in a grand procession off-stage.”

Shakespeare: Tyrants and would-be-tyrants flutter on and off the world’s stage!

In Washington DC, on Earth Day 2020, a senate report, the result of an investigation ordered by Roy Cohn’s ghost, currently inhabiting the body of William Barr, is released. The tyrant-want-to-be has been uncovered as a liar. Again. The loyalty from his die-hard enablers seems to be faltering.

The senate investigation, led by Republicans, “effectively undercut those allegations” that, according to Trump, the “deep state” and those Democrats tried to undermine his victory (New York Times). Waving Confederate flags and toting rifles and guns, Trump’s supporters are not deterred. Critical thinking is challenging. So they cry, Listen to the King! And the media, without fail, listens, each and everyday when he proclaimed himself the King of New York! The King of Real Estate! The King among Men who knows how women, blacks, Latinx, migrant workers, and the homeless are to be disempowered and silenced.

But change is happening. The witches are stirring, things are brewing outside the seats of power. Even in our own homes and apartments. Underfoot, the people are thinking critically and wisely about the immediate future of this planet, about capitalism’s fostering of heartlessness of racism and fascism. The stamping out of life by the heartless is destroyed, once and for all, on the battlefield.

The next narrative will be that of the voices of opposition to tyranny in all its disguises. The people are preparing to return to the world’s stage.

Tyrants and enablers beware: your kind will be history! Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels and BC.
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