“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Sir Winston Churchill (paraphrasing a similiar earlier quote by George Santayana).
I am biased, because I am a literature teacher, but I would make a similar statement about studying literature. Those who don’t learn the great lessons from great literature at least open themselves up to making terrible mistakes that they shouldn’t have made.
My latest evidence for this belief: The Republicans of the US House of Representatives of the 118th Congress.
As I am writing this, the House of Representatives is engaged in multiple votes for the Speaker of the House, which must be decided before the newly-elected Representatives can be sworn in, let alone do anything for the people of the United States. Full disclosure: while I typically don’t side with the Republican party, I get no pleasure from this, as it hurts our entire country. And my comments are not intended to be partisan at all. If the Democrats or Libertarians or Independents were acting this way, I would say the exact same thing.
It was always going to be hard for a new Speaker of the House after the retirement of Nancy Pelosi, who is a contender for the House Speaker GOAT–Greatest Of All Time (particularly given that, as was famously said about Ginger Rodgers compared to Fred Astaire…well, maybe Pelosi didn’t do it backwards, but she definitely did it in heels). However, having multiple ballots for Speaker, which hasn’t happened in a century, doesn’t set up whoever ends up winning in a position of great strength.
Most of all, what this reminds me of is a book from the high school American Literature class that I’ve taught multiple times.
One of the books that we read is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Usually, there is at least one student who asks, “Why should I read such a long, old-fashioned book from the 1800s about a demonic whale and an industry that no longer exists?”
My answer is always some variation on:
- (Spoiler Alert) The book is NOT about the whale
- If more leaders/politicians read and actually UNDERSTOOD the lessons of this book, our society would be in much better shape.
Again, not to give away too many details for those who haven’t read this wonderful book, let me just say that the Captain of the book’s ship, the Pequod, is a lesson of what leadership SHOULD NOT DO. Leaders can’t afford to make things personal. Leaders need to look out for the well-being of those they lead, not just pursue their own egos or ambitions or desires or goals. Leaders should have vision, but should also keep in mind the reality of their situation. Leaders should not take their followers down a path that outsiders can see will lead to…let’s call it “undesireable results.”
I see no evidence that either side of the House Speaker battle has learned anything from Moby Dick I really wish they had, particularly Kevin McCarthy. Captain Ahab lost a leg in his battle to conquer the great white whale. How much is Representative McCarthy willing to give up in his battle? Will that end up serving him? or his party? or his country?, which is where I believe his focus should be. Or on the other side, the insurgents, do they actually have any plan about how to govern if, somehow, they get their way? Captain Ahab only focused on being against something. It is easy to simply vote against someone. Does the anti-McCarthy contingent have a proposal for what the country should be working towards, a positive vision for our nation? Or are they also simply another form of Captain Ahab, willing to lead a diverse crew under their charge to disaster if neccessary, simply to satisfy their personal aims?
Plus, that is not the only great literature story I see unfolding in this Congress.
My other real-life literary figure is Republican Representative-elect George Santos. He won a previously-held Democratic seat in Long Island, and characterised his success as an ultimate “American Dream” story. He is the son of Brazilian immigrants, as well as being the first openly gay Republican to win a House seat as a non-incumbent. He said that after attending a New York City public college as an undergraduate and earning a masters degree at NYU, he was employed by top-level Wall Street firms, then created a family-owned real estate portfolio of 13 properties as well as founding an animal rescue charity that saved more than 2,500 dogs and cats. In this story, he was a Republican diversity idol: a gay son of immigrants who came from a humble background, made a lot of money, and became the elected Representative of Democratic-leaning New York.
Until it all fell apart, because it seems most of his biography was based on falsehoods.
Yes, he was from Brazil. But while he had claimed he was the descendant of Jewish Ikrainians who escaped the Holocaust, turns out…no, his ancestors lived their entire lives in Brazil. Then he argued he didn’t say he was “Jewish,” but that he was “Jew-ish.” The colleges he claimed to have attended…turns out he didn’t. Wall Street firms he said he worked for…again, no, not really. The charity he founded…well, no evidence of that. The fortune he said he made and the multiple properties he claimed he had…well, his tax returns said he earned $55,000 (which is not bad, but it’s not millions), but sources say he lives at his sister’s house and there is no record of his ownership of said properties. His candidacy was fueled with a $700,000 donation from himself; where did that come from? He was supposed to be married and wore a wedding ring, but no gay spouse has come forward (although he was married to a woman in Brazil many years ago). Is he/was he in a gay marriage? Is he even gay (his Democratic opponent was openly gay)? The bottom line is that his entire public persona, the one he ran on, seems to be based on nothing but questions at best, lies at worst.
In the press, many have compared him to the The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is a 1955 book I’ve never read and a 1999 movie I’ve never seen. But that is not what calls to me. To me, he is the 2023 version of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald…another book we read in my American Literature class.
As that title character, Jay Gatsby appears to be a dashing, glittery example of the rag-to-riches story that is the epitome of the American Dream, rising from nothing and nowhere to become someone at the height of Long Island social and business circles. Again, I don’t want to include too many spoilers, but as the story unfolds, we discover the truth is much more unsavory than the glamorous and extravagent parties that draw hundreds of visitors to Gatsby’s huge estate each weekend. As appears to be the case with Mr. Santos, Jay Gatsby’s public persona is a fraud, and his vast fortune comes from shady and/or criminal enterprises. Just when Gatsby thinks he has won the prize that motivated his drive to the top of New York society, everything falls apart.
On Monday, The Washington Post wrote a story that initially described Mr. Santos’ first day at the House of Representatives as a nightmare. On the streets of Washington DC or in the hallways of the Capitol, he is hounded by the press who shout out questions about his lies and their possible consequences (he is being investigated by state and local district attorneys and Brazil has reopened an old case of financial fraud involving him). On the House floor, C-SPAN showed a man sitting alone on a deserted row in a room filled with people excitedly sharing their first day in a new Congress with family, friends, and colleagues. He appears to be treated as a pariah by all the other politicians except one: Kevin McCarthy, who needs his vote for in the race for House Speaker. But he is not a part of the ongoing negotiations between the pro- and anti-McCarthy factions. The press says that everyone knows that McCarthy has agreed not to raise issues about his false campaign statements in exchange for his loyalty. And, indeed, the only word the cameras caught him saying all day was “McCarthy” during the three roll call votes. Once Congress adjourns and he goes home, he is the butt of jokes by the late night comedians.
We don’t know what is going through his mind or what compelled him to do what he did. But from the pictures we could see that day, this was not a man celebrating his triumph in being elected to one of the highest offices in our land. We do know that Brazil had dropped the financial fraud case, even though he had confessed to his misdeeds, because they could not find him. Now, thanks to the extensive media coverage of what he calls his “embellished resume,” everybody knows exactly where he is.
But to me, the most incredible thing about his story is the fact that he LITERALLY represents the section of Long Island in which The Great Gatsby is set. He has even lied about his high school record, so who know where he went to school and whether or not he ever read The Great Gatsby. Could anybody running for office in New York’s Gold Coast, made famous in Fitzgerald’s novel, NOT be aware of the story of Jay Gatsby? But if he read the book, or at least watched the movie, did he mistake it for a game plan instead of the cautionary tale it was intended to be? How could he possibly present such a fantasy version of his life while running for public office in the very community Fitzgerald picked for his story about the dangers in doing exactly that?
In literary terms, Captain Ahab and Jay Gatsby are both considered to be tragic figures. That is, they are highly impressive men with vision and high goals and many admirable qualities who are brought low not by chance, not by circumstance, but by their own doing…a so-called “fatal flaw” in their character that undoes all of their great work. We study such figures in literature to learn from their mistakes, not to emulate them. Too bad that Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Santos seemed to have missed these lessons.