Shakespeare Was Wrong

By Jack Canfora

“The quality of mercy,” wrote The Bard in his anti-Semitic romantic romp, The Merchant of Venice, “is not strained.” However, in my experience, the quality of mercy is often very strained indeed. Strained past to the point I think that, despite intense physical therapy, it may be out for the season.

I mean, I’d certainly like to think that the quality of mercy – OK let’s be specific – MY mercy, you know, droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, like it does, yada, yada, yada, yada. And there have been times, in a self-congratulatory mood, I’ve patted myself on the back for the relative lack of strain on my mercy. “See, look how unstrained my quality of mercy was when the waiter took so long to bring my bill, I can only assume he’d taken an online course in the interim. I would even go so far as to say the particular quality of mercy I just displayed would become the monarch (pick any you’d like) better than his/her/crown. Good for me.”

But this week, my Schadenfreude has outpaced my Shakespeare by a considerable margin. For over four years (how can it be only that?), many of us have endured daily irritations, infuriation, and even periods of inexpressible shame at what’s happened under the aegis of my government. There’s no need to recite the litany. Recalling the grammar and spelling mistakes alone could set my eye to twitching, let alone the egregious lapses in basic human empathy.

A segment of my fellow citizens only compounded the issue. For every action I found nauseating, they found gleeful. It went far beyond politics. It reached down into our basic essences, held them up to the light, and found them seemingly alien to one another.

As if this weren’t distressing enough, There was, at bottom, an ambient, unnamable exhaustion I felt constantly. The Coronavirus certainly didn’t help, and raised that noise to a higher pitch and volume, but it had been there for longer than I can remember. I almost can’t remember not having it.

And then, on Saturday, all the clouds that hung over our lives seemed to part. There was crying, there was rejoicing; there were spontaneous parties and dancing in the streets of America’s cities. It’s like when Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch, and all of us Munchkins’ world went from black and white to color. Even for those of us not in the Loillipop Guild (who, FYI: are totally stuck up jerks, anyway. And it’s totally who you know that determines how you get in. Don’t get me started.) It would’ve felt soooo deeply, Germanically satisfying to rub it in the faces of those who aligned against us. And I’d argue we’d have every right to.

But then, I realized, if there’s any hope moving forward, after all, like Dorothy found out, killing the Wicked Witch was only the start of her journey, someone has to be the group to stop the pattern. That a sense of getting even, so to speak, like so many things in life that leave one feeling giddy in the moment, leaves a real S.O.B. of a hangover. And just like other narcotics, it can be highly addictive.

I can’t hold it against anyone who reveled in the defeat of those who stood up for racism, cruelty, and a general lack of empathy. And let’s face it, there are many, many people whose cause for fury and indignation was based on real pain and mistreatment. My ire was merely philosophical. So, I can’t instruct anyone on how to behave. I can only try to remember Linclon’s words about the “better angels of out nature,” and try to heed them, as hard as that is. Not only because it’s the “right” thing to do, at least as some would have it. But because of something else Lincoln once warned us:

“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”

I believe that’s true now as it was then. And so I will try to opt for kindness, for some kind of common ground. I will no doubt fall short along the way. But still, I’ll keep trying. But don’t let Shakespeare fool ya. The quality of mercy is strained. For me, at least. As strained, and uncomfortable as a middle school dance. Nonetheless, the music keeps playing, and the dance goes on.

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20 thoughts on “Shakespeare Was Wrong

  1. Jack, this is a well-written and balanced perspective of how to be a good winner. I have a policy never to hate anyone, but the last four years have caused me to fail to live up to this policy. I have found myself wishing all sorts of calamities to befall a certain orange-haired misanthrope. I decided to settle on wishing he would go away and play golf indefinitely. Is that too mean-spirited?

    I believe that the hardest thing we will need to do in order to solve our many problems is to learn to work together again. I think the “unity” message is the right message for our time.

  2. Forgiveness. It’s a value I like to think I hold close to my heart but in reality has gone begging on more occasions than I care to admit. Being the bigger man means dropping our pride. Seeing through the labels and understanding that in different shoes – with a different upbringing – we might not be any different to those you call enemies. Thanks Jack. Another great post

  3. Interesting! Something I’ve often wondered about is the limits of mercy. I would’ve agreed with you in saying yes, our mercy can be strained because we’re human. However, before accepting that it’s being strained, I think we should also look to whether that mercy was being misdirected, consequently being strained faster than it should’ve been.

    I think it makes more sense to give an example. Someone does wrong. We let it slide and hope to settle it compassionately, but they resist and do it again. How many times do we let it go? We didn’t know our boundaries, and so we didn’t see an end. I feel like mercy is as much about ourselves as it is others. We’re not sure of what we are and aren’t willing to let go and our responses to different shortcomings, and so we direct it to all the places that leave us drained without relief, leaving none left for those places that deserve it.

    But yeah, I’m not faulting those who they did what they could to show compassion but found they couldn’t anymore.

  4. I dropped over from Hetty’s site. I’m a centrist, I have no “side” and have been around to know politics and politicians, winners and losers are the result of our country’s 12-second attention span. Yesterday’s criminals and their misbegotten “mandates” and failures are forgotten sooner than a righteous morning dump after the spritz of Glade. But this bullshit right here – “those who stood up for racism, cruelty, and a general lack of empathy.” is no better than the arrogant, imperious, intolerant posture of those you condemn. And is at the basis of what is wrong with both sides of the American abyss. Name-calling from one side is somehow more enlightened than another? In an election cycle where the only platform was personalities? Maybe a little in there for a catastrophe of a “health care system” that by its structure created an arbitrary caste system? Come on. We can do better than this. If it strains your mercy so hard to embrace your fellow countrymen beyond the sloganeering and hype, then stick to the shallowness of not bitch slapping your slow waiter. We were put here to heal each other, not throw 70 million people into a pile of unworthiness without understanding they might be more than the denounced puppet. How about for now I put you in the pretend liberal as long as it’s comfortable and your check is on time Uncle Tom Me Too pile. Okay with you?

    The tell? Your minor rant on privilege followed by the conceit of pardoning your waiter. Politics and name-calling haven’t made everyone too blind to read through quasi-academic circuitous rhetorical posturing. “The Merchant of Venice” is about people, and a historically accurate presentation of their judgement laden treatment of one another. Four hundred and twenty-some years ago. Could have been written today. Like your post, eh? Good luck with that mercy thing. Pray you don’t ever need a very deep well of it.

    1. Sorry we disagree. For a centrist with no party affiliation, you seem awfully angry about a post calling for
      unity, despite the unprecedented level of divisiveness the current president not only created, but deliberately stoked by playing to our base instincts.

      We all need mercy. I’m sure I will too. but no doubt not as much as those who oversaw and/or approved of tearing 600 children from their parents who now cannot be reunited with them. Im dubious your flip image of a “spritz of Glade” will resolve their dilemmas, nor quell the moral stench of that unqualified humanitarian catastrophe.

      You and I also differ on what constitutes name calling. For me, it is resorting to ad hominem attacks with no relevance nor evidence. It isn’t name calling, in my view, to state as a fact that which is plainly true. To willfully support an administration that has so cavalierly displaced and mistreated so many children is an act that is tangibly cruel and lacks basic empathy. I fail to see how anyone could view it objectively otherwise, nor do I care to hear some ugly rationalization by anyone would try to argue against it.

      At any rate, anyone who can in good conscience equate the last four years to anything preceding it in American history is a person whose worldview is so different than mine, that there is no hope of meaningful dialogue here. I hope the vein-bulging rage you felt over reading my post asking for people coming together was eased a bit by this invective-fueled jeremiad. Best of luck to you.

      1. Dissing half your country (persons) is still dissing. If we were discussing specific incidents it could get worse. You speak of mercy in the same breath as making it seem an insurmountable task. What I’m angry about is lump generalizations aimed at divisiveness. Opinion still stands. You can’t have it both ways nor does the “they went thataway” misdirects see how bad they were nonsense work. On the face of your argument you called out 70 million people with a generalization. An act for which there is no rationalization.

      2. Mercy, by definition, presupposes fault, no? Indeed, it REQUIRES clear fault in order for it to be bestowed. This seems beyond dispute.

        Naming said faults in no way is “having it both ways.” If there were no moral crimes (and I would argue there incontestably were, such as supporting a man who referred neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” or referring to Q-Anon as people “who love their country” is at minimum a tacit endorsement of such behavior. At the very least, it’s not a deal breaker), does indeed show a casual acceptance of cruelty and racism.

        You blithely lumped both parties in the same category during your first post. That is both intellectually and morally lazy. We’re not talking about differences on the ideal levels of capital gains taxes. If there is a categorical wrong taking place, it and its enablers must be called out.

        This in no way is antithetical to the notion of mercy, nor of moving forward and trying to find common ground.

        I’m still trying to tease out what “they went thataway misdirections” is meant to imply; I think it was an attempt at wit? However, that not misuses the word “misdirection,” it would strain the definition of “wit” beyond recognition. You’ve proven more effective rhetorically when you go for the near foaming at the mouth with indignation frontal assaults and patently false equivalencies.

        Again, mercy not only doesn’t contradict calling out failings and misdeeds, it cannot exist unless those misdeeds are named for what they are.

        Anyway, I have grave doubts about my ability to convince you of my position. You would be well-advised to take a similarly skeptical outlook on your chances of swaying me with further posts.

        I hope you have a happy and safe Thanksgiving.

      3. You’re workin’ way too hard. If you seriously believe either side of this great divide has a higher moral ground then this conversation is pointless. The misdirect implications is all the junk you’ve laid out as “proof”. All the inhumane actions of an administration, not individuals. This is priceless – when you go for the near foaming at the mouth with indignation frontal assaults and patently false equivalencies. I have made no frontal assaults. I reject the current trend to lump 70 million people into a sweeping generalization of those possibly unworthy of your struggle to forgive them. So here’s an assault. Who the fuck
        are you to decide who’s worth forgiving. Where is your higher moral ground? That’s it. I think both sides of this divide are running on rhetorical air cheese, you and those righteously indignant against the “wrong thinking others” among them. Pick this up. You found it a strain to find mercy for half your countrymen based on what? A childish, potentially dangerous loose cannon figurehead? One of these days folks like you will decide it’s not about personalities, but the country. The person standing next to you and their values, even if different. I take exception only to the divide and to that which furthers it. There’s no way for you tap dance out of “considering” mercy. I will own thinking of your bullshit among many others from either side as arrogant, imperious, divisive, derogatory, elitist and destructive. Half this country doesn’t need your mercy, it needs your help. As you need theirs.

      4. I was right! We failed to persuade each other. You seem oblivious to the notion that the Trump administration is unique in modern American history in its unvarnished embrace of white supremacy, the treatment of immigrants as essentially inhuman, and host of other reasons, some of which I laid out in previous notes. Those are the things I find it a strain to forgive.

        Your mindset is frankly chilling. Your painfully reductive statement is it’s not about people but country is among the most morally fatuous statements I’ve ever read. Who comprises the country? People. Many of whom looked at four years of cruelty, buffoonery, and tacit (often more than tacit) endorsement of hatred and said, “Sign me up for four more years of that.”

        You inquired as to where my higher moral ground is. It’s right above you, in the previous paragraph. If you don’t see a deep and chilling problem with that behavior, then, at minimum, you’re an enabler of it. I’m answer to another of your questions, there the fuck I am to decide whether or not to forgive someone. E

        By your obscene logic (for someone who repeatedly calls me arrogant and elitist, you’re awfully free with terms like “folks like you”), we had no right to blame the supporters of Hitler because there, and here I quote you, there are “no personalities, only country.” What do you mean by “personalities”? Do you you mean people’s individual choices and actions? There’s a well-known litmus test for determining whether or not an act is morally acceptable or not. The fancy term is the “Categorical Imperative,” but I know your disdain for education, so I’ll boil it down to this: “What if everyone did the action I’m contemplating?” If the outcome is demonstrable harm, you have your answer.

        you consider it arrogant and elitist to call supporters of an active enabler of neo-Nazis arrogant and elitist, then sign me up. It does leave me wondering where the line in the sand is for you. We know it isn’t at enabling white supremacy. Your flip abnegation of people’s autonomy and choices would, logically, excuse almost anyone of anything.

        You’re right: there is a great divide in this country, and my post said that lingering on these horrible things others supported isn’t tenable if we wish to find any common ground.

        If you’re willing to think opposition to that, naming it is comparable to, say, well, I frankly can’t think of a good analogue in recent American history, then there’s no reasoning with you on moral grounds. If opposing the even tacit support of rank cruelty and prejudice is arrogant, if being elitist means calling out naked demagoguery and those who buy into it makes me an elitist in your view, I’m fine with that. Because you’ve demonstrated an utterly incoherent moral argument, which belies a lack of basic ethical principles that renders your anger and frustration at me something I’d happily put at the top of my resume.

      5. The Trump Administration was no more corrupt than any other, he was just more out front with his nonsense. And that’s my issue. You can track big pharma, energy, the military industrial complex et al through any administration you like. Talk cruelty? Obama care was a blatant and arbitrary caste system. “Free” ain’t free when it buries small businesses and independent contractors, places the burden on those who can least afford to lose income because they fall $1 over an arbitrary line? While the rich can afford it, the poor get it for free? What kind of “moral” bullshit is that. My whole point is you act as though 70 million people are all racists, white supremacists, intolerant, egregious inhumane assholes dragging 13% of the population around in chains behind their pickup trucks and I can assure you that is not the case. Anymore than you and whoever you choose to join you in your artificial moral elitist supremacy are all one and the same, struggling to cope with other points of view. I’m coming at this from hey, split down the middle means there is no moral mandate for either side and maybe as a country we need to listen instead of waving a superiority candle. Only possible biblically, but split the child to stop the “moral” uproar of figure out not everyone who buys target ammuniton online is a crazed racist, why 14% of the population commits 60% of the murders. Calling out generalities, even like those is counterproductive. Next time there’s 300 kids in a hot house on the border instead of running your mouth with righteous idignation invite them over for dinner, take ’em to WalMart. THEN and only then can you preach mercy and humility. Oh wait, you want you government to do that dirty shit for you, right? You pay taxes. Are there no prisons? Are ther no workhouses?

      6. I’m sorry, but your last sentence is so laughably, demonstrably untrue, I’m not gonna bother with much of the rest.

        It’s funny, though. You claim no political affiliation, yet your beliefs are clearly to the right. Your initial claim of neutrality is finally stripped away and revealed as the lie it is. It explains why you took such umbrage. Small wonder that in your many posts, you blithely ignore all of my points. No mention of the tacit encouragement of white supremacy or the description of Q-Anon as “patriots.” Now that you’ve finally been honest about your point of view, the pieces fall into place.

        And yet, ironically, you close with Dickens, who would’ve found your politics abhorrent. Indeed those last lines you cite are an indictment of the cruelty of your belief system.

        But let’s compromise in the spirit of Thanksgiving. You can think me an arrogant elitist, which is fine by me, just as I will think of you as morally rudderless, slightly unhinged man who may not be at all racist, but for whom aiding with avowed racists is utterly acceptable.

        I think our time together has run its course. Best of luck

      7. I’m sorry, but your last sentence is so laughably, demonstrably untrue, I’m not gonna bother with much of the rest.
        Of course not. It’s distasteful and uncomfortable. Like moral supremacy based on generalizations. I await your mercy, regardless of who I voted for. I’m against prejudice in all forms. Yours in particular. Carry on. I hear smug is all the fashion. You’ll do well.

  5. Yes mercy has not been the natural course to take after this four year fiasco. Yet the more I focus on this issues I defend rather than the personal enemies I abhor, the easier it gets to forget and forgive.

  6. Knowing that to choose kindness is the right decision in all situations does not make it easier to make the choice every time.

    Thank you for sharing.

  7. Just revising this thread. I wonder how well Phil’s approach of attacking either side is wrong. Just asI can’t help wonder if he can find an analogous example fro the left (the only ones I can think of, gross such as the Weatherman and anarchists like Goldman, later renounced their tactics, whereas these traitors (that’s a fair adjective, no?) continue to be enabled by the overwhelming majority of the GOP. I’ve never disagreed with much the GOP has had to offer, but I didn’t fundamentally dispute that they cared for our country, its Constitution or its norms until, as the old saw goes, the chickens have come home to roost, (Man of whom boosted on the Capitol, bulidgin a scffolaf form which to hang Mike Pence, while others brutalized and in case murdered a police officer, and smeared feces on the building. Is the reporting of these facts and denouncing that constitute and unfair attack? Yet, all but a few continue to pretend the Republican party for what it is: a cult of personality. I’ve rolled mt eyes at the hyper-woke on the left so often I’ve need to have my retinas reattached, but they are a section of the Democratic Party, not it’s standard bearers.

    On top of which, Phil’s thesis is demonstrably morally and intellectually fatuous. Again, this isn’t an attack on you, but your poorly reasoned motivations for your ad hominem attacks on me. Should we not denigrate the reliefs of those who believe the earth to be flat? Would that an “elitist attack”? By your rational, it ipso facto has to be.

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