Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
Mislike me no for my complexion
(The Merchant of Venice, 2.1.1)
My dog the Wolf might hear a whistle that I cannot hear. The phrase ‘dog whistling’ is used in some quarters to denote a kind of coded message. On its face, the message might seem harmless enough, but it may convey a different and more sinister meaning to a target group. An extreme example is the use by those on the far edge of the Right of numbers or signals that represent their respect for Adolf Hitler.
In Othello, the villain employed a similar method in pursuit of three targets. He convinced the Moor, Othello, that his wife, Desdemona, had been unfaithful with Cassio. What techniques did Iago deploy?
Select your target
Ideally, the target will be both suggestible and vulnerable. Just think of people chanting ‘Lock her up’ at a Trump rally. Only real losers could be that unlovely – or trust someone as obviously devious as Trump. Iago knew that Othello trusted him.
…..He holds me well
The better shall my purpose work on him. (1.3.381-2)
When you have secured the trust of the target, you can exploit it – ruthlessly. There is a whole body of law on how we might deal with those who exert ‘undue influence’ on others in breach of trust – such as lawyers, doctors or priests extracting large gifts from the dying.
Othello is suggestible because he is utterly vulnerable. He is from out of town, and of the wrong colour and religion. Grounds for anxiety are baked in. Iago senses his leader’s fatal weakness. It is a complete lack of what Keats called ‘negative capability.’
…….And when I love thee not
Chaos is come again. (3.3.91-2)
…….to be once in doubt
Is to be resolved. (3.3.179-180)
Othello is tip toeing around a nervous breakdown, or worse. In Verdi’s Otello, he is often shown descending into madness. People who cannot tolerate doubt or uncertainty are ripe for the peddlers of the fake certainty provided by fatuous slogans or catch-cries. Trump is just the latest and most gruesome example of these snake-oil salesmen. His ends are not as gruesome as those of Mussolini or Hitler, but the basic premise is the same – deliver relief to the people and they will hail you. A lot of priests have worked on the same principle.
Iago senses that the brash openness of Cassio will make him an easy mark – and he knows too of Cassio’s weakness for the bottle – and skirt. Roderigo (‘a gulled gentleman’) is a weak gutless punk, part of the flotsam and jetsam that people called ‘populists’ live off.
And if you think that Othello was a weak and suggestible fool, and therefore very dangerous because he was in a position of great power – whom does that call to mind?
At first just insinuate – do not lie outright.
Iago begins his campaign in the classic mode – as if by chance, or accident.
IAGO. Ha! I like not that.
OTHELLO. What dost thou say?
IAGO. Nothing my lord; or if – I know not what.
OTHELLO. Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
IAGO. Cassio, my lord? No. Sure I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guilty-like
Seeing us coming.
OTHELLO. I believe ‘twas he.
There is no outright untruth – but the victim takes up the running. This is fundamental. The target must think that they are the prime mover. Once the poison has taken effect, the villain is free to scheme, lie and manufacture evidence – and create a snowball effect.
Take your time – the effect is cumulative
How poor are they that have not patience? (2.3.370)
Maintain deniability and a false front
The whole of the critical seduction in Act 3, Scene 3 is an example of deniability. It is why the President has someone fronting him with the press – in a system where he does not have to answer to parliament.
But I will wear my heart upon a sleeve
For daws to peck at; I am not what I am. (1.1.61-2)
Unnerve the target with ambiguous evidence or warnings about ‘evidence’
……I speak not yet of proof
Look to your wife. (3.3.196-7)
Othello wants ‘ocular proof.’ That may sound silly, but some demanded evidence against a cardinal other than that of the victim.
Make me to see’t or at least so prove it
That the probation bear no hinge or loop
To hang a doubt on – or woe upon thy life. (361-3)
Remember always that we are talking about the unseen
…….How satisfied my lord?
Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?
Behold her topped? (3.3.391-3)
Notice the descent to the gutter to drive the point home – and show that we are not just blokes, but mates. And we are dealing with people who are notoriously devious.
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They do not show their husbands…..…(3.3.202-3)
And when the target is rising to the fly, you can really tantalize him.
Or to be naked with her friend in bed
An hour or more not meaning any harm? (4.4.3-4)
The ultimate conspiracy theory is that the less evidence there is, the deeper must go the conspiracy. How could anyone get ocular proof of the ‘Deep State’? And credulous people see what they want to see.
……Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of Holy Writ (3.3.319-210)
Be prepared to play the fool – or the innocent
To hide his malice, Iago tries banter with his wife in front of Desdemona (2.1.100ff) Andrew Bolt has trouble with this ploy – humour is not his strong suit –but he gives it a run occasionally. A similar ploy underlies a lot of what Iago says to his target – ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’
Embroil others in your schemes
Born stirrers weave webs like spiders. Iago spins webs around Cassio and Desdemona to assist him in his central scheme to unhinge Othello and so take revenge for a lifetime of slights.
Your ultimate aim is to reduce your target to your level
Whether acknowledged or not, this was the mode of operation of terrorists like Robespierre, Stalin or Hitler. Their idea was to work on their victims so that the victims became complicit in their crimes and locked into their schemes. Iago does this with Othello who looks to Iago for advice and confirmation. His mind is so utterly splintered that even after the guilt of Iago has been shown, Othello is left to utter a lie that is as pathetic as it is outrageous.
An honourable murder, if you will
For naught I did in hate but all in honor. (5.2.294-6)
Othello killed his wife because he hated her because she had dinted his sliding pride. He simply compounds his guilt by saying that had the allegations against her been true – and he believed they were – he would have been entitled to kill her as a matter of honor. For such men then, being cuckolded, as the saying went, was like being castrated. Well, we don’t need Falstaff to remind us what a gaudy swine of a word ‘honor’ is. It may be the shiftiest word in our language.
It is a matter for you to see which of these techniques are used by politicians or media – especially Fox News or Sky News after dark – in the process known as ‘dog whistling’. One thing does seem clear. What dog whistlers do have in common with Iago is that they give the impression that for the most part they do not believe a word they say. Truth and loyalty are not on their agendas. They just want to stir people up for the sake of it. They belong to the Kingdom of Nothingness.
And if Iago was just another sour loser taking his wicked revenge for his failures in life on a creature of a different colour and faith – then we can we can see plenty of that around us here right now. One Nation is full of them.
Is there another example of a slighted petty office holder from the ranks? I said elsewhere:
The modern who might best stand for Iago was Adolf Hitler. He was a mean little man like Iago who never, on merit, got beyond NCO, but who aspired to more, and in his evil determination brought people down to hell and brought hell up to people. Iago and Hitler seduced people by playing on their fears and by working in a twilight of twisted appearance and rejected reality. Each was born a moral coward, but each was ready to accuse anyone else of being worse. Above all, neither could be happy in the presence of anyone who could be seen to be their better. It is a kind of small man syndrome written appalling largely.
There is a lot of that about, too.
In Billy Budd, Herman Melville looked at pure evil. Shakespeare did not give Iago an express Credo, but Boito and Verdi did. In part, it runs:
I believe in a cruel God
Who created me in his image
And whom I in fury name.
From the very vileness of a germ
Or an atom vile was I born.
I am a wretch because I am a man,
And I feel within me the primeval slime.
Yes! This is my creed.
I believe with a heart as steadfast
As that of a widow in church,
And the evil I think
And that which I perform
I think and do by destiny’s decree.
There is what they called the Anti-Christ.
Coleridge caused quite a stir when he referred to ‘motiveless malignity.’ I used the word ‘malice’ above. In The Common Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:
……when we call an act malicious in common speech, we mean that harm to another person was intended to come of it, and that such harm was desired for its own sake as an end in itself.
The last phrase savours of Kant, but in my view that exposition of ‘malice’ is apt for both Iago and the dog whistlers.