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Age of Treason

DeWitt Cheng

To beguile the time,

Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,

Your hand, your tongue. Look like the innocent flower,

But be the serpent under‘t. 

— Lady Macbeth to Lord Macbeth, Tragedy of Macbeth,  I.5 

If you have been following the January 6 Committee hearings, with their revelations of dark deeds in high places, you have undoubtedly been relishing the prospect of upcoming criminal charges and, at last, relief from our current political and cultural hell. Wishful thinking again? By this point, true American patriots are so used to the slippery escapes and prevarications of 45, his corrupt GOP allies and henchpersons, his shameless sycophant media thought leaders, and his mindlessly loyal sucker hordes, that it is difficult to foresee any long-awaited triumph of justice. The old compensatory fantasies of heaven and hell regain some appeal. Think of the Trump traitors as Dante would have, devoured for eternity by a triple-faced Lucifer, like the iconic traitors, Brutus, Cassius, and Judas, in Hell’s Ninth Circle, as depicted by an anonymous medieval hand. Will we moderns be granted a cathartic secular spectacle like the perp walk of Greek fascist goons in Costa-Gavras’ 1969 political thriller, “Z”? Merrick Garland, in your Attorney General’s box seat, did you enjoy the seven-episode miniseries?


Treason was for Dante the ultimate crime against God and man. In the real world it and its co-conspirator, sedition, have a checkered history. It is the victors of any political conflict who normally decide: might makes right, as the morally and intellectually challenged right wing — including all those cosplay cowboys decked out in body armor, brandishing baseball bats and bear spray, lusting for mayhem — never ceases to proclaim, at least when not playing the aggrieved-victim card with equal gusto. 

Etymologically, treason derives from tradere, Latin for ‘to deliver or hand over,’ referring to the Christians who betrayed their coreligionists during the persecutions under the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 305. They set the stage for bloody but inspiring martyrdoms in the Colosseum. During the age of medieval kings, treason was construed as betrayal of the sovereign.


John Singer Sargent, “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,” 1889, oil on canvas, 87 x 45”. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Popular examples from English history include Henry VIII’s adulteresses Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and James I’s Gunpowder plotters. After the English, American, and French revolutions weakened or displaced monarchies, treason became a crime against the people and nation — though the purges of Robespierre, Stalin, and Putin were hardly fair-minded let alone democratic.


Henry Perronet Briggs, “The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the Taking of Guy Fawkes,” ca. 1823, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Lang Art Gallery, Newcastle

In its early struggle against enemies, foreign and domestic, the United States enacted legislation that sought to quash dissent. John Adams, our second president, signed the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, which, among other measures, criminalized “false, scandalous and malicious writing” about Congress and the president — though curiously, not the vice president, Adams’s chief rival, Thomas Jefferson. Upon his accession to power, the third president allowed the act to expire and pardoned Adams’s jailed opponents. Parts of it remained in effect, however, to be used later against suspected enemy aliens during the World Wars. The Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 and the Alien Registration Act of 1940 may have been military necessities to suppress communists and fascists regarded as wartime security risks, but such measures were also abused from time to time. The 1919 arrest of the Socialist candidate for president, Eugene Debs, who had advocated non-compliance with the draft during the Great War, is the most notable instance of such a miscarriage of justice. Debs, addressing the judge at his sentencing:

Your honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the form of our present government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in the change of both but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means ...


I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years, are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul ...


Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the [moral] right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.


Justin Latimer, “Eugene V. Debs, prisoner number 9653” poster

Wilson, whose 1916 campaign boasted, “He Kept Us Out of War,” wrote:


While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them. ... This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.


It was, improbably, Wilson’s Republican successor, Warren G. Harding, who commuted Debs’ sentence, though he didn't issue a pardon. It has been recently postulated that if Gerald Ford had commuted rather than pardoned Nixon, a precedent for executive immunity from prosecution would have been avoided. Donald Trump, whom the canny and cynical Nixon once declared to be a viable presidential candidate, might even have been slightly restrained.


Treason, then, is a serious crime that is sometimes treated unseriously, or abused for political reasons. After watching the January 6 Committee hearings, sixty percent of Americans favor bringing charges against Trump for his many crimes, which must include by any reasonable standard the crime of treason. If the MAGA thugs are guilty of seditious conspiracy for the January 6 insurrection, then they had leaders and conspirators. The true culprit is of course the charlatan who hypnotized them and invited them to his ‘wild’ gathering. It’s not presidential counsel John Eastman, who is serving as Trump’s designated fall guy, much as John Dean was Nixon’s. If this is not treason, what is?

Commentator David Rothkopf has compiled, in [spoiler alert!] “Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump,” a charge sheet (p. 220) that the Department of Justice, once roused from its slumbers, might want to peruse: obstruction of justice, attacks on the rule of law, assault on freedom of the press, pathological lying, unfitness for office, incompetence, racism, sex crimes, concentration camps along our southern border, corruption, attacks on our most important allies and alliances, the systematic destruction of our environment, the violation of international treaties and agreements, the embrace of our enemies, the defense of murderous dictators, the serial undermining of our national security, nepotism, attacks on our federal law-enforcement and intelligence communities, fiscal recklessness, degradation of the office and of public discourse, support of Nazis and white supremacists, the dead in the wake of the coronavirus and at the border, turning the U.S government into a criminal conspiracy to empower and personally enrich the president and his supporters, and the weaponization of politics in America to attack the weak. 


Rothkopf continues that, left free from prosecution, Trump represents “the threat of worse to come. It is the damage that cannot be undone. It is the pathology that has overtaken our politics and our society, the revelation that 40 percent of the population … and an entire political party are profoundly immoral.” One might almost believe that through fear, greed, laziness, and a refusal to face reality we blithely elected the Antichrist.


Marc Burckhardt, “Canto 34: Lucifer,” Illustration to “Dante’s Inferno,” book published by The Easton Press, acrylic and oil on wood panel, 9 x 11”

How did this new Sleep of Reason come about? For many Americans, the American Dream based on rational, secular capitalism has failed. This has been partly due to the atomization of society over the past forty years. The fantasy of an idealized past that never existed — Ronald Reagan’s Disneyland, Dixon, Illinois — has captured the minds and hearts of many soi-disant Christians who comfort themselves with white supremacy myths and militaristic sexual fantasies that do not exclude the approach of a nuclear Armageddon.


Henri Fuseli, “The Sleepwalking Lady

Macbeth,” 1784, oil on canvas, 87 x 63”

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt has pointed out that in the “Tragedy of Macbeth,” written after the death of Elizabeth I and during the reign of James I and VI — King of England and Scotland — reflects the paranoia of English society at the time, torn as it was between Catholicism and Protestantism. The new monarch was descended from the real world line of Macbeth’s fictional friend, Banquo (whom he murders in the play), and James believed in witches to the point of legislating against them, even writing a book on the subject, “Demonology.” “The kingdom of evil lies very close to Christendom,” he wrote elsewhere. 


In addition, James, whose parents came to violent ends, had barely escaped assassination in the aforementioned Catholic Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Shakespeare’s references to Jesuit equivocation and bloody treachery would have thus resonated powerfully with the Jacobean audience, as would the serpentine flower mentioned in Lady Macbeth’s quote, referring to a commemorative medal that James struck to celebrate his victory over the beheaded Papist plotters.


Right-wing politics today is likewise driven by existential fear rooted in fantasy and buttressed by deliberate lies. Can we and other countries now threatened by corrupt autocratic elites awaken from the nightmare of ancient history, now repeated before our eyes? Do we have time to wait for the cultural pendulum to shift? As Shakespeare’s Richard II put it: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”

But cruel are the times, when we are traitors

And do not know ourselves, when we hold rumour 

From what we fear, yet know not what we fear;

But float upon a wild and violent sea 

Each way and move.

— Ross to Lady MacDuff, Tragedy of Macbeth, IV.2  

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