Thursday 27 June 2013

Sophocles and Iain Duncan Smith

What links one of the world's great dramatists to Britain's playground bully? What could link Greek tragedy to the government's biggest hypocrite? Shortly before the end of his long life Sophocles wrote “Philoctetes”, about the Greek hero who took part in the war against Troy. Philoctetes is the inheritor of Heracles' bow and he sets out with the other Greeks to secure the return of Helen, who has been spirited off to Troy by Paris. En route he is bitten in the foot by a serpent. The wound turns septic and the smell and Philoctetes' cries are so hard to bear that the Greeks leave him on a forsaken island, Lemnos, and travel on to Troy without him. After nearly ten years, it is revealed to the Greeks that they will not take Troy without Heracles'  bow. The unscrupulous Odysseus goes to Lemnos with Neoptolemos, the honourable son of the now dead Achilles, to lure Philoctetes to Troy. Odysseus persuades Neoptolemos that only subterfuge will work, and that Neoptolemos must be the one to carry it out, as Odysseus is sure that Philoctetes will hate Odysseus. Neoptolemos is persuaded - a little too easily, and partly because of his own ambition - to go along with Odysseus' plan. He convinces Philoctetes, who is still racked by pain, that he has fallen out with the Greeks, and Odysseus particularly, because when Achilles died, Odysseus took his armour. He is going home and promises to take Philoctetes with him. Eventually Philoctetes gives him his bow. Odysseus reveals himself and Philoctetes realises he has been tricked. Neoptolemos then considers his own actions and decides that honour compels him to return the bow to Philoctetes. The two most significant lines of the play follow:

Odysseus: That is not clever
Neoptolemos: No, but it is just, which is better.

(There then follows a not very satisfactory conclusion. Heracles appears in a vision and tells Philoctetes he must go to Troy where he will be healed and will help in the reduction of Troy. Greek plotting was never terribly good, I think largely because they always had the deus ex machina escape clause.)

The play is mutlivalent. It is about honour, loyalty, will and duty, the clash of personality. It also raises fundamental questions about how we treat our sick and disabled. Philoctetes is marooned because he becomes a distraction to the Greeks, and a liability. He is cast aside. When he suddenly becomes useful again, he must be brought back into the fold, but he cannot be brought back honourably - it has to be by subterfuge. Neoptolemos is the focus of the ethical debate, and in the end his honour will not let him.

The obvious parallel to the deceitful and manipulative Odysseus is Iain Duncan Smith, a man who blusters about how proud he is to be reducing the number of disabled people dependent on the state - which he is achieving primarily by making them destitute, or indeed by hounding them till they die, like Linda Wootton. The DWP is refusing to release current figures of the number of people who die within a short time of being assessed by ATOS. It is a question they don't want answered. Duncan Smith and his department also regularly misreport government statistics, to the extent that they have been reprimanded by the official watchdog. DPAC has listed 35 separate occasions on which they have slanted the truth to suit their agenda. In addition to this, the way in which ATOS continues to hound claimants such as, with the blessing of ministers, goes beyond civilised or Christian behaviour. I mention “Christian” because Duncan Smith uses his faith as justification for his actions. How many deaths does it take before it's no longer just the odd mistake? And how long will we go on getting the “it's better than it was” excuse? It is mendacious, vicious bullying of unemployed people and particularly disabled people, and Iain Duncan Smith has no shame over it. Perhaps he's not really Odysseus; Odysseus was capable of shame, and he was never this cheap.

But who will be our Neoptolemos. Who, in this government, is going to stand up and say, “Enough is enough. We have bullied the most vulnerable people in the country for far too long. We have made the poorest pay the price, in misery and death, for the mistakes made by the richest, and we are still doing that.” Who will be just rather than clever? None, I fear. Which, as a Liberal Democrat, makes me ashamed of my party.

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