Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Trial #1: Menelaus, from Homer's Iliad. Oct 2007. Canisius College

Whenever I carry out a trial, students are broken into three groups: prosecutors (1/4 of the class), defenders (1/4), and the jury (1/2). I conduct two trials in a class, one at the midterm and one during the week of final exams. Thus students change roles; the jurors of the first trial become defenders or prosecutors for the second, and vice versa. The prosecution decides what charges to bring against the accused; it is their responsibility to word them in an opening statement. The students do not have to use legalistic language or base charges on actual laws; they are rather asked to isolate ethical problems in a certain character and cull from these problems a set of charges. My instruction to the prosecutors, leading up to the trial of Menelaus, was this: “You must express the accusation in clear and understandable language likely to convince the jurors.” The reward for winning a trial by jury was a boost of 10% on their final grade. For such a lucrative incentive, teams took the project seriously.
The trial felt like a spectacle. The furniture was rearranged; my lectern pushed to a corner, desks clustered in circles for the two competing sides. Jurors sat in an imperious row to observe interrogations. I played the witnesses, which required a great deal of energy. I did not mind, since it allowed for a carnivalesque reversal of authority and funny moments. One student was the “judge,” keeping time and letting questioners know when they needed to wrap up. No longer the professor, I was seated defenselessly in a chair and vulnerable to aggressive, even hostile, questions from students who stood over me and had permission to gesticulate at and badger me. Students took the exercise seriously, dressing in business suits, whereas I as the witness dressed more casually than was typical. At moments questioning became so heated that students feared the reversal of power had gone too far, but I would reassure them periodically that it was okay to be tough with me when I was acting as witness. After about 15 minutes, the students showed few inhibitions in questioning me.
Euripides’ Trojan Woman, as translated by Brendan Kennelly, was the basis for the Menelaus trial. Prosecutors deliberated for weeks among themselves before deciding on a crime to charge Menelaus with. They read Trojan Women carefully and consulted historical, archaeological, and literary scholarship to understand ancient Greek warfare. Since I met with them for brief consultations, I traced the evolution of the prosecution and defense arguments.
The prosecutors knew their main vulnerability: Agamemnon, Menelaus’ brother, was the general who made decisions during the war, so it would be difficult to accuse Menelaus of war crimes. The defense could point out that Menelaus was powerless to restrain Greek soldiers from committing the atrocities outlined by Athena in the opening scene. The prosecutors toyed at first with accusing Menelaus of a romantic flaw–loving Helen too much or failing to kill her after Troy fell–but Helen’s infidelity seemed an easy issue for defenders to exploit, to outrage the jury and compel them to sympathize with Menelaus as a wronged lover.
In the end, prosecutors chose two charges: “selfish negligence” and “genocide;” respectively, Menelaus did not do enough to stop the war earlier for the sake of men under his command, and Menelaus did not order his men to restrain themselves during the rampage that wiped out the male population of Troy. The sufferings of both Greek soldiers and Trojan civilians were highlighted. Both charges were strategized as sins of omission; rather than debate things Menelaus did, they fixed on things he didn’t do. For if Menelaus’ crime was that he didn’t do more, what evidence could the defense counter with? The prosecutors purposefully characterized Menelaus in stereotypical terms. In the fall of 2007 deaths in Iraq were at a high point and the most important debate was about how to bring American troops home. Drawing from rhetorical styles evident in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, prosecutors guessed that the jury (mostly women) would be liberal Democrats likely to hate anyone comparable to George W. Bush. And so the prosecutors tailored their rhetoric to emphasize Menelaus’ similarity to Bush. They underscored Menelaus’ dependence on others to make decisions, his identity as a spoiled aristocrat, his selfish disregard for lives lost for his wounded honor. One prosecutor likened Menelaus’ consuming obsession with Helen to the President’s obsession with avenging his father for the Persian Gulf War.
Tension in the room escalated during the trial. Some students had family stationed in Iraq. As I was pretending to be Menelaus, one prosecutor slammed his hand against the lectern and asked me how I felt about the image of dead soldiers, returning in “flag-covered coffins” – an erroneous reference, of course. He knew the Greeks used funeral pyres but he felt entitled to adapt symbols for young people in 2007. Another taunted me using gender stereotypes, asking, “Menelaus, are you too much of a Mama’s boy to fight your own wars?” He implied that Agamemnon’s military control was a result of Menelaus’ irresponsible nature; the goal was to defray the defense’s contention that Menelaus could not be held responsible. Rather than allow the defense to spin Menelaus’ non-decision-making as innocence, the prosecution presented him as weak, unmanly, dissipated, and distracted—traits associated with Moore’s critiques of Bush.
The prosecution’s tactics might have carried the day, but the defense was willing to study hard. Their secret weapon was that two defenders had read the Iliad in its entirety and knew that Menelaus, far from behaving like a sissy, challenged Paris to a hand-to-hand duel that would have ended the war without causing the fall of Troy. This event, early in the Iliad, ends with Aphrodite whisking Paris away in a cloud to Helen’s bedchambers, thereby removing Paris from the decisive man-to-man combat Menelaus initiated. The defense focused on this episode when I was asked to be Helen for questioning. The defenders intended to make the prosecutors’ anti-feminine language backfire, especially because the jury was mostly women. They focused on the way Helen manipulated him during the debate between Helen and Hecuba midway through Euripides’ play. If the prosecutors wished to smear Menelaus as unmanly, then the defenders would exploit this by pushing the stereotype to its fullest extreme: Menelaus was indeed unmanly and therefore easily controlled by women like Helen and Hecuba. Menelaus was indeed unmanly and therefore unable to carry out the sacrilegious rampages that manlier Greek soldiers undertook. By pushing the prosecution’s stereotypes to a new extreme, the defense questioned the core values of machismo itself, looking critically at the behaviors of foot soldiers who had the masculine potential to revolt against Agamemnon (which they did not) or could have used their manly self-command to restrain the atrocities that Athena defined as irreligious war crimes.
“Can any of us blame others for our crimes?” asked a defender during her closing statement. “Can Helen blame the gods for betraying her first husband? Can the marines at Haditha blame Rumsfeld for going too far, and if so, would they not be blaming us, the citizens, since we put Bush into office?” Her words chilled the room; some of the students cried. I thanked the prosecutors and defenders for their closing statements and asked them to shake hands, much like two football teams. Everyone in the room had forgotten we were in a classroom. We had forgotten to behave like good inhabitants of sociofugal space. Our ideologies were laid bare, our contradictions exposed, our disagreements forced into an open arena. Leonardo’s window had opened and we had crawled inside the text; it had become our world, a mirror that threw back grotesque reflections of ourselves as Americans.
The jury found it impossible to arrive at an absolute answer to the questions they had to answer: Did this jilted husband neglect his troops for selfish reasons? Did his irresponsibility cause genocide? One woman abstained. Of the six jurors that remained, three were finally convinced that Menelaus could have done more to decrease the death toll. The other three concluded that the soldiers possessed the free will to choose how to conduct themselves, even in the adrenaline of battle. After a long discourse, they could not break the tie, and asked me to cast the deciding vote. This was an uncomfortable situation because of who I was outside the classroom: a conservative Christian who had parted ways with the right wing over the war. I opposed the Iraq War in 2003, but I did not support withdrawing US troops until the insurgency was tamed and a functional republic was in place. The jury’s gridlock could not have been more painful to me given my public stance on the War on Terror. Forced to break the tie, I sided with the prosecution. Ten years, I thought, was too long for a general to keep a pointless war alive. 
As English professors we are likely to fear that moral judgments denote absolutisms and do not befit a pluralistic, relativist realm like our putative postmodern world. I, too, could not tolerate an entire semester of preaching one moral view against another. But as momentary interruptions, the mock trials enact a disciplinary rupture. English ceases to be a field separated from la vie quotidienne by its safe aesthetic distance, and literature becomes la vie quotidienne, at least for a week. The students read the play more closely. They speak to each other, and to me, frankly and passionately. They care about the literature. The literature comes alive and cares about them.  Not in relativism, but in ritualized absolutism, did we discover true plurality. Despite the “final” verdict, we saw how tenuous the 4-3 vote was; the moral ambiguities of Trojan Woman, and indeed the Iraq War, were branded in our memories. To accomplish such learning, I had to stop being a teacher concerned with professional standards. They had to stop being students worried about proving they deserved white-collar jobs and ought to earn more than their parents. The text had to stop being a masterpiece, and instead become a crime scene—a sacred space polluted by la vie quotidienne.