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Comparing Present-Day & Historical Leaders

In Issac Butler’s article entitled,“Did Richard II Provoke an Elizabeth Rebellion,” Butler discusses the implications stemming from Shakespeare’s play, Richard II, and their effects on the second Earl of Essex’s rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601. The day prior to Essex’s attempted rebellion against the queen, his men had paid to present and attend a showing of Shakespeare’s play Richard II. Richard II tells the story of Henry IV’s rebellion against King Richard II, who was a corrupt and unfavorable king, and how Henry managed to take over the throne for the betterment of the nation. Some argued, including the crown, that this act of attending this particular play was meant to signal to the nation of England that corrupt leaders, whose actions paralleled the actions of their current queen, were successfully overthrown in the past and that they should support Essex’s efforts to do it again. 

This kind of propaganda that Butler discusses is enacted in the form of a comparison between Queen Elizabeth and a formerly disliked leader. This kind of comparison of a present day leader to a previously disliked leader in history is something that still occurs today. Comparing a leader to a widely disliked historical figure is an effective way to prove a point of why a present day leader is “bad.” During the 2016 election of Donald Trump, comparisons between historical leaders, tyrants, and dictators and Trump were frequently made in the media. Articles illustrated parallels between Donald Trump and Hitler, Stalin, and other unethical and disliked public figures throughout history. If an article proves a few strong points of comparison between Trump and Hitler, for example, then the only conclusion that can follow, given one accepts this premise that these two are in fact very similar, is that Trump is just as terrible of a leader as Adolf Hitler.

Although some of these comparisons may seem far-fetched and some people may not accept the comparisons made, resulting in additional rejections of the conclusions made, this can be an effective method to rally support against a leader. Having seen these kinds of articles during the election myself, I know personally that I was shocked by the comparison points demonstrated in these kinds of articles, and I was fearful of what this could mean for our country. This shock and fear left with the readers of these articles may resonate with them when thinking of President Donald Trump thereafter; therefore, it is a strong form of propaganda to employ. The Earl of Essex’s method of using it continues on throughout present day, and maybe one day a future leader will be compared to President Trump in a similar fashion.

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The Connection of Legitimacy and Popularity

Clearly, Shakespeare had a deep knowledge of historical and pop-culture events that allowed him to write in-depth and thought-provoking plays during his time. One of these was Richard II, a historical play about Richard II (clever title, right?). What is unique about this play is that it seems to be relevant during all time periods. There is always the problem of establishing legitimacy for leaders, and there will always be dissatisfied a dissatisfied public (at least partially). 

I immediately noticed a connection between the content in Richard II and the 2016 presidential election. In both, there is a power grab from an outside individual, whether that by Henry, who was not initially in a position to grab power, or Donald Trump, who had no previous experience in politics. Both leaders were viewed as a solution to problems that fell under both of their previous leaders, and both found legal ways to become a formal leader, despite possible opposition from the public. It is true that legitimacy and popularity are tightly connected since both mentioned leaders became large debating points. Trump’s ability to win the presidential election, despite losing the popular vote is a partial reason why his legitimacy may be questioned. One of the main differences between the leader-follower relationship in Richard II and America today is that it is much more difficult now to overthrow a leader. Legally, Trump is a legitimate leader, but if he begins to lose popularity, then there is the option to elect another more popular leader.

This relationship between legitimacy and popularity has another recent example with the election of George W. Bush. Like Trump, Bush also lost the popular vote but was still able to win the electoral college. Over time, like most presidents, Bush’s popularity declined, but he was able to improve his popularity with the start of a “war” – the War on Terror. There is a clear connection between this and Henry’s grab for power. When Henry’s legitimacy was questioned, he started a war as well. This constant connection between popularity and legitimacy gives rise to leadership practices that might not be in the best interest of the public. History seems to be a constant cycle between ruler and usurper as the legitimacy of leaders ebb and flow with time. This poses the interesting question of leader emergence vs effectiveness and their relationship, but that might be for another class.

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Welcome to Culture and Resistance

What we understand as “popular culture”—today associated with movies, television, Netflix, and videogames—is often dismissed as irrelevant entertainment. However, studies in the social sciences have recently begun to demonstrate what those in the humanities and in pop culture studies have been arguing for decades: pop culture not only reflects our understanding of who we are and what we imagine for the future, but also exerts considerable influence over our gendered and racial identities, as well as our futures. In this course, we will look at examples of influential Western pop culture in context, examining how those works of entertainment did change the world around them, beginning with Robin Hood and Shakespeare, and moving through American Abolition and the Civil Rights Movement to Cold War dystopias and into the modern day. Students will have a chance to help choose some of the works the class will examine.

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