Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ben-Hur's lesson for life: Neither a Messala nor a hypocrite be

Ben-Hur was a rage in India in the 60's when big budget classics were made in Hollywood. I watched it in Tanjore in the 90's when a re-release ran. The mention of Ben-Hur always evokes an awe due to the most famous racing scene in movie history, the chariot race. The splitting of Red Sea in 'Ten Commandments', Cleopatra's grand entry into Rome in 'Cleopatra', a screen full of flowers in the opening credits of 'My Fair Lady', the burning of Atlanta in 'Gone With the Wind' all became landmark scenes. In 60's India, that too Tamil Nadu, such colossal budget scenes were a big draw. The context and overall greatness of each movie enhanced and made those highlights pertinent.

Messala and Ben-Hur were childhood friends. When Messala comes to Judea as consul Ben-Hur is happy for him. Messala asks Ben-Hur to betray his Jewish friends who continue to voice dissent. The scene is classic. Messala pleads with Ben-Hur, "the emperor is looking at us" and asks Ben-Hur to help him squash rebellious Jews. Ben-Hur is aghast at how Messala talks of the Roman emperor "like he is God". Messala contemptuously gestures, "he is God not this". Messala's "this" refers to non-corporal Yahweh of Jews.

In what can happen in fiction, Ben-Hur a slave in a Roman galley ends up saving the life of a Roman general.Ben-Hur returns to Judea and asks, his friend-turned-enemy, Messala the whereabouts of his mother and sister. Messala finds that Ben-Hur's mother and sister have been afflicted by leprosy in imprisonment. Messala tells Ben-hur that they are dead. Seeking revenge Ben-Hur enrolls in the famous chariot race. In those chariot races, Ben-Hur is told, anything goes. Ben-Hur could engineer an accident and kill Messala. 

Ben-Hur wins the famous race and the Roman governor summons him later. Ben-Hur is told that the Roman general who saved his life and adopted him as son has ensured that Ben-Hur becomes a 'Roman'. Becoming a 'Roman' makes Ben-Hur a Jewish slave a freeman. Ben-Hur turns it down with gravity. The governor is amazed and feels insulted. He asks 'why'. Ben-Hur replies that Messala was not a bad guy to begin with but it is 'Rome' that turned him into a monster.

Ben-Hur correctly identifies that a normal behaving childhood friend was power drunk and the corruption is rooted in Roman culture of imperialism. I am reminded of how Hitler's Nazi regime and Stalin created their own 'Messala's'.

Though we are individuals we are all part of a larger unit in daily life. We belong to churches, organisations, companies we work at, families we are born into, countries of birth or immigration and so on. Depending how deep the ties are to the larger unit and how our economic and emotional interests are intertwined we do take on some characteristics of the larger unit. That awareness itself would help us be on guard.

'Inside Job', an Oscar winning documentary that eviscerated Wall Street for the Financial crises, raised a valid point about whether professors of Economics in Ivy League universities preached de-regulation and unfettered markets since they were on boards of companies like AIG which benefited from such policies. In other words was Glenn Hubbard, dean of Economics in Columbia and on the board of AIG, interviewed in the documentary, a "Messala".

As much as we should watch out for becoming a 'Messala' we should not become hypocrites either. A blogger who works for a big bank rails relentlessly against Wall Street and then excuses himself as "well we all are part of some hypocrisy in life". No. We are not. He has a choice to quit the industry that he so loathes, he can still do what he does in so many other industries in USA.