In her November 5, 2015 review of two stage adaptations of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Ingrid Rowland remarks on a fascinating bit of history. She writes, “On the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy found the right words to break the news of his death to a poor, largely black audience in Indianapolis by harking back to ‘my favorite poet…Aeschylus.’”
She then quotes the words of the Greek poet that Kennedy used to console his audience:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
Rowland notes that “Kennedy’s words diverge slightly but tellingly from Edith Hamilton’s translation, his evident source (her third line reads ‘and in our own despite’).”
Reflecting on that, she thinks that the word-change suggests that Kennedy had long lived with those words, using them as he grappled with the sufferings and tragedies striking the Kennedy family. We all know how a beloved poem or song, memorized long ago, and lovingly repeated to ourselves over the intervening years, can undergo small changes as we internalize them, making the lines our own.
But Rowland goes on to make another point. She says that it’s “unexpected, too, that a political figure would feel free to address an audience of ordinary people in the lofty language of Greek poetry rather than talking down to them with mock folksiness.” And Kennedy was in a heated presidential campaign contest with Eugene McCarthy at that moment, the campaign in which he too would soon be assassinated.
I’m fully aware that Winston Churchill reminded us that “comparisons are odious” (or as Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing says, “comparisons are odorous”), but let me take the chance and give a couple of examples of another kind of political speech.
I’ll start with the woes of the health care system in the United States, which are many and serious, not least of which is the dire plight of the uninsured. There is much to be fixed in the Affordable Care Act, and honest people can disagree with its provisions. A fruitful and welcome dialog could take place between the candidates and the parties about the important issues with reforming health care. Instead, Dr. Ben Carson, speaking on the stump, offers us this:
And [Obamacare] is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.
Obamacare is “slavery in a way.” Slavery. A law that attempts to help some of the poorest and sickest members of our society is likened to slavery. What an offensive comparison, both to the Affordable Care Act and to the millions of slaves and their descendants (which include Dr. Carson) who endured that national ignominy. Does Dr. Carson realize whom he is insulting?
Unlike the depth and compassion in Kennedy’s speech—remember, he was quoting Aeschylus to a largely Black audience on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated—other candidates use attacks on minority people to advance their campaigns, especially people whose lives are perhaps the most precarious in our nation: the undocumented immigrants. Take this from Donald Trump on July 5, 2015:
What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.
Instead of speaking to immigrants from his heart (which is where Trump says his speeches come straight from), he vilifies 11 million people for a round of right-wing applause. It is as if Kennedy had, instead of quoting Aeschylus, told his Black audience not that their suffering and grief may transform to wisdom, but that Dr. King’s death proved the futility of their struggle for political, civil, and economic rights.
Perhaps I am being unfair to contrast today’s political speech with that of Robert Kennedy. But really, the level of rhetorical nonsense coming from the right has overflowed the bounds of comedy and is becoming a national tragedy, an embarrassment. Perhaps we need an Aeschylus to give voice to that.
Here’s a line that the Greek might use to do so:
It is an easy thing for one
whose foot is on the outside of calamity
to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer.
– Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound