A Politics of Hate, or a Politics of Service?

A trip down the Danube

Blue Danube Budpest

Earlier this month, I traveled with my wife and friends through central Europe–Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest, among other cities–cruising the not-so-blue Danube river. In each of those cities, we encountered people young and old who passionately remember and condemn the occupations and oppressions of the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, and the Communists. Equally passionately, they love their countries and cherish the new political freedom they have enjoyed since 1989.

Many of the people we talked with, and especially the younger folks, lamented the growing anti-immigrant sentiments currently polluting political talk and writing in Europe—and the U.S. One twenty-eight year old woman said, “They want us to oppress other people just because they are not our people. But we remember how the Communists oppressed our parents.” One of her friends, a young man in his thirties, shook his head. “Not just that. They want to make us into Nazis. That’s not what our Velvet Revolution stands for.”

Here in the United States, separated from our own revolution by 330 years, I wonder if we exhibit that kind of maturity, that yearning to hang on to fragile freedoms that, if they are denied to others, are denied to us all.

 

Vaclav Havel’s politics of internal peace

V. Havel

Vaclav Havel, beloved last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic, said this:

Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace (emphasis added).

What are we, citizens, to make of Havel’s idea? We’re encouraged by one presidential nominee and many lower-office holders to fear our neighbors and to distrust and despise the state. It has been so long since Americans were at peace with their fellow citizens and with their state, I can hardly conceive of it. Perhaps we can probe Havel’s words, test them for their sense and value. Take that second sentence: What does it mean?

Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.

Is Havel saying that as long as we feud among ourselves, we can’t assure that the outside world will be peaceful? Or perhaps more boldly: Our inner division, our rancor toward one another, our fear of the state—are they perhaps contributing causes to the external threats and hatreds that face us abroad? Could he be saying that?

At the very moment when he was being arrested, soon to be executed by the state, it is said that Jesus told the young disciple who tried to defend him, “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). To choose violence as our first response to external threats is to invite violence in return, as we have seen in the Middle East every day since 2003. If Americans choose to hate one another, to metaphorically draw swords against our neighbors, can we rationally complain when external swords of hatred are aimed at us?

 

Resisting evil

There is a saying of which American “patriots” are quite fond:

The tree of liberty is watered by the blood of patriots.

The quotation is loose, and almost inaccurate because it is out of context. The actual quote appears in a letter from Thomas Jefferson:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

But here’s the context: Jefferson was writing to Madison about citizens who are (Jefferson thought, inevitably) misinformed about their government. He thinks that, misperceiving the truth and misunderstanding the real, such ignorant citizens will become angry and desire to rebel. And if they do not take up arms—even though they are wrong—Jefferson thinks it is a symptom of “lethargy,” which in his mind threatens the vitality of a nation. Thus, rebellions—in which the blood of patriots and tyrants refreshes the tree of liberty—should occur from time to time, despite being misguided! Needless to say, this was not one of Jefferson’s most inspired opinions, nor was it enshrined in the new Constitution of 1789.

Protester w: Sign

In any case, this truncated and out-of-context quote is trotted out at right-wing rallies to exhort the faithful to keep their guns ready, their eyes vigilant, and their anger—with their government—hot. Now, there’s no doubt that evil must be resisted, and sometimes, at last resort, with force. But who, may I ask, is resisting the evil words being spouted in his campaign rallies by the would-be tyrant who hates Muslims and immigrants and pretends to love gays and Hispanics? Who is resisting him before it is too late?

I hear real resistance coming from those who speak up, pitting honest words against Trump’s cynicism, people—and nominees—who yearn for a politics of service, not of hate. Havel says:

Genuine politics—even politics worthy of the name—the only politics I am willing to devote myself to—is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole.

“Genuine politics . . . is simply a matter of serving those around us.” I can believe in that. Or rather, hope for it someday.

On Political Words

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.’”

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,
comes wisdom
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.RFK 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.

Shakespeare's "Dogberry"
Shakespeare’s “Dogberry”

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