Water Man Spouts

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hamlet's Soliloquy

(Note: This is an essay I posted on the Democratic Undergound political discussion forum.)

{1} To be or not to be, that is the question;Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to sufferThe slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,And by opposing, end them.

There have been a few interesting threads in DU:GD-P regarding how Senator Barack Obama can best respond to some of the slings and arrows being aimed at him from the Hillary Clinton campaign staff. This issue is of particular interest in light of the increasing attacks by former President Bill Clinton.

After Barack Obama delivered the word at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I can remember one particular DU discussion thread. On it, I wrote that I was reminded of a story that Malcolm X had told years earlier. The convention was being held at the FleetCenter in Boston (which I believe is now known as the Banknorth Garden), not far from where Malcolm had spent time.

"I was the invited speaker at the Harvard Law School Forum," Malcolm noted on page 293 of his autobiography. "I happened to glance through a window. Abruptly, I realized that I was looking in the direction of the apartment house that was my old burglary gang’s hideout."

And on page 387, Malcolm says, "My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don’t have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get – to have been a lawyer, perhaps. I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer."

My feeling in 2004, upon listening to Barack Obama, was that I had heard something similar to what a Harvard educated attorney named Malcolm might have said to this nation. Four years later, fully aware that a post about Shakespeare and the 2008 democratic primary is almost sure to sink to the bottom of the angry DU debates, I thought I’d still try this.

{2} "I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘this thing’s to do,’
Sith I cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me."

During the 2004 campaign, Senator John Kerry seemed to hesitate before responding to the slings and arrows of a group known as the Swift Boat Liars. At that time, I compared him to Hamlet, and suggested that he should read Minister Malcolm X’s take on this issue from a speech at the Harvard Law School. Other DUers have a variety of opinions on the issue today, just as they did four years ago. I consider it a valuable example for Senator Obama to consider as he decides how best to respond to the charges being made by former President Clinton.

It is important to recognize that this lesson can be applied to both a primary and general election campaign. In the 1968 republican primary, NYS Governor Nelson Rockefeller earned the sobriquet "The Hamlet of Fifth Avenue" as a result of his politically fatal inability to make a firm decision. (John K. Hutchens’ Book of the Month Club review of "An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968"; 1969)

Rockefeller was being advised by two men: Emmett John Hughes, a democrat who wrote speeches for Eisenhower in the White House (see his classic "The Ordeal of Power"); and George Hinman, who had been an attorney in Binghamton, NY, a few miles away from where I live. (One of my uncles was Rockefeller’s head of security when he traveled outside of Albany.)

Richard Nixon, the former vice president and political machine technician, made bold moves in the ’68 republican primary. Rockefeller hesitated and was left behind.

"Why now, blow wind, swell billow, and swim bark!
The storm is up, and all is on the hazard."
--Julius Casear; (William Shakespeare)

There was a DU:GD-P thread today reminded me of Archie Epps’ classiv "Malcolm X: Speeches at Harvard." Epps notes that those with communication skills use imagery to plant ideas in the minds of those in their audience. Certainly, this is true of what President Clinton is attempting to do with his attacks on Barack Obama. The use of these images has been described as an "act in which the code of names by which (we) simplify or interpret reality. These names shape our relationship with our fellows. They prepare us for some function and against others, for or against the person representing these functions. Call a man a villain, and you have the choice of either attacking or cringing." (Kenneth Burke; Attitudes Toward History; Boston; 1961; page 4)

John Illo compared Malcolm X’s speaking ability to "poeticized logic, logic revised by the creative and critical imagination recalling original ideas." (John Illo; The Rhetoric of Malcolm X; Columbia University Forum; 1966; page 5) I’ll close with a single paragraph of Malcolm’s December 16, 1964 speech at Harvard:

"There was another man back in history whom I read about once, an old friend of mine whose name was Hamlet, who confronted, in a sense, the same thing our people are confronting here in America. Hamlet was debating whether ‘To be or not to be’ – that was the question. He was trying to decide whether it was ‘nobler in the mind to suffer --peacefully-- the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ or whether it was nobler ‘to take up arms’ and oppose them. I think his little soliloquy answers itself. As long as you sit around suffering the slings and arrows and are afraid to use some slings and arrows yourself, you’ll continue to suffer." (Epps; page 175)

If Barack Obama fails to respond to President Clinton’s attacks, his opponents will define him as "weak" in the public’s mind, as so defined by Ken Burke 47 years ago. And if Senator Obama merely reacts on a tit-for-tat level, he will be defined as an angry politician. Instead, he needs to point out the errors in Bill Clinton’s charges, and define them as part of the former president’s pattern of distorting the truth.


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