Thoughts on the Freedom Budget

On the night of April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy, seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, pulled into Indianapolis for a seemingly routine campaign stop in a largely poor and black area. Upon his arrival, Kennedy learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot dead in Memphis. Fearing for the Senator’s safety, staffers and city officials alike attempted to convince Kennedy to cancel his speech; the chief of police duly informed the campaign he would be unable to provide any protection. Kennedy nevertheless continued on to the neighborhood, facing the restless, mostly black crowd from the flatbed of a truck. After asking an aide, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?” and hearing a no, he told the crowd that King had been shot and killed.

In shock, despair, and anger, the crowd erupted, but Kennedy remained stoically atop the truck. As the mass grew quiet again, Kennedy started:

“My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

 

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.

 

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Imagine the lone figure of Robert Kennedy – the picture of blue blood, the scion of America’s most famous political family – standing unguarded, his only weapon his eloquence, attempting to console the aggrieved, poor, mostly black crowd upon the loss of their greatest leader. After invoking the death of his brother – which to that point he had never done in public – he progressed to the last, best form of communication he had: the wisdom of the ancients, of Aeschylus, the great Greek tragedian.

That night, riots took place in over a hundred cities across America, killing dozens and injuring many more. Indianapolis, however, remained calm, a fact attributed today to the power of Kennedy’s speech, recognized now as one of the greatest pieces of rhetoric in American history.

~

Earlier today, the “Concerned Asian, Black, Latin@, Native, Undocumented, Queer, and Differently-Abled students at Dartmouth College” published an open letter to key figures of the Dartmouth administration. Eight pages long, it constitutes a list of demands that, if not met, will precipitate “physical action” on the part of the authors. The letter mentions concerns under the headings of undergraduate admissions, the undergraduate curriculum, faculty and staff, financial aid, residential life, campus climate, and advising and support.

The Review will save its critiques of the group’s individual “demands” for later pieces. Although there are a number of points on which we see eye-to-eye, it suffices to say that there are several areas of disagreement that we feel are worth addressing and that we welcome the opportunity to comment on their comprehensive statement of purpose. Right now, however, The Review would like to note two important points, drawing on the lessons of that fateful April night.

First, this group ought to understand that “physical action” is no way to resolve their grievances. Though it is important to note that their letter did not contain any explicit threat of violence, its deliberate omission of specifics had the desired effect of making readers wonder what they were capable of. This tactic can be characterized as threatening in its implications and gave the open-letter an ultimatum-like quality.

Though no riot erupted in Indianapolis that night in 1968, cities across the country flared up as black Americans took to the streets to express their profound discontent, not just at the death of King but at how it seemed to represent how, as had been the case throughout American history, their people would never achieve equality.

Such instances, however understandable their origins, actually ended up setting back American blacks for decades more to come. The riots reinforced the seemingly wilting obstacle of segregation, accelerating white flight from the cities and increasing discrimination in the suburbs. They gave undue leeway to Republican politicians, who played on now-substantiated white fears by proposing and delivering a much tougher stance on black, urban crime, a stance that has indirectly led to the mass incarceration of blacks in the modern era. In short, the violence of the riots simultaneously turned off potential supporters and gave opponents of reform an excuse to paint a false, sensationalized picture.

Both Kennedy and King innately understood the practical value of non-violence; its converse only acts as fodder to the opposition. This is just as true today as it was 46 years ago. In the Ukraine, recently ousted President Viktor Yanukovych used the actions of a radical few gun-toting protesters to legitimize a widespread crackdown across Kiev; in turn, protest leaders have endeavored to avoid even the slightest appearance of a violent movement.

The lesson for Dartmouth’s group should be that “physical action” will not get them anywhere. King did not advocate nonviolence because it is just, but because it works. By ignoring his invocations, the group only harms their own ambitions. Hopefully they do not begin occupying academic buildings and disrupting tour groups in pursuit of their goals.

Second, the effect of Kennedy’s speech underlines what The Review believes can be the power of the old Greek works. This group ostensibly seeks to change Dartmouth’s curriculum, demanding that “each student should have to take classes that will challenge their understanding of institutionalized injustice around issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.” The Review, on the other hand, has consistently stated its preference for an education grounded in Enlightenment principles, with at least some kind of classics requirement.

Kennedy’s speech evidences the true value of such studies, sometimes derided as the ramblings of “Dead White European Males.” In order to contextualize the meaning of this tragedy, he consults the inventor of tragedy itself, Aeschylus, who insists that through pain “comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.” By reciting that poem to the despondent crowd, Kennedy intimated that their despair echoed throughout the ages, that King’s death had not meant the loss of everything but perhaps the gain of a wisdom that could only have come through such a terrible event. Such a profound yet complicated emotion, stated so soon after the assassination, could not have been communicated in any other way. It didn’t matter that the Senator was white and the crowd black, that he was rich and the crowd poor. On that terrible night, Aeschylus’s words resonated across a seemingly insurmountable gap.

The Review is no opponent of the letter-writers’ underlying desire to eradicate racism, classism, and sexism. What it does oppose is the attempted politicization of the College to achieve those desires. The College ought to be a place where truth is impartially pursued, where the wisdom of prior generations – Western and non-Western – is studied so that we can understand our place in the world today and can use a common base of knowledge to communicate complex ideas to one another. It should not seek to impose a prescribed worldview on its students, no matter how progressive it may seem. In essence, the College’s goal should be to teach its students how to think, not what to think.

Again, The Review will soon cover the group’s individual points in greater depth. Until then, we hope that the letter’s authors and the campus at large will consider the events and aftermath of that April evening in Indianapolis while considering the grievances raised.

 

– Nicholas Duva ’16

  • Anonymous Dartmouth Student

    Your post neglects to acknowledge facts in promotion of a blatantly partisan agenda. Yes, the CBO study says that the federal wage hike would result in anywhere from a small to 1 million job loss. Yes, when we assume a simplistic, classical market structure, imposing a wage floor would result in a surplus of labor. But no, that's not how our economy works and that's not what this proposed policy change will do. I would emphasize the boost in wages the CBO report highlighted, but I don't see this argument gaining much traction with your political views. Nor would I even bother to mention the scores of economists that support a minimum wage hike, or the host of other studies that suggest an almost negligible effect on the labor market. No, I simply urge you to refrain from insulting the intelligence of the President of the United States and the millions of other Americans that support an increase in the minimum wage. We can have a debate on the merits, but let's try to keep the dialogue civil and reflective of the legitimate, empirically-founded views of the people you oppose.