I started writing this post over six months ago. ‘I’m just so busy’ is no excuse for a blogger, although it is a very ancient apologetic strategy. In a letter to his brother Quintus, dated August 54 BC, Cicero opens like this:
‘When you receive a letter from me by the hand of an amaneuensis, understand that I have not an atom of leisure, and if from my own hand, that I have very little. And I believe that I have never been more pressed by cases and trials, and this too at a time of year most oppressive by reason of sultry heat.’ (Q. Fr. II.16)
I too have recently had to prosecute the occasional ‘Academic Misconduct’ case on hot days. And I have been very busy with what modern institutional rhetoric dubs my ‘core mission’ – teaching, administration and research. Unlike Cicero, however, I don’t own an educated slave who can act as my amaneuensis. I don’t even have a free research assistant with full access to holiday pay, citizenship rights and employment protections. (Mind you, I shudder to think what life would be like if St Andrews Classics didn’t have its much-appreciated support staff: thanks Carol, Irene, Margaret and Mary!).
Anyway, I am back now, so watch out.
Now that Andy Coulson has been found guilty and the behaviour of the UK national tabloids is back on the agenda, it seems a good time to finally finish and publish this post. For non-British readers, I had better give a quick summary of why Ed Miliband fell out with the Daily Mail last Autumn. His late father was a famous Marxist academic, Ralph Miliband, and the Mail printed an article in which it used Ralph’s political views and biography to intimate that Ed has a ‘Marxist dream’ for Britain which is similar to that of his father. But it was the headline of the article and its flimsy basis which attracted Miliband’s public condemnation: ‘The man who hated Britain: Red Ed’s pledge to bring back socialism is a homage to his Marxist father. So what did Miliband Snr really believe in? The answer should disturb everyone who loves this country’.
‘Red Ed’s Pledge’: this sounds good because it deploys what ancient rhetorical handbooks call ‘homoioteleuton’ – two or more endings with the same or similar sounds.
Ralph Miliband was a Jewish refugee who had fled the Nazis with his father and settled in Britain. He served in the Royal Navy during the war. Ed publically rebutted the allegation that Ralph hated Britain or that his own politics are the same as his father’s. The Mail‘s basis for the first allegation was a 1940 diary entry in which the 16 year-old Ralph wrote this: ‘The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world… When you hear the English talk of this war you sometimes almost want them to lose it to show them how things are.’ But the Mail didn’t print some crucial wider context for this remark, namely the high levels of Anti-Semitism which the young Ralph was experiencing on his arrival in England (see historian John Simkin’s blog for details, including some rather important, ironic material on the political sympathies of the great-grandfather of the current owner of the Daily Mail!).
What interests me about all this that the Mail‘s headline is very redolent of the sort of invective which fourth-century Athenian politicians used against each other in high-profile, politically-motivated court cases. (I have recently been writing about these in my own research). So, for example, in his speech Against Ctesiphon, Aeschines attacks his arch-political rival Demosthenes on the grounds that he possesses all the attributes of an ‘oligarch’ as opposed to a ‘democrat’ or ‘man of the people’ (Aeschines 3.169-70). Aeschines’ first piece of ‘evidence’ for this is that Demosthenes’ maternal grandfather had been impeached for betraying an Athenian colony to the enemy (171). His Athenian father illicitly married a non-Greek, Scythian woman (171-2). Aeschines continues as follows (Ag. Ctesiphon 172) :
“So then, from his grandfather he would naturally be the enemy of the people (you condemned his ancestors to death), while on his mother’s side he is a Scythian barbarian who speaks Greek. Hence his dishonesty too, is of foreign extraction. And in his daily life, what sort of man is he? He suddenly turned from trierarch [warship commander/financier] to speechwriter after squandering his inheritance in a ridiculous way. And after losing his credibility even in this trade by handing speeches over to the opposing side, he leapt onto the speaker’s platform.” (Trans. Carey 2000)
After this, we are told that Demosthenes’ political career is one in which treachery and bribes fund his extravagant lifestyle at the expense of the dēmos (173). This is a ‘causal’ narrative in which Demosthenes’ alleged anti-democratic leanings are explicitly rooted in his grandfather’s treachery against Athens and his mother’s unAthenian and ‘barbarian’ identity. It relies on a very embedded ancient Greek view that one inherits traits from one’s ancestors and that foreigners are morally and politically untrustworthy.
Demosthenes’ response characterizes this allegation as the sort of low abuse and coarse mudslinging which should be beneath the court’s dignity and the standards of proof required by procedure (On the Crown 122-4). He cleverly argues that he is forced to respond in kind, not because he wants to, but because he must set the record straight (123-8). Then we hear about how Aeschines’ father was a ‘slave who wore thick fetters and a wooden collar’. And the very coarse tone and language which Aeschines used to impugn Demosthenes’ credentials as patriotic and loyal Athenian democrat are taken to be signs that is he and not Demosthenes whose origins are illegitimate and foreign. Indeed, Demosthenes uses humour to underline the vulgarity of Aeschines’ abusive performances:
‘And you (i.e. Aeschines) bawl out, using names both mentionable and unmentionable, a sort of ‘cart-language’ fitting for you and your kind, but not for me.’ (On the Crown 122)
The ‘cart-language’ here refers to the ritualized obscenity, invective and mockery which was performed in the processions of Athenian festivals in honour of Dionysus. [See my colleague Stephen Halliwell’s book Greek Laughter for more on this]. Demosthenes then launches a long section of amusing ad hominem narrative concerning Aeschines’ servile past occupations and treacherous career (125-59).
Scholars often talk of a rhetorical ‘double standard’ here: Demosthenes is using precisely the same racist and snobbish rhetoric as Aeschines does. But I think this misses the point. When one looks closely at the way in which Demosthenes frames his own attacks on Aeschines, it is clear that he goes out of his way to argue that they are a regrettable necessity and, unlike Aeschines’ slanders, are based on evidence. He is doing his best to avoid the impression of hypocrisy. I will talk more about this ‘performance/evidence’ distinction in ancient and modern discourse in later posts.
Of course, even the Daily Mail shies away from the levels of overt racism and xenophobia which were default settings in Athenian public culture. And I am not suggesting that Ed Miliband should resort to these sorts of attitudes when dealing with his foes in the Press! But Demosthenes offers a good example of how one can give as good as one gets when dealing with nasty rhetorical attacks and yet do so with humour and a good claim to staying within appropriate standards of discourse. Next time this happens (and there will be a next time), Ed can say:-
a) I didn’t start this, they did, and I have to set the record straight here….
b) This sort of ad hominem abuse is often a sign of desperation, lack of real evidence/argument or and weak reasoning. It’s also beneath the right standards of public debate and news gathering.
c) there is something inherently laughable about these loud – and you can be loud in writing as well as in oral performance – exaggerated and poorly- evidenced attacks. They’re fine coming from a comedian or a comic character, but not from a serious national newspaper/party politician. Ironically, Ed should probably employ a comedian to come up with some suitable anti-‘Daily-Mail-froths-at-mouth-at-imagined-Reds-under-beds’ jokes.
The abusive online ad feminam attacks which J.K. Rowling recently received for donating to the ‘better together campaign’ in the lead-up to the Scottish Independence referendum on independence earlier this month show that the question of how to deal with outright abuse or slanderous innuendo is a live, rhetorical problem. [And it’s only right to point our that pro-‘Yes’ campaigners have attracted nasty verbal and online abuse too]. One thing we shouldn’t do – and I’m glad to see that senior politicians on both sides of the referendum debate seem to get this – is condone or ignore such dreadful abuse.