Joyce Carol Oates: Was Suffocating Mary Jo Kopechne a "fortunate fall"?


When Melissa Lafsky—whose blog Opinionistas.com, I hear, "became internationally known for its relentless skewering of the corporate world"—wrote about Mary Jo Kopechne over at The Huffington Post the following hideous phrase:

Who knows—maybe she'd feel it was worth it.

… I figured it must be link-bait. But now comes a better known writer, Joyce Carol Oates, to ponder the broken egg, and wonder if it didn't in fact help make the omelette of Teddy Kennedy's career so delicious.

Yet, ironically, following this nadir in his life/ career, Ted Kennedy seemed to have genuinely refashioned himself as a serious, idealistic, tirelessly energetic liberal Democrat in the mold of 1960s/1970s American liberalism, arguably the greatest Democratic senator of the 20th century. His tireless advocacy of civil rights, rights for disabled Americans, health care, voting reform, his courageous vote against the Iraq war (when numerous Democrats including Hillary Clinton voted for it) suggest that there are not only "second acts" in American lives, but that the Renaissance concept of the "fortunate fall" may be relevant here: one "falls" as Adam and Eve "fell"; one sins and repents and is forgiven, provided that one remakes one's life. […]

[I]f one weighs the life of a single young woman against the accomplishments of the man President Obama has called the greatest Democratic senator in history, what is one to think?

Though Oates (I think) is more ambivalent than this passage would suggest, the sentiment is a timely reminder of the seductive awfulness of political ideologies everywhere and always. The ends are always worth a few strangled means, especially to those wielding or sympathizing with power. If you're openly musing whether the unwilling, unjust sacrifice of an innocent is worth a broad set of alleged legislative improvements, you're not asking a morally challenging question, you're answering it.