Every once in a while, I like to do a “guest post” here, using something I previously posted on my other quotation blog, QuoteCounterquote.com. I recently heard some news commentator use the phrase “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” on a cable news channel and wondered how many modern listeners are familiar with that old saying. In case you’re not, here’s a post that discusses to origins of those words and some notable uses and variations…
THE LINE THAT LED TO A FAMOUS MISQUOTE:
“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us…comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable.”
Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936)
American journalist and humorist
Dunne put this quote in the mouth of “Mr. Dooley,” the witty Irish character who was featured in Dunne’s popular newspaper column relating what Dooley said on various topics in a heavy Irish brogue. The line was first used in a column titled “Mr. Dooley on Newspaper Publicity,” published in many US newspapers on October 5, 1902 and reprinted in the book collecting Dunne’s columns, Observations by Mr. Dooley (1902). Dooley’s remark led to many other quotes about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
The full quote as Dunne wrote it is:
“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, conthrols th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”
The plain English “translation” is:
“The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead and roasts them afterward.”
Dunne’s quote is often misquoted as “The duty [or job] of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Indeed, that version has become a kind of motto for defenders of the free press. Ironically, Dunne’s piece was not meant as praise of the press. It’s actually a negative jab at newspapers who Mr. Dooley thinks print far too much minutiae about almost everything and everyone and pokes into the private lives of citizens far too much.
Mr. Dooley complains that, because newspapers regularly print gossip and photos about local citizens, “There are no such things as private citizens” anymore. Interestingly, many of his criticisms of newspapers sound similar to modern concerns about the internet and social media.
THE NEWSPAPER VERSION:
“Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Actor Spencer Tracy, in the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind. Tracy, playing defense lawyer Henry Drummond, says the line to Fredric March, playing prosecuting attorney Matthew Harrison Brady.
The film is an adaptation of the 1955 play of the same name, a fictionalized account of the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial.” Tracy’s famous line is not in the play, which was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. The movie script based on the play was written by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith. I suspect the famous line was created by Young, who was blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer during the McCarthy era and hired (secretly) by the film’s director Stanley Kramer. Young didn’t coin the saying. As noted in a post on the Quote Investigator site, a filler item in 1914 a newspaper in Danville, Kentucky said: “Mr. Dooley says the duty of the newspapers is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” That was followed by many similar uses of this saying about newspapers that predate the movie Inherit the Wind, which premiered in London on July 7, 1960.
THE CHRISTIAN VERSION:
“The business of the ministry is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Frederick W. Burnham (1871-1960)
Pastor in Richmond, Virginia
In an editorial published on March 11, 1944 in The Latrobe Bulletin, Burnham attributed this saying to an unnamed “young minister.” It’s an early version of many quotes that have applied the “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” concept to Christianity and Christian ministries.
THE ELEANOR ROOSEVELT APPLICATION:
“No woman has ever so comforted the distressed – or distressed the comfortable.”
Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987)
American author, Conservative Republican politician and US Ambassador
Luce used this line speech in which she praised Eleanor Roosevelt at and event honoring her on May 21, 1950. At that event, the left-leaning, Democratic widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt received an award for her service to the poor and “underprivileged.” Back then, political opponents from different parties actually said some nice things about each other.
J.K. GALBRAITH’S VARIATION:
“In all life one should comfort the afflicted, but verily, also, one should afflict the comfortable, and especially when they are comfortably, contentedly, even happily wrong.”
John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)
Canadian-born economist, public official, and liberal activist
From his 1989 commencement speech at Smith College, Massachusetts, titled “In Pursuit of the Simple Truth.” (Because London’s Guardian newspaper reprinted the speech on July 28, 1989, that is the usual citation for the source, rather than the commencement speech.)