Reconstructing the Great Speeches

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One of my hobbies over the years has been listening to, reading, and collecting the great speeches of history.  From Socrates’s speech at his trial to Pericles’s Funeral Oration speech to Napoleon’s speech to his Old Guard to Martin Luther King’s Dream speech, I have always been fascinated by oratory that mesmerizes, galvanizes and exhorts people to goals and endeavors that they would never have believed possible.  The list of great speeches is exhaustive.  It would take an encyclopedia to catalog all the wonderful speeches of history.  I am sure that there are blogs dedicated to this effort.  For the next few weeks, I am going to present my humble attempt to look at a few of these magnificent oratorical achievements.  Few things in life are more beautiful that a well worded speech.

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One of the most interesting things about a great speech is that you can find yourself being moved by it even when you disagree with the arguments or premises of the speaker.  For instance, General Douglas MacArthur delivered his “farewell speech” to a joint session of Congress on April 19, 1951.  This speech is sometimes referred to by its most famous line “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”  MacArthur spoke to defend his militaristic war policy in Asia after being rebuked by President Truman for his resistance to Truman’s position.

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I have listened to MacArthur’s speech dozens of time.  I disagree with everything he says in his speech.  Nevertheless, I find myself oddly moved and thinking “Right On!  Let’s go in and blast those guys.”  I catch myself getting ready to sign up with the Marines and remember that MacArthur would probably have started WW III if not for Truman.  But great speeches are like that.  They move us, they hypnotize us, they motivate us to efforts that were not for the speech, we would never have thought possible.

I have this habit in my blog of doing things or writing about ideas and issues in groups of seven.  I think this is the limit to my attention span on any one topic or issue.  Thus, I wrote about capitalism, medicine, immigration, education, prophets, and several other issues in groups of seven or sometimes less when my focus ran out even sooner than seven.  In respect to talking about great speeches, I could write about one great speech each day and not live enough lives to cover all the great speeches of history.  Thus, in keeping with my limited attention to seven of any particular subject, I will spend the next seven blogs “reconstructing” some of my (perhaps not the greatest) favorite speeches.

Now, I carefully chose the word “reconstruct.”  If I had said that I was going to “deconstruct” several great speeches, then these next blogs would be quite a bit different.  To deconstruct can be defined as:

“A method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language which emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.” —Dictionary.Com. 

I have no desire or the skill level to “deconstruct” historic speeches.  Instead, I would like to “reconstruct” several of these speeches by reinterpreting what the original speakers wanted to achieve.  To understand this, we must understand the relationship of the speech to the context that the speech was given in.  Too often you hear a speech, but the context of the speech is often left out of the speech.  This is a major failing of listening to any speech since the context in which the speech occurs is essential to fully understanding and appreciating the speech.  I will also try to reconstruct the meaning that these speakers had by updating and rephrasing some of their vocabulary for a modern audience.  This will probably horrify some purists out there who believe that things once said should never be rephrased.

Let me give you an example from one of Napoleon’s famous speeches.  First, though we need to establish the context for his speech.

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History teaches us today that either Napoleon was a great military leader or that he was a megalomaniac bent on world domination.  If we journey back to the times right after the French Revolution (1789- 1794) we find Europe in turmoil.  The French people have not only overthrown their King and Queen, they have beheaded them.  Monarchies all over Europe are still in power.  Spain, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and others all have their reigning rulers ordained by God.  Imagine their horror at seeing the French get rid of their royalty.  Imagine, if we suddenly took all our politicians and drowned them in the Potomac.  Or what if instead of storming the Bastille as the French Peasants did, we would storm Hollywood and throw out all the actors and actresses.  “Off with their lovely gorgeous heads!”

9781640306547_p0_v1_s550x406France is in chaos.  Heads are rolling faster than you can say “jack rabbit.”  No one knows whose head will be on the guillotine next.  In the middle of this pandemonium, the Monarchs surrounding France decide to put a stop to the changes going on in France.  They plan to reestablish the French royalty and bring things back to where they were.  European royalty marshal their armies to attack France.  In steps Napoleon.  A young French solider with extraordinary military skills.  Napoleon galvanizes the French People and singing the Marseillaise they fight back and defeat all of the opposing enemies.  The Following is an excerpt from a speech given by Napoleon to his army in Italy delivered on May 15, 1796:

“SOLDIERS! You have precipitated yourselves like a torrent from the Apennines. You have overwhelmed or swept before you all that opposed your march.  Piedmont, delivered from Austrian oppression, has returned to her natural sentiments of peace and friendship toward France.  Milan is yours, and over all Lombardy floats the flag of the Republic.

Basically, Napoleon is congratulating his army on their spectacular victories over the combined armies that attacked France: “You guys did great.  You really rocked. You kicked some real butt out there today.” 

But, and this is a big BUTT, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Napoleon’s victories and the rewards from these victories soon went to his head.  It was not enough to simply defend France; Napoleon then decides that there are more wars to win and more power to obtain.  He plans to establish a Grande Paix Française, wherein France will rule most of Europe with himself as emperor.  From the same speech in Italy:

“Yes, soldiers, you have done much; but much still remains for you to do.  Shall it be said of us that we knew how to conquer, but not to profit by victory?  Shall posterity reproach us with having found a Capfia in Lombardy?  Nay, fellow soldiers!  I see you already eager to cry ‘To arms!’  Inaction fatigues you! and days lost to glory are to you days lost to happiness.”

“Okay Guys, we kicked butt.  Wasn’t it fun?  But look, we can kick more butt and have more fun.  I guarantee glory and fame awaits us.  As we sing the Marseillaise:

To arms, citizens!

Form your battalions,

Let us march, let us march!

That their impure blood

Should water our fields.

Sacred love of the fatherland,

Guide and support our vengeful arms.

Liberty, beloved liberty.

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Over the course of my next seven blogs, with interludes as needed, I will “reconstruct” seven of my favorites speeches.  The speeches that I want to look at will include the following:

  • The Defense Speech – Socrates
  • Here I stand – Martin Luther
  • Dare, Dare Again, Always Dare – Danton
  • If There is No Struggle, there is No Progress – Frederick Douglas
  • I Am an Anarchist – Lucy Parsons
  • Give Me Blood and I Will Give You Freedom – Subhas Chandra Bose
  • Police Brutality Speech – Malcolm X

There are thousands of great speeches and dozens of “The Greatest Speeches in History” lists.  For my reconstructions, I wanted to take some of my favorite speeches that are less well known, and which were very controversial at the time.  It is one thing to get up and say something that everyone will agree with (Trump Speech), it is another thing entirely to give a speech that threatens the status quo and which may leave the audience hating you.  Each one of the above speeches is challenging and provocative.  The speakers were not afraid to generate animosity and hostility towards themselves.  I think this fearlessness in the face of adversity is truly one of the characteristics of a great speech.

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.” — Aristotle

 

 

Debate versus Discussion:  Why Debates are a Waste of Time!

(Listen to the Debate Song, while you read my blog this week.)

berniedebateOnce upon a time, I thought debates were the answer to the question of “how do we discover the truth?”  I thought that if you put two intelligent people together and each took opposing positions on an issue, that through the interplay of ideas the truth would emerge.  If you think about this a bit, it is the basis for our judicial system in America.  One side argues for the defendant, the other side argues for the prosecution or against the defendant.   It is also the basis for an academic exercise called Dialectical Research or Dialectical Inquiry.

dialectical inquiryA dialectical investigation is a form of qualitative research which utilizes the method of dialectic, aiming to discover truth through examining and interrogating competing ideas, perspectives or arguments.  This latter method is often applied through the use of case studies in which students or investigators discuss real world examples of complex situations.  The purpose of a case study is to provide a more thorough analysis of a situation or “case” which will reveal interesting information to the reader.  As I use them in my classrooms, my goal for my students is to help them understand how to better form strategies for success in business.

159_TJ_Dillashaw_vs_Dominick_Cruz.0.0Unfortunately, in the real world the strategy of debate does not work.  Debates are a waste of time when honest discussion takes second place to winning or looking good.  Dialectical Inquiry is also often useless since the complexity of the subject can be beyond the ability of many students to grasp.  Real world situations are froth with uncertainty, volatility, complexity and ambiguity or as some have called it VUCA.  VUCA is an acronym used by the military to describe or reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations.  Many complex situations are seldom able to be accurately modeled leading in most instances to weak images or portrayals of the actual situation.  This is why debaters opt for simple explanations rather than complex explanations.  Another example of this watering down of reality is a Hollywood movie depiction of a supposed “true” story.  Recent movies that come to mind include the following:

  • The Revenant – Story of legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass.
  • American Sniper – Story of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle
  • Steven Jobs – Story of the founder of Apple Corporation
  • The Theory of Everything – Story of physicist genius Steven Hawking

Hollywood loves to take stories of great enterprise and or daring do and change them into a 1. 5 hour dramatic show full of love, heroism and imaginary situations that often did not exist.  Did I say lies?  Perhaps that would be more accurate.  For often, these Hollywood epics are no more than half true.  The other half are stories added for dramatic impact.  Even worse perhaps are the often skewed biases that intrude into the movie which distort the reality of the character or situation.   For instance, here is what one critic had to say about the Steve Jobs movie:

“With all this in mind, I was disappointed in the Steve Jobs movie.  Partly because as an Apple expert I watched the film in dismay as events were pulled out of context and people appeared in locations and at times where they simply wouldn’t have been around.  I can’t help but think that in his desire to avoid the chronological retelling or Steve Jobs story, a traditional childhood to death epic, in favor of three acts (which would be better suited to a theatrical production) Aaron Sorkin constrained himself too much.  The only way he could tell the story was to pull events from all corners of Jobs’ life and present them as if they had happened in the 30 minutes before a keynote presentation.”  — Karen Haslam, 10 Nov 15

I mentioned earlier that debates cannot work when winning is the primary objective.  Hollywood’s version of winning is making money.  Making money becomes a more important objective than telling the truth.  Similarly, the truth takes second place to winning in political debates.  Winning for the networks means providing entertainment to sell ads, not necessarily a stage full of erudite rationale individuals trying to discover the truth.

The 2016 debates for both the Republican and Democratic candidates have not only been a farce but they have been an insult to the American People.  Here is one comment regarding the Republican debate on TV a few nights ago:

“The GOP debate on FOX last night was an embarrassment.  The talk show hosts said it best.  This debacle stooped to a new low. Penis size?? C’mon people.  Seriously. We need to respect our President.  It is beyond my comprehension how anybody could respect this pathetic excuse for a candidate.”

politifact-photos-Trump_gesturesI have watched several of the debates now and I see no evidence that truth is being discovered.  The debates have become hyperbolic spectacles of insults, half-truths, reality distortions, innuendos and petty personal attacks.  I doubt if anyone has found much truth in these debates never mind elucidations of complex policy positions for any of the candidates.  Trump 2495-so-funny-and-true-rhetoric-wallpaper-427x454will build a giant wall.  Cruz will fix Syria.  Rubio will fix health care.  Sanders will fix inequality in America.  Hillary will fix Obamacare.  Do you know how any of the candidates will accomplish these lofty goals?  Of course not, since they know that the “debates” are no place for such a complex discussion.  Trump perhaps realizes this fact better than anyone and has kept his discussion and clarification of his policy positions to less than fifteen second descriptions.  The general consensus seems to be that if a candidate cannot explain their position on any subject in less than fifteen seconds, they are doomed, i.e., they lose.

In their book, Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate, (1988) Jamieson and Birdsell make a case for the importance of Presidential debates but only if certain changes are made to the usual format.  Their book was written over twenty five years ago and if you have watched the recent debates, you will note that their recommendations were not heeded.  Furthermore, the present debate formats have probably encouraged worse excesses in rhetoric and sophistry than either Jamieson or Birdsell could have imagined in 1988.  Looking historically at debates, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were the epitome of rationality and decorum.  Today, the networks want drama and entertainment.  Debates such as took place between Lincoln and Douglas would never qualify as either drama or entertainment.

debate parrotsOn a more personal level, I have a problem with debates.  I have a few friends who love to debate.  I have noted as a result of recent discussions with them concerning the Presidential elections that do not want to understand or clarify any issues, they just want to argue or perhaps debate.  I say that they want to argue, because their main agenda seems to be looking good or advancing their points and not understanding my points.  They often enter into these contests (Since that is what a debate means to them.  It seems to be a contest between winning their points and looking good or losing their points and looking bad.) with a pretense of trying to understand why I think or feel a certain way.  Sometimes, they start the “debate” with a flat out rejection of my position or with a declaration such as “you are dead wrong” or “you don’t know what you are talking about.”  I confess that such latter utterances often preclude my disposition to have a rational discussion with them.   I see no point in it.

Have you ever changed anyone’s mind which was made up?  Have you ever tried to have a rational discussion with someone who was being emotional?  Have you ever tried to explain something to someone whose main objective in talking with you was to score points or make you look stupid?  Under the rubric of “debate,” are we to think that our antagonists give one farthing for the truth or where we stand on an issue?  There is a big difference between debating me on an issue and discussing an issue with me.

The result of these “debates” with erstwhile friends have led me to two inescapable conclusions.  First, I don’t need or even want debaters in my life.  I have little time left for scoring points or winning games by making someone else look bad or proving that they are wrong and I am right.  Second, debates do not start from an honest position of fruitful and objective inquiry and thus cannot lead to truth or relevant knowledge.  Rather, most debates start from a position of “I am right and you are wrong.”  The antagonists goal being to show you or the audience how right and smart they are and how wrong and stupid you are.  Is there a point to such an exhibition?  I presume winning is the payoff and reward.  As Vince Lombardy once said:  “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

If your objective is to understand something or if you want to find the truth, I suggest that you think more of discussing and less of debating with others.  A good discussion aims to find an understanding and comprehension of complexities that is often beyond our singular abilities to understand.  The truth can usually (but not always) be found between two extremes.  However, the process of truth seeking is more important than the process of truth finding.  The truth will inevitably change over time.  You will never have found a truth that will be good for all eternity.  There will always be a new truth to be found somewhere.  Thus, the process of truth seeking becomes a way of life that outfits the seeker for a journey through the cosmos that may take the seeker to the end of the universe and back to the beginning.

Well, if you finished my blog and you think I did not give a fair presentation on the evils of debate, then please listen to the song I noted above.  This song makes a case for the value of debate.  It does it in an Indian Rap song with great visual effects, music and choreography.  I am probably undoing my entire argument by including this song but Amen or so be it. 

(Listen to the Debate Song, it makes a great case for the value of debate)

Time for Questions:

Do you seek first to understand or first to be understood?  Do you debate others or discuss with others?  Are you more concerned with understanding or looking right?  How do you grasp complex issues?  How do you insure that you truly understand and are not being duped by charlatans trying to sell you simple answers to complex issues?

Life is just beginning.

“And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:”  — The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777.

 

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