They’re just words.
If you live in Western Europe, then politically there are only two countries you have to keep an eye on; England and Germany. The reality is the rest just make noises while the former two make prosperity or give you fair warning of how many notches you should be tightening your belt.
Angela Merkel was talking about the Euro crisis and while she made some superficial sense, it wasn’t exactly an inspirational speech. She’s really a very traditional centrist politician who knows how to say a few hundred inoffensive words guaranteed not to ruffle any feathers. Personally, I always preferred Chancellors like Helmut Kohl, an old-fashioned free-range Jerry. When the big rivers in Germany were flooding and there were rumours flying around that low bits of Deutschland were to be abandoned to the waters and a journo dared to pose the question to him, all 18 stone of Helmut rounded on him ferociously and thundered; “Wir werden jeden Meter verteidigen” – We will defend every metre and you could see he meant it too. If you can find a clip of it on youtube, it’s worth the search just to see them leap backwards in case he bit their heads off. Now, that’s what I call a bloody Chancellor of Germany.
David Cameron was up next and I’d have to give him the same mediocre score as Merkel on the middle management scale. They’re both capable politicians and have got to the top of the greasy pole in their own political backyards but you can’t help feeling they’re what we’ve come to settle for and to be fair to them, their speeches were all they thought we expected of them; middle management blowing a bit of sunshine up our butts. The same ole, same ole. I can’t see the press making something big about anything they said but no doubt, they’ll have to give it a go. We kind of expect that too.
Obama is not much better, though he’s obviously had a lot more coaching on how to deliver a speech because he’s not a natural orator and it shows. He doesn’t have a feel for it and is prone to putting too many pauses of excessive length in his speeches and at the wrong points, which can lead to embarrassing gaffes like this but the actual content of his speeches is just as banal as the others. However, his stilted delivery and a few catchy phrases were still good enough to get him elected but as the American people of all political persuasions have found out to their cost, he’s not much good as a President. They, like us, need someone a lot better in charge of things.
These are not good times and everyone is working hard to keep some money coming in. The working man and woman are chasing fewer and fewer poorly paid jobs to keep themselves and their families afloat. Most of the young people, irrespective of their qualifications, are either not working, working part-time or on minimum wages. It’s all a bit basic needy but you see the good side too; people helping people. Heard of a job going over there, sure I’ll help you with your CV, I’ll put in a good word for you, of course you can use my computer for email, use me as a referee, whatever you need mate. Little things but this is how we all get by.
People like Cameron, Merkel and Obama are simply not helping because when you’re down to basic needs and you look towards them for a bit of help and listen to what they’re saying, you can see they’re just making sounds, meaningless sounds coming out of the mouths of well-scrubbed faces and there’s nothing there. Nothing, zilch, nada. rien, nichts, überhaupt nichts. Our nada, who art in nada, nada.
I suppose they’re what we’ve selected as politicians after an extraordinarily long 15 years of prosperity. In those good days, we didn’t need the hope of better days so any middle of the road anodyne politico would do, just as long as they didn’t rock the prosperity boat. We need something better nowadays but I’m afraid the political establishment is afraid to offer us the choice of a politician of conviction; someone who, while they may not be televisual or too politically well-groomed, will speak to us directly, rationally and honestly and dare I say it; show some inspirational leadership.
We’ve given up hope in them but they’ve given up hope in us too. They’re convinced that if they were honest with the ordinary man, he wouldn’t understand or would simply panic. That is the patrician attitude of the rich professional politicians who are currently in charge of things. None of them have ever held a job down because that stupid and boring job was simply the only thing between you and your family affording the groceries that week, losing your house or being forced into taking a state handout. They’re afraid too, afraid those irrelevant arbiters of good taste, the political media, might deride them for being honest and daring to be courageous with us. What cowards they are. That’s what I find most disappointing about them and why their speeches are just safe content-free noise.
The policies that need to be put in place to get the economies of the world back on their feet are obvious but would be very unpopular, so instead they fiddle at the fringes of the problem and thereby prolong the economic agony of the common man. They’re putting their parties and their re-election chances before the greater good of the countries they’ve been entrusted to lead. Do the right thing for the country, even if it means you’ll lose the next election, because I think you’re all going to lose your next elections anyway.
Beyond politics and policies, I want to talk about oratory here, the skill of communicating effectively to a group of people. It was taught in schools and universities for a few hundred years but nobody’s heard of it nowadays; seemingly, it ceased to be relevant at some point. I stumbled upon it as a young man because it was explained in books that were cheap enough for me to afford, because nobody else wanted them. Gems hidden in plain view. Quite literally, it’s as old as the Greeks, so let’s listen to this wisdom of those ancients.
There’s a lot more to it but essentially, they believed a good piece of oratory must have an appropriate mix of three elements; logos, pathos and ethos.
Taking those elements in turn, logos is, as you might have guessed, logic. I’m not talking about mathematical logic here but a clean line of everyday reasoning that anyone can follow. It’s just pointing out the common sense of why something should be done or not be done.
Pathos is not so much pity but a better nuanced translation would be appealing to the listener to get a feeling of what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. It’s empathy with the situation of those less fortunate than you.
Ethos is appealing to your best image of yourself, to the better angels of your nature. It’s an appeal to the finer traditions of whatever group you naturally feel you belong to or want to belong to. Your country, your race, your regiment or whatever higher thing you aspire to in your heart.
It all sounds a bit dry, doesn’t it? I’m going to try to make it come alive by discussing a piece of English I love for a number of reasons. It’s short, just ten sentences and less than three hundred words but you need a bit of context first.
It was written by Abraham Lincoln and delivered by him on the afternoon of the 19th of November 1863 at the dedication ceremony of the Gettysburg National Cemetery and of course is the Gettysburg Address. It is just over four months after a three-day battle in which each side suffered losses of nearly 25,000 men and was the bloodiest engagement of the American Civil War. Lee’s Army of Northern Virgina had been prevented from pushing further into the North at Gettysburg but the cost had been horrific. Nobody knew it at this point, but this was the high water mark of the Confederacy’s fortunes. As far as anyone could tell, there was nothing ahead of them but more of the same terrible bloodshed.
The speech was to be the final one of the day; a sort of wrap up speech after all the others. Great orators were like pop stars back then and people flocked to see a good one. Edward Everett, a noted orator of the era, gave a two-hour speech, which had been well received by the assembled crowd. In contrast, Lincoln’s speech was so short, that he’d delivered it and left the platform before any of the photographers had time to set up and take a photograph of him.
Please take the time to read it slowly at a speaking pace.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It’s a speech by a sad man, a man who’s only too aware of the continuing human cost of the conflict, an exhausted man and as it turned out, a man already very sick with smallpox. Both he and his wife, by all accounts loving and doting parents, are still coming to terms with the sudden death of their own twelve-year-old child the previous year. He’s tired of death and a dreadful bloodbath of a war that appears to have no end in sight. And yet, there’s a strength and resolve in it as well. You feel he can’t hurt any worse but you somehow know he’ll never give up because he believes the blood sacrifice is for something important. There’s a strength in the thing.
In his very first sentence, he catapults himself straight into the political danger zone that the slavery issue was at that time, but he does it anyway. Both his party and the opposition Democratic Party, were still deeply divided on the issue, even though the proclamation of emancipation had already come into effect in January of that year. Publically and in the legislature, he’d never come down on the side of the abolitionists or the slave owners but he’d always fought the expansion of the right to own slaves within the Union. He was acute enough to realise he could go further if he didn’t totally alienate one camp or the other, which would shatter the fragile political alliances he depended on. The phrase “all men are created equal” is him putting his cards face up on the table and in public. All men means all men, irrespective of their colour. From now on, there can be no doubt about his position on the issue of slavery. With one sentence, all the bridges have just been burned. Being that candid takes political courage.
He reminds his listeners that it was their parent’s generation who had fought and sacrificed for their freedom in the War of Independence, which was equally touch and go at times and whose eventual outcome was just as problematic. He’s telling them to live up to that because the torch has now been passed to their generation. The struggle is that important.
The words he’s saying and those already spoken by other dignitaries will not be “long remembered.” Their words aren’t but ironically, his two-minute speech still reverberates down the years powerfully. We, the bigwigs, are not going to matter in the long-term; what’s important here is the service already rendered to the nation by the people being buried here. It’s up to you to make sure that the sacrifice by those others is not in vain.
He gives them a sense that America is not just a new nation but an ambitious experiment, a whole new concept of what a nation might be and it’s a fragile thing and under danger. If they do not rally around and defend it, then it will “perish from the earth.” There is a prescience in his vision of what America might become that’s so long term, it’s almost frightening. Very few people can imagine that far ahead politically or dare to be that optimistic about anything in the midst of the carnage of war.
If you’re a bloodless grammarian, there’s a good debate here as to exactly how many sentences are in the speech and which ones might not fail the test of being a proper sentence but that’s totally irrelevant because at times, it’s just poetry masquerading as prose. How often have you seen phrases from this speech being used in other contexts? It’s a use of English by a master of it, who’s quite prepared to drive a horse and carriage straight through its rules and conventions when it suits his purposes and you as a listener, don’t even notice.
It’s an honest speech. There’s no big deal being offered here, no political inducement, no sunshine being blown. Nobody listening to it can have been in any doubt. It’s bad, I won’t tell you it’s going to get better and I can’t tell you with any certainly that we’re going to win this terrible war. All I’m doing is appealing to you for your support and help. This is the brutally direct aspect of the thing. He’s not offering you much in return for the suffering, just that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.” With those simple words, he encapsulates every single one of my political beliefs.
Depending on which partisan accounts you believe of how the speech was received by those present, it was greeted either by a muted scattering of applause or an awkward silence. My money is on the latter. He told it to them like it was and they were all a bit stunned by it.
Everett wrote in a letter to Lincoln the next day “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Though from a poor background and entirely self-educated, Lincoln was a well-read man and I’ve no doubt was aware of the rules of what was thought of as good oratory, and you can usefully go over the speech again, picking out which bits of it used one or more of the three recommended elements but the thing is though, you can’t learn to be that brilliant at anything unless you’ve got that innate talent. He spoke what was in his head and his heart and he spoke it well. Oratory simply does not get any better. It is not just happenstance that Churchill, a great orator in his own right, knew all of Lincoln’s major speeches by heart. If you want to get good at something, then study the best.
Far, far beyond any aesthetic consideration of how good it was as oratory, the speech was politically a seismic event, both in the immediate terms of the Civil War and the enduring view of America as a new sort of nation. Before it, the single stated rationale for fighting the war was always the preservation of the Union. After it, though preserving the Union was still an aim, the war now had the higher moral purpose of abolishing the institution of slavery in America. It totally reframed the whole conflict to be a simple struggle between right and wrong. It was now about fighting for basic humanity.
Slavery was the big issue that the founding fathers had deliberately chosen to walk around and for reasons Lincoln would have understood only too well. To borrow a phrase of his, when he was being encouraged to declare war on England over a maritime incident during the Civil War, he simply replied, “one war at a time.” It had festered poisonously for too long at the heart of American politics and was now to be tackled head on, which would indeed bring about “a new birth of freedom.”
The issue was finally going to be addressed, the war would eventually be won and Lincoln was going to be murdered within six days of its end.
I want you to take the time to have a leisurely look at this, one of the last photographs of him, taken days before he was assassinated. For the times, it’s highly unusual for important people to look so relaxed in a formal photograph. Highly unusual. No rigid upright posture with shoulders thrown back or phony grimace of dignity. He’s actually at ease and appears to be smiling at the camera, also unusual for the times. That bow tie could do with some straightening and that hair with a quick comb through it. He’s just came in and plunked himself down on the seat without bothering to arrange himself; the left hand side of his jacket is still hanging over the arm of the chair. He’s fiddling with something, possibly a pen or spectacles. It’s hard to see what.
Take a moment to move back from the screen and look at it from a distance of three feet. Take your time, get an impression of the man from that distance. Do it now and when you think you’ve got everything you can from it, read on.
Now I want you to look at it again but this time from a distance of six inches from the screen. Go on, get your nose up against the screen and take a real hard look at him close up. Do it.
Yes, it’s the eyes; there’s something in them, though whether it’s sadness, resignation or cold steel, I’ll leave you to decide. Perhaps he has an intuition of what’s about to happen to him. The face is deeply lined and those deep sunken eyes stare out at you but his mind appears to be somewhere else entirely. This is not the face of a victor. Whoever took the photograph, must have wondered if he was even actually in the room with them.