Bastion of Free Speech

Thursday, November 1, 2001

Wanted - Dead or Alive An Orator
Niranjan Ramakrishnan

By and large, oratory in American politics is a lost art. Television and its sound bite, coupled with a general apathy to social and political realities, have all combined to run this most delectable skill to near extinction in our political sphere. It is, therefore, a rare treat these days, to hear a genuine orator speak.

When the retired Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas addressed the Senate in defense of President Clinton, during the impeachment trial a few years back, it was wonderful to watch an old-time, pre-TV, politician at his best, putting forward ideas, defending them, arguing to and with the public. Jeff Greenfield, the TV commentator, remarked then he hoped young people were watching Bumpers' performance, for it was a glimpse into a now-defunct world, one with the cut and thrust of thought-provoking debate and verbal jousting.

Mario Cuomo is an orator, no doubt, but one rarely gets to hear him - no one is allowed more than a minute at a time on television. His last hurrah was during the 1984 Democratic Convention, when he held the crowd spellbound. Recall that this was before everything was so stage-managed, while a convention speaker still had some latitude to say something intelligent.

Jesse Jackson too is an orator of sorts,
Though without a good rhyme, he'd be tied up in knots.
There you go - one can't even write about the guy without versifying. Widely touted as gifted orator, he has never struck me as one who could articulate anything past some fresh-minted alliterations. His accent is also difficult to follow at times. Nonetheless, in a spare field, he is certainly better than many.

In recent times, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were decent speakers, though Clinton is the better orator by far. Reagan had the knack of delivering a written speech well, hitting the punchline with exquisite timing, but one never heard him express a great deal of thought (which is really the stuff of oratory). Add to this Reagan's usual confusion about the facts, and the efforts of his handlers to keep him from making any major gaffes. When he spoke of themes he had thought about, though, he was a master entertainer - something you could not say about his successor, George Bush Sr. who was, even on a good day, excruciating.

Bill Clinton is capable of great speechmaking. He is also highly intelligent, not to mention well-read. There was that famous five-minute off-the-cuff speech he gave on NAFTA, in the presence of all his predecessors, completely unrehearsed, cogent and strong on facts, which prompted George Bush Sr. to remark, "I just learned why he is inside (the White House) looking out, and I'm outside, looking in." Clinton had even succeeded in sparking an reed of eloquence in Bush!

Clinton has given some great speeches, but unfortunately most of them were in the aftermath of his Lewinsky scandal. One was at a prayer breakfast in DC, the other at a Black gathering in New England. As they addressed no more than self-serving themes, they had the usual quota of intelligence and congency, but lacked any greater purpose.

When the two contenders for President ran in 2000, the bar for oratory was lowered several notches. People were ecstatic when a candidate spoke a complete sentence well. One aide is quoted as remarking you always feared what might happen if the piece of paper before George W. Bush blew away in the wind. Al Gore spoke when he didn't have to (all those charges of exaggeration), and remained silent when should have spoken out (at all the Bush giveaways). The silence was more eloquent than his speech.

No - unfortunately for us, the great orators of our times all live outside of America. Fidel Castro is deemed to be magnificent. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was supposed to be exceptional, but some thought him a demagogue more than an orator. Blair is widely regarded as a great orator. India's Vajpayee is good, but he is more Jesse Jackson than anything approaching Lincoln - full of clever words but little mental cargo.

And so it was that when I happened upon Louis Farrakhan speaking on one of the public access TV channels earlier this week, I was transfixed where I stood. Here was a genuine orator. Farrakhan speaks fluently, thoughtfully, cleverly, using words well, everything an great orator needs. He can argue and alliterate, unlike Jackson who can do only the latter. He is an intelligent speaker, and a bold one. Of course, he speaks with all the trappings of a fascist cult leader - cued applause, a large, fawning, uniformed body of factotums on the dais. I remember listening to an excerpt from him during the Lewinsky scandal - when an interviewer asked him about Clinton's demeaning the Oval Office, he flung the question back, "Are you suggesting that's the worst that has ever happened in that office? It is a place from which assassinations have been ordered! Agree with him or not, he is one of the few politicians who has a mind of his own and willing to speak it. It helps, no doubt, that he is not planning to run for any public office - he is dictator for life in his own organization.

In any event, he made the comparison between the Islamic fundamentalists and the American Revolutionaries, both opposed to the Establishment of their times, seeking to overthrow it. Farrakhan quoted and read extensively from the Declaration of Independence. The people we called terrorists, he said, were merely asserting their rights, and regarded themselves as martyrs. Farrakhan probably didn't realize he wasn't being particularly original in comparing the jehadis with America's Founders. Ronald Reagan was on to this theme two decades ahead of him, hailing the jehadis as the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.

Despite the chasm which separates the lofty idealism of a Thomas Jefferson with the blinkered mind of a Muttawakil, the yawning gulf between the benign wisdom of a Benjamin Franklin and the cruel rantings of a Mullah Omar, Farrakhan and Reagan are correct in identifying their similarity - that both the American colonists and the Taliban have stood up to the mightiest powers of their day. But the similarity ends there. The American revolution was fought and defended in the name of universal freedoms, not universal restrictions. It was waged not to gain powers for one race or religion, or to exclude some group of people. Yes, we all know that blacks and women and Indians did not have full rights. But the spirit of the revolution, and the Declaration of Independence, did not enshrine these limitations. Rather, they spoke of the rights of all human beings. Over time, the spirit of the Constitution and the Declaration overcame the ground realities.

The Taliban and its cohorts are quite the opposite. They want all non-muslims to get out of Saudi Arabia. While they are happy to see the spread of Islam all over the world, they have arrested Christian missionaries trying to spread Christianity in Afghanistan. If this seems unfair, the noted Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis has an explanation. (The Taliban) see their religion as the correct one and others as inferior, and see it as only proper that they should promote their cause while preventing others from spreading theirs. They do not see their religion as one among many equals. Before we get all agog over this, let us remember that this is not so unusual an attitude. The mindset of certitude is not exclusive to the Taliban. Neither is proselytization, which Christians do with no small measure of glee. Nor is monotheism exclusive to religion. American companies have not hesitated to overthrow governments abroad to promote their products and to spread free markets - a cause somewhat less altruistic, let us admit, than the saving of souls. Winston Churchill once remarked that he refused to remain neutral between the fire and the fire brigade. The Taliban attitude is that they are the fire brigade. There is one small problem, though. As an Afghan resident was quoted in New York Times in the aftermath of the mayhem in Afghanistan following the fall of the Najibullah government, "If this is Islam, give us the Infidels". Many people would identify the Taliban with the fire, not the fire brigade.

America is not perfect. Its policies abroad are anti-democratic, violent, anti-people and arrogant. But its people are a different matter. Some one hundered and fifty years ago, deToqueville wrote that America was great because its people were good. America is also great because it is the only country ever founded on an idea (or perhaps more properly, ideals) , not some narrow notion of geography or ethnicity or religion.

But, I hear you say, What is the use of all the ideals in the world if it is accompanied by the complete opposite on the ground - death squads, arms-dealing, overthrow of popular governments, the works? It is not an easy answer. But given a choice between narrow ideals & faithful implementation (Taliban), vs. high ideals and poor implementation (America) we should recall the words of Churchill (now that was an orator) to a lady who hissed at him that he was drunk, "And madam, you're ugly. But I'll be sober tomorrow." That may well be, but we had better sober up quick.

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