Thursday, October 15, 2020

Go High

Isocrates (436-338 BC)
"Rhetoric as that endowment of our human nature 
which raises us... to live the civilized life."
photo credit: Student Lives TVW, Wikimedia CCA-SA-4.0 International

During this never quiet time in Silly Season, you might find some renewal in checking out Philip Collins' thoughts about Speeches that Shape the World and Why We Need Them - this is the subtitle for his book titled When They Go Low, We Go High. 

After the launch of this book, in which Collins of course discussed the source of its title, Sam Leith put a microphone in front of the author for The Spectator podcast on 25 October 2017. Early in this interesting interview, Collins pointed out that the best case for democracy is what it prevents, as Albert Camus had noted. 

Collins goes further in his book, comparing democracy and populist utopia (pages 71-84). This emphasized again for me the wisdom of keeping close with people who know how little they know.

If someone also aims for the stars while keeping feet on the ground, then you've likely found a true leader. The true leader shares feelings for what "we the people" care about; And, talks with us to let us know what the leader will do to: 

* help put a roof overhead and keep it there; 

* see we can get food

* assure health care we can afford; 

* provide a pathway to a job; and 

* respect our freedoms and peace of mind

For this person, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be a governing principle. These are just some of the ways we can "go high." 

Collins' book focused mainly on speeches that address these very real concerns of any of us. The speeches that he discussed are, in my opinion, mainly Good (Pericles, Lincoln, Pankhurst, Churchill, Kennedy, Mandala, King, Reagan, etc), with a few of the Bad and Ugly (Hitler, Castro, Mao), along with a host of others worthy of attention. 

With his insider's understanding as a former prime ministerial speechwriter in Britain, Collins shared lesser known insights about the context, composition, and delivery of the speeches. He has put together an entertaining read. In both podcast and book, he pointed out the virtues of going high, to change people's circumstances for the better, through politics.

He also shared some interestingly common tells about the autocrats. They consistently self-indulge how poorly done by they are, especially by the media not loving them - and are forever angry. Sound familiar? And, their utopia ordinarily requires returning to some mythically better past; apparently unable to show us a better future, much less to do so with humor.

Another well-known commonality of autocrats, Collins wrote, is to drumbeat various inventions about conspiracies of the elite against the people; consistently claiming that "utopia [is] just around the corner, if only the corrupt elite had cared to venture there." Another tell is that the propagandist/autocrat self-portrays as leading efforts to "rise above the smears, and ludicrous slanders from ludicrous reporters." Yet another tell is to claim "a lot of people are saying," as authority for some preposterous drivel. Apparently, this is all in every days' "work" for the self-dealing autocrat.

Collins book is a worthwhile and reassuring read at this time. Engagingly brief also is his description of rhetoric as a positive, developed canon of principle and knowledge. This addressed my pet peeve about the educators or others who preface their analyses of propaganda with long preachy explanations of rhetoric. Please, would you put your energy and words toward the better use of rhetoric's tools of analysis that have been around for some 2,400 years. 

How about we all do what we can to edge the understanding of rhetoric, as other than a pejorative, into the popular imagination and, as a system for living, back into the mainstream of all educational curricula! 

Maybe then the vain regrets I recently read about The Lost Tools of Learning, in a booklet published in Oxford in 1947, would actually go to some purpose. Maybe then, just maybe a propagandist wouldn't have such an unchecked path. 

Maybe a propagandist could be caught out and stopped in time in future.