When they go low, we go high: speeches that shape the world – and why we need them
4th Estate, 2017
ISBN 978 0 00 823569 7
Ignore the clunky title. Philip Collins’ impressive new book is not just another anthology of speeches, but a powerful and passionately argued polemic.
Collins believes fervently in liberal democracy. And open, public speech is democracy’s very life blood. But our democracy is in poor shape. “If we want to attend to the good health of our democracy,” he writes, “and we really must, then we need to attend to the integrity of the way we speak about politics.”
The ailment, he claims, is disillusionment, which he suggests may arise from democracy’s manifold successes over the decades. Those successes mean that there’s less to fight for; all too often, political speech has become dull. In fact, he suggests, “most political speeches today are unnecessary.”
But democracy will always face new conflicts and threats. “It is the nature of human beings to disagree. Politics is the means by which that division is recognised, negotiated and settled.” That’s why politics demands speech: “it is in the spoken word that the defence of politics has to be conducted.” A speech is a performative act: it enacts the very process of politics. In this argument, then, rhetoric and politics become virtually synonymous.
Disenchantment with politics fosters the illusion that there is an alternative. The current contender is populism, which Collins roundly condemns but perhaps doesn’t quite pin down. If democracy – he quotes his hero Camus – is the system for those who know that they don’t know everything, the populist always claims to have all the answers.
Collins places populism in the context of a long and heterogeneous absolutist tradition. Democracy demands patience – “and patience,” he writes, “is usually in short supply. Many distinguished people have called for a short cut to utopia.” But, from Plato to Mao, the politics of the shining path invariably leads to tyranny. And tyranny silences, with catastrophic consequences.
Collins develops his thesis into five claims. Politics gives voice to the people, promotes peace over war, speaks nations into being, improves the condition of the people, and tames the worst human instincts. “All of these virtues,” he writes, “require poetic political speech,” so he creates five main sections, illustrated with a clutch of speeches and bookended with essays elaborating his argument.
These essays are the most engaging parts of the book: at times, more so than the speeches themselves. Collins' practical insights into speechwriting are useful but sporadic. (You can find a selection of them here.)
More absorbing are his broader discussions, pitting the slow-burning successes of democratic politics against the demagogues and the revolutionaries – all those who thought that they were on the right side of history. Camus, writes Collins, “understood that history doesn’t have a side. History does no work for us; we have to choose for ourselves.” The greatest speeches – in the face of time and chance – make that choice.
Tyranny denies the possibility of choice by removing the possibility of conversation. “To live in utopia is to be amidst perfection already achieved. Nothing develops and nobody can change their mind.” Collins analyses oppression in rhetorical terms. Camus again: “Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”
That remarkable sentence signals the ambiguous power of rhetoric sitting at the heart of Collins’ argument: the power to overcome fear, despair and isolation by welding its audience into a community.
Populism does so by demonising. Collins watches Hitler scapegoating Czechoslovakia, in the speech he gave in 1938, immediately before annexing the Sudetenland. “One of the puzzles of Hitler’s rhetoric,” he writes, “is how someone whose thinking was so disordered, in every sense of that term, could be so effective on the stage.”
The solution is in the rhetoric itself, which bodies forth the utopian dream in the very act of entrancing its audience. The order Hitler craved was possible only the podium. By creating an identification between himself and his audience, he manages to seal off, for a while, the exigencies of reality. As Collins writes: “the novelty in his rhetoric was to create a bound community, a Volksgemeinschaft, just by talking it into life… This is the trick of the shaman. He has created a need and a Weltanshauung and claimed it was what the people thought all along.”
Exactly. Binding is what rhetoric does. As Collins himself ruefully admits, “it is the pinnacle of what every speaker would like to achieve; for rhetoric to be true as soon as I say it, and because I say it.”When
Political truth has to be talked into life. It’s never transcendent; it always emerges from the clash of arguments. You’ll find yourself arguing with Collins as you read. That’s surely his intention. And, because, as La Rochefoucauld said, “the passions are the only orators that convince,” Collins argues that democratic politics must rediscover “the principle of hope.” Rhetoric matters because we need a “better, more enchanted politics.” The responsible democrat must describe what has gone awry and find words to speak a better future into existence. “The spectre of utopia is profound fear; its promise is extraordinary hope. The purpose of politics is to contain the fear so that the hope can thrive.”