Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The role of speeches

This thread is a spin-off from the Clinton vs. Merkel thread. In the latter, a consensus seems to be emerging that when it comes to the chances of women making a career in politics, the situations in the US and Germany seem to be more similar than different. In the present thread, I would like to pursue the role of speeches in the respective political cultures, where I perceive real differences. For my current thoughts, see my first comment.

31 comments:

Ulrich said...

"I have a dream" or "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" are phrases that have become parts of (American) English, and each has its origin in a political speech. On the other hand, I could not name a single phrase commonly used in Germany today that likewise originated in a political speech, nor could I name a speech that would represent a political milestone like the speeches from which the above quotations are taken. Nor do I remember a single political speech that plays a role in the consciousness of Germans comparable to the role played, for example, by Lincoln's Gettysburg address or his second inaugural in the consciousness of Americans.

All of this came back to me when I listened to Obama's inaugural address yesterday. It was remarkable as much for its content (a strident indictment of the Bush administration whose two main representatives were sitting not more than a few feet away), as for its stylistic merits (one well-constructed sentence following the other, with quite a few rhetorical flourishes thrown in just for the fun of it), and for the self-assured delivery (a trained actor couldn't have done it better--those pauses at unexpected places that made it appear as if Obama was speaking extemporarily, not reading from a prompter). Moreover, in the days before, people expressed their interest in the speech to come as a speech, not just as a vehicle for the delivery of some content, as demonstrated, e.g., in frequent references to Obama's interest in Lincoln as a speech-maker.

This "culture of political speech" is enormously appealing to someone like me who is interested in language in all of its manifestations, and I wonder why a similar culture does not exist in Germany (or am I wrong here?). For sure, speeches have been important in German politics in the near past, for example, when the President, in his role as head of state, addressed important issues in order to steer the public debate into a certain direction (as it happened when Germans came face-to-face again with the Nazi past when they sought reconciliation with their eastern neighbors). But these speeches were memorable, if I'm not mistaken, for their content, not as speeches; i.e. for what was said, not how it was said. That's what I mean when I say that I do not see in Germany a living culture of political speech as I see it in the US.

Let me add this: One reason may be that speeches were an important instrument of propaganda under the Nazis--Hitler knew how to use the radio, like FDR did, to propagate his message effectively, and Goebbels, the "secretary of propaganda", was an accomplished speech-maker. In fact, the only "memorable" phrases from German political speeches I could come up with are by Goebbels: Do you want total war? Do want butter, or do you want cannons? spoken to rally the population behind the war when it was already lost. It may well be that the Germans' apparent lack of interest in well-crafted political speeches has its cause in the abuses of the Nazi era, but that is a pure guess on my part.

I would be interested in hearing from anybody who has a better understanding of this issue.

Marlene said...

@Ulrich This is a fascinating topic. I have to ask a friend of mine who teaches public speaking and who assigns great speeches for analysis if she has any insight into the topic. What does come to mind reading your comment is that nineteen century America had a passion for public debates, which attracted huge audiences who wanted to hear the content but who were attuned as well to the rhetorical flourishes. Do the Germans have a similar tradition? I'm inclined to think not, but I don't know. Perhaps you and Mick might comment.

I enjoyed too the comments on Merkel and Clinton and normally, I don't pay much attention to political discussions but this one was fascinating.

mick said...

@Ulrich: unsurpassed Obamas quotation of shakespearesque dimensions: This is the winter of our discontent... I'm not shure that G.W. understood. Me and my wife we shook our heads when the TV commentator said, that Bush was about to leave and move to Dallas, to live near the newly to be founded presidential library, and to work on his book??? When I saw Cheney in his wheelchair I thought by myself:' and where are the others, Rumsfeld,Perle, Wolfowitz, Ari Fleischer aso?' When the going gets tough, the tough ones go under the table!'
The difference between public ceremonies in our two countries is, that the inauguration of a chancellor in Germany is a very unemotional administrative act with a total lack of pathos. Grandious pathetic ceremonies did'nt survive in the postwar period, even flag and national anthem as symbols have been stolen from us by the nazis and a humble Germany fits much better into a todays world.
Political speech: I recall Ernst Reuters speech to the Allied Control Board in Berlin, 1948 : 'You people of this world, look upon this city', just before the fate of Germany was negotiated.
Or Willy Brand explaining with passion and sobriety his plan to overcome the obstacles in the way of an east-west harmonization to a rather right-wing conservative audience. These were great moments in german history and I'm shure , that under certain circumstances the political speech culture will resurrect.

mac said...

I think that in all our countries the real orators are few and far between. In England there were a few bright lights, like Disraeli and Churchill, Charles de Gaulle had a few zingers, and, locally, there were a few Dutch prime ministers who could put a phrase together, usually about tightening our belts......

I found myself looking for a great line in Obama's speech, and there actually was one related to the Middle East that was pretty good, but not good enough for me to remember now. Maybe we need to hear the speech many more times, like the Kennedy one.

Ulrich said...

I have been following the reactions to Obama's inaugural now for over a week, and I am convinced even more now that there is a difference in the culture of political speech in Germany and the US.

Numerous commentators opined that Obama's speech was "flat". The point here is not whether they are right (I think they are not), but to confirm what I have said before, namely that people were looking forward to the speech as speech. As to its supposed "flatness", I agree with Frank Rich, who argues that the speech was crafted exactly right for the stern message it was intended to convey. The point is: there was anticipation before and vigorous debate afterwards. I'm asking anyone familiar with German public discourse over the last half century to come up with any speech that generated the same kind of anticipation and after-the-fact commentary.

One more point: Shakespeare's dramas have some very famous speeches--and I'm not talking here about the immortal soliloquies--Richard II ("this teeming womb of kings"), Henry V at Agincourt, Marc Anthony ("Friends, Romans, countrymen..."). I could not come up with any equivalents in German drama, which again leads me to believe that there is a real cultural difference here.

ArtLvr said...

Reading you comments with great interest too, as we're still rapt with wonder and pleasure at having found ourselves an honest and articulate leader -- the contrast with the worst of Republican cant cannot be overestimated!

By coincidence, we had a column today in the Alternet blog which reviewed the rhetoric of the GOP in terms of hidden content from as far back as the 1940's right up to the present. The author stresses 'othering" -- the propagation of "Us vs. Them" mentality through language manpulation. See http://www.alternet.org/audits/121847/ -- War is always their chosen solution (e.g. "The only good ___ is a dead ___"), as Bush/Cheney believed. They only started with Iraq because they thought it would be a quick and decisive example to other "Evil Empires", and instead ended up giving other enemies plenty of time to pursue their own plans.

This weekend there was also a stunning PBS presentation of the story of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, who was never a Communist Party member though married a while to an unstable woman who introduced him to her circle in the 1930's (and later committed suicide). He headed the Los Alamos project from scratch, and exactly accomplished what was asked of him at great cost to his health and nerves. He then counseled against the mad proliferation of nuclear armament demanded by the right wing, and was pilloried -- his security clearance revoked and membership on the AEC steering committee cancelled, his loyalty questioned and his reputation ruined.

I was his hostess for a student conference at Princeton in the early 1960's, and will never forget his haunted gaze -- such as you see in photos of concentration camp survivors on their liberation. That was done to him by the fanatic right wing in our own country... mental torture. Years later he was given the prestigious Fermi Award, but it hardly atoned. There are still fanatics today who will smear any opponent as a fellow-traveler of terrorists, yet preach "values" and "moral clarity".

ArtLvr said...

@ mac -- The line in Pres. Obama's speech you're thinking of might have been the promise that if those with clenched fists will open their fists, then we will reach out a hand to them... Already, that has resonated abroad, since Bush made it clear that his goal was continued hostility against those people. W's mindset undoubtedly prompted their faster development of nuclear capabilities in self-defense, in North Korea and elsewhere....

Marlene said...

@Ulrich After reading what you wrote, I looked up great speeches in history and happened upon a web site--I'm sorry; I went back to find it this morning and I guess I didn't book mark it as I thought; it was late--that listed quotes from famous people about speeches and public speaking.

What interested me, in light of what you are saying here, is that there were lots of quotations from the French, British, Americans, and ancient Romans (I don't remember if there were any modern Italians) and something like three from the Germans; Goethe had a couple and Thomas Mann had one. That dearth of comment on the subject suggests to me that you may be on to something here.

I also seem to remember reading about some critic, I think his name was Ong, who divided cultures by how much they emphasized print over speech or vice versa. Do you think the home of Gutenberg has placed a higher value on written thought than on the power of the spoken word? I know those kinds of strict divisions usually never hold up except in the minds of literary critics, but in this case, there might well be something to the idea that speeches play very different roles in American and German political culture. The question, of course, then is Why would that be?

Ulrich said...

@artlvr: That would be a memorable line in Obama's speech. What I remember most is the conscious use of parallelism ("not yesterday, not last week, not last month") all over, a time-honored rhetorical device that gives a speech a stately flow, or conversely, sets the audience up for a punch line. I think Obama used these types of devices with great skill, and I am surprised that not more people picked up on this.

@marlene: You may be really onto something here. I'll try to find out more about this Ong person b/c off the bat, I find this distinction between an oral and written culture of speech very intriguing and worth pursuing.

One more tidbit has occurred to me: William Safire edited an anthology of great speeches of the 20th century, where his main criterion was how well-crafted the speeches were as speeches, i.e. independently of their content. Only one German made it into the collection--guess who it was? That's right--Hitler!

I have to add something here in defense of the Germans: Mick mentioned speeches by Ernst Reuter and Willy Brandt after the war, and they may well be worth considering here.

Marlene said...

@Ulrich and Mick Were lines from speeches by Ernst Reuter (who was he?) and Willy Brandt (him I know) remembered and repeated because, Ulrich, I think this is a good part of what you are talking about, treating a speech as a political tool, where the way something is said is part of what influences and sways the audience, almost like the line of a song that people can't get out of their head. Lyndon Johnson was aware of this when he followed in Kennedy's footsteps and wanted the best speech writers to create memorable lines that would move people to take the action he wanted.

Ulrich, since you are interested, I'll see if I can find more on Ong.

Ulrich said...
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Ulrich said...

@marlene: Re. Ernst Reuter. He had a very interesting political career, which reached its culmination when he became mayor of what was then West Berlin. During the Soviet blockade (1948/9) and the ensuing airlift, he became the most visible representative of "Free Berlin". Here's what wikipedia says about the speech Mick referred to:

"Memorable is Reuter’s speech in front of the burned-out Reichstag [the former parliament building of the Weimar Republic, now rebuilt and once again the parliament of a united Germany] on September 9, 1948 facing a crowd of 300,000 where he appealed to the world not to abandon Berlin."

I was 7 at the time and do not remember the speech, but I'll see if I can get hold of the text.

mick said...

@Marlene,@Ulrich: I think I found some good examples for what you were referring to: 1969, after beeing elected as chancellor, Willy Brand used in a government policy statement ,as headline for his government the sentence " mehr Demokratie wagen", "to venture more democracy".At the same occasion he statet "school is the school of a nation, not the military". He, a former underground resistance agent against the Nazis, had just replaced former Nazi official Kurt Georg Kiesinger as chancellor.
Because of his authenticity the catchphrase for the following election was "Willy wählen", "Vote for Willy".
Another widely noticed political statement was given in april 1997 by our former federal president Roman Herzog :" a jolt has to go through our nation", to overcome stagnation and lethargie in our collective thinking and national feeling. Unfortunately this wake-up call was not lasting.

Ulrich said...

@Mick: Thanks for pointing these memorable lines out--they show that the art of crafting an effective speech does exist in Germany.

Marlene said...

@Ulrich and Mick Maybe I misunderstood what you were getting at, Ulrich, about speech making because to me, good as some of these phrases Mick cites are, I don't think they reveal the ability to, in a sentence, catch an entire outlook and then have that sentence live on as a motto or slogan.

I'm thinking here of Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you but for what you can do for your country" as well as of Churchills," I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat." Even Martin Luther's King's : "I have a dream" said an enormous amount in a very short sentence--"Despite the country's racism, I am not giving up." I think "Willi wahlen" is clever, but not in the same way, and I don't see that the other phrases Mick mentions have the summarizing, almost aphoristic quality I thought Ulrich was talking about. And I hope I'm not offending either one of you, but to me, there is a difference between the examples you both give, or at least I thought there was. But feel free to tell me I'm all wet here.

Marlene said...

When I was thinking about speeches, where a single sentence (or at the most two) sums up almost an entire world view, the name Bismarck popped into my mind, so I Googled under Bismarck's speeches and read that Bismarck made lots of speeches often extemporaneously. There were also references to his "blood and iron" speech, which rang a bell. When I looked it up, this is what I found:

"Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided - that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 - but by iron and blood. "

This quotation, to me at least, has the quality Ulrich was looking for and not finding in German speeches, but they don't come any more German than Bismarck. I also think this sentence lived on long after Bismarck was dead, which is another key characteristic of great, in the sense of being influential, speeches.

Marlene said...

Bismarck definitely had the gift:

"People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election."

Ulrich said...

@marlene: It's no surprise to me--Bismarck was considered one of the great prose authors of 19th century Germany--via his memoirs, for example. In this, he is the German equivalent of Churchill a century later. So, it stands to reason that he also knew how to construct a memorable speech (BTW his delivery may have been another matter--if I remember correctly, his voice was high and thin, but then again, so was Marlon Brando's).

But even if we have established that the art of making a great speech is not alien to Germans, my initial conjecture still appears to stand: The political culture of Germany, post-war at least, is not one that is driven, to whatever degree, by speeches, and I still believe that this is a real difference between German and American political life.

mick said...

I agree that there is a difference in the polital speech between our countries, deriving from a difference in our political cultures. American orators seem to refer often to some very basic unshakable elements, 1. reference to god, 2. the constitution (the same from the very beginning on, extended only by amendments) 3. the founding fathers and 4. The American dream .The American Nation has a solid parliamentary base from the beginning and political speeches were delivered on the same level. Germany as a parliamentary democratic nation has no long history and the culture of our political debates is still in process. It took a long way from germanic tribal areas,a conglomerate of dukedoms, mini kingdoms,the german empire, the Nazi dictatorship to what we have today. Our past was mainly authoritarian and the speeches were delivered and received vertical. Even Bismark did not accept the parliament and our last emperor defamed the Reichstag as talking shop, (Schwatzbude). Most major political debates after the war referred to our near past. That could be the reason, that important political quintessences found more notice within our country, than abroad.
An important speech that should have found more attention was the one, delivered on the 23. of march 1933 by the chairman of our social democrats, Otto Wels at the debate for Hitlers 'Enabling Act' :" You can take our freedom, you can take our lives but you cannot take our honour." A vast majority of nationalistic, clerical and liberal parties agreed to Hitlers law, exept for the Social democrats.The only polical speeches allowed in the coming years were the ill-famed Nazi propaganda speeches , widely known for their monstrosity. @Marlene, another little quotation of Bismark "The less people know about sausage making and law making, the better they sleep". We all know that Bismark was not only a witty guy, he had also been masterminding the french-german war 1870/71, the first in a row of 3 terrible wars in a period of only 75 years.

Ulrich said...
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Ulrich said...

@mick: All of this concerns what is being said, and I agree with you by and large.

My initial point was that Americans are interested to a larger degree than Germans in how something is being said--that's what I mean when I say that they are interested in a speech as speech, independently of its content. People who complain that Obama's speech was 'flat' criticize the speech in this sense, not its content, which most agree was pretty explosive.

I can also see, and I said that already, that Germans may be "allergic" to stirring speeches as a result of the Nazi era b/c indeed, a stirring speech can be poison when it comes from a ruthless demagogue.

But I am also intrigued by what Marlene suggested, that there my be differences in cultures w.r.t. the emphasis placed on the written vs. the spoken word. I would like to learn more about this from someone who has studied the issue in greater depth.

ArtLvr said...

One great historical example for your inquiry into the impact of the written word is certainly "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe -- a work of fiction, yes, but more powerful in its day than all the speeches of abolitionist leaders.

ArtLvr said...

Another example of the lasting impact of the written word was "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carlson...

ArtLvr said...

Book TV on C-Span2: standout of the weekend --

Jeffery Perry, who writes on Hubert Harrison as the seminal black leader (1883-1918), a West-Indian- born intellectual orphaned at 17 who made the Harlem area of New York City his home and inspired not only the next generation (Garvey, A Philip Randolph), but succeeding generations too through both writing and speeches.

He spoke six languages, read constantly and spoke everywhere, including on street corners, often as many as 23 speeches in one week. He came to feel Booker T Washington was too readily subservient to the white elite, not concerned enough with teaching other blacks how to improve their own lives.

He was a radical, a socialist, and also a literary critic. He founded the first black power movement, The New Negro, publishing its newspaper which was read not only locally but in other countries such as South Africa. He was also a co-founder of the Schaumberg (premier black research center), and his collected writiings are now archived at Columbia University.

He died at age 44, said to have been due to appendicitis complications, though there were suspicions of a role played by the US Military Intelligence Bureau, known to have destroyed some black activist movements even in those early days of the century (before whom he had testified at least twice). His historical position as the first influential black intellectual directly addressing the less educated black community is only now becoming fully documented.

Ulrich said...

@artlvr: Thx--I find this really interesting as I have never heard of Harrison.

This month's Harper's has an essay by Breyten Breytenbach, "Obamandela", comparing Obama and Mandela along various dimensions of leadership. I find the beginning the strongest, where the author gives a descrition of Obama's speech-making--his voice, his diction, his sentences--that I find very perceptive.

ArtLvr said...

Ulrich -- I hadn't heard of Hubert Harrison either, but was impressed with the panel discussing what is out so far -- another volume is in preparation. They felt Harrison was the overarching intellectual "missing link" in black history, inspiration for later leaders including Mandela, some of whom often pursued just one of his ideas and at times opposed each other in their various endeavors.

I confess I haven't even read Pres. Obama's two books, let alone anything by Mandela, but I think his best speeches reflect that breadth and depth of inspiration and thinking beyond the politics of the day which can make a great leader -- if he doesn't get swamped too soon. The other book reviewed last weekend which has caveats along those lines was "1960: JFK and LBJ and NIxon" -- showing how the promise of each of those three was overwhelmed by unfortunate turns of fate. Not that I'd agree Nixon was ever more than a dirty tricks opportunist, but it was interesting anyway. (Aper Bush 43 should have fallen even harder than Nixon, but that's a story yet to be fully exposed: removing him could have left us with a worse Cheney unless both went at the same time!)

ArtLvr said...

p.s. Talking of speeches, I wanted to mention the timely launch of my brother Tom Campbell's new book a week ago! The title is "Fighting Slavery in Chicago: Abolitionists, the Law of Slavery, and Lincoln." He's based it on research involving our ancestor Dr. Charles Volney Dyer and his cohorts, early abolitionist activists who became founders of the new Republican party and helped secure the nomination of Lincoln for president at their 1860 convention in Chicago.

Tom shows how Lincoln had to keep from being too closely identified with the abolitionists at that point, since they were known to be breaking the law by getting runaway slaves to Canada. Lincoln would further the cause, however, in dramatic speeches and especially in the series of debates with Douglas two years earlier.

If you would like to find a copy, look under author Tom Campbell -- the hard cover edition is probably showing up already on some discount websites (my favorite site is www.addall.com), and a soft cover edition will be out soon.

Ulrich said...

@artlvr: Thx for the tip. I'll also pass it on to Laraine. But why a discount website?

Ulrich said...

Speaking of Obama's style:
Here's a really revealing piece: A syntactic analysis (i. e. diagram) of one of his sentences (I actually remember it).

Ulrich said...

And here's the same approach applied to Sarah Palin, along with some very sensible observations about political speeches in general.

ArtLvr said...

HI again -- I mentioned my favorite used book and out-of-print website only because a google will give you the new book info easily enough...

I loved the examples of parsing Obama's prose versus the stark inanity of Palin's, thank you!

My verification combo tonight is WORDRIF ;-)