For her sixteenth birthday, Malala Yousufzai delivered a speech on the floor of the United Nations, where she said that education could change the world. That may be true, but she confirmed something else to us arguing as much: words can change the world as well. While Pakistan becomes the kind of place where schoolgirls-turned-gunshot victims are considered controversial, the rest of the world is notching up Malala’s address to one of the most inspiring in recent memory. Despite these fast food times, a powerful speech remains as extraordinary as ever.
Because a speech can still change history. We’ve over-theorised the flow of that history with words none of us understand, with “sociocultural norms” and “environmental geneses”. But history remains human. It’s about people, the dreams they chase, how their humanity affects others. Through expression, they lend edges to emotion. Through great speeches, they drive people to act. Words can’t yet fight wars, but they can cause people to start them all the same.
But can a single address change that much? For a message powerful enough, yes it can. In this, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him)’s final sermon to his followers shines through. Today’s speeches are measured by how much they disturb the course of human events — the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him)’s beautiful words instead, acted as a balm for all mankind. A lull before the storm that splintered Islam into rival camps, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him)’s address was one of compassion and oneness. His message was the need for redemption and will ache in people’s hearts for as long as redemption remains essential to the human condition.
Put in reverse centuries later, it was Pope Urban II who offered another, baser redemption. With the Byzantinians screaming for his help, Urban begged the West to cease fighting among itself and wrest the Holy Land “from that wicked race”, the Muslims. In a sermon from Clermont, Urban declared those who fought the “pagans” would be cleansed of all sin, in one of the most effective sales pitches in history. His call to arms would herald the Crusades. Conflating the two things dearest to them, God and land, Urban’s sermon drove legions of the faithful into Jerusalem and drew seas of blood.
These are words that changed the world, but they are rooted in times past. It may be better to consider whether individual speeches can be as momentous today, in a world where the 24-hour news cycle is losing out to bursts of trivia 140 characters long. Though not exactly recent, Winston Churchill, that most English of wartime heroes, gave some of the most stirring speeches, steeling England against the spectre of Nazi invasion. But though Churchill pledged “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds … the fields and in the streets … we shall never surrender”, Germany was felled less by British speech than Russian sacrifice.
Perhaps, it would be fairer to gauge today’s speechmaking as a manipulator of people than a mover of history. In this, Churchill certainly succeeded. When Richard Nixon told Churchill’s son Randolph how much he admired his father’s off-the-cuff talks, Randolph replied that Winston “spent the best years of his life” writing those extempore speeches.
Nixon himself was no stranger to faking spontaneity. Accused of corruption as vice-president nominee, Tricky Dick went on air to give a pious accounting of his assets right down to the family dog, refusing to return it “regardless of what they say”. Nixon’s sweetness was studied and cynical and it won over Middle America all the more. Running for president later, it was with his TV triumph in mind that Nixon signed up to a live debate with a lesser-known opponent. America would fall in love with its first Kennedy that day, banishing Nixon to the wilderness.
Both Kennedy, the Boston Irish prince, and Nixon, the dirt-poor schemer from Yorba Linda, were gifted at putting into words the crisis of post-war America. People yearned to believe in Kennedy’s soaring ideals; they lived instead through Nixon’s crude class wars every day of the sixties. The words of both men have torn holes into modern Americana, impossible to heal even a half-century later.
And in the same century they lived and died, we heard speeches that changed history, or heralded history changing. Mandela emerged from his life sentence to become South Africa’s first black president with the declamation, “Let freedom reign”. Jawaharlal Nehru announced India’s “tryst with destiny” would stand redeemed, while Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s August 11 speech is a plea to the people of Pakistan more relevant today than it was then. This past decade, meanwhile, was littered with the rhetoric of a world led by Dick Cheney; with its “wars on terror” and “axes of evil”.
Because rhetoric can never excite when it suppresses the ideas it should enable. Career racist Strom Thurmond, who fathered a black child in another life, attempted to derail 1957’s Civil Rights Act by filibustering for 24 hours nonstop in the Senate, reading in parts from the telephone book. India’s VK Menon repeated the same tactics for a cause as unjust, in a marathon speech to the UN defending Kashmir’s occupation. Menon addressed the Security Council for eight shameful hours, collapsing in conclusion. When the truth is screaming itself hoarse, it’s best to confuse the issue with layers of drivel.
Perhaps, the best speeches marry talented speakers to powerful messages. Writing in his diaries, Ayub Khan recounted how, in one rowdy public meeting, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto prayed to the people that he not be asked to open his attache case. Mr Bhutto’s fans tore forward and opened the case anyway, revealing a copy of the Holy Quran. The crowd lost it, to the field marshal’s bemusement.
Pakistan swells with such talented speakers. What it needs, now more than ever, is a message. Mr Shahbaz Sharif’s criticism that Malala’s was too global is justified by some. But then, so is the criticism that the PML-N’s message is far too parochial to inspire much of anything. Whoever’s right, bullet trains do not big dreams make.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2013.
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