Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 11 June 2009
Issue No. 950
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lubna Abdel-Aziz

No time to dream

Will this generation ever thrill to the ringing oratory of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, or a Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, or even Hitler? Analysts and linguists think not! The art of oratory may be a thing of the past, gone with the passage of the 20th century. Now all we have is Barack Obama. The American President is eloquent and articulate. His presence and charisma are pleasing, his command of the language and intellect are put to good use, but he is no Martin Luther king. He lacks the richness of the poetry, the passion, the flame. He also lacks substance and spontaneity. Prof Clay Carson of Stanford University writes: "His speeches are plain, simple and to the point." Linguist Geoffrey Numberg separates Obama's star power from his oratorical skills..."He speaks with confidence and conviction, yet slightly distanced from his own words. Obama is a great speaker; I just don't think he's a great orator."

Star or orator!

Is the age of oratory dead? Have we killed it after 20 centuries by the overwhelming control of technology over the 21st century? Perhaps we can no longer dream King's dream on the mountain top. The fast, busy, noisy life we lead leaves little time for dreams! With our cars running, our cells ringing and our emails clicking, our freedom has been robbed. Obama may simply be the product of this digital age!

Smart as he is, he is known to make good use of the available digital technology. His over use of the teleprompter however, has been criticized, even ridiculed by comedians because no other president has used one "so consistently and at so many events, large and small." A teleprompter is a screen, big or small, that is not conspicuous to the audience, from which the speaker reads his text. The teleprompter undoubtedly adds efficiency, of facts, figures and names, but robs the speaker of spontaneity. How can you move hearts to tears, if you are busy reading the teleprompter, and not moved to tears yourself! Technology has raised us to great heights, but at its alter lay many sacrifices, one of them being great oratory.

History remembers with kindness its great orators of yesteryear. The art of oratory is more intricate and more demanding than merely a 'gift of the gab.' Corax, a Sicilian Greek of Syracuse, was the first to establish a system of rules for public speaking in 466 BC. Protagoras developed the principles of debate, Gorgias emphasized style, Hippias included memory, and Lysias showed how "perfect elegance could be joined to plainness." During the 400s BC in Athens, a style of speechmaking generated an interest in the new art for the citizens of the young democracy. The first great Greek orator was Pericles, the greatest was the patriot Demosthenes who inspired his countrymen to make Athens the leader of all the Greek city states. Aristotle was the outstanding Greek writer on rhetoric. He established three methods of persuasion: 1. the ethical (the influences of the speaker's personality); 2. the pathetic (the use of emotional appeal); 3. the logical (the reasoning of formal principles).

Rhetorica ad Herennum believed to have been written by Cicero, one of the early Roman orators, in 86 BC, delineates five steps to speech-making: invention, disposition, style, memory, delivery. In 55 BC Cicero wrote De Oratore in three volumes developing further the oratorical techniques: "The proper concern of the orator is language of power and elegance accommodated to the feelings and understanding of mankind" at any period in history. Great orators are rare. Even Cicero himself lamented: "there are so few exceptional orators." History hails Caesar as a great orator, besides being a great general. Cicero said of him: "Do you know of any man, even if he has concentrated on oratory to the exclusion of all else, who can speak better than Caesar?" His friend Mark Antony, the Roman politician, studied oratory in Greece and made good use of it by condemning Caesar's assassination so admirably, at least in Shakespeare's version of the tragedy.

Outstanding speakers of Christianity include St. Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin. The British have produced many distinguished speakers throughout their history, none more memorable than Winston Churchill. Despite a slight lisp and an erratic style, Churchill created a speech pattern that was steeped in imagery and imagination. The Chiurchillian delivery has been imitated often but none could re-create his distinctive combination of language and delivery. He is the most quoted politician of the 20th century, and with good reason: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat," or "never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." He was a man of his time, but also a man of all time. While Adolf Hitler is also listed as a leader of men who rallied the masses by his oratory, his shouting, ranting style drove the message home, but lacked the cultural depth of a Churchill.

"Ich bin ein Berliner," is perhaps the highlight of John Kennedy's flamboyant speeches. He was an attractive messenger with a moving message that captured the hearts of his people. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." His stirring words apply to every citizen of every nation under the sun.

The best of the best of the 20th century may very well be the humble preacher who became the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. His historic speech in Washington DC, now referred to as the I have a Dream speech, was delivered in 1963 to a quarter of a million people. It has moved to tears hundreds of millions since. Martin Luther King had no need for a teleprompter or speech writers. He spoke from an agonized heart and his tormented cry for justice and freedom like a piercing arrow struck the hearts of all who listened. But it was not only his intense emotion that made him unforgettable, it was his mellifluous voice, his cadence, his style, his imagery and his message. King's lavish use of metaphors, his creation of vivid images, his almost musical delivery were nothing less than sublime. "Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill...from every mountainside." More like a song than a speech, it clings to your heart and rings in your ears unconsciously and subconsciously. Are we ever to go back to that "mountain top" in the 21st century! We still have wars, crises, causes and injustices, but who is there to help us move mountains! I may lend you my ears, but who is there to capture my heart.

Is there any time left for dreaming great dreams? Has the curtain descended on the great art, skill, and practice of oratory, or can this digital age still find room for the forceful medium of the human voice. As Obama addresses the Muslim nation from Cairo, we wonder how many hearts his cool style, his sharp intellect, and measured delivery will penetrate. And another thing, we wonder if he will seek the use of a teleprompter?

Speech is the mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so is he.
-- Publiluis Syrus (first century BC)

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