When They Go Low, We Go High – Speeches That Shaped The World – And Why We Need Them
By Philip Collins – £16.99
”Beyond human aspiration, there is no end and no point. There is only time and chance. Perhaps this makes life absurd but there we are. Politics is the system by which we gather to accept and negotiate this ineluctably tragic fact of human existence. Camus understood that the supreme political virtue was moderation; Sartre never did, and in politics, if you don’t understand that you don’t understand anything.”
‘Revolution: Through Politics the Worst is Avoided’
”’There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space,’ said Salman Rushdie in Shame. Unfortunately, in the history of nationalism, shame is too often the appropriate emotion.”
‘Nation: Through Politics the Nation is Defined’
It might be said that moderation and quintessential consideration for others, are the two integral necessities by which most great and respected world leaders are particularly renowned.
The American likes of both Carter and Clinton had it in abundance. As did Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and of course, said country’s first black President, Barack Obama.
All of whom were Democrats.
All of whom are rightfully written about in this altogether terrific book.
That’s not to say Republicans don’t get a look in because they do, as do a number of international politicians of unquestionable repute – among them Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and Vaclav Havel. The latter of whom began life as a writer/playright, and who is, for all intents and purposes, one of the few mentioned herein that doesn’t happen to be (an out and out) politician. The others being Martin Luther King and of course, Elie Wiesel – both of whom spoke and wrote with far more eloquence than most of us could ever dream of. Let alone aspire to.
To be sure, Philip Collins – columnist for The Times, associate editor of Prospect Magazine and one of Tony Blair’s former speechwriters between 2004 and 2007 – has herein compiled an outstanding and lest it be said, important book. Important, because it de-blurs the political lines and puts so many things into prime perspective; which far too much of today’s society take for granted. Outstanding, because it well…. just is.
Reason fundamentally being: not only does Collins critique and analyse all twenty-five of the most notable speeches in world history throughout When They Go Low, We Go High – Speeches That Shaped The World – And Why We Need Them. But, amid its 409 pages (excluding Bibliography and Index), he also asserts his own mighty correct, crystal-clear thoughts on many an inflammatory issue.
For instance, in the ‘Gettysburg Addresses,’ he bequeaths the reader with a most appropriate take on the ghastly resurgence of populism: ”The populist utopian has all the answers […]. No sooner has he ejected the hated elite than the populist’s entourage become the elite themselves. He glosses the shift by posing as the tribune of the people. No need for a manifesto: he simply intuits the general will. Populism is a movement with no ideological content beyond its resentment of an elite. It therefore requires a charismatic leader – lately a Trump, a Chavez, an Erdogan – to glue it together. The movement gathers around the leader as if around a maypole. Its name proclaims allegiance to the people, but in fact populism requires the people to swear allegiance to the leader. The bargain rests on the populist knowing everything, but, of course, the truth is that he knows almost nothing. The populist has a utopian account of political change, which is to say no account at all.”
Sound somewhat familiar?
Do such names as Adolf Hitler (”populism requires the people to swear allegiance to the leader”) and Nigel Farage (”The bargain rests on the populist knowing everything, but, of course, the truth is that he knows almost nothing”) leap forth?
So far as right here, right now is concerned, it’s worth reading When They Go Low, We Go High for the above quotation on populism alone. And apart from all the high-octane, well considered analyses, it also makes for convenient, refreshing reading, to have all these marvellous speeches in just one book.
None more so than the undeniably, utterly heartbreaking words of the brave and brilliant, Elie Wiesel, which, to my mind, really ought to have concluded the final chapter ‘Revolution,’ but for some reason, doesn’t. Although Collins does lead into it with the following sentence: ”There is no more affecting passage of rhetoric anywhere than this, from Night:
”Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”