Friday, October 26, 2012

Friends, Yeomen, Countrymen

The reporting on the presidential horse-race suggests that the front-runner status has been flipping back and forth on a daily, perhaps hourly basis since that first debate. This development reminds me of the dynamic captured in those famous funeral speeches everyone studies in high school. As you probably recall, in Julius Caesar, after Caesar has been assassinated on the Senate floor, Brutus gives Caesar’s protégé, Marc Antony, a chance to speak at the funeral. Antony is allowed to do so only by accepting several conditions. He must:
·         “not in your funeral speech blame us,/ But speak all good you can devise of Caesar;”
·         “say you do't by our permission;” and
·         speak only after Brutus’s “speech is ended.”
Brutus, confident in his rhetorical powers and in the righteousness of his position, takes the stage first despite the mob’s angry shouts. He explains that he and the other Senators killed Caesar as a matter of “honour.” He invites the mob to be “the better judge” of his deeds after recalling that Brutus was Caesar’s “dear friend.” (We should all have such friends, huh?) But despite loving Caesar, Brutus explains that he “loved Rome more.” Within a few minutes, Brutus has the mob eating out of his hands. He ends with a naked appeal to their self-interest, pride, and patriotism:
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

The mob responds, as mob’s do, in unison: “None, Brutus, none.”
Then Brutus makes what seems in hindsight to be a really foolish/arrogant tactical decision. He closes his speech by assuring the crowd that the same dagger that he used to kill Caesar should be turned on him, Brutus, “when it shall please my country to need my death.” As the crowd shouts, “Live, Brutus! live, live!,” Brutus modestly entreats them to pretty please be polite enough to stay and listen to Antony: “I do entreat you, not a man depart,/ Save I alone, till Antony have spoke.” Brutus then leaves the premises.
We all know what happens next. Marc Antony gives an even better speech—a way better speech. It is more palpably emotional and more subtly manipulative. It is also really long. He starts with the “Brutus is an honorable man” refrain, which really gets the crowd going. They may not all be the sharpest knives in the deck, but they get it—the steady segue from seeming sincerity to irony and then to outright derision. So Antony is quickly able to defuse the impact of Brutus’s speech through sheer repetition and juxtaposition:  “Brutus says he was ambitious;/ And, sure, he is an honourable man.”
Then, Antony reminds the crowd about Caesar’s will, in which he left all of his estate to them, the people. Next, he starts in with the moving anecdotes that show how Caesar was always a true man of the people despite the lofty heights he attained; and Antony contrasts the body of Caesar’s good deeds with what elites like Brutus and Cassius did to the literal body of this man-of-the-people, describing in gory detail the stab wounds “weeping” blood.
Once the crowd has been moved to righteous indignation Caesar they focus more easily on the violence he experienced than on the high-minded, abstract concept proffered by Brutus: that the assassination was really done for them, the people. Next, Antony ups the ante still further. Insisting that he is not trying to “stir you up/ To such a sudden flood of mutiny,” he does precisely that. With a last, brilliant rhetorical flourish he bids Caesar’s wounds to speak for him (since he has promised Brutus he himself will not speak ill of Brutus and his cohorts):
. . . . were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

The crowd is now ready to go. They all swear in unison: “We'll mutiny.”
So nice to know that politicians today do not presume they can manipulate the masses with relentless repetition, emotional appeals, and conscious efforts to tap into our most primal prejudices and economic fears. . . .  All hail Citizens United!

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