In the early days of the labor movement, public speakers stood on small wooden crates to project their voices more forcefully over a large crowd. These makeshift podiums also served to put speakers on display, so that audience members could more easily see the faces of protesters, leaders, and politicians. In the years before mass media, soapbox speeches served to test the limits of free speech, as they were often shut down by police wary of inflammatory rhetoric. They also evoked a tradition dating back to ancient Greece, when statesmen and citizens alike harnessed the power of oratory to move the masses.
Now we have YouTube.
It's ironic, then, that contemporary debate over the limits of free speech has little to do with actual "speech." Other than the occasional gaffe, speech is generally powerless when it comes to stirring up controversy. What really gets under people's skin is the channel through which an idea is conveyed. The recent embassy riots in the Middle East, for example, were sparked by an obscure film. The Pussy Riot trials in Russia were based on an illegal assembly and lyrics deemed "hateful of religion." Uproar over the financial influence of Super PACs stems from the Supreme Court's assertion that money is speech. And today's true guardians of the First Amendment (God bless them) are not orators, but comedians. Even the Occupy Wall Street protests were largely matters of assembly rights -- not free speech.
Mass media has a way of de-sensitizing people, such that the oratory prowess of leaders is now less news-worthy than video of flash bombs exploding over the heads of protestors. The effect of this it that we no longer debate our First Amendment right to express, but rather our First Amendment right to be edgy. And as a further consequence, oratory seems to have lust its luster.
This is not to say that public speaking is futile, but despite the abundance of technology that allows anyone to broadcast their opinions with the same efficacy of a politician, it is certainly less powerful than it once was. And that's a shame, because since we've been desensitized to oratory, the core ingredient of a good speech -- passion -- has also been lost on us, or at least subdued. Once again, that's not say passion is ineffective, but it is definitely more transient than, say, an Islamaphobic film or a rape joke.
Recall President Obama's campaign speech, "A More Perfect Union" -- an eloquent, passionate, and moving speech that attracted more than 1.2 million hits on YouTube within the first 24 hours of its posting. In response to his relationship with controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama argued for America to move beyond the "racial stalemate" it had found itself in, and to refute the politically motivated "guilt by association" attack. But despite the speech's initial impact, the politics of electioneering -- and the transient effect of passionate oratory -- forced Obama to renounce Wright and sever all ties with him.
It's time to once again celebrate those with a knack for public speaking -- whether impromptu or rehearsed, citizen or politician, liberal or conservative. Here are, in no particular order, the most passionate outbursts, rants, soapbox speeches, and celebrations of free speech during the Obama presidency.
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