How not to manufacture patriotism

30 January 2005 |

by TJS George

Was anyone patriotically inspired by this year's Republic Day speeches? Or any year's for that matter. Or by any of the Independence Day speeches over the years. These have become mere rituals. Rituals do not inspire.

This is not necessarily the fault of our leaders. Speeches that lift the souls of listeners have been heard only rarely in history. The occasion, the mood, the speaker's personality and convictions are all decisive in giving a speech lasting impact.

As Macaulay's children know, Edmund Burke made many a memorable speech. But none of them acquired the stamp of greatness that a short speech by Abraham Lincoln did _ the Gettysburg address. Pre-independence India bristled with great scholars, orators and visionaries. None made the impact Vivekananda did at the Parliament of Religions with the opening words, "Sisters and brothers of America .... I thank you in the name of the mother of religions.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan could hold audiences spellbound around the world with his extempore expositions of Indian philosophy. Yet on the historic night of August 14-15, 1947, his speech at the Constituent Assembly was a tame affair with tame sentences like "History and legend will grow around this day." Minutes later, one of the greatest speeches of all time reverberated from the same hall with Jawaharlal Nehru's "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially."

That became a classic speech because Nehru's words were filled with the passion of his own experience as a sufferer in the battle for freedom. Radhakrishnan passed through no crucible of suffering, so his words carried wisdom, but no passion. Nehru matched himself in his Last Will, especially where he went lyrical with, "The Ganga is the river of India, beloved of her people ... ever changing, ever flowing and yet ever the same Ganga."

With their immortal speeches, Lincoln and Nehru proved the irrelevance of ghost writers. Words that touch other people's souls can only come as reflections of one's own inner worth. This was borne out again by John Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address. Every president since has tried to imitate him and his play on apposite opposites, like "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." None succeeded because only Kennedy had the passion of searing personal experience.

Even Kennedy's opponents were moved by sentences like, "Let the word go forth from this time and place that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." That new generation was described by him as "born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage." Those words, which Kennedy wrote himself, were a distilled expression of his own life as a war hero who had faced death more than once and lost many close relatives in battle.

When the force of belief shaped by experience is absent, a leader's speech merely becomes a bunch of words. That's what happened to George Bush's inaugural speech. As a man who had used family connections to dodge war service, he carried no conviction, not to mention moral authority, when he talked of sacrifice in a war against unseen enemies.

Words are a mirror; Bush used them as a mask. His inaugural address, like our Republic Day rituals, merely proved that manufactured speeches cannot manufacture patriotism.


Michael Kennedy said...


Thank you for your kind comments regarding a recent blog posting of mine.

Have you changed your long-time e-mail address?