Speaking about Speaking in Manhattan

Next Tuesday (March 5) I am appearing in a performance about speeches by actual speechwriters and writers of that hardest form of rhetoric, comedy. They told me I can speak about anything I want related to rhetoric, so I think I’ll speak about the upcoming season of political debates, Presidential and otherwise. It’s always a good idea to follow Cicero and “prepare the minds of the audience for what they are about to hear.”

It looks like it will be a good time. I have 7 minutes (the fingerprints of debate practice are everywhere) and I’m not sure what the venue will be like. I have a lot of ethos questions too. As the professor in the bunch, will it be necessary to read from a paper? Will it lose credibility if I just speak about it without notes? I’m definitely wearing a coat and tie, so if I feel that is an integral part of the ethos, why do I have questions about reading notes? A professor would do that - at least that’s what the audience might think.

I’m very happy I get to be a part of this mostly because of my recent obsession about reaching publics frequently with rhetorical insight, and Roman educational perspectives, where listening to, evaluating, and giving speeches were all a part of learning how to be a citizen and function politically in the day-to-day life of the Roman Empire. We seem to have lost that in the U.S. (among other places I’m sure too) and I’m very interested in exploring how to recover that. My hunch is that the loss of the town hall, the church meeting, or whatever was the forum for handling local problems goes hand-in-hand with the loss of our rhetorical abilities to deeply investigate our views and work to reject simple binaries on complex issues.

Part of this project is to raise questions about who controls the agenda for public discourse, and there’s no better place to start than with those who control most of our public imaginary about what debate looks like and should be used for - the Commission on Presidential Debates. We have a lot of scholarship on how bad the debates are, but not a lot of scholarship on how to make them better, or how to make what we have a positive thing. Perhaps we should approach the Debates like the TV show Chopped? “Open your basket, you have to use these awful ingredients.” Maybe there’s something nice that could be made from the random assortment of statements a Presidential debate provides.

I should get my comments together this weekend and practice a few times before Tuesday night. As someone who is old and grumpy, 9PM is quite late to be doing anything, let alone starting something! But I’ll just down a few coffees before I go and things should be good. They said they might video it as well so if that turns out to be the case I’ll post a link to the video in a follow-up.