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Paradoxes

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I’m conducting some research for a paper I’m writing on persuasive public speech which has brought me to a foundational text on the subject, Principles and Types of Speech, by Alan Monroe of “Monroe’s Motivated Sequence” fame. The original text was published in 1935 and many of its precepts are still taught in public speaking classes today…but what I want to share from the book is not its explicit lessons but, instead, one of the sample speeches printed in it. The speech, originally “delivered by Homer McKown Barlow in the Michigan Oratorical Contest at Alma College, Michigan, March 1, 1929,” is notable for its contemporary relevance. In other words, not much in American political and social life has changed in the intervening 83 years. Read in the light of our present historical moment, it seems the chief paradox of social life is that the more things change the more they stay the same.

I’ve re-printed a slightly truncated copy of the speech below for your contemplation, amusement and/or chagrin. 

Paradoxes

[Our] situation is seemingly absurd, yet we all know it’s true in fact—in a word, we say it is a paradox—a seeming contradiction. But then life is a paradox. Every truth has its counterpart which contradicts it. A contradiction is a head-on collision which two trains of thought completely telescope each other. I give you this definition because I’m going to talk about contradictions—contradictions in our political and social life…

I am not a pessimist—I can’t be because I’m young—and youth is supposedly as optimistic as the old lady who opened a gift shop in Scotland; but I would briefly review a few paradoxes which confront us today—hold them up before you so that you may see their obvious fallacies and realize that the solution to all our modern problems lies in being able to see beyond the paradox—to recognize truth. In a day when a murderer is considered crazy, if he doesn’t plead insanity, we need to go behind words to the underlying truth.

So we have a democracy and we settle things by a majority vote, and the psychological effect of doing that is to create the impression that the majority is probably right. Of course on any fine issue the majority is sure to be wrong. Think of taking a majority vote on the best music. Jazz would win over Chopin. Or on the best novel (sic). Many cheap scribblers would win over Dickens. And any day a prize fight will get a bigger crowd, larger gate receipts, and wider newspaper publicity, than any new revelation of goodness, truth or beauty could hope to achieve in a century. In addition to the Yankee’s inalienable right to vote, the constitution provides that the right of free speech shall never be denied. And here we leave politics and find that a social paradox looms on our mental horizon. For today you may talk on any subject you please in Tennessee or Arkansas, except evolution or religion; in Boston, except the Sacco-Vanzetti case; in Chicago, except King George and the Union Jack; in any place, except on a subject which, as a burning issue, would most profit from untrammeled discussion. Speech and an assemblage are free in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, except to union men in time of strike. If you talk unionism then, you land in jail.

Don’t misunderstand me—I’m making no brief for socialism. Many socialists do not work—they only talk about work. What they want is an orthodox heaven of ease where the harps are always in tune and the robes are always laundered. Yes, it’s true that we have too many people who live without working, but we also have altogether too many people who work without living. The man in the threadbare overcoat who stands in the breadline on a stormy winter night is not the man who said:

“Work
Thank God for the swing of it,
For the clammering hammering ring of it,
Oh what is so fierce as the flame of it
and what is so huge as the aim of it;
Thundering on through the dearth and doubt
calling the plan of the Master out.”

Yes, working without living is the curse of an industrial age. America has neglected the esthetic…

Yes, this is an educated age—a scientific age—yet the Bubonic plague which swept over Europe nearly five centuries ago was not more widespread or destructive than the last epidemic of influenza. Here again we see a paradox. For, while part of the world of science is concentrating its effort to prevent a recurrence of the flu epidemic, another part has successfully discovered a deadly gas which may be dropped from airplanes and wipe out whole armies in time of war. Yes—war!—the world in spite of its awful lesson of a decade ago is still thinking in terms of armaments, defense, the possibility of another war. To the mass of people there is something weak and colorless in the word “peace.” So much has this been the case that we have seen another strange paradox: in our civilization which calls itself Christian, the word “Pacifist” has carried with it a certain reproach of hypocrisy.

You asked what is the solution, and again I would remind you that although our political and social life is a paradox, underlying every paradox is truth, and if we will but open our eyes and see it, this truth will set us free from the hate, the greed, and the ignorance which bind us.

 

Mr. Baldwin is a doctoral candidate of comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of Arkansas. He is a self-described free-market anti-capitalist harboring anarchist utopian fantasies. The best that can be said of him is that, presumably, his mother loves him.

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