One of my favourite books when I was younger was The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Speeches. It has all the greats, as you would expect, and some little known treasures. I use to pore over the best of them again and again, and you could almost hear the voices springing out from the page when you read them to yourself – the signature sounds of Martin Luther King, JFK, Winston Churchill.
In one of my past lives before I grew up to be a political philosopher, I spent some time in stage acting, so great speeches appealed to me on that level too. They were not only political theory – though the best of them were that as well – but they were theatre, strategy, rhetoric, persuasion and poetry.
Like any such list of the greats of years gone by, whether in music, film or philosophy, they are apt to make the idle reader despair of current offerings. What would it have been like, you can’t help but wonder, to live in a world where people like Martin Luther King actually stood up and spoke that way? What would it have been like to actually be in the crowd and hearing him make history in front of you? To let you be a part of that history?
Julia Gillard’s 'He needs a mirror' was not the stuff of the ‘I have a dream’ legends. No question about that. But when the dust settles on the end of this century, and the great speeches are collected so the next generations can despair over their current crop of political leaders, I hope at least her name comes up, and that some consideration is made as to whether her speech of October 10, 2012, might belong in the sequel to my dog-eared penguin.
To be sure, the speech was not set in a context as grandiose as many of last century’s greats – it was not the culmination of a huge social movement that had gathered tens of thousands of people together to march on their capital, it was not ringing from the halls of a nation newly freed from apartheid, or sounding out as the Berlin Wall fell. There were no epochal events unfolding – no terrible war confronting a nation, no fledging state being formed, no national emergency to rally around.
But that, in a way, was precisely its power.
It is not only great and terrible acts that define a people, a country, a generation. It is the petty and demeaning ones as well. It is all the tiny, needling, fleeting, half-audible, offhand, half-joking words and acts that we almost all are guilty of using – sometimes thoughtlessly, sometimes not – that bring people down a peg, that put them in their place, that remind them how things really stand and where they are in the pecking order. It is those acts, as much as the great acts, which define who we are and where we are going. It is – as Leonard Cohen once put it – the homicidal bitching that goes down in every kitchen, that determines who will serve and who will eat.
Individually, maybe, each particular snippet isn’t a big deal. But that’s the thing with racism and sexism. It’s not just arbitrary meanness. Its organized meanness. It’s the little things that are said often enough, and by enough people, and to the same people, that finally start to weigh on them.
So it takes a reckoning. It takes someone being able to fix down one target, and add up the sorts of things they say and do – and the sorts of things they let their friends and allies say and do – and package it all together, and see what that says about the person’s character.
And that’s what Julia did.
And she did it beautifully.
It was theatre.
At the end of the performance I looked in disbelief at the timestamp on my iPad. Had I really just listened, captivated, to a speech in the Australian parliament fifteen minutes long? And had my ten year-old-daughter really just sat next to me on the couch and (excepting a short distraction when the complexities of the Slipper case lost her) watched it with me? Even she – largely a stranger to the evening news – could see the drama unfold as Tony Abbott’s confident smirk began to dissolve, and the realisation sink in for him.
Julia had him.
She knew it.
He knew it.
My ten-year-old daughter knew it.
And the more he sank down in his chair like a cheeky child finally getting the dressing down he knows he deserves, the more my daughter giggled uproariously.
If this was politics, she wanted in.
How long had Julia Gillard been saving up all of those snippets, each perhaps almost-excusable on its own, but able to be drawn together for devastating effect, racked up together when the opportunity presented itself, and when the opponent has the decency to blunder headlong into a political trap that might have been years in the making?
And if the list had been years in the creation, who can blame her? The speech works because we the audience can all put ourselves in her place – doubtless women can do this much more effortlessly than men, of course, because they have in fact been in that place – and wanted to make that list, and dream of one day being able to set it out, publicly, point by point, with the victim trapped with nowhere to turn.
But in the end, if her speech really does merit candidacy in the great speeches of the twenty-first century, it won’t be because we the audience put ourselves in her place, vicariously living through the thrill of the kill, exhilarating though it was.
It’ll be because we put ourselves in Tony Abbott’s place, and we wondered what that speech would sound like when it was delivered to us. And because we decided we didn’t think we’d altogether like how it might sound.
Tony Abbott is not a terrible, evil man. He’s not so far from a regular bloke.
And that’s the point.