As we have discovered in January 2020, words matter. They matter even more when spoken by powerful men and women. I write this in the context of the dying days of Donald Trump’s presidency, when his words have incited supporters to storm the Capitol, the end result being violence and a chaotic attempt at halting America’s democratic process.
Trump features in this collection of speeches from Simon Sebag Montefiore, and it is depressing that he does, but he must, since he inspired over 70 million Americans to vote for him in 2020. The speech included is in the chapter, ‘Power’. Happily, Trump is now not in power, but in this speech, delivered in 2015, he rails against foreign countries, and complains about political opponents in a refrain all too familiar now, which concludes with the usual MAGA finale to the ecstatic audience. But Sebag Montefiore has arranged his collection in a particular order. Just prior to Trump is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. A speech of such simplistic beauty, and so short, that by contrasting it with Trump’s rambling attempt, Montefiore serves to remind us of the highest heights the United Sates can reach, alongside its lowest of lows. One can be forgiven for looking at the past with nostalgia.
Amongst the familiar included are Martin Luther King, Alexander the Great, JFK, Winston Churchill and Hitler, and some less so like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chaim Herzog (his is prescient today). Most recent is John Boyega’s moving speech from the summer of 2020, placed in ‘Resistance’, which implores those not in support of the BLM protests to empathise with his and other Black people’s experiences, and empowers Black people with raw emotion – it must have been incredible to have been there, listening to his words.
Sebag Montefiore has done splendidly to bring in so many diverse voices, and there are numerous treasures. I found one of the most powerful was from a schoolgirl. Malala Yousafzai’s, addressed to the United Nations in 2013, is affecting and optimistic, aware of her place in history and which finishes with the glorious flourish, “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”
Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History.