‘Learn to respect the people’

Bishop Timothy Chisala, the overseer of All Nations Church, said time would come when the Patriotic Front would learn to respect the people of Zambia.

One of the most famous sayings attributed to Abraham Lincoln is about deception: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

It’s amazing that people put so much stock into political speeches. Most of our politicians’ speeches are empty salvos of political theater. They solve no problems, convince no one of consequence to do anything, and mainly serve to massage the ego of the person giving the speech. This is especially true of our official speeches during state or government functions.

We seem to have stumbled into servility by our own volition.

We seem to have chosen to take the words at face value.

What kind of servile, feet-kissing, leader-worshipping garbage is this? Royal subjects are raised to think this way about absolute monarchs. But citizens of a Republic like ours are under no obligation to hold special reverence for the politicians other than recognising them as our legitimate elected representatives with limited powers outlined by the Constitution. If that all sounds rather boring and uninspiring, good! That’s the whole point. The sad part is that we’ve stumbled into servility by our own volition.

There’s a famous scene in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that we should all keep in mind. In act three, scene two, the conspirators have just murdered Caesar. They are now in front of a large crowd of Romans, along with Marc Antony, a politician and general who privately holds his allegiance to Caesar while deceiving the conspirators that he approves of their actions.

Brutus gives a plain, straightforward account of the plot and its justification, keeping the crowd firmly on his side – one citizen even remarks “Give him a statue with his ancestors”. After he departs, Antony speaks to the crowd, in a performance since immortalised by the likes of Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus Hath told you Caesar was ambitious: If it were so, it was a grievous fault, And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.”

At the beginning, he seems resigned to the plot and to Caesar’s guilt – or, rather, potential guilt. But note that, as he continues, he consistently reaffirms Brutus’ honour even as he slowly turns the crowd against him: Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And, sure, he is an honourable man. I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke. But here I am to speak what I do know. You all did love him once, not without cause: What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?

The speech is filled with much of the same stirring language that should be familiar to modern political observers: He hath brought many captives home to Rome.

Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:

Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept

With two sets of carefully delivered remarks, the crowd turns from denouncing Caesar (“This Caesar was a tyrant.” and “We are blest that Rome is rid of him.”) to raging at Brutus and Cassius (“They were villains, murderers”). In a clever act of emotional manipulation, Antony reveals Caesar’s corpse and reads out his will, which gifts every Roman man 75 drachmas and turns his arbors and orchards over to the public. And though he encouraged the crowd to refrain from violence, violence was clearly his intention, as he’s well-positioned to benefit from the ensuing chaos (and in a note of knowing candor in act 5, calls Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all”).

It’s a fascinating and terrifying scene. But what makes it so effective?

Leaving the discussion of Caesar’s actual assassination aside for a moment, we can see that both Brutus and Antony have arguments to make. But the crowd’s reaction after being so easily toyed with is telling. They didn’t have to suddenly go on a rampage, but they did anyway. Their belief in the outsized nobility of the powerful meant that an apparently extraordinary crime merited an even more ferocious, violent response – especially after some tears and promised personal benefits. But how could they know that the will wasn’t forged? Antony said Caesar cried when they cried, but what if he was lying? And what does it matter anyway?

Crying doesn’t end conflict, reduce poverty or cure illness. And neither do “inspiring” speeches. But if people value these speeches too much, they may choose to do terrible things – or allow the state to do terrible things to them.

So when the President is speaking listen to what he is saying. But listen carefully and don’t be naive.

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