The Rhetoric of Demagogues

Jul 28

A Multiple-Source Analysis

900 words, due by midnight on the evening of Sun, Jul 28

Essay submission via this link AND via the comments, below.

In The Ethics and Politics of Speech, Pat Gehrke speaks of “the Hitler problem for rhetoric and persuasion: that those strategies for persuasion condemned in Hitler’s oratory are simply extreme versions of those more mundane strategies generally found to be at the core of effective persuasion” (55). The World War II era gave rise to a host of leaders admired for their skill in public speaking, among them Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. But can we safely admire and (ideally) imitate their style? Or is their oratory really no different from that of fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini?

Drawing examples from two or at most three speeches, use comparison and contrast to decide whether the persuasive oratory of Roosevelt and Churchill can be meaningfully distinguished from Hitler’s (and/or Mussolini’s). Your analysis can focus on their diction, their persuasive appeals, the internal logic (or illogic) of their speeches, their delivery or even the media they employed. Given the short length of this essay, you’ll likely want to do no more than mention some of these elements in passing, choosing to zero in on one or two elements that you argue are crucial in deciding the question.

Note that essays are more interesting to read when it feels like the debate isn’t a foreordained outcome. So you should pose the question in a way that makes the opposing side seem initially to have the stronger argument. And you may even want to give some space to fleshing out the opposition’s argument early in your essay body.

Valid sources:

  • Public speeches by FDR, Churchill, Hitler and Mussolini. If you use a speech we didn’t cover in class, do consider the quality of the translation (i.e. if the translation makes Hitler say something really strange, check in with Prof Holm to make sure it’s accurate).
  • Article on FDR’s speech published in the National Archive’s Prologue Magazine.
  • Gehrke, chapter 2 excerpt read for class.
  • Notes from Rhetoric, Humanities of Social Science class—or from office hours.
  • Wall text from museums around London.

Number of Sources: you are not required to use any sources in this essay beyond two speeches. Additional sources (a third speech, Gehrke, notes, etc.) may well improve your essay, but only if you make good use of them. So bring in other sources to do something meaningful, not just for its own sake.

Source Citation: MLA.

Length: This essay will be scored (√+, √, √-) for length, earning a √+ for coming within 50 words (above or below) the prescribed word count and a √- for being more than 150 words too long or too short. My word count will not include your Name, any Headers or the Works Cited, but will include the essay’s title.

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