The Open Left and Tom Friedman
by Matt Stoller, Sat May 19, 2007 at 06:46:17 AM EDT
I gave my first public speech yesterday at the Personal Democracy Forum, following Dana Boyd. The speaker before Dana was Tom Friedman. The topic of my speech was the origin of the open left, and you can find the text here. I hope they put the video online, because the text of the speech is different from what I actually said. The basic narrative is that the story of the open left is the story of betrayal.
My speaking technique is as follows. It all has to start with an amusing or interesting anecdote that illustrates a basic point, so I write and rewrite a bunch of different thoughts, anecdotes, and quotes that I want to highlight. Then I work on writing out a speech, using the anecdote as narrative anchor. I rewrite it. Then I rewrite it again. And then I give the speech to myself, and as I'm giving it I'm also rewriting it. If I use slides, I always try to use pictures that illustrate a point and not bullet points of text, which only distract from the speaking piece. And then I give the speech a few more times, rewriting so it gets smoother every time. As I'm practicing the speech, I'm internalizing the different points, so that I can begin to riff and keep the timing tight and coherent. My weakness is that I often wander when speaking or writing, which is an outgrowth of inadequate preparation.
Finally, I print out a full copy of the speech in a big font, and use that as a guide to how I'm going to talk. During the speech itself, I try to start with a literal reading of the intro so that I'm confident at the start (which sets a tone), and then I tend to riff off of the ideas in the speech. I usually throw out a large part of the speech as I'm talking, because there's still a lot of extraneous stuff in there.
Anyway, my weakness, and this is a function of my blogging and a lack of commitment to anecdote in my writing, is that I don't have enough crisp anecdotes and examples that illustrate my points. I have to work on this, so expect more anecdotes in my blogging. If I'm confident in my preparation, the speech should go well. If I'm not, it's boring or awkward. All speaking engagements - TV, radio, in person - operate the same way. I recently screwed up an appearance on radio riffing on the Republican debate because I didn't have a lot of insight and hadn't prepared adequately. That's not going to happen again, because I've learned that you either know what you're talking about or you don't, and making it up when you're there does not work.
Yesterday, I did reasonably. What frustrated me is that I wanted to go after Tom Friedman aggressively, but I did not. He said in his speech that the biggest competitive challenge in the future will be between you and your imagination, and so I wanted to make a joke about him sounding like an Epcot ride. I sort of flubbed it. What I should have said is that Friedman holds a special place in my development. I took a class from him at college on 'globalization', and read most of his books. In 2002, he and Ken Pollack were the two people that I relied on for guidance with regards to Iraq. I trusted him. I believed in him. And he got it one hundred percent wrong. And while honest people tend to admit their mistakes, and when the mistake is particularly soaked in blood, do a lot of soul-searching and apologizing, he never has. My mistake in looking at the Iraq war still pains me, and though I was a 24 year old kid with no experience in foreign policy or politics, my gullibility and the betrayal from my former guides still colors my thinking. For someone like Friedman, who should know better and occupies the most valuable opinion space in the world, it's stunningly immoral to pretend to having no responsibility in this quagmire. All of us are responsible, and the first step is to admit error. Maybe if I said this he finally would have understood where we come from, though I doubt it. But I didn't say it.
I was really tired because I had been up since 3:30 in the morning working on my speech, and so I didn't have the composure to say what I should have said with him in the audience. I hadn't prepared for it, and my preparation takes a lot of time and effort. But I wish I had figured it out anyway. I guess what I'm saying is that I am not a shy person, and I tend to be a no-bullshit type. I don't mind criticizing powerful people, in person, to their face. I've done it before, to Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mark Halperin, and John Cornyn, though I've learned to be respectful about it or else they know to ignore you. But I didn't seize this opportunity when I could have. People make mistakes. I know I do. And I'm pretty hard on other when they err. But know that I believe that criticism, including self-criticism, is actually a spur to achievement and not destructive. And so that's the spirit in which I hope all of us can learn to debate, with an open mind, a civil tone, a tolerance for error, but a withering contempt for bad faith.