Scholars who focus on American Literature, when they set the boundaries of the American literary canon, always save space for speeches -- usually delivered at critical moments in the nation's history. There is, of course, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered in August of 1963, not long before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And William Faulkner's speech, delivered in Oslo as he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, is a favourite of those of us who made a living teaching the language and its literature.
My guess is that, likewise, the speech Al Gore delivered in Oslo last week -- in a decade or two -- will find its place in the literary canon. Employing wit, passion and a sense of history, it was a call to action. And, while it lacked the rhetorical flourish of Winston Churchill (who Gore cited) its simple but powerful rhetoric stands as a beacon in the swill of modern Orwellian spin.
Gore began with a reference to Alfred Nobel who, like Gore, got the chance to read his own political obituary, "a judgment, which seemed to me harsh and mistaken -- if not premature." But like Nobel, Gore said, "that unwelcome verdict also brought a precious if painful gift: an opportunity to search for fresh new ways to serve my purpose."
It is, indeed, one of the ironies of history that Gore, the wordsmith and teacher, has been far more effective outside government than he ever was within. When it came to warning of the danger we face, Gore -- like Churchill -- did not mince words: "We the human species are confronting a planetary emergency -- a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here." Every day, Gore said, we dump "another 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet." And, every day, scientists tell us that "something basic is wrong." Pulling no punches, Gore declared, "We are what is wrong and we must make it right."
But, as dark as the skies and the future might look, he was no pessimist. His parents' generation met the same life or death challenge in World War II. And, Gore believes, this generation has the power to rise to the occasion. Reminding his audience that Mahatma Gandhi "awakened the largest democracy on earth and forged a shared resolve with what he called 'Satyagraha -- or 'truth force'"-- Gore proclaimed that, "in every land, the truth -- once known -- has the power to set us free;" and the truth is that we need "a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store carbon dioxide. And most important of all, we need to put a price on carbon with a CO2 tax that is then rebated back to the people, progressively, according to the laws of each nation, in ways that shift the burden of taxation from employment to pollution."
Gore ended his speech with a call for both China and "my own country . . . to make the boldest moves or stand accountable before history for their failure to act. We have everything we need to get started," Gore said," save perhaps political will, but political will is a renewable resource. . . . So let us renew it, and say together,'We have a purpose. We are many. For this purpose we will rise and we will act.'"
Those simple declarative sentences have stark beauty and power -- the same beauty and power of The Gettysburg Address. One day they will take their place in the canon beside Lincoln's address. My hope is that, just as Lincoln reminded us that we need to be guided by "our better angels," Gore's words will do the same.