Many professional speechwriters have complicated feelings about TED Talks. Their popularity over the last couple decades has raised the profile of oral communication, encouraging clients to tell stories, lose the lectern and do other dynamic things onstage. But it has also raised speakers’ expectations of a speaking opportunity unduly, convincing each and every one of them he is Malcolm Gladwell or she is Amy Cuddy.
Meanwhile, TED Talks have lost lots of luster over the last five years or so, and even been parodied for their formulaic, hyper-stylized approach—and their general glibness and banality.
And everybody’s noticed, except people who are invited to give TED Talks, who never ever seem inclined to turn the opportunity down.
In fact, one of the crankiest dudes I know of has apparently accepted an invitation to do one—Rick Perlstein, author of the celebrated polemic political histories Nixonland, Reaganland, and The Invisible Bridge.
I don’t know Perlstein personally, but he’s a fellow Chicagoan, we know a lot of the same people, he lauded my blog once, and it occurred to me to sent him a request to write a blurb for my book, An Effort to Understand. To which he replied, “Doesn’t look like the kind of thing I’d like. I hold the unfashionable opinion that communicating with one another is [not] anything near the top of national priorities. Defeating fascism is.”
Perlstein is also contrary in good ways. He once interrupted “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough to tell him to stop interrupting his co-host and wife, Mika Brzezinski. Scarborough’s reaction revealed snakes behind that smiling mask.
But normally, Perlstein is more at home on shows like Michael Moore’s podcast, explaining in rigorously researched terms how corrupt the Republicans are and always have been, and how lame the Democrats are, and always will be.
As tiresome as that sounds, Perlstein brings a crackling mind and a grand theory to it that’s sometimes bracing.
Nevertheless, it is not exactly the sunny, constructive optimism of the typical TED Talk.
And yet, Perlstein was invited to give one, and apparently he accepted, because he just told all his Facebook followers:
Giving a TED talk in June. Theme: “Epiphany.” Other “innovation ideas” to be “shared on the TED Stage”: “Overcoming Obstacles.” “Neuroscience & Farming.” “Sound Therapy.” My usual rap–“GOP Apocalypse Abetted By Dem Fecklessness”–should make for a challenging fit. Thoughts?
That’s right: The crusty cultural critic is crowdsourcing a happy, innovative epiphany that he can share with the nice polite crowd at TED. Not surprisingly, he didn’t get a lot of good suggestions from his followers; and the ideas he did get, he shot down.
Call TED back, Rick, and tell them the truth: That you’ve spent your whole career condemning every American political leader you have laid your eyeglasses upon, and you’ll be goddamned if you’ll prance around that red dot on the stage, like the fighter-turned-rassler at the end of Requiem for a Heavyweight, and spout some fatuous feel-good jive to make people feel better about things.
Turning down the Tyranny of TED, and refusing to give in to your own desire for more visibility or your publisher’s demands for more publicity: That would be speaking truth to power.
And while I have you here: As I’m sure you know deep down, writing critical American history isn’t the only way to defeat fascism.