Politics & Policy

The Speech I Would’ve Given at CPAC

Facts, data, and complaints don’t persuade people, but the right stories will.


Good evening, and thanks for coming. What you are about to experience will — I hope — entertain, perhaps enlighten, and maybe even move you.

To begin, I want to promise you what I won’t talk about. I won’t talk to you about current events. No talk of President Obama. Or Nancy Pelosi. Or the Senate Democrats. I won’t talk about the national debt. Or the rise of Islamism. Or the 2012 election.

I know. It’s sounding like a great speech already!

#ad#For the next 15 minutes, I want to free you from the present, from all the endless bad news that’s on Fox News, Drudge, You Tube, and Twitter.

Indeed, so many of our problems are rooted in our fixation with the present, with the here and now. So many businesses in our country suffer from this affliction. So worried are they about the next quarterly report, they lose sight of the next six months or the next year. It’s the same with our families and churches. We’re so busy living our lives moment to moment, we have no time to refresh, replenish, and reset.

It’s conservatism’s problem. We spend too much time and money on elections and worry too much about this or that county in Ohio, this or that set of tactics designed to outmaneuver Democrats on issues that we will soon forget. We don’t spend nearly enough time on our mission or on ourselves. In the pursuit of short-term advantages, we lose our long-term vision.

And then we lose ourselves.

There was a great book a couple of years ago by John Kay called Obliquity. The theme of the book was that we can attain a desired goal best by pursuing it indirectly — or not pursuing it at all. Kay explains in the book how GE CEO Jack Welch performed so well for shareholders. It was simple: He didn’t worry about shareholder value. Indeed, he once went out of his way to call shareholder value “the dumbest idea in the world.” Welch did something radically different: He spent his waking hours thinking about his workers and his customers. And what happened? Precisely because he didn’t worry minute to minute about shareholder value, he delivered shareholder value!

Even happiness, John Kay said, is best pursued indirectly. He quoted John Stuart Mill, who framed what we’ve come to call the “happiness paradox.” Mill wrote: “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.” Like the man who gets high blood pressure because he takes his pulse all the time, we seek cures that don’t work; entertainment, vacations, a round of golf, letting off a few rounds at the local firing range. We then return to our lives, still worried about our future, our families, and our country.

Which is why this speech is not about our present. It’s about our past — and our future. I want to talk about who we are, how we got here, and who we might become.

George Orwell said this about the future: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their understanding of their own history.” Orwell was right. Battles about the past — over history — are always about the future.

#page#Regrettably, the American story (and that’s all American history is: the story of America) is being written by people who don’t much like our country and who want to change it. They want to change it by erasing those parts of our history that they don’t like or that don’t comport with their version of America.

The Left’s narrative goes something like this: If only America would be . . . less . . . American, the world would be a better and safer place. If only the Constitution were less . . . like our Constitution, and more like South Africa’s, a work in progress, a living Constitution . . .  As if the document our Founders wrote isn’t alive and thriving, as if it hadn’t helped unleash the potential of a people like no other single document in human history. In America, the government receives its limited powers from the people. That was a revolutionary idea in the 18th century. It still is.

#ad#Regrettably, too many of us don’t know the story of our country. Indeed, we have neglected storytelling as a means of changing the way we think about ourselves. We have invested billions of dollars in our great think tanks, but little in the serious business of telling stories.

One thing you can say about the Left: They are great at storytelling. At making things up. They’ve churned out works of art, theater, journalism, and film, and it has paid off. Their fiction is made up — but their nonfiction is made up, too. Their version of American history: made up, or filled with half-truths, distortions, and omissions that beg for correction.

In the culture wars we are fighting — and make no mistake, the biggest cultural battle is over our past — we must fight their stories with stories of our own.

Either that, or lose our memory. And lose America.

This past election cycle, we often heard pundits and politicians predict that if President Obama were reelected, our country would cease to exist. Obama would cause the kind of damage, they said, from which America would never recover.

I am here to report that our country will survive President Obama.

America doubters have been predicting our demise since before we were born. If Vegas had handicapped the Revolution of 1776, America would have been 1–10 underdogs to make it to the year 1800. But we triumphed over the mighty British Army with a ragtag army assembled on the fly. We overcame the original sin of slavery with a Civil War that left America with 600,000 fewer men — in a nation of only 35 million — and with much of the South, even the crops, burned to the ground. Today, the South is the fastest-growing region in America, and more African Americans are in positions of leadership there than in any other region in the nation.

We beat the Nazi menace. We ended Soviet totalitarianism. We’ve survived runaway inflation, stagflation, and deflation. We survived Woodrow Wilson. We survived Jimmy Carter.

Heck, we even survived disco. And, so far, Deepak Chopra.

Then there were all of those natural and not-so-natural threats that the scientific doom-and-gloom crowd claimed would kill us. We survived the threat of mass famine, the population explosion, and killer bees. (Remember those swarms of African bees that were going to migrate to North America and kill us all?)

We survived Agent Orange, nuclear meltdown, and the China Syndrome. We survived mad-cow disease, bird flu, swine flu, SARS, Y2K, global cooling, and, yes, we’ll survive global warming, too.

We were told by the expert academics and economists in the 1930s that Communism was superior to our system of free enterprise, and 50 years later, a new gang of elites told us Japan’s way was the way of the future.

Thirty years later, and we are now being told by a fresh set of academic and cultural elites that China’s way — the autocrats’ way — is the way of the future.

We have survived and triumphed over all of those real and fake threats, and disproved the myriad apocalyptic predictions, since our nation’s founding. And we will continue to.

#page#What we cannot survive is our loss of memory: the memory of who we are, how we got here, and the people and principles that made this country great.

“The world is made up of stories, not atoms,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser once noted. She is right. Stories move us. They teach us, guide us, and uplift us. They stir our hearts. And stories soon become our collective memory.

Storytelling worked for Jesus Christ. And his apostles.

It worked well for Abraham Lincoln. And Winston Churchill. And Ronald Reagan.

#ad#For far too long, our side has relied on facts, data, and reason to prevail, on consultants, pollsters, pundits, and Ph.D.’s to advance the cause of freedom, free markets, and freedom of religion and conscience. For far too long, we’ve tried to convince our fellow Americans that we are right and the Left is wrong, and we have pummeled them with facts and figures, lectures and admonitions. We’ve become angry and even bitter that more Americans have not been convinced of our superior arguments.

A few years ago, Will Bowen came out with a book called A Complaint Free World, in which he talked about the deleterious impact that complaining had on businesses, churches, and families. He then came up with a challenge for his readers, urging them to go three weeks without complaining.

No small task. But big challenges have big upsides.

For the next three weeks, I urge you to do something very difficult: When talking to friends, loved ones, and neighbors about the country you care so much about, do not complain about anything. Not the Democrats, not the Federal Reserve, not sequestration, and not the mainstream media.

I know. I hear that collective gasp. Complaining about our lot in life has become oxygen to us. We act as if we are some beaten-down minority, oppressed victims of forces too big for us to combat. We forget that twice as many Americans identify with conservatives as identify with the liberals, and then we go out every day hell-bent on reversing that number. We drive moderates and independents away from us.

We are not fully to blame for this. The media and most of the cultural institutions in America make us feel that we are in the minority. It’s a form of psychological warfare, and we soon start to believe that we’re in the minority. Our media outlets, from Fox News to talk radio, help make us feel less alone, but they, too, are sometimes part of the problem; they are designed in part to stir our outrage. And truth be told, there is much to be angry about.

But when trying to bring people around to our point of view, anger isn’t a tool of persuasion.

Neither are facts and data. When you start explaining why you’re right and why the person you’re talking to is wrong, and that you have the facts and data to prove it, you will lose every time. Explaining is how we always get in trouble.

I propose here and now that we try something new. Let’s start telling stories — stories that carry in them everything we think and know about what has made our country great, and what will keep it great. Stories of our families and how we got here. Stories of our heroes, our innovators, and our immigrant heritage. Local stories, old ones and new ones. Stories about courage and honor and love.

Any maybe we can invite our friends to share their stories with us.

Here is what we’ll learn: Few if any of those stories will include the government as the protagonist. Most will be about the redeeming power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things, feats they never thought possible, even in their dreams.

As we share these stories, certain themes will emerge: Love conquers cynicism, hope beats despair, hard work is good and laziness bad, accountability and responsibility matter in life, risk-taking is a fundamental part of life, and so too is failure, and freedom is the antidote to bondage of every kind.

Those stories will reinforce a simple notion: that genius, beauty, and innovation spring from the most unlikely of places, places no central planner or government bureaucrat could ever create or control.

What the people we are trying to persuade will also learn through our storytelling is this: It is we, we on the right, who are the optimists about human beings, we who believe in the innate brilliance of the American people to solve our own problems, we who believe that human beings are not a pile of cells and membranes, but living spirits whose rights and talents come from God, not government. They will learn that it is we who are pessimists when it comes to power and its tendency to corrupt. It is we who are pessimists when it comes to the ability of large bureaucracies, whether public or private, to navigate the ever-changing needs and demands of the people they purport to serve.

If we stop complaining and explaining and start storytelling, we just might get back our confidence — and also our sense of joy and love.

Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll get our country back, too.

With that said: “Once upon a time . . . ”

— Lee Habeeb is vice president of content at Salem Radio Network.

Lee Habeeb — Lee Habeeb is an American talk-radio executive and producer. He has written columns for USA Today and the Washington Examiner, and is a columnist for Townhall.com and National Review.

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