Steven Woolfe on the red spot

My eye was caught by this TEDx talk, newly published on YouTube. Though I think the TED formula is good, and deserves its huge success, I am not unreserved in my admiration. My principal problem is in that word, ‘formula’. Formulaic speaking is almost inevitably second best, because the speaker’s wings have been clipped to a pre-ordained shape. It may be a very good shape, and the clipping may have been discreet and sensitive, yet they have still been clipped. I have seen examples of TED making a lousy speaker seem ok, but I have also seen examples of brilliant speakers rendered merely ok – and that’s my problem.

Steven Woolfe was discussing Brexit, and I was quietly gratified to hear him pronounce it that way rather than the ghastly “Bregzit”.

He opens with some quite nice, faintly self-deprecating, throw-away humour, and is rewarded with a level of chuckle from the audience that indicates just enough amusement to relax them. Good start.

He then lays out his stall. In general I am not in favour of speakers telling me what they are not going to talk about, but in this instance I’ll forgive him simply because he rightly assumes we are nearing nausea with the arguments, pro and con Brexit, so instead he wants to try to explain why the referendum vote went the way it did.

He dives next into his ethos. Usually these days, and this is no exception, this process is largely that of publicly ‘checking your privilege’. If you don’t understand the phrase you’ve been leading a sheltered life. Try this link and see how soon you start losing the will to live. (You may also give a thought to those lucky teenagers whose A-level grades were not high enough for them to go to university: they may be spared an environment steeped in that imbecility.)

For much of this speech Woolfe is following a script. He has no paper to read, nor do I see evidence of autocue, so that means he has learnt it. My evidence is in the stumbles, which are script-style stumbles and quite different from shooting-from-the-hip stumbles. It’s a pity because he could easily have shot this from the hip and it would have been livelier, more brightly coloured and infinitely more powerful for it. It would probably have gone a long way towards perking up the rather listless body-language we see in the occasional audience shots.

All he needed was a tiny bit of guidance in structure, which would also have made his arguments more coherent and digestible. It’s a good speech, but it could easily have been brilliant.

That typifies my problem with TED. The formula is safe in its way, but the price of that type of safety is a slight dulling of the argument’s edge. Frustrating!

 

Tariq Ali: smh

Sometime recently (it was during the recent General Election campaign: you’ll find you can glean that) the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Tariq Ali, and I had my interest and memories stirred.  Ali was President of the Oxford Union in the mid-sixties, and spent much of the rest of that decade leading marches, protests, even riots. His name was seldom out of the papers. He was one of the leaders of the now-defunct International Marxist Group, a brand that made the Workers Revolutionary Party look like wishy-washy liberals.

I wanted to see whether the years had mellowed him. I know of several firebrand Trots from those days who have since performed philosophical u-turns; but from the little I’ve seen of Ali in the past half-century I get the impression that he is not one of them.

He begins by announcing that he had intended to speak about his book on Lenin but had changed his mind. He then speaks about his book on Lenin.

I was not surprised to see that one who had addressed so many protests, marches and suchlike was quite relaxed here, shooting this entire speech from the hip. On the other hand I was delighted to learn that his speaking skill is not merely a byproduct of doing a lot of it. There are indications that he has put in some thoughtful work, and one piece of evidence is to be found at 35:18, where he makes gestures accompanying a comparison between the political left and right. He is doing the gestures in mirror image, so that when he says ‘left’ he is indicating our left. It is these small things that single out expert speakers.

Actually he doesn’t speak exclusively about his book: he eventually moves on into rambling around matters of today.

I actually find myself quite liking him as a person, even though he is profoundly misguided. He comes across significantly less strident than he did in the sixties, but then so do we all. He disappoints me with a dreadful piece of cheap and gratuitous (though well-timed) ad hominem. I’ll put it down to senility – he’s a little older than I. Smh.

Smh is one of those tla (three letter abbreviations) to be found on Twitter. It stands for ‘shaking my head’ and I’m smh quite often during this speech as he trots out preposterous assertions. Nevertheless he’s entitled to his opinions.

If I were advising him I would warn him about one thing. He always did seem to take himself too seriously, and when you reach our age that comes across as pomposity. He needs to watch that.

More than once in this blog I have castigated hosts of speeches, conference halls, all sorts of auditoria, for not having a clock on the back wall with which speakers can time themselves. Tariq Ali over-runs, and it emerges that he has been carefully watching just such a clock, thoughtfully supplied by the Oxford Union. It just isn’t working properly.

Smh.

Kemi Badenoch bowls a Maiden

I first came across Kemi Badenoch shortly after the recent British General Election when I saw a Twitter trend on the subject of this new Member of Parliament. It seemed that many wrongly assumed that she was a Labour Party member. Like her I am trying to work out what gave them that idea.

Her maiden speech in the House of Commons has been widely lauded. Shall we make our own judgement?

A quarter of a minute in and she starts giving us a rundown of some of the hardships she experienced when growing up in Nigeria. I know why she’s doing it; I don’t blame her for doing it; but I suspect she would join with my lamenting that she needs to. Ethos is important, but this veers towards pandering to the identity politics and ‘privilege checking’ that is all the rage at the moment. Nevertheless if that is the game people are playing and you can beat them at it so dramatically, you’d be foolish not to. And she’s smart enough to get a partisan argument into it.

Nor do I blame her for reading a script. A maiden speech is a rite of passage that you simply have to get past, and I suspect that using a script is conventionally required. Not to do so might make you look like a smart-Alec. If the eye misses out a line (at 3:09) causing the sort of stumble that you don’t get when you are shooting from the hip then your best course is simply to laugh it off. Badenoch simply laughs it off.

She throws in a lovely Woody Allen quote, beginning at 4:16. I have heard it before, but not for a time and certainly not put in this context; so I laugh as readily as the MPs in the house. At 5 minutes she does even better: she makes me want to cheer.

I don’t know enough about the genre to tell whether just under five and a half minutes is a conventional length for a maiden speech but, convention aside, I found its length pretty well perfect. It said enough, yet met the oldest and best showbiz maxim of all – leave ’em wanting more.

I am sure we will hear more of Kemi Badenoch.

Anne-Marie Waters: undisciplined passion.

In September, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) will elect a new leader. One of the names currently being bandied about as a front-running candidate is Anne-Marie Waters. The mainstream media characterise her as ‘far-right’, which is an interesting description for one who has repeatedly tried to stand for Parliament as a candidate for the Labour Party, and ‘bigot’, which is modern parlance for holding views at variance with whoever is misusing the word.

On 28 February she took part in a debate at the Oxford Union. The motion was This House Believes Islam is a Religion of Peace. Waters was one of the speakers in opposition.

She opens a little untidily, with an unprepared section referring to speakers and apparent comments that have preceded her. We have to guess at the precise nature of those comments. I have no particular quarrel with this as a technique for opening as it indicates, for one thing, that she has been listening. A beautifully parsed series of opening sentences will never quite convey the same sincerity, or determination to get to grips with the truth.

Sadly the untidiness, in the form of a malapropism, spills over into the beginning of what appears to have been prepared. She says “theocracy” when she means “theology”. It’s a small thing, but when you use big words it pays to check them. Particularly when you are speaking to university students, some of whom may even spot the mistake.

Almost immediately afterwards she really gets into her stride, with a catalogue of the factors and occurrences that cause people to be uneasy about Islam. It’s quite a list, carrying a very powerful message, and one of her opponents tries unsuccessfully to interrupt it. She moves on to discuss Saudi Arabia, which she calls “the birthplace of Islam”.

(Later in this debate, one of her opponents tries witheringly to point out that when Islam was born Saudi Arabia didn’t exist. That’s the equivalent of denying that Stonehenge was built in Wiltshire: technically correct but indicative of the feebleness of the rest of your case.)

Waters is a copy-book example of both the power and the weakness of impassioned, undisciplined speaking. As she nears the end of her speech she’s all over the place. I habitually point out to my trainees, as I would certainly point out to her, that you can see at Political Party Conferences how the grass-roots firebrands and the hyper-polished parliamentarians can learn much from each other. Passion is worth buckets of technique; but it’s still worth while for the impassioned to acquire technique, the better to express the passion.

Particularly if wanting to lead a political party.

Gavin Ashenden: Revelation or Revolution?

Gavin Ashenden has found himself in the news recently, and you are shortly to hear him say so. Earlier this year he resigned his position as Honorary Chaplain to HM The Queen in order to be able to speak out more freely against the direction the Church of England was taking. The specific trigger for that resignation was the permitted reading from the Koran in St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow. He later explained that strict Muslim doctrine could hold that the reading transferred ownership of the cathedral to Islam (I hope I’ve represented him accurately there) .

Here he is making a speech direct to camera. It is worth bearing in mind that this was published on YouTube in March, since when much more has happened along the lines he explores.

In his opening he describes himself as speaking here as if to friends. I can think of no better mindset for making most speeches. He goes on to apologise for speaking off the cuff with no notes, asking us to make allowances for the inadequacies of that. Regular readers of this blog will know that I regard the speaking with no notes as having no inadequacies, indeed quite the contrary if you know how to structure your material for the purpose. Speaking without notes lends a sense of spontaneity, sincerity, and command of the subject that more than compensates for any occasional haltingness in the delivery. Audiences love it.

Ashenden conveys sincerity all the way through this.

Revelation or revolution. What an excellent Face for a speech! If I had trained him I should already be emailing my congratulations.

I find myself riveted by his discussion of the ordination of women into the priesthood and episcopacy. My mind flies back more than twenty years to when it first began in the Anglican church and I interviewed, for a radio programme, someone who was a high-profile objector to it. His reasoning was so puerile that I have casually dismissed objections ever since. I now castigate myself. Had the matter been more central to my life perhaps I’d have been less intellectually idle. Ashenden’s reasoning is on a different plane, whether or not I agree with it.

He moves on into matters like gay marriage and gender fluidity, and concludes with the only appropriate closing for a talk like this: The Lord’s Prayer.

I am left rather stunned! As a devout doubter, who attends church mainly for the spiritual refreshment of the rituals, whose relationship with his maker is at odds with many of the teachings of the church, I have been fed with much reflective material. I am by nature a contrarian, constantly challenging fashionable pieties, but this goes deeper.

Not least I may have a clue towards the conundrum that was gay marriage. Whence and why did it materialise? Not being gay myself, I studied the reactions of gay friends to it at the time. There had been no build-up of irresistible opinion groundswell causing our political representatives to grant it: it just appeared, ready packaged, conferred from above. A little research at the time revealed that it was probably an edict that emerged from the United Nations and was imposed on the world with astonishing haste. Why?

Look at its effect. It surprised all the gays I know who had not asked for it; but now that it was there many were delighted to take advantage of it – and who is to blame them? Personally I shrugged and wished them good luck – though I was puzzled by this conundrum. Why was it imposed, unrequested? It caused social division, creating a new, synthetically created, controversial extra layer to PC. Overnight. Suddenly anyone who didn’t pay deafening lip-service to it was beyond the PC pale. Divide and defeat?

And it is now dividing the church. And it has been joined in the past few days by this gender fluidity thing in very similar undue haste. The way that is being handled, by both Government and Synod, is a model of ham-fistedness. You have to work very hard to do things in a manner that is going to damage society’s cohesion this effectively. It almost feels like sabotage.

Hmmm!

Ashenden has fed me with cause to reflect.

 

 

President Trump: polished

On 6 July in Warsaw President Trump delivered a speech to the people of Poland.

It was greeted in general by the press in the USA and UK with a warmth that was rather luke. That’s not a surprise: Trump Derangement Syndrome has become so modish among the chattering classes that it even has a name – that one. A few minutes research through the English language sections of the Polish press yields a very different story: they lurved the speech.

Why don’t we have a look for ourselves?

We join it in the middle of joyful chants of “Donald Trump”, before a wreath-laying ceremony which itself is followed by a brief speech by the First Lady. I have seen this described as ‘predictable schmooze’, though I reckon its actual existence is unpredictable. I have failed to find in my memory another FLOTUS speech under these circumstances. It is competently delivered, contains a little meat in the schmooze, and I doff my hat to her for it.

After more chanting of his name, POTUS begins at the six-minute mark.

The sound on this video suffers from sporadic bursts of very loud amongst long periods of rather quiet. I believe that this is caused by Automatic Volume Control. AVC can be a blunt instrument that worries during big pauses and winds itself up to look for sound in the silence. Added to that, I think it has been programmed also to adjust the volume on the ‘atmos’ microphones that are supposed to feed us the audience response. Audience applauds, POTUS pauses, microphone system has panic attack trying to catch up with what is happening, POTUS starts speaking again, and blasts our eardrums. I comfort myself that though we are getting our feed of his voice from the same microphone as the audience they are unlikely to share our volume craziness.

He is using AutoCue, or equivalent. Even before we spot the perspex screens, we know that this speech is one of those which absolutely has to be scripted. Very soon after he starts we also get glaring confirmation at 7:35 when he has to correct himself. Having said “sincere” he tells us that he means “sincerely”. No one says the former when they mean the latter, so he has to be reading. If reading and the script scrolls up too slowly and the last syllable is on the next line the mistake is easy. I reckon the error comes from the AutoCue operator, which I mention only because that is very rare indeed. They tend to be brilliantly skilled. The smoothness with which Trump makes the correction is also skilled. He is only a minute-and-a-half in, and already in complete control.

The early part of the speech is more diplomatic schmoozing – how could it be otherwise? There’s a warm moment when he names Lech Walesa who is in the audience and stands for a bow. But as the speech progresses the subject matter gets more purposeful. What I particularly like is the judicious mixture of that which is spoken for the benefit of the onlooking world and that which is aimed at his immediate audience.

One device he uses to achieve this is by expressing a link between the two countries as co-representatives of the free West. Poland is one of the European countries that has paid its agreed share of the cost of NATO, and now is resisting huge pressure from Brussels to take a proportion of the gigantic influx of migrants – or, to put it another way, bail Merkel out of her madness. Poland is accustomed to huge pressure, and Trump goes out of his way to itemise some of the many ways it has been tossed on stormy seas over the centuries only for its spirit to triumph.

The speech gets very powerful at 18:50, talking of Soviet occupation, leading to his recounting the holding of a Mass in Victory Square on 2 June 1979 by Pope John Paul II. He culminates in a spellbinding moment where he speaks of the million in that square who “did not ask for wealth, did not ask for privilege”. They wanted God.

He goes on to highlight the inroads of those who would destroy what western civilisation has achieved. This is another wonderfully powerful section, not least because of his referring not only to the threat of the enemy from without but also the enemy within. This section alone would make this speech a triumph, because – script or no – he gets firmly in the driving seat of his message and presses the throttle.

For his peroration he swings at 36:00 into an account of Jerusalem Avenue in the Warsaw Uprising. I doubt there’s a soul in that audience that does not know the story, but won’t mind hearing it again – particularly while the whole world is listening. The final auxesis comes out through more chanting of “Donald Trump” and is greeted by a standing ovation which is very definitely not a hollow formality.

That’s a bloody good speech!

Donald Trump is not everyone’s cup of tea. Though he may have flaws, he loves his country, what it has achieved and what it stands for; and that’s unfashionable among the self-regarding, self-appointed elite in the USA. But what they particularly can’t forgive is that so do the electorate that made him President.

 

Tom Woods: topped and tailed

A couple of weeks ago Intellectual Vision published on YouTube a talk made by Tom Woods at the Mises Institute.

Tom Woods is not only a prolific author and speaker, but the star of the Tom Woods Show, a regular podcast which presents itself with the sort of cheerful razzamatazz normally associated with radio programmes, even including advertising. And why not indeed!

Here he presents himself rather more soberly …

More and more organisations, posting speeches on line, ‘clean up’ videos by topping-and-tailing them. It’s understandable: the market is bound to want these things neatly packaged. For my niche purpose though, I want to see the opening and closing – warts and all. Just as when flying an aeroplane the trickiest part is the takeoff and landing, the biggest test of a speaker is in the opening and closing.  Here, sadly for me, we see neither.

Never mind: whatever preamble we’ve lost, he kicks off in this video with a very clear laying out of his stall: he intends to address the oppression that underlies the Political Correctness narrative.

Interestingly for me I still clearly remember the moment, around a quarter of a century ago, when I first heard the expression ‘politically correct’. My instant, spontaneous, horrified reaction was, “That can mean only totalitarian dictatorship.” I went on to reason that politics was about opinion, which by definition is neither right nor wrong – simply disputed. Therefore the very term was a contradiction, and a revolting one at that. My little rant being over, I turned back to the contributor on the radio programme I was presenting at the time.

I find myself puzzled by Woods’ first two minutes as, at the Mises Institute, everyone in his audience already knows and agrees with what he is saying. Is he there merely to massage their views, or is there more and meatier to come?

He does indeed move into a meatier area, and one with which I happen to be familiar – namely economic disparity in different social and ethnic groups. The PC (I detest the term so much that I shall not write it out again) view is that all inequalities are the result of oppression. In debunking this, Woods proceeds to quote data, case histories and examples that I have read in books by the great Thomas Sowell, and therefore I assume that Woods has read them also. (Actually I would assume that anyway, because not to have done so would have been negligent for someone like Woods.)

At 7:40 Woods confirms my assumption by specifically naming Thomas Sowell.

Despite all this meaty data, I find the speech a disappointment. Perhaps because it told me nothing I didn’t happen already to know, but rather I feel my problem is what I’ve long called the ‘semi-memo issue’. Very many decades ago I wrote a memo to my then boss, neatly identifying a string of mistakes that I felt our organisation was making. I received a dry, though courteous reply, suggesting I had omitted the important half of my memo – the bit that suggested ways to remedy those mistakes. He was far too polished to put it this way, but his unmistakable message was that any half-wit can spot problems. What required ability was the finding of ways to solve them.

Woods begins his speech by complaining that PC permits no argument, substituting debate with cretinous name-calling at best and brutal violence at worst. Quite so. Today this insidious, malevolent, misanthropic malaise has infected in varying degrees the establishment, the civil service, academia, the media, and so on. If what I read of last week’s General Synod is to be believed we may even add the church to that sorry list. One could describe it as metastatic. It is as if Antonio Gramsci had personally orchestrated the campaign.

Woods’ missing half should surely concern itself with at least some semblance of a suggestion as to what can be done about it. Or perhaps that was lost in the topping and tailing of the video.