Roger Kimball – full of wise saws and modern instances

Ever since I read his book, The Fortunes of PermanenceI’ve wanted to find out whether Roger Kimball speaks as well as he writes. That book is a series of essays, collected around a loose narrative, and his writing is of a quality that makes you luxuriate in it.  With Wikipedia claiming that he lectures widely, I felt it should be easy enough to find an example. As often happens I found plenty of examples of interviews, but almost no speeches. Here is one to the Alexander Hamilton Institute.

This not so much a speech, or even a lecture. It is more the presentation of a paper. Roger Kimball is being a talking head. There have been other examples on this blog of people whose writing is outstanding, but who seem unable or unwilling to change to the conventions, skill and language of speech. I immediately think of Brendan O’Neill and Mark Steyn. But this is somehow different, and the reason is in something I mentioned earlier. He is presenting a paper, and it can be argued that this is an activity with different ground rules. Furthermore, his market buys it: you could hear a pin drop in that audience (except when he gets a laugh from them).

Look at the progress bar on that embedded video and you will think you are in for a long haul; but though it is long it is not the 1 hour and 17 minutes as shown. He starts at the 10 minute mark, after a fulsome introduction by Professor Robert Paquette, and ends two minutes past the hour: the rest is questions.

Speaking of timing, here’s a note to everyone who organises events with speeches. Have a clock that is working, correct and visible from the lectern.  Kimball is professional enough to remove his watch and place it on the lectern, but he should not have had to.

The speech is entitled Numismatics and Limited Government. What have coins to do with limited government? He explains, beginning at around 13:15.

The main body of the speech is a tripartite study of the function of government, and the three headings are Democracy, Equality and Freedom. It is a beautifully elegant piece of writing, delivered in cool, calm, measured tones, but it is not a speech.

It could have been. It could easily have been shot from the hip. Some of the supremely elegant phrasing might have gone missing (though I am by no means convinced of that), but the trade-off would have been a version of the message that was driven by a more transparent conviction. I know the conviction is there, having read that book. The audience is likewise convinced – they have gone there to hear him. But I’d like to see him sway a sceptical audience, and I don’t think he’d have done so with this performance.

At 37:10 he swings into the saddle of a hobby horse that I remember having read. “Benevolence,” he claims, “flatters the vanity of those who espouse it…It is the heroin of The Enlightened, because it is intoxicating, addictive, expensive and ruinous.” Now that’s the sort of concept that takes some selling in today’s political climate, and it needs a particular brand of energy to have a hope of prevailing. It’s the sort of energy that can only be shot from the hip.

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