Gareth Porter fascinates to distraction

The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. As happened in 1933 the debate was opened by the Union’s librarian, in this case Ben Sullivan. The opposition was kicked off by a superb speech from Rory Stewart which was followed by a bitter and brilliant diatribe from Ben Griffin for the proposition. Nikolai Tolstoy then added a well conceived historical and constitutional context.

The next speaker was the American author and journalist, Gareth Porter.

The first impression is the complete absence of paper. He will shoot from the hip; and accordingly I mark him as knowing what he’s doing.

We might expect his arguments in favour of the proposition to be that of a pacifist., but immediately he puts us right. He lays out his stall as being not a pacifist but a realist. He will address this issue not in the abstract, but through analysing specifically the merits of the current conflicts and those we can reasonably expect to emerge in the coming decade.

The audience will have been supplied with his potted biography, which I suspect is more of a bibliography – he has published several books on the subject of war. He fleshes out this ethos by explaining how he graduated from college just before America entered the Vietnam War. In his own words –

Being of draft age powerfully concentrates the mind.

That was why he became a student of American militarism; and now watches as that same militarism has caused the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The stakes involved in these conflicts, he says, are much greater than the news media and our governments have allowed us to know. He believes the threat to the American and British people is as great as that from Nazi Germany. So he lays out his arguments quietly and soberly. It is arresting, alarming stuff. And yet…

I repeatedly find myself thinking tangentially. My mind shoots off in its own direction, causing me often to have to scroll back to where he lost me. I suspect it will also happen with you.

It is an easy, common, but wrong assumption that if this happens to your audience you must be boring them. More often, as in this case, he says fascinating things that trigger lively constructive thoughts that whisk me away somewhere. Porter is being a victim of his own success, stimulating me so much that I miss important stuff. The audience in that hall could not scroll back as I did, so they would forever have lost important portions of his speech. What is to be done? Is there a remedy?

Yes. There are several devices that hook and retain an audience’s attention without the necessity of watering down that stimulus. It amounts to a judicious mixture of structure and a few devious tricks. Essentially, though Porter has mastered the speaker’s key skill of speaking spontaneously without notes and he exercises it with expressive and inventive turns of phrase, he hasn’t mastered a speaker’s (as distinct from writer’s) structure rules. How I’d like a quiet hour’s conversation with Gareth Porter!

It’s a good speech, an important speech. I was glad every time I scrolled back.

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