Clarence Thomas: danger of fawning

Situated as I am on the European side of the Pond, my information concerning the goings-on in the USA is rather hit-and-miss. I have long since ceased to trust anything at all about anywhere in the world that appears in the mainstream media, so I have sought out my own trusted sources which tend to focus on their own speciality subjects. Anything outside those subjects is therefore rather hazy. I had been only faintly aware of the existence of Clarence Thomas till one particular story brought him sharply into my focus.

I think it was in early 2015 when I saw a story about the building of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (it opened in September 2016). What caught my eye was – at that time at least, I don’t know about now – in the long list of great African Americans who would be celebrated therein was no mention of Clarence Thomas. This astonishing omission of a hugely distinguished black Supreme Court Justice made no sense till you reflected further.

He is a conservative, and extreme leftism is the Sola Fide of this time.

Now that I had him in focus I watched aghast as Created Equal, a biographical documentary about him in his own words was ‘cancelled’ by Amazon earlier this year. [Amazon does not yet have a monopoly on the internet.] Amazon continues to stock his book My Grandfather’s Son.

It is high time I explored one of his speeches, and of course I find it at Hillsdale College where he addressed a Commencement ceremony in May 2016.

Larry P. Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, introduces him. We have very recently seen him introducing others and, as before, I commend every word of the introduction wholeheartedly. You may rest assured that I plan to have a whole speech by him very soon. Justice Thomas begins speaking at 6:20.

I approached this speech, acutely aware of a danger. It is the same danger I faced in my years on the radio when interviewing people I admired. Fawning idolatry is tedious to the reader or listener. I was determined to try to avoid it. I should like to register my thanks to Thomas for providing something for me to criticise. He reads his speech.

You may think that an impudent or impertinent observation. Impudent I may allow, but impertinent it is not. It is a wonderful speech, as I expected, but would have been even better had he shot it from the hip.

It is very easy to understand why he wrote and then read it. In his line of business he has regularly to deliver considered judgements whose every syllable will be pored over by scholars through indefinite posterity. Obviously they have to be written and read. That has to be his modus operandi.

My modus operandi (spot the anadiplosis) on this blog is not so much to pick over each interesting detail as was my won’t in the early days, but to let the readers spot them for themselves. I deal in broader brushstrokes, sometimes highlighting a golden moment. Here is a platinum moment. It comes at 29:36.

Liberty is an antecedent of government, not a benefit from government

It’s a wonderful speech, and I actually do not for once care that he reads it. I’m fawning: I’ll stop.

P.S. (Added a few hours later) Lest it not be clear what I meant when I stated that Amazon has yet no monopoly on the internet, the hyperlink attached to that statement will take you to that documentary elsewhere. And I suggest that if you do so you will not regret it.

Billy Kosco gets off the bus

The congregation that gathered in St Henry’s Church, Buckeye, Arizona on Sunday 7 February most probably didn’t guess that they were shortly to be witness to a homily that would become a viral internet phenomenon.

Father Billy Kosco delivered something that has been viewed on numerous online platforms nearly one million times, and generated many thousands of comments – nearly all of them positive, in fact I gave up searching for a negative.

I tell my trainees that passion is worth bucketfuls of technique, in fact I have secret ways of proving it to them.

Other than that I have nothing to add.

Scott Atlas “friendly for a change”

In February Hillsdale College, which more and more not only supplies speeches for me to examine but also appears to be an oasis of sense in a desert of academic lunacy, hosted a talk by Dr Scott Atlas.

Dr Atlas is preceded by two introductions, or more accurately an introduction and a speech. The preliminary welcome and introduction is, I believe, from Timothy Caspar. It is clear and workmanlike, though read. He is followed at 1:55 by the President of the college, Larry P. Arnn.

I like this man. I like his style and approach, his banter with his colleagues and assistants, his apparent approach to running a college, and of course his relaxed through clear shooting-from-the-hip speaking style. I also happen to share his views on most things. All this is just as well because his introduction is a mini-speech, and not so mini being more than a quarter of an hour long. He doesn’t actually get to the matter of Dr Atlas till ten minutes in, but it doesn’t matter because what precedes that is so absorbing. And the actual introduction, when it comes, appears beautifully unorthodox till you realise it’s actually leading up to the presentation of an award.

Atlas begins at 18:45 and during his opening preamble he tells the audience “It’s great to be in a crowd that is friendly for a change”.

He is script-bound which I regret but understand. He almost certainly believes, as do many, that a script ensures that you tell your story more precisely and concisely; and that therefore it is safer. I don’t share that belief, but can understand that in his circumstances he has become seriously risk-averse. This is a man under persecution.

As his story unfolds his passion builds, first below the surface but eventually becoming overt. He is angry, and in danger of falling into a trap that we’ve met before… speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret... and his story makes it very clear why he is angry. Nevertheless he keeps his passion in check enough to remain coherent while making it clear to us that he is accustomed to having this message resisted ferociously.

I’ve been around the block a few times – I believe I am officially classified as ‘elderly’ – and there are a few reliable guidelines I’ve learnt over the years. One of them is that when any government policy receives bipartisan support it will probably fail the sniff-test. A close relative of that, originally learnt in the school playground, is that when someone makes a statement and then refuses to argue it and instead resorts to name-calling it is a safe bet that they have no argument and are lying through their teeth. Combine those two guidelines, in fact reinforce mere name-calling with government edicts by mainstream-media-muscle and police activity, and you have something dangerous. We have seen such a scenario being acted out during this pandemic and this is exactly what Dr Atlas is describing.

It is a hugely important speech and warrants close attention. It ends at 43:45, and shortly before the end his demeanour relaxes as the friendliness of the audience cheers him. In his closing he actually pays tribute to precisely this.

The speech is followed by Q&A; and this is when he really relaxes, raises his eyes to the audience, is not one jot less coherent now that he is speaking spontaneously, and becomes even cheerful. One of the early questions enables him to explain that his last words of the speech, “Rise up!” did not mean street rebellion but applying electorate pressure to political and official representatives across the field from local to federal.

I commend the entire video.

Kristi Noem and the power of freedom.

Hillsdale College has featured on this blog in the past and, my having looked down their list of recent speakers, will undoubtedly feature again. Last October, they invited the Governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem to talk about Liberty and the Pandemic.

Since I first discovered this speech and had decided to critique it here, Noem has faced wide criticism for refusing to sign a bill that she had previously expressed herself “excited about”. This is a bill to prevent biological males from competing in women’s sports. Quite often this sort of story turns out to have involved a piece of proposed legislation that contained a political trap, so to learn more I found this short interview that you may want to watch.

For the moment though we are concentrating on this speech …

The introduction is made by Larry Arnn, the President of the college, and it is an exceedingly good one. Being himself a proper speaker he shoots it from the hip, includes some well-received humour including in-jokes that only his audience will fully understand, and makes him an excellent warm-up for the top of the bill. He includes one particular sentence which should belong in all treasuries of aphorisms “expert knowledge is narrow knowledge”.

Noem begins at 2:50, opening with some spontaneous personal observations. Being spontaneous they are shot from the hip, and being shot from the hip they are spontaneous. Here she is speaking at the top of her game. I use that phrase, “top of her game” not to highlight great oratory, because her delivery is relatively quiet and restrained, but because her sincerity is brilliantly transparent.

Shortly after the five-minute mark she swings into her prepared speech. Now her eyes periodically drop to the lectern. She’s using a script, or at least notes, and just a little of the edge comes off her game.

I used to join in an online group of speaking trainers, but I soon jumped out because it emerged that they all espoused the fallacy that a speaker has to have a script, and were not prepared even to listen to a contrary view. Regular readers of the blog know that I am fiercely of the opinion that paper reduces a speaker’s effectiveness, and that everyone is capable of throwing their paper away. They merely need to know how to structure their material to make paper redundant and also to have it proved to them that they can – and do – speak better without it.

Noem uses paper, but so well that its damage is very slight. She merely glances at it from time to time, making me feel that it’s there more as a comfort blanket than a source of material. How I wish she’d let me take it from her. She would learn the power of another type of freedom.

With all that this is a very fine speech. She uses a pleasing pattern of pretending that she, the audience, and the hall are all in South Dakota and that she is welcoming them. In fact her whole speech and her demeanour seem carry a warm welcome. It’s very effective.

Her speech finishes at 17:10 when she goes over to Q&A.

Sharyl Attkinson and hard evidence.

On 19 February Hillsdale College hosted a talk by Sharyl Attkinson. The talk was entitled Slanted Journalism and the 2020 Election. It is more than happenstance that in December she published a book called Slanted that currently boasts on Amazon a 5-star rating from nearly a thousand reviews. Five stars/ nearly a thousand/ three months: those, taken together, are three very sexy numbers. Let’s learn more.

They don’t give us the identity of the gentleman that introduces her. I have fished around and have a theory, but it’s not firm enough for me to commit to a name. Nevertheless I can say that it is a professionally delivered introduction. He reads it from a script, which is regrettable but understandable given the concentration of detail and not his subject. He has an attempt at humour via a dig at CNN, but in the absence of laughter (understandable so early in the proceedings) he adroitly throws the humour away. He’s good. He is also very tall, or Attkinson is very short, because while he towers above them the microphones almost hide Attkinson when she arrives to begin her speech at 1:30.

They later find her something to stand on, which is quite important given that she needs to see over the lectern to a slave-screen which displays to her the images being projected to the audience. She is too professional to crane around to look at the big screen herself: speakers who do that surrender a little of the audience’s focus each time.

So having established that he has many slides, let us also recognise that she has a script. These are both things that I generally deplore but I have to concede that her narrative route is a very tight one that would not easily forgive digression. (I sympathise, but her spontaneous answers during the Q&A are just as tight but now invigorated by the spontaneity.) Most importantly, her slides are not pretty pictures but hard evidence. Hard evidence is one of the prime thrusts of her message.

Hard journalism requires hard evidence. Without it, it ceases to be journalism but activism, cheap, sloppy propaganda. Attkinson’s case is that for several years evidence in U.S. political journalism has gone serially AWOL. The incidents she quotes, backed by hard evidence, are shaming; and she repeatedly points out that there are very many more in her book.

For my part I lay at the door of slanted journalism the blame for much of the stark political polarisation we see today. Readers or viewers who are uninterested or just too busy to probe further, will imbibe slanted or even mendacious reporting in the belief that it is true. Those who are less gullible, and take the trouble to drill to the raw data will be outraged by what the world is being fed, and will often over-react to compensate. Society then, rather than constructively reflecting and debating shades of grey, entrenches in black and white.

Journalists holding to the standards championed by Attkinson used to be the norm. They are now an endangered species.

Attkinson gives hard evidence.

Vladimir Pozner educates

Speeches – real life speeches in front of real life audiences – are beginning to reappear on line, though admittedly most were recorded prior to 2020.

I chanced upon a speech given at Yale in 2018, and I am glad of it. The speaker was Vladimir Pozner, and the speech was entitled How the United States Created Vladimir Putin. The video is nearly two hours long of which only 40 minutes is his speech, the rest being Q&A.

Spoiler alert! I was raptly absorbed by the entire thing, grateful to semi-retirement for making that possible.

I may have mislaid you slightly: the speech was merely 34 minutes long, the first six minutes of the video taken up by two introductions. My rhetor hat was redundant when Pozner spoke because he is so good and because what he had to say was much more interesting than any observations I might offer. Accordingly I shall unusually limit myself to critiquing the introductions.

Professor Douglas Rogers welcomed the audience, pointedly standing away from the lectern and speaking without notes. He filled his role very well. His default position for his hands (everyone should have one for those occasions when you have nothing else to do with them) was a fairly common one – clasping them loosely in front of himself. As a general rule this position looks most natural when your forearms are horizontal: hands too high looks as if you are pleading, too low looks as if you are in a free-kick wall in a soccer match. Rogers seems comfortable with his hands slightly higher than I would usually like, but these things are personal.

Professor Constantine Muravnik took over to deliver the speaker’s biography. He had notes, and unashamedly used them, because his material was obviously data-saturated, and he injected enough humour to make the speaker laugh out loud. He displayed more nerve symptoms than I would expect, but he handled them well. He made two introducers’ technical errors, both counter-intuitive. If the person you are introducing is behind you, don’t look around at them. It feels right but looks wrong. Muravnik did it only briefly so I wouldn’t have mentioned it except my rhetor hat is in danger of gathering dust. The worse error is in joining in with the applause at the end of the introduction. Again its feels right but not only looks wrong it sounds dreadful because you are doing it straight into your microphone.

Pozner begins at six minutes, and he is riveting! He covers half a century of the political and diplomatic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, later Russia, and does it in a manner that I find spell-binding.

Objectively I like the balance that he applies to what he says. His French/Russian/American background seems to hold him between opinion camps. Actually, as he is regularly citing chapter and verse of incidents that he recounts, there seems little actual opinion in what he says – and when there is he declares it.

Subjectively I like his view concerning the respective peoples as distinct from their political and diplomatic representatives. The people seem more eager to get on with each other than their representatives seem able. There are telling examples of this at 13:00 and more tellingly at 36:50 when he quotes – of all people – Hermann Göring. I also share his lamenting of the plummeting standards of balance in the mainstream news media. Had this speech been made today I bet he would have bracketed Big Tech in his comments.

The speech ends at forty minutes, and he sits with the host to receive questions which, with their answers, last more than an hour. It is not that there are so many questions but that they are so searching. Most of the questioners at this U.S. university audience turn out to be either Russian or from Eastern Europe, and he seems delighted to field an informed interrogation. At 1:38:30 he gets to dig at the mainstream media in both nations, and 1:44:00 – shortly before the end – he gets questioned on a matter he has obviously expected, and in which I as a Brit have a particular interest. Only a few months earlier Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been poisoned in Salisbury, England. What he has to say about that is worth waiting for.

Victor Davis Hanson, classicist.

For obvious reasons there aren’t many speeches around on the internet at the moment, which is why I have been pondering on spreading the terms of reference of this blog, but meanwhile I did happen upon an interesting recent talk by a man who has been featured here before, almost exactly a year ago – Victor David Hanson.

I watched this largely for self-indulgence. I find the man interesting because he’s unusual in many ways. Merely being an academic who is openly conservative is out of the norm, but it’s more than that. He’s a walking, talking, thinking, writing, speaking, broadcasting intellectual who doesn’t inhabit an ivory tower, but gets dirt under his fingernails on his farm in California. That makes him feel more than most professors like a real person. I periodically dip into his podcast, The Classicist, where he discusses current issues against a background of his academic specialities, classical civilisations and warfare.

Here he is a guest of Pacifica Christian High School in their Great Conversations series, delivering in October last year a talk entitled The Demise of Classical Education, the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, and its Significance Today (not the catchiest title).

My rhetor hat is never far away so I immediately find myself trying to spot his Hump symptoms. Every speaker experiences the hump, but they get better at disguising it. It’s better for audiences’ enjoyment of speeches that they should not recognise the more subtle signs, so I’ll merely point out that he unnecessarily adjusts the microphone a couple of times. I am amused to see that I made the same observation on his previous appearance on this blog.

But I mentioned it really to point out to all speakers that they are not alone: everyone experiences the Hump – even speakers as good as this. The better the speaker the pickier I get and they don’t get much better than this.

Look at him speaking with his audience in the style of a fireside tutorial! Obviously he has no script or notes, because he’s a proper speaker, so nothing gets in the way of his relationship with his audience. Whether or not we agree with him he displays all the right speaking qualities like sincerity, honesty, command of his subject, and so on.

I’m enjoying it too much to allow myself to get picky. I’ll just leave you to enjoy it.

By the way, he speaks till 38:30, and then there’s about the same amount of time for Q&A which is every bit as interesting.

Rush Limbaugh RIP

Last week saw the death of a broadcasting legend. On his radio programme Rush Limbaugh spoke daily to more people than populate many countries. Uniquely for this blog I shall not attach a descriptive hyper link to this speaker’s name. Instead I offer you one of his most recent speeches, one in which he spoke about himself and his career.

Just over a year ago, in December 2019 he spoke at the Winter Gala of TPUSA, in response to their having presented him with an award.

As a point of general guidance, it is far more difficult to be interesting speaking about something than taking a position and arguing a point connected with it. By far the most difficult ‘something’ to speak about is yourself. Limbaugh does it here. One thing he doesn’t mention though, because it hadn’t happened yet, was his being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

No script, no notes. Of course not: he is a proper speaker.

I’ve said so often on this blog that the better they are the pickier I get. Therefore I could probably waste much of your time, and even more of mine, dissecting bits of this speech. But what would be the point? Even if he were around to read it, why should he care? The most demanding critic, and the one whose opinion counts for most, is the audience. His audience was huge, loving and loyal.

But these critiques of mine are not just to guide the speaker, but to offer help to my readers to improve their speaking. So if you want to be as good as this, here’s how.

Spend three hours a day for thirty years speaking on the radio. That should do it.

The Cambridge lockdown debate

On 28 January, The Cambridge Union conducted a live-streamed debate on the motion, “This House Believes Lockdown Was A Mistake“. The speakers were Sir Graham Brady, Laura Spinney, Richard Tice, Phil Whitaker, Toby Young and Layla Moran.

This blog having brought me to the attention of people overseas, I began a few years ago delivering distance coaching via video link. In the early days it was rather clunky, but trial, error and perseverance prevailed. Though passionately involved with my work I was not getting any younger, and I fondly imagined that virtually trotting around the world delivering speaking training from my study was a reasonable recipe for semi-retirement. Then came Covid and lockdowns.

Somehow word quickly spread that I was a specialist in delivering training by video link and my semi-retirement got busy. When it’s distance training it makes little difference if the person on the other end is in East Africa or West Sussex. Also delivering training via a computer screen nurtured a byproduct skill that was useful now that people wanted to learn how to deliver speeches via a computer screen. There’s quite a list of guidelines, but I’ll restrict here to the essential three.

  • Framing: arrange yourself and the camera so that your face is mainly in the top third of the screen.
  • Lighting: in front of you not behind.
  • Eyes: ay there’s the rub, because in video-link eye-contact is an illusion. If you look at their eyes you appear not to. Look at the camera.

So firstly let’s see how the speakers did on those principles.

Framing: all fairly good, though Spinney and Young were the best. Whitaker would have been ok if he’d sat up, but he looked as if he’d crawled into frame.

Lighting: Moran was startlingly brilliant. The others were good except Spinney whose lighting couldn’t have been worse. I wonder whether she is shy. (I’m not joking: I work often with bright and successful people who are shy. Intelligence and shyness dwelling in the same person is a miserable combination for them.)

Eyes: Sir Graham, script-bound, is conforming to the politician’s habit of reading and looking up periodically at the audience. His assumption is that the audience is on the screen, so we never get his eyes. Spinney is speaking spontaneously and extremely well, but the light is so bad that I can’t really see her eyes. Tice, script-bound, is using the same routine as Sir Graham, except better because when he looks up he looks at the camera. Whitaker’s eyes are all over the place: script, screen, the wall, barely the camera. He does himself no favours as the resultant effect is perceived insincerity. Young is shooting from the hip, with eyes locked firmly on the camera. Moran’s eyes are locked on and she is so slick that, reinforced by other symptoms, I suspect autocue.

Briefly, because this is already getting long, I will address some of what was said. Sir Graham was not just the first but the last to speak, and he accurately summed up a general feeling that had pervaded both sides of this debate. The first lockdown may have been justified because of the dearth of data at the time, but the subsequent ones indicate at best a failure. He reasons and argues very well, as befits an experienced politician.

Laura Spinney speaks with us (that italicised preposition is one of my hobby horses). It’s an excellent skill which makes the hearer want to listen. Apart from the stygian darkness, this is my joint favourite speech.

Richard Tice, has well-marshalled arguments that show their workings – and the workings include some explosive revelations. Being script-bound he sadly loses much of his relationship with his audience, and that isn’t helped by his adopting a phoney, am-dram, emotive tone.

Phil Whitaker begins by telling us what Covid 19 is. It seems not to have dawned on him that over the past year we have kind of gathered all that stuff that he wastes valuable time telling us. In that pointless preamble he implies that the virus is novel in that it can sometimes cause no symptoms. How does he know that is novel? How often has there been a government project to mass-test perfectly healthy people for signs of an infection? “Asymptomatic” surely means “healthy”.

Laurence J. Peter‘s second most famous pronouncement, “Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret” nearly applies to Toby Young’s contribution. Having spent months compiling a huge assembly of competing expert opinions on this matter, along with mountains of data, he has formed a view and is able to dispense with a script and speak straight to the camera. Arguments backed up with facts, figures, and quotes from peer-reviewed papers are fired in volleys straight at us. He does get a little too worked up towards the end, nearly causing his case to unravel, but he just manages to hold it together. It’s compulsive watching.

Layla Moran’s advent is startling. Production values including the lighting are brilliant. It’s almost too good. I have in the past had occasion to warn in this blog against perfectionism because if you smooth away every edge you risk sterilising the product. In this case, despite admiring those production values I dislike the speech because of the data torturing. If you quote bald numbers to promote a case, without comparing them to some sort of control, you are merely decorating a shop window. Her opening salvo is cheap and unworthy. All that said, I do admire the elegance of the anadiplosis that begins at 1:04:05.

For the record, the Proposition won the debate.

Klaus Schwab and the Pink Panther

On 13 May 2019 the Chicago Council on Global Affairs was addressed by the founder of the World Economic Forum, Mr Klaus Schwab.

In that previous paragraph we see two grand-seeming names of think-tanks, or some might call them talking-shops. This might be a source of some powerful speechmaking. Shall we go and look?

When the video starts we hear some breathy notes from a saxophone. For a second I think we might be treated to a rendition of the Pink Panther theme, but it seems that this is just a groovy way of heralding someone coming to the microphone on the stage. A nice young man invites us to take our seats, reads us a few standard bromides, and introduces another nice young man. The second nice young man is very nervous, utters further bromides, apparently has to consult his script to tell us what his job is, tells us how excited he is to be introducing Schwab who will “elaborate on the characteristics of the revolution as he sees it”, gets lost in his script for a while and finally at 3:08 to everyone’s relief (including I suspect, his) hands over to Schwab.

Schwab is relaxed, brimming over with bonhomie, pleased by the size of the audience, and eager to impart something. He asks if we will allow him to spend some time telling us about the World Economic Forum.

He stands well, gestures well, shoots from the hip, and if you dip at random into this speech you will hear snippets that sound as if he is imparting a lecture rich in information.

In fact he says nothing. At all. I defy anyone to tell us what is to be learned from the half-an-hour he spends waffling aimlessly.

At 33:05 he opens up to questions and, if you have the patience to stick with it, good luck to you. I have better ways to spend my time.

I wish it had been the Pink Panther.