Here’s your answer, Alice

Yesterday out of the blue I received from you a timeline message on Facebook saying that you were confused by all the conflicting messages and didn’t know how to vote in tomorrow’s EU referendum. Could I provide guidance?

Our brief public exchange quickly looked like turning into a slanging match between various factions that joined in.  I eventually pointed out to everyone that they were trespassing on a conversation I was having with my stepdaughter, and could they please calm down? You deleted your post. Today I shall spend eight hours travelling, with a two-hour meeting in the middle. What better way to spend all that time on trains, writing you a slightly fuller reply? I shall keep it as short as I reasonably can, though that may well make it a little simplistic. Bouncing around in a train isn’t the best environment for checking data details. This is broad-brush time.

I’m not surprised you are confused. The past weeks have seen a tsunami of prejudices, claiming to be facts, pouring over us from all sides: arguments over economy, sovereignty, security, immigration, free trade deals, and so on. It may surprise you to learn that I intend to address essentially none of those.

Throughout history there has been a remarkably consistent pattern to the way empires, even the biggest and strongest, eventually crumble and fall. Very ancient civilisations like the Sumerian were phenomenally rich and powerful but collapsed. Similar fates befell empires throughout history in both the west and east up to and including the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The mistake they all appear to have made was that their ruling elites became too detached and alienated from their societies – the people. Those elites, be they princes or politicians, lost sight of a hugely valuable truth, namely that the powerhouse of a society is in the combined ingenuity and industry of the ordinary people. As soon as the toffs forget that fact they are on a slippery slope, because that’s when they begin trying to run things through central planning; and central planning has always been disastrous.

You can be the cleverest person the world has ever seen, but just a handful of ordinary people with the right experience will wield greater wisdom than you. That is why central planning is a disaster: it always kills societies. The EU loves central planning almost as much as Stalin did.

But where is evidence of this ‘slippery slope”? All societies beginning to fail go through a similar process:

  • they start practising all manner of fiscal irresponsibilities like printing cash, introducing capital controls, borrowing far too heavily etc. Seem familiar?
  • they get more and more control of the news media, not overtly but covertly. They buy lots of advertising, they dole out honours, they cosy up to them in all sorts of ways. Seem familiar?
  • They move in on education, making sure that all the ‘right’ things are told the children. Seem familiar?
  • They invent ‘beneficial crises’, synthetic scares that cause the populace to be suddenly more inclined to do as they’re told. Seem familiar?
  • They find ways and excuses to undermine democracy, treating their electorate with barely concealed contempt. Seem familiar?
  • They hollow out, infiltrate and neutralise any and all organisations (the UK parliament for instance) that could challenge them.  Seem familiar?
  • They make sure, either by bribes or threats, that key members of society are on their side.  Seem familiar?
  • Politicians, who are elected to be representatives, start calling themselves ‘leaders’. Seem familiar?

Need I go on? Do we see a pattern emerging?

We live in interesting times. All sots of potential dark clouds are hovering over the international horizon. There is no such thing as the status quo – anywhere. When disasters threaten we will need to be nimble; we will need to be able to make key decisions quickly. Being shackled to a lumbering, crumbling hulk which is already threatening to collapse will only get in our way.

You may have noticed that there is one empire I haven’t mentioned – the British Empire. That one didn’t crumble away, but got turned into the Commonwealth. The process was admittedly resisted in some quarters but it all went off successfully, and now is a huge source of pride. There is a historic detail that might have had something to do with our rare achievement in doffing our empire relatively peacefully. We have a history of putting despots in their place. Think of Magna Carta in 1215, the English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century, the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Even the American Revolution was in a very real sense a case of Englishmen holding steadfastly to their rights – which is why Magna Carta is every bit as important to Americans as it is to the British. Think of the two world wars, when we rescued Europe from despots. Democracy has been bitterly fought for across the centuries by our forbears, and is part of our heritage. Could we really be on the verge of binning in it in one last democratic act?

Vote Remain and you vote away your vote.

As far as I am concerned there is simply no choice tomorrow. We must leave.

Camille Puglia needs KISS

Why has it taken me this long properly to discover Camille Paglia? Is it merely because I am this side of the pond? Yes I had heard of her, but till I happened upon this speech I had not gone out of my way to probe beyond a vague awareness of her name. Now I have, and am castigating myself for many years wasted. She’s been around for all but about four months of my life and she’s my type of person, defined as one with whom I may certainly not always agree but will enjoy arguing.

Here she is talking at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2012.

She speaks till 43:30. The rest is questions.

She’s promoting her book on visual art. She’s promoting the hell out of it. It is less than a month after publication. The book aims and claims to be groundbreaking. Where better for her to be promoting it than a Humanities Festival?

She tells us about the concept: she tells us about the content: she tells us about the tortured decision-making concerning its format. You may, like me, get so caught up in her self-ignoring, chaotic, stream of bullshit-free consciousness that you resolve to get a copy.

Bravo Camille: way to go: excellent selling job! One teensy detail…

What is it called?

Gentle reader, I have found it for you. It is called Glittering Images.

I have had trainees like her: natural communicators, unhampered by any of the inhibitions that hobble others. They have plenty to say, are eager to say it, have a punchy turn of phrase, a beautifully free style of delivery. They have everything going for them, except …

K.I.S.S.

Keep It Simple, Stupid.

She says it herself at 0:55. “Simplicity is hard.”

If I worked with her, that is where I would focus.

Hilary Benn’s tour de force

On the evening of 2 December, I suddenly noticed that Twitter had begun humming with comments on a speech that was being made by Hilary Benn in a debate in the British House of Commons on a motion to allow British forces to begin bombing positions in Syria, held by ISIS or ISIL or Daesh or whatever we are calling them this week. What was startling was that the comments were as favourable from his political opponents as they were from his friends. From this I guessed that he was coming out in support of the motion, but I was so tightly tied up with what I was doing that I was unable to tune in and watch.  A recording was available shortly afterwards.

Comments on the speech quickly appeared in the media. Some were for him some against, and a few offered puerile bleating along the lines of “What would his father say?”.

For my part I am always eager to see for myself any speech that is being heralded as especially good; but also, with my opinions torn over the matter, I wanted to hear his argument.

This recording begins with the end of the previous speech. Clive Efford is opposing the motion on the basis of doubting the effectiveness of airstrikes. Quite so. That is my chief doubt.

Benn stands to cheers from his own side, and begins by reproaching the Prime Minister for remarks he made earlier in this debate when he characterised opponents of the motion as terrorist sympathisers. He’s right. One wonders where the PM finds those who advise him. Certainly there are some in that house who have a dubious record with respect to certain terrorist groups, but a debate of this type is not the time to indulge in name calling. Apart from lack of parliamentary courtesy, name calling always weakens your argument because it suggests you lack confidence in it yourself. While reproaching Cameron Benn reveals that he will vote for the motion.

He continues by paying tribute to previous speakers before launching into his own argument. He cites resolutions by both his party and by the United Nations, thus claiming legal and moral righteousness for supporting the motion.

Then at 5:33 he begins a section that makes me uneasy. He lists some of the crimes of Daesh. I rather feel that there will be few in that house who do not know and would not condemn the obscenities committed by those criminals; but if people are harbouring doubts concerning the effectiveness of bombing, the wickedness of the target is irrelevant. This verges on the  “something must be done” school of idiocy.

At 7:29 -“If we do not act, what message would that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much?” I’m sorry, but dropping bombs is not a declamatory activity. It is far too serious to be used to send a message.

At 8:00 the speech at last starts addressing the meat of the issue – effectiveness. He begins citing examples of airstrikes having succeeded in harming the progress of Daesh. For three minutes, culminating in the words, “the threat is now” the speech actually tackles the main question, and at last I feel that some of the plaudits I’d read on Twitter were justified.

But then, shortly before the end, the speech again weakens when he gets worked up over how these wretched jihadists hold us in contempt, and believe themselves better than us. So what? People’s opinions matter only if you respect them.

A great speech? For me, in terms of content, not really. For that crucial three minutes it was good, but most of the rest missed the point. The point is not that these people must be stopped by any legal means, including killing them. That’s commonplace. The point is whether the proposed activity will work. For three minutes Benn persuaded me that it might, but that was a small percentage of the whole.

Nevertheless the cheers that greeted the end of the speech were thunderous from both sides of the house, and I know why. Apart from the welcome it received from those voting the same way, the speech was distinguished by being very skilfully delivered. His pacing, variation of tone-colour, telling pauses, everything was beautifully done. And if that seems to reveal cynicism in me it’s because I have yet to cite the most important quality – his transparent sincerity and passion for his message. That’s why his market bought his product.

 

Daniel Hannan inspires at Runnymede

This month, June 2015, sees the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Here we have a chance to revisit my critique of a speech Daniel Hannan made at Runnymede. Also you should go here to watch a new video he has made at and about Runnymede

Rhetauracle

[Having twice before covered speeches by Daniel Hannan, here and here, I have felt reluctant to return to him too often. Meanwhile I have been sitting agonising over two recent speeches, wondering which to include in this blog. I can’t decide between them, so I shall critique both in consecutive postings…]

On Friday 13 September, 2013, The Freedom Association hosted a lecture at Runnymede entitled

Magna Carta: the Secular Miracle of the English Speaking Peoples.

It was delivered by Daniel Hannan; and my being currently about halfway through his excellent book How we invented freedom & why it matters I have to say that choosing him for this lecture was not merely inspired but downright inevitable. Not only is he a magnificent speaker, not only has he studied Magna Carta’s historical significance in considerable depth but there was no danger whatever of his breaking the first Cardinal…

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Emma Watson’s voice is trailing her face

It made all the papers! In September 2014 Emma Watson spoke at the United Nations about gender equality and the he-for-she campaign. The speech was universally described as ‘moving’. Shall we see whether we agree?

Before we reach Ms Watson we see and hear her introducer making a mistake that I have previously identified in this blog. If you are at the lectern you should never join in with the applause. It feels right, but looks and sounds wrong.

Oh dear, how vulnerable her voice sounds! She is very nervous indeed. It is understandable, but I am anxious to know whether this is merely a manifestation of hump, or whether it is more deeply rooted.

The worst of the vulnerability recedes in around 3 minutes, which is par for a hump, but now there’s something else bothering me and I can’t put my finger on it. She does not look down at the lectern, but nor is she shooting from the hip. This is a learnt script: I’d stake big money on that. I’m not surprised: she is after all an actor. The learnt performance has also been thoroughly rehearsed, but again that is what actors do.

Quite often I find I can identify problems with speakers by closing my eyes and letting my hearing operate without visual interference. I try this, and am quite alarmed by the result. She now sounds monotonous, frankly boring, and the voice is fragile.

This is what has been bothering me. Visually she is conveying a very strong and expressive picture; but the sound, when taken alone, is frighteningly weak.

I am trying to resist a facile, knee-jerk analysis along the lines of film-actor-hasn’t-learnt-proper-stage-voice-projection, though there could be something in that. At any rate, her voice is nothing like as expressive as her face.  This is a pity.

It is laudable when young people, having made a success in one thing, branch out and challenge themselves in other directions. Emma Watson is to be congratulated, but I hope she doesn’t stop working at this particular skill because she has a way to go. Also, thus far, her work has been misdirected: learning a script is absolutely not the right way to prepare for a speech. If someone has told her it is, that someone needs to do something more suited to their talents.

Ian Paisley with peace in his pockets

On 12 September – yesterday – the world bid its last goodbye to The Reverend and the Right Honourable The Lord Bannside PC, better known to the world as Ian Paisley

If you are looking for an Ian Paisley speech you instinctively reach for ear-plugs, because for years every time he was seen on television speaking to the public we saw something like this …

Yet every obituary in the broadcast media has had people stressing how in private he was a very quiet man. Indeed many years ago, at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles, I saw a TV documentary that strongly made that very point. Therefore I have chosen to reflect on the man with this, his House of Commons farewell speech. It was on 22 March, 2010, while the House of Commons was debating the transfer of policing and justice powers to North Ireland.

 

He is speaking with his hands in his pockets. From my earliest days training people in speaking I often persuaded men that speaking with your hands in your pockets can convey a desirable image of confidence, authority and sincerity, and also underlines that you are speaking without notes. (It doesn’t really work for women, not least because they seldom have pockets.)

Paisley doesn’t need the help of paper to drop a nice little anadiplosis into the first ten seconds; but it isn’t smart-alec figures of speech that mark this delivery. We have already started reading obituaries and tributes to the way he went from tub-thumping, mob-inciting ranting to emollient peacemaking, working with his enemies to bring and keep peace in North Ireland. This is my way of highlighting the emollience.

I can’t resist drawing attention to what he says at 1:27. Standing, as I said, with his hands in his pockets, he urges those with opposing views to keep their hands in their pockets. I like the reflected imagery.

It’s not in itself a brilliant speech. It goes on a little longer than it should: there were several places that he could well have stopped earlier. But it represents far more than it says, and I like to remember him this way.

R.I.P.

Jonathan Portes is not optimal

On 20 November 2013 economist Jonathan Portes delivered a talk at the Institute for International and European Affairs entitled Crisis and recovery in Europe: what have we learnt?

In addition to my evaluating the quality of the speaking, I was eager to hear what he had to say. After all, probably the most important thing for him to have learnt is what caused the crisis in the first place, particularly when as one of the chief holders of Britain’s economic reins at the time Portes could justifiably be held to have been one of the prime architects of said crisis.

I am slightly allergic to the starting of sentences, let alone whole speeches, with “So…” but that’s probably my age. I am trusting the quality will pick up. It doesn’t. This must count as one of the handful of dreariest openings I have ever had the misfortune to hear

The only thing that can be said in its favour is that Portes does eventually lay out his stall by giving us a pair of little triads by way of a contents page for his speech – “diagnosis, prescription, prognosis: how did we get into this mess, what have we been doing since we got into this mess, where do we go from here?”. That could have been inspired by my book, and was looking as if something constructive was coming.

After a sustained period of verbal wandering around aimlessly he declares that “fiscal policy was not the cause”. Got that? Not his fault. He admits that fiscal policy was “not optimal”. (This is bureaucratese for “piss-poor”.) There remains an obvious and so far unanswered question, namely what then was the cause? He addresses this, and the next minute or so could have come from a Monty Python Spoof as he “ums”, “errs”, and generally meanders, restarts several sentences, and finally pins it on the US, the Chinese, and “structural imbalances”. I half expected him to blame it all on global warming or the tooth-fairy.

As convincing speaking goes, this is not optimal.

He is in general shooting from the hip. His frequent glances down at the lectern are really so as not to get caught by all the unconvinced eyes that I feel sure are in the room. The curious thing is that there comes a time in the speech when I want him to look more at the lectern.

At 15:40 he puts up a slide with a graph on it, and for quite a while he speaks to the image on the wall. Had he been speaking through his left ear or his left shoulder the microphone would have picked it up wonderfully: in the event, the sound is not optimal. I reckon it likely that he has that graph and later ones in hard-copy on the lectern, in which case he merely needs to glance over his shoulder to acknowledge the image on the wall but otherwise he can keep his face to the audience, his sound to the microphone and look at the graphs in front of him. Just after the 31-minute mark when he turns over his paper he shows me I was right.

This speech would cure an insomniac.

Readers of this blog, in which I rail so often at those who bury themselves in scripts, might be tempted to conclude that all they have to do is find a way to do without paper and everything will be tickety-boo. I’m sorry but there’s a little more to it than that. You need to structure your material in such a way as to make it easy for you to drive your message. Before that you need a message. Before that you need to understand your subject. Albert Einstein is quoted as follows –

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Considered on that basis, this speech shows that Portes’ understanding of economics is … not optimal.