George Friedman dissects the decade

The Carnegie Council was addressed by George Friedman in January 2011 with a talk entitled The Next Decade. The video of the speech was not posted on YouTube till March this year.

I toyed between covering this speech and another he delivered to a Polish audience entitled Beyond the European Union: Europe in the middle of the 21st Century. The theme of that speech is the re-emergence of the nation state, and I commend it.  You can find it here. What caused me to settle on this one, though, is that as we are now a little more than three years into the decade in question we could watch the speech with a hindsight advantage of around 33%. I’m now not sure I was quite correct on this as the issues with which he dealt seem to be more open-ended than merely a decade.

The video tells you that it lasts just over an hour, but the speech finishes at 38:25 and the rest is questions.

The introduction by Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs for the Carnegie Council, makes it immediately clear that this speech is essentially a promotion of a book of the same name. Immediately my interest is raised, because there are two ways such a speech can be approached. You can either attempt to precis the whole book or you can cover just a part of it in enough detail to excite the audience into buying it to learn the rest. Clearly the latter is the better course because you win both ways: the audience hears a more interesting speech and you get to sell more books. It is a constant amazement to me how many authors foolishly go for the former option.

Within seconds of his starting (at 2:58) it seems clear to me that Friedman is probably adopting the second, more fruitful, course. I ruefully suspect that this will pull me in so much that I shall be diverted from concentrating on his speaking technique, but I resolve that  I shall keep my rhetor hat pulled down firmly over my ears for as long as I can.

What a glorious microphone technique he has! He speaks in barely more than a whisper, and we hear every word. Yes, the camera long-shots show that the room is not very large, but his speech to the Polish audience, mentioned in the second paragraph above, was in a very large hall and he spoke there not much more loudly. He has learnt how to speak quietly and expressively and make the microphone do the rest of the work.

He has a habit of alternating a serious facial expression with flashing little smiles – genuine ones that include the eyes, often to remove the sting when saying rather weighty and serious things. He may not thank me for saying so, but it puts me in mind of George W Bush who operates a similar technique.

I wonder why he needs the paper on the lectern: he barely ever looks at it. To write a book on a subject, you have to have immersed yourself to such a huge degree that shooting a speech such as this from the hip becomes very easy. I’m being picky: his focus is so firmly on the audience that essentially he is shooting it from the hip. I’m only as picky as this when speakers are very good.

Friedman is very good. This speech is fascinating. Yes, I see I noted a neat anadiplosis at 9.12, but frankly my rhetor hat had been thrown to the wind very early, and I was resolving to read the book. As a frank, searching analysis of America’s role in the world at the moment it identifies and leaves unanswered as many if not more questions than it answers; but that is the nature of the issues it addresses.

And the very first question after the speech showed that I was right: he had dealt with only a part of the subject in hand. The book is certainly worth reading.

Catherine Engelbrecht in The Land of the Free

Every so often I go blitzing on line, compiling lists of links to speeches that might be worth visiting more thoroughly later. So it was that I skimmed my way through “Top 10 greatest speeches from TV shows”, a series of examples of heavy dramatic fiction. The very next thing I came to was a video of testimony made on 6 February, 2014, by Catherine Engelbrecht, founder and President of True the Vote, to a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. I had to keep pinching myself to cling to the knowledge that the fiction had stopped and that this dramatic account was real life in The Land of the Free.

One of the simplest and most fundamental principles of life, one that we learn when tiny tots in the school playground, is that when one side of an argument feels that it needs to break or bend rules, or cheat in any way on behalf of their cause, then there is something wrong with their cause. They may rationalise their cheating with all sorts of end-justifies-the-means sophistry, but – and here’s the clincher – they likewise realise, deep down, that there’s something wrong with their cause. Otherwise they wouldn’t perceive a need to cheat.

I’m an Englishman, not an American. Though reasonably well-read, and accordingly some of what she says is not completely new to me, I am not well enough versed in the back story to feel qualified to comment beyond general principles like the above. But I have exceptional experience to qualify me to judge how she puts across her account.

I read stress by the bucketful. I think that, even without the story she is telling, it must be pretty tough for a private citizen to address an audience like that. Accordingly I applaud how well she copes.

This is one occasion that I am four-square behind a speaker with a script. She has to stick very tightly to time: she must be very precise with her data: she must be seen to be very precise with her data. But there’s another important plus to her credit with this script. It is written in spoken English.

I am not altogether happy with the “motherhood and apple-pie” section beginning at 1:16. It is not the content that bothers me – that’s crucially relevant – it’s the attempts at the warm smiles at the mention of her husband and family. However warm might be her feelings towards them, and however genuine those smiles at any other time, here and now under a tsunami of stress those smiles could not but look forced. I know why she’s doing it: it’s to add colour to the contrast between her two lives before and after she took on this campaign. I just don’t think it works.

In citing harassment from a range of government agencies she bravely names one of the panel at 1:47. Does she think this will neutralise some of the aggression from his cross-examination later? If so, according to this account, it doesn’t work. There’s more video material there, and you may think it worth watching. I shall not comment on it.

Is her story true? I am not in a position to know absolutely; though I know what I believe. The story that unfolds is a harrowing one and, when recounted without attempts at smiles and as flatly and unemotionally as her stress will allow, is very powerful. At 3:54 she speaks hypothetically about “a political machine that would put its own survival against the civil liberties of the private citizen”.

The preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America begins with the words, “We the people…” The implication is that government is the servant of the people. It’s an extension of the assertions in Magna Carta. Is this concept some kind of wide-eyed romantic fantasy these days? If it is, we should be nervous. History shows an extraordinary consistency in that wherever and whenever people have been free of tyranny that society has managed pretty well. Wherever and whenever a self-serving elite has broken into those freedoms the result has always been misery and immiseration. There is no such thing as a benign tyranny.

There is a silver lining to this story. In the society that currently obtains, Catherine Engelbrecht was able to present this testimony to the House of Representatives: we are able to view it on line: I am able to comment on it here. So far, for the moment, those freedoms at least continue. If any of the links in that chain become endangered it will be time to man the barricades.