Robert Spencer exits Plato’s cave

Young America’s Foundation hosted a talk on 18 March 2017 at the Reagan Ranch. The speaker was Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch.

I know little of Robert Spencer, other than the normal little bit of research I always undertake into a speaker, before subjecting them to critique on this blog. Thus it was that I learnt that he co-authored a book with Pamela Geller, whose speaking I critiqued last June. He also, I understand, shares with Geller the distinction of having been banned from the UK because of his inflammatory views – banned, that is, under the orders of the British Home Secretary at the time, one Theresa May.

A couple of weeks ago I covered someone else who had a reputation for being inflammatory and turned out to be quite the reverse. I thought I’d be really brave and try it again.

Spencer’s talk begins at 03:27 and ends at 32:27. If we assume a half-hour slot we are looking at a speech lasting a minute less than allotted, and delivered without a script. Regardless of all else I tip my hat to a speaker who knows what he’s doing.

A James Bond Film opening even! He begins with a summary of the Plato’s cave story, which though it may temporarily bemuse those who do not know it, leads beautifully into his message. I tip my hat again.

He then proceeds apparently to narrate the history of the modern day Islamist Jihad. I injected that word ‘apparently’ because not being a scholar of such matters I have no means of knowing the accuracy of what he says. Nevertheless, when claiming to quote from the Koran he always cites chapter and verse, and when quoting incidents always gives names, places and dates. In short, he shows his workings. When one side of an argument does that, and the other seeks to silence them (or worse!) it lends verisimilitude to the party of the first part.

This is twenty-nine minutes of highly authoritative speaking. And with the greatest respect to the British Home Office he never once incites his audience to violence. It is a speech that should be heard.

At 32:27 he throws open to questions. That should be heard too.

Ben Shapiro’s paper gelds his message

On 16 November the University of Wisconsin-Madison live-streamed a talk by conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro. He was invited by Young Americans for Freedom.

We have previously in this blog come across the issue of students agitating to ‘no-platform’ speakers. Shapiro is no stranger to this authoritarianism, having been banned by DePaul, and at California State University, Los Angeles, needed protection from a police escort. The inflammatory topic that caused such uproar was Free Speech on Campus.

Here he begins at 4:13, and ends at around 58:30.

Why is he reading a script?

Actually I already know the answer. He sincerely believes that it is a requirement. He is not alone, but he is profoundly wrong. No one needs a script: I have proved it countless times. Watch him during the Q&A after the talk, and you’ll see how good he can be.

It’s a fairly amusing opening. He pokes fun at so-called Social Justice Warriors. I have heard that first minute just twice and could already shoot it from the hip. So could you. So could he. But he doesn’t: he reads most of it. And it’s the moments that he permits himself to shoot little asides from the hip that cause his effectiveness momentarily to lift. You get to see for a couple of seconds how much better this speech would have been if he had learnt how to throw away the paper, and (at least as importantly) been shown how easily he could.

A very short time into his lecture, the protests begin. Repeated shouts of “shame” and “safety” try to drown him out. At this point he shows that he has an arsenal of pre-prepared put-downs to deploy. They are quite good, and have the side-benefit of getting him away from that bloody paper.

Once they have subsided (temporarily, it turns out) he returns to reading his script; and immediately the guts of his performance haemorrage out. It’s actually good stuff, but crippled – gelded! – by being read aloud rather than spoken.

Within a minute or two the moronic shouting begins again. A girl in the middle of the auditorium rises to her feet and berates the protesters. She delivers a beautifully eloquent piece of ad-lib that can be paraphrased as “Shut the … [front door] … and let us listen to the man!” Her interjection earns her a standing ovation, and shortly afterwards we return to listening to Shapiro reading his good stuff for a few more minutes.

It soon becomes apparent that the protesters are positioned in the side aisles and along the back.  They begin to process down towards the stage, line up in front of it, and chant their imbecilic slogans. The audience responds by counter-chanting.

What is sad is that this trend appears to have become ubiquitous in US academe, and is spilling across the Atlantic. What is even sadder is that it comes from above. The evidence suggests that teachers are feeding this nonsense, and that they got it from their teachers.

At the beginning of last year I covered a brilliant talk by Hans Rosling in which he exposes a series of widely-held misconceptions about the world – misconceptions that are exploded by real data. Although he treats the subject lightly it is clear that these lies colour people’s political views, which is serious. At one point he almost throws away (blink and you’ll miss it) the observation that people cleave to nonsenses that can be dated fairly precisely from the period that their teachers were born. Therefore it’s at least two generations of apostolic succession since this stuff was planted.

I remember when students rebelled. Students are supposed to rebel! Student rebellion has today almost died. They are reduced to parroting poison from their pedagogues, which they parrot from theirs. And the poison is political correctness, and at the root of political correctness is the rule that dissent must be silenced at all costs. That is why they hate free speech.

There is a growing movement to push back. Ben Shapiro is part of that movement. If he would only learn that speaking and writing are not the same thing, and learn to do the former properly, he’d be a lot more effective. Freed from the tyranny of that bloody paper, he’d be as good as he is during the Q&A that begins at the one hour point.

Milo Yiannopoulos likes it two ways

At the Conway Hall in London on 16 August there was held the launch of the Young British Heritage Society. This society appears to be an attempt at an antidote to the National Union of Students. The NUS hasn’t impinged on my life for a decade or four, though I occasionally read their pronouncements in the press.  These indicate that an antidote of some sort might be a good idea.

As the launch-event keynote speaker they had booked the services of one whom they described as “the most fabulous supervillian on the internet”, Milo Yiannopoulos. I featured him on this blog not long ago, but not very satisfactorily. The speech in question dissolved into shambles as many members of the audience staged a noisy walk-out.

Milo has made himself into something of a phenomenon. With his carefully studied OTT campness, he has become a considerable cult-figure. In a sense he is using the same “ain’t I pretty!” tactic as a young boxer called Cassius Clay in the early sixties. It’s a very powerful device to polarise the public into loving or hating you and hence to inflate your box-office value.

But you have to be good enough to deliver. Clay (later to become Muhammad Ali) certainly delivered, and Milo in his field also delivers. He writes well, and has the gift of the gab. Think hind legs and donkeys. As well as being very thoroughly briefed and replete with data, he is remarkably quick-witted. You could put up the most feared interviewers in broadcasting and I wouldn’t back them against him, because whether by accident or design he is possessed of one particular characteristic which is devastating. I may return to that later.

None of the foregoing necessarily makes him a good public speaker, even though he does a lot of it. Let’s have a look.

It’s a tiny bit more than an hour long, one third speech and two thirds Q&A. I’ve watched it all, several times, and now I have both bouquets and brickbats to bestow. Let’s get the brickbats over…

The first third is the weakest. During the 23rd minute he begins Q&A, and at that moment this thing takes off. I mean it goes into orbit. I mentioned earlier how good he is in interviews, so we should hardly be surprised that two-way conversational traffic is his comfort zone – even if he’s the one doing all the talking. Questions are mother’s milk to him.

Preceding the Q&A is a speech. That is one-way traffic; and comparatively it’s clunky as hell. He’s using many of the same modules as during the Q&A, but the bridges between them are non-existent. The reason is that he apparently believes, as far too many do, that the substitute for being asked questions is using a bloody script. Will they never learn!

Also, for one who makes many speeches, his audience-handling is startlingly inept. Too often when one of his outrageous statements triggers a laugh he fails to capitalise. This is sometimes because the laugh is spontaneous and surprises him. The set-piece humour is too contrived and seldom works. Let’s quickly move to the bouquets…

Dip at random into the Q&A and you’ll get the impression is that here’s someone who loves the sound of his voice so much that he just gabbles uncontrollably. Completely deceptive. His answers are actually very disciplined and tight. Consider this statistic. The last 44 minutes end in a six minute peroration (it’s very good), and the previous 38 minutes contain 12 questions and their answers.  Allow ten seconds for each question, and the average answer therefore takes three minutes. Each is laden with hilarious and inevitably outrageous anecdotage, yet still provides its serious answer. The man is brilliant.

He just needs to learn how to make speeches.

Milo smiles at all his foes

On 9 February, 2016, at Rutgers University, there was a lecture by Milo Yiannopoulos.

This is a difficult man to pigeonhole. You can’t even easily describe his appearance as he keeps changing his hair. He appears to be a dandy, fop and dilettante – in fact his current image puts me in mind of Gabriel, the master criminal played by Dirk Bogarde in Modesty Blaise, possibly the campest movie ever made. As far as I know Milo is not a master criminal, but like Gabriel he camouflages his purpose behind a mask that he doesn’t take seriously.

He describes himself in various ways, but chiefly as libertarian, and in favour of free speech. He fearlessly seeks out opportunities to prick the pious pomposities so beloved of the chatterati, like when he compared modern feminism to cancer.

Western students, with their preposterous “Safe Spaces” in which the poor vulnerable snowflakes cower from any philosophy more challenging than chewing gum, are natural targets for him. American universities have this disease worse even than those in the UK, so that is where he has been conducting lectures in what he calls the Dangerous Faggot Tour (yes, he’s gay). Those that have sought to no-platform him have shot themselves in the foot, as he regards such bans as trophies to wave aloft – just as he contrived huge mileage out of Twitter trying to silence him. He is a phenomenon that has amassed a huge and devoted following, and is one of those rarities universally known by just their first name – like Boris (and Gabriel).

For all his fluffy narcissism, Milo knows his stuff and is articulate. Many TV programmes that have arranged for him to be cut down to size in fierce debate have watched him vanquish tough adversaries, because he handles himself well. The boy can play.

How’s his public speaking?

The short answer is that it is not as good as his verbal close combat.

I can say this partly because he sets the bar very high with the latter, but also it’s because he doesn’t trust himself enough. Knowing from experience that he can cope with anything that an opponent aims at him, he seems to feel that he needs that. The opponent’s thrusts and lunges cue his responses.

Look at the glee with which he works the audience at the beginning. Look at how later he defends himself from the heckling in the hall. He uses smiles, laughter and over-camp outrage. Never does he flatter the hecklers by appearing offended. This is all close-combat stuff, writ large, and he’s in his element.

Now watch from 3:25. At this stage we are moving into a script: you can hear much of the spontaneity depart. He is conscious of it as well, which is why he punctuates it as often as he can with audience interaction. It’s a good device, but he shouldn’t need the device. He camps around here and there in scripted sections to colour them spontaneous. It doesn’t quite succeed.

The easiest way to sound spontaneous – arguably the only way to sound spontaneous – is to be spontaneous

If he structured the speech in a way that gave him a clear route to follow, and then trusted himself to find spontaneously the right words at the appropriate time, then he would sound spontaneous. Also the camping-around would look spontaneous also – it doesn’t always quite do so here.

At 15:35 the speech falls apart. From watching another posted video, apparently taken with a mobile phone, I can tell you that there’s a minor demonstration and walk-out. After several minutes of uproar he abandons the speech and goes to Q&A.

Now he is in his comfort zone. At 21:04 he answers his first question. Now he trusts himself to speak spontaneously; and his three minute answer, shot from the hip, is brilliantly expressed – a little more graphically than some audiences might want, but he is playing to that audience. Furthermore, in that three minutes he explains why he is uniquely qualified to conduct his Dangerous Faggot campaign.

If the set-piece part of the speech had been as good as those three minutes, his campaign would be even more effective. It could easily be. It would need very little work.

Mark Steyn: if it’s not the crusades…

On 26 September, 2015, in a room in the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen, there was held an event that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office deemed so inflammatory, extremist and fraught with controversy that, clutching their pearls, they advised people against going near it. It was certainly dangerous. International Conference: The Danish Muhammad cartoon crisis in retrospect was its title. Free speech was its theme.

That is the fourth time I have published that precise paragraph. The other three were for speeches from –

That is a roll of honour. I commend all their speeches. I also commend the fourth and last speech at this conference. It is from Mark Steyn.

Though I am certain the conference organisers selected their speakers purely on the strength of their manifest commitment to free speech, they could scarcely have offered up a greater range of tone colour. Compare for instance Murray to Steyn. Where the one fences with an epée the other wields a knobkerry. Don’t try to decree which is more effective: just enjoy the contrast.

Nice opening! I have made a similar observation in this blog concerning the diction of those for whom English is not their first language.

In a formidable communication armoury Steyn has one astonishing skill. He is able to recount the most horrendous stories using dry humour in a way that attracts many little laughs from the audience right up to the moment he unleashes the punchline; and he does it without reducing the horror of the story. He displays this skill repeatedly in this speech, but never more tellingly that in his account of Molly Norris, beginning at 3:50. The most serious section in the whole speech begins at 27:00 where, paradoxically, he is talking about jokes.

My trainees, or readers of my book The Face & Tripod will know the value that I place on making a speech possess a Face. Steyn gives this speech a Face by quoting George Bush.

If it’s not the crusades it’s the cartoons

It’s a good speech. Like all of the speeches at this conference it’s an important speech.

Watch it.

At the beginning of this series of four blog-postings I said that I saluted everyone connected with this conference in Copenhagen last September. Now, after several hours of watching and re-watching those speeches and becoming rather attached to that androgynous figure that is the logo of Trykkefrihedsselskabet constantly overlooking the lectern, I do more.

I applaud them.

Douglas Murray and excellence

On 26 September, 2015, in a room in the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen, there was held an event that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office deemed so inflammatory, extremist and fraught with controversy that, clutching their pearls, they advised people against going near it. It was certainly dangerous. International Conference: The Danish Muhammad cartoon crisis in retrospect was its title. Free speech was its theme.

Taking speakers in the same sequence as in the conference, we have thus far watched speeches from Henryk Broder from Germany and Vebjørn Selbekk from Norway. Today’s speaker is from Britain. He is a man who has appeared on this blog so often that it is almost time to give him his own parking space. The last time was only two weeks ago. He is Douglas Murray.

Excellent speaking is nigh impossible to define. It is this intangible, illusive thing that I earn my living helping people to help themselves to achieve. It is built on a fiendishly complex alchemy of being yourself, answering your audience’s perception of you, engaging with them at as high a level as possible, and offering your case with maximum clarity and digestibility so that even if the audience disagrees with your message they understand your arguments. If you can do all that while still entertaining you are getting somewhere. Defining it may be difficult, but you know it when you see it. For me this speech gets about as close as you can get.

I am not alone. Listen for other sounds in the room. Occasionally there’s a response when he wants there to be – a little laugh here, some applause there – but otherwise there is pin-drop silence. People simply want to listen to him – as do you, so you will not welcome this exercise (but unlike the audience in the hall you can wind back and re-listen).

Regular readers of this blog are accustomed to my castigating speakers for using scripts or even notes, so they might expect me to point out that Murray sometimes lowers his eyes to the lectern. I tell my trainees, as I also tell readers of my book, The Face & Tripod, that sometimes you have to be prompted by paper – e.g. you have so many speaking engagements that you cannot keep all those different mind-maps in your head. Those who have learned how to speak without the aid of paper, handle paper better than those who haven’t. Murray’s few glances downwards never interfere with the astonishingly tight bond he has with his audience. He really owns them.

When, at 22:20, his speech finishes and his Q&A session begins you may find yourself so spellbound that you listen to all that too. I did.

Vebjørn Selbekk: a study in courage

On 26 September, 2015, in a room in the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen, there was held an event that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office deemed so inflammatory, extremist and fraught with controversy that, clutching their pearls, they advised people against going near it. It was certainly dangerous. International Conference: The Danish Muhammad cartoon crisis in retrospect was its title. Free speech was its theme.

We have already seen the speech by Henryk Broder from Germany. Today we shall examine the contribution by Vebjørn Selbekk from Norway.

I’m afraid he’s reading. All the comments that I expressed concerning Henryk Broder reading his speech apply here. That includes the view that nevertheless I’d prefer to hear him reading this than not hear it at all.

As with Broder, I skipped to the Q&A at the end to see whether his spontaneous English speaking was strong enough to shoot from the hip. It is. At 25:09 there’s a long, spontaneous and eloquent anaphora in answer to a question. There was a little bit of “um” and “er” in his answers, but that doesn’t bother me. When people complain to me that a speaker has too much “um” and “er”, it bothers me only that people notice. If people notice, it means that they are not sufficiently absorbed by what the speaker is saying. As with any other mannerism my advice to speakers is not to try to avoid it, but to get more interesting so that people no longer notice.

Within seconds of Selbekk beginning to speak I became so gripped that he could have been wearing a pink woolly cap with a bell on it for all I cared.

His story is horrendous, and shames too many people. The picture it paints of the political establishment is a scandal. When you think of that posturing row of self-satisfied people at the front of the Charlie Hebdo march in Paris a year ago, and overlay that image with the craven appeasement that has nurtured the constant flow of abominations in the name of a religion whose name apparently means “Peace”, it represents an international outrage.

Today it seems that an unguarded reproof of Islamism on Twitter can get you charged with a Hate Crime.

Hate? At 8:00 Selbekk describes the tide of death-threats to which he was subjected as a “Black and muddy wave of hate”. That is an appropriate use of the word. The mild sort of expressed disapproval that these days apparently lands you in court is not.

Islamophobia? I have just sought a definition of “phobia” from Google. Here is the answer: an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something. If anyone can tell me what is irrational about not wanting your throat cut I’d be interested to learn it.

People in general want to get on peacefully with people in general. When a faction within those people misbehaves, and disturbs the peace, it is the duty of the delegated authorities to stop them. Is that what we have seen happening?

Selbekk shows us with stark clarity what happens when delegated authorities – and I mean governments the world over – neglect that duty. The world is paying the price.

I salute Selbekk for his courage, as I salute everyone involved with this conference.