Douglas Murray and sincerity

There have been times on this blog that I avoided covering speeches by those who I felt had been covered here too often. Douglas Murray is one such. He is just so good that I know before it starts that my rhetor hat will be redundant, that I will sit and simply enjoy the quality of his speaking and be interested by what he says. The only negative will be the feeling of guilt at this self indulgence. Who cares! I’m going to permit myself a little R&R.

A month ago there was posted on YouTube a speech that he gave at Secularism 2016 which took place on 3 September last.

Though not wishing to get mired in semantics, I feel relaxed with secularism more than with atheism. I believe in the concept of a soul, yet organised religion bothers me – not least in its endless bloody bickering. (What on earth possessed factions within the C of E in the last few days with its hounding of Bishop Philip North?)  Secularism seems to be able to live with private spirituality while not caring much for liturgy, and that suits me very well. On the other hand I mistrust fundamentalism in all its guises, and atheists seem too easily to become tiresome ideologues. The late Christopher Hitchens used to be sneery, and even the admirable Matt Ridley in his otherwise excellent book, The Evolution of Everything is so obsessed with “skyhooks” that tedium threatens.

Enough of that. What has Douglas Murray to say?

He speaks with his audience, not to it. He has perfected the current speaking fashion for what I call ‘conversational sincerity’. If I put my rhetor hat on, I register the personal idiosyncrasies, the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’; but as soon as I doff it they disappear because he absorbs me completelyThat for me is the mark of excellence. I discern no trace of artificial persona: this is the real man. It is a stunningly good piece of speaking – but then that’s what he always provides.

He is also very sound on his subject, and very wise. What I like here is how he is tailoring to his audience. He is always well balanced, but here even more tempered and moderate than I have seen him. He recognises that this is an audience with grownup perceptions, so he doesn’t have to ram stark opinions down their throat.

That video above represents fourteen minutes that I am glad I spent. I am also pleased to have spent it twice. I am also pleased to have watched the panel’s Q&A at the same event. I am also pleased to have watched two other speakers at the same event. It shows that it was worth indulging myself. I shall cover their speeches shortly.

Tarek Fatah: as good as I’ve seen.

At the 3rd India Ideas Conclave, held in November 2016 in Goa, Tarek Fatah was called to speak.

I deliberately went looking for this. I had discovered Fatah’s existence as a result of a reTweet. What I found interested me, and I became one of his Twitter followers. Shortly afterwards I went seeking a speech and found two.

This was the most recent.

We immediately discover that he is surprised to be called, so he is mainly shooting from the hip. As an author and journalist he will have opinions a-plenty, but we have found often enough on this blog that those who live by the pen are by no means necessarily able to communicate well by the tongue. Nevertheless it takes only a few seconds to discover that here is a very skilled speaker.

Just listen to his tone colours. He plays his audience wonderfully.

He needs to because although he switches back and forth between languages, and has a habit of switching out of English for the punchline of each point made, I think it is clear that he is confronting group-think. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, he is giving this audience an industrial strength bollocking. And what impresses and amazes me is that they let him.

The audience listens in respectful silence and even applauds sometimes. This is a tribute to the persuasiveness of his speaking, but it is also a tribute to his audience. Although the bilingualism of this speech might be confusing me I think – and if I’m wrong no doubt someone will tell me – that he is scolding India for being too tolerant of Islamisation within their Hindu country.

Can you imagine the reception this would receive in the west (and it’s worth bearing in mind that Fatah lives and works in Canada)? For much less than this we see ferocious street riots, with shop windows broken and cars set alight. The cancer of political correctness has metastasised within western society to such an extent that we have ‘hate speech’ laws whose counter-productiveness is downright imbecilic. This sort of polite and respectful exchange of ideas and opinion is today just a memory in the west. I am reminded of that famous quotation from Mahatma Gandhi when asked what he thought of western civilisation.

I think it would be a good idea.

So do I, and we can apparently look to India to set us a noble example.

Even if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick completely, I am still in awe of this speech. We’ve had a Gandhi quote, let’s have a Fatah one –

There is no democracy without individual liberty (4:20)

Just after 13:30 he moves into his peroration. He has given us loud power, quiet intensity, and wonderful flavour-enhancing pauses. Now he goes super-quiet for a while, drawing his audience to a focal point just a few inches from his nose. And then a huge auxesis arrives in the last couple of seconds. My word, but he’s good.

I mentioned that I found two speeches of his. This is where you will find the other. That was delivered in Canada in 2011, and he had come from cancer treatment in hospital to deliver it. Again it is brilliant, though his being unwell he doesn’t use quite the same breadth of palette. He is warning of Islamism as distinct from Islam. He is a Muslim.

I have become a fan of his, and delight in the discovery that we were born in the same city – though my being three years older we were born in different countries. I’ll leave you to work that out.

Sebastian Gorka has presence

Nearly a year ago on 2 March, 2016 the Institute of World Politics hosted a talk from Dr Sebastian Gorka.

I have watched Dr Gorka a couple of times making mincemeat of aggressive opponents on TV programmes, but that’s dialogue and very different from the one-way traffic of a speech. I was interested to see how good he was in monologue.

Also he is now Deputy Assistant to President Trump, and with the world (as distinct from antipathetic mainstream media) holding its collective breath to see how the new POTUS will shape up, it seems worth while to have a look at those advising him.

He begins by laying out his stall, with particular attention to ethos, and while he is doing it the cameraman experiments with trying to see if he can encompass both the speaker and the screen in a single locked-off shot. We quickly learn that he can’t, so we will hear Gorka refer to slides that we cannot see.

I greet this with mixed feelings. This has happened before with this blog. Sometimes I satisfied myself that nothing was lost, and this raised obviously pertinent questions concerning the need for those slides in the first place. In the event this talk comes close to that same conclusion so, out of curiosity, I went looking for other of his talks to learn more about his use of slides. I found this talk delivered to the Westminster Institute on 23 August 2013. The biggest danger with slides is that they compete with the speaker for the audience’s attention, usually through being too numerous or containing too much information. With that single (and old) sample I found that he used few slides, though they were rather overfilled with verbiage. Nevertheless there is a particular reason that I am confident that his slides will never compete with him.

Dr Gorka has presence.

It is an almost indefinable quality, but unmissable when you meet it. It is a quality that can barely be taught, though it can be nurtured, because it has to come completely from within. It cannot be synthesised, cannot be faked. It is built on a measure of inner confidence in your command of the subject; and that command comes firstly through a huge amount of work and secondly through experience – testing and arguing your opinions to destruction. We in the audience cannot help but believe that Gorka really knows what he is talking about.

That is what makes him so formidable in TV interviews, and what gives him that huge presence. His powerful voice also helps. Note that I said powerful, not loud. There is an important difference.

His self-confidence is not hubris: I picked up a few fleeting glimpses of insecurity, but then everyone has insecurity. So they should: it keeps them sharp.

I earnestly commend both the speech and the brief Q&A. They are both depressing and encouraging. The scenario is depressing, the prognosis reveals pinpoints of daylight. Chief amongst the latter is that he is at the POTUS elbow.

Tom Holland addresses Islam

On 25 May 2015, Tom Holland delivered the inaugural Christopher Hitchens lecture at the Hay Festival. He called it De-radicalising Muhammad. It was an appropriate title for a speech in memory of a man who was so articulate in his condemnation of organised religion in general and Islam in particular.

Holland begins at 1:55 and ends at 37:40. The rest is questions.

He begins with a tribute to Christopher Hitchens whom he never met. He tells us that he has been instructed that to be true to Hitchens’ memory his talk should be controversial. If as a non-Muslim you are speaking about Islam, or any aspect of it, you are hard-pressed not to be controversial. Holland highlights this, while nevertheless pointing out with examples that Hitchens courted controversy on this subject with some eagerness.

“Nothing to do with Islam…” that is the stock phrase, trotted out by politicians after every new abomination committed by jihadists. Holland cites this as an attempt to de-radicalize matters, but also shows why it is counter-productive. Anyone, particularly a non-Muslim, who says those words is implying that he or she knows the nature of authentic Islam, a claim which is transparently absurd when even Muslim scholars can’t agree. He proceeds with a history lesson that starts with the life of Muhammad himself, including matters of contention surrounding its details.

From where I stand, as a faintly bemused outsider, Holland seems to address this history in about as balanced a manner as is possible, and his ultimate target slowly becomes clear. The fulcrum of the speech, the point at which we finish with the background and venture into a suggested route to a solution, arrives at 16:54 with the words, “Unless Islam can draw sustenance from its own traditions to purge itself of what is going on in its name then really there’s very little hope”.

I don’t want to say any more in description of this excellently structured and argued piece of erudition, because it’s time for me to don my rhetor hat.

Holland is doubly equipped with microphones. He has a face mic, and stereo mics on the lectern. One of those sound systems is providing the feed for this video, and I’m pretty certain it’s the one on the lectern. It is ‘splashing’. Splashing is a cousin of popping (and there’s a tiny bit of popping too). It is when sibilant consonants, principally the ‘s’ sound, give a distorted splashing sound on the output. It’s a pity when he is delivering such good stuff. Slap on the wrist for the sound-engineer.

He has a script. You may think it barely matters when he merely glances at it, and you’d be right to a degree. He does handle the script extremely skilfully, but still it detracts from his delivery. Occasionally he quotes someone else’s words and then I have no problem with it, but too much of his looking down is comfort-blanket stuff. Watch an instance when his eyes go down and ask yourself if he really needed to read those particular words to speak them. Most of the time the answer will be no.

If you want fully to appreciate the difference in quality of delivery when he addresses his script and when he doesn’t, watch a sustained period when his eyes stay up and he shoots a section from the hip. There is one such between 31:30 and 33:20. In it he is subtly more engaged with his audience than the rest of the time. More importantly (to him) he is every bit as articulate and coherent, employing the same high quality of phrasing, as when he is reading. It is this that he doesn’t quite trust himself on. He feels he has a need to underpin his natural fluency with the written word. He is wrong, but I suspect he would take some persuading.

For all that Tom Holland is an impressive speaker, and this is an important and valuable speech.

Mordechai Kedar’s history of Islam

I do not know.

Wisdom begins with those words. I picked up that nugget from Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev who has been featured on this blog several times, and whose first posting in April ’13 is by far the widest-read of all my postings – nearly two years later barely a day goes by without its being viewed.

If you start by acknowledging to yourself that you do not know, questions automatically spring up; and surely we all have questions concerning the activities of militant Islamists around the world. The questions usually begin with “why”.

  • Why do militant Palestinians apparently believe they are at liberty, with honour, to renege on every peace deal they make with Israel?
  • Why do Islamists routinely burn Christian churches and murder Christians in barbarous ways?
  • Why do Islamists think it justifiable to fly aeroplanes into skyscrapers in the name of a religion whose name means ‘peace’?
  • Why do the theocratic rulers of Iran deem it respectable to declare an aim to destroy the Jewish race?
  • Etc. ad tedium.

In my previous post we saw Dr Mordechai Kedar speaking in November 2012, and I stated that six months later he made another speech in which he more clearly laid out Islam’s history from his viewpoint. Here it is.

I shall wear my rhetor hat just long enough to observe that beginning a speech with nearly a minute of ‘thankings’ is not good speaking practice – yes, actors do it at the Oscars which makes my point because actors tend to be lousy public speakers. Having watched this speech several times, and also done a little research into Dr Kedar, I conclude that he felt strongly compelled to issue these thanks. Also there is really nowhere else in this speech to put them. So the bottom line  is, don’t do it unless you absolutely have to. Kedar had to.

Rhetor hat off.

Watch this speech and you find those ‘why’ questions very liberally supplied with very plausible answers. Essentially, it would appear, the mere existence of Judaism and Christianity represent an affront because they give the lie to Islam’s claim to have existed for centuries before it actually did.

Is Kedar right?

I do not know.

His version fits a great many current observations very well. It obviously is considerably more complicated than can be told in less than a quarter of an hour, and Kedar said in the speech covered in my previous post that he could speak on the subject all night, but it is very plausible. If this were a scholarly paper there would be a bibliography that we could follow to check details, but it isn’t. Let us just now, however, work with the supposition that he is right. As any seeker after truth knows, every question answered always throws up dozens of other questions. The science is never settled: the whole truth is never found.

Here are some questions that were not in Kedar’s brief but nevertheless need addressing.

  • Why do the western mainstream media routinely take the Palestinian side when they renege on their peace agreements?
  • Why do universities in western democracies think it justified to treat as a pariah the country with the only operating democracy in the middle east?
  • Why are western governments such abject apologists for Islamism?
  • Why is every Islamic atrocity always greeted within minutes by a public pronouncement from some politico-jerk bending over backwards to paint Islam as the victim and warning of “Islamophobic backlash” when such a thing never happens?

I do not know.

Mordechai Kedar tries to explain.

Unspeakable acts are daily reported being perpetrated, in the name of Islam, upon Christians in the middle east and north Africa. We read of kidnap, mass rape, beheadings and burnings. The word that constantly assails me is, “Why?”

In my perpetual search for speeches of interest I recently found two by Mordechai Kedar, and I want to examine both. Today’s was delivered in November 2012 in the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem to a symposium called The Present and Future of Christians in the Middle East. Dr Kedar is a noted scholar and lecturer in this very subject, so as well as scrutinizing his speaking skill I am eager to learn what he has to teach.

This speech is more than two years old, yet begins with a heart-stopping episode which is brutally topical this week. Kedar shows a video clip of a Muslim preparing to behead a Christian. He mercifully stops the video before the actual act, but informs us that the video itself does not. He summarizes this opening with the words, “Welcome to the Arab Spring”.

So begins a history lesson. I thought I knew a little about all of this, but I knew nothing. I now know a little. I invite you to watch the video and join me in knowing a little.

He has notes, but he barely looks at them. His focus and attention is exactly where it should be, on his audience and how well it is absorbing his message. He is shooting from the hip. His audience engagement is almost total.

Almost? Yes, because there remains one small item that turns out to be separating him from totality of engagement. He tells us more than once that he is going to address the question of why all this is happening, and starts by teaching us the origin of the Coptic Christian church of Egypt and the intriguing and plausible theory of the etymology of the word Copt. And then, at 6:20, something small but significant happens. He removes his spectacles. That is the symbolic moment that his audience engagement becomes total. That is the moment he really gets in the driving seat.

That is also the moment that I begin not to care about the quality of his speaking and simply want to listen.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that there are two speeches by Dr Kedar that I want to examine. I was torn over which to look at first, and decided on this chiefly because it was delivered first – around six months before the other. The other nevertheless is much clearer on the history. I will return with the other one in a day or two.

Matthew Handley needs gravitas

The Oxford Union on 23 May, 2013, conducted a debate on the motion, This House Believes Islam is a Religion of Peace. Opening for the motion was Matthew Handley who, we learn, is studying history at Oxford. Despite his youth he is a veteran of The Platform, having debated competitively at school and university, and is a mentor for the Debate Mate programme.

If I could have avoided this pun, believe me I would have done; but Mr Handley has a hand problem. It’s not that he uses his hands a great deal. That strikes me as natural for him because his gestures are so expressive; so I’m right behind him on that. It is that he is constantly searching in vain for a ‘happy home’, a default position for them to be at rest; and therefore he too often selects the worst option. Before he even started, I had spotted a tell-tale sign: he was standing with his thumbs in his pockets. Putting your thumbs in your pockets is saying, “I’d like to put my hands in my pockets but I don’t think I should so I’m half sort-of pretending that they’re not really there.”

He takes a breath to begin. His hands go to clasp themselves in front of his chest, change their mind and he folds his arms instead. Students of body language will tell you that folding your arms is defensive and aggressive at the same time; but what concerns me is that I have never met anyone who looked relaxed and natural while speaking in that pose. That is the worst option I mentioned earlier, and he returns to it too often. Once would be too often. Other non-gesturing attempts are thumbs in pockets, hands in pockets or clasped in front of him – indeed he never stops experimenting, and it is the constant experimentation that highlights the problem.

I am not certain, but I think that clasping his hands in front of him might be his best option. The reason that I am not certain is that at no point do I see him relaxed.

There is a great deal that he is doing right – by the book (I am not going to comment on the arguments he promotes, restricting myself on this occasion just to the delivery) – but there is one over-riding problem. He is not driving this speech so much as letting the speech drive him.

He needs to rest back on his heels a little, dare to give pauses their natural lifespan, let the audience absorb some of his points before bombarding them with more. That way he would give himself more chance to portray an element of gravitas that is missing. Without gravitas he comes across as a little shrill. Gravitas is difficult to portray when you are so young, but I am under the impression that he would not thank me for offering him his youth as an excuse – so I won’t.

He will be a very fine speaker, because he evidently wants it so much. I hope I get to see it when it happens.