Bernard-Henri Lévy & Douglas Murray. Class.

In May 2017 Zeitgeist Minds hosted a debate between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Douglas Murray, under the title Can Europe survive the new wave of populism?

Douglas Murray has featured on this blog five times before, though not for a couple of years. I indulge myself by watching his speeches much more often than that, because he is just so good. Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL) I vaguely knew by reputation; but somehow he had escaped my attention here.

This debate is introduced and moderated (very well, incidentally) by Zeinab Badawi.

It’s taken more than six years and 418 critiqued speeches for me to get around to watching BHL’s speaking. How … on … earth?

I sit, hypnotised by his voice, his gestures, his pace, his emphases. They are all unashamedly idiosyncratic. These are Gallic idiosyncrasies, certainly – particularly with respect to his accent (about which more later) but they are also personal idiosyncrasies; and I love that.

I urge my trainees to be themselves, and that is what BHL is being in abundance. The first time I watch I barely listen, other than vaguely registering that I disagree with what he is saying, but I am in awe of how he is saying it.

Before this video began I had thought that he would have to be very good to go three rounds with Douglas Murray, and he certainly is. Now I find myself wondering how resilient Murray will be. Will he blend his decorum with BHL’s (which is very compelling), or will he have the strength of will to establish his own? I should have had more faith. From the starting gate his tone, rhythm and style are distinctly his own, almost exaggeratedly and defiantly so. I am really enjoying this!

I don’t particularly want to go into the arguments presented because the two of them do it so well themselves. There’s a certain amount of sparring over the definition of ‘populism’, whereas I would have challenged BHL’s cavalier use of ‘Europe’ when he means ‘EU’, but that’s a detail.

After each of them making his 8-minute (ish) opening statement, each has a 2-minute rebuttal, then Badawi questions and challenges each. She unwittingly supports a point Murray makes (about Huguenots) while intending to contradict it, which is mildly entertaining, and then she turns to BHL. At 27:15 she quotes to him a French term, apologising for her pronunciation. That’s wildly entertaining!

BHL speaks very good English, but with an accent so thick you could slice and dice it with a wooden spoon, yet an English speaker apologises for her French pronunciation. We all seem to do that, and I’ve often wondered why.

This debate is really enjoyable, not least because it has become a rarity to find opposing viewpoints being discussed intelligently, with civility and mutual respect. This is class.

Steve Bannon speaks.

A few days ago, the Oxford Union hosted a talk from Steve Bannon.

How many times have you seen film footage of Adolph Hitler making a speech? Same question re: Joseph Stalin: same question re: Mao Zedong. I fancy the three answers are likely to be, “many times”, “never”, “never”. Hitler is widely held to be the world’s most evil person in the 20th Century, whereas the other two still have substantial followings in their own countries and elsewhere. Hitler was diabolical, but in terms of the deaths he caused he was a non-starter compared with the other two. That for me is one of the strongest arguments against the No-Platform movement, because if someone really is evil the world and posterity need to hear from his own lips how evil. If they are no-platformed, doubt will remain.

Am I, with that paragraph, comparing Steve Bannon to people whose respective body-counts are in the tens of millions? No, I’m explaining why we should be keen to watch this speech.

He starts with an account of how on 18 September, 2008, in the Oval Office, the heads of the US Treasury and Goldman Sachs told the President, George W. Bush, that only an injection of one trillion dollars would save the world from economic collapse. That is a high-impact opening.

[Let’s take a moment to look at one trillion as a number. If you’d been counting one trillion dollar bills non-stop at one dollar a second, and had just finished, you’d have needed to start around 30,000 BC.]

Bannon speaks for a smidgeon under half-an-hour and the rest is questions. There are so many questions that in conscientiously answering them he over-runs his time and we learn that he misses his flight.

The speech is so important, as are the answers to the questions, that my critiquing seems impertinent, so I’ll keep it very brief.

I am delighted and not surprised that he speaks entirely without notes. His structure could be a little tidier, both to avoid repetition, therefore saving time, and to make his message(s) even more digestible for his audience.

During questions he ducks nothing, even welcoming the most confrontational. The only time he criticises a questioner is to tell him to stop reading his question and “speak from the heart”. I raise a cheer at that.

I congratulate the Oxford Union for this talk, as I did when they hosted Tommy Robinson. Their audience, both in the hall and on the internet, is grown-up enough to evaluate people on their own account, rather than being forced to rely on second-hand views in the media.

 

Steven Pinker and optimism

The Breakthrough Dialogue 2017 was held in Sausalito, California, exactly a year ago (and the 2018 Dialogue is happening as we speak). The Breakthrough Institute describes its annual Dialogue as the “anti-Davos”, and I can think of few more appealing recommendations.

One of their speakers last year was Steven Pinker with a talk called “Why do progressives hate progress?” which title seems to suggest that it was at least partly airing matters covered in his latest publication Enlightenment Now.

It is no idle accident that Amazon brackets Pinker’s book with Factfulness, by the late Hans Rosling. Rosling, with his legendary and hilarious use of creative visuals, appeared twice on this blog – here and here – and preached a similar optimistic message that despite what is too often implied life for humanity is getting measurably better.

Why do I keep sensing signals of nervousness? Pinker is a hugely experienced lecturer: I have watched many of his outings. Yet he seems here not entirely at ease. Could it be something to do with an unaccustomed audience? Most of his speaking that I have found was to universities, and I know how easily you can find yourself adopting a wavelength that works with familiar demographics.

When I say ‘works’ I mean things like response to humour. You get used to a particular type of bounce-back to the way you phrase and time things. Then when that bounce-back is different you start imagining that this audience isn’t getting you.

Or it can happen with unfamiliar technology. You are so comfortable with a certain variety of – e.g. – slide projection that you can almost make it sing! Then one day you are faced with a remote control whose buttons are in the wrong place, and that can be stressful. I notice that he clearly has a ‘slave screen’ below him to his left, and he constantly checks that the audience is seeing what they are meant to be seeing.

Or perhaps I’m the one that’s imagining it? There’s little, if anything, wrong with the way this talk is prepared and delivered. I just sense an undercurrent of edginess.

Its message is wonderfully optimistic and fascinating. I am especially captivated by the ‘tone-mapping’ graph telling us that the media and other opinion-pundits consistently offer a depressing view of a world that is constantly improving. Pinker proposes a range of explanations that seem to make sense (and slightly exonerate those pundits). It’s a very good speech, and ends with a satisfactorily up-beat tone.

And for the reader who follows this blog in the hope of learning something about speaking, there is the moral that if you find yourself out of your comfort zone and in some way in unfamiliar territory, then trust your game and relax.