Tariq Ali: smh

Sometime recently (it was during the recent General Election campaign: you’ll find you can glean that) the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Tariq Ali, and I had my interest and memories stirred.  Ali was President of the Oxford Union in the mid-sixties, and spent much of the rest of that decade leading marches, protests, even riots. His name was seldom out of the papers. He was one of the leaders of the now-defunct International Marxist Group, a brand that made the Workers Revolutionary Party look like wishy-washy liberals.

I wanted to see whether the years had mellowed him. I know of several firebrand Trots from those days who have since performed philosophical u-turns; but from the little I’ve seen of Ali in the past half-century I get the impression that he is not one of them.

He begins by announcing that he had intended to speak about his book on Lenin but had changed his mind. He then speaks about his book on Lenin.

I was not surprised to see that one who had addressed so many protests, marches and suchlike was quite relaxed here, shooting this entire speech from the hip. On the other hand I was delighted to learn that his speaking skill is not merely a byproduct of doing a lot of it. There are indications that he has put in some thoughtful work, and one piece of evidence is to be found at 35:18, where he makes gestures accompanying a comparison between the political left and right. He is doing the gestures in mirror image, so that when he says ‘left’ he is indicating our left. It is these small things that single out expert speakers.

Actually he doesn’t speak exclusively about his book: he eventually moves on into rambling around matters of today.

I actually find myself quite liking him as a person, even though he is profoundly misguided. He comes across significantly less strident than he did in the sixties, but then so do we all. He disappoints me with a dreadful piece of cheap and gratuitous (though well-timed) ad hominem. I’ll put it down to senility – he’s a little older than I. Smh.

Smh is one of those tla (three letter abbreviations) to be found on Twitter. It stands for ‘shaking my head’ and I’m smh quite often during this speech as he trots out preposterous assertions. Nevertheless he’s entitled to his opinions.

If I were advising him I would warn him about one thing. He always did seem to take himself too seriously, and when you reach our age that comes across as pomposity. He needs to watch that.

More than once in this blog I have castigated hosts of speeches, conference halls, all sorts of auditoria, for not having a clock on the back wall with which speakers can time themselves. Tariq Ali over-runs, and it emerges that he has been carefully watching just such a clock, thoughtfully supplied by the Oxford Union. It just isn’t working properly.


Milton Friedman discusses humaneness.

Even though he has been dead for eight years, the teachings of Milton Friedman live on as robustly as ever, either directly through his books or indirectly through the works of his students.  He was mentor to the great Thomas Sowell, who continues to publish books like the excellent Intellectuals and Society.

The Free to Choose Network, which is lead by Robert Chitester, the man who probably did more than anyone to promote Friedman to the world at large, and which is named after Friedman’s landmark TV series and book of the same name, keeps his memory and teaching alive. Indeed we have the network to thank that this speech, which he delivered at Cornell University in (I think) 1978, is available to us.

Almost immediately Friedman commits an error.  In the first few seconds he tells an overt gag. All my trainees have been taught that – and why – this is almost guaranteed to fail (I’ll spare you the why). As a visiting celebrity professor, addressing a roomful of awestruck students, he’s packing a shed-load of ethos and could get at this stage a positive reaction from almost anything he said or did; yet listen to how agonisingly slow the reluctant laugh builds despite his working hard to stoke up the process by smiling benignly at the audience. There is a right way and there is a wrong way to introduce a piece of early humour, and this is the wrong way.

That horror dispensed with, he is now into his own territory. He lays out his stall very clearly and launches into his arguments.

Yet something is preventing him from concentrating on the matter in hand. Look how often in the first six minutes or so he loses his own track, stumbles, corrects himself, etc. I find myself searching for an explanation. I see no other symptoms of nervous stress, but something is preying on his mind and getting in the way of smooth thought.

At any rate from around the six-minute mark the gears stop grinding and then he gets properly into his stride.

I have quite often in this blog used the metaphor of aeroplane flight. The take-off and landing are the difficult and dangerous bits; the main body of the flight tends to look after itself. I remain puzzled as to why it took so long for Friedman on this occasion to climb to cruising altitude. Perhaps it was that ghastly opening!

If I remove my rhetor hat my only puzzlement concerning his actual message is that all his arguments and case histories were crystal clear when he made them. We now have nearly forty more years of experience and data proving him right, yet still governments – egged on by intellectuals – continue down their ovine path, making the same appalling mistakes.

We either need to question their motives, or we need to re-examine the definition of the word ‘intellectual’. Perhaps ‘intellectuals’ are merely people who might have read a book or two but otherwise are not bright enough to be called anything else.

Theodore Dalrymple: finger-lickin’ talking head

In November 2013 The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion, “This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work”. We have recently looked at speeches by Daniel Hannan for the proposition and Katy Clark for the opposition. Today we turn again to the proposition to examine a speech by Theodore Dalrymple.

Before I go any further let me comment on that still picture that illustrates the video. He is about to lick his fingers the better to turn a page. Any regular reader knows what I plan to say about that, but first allow me to quote from my book The Face & Tripod.

“If you lick your fingers to turn (or slide) pages, it not only looks slightly naff but they dry out very quickly so you have to keep repeating the naffness. If you smear lip-salve on your fingers beforehand, you should not need to lick them.”

If you think it odd that someone who is as averse as I to using scripts should nevertheless offer advice on doing so, you haven’t read the book. There are occasions when a script is unavoidable.

This is not such an occasion – or shouldn’t be. That still picture tells you that, though a doctor who has probably presented many papers, Dalrymple is a talking head and has not properly learnt how to speak in public. Which is a pity because he has a lot to say that is worth saying.

I have for many years enjoyed reading his articles, and periodically dip into the kindle version of a collection of his essays entitled Anything Goes. I am currently 48% through it (O the joys of digital precision!). He is very widely travelled, and has experienced life at its rawest. He is widely considered dyspeptic and pessimistic, but humour hides not far below the surface. (A professed atheist who assumes a pen name with ‘Theodore’ in it has his tongue not far from his cheek.)

There’s humour in this speech, and the humour harvests laughs. His material is good, but it is written material. I have made the point many times in this blog that written English and spoken English are subtly but significantly different beasties.

Dalrymple is idiosyncratic. I like idiosyncratic. He is opinionated. I like opinionated. He has the wisdom to have resisted shop-window pieties like political correctness. He is able to express regard for his fellow man without lapsing into the moist-eyed misanthropy that is so fashionable.

I have never met him, but I would like to – not least for the opportunity to tear that bloody paper out of his hands and show him how easily he could do without it and how much better his public speaking would then become.

Katy Clark, a study in neglect

In November 2013 The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion, “This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work”. A couple of weeks ago we looked at a speech by Dan Hannan in proposition to the motion. Today let us see what Katy Clark, a Labour member of the British Parliament, had to say in opposition to the motion.

The short answer is that she said almost nothing, but took nearly ten minutes to do so; and what is particularly telling about that is that she opened with a claim that she has spent a great deal of her time considering what socialism is. I have no doubt at all that this is true, but she neglected to pass on any of her deliberations here. I find it difficult to find evidence of any preparation at all for this speech. The nearest she came to any substance (and it wasn’t near enough) was in reply to her opponents.

One of them had apparently spoken of Jamaica, and as she had lived there for a time she took the cue to tell us something about what she saw as the socialist struggle there. Except she didn’t. She listed a catalogue of reforms that were apparently attempted, but allegedly thwarted by the CIA. Matters got so serious that she and her family had had to leave. You would have thought that there was a story there, and there undoubtedly is, but she failed to tell it. All we got was a list of assertions, skimming across the surface like a pebble, no evidence, no statistics, no illustrations, no narrative, no substantiation.

That was one of the stronger passages.

I kid you not. Having done with Jamaica she reverts to her principle theme which essentially is that of voicing in dozens of different ways, “things can be done better”. 

John Redwood, from the opposing side, rises to his feet to interject a point. Instantly she is galvanised into what passes for action. She picks up a piece of paper and proceeds to list historical people and events that she claims represent the socialist struggle down the ages – such as The Levellers, The Chartists, The Tolpuddle Martyrs, etc. Again, the list is merely a list. Could she not find a moment to explain why any of them supported her case? Apparently not. [In the case of The Levellers, my memory is that Messrs Thompson, Perkins, and Church were holding out for things like the sanctity of private property – which may explain why Clark was not prepared to enlarge on them.]

That was the other stronger passage.

After it, she returned to more substance-free variations on the theme of “things can be done better”.

Members of parliament are busy people, not just in The House but in their constituencies. On her website is the legend, “working hard for North Ayrshire and Arran”, and I’m sure that’s true. Perhaps she did not have enough time to spend on preparation for this speech, or did not make enough time believing that she could motor-mouth well enough to busk it. There’d be some justification in that: she can motor-mouth, and the audience lapped her up. But knowing that you are speaking safe, dog-whistle platitudes to an Amen-Corner does not justify this level of neglect. I felt she did herself no favours.

On a slightly different point, she would do herself a big favour if she lowered the default home for her hands by about an inch. Holding them so high under her bust is unbecoming.

Daniel Hannan eviscerates socialism at Oxford

As in my previous posting I said I would, I return immediately to Daniel Hannan for the second of a pair of speeches that he delivered in 2013. This was in November in a debate at the Oxford Union in support of the motion, This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work.

When delivering the speech at Runnymede for my previous posting he was among like-minded friends, probably exclusively so. This time, if not in the lions’ den, he certainly was going to have to work hard to sway them to his point of view.

A brave opening! He points out that Hitler called himself a socialist, then immediately pre-empts Godwin’s Law accusations by himself citing Godwin. He could have chosen to remind the audience that Oswald Mosley was a Labour Minister, but the Hitler example was undoubtedly the stronger. He describes the opening as ‘high-stake’ and so it is.

Just as with the Runnymede speech, the material that he shoots from the hip is flawlessly constructed to carry his narrative, illustrate and exemplify his points, pour in a wealth of supporting data; and it ends in a blood-quickening peroration that concludes with words from Milton. We expect no less of Hannan.

I shall not dwell on the delivery flaw I highlighted in the other speech, but even with the added energy that he is using to drive today’s message you will spot that the flaw is still there (at 4:05 that word is “commissars”). This proves that it is caused not by lack of application but by slightly misapplied application.

Apart from my merely enjoying his speaking, therefore, what is my reason for presenting him twice in two postings? There occur in this speech examples of an important lesson for any speaker, particularly one speaking in a hostile environment. Hannan is interrupted a few times.

There is one golden rule when dealing with any member of the audience who raises his head above the parapet and speaks. Maintain courtesy at all costs. You may have read, heard, or witnessed examples of comedians who have destroyed hecklers with ruthless put-downs and found the prospect of imitating them hugely exciting; but you are not a comedian and (more importantly) even if you are, this is not a comedian’s audience.

Heckling is not very common nowadays; but the courtesy rule applies just as much to your dealings with the idiot who tries to use your Q&A as his soap-box. Audiences are not stupid, and will quickly cotton-on to someone being a pillock. They will be wholly on your side right up to the moment that you tell that pillock he’s a pillock; and then they will immediately change sides. Even if they have started yelling at him to sit down, or slow-hand-clapping him, do not let your courtesy slip or you will lose your audience. By all means remind him of the importance of sticking to the matter in hand, or any other such remonstration, but do so courteously. Let others take whatever steps are required ultimately to shut him up.

By the way Hannan’s interrupters do not have microphones, so – though one of them goes on a bit – I cannot tell if they are being pillocks; but I can tell that he maintains his courtesy.

And there is another little kindred lesson to be learned from this speech, and one that has nothing to do with the speaker. If you are in a debate, or panel discussion, or any such adversarial environment, you maintain apparent strength not only through courtesy but through remaining impassive. Discipline yourself to keep your powder dry: exhibit nothing other than rapt attention while others are speaking. If you doubt me, watch closely the next TV debate you see. If anyone while others are speaking is shaking their head, looking incredulous or indulging in any form of face-pulling, you will see they are weakening themselves. Robert Griffiths, one of the opposition speakers, does himself no favours with that mocking laughter at 6:20.

I may return to this debate in due course to look at other speakers; but for a while this blog will remain a Hannan-free zone. Unless, of course, another important lesson emerges…