Charles Murray is here not inflammatory

In September 2016, at the Baugh Center Free Enterprise Forum at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Charles Murray was guest speaker.

Though I haven’t previously heard Murray speak, his name was familiar because of a highly publicised near-riot last month at Middlebury College in Vermont, when he and a Middlebury professor had to be evacuated from a hall where he was due to speak. About ten minutes internet research reveals all manner of accusations hurled at Murray. Principal among them is that he is a ‘white supremacist’ which, along with ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ means these days – especially in seats of learning – that his politics are at odds with those of his accuser.

Nevertheless I did expect some inflammatory stuff to come out of this lecture. Let’s see.

The avuncular, softly spoken, first minute is so bereft of phlogiston as to be almost a disappointment. He quickly mentions his book, Coming Apart, and I accordingly expect him to wade into an overt sales pitch. Again I am wrong, though he does refer to it fairly often. He also mentions the (then) upcoming presidential election, though stressing that it will feature in the lecture only obliquely.

The lecture is about cultural as distinct from economic inequality and, when in the first couple of minutes he refers to a statistic relating to income, he confesses that he hasn’t recently checked it. My interest quickens, because already it appears he is working with broad brush-strokes. Let me explain myself on this.

If this lecture covers roughly the same subject matter as his book, then he is doing what I often find myself helping business executives with. In their case they will be probably presenting some report, and in these cases I find myself dragging them away from the detail because the classic mistake is to try to précis that report. What they should be doing is trailing it. Think about a trailer for a movie. How much of the plot does it give you? Essentially none! It cherry picks a few sexy camera-shots to persuade you to see the movie. Thus the executive presenting a report should be doing nothing other than persuading his audience to read the report, and that usually means broad brush-strokes, glossing over detail and cherry picking sexy assertions. Now back to this lecture …

Murray is broad-brush-stroking his findings concerning the cultural polarisation of American society. His statistics here tend to be ‘ballpark’, though the overview is clear. We do not doubt that his book has precise figures and shows its workings. It’s very effective trailing, though it is revealing how the pace of the speech sags only when he gets too deeply into statistics for a brief section about two-thirds of the way through.

The message overlaps that of Tucker Carlson’s in my previous posting. It’s not the same, and it is presented very differently, but the two do support each other. He is describing the way that America has developed a class system, with an insular elite that views the rest with undisguised disdain. Like Carlson he doesn’t blame that elite, describing them as essentially nice folk following an understandable instinct to be around ‘people who get your jokes’; but the consequences of the alienation is socially and politically destructive. It is also fundamentally un-american.

For me this resonates more than merely my viewing another culture from a distance. There seems to be a similar alienation in Britain. It is rooted differently, but…

Perhaps I shouldn’t get started.

P.S. (April 17)  Charles Murray, in a tweet that links to this blog posting, tells us that this is the lecture he intended to give to Middlebury.  Those rioting students managed to avoid learning something so valuable as to contaminate their university experience.

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.

The Queen and country debate: a summary

Over the past couple of weeks we have looked at a debate held by the Oxford Union to mark the 80th anniversary of the famous 1933 “King and country” debate.

Let’s remind ourselves of the wording of this motion – “This house would not fight for Queen and country”. This means that if you argue for not fighting you are for the proposition, and if the reverse you are in opposition. I just thought I’d clarify that, because it seems counter intuitive. Whoever posted the videos on YouTube certainly found it so: the captions consistently used the words proposition and opposition the wrong way round.

This debate was not about the 1933 one. Had it been so, one of the speakers in opposition might have noted that pacifism was a Fashionable Piety at that time. Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, J.B.Priestley, A.A.Milne, and many others of the intelligentsia claimed noisily that if Britain had no aspiration to military strength it would present no threat and would therefore not be attacked. Bertrand Russell in Which Way to Peace argued this at length. Beverley Nichols, in Cry Havoc, likewise.

And this sort of attitude was not merely passive: Bernard Shaw, visiting the USA that same year, actually went out of his way to sing Hitler’s praises and claim that the Fuehrer was doing wonderful things for Germany.

They were all shown by events to be profoundly wrong. Fashionable pieties are usually wrong: like other forms of fashion, what seems self-evident today is manifestly absurd tomorrow. Perhaps I shall address this phenomenon in greater depth in a future posting. For now I’ll just say that you should always be suspicious of any opinion held by a consensus of ‘clever’ people. Seek empirical evidence: you will probably do so in vain. These pieties owe their short life to a diet of no more than peer approval.

The situation today is slightly different. People have been made cynical by the Iraq war. All six of the speakers at this debate were against it. The huge popular disquiet in Britain before the Iraq invasion was barely mollified by Blair’s assurances that the world was in danger from Sadam’s weapons of mass destruction. It says a great deal about the low esteem in which politicians are currently held that there was no great surprise when it was revealed that those WMDs were fictional. An illegal war, waged upon a lie!

There’s an old Music Hall joke that goes like this –
I say, I say: today I saved a pretty girl from being molested.
How did you do that?
I controlled myself.

I think of that gag whenever I hear political leaders boasting about how they have presided over peace. I can’t think of a single war that was not started by the ruling classes. People don’t start wars: people play football between the trenches on Christmas Day.

I’m not calling for the abolition of politicians, though sometimes with most of the current bunch the idea has appeal. A friend of mine in a pulpit yesterday told us that we should not fear chaos (I probably should not have brought him up: he wouldn’t ever stoop to mentioning me in his sermon); but someone has to run things. Nevertheless politicians should be kept on a tight rein of accountability. They have of late been striving with alarming success to loosen those reins. We should increase our vigilance and resist. We obviously understand that their work puts them in possession of a wider picture than we are permitted to see, but still they are our servants not our masters. Back to this debate.

What made it so good was the robust articulacy of the arguments. Ben Griffin was particularly robust, even intemperate; but having walked the walk he was entitled to talk the talk. The empathy he expressed for civilians caught in crossfire surely struck a chord with his opponent Rory Stewart who in his relatively young life has gone so far out of his way to meet and learn about those civilians – literally by walking the walk. He seemed to scorn the Iraq war by virtually ignoring it and pointedly holding up Bosnia as an example of justifiable conflict. What an outstandingly accomplished speaker Stewart is! Nikolai Tolstoy changed the thrust completely when he examined the argument in its historic and constitutional context. Gareth Porter, being American, expressed alarm at American militarism; and I chose to interpret that as American politicians’ militarism. Malcolm Rifkind concluded the debate with some laughs punctuating some pithy and well-argued points.

The only other debates that this blog has covered in this depth were the God debate and the China debate. This one, in the choice and balance of speakers and the consequent quality of both speaking and argument, was best. Tribute must be paid to those who put it all together. As the Union’s librarian and as the one who opened the debate, I’d like to think that Ben Sullivan had a hand in its organisation. I was not very polite about his contribution, and with good reason – his speaking was inept and his arguments puerile, so I’d like to think he warrants a bouquet that might slightly modify my brickbats.

Gareth Porter fascinates to distraction

The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. As happened in 1933 the debate was opened by the Union’s librarian, in this case Ben Sullivan. The opposition was kicked off by a superb speech from Rory Stewart which was followed by a bitter and brilliant diatribe from Ben Griffin for the proposition. Nikolai Tolstoy then added a well conceived historical and constitutional context.

The next speaker was the American author and journalist, Gareth Porter.

The first impression is the complete absence of paper. He will shoot from the hip; and accordingly I mark him as knowing what he’s doing.

We might expect his arguments in favour of the proposition to be that of a pacifist., but immediately he puts us right. He lays out his stall as being not a pacifist but a realist. He will address this issue not in the abstract, but through analysing specifically the merits of the current conflicts and those we can reasonably expect to emerge in the coming decade.

The audience will have been supplied with his potted biography, which I suspect is more of a bibliography – he has published several books on the subject of war. He fleshes out this ethos by explaining how he graduated from college just before America entered the Vietnam War. In his own words –

Being of draft age powerfully concentrates the mind.

That was why he became a student of American militarism; and now watches as that same militarism has caused the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The stakes involved in these conflicts, he says, are much greater than the news media and our governments have allowed us to know. He believes the threat to the American and British people is as great as that from Nazi Germany. So he lays out his arguments quietly and soberly. It is arresting, alarming stuff. And yet…

I repeatedly find myself thinking tangentially. My mind shoots off in its own direction, causing me often to have to scroll back to where he lost me. I suspect it will also happen with you.

It is an easy, common, but wrong assumption that if this happens to your audience you must be boring them. More often, as in this case, he says fascinating things that trigger lively constructive thoughts that whisk me away somewhere. Porter is being a victim of his own success, stimulating me so much that I miss important stuff. The audience in that hall could not scroll back as I did, so they would forever have lost important portions of his speech. What is to be done? Is there a remedy?

Yes. There are several devices that hook and retain an audience’s attention without the necessity of watering down that stimulus. It amounts to a judicious mixture of structure and a few devious tricks. Essentially, though Porter has mastered the speaker’s key skill of speaking spontaneously without notes and he exercises it with expressive and inventive turns of phrase, he hasn’t mastered a speaker’s (as distinct from writer’s) structure rules. How I’d like a quiet hour’s conversation with Gareth Porter!

It’s a good speech, an important speech. I was glad every time I scrolled back.

Harry Browne speaks about freedom

Recently I became conscious that I seemed to devote too much of this blog to those I call talking heads, and that I should go out of my way to find speakers who had outgrown the assistance of paper. What a difficult task that has turned out to be! It is downright horrifying how many people fail this simple test, and fail themselves in the process. But I searched because I wanted to be able to concentrate on other aspects of speaking.

I was delighted therefore to find this brief speech by the late Harry Browne, delivered in 2002.

Is this a bald opening or does the clip join a speech at an appropriate moment? I can’t tell; but whether or not it actually was one, it nevertheless illustrates very clearly how bald openings are powerful and elegant in their simplicity. They are also hugely liberating for speakers, as they dispense with unnecessary verbal clutter.

Let’s look at his gestures. All of them are with palms up. This is body-language orthodoxy. The theory is that it indicates warmth and welcome. I don’t teach this: I prefer to get people feeling warm and welcoming towards their audience, and let the hands follow as they naturally will. I think he’s been taught it, because it looks slightly contrived to me. Gestures by numbers. He’s learnt well nonetheless. Look at the mime gestures when he speaks of the government taking things –  0.58, 1.02, 1.08, etc. They’re good. Perhaps a little too good.

There’s a nice little cluster of anaphora and epistrophe when talking of government controls beginning 1:13. There’s another welcome anaphora beginning around 3:30. This material is nicely constructed and and all fired from the hip.

His vocal delivery is warm and friendly, and you could say that a presidential candidate (which he was at the time) should be more assertive and statesmanlike. But libertarians tend to get painted by their opponents as hard hearted bastards that eat fluffy kittens for breakfast, so this avuncular image that he is conveying counters that very well.

All in all it’s a good bit of speaking. Obviously he was fruitlessly crying in the wilderness against the huge interests vested in the Republicans and Democrats, but good all the same

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