Richard Dreyfuss and Civics

It’s just talking!  My public speaking trainees probably get sick of my saying that, but it’s true. Yes, there are things to learn in terms of optimising your material for impact, digestibility, and memorability. There are devices for coping with nerves, for grabbing and holding the audience’s attention, and so on. But strip away all the mystique, and it’s just talking.

Therefore when an interviewee on a TV programme holds forth for a couple of minutes on an important subject I regard it as public speaking as much as if he were on a platform in an auditorium. It is also just talking.

In April 2017, Tucker Carlson had actor Richard Dreyfuss on his programme for an interview, and quite evidently expected it to be adversarial (in fact he admitted it shortly before the end). In the event, though, Dreyfuss launched into an expression of such good sense that Carlson just let him roll uninterrupted.

The video starts with a very short clip from an apparently incendiary interview with someone else a couple of days earlier, and then we learn how Dreyfuss now comes to be down the line from a studio in California.

Carlson begins fairly defiantly, and Dreyfuss replies in a sober manner that momentarily wrong foots him. There follows a little perfunctory skirmishing, during which Dreyfuss briefly disarms Carlson a couple of times; and then around 3:55 Carlson’s trademark worried frown (which tends to be his launchpad for counter-attack) begins subtly changing to one of approval and full-blown receive-mode as Dreyfuss begins lamenting the loss of the teaching of Civics in the US public education system.

The interview concludes with some metaphorical mutual back-slapping, with Carlson expressing the hope that Dreyfuss will come back on the programme another time. But Dreyfuss has more to add.

He invites viewers to go on his website to sign the Preamble to the US Constitution. It begins –

We the People…

Those words!

It’s uncanny how I, on this blog, keep coming back to Brexit.

 

Susan Collins settles it.

The recent, highly dramatic and sometimes ugly, circus that surrounded the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States seemed in the event to be largely settled by a single speech from the Senate Floor on Friday October 5.

Susan Collins, senior United States Senator for Maine, delivered a forty minute speech which concluded with the declaration that she would vote ‘Yes’. Almost immediately the usual suspects began screaming that she had condoned rape. Anyone claiming to conclude that from this speech has not heard it.

This is long, measured, sober and well-argued. So much so that it would be impertinent for me – not even an American – to judge it.

Nevertheless I am conscious that you may not be able easily to spare forty minutes to watch the whole thing, so I will restrict myself to supplying some guidance – a map, if you will – as to what she discusses, and when.

  • The first four minutes are devoted to condemnation of some of the behaviour surrounding this particular nomination. Targets for her ire include not just activists and journalists, but even a few members of the Senate itself.
  • She then moves into the necessity for looking beyond supposed party affiliations of a nominee like Kavanaugh, citing her own votes for past nominees. This leads into an extended description of her detailed examination of Kavanaugh’s Judgements, Opinions, Speeches and Legal Writings over a great number of years. This includes many examples of when his legal conclusions have run contrary to what might have been expected considering his supposed political persuasion. It also includes long, frank and penetrating conversations she held with him after his nomination. Crucially it reveals the strength of his regard for precedent.
  • At 21:40 she addresses the wealth of glowing testimonials from all who have worked with him. These are not only technical legal commendations but also those dealing with his demeanour and character.
  • At 24:00 she turns to the accusation from Professor Ford. Her main thrust is that though she believes Prof. Ford is sincere and was assaulted by someone, somewhere, sometime, the principle of the presumption of innocence is of such fundamental importance that in the absence of any corroborating evidence it fails the ‘more-likely-than-not’ standard and must therefore be dismissed. On the other hand she is withering in her condemnation of the me-too allegations against Kavanaugh that emerged from the woodwork.
  • At 32:25 she launches into expressing the hope that some good might come out of this if it raises public awareness of sexual assault.
  • The final section begins at 36:10. She talks of Ford’s reluctance to come forward, and how she feels she was a victim of political manoeuvring, though she completely absolves Senator Feinstein of that. She praises Chairman Grassley for the way he handled the proceedings, but she expresses contempt for whoever leaked Professor Ford’s letter.

The speech is structured and delivered beautifully. It is very impressive indeed.

Ben Sasse educates

Through September, the clamour surrounding the confirmation of the proposed appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has spiralled to alarming proportions. Yesterday, 27 September, saw Judge Kavanaugh deliver an impassioned, emotional, and defiant defence of himself, his record and his character; though for sheer drama that was challenged by Senator Lindsey Graham who tore into what he saw as a disgusting conspiracy by certain parties. It is perfectly possible that Judge Kavanaugh’s and Senator Graham’s speeches will find their way onto this blog, but for now I’d like to turn to a quieter more reasoned time.

At the beginning of September lawmakers delivered opening statements to the confirmation hearing. Senator Ben Sasse was one of them, and he gave a brilliant speech.

For this Brit, with little more than a sketchy understanding of the workings of the US legislature, this speech is an education. For one thing it seems to explain the creation of what President Trump calls “the swamp”. But it is much more than that, as it also has huge resonances to what ails the political tides in Britain.

When he says “The legislature is impotent: the legislature is weak, and most people here want their jobs more than they want to do legislative work so they punt most of the work to the next branch” I find myself thinking that the British legislature does exactly the same thing, in fact disgracefully punted most of it overseas whence the British people are desperately trying to claw it back.

Sasse strongly advocates restricting responsibility for legislature to the hands of those who can be kicked out of office when they get it wrong. He is referring to SCOTUS being a lifetime appointment for a Justice, but you get no prizes for guessing what I am thinking. Nevertheless let’s stick with Sasse (who, incidentally, later explains even more clearly why politicians punt decision-making away). He says that the judiciary’s having become such a political hot potato stems from the elected politicians’ having failed to do their job properly.

There’s a potent moment for me, a student of audiences, at 0:32. The split screen allows us simultaneously to watch Sasse and the focal point of the audience – Kavanaugh himself. The latter has been listening intently, but now picks up a pen to make notes.

What I think is significant about Kavanaugh throughout this speech is not just the intensity of his concentration, but the dispassion. His frowns convey concentration not disagreement. At no point does his expression display an opinion on what is said. The exception is when Sasse slips in a provocative joke, and Kavanaugh permits himself a smile.

Just before his summary, and beginning at 9:39, Sasse delivers a very strong anaphora – “this is why …”, and then the summary heads unswervingly towards his final two sentences.

“It seems to me that Judge Kavanaugh is ready to do his job. The question for us is whether we’re ready to do our job.”

Greg Lukianoff and the 1st Amendment

I have lost count of the number times I have covered on this blog speeches extolling the virtues, or condemning the restriction, of free speech. I can though remember the first time: it was in November 2012 and a Christopher Hitchens speech which he had delivered at a debate in 2006. Here we are, twelve years after that debate, and free speech is under worse attack than ever.

My interest in the subject must be obvious. My occupation is my obsession and based on communication. In my opinion anyone who strives to curtail communication is either imbecilic or possessed of dangerously questionable motives; and it seems that most of western academia, officialdom, and too many of our political representatives can be thus categorised. It’s worse than depressing: it’s frightening.

I hate the word ‘hate’ when it is used as a legal adjective.

Here we see a lecture on Free Speech delivered by Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE – The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It was at Williams College, Massachusetts, in April 2014.

Check out the size of the audience!

As part of his opening ethos Lukianoff amusingly introduces himself as a specialist 1st Amendment lawyer. We in Britain do not have a 1st Amendment: we do not even have a written Constitution to amend. What this lecture tells us is that even with full constitutional backup to protect it the USA has free speech problems pretty much as severe as ours.

Generally I would disapprove of his slides carrying so much verbiage, because of the risk that the speaker can find himself in competition with himself. But when he sticks important, historic, Supreme Court rulings on the screen, then to quote key passages from them I have to say I think it works by dint of the weight of the passages.

I find him a joy to listen to because he lays out his arguments with stunning clarity, but then he’s a lawyer. In half an hour I find the whole free speech thing more cogently expressed than I have heard elsewhere.

He actually goes on for more than half an hour, finishing and inviting questions at 34:30, but the last four minutes are specifically aimed at American students and the benefits of FIRE membership. Then it’s questions.

This speech was four years ago, since when these matters have appeared to have got worse even though the official political culture, if not the culture of  academe, has turned through 180 degrees. For my own private interest I must go and find what he is saying now.

Michelle Obama’s voice wobbles

On this blog we have already examined the acceptance speech made by Hillary Clinton at the recent Democratic National Convention. There was also glowing praise in the media for another speech, this time by the USA’s current First Lady, Michelle Obama. This was not a surprise: she can do no wrong for the mainstream media, and could probably get away with a turkey of a speech. Nevertheless, I thought I’d lay cynicism aside and view it for myself.

That still frame has a title over it, claiming that she cries when speaking of her daughters. I do hope not.

After nearly three and a half minutes of video and adulation from the crowd, which is absolutely to be expected and under the circumstances fair enough, she begins speaking. Within seconds I am reminded why I do not work in this sort of sphere. I am rather averse to political speaking. My stamping ground is with speakers who have to sway tough cynical audiences without recourse to political smoke and mirrors. A business person caught lying is sacked (unless in the public sector, in which case will probably be unobtrusively promoted). A politician is expected to lie.

I’m not accusing Mrs Obama of lying, but she is playing a rôle in a show that is of necessity built from deceit. Look at the syrupy phoniness of the way this thing is stage managed. Look at the shots of audience members gazing with worship. I try not to.

Though she will have received training she doesn’t cope very well with a teleprompter. You can see that rather glassy stare when the eyes focus just south of the camera. Nevertheless she forges on like a trooper.

The schmaltz concerning her daughters begins immediately, and I admit that it is difficult to conceive what else she could talk about. The First Lady can’t wade in on matters like the systematic dismantling of those parts of the US Constitution that protect the people’s freedoms. She can’t talk about how the country is markedly less safe, less free and less prosperous than it was eight years ago. She absolutely has to stick to how her heart sings with joy when watching her daughters playing on the White House lawn.

That essentially is this speech in a nutshell, and she makes a reasonable fist of it. The audience laps it up. The voice gets a bit of a wobble for a brief moment, and I find myself wishing that her coach had spent that time on the teleprompter instead.

At least she doesn’t cry.

Barry Poulson isn’t fluffy

In my previous post, which was on Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, I made reference to the current USA administration – of which Mrs Clinton has been a key part – having presided over that country’s being indebted to the tune of “$20-odd trillion”. I am not in a position to know the true figures, but here’s a man who is.

Dr Barry Poulson delivered a talk to the Heartland Institute. It was entitled How Can Fiscal Rules Fix the American Government? 

How indeed? He begins at 04:19. There are severe sound-problems prior to his beginning: persevere.

I do nearly all my work with business speaking. It has particular demands on the speaker, like precision and conciseness. It is also perceived (often wrongly) to be rather hard-edged; and for this reason I enjoy helping people package tough issues in a way that makes them seem relatively fluffy.

Here we have a speaker from an academic environment. His first impression is an avuncular one. Almost immediately we are made to feel that he has all the time in the world, and reckons we have too. He even wanders off to get a drink of water, and is gone for ages; later he becomes inaudible for a time when he takes root on the wrong side of the screen. This man, we tell ourselves, doesn’t need fluffy packaging: he’s already fluffy. Beware! From what I’ve seen of academia it can be every bit as cut-throat as the business world, so ignore sheep’s clothing. The only licence that academics could have over business-people might be freedom from immediate and terminal accountability. Get it wrong and usually you can go back to the drawing board.

Poulson is dealing with an issue (national debt) that everyone has been getting scandalously wrong, and he quickly makes the point that neither of the presidential candidates is talking about it, presumably because there are no votes in it according to the pollsters (remember pollsters? – they’re the people that keep getting it wrong). This is where the $20 trillion number comes up. It exceeds GDP. On this matter Poulson isn’t fluffy: Capitol Hill is. The Executive seems to regard Venezuela as a rôle model.

His message is that without fundamental changes of fiscal direction the USA is toast. That may be unthinkable, but it is feasible and doesn’t have fluff.

There is a way out, and he spends half an hour telling us what it is. Here’s a clue: it’s a little more grown up than taxing the ‘super-rich’, which is why politicians might prefer to see their country gurgling down the drain than put it to the people. Politicians seem to be convinced that people are stupid. That’s why they call themselves ‘leaders’ and expect to be followed by sheep. They are not leaders, they are representatives. They have been delegated to attend to matters, like the nation’s finances, and to do so with competence or be booted out.

The US Constitution begins with its three most important words,

We    The    People.

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, but on 23 June We The People were presented with a rare chance to exercise a vote that made a difference. They rose to the opportunity, exercised grown-up judgement, made it clear they were the masters, and what their command was. Their command was the one that would keep them in charge. This was in the teeth of flawed [that’s a euphemism] arguments and judgements being fed to them by ‘leaders and experts’ of all descriptions, including the current US President. They showed they were not sheep to be led, but delegators of responsibility. The sheep among them have been bleating piteously ever since.

Politicians really do need to wake up to the probability that We The People are at least as bright as they, and do something really revolutionary like telling the unfluffy truth. Then possibly they might find that their candour wins them votes, and the USA might just be saved.

Allen West does anger well

On 26 August, 2015, in Dallas, the Heartland Institute held a conference to launch its Constitutional Reform project. Among the speakers was a former member of the United States House of Representatives, Allen West.

I have to admit that I have a problem sometimes understanding him. If this had been an international broadcast, or a speech set up specifically for recording a video for posting on line, I would here take issue with his enunciation. As it is, I am conscious of being merely an eavesdropper for whom there is a difficulty in the interface between his Southern accent and my British ears. This is a video of a conference for a live audience who appear to get every syllable. So my eavesdropping difficulty is my eavesdropping problem.

Regardless of the above, one thing comes across loud and clear. Allen West is angry. He doesn’t want the US Constitution reformed; he wants it restored and upheld. What makes him angry is how the Executive and the Judiciary have been messing around with it.

Between 5:30 and 6:20 there is a very telling section concerning how much the Judiciary, which should interpret the Law, oversteps its authority by contriving to make laws. We all know in principle about case law, but we also can tell when an actor pads up his role. West concludes the section by stating that such symptoms indicate that the Federal Government is off the rails.

That resonates with this particular Brit. Over here we also witness the spectacle of politicians and jurists arrogating the right to circumvent or distort the parliamentary process by finding ways to turn their personal prejudices into law. It’s all part of a re-defining of democracy to mean ‘what we think is good for people, regardless of their view’. In Europe it is typified by the way politicians have steamrollered almost an entire continent in directions contrary to their mandate. The current leader in the race for this year’s biggest unintentional hilarity came a couple of weeks ago from some Euro-twerp who described the EU as a centre of democracy.

Those of us who believe in the sovereignty of people hold to the principle that legislators are merely delegated by us to run things. When they get it wrong we kick them out. When they seek to exceed their brief they need to be brought to heel. The US Constitution grew out of precisely this thinking and was designed to prevent tyranny by keeping authorities in their place. It would appear from what West is saying that some of those authorities are doing their damnedest to subvert it (what the Founding Fathers actually meant to say was…) hence this speech.

West is a good speaker. Though I am pleased, I am not particularly impressed that he shoots the entire speech from the hip. It’s easy. On the contrary I get depressed by how few take the trouble to learn. You can see how well he engages his audience by not having sheets of paper in the way. What really impresses me is how he puts across his anger without getting angry. There’s no table-thumping, no eye-popping, no  bellowing. What we get is a cold laying out of the facts in a manner that leaves us in no doubt where he stands. Put it down to military discipline. He was a colonel in the US Army.

More like him are needed on both sides of the pond.