Victor Davis Hanson, naturally

On 10 November, 2019, the Jewish Leadership Conference was addressed by Victor Davis Hanson. His talk was entitled Israel and the Muscular Spirit of the West.

I’m interested to hear him speak. I have dipped into his blog Private Papers, and also enjoy his podcast The Classicist, and found him supremely articulate; but that doesn’t mean that his effectiveness in front of an audience can be taken for granted.

The introduction is read by Jonathan Silver and I have a suspicion that these are not his own words. I advise my trainees that, if they are due to speak at a conference and the organisers request biographical information in order to assist them in preparing an introduction, they should instead actually write and send the whole introduction themselves. There are advantages for everyone here: the introducer is saved a difficult task and the speaker has – as it were – set his own starting blocks. I would not be surprised if Hanson wrote this: the relevance to the talk is spookily insightful.

Hanson’s Hump betrays its existence in the way he fiddles unnecessarily with the mic, but he very quickly settles down.

In the first minute he attributes his youthful interest in the classics to autodidactic reading. I immediately wonder if his auto didacticism spilled over into teaching himself to speak in public. He shoots this entire speech from the hip, thus persuading me that this is probably what he always does. Could it be that he discovered for himself how easy that is? If so, that might explain something else.

As a speaker he gives every impression of being a Natural and, as I have previously mentioned on this blog, that is a two-edged sword. I teach ordinary mortals to be able to speak without notes by disciplining them to structure their material in easily remembered ways. Naturals don’t need that: they know that they can simply stand there and speak. The trouble is that without that disciplined structure some of the coherence can be lost from the message. It is at least as important for the audience that the material be easily remembered.

About two thirds of the way through this speech it rambles a little, and makes me wish he had divided it into clearer chapters in order to keep himself in check. I’m ok: I can watch it again (and have and shall yet again) but the audience in the hall can’t. The material is fantastically interesting, and otherwise so well argued, that it is tragic if any goes AWOL through his losing even a few seconds of his audience’s attention.

This is one of those occasions that the high quality of a speaker makes me get super-picky. He has so much of value to impart, that being damn good is not enough. He owes it to his own scholarship to match its excellence.