Julian Assange is there – at the moment.

When a few days ago I posted a critique of a Douglas Murray speech at a debate, I rather committed myself to airing a speech that his opponent had made. As rumours are currently circulating that Julian Assange is proposing shortly to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy in London I thought I  would have a look at the speech, the notorious one that he delivered from an embassy window two years ago in August 2012.

I am reluctant to wade into the argument concerning the rights and wrongs of Wikileaks, its activities and existence, because I am terribly torn.  On the one hand I am fiercely in favour of free-speech, even (perhaps especially) when that speech is unpalatable; and on the other I recognize the points made so eloquently by Douglas Murray in that speech I covered a few days ago. One day I might sit myself down in a darkened room and try to think the thing through, but today I think I shall keep my rhetor hat on.

This speech is famous for that clever opening sentence. Rightly so.

The quality of the composition is impressive. I’d prefer him not to have written it, but shot it from the hip, because I know it would have gained added power; but I also know that he would point to the lists of names of people and countries whose support he needed to acknowledge. There are ways of addressing that problem.

Concerning what Assange describes, beginning at 0:35, I have none of the ambivalence described earlier. If there was an attempt by British authorities to invade the embassy, then shame on them. If he is making it up, then shame on him.

At 0:55 he begins a neat anadiplosis (“the world was watching”) which morphs into a pretty epistrophe.

I get a little uneasy at his sanctimonious upholding of the importance of the rule of law when this whole business has come about because of his breaking of laws. There are ways, without sanctimony, that he could thank those who assisted him.

Beginning at 3:00 he thanks a list of South American countries which he claims to have supported his asylum. It is long lists like this that you might claim require the use of paper. After all, if he hadn’t written down all these countries’ names he might have mentioned Argentina twice…

He turns his thanks to the people of the countries whose governments he claims to have persecuted him. Essentially he is playing to the crowd, That’s fair enough: the crowd is definitely his market. Nevertheless I sense an urge creeping up on me to doff my rhetor hat for a moment.

This audience, this crowd of fearless front-line commandos in the battle for free speech, I wonder whether they would be quite so accommodating if he were – say – upholding fracking as the answer to the world’s energy problems. Or might they be howling for him to be silenced?

Just a thought.

Douglas Murray vs. Julian Assange

On 9 April 2011 in Kensington Town Hall in London there was held a debate sponsored by the New Statesman. The motion was  “This house believes whistle-blowers make the world a safer place.” There were three speakers on each side of the argument, though in this post we shall be hearing from just two of them, one because it was his turn to speak and the other because he interrupted all the time. The speaker has appeared before on this blog. I shall try to seek out some interesting material from the intrrupter. If you are wondering why I have chosen now to look at some speaking from three and a half years ago you have not been following the news very closely.

Something that I try to remember to remind both trainees and myself when I am training is that they and I can watch their performances played back from video, and can express all the opinions we like, but ultimately the only judgement that matters is that of the audience. A speech is a product, an audience the market. The market is never wrong. It can be irrational, idiotic, imbecilic, but it can’t be wrong.

Murray begins with some relatively inconsequential backchat; but within 40 seconds, riding on the back of  something an opponent had said, he is into serious stuff (albeit with a joke attached). Listen closely to the silence in the market. Except for laughter the audience is very quiet indeed. This is the ultimate compliment.

The silence is caused not just by the weight of the message, but by the way Murray delivers it. His style tends to be very quiet, and he silences his audience that way. He is an habitual and expert practitioner of the 2-inches-from-my-nose school. This technique chooses not to go out to its audience but to bring it closer (this is all metaphorical, you understand). If you speak very quietly. distinctly and quite slowly you can, by force of will, make the focal point of even a large hall to form just two inches from your nose. If you pull that off (the technique, not your nose) it’s a glorious feeling. I have often thought that whoever coined the cliche, “audience in the palm of my hand”, must have been a 2-inches merchant. A word of warning: don’t do it all the time. Vary your style and pitch. Murray does.

Is it a mistake, or is Murray deliberately provoking disruption when he launches a protracted anaphoric sequence? At around 3:30, with the words, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing when …” he kicks off a series of questions which might claim to be rhetorical, but which cause Assange to charge the microphone to supply answers. Is Murray then deliberately stoking the heat when he denies the interjection?  – “No, no, no, you’ll have your chance later.” The pent-up quarrel becomes really rather entertaining. Both of the other opposing speakers likewise leap to their feet and Murray refuses their interjections also.

My opinion is that he might not have foreseen quite how much this would all bait Assange, but was delighted to play him like a trout when he saw the development.

The debate chairman eventually tries to release some of the steam from Assange, and some elements in the audience, by over-ruling Murray and allowing the interjection. There follows an exchange, and even quite a long period of the two speaking simultaneously. There is one critical difference of demeanour between them.  Murray is smiling: he is enjoying himself.

He stops smiling when again the floor is his alone. The subject matter is serious and he is not averse to introducing some drama to close. Characteristically his peroration owes its drama to quiet intensity rather than thunderous auxesis. He pairs his finish with his opening. He closes his circle. Full marks.